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[Page 59]

To My Town with Mercy
The Past in a Dimension of Time

by M. Ben Artzi (Shteinhoise)

I knew that it is no more. Through distance of oceans and many days, it seems it was just yesterday, or maybe generations had passed. Three-dimensional moving images; and shadows, like through a foggy vail. At times, all very clear, other times obscured.

Childhood innocence and graceful youth reflecting on days that were etched onto my heart. Down on the morning horizon the morning breeze rustles. The pendulum of time is moving slowly, slowly.


A group of pioneers from Nisbiz in Degania B
Seated from the right: (first) Shmuel Isenshtat, (third) Shteinhoise Ben- Artzi
Standing from the right: Zalman Shifres, Levi Ben Amitai, Yackov Rabinovit


Suddenly a greater tempo. The horizon is inflamed, the wind intensifies, heralding a storm, fears and sadness.

Hush is resting over the village. Surrounded by forests, parks, and fields touching its suburbs, invading even into it. The Krizakes Forest, almost inside the Shabat-Limits, is darkened. Large Elba trees, some of them casualties of lightning, stood tall, rising into the skies. Through the Kushchill Wall chestnut trees shaded the street, and in front of the Seminarion cypress trees stood praying.

Along the Ribeleh on the way to Neustadt, water of the large pool were quietly streaming, and from above the Shliuzim [shliuz in Russian is sluice or lock] fell noisily. From there on, pastures and meadows extended.

My village was very ancient. The castle of the Radziwill family was as old as the family. The canal and the bridge were from the Middle Ages. On the hills of the Val [in Russian: bank], was the convent, with its nuns, and its wooden and iron gate, sealing its secret. The bowed city gate is already broken open, but the lamp underneath the holy picture is still burning day and night. In the basements of the Koshtzvill many generations of Radziwills are resting.

It was said about an old casuarina tree in the park of the old palace, that it was planted by the hands of Katherine the Great.

The synagogue, with its wings and attics, stripped of paint and lime, stood strong, like a frozen giant. I saw it in my childhood, and behind it was the old synagogue, stooped and sag, damp and mildew smell of generations. In the old graveyard, that was located near the new one, among fallen and erased headstones, we decoded names of deceased from past centuries. Among ruins in the city center, opposite to “Bashah” [woman's name] house, I spent my entire childhood playing hid & seek.


The map with no criteria

In the center of town the streets were straight. Mechlishuk Street tilted slightly downward - and Kazimir Street and Neustadt Street - ascended. Every street and its character. From the market along the Shul-Hoif [Synagogue or shul yard] there was Butcher Street with its smells and its noise. Butcher shops and flour shops lined the street on both sides. Aromas of freshly baked bread and “onioned-corn”, salted and smoked fish and tar, many voices of merchants announcing their merchandise mixed with drunkard's sounds coming from the bar, all filled the air.

From Korovka Street and on, there was Shoemaker's Street. The smell of leather and the tapping of hammers, and from there to the other side, through the Seminary and the market, stretched short and silent - the street of the prep school.

Parallel to it was Vilna Street-the street of market and commerce. The smell of the Afteik of Shimnorah - Shimon Uri and Mishkovsky - the pirozhnes (pastry in Russian) of the Terk and Vigant, the ringing of sickle on stone from the “Riaden”: a farmer checks it for the coming harvest. The echo of hands clapping the “Priveg'nas” of Terk and Vigant Streets, the ringing of sickle on a stone from the slaughterhouse of the Ashkenazi from around the curve beside Neustadt Street.

Students' street - the sound of the Church bells. The sound of loud laughter coming from the yard of Mrs. Rosenberg's academy. The smell from Eeizenbod's dentist's office and the smell of the lime tree across from the house of the Polish Roman Catholic priest.

Parneh Street - distant and introverted. On its one side, long and multi-story barracks - a training yard for horseman and foot soldier. On the other side the Kushchill Wall singing and ringing, and in the middle voices of children from Shmuel, Ezra and Simcha the Cheder teachers.


Studentzka street (later called after
the name of Marshall Filsodtzki) at the time of the Polish rule
On the right - the post office, opposite - the hunters club of prince Radz'bil


Of those streets, vertical, horizontal, diagonal and curved, tiled or dirt roads, some were peasants alleys, “not ours”. In some I walked watching my back, and some, I strolled with confidence. This was the map of my childhood.


Two circles and a breach between them

The days streamed in two circles: the exterior - the gentile one, and the interior the Jewish one. On market days and holidays the two touched each other. On occasion the two burst into each other with grinding teeth. Trough one such a breech, in one summer day, I will speak.

Window shutters were closed. Bells ring endlessly. Monotone singing is coming close. Heavy pitch-shoes pounding, squeaking on unhewn stone. Bearded wide-open faces are viewed through the shutter crack. Beside them dusty wrinkled female faces. Above them waved from side to side banners depicting a tortured and suffering image. The street is full of crosses and singing.

Heavy, wide voices,

[Page 60]

crossed with screeching sounds, coming out of shutters and tearing the silence with terror and fear. Later I realized: It was the parade of pilgrims walking to the grave of a tortured and holy man, one Saint Gabriel from Slotzck. Some of the inhabitants had already left the village because of fear of pogroms, and converged in fear in their homes.


The Spiritual Center

Most of the synagogues and Chadarim [Torah schools for children] concentrated in the Shul-hoif. At the “De Katzavim” Synagogue [Katzav is a butcher who sells meat. Thus the butchers' synagogue. In Lithuania bery often different occupations had their own synagogues] the teacher for beginners taught his students the “Alef Beit” [alphabet]. Dardark is teaching Gemara, and in a lower wing of the Haker Synagogue [The Cold Synagogue]children shivered from cold and terror. The murmuring of children filled the places all day long. And in the evening many hard working, tired Jews listened and slumbered to a “lesson.” Ba'al Batim [workers and businessmen] contemplated between Mincha [the afternoon prayer]and Ma'ariv [evening prayer) in Shas [Talmud] and Poskim [legal decisors].

In the attic next to the Women's section at the Haker Synagogue, a lonely man moved to the rhythm of his prayer. At the old Synagogue I converged quietly to the place where Rabbi Yosef the righteous was praying and tried to listen to his intonations. It was told that he received “instruction from heaven” about future events. It was also said that at night the dead are reading the Torah at Haker Synagogue.

Here bridal canopies were opened, mostly on Shabat evenings, and here funerals stopped on their last trip.

And inside, an entire world. A long and narrow hallway pointed to where the “Konah” is. Here came the children from the “shtibel” who, at the time Yizkor [the Memorial Prayer] was being said, stepped out of the Community Synagogue. Most weekdays and in the winter homeowners prayed there. That is also where most of the public meetings were called. As children we longed to go to this high and cold hallway. In the center of the ceiling a “Leviathan” held its tail in his mouth, and with it the entire world's fate, since if, G-d forbid it will let go of its tail, surly it will bring the end to this world.

In the Mizrach, the eastern wall, storks on their nests signified “Being fruitful and multiply.” On both sides of the Ark hung chandeliers with crystals tinkling underneath. Not once did we use that noise to mask our forbidden talks.

In the center stood a round stage, capped with a dome on pillars, and wrapped up to its middle height with fabric. At the center of the dome, an eagle (or was it a stork?) hold at the end of his long beak, “Eruv Tavshilin.”  [Eruv Tavshilin is the ritual boundary established before a holiday falling on Thursday and Friday so that one may cook for Sabbath on Friday while it is still the holiday. Thus, “...the ritual boundary...”]

Over this stage the Magid [Preacher] from Slotzk, Moshe Yedaber who spoke with authority and other preachers promised heaven to the righteous and gehenom [Hell] to the wicked.

In this place I was a witness to a decree of excommunication against Sabbath violators [Literally: those who burn fires on the Sabbath]. I listened with trepidation to admonitions, and waited with great fear to the decline of the “black candles.”

In the northwest niche the lonely Eternal Light flickered, and I meditated on the memory of my mother.

In this center, on holidays (like in “Yamim Noraim”) most of the community, men women and children gathered, leaving the village orphaned and emptied.

Again, through tunnels of time, a picture from a far past arises. It is Yom Kippur. The end of the fast. Yahrzeit candles are becoming extinguished and the smell of melting wax is in the air all around us. With life-threatening devotion I guard my first Yom Kippur fast. My hand slips from my father's hand. He whispers in my ear imploring me to go outside for some fresh air.

Sunset outside. I am marching, getting closer to a glowing sun. Voices of people praying are slowly fading away. As I march, silence comes down. Close, close, it gets deeper, sinking and freezing. My Vilna Street is laid down in front of me, silent and mute. My whole body begins to tremble, to plea for a sound, a note, a tone. In a flash I am uprooted from my stand, and run, run towards the praying voices. I feel all my senses awakening. My hand is craving the hugging, encouraging hand of my father.

This type of experience, in a dream or by day dreaming, visited me - again repeatedly.


Passed on from one generation to the other

The old glazier, the “Nikolayevian” soldier [a soldier from the town of Nikolayev], hobbled in the alleys of the town, a glass box on one shoulder, and a hundred years weight on them both. He was uncommunicative, he would not talk. It was said about him that he was among the “kidnapped” [a period in Russia when Jewish children were abducted from their homes to be raised as Christians by foster families and then trained as soldiers. Also known as the “Cantonists”]. He refused to talk about himself, but remembered with longing his brother.

The kidnappers burst in, abducted and fled with a wagon full of crying abducted children. The glazier pursued them and reached them after many miles. He didn't have a weapon to use against them, so he unleashed on them the little colt running at the back of the wagon. “Too bad they managed to escape”, he groaned.

In the Swine Street in Neustadt we faced the second Nikolayevian soldier (he was not from “ours”). He used to straighten up his back and cheer “...hooray...” when he saw the shining buttons on our coats. With his toothless mouth he would whisper about the General on his white horse, about face to face battles, about fortresses he and the General took in storm. It was also said that Vavah, the custodian of the Koydanabi shtetl, was also from the Nikolayevians, but we could never verify this version.

It is dusk, and R' Kalman is involved in deep study with other craftsmen, fellow Jews in the old synagogue. Orally he tells stories about the great scholar and rabbis, R' Itzhak Elhanan (RAHA”G) and R' Meirkeh.

Gershon the Bundist cheese-maker, used to tell me about the revolution of 1905 in the style of the Marxist brochures, and would draw me into the secrets of the revolution that had not yet ended. About the resurrection of Land and its People I learned from my rabbi, R. Gershon Zeev Damesek, and later from my teachers Levin and Shwartz and later, when I was older, from Mr. Yoel Rosovsky and the Isenbods.


On variety of professions among the people of Israel!

I am flooded by smells and voices from every street corner. If I could count all the professions among the people, it will not know boundaries. I wonder how did the people of my town make a living?

In the center of the village the merchants were concentrated. But in the small alleys and in the suburbs there were many that worked in unusual labor and the crafts.

In Neishtadt, on the way to Ogorodniki: 10-13 bearded Jews vertically sawed boards and beams. The wood balanced on the backs of high “donkeys” [saw horses]. The sawdust fell down onto the ground below.

On Orgorodanke lived the family of Jewish colonist farmers. They plowed their own land. They work hard gardening between Passover to Succoth, and in the winter they put barrels of cucumbers to pickle underneath the ice.

In nearby villages, Jewish brokers bought and sold Dutch milk and cheese products. On the way to Horodzey I stood in front of a field of real “Jewish wheat”. The water mill on the “Ribeleh”, the windmill on the “Elba” and then the steam mill on the way to Horodzey - were all in the hands of Jews.

By the curve of the Vilna Street at the “depot” in the yard of a two-story building, a blind horse moved the wheels of a Broiz [brewery in Russian]. A larger alcoholic beverage factory in Neustadt was also in the hands of Jews. Across from the “depot” there was a family of coachmen who produced wheels. Jews with four corner garments (Tzizit) manufactured wooden shingles. A family of potters lived at the end of this street. They made plates, pots and pans on potter's wheels. More Jews were working as furnace operators, movers, stonemasons, barrel makers etc.

[Page 69]

(from “If you really wanted to know” by Chaim Nachman Bialik)
The family of

Abraham Liberman

Shlomkeh Milshtein

Freidel Vaeinshtein

Abraham Aharon Vanilovsky

Itkah Heinkadiker

Avreimel Shia Mazin

Zvi and Reba, Lea and Yerachmeil Shklar

Nachum and Rikaleh Vasilovsky

Kalman Gavrielov


Berl Resnik

Yankel Kaplan

Kopel Resnik

Shlomkeh Gavrielov

Motel and Tzipa Tzukberg

Zalman Shifres

Leibeh Angelovitz

Yankel David Levin

Israel Mazin

Yerachmeil Malavsky

Moshekeh and Alteh Gavrielov

Israel-Meir and Dvosha Poltzek

Aharon Yasinovsky

Misheh Bashinkevitz

Shmuel Yosef Zaturensky

Akiva Rozovsky

Shlomoh Epshtein

Natan Shalom, Baruch Shapira

Faibel Doker

Leyble Aeizenbod

Kalman Tortzky

Motel Gurevitch

Moritz Leder

Yudel Gatzov

Shlomo Rachles

Shirkes Shmuel

Meishel Mirsky

Hershel the shoemaker

Our street was blessed with a number of very important and worthy institutions that served as the center of life in our village.

First I must mention the Jewish community. Everyone can probably remember the beautiful, and relatively large, building in the center of that street- the building of the Jewish community. It had two wings. Between them was the office of the head of the community, the leader, spokesman and representative of the Jews of Nisbiz'-Rabbi Yoel Rozovsky, may his Tzadik memory be blessed.  At his side was RATZ [the community charity distributor] Rabbi Avremaleh Radonsky, named “Malutchik” for being as short as he was. In the right wing was the office of the secretary of the community, with Mr. Surabitz at the helm. The left wing was designated for meetings of the community council, for elections, for the Zionist congress and banquets for the pioneers leaving for Eretz-Israel. I can remember few of these banquets when Mr. Yosef Lev enchanted (or charmed) those at the banquet with his fine performance on the violin.

The building of the Jewish community went through many reincarnations. For several years the Folks-Shul - the Yiddish Secularist school - operated out of this building. The moving spirit of this institute - and of other public institutions - was Leybaleh Isenbound z”l (may his memory be blessed.) A man full of vigor and initiative. I still remember some of the teachers that instructed in the community building: Grobart and his wife (earlier Mr. Grobart was a teacher at Tarbut and then he moved to Folks-Shul) and Eliyahu Redonsky, a graduate of the Vilna seminary, who also studied Hebrew. The students of the Folks-Shul were the seed of the Scout and the Skip - two Zionist youth groups; one belonged to Poalie Zion and the other to the Bund.

A very successful drama class was operated in the framework of the Folks-Shul. This group played several plays and received very positive reviews.  Especially noteworthy in their dramatical talents were Shyneh Lamash and Roza Halperin. Some years later the Folks-Shul moved to its new and permanent location in Mickalishuk.

Next to the Community Building there was a large yard that was used as tye Maccabi sports field. The first sports organization in Neisbiz'. Everyone remembers the poles that were positioned in the corner of the yard with all the exercise equipment dangling from them. A large number of boys and girls gathered in the yard every evening during the daily training. The association organized an annual event, a Torenfest (sport day) to demonstrate its ability and accomplishments. All the dignitaries of the city, and all those who could afford a ticket, dressed with their Shabat best cloths, gathered in the yard. The Maccabim demonstrated their mastery of gymnastics to the tunes of the fire department orchestra, with the instructor and conductor Nachum Vasselovsky. After gymnastics came the athletics. I remember vividly the image of Shlomkeh Ferfel, that excelled in jumping over the vaulting horses. The image of Velvel Kalushnic, who showed magical ability on the trapeze, and most of all of Niuma Yavlevsky and his trim body that kept us , the young, mesmerized - seating on roof tops, on fences and on the tree tops around the yard.

In our eyes - this was the embodiment of sport itself. The crown of the efforts of the Maccabi association was its soccer team with stars that were worshipped by the youth in our village. Names such as Phintus, Fabricant - were known to all. I even remember the classic arrangement of the team at its heydays: Phintus as the praised goal keeper, Yosel Brazin, Moshe Hinkadiker, Moshe Fabricant, Avremel Faber (the specialist on butting) Nachum Vasilovsky, Moteleh Malavsky, Pesach Borsky, Yoseleh Fabricant (who always played wearing boots, for some odd reason). From time to time the members of the association would exercise marching across the street singing with loud voices. One song and its melody stuck in my mind, despite the fact that I never really understood its words, and truthfully I doubt if anyone ever understood the true meaning of the words [apparently rhyming nonsense words].

Here are the words as they were etched in my memory:

Hechka malina de saldat [Thick raspberry bush, where is the soldier]

Hechka sitzka deligat

Hechka malina, lina, lina…

Hechka malina, lenya lenya…

Hechka sitzka - hodezgra modenvah - Ho Ha

Who could resemble the guys - the cedars - marching and singing in the streetsof our village? Who could measure the happiness and pride of the mothers whofollowed their sons, relatives or neighbors with teary loving eyes? It is not an exaggeration or an empty phrase…

[Page 70]

Another important institution in our street there was the Matza-ortel [matzah place: a kind of cooperative to bake matzahs]. A day after Purim Tzipa and Motle were compelled to move all their stuff and make room for Mr. Israel Tzadok the manager and his cooperative. The process of making Matzah went through many changes. Before technology came to town, most Jews would have resorted to home baking. A few families (each assuming a defined task) would get together and bake Matzah for themselves. As technology developed - Mr. Tzadok got a machine for baking Matzah. This machine needed strong hands to operate: two from one side, and the third from the other side. A regular Trembavshchik [from the Russian word for ram, thus the men are rammers who are pounding away at the dough] was a goy, one Matshey. Another advance came when they added a horse that used to go around in circles outside and move the machine. In later years electricity replaced the horse. As a small child I loved to go to the cooperative and watch the process of making the Matzah, and if I was given the opportunity to help - I was happy and felt fortunate. Duties in making the Matzah were the same for years. Tzipa, with the help of Lazer Matales, prepared the dough. It was then transferred to Itcheh Lamesh or to Iser Mazolkas, who were to knead the dough with a metal rod. Then it was sent to Phontous the mechanic.

The Matzah, which now accumulated on the conveyor belt were collected by the machinist's helper and were given to Dinah Resell Spivak, who organized all of it on long sticks of wood for Zetzer [sitter: sitting next to the oven] Feivel Duker to insert them into the oven. It wasn't so easy to stand in front of the fire all day long, and during the Matzah baking days Feivel had red eyes and was called “Malach Hamavet” [the Angel of Death]. Sometimes he was replaced by another baker, Benya Blitz. The baked Matzah were collected in a box and from there put in big baskets. By the scales stood Mr. Tzadok who was an expert in this task, and the treasurer, Fromcha Banerf on his side. After the weighing, packaging and putting aside three Matzah as required, the movers, Motle Gach and Zelig Barabanshtashik [not his last name ... he was simply “the drummer”. This word means drummer in Russian], came in, and in truth, these movers, carrying large baskets on their backs, roaming the streets of our village, symbolized the coming of the holiday, and the spring. The movers also were to stock fuel for the fire, and to provide water. Zelig, was a very cheerful guy and full of humor. He had another “duty” in the cooperative: he entertained everyone with his jokes, hoaxes, and pranks. One of the amusing things to do was to put an empty basket on someone's head. I remember well another saying from the cooperative: when someone asked for a “thin” Matzah (it takes more work to make it) he was directed to Pontus the machinist. After he would listen for the request, he would point to the big wheel on the machine with which the thickness can be adjusted, and say with the innocence of an angel: “whoever desired a thin Matzah should have smeared the dough on the wheel in the shape of a bottle of liquor.

By the house of Hinkdiker stood a bench. This bench overlooked Sirokomley Street, and became a place for gathering. Gathering for women, that is, especially on the evening of Shabat. On that evening, when all the men went to the synagogue to receive Shabat the Queen, the women sat down for a chat. In the center stood Shimon the butcher. He was an avid movie enthusiast. In those days there was only one cinema in Nesbiz' at Zosman's place.

There was no movie that Shimon did not see. I am not sure how well he read Polish subtitles, but he sure had a good imagination. He understood everything, and what he didn't, he made up on his own. Every week he appeared in our street, by the bench, and told the story of the movie he last watched. The women sat mesmerized and listened to his every word. This Shimon made Aliyah to Israel with his family, to his daughter Batya, who was already living there, before the Holocaust.

Our street - like any other street - was characterized by some special types, some “ours” and some “theirs,” Some I remember well: In the alley by our street, next to the Malavskey family, lived “the mashgiach” (Kosher supervisor). He was an old Jew with a long white beard and respectable appearance. He was the rabbi in the new Synagogue. On the eve of Yom Kippur, after the Kol Nidrei prayer, many people would come to his Synagogue to listen to his sermon. His voice was very warm and pleasant when he sang the prayers of this holy day. I still remember how he used to go with his wife each evening to the will to bring back buckets of water on a pole.

Near our house lived Avremel Shies the coachman. He owned two horses and went everyday to Horodzey. He was blessed with a large family - 5 or 6 daughters. This was a very strange family - closed and reserved. They did not have any contact with neighbors, and no one ever visited their house. They were called Tserkov [church in Russian] as no Jew ever passed its doorstep. On occasions when my ball rolled over their fence and fell into the yard, it was a real problem to get it out.

Like a miracle, exactly across from them were a second family, Shmuel Sirkes, his wife and only daughter, an old maid. This house, too, was “taboo” to all the residents of our street. This house was called “First Slavic Church.” Of course, there were also the unfortunate and miserable.   The street also served as a passageway to some “other things” (negative immoral connotations) whose place names were known as “khokhol” (Russian: tuft of hair), “makhlai”, “vinzus”, “Vezmersky the Thief”, “Volodsky” and “Kamutsky”.

Many synagogues were in Nesvizh and first among them was De Kalteh Shul [Cold Shul or Cold Synagogue], the representative synagogue of the community that in the days of the Holocaust became the last hold of the Ghetto fighters. One of the smallest and poorest Synagogues was De Perushim Shul [the synagogue of the non-Chasidim] where my father and grandfather z”l. I admit, as a child, it was very hard for me to accept their choice of Synagogue. I was jealous of children who went with their parents to the large and famous Synagogues. Why did my father choose this Synagogue? It was small, without a women's section, and even a stage and stairs to the Holy Ark were lacking. Just a large hall that was converted to a Synagogue. It is doubtful if any of the people praying there even understood the meaning of the name De Perushim Shul.

But despite all this our Synagogue enjoyed certain benefits that overcame its poor appearance. Because it was small it was easy to keep it warm in the winter months. It was a delight to come in on Shabat eve during the winter. Pleasant warmth - physical and spiritual welcomed the visitor. Especially enjoyable it was for the elderly who took their place seating at the table closest to the heater. More than once worshippers from other Synagogues transferred to ours, during the cold winter months. Our synaggogue excelled in one other respect - tobacco. One would think that it was like any other tobacco, but it had an entirely different taste. This does not


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