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[Page 285]

Jewish Life in Nesvizh in the Last Quarter of the 19th Century
and the Beginning of the 20th Century

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

Life in the Nesvizh Jewish kehile [organized Jewish community] is described in the correspondence that was published at the beginning of 1877 in the Hebrew-Russian-Yiddish press: HaLevanon [The Lebanon, first published in Jerusalem in 1863; later in Europe], HaTzefira [The Siren, a Hebrew daily in the Pale of Settlement] HaMelitz [Morning Star, a Hebrew daily in the Pale of Settlement], and Ivri Anokhi [I am a Hebrew, Hebrew language weekly published in Lwów]. The correspondents were: Zwi haKohan [descendant of the priestly class] Moshevitzky who was the most respected teacher of the youngest children for many years, Meir Moshe Eisenshtadt. Moshe Eliezer Eisenshadt, former crown rabbi in Rostov-on-Don and in Petersburg, published articles about Nesvizh life – “Back in my fatherland” and “Leaving on the road.” [Others were] Yosef Gavrielov, who also wrote about Yiddish life in America and in England, Ahron Kanterovitz, Ahron Shimeon haLevi [a Levite] Becker, A. Tsafin, Yitzhak Ber Grilub, Mordekhai Mohilner. In addition to them, correspondents were published without [using] a name or signed with initials, possibly because of fear of revenge on the part of the criticized kehile parnesim [elected religious community leaders].

True, matters were not always praised in an objective manner, but based on how the writer had subjectively evaluated them or according to his political views. The correspondents often sinned with exaggerations, making use of verses from Tanakh [The Torah, The Prophets and The Writings] and with sayings from the Talmud and Midrash [commentaries].

There were fires almost every 10 years and between one and another [fire], there were also larger fires. In [May-June] 1888 (Sivan 5698], HaMelitz of the 4th of May 1889 reported on an appeal by Reb Yitzhak Lipman Shereshovsky, the head of the Beis-Din [religious court]. In that fire, two-thirds of the houses in the city disappeared in smoke. An aid committee for those suffering was created at the head of which stood Duke Radziwell. He organized the aid. The large fire had impoverished the population economically and morally. However, the population only recovered little by little because their needs were great and they had to rebuild their homes.

From a correspondence in HaMelitz of the 9th of January 1879, signed by Zwi Moshevitzky, we learned that Nesvizh numbered over 1,000 Jews and a third of them were employed in agriculture, not in the field, but in large gardens. Many of them traveled to other cities in the spring: Warsaw, Vilna, Bialystok, cities in Kurland and Königsberg. They leased land to plant vegetables there and sold them in the larger cities.

It must be mentioned that Nesvizh was one of the few places where Jews were employed in vegetable gardens. Many residents of the city were involved with the wheat trade. The wheat trade declined greatly when the railroad arrived.

It is a hypothesis that emigration began in the 1870s. The reasons were the lack of employment for the young generation, the large fire in 1887 and mainly, the start of the universal compulsory military service in 1874. The time of service lasted four to six years. The contingent of soldiers that was designated for the city was smaller than the number on the list of those obligated to serve in the military. Therefore, sole sons (a benyokhed [only son]) and sole family providers were freed [from service].

The Jews, as second-class citizens with plundered rights, not knowing the language of the country, did not rush to serve in the army, in the distant areas of Russia, in a hostile environment and, as a result, lose the best years to prepare for life. Therefore, they would cause defects to their bodies or torture themselves with fasts to lose weight and be freed from service. They also turned to other methods: falsified the birth metrical records or presented an “angel” – another person with a defect – in their place. Documents with photographs were not required at that time. Many left the country illegally, without a passport and went to America. If someone who was required to report for military duty did not appear, his family was fined 300 rubles. At that time this was a large sum of money. Many emigrated illegally after being mobilized and their families did not have to pay a penalty. During the years when the number of those mobilized was smaller than the contingent

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of those to be taken into the military, those who in normal times were freed [from service] were also taken.

In HaMelitz dated the 13th of May 1893, Moshe Eisenshadt writes about a Jewish hospital in Nesvizh, that the city parnesim [elected religious community leaders] bought a plot of land and there erected a hospital (or as with called at that time, a hegdesh [hospital for the poor]). Since its founding the hegdesh had functioned normally. The city council had designated a monthly budget and the gabaim [trustees] did their work with devotion and loyalty.

According to HaMelitz of the 29th of January 1895, the hospital found itself in a considerable struggle for its existence. The hospital was closed for three months and then the esteemed middleclass men of the city went from house to house and collected money for the hospital and the city leaders obligated themselves to give their donations every month and the hospital reopened. “Our brother, Dr. Slepian, would visit the sick twice a day without payment.”

Dr. Slepian was the only Jewish doctor in the city and lived there until he was mobilized in the army. In addition to him, there were two military doctors, Dr. Borowski and Dr. Malkewicz, in Nesvizh at the outbreak of the First World War.

In 1889 the city council considered the question of erecting a municipal hospital using the inheritance from the Baroness Manerheim, who was born in Nesvizh. The city designated a plot of land for the purpose in Neustadt. Other Christian councilmen proposed that the hospital be designated only for the Christian population, with the argument that this is what the deceased had meant. The city judge rejected their argument concerning her will, which had been written as, “For all residents of the city,” including the Jews.

Concern by the residents for helping the sick and of making use of the help for themselves during an illness led to the founding of the Linat HaTzedek [Aid to the Poor] Society (HaMelitz of the 15th of February 1894), which had for its purpose to help the sick poor residents. Members of the society by turns had to spend the night with a sick member and serve him to permit the members of the household to rest for the night. In addition, the society lent bankes [cupping glasses], enemas and ice-bladders. Spending the night with a sick person greatly helped the family because they were occupied with him [the sick person] during the day in addition to their usual work, which exhausted everyone, not to mention the usual worry and concern for the life of the sick person.

The kehile parnesim also had to solve other questions. One of them was the erection of a taare-shtibl [a room at the cemetery for the ritual purification of a body before burial] for the deceased, because since the hegdesh [hospital for the poor], which had served as a place for visitors to spend the night and as a taare-shtibl, had burned, another place for them [a place for visitors and for the taare-shtibl] had not been designated.

The worry of raising a son (not the daughters) was also always at the top of everyone's concerns. While the well-to-do Jews sent their children to private teachers, the rabbi was occupied with teaching the poor children. The community elders and dedicated gabaim [trustees] saw this as a great mitzvah [commandment, performance of a moral deed] to plant [knowledge of] the Torah and respect. [However] the Talmud Torah [religious school for poor boys] did not stand on an appropriate level because of the teachers who did not distinguish themselves with their ability and because of the traditional teaching system.

The Haskalah movement [Enlightenment] that had spread in Russia also captivated the Jewish young people in Nesvizh. The Jewish press, in Hebrew, Yiddish and Russian grew in the city and influenced the path of the young generation and inspired it to change the cultural and communal life of the Jews. The young people began to demand changes in education, including secular education and the teaching of the national language that the Tsarist government incidentally had encouraged and supported. The practical experiments that began to be carried out came up against a hateful relationship and a strong rebellion on the part of the conservative religious circles, which had its expression in the newspapers from 1879-1897.

The followers of the Enlightenment and the rich men in the city, who were captivated by the spirit of the Haskalah, sent their children to study in the Russian gymnazies [high schools] in Slutsk and Minsk. Others sent their children to the Russian beginner's school at the Teachers' Seminar after studying several years in a kheder [religious elementary school] because everyone's attempts to erect a modern school met with heavy resistance on the part of the religious fanatics and teachers. They also were categorically against the turn to the regime in 1880 about founding a two-class Jewish school (Russkie Evrei [Russian] of the 15th of April 1881).

It happened that the fanatics were the victors in this quarrel. The old methods of teaching Jewish children still were used for a long time, because 10 years later, when a “national preacher” came to the city and demanded that the needed changes be made in the education of the sons and daughters, the pious Jews shouted, “What do we need changes for? We will educate our children the way our parents educated us.” (HaMelitz, the 14th of February 1895).

To cover the general expenditures of the Jewish community, such as the mikvah [ritual bath], the hegdesh, the inn for visitors, as well as money for the rabbi and religious judges, to repair the community houses after a fire and special expenditures – taxes were levied such as the tax on kosher meat and the “community tax” that was placed on certain items. Those who did not pay were banished [from the Jewish community]. The taxes were levied on candles, yeast, the kosher slaughtering of cattle and poultry. Collection of the taxes was carried out through a public competition and the arendar [leasee, holder of a certain privilege] then paid a certain sum to the community fund. The family of the rabbi sometimes received the right to collect the tax on a certain article and this was for the rabbi's salary.

After seven synagogues burned in 1889, it was decided to levy a tax on yeast to reconstruct the burned synagogues. Jews argued that the tax on meat or the community taxes made it difficult for the

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poor strata because the majority of the income from the taxes came from them.

Every year on erev Pesakh [the eve of Passover], taxation was carried out for Maos khitim [wheat money – collection for the poor to be able to provide for their Passover needs] – an old Jewish custom to help the Jews prepare for Passover.

According to the law of 1870, the number of Jewish councilmen in the city council could not be more than a third of the general number of councilmen; a Jew was not permitted to take the office of mayor. The choice of candidates took place with the help of a small ball in a ballot box that was divided in two – one [for small balls] painted white, the other black. The voter threw the small ball in one of the two parts of the ballot box. The candidate who received the larger number of small, white balls was elected and whoever obtained the small black balls lost.

The property owners, business owners and artisans who possessed a license to trade or to carry on their business had voting rights. In 1892, the right of Jews to vote and to be elected to the city council was taken from them and only a few Jews designated by the regime could be councilmen.

However, it already was the threshold of the 20th century. The established frame and traditional way of life had begun to crumble. The number of followers of the Enlightenment in the city increased. The first seeds of the idea of Zionism and a national renaissance began to sprout, particularly among middle-income groups. On the other side was the radical socialist movement among the workers and working class, which [brought] excitement to community life and pushed for changes. Support for the old Jewish settlement in Eretz-Yisroel was introduced in ancient times. Emissaries from Eretz-Yisroel would visit the city and carry out collections for the Meir Reb Baal HaNes [Rabbi Meir the miracle worker] puskhe [tin in which coins were deposited for the charity]. Almost every Jewish home hung a puskhe, in which women would throw a coin on erev Shabbos [Friday, on the eve of the Sabbath] before lighting the candles.

From time to time old Jews would emigrate to Jerusalem to live out their lives in the holy city and also to come to their eternal rest and not have to, according to Jewish belief, roll to Eretz-Yisroel after their death.

One of the first emigrants to the Holy Land was Reb Moshe ben [son of] Reb Meir, one of the students of the Vilna Gaon [Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman – well-known leader of non-Hassidic Jewry in the 18th century]. He emigrated in 1800 (5560). On the Mount of Olives we find many headstones of those originating in Nesvizh who died from the years 5622, 5631, 5649 and 5657 [1862, 1871, 1889, 1897].

The Hibbat Zion [Lovers of Zion] had their influence in the city. They were active in collecting money to settle Eretz-Yisroel and in mobilizing groups and donors. In the reports from the Odessa committee in 1890 and later, we find the names of two of the active collectors for Eretz-Yisroel, Shimkha Vik and Efroim Moshevitsky, and others, as well as a list of the members of Hibbat Zion in Nesvizh and donors.

The idea of settling in Eretz-Yisroel and the idea of Hibbat Zion cheered three young people and one

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family emigrated the year after the first aliyah [emigration to Eretz-Yisroel] (Bilu-Aliyah).[1] In 1886 Mordekhai ben [son of] Moshe Chaim Novogrudzky, a harnessmaker, emigrated and settled in Jaffa and worked at his trade; in 1889 Yehuda Leib ben Kalman Danilovitz emigrated. First he worked in Rishon LeZion and then in Rehovot and, in 1904, he settled there. In 1892, my sister Ester Ruchl Saker, got married. They had four sons and five daughters and in 1890 Mordekhai Gorodonsky-Nachmani, the son of Rabbi Yosef Gorodonsky, emigrated at the age of 23, worked in Ekron and in Rehovot. In 1894 Shlomo Zalmen Saker and his family emigrated and settled in Jaffa.

A few emigrants arrived [in Eretz-Yisroel] unexpectedly from Nesvizh from the First Zionist Congress. In 1897 one of the first was Shlomo Vilkomitz and after him were Dr. Arya Pichovsky, Dr. Nisen Turow [and] Epstein.

The Zionist Party was founded in Nesvizh right after the First Zionist Congress and its first accomplishment was a public library.

The majority of religious Jewry in the city were Zionists or sympathized with Zionism, as is seen in the names of those who signed a eulogy for the deceased Rabbi Eliashberg. The Zionist Union took part in communal activity and in organizing help for the poor in the city.

In the documents that were preserved in the Zionist Archive in Jerusalem it is remembered that on the 22nd of December 1901 a solemn meeting took place in honor of the opening of the Colonial Bank in London (to support Jewish colonization in Eretz-Yisroel), at which confidence in the great Zionist leader, Dr. Theodor Herzl, and the executive in Vienna was expressed. The chairman of the Union, Yakov Avinovitzky, the vice chairman and secretary Eliyahu Tsafin and 30 members signed the official report.

A solemn gathering took place with the death of Dr. Herzl to honor his memory and it was decided 1) to send a condolence telegram to his widow and to the Zionist executive in Vienna; 2) to gather 100 rubles to register our immortal leader in the Book of Honor of Keren Kayemet [Jewish National Fund]. This sum will serve as a fund to found a colony in Eretz-Yisroel named for the deceased. Signed: the chairman of the gathering, Yakov Avinovitzky,l and 67 other members.

The socialist movement began to develop in the city at the beginning of the 20th century. Emissaries visited Nesvizh from the large cities and with the help of socially aware young people organized evening courses for general education and to learn the Russian language, to preach socialism and spread illegal revolutionary literature among the workers and soldiers of the artillery regiment that had been called to defend the Tsarist regime. The organizational activities then began to improve the conditions of the workers under the threat of strikes.

The Bund was founded in Nesvizh at that time, which was very active in the revolutionary days of 1905. The Bund organized worker strikes and political demonstrations with red flags and revolutionary songs. Everyone ran when gendarmes appeared. That year a military arms warehouse was broken into and many rifles and ammunition were taken and brought to Minsk by Chaim Berezin and Avraham Velshinsky in their wagons.

Poalei-Zion [Worker of Zion – Marxist Zionists] and the Zionist-Socialist Territorialists also were active in the city, but their influence was not great and the number of their members was small.

After the suppression of the Revolution of 1905 came the days of repressions and persecutions of the revolutionaries. The economic situation and the hopelessness of finding employment or academic posts forced the majority of the maskilim [followers of the Enlightenment] of the middle class to leave the city, which, it should be understood, affected the cultural and communal life. Most of the people were still culturally backward, but after a time, the maskilim who remained in the city began to participate in cultural work. Groups of lovers of literature and art, a reading room began to be created. Performances and lectures took place. The Zionist library existed, which was later closed by the police and the book cabinets were sealed until the February Revolution in 1917.

In the meantime, a Russian public school was founded as well as a municipal four-grade school, a two-grade Jewish elementary school and a Jewish gymnazie [secondary school] for girls by Mina Rosenberg (four grades). Several years before the First World War a private four-grade gymnazie, where the majority of the students were Jewish, was also founded. The language of instruction in all of these schools was Russian. Two state gymnazies arose (several years before the outbreak of the First World War), one for boys, one for girls. The girls' school accepted Jewish students in unlimited numbers. On the contrary, the gymnazie for boys had a designated norm of 10 percent Jewish students. The teachers' seminar, in general, did not accept any Jews.

The national idea [of a Jewish nation] and the Zionist movement changed the instruction in kheder [religious primary school] a great deal. Many melamdim [teachers] began to teach Hebrew grammar and language, Jewish history, the Russian language and arithmetic. Among these teachers were: Gershon Welwl Dmek, Ezra Gorodonsky, Zwi Hirsh Mashbitsky, Shimkha Feigelman, Tovya Bursky and others. In kheder G.W. Dmek created a small library and [provided] the children's newspapers, Oylem Katan [Small World], Hakhevre [The Friend], HaShahar [Dawn], which were read by the children with great pleasure.

In order to ease the economic situation, Jews in Nesvizh searched for various ways of creating institutions for reciprocal aid, such as: a loan and saving fund, then a cooperative merchants' bank. The highway, which was paved between the city and the Horodziej [Gorodeya] train station, improved trade with the center of the country. Yet the number of residents did not grow. The younger

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generation could not find work and saw no other way out than emigrating to America.

The tsarist regime wanted to restrict Jewish income in various ways. Mainly, at the most important source: which was the market that took place every Sunday. Mostly, they forbade the opening of the stores on Sunday before 11 o'clock, the hour when the prayers ended in the church. In the end, they completely forbade trade on Sunday. To remove the power of the decree, the Jews were successful in persuading [the authorities] that market day would take place every Wednesday. It cost a great deal of effort to inform the peasants in the surrounding villages about the newly arranged market day. In time the fliers were spread to every village and to the surrounding shtetlekh [towns]. [Someone] with a drum also went out everywhere early in the morning and announced this, that on Wednesdays there would be a fair. Thus, the conspiracy to harm the weak Jewish economy was avoided.

The peasants, who had been freed from feudalism just a few dozen years earlier, were mostly poor, with a very low standard of living. Few of them wore boots or shoes, but were satisfied with bast shoes [shoes made from tree bark] and their clothes were sewn from homemade linen and the furs – of sheepskin, unfinished skins. Their huts were lit with kindling wood or dried wicks in kerosene. Clothing was washed with ash instead of soap.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Jewish communal life became more organized thanks to the communal workers from among the Zionist members of the Enlightenment: Hirsh Nota Eizenbud and lawyer Yakov Avinovitzky, Ahron Golden, M. Bumshtein, N. Klatchkin, lawyer Kulash – who took upon themselves the role of leading the kehile [organized Jewish community] and communal institutions that were concentrated under the general name Tsdoke Gdoyle [central charitable organization]. They brought order and supervision, cared for Jewish interests in the city and, when necessary, endeavored to annul various edicts.

There were 13 synagogues in Nesvizh seventy years ago with brick buildings among them: the old synagogue (Reb Sender's synagogue, named after an active community worker in the area of education and Talmud Torah [religious primary school for poor boys]). The large synagogue, or the cold synagogue, which because of its height and breadth could not be warmed in winter, the butchers' synagogue, the tailors' synagogue (Poalei-Tzedek – Workers' Justice), the market synagogue, the Kazimirer synagogue and the recluses' synagogue that was located in the large synagogue. Those made of wood were the shoemakers' synagogue, Michalishker synagogue, Neustater synagogue, the Ladayer Hasidim and Koydanower Hasidim.

The old house of prayer belonged to the oldest Jewish prayer houses and was built after the Jewish settlement grew and strengthened economically. In 1638 there was a building on Yidn [Jews] Street that served as a synagogue and Talmud Torah or yeshiva [religious secondary school] where the melamed [religious teacher] lived. It appears that Yidn Street was called “the Dead Alley” or the area where the Jews lived in a ghetto, locked in at night behind gates at both ends of the street. The old synagogue stood at one end of the street, who entry faced the “Dead Alley,” and the other end led to the road from the cemetery.

Over the course of time, the Jewish settlement spread to Michal-Shak and Seminarski (Sirakamla) Streets. It is difficult to determine when the cold synagogue was erected. (The insurgents consolidated themselves in the attic of the synagogue in 1942 and from there led the fight against the murderers who wanted to liquidate the ghetto. Many fighters found their heroic death there.)

Christians and Jews worked together on the city council and also in the fireman's society, which arose at the end of the 19th century. There were voluntary firemen – Jews and Christians, with their own garage built of brick, extinguishing tools, machines and several horses ready to run to wherever a fire had broken out. In the first years after the start of the firemen, the chairman of the society was a Christian; his deputy, a Jew. However, during the final years, the Jews made sure that the chief of the firemen's command would be a Jew.

Jews urged more of our Jewish brothers to join the firemen in order to secure a Jewish majority there. Thanks to this, Yakov Avinovitzky, the communal activist, was elected as the first Jewish commandant.

The relationship between the Christian and the Jewish population was good and there was no feeling of national antagonism, maybe because among the residents of the city were a significant number of Duke Radziwill's Polish officials who had a feeling of being discriminated against by the Tsarist regime in the area of education and culture and because of the oppression of their national aspirations.

The Christians lived in the suburbs and were employed in agriculture as opposed to the Jews who sat in the center of the city and in the nearby streets. True, during the market days rare cases took place of attacks on Jews by the mainly inebriated peasants from the villages or by the mobilized recruits in the villages when they appeared for military service. The young recruits sometimes would gather en masse at the market and try to rob the Jewish storekeepers and stands. As a rule, the police got involved and restored order. Only in cases when the policemen did not hurry to intervene did the young Jews, among them strong artisans and butchers break the bones of the attackers.

Translator's Footnote
  1. Bilu is an acronym for “Beit Yaakov Lekhu Venelkha” – “House of Jacob, let us go up,” which appears in the Book of Isaiah 2:5. The Bilu movement encouraged emigration to Eretz-Yisroel Return

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