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The Village of Bilcze Before the Destruction

(Bil'che–Zolote, Ukraine)

48°47' 25°52'

by Monye (Netanel) Bloytol

Translated by Yael Chaver

Bilcze Zlote is a village in the Borszczow district, Ternopil county, eastern Galitzia. It was a large, almost totally Ukrainian village, with a population of over one thousand families. The village was divided into two sections, with the Seret River running through it. There were two separate parishes, churches, and priests, and even two separate cemeteries.

The village was rich in orchards, mainly apple, plum, and late–ripening pears. The pears would be dried, and Jews added them all winter long to cholent.[1] There were also Cornelian cherry trees similar to sour cherries, but more elongated and acidic. Cornelian cherries were bottled to produce brandy for parties, or – may we not need it – to ease stomach aches, because of its warming effect.

Even the soil in Bilcze was very rich. Almost one–third of the crops was maize. Though it was hard work, the peasants were happy to sow maize, as they used the spaces between the rows for planting beans, melons, and hemp for oil. The local peasants were in love with sheep. Almost every peasant had a flock of sheep; there were a few thousand sheep in the village.

There were over four minyans of Jews in the village, with a synagogue and four Torah scrolls.[2] One of the scrolls was distinguished, because Rabbi Velvele of Jezerziany had completed it. Another scroll would be rented out to the neighboring village of Milkow. One of the scrolls was unfit for conventional use and would be removed from the Ark only once a year, for the celebration and procession on Simkhes Toyre. The fourth scroll was unremarkable.[3]

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Bilcze also had a bath–house, a mikveh, and a cemetery.[4] Most Bilcze residents were buried in Jezerziany, except when necessary, such as during an epidemic or during World War I when it was impossible to leave the village. We also used it to bury Jewish soldiers released to us from the hospital during World War I.

I know, from my own memories and from what I was told, that there was always a ritual slaughterer in Bilcze. He had to perform various functions: mohel, hazzan, execute marriages, and solve issues relating to ritual suitability of food.[5] The slaughterer in Bilcze was Reb Froyke Shoykhet.[6] He was followed by Reb Avrom Falber, my grandfather, and by Reb Meir Bloytal, my father. My father left the village during World War I.

While he was still in Bilcze, my father organized a circle of young men with whom he studied Talmud, mostly in orchards and woods. Thanks to him, the village established the bath–house and the mikveh, in which the water was heated on the eve of Shabbes and holidays. There also lived in Bilcze a Jew from Kherson, Avrom–Yitzchok Litman, who had fled the Russo–Japanese war; he had been a mikveh attendant in his home town. He became both mikveh attendant and synagogue caretaker. He was given living quarters at the mikveh. After World War I, he and his family left for Palestine. In addition, there was a teacher named Yosele Vayzinger, who now lives in Haifa.

Six Jewish families in Bilcze made their living as

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furriers. They were busy all year round sewing fur coats for the peasants. Four families had oil–presses and produced hemp oil almost all year round. Eight families owned fields, which provided them with a living. There was also a Jewish shoemaker, a barrel maker, a few egg merchants, a butcher, and five traders in various merchandise.

Jews lived in peace and quiet. On Shabbes they would go out in their shtraymls and tallises over long silk coats, and no non–Jewish child would taunt them.[7] I remember that late at night on Simkhes Toyre intoxicated Jews would roam almost the entire village, singing loudly, and no one bothered them.[8][9]

 

Cheders and melameds[10]

The way from Bilcze to America lay through Jezerziany, because the train station was there. The next town, Korolowka, had no train station. My melamed, Reb Yankl the Red, asked whether one could go to America by way of Korolowka as well…

I had absolutely no desire to go to cheder, and when I was finally taken there, I had no wish to look at a siddur.[11] My father had to take me to the Rabbi of Czortkow, Reb Dovid Moyshe, may his memory be for a blessing. The experiment apparently succeeded; as you see, I can actually read and write…

Almost every melamed had a short whip. So did my Yankl the Red, who

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perpetrated his outrages on his 3– and 4–year old pupils. This was about 50 years ago. After that, I switched melameds, but encountered no more whips. When I was four, I was taken to a new melamed, Avrom Binyomin the Lame. He was so called because both of his legs were paralyzed. Studying with him was a bit more interesting. He would praise pupils who read Hebrew well, saying “He prays like a river flowing downhill.”[12]

On Lag Ba'omer we would walk from cheder to “Mount Sinai.” We took along bows and arrows, as well as dried carobs and figs. “Mount Sinai” was not far from the cheder.[13] The Seret River lay at the bottom of the hill.

When I turned six, my new teacher was Reb Avrom Elye. He was a tiny person, but as kind as the gentle spring sun. It wasn't in his nature to hit children who were poor students. He would threaten to stand them in a corner. The guilty child would stay in the corner for a few minutes, and the punishment was over.

At age seven, I switched to a new teacher–we called him “Mr. Teacher” – Yoysef Vayzinger. He now lives in Israel, may he live many years. There, I studied Torah with the Rashi commentary, other books of the Bible, and a bit of Talmud. He also taught me to write Yiddish as well as to read and write German (as was then the fashion), and arithmetic: addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. I studied with him until I was about ten.

 

A student in Laskowice

At age 11 I left to study with my grandfather in Laskowice. I studied along with two sons of the local Rabbi, Alter

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and Shmuel. They were of important lineage, being descendants of Rabbi Meirl of Przemyslany.

Laskowice, on the Seret River, was a quiet town with over 100 Jewish families. The town made its living almost entirely by means of the annual fair, which started June 24 and lasted until July 10. The Jews would rent out their huts–simple structures of wood and clay–to the arriving merchants as warehouses. The Jews of Laskowice also rented their homes to the merchants arriving from Galitzia and Bukovina. The Laskowice Jews opened restaurants for the duration of the fair. These fairs were extremely important. They were held before the grain harvest and landowners from the entire area would come and take orders for various crops. Many grain sellers came from all over Galitzia, to sell their merchandise. Merchants selling furs, feathers, and coarse linen would also come. In addition, the booksellers and publishers Aaron Foyst of Krakow and Simkhe Fraynd of Przemysl, came. Two goldsmiths, Sendzer and Tsiper, came from Lemberg. Jews would come to buy gold watch fobs and watches, rings, and candlesticks for engaged couples. People would say “We're going to tether the bride and groom.” It was also fashionable to hold the first meeting of the prospective bride and groom in Laskowice.[14]

Once the fair was over, the town was lifeless,

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but the setting was just as beautiful. The Seret River flowed through town, which was surrounded by hills and lovely woods in the north, south, and east. There were two Jewish cemeteries–old and new–in Laskowice, a bes medresh, and the Rabbi's small synagogue, as well as a fine synagogue that was unique in the area. The synagogue was completed at the end of the 19th century thanks to the help of Meir Bartfeld. He was called Meir Sorotzker, as he came from Sorotzk village in the Trembowla district. Meir Sorotzker's hospitality was legendary throughout eastern Galitzia, and he was quite renowned. When he came to Laskowice for the fairs and saw the pitiful, unfinished synagogue, he completed construction almost entirely with his own funds.

It was a good, old–fashioned town: no one was called by their last name, but by their father's or mother's name, or simply by a nickname.[15] Some of the nicknames were too “juicy” to set down in writing.

When I turned 12, I came back home to Bilcze, and studied with my father, may his memory be for a blessing, until the spring of 1915. Later I moved on to Talmud teachers in bes medresh and finally, as a young man, I studied with Reb Meshulam Rath, the great scholar of Chorostkow (he is now a high judge in Israel's chief Rabbinate).


Translator's footnotes

  1. Cholent is a slow–cooking dish that circumvents the need to light a fire on Shabbes. Return
  2. A minyan is the group of ten men required for community prayer. Return
  3. Torah scrolls are handwritten by specially trained scribes, but community members or funders are often honored by an invitation to inscribe the final letter. Some communities are unable to afford their own Torah scroll, due to the expense. Simkhes Toyre is the holiday marking the end and beginning of the annual Torah reading cycles. Return
  4. The mikveh is a ritual purification immersion bath, used by men mainly before Shabbes and holidays, and by women before marriage and after the end of menstruation. Return
  5. The mohel performs ritual circumcisions, and the hazzan leads the community in prayer. Return
  6. Shoykhet is the Hebrew for slaughterer, in Yiddish pronunciation. Return
  7. The shtrayml is a round fur hat worn by men on holidays and special occasions; the tallis is the mens' prayer shawl. Return
  8. Simkhes Toyre is often an occasion for drinking liquor, to the point of intoxication. Return
  9. Editor's note: Forty years later, 95% of the Jews in Bilcze were murdered by Germans allied with Ukrainian haydamaks [Translator's note: The haydamaks were local Cossacks and paramilitary forces who rebelled against the authorities and often carried out pogroms against Jews.] Of Sanye's entire family – parents and six children (two brothers and four sisters)–only he and his youngest sister Leah survived, thanks to a Polish man's compassion (see the list of victims from Bilcze on pp. 384–385). Return
  10. Cheder is the term for the boys' elementary school; they are taught by the melamed. Return
  11. The siddur is the daily prayer book. Return
  12. Much of the siddur is in Hebrew. Return
  13. Lag ba'omer is a minor holiday about halfway between Peysekh and Shevu'es, on which it is customary to spend time in nature; children play with bows and arrows. The upcoming holiday of Shevu'es marks the reception of the Torah; in the biblical account, it was given to Moses on Mount Sinai. Carobs and figs are associated with the Land of Israel. Return
  14. In traditional Jewish culture, marriages are arranged between the parents, and the prospective couple first meets shortly before the wedding. Return
  15. In the original, the sentence starts with characterization of the town as “the old God's town,” a phrase I was unable to find, and have paraphrased. A parent's name with a Yiddish possessive suffix was often used to refer to people. Return

 

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