Some early history and recent memories of Slutzk
By Gregory Razran
The city of Slutzk, originally known as Sluchesk, is one of Russia's oldest
cities, founded by the Dregovichi tribe, and mentioned first in 1116 in a
"Lavrenty Letopia'." The Letopia' says that: "Gleb of Minesk
(Minsk) fought with the Dregovichi and burned Sluchesk" and that
"Volodimer (Vladimir Monomakh, famous Kiev Grand Duke) sacked in turn
Gleb's Minesk." Slutzk was then a part of the Kiev Grand Duchy. In 1148,
it was transferred to the Chernigov principality (knyazhestvo), in 1662
returned to Kiev, and soon after it became a part of the principality of
Turov-Pinsk, remaining so for more than 200 years.
Slutzk attained the status of a separate principality in 1395, with Olel'ko
Vladimiroch, a direct Rurik descendant, as its first prince. However, by that
time the entire region had fallen under the general sovereignty of
Lithuania-Poland, and the Olel'kovichy princes were apparently only
semi-independent. Their dynasty lasted for more than 200 years until, at the
beginning of the 17th century, a last daughter of the Olel'knivichy, Princess
Sophia, married Prince Januez Radziwill and Slutsk became Radziwill-governed.
In 1579, one of the Olel'kovichi princes divided Slutzk into three separate
parts, Old Slutzk, New Slutzk (Troychan), and Ostrov, bequeathing each part to
one of his three sons. The Crimean Tartars besieged the city in 1503-1504, but
could not take it. Likewise, Slutzk successfully beat off a Russian attack in
1655 during the Russo-Polish War when such cities as Minsk, Wilno, Kovno,
Grodno, and Mogilev originally fell to the Russians (later retaken). As is
known, Slutzk returned to Russia in 1793, after the second partition of Poland
in the last years of the reign of Catherine the Second.
A curious fact about Slutzk is that in the last half of the 17th and first half
of the 18th century, it was a world center for the manufacture of a special
kind of oriental (Persian) belt[s] made of silk, gold, and silver and known
then as the Slutzk belts (Slucki Pasi or Slutzkyiye Poyasy). The Slutzk design
of the belts was imitated by manufacturers in Polish, Russian, and even German,
French, and Italian cities.
The manufacturing was begun in 1758 under the direct supervision of the
Radziwill estate and for a long time business apparently flourished. When,
however, in 1832, "the business began to decline, it was leased for three
years and then for another three years to the Jewess Bluma Liberman, the
daughter of the merchant Kantorowicz."
The "Yevreyskaya Entsyklopediya"
states that the existence of Jews in Slutzk is first mentioned in documents of
1583, that Slutzk became a part of the Vaad D'Artsoth Lita in 1695 and that the
Vaad met in Slutzk in 1761 (its last meeting), and also that the Russian Census
of 1897 counted in the city a little more than 10,000 Jews and a little more
than 2,000 non-Jews (the exact number of the Census, I now note, was 10,264
Jews and 2,285 non-Jews).
Still, I was very much fascinated when I examined the texts themselves of the
Slutzk documents in the Regesty i Nadpisy (vol. i published in 1899 by
the St. Petersburg Mefitze Haskalah; vols. 2 and 3
published in 1910 and 1913 by the Yevreiskoye Istoriko-Etnograficheskoye
Obshchestvo). The first document, the 1583 one, merely mentions that
"Il'ya Lipstitz and Merkel' Novakhovich of Slutzk paid toll in Brest for
transportingvarious goods to Lyublin." The second, third, and fourth
documents, of the
year 1622., relate how "Avram Aronovich, a Slutzk Jew, complained that a
Slutzk 'meshchanka' Yaroshevitseva hid her son Karp who stole goods from
Aronovich." Later, Karp was jailed, and "Yaroshevitseva, on the
advice of her son Stephan, a known Jew-hater, complained that Aron willfully
arrested Karp who was innocent and that Aron himself robbed her house."
A 1645 document describ[e]s a complaint of the priest Voskresensky against
Itska Abramovich, a lessee of an inn on the Oressa River. Itska's
"bakhur-servant" ("bakhur" in Russian text) was drowned in
the river and the priest's servants, Ivashko Rachkovets and Sapon Astapkevich,
found the drowned and hid a knife and three "osmaks" that were in his
possession. As a result, "the Jew tortured the priest's servants in the
manner of an enemy of Christian people, brought them to his 'Pan' and
incarcerated them in the Slutzk jail." At the trial, the court released
Rachkovich when he swore that he had not killed the "Bakhur" but also
excused Itska from any monetary fine (nothing is said about the trial of
Again, a 1659 document tells of a letter from the Slutzk Protopope Yoann
Bokachich to the Lithuanian Prince Boguslav Radivil (Radziwill) in which the
protopope informs that "a Jew from the village of Doktorovich, who adopted
Christianity and was a Christian for ten years, came to Slutzk after his wife
died, remarried, and at the instigation of Slutzk rabbis returned to Judaism
with his second wife and children who had been born Christian." The
document continues that "Bokachich, seeing in this an insult to the
Church, complains to the Prince in the name of the clergy, reminding thereat
that "a Christian child killed by them in Doktorovici ten years ago still
Then came five letters of complaint against Slutzk Jews from the Slutzk
Archimandrite Theodosius Vasilevich to the Lithuanian Prince Boguslaw Radivil
(Radziwill) - one written in 1666, two in 1668, and two in 1669. Some of the
Archimandrite's complaints are: that the Slutzk Jew, Yakub Davidovich, insulted
him and the Glory of the Lord and even threw himself upon him with a knife and
that the court freed the accused, not because of legal considerations, but
because of special respect for Jews; that while Christians had more than once
been sentenced to death on account of Jews, not once had Jews paid such penalty
for insults to the Lord, His House, His Holy Objects or His Clergy; and that in
Slutzk there were many Jews and Jewesses who were first converted to
Christianity and then returned to Judaism.
So far for the early history of the city. As for the Slutzk of my own days, all
I need do is to close my eyes, and it all comes back to me. I remember, of
course, the two years that I spent in Slutzker Yeshivah, Reb Zundel Meltzer's
brilliant Talmudic Expositions and Reb Sheftel Kramer's melancholic Mussar
talks in the Sabbath eve twilights. During the day Reb Sheftel's presence was
revealed to us, as a rule, only from above, watching us from a high balcony
window; a pair of eyes peering and a black beard swaying. But he never managed,
however, to detect the "prohibited" books which I avidly read in the
Yeshivah outhouse. It is there in the outhouse where, believe it or not, my
first serious secular education began, where I first became acquainted with
Mapoh, Smolenskin, Byalik etc.
The books had their effect. I soon converted into a full-fledged Haskalah
Searcher, left the Yeshivah at 14 and plunged into a world of opposite values
and opposing concerns. Brenner, Berdichevsky and Borokhov, Hess and Hertzl,
Pinsker and Peretz, and a little later the vast and varied Russian luminaries
became my guides and mentors. I joined the Zeire-Zion party and also had a
strong sympathy for the Poale-Zion. (I was therefore, happy some years
afterwards, when I was already in the United States, that a union between
Zeire-Zion and Poale-Zion was effected).
After that the first image that I get is usually that of Solomyak's Cafe with
its blend of delicious rum cakes and abstract sociopolitical and philosophical
debates; the bald and learned "kazyonny ravvin" and orthodox Marxist
and menshevik-internationalist Bronstein; the cynical and quizzically
perceptive socialist-Zionist Charney; secular and sympathetic gray-haired
"askon" and "Folkist" Feinberg; and worldly Zeire-Zionist
Landau; dedicated and oratorical and much-popular-with-the-girls Gabai;
pedantic yet highly gifted Mlinsky; bespectacled and studious Solomon Chipchin
and the charming and altogether lovely "Bundist" Malke Boruchovich.
My second image is that of the "kalte shul" and the birds hovering
and soaring in and out under the lofty ceiling during the prayers on Shevuoth.
well, the clubs of Zeire-Zion: first, the suburban and
greenery-covered one on Yuryevsky Street; second, the stuffy and crowded one in
the market place; and third, the spacious and modern one, supplied with two
electric bulbs, on the chaussee, the property of Mrs. Feinberg. My third
really runs to romance. I remember most
vividly and with considerable nostalgia the benches of the Broad Street
boulevard strewn with chestnut-blossoms on which we teenagers sat and loved and
recited to each other Nadson and Shneur and David Einhorn and some of us even
The aforementioned Charney was fond of saying that Slutzk was governed by
"Four Lions" Lev Grigorevich, Lev Mikhailovich, Lev Isakovich, and
Lev Mironovich. As secretary of the Slutzk Kehilah after the Revolution, and
for a number of years secretary, and also president of the Slutzk Zeire-Zion, I
knew them all. Lev Grigorevich is of course the almost-legendary Dr. Shildkret,
a giant of mind and heart, revered and loved by Jew and non-Jew, poor and rich,
old and young. Shildkret was by all tokens the foremost intellect in the entire
"uyezd", even if he lost somewhat in popularity after the revolution
because of his political conservatism. Lev Mikhailovich is the town
"Gvir" and Zionist Leibush Gutzeit. The image created by his material
success and alleged industrial and commercial toughness had always puzzled me,
contrasting as it did with my impressions of him as a soft and gentle, somewhat
blundering, and probably henpecked man much concerned with spiritual values,
with self-improvement, and with the acquisition of abstract knowledge in Judaic
and general lore. I remember Mrs. Gutzeit, once at a dinner in their home,
offering a toast to her daughter studying in Italy - a strange and awesome and
far-away land to me, at that time - and of course, the gifted and most
democratic Gutzeit's son Yasha.
Lev Isakovich is the name of the "nice" bundist Myshkovsky, and Lev
Mironovich of the "Zealot" Bunin. Myshkovsky was married to Clara
Mironovna who was not only a very ardent and active Zionist but also one of
very strong right-wing tendencies. We thus did not have to argue with
Myshkovsky Clara Mironovna could do it better but we had to argue a lot
with "Leibele" Bunin. In the course of the arguments, our opposition
to his sociopolitical position carried over to his personality. Yet in
retrospect Bunin appears to me to have been a fine representative of the
Bundist and Jewish working-class masses of Slutzk, a highly efficient organizer
and leader of integrity and high ideals and principles.
I cannot leave this epitaph without revealing some personal feelings about the
charming girls of our Zeire-Zion Organization: Fanya Kreph, a subtle blond of
level-headed intellect and deeply felt emotions; Basya Barnak, full of whims,
intuitive perceptions, and striking originalities; Mutya Peimer and Besya
Chozik with whom I was secretly in love but who never knew it; and others.
Where are they all and what has become of them? -
It was a hot day, June 30, 1941. My wife and I and two friends had left New
York a few days before on an automobile trip to Mexico. Hitler had invaded
Russia, and the day before the war was raging, according to the communique we
read in a newspaper bought in Nashville, Tennessee, in the direction of
Baranovichi and Luck (Lutzk). We had been motoring all day and stopped late in
the evening, strangely, in a city -named Palestine in the state of Texas. We
had seen no newspaper all day and could find none in Palestine. The next day,
however, we bought a New York Times in San Antonio, Texas, and there I read
that "the battle is now in the direction of Bobruisk and Borisov".
Slutzk was obviously already in Hitler's inferno. Later, I heard that the
remainder of my family in Chaplitsy near Slutzk was drowned in a Polesie river
trying to escape. I heard no more.
Queens College, Long Island, N.Y.
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