Translated by Hershl Hartman
The first time I visited Slutsk as an American citizen in 1927-28, Slutsk had already been under Bolshevik rule for ten years. The communist upheaval was to be seen and felt everywhere.
Gone was Czarist rule, represented by the drunken, bribe-taking constable, the city cop, the bailiff. There was no longer authority, respect for religion and older people, for the rabbi or for the old, well-off householders. The new government apparatus functioned through the Communist Party whose membership consisted mainly of young people. Discipline was iron-clad. The party line, determined and issued by the Central Committee in Moscow, was the sole moral and political commandment for the local population, to be upheld and followed as the Torah of Moses, may they not be compared.
I found Jewish life in Slutsk, as in all Soviet cities, to be in the worst of conditions. As mainly traders, merchants and small handicraftsmen in their economic lives, they were considered declassed under the new Set Table. Almost all of them were as if suspended in mid-air, having lost the earning-ground beneath them. The situation was miserable, tragic, because Bolshevism, as a new, fanatical religion, was mercilessly horrible. Its hand sliced through the formerly stable, conservative classes.
Most of the stores in Slutsk stood empty because private trade was destined for liquidation. Merchandise was in the hands of the government, which established cooperative stores. Private trade, under the burden of heavy taxation, was unable to compete and had to be liquidated.
Householders and luftmentshn [those who starved by their wits] were arrested on suspicion of dealing in foreign exchange, in black-market merchandise. Their fate was bitter and dark. There is no income because they are not fit for labor. And though the family's mouths need food, it is not available. Leaving Russia is impossible because the iron curtain had been lowered no one leaves and no one enters.
Almost all the synagogues, houses of study, were converted into amusement places, theaters, movie houses or warehouses for grain and merchandise. The [main] House of Study, the Investors' Synagogue, as well as the Tailors' Synagogue, the large, beautiful Cold Synagogue all became military storehouses for army supplies.
The same happened to churches. The smaller ones were signed over to the State after the costly items icons, gold serving pieces, works of art were removed and sent to the Religious Cult Ministry in Minsk.
Along with all the yeshives and khedorim [respectively: schools of higher Judaic learning, and of elementary subjects], the Greek Orthodox Christian seminary, the hundred year-old monastery with its monks and nuns, were abolished.
Only a few synagogues and the large Mikola Cloister remained open for the few aged people who came to pray. The young people no longer came to synagogue to pray. Those few synagogues lacked a prayer-quorum [ten adult males].
In addition, our children are being taken from us. They want nothing to do with their parents. Serving communism the Party and they don't need their parents, sobbed reb Leyzer Zalman, the abandoned former rabbi of Timkowicz, now a [private] teacher of small children.
I myself expect to be arrested any day, because I teach children. One teaches them a bit of the Torah and Rashi's commentaries and how to say a blessing.
Leybush Gutsayt, the richest man in Slutsk, a capitalist-industrialist, managed to emerge slightly better. True, the government confiscated, took away all his estates, factories, cash, which had provided the family with a rich life, carefree and luxurious. But as he was familiar with banking matters as a financier, he was given employment.
It's bad, brother, he told me. I envy you for being an American. If only you could take and stuff me into your luggage. I would gladly travel along. Khayim Mikhl the-rich-man's-son must now struggle to make a living. I am at the mercy of the new rulers.
Translated by Hershl Hartman
In memory of Avrom Yitskhok Shpilkin, a grandchild of the famous holy man, Reb Rafoyl-Yosl.
Sitting at the workbench with a shoe in his hand, he hums a monotonous tune: Little hammer, little hammer, beat, beat stronger! There is no bread in the house; one's heart shakes and shivers. The surroundings bitterly poor. His wife ill, hungry children are ragged.
When someone brings in a pair of shoes for repair lively, he begins joyfully to sing in a lonely voice: You are again our bread-giver, oh little hammer, little hammer! …Driving a nail after a brad, his youth flashes before his eyes: a deeply committed Zionist, illegal activities, a reader of all sorts of Hebrew newspapers and publications, a founder of [local branches of] khoveve sfas eyver [Lovers of the Hebrew Language], duvrey ivris [Hebrew Speakers]. Not wanting to make teaching his goal and future in life, he became employed as a soyfer [calligrapher] writing Torah Scrolls.
With the outbreak of the World War, when there was no market for Torah Scrolls and a large number of teachers were mobilized, Avrom Yitskhok Shpilkin decided to become a teacher of Hebrew. He feels that he is temporarily responsible to make sure that everything is in complete order until the true masters of the house have returned.
What did he derive from life? He did not think much of himself, always under-valuing his I. When those greater than he were in town, he had no spirit and no pride to challenge, to compare himself with the true maskilim [enlighteners] and Hebrew teachers.
As a bachelor during the World War he was not mobilized but became a leader.
At the outbreak of the Russian revolution, he had become a well-known social activist, a Hebrew teacher whose name was familiar.
Married to Keyle, reb Yosif Aronzon's daughter (reb Yosif Rikiner). Happily content. It appeared that he was still a young little boy. Dedicated himself with fiery devotion to education and societal work.
Under the Bolsheviks, he was expelled from Jewish schools, though they recognized his abilities as educator and artisan. He, a Zionist, was not trusted to educate the proletarian communist generation. He tried to organize secret, illegal groups for the study of Hebrew. At first the Bolshevik powers paid no attention, but suddenly things became strict and private lessons were not permitted.
Pains, troubles…a sick wife, little children yearning for a piece of bread. Bitter cold penetrates one's bones…
Caught teaching little children, he is jailed for several months. He left prison with head bowed and a broken heart. He thought, struggled with himself: should he sell out his ideals? Should he go to the yevseksye to ask for employment as a teacher? To bypass, to deny everything dear and sacred to him for the sake of a bit of bread? The life of the anusim, outwardly a communist but inwardly a Zionist?
His associates resisted the regime exiled to Siberia. There they die of hunger and cold, while he dies here for a bit of bread. But they fought, protesting, and he wants to sell himself as a nozer edoshim [group hermit]?…No. He will become a proletarian, a common worker. Once, as a bright, talented boy he would buy soles, bits of thongs, and repair shoes, just as a real cobbler.
So he sits at the little table. Tugs at the cobbler's thread, beats at the nails. Years tug by, the heart beats.
It is snowing outdoors, storm winds howl. Within the little house it is dim and dark. Loneliness is expressed in a quiet, monotonous tune: Oh, little hammer, little hammer! You are truly our only provider. Little hammer, beat! Beat stronger!
Livelier raises the hand of one who is satisfied with becoming a proletarian, who hasn't sold his soul. Life goes as it may, with a clear conscience. In truth, he suffers. Labor is our life! he sings quietly It saves us from all troubles He finds calm in the sounds; condolence, hope…
Two decades then pass. Wandered to Armenia, barely saving his life. Slutsk is ruins beyond ruins in a firestorm, his wife and a son lost. More wanderings with his son, dragged himself across the Mountains of Darkness. Lost spirit. All lost.
Again the little hammer beats, weaker, more spiritlessly. The years drag by, clouded among strangers. Abandoned, alone. There arose a new generation that knew not Joseph, he murmurs. Who knows me? My son? Another language other hopes. 'And the whole generation died' Everything has died.
Translated by Hershl Hartman
The teacher Nokhem [Nahum] Molodetski, born in Slutsk, was highly educated. His father was a merchant and liberally inclined. The pogroms on Jews had a devastating effect on the young teacher and his young blood boiled without cease. He decided to sacrifice his life for the coming social revolution and carried out a terroristic attack on the Interior Minister, Melikov. The latter was only wounded, and Molodetski was condemned to death by hanging.
He mounted the scaffold heroically, his light-blue eyes staring at awful death. He was only 23 years old at the time.
The heroism of Molodetski, the Slutsk Jewish youth, recorded in a printed underground revolutionary journal, is on display at the Museum of the Revolution in Leningrad, in the former Czarist Winter Palace.
This was the fate of a young Jewish teacher from Slutsk, to be a martyr for the revolution, for his ideals as a fighter for justice throughout the world.
The following Slutsk Jews played significant roles in the October Revolution:
He had created many enemies by strictly enforcing high taxes to assure the success of industrialization. He was accused of wasting great sums of municipal funds and of diverting them to his personal purposes.
He suffered a couple of years of imprisonment and, due to ill health, died there, abandoned, forgotten…
I left Slutsk with the Red Army on June 29, 1941.
I was born in Slutsk in 1914 and had lived all that time in Slutsk. I attended Yiddish School Number Five where Yiddish was the language of instruction, except for some subjects in Russian. We were also taught German starting in the 5th grade, as well as drawing. There were 20 teachers at the school and the student body reached around 400 in ages 8-16.
I remember one teacher's name: it was Lobus. Our school was near the former girls' gimnaziyum [high school].
The words erets yisroyl [Land of Israel] dared not be mentioned at school, where praise was constantly heaped on the great accomplishments of the October Revolution.
In 1925, huge taxes were imposed on the city's inhabitants and small shopkeepers could not survive, slowly liquidating their stores. Jewish cobblers, tailors, carpenters lived as self-employed craftsmen, but they had to obtain permits and to join the guilds. Everyone had to turn over his tools to the guild. Draymen had to turn over their carts and horses and join the guilds.
Everyone had to repair and improve his own dwelling at his own expense. The government was not concerned with building private dwellings, but built social institutions, as well as Jewish and Russian schools.
Jewish schools teaching Yiddish and Russian existed in Slutsk until 1935.
By 1935, most Jewish parents had stopped sending their children to Jewish schools, preferring to send them to Russian high schools. Many were concerned about their children's futures and many had begun to assimilate.
Kosher meat was obtainable until 1927. Butchers would buy cows and a shoykhet [ordained ritual slaughterer] would do the slaughtering.
In 1927 a decree was issued against [kosher] slaughtering and the butchers had to join a collective farm. Butchers who defied the decree, and their associates, were exiled to Siberia.
The population at the time consisted of three categories: kulaks, bednyaks, srednyaks [landed peasants (fists), upper class, middle class]. The owner of a certain amount of acreage was exiled as a kulak. A srednyak a person of the middle class joined a kolkhoz [collective farm]. Until 1928 such a person was neither dead nor alive but they kept an eye on him.
A clubroom for self-employed craftsmen was established in the building of the [former] Slutsk yeshive.
The economic situation of Slutsk Jews was dire and strained. Every minor offense for instance, if one sinned by selling a garment, a pair of trousers, a sack of flour resulted in Siberian exile. Convoys filled with sinners would often leave Slutsk, followed by fearful gazes. Taxes were levied on garden fruits, on a couple of cows, and the weight was too hard for a Slutsk Jew. Slutsk was only about 10 percent Christian and 90 percent of the city's population consisted of Jews.
In 1929 the government abolished the old marketplace and converted the space into a handsome square, planted with flowers and partially paved with asphalt. All the booths and stores were torn down and in mid-square they erected a statue of Lenin. The entire beautiful square was enclosed in an attractive fence.
The market was transferred to where the plushtshadke [brookside?] had been. A government-run restaurant was opened in Solomyak's [former] konditori [pastry/coffee house].
Government-run general stores were also opened for workers and government employees. No anti-Semitism was noticeable, at least not in public.
Religious elementary schools did not exist. Stealthily, teachers and yeshive students would privately visit parents who still taught their children [biblical] Hebrew and portions of the Prophets. The Slutsk Cold Synagogue was converted into an arms warehouse, surrounded by barbed wire, and armed guards protected the armory around the clock. Synagogues were requisitioned, as well as not to be mentioned together the famous Slutsk monastery and many churches.
In 1928, Slutsk Jews began to be accused of [spreading] Zionist propaganda. Anyone suspected of a relationship with Zionism was exiled. Even in the few prayer-quorums that remained, participants would fearfully, in haste, rush through the prayers and quickly leave the place.
Having a radio at home was forbidden, and if someone was caught with a small radio, he was jailed as a spy. Only ear-phones were permitted on payment of 15 rubles per year; through them, one might hear news and Soviet programs. Government news was also broadcast on the streets: programs and propaganda about Soviet wonders and unemployment abroad.
In 1932-33 the peasants in the Slutsk area did not plant their fields, unwilling to cede to the government their labor the grain. They sold some of their hidden grain illegally and consumed part themselves. They paid dearly for this: hunger swept Russia then. Hunger was not felt as much in Slutsk because, in one way or another, the peasants sold part of their grain in secret.
There was not actual starvation in Slutsk. but one had to stand in line almost all day or all night to obtain a kilo of bread and, often, upon reaching the entrance they would announce: there is no more bread to distribute.
When a couple of kilos of flour [sic. context indicates grain] were distributed, religious Jews would have peysekh [Passover] in mind and, each month, they would save and put aside some flour for matse [matzo, unleavened bread]. Potatoes replaced bread in order to avoid eating khomets [hamatz, Passover-forbidden food].
Since all mills were under government control, the bit of saved grain was hidden. Over a year, a number of families, together, managed to save some 38 kilos of wheat for peysekh. A drayman came and told them that he was driving to Uretshe, where it could be ground at a private mill. A list of those who owned the grain was drawn up. En route, the grain was confiscated by the police. Going by the list, the individuals were called into an investigation. Since it was intended for matse, 16 kilos were returned and the balance was confiscated.
Bad times continued for Slutsk's Jews. Merchants, petty traders, brokers were exiled for the slightest reasons. By 1928, ritual slaughtering could not be done privately, but at the slaughter house near the mill on Kapulye Street at the little stream.
Peasants would hide reproductive cows. Calves were for raising and a young bull to be sold. A peasant would bring it before dawn [on a wagon], hidden under straw and hay, to a Jewish butcher, rap at the door and sell it to him in secret. Slaughtered in a stall, the rear [non-kosher] quarters were taken back by the peasant, and thus young-bull meat served to nourish pious Jews their only kosher meat. It was permitted to buy fowls, but they could only be slaughtered at the [public] slaughter house.
Everyone obtained bread and sugar by means of ration cards. Brokers did not receive cards or [internal] passports, so that their children could not even attend school.
In general, fear raged in the home and on the street; when four people stood conversing, no one could be sure whether one of them was a spy. School children, unwittingly, would innocently expose their parents. Fear of one's own children was pervasive; one guarded against unwonted words in their presence.
Generally, one thought at home more about eating than speaking. During summertime one only thought about preparing 2 or 3 cubes [cubic meters] of wood for the winter, because [otherwise] water would freeze at home. Hoarding, or even preparing 10 kilos of flour, was punishable by 5 years imprisonment. Sewing up woolens or warm trousers was accompanied by hearts racing in fear. There was a saying among the Jews: the day is hard; may the night be calm, at least.
There was a case where a Jew was held in jail four times and gold was demanded of him. He surrendered the coins four times, but on the fifth jailing, after severe torture, lacking any more gold, he died. Another admitted under torture that his wife had left him 25 gold coins, specifying in her will that they were for erection of a tombstone. He was tortured for three weeks and put in jail among law-breakers and violent criminals.
He was rescued by the fact that a distant relative, a prominent communist, put in a good word for him.
He was taken home accompanied by secret [police] agents and, in their presence, a small part of an oven was broken open and they took away the gold.
Jews listed as having relatives in America were invited to sign [statements] that they had demanded dollars from their relatives. The government confiscated the dollars.
If someone refused to sign, he was put into prison.
This had bad results, because American Jews understood and knew the meaning of the decree and often failed to provide what the Bolsheviks were hoping and waiting for: a flood of dollars. Life grew easier with the opening of the torgsin [foreign exchange] stores; one could buy everything there with dollars. And that was how those with American relatives were helped.
At 6:00 PM the Germans bombed the railroad station. People ran around like madmen all night long, not knowing where to turn.
On the morning of June 23 a squadron of 15 airplanes appeared and bombed along Zaretse Street to Vigoda. People carrying pillows and food ran toward the Siolke fields. The noise, tumult and clamor was indescribable. Children wandered about, lost. Huge panic reigned.
On June 24-25, all the roads were clogged by the homeless who were wandering toward Bobruysk and from Bobruysk in the direction of Minsk.
Airplanes appeared on the 26th of June and kept on bombing continuously. All of Zaretse Street was engulfed in flames.
The doors of our house were locked, the streets were dark, not a living soul to be seen. Everyone was out in the fields. Nothing had been moved from their places in their houses. It was apparent that only food had been taken along.
There were no Russian troops remaining in Slutsk by the 27th-28th of June. The town was afire and lines of communication with Minsk were down. There were rumors that German spies had concentrated all the retreating auto-mobiles and buses and had bombed them. A bomb fell on the hospital near the commerce-school and hundreds of patients were killed. Surviving patients were led and dragged about, not knowing from where or how they might obtain medical help. Those remaining in town were the firefighters, doctors and prison guards.
By July 29th, 1941, the Germans were 15 kilometers around Slutsk. At 6:00 PM the last [Soviet] military unit left Slutsk, heading for Minsk.
The roads were packed with refugees who blocked each other's way and only chaos ruled.
[Photo page 375 Summer Seminar for Teachers in Slutsk Yiddish Schools. 1924
First row, crouching, from right to left: the second is a daughter of reb Nekhamye, the yeshiva-head; the third Malke Borukhovitsh.
Second row, seated: the teacher Leybovitsh; the fourth is the noted Zionist Klara Mironovna Mishkovski; the fifth Moyshe Efron; seventh Maysl Baranovitsh.
Third row: The sixth teacher Brevda (inspector of the Yiddish schools); the ninth Shimon Maharshak.
Fourth row above: The second is a[nother] daughter of reb Nekhamye, the yeshiva-head; the third is the teacher Shor, the fourth Nekhame Shpilkin-Biler; the last is Karlin.]
[Photo page 377: The Highway [Main] Street]
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