by A. Farsayt
Translated by Janie Respitz
We are providing here a few quotes from Goldshmidt:
In the titanic struggle of the working masses against Czarist Russia, in the struggle for a better and more just society, Smorgon played a very important role in the Jewish Worker's movement
In contrast to the surrounding cities and towns in the Pale of Settlement where Jewish industry was based on small workshops, artisans who worked at home, Smorgon had its Jewish Bourgeois with a real Jewish worker's proletariat.
Workers who fought against their small artisan bosses crippled them. According to the expression coined by A. Liessen it was the pauper striking against the beggar. However, the struggle in Smorgon had the true character of class struggle.
It is no wonder that Smorgon was one of the fortresses of the Jewish Labour Movement.
All the new and up and coming political parties emerging on the Jewish streets tried to capture this fortress. Here in Smorgon, there was a dream of true Jewish socialism broad Jewish working masses.
The Jewish worker element in Smorgon grew in numbers and strength together with the rise of the leather industry.
Fiftyfive to sixty years ago, Smorgon was still a small Shtetl.
By the outbreak of the First World War Smorgon was already a big city and one of the largest centres of the leather industry in Russia.
There were a lot of reasons that contributed to the fast tempo to which Smorgon grew and developed. We don't have dates to tell us exactly when. What we do know, is that even the old days Smorgon was the middle point between Vilna and Minsk and served as a centre for the surrounding towns and villages.
The wide road, lined with trees on both sides, which was a straight line between Vilna and Minsk, ran through the middle of the town. One side of the street was called Vilna Street; the other Minsk Street. Leaving the town, the road continues between rows of trees.
If those trees could talk they would tell us about Napoleon's soldiers who came east against the hated Russian soldiers, and about the same soldiers who using the same road ran home, all stopping in Smorgon. Already then, 125 years earlier, Smorgon was a big village. It was here that Napoleon mad his escape leaving his exhausted army under the leadership of a general.
A memorial of Napoleon remained for us in Smorgon, the graves of his fallen soldiers in Litchnik Forest which we referred to as the French Hills
The trees would have also recounted how people came in an attempt to escape the suffering on the Polish manors in search of a bit of bread. They set up small industry to escape the primitive suffering of the surrounding area.
One of the industries to emerge was fur, especially sheep pelts for the winter. From this emerged a general pelt industry and then further developments: finishing, stitching and other branches of the leather industry.
The leather tanneries began to emerge around 60 years ago. The first to open a large tannery was Rotshteyn and Yisroel Shutkever (the new rich man).
In later developments, German masters would play a large role, introducing new methods. This is why the leather produced was called Hamburg Leather.
The conditions in the tanneries were difficult a 15 hour work day. Thursdays they worked until 12:00 and returned Saturday night.
The workers were divided in two categories: Masters the aristocracy of the trade, and the rest who nobody cared about. In order to learn the trade you looked for talented masters. You would take them to the tavern and ply them with whisky and food. But for this you needed money. Since they did not have the money, they would steal
From this grew a worker's element. He was healthy and hearty, he could drink and fight. Spiritually, he was raw.
The first outbursts of revolutionary activity began as early as the end of the 1880s. They were initiated by two cultural leaders, Rubanov and Ivan Frantchevitch Sinitsky.
This is what we were told by Bayleh Ginzburg, Rabbi Menashe's daughter:
Anna Mikhaelovna Rubanova was the most educated woman, stemming from nobility she followed the teachings of Tolstoy and chose a simple life as opposed to noble. When her husband Rubanov became the tax collector in Smorgon, they settled in a small village not far from town in Ferevez. There, Anna Mikhaelovna worked in the fields with the peasants, dressed like them and tried to become one of them. However, she didn't find much interest in them. She began to look for friends among the youth of Smorgon. She had a large library and loved to read books. This is how she met a few Jewish girls; my sister Libe Ginzburg, Sarah Metlitzkaya, Olga Burshteyn and a few others. These same girls would later become pioneers in the workers' movement in Samrgon. Their fate would result in much suffering, at the hands of their parents, who were fanatics, the surrounding environment and the police
I would later become a student of Sinitsky.
Ivan Frantchevich Sinitsky was a petty bourgeois non Jewish city dweller living in Smorgon. He spent his youth in large Russian cities where he studied. He was very well educated. When I met him, he was well into his thirties. He appeared young, strong and energetic. He was blond, with kind, smiling blue eyes. For a while he worked as a tax collector. People told a witticism about him. Every time he would have to go to the shops he would send a warning to be careful. He didn't hold this job for long and soon left to work the land.
Behind the town he had a large garden where he planted vegetables, fruit trees and beanstalks. Between the trees, vegetables and beanstalks there stood a small house built in the European style
When we began to go to Sinitsky's the house was not completely finished. His yard was filled with wood, brick and clay. I remember the first evening we went there. It was a Friday night late in the fall. It was dark and raining, but we, a group of five small girls wen tot Sinitsky's. Me, Doborah Shimshelevich, Sonia Shpalter, Revekah Donishevsky and Ida Heligman.
It was dark and scary. We couldn't see the road. We were frightened, but would not give up. We continued. Then we saw a small fire. That was Sinitsky's house.
We ran into the yard and OY VEY! We fell into a pile of clay and couldn't get up. We began to scream. Sinitsky came out with a lantern and with difficulty, helped us out. We were good and scared, but soon our fear turned into laughter. We laughed about everything from our falling into the clay, washing our shoes and letting them dry beside the small oven. I think everything was laughing with us. Even the big table, the lamp and the book shelves on the wall. Our laughter rang out and filled the small room with joy. Sinitsky read something to us. I don't remember exactly what. I doubt if we even understood because we were still very weak in Russian. What I do remember, is that he served us homemade honey spread on bread and we enjoyed it very much. For a long time we went to Sinitsky's, at first once a week, and then twice. He would read to us and then give us books to take home. Then he would have discussions with us about the books. His goal was to help us develop and he gave us everything that according to him was useful and comprehensible for us
He also taught us to sing. He sang songs with us that bitterly cried over the fate of the Russian peasant. He taught us how to work in the garden, weeding and sowing. He tried to instill in us pride, self worth, love of people, hard work and all that is beautiful and good
We felt very close to him and would tell him about all of our experiences. We had to fight our own parents who were afraid of a worldly education. As a Russian populist he stood to the side of the worker's movement. He was negative toward it. In order to weaken his influence among the intelligentsia, Shmuel Levin, one of the leaders of the movement in Smorgon, brought his good friend from Minsk, A. Walt, the now well known A. Liessen, to Smorgon to debate Sinitsky. Walt was known for his sharp mind and strong debating skills. The debate took place in Sinitsky's house in the presence of 67 activists in the movement. Walt stressed his Marxist point of view and everyone stuck to his own.
We will continue to quote Goldshmidt:
There was another source of spiritual suckling, Levin from Minsk. He earned his living as a teacher. He was among the Smorgon intelligentsia and an enthusiastic folkist who embraced Marxist theories. The group; Libe Ginnzburg, Sarah Metlitzkaya, Elke Burshteyn and others took on the issue of class struggle on and idealistic level. For them, going to the people meant gaining access to the working masses. The first step they needed to take was to awaken the working youth offering free courses in Russian and arithmetic.
Here is what one of the members of the first group, Gershon (the tanner) Feldman had to say:
Our first teachers and instructors took us from darkness and brought us to the enlightened path toward a struggle for socialism. They organized a group and taught us to write and read Russian. When rumours about this began to spread through Smorgon, my mother called upon Libe, Rabbi Menashe's daughter, (Libe Ginzburg who later in America will be Libe Walt Liessen):
Libe dear, they say you are teaching kids Russian. Is it true? Maybe you want to teach my son. He's constantly reading books.
Libe looked at her father who was sitting quietly in the corner reading from his holy books. Her mother, the Rebbetzin stood by the oven her face reddening in anger and answered:
No. Who told you such things.
My mother even wondered why Libe denied it. But, no is no. She left on her way
She did not walk 15 feet when she heard steps behind her. Libe followed her. Libe poured out her heart and asked her to keep a secret. She told my mother she should go to Binke Shimshelevitch. This is where I found my circle. The members of this study group were: Yudl Kremer, Velfke Menkes,Binke Shimshelevitch and Bentshe Milikovsky.
We all had a special feeling for our teacher. It was no small thing what they were doing for us!
They put their heart and soul in teaching us how to serve the masses.
Besides teaching they would also instruct. Our entire way of thinking had been changed
But now, the few professional Russian teachers in Smorgon began to shout:
The Nihilists! The Nihilists are steering our youth off the path. They threatened to denounce them to the authorities.
The work was then taken over by Shmuel Levin. He ran it in a more clandestine manner and began to organize an aid fund. Our attitude was very negative. Why should we raise money? They don't have enough to get drunk on? Let them worry about it! No, we won't take it.
But when Tzivia's Leybke explained it to me and asked me to go with him to Levin, I went.
I shined my shoes, wore my cap to the side and without an invitation went the Leybke to Levin.
My appearance certainly did not invoke trust. Levin was in a dilemma. For a while the conversation did not connect. Levin was cautious. He was angry we came uninvited as he was busy with classes. But as he spoke to me, he calmed down and took me into the two groups; the first for knowledge of society, the second , nature. Each group had 2030 people. It was 1895 and for the first time our group celebrated the 1st of May. We gathered deep in the Lichnik forest. Levin and a few others spoke. We ate and drank and in order to remember the day we carved the names of all present in a tree.
The work of our circle under the leadership of Levin, Libe Ginzburg and Sarah Metlitzky expanded. Our knowledge of society grew deeper. We began to comprehend the struggle that stood before us for better conditions and for fairer distribution of wealth that we could bring about with our calloused hands. Our aid fund acquired many new members
However, we could not conceptualize the real strength of our organization until the following event occurred. We brought in as a member our master Mikhash Uknevitch. One Monday Mikhash came to work not yet sober from yesterday's drinking
Our boss got angry and sent him away. So four of us from the aid fund in our factory put down our work and left for the tavern.
We declared: A Strike! We will not go back to work until they allow our comrade Mikhash Uknevitch to return.
At first our bosses to not conceive what was happening. The word strike was very new in Smorgon. Neither the bosses nor the workers nor the police really understood what it meant
Moishe Zalman Shutkever was happy that his competitor was facing a strike. He sent his master, Hofman, to the tavern with a few coins .The master ordered whisky. The celebration increased. When people heard we were not returning to work and we were receiving whisky, more workers, sympathetic to our cause put down their work and joined us.
That's when our bosses understood that a strike is a terrible thing, and gave in.
But for us workers, this first success had great meaning. This was the first time we realized that if we unite, we have power and we will not be abandoned by the boss. Each of us felt more confident.
From that day on, spontaneous strikes would often break out, which would result in higher wages and other better conditions.
The movement strengthened and spread. Now the workers saw the truth in our slogan, that only through struggle will the worker obtain his rights. He received many new members, not all desirable. We didn't know then that within our ranks there were two moles. They were Gursky and Strashinsky
Levin left Smorgon in 1896, but the seeds he and others from the first group of pioneers sowed spread quickly. The police were aware and were quite uneasy with our growth. They tried to capture the organizers. Most of all, they tried to get the book where all members were registered.
This was in 1896. There was a strike. Gursky who was on the executive and Eliyokum Malkes from the aid fund had to review the books and make a report. Gursky informed the police they could now have access to the book with all the names of the members.
When Yudke Kremer and Gusrky secluded themselves behind Batarayniya Street under a tree the Gendarme emerged and took them and the book
A great fear overcame all the members of our group. For a short time, the movement was falling apart. We walked around with bowed heads, waiting and thinking that today or tomorrow, we too will be arrested. We were being watched. They arrested and exiled Yudl Kremer and Eliokum Malkes.
Yet, the idea of a workers' struggle did not die. Others came and began to organize the youth element of the finishers. Minke from Krakow, Nekhamkeh Ginzburg (wife of Yitzkok the tobacconist) and Aron Shimshelevitch led quiet, deep work. They tried to give the workers a better political consciousness. They provided a lot of literature in order to develop intellect
There was no work for the tanners. The leaders claimed Binke Shimshelevitch and I were standing in their way. They suggested we leave Smorgon.
This really bothered us: What do you mean we are in the way? We want to help as much as we can. This is when we joined the organization.
The work of the organization began to grow. In 1897, 400 men came to the May Day demonstration and by 1898 we were already demonstrating in the streets.
The police, small in numbers, were unable to break up the demonstration and brought in a squadron of Cossacks
The work of our organization spread to surrounding towns. Smorgon became the centre
In 1901 the finishers called for a general strike to improve conditions. They had been working from 5:00 in the morning until 8:00 at night. The workers united, put down their work. The police could not stop them
The last day of Sukkot, 1901, a squadron of Cossacks arrived in Smorgon. That night they carried out raids throughout Samrgon. They arrested 3040 men and sent them to the Antokolsky jail in Vilna.
This did not scare the Smorgon workers. They took on the challenge of the police and called for a general strike. Now, it was not only the leather workers, but all workers.
Now the factory inspector came from Vilna. He called for a meeting of all workers in the provincial government building. It was on the largest gatherings. The room was packed.
The factory inspector said our demands for a 12 hour work day were correct
But we workers, embittered by the recent police brutality were not prepared to stop there. We were upset and demanded: all those arrested must be freed, a 12 hour work day, freedom of the press and the establishment of a constituent assembly.
Hearing this kind of talk, the factory inspector refused to listen to us any further.
We threw our factory booklets in his face and left the meeting.
The strike lasted from the 12th to the 27th of October. They arrested all the organizers of the movement, around 120 people and finally broke the strike.
I was among the 120. I sat in jail for two years and then I was sent to Irkutsk province where I remained until 1903.
The only thing the workers achieved from that struggle was a 12 hour work day.
The revolutionary worker's movement was already so strong and deeply rooted in Smorgon, the mass arrests could not bring it down. Others came to replace those sent away. The struggle for a humane and just life against the greedy tyrants demanded sacrifices. Actually, all the early pioneers of the movement and the early activists suffered greatly. Almost all the pioneers of the first group left this world to soon
Libe Ginzburg (Rabbi Menashe's daughter), was an outstanding moral personality, with phenomenal talents, and always ready to devote herself to everything she believed in and held dear. Even as a child she was admired. It was said that her grandfather Reb Chaim Avrom would sit her on his lap when he had to deliver a ruling or solve a conflict, and he would ask her opinion. People were amazed by her clever answers.
She devoted herself to the movement with all the passion of her young soul. In the closed atmosphere of a small town her ideas came into conflict with the rabbinic ways of her parents. She suffered greatly from this. When she couldn't bear it any longer, she left for Warsaw. There she began studying dentistry. She did not like dentistry and she still had to hide from the police. In the end, she left for America. There she became a nurse following her likes and ideals. She married A. Liessin. This was the apogee of her joy.
The very difficult pioneering work in the worker's movement in Czarist Russia, the suffering of her Warsaw period (where she had one light filled moment; her friendship with the well known revolutionary Fruma Frumkina) drained her of all her strength. On the 18th of August, 1912, she passed away.
Sarah Metlitzkaya, another from that small circle of pioneers also had a tragic end. We know a lot about her from the writings of Beyle Ginzburg who wrote:
I was still a small girl, but as Libe's sister they trusted me and took me everywhere. They would send me on messages with illegal papers. Libe didn't like it and would get angry.
Being very lively and unafraid I enjoyed my role. I was proud of it: This is where I am reminded of Sara Metlitzkaya. Fate was never good to her. Her parents died when she was very young. She was raised by an old fanatic grandfather. She suffered greatly and her proud firm nature hardened. She was a smart and good agitator, devoted to the movement with heart and soul. In her house, on a shelf, was the library. When the police discovered it and surrounded the house, the whole town was in turmoil. The street filled with people, young and old. No one had ever seen so many police in Samrgon. Everyone was afraid. People stood frightened and whispering. The entire marketplace where Sarah's house stood seemed like a fair. I looked up and saw Sarah standing at the window. She was looking out onto the street. Her face but pale, yet resolved. She was biting her nails. This is what she did when she was upset. I heard someone say:
Take a look at her nerve, how she stands so calmly by the window, as if nothing happened; like she is about to give a speech to the scoundrels. They should all be crossed out
This is all because she doesn't have parents, poor thing. Parents would not have permitted this to happen. A pity. A poor girl. Who will take care of her now?
The Movement! I felt like shouting out. And actually, that's what happened. Metlitzkaya was not arrested. The police took away all the books. They left Sarah alone. The same night, Sarah got dressed in men's clothing and with a wagon left for Minsk, and from there to London. She could not get organized in London. She felt pulled back to Russia. Then we learnt in Smorgon that Sarah Metlitzkaya was back in Minsk. Gershon Feldman and Binke Shimshelevitch went to Minsk to convince her to go to America. By now, she could not live without the movement. She arrived in America broken and exhausted. In the end, her nerves could no longer take it. She became very sick and would end her life in the hospital.
Another member of the small group of pioneers died young. Nechama Ginzburg (Yitzkhok the tobacconist's daughter).
Beyle, Rabbi Menashe's daughter wrote:
I'm now remembering the evening before the general strike of the women tailors. Nechame's small room was packed with women tailors. A small lamp was burning on the table. Nechame stood on a box and made a speech. Her beautiful, smart face was shining. Her eyes were sparkling. Her voice rang out with great enthusiasm into all the hearts of those present. Everyone is swearing to be true to the strike. They sang the revolutionary song with heart, but quietly, not be heard outside
The next morning the strike broke out. Parents were sending children to work, but nobody broke the strike. The strike lasted a few weeks and resulted in shorter hours and higher wages.
Nechame Ginzburg was also forced to leave for America, and she could not be calm. She too felt pulled back by the struggle. She returned and died suddenly in Kiev.
Shmuel Levin was truly a remarkable person. Great mathematician, well educated, devoted to the socialist ideal, he gave everything to the work of the pioneers. Among Levin's students in Smorgon were Meir Devenisky and A. Vayter who later play an important role in the 1905 revolution. He would become known with his works in Yiddish literature and would die a martyr's death at the hands of the Polish legion in 1919.
Also Levin was not fated to live to see better times. He came to America, became a doctor and 6 months later died of a stomach ailment
Those young pioneers and activists who died young did not die in vain. The ideals they fought for spread like fire among the youth and workers of Samrgon who continued in the struggle.
by A.Y. Goldshmid
Translated by Janie Respitz
Isaac Meir Devenishsky
He came to Smorgon (which at the time was a centre of Torah study) in 1895 (17 years old) with a colossal amount of Talmudic and Haskala (enlightened) knowledge.
In those years in Smorgon they didn't follow the tradition of eating days for the talented youth that were preparing for ordination…they paid them 7590 Kopeks per week.
Until 10:00 in the morning he studied with his teacher Levin (one of the pioneers of the worker's movement), after 10:00 he studied voice with great diligence, he had a very beautiful voice. He refused to accept the weekly wages. He received 10 Rubles a month from home. His mother would also send packages.
His best friend was the son of the Vendzigal Rabbi, Mordecai Rosenson (Raziel) (the father of David Raziel).
Another friend was Berl Bitchkovsky. They refused to support Rosenson because he wrote poetry.
Zalman Sutzkever took a risk for him and Bitchkovsky. Rosenson (Mordecai Raziel) was pardoned and his weekly wages were raised. (see in his interview)
In Smorgon there was a clandestine circle of self education. They had a library. The librarian was Sarah the Sour Kraut maker's daughter, who was a midwife. She tried to acquire as many Yiddish, Hebrew, Russian and Polish books as possible.
Here you could find the works of Ahad Ha'am, the complete Hashachar by Peretz Smolenskin, Sholem Aleichem's Jewish People's Library , Spector's House Friend, Mendeles' The Little Man, The Tax, Conscription and The Mare. (In a few copies) The Truth by Aharon Lieberman, Meeting of Scholars by Radikson, from The Voice and Voice of a Nation, Y.L Peretz' Jewish Library, Literature and Life, and his Pages. Also Daniel Dirona amd and all the editions of Achyasaf
The library was illegal and secret, but had many readers from among the Yeshiva students and workers.
They began to organize small cells of workers in Smorgon led by intellectuals. The leader was the aforementioned Levin, who was Veiter's private teacher. Levin was friends with the half Russified Pole Sinitsky.
He had an estate in a beautiful garden near Smorgon. Sinitsky was a friend to the Jews. His job was a tax collector. Before he would go out collecting he would send notices that he was coming. He wanted everything to be in order
He was an admirer of Mikhalovsky, a populist. He knew Yiddish and devoted himself to propaganda among the Jewish youth
Sinitsky had a rich library. Veiter spent a lot of time at his home and library. Here you could find the best works of European literature. Veiter divided his day. Until 10:00 he studied general studies and languages. From 10:00 until 4:00, Talmud and commentaries. After 4:00 he would read for a few hours. In the evening he would go to his new teacher, Sinitsky
Saturday night he would go to the Lubavitch Hasidic shul. He would also go to Koydenov shul where they were more mystical. They would sing and dance with great passion.
A.Veiter wrote a lot. We have a poem that he wrote in Russian in Smorgon (see the poem below)
He began to publish a Hebrew and Yiddish journal Organ Of Smorgon Commentaries in the spirit of Aharon Lieberman's Truth and Peretz' Pages
His parentsk new that Isaac Meir was involved in bad things. The play The Travels of Benjamin the Third was brought to Smorgon. Either Veiter or Mordecai Rosenson presented it on Purim. It made an impression. The very religious were shocked: they could not understand how the Yeshiva boys got involved with this
Veiter considered this year in Smorgon to be the best period of his life. Smorgon was an enlightened city and he became familiar with all the new trends of the day. The Yeshiva boys in Smorgon were greatly influenced by Aharon Lieberman and Y.L. Peretz' Pages
During this time in Smorgon, new ideas were simmering among the Yeshiva students including Zionism, socialism, assimilation and political Zionism.
In 1905 A. Veiter was standing at the top of the Bund in Vilna, influential and powerful in the Red City.
On April 19, 1919 (during the interim days of Pesach) the Polish army under Yosef Pilsutsky entered Vilna and celebrated their victory over the Red Army with bloody pogrom against the Jews. Seventy Jews were killed, among them the writer A. Veiter!
|Go my child, over the field of death
Throw away the empty fear
The shadows will not emerge from under the graves.
The graves will be torn by the tempest
With wails and cries
Whistling they will awaken the dead
They should not arise.
With what can they tempt the black night
What did the world give them and death take away?
For what shall they emerge again from their graves.
There, where they wail sharply, tortured and burned.
This poem was undersigned Smorgon 1900. It was written in Russian and translated into Yiddish by Y. Goldshmid (A. Veiter, writings, p.64 Kletzkin Publishing House with Goldshmid's introduction and biography. Vilna.
by Nechama's Isaac
Translated by Janie Respitz
Business from years ago… Pushkin
In whose memory have those days not remained fresh until today? Who can forget the great hope, joy and enthusiasm of that holiday? Something impossible to describe filled the air. The defeat on the fields of Manchuria was such a slap in the face for the whole country. A quiet and deep unhappiness flooded all of Russia.
The youth and intelligentsia, the workers and peasants, the barracks and naval ships all, all believed and felt that Czarist Russia was engulfed in anger and protest.
Mayor Potemkin lay deep in everyone's heart.
The intellectual and proletarian centres of Smorgon were brewing. At Peretz' the teacher in the shop was the correct density, it was the centre of all the Siberians, passionate protesters. They spoke very little and very quietly. But they knew…they knew…they were very, very serious. Peretz' place was open on Shabbes…there, they did not joke around…Note Miller's son became more pale, he was becoming more philosophical and his language smelled of Capital, dialectic and Plekhanov. The small, stiff youth, the hardened social democrat looked very severe through his glasses.
Raphael the seltzer maker's house was also a centre a gathering place. A short man who devoted all his time to study, with thick glasses would spend hours with his nose in the Times standing, while leaning his shoulder on the table. The black bearded mystic Rabinovitz was one of the central figures. Yosef Reznikovitz swallowed the newspapers and quietly mumbled to himself. Raphael himself would speak in allusions to my father…liberal politics… Potemkin…and would rock back and forth a bit. My father would respond with a glance and begin to rock…and both, Raphael and my father sweetly swayed. Another important centre was at the blond watch maker's shop. Here is where the true sect of clowns met. Straight from the train I would go there with a fresh pack of newspapers and I was truly made to feel welcome with a joke. The lead character was the blond watch maker himself. Beside him was the lame watch maker, the distinguished S. Savitz. The tall blond policeman would wait for me and want a newspaper for free; he knew I was not permitted to sell the papers …so I had to give him and the other policemen bribe newspapers.
Besides Peretz the teacher's rascals and the blond watch maker's clowns there were many other centres of critics, philosophy and revolution. At Boyarsky's pharmancy, at Braverman's sausage factory, at Israel's Hirshke's used clothes shop they critiqued…even the Kalman the wagon driver on the new street offered opinions
It is already a few days that the trains from Vilna and Minsk have not arrived. No newspapers. Slowly life town was expiring. The shops were closed. People were afraid to show themselves in the streets. It was cold. A bunch of policemen stood in the market and on Minsk and Vilna streets. Nighttime was dead silent; from time to time you can hear the hoofs of the Cossacks' horses. This is how the days passed. It's raining and it's wet and cold. But we wait to see what will happen. Why are the police so enraged? This is how almost eight days passed
It was evening and I stood by the well with a bucket of water. I heard a whistle from the train station. The locomotive was approaching. The town awakens as if from sleep. It making livelier and livelier. A few hours later we heard a Hooray from Krever Street. There was a commotion. We heard a bang, shots. People were running in the darkness on to New Street, without hats, with one boot on, in the mud; they were coming over the fences and the gardens; it was dark, people were getting injured; people were running aimlessly. There was a demonstration on Krever Street. Cossacks attacked…it was, in short, revolution…we kids were in seventh heaven. But father was not happy with all the commotion and insisted that we stay home and not wander around. I didn't sleep all night
I barely survived until morning. It was lively in the streets. Kalman's Alter with his big belly was on the street freeing the children . A functionary appeared. He was greeted with an Hooray. He took off his hat with a cockade…
A little later, around 23 in the afternoon, everyone was outside. The market and Vilna Street were packed…People were coming from all the side streets. It was a cold autumn day. A moment passed…people wereexcited. They were shaking hands, hugging, kissing, many were crying from joy…the Cossacks behind the church stood snuggled close together like lost sheep…there were no police around. A few workers were riding around on horses. People held hands and made a chain from Note Margolis' and further. Here they come…a large portrait of Karl Marx swayed in the air; on all sides red flags were waving in the sky. There was drumming. The Marseillaise resounded…people sang. A worker (Gershon the tanner) appeared on a horse with a bloodied shirt on a stick held high. This was the past work of the police…the crowd falls silent for a moment…many remove their hats…and they sang You Fell As a Sacrifice.
The cold, grey autumn day disappeared. There was joy in everyone's heart. It is the first omen of a new life. It was the first day of spring
How can one forget such a day?
by Nechama's Isaac
Translated by Janie Respitz
I'm turning the pages of a diary. The old yellowed pages in a torn notebook written with childlike naivety awaken in me past scenes
The old home of Smorgon swims before my eyes. I can see the panorama of winding streets unfold. Long narrow alleys, the marketplace courtyards and houses. The whole neighbourhood comes alive in my memory; Litchnik, Ashmen Way ,Pereves, the Vilija river, the Stop, and Sinitsky Way between two rows of trees. The pictures flash quickly. I see the old sharp life of the last days of Smorgon, the days when the town suffered in agony before its death that the war brought about
The summer of 1915 was catastrophic for the Russian army. Under the influence of a powerful German attack, the Russian army was about to lose.One town after the other fell to the enemy. The fortresses of Kovno and Brest Litovsk fell. Grodno had already fallen and the Germans were standing at the gates of Vilna. Nothing could stop the march of the Germans.
Smorgon, from the beginning of the war was just a few miles from the front, suddenly became even closer. Fear of the coming events was strongly felt. There was a wince and the helpless just had to wait. The wealthier began to prepare to evacuate. The poor lived with blind hope
There was not a large military presence in Smorgon. There were the bakeries and other divisions one would normally find
The train connection to Vilna was paralyzed, but deep in Russia the trains were still running
By the beginning of September newspapers ceased to arrive and we lived from rumours. Every day a new rumours that the Germans were very close to Samrgon. All of us in Smorgon did not believe these rumours
On September 15th at 9:00 in the morning a rumour spread that the Germans were at the Vilija River. This appeared to be unbelievable. Everything was calm as usual. Smorgon had begun her regular day of activities. The shops opened. The factories were working and women went shopping in the market. Peasants came to sell their products
Suddenly, from our side of the river, we heard the boom of artillery. The Germans were shooting at the train.
Panic broke out. Shopkeepers bolted their shops. The peasants harnessed their horses and in a wild gallop, whipping with all their might, left town
The streets that had been full of life were now empty.
Soon shooting was heard nearby. The Russian soldiers tried to fight back. On Krever and Vilna Streets they began to shoot the attacking Germans. It did not last long. Within 2 hours the Germans managed to chase away the Russians. The shooting stopped and the people who hid in the cellars began to crawl out. They found the Germans breaking into the shops for groceries and other foods. Like hungry wolves, the German soldiers devoured everything. They did not treat the people badly. Some people opened their shops and sold things to the Germans.
By evening the streets were filled with people. The locals from Samrgon walked back and forth on Vilna and Minsk streets and could not believe their eyes. The city was unrecognizable. The shops had been broken into. The people, confused. People walked around stunned by the sudden changes. Only yesterday the city was happening. Only later did we learn that his was 100 miles from the war blaze and we were already in the middle of front fire
We did not yet know, how this all transpired, thanks to the German breakthrough of the Russian front around Sventsian, they sent their best cavalry, infantry and bicycles and light artillery. They were behind the Russian army and cut off all communication
From then on things happened quickly.
There were a lot of German soldiers in the city; artillery, cavalry and infantry. Something important was going to happen. As if poisoned, couriers were running back and forth. By evening, the Germans began to withdraw. We understood that no far away there was a favourable battle for the Russians. The night was unsettling. The sky was fire red. Nearby villages were burning
The Germans are proceeding with their departure. Their mood is heavy. The battle is nearing Smorgon. The sounds of the canons are getting louder. Everyone gathered in the cellars and walled houses. The shul was filled with people. With pounding hearts, we are lying and listening to the sounds of the canons flying and breathe a little easier when we hear them land far away
The battle, very close to Smorgon wages on. During the day a house on Slobodke Street caught fire from a burning coal. In no time, the wooden building was in flames. Me and my brother Mordecai were the first to arrive at the fire. The bombarding was strong and nobody dared to show themselves. Soon a second house began to burn. We realized if nothing resolute would happen soon, the whole town will catch fire. Meanwhile, more people began to appear. We all ran to the fire station and pulled out the buckets and pumps. Horses appeared from somewhere. As we carried the buckets through the horse market, a cannonball landed near us. We instinctively fell to the ground. We quickly got up and went on with our work. We put out the fire and left.
By evening the bombardment stopped. Just weak shooting continued. Small groups of Germans went around and robbed the abandoned houses. They took good clothing and preserves.
The attitude of the Germans toward the people worsened daily. They hung a fireman because they found a telephone. They also arrested a few Jews, among them Mendl Khosid whom they accused of espionage, in his attic they found pigeons. The Jews saved the entry of the Russians
The battle raged on. The cannonballs are falling like hail, bringing destruction and death. No one dares to come out of the cellars. A cannonball landed on the corner near the shul with about two thousand people inside. A cannonball also fell on Bitshovsky's granary, but there was nobody there. By day the Russians attacked. They managed to chase away some Germans. We met the Russians with mixed emotions. On one hand we were happy that we once again belonged to Russia. On the other hand we were afraid because we heard that they did not stop provoking Jews. However, the soldiers did not treat the Jews badly.
From all these experiences we wanted on thing; to rest. We left the cellars and came out on the street. Smorgon suffered greatly. Many buildings were damaged by the bombardment. The feeling that the old way of life in Smorgon was shot which unwillingly seeped into our souls
The robbed the remaining shops. The soldiers would take the expensive things and sell them cheap to the peasants. When the villagers learned of the banditry, they came to Smorgon. It took on the character of a pogrom, the only difference being, no one was hurt
The situation was the same. The banditry continued. When they were done robbing the stores they went to the houses. At night, groups of soldier marauders went about. They were looking for Germans. But they looked for them in the dressers, men's pockets and lady's bosoms
The bakeries worked all day baking bread for the soldiers
There was a lot of military in Smorgon. People tried to go to Barun and Kreve. Many left town
The moment we feared arrived. Cossack patrols came and told everyone to leave town. They told us in Russian they will shoot. It was not safe to remain. We packed a bag with underwear and a pillow. We packed a basket with food and went out to Minsk street. From all the streets and alleys people swarmed into Minsk street. We were running away from the sounds of the shots over our heads. Near Sinitsky's the Russian infantry dug small trenches in an attempt to stop the Germans. The faces of the soldiers were muddy and dark. Their eyes were sad and tired. They looked at us and said something. We only wanted one thing, to get as far away from this hell as possible. A few small scenes are sketched in my mind. Yude the carpenter, whose daughter suddenly fell ill, came running and took our 2 wheeled wagon. He tried to put the sick girl in the wagon, but she tore away and ran to the cemetery. Chana Aronovitch passed us with a sick child in her arms and a baby in her apron. I wanted to stop and help her, but bullets were flying over head. We all fell to the ground and lay for a while. When I stood up, I could not find her. We believed then, we were leaving Smorgon for a short time. We would hide in the forest for a while and then return home. No one could conceive that we would be leaving forever, our childhoods and youth, our joys and our sorrows our beloved home.
by Pesach Taburiski
Translated by Sara Mages
I was born in Smorgon in 1903.
I studied at the Russian Elementary School which was located in Minsk Street. There were five classes in the school. The school's principal was Skott, and the teachers were Horowitz the author of the grammar book, Dubkis, and Filler. Mrs. Scott was the principal of an elementary school for girls
In 1911, at the age of eight, I entered the Elementary School's preparatory class. The school had about 250 students. Each student, who was accepted, had to be able to read and write Russian, be versed in the multiplication table and the four rules of mathematics
Skott taught the Bible which was translated into Russian. We also prayed in Russian. We started the morning with a prayer for the king.
I studied four years in the school. The studies continued without interruption even during the war which broke out in 1914
The big recruitment day came. The recruits, meaning, the reserves up to age 45, were transported to Oshmene [Ashmyany]. Their number reached tens of thousands.
During the first year of the First World War, convoys of Jewish refugees from Kovno, Jonava, Kurlandia [Courland] and also from cities in Poland arrived to Smorgon's station.
Immediately, our city organized a War refugee aid committee.
We welcomed the refugees in the train station. We brought them food. Smorgon's notable women worked in an improvised kitchen. Samovars were brought and tea was boiled. We watered and fed the poor people who fled from the German's sword, or deported from their place of residency according to the decree of the commander-in-chief of the Russian Army, Nikolay Nikolayevich, the Jews' enemy. We received the refugees who wanted to remain in our city with open arms. Some of them stayed with us for a whole year.
The Germans entered the city and captured it on the eve of Rosh Hashanah. They robbed the grocery stores and the wine stores. They handed out chocolate to the city's children to earn their trust.
The Jews treated them with open sympathy. Not out of love for Wilhelm [Kaiser Wilhelm II], but out of hatred for Czar Nikolay II, the Czar who was hostile towards the Jews. Under his orders, his wicked people, who pretended to be nationalists, carried out pogroms against the Jews in the cities of the Pale Settlement.
The conquerors didn't harm the civilians.
One fine day we heard shots from the Firibeiz? side, meaning, across the Viliya River.
The Russians built a new bridge over the river, because the Germans demolished the old bridge and also blew up the railway line. The battle was fought almost within the city limits, buildings were ignited and fires broke out
The Russian infantry seized the city and took it from the Germans. Cossacks' troops arrived after the infantry
After a few days, an order arrived from Nikolay Nikolayevich to burn the whole city and expel all of its Jewish residents.
Those who refused to obey, about forty people, gathered in the Koidenav Shtiebel. The Cossacks burnt the house on them.
The Cossacks stormed the few dozens men and women who hid in Kovrsky's liquor workshop. They tortured the women and set the distillery on fire.
All of us, who were expelled from the city, walked towards Minsk. We arrived, some in a cart and some by foot, to Maladzyechna. From there we traveled by train to Minsk. In Minsk they put us in the synagogue. We were welcomed by the workers of the Red Cross and the members of the Refugee Aid Committee. Only a few refugees from Smorgon remained in Mink. The majority of the refugees traveled to various cities: Bogorodsk, Krakow and Poltova. Some traveled farther and reached Siberia. Some immigrated to the United States through Harbin [China] and Japan.
When we were expelled we didn't have the time to take food, clothing or underwear with us, we left with nothing. A few refugees bundled a little food in a tablecloth and the women took Sabbath candles
We had a big oven in our house and the neighbors used to keep their Sabbath meals in it. Our uncle lived in the Bears Street. He was a busy factory owner and didn't know what was happening in the city. As usual he came to our house on Saturday to attend the Shabbat meal with the family. He entered, and to his astonishment he saw the Cossacks sitting around the table eating Jewish food, fish, meat and cholent, that they took out of the oven. They showered him with blows and he fled for his life
After the feast, they took kerosene from our storeroom, poured it on the Jews' houses and set them on fire. - - -
In 1920, some began to return to Smorgon. These were the forerunners meaning, the families who lived in Minsk and their return journey wasn't long. Most of Smorgon's residents returned in 1921-1922. Some of those who returned stopped on the way and lived temporarily in Vilna, and some came straight to Smorgon. They settled in the cellars of the surviving buildings. A few busied themselves in building new houses to replace those that were burnt. For building material they used the wooden beams that they removed from the trenches which remained intact. They were built two, three, or even four stories below ground.
by Harry L. Hofman
Translated by Janie Respitz
The experiences and recollections that occurred more than 1/3 of a century ago have become more and more pale. Many have already disappeared from my memory. But now when I dig deep into my memory remarkably the events of my last six months in my home town Smorgon, come alive
These last months were the last of Smorgons existence as a City of the People of Israel. An industrial town, with a Jewish traditional and cultural life
When these scenes and recollections appear in my memory, they are tied to the pain and the cries that have been ringing in my ears for the past 37 years:
Smorgon Jews, You too?! You, who were all such kind people!
The truth is, the people of Smorgon were really nice and good hearted.
The month of May 1915.The Czar Nikholai Nilholevitch, may his name be blotted out, the head of the Russian army, issued a command that the entire Jewish population of the area living within 50 miles from the active battle theatre must immediately leave their homes. This very decree, I believe was known as the expulsion from Kovno.
Hundreds of thousands of Jews, men and women, young and old, weak and sick were forcefully packed into freight trains with their belongings, the bare essentials, and sent deep into Russia and even further to Siberia.
I believe this horrible edict fell upon Smorgon's Jews in the first days of May on a Thursday evening. A small group of comrades and friends improvised a meeting on the sidewalk of Vilna Street. It was decided there to try to do something to ease the suffering of those being sent away. We set up small stoves on the sidewalk and prepared food for old and young. We even warmed milk for the children. We took our prepared foods, challah, bread, cigarettes and other articles and went to the train station
A few freight cars, packed with those being sent away, were on the side tracks not far from the station
There on the spot we decided to do more than just distribute food. We decided to take as many as possible off the trains, bring them back to the city and temporarily organize things.
Even the station guards in Russia were corrupt. The bible says that bribes blind the seeing. Those guarding the wagons were blinded during the short time it took us to complete our action.
We carried children and adults out of the train cars on our shoulders. The Jewish wagon drivers were ready to do their part. Wagon after wagon came to town packed with passengers
The next morning was Friday, Erev Shavuot. Tens of Jews went around town with wagons collecting food, clothing and pieces of furniture for the homeless
In the following days, we met at the station by day and by night. We waited for the trains filled with refugees and distributed food clothing and other essential items. We also removed tens of wanderers and brought them to town
We found them lodgings. We found place for almost 500 people
Around the middle of May, our group of active workers had a meeting with the secretary of Baron Ginsburg who was helping every city and town care for war victims
At this meeting it was decided to set up a food centre, or a city kitchen and dining room where refugees could receive cheap meals.
For this purpose, we rented Dina Grinhoyz' dance hall on Vilna Street. Three meals a day were prepared and served to the needy for a nominal fee: 3 kopeks for breakfast and 6 kopeks for lunch or supper. We charged this small amount so people would not feel like it is a donation or handout.
Tens of workers helped in this sacred work, which was not easy. Foods such as butter, cheese, milk, potatoes and other vegetables were collected from stores and the market where the merchants donated them. We also received cash donations
All the meal preparation was done for free by women and young girls, who worked many hours, day and night
I can't give you all the names of those who helped, but I must mention two. They worked 1012 hours a day in the hot summer months. They cooked in the kitchen and never refused to do the most difficult tasks. This was Mrs. Lieberman, Pesach's Rivka's daughter in law and Mrs. Markovsky
The kitchen soon became popular among the military in town. High ranking officers would come in Friday night and see a few hundred people being served tasty meals, served by young ladies from the finest families in the community. Some of the military personnel would sit down at a table to eat, and would leave a nice tip. This is how we made some money
The work of the kitchen had a great reputation that spread widely. When the government had to evacuate an institution, 800 people had to pass through Smorgon. The writer of these lines had to get up in the middle of the night and help provide good meals to those passing through
Once, I was called upon to bring food from Moladechne. By instructions from the above mentioned Baron Ginsburg, the warehouses of the commissary were opened for us. We loaded eight wagons with flour, rice, sugar, tea and other products. They also provided us with all the necessary documents so that no soldiers guarding the road could stop us from arriving in Smorgon as quickly as possible, and wouldn't confiscate our products
Besides providing food, as I already mentioned, we provided refugees with housing and furniture. We also helped with medical and legal services and provided teachers for the children. We opened special schools and courses
In the days when Smorgon was occupied by the Germans, and also in the days when battles were taking place in and around Samrgon, with shrapnel and bullets flying through the sky, we the aid workers went around the city in danger, looked for cellars and warehouses where locals and recently arrived refugees could hide. We distributed among them sugar, cookies and other products we carried with us in order to maintain and delight them
Catastrophe was nearing. Destruction has arrived.
Smorgon was burnt. Smorgon was emptied.
Those of us who escaped Smorgon came to Minsk. Together with others from our aid committee, we created a committee which became part of the Minsk Society to Help Jewish War Victims.
We were given the assignment to provide help and support to those living in a part of Minsk called Kamarovke
In this neighbourhood there were many refugees from surrounding cities and towns. We housed them in the study houses, schools and also government buildings. We hammered together wooden planks and built beds for sleeping, sitting and eating. The over crowdedness in town was unbearable. There were by now 300,000 refugees in Minsk. Under my supervision and responsibility in Kamarovke there were many refugees from Smorgon, and many refugees who came to Samrgon, we helped to get settled and then had to run for their lives with us
My work was extremely difficult. Daily I had to witness the suffering of acquaintances and friends. Some of the wealthiest were now receiving aid. They were not only broken economically, but physically and spiritually as well. Every time I visited the other side of the river. They would look at me, and without saying anything tears would begin to flow without stopping. The visits with the Jews from Kovno, Svalk, Shavl were painful and heart wrenching. We once were responsible to ease their suffering, and now we found ourselves in the same desperate situation
Thirty seven years have passed, but they could not erase the memories of those terrible years of destruction.
by A. Raple's
Translated by Janie Respitz
From the collection Smorgon, 1937 (America)
The wave of people who left Smorgon under the hail of bullets, went to Zaliese. There they spread out on a large meadow on the river bank, lit fires and tried to supress their hunger with the bit of food they brought with.
Night fell. After all they experienced that day, they just wanted to rest and forget. Everyone found a spot and tried to sleep
No one could fall asleep. Everyone thought to themselves what do we do next?
Many believed that the Germans, in their quick attack, would soon capture Zaliese and we would return to Smorgon. Those that believed this, remained in Zaliese a few more days under the free skies. The majority forged their escape deep into Russia
We passed through Zaskevich, Lebedova. These towns were completely empty. We ate vegetables that were still remaining in the gardens. We would find a few potatoes and a Jewish soldier gave us some bread. This was a real meal.
In Lebedve, soldiers surrounded the house where we stopped to sleep and demanded that they play around with the young women. We barely managed to escape them
We finally arrive in Molodechna. From there, trains were running to Minsk. The freight cars were filled with refugees.
Luckily, the days were sunny and warm, lessening the suffering of the refugees.
Minsk was over packed with refugees from the entire front. They all arrived at once. In vain, we tried to offer comfort and solace to the first escapees from Kovno province. Minsk was exhausted from the refugees.
Every school, government building, every corner that was still free was used to house refugees
The over crowdedness and filth brought epidemics. There was no reason to remain in Minsk. They were just waiting for a repetition of events that took place in Smorgon. At the first opportunity we decided to move on.
It did not matter where, as long as moved further away from the front. They began to hand out train tickets for free, the Pale of Settlement was now abolished. The war brought about such a large stream of refugees, that there was no other choice than to allow them to travel deep into Russia.
We took the first military train and travelled at God's mercy
This is how Smorgon, a city of more than 30,000 people, was dispersed throughout big, wide Russia.
There was not a large city where you could not find anyone from Smorgon. Kharkov, Yelizivatgrad, Yekaterinaslav, Simferopol, Mariupol, Rastov on the Don, Tsaritzin, Samara, Kazan. Some even made it to Kharbin and from there made their way to America.
But then something remarkable happened. The economic situation of Smorgon's Jews was closely related to the leather industry. This led to the creation of leather centres where Smorgon Jews fled.
From the beginning a few Smorgon factory owners discovered Sela Bogorodskoye in the Nizhnenavagorod province. Leather tanneries already existed making it easier to settle in. They brought tanners, finishers, and leather cutters from Smorgon and set up a mini Smorgon.
More leather factories emerged. The village quickly came alive, like a city.
A second centre was founded in Kharkov, the largest commercial city in Ukraine. The city was always a large importer of goods from Smorgon. In those days there was a lack of leather goods. The motivated Jews from Smorgon quickly built a leather industry. Here too they brought leather workers: tanners, finishers, and cutters who were dispersed in various towns and cities. The second largest leather centre, after Smorgon, was created in Kharkov and still exists today.
The third centre was in Rostov on the Don. The same thing happened there.
The Smorgon Jews who settled in these places exhibited extraordinary friendliness to everyone from Smorgon looking for help. We could fill many pages with moving stories how in this critical times one helped another
So let us all, Smorgon Jews living in a free America, remember this good trait of Smorgon Jews in the past. We must and we will continue the old tradition of Smorgon:
Anyone who stretches out a hand to us will not leave empty handed.
by Esther's Meir
Translated by Janie Respitz
The witness (testimony) of Rabbi Reb Yehuda Leyb Gordin, the grandfather of David Raziel.
(From an interview)
I studied in Kibbutz B'nei Torah in Smorgon, in the years 1895 1897.
The spiritual leader and examiner was Reb Yakov Shmuel Katz, an ordained Rabbi, the son in law of Avraham Heilikman, whom we called Black Avreml
Every young man in the religious study group received a stipend of 1 Ruble and 50 Kopeks.
They called me, within the group and in town Motl the Venzigal's Rabbi's son. In the days when I was part of this study group it included: A. Veiter, Chaim Shloyme Varshavsky (he was the son in law of Forseyt from Smorgon and later a Rabbi in Brooklyn). Mendl Danishevsky (Mendl Poltaver) and Moshe Uzder, (the brother in law of the great scholar Reb Chaim Heller, may he rest in peace).
I dramatized and staged Mendele Mokher Sforim's The Travels of Benjamin the Third, and as an introduction I wrote a poem
I still remember one of the verses: They know about Pushkin, Bern and Heine, they do not know about Moses.
The performance took place on Purim in the home of Magid's Frade. The actors were boys from our study group
Because of my sin of writing poetry, they didn't give me my financial aid, the 75 Kopeks a week that the younger boys in our group received
Interceding for me for this injustice were Zalman Sutzkever, Berl Bitzkovksy, Skapinker and Yosef Zalman Reznikovitch. And so, they resumed my subsidy with an additional 75 Kopeks. Now I got payed like the older boys, 1 Ruble and 50 Kopeks a week
The enlightened Jews in town said: We didn't know that we have a Pushkin in the religious study group. Should we let him be mistreated?!
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