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[Page 317]

A bundle of memories
- prior to the First World War in Volozhin

Written by Osher Malkin in Yiddish

Translated by Moshe Porat

 

Volozhyn Topography

A rectangular market place was at the town center. Only it's northern section, by the shops side, was paved. The town extended from west to east along the Vilna - Minsk way.

 

vol317.jpg
Market Square

 

Vilna Street originated at the Town west Entrance Tower (STOLB). The street ended at the West Side of the Market Square. From the market's East Side, Minsk Street sprawl out, it crossed the wooden bridge on the Volozhynka river shallow stream and than climbed to the hills out of town.

In Vilna Street among mostly Jewish owned wooden houses, stood the Pravoslavnaya Russian TSERKOV (church) and our family dwelling, both of them built from tree trunks. They were located near a picturesque water pond. The Market Square was dominated by the enormous imposing Polish KOSTIEL.

On both sides of the Market, where peasants from the surrounding Volozhyn villages used to sell their farm products, shops were established, most of them were Jewish owned. AROPTSU, on the so-called “Yiddish slope” next to the Volozhynka stream, dwellings, stores and small workshops were located.

On the southern side of the Market and Aroptsu, spread out the elegant Estate of Graph Tishkevitch, the landlord of the town and the surrounding areas.

A hundred meters north of the market was the location of the famous Yeshive, Volozhyn's prize and glory.

 

Volozhyn Economics - PARNOSSES

The Volozhyn Jews mostly earned their living by trading with the Belorussians peasants, who populated the surrounding villages and worked their land or Graph Tyshkevitch's land. The soil around the forests was poor, so they cultivated mainly potatoes and corn, but not wheat. The peasants were dirt poor and they did not have much money to spend in Volozhyn.

However time came at the end of the nineteen's century when Mister Heller, the notable wood merchant from Berlin, bought a great part of Graph Tyshkevitch's forest, employment became widely available and some prosperity become visible in the area.

My father, Hirsh Malkin, Heller's Wood Works general manager, established in Belokorets (a village 3 Kilometers from Volozhin) the enterprise's main office, the CONTOR. The peasants in the area now reached new vitality, they received credit to buy horses and tools. The GOYIM earned much more money working in the woods. A more decent life style became feasible for most in the Shtetl.

Many citizens became Contor executive employees. Merchants used to buy and then resell hemp (konopla) cultivated by the peasants. In Volozhyn there were established workshops (TREPALNIA) to flutter, clean, sort and pack flax. Some of the flax merchants became wealthy. One of them was Aba Levin. His house and trepalnia were near the Yeshive.

The flax warehouse was equipped with iron shutters for fire protection. Beside the warehouse stood a press. Through the Yeshive windows we could see the flax being packed for transport. Aba Levin sent his children to high school in a big town. His store was in Perelman's stone house on the market. The store clients were the Graph's executives and small landlords living in the vicinity.

Graph Tyshkevitch's lands were another source for the area inhabitants to earn money. The graph owned the land of Volozhyn, the Andopolie and Kapustina farms and the extensive, widespread forest areas. The Graph's office was in the Estate on the town southeast side. Within it stood elegant brick and stone structures, his and his family palace residence as well as his staff habitation buildings. The Estate was planted with numerous kinds of trees, flowers, greenhouses and vast fruit orchards. The Volozhyn Jews used to buy the fruits right of the trees.

Two Bunimovitz brothers lived In Volozhyn. One of them rented the Sakovshchina mill. He was a rich man. In 1905 his house was robbed at midnight by a gang of Jewish anarchist's who expropriated all valuable objects for their foundation to fight the czarist regime.

The second brother rented the Andopolie farm, 10-Km from town. Our family was in friendly relations with the second Bunimovitz brother. We used to visit Andopolie on our horses. The farm seemed to me a paradise. A big squire's POMIESHCHIK house, a huge green grass court, a corn barn, a working and riding horses stable and a large cows and calves shed. They cultivated industrial potatoes, which were delivered to an alcohol plant. The butchers on their way to the Polochany rail station stopped before the plant to let the cattle enjoy the offal so to fatten it before butchering it for meat.

Another source for Volozhyn financial affairs was the YESHIVE, in which d hundreds of young men studied. Almost all of them came from other cities and little towns - SHTETL. Their parents supported most of them, and Volozhyn drew the benefits. In addition messengers SHELIHIM collected much money from many Yeshiva supporters.

The towns' inhabitants economical basis was the commerce. Many stores were placed along the streets and around the Market Square. Some inhabitants earned livelihood as craftsmen. There were KARABELNIKS, they used to go to the villages selling merchandise to peasants and buying from them calves, corn and flax to resell in town.

Excluding the water driven mill and soda water production there was not much industry. So it is easy to understand the SHTETL's curiosity and astonishment, when Michael Polak brought a steam engine and boiler for his mill, situated on the left Volozhynka shore.

It happened on a summer evening, when many horses harnessed to a large platform on big strong wooden wheels carried the steam machine from the rail station through Vilna Street, over the Volozhynka wooden bridge to Michael Polak's mill. Many children followed the engine. The entire population was deeply impressed by the technical wonder.

A generator, installed in Polak's enterprise generated electricity. It was the source of the first electrical light in Volozhyn. Each Friday before the candle benediction a whistle of the steam engine announced the holy Sabbath arriving.

Post and telephone in Volozhyn. In Volozhyn there was a post office but no telephone. The post office was placed in “Aroptsu”, on the right side of the Minsk Street just behind the Volozhynka. Every day at ten o'clock a horse driven cart arrived bringing the mail from Vishnievo. On Fridays it used to be escorted by an armed policeman, because it carried valuable, registered mail and money.

The postman who served the Jewish population “Oyzer der raznoshchik” Zirolnik was, during the whole year apart from Simhas Toyra a quiet, humble, dark-yellowish bearded man, usually he was a reserved man but yet he was an ardent Hossid. By the way, it is a place to note that the vast majority of Volozhyn Jews were Misnagdim, Hassidim could be counted on the fingers of one hand. The other Hassidim, apart from Oyzer, were Kushke der Baker, Shloyme der Hossid (Shepsenwol) and perhaps two or three more. Nevertheless, they had enough Energy, passion and yearning to show us during Simhas Toyra festivities the difference between Hassidim and Misnagdim.

Many inhabitants, particularly the young ones, got together on Saturdays near the post office, hoping to receive some mail. Very few people actually received letters. The majority found in the post courts an opportunity to be together, to meet amongst friends, to have a little chat, to tell a Volozhyn story, to hear some gossip and some recent news.

The first telephone in the area was installed in my parents' home, at Vilna Street, near the water pond- sazhelke. Tyshkevitch's estate offices were connected with their woodland horse riding guardians - “Obyezchiki” by a telephone cable. My father took advantage of that cable to install a telephone connection between his home in town and his forest office - “Contor”, in Belokorets. So the first Volozhyn telephone was born.

 

Volozhyn barbers

Two barbers worked in Volozhyn. The first and the most important one was Meyshke der Sherer. Among his clients were the rich and prominent citizens, the Graph's executives, officers and people alike.

Meyshke had his workshop in Perelman's big stone building, which stood on the north side of the Market Square. Shops occupied the first floor, one of them was Meyshke's “saloon”.

The second barber, Alterke, a small dark Jew worked in another small house on the narrow lane leading from the Perelman's house to the Beys Medrash. To get to Meyshke one had to mount some stairs, to Alterke he descended some steps down, because his flat was in half a cellar with tiny windows and from above one could see what's going on inside.

Alterke did not have a special saloon. In one room stood a chair, on the wall a mirror and beside it a small table with barber's tools. His clients were the poor and less important persons, craftsmen, workers and youngsters. I preferred to cut my hair in Alterke's shop. One was at home there and could fool around, mostly when Alterke suddenly left his client in mid of the hair cutting or shaving and went into the second room to calm one of his crying babies. And there were many criers, each year he had a newborn.

Alterke had a goat. Between Alterke's flat and The Beys Medrash was an empty area, where Alterke used to leave his goat to pasture. Untamed boys we were, we would grasp the animal, bring it near the Beys Medrash entrance, open the door and let the bearded goat walk among the praying Jews wrapped in shawls. We would look for a while to see the confusion, then we would close the door and run away satisfied that we succeeded with our entertaining prank.

 

Charity

In Volozhyn during the period before the First World War, neither organized congregation nor affiliated institutions like a hospital, a bank, or savings and loan existed. There was only a public hostel HEKDESH, where wandering poor Jews found a shelter. Some people used to loan money to others with a little interest. However, some richer families were engaged in charity. It was usually done out of sheer goodness, concurrently they were earning a “Mitzvah.”

My mother kept a special fund of few hundred rubles, for this purpose. Before a bazaar or a big market day occurred, our home would be visited by multiple small merchants. Mother loaned everyone 30 - 50 rubles to buy goods. The loans were repaid after reselling the goods with no interest. The shopkeepers did not go themselves to buy the goods. There were Jews that owned horses and carts. After Sabbath they harnessed their “transportation facilitators” and left for Minsk or Smorgon to buy the merchandise and later distributed it in the Volozhyn shops.

 

Shuker's “private” Zionist organization

I remember times when there was no Zionist organization in Volozhyn. There was a shopkeeper named Shuker. In his shop on the market one could buy all kind of goods, from small to large: clothes, kitchenware, toys and also gramophones with records.

On bazaar days Shuker used to put a record player on the entrance steps of his shop and turned the handle. The magic box wonderful music became the best publicity stunt and attention attraction during those days. Shuker was also the single photographer in town.

One of his sons (now in America) started the Zionist activity in Volozhyn. He wrote well and he was connected with Zionists from Vilna. He possessed Keren Kayemet stamps, pictures from Erets Israel and sold them among his comrades.

For one of the Zionist Congresses he received Shekels. I bought one shekel despite my lack of understanding of the Zionist Congress elections procedure.

 

Revolutionary circles in Volozhyn

During 1905, the year of the first Russian revolution, revolutionary parties developed in Volozhyn like in many Jewish shtetleh. Among them were the “Bund”, SS and Anarchists. I remember Leizer dem Bekers daughters and other guys and girls being members in an organization named “Siostry I Brat'ya” - “Sisters and Brothers”, in which both Jews and Gentiles were members.

A joke was told about Motke dem Shousters, who for a cup of cacao transferred from the “bund” to the “SS” party.

 

Melamdim, learning institutions and theater

The HEIDERS, which functioned from dawn to dusk in Volozhyn, were of a variety of levels, depending on the melamed's proficiency, on the number of pupils per class and on the Heider's location.

My first Rabbi was Nahum der Melamed, quiet and easy- going, yellow bearded Jew. He used to speak slowly in a hushed voice. But he often used his belt over his pupil's buttocks. He did it without any signs of anger, as though he was washing his hands before a meal.

t first, while attending the HEYDER my mother used to come there to take me back to our home. Once she complained before reb Nahum about my naughtiness. He looked at me with his cold eyes and said in a florid style: “If your son is wicked we will be obliged to make a blessing over his CHALAS”, he had in mind beating my naked buttocks. My mother did not understand the Rebe's meaning and answered that on each Sabbath Eve she bakes two tiny challas for my blessing. The children broke out laughing, they were teasing me for days later with “challas blessing''.

From Reb Nahum, the “babies” melamed, I passed to Reb Gorelik , and after his emigration to America, I was transferred to Mr. Shwartsberg's heyder. Both of them were higher-level. Melamdim. The Heyder contained eight to ten disciples. The Heyder and the teacher's apartment were in Perelman's big house.

Apart from the little Heyders There was in Volozhyn a Jewish primary school. The school was Founded by “the Jewish Society for Education of Jewish children.” The Society was established during the Enlightenment Period - HASKALA. The headquarters were located in St Petersburg and the studies were free. The curriculum included Russian language, Arithmetics, singing and hand crafts for girls. The majority of the pupils were girls. The building was placed opposite the Sazhelke. The manager and his family lived in the school building.

The manager, director Freedman, was a graduate of a teacher's seminary. The Society sent him especially to Volozhyn to manage the school. The language he spoke with his wife was Russian. Freedman was a strange person. Medium height, dark skin with marks of black hair. I say marks, because Freedman shaved not only his beard but also his whole head, during both summer and winter. He was a typical “misanthrope”. He had no friends. He never invited anyone over. He always walked alone, without his wife or any other acquaintances. He was teaching the higher grade children (there were two classes only).

He was teaching singing. He accompanied his singing with a six-flanked small harmonica. His playing was very tender. From time to time we used to stand under the school windows to hear and to enjoy the wonderful melodies.

His wife, on the other hand, knew all the shtetl stories. She had many Jewish and Gentile acquaintances. Freedman's wife came to our house often. Blustering into the house like a wind, she told all the stories she knew. Mother would serve her a glass of tea. She would drink the tea and run to spread her gossips in a neighbor's house.

Boys who learned in Heyder and wanted to have a general education too, would take lessons with private teachers. All the teachers who prepared me to the secondary school were strangers in Volozhyn. They were wanderers who were skilled in teaching Arithmetic and Russian language. They arrived in a shtetl, earned some money and moved on to another area. There usually was only a single teacher in town during any given period, because of the small number of children who could afford private lessons.

Apart of Ore Polak's daughters who studied in St Petersburg and who never returned to the shtetl, there were no Jewish University students in Volozhyn. Some of the Graph's Polish functionaries and the Polish pharmacist sent their children to study in Moscow. At the summer vacations they came home. They enacted shows inside a large attic at the Estate. Many Jews frequented those cultural events and enjoyed the playing. They did it in Russian. The last show I saw was Anton Chekhov's “Bear”.

There was a Yiddish dramatic circle. One of it's top artists was the blacksmith's son, a beautiful boy with a pleasant voice. His best role was in “Yoseph's Sale”. The Yiddish language show was played in the Firemen's barrack beside the Sazhelke.

Important cantors -hazonim and poets have sometimes visited Volozhyn's Beys Medrash. Our town cantor criticized them severely, but we youngsters enjoyed them a lot.

 

Reb Refoel der Goen ( Rabbi Rafael the genius)

When one talks about education by a town synagogue personality, he should have in mind the most important pedagogue in that period, the genius Reb Refoel Shapiro, who was the Volozhyn Yeshiva head at the beginning of this century. He was a wonderful man.

During my long life I had the opportunity to meet several Rabonim but no one could be compared to our Reb Refoel. I can still recall him standing at “Smoyneesrey”, the eighteen benedictions prayer. I can still hear his beautiful praying, remember his face, his figure, his whole demeanor.

As all the great Volozhyn Rabonim were, so Reb Refoel was called by his first name only. The second name of our master was not known to most of the community members. Yet it was enough to mention “Reb Refoel” and all of us, young and old, men and women, boys and girls, knew that it referred to “Him”, our Row, our Genius, to the first among firsts.

Reb Refoel was a tall, slightly bent man. His virtuous eyes radiated kindness. You could see in them the long day and night hours-spent on reading and studying the holy books.

My father had his place in the same Beys Medrash where Reb Refoel prayed. As a small boy I often used to leave my father, to stay in the rabbi's vicinity to listen and enjoy his devoted prayer. He pronounced each sentence slowly, clearly and with sincere intention.

Volozhyn Jews, who usually thought themselves eminent and very important, referred to him with enormous dignity. When Reb Refoel entered the synagogue, a deep silence prevailed in the Beys Medrash building. You would be able to hear a fly passing. All present looked at him with great respect. It seemed to me that in such a manner was welcomed the Kohen Gadol in the Jerusalem temple.

My father used to go to Reb Refoel Shapira's house at Shavuot, to hear the Rabbi's Droshe - Preaching. Present were those who knew perfectly the Torah, skilled in Talmud and the town more important citizens. I remember my father explaining to mother the topic of Reb Refoel's lecture and it's deep thinking.

When you looked at Reb Refoel it seemed that you are not facing a man from this world, but a man who was truly created in God's Image.

Reb Refoel was the Sandak - Godfather - in my brother Isak's “brit”.

Everyone who saw Reb Refoel remained enchanted by his personality for the rest of his life.

 

The Perelman Family

* Les parents de Yosef Perelman, pere de Sonia et Monia

The Perelman family belonged to the Intelligentsia circle in Volozhyn. Moyshe Perelman's father was the Vishnievo Rabbi (Vishnievo - a small shtetl near Volozhyn, in which Shimon Peres was born).

Moyshe married Malka Itshakin who drew her Ihuss (pedigree) from Rabbi Hayim der Volozhyner, who established the great Volozhyn Yeshiva and was it's first Yeshiva head. Malka was a beautiful, delicate and civilized woman, a lady.

Moyshe Perelman's father left Vishnievo before the First World War and immigrated to Erets Israel, He changed his name to Margolis (which means Pearl in Hebrew) and became a Rabbi in Rehovot.

All Perelman's were talented, educated people. The two sisters never separated from their Russian books, a rare phenomenon for Shtetl girls in those times. The younger, Fania, later became Professor in the Science Academy of Moscow.

The Volozhyn Jews received in those times the Yiddish journal “der Moment”. Few of them read Russian newspapers. Moyshe Perelman was receiving the Russian edited in Moscow, “Russkoye Slovo”.

The Perelman's stone house was built in 19th century. Graph Tishkevitch built it and gave it as a present to his friend, Reb Hayim der Volozhyner. Malka Perelman inherited the house. It was built in stone in a style similar to the graph's Estate houses. In the lowest part on the Beys Medrash side were apartments. On the market side was a row of shops. To reach them you had to mount a few steps.

On top of a part of the apartments a second floor was built in which Perelman's family lived. The apartment had departed a large balcony overlooking the market, the only balcony in town.

Steps descended from the left side into half a cellar in which the wine shop was located. On the shelves were arranged many bottles with a variety of colored labels. The sales counter was positioned on the left hand side. Behind it in a chair usually sat the elder Perelman's daughter, Haya Dina. Most of her time she was deeply engrossed in Russian literature. While reading she did not know what happened around her and it was possible to remove all the bottles not interrupting Haya Dina's reading

Steps ran down from the shop to a second and then to a third deep underground cellar. Here the life enjoying liquid was transferred from barrels to bottles.

Moyshe Perelman's additional occupation was his insurance agency. His hands were full with work. The majority of the buildings in Volozhyn and the entire region were wood constructions. Since wood is an excellent burning material, fire destruction was common in the area. The big fires counted as major dates. So you could hear people say that an event occurred “between the second and the third Fire”.

 

Ore Polak

Ore Polak was the shtetl truly rich-man. Medium height, well dressed, with a classic belly, a golden chain, a French small beard and his hair divided in the middle. It made Ore Polak look exactly as a rich-man should look. Every one referred to him with respect and always was the first to greet him with a “good day”.

Widowed, he lived by himself in his big house on Vilna Street, opposite the sazhelke. The house had many rooms and included a living room with pictures on the walls and soft furniture.

We children were mostly interested in his fly and insects collection. They were pierced and packed in glass boxes .The scientific and common name of each one was marked beside the relevant box.

In his elder years Ore Polak married the shtetl delivery nurse. Her son, my friend, took me often to the living room to show me the wonderful collection.

In Volozhyn one did not have to think of Rotshild when he thought about rich people, he used simply to say “If I were Ore Polak...”

 

Childhood and boyhood happy years

The young had their best time spending at Sabbath evening (Shabeyse-naht) walks on Vilna Street. The street was crowded. The strolls were far into the fields. We had no movies, shows or concerts, but we were happy and joyful. And we, heyder boys, sneaked in fruit orchards to taste the delicious apples, pears and plums, fresh and direct from the tree.

At the end of summer, when the sun was still warm, yet not too hot, it was such a pleasure to wander in the distant fields. We would dig potatoes, bake them on the spot by making bonfires and then we would return exhausted and happy to our homes.

In later years when I would return home to spend my high school summer vacation, I used to walk to Kapustina at midnight, extract Michael Polak's brother from bed, and together steal into the creamery to fry the Holland cheese offal on butter. With paradise taste in mouth, returning home, the first sun rays showed in the east.

We used to walk also to Kaldiki, a village inside the forest on the Bierosa River. We bathed in the deep water flowing between beautiful pine and poplar trees, we walked through the forest to collect black and red wild berries. I loved to spend a good time on the forest river shore with a book intoxicated by Mendele Moher Sforim, Lev Tolstoy or Sholom Aleyhem stories.

We often walked late in the night to the Stolb - the town tower at the and of Vilna street, on the forest way, with our sisters and particularly with their comrades, when in our hearts aroused the first love feelings. It was young boys dreams mixed with joy and happiness.

I remember with longing, regret and mourning my happy boyish years, my birthplace town, my home and the life that was brutally and totally destroyed.


[Page 330]

Inside Volozhyn

by Avraham Halevy, Kiryat Tiv'on

Translated by Meir Razy

Donated by Anita Frishman Gabbay

 

The Kippa

On the hill behind the Volozhynka, about half a kilometer from the city, was a round pit. It was several meters wide and two meters deep. It looked like an upside-down kippah, wider at the top and narrower as you descended into it. This was how it got the name “Yarmulke”. People said it was dug by the Army of Napoleon.

Sitting inside the pit, one would feel oneself floating between heaven and earth. You could see only the sky and the wall around the pit. It was that special place where one could be alone with G-d and feel very spiritual. It was said that the poet Chaim Nachman Bialik used to sit there and so became inspired. People said that this is where he wrote his song El Ha-Tzipor (“to the Bird” – Bialik's first published song).

 

The Livelihood of the Jews of Volozhyn

Of course, not all the Jews of Volozhyn earned their living in the same manner. As in most of the towns in the “Pale of Settlement”, there were tradesmen, merchants, storekeepers and people with many other occupations. I want to describe the occupation of the forest Manager. Timber trading was a very common occupation among the residents of Volozhyn.

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A rich landowner (a “Paritz”) would sell the rights to a parcel of his forest land to a wood Merchant, who then hired a forest Manager to supervise that land. The Manager's job was to protect the area from illegal loggers and thieves, to hire laborers, to supervise them and to pay them for their work as cutters and haulers.

I remember one Manager who lived in Volozhyn. He was responsible for a large forest and had many sub-managers reporting to him. He owned a beautifully embellished carriage and looked noble. His house stood on the main street near the lake.

Another Manager lived in Arapecho. He used to return home to Volozhyn every week for Shabbat. He was liked by everyone in town but, unfortunately, he became ill with pneumonia while he was working in the forest. With no help, he died there and his family, a wife and two children, remained devastated and pennyless. This was a time before pensions, compensation or life insurance. The employer had no responsibility towards the employee's family. The widow became a baker and provided for her family by baking and selling bread.

 

The Argument over the Secular School

Some of the town's people promoted the idea of creating a modern, secular school instead of the “Cheder”. This was in 1910 and the leader of this group, a beer importer, was related to the richer families of the town.

As soon as the Yeshiva heard about this, they summoned Rabbi Elyakim Getzel, a famous leader in Bialystok. He arrived at Volozhyn, went on stage, put his tallit over his head and spoke vehemently against the “Epicureans” and the idea of modern schools. He was known to be an anti-Zionist and he attacked the Zionist Movement in Volozhyn. “If there are 'Sons of Zion' and 'Daughters of Zion' we must hope that their children will be 'children of Zion'”. He made a great impression on the crowd. Some of the women in the crowd wept and Rabbi Elyakim Getzel left victorious. The idea of opening a secular school was thus summarily dismissed.

 

My Last Place Stay in Volozhyn

For more than a year, I stayed in a big family home in Arapecho. The house had ten rooms and was the only hostel in town before it became a private home. At that time, some fifty years ago, it was the only place for traveling merchants to spend their nights. The property had a large stable, which made it very convenient for the traveling merchants.

The homeowner had good relations with the head of the local police and used his connections to assist Jews. That man was a sad and miserable man. He had lost his first wife and his second wife and, at the time I was staying with him, he was living with his third wife and all his children. The atmosphere in the home was that of melancholy and even today, when I think of this family, I feel sad.


[Page 332]

The Volozhyn Yeshiva and Town
during the Time of Rabbi Raphael Schapiro

by Aharon Zvi Dudman-Dudayi, Tel Aviv

Translated by Meir Razy

Donated by Anita Frishman Gabbay

 

I studied at the Etz HaChaim (The Tree of Life) Yeshiva in Volozhyn at the time of Rabbi Raphael Schapiro who was the son-in-law of HANAZIV (Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, 1816-1893). About 300 students attended the Yeshiva at that time and some of them married local women. Eliezer Kapuler married the daughter of Zalman, a flax merchant whose home and barn stood across from the Yeshiva. Rabbi Israel Lonin (he was later called “The Kazacker Rabbi”) married the daughter of Feitche. The “Shaliver” married Reitche's daughter.

Volozhyn benefited from the Yeshiva, which operated as a state within a state. The Yeshiva issued paper notes that carried the Yeshiva's stamp and local merchants accepted these notes as money. Once a month the merchants would redeem the Yeshiva notes for money.

The supervisor, Rabbi Avraham Drushkowitz, wanted to introduce the study of Ethics and Morals into the curriculum as a course similar to those available in other leading Yeshivas. However, he could not overcome the resistance from the other Rabbis and the Yeshiva continued focusing only on the Holy Texts.

 

vol332.jpg
Vilna Street

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The Yeshiva had a charity that lent money to its students. Students rented rooms in the homes of Exter, Stiker, Elka Ramza, Rivka Chaya Shoshes, Brodna, and others. I lived in the homes of Yaakov Weisbrod and Michael Kramnik. Later, I moved to Vilna Street and lived in the home of Rabbi Gertz Askind. He was a devoted student who studied while standing throughout the whole night while holding a candle.

Many of the Volozhyn Jews were flax or wood traders. Mr. Heller's office stood next to the Yeshiva. Mr. Malkin was his office Manager.

Rabbi Chaim was the Yeshiva's tailor. Shoes and boots were made by the shoemaker, the son of Yekutiel. The town's physician was Rabbi Aharon Tzart, who was later succeeded by his son Avraham, the son-in-law of the baker Eliezer. The SHAMASH was Rabbi David.

I remember one of the water carriers. His name was “Pinye the Water Carrier”. He owned a horse and wagon which had a large barrel on board. He would carry water from Aropecho [refers to going downhill] to Arufecho [refers to going uphill]. At times, the horse would not climb up the hill but just stood there. Good Jews gathered around and fulfilled the mitzvah of “help the animal” (Exodus 23, 5) and would help stop the wagon from rushing downhill.

The famous homeowners in Volozhyn were Moshe Perlman, Itze Hillels, Yochanan Rootkas, Berl Romer, Eliezer Pini-Nettas, Yehuda Avraham'le the slaughterer, Ara Polack, Michael Polack, Avraham Berkowitz, Menachem-Yoel Potashnik and Uri Rapaport.

Volozhyn, the mother of all Yeshivas in Russia, Lithuania and Poland – lost everything. The terrible Holocaust destroyed it. All our holy relatives were consumed by fire.

Let their memory be blessed.


Looking back
(Memories from the Time of First World War)

by Yehuda Chaim Kotler, New York

Translated by Meir Razy

Donated by Anita Frishman Gabbay

 

I was one of the early “deserters” of Volozhyn. Both Jewish and general studies played equal and important roles in my life.

My time at the Yeshiva “Etz HaChaim” (the Tree of Life) was the happiest time of my life. I remember the wagon driver Rabbi Peretz, an outstanding Yeshiva student who, following his marriage, bought a horse and a carriage and made his living by shuttling the Yeshiva students to and from the train station. He was an interesting character who was very knowledgeable in Mishna and Talmud but kept a modest, low profile.

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One time, on my way to Vilna, he was driving me to the train station. I intended to study in Vilna as an independent student, a student who did not need a teacher to instruct or supervise him. Independent students received a small stipend for their food from the Yeshiva. In contrast, the Yeshiva students were fed by local families on assigned days (this arrangement was called “Eating Days”).

 

vol334.jpg
During the First World War
Standing (right to left): Velvele Persky, Avraham Gurewitz
Seating: Akiva Potashnick, Moshe Weisbard, Yehuda Chaim Kotler
Laying: Eliahu Malot

[Page 335]

I told Rabbi Peretz about my plans and he stopped the horse. “I am going to test your knowledge of Gemara to see if you are capable of independent study.” He wanted to test me on NEDARIM, a portion of the Talmud. I asked him to test me on a different portion because NEDARIM was not explained by RASHI, and he said: “if you are not capable of studying TALMUD without the RASHI interpretation, it is as if you admit that you are not ready to be an independent student. You'd better stay here and continue with the arrangement of ''Eating Days''.”

Hunger in those days was prevalent in Volhynia and the only available food was potatoes. One Yeshiva student lived in a hostel where the property owner was feeding him plate after plate of potatoes. She used to listen to him blessing the meal and noticed once that he said, “Who brings forth bread from the stomach”. She asked him why he did not say the common blessing of “who brings forth bread from the earth?” “You grow your potatoes in the earth but I grow them in my stomach.”

A little later, I move to Vilna to study at the Epstein's TARBUT School during the days and at an Agriculture School in the evenings. In 1918, I returned to Volozhyn to find it burning. We had a “tradition” that a major fire broke out once every seven years. My mother and sisters were pouring buckets of water on our burning house while I ran to the library to save the books. This heroic deed made me famous among the educated people of Volozhyn who then selected me to manage the library.

The young people of Volozhyn were idle during the years of the war because the Yeshiva and all the Talmud Torah Schools were closed. We instituted lessons in the library and taught people how to read. Another educational activity was the creation of an amateur theater troop. We did not have real actors but found several men who could act. It was, however, close to impossible to find an actress. Being an “actress” cast shame on her family so women refrained from the stage. Eventually, we found a married actress, Gitel, the daughter-in-law of Gershon “der bunir” and a sister of Sara Shlomovitz who now lives in Israel. Her husband approved of her participation only after we promised him that there would be no kissing on stage. We also had an all-female string quartet with Rashka Dubinsky, Chaya Feigle Malot, Tamar Tzart and Malka Rubinstein.

We selected “The Yeshiva Bucher” play. The leading actor was Moshe Veisbord who had a nice voice and his song “Mai Ka Mashma Lan” touched many hearts. The performances were successful and we collected several hundred rubles. We used the money for our activities and created a no-interest loan Bank. Leibel Shepsenwol was the treasurer and used to carry the whole “Bank” in his pocket. Later on, this “Bank” became the City Bank of Volozhyn.

[Page 336]

We were enthusiastic and expanded our activities. We reorganized the community services with the financial aid we received from the Volozhyn ex-patriates who were now living in the U.S.A. Mr. B. Persky (his name now is Harrison) lead the fundraising activity and Mr. Metzer brought the money to us. We used this money to repair the Mikva, to rebuild the fence around the cemetery, to support students in the Yeshiva and for other community needs.


The Flour Mill, Electricity
and the First Movie House in Volozhyn

by Michael Vand-Polack Z”L

Translated by Meir Razy

Donated by Anita Frishman Gabbay

 

In 1910, I moved from my town of Halshany to Volozhyn. I had married the daughter of Esther-Ethel who was the daughter of Yochanan Rodensky. My father-in-law was a flax merchant whose business took him to faraway cities, even to Germany, and he introduced new western technology to our town. One of these new inventions was a kerosene lamp which would hang from the ceiling and illuminate the whole room. Until then people used a little tin can that held a small amount of burning material. Matches were new and hard to find so people used to keep a smoldering piece of coal in the stove. Sometimes the coal was extinguished and people would go to a neighbor to light a piece of wood. People carried flint and cotton in their pockets so they could light a stove or a candle at will. Things improved in 1910 when they started importing matches from the town of Vyazma, Russia.

I had some experience operating a flour mill and I decided to build one in Volozhyn. There was no flour mill in town. The nearest one was in the village of Sakovshchina, some eight kilometers away. That mill, which stood on the river Berzina and operated through the power of the water, belonged to Count Tishkivitz. It was leased by Yitzhak Yaakov Bunimovitz who lived next to it. The operation was slow and people had to wait up to eight days before their wheat became flour.

I decided to improve the life of the local farmers by building a mill in town. I imported old-style machines from Minsk and from Germany. My flour mill was operated by steam power.

Yitzhak Yaakov Bunimovitz predicted that my project was doomed even before I started. He had tried to build a flour mill in Volozhyn and lost a bundle. He predicted that this too would be my fate.

[Page 337]

His words were “you will be trapped in this like a rooster in a ball of cotton”. His warning did not deter me and the mill was working by the end of 1910. It worked around the clock at full steam and I was the Master Miller.

A disaster hit us right at the start. A big flood washed away all the wood I had prepared to burn in order to generate the steam. After the waters subsided, the Christian neighbors claimed that the wood, which was spread all over town, was theirs and I had to buy it back from them at full price. The mill was soon working again.

The First World War ended with Poland winning over Russia and major technological improvements followed. The new Governor of Volozhyn (“Starosta niegrodowy”) came to see me. He had previously been the Land Supervisor for Count Tishkivitz and was familiar with my abilities. He appointed me supervisor for the installation of an electric power grid. In addition, I was responsible for building a movie theater in town. I installed a large electric generator at the site of the flourmill and initially used it to operate the mill during the time period we were installing the new electric power grid. Having light and power in every house was a great achievement that changed the whole atmosphere of the town.

Then I set up the movie theater inside one of the Count's deserted barns. I renovated the barn and installed benches and electricity. Mr. Komay, a Jewish engineer from Vilna, was the Project Manager. Mr. Zvi Kershtein from Vilna became the theater's Manager and was also in charge of the projector.

The first movie ever shown in Volozhyn was “Shulamis”. A tragi-comic event at the premier night occurred with my mother–in-law, Sara Rodensky, who had very much wanted to see this new invention. It was her first-ever visit to a movie theater and she was sure she was seeing “real life” people and animals on the screen. When a horse galloped towards the audience, she started screaming and crying that she was afraid of the horse and wanted to go home.

When I came home later that night, she was happy and relaxed. “I did not know you are so rich! All those houses, the streets, the horses, the slaves, the princes and the princesses with their beautiful dresses are all yours!” After that, she thought very highly of me.


[Page 338]

Estate Owners in Volozhyn

by Meir Shiff, Tel Aviv

Translated by Meir Razy

Donated by Anita Frishman Gabbay

 

Three Jewish families from Volozhyn leased the estates of Count Tishkivitz. The Count liked the Jews and leased out all his 400 square kilometers in the villages of Adampol, Michalow, Chechovshchina and Sakovshchina to Jewish families.

The lessees were Avraham Moshe Shiff who leased the Chechovshchina estate, the family of Bunimovitz who leased the Adampol estate, and the family of Michael Weisbrod who leased the estate in Michalow.

At the time of Tsar Nikolay II, Jews were not allowed to live in villages and the leases were registered to Christian men. Each of the lessees had a nice house in Volozhyn but they spent most of their time on the estates. They bribed the local official and he ignored the infraction.

They produced wheat, vegetables, milk and milk products for the residents of Volozhyn.

 

vol338.jpg
Floating timber on the Berzina River
First person on the right: Chatzkel Glick)

[Page 339]

My family lived in Sakovshchina until 1914. When the war broke out, we move to Minsk and I was subsequently drafted into the army. After I was discharged, we moved to Volozhyn and then to Sakovshchina. Before the war, the Bunimovitz family operated the flourmill they leased from Count Tishkivitz. Now however, the mill was burnt out and no longer functioning.

 

vol339.jpg
The flour mill of Yuzefpol [Estate] (1929)

 

Mr. Baruch Kuchevitzky lived in Sakovshchina and was an expert in operating flourmills. Together, we bought a plot of land in the Yuzefpol[Estate] and built a new flour mill. The flour was sold in Volozhyn as well as among all the neighboring villages. The Jewish population preferred it for making matzahs for Passover. We built a sawmill, and as the business grew, we built a second one. The flourmill burnt down in 1929 and, within six months, we built an even bigger one. The sawmill produced wooden roof tiles, some of which we donated for the roof of the new synagogue in Zabrezhe.

My time in Yuzefpol[Estate] was very happy. When the Soviets invaded in 1940, I fled to Volozhyn. This was the end of a beautiful period in my life.


[Page 340]

Flour and Torah in Volozhyn

by Chaim Zvi Potashnik, Holon

Translated by Meir Razy

Donated by Anita Frishman Gabbay

 

Volozhyn was not a particularly commercial town with a thriving economy. Living was not easy and there were no big factories or mines in the vicinity. Most of the Jews earned their living as “go-betweens”. Some were storeowners, some peddlers and there were a few artisans as well. The largest segment of the economy stemmed from renting rooms to students from the Yeshiva, to travelling fund-raisers and to the messengers and representatives from Jewish Communities all over the Russian Pale of Settlement. This was the Volozhyn's version of the “Tourist Industry”.

The retailers bought wheat and flax from the local farmers and sold the products to the wholesalers – Yaakov Weisbrod, Moshke Weisbrod, Getzel Persky, and Berl Yoshkas.

Timber trading was an important part of the town's economy and many Jews worked as clerks in Mr. Heller's business. After the end of WW-I, the town came under Polish rule. The government moved many services from Galicia and Central Poland to Volozhyn. There then began a housing boom to accommodate the needs of these government employees.

The government stationed a battalion of Border Guards in town and the army, too, helped drive its economic development. It needed a new military base and food supplies. Shneur Kivilevitz won the tender for supplying bread and built a new, modern bakery.

New co-operatives imported goods. Arie and Mussia Tofef imported beer from Vilna and from Lida. The preferred brands were Pupko, Zhivitzer and Filco. Velvele Persky and Shevach Rogovin were tanners and developed a business processing leather. Fruit and vegetables were sold both in and around the town.

Several families leased orchards and sold fruit. Many Jews found employment in the flour mills, sawmills and the power generator station of Michael Vand-Polack. Members of the Zionist training camps worked in these plants as well.

Work and material matters, however, were not the center of life in Volozhyn. They provided the support needed for its spiritual life – learning the Torah. As soon as work was over, people hurried to their studies. In the morning, you could hear morning prayers coming out of the many synagogues and in the evening people gathered in groups to study the Talmud, “Ein Yaakov” or the weekly Torah portion. The sound of holiness filled the town.

In the years preceding the Second World War, Polish anti-Jewish sentiment grew. They organized themselves into co-operatives and distributed pamphlets to the peasants. They encouraged Polish peasants to boycott the Jews and sell their produce only to Polish merchants.

[Page 341]

All this negative anti-Semitic activity severely affected the economic condition of the Jewish community.

Young people were idle. They did not study nor could they find work. They were supported by their parents who did their best but could not change the circumstances. Those “idle” people were called “Engineers” – in reference to surveyors who walked and measured distances on the streets.

They invested their time and energy in Zionist activities. They helped to educate the older generation, they collected donations for national organizations, they sold “Shekels” for the Zionist Congress and were busy in discussions and arguments among themselves. All of this was done at night but during the day they were idle.

 

vol341.jpg
Free Embroidery Training Course by the Singer Company
Top Row (near the wall) right to left: a) a Christian woman b) Gittel Rogovin c) a Christian woman d) Zipora Kramnik e) The Company representation a Christian man
Second row: a) Fruma Kivilevich b) Levit c) Taybel Kivilevich d) Bella Kramnik e) a Christian woman
Third Row: a) a Christian woman b) a Christian woman
Fourth Row: Chaya Liba Shepsenvol

[Page 342]

A chance for improvement for young women was the opening of a Singer Sewing Machine Sales Office in town. The office, as a publicity stunt, ran a free Embroidery Training Course. Many women registered and acquired new skills that were not, however, very useful.

The Jews realized that there would be little or no economic improvement in Europe. Many immigrated across the oceans. Others decided to immigrate to Eretz-Israel and joined Zionist training camps.

No one saw the dark forces that would soon destroy their world.

 

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