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[Page 44]

The Underground Zionist Activity in Zinkov

by Yosef Yoshpeh

Translated by Aryeh Sklar

 

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Following the first Russian Revolution in February, 1917, and the repealing of the Imperial restrictions on Jews, the Zionist movement in Russia was, as we know, liberated. In every Jewish city in the country, Zionist associations organized, including in our own city, where a large Zionist association named Hatechiya was founded. It encompassed the best of the city's youth and engaged in all of the culture and ḥalutz activities, as described by my brother Nachum.

However, I wish to briefly address a later period of activity, during the years 1921–1927, to whatever extent my memory has preserved it over the many years.

As the Yevsektsiya (the Jewish Section of the Communist Party)[1] took control in the Jewish milieu, the Zionist Movement was banned again, and forced underground, but it continued uninterrupted to spread the Zionist idea to Jewish youngsters. Come night, they would gather in cellars and by candle–light, learn Hebrew and read modern Hebrew literature, especially the poetry of Bialik, Yehuda Leib Gordon, and the stories of “Mendele the Book Peddler”, which were youth favorites. To the observer, youths were enlisting with the Komsomol (the Communist youth organization), where they would study Marxism, but at night they were dedicating themselves to the study of Zionism, taking interest in questions regarding the building of the land of Israel, and being presented with information from a variety of sources about the situation in the land of Israel. We also had a strong chapter of Heḥalutz, whose members were learning trades and preparing to emigrate to Israel. In the nearby village Michampol, we organized an agricultural collective, founded on the model of the ones organized by the Soviet authorities. The members of this collective were all Heḥalutz people, who were engaged in agricultural training in preparation for emigrating to Israel.

At times we would smuggle friends from Galicia and Bessarabia across the nearby border, opening before them the path to emigrating to Israel. This activity was mortally dangerous and carried the risk of incarceration, but this did not prevent us from sticking to our course.

Our work was an annoyance to the Yevsektsiya, and they waged war against us. They would convene

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large assemblies and go to great lengths to present our movement to the public as a counter–revolutionary movement, detached from the people.

I have a lasting vivid memory of one such assembly, that was held late in 1925, in the prayer house of the Rebbe, Reb Pinchas'l. The Yevsektsiya had invited a guest speaker from the district, who was all set to ideologically crush us and sing the praise of our local antagonists. At our organization's committee meeting, we realized that we must acknowledge the impression this assembly could make on the public, and we decided that our members must also be noticed at the assembly. To this end, one of our members would request the floor, and present clearly and correctly our national ideology, even though such a presentation carried the risk of incarceration.

That evening, the chapel was filled to its capacity. The assembly commenced with a speech by the Yevsektsiya delegate, maligning Zionism, as planned. When his speech was over, one of our members arose and requested the floor. He then explained to the assembly that we are not, God forbid, opposed to the revolution but, as Jews, we wish to build our future as a free people in the land of Israel, and that it is our intention to turn those non–productive elements within our people, precluded in exile by those who hate us from choosing worthy vocations, into a nation that cultivates its own land and creates its own culture.

As he concluded his clear and persuasive remarks, impassioned applause broke out in the room, and it grew very loud. One of the Yevsektsiya members ran out to summon the police and have our member arrested. Pandemonium erupted, and we were able to free our friend from the clutches of the police officer who had meanwhile arrived, and he escaped and left town.

 

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A group of Zinkov Labor Zionist Federation underground activists in 1925
– Devorah Feldman, Zeev Nissim, Eidel Feuerstein, Yitzhak Steinweiss, Yisrael Nissim, his sister, Moshe Gurnick, Noyne Reichstein, one of Leibush Kurtzman's daughters, Joseph Yoshpe, Fuchs from Dolina, one of Leibush Kurtzman's daughters

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The events of that assembly were the talk of the town for weeks to come, and our strong stance left a powerful impression on the public. But the Yevsektsiya increased the pressure on us, and launched a campaign of searches and harassment, and our work for the land of Israel and Zionism became more difficult.

Following one of our association's night activities, on July 30th, 1926, the police lay in wait. They were searching for members of the Zionist Organization committee, and arrested three of its members: Moshe Gurnick, of blessed memory, Devorah Feldman, and myself. They held us for three days at the local jail, and then transported us to the district jail of Kamenetz–Podolsk. One month later they released Devorah Feldman, and the two of us stood trial, following three months of interrogations and we were sentenced to exile in Central Asia, where we were sent via the convoy route from one prison to the next. My place of exile was Ashkhabad, Turkmenistan.

We would undergo many hardships en route to our place of exile. We carried the burden lovingly and never lost hope for a release from this torment. And indeed, at long last, we were given permission to leave the confines of Russia and make Aliyah. I arrived in late 1927, and Moshe Gurnick, of blessed memory, arrived in early 1928.

After we had gone into exile and gone on to the land of Israel, our comrades in Zinkov continued underground activities for a number of years under desperate conditions, until eventually being overcome by the Yevsektsiya.

In this manner the youth of Zinkov contributed their part in the resurrection of our people and our homeland. We will forever remember them and never forget them!

Many of them were not fortunate to arrive at the destination for which they yearned, and perished during the Nazi Holocaust.

May their cherished and sacred memory be preserved in our national remembrance, with all the holy martyrs forever and ever.

Translator's footnote:

  1. These sections were established in fall of 1918 with consent of Vladimir Lenin to carry communist revolution to the Jewish masses. The stated mission of these sections was the Yevsektsiya destruction of traditional Jewish life, the Zionist movement, and Hebrew culture”. Return


[Page 47]

The Street

by Yisroel Sanis, Roytburd

Translated by Yael Chaver

The street was my street, where I lived from infancy until I was nineteen. As a small child, I played and spent time on the street. When I grew up, I left the street; this was after World War I, when upheavals and unrest drove me away – as they did others throughout the world – because young people could not do anything or be hopeful in what used to be our quiet home.

Zinkov natives who read my description of the street will certainly recognize it, and remember the people whom I mention here. But those who have never lived in Zinkov will enjoy a colorful presentation of a street in a Jewish town where families lived in a happy and close–knit community for many years, before they were completely exterminated by the German murderers so that only a memory of the street remains. The street consisted of a few dozen buildings, possibly even less. The planners of the street and its buildings were apparently not too concerned with matters such as symmetry, architecture, and the like. However, looking back from a distance of over fifty years, our street had many fine features – even compared to the streets of the Jewish ghettos in the big cities of America.[1] True, the street was covered in deep mud during spring and fall, and lacked electric lighting and sanitation all year round; but it contained no cramped “tenement houses” in which masses of people lived crammed into dirty, stuffy, tiny rooms and slept

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exhausted at night, waking up very early to long days of work in the sweatshops, estranged from each other in an alien world and unfamiliar surroundings, often lacking even a common language with this world.

The people on our street also worried about making a living–very much so! They did not have it easy, yet they were in charge of their own lives and fates. As hard as their lives might be, they retained human qualities. They lived among their own kind, poor, yet free people. They lived with the tradition that they inherited from their ancestors, spoke their own language, knew each other and were friends. They shared troubles as well as joys, helped each other in time of need, danced at all the weddings, and took part in all the funerals. No one can truly appreciate the value of these features, except, perhaps, those for whom living an intimate, independent life is more valuable than other, material, privileges.

The street was very old, but no one knew how old. The town was old; anyone seeking an idea of its age had to rummage around the ancient gravestones in the cemetery. Some of the inscriptions on the gravestones, themselves sunken into the ground, were still legible; among them was one that my grandfather (may he rest in peace) once pointed out to me. The inscription told me that one of my ancestors had found his eternal rest there, over a hundred years earlier. This was the age of the Jewish community in Zinkov, and perhaps older. Who knows the identity of the founder? If anyone had documentation of births over all those years, he had been exterminated. No one had written a history of the community. Its life was not entered into any record book, unlike the case in many other Jewish towns. The only thing available was an occasional inscription found on the cover or the title page of an old book, noting the date of a birth, or a death. The date of a Bar Mitzvah, or of being conscripted into the military might occasionally be found somewhere. As is typical of a primitive tribe, nothing was known of later life, nothing at all.[2] There were even families that did not register births with the village elder. Unusual events in the town were passed around. Such, for example, was the incident of the great fire that took the lives of many women in the synagogue one year during the Kol Nidre prayer.[3] My grandmother was one of those who escaped. According to her, it was not really a fire, but just

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a panic.

The women's synagogue was very high up, and could be reached by climbing up dark and winding stairs, to a location where “eyes” (round holes) had been cut through the thick walls and it was possible to look down into the men's synagogue and hear the cantor.[4] The entrance was through doors that opened inward rather than outward, which certainly caused the disaster. One of the hundreds of candles that had been lit before Kol Nidre overturned; someone yelled “Fire,” “pozhar,” and a panic broke out among the women.[5] A few of them jumped down through the holes into the main synagogue.

 

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Netanel, Itta, and Yisro'el Roytburd in 1914

 

Most ran to the door. Some fell to the ground, tussling with each other while the doors were being opened. The others ran down the stairs in crowding so that many suffocated and died. From then on, the synagogue was especially full at Kol Nidre. Masses would come to observe death anniversaries, of those who died in the panic as well as of others. When the Kaddish was recited, the congregation would be overcome by fear.[6] I remember many older men saying Kaddish.

Older men in the town would still tell various legends about the “Fortress.” This was the ruin of a long–gone fort. When one climbed a narrow path near a ravine, the remnant of a four–cornered building constructed of rectangular

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blocks, fitted against each other like bricks, came into view. There were deep openings in the walls. People said that cannonballs used to be shot through these openings from the artillery inside. Above, on the flat ground that stretched behind the post office, there were entrances into caves. People said that these caves stretched underground for miles to another fort, eighteen miles from the town. There were legends that this had been the site of battles with “the Turk.” They might have meant the Tatar invasion. Who knows?[7]

War stories were common in our town. Naturally, the storytellers were soldiers who had completed their service, and a few surviving “Cantonists.”[8] The latter told tales of their experiences; they were kidnapped as children, and the snatchers swore that their age was 17. They served as soldiers–if they survived–for the entire 25–year term, in distant locations. Those who had money could be ransomed; the snatchers would kidnap other children from poor families in order to complete their quota. I knew one such old soldier. His name was Itzl Elkes, and he was married to a relative of mine. He would tell wonderful stories while chopping wood quickly and expertly with a sharp axe. He'd chop some wood, then sit down and tell his tales. Everyone admired his sharp axe–there were no others like it in the town. This was because Jews did not know how to sharpen an axe so well, or chop wood with such speed. The young folks took “classes” from Itzl Elkes, and those whom he considered “suitable” could borrow his axe for a moment; otherwise, the axe never left his hand.

Zinkov was also the cradle of leaders of a Hassidic dynasty.[9] The Hassidim, visitors as well as local, would often talk about miracles, and recount snippets of learning as well as events caused by rivalries between the various rabbinic “courts.” People marveled at the lavish weddings and hospitality for large numbers of Hassidim who celebrated holidays and other occasions with great pomp. But I have strayed far from the street, and would like to return.

Our street was near three sacred locations: the synagogue, the bes–medresh, and the small synagogue. These formed a group of buildings separated from the street by a narrow passageway. The very fact that the three houses of prayer stood far from the street gave the synagogue courtyard a

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special function as a broad passageway for all those going to or coming from prayers. It was good to stand at the window at sundown on Friday or on Saturday morning and observe the street. After sunset on Friday, the voice of the snub–nosed synagogue sexton could be heard from the marketplace. He knocked at the shutters of the stores and chanted in a drawn–out rhythm “Into the synagogue!” That was a signal to the storekeepers that they needed to close their businesses, and that the Sabbath was around the corner. (Remarkably, this call to storekeepers “Into the synagogue” and its drawn–out echo has stayed in my memory for all these years.) The peasants, whose carts usually stood on the street, also understood this signal. They would attach full feed–bags to the horse's neck before going into the market to shop for necessities as well as to visit the tavern and snatch a glass of spirits. Hearing the call “Into the synagogue,” they would prepare to leave, harnessing up the horses and vanishing one after the other, as though by magic. The alleys were cleared of carts. Any cart that was left on the street at twilight would have its horses hastily harnessed and drive away quickly, as though bound by an injunction against entering the town on the Sabbath.

***********

Let's take a walk along the sparsely built–up street, become acquainted with the residents, and tell you our memories of life there.

Our house was close to that of Shloyme's Rivke. She was called that because of her husband, Shloyme–Avrom, Pini's son. Shloyme–Avrom had a small store where he sold lime for whitewashing walls. There was a kind of storeroom under the house, where barrels of lime chunks stood around the low walls. Among the barrels lived a cow – yes, a real–life cow – who calved every year and produced milk. How a living creature could survive in that place and, furthermore, produce good milk for selling, is really wondrous; a wonder that could happen only in our Zinkov – but that was the case. The milk sold by Shloyme's Rivke was famous throughout town. Every evening, women would come around with small pots. Rivke would measure out milk into the pots with a glass, and there were enough clients to buy up the entire “product.” Rivke herself did not need much milk. She had no children; she was childless. A small pitcher of buttermilk and a piece of cheese were enough for her, especially because she raised ducks and geese in the attic, as well as cages full of chickens. Anyway, whoever in our town of Zinkov

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drank milk, unless it was a sick person, or a weak child who needed extra nourishment?

Do you think that Shloyme's Rivke was fully occupied with selling milk? Think again. They barely made a living by selling lime, and the work involved with the cow was worth more than the income it brought in. But apparently they held on to the cow out of household habit. And after all, it was another living thing in the house.

 

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Shloyme's Rivke and her husband, may their memory be for a blessing

 

Shloyme's Rivke was a short, stocky woman, with dark skin and a round moon–face. She wore a wig, parted in the center like an Indian woman. She was not a Zinkov native, and was proud of it. “Kiev,” she would say, “is where I'm from.” Although she came from a big city, she couldn't speak proper Ukrainian.[10] It was a pleasure to see her bargaining with the peasant women in an odd language: a part–Yiddish part–Slavic lingo. The bargaining was carried out in loud voices, because her negotiations with the peasants were mutual: she sold them the lime, and bought up everything they had: a wreath of garlic, a few onions, groats, a chicken, a goose, and anything else. Her voice carried down the street, and it was always bustling around her store.

Her husband, Shloyme, was the complete opposite. He was a fine–looking man, tall, broad–boned, with a nice beard and mustache that were always white because of the lime dust. He was quiet and withdrawn. Always busy, he'd be stirring the large lime barrels, or around the cow or the house. He would weigh out the lime for his clients. Rivke would stand at the door, negotiating or receiving money and placing it in the large purse that hung beneath her apron.

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As I mentioned earlier, Rivke had no children of her own, but she really loved children. The broad wooden stairs leading to the entrance of her house always had children on them, playing happily. When Rivke no longer needed to be at the store, on Shabbat or summer evenings, she would sit down on the stairs, talk with the women, and every so often go indoors and bring an apronful of treats. She had a wonderful store of sweets for the women and children: shortbread cookies, almond cookies, poppyseed cakes. She had jars of brandied sour cherries, which supplied cherry brandy. And she was famous for her tart, fermented apples. She offered samples of everything to her friends and the children she loved. When Purim came around, she started handing out all kinds of goodies to young and old, and continued until Passover: candy, fruit cakes made with honey, homentashen filled with plum preserves or poppyseed and honey.[11] Children flocked to her like bees and sat on the steps. She always treated everyone generously to wonderful baked goods and other sweets. The greatest fun was when Rivke handed out matza for Passover. Before stocking up with fresh–baked matza, she brought out her reserve of year–old matza, left over from the previous year. Though the matza now tasted stale and left over, it was in high demand. Folks would taste it like a delicacy, chew it up happily, and no one got sick.

Gogol's stories of demons and spirits are well known, but the tales told by Shloyme's Rivke of her own experiences with the devil would surely have surpassed Gogol's yarns.[12] Her style of narrating these bizarre stories was so artistic and persuasive that the children, and perhaps their mothers as well, were terrified. Though no one really believed her, people would stay seated through twilight and into darkness, listening to her very attentively. There were rumors that the horned demon she supposedly encountered going through the gloomy, cramped passageway was none other than the town billy–goat who hid out there.

We should also note, in Rivke's favor, that her elderly father–in–law lived with them; this was Pini, Shloyme's father. He was paralyzed and bedridden. Rivke took care of him to the end of his life, washing and caring for him, never complaining of difficulty. She did this not merely out of duty but also out of love.

I left this couple, Rivke and Shloyme, in their home in Zinkov, in 1919. Their image was sent to me when I was already living in America.

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The synagogue, drawn by Nochem Yoshpeh

 

Translator's footnotes:

  1. “Ghetto” is the term used in the original text. Return
  2. The “primitive tribe” terminology is in the original, and echoes some concepts of the Enlightenment. Return
  3. The Kol Nidre prayer marks the onset of Yom Kippur, the most solemn day in the Jewish calendar. Return
  4. The quote marks are in the original. Return
  5. Pozhar, conflagration in Russian, is presented in Yiddish transliteration. Return
  6. Yom Kippur is traditionally an occasion to pray for the deceased. The Kaddish is the prayer for the dead. Return
  7. This reference would be to the Turco–Mongol invasion of Europe, in the 13th century Return
  8. “Cantonists” were Jewish boys (some as young as 8 or 9) who were conscripted to military institutions in czarist Russia during 1827–1856, with the intention that their new conditions would force them to adopt Christianity. The term of service was 25 years. This period was extremely traumatic for the Jews under Russian rule. Return
  9. Hassidic leadership was usually passed down in the family, forming a “dynasty.” Zinkov is associated with the Apt–Mezhbizh–Zinkover Hasidic dynasty. Return
  10. I have translated the Yiddish goyish –the term for a non–Jewish language – as “Ukrainian.” Return
  11. Purim is a spring holiday celebrating the deliverance of Persian Jews from the evil scheming of the king's minister, Homen. Treats are traditionally handed out to neighbors and relatives. Homentashen are triangular pastries with a sweet filling. Purim and Passover are exactly one month apart. Return
  12. The Ukrainian writer Nikolai Gogol (1809–1852) is considered one of the great artists of Russian literature. Return


[Page 55]

The Synagogue and its Christian Visitors

by Yisrael Ben–Shachar (Schwarzman)

Translated by Aryeh Sklar

 

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It would take volumes to tell all that I have seen and heard and all that I have experienced, outwardly as well as inwardly, in the first eighteen years of my life in my hometown in the Ukrainian steppes, the town on Zinkov: a town whose houses were mostly single–family, some double–family, and only a few were two stories tall. The four main streets of Zinkov were paved and surfaced, but they had no sidewalks, and at night they were illuminated by gas lamps. All other streets were nothing more than natural dirt paths, and at night they were immersed in total darkness.

Its Jewish inhabitants numbered about 4,000 in total. Non–Jews did not dwell within the town boundaries.

When all was well, a community council managed public matters and, to its best ability, it would ensure the financing of all social and cultural institutions, national funds and charity institutions, as well as a medical relief fund for the town's poor. In this respect it was a beacon among all of its neighboring towns.

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In the center of the town stood majestically the sprawling structure that was the Great Synagogue. Its exterior was modest in appearance, as was the practice from days of old, intended, presumably, so as to not incite envy or rage in the gentiles. But its interior was distinguished by its captivating beauty, and its attractive and tastefully artistic architecture. Especially prominent was the art of the Mizrach–the eastern wall–which housed the ornate Holy Ark, laden with silver–plating and gold–plating and adorned with engravings of all manner of fauna and fowl. From bottom to top, the Holy Ark was four stories tall, it was shroud in glory and holiness, and all who beheld it were astounded by it to no end. And anyone who has not experienced the Kol Nidre prayer in that synagogue, has never experienced holiness and glory.

And so, the story goes: My father–Reb Shiye Avraham Moshe Manis, of blessed memory–took me, as he did every year, along with my two brothers to the Great Synagogue for the Kol Nidre service. He was not especially devout, but he did observe tradition as practiced in our town. In honor of the holiday, he dressed in a black suit, the coat of which reached down to his knees, tied a pure silk band around his waist, as was the Hassidic custom, and on his head, he wore a firm moderately tall top hat, in the fashion of the times. When we arrived at the synagogue, he wrapped himself in his Talit–prayer shawl–which was adorned with a beautiful gilt collar, and we both took our reserved seats, feeling the sanctity of the moment. Before us, light sown by hundreds of Neshama candles that burned in gigantic crafted copper seven–stem candelabra, in honor of Yizkor, instilling godly awe in the hearts of the congregants.

My mother–Itta Alter Sanis, of blessed memory–dressed my sisters on that festive night in magnificent garments, ascended with them to the Ladies section, and they all sat in their reserved seats, waiting in anticipation as we did, for the commencement of the service, set to begin exactly at sundown. Meanwhile, each of the congregants began the “Tefilla Zakka” prayer that precedes the Kol Nidre, and while there were those who supplicated aloud, there were others who prayed in a whisper, emphasizing each and every word uttered, and others still who moaned and sighed, recreating in their minds the image of standing before the creator on this Yom Kippur to confess their transgressions, committed knowingly as well as unknowingly, and answering for their sins. And even though I was but a child, I too deeply felt the holiness of the moment with every fiber of my being, because in the environment in which I was raised, our people knew how to deeply instill in the hearts of the children a Jewish identity, and teach them to be dedicated and loyal to their roots.

Suddenly, silence fell. A soft murmur washed through the large hall, which was packed to capacity, and the entire congregation turned their eyes towards the entrance.

Appearing there were delegates of the Catholic and Orthodox clergy from nearby villages, dress in their traditional garb. They had come, as was they did every year, to hear “Itzik Chazan”, who, with his pleasant voice, his musicality, his technique, and the way he sang as though he was pouring out his soul, had become legendary, and his reputation preceded him throughout the district.

The synagogue ushers, of course, warmly welcomed the guests and led them to the eastern wall, offering them the seats reserved for visiting dignitaries, beside the Rabbi's seat, and past the cantor's dais. They took their seats and listened intently to the prayers, and some of them perused the prayer books given to them by the ushers, as they could read Hebrew and even understand the words (possibly among them were even converted Jews).

And when Reb Itizik blared his mighty voice, which rose liltingly to the heavens, the sound of his voice soaring

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with the accompaniment of the choir he led–a tremor ran through the hearts, those of the Christian guests as well. When the service was over, the seniors among them leading the more junior, all went to shake the hand of the cantor and to congratulate him with the Hebrew “Yiyashar Kochacha!” (Kudos, well done!).

Such was Zinkov, my hometown, a Jewish city, a modest cradle of Judaism to its children…

How the city sits solitary, her homes desolate, her children led like sheep to the slaughter.

And I, son of Itta Alter Sanis, a remnant of the beloved town of Zinkov, who knew at that time, as early as 1920, to accept–thanks to my Jewish and Zionist upbringing–the call of the divine providence to awaken at the age of eighteen from the dormancy of exile, to report lovingly and whole–heartedly for duty for my people, and return to Zion. Since then I partook in the revival of the land of Israel and fought like a lion in defense against the Arabs and the English who hindered us, and I was fortunate to witness the gathering of our exiled nation from the four corners of the earth, and the establishment of the State of Israel.

I knew all too well that my brethren were being led to the slaughter anywhere the foul genocidal killers entered, and even in my beloved hometown, but here I was, helpless and unable to assist. For this mine eye runneth incessantly down with tears, and I weep bitterly for the breach of the daughter of my people. May the Lord remember them all and cherish their souls in the bundle of life. Peace unto their dust and may their memory be blessed!

And you, my fellow Jews, remember and never forget that which the German Amalek did unto us, never forget, and never forgive!


[Page 58]

Our Synagogue

by Borech Laskin

Translated by Yael Chaver

Elsewhere in our Memorial Book, we have already told of the terrible event that occurred in our synagogue at Kol Nidre, when a panic caused by fire took the lives of thirty–three women of Zinkov. I myself was not present at this fearful disaster, which happened when I was an infant. But for years, people shuddered when they recounted the horrific event to later generations. In fact, when I was old enough to attend, I knew about the tragedy and would be afraid if I had to go by the synagogue in the dark, especially on winter evenings.[1] Going home with my friends from group study with Rabbi Yekl (Moyshe Yudel's son), who lived near the synagogue, we would clasp our lanterns tightly, cling together in pairs, and sing “On the day of your rejoicing”[2] to silence the fear that loomed over us. However, when I grew older, I became proud of our Zinkov synagogue for two reasons: first, because of the handsome building and its great size, and second, thanks to the synagogue cantor, Itzik Khazn, may his memory be for a blessing.

The synagogue was the tallest building in town. It was half a block long and a smaller half–block in width. It was built of large dressed stones, and looked like a fortress on the outside. The entrance into the synagogue led through a large, wide corridor. Smaller synagogues were built into both sides of the corridor, where

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different minyans prayed. One of these small synagogues was the “Tailors,” in which the town's artisans gathered for prayers.[3] I remember them gathering on Saturday mornings. Alter Sanye (may he rest in peace), my friend's father, would come into the Tailor's Synagogue and teach the congregation Eyn Yaakov.[4] As one entered the synagogue, it appeared very tall and wide. At the very top, near the ceiling, the Women's Synagogue was built like a balcony. The powerful voice of Itzik Khazn, may he rest in peace, reached each corner of the synagogue, in spite of its great height and breadth. I was very proud of the synagogue and the cantor, especially when the Christian town officials would come for Kol Nidre. These included the regional police superintendent, the sergeant, and the chief policeman. They would come with their wives and their grown children to hear Kol Nidre, and would marvel at the beauty of the synagogue.

The bes medresh was opposite the synagogue, and had its own small synagogue attached. Various householders of the town prayed there. The bes medresh was separated from the synagogue only by a narrow passageway, and the only thing missing was a sign with the traditional “This is the gate of the Lord, the righteous shall enter through it.”[5] I remember that when a funeral procession came, the pallbearers would stop in the passageway between the synagogue and the bes medresh, and Itzik Khazn would chant the El Mole Rachamim, so loudly that any of the townspeople who wanted to participate in the funeral could immediately head to the synagogue.[6] The passageway would quickly fill with people. Once the cantor had finished the prayer, the procession made its way to the cemetery, which was at the edge of town yet not too far from the synagogue. One had to pass several small alleys of the “Abashuvka” neighborhood, where the poorer population of the town lived, in small, low buildings whose roofs were covered with straw. However, the synagogue was often a symbol of joy as well, when a wedding took place in the town. The band came marching first, followed by family members celebrating with the bride and groom, and all the guests. The band would play a freylekhs and the joyous procession would exit through the same narrow passageway. A wedding chuppah would be ready outside, between the synagogue and the bes medresh.[7] Many people, not all of them invited, would come to see the ceremony…

Now, as people have told me, everything has been destroyed and smashed by the Hitlerite murderers, may their name be blotted out. They murdered all the Jews of Zinkov, they destroyed our synagogue and bes medresh, plowed up the earth, and planted a garden where the synagogue once stood.

Let us engrave this in our hearts, to remember for all eternity!

Translator's footnotes:

  1. Boys started their studies in cheder when they were as young as 3. Return
  2. The verse in Numbers 10,10 (“On your days of rejoicing–your appointed festivals and New Moon feasts–you are to sound the trumpets”) is set to a rousing melody that is traditionally sung at Hassidic group gatherings. Return
  3. A minyan is the group of ten men required for communal prayer. Members of a certain trade would often band together for regular prayer. Return
  4. The 16th–century Eyn Yaakov is a popular compilation of all the Aggadic material in the Talmud, together with commentaries. Return
  5. This quote from Psalms 118, 20, is commonly set above entrances to synagogues. Return
  6. El Mole Rachamim is a prayer for the soul of the person who has died, wishing it proper rest. Participating in a funeral is considered an important communal duty. Return
  7. A freylekhs is a traditional wedding dance. The chuppah is the canopy under which the wedding ceremony takes place. Return


[Page 60]

The Synagogue

by Yisro'el Sanis, Roytburd

Translated by Yael Chaver

As sundown approached on Friday afternoons, the street would become empty. It was quiet, Shabbes–like. The Friday evening candles are already burning in the windows. Soon, Jews ready for Shabbes appear in the street; they're on their way to the ceremony ushering in Shabbes. They go along in the emptied silence, freshly washed, wearing their best Shabbes clothing. They walk with a measured stride, in no hurry, and their children walk alongside slowly. They vanish, one after the other, into the narrow street that leads to the synagogue, to the small synagogue, and the bes medresh.

The street grows calm, silent, and peaceful. Only murmurs are audible, like a rushing river, from the illuminated synagogues. Voices rise and fall: the Jews are welcoming Shabbes. You can't stand at the window any longer. The sounds of Shabbes eve make you feel guilty for being here and not there, in the synagogue. How long does it take a little boy to run over there? After thinking a bit, I run past the Linas Tzedek synagogue (where my father prays) and I am right by the synagogue.[1] The great massive door opens easily. Apparently, it was so designed. You run down a few broad stairs and you're standing at the bimah[2] It is round and high, like a stage, carved on all sides. At its front, directly opposite the Ark of the Torah and leaning against the carved wood, is a long oak bench. Several reading stands are alongside the bench. Our family's seat was at the third reading stand from the corner. It had belonged to my great–grandfather, who according to family history had actually helped to build the synagogue. Our seat was always occupied by Uncle Yeshaya.

The synagogue is large, and mostly empty. You can stroll behind the bimah, and through the side rooms with their rounded ceilings. You could even have fun with your friends and no one in the front would notice. The long eastern wall on both sides of the Torah Ark was also not too occupied.[3] It was great fun to sit there and watch the cantor's face

[Page 61]

at the lectern.[4] But that's not where one sat. Each seat had its attraction, its own qualities (not properties!). Each person had his own spot. In actual fact, it was cramped, but no one minded. People pushed together a bit and were happy to make room for a child. By all means, sit down, young man. But who had the patience to sit there for long? The Shabbes evening ceremony is almost at an end. Itzik the cantor will soon say the blessing over wine for the congregation. After the blessing, he will give the guys already sitting on the steps leading to the Torah Ark, right next to the lectern, a sip from his large goblet – who could miss that? First of all, there's no wine sweeter than the raisin wine used for the blessing. And second, not everyone gets the chance to be important enough to drink from the blessing goblet… Later, other things occupied our minds; and, of course, we were occupied with everything that was happening around us. The synagogue was no longer the sole source of moral and spiritual possibilities for that generation.

I have stayed in the synagogue for a long time, and will now describe only characteristic moments connected with the synagogue (as well as with the small synagogue and bes medresh), because at the time it was a popular center in the full sense of the term. People did not come for purposes of prayer only. Spending time in the houses of prayer was not exclusively connected with religiosity. Being there was like being at home. The traditional ritual of prayer was natural, an organic part of daily life. However, between prayers people discussed community matters, family events, livelihoods, and news of the world. When new breezes began to blow, of enlightenment and secular studies – and later, when ideals of revolution began to spread among Jews – there were heated debates within the synagogue walls and around the bimah. The community began to simmer between the walls of the synagogue, which now housed large gatherings. People now assembled for ceremonies as well as to hear speakers and political debates.

But even before the “new breezes” began to rouse the national and political senses of the Zinkov community, the ground was ready for all political elements. Jews did not need to be told that they were oppressed. They were well–aware of it in everyday life, at every step. If someone had to leave town and spend the night in another village, the police chief or low–ranking sergeant would drive him away. Within the town, people constantly encountered the “guardians of the law,”

[Page 62]

at every business negotiation, and even when bringing their own produce to sell.

There were two strong national aspirations. One was to be free of the bitter poverty and oppression. The other was to somehow be freed from exile and to return to Zion and Jerusalem, places that everyone dreamed about and mentioned in prayer three times a day. When a Jew came to the verses “If I forget thee, Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning,” or “May our eyes behold thy return to Zion with mercy,” he felt it with all his heart.[5] It was hard to believe that revolution would bring about an overnight basic change in the attitude of the local population to the Jews, and they would then be able to live in peace. Every day, Jews witnessed the malice of the locals among which they lived. To our great sorrow, the Jews were not mistaken. It was only two decades after the revolution when the local population handed over the Jews to Hitler's evil–doers, and then proceeded to rob their meager possessions while jeering at them for their misfortune.

For this reason, the Jews of Zinkov, like Jews everywhere, celebrated their holidays with great joy and a deep longing stemming from these historical memories. At Passover, families went out of Egypt with their elders and hoped to leave slavery for freedom once again. People lived in confidence that the miracle of the Exodus would happen again. During Shevu'es, the first fruits were carried to the temple; people made do in the meantime by decorating their homes with branches from trees belonging to others.[6] They dreamed of their own fields and rich orchards, so that they would no longer have to buy a bit of fruit with the few pennies they could spare. During the High Holidays, the days of repentance, people trembled as they listened to the sound of the old, old shofar. The shofar was heard before dawn throughout the sleepy and dew–covered town, during the entire month of Elul.[7] These longings were felt during all the holidays as well as the days of mourning. And, of course, Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur is certainly a purely religious holiday, yet historical memories are woven into even this religious occasion. Kol Nidre, the Spanish Inquisition, and the atmosphere at Ne'ila, when prayers are said for Jerusalem “that is brought low, unto death.”[8] The city of Jerusalem is also entrusted with using its ruins to beg God for mercy for the suffering souls who have not lost hope, because “we belong to God and our eyes turn to God.”[9] The most beautiful and lofty aspect of these prayers is that they are always said as a collective, always speaking for the nation and not for the individual. And aren't the hymns praising God sung because He has fine Jewish qualities such as mercy and integrity?!

[Page 63]

I have digressed, while enthusiastically considering the spiritual treasures of our nation in general, and their effect on the Jews of Zinkov in particular, as part of the organic whole. We will be back to provide more details of our Zinkov street and its surroundings, including the beautiful building that has left an indelible impression on all natives of Zinkov and is forever engraved in their memories – the synagogue.

Translator's footnotes:

  1. Linas Tzedek is a society helping to take care of the sick. Return
  2. The stand on which the Torah rests during services. Return
  3. The eastern wall of a synagogue has the most prestigious seats, as it abuts the Torah Ark. Return
  4. The cantor prays facing east, with his back to the congregation. Return
  5. The first phrase is a quote from Psalm 137, 5; the second is part of a prayer. Return
  6. Shevu'es commemorates the offering of first fruits in the Temple. Return
  7. It is customary to blow the shofar every weekday morning during the Jewish month of Elul, which precedes the High Holidays. The blasts are meant to inspire soul–searching. Days of mourning for historical national disasters are designated throughout the year. Return
  8. Ne'ila is the solemn prayer that concludes Yom Kippur. The quote is from an 8th–century liturgical poem. Return
  9. The quote is from the Mishnaic tractate of Sukkot. Return

 

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