by Harry Bronfman (L.A.)
Donated by Brian Ferstman
My birth place, Ratchev, consisted of around 150 families. A small part were merchants, most of them were tradesmen (artisans). Some worked at Volovnik's paper factory that was situated three kilometres from the town, their wages were four to six rubles a week. It was hard to feed a family of six or eight persons with so little money. All week long they were eating sparingly. The problem kept arising on Thursdays: where to get money for the Sabbath. Many families could not afford to buy challah for the Sabbath. A large part of the Jewish girls were working in a factory since their early youth. Mothers used to implore with tears the birth registrar that he issued a birth certificate showing that the girl is older than she actually was, in order to get accepted in the factory. The working conditions in these factories were horrible. After finishing a day's work, a girl's body and face were covered with dust and many of them became ill with lung diseases. They sorted rags, boiled them in caldrons in order to produce paper products and thin cigarette paper. The married women were looking for ways to make ends meet for their families. They knitted and sewed for the neighbouring peasants, some of them were breastfeeding the children of better-off families. They shared their food with their own child.
The cemetery was situated practically in the town. During the month of Elul, when people usually visited the graves of their ancestors, the voices heard there were unbearable, asking that the dead intercede in heaven on their behalf, and for the poor and the sufferers.
The movement to improve the economic and political conditions in the country also made waves in our town. This was under the leadership of Dr. Torgovetz, his sister Olga and Moishe Novomaiski (Algin). Olga was arrested and tortured terribly in the Zhitomir jail because she refused to become a stool pigeon for the authorities. The young people at that time were divided between the socialists (Bund) and the Zionists. These young men tried to break out into the larger cities where Jews were allowed to reside. The ones that could afford it left to study, the working class youth mortgaged themselves for two years in order to learn a trade. Some of them went to yeshiva in Zwhil and later became teachers.
The older ones were divided between the followers of the Rabbi of Trisk and the ones of the Rabbi of Makarev. Every once in a while an itinerant preacher came into town and the crowd gathered in the synagogue on Saturday morning. But they all talked on the same theme: one has to be pious, since this world is only an entrance corridor to a better one, after death.
The Sluch river that ran along our shtetl gave us a lot of pleasure. In the summer the youth bathed and swam in it. In the winter they skated on its frozen surface.
In the first years of the First World War many of our men were conscripted to the army and many were wounded. Many women became widows. At the start of the Revolution many of our youth joined the Red Army that was fighting for democracy and justice. Soon afterward the Germans occupied the Ukraine and formed a government headed by Skarapadski. He imposed heavy taxes (in goods and money) and all the loot was transported to Germany. When the Germans retreated from the Ukraine, the Hordes of Petliura and Denikin took over. They looted the Jewish houses under the pretext that they were looking for hidden arms. Whoever opposed them was slain on the spot. Soon afterward, however, the Red Army took over and our Jews started to breathe easier. They (the Reds) did not remain long with us, they retreated because of the pressure of the Polish army. They (the Poles) bombarded our shtetl with artillery shells and the Red Army dug in in a forest across the river. The Polish army entered our town and ordered all Jews to leave within two hours since they expected heavy fighting to take place here. When we returned a few weeks later we saw our homes looted and destroyed.
Two episodes that occurred at that time remain in my memory: (1) the Polish police charged the Jewish population with the responsibility for keeping the lines of communication in working order. They were often disrupted by the underground resistance. Suddenly we heard an explosion near Mendel Gershman's house. All the Jews were shaken. It turned out that one of the boys found a bomb in the field, and brought it home as a present. One of the boys was killed in the blast on the spot. The other one lived for about an hour, long enough, fortunately, for the commandant to interrogate him where he found the bomb. Thus, the surrounding population was spared a catastrophe. (2) Joseph Genesis Kipnis, when returning from a business trip, noticed that our town was surrounded by a multitude of peasants. Some of them were armed. They told him that they found out from other peasants that the church bells were ringing as a sign that the Jews from Ratchev were going to destroy them. This is why they assembled on the road to attack the oncoming Jews. After a long discussion he managed to persuade a group of these peasants to come into town with him and see for themselves that Jews are peaceful and have no evil intentions. Thus a massacre was probably avoided in Ratchev.
A similar occurrence happened in the neighbouring town of Kamenebrad, where unknown persons incited the peasants and they slew 80% of the male Jewish population there. Soon after, a typhus epidemic broke out in the shtetl and spread out into every household. The only doctor left in town organized the youth to assist and serve the sick. Then a group of Petliura bandits burst into town and shot him in the street because he lied to them when denying his Jewishness. All the sick remained without medical care.
Many of the young people emigrated to Poland and to Russia at that time. Some of them managed to contact their relatives in America, and with the assistance of JIAS succeeded to emigrate there.
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