My Shtetl Byeramtcha
by Moshe Shochet (Nahariya)
Translated by Yocheved Klausner
The official name of the town in the time of Czarist Russia was Nikolayevka Novorusiskaya, but the Romanians changed its name to Byeramtcha, and this was actually its name at the time of the Turks. Byeram means Holiday. In 1945, when the town went under Russian rule, they changed its name to what it was before, and now it is again Nikolayevka Novorusiskaya.
The town is situated about 35 km. from Akkerman and 10 km. from the train station in Colvatcha. When Czarist Russia began to populate the fertile lands of the Budzhak they brought to Byeramtcha Cossacks, as they did in other villages. In time, other people began to buy the Cossacks's lands and settle there, since the Cossacks were not too willing to till the land. The new settlers (Russians, Ukrainians, Moldovans, Jews) were considered in Czarist Russia as foreigners, and at the various assemblies only the Cossacks had the right to vote. I remember on Sundays, when the Christians went to Church, the Cossacks walked through the streets in their official uniforms. One of them was guarding the Jewish cemetery, his name was grandfather Gordey; on Yom Kippur he was going to the Jewish synagogues and taking care that the candles would not be extinguished. Before Pesach, the Hametz was sold to grandfather Gordey; he would appear to the selling ceremony dressed in his official Cossack uniform, on his chest all the medals he had received during his service in the Czar's Army.
Another event from the distant past is etched in my memory: in 1913, when they celebrated 300 years of the Romanov Dynasty, they distributed wine to everybody at the entrance to the house of the Municipal Council. And there, too, the Cossacks appeared in full uniform.
The 1905 Pogrom
There were some 1200 courtyards in Byeramtcha and the Jewish population numbered 280 families. The 1905 pogrom severely hit the Jewish population. The members of the Black Hundreds gangs robbed the Jewish houses and set fire to houses and shops. I heard about this pogrom from David Schor, who was a resident of Akkerman, but lived with his family in Byeramtcha. When he returned to his home after the pogrom, he did not find even a pillow to put his head on; everything had been robbed. Gabriel Wolman and Israel Boganov fought heroically with the rioters, but they were killed and left widows and orphans. Gabriel Wolman was buried in Akkerman together with the other victims and a gravestone (matzeva) was erected on his grave. The desecrated Torah Scrolls were buried in the same place.
In the Encyclopedia of the Jewish Diaspora, Berman and David Vinitzki write: A local policeman took part in the preparations for the pogrom, and so did the priest, who used to read in the church the hate pamphlets. On 22 October, four days before the pogrom began, the Jews were invited to the opening and dedication of a new church, and they donated 25 Rubles to cover the cost of the festivities. But this was also used against the Jews. A shot in the air was the signal. The sound of the church bells meant an invitation for the peasants to enter the town. The police senior officer, who a day earlier advised the Jews to organize selfdefense, disappeared from the place. At first several rioters were brought by the defense to the police, but they were soon released and even given new weapons. The director of the seminary for young priests tried to stop the rioters but without success. The Jewish newspaper Hatzefira of 7.11.1905 wrote among others: On the day of 26 October, a frightening pogrom began in our town, and continued the next day. Most of the rioters are residents of our town. With axes, hammers, wooden logs and other ‘instruments’ they destroyed the shops and robbed the contents.
After emptying the shops, they poured kerosene and burned them. Then, divided into groups, they marched through town, spared every Christian house and burned every Jewish one, after breaking all the furniture. Many of the Jews escaped to the nearby German colonies, but many of these also closed their gates, some saying that they were afraid as well, some openly endorsing what was being done to the Jews. Tens of families, with suckling babies, wandered from village to village, sleeping at night under the sky, wet from the rain, trembling from fear and from the cold of the night.
The material damage reached 300,000 Rubles. The rich became poor, and 570 souls remained naked, hungry and without a place to rest their body. They needed urgent help. The rumor said that the initiators of the pogrom informed the peasants from the neighboring villages asking them to come with their wagons to collect the spoils. They waited for hours at the entrance of the town, until some of the bandits rang the church bells signaling that the head of the police had left the place and they could come in First aid was received from the charitable society in the name of Rabbi M. Rabelenski, Byeramtcha, Bessarabia.
Signed this report: The glazier.
Before WWI, Czarist Russia built a railroad connecting Akkerman with the town. According to the plan, the railroad should pass through Byeramtcha, but the assembly of the Cossacks and the residents of the town decided to oppose the plan whereby the railroad passed through their fields, fearing that their cattle would be hurt while in pasture. Later they understood that the decision was a mistake, but it could not be changed, and the station was built about 10 kilometers from town. This, however, did not stop Byeramtcha from becoming the center of the villages of the region and a connecting point between the Kolvatcha station and the Black Sea. All the farmers in the neighborhood brought their grains to Byeramtcha, and from there to Kolvatcha.
The Jews were mostly merchants, buying and selling agricultural products. Among them were also craftsmen and shop owners, in particular of textile and haberdashery. There was no industry in town. The Jewish population was, in general, not rich, and there were many needy families among them. Many were peddlers, and they would spend the entire week walking through the neighboring town and trying to sell their merchandise, and only on Friday they would come to join their families.
The town was a center of raw leather trade. Jewish merchants would travel to the neighboring villages, reaching even Volontirovka, and buy from the peasants the leather. Others would buy cattle, poultry and eggs and transport them to Galatz. Some had connections with banks in Akkerman and could obtain loans, in order to be able to conduct the trade in wool and grains.
As early as 1915 a LoanandSavings Fund was established in town; its manager was B. Brodetzki and after him B. Droz Makerman. When he left he was replaced by Leib Hellman, who officiated until 1940. This Fund was a great help, and its loans reached 30,000 Lei and more.
The town had two synagogues, on opposite sides of the same street the Jewish street: The Old Synagogue and the New Synagogue. Both were beautiful stone buildings. In 1910 our family arrived in town, and there was already a Hebrew school. Among the teachers were real scholars, for example Danilka, Rosenberg, Schochen, Glaznik, Magazinik and others. The rabbi of the town, Ravelski zl, has done a great deal for the school. He was a member of the Mizrahi Party, participated in the activity for Keren Hayesod and made speeches at assemblies and conferences in Kishinev and other cities. After he left Byeramtcha, he was replaced by Rabbi Bunimowitz from Lithuania, a great scholar who, among others was fluent in the English language. He had a very rich library. When he left town, he planned to entrust his library in the hands of M. Pik, but he could not reach him and in those troubled times the traces of the library were lost. Before the October Revolution, the Rabbi was invited by the Odessa Community to serve there, and rumor said that after that he went to America.
After Rabbi Ravelsi left, the local school lost much of its reputation and most of the good teachers left it. My father zl took upon himself to take care of the school, went to Toltchin and invited two teachers, Lipman and Farfel, who worked there until 1918, when Bessarabia was annexed to Romania. Later the teachers returned to Toltchin and the school became a government school; the government appointed Chichelinski as principal, but after serving a few years he left, to direct the Talmud Tora in Akkerman. After him, Mr, Furman was appointed principal, but not for long, since the school closed.
Until 1923, a good Russian school was also active in town, but when the Romanians began to act against the schools that taught in a language other than Romanian, this institution suffered as well. The Romanian secret police accused the school of harboring a communist cell and arrested five students on the charge that they belonged to this cell. They were taken to Akkerman for investigation, but on the way they were shot and killed, on the pretense that they tried to escape. Among those killed were Abramovici and Kacerga. When the Russians occupied Byeramtcha, they arrested all those involved in this affair.
The government hospital in town was managed by Dr. Yakov Bilostotzki, a devoted Zionist and a member of Po'alei Zion. His wife was the principal of the Hebrew School in Arciz. Among the young people who returned from Odessa after the October revolution were many who considered the new regime as salvation, but many of the students were true Zionists like Alexander Kiefer, Komarovski and others and they began to spread the Zionist ideas among the youth. Kiefer went to Eretz Israel and died in Tel Aviv. The Zionists established a Zionist Organization, published a local magazine and assembled around them the local young people, among them: Chana Korol, Z. Rabinowitz (Gesser) who lives now in France, Liza Geller (Chaimovici) who in 1925 made Aliya with her husband and lives now in Rechovot, A. Greenman, Roza Schor and Yakov Feldman. They spread among the Jews the Keren Kayemet (JNF) blue boxes and reached the Jews in the neighboring villages as well. The JNF Committee was headed by S. Perski, who organized festivities and lotteries and used to participate in every joyful occasion, collected donations from the guests and registered names in the Golden Book [Sefer Hazahav].
It is worth mentioning that the Jews made donations willingly, each according to his means.
The Orchestra and Public Library
In 1925 we began to organize a Maccabi branch and our first aim was to assemble an orchestra of wind instruments. We collected money among the residents and when we had a suitable sum I went with A. Hellman to Kishinev and we bought instruments. A. Hellman, who was a musician, was the conductor of the orchestra and its manager until 1940. The players were totally devoted to the orchestra and Hellman was an example in his devotion to the matter. On the Purim holiday the same year, the orchestra played, for the enjoyment of the residents, at a ball held for the benefit of the National Funds. In time, the orchestra gained fame in the neighborhood and they began receiving invitations to festivities, Jewish and Christian and the income was devoted to Zionist matters. With the Russian occupation in 1940, the orchestra operated under the management of the authorities, and Christian players joined it as well.
Our other undertaking was to establish a Public Library. Until that time, lending books was the task of Yankel Goldstein. He was by profession a carver of tombstone letters, but he had a collection of all kinds of books which he would lend against a small payment. For the library we arranged a collection among the Jewish residents and when we had a considerable sum we went (Avraham Greenman, Roza Schor and the writer of these lines) to Kishinev and bought a number of books in Yiddish, Russian and Romanian. In time, the library grew, as did the number of registered persons. Members of the Romanian Secret Police were permanent visitors in the Library, checking the accounting registers as well as the books. In 1930, we transferred the Library to the ownership and management of the Jewish LoanandSavings Fund. It should be mentioned that among the registered members were Christians as well.
The Zionist Activity
Among the Zionist organizations, the first that should be mentioned was the Association of the General Zionists, headed by B. Brodetzki, A. Goldstein and Z. Otzertinski, in whose house all the meetings were held. All three of them helped any emissary who arrived from the big cities to arrange collections for the Zionist Funds.
Mrs. Feiga Berger, a dentist by profession, managed the activity among the youth. Helped by Chana Corol, she established the Gordonia branch in town. Every year on 20 Tammuz (the day Herzl died) they held in the synagogue a memorial service and planted trees in the Herzl Forest. In the 1930s Feiga and her two children made Aliya. Her brother came in 1920 and later fell by a rioter's bullet. I remember that in Byeramtcha they spoke about him as a hero the son of a hero since his father was killed during the 1905 pogrom, as we wrote earlier. Feiga's son, Dov, fell by rioters and his wife Shoshana lives in Tel Aviv. At the beginning of the 1930s, A. Gershkowitz made Aliya, as well as Rachel, daughter of A. Goldstein; she lives in Rechovot.
I was working, spreading the Zionist idea among the young people and I participated in several congresses held in Bessarabia: the Congress in Kishinev, with the participation of M. M. Ussishkin zl, another congress with the participation of Nachum Sokolov zl and a third one in Kishinev with the participation of the President of the Zionist Organization Chaim Weizman zl. When I returned from these congresses I would give a detailed report to the Organization about the discussions and the decisions taken (from 1927 to 1932 I lived in Bendery, joined the Revisionist Party and was elected the head of the local branch).
The Jewish Community
Due to the difficult economic situation, many of the local Jews were forced to pick up the wanderer's stick and immigrate to other countries, like Brazil, the United States, Mexico etc., looking for means to make a livelihood. Entire families were uprooted from their birth place: the families of Chaim Chaimovici, Hersh and P. Perski, Kalman Chaimovici, Motl Getzuletzki, D. Dobrish, Shalom Kooper, Moshe Geller, P. Komarovski, Khorol Daniel and Noah and others. The Jewish emigration from Byeramtcha didn't stop, until the Russians occupied the place.
In 1934, the local Jewish Community, approved by the Authorities was organized. The Community Council was elected by regular elections. I was elected Head of the Community, the secretary was the dentist Kaplanski, the treasurer was Shkolnik and the accountant was Aharon Goldman. The Gabays [attendants] of the synagogues I. Kalnitzki and S. Balinowitz were also members of the Community Council. The Appointed [by the authorities] Rabbi M. Kolker was in charge of registering the local Jewish population and of the Archives; the income from the registration and the various documents issued was given to the Community. The Community Council included 15 councilmen, representatives of the various parties, and every Jewish resident paid a membership fee. The community was responsible for baking Matzot for the Passover [Pesah] holiday, for the residents of the town and the Jews from the neighboring villages. It was a serious source of income for our community. Orphans, sick people and needy people were supported by the community, and Dr. Goldenberg, who received a regular salary from the community, gave the needy sick people regular medical care.
Entertainment, Cantors and the Like
In 1918, an amateur Drama Club was organized, managed by Chaim Otzertinski and S. Perski. The Club performed various plays, of which I remember the play The Massacre. The first members of the club were older, and after they left the scene, younger people took their place. The drama club existed until 1940; the Byeramtcha Jews liked theater, and many wellknown actors visited us, among them the famous Russian actor Vronski, who fled from the Bolshevik regime. Usually the actors lived in private houses during their stay in town, since we did not have suitable hotels. When the Vilna Drama Group [Di Vilner Trouppe] visited us and performed The Dibbuk by Anski and Midnight in the Old Market Place by Y. L. Peretz, I had the honor to be for two weeks the host of the actors Alexey Stein and his wife.
The most famous cantors in Bessarabia visited us, and crowds would go to the synagogues to join the prayers. I remember the cantor Leibele Glantz. Often we would hold literary discussions, of which I particularly remember the discussions about Bontzie Shweig, Motke Ganev, With Lowered Eyes. The discussions were well organized and a large public attended.
The Political Activity in Town
Our little town played a role in the general political life as well. Some of the members of Parliament received our full support, as, for example, Att. Peter Vorvitzki from the Romanian Liberal Party and Att. Popovici, the representative of the Romanian National Farmers Party. When the Jews decided to send a representative of their own to the elections to the Parliament it was Mr. M. Landau we gave him our full support. I was one of the members on the Akkerman list. When the Russians entered Bessarabia, I had great trouble on the account of my name being on that list. The CultureLeague people and the Communists acted against the Jewish list. Esteemed in particular was the Parliament member from the Liberal Party, Attorney Peter Verbitzki, who managed to establish and keep
a situation of friendship between the Jewish and the Christian youth. The treasurer of the community, Z. Kaplanski helped him in this task. They organized a soccer team of Jews and Christians together, playing against groups from Tatarbonar, Kilia, Bolgrad, Ismail and others. It was not easy to create an atmosphere of friendship between Jews and Christians, at a time when Hitler was already active. Many Jews were saved thanks to this friendship.
In 1938, when the antiSemitic party of CuzaGoga came to power, the town Divizia held the regular marketday, on a Tuesday. Jewish merchants used to start at night the journey to the market, so that they would arrive early. On Monday, a day before the marketday, I was informed secretly that the ironsmith in Divizia prepared for the villagers chains, irons and other weapons, for a pogrom on the market day. Immediately I called the Council and we decided to tell the merchants not to go to the market the next day. However, some of them were already on their way and we could not reach them, and there were the Divizia Jews as well. I got in touch with the merchants' Stock Exchange in Akkerman, talked to S. Barg and K. Goldman and told them about the expected events. An hour later, I received a telephone call from Moshe Hellman, the head of the community in Akkerman, telling me that he had spoken to the Governor of the Province, who promised him that he will take the necessary measures to prevent the riots. The same night, soldiers from the 35 Infantry Regiment in Akkerman were sent to Divizia and prevented the villagers from entering the town. The market was cancelled and the Jews were saved from tragedy. A short time later the GogaCuza government fell; it happened on the night of Purim and for the Jews it was another Purim miracle.
In 1933 there was a famine in Bessarabia, which did not miss our town as well. The community established a Committee to fight the famine and we received help from the JOINT, through the Central Committee for the fight against the famine in Kishinev. The Red Cross helped with food for the soup kitchens and we opened kosher soup kitchens for the Jews hundreds of Jews came to these kitchens and received food for low prices. Some were ashamed to come, and we helped them by giving them money, until their situation improved.
After the Bolshevik Revolution there were no rabbis in Byeramtcha, and their tasks were performed by two shohatim [ritual slaughterers]. By the Romanian law, they were recognized as spiritual leaders of the Jews and were exempt from military duty.
In 1940, with the Russian occupation, an outspoken antiSemite was appointed head of the Farmers Council. He severely abused the shochet B. Gurewitz, who was accused that he did not hold special prayers for the wellbeing of the country on the Romanian national holidays. When the war against Hitler started, all those born in 1904 were recruited. Many of the town residents fell in battle; among them I remember: Chaim Braverman, Israel Rabinowitz, Moshe Leizerowitz, Yitzhak Rabinowitz, Chaim (Fima) Schor, Yankel Lowitz, Zelig Rabinowitz, Bilostotzki, Goldenberg. The evacuation of the population to Akkerman had begun, but many remained in Odessa and perished by the Nazis. Only a few families, who had suffered from Russian persecution and did not want to leave, remained in Byeramtcha. It was said, that when the German and Romanian soldiers entered the village Jews waited together with the Christians and welcomed them with bread and salt, as was the custom. But on the first day of the occupation, the Germans arrested all Jews, separated between the men and the women and took the men outside the village; there they forced them to dig a pit and shot them. During the night, the shochet Gurewitz, who was only wounded, crawled out from the pile of corpses, returned to the village and went to the house of the carpenter Gortchenko, who told later that he bandaged Gurewitz's wounds and fed him. Then he went to Velitchko, father of Nina who was a servant in his house, and he accompanied Gurewitz to his house. There, Velitchko received from Gurewitz a large amount of valuables, which had been in his possession for generations, but that was not enough for Velitchko and he informed the murderers. The Christians said later, that many Christians, among them the priest of the place made an effort to keep Gurewitz alive, but without success. To this day we don't know what had happened to him. The Jewish women were taken to the house of K. Gurlatchev, were abused and then taken to Akkerman. Among the murdered was my mother, two sisters and their children. I was told later that a Romanian lieutenantgeneral took two of the three children and transferred them to Romania, but all my efforts to find them were in vain. After the war, the Russian residents in Byeramtcha related to the authorities about the deeds of Velitchko.
He was called for an investigation, then he went home and committed suicide by hanging.
There is no trace of the Jewish settlement in Byeramtcha, and even the cemetery was entirely destroyed and the land turned over by plowing. May God avenge the blood of all who perished.
Meir Berger zl
Meir Berger, father of Dov Harari, born to his father Dov Berger, was a central figure in the Jewish community of Byeramtcha. He died at a young age, and the following eulogy was published in the local RussianGerman newspaper:
On 4 May, the known highschool teacher Meir Borisowitz Berger left us at the young age of 33, after a severe illness. He was active in all public institutions in Byeramtcha, traveled through the entire Akkerman Province as a guide, in the framework of the Central Committee of the Zionist Organization in Bessarabia and participated in the election campaign to the AllRussian Jewish Congress.
The late Mr. Berger was the initiator and the central figure of the local Jewish newspaper and served as the secretary of the Jewish Community Council to his last day. He was a member of the Court of Justice of the Parliament, but his greatest efforts, during his short life, were devoted to the Zionist Movement. He was one of the leaders of the Zionists in the region.
On the day of his funeral, all the institutions and stores were closed and many accompanied him to his eternal place of rest high school teachers and students, simple folk and public leaders, young and old the entire town.
The eulogies stressed the exceptional personality of the deceased and his devotion to public affairs. The Jewish community of Byeramtcha remained orphaned. We will all miss the good and loyal Meir.
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