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[Page 367]


(Shabo, Ukraine)

46°08' 30°23'


My Shtetl Shabo

by Aharon Kaminker

Translated by Yocheved Klausner

Shabo was quite a famous shtetl, but it is doubtful whether someone tried to investigate its history and the events that took place there. It is probable that it was founded about 200 years ago. The entire region was not populated, the scenery was wild and desert was all around. The first steps to cultivate the area were made by the government of Czarist Russia, by inviting Germans to settle there, allotting plots of land and supporting them, so that they could develop the backward province. This explains the fact that many Germans lived in the area, at times reaching the number of 750,000 people.

Shabo consisted of three regions: the Northern Region, not far from Akkerman, was named Kolonia. The population included French, German and Swiss citizens, perhaps other nationalities as well. Some of them were wealthy and property owners, and most of them – diligent working people. In time, the residents of this region erected large farms, wine-cellars, beautiful houses with large courtyards, cowsheds, stables etc.

The farmers of Kolonia employed Russian peasants in their farms, paying quite low salaries; the regular workday began at dawn and ended at sunset.

The Kolonia region was nicely developed and was admired by every visitor. The beautiful houses, covered by red tiles, were surrounded by gardens, the streets were wide, bordered by trees and the vineyards could be seen in the distance. I remember that as a child I dreamt that in Eretz Israel we will build our villages by the example of Kolonia.

The residents of the area felt proud and haughty. They were very careful not to let other – lower – nationalities mingle with them…. in particular not Jews. Yet, during the summer crowds of Jews visited the area. Since the climate was pleasant and healthy, the Jews “adopted” the place as a summer resort. The residents would rent them accommodation in their own homes and provide produce from their farms, like fresh milk, grapes etc. The prices were not low, but since Kolonia became famous for its good climate, many preferred to spend their vacations there and paid willingly.

In contrast to the beautiful Kolonia, the residents of the Southern region in the direction of the Black Sea, owned small and undeveloped farms. Most of them were Ukrainians; among them were also a few Jewish families. The entire area was – and looked – poor. The houses were low, built of clay and covered by straw. The farms did not bring enough income for the sustenance of the family; therefore the members of the family needed additional work, outside the farm. The difference between the Northern and Southern regions was very great.

There was a third area, between the two regions, where Ukrainians, Germans and Jews lived in peace. The area was called “Psada-Shabo.” Here were the institutions of the local authorities, the public services, shops, workshops, the market place, the slaughterhouses, etc.

At the length of the three regions, the waters of the Liman (a brook of the Dniester) flowed 10 kilometers to the Black Sea. The waters of the Liman were clear and flowing softly, generating an atmosphere of tranquility in the entire area.

The Dniester itself, on the other hand, was a strong river of an independent nature and a unique tempo and flow. In my young eyes the relationship between the Dniester and the Liman was similar to that between our own Jordan and the Sea of Galilee [the Kinneret]…

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During our youth, we were attracted to the shores of the river and we used to spend many hours there, admiring the beauty of the scenery and its ancient splendor.

It is worth mentioning, that the Liman contained many good fish that served as food for the population in the area, and were also exported to Odessa.

Thanks to the good climate, the quiet Liman waters and the rich fields and vineyards, Shabo became famous in Russia. It seemed that it was a natural resort place, and so it was nicknamed: “the healing place.” The season opened in the spring, right after the Passover Holiday and it lasted five-six months, until autumn, by the end of the grapes harvest. The visitors were mostly (and perhaps only) Jews, coming mostly from Odessa. Many were wealthy, but there were also simple folk among them, who came to Kolonia to “gather strength” and find relief from the heat of the big city, in the clean air of the cool forests.

Many suffered from all kinds of aches and pains, and went to Shabo by the advice of their doctors. I remember that among them were famous people: Bialik, Tchernichovski, Ravnitzki, Tchernowitz (a young rabbi), Frug, Tchodanovski and others. Apart from the economic benefit, these guests brought to the place a cultural atmosphere and an interesting experience, and left pleasant memories.

The Jewish Community in Shabo

When did the Jews first come to Shabo? I cannot answer this question. It is probable that the first Jewish settlers came to the colony at the very beginning of the settlement. They came from all parts of Big Russia – Lithuania, Poland, The Ukraine, Caucasus etc. Understandably, they brought to the place new customs and ways-of-life, new styles of prayer etc., but through the years all these merged and a new blend, common to the entire Jewish community, was formed.


Members of the Zionist Organization Council in Shabo, in 1922, on the occasion of the Aliya
of the first pioneers (halutzim): Slomo and Tzila Lerner and Penina Sitner (Berechyahu)

Sitting from right to left: David Sitner, Penina Sitner (Berechyahu), Yoel Meirson, Shlomo Lerner, Berl Kishinovski, Tzila Lerner, Nechama Vidit, S. Lerner, Kaminker, Yitzhak Meirson
Standing from right to left: David Meirson, Pesia Nifomanishtchen, Elka Sternberg, Mania Steinberg, Yachna Steinberg, Sasha Meirson

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At the time of my youth, about sixty families were part of the Jewish community in Shabo. Few of them owned property; most of them fought hard to maintain their modest sustenance. Many were merchants, but there were also craftsmen, workers in various services, waggoneers, butchers – as was the custom of the Jews in the Diaspora shtetls from time immemorial. The wine industry and commerce, which was particularly developed in Shabo, employed many Jews in its various sectors.

As in the other shtetlach, there were in Shabo many religious Jews, who observed all mitzvoth [commandments] strictly, and conducted their lives according to the Torah and tradition, but there were also secular families, who could be recognized by their way of dressing and their general lifestyle. However, even the secular families had respect for the Jewish tradition and the things that have been holy for many generations. It can be said, that a Jewish-national atmosphere was felt in every home in our town. On the eve of Shabbat and Holiday, a festive air spread over the Jewish community in town. Shabbat candles were seen in every home, the tables were set in a festive way with special food, and almost all Jews went to the synagogue. When Shabbat or a holiday came, the simple “everyday Jews” turned into “holiday Jews.” That is how it was in all Bessarabia towns – and so it was in ours.

During vacation time, when all the visitors came, the synagogues were too small for all the people, and we would rent halls and large rooms in private homes to hold prayers.

I remember well the “Old Synagogue” on the central street. This was the spiritual center – sort of a Temple – of the little community. A wall separated the women's area from the main hall. The Holy Ark was built into the Eastern wall; in it were kept the Torah Scrolls and various religious objects. The Ark was covered by the special curtain embroidered with golden letters and the place for the cantor was nearby. In the center there was a large square table for the Torah Scroll during reciting the weekly Torah Portion. At the two sides of the table, the two elected and respected Gabbays [attendants, managers] would stand: R'Berl Steinberg and R'Yoel Meirson z”l, who would announce the names of those “called to the Torah.” The Torah Reader, R'Binyamin Kaminker z”l, would stand there, ready. He was also the ritual slaughterer of Shabo.

The synagogue served also as the place where we performed weddings, Bar-Mitzvah ceremonies, Memorial days and so on. It was an institution that united the local Jewish public. Assemblies, lectures, social meetings etc. were also held there, and the entire Jewish population used it constantly. To this day I keep in my heart special ties to our synagogue, and I think that all former residents of Shabo remember this small spiritual center with love and respect.

For many years, the community leaders planned to build a new, big synagogue and collected money for that purpose, but the plan was never realized, unfortunately.


In the Shadow of Persecutions and Riots

If I described above he quiet waters of the Liman – the reader must not deduce that our lives flowed quietly like the Liman waters. The contrary is true. From my early childhood days in Shabo, memories of riots, pogroms and other predicaments are haunting me. It was the same as in other Jewish communities, bigger and older than Shabo. I almost don't remember days of calm, but I do remember times of horror and fear. The echoes of the Kishinev pogrom, which was the background of the great poem Be'ir Haharega by our national poet Bialik are always sounding in my ears, although I was still a small child at the time of this pogrom, which has become part of the Jewish history.

Regimes rose and fell, and the changes left an imprint on the life of the small Jewish community. Every change in government brought worry in the hearts of the Jews, because they never knew what to expect from the new regime and what suffering it may bring. I remember in particular the moments of dread and horror in the days of the 1905 pogroms. I can see clearly our hiding place in the attic – father z”l, my brother Moshe, I and a Jewish refugee who escaped from the pogrom in the town Ovidiopol, near Odessa. He told us that 38 Jews were murdered in one day; writing these lines, his terror story is fresh in my memory as if it happened yesterday.

I remember a dark autumn night, when our family escaped from bloodthirsty Russians, our hearts full of fear. We managed to arrive to the shore of the Liman and miraculously our lived were saved from certain death.

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The hatred of Jews never stopped. Sometimes it was overt and drastically expressed, sometimes it was hidden, but it was always there. Every political event, whether in the country or outside it, aroused anti-Semitism not only in the big cities but in the towns and small settlements as well, Shabo included.

I can still hear the echoes of the Russian defeat in the war with Japan. Many tried to put the blame on the Jews… and there were always those who “made them pay” by riots. In 1909, when a Jewish student made an attempt to murder the minister Stolipin, the entire country was terrified, but most of all the Jews, who were sure that the whole community will be accused and attacked – and so it was.

The Beilis trial, following the well-known blood-libel in 1911, lit again a big fire. Together with all Russian Jews, the Jews of Shabo trembled like e leaf in the wind. We never knew what tomorrow will bring; we were all horrified – waiting for a new wave of cruel pogroms.

Not much later, with the outbreak of WWI, which caused death and destruction over all of Europe, the Jews were again the first victims. I remember the talks and discussions, at the time, in every Jewish home. It seemed that, unconsciously, the Zionist idea materialized in the hearts of the Jews of our community. It became clear that there is no life for us in the Diaspora, where we could expect only destruction and death without mercy. But only few acted upon that tragic conclusion; as has happened so many times – the Jews believed in false Messiahs, but the illusions proved false very soon.


Kindergarten in Shabo

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One of these illusions was the Kerenski revolution in February 1917. His short rule (February-October 1917) was considered by many a good omen, a prediction of change. In the Jewish communities, there were many who felt relief and were led to believe that a new period of peace and calm was coming . . . until the new revolution (the October Revolution) broke out and brought with it chaos, confusion, collapse of all elements of existence etc. Again was the Jew the scapegoat, seen by the new regime – the regime of “equality and justice” – as the enemy number one, who should be fought to the bitter end.

When the Balfour Declaration was issued in November 1917, with the hope of a national home for the Jews, hope and new beliefs arose again. The Zionist Movement, which was totally inactive during WWI, awoke to a new life and a wave of Zionism spread through the Jewish Diaspora. This wave reached Romania and Bessarabia as well: branches were reopened, assemblies and regional congresses were called and hot discussions were renewed, new Zionist institutions were established – salvation was near!

However, it must be mentioned that at the same time, opposition rose as well. There were those who believed that the universal revolution will bring salvation to the Jewish people, without the need for a Jewish national home. They increased their activity and propaganda in the “Jewish Street,” causing new turbulence and storm. We, the young people, were forced, through fiery discussions and arguments, to stand against this movement, which considered any Zionist activity as “contra-revolutionist” and dangerous: the Jews were distracting the population and preventing it from dealing with the main issue: the great revolution…

When I remember now these arguments and discussions held in our little town, I am smiling to myself. How much innocence did they contain?! How much enthusiasm?! How many illusions?! How much courage?! And how much timidity and fear?! True, those were days….


The Zionist Organization in Shabo

As I said before, the tumultuous times did not spare our little town. But here the Zionists had the upper hand. We, the young people, and many of the adults, were inspired by the national ideas. The hearts were open to listen to the Zionist information – in particular Aliya to our homeland. I remember the activity to sell shares of the Zionist Colonial Bank. We respected these shares very much – in our eyes they were the real expression of Zionism, a symbol of honor for their owners.

We elected R'Yoel Meirson, a veteran Zionist, valued and respected in our community, to be chairman of the Zionist Organization in Shabo. Kishinovski followed him in this position, and in time Aizik Kaminker was elected chairman.

As I am reviewing now those old days, I come to the conclusion that the Zionist activists did a great deal to strengthen the national feeling and Zionist consciousness among the Shabo Jews. They worked day and night, without expecting compensation, fully believed in their ideas and their work and thus were able to instill in others the same fire, the same belief. We organized many lectures, about the situation of the Jews after the World War, trying to convince the listeners that Zionism is the true solution of the Jewish problem, and all the solutions suggested by the Leftists and the believers in the October Revolution are false solutions. Lecturers would come from the nearby towns, in particular from Akkerman, but from our own Shabo as well. We had hot and enthusiastic discussions, coming from deep belief and faith. The participation of the public was lively. It was the best time for the Zionist movement in our shtetl Shabo.

The Zionist Branch in Shabo strengthened the connection with the Zionist institutions in Akkerman as well as with the central institutions in Odessa; often they sent to Shabo a lecturer, who spoke about general Zionist topics, but also about the Zionist literature of those times. The managing committee of the branch, in collaboration with the youth movement, organized evening courses of Hebrew, created a Drama Club and opened a kindergarten, which introduced a new spirit in town and increased the Zionist feelings. About these I shall relate below.

The activity for the benefit of the various National Funds deserves special mention. The young generation was particularly active in this area: they went from house to house, not only collecting money but also “explaining the cause” – and so the Zionist ideas took roots and gave fruit.


The Young Guard

At that time, when the revolutionary ideas, preaching for changes in the world and using attractive slogans charmed the youth and brought many young Jewish people to the revolutionary flag, the Shabo youth stood strong and were not dragged by the general current; they did not give up their Jewish national values and the Zionist consciousness in exchange for

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the benefits of the great revolution. I don't know how we had the strength to stand against the general current which was ruling the young circles. It was a fact, that the majority of the young people in town knew indeed how to “separate the chaff” from the grains and joined the national Zionist movement. Only very few were captured by the revolutionary slogans and followed them. We did not use the empty revolutionary talk that was an integral part of the discussions of the young people in the big cities, but instinctively, unconsciously perhaps, we followed the right way. The despair of the Diaspora, the deceptiveness of the non-Zionist solutions and illusions had an effect, and the national ideas grew in our midst.

The life and activity of the young people was full of interest and content. We still keep in our memory many impressive experiences from those days. We demanded from ourselves real action, not empty phrases. We demanded from ourselves more than we demanded from others – and this was our power, this was our secret weapon. All the Jews in town knew that if required we will be ready for deed and for sacrifice. As early as 1921, the first group made Aliya, and was soon followed by other groups. The many former Shabo residents living in Israel are proof of our activity and of our right way.

The young people of Shabo were the main initiators and of the social and Zionist activity in town, and they realized the ideas as well. I remember the devotion and enthusiasm with which we founded the library and the reading room, organized “cultural evenings” and managed to establish a cultural center. We went from house to house to collect money and books for the library. We considered it a national mission and the residents of the town responded accordingly.

We must mention Yechiel Steinberg, the son of R'Berl Steinberg, who donated to the library all his books in Russian. He served as an example to others. With the money we collected we bought many Hebrew, Yiddish and Russian books, in particular books that would strengthen the national consciousness among the youth. We brought newspapers and magazines in the three languages to the reading room. I remember the festive opening ceremony of the library and the feelings of satisfaction that filled our hearts. We performed with devotion the various tasks – changing books, supervising the reading room, lighting the petrol lamps and cleaning. I remember that we were a little disappointed by the small number of visitors to the reading room, but on the other hand, the number of people using the library grew. It was a pleasure to see the people waiting in line to change books. We had the good feeling, that we introduced knowledge and culture in our little town. The reading room was given to us by R'Binyamin Kaminker, and was later transferred to the house of the Farna family.

The above was only part of our activity. I do not remember all we did, but I do know that a spirit of volunteering and devotion was felt among us, a great and good spirit.


The Drama Club

The Drama Club in Shabo was active many years. It has introduced a feeling of liveliness in town; the population was proud of it and many participated in its activity. The rehearsals, the assemblies, the preparation of the stage, selecting the actors for the various characters – all this was done on a grand scale. It was the activity of young people mainly, but many of the adults showed interest in the performance of the Club.

In time, more and more members joined the Drama Club. Jews crowded the Shlomo Meirson Hall and after the performance hot discussions were held, reviewing and criticizing: who was good and who was less so, who showed talent and who was about to become a great star, and so on … the entire public enjoyed what we did.

In a big city, full of possibilities, such activity is not rare. However, we should not forget the size of our town, the limited number of Jewish residents and our very limited material means. In those days, keeping a drama club was a real challenge for us, and I think we met it with honor. True, we did not provide many “stars” for the Jewish stage, and those who did remain successful actors did not realize all our hopes, but it is doubtful whether a town of this size, with a Jewish population of several hundred people could have maintained a drama club for so many years.

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The Drama Club in Shabo


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