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[Page 11]

The Community Of Druya
Before The War


From the Chronology of the Druya Community

by M. Neishtat

Translated by Esther Mann Snyder

The town of Druya [sometimes written Druja], (previously named Druha and its original name was Safiazhin), is situated on the left bank of the West Davina River, where the tributary of the Droika flows into it. Druya is part of the Disna district, a city that is 40 kilometers away on the south–western side. Disna district belonged to the larger district of Vilna. This means that from a historical–geographic aspect this area was part of Lithuania and not of Poland according to the political division made after World War I. However it must be noted that there was always a mixed population: Polish, German, Bela–Russians and of course, Jews. There were only a few Lithuanians.

The river Davina functioned as a main transportation route, thanks to which commerce was developed with port cities of the Baltics. Agricultural produce and tree trunks from the forests were sent west to Dvinsk and Riga. The railway line Riga – Dvinsk – Vitebsk (Moscow) that was built in the mid19th century, crossed through Druya where a train station was established.

The settlement that was formed in the beginning of the 16th century, was at first the estate and property of a family of princes from Masalsky. Later the area passed to the ownership, of the Sapiaha princes, and thus the original name Druya was Sapiazhin. The prince Lev Kazshimirazh from the Sapiaha dynasty built three Catholic churches in Druya in 1646. This was done in order to give prominence and to glorify the Polish–Catholic character of the city of his principality, where there lived, and as we have said, also other nationalities. In addition, Pravoslavic churches had previously existed in Druya.


The Beginning of the Community

The Jewish presence in Druya began in the third quarter of the 16th century. Although there was never a large community, its relative size was considerable. We have the early numbers of Jewish residents, dating to 1766, about one hundred years after the community was founded, and that 1305 Jews were recorded.

In the State Registry or the Registry of the Committee of the Major Communities in the State of Lithuania (edited by Shimon Dubnov, published by “Eyanot” Berlin 1752 there can be found the list of taxes that were imposed by the Committee on the various communities under its authority. It is written, “Community of Druya 1000 golden Polish coins”. According to this amount of tax we can learn the importance of the community and the economic status of the Jews in Druya.

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Around this time a large and splendid synagogue was built in Druya that was considered in its time as one of the most beautiful in Lithuania and later in all of Poland. According to the received tradition the synagogue was built by order of the King of Poland, the Great Kazshimirazh, a friend of the Jews. The story that was told in later generations claimed that one of the Sapiaha princes donated to its construction (see the article of Alter Druyanov “”Above the roof of the Great Synagogue”). The synagogue was famous for its ornate wood carvings, wonderful pieces of art that were placed on each side of the Holy Ark.

In 1847 there were 2366 Jews in Druya. It seems that the increase in population until the mid–19th century was due to natural births, while fifty years later, in 1897, the number of Jews reached 3006, which made up two thirds of all the residents in town.

During the period of the Russian Czar, Druya was included geographically in the district of Vizhon and was subordinate to that community. However, the financial and economic administration of Druya was an independent unit, with several smaller communities subordinate to it, including some on the right bank of the Davina. The Kraslevka community was the most important of them.


Excerpts from the Pinkas (Register) of the Hevra Kadisha (Burial Society)

The importance of the Druya community and its institutional activity in the beginning of the 19th century can be gleaned from the Registry of the burial society of the community that had been preserved until recent generations. R' Alter Druyanov, as editor of an ethnographic collection, published sections of this registry (Records – a collection of memoirs, ethnography and Jewish folklore, vol. 1, Dvir Publishing, Tel Aviv, 1925) “as they were copied letter by letter by Elyakum Druyanov.”

Included in the register are a few pages of the “Regulations of the Chevra Kadisha in Druya, district of Vilna” (paragraphs 1– 8), after which appear paragraphs 9– 24 called “Customs for Hoshana Rabba”, and also “Regulations for the Heads of the Chevra Kadisha”. We print here some sections:

9 – The Heads of the sextons (Gabbaim) must cast lots as to who shall receive an Aliya to the Torah. As to carrying the Torah scrolls the sextons must make a list of each person according to his place…”

12 – The sexton is not allowed to function as a gabbai more than three consecutive years…”

A large chapter was named, “Disagreements with nearby communities concerning burials” in which appeared reports of internal disagreements within the community, and which spread and became disagreements with neighboring communities. For a time these differences caused the Jews of Druya to be buried in distant Kraslevka!

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We will print another section that tells about the good deeds of the Burial Society of the holy community of Druya in 1829.

”After we, the society, have seen the high cost of living and we, Bnai Yisrael (the Jews) live a very poor and meagre existence and they can hardly afford anything and their skin has shrivelled, our hearts felt the need to take 100 kilo of grain costing 800 coins and to distribute the food to the poor and to help the needy. And the following people whose names are written on an affidavit and signed by them for the aforementioned amount (here the names appear) and all the Burial Society that this debt will be paid by the Society and we are obligated to pay this bill by the time mentioned. Today, Wednesday, the beginning of the month of Menachem Av 1829, here in Druya.”


Articles in the Newspaper Hamelitz

As we have mentioned, the community numbered more than 3000 persons at the end of the 19th century. Druya was then a typical Jewish town characteristic of Lithuania with its meagre material possessions but full of spirituality.

We can learn about the history and happenings in Druya in this period from the articles that were published in the pages of Hamelitz during the years 1886 – 1896. Writers who knew Hebrew were not lacking and a few of them wrote articles in this Hebrew newspaper about the life of the town. Apparently, some of the residents were involved in the activities of the Hovevei Zion society. We find this in the “List of Authorized Persons of the towns to the Society “Support for the Jews, workers of land and tradesmen in Syria and the Holy Land”, for which the committee in Odessa was raising funds.

This list, which was printed in Issue #20, 1892 of the HaMelitz, included the authorized persons of the important communities in all of Czarist Russia among them was “Druya (Vilna District) David Ben Yaakov Toibman.”

The earliest articles report a controversy that broke out in the community and which lasted, apparently, a few years and seriously harmed the routine activities of the social welfare organizations in town.

An article that appeared in Issue #199, 15 Sept. 1887, written by A”M Peikin, reports as follows:

“About six months ago an argument erupted in our town and the leaders of the town could not solve it. The matter even reached the Rabbinate. The differences of opinion, the lack of unity and confusion in the town brought about the creation of two groups. Each one had its own rabbi and special butchers, and even a special second mikve was built. The controversy also involved the shochet. A son would not eat at his father's table nor a father at his son's table; a husband would not be with his wife if she used the old mikve… The controversy reached the heads of the town and the district and the desecration of G–d's name still continued between the people

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with whom we lived, and it was disgraceful…You, the heads of our town and the heads of the controversy…Gather together and choose rabbis and dayanim (religious court judges) from Dinaburg or Vitebsk who will listen to both sides and reach a suitable resolution.”

We learn from an article printed about a year and a half later (17/3/1889) that matters had not yet been solved, the people were still distraught and the controversy not settled. The sad results can be seen in the following excerpt.

“From Druya, A”M Peikin reports that the situation in town… is terrible and the hope of the well–to–do to try and help the poor at least for the coming Pesach holiday was not realized. No one tried to help them. The townspeople cried in vain for help from the town's leaders and criticized them for not collecting Maot (Maos) Hittim (money for the poor to buy basic necessities for the approaching holiday) for not caring about them and each person had to care for himself. Also the rabbis were not able to help.”

We will deal later with the difficult consequences of the longstanding controversy, however not all the public figures were involved. Good deeds were also performed during the time between the publication of the above excerpts. A lengthy detailed article (printed 10/11/1888) signed by Aharon David Davidson reports thus:

“The people celebrated the dedication of a new school for Jewish boys and girls, in two divisions, which was built by the government. It was well located with lovely gardens and trees around it. The lower floor was dedicated to the first level of learning, in two divisions, and there was space for two teachers and the custodian as well as the writer's office; the second floor was for the students of the second level, also in two divisions. The number of all the students was more than150. The head teacher, who was also the supervisor of the building, was Avraham Goldberg who equipped the school with well–designed seats and tables and attractive implements. The honorables of the town gathered together for this celebration. These included a representative of the Police, a Magistrates Judge, the head of the City Council, a priest from one of the major Christian churches, the community Rabbi and the officially appointed Rabbi – they all honoured the event with their presence and gathered in a large hall. Later Mr. Goldberg gave a speech (in Russian) that was in good taste and well–presented describing the situation in town that until this time never had a school that taught Torah and secular subjects.

The opening of the new school year 1888/89 of the first Jewish school in Druya was opened with speeches, choral music and an impressive ceremony. The language of instruction was, apparently, Russian. This indicates that there were teachers, educators and public figures who were willing to deal with the educational issues in town. Despite this, the controversy continued to cause serious consequences. A resident of Druya who signed a false name (Barak son of Avinoam) published in issue # 39 in the year 1892 this article:

“There were days in the past when various charities and good–will institutions proudly existed in our town like

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visiting the sick (Bikur Cholim), the Talmud Torah, bread for the poor, and helping the needy, that the people could justly be proud. However, it has been five years since the eruption of this terrible controversy in our town, about the rabbis, the dispute that had the power to destroy… It completely destroyed all the charitable institutions and they disappeared… and no one could settle the matter and restore institutions that could help the people and the needs of the public.”

Similar to the foundation of the school there were additional activities that benefited the public carried out by a group of diligent caring citizens. Although the above article is correct about visiting the sick, already in 1895 if not earlier the Bikur Cholim society returned to its proper activities. We can learn about this from an enlightening report of the Bikur Cholim that was published in the HaMelitz at the end of that year. On 7 Elul we celebrated the annual party of the Bikur Cholim society, and herein is the list of expenses and income for the preceding year. “ The financial report contains the details of income such as New Contributions; a donation of one pruta per week from all the residents, whether rich or poor; donations from happy occasions (weddings, etc); from funerals; from feathers; redemption of matzot.”

A year later the financial report for the year 1896 (5656) was similar in general to the previous one but with additions of some interesting items. One of the sections of income was “interest earned from the Fund of the late Maretzky (a non–Jewish) – 18 rubles. We learn from the Expenses section that the Society subsidized travel expenses for expert doctors brought in from big cities for special cases.

The report that was signed by Gershon Finklshtein, the treasurer, and Nachum Ribash, the secretary, ends with these words: “Many thanks to our brother Dr. B. Tobman who treated many sick poor without accepting any compensation and extended much effort to aid our society.” Thus we learn that Druya already had a Jewish doctor in town, son of one of the families, who returned to town after completing his medical studies.

We have reason to assume that by the year 1896 the miserable controversy was settled. If this had not occurred than it's clear that the respected Rabbi R' Moshe son of R' Avraham Shmuel Helman would not have taken the position of chief Rabbi of Druya. Some information about the Rabbi can be found in the book Sefer Ohelay–Shem, which includes a list of the Rabbis in the Jewish communities in Russia, in the years 1910 – 11. (The book was edited and published by Shmuel Noah from Pinsk, 1912). Here is an excerpt from the book:

“Born – 1863 and was a scion of the exceptional family of the Gaon R' Shmuel Hilman, z”l, head of the Rabbinical Court in Mitz. He was ordained by the Gaon R' Shlomo HaCohen, ztz”l from Vilna and the Gaon R' Mordechai “Shlita”, may he live a good long life, Head of the Rabbinical Court in Slonim and other great Rabbis in Torah. In 1896 he was retained as the town Rabbi of Druya. His son is the Rabbi R' Dover, n” y head of the Rabbinical court in Yanavitsh district of Vitebsk , and son–in–law of the excellent Gaon R' Baruch Berlin ztz”l.

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A Lithuanian Town under Polish Rule

As a result of the fighting in World War I many Jews left the western areas (Lithuania and Latvia) and became refugees inside Russia. The destiny of the district of Vilna was unclear. Following the Polish–Russian war the area of Poland was annexed in 1920. The political and military struggle between Poland and Lithuania as to the future of the Vilna district and the city itself ended with the victory of Poland. Thus the Jews of Druya, as other Jews in the area, found themselves now citizens of Poland.

Most of the refugees did not return to their homes. In 1921 there remained 1011 Jews that constituted – in contrast to the past – a minority of the general population (about 40%). In the coming years some of the refugees returned, so that the number of Jews in the town in 1925 reached 1800 and again they became the majority. But, the number of Jews in Druya never regained the amount before World War I.


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