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From Everything to Very Little

by Avrom Yitzkhak Medvedsky (Montreal)

Translated by Janie Respitz

I would like to share my memories of our old home Zhetl, its past and great personalities from the last 50 – 60 years. This is written by Avrom Yitzkhak Medvedsky the son of Dovid Hirshl the furrier.


Avrom Yitzkhak Medvedsky


Nikolai's Soldiers

In Czarist times every town had to deliver 2 or 3 soldiers for 25 years of military service. In Zhetl, as in all other towns they would kidnap small children from poor families. The children were confined to the small Hasidic prayer house until they were taken away deep into Russia.

Wealthy women would bring them tasty food and pots of good soup. Two boys from Zhetl, Motte and Ayzhik served 25 years.


Russian Rulers

Before the First World War the police in Zhetl consisted of a regional superintendent, a constable and a few policemen. They lived in the home of puny Shayna. The jail was a wooden building near Reginiervitch.

The administrative office was on Novoredok Street, near the home of Pinkhas, Notteh Moishe's. In the yard there was a monument of Czar Nikolai's uncle.

Zhetl also had barracks near the palace. There were always two companies stationed there.

There were also a few Cossacks in Zhetl who lived in a small house near the fire station, where they had a telephone. There was a Russian seminary in the palace.



I remember the audacity of Zhetl youth who decided to overthrow the monarchy and its leaders in Russia. They would prepare their weapons among the dense shrubs in the cemetery. They also organized and succeeded in stopping the train in Novolienye. A few of the people who participated were arrested. Nakhman Gertsovsky was sent to Siberia. Many others ran away to America.

Leyzer Medvedsky was involved in the cultural work of the revolutionary youth. He died in an accident in Chicago.

Avrom Moishe Barishansky and Khaim Kaplinsky would walk to Slonim on foot carrying a sack of literature and eating only a piece of dry bread.

I remember when one of their comrades, Arzhekhovsky, Berl Yakhes' brother died. They buried him without the Jewish Burial Society. During the funeral the revolutionaries sang songs. The policemen wanted to drive them away, however they were not afraid. Pinye ran around town asking people to close their shops. Secular and Religious Teachers

I remember the teachers who taught Russian to Jewish children: Svetitsky, Itchke the writer, Hindke's grandfather, and Avrom Ayzhik Sokolovsky.

The teachers in the Talmud Torah were: Noyakh Ele, who taught Gemara, Khaim Itche taught Chumash (Pentateuch), Yosef Mutshnik taught Hebrew and Avrom Leyb Eliavitch.

The other teachers in town were: Yosele Mendes, a specialist in the Hebrew alphabet, Yudl Tankhum, Yisroel Khonen Pikelny, Arye the electrician, Moishe Khaim Namiyat, Ziml Zimelevitch and Yenkl Abelevitch. The good teachers were: Ginzburg, Avrom Langbart, Yisroel Zablatsky, the starch maker's son in law, and Eliezer Rozenfeld.

The administrators of the Talmud Torah were: Avrom Moishe, Reb Moishe Leyb, Meir Kovensky's son in law, and Noyekh Rozkosky. We feared the day of examination, especially when they tested us on “Mishpatim” (Judgements).


Heroes From Zhetl

There was a time, before the Bolsheviks, that there was no salt in Zhetl. That is when the militiaman went to get salt. On his way back to Zhetl from Slonim he was attacked by peasants from Mizevetz. Khaim Leyzerovitch saw the situation was bad and shot one peasant to death. The rest of the peasants ran away and he brought the salt to Zhetl.

Another heroic act was carried out by Moishe Mendl Leyzerovitch. He was standing in Shifra Leah's house looking out the window. At that moment he noticed a small girl, Basha Kaplinsky playing by the water. There was a sudden surge and she fell into the river.

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Moishe Mendl jumped into the water, grabbed the girl by the hair and saved her. This happened 40 years ago.

I remember another heroic act from the time of the first Germans. Near Shepsl Shushan and Elke Abes' house they built a small bridge. Yisroel, the manager of the small synagogue, Itche the butcher's brother in law, was working there. The German officer standing beside him was the chief of the fire department. The German told him to work harder. Yisroel took his pickaxe and hit the German over the head. Yisroel was arrested, sent to jail in Bialystok and we never saw him again.

Yosl the carpenter was a healthy man. When new recruits would come for military conscription they would get drunk at puny Shayna's and break window panes of Jewish homes. Once, glass fell into Yosl the carpenter's holiday noodles. He grabbed a strip of molding and beat 50 peasants. Many of the peasants got down on their knees and crossed themselves before him saying they will be good and pious.


Jews Talk

The Jews who finished praying early in the morning would gather in the marketplace and chat in small circles. If one guy's horse died, they would discuss getting him some money. They would also poke fun at Ruveh the smoker.

Saturday morning the stoop would be full at Avrom Moishe Kravitz': Khaim Shilovitsky, Avreyml Kakrysky, Aron Leyb Shvedsky, and Yoshke Bagdanovitch would be sitting together. They would peel kernels and talk about thieves from Tuken and bandits from Kurfish, have a conversation with Motele Idlak, drink a cold glass of soda water at Berl Khodzhelon's or chat with Mitzl Izraeliyet and ask him why he did not marry female Messiah.


The Big Flood

On a Tuesday in 1913 it started to pour. There was lumber beside the Pomerayke which held back the water. The river overflowed and water entered houses, at times reaching up to the windows.

Merchandise swam in the shops. Yosl the painter's wall collapsed and Shloime Nahinsker's smithy was flooded. Besides these damages there were also casualties. Matshuk, the medic's wife, drowned.


The mobilization of 1914

On Shabbat Tish B'Av 1914 when the First World War broke out, everyone who had a red card for military service had to appear in Slonim. I remember the heart rending scene of wives and children crying and young men saying goodbye to their betrothed. Wagons were filled with bags of hay for the horses and we accompanied those mobilized to Khadzhelan. In Slonim they were divided into regiments and sent to the front.

Many men from Zhetl were killed leaving behind widows: Taybe Green, Elke Berman, Indershteyn and others. Many from Zhetl were taken prisoner and later returned home: Tzale Vinarsky, Yisroel Kaplinsky, Motl Medvedsky, Shimen Feyvuzhinsky, Moishe Mendl Leyzerovitch, Dovid Grekuchiner, Dovid Yarmovsky, and Yoel Dovid Dunetz. Arl Mordkhai Kikkes was blinded in the war.


Before the First Germans

Zhetl experienced difficult times during the First World War. Warehouses were set up in the Houses of Study. They taught German in the Talmud Torah. After three o'clock we would learn Yiddish in the women's section of the synagogue, prayer and bible – with Khaim Itche. There was a shortage of food as the peasants ran away to Russia.

We would stand in line for a piece of bread straight from the oven. Yisroel Ozer handed out bread as Joseph did in Egypt.

The whole town wore wooden shoes. The head shoemakers were Berl the swindler and Leybovitch the photographer. It was most difficult for small children who had to go to school without eating and without shoes.

Zhetl's community workers founded a committee headed by Borukh Man and Berl Mirsky. They organized a soup kitchen. Feyge Mirke's Yisroel distributed the soup.

There was a shortage of wood for heating. They brought shavings from the highway where they were building bridges. Boys and girls worked on the highway which ran from Zhetl to Midzvinevitch. Sholem Krashinsky was the foreman.

Another job was: sending logs on horse drawn carts. They would let the carts go downhill on their own from the palace to Kalmen Sovitsky's. Ruven Turetsky, Berl the swindler's son was killed there.

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Before the First Poles

On Purim, six o'clock in the evening, Polish legionaries under the leadership of the nobleman Semoshke, began shooting from Mohilnik over to Slonim Street. They detained Motl Krashinsky who was on his way to hear the Megillah (Scroll of Esther read on Purim) but let him free when they recognized him. The organist's daughter and a Jewish man from Novoredok Street were shot. Ruven, the blacksmith's son in law was wounded in his hand. Bolsheviks were lying shot in the streets.


Participants in the Flower Day for the medical aid society

First row: Miriam Leybovitch, Masha Leybovitch, …Savitsky, Khana Lifshitz
Second row: Avrom Langbart, …Butkovsky, Peshke Izraelit, Grunia Vernikovsky, Unknown


The Poles claimed Jews were shooting from their windows, however the Polish priest assured the Jews were not guilty. After they denounced Ele Ivenitsky, they beat him up in Shepsl Shushan's stable. The first gendarmerie was in Krayna Khaya's house. The first Polish commander in Zhetl was Sverin from Zhibertayshtshine. The second commander Makhersky was the fire chief.


The Burial Society

The following belonged to the old burial society: Avreyml Yoshke Khaykes, Motke the harness maker, Yisroel Bom, Alter Bom, Yakov Meylekh Dvoretsky, Meir Savitsky, Leyzer Eli Slitsky, Leyzhe Feyge Mirkes, and Yenkl Borukh Kaplinsky.

The head shroud sewers were: Khana Yeshias, Soreh Leah, Motle the shoemaker's mother in law and Kahyke Yakers. They would cut pieces without a form and their work was as good as gold, especially the head covering of the corpse.


The Library

Zhetl had one of the nicest libraries. The first founders were: Shmuel Shvedsky, Artchik Alpert, and Yisroel Moishe Ivenitsky. The rumour was that the old time fanatics cursed them. Shvedsky was blinded in one eye, Alpert's feet became paralyzed and Ivenisky suffered from heart disease.

Later the youth took over their work. Among them: Itchke Leybovitch, Dovid Lifshitz, Motke Rozvasky, and Hirshl Rabinovitch. During the great fires the library burned in Yisroel the watchmaker's court yard.



The first performance in Zhetl was “The Sale of Joseph”. The main actors were: Moishe Rozvosky, and Areh Vinarsky. A few years later before the arrival of the first Germans they performed “The Sorceress” and “Grandma Yakhne” at Patyeh Dvoretzky's house on Dvoretz Street. The performers were: Noyekh Turetsky, Hindke Shak from the Lodz workers and Rokhl from Vilna. Later on fresh talent arrived in Zhetl and a good drama club was formed at the Folk – Shule (public school) and a second club at the Tarbut School.

Medical Aid Society and Spending the Night With the Sick

Zhetl had a Medical Aid society whose leaders were: Moishe Ruven Mordkovsky, Yosl the painter's son in law, Hirshl Gertzovsky and Peshke Izrealit. They would prepare ice, bladders and cupping glasses. Shmuel Shvedsky was active in the good deed to spend the night with the sick. Every night they would decide who would take a turn staying with the patients.


The Professional Union

The professional Union in Zhetl was composed of the more aware and left leaning elements of society and

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was founded in the early years of Poland's independence. The first meeting took place at the home of Yokhe Arzhekhovsky, next to Khaim the harness maker. The organizers were: the teacher Herman Frenkel, Berl Arzhekhovsky, and Mikhal Guzavsky, who died young of Tuberculosis, Noyekh Mnuskin, Zelda Likhter, Mina Leah Shepshelevitch, Hirshl Indershteyn, Rokhl Lidsky, Beynish Savitsky, Yenkl Namiyat, and Motke Gonshorovsky.

The first struggle was for an eight hour working day and a raise in working wages. They were also concerned with cultural work, started their own drama club and performed plays. Their locale was in the home of Moishe Khaim Namiyat. This work was managed by Mikhal Guzavsky.

The professional Union created a fund so that striking members could receive a few zlotys. Every year on the first of May the Union organized a meeting. When Mikhal Guzavsky died and many members departed, this work weakened.


The Young Pioneers

The Young Pioneer organization of which I was a member participated in the work of the Jewish National Fund, planting gardens and sending members to pioneer training camps. When I was 17 I spent 6 months on Kibbutz Shkhira, near Semyatitch. I worked at a saw mill in the Bielavezh forests. Some of our members worked in the fields of a nearby village. The leader of this Kibbutz was Menakhem Funtzik from Semyatitch.

Photo: A group of pioneers at work in preparation to immigrate to the Land of Israel 1924.

From left to right: Hirshl Rabinovitch, Yoel Tcheplovodsky, Efraim Klin, Yosef Berman, Zelik Orlinsky, Hirshl Gertzovsky.

In Zhetl we worked in Fraydl Kusiel's garden. We also cared for the garden of Meir Yoshe's, Dobe Alter.

Here are some of the members of the Young Pioneers in Zhetl: Avrom Yitzkhak Medvedsky, Shimen Berniker, Khashke Leybovitch, Shyana Leah Karpelovitch, Borukh Busel, Nokhem Broyde, Herzl Gertzovsky, Dovid Zelikovitch, Shepsl Namiyat, Elke Koyfman, Alte Busel, Leybl Lusky, and Dovid Lifshitz.



There were a few factories in Zhetl. The first produced cotton. It belonged to Leybe Kaplinsky. The leather tanneries were run by Yisroel Bom and Feyve the tanner. Hirshl Aron Volfovitch and his brothers Yenkl and Avreyml produced ceramic tiles. Clay pots were made by Berl and Aryeh. Oil was produced by Avrom Levit. Kurgman was a shingle maker. The following had machines to brush wool: Hirshl Musher, Zerakh and Kalmen Levit.

Those who produced cereal grains were: Peretz Indershteyn, Feygl Dobe's and Noyekh the grain maker.

Soda water factory: Yisroel Ozer Barishansky and Berl Dvoretzky.

Cup makers: Berl and Shmuel Mirsky.



The pharmacist in Zhetl was Zhbikovsky. The pharmacy stores were owned by: Menakhme Vernikovsky, Krinsky, Reb Ayzele, Kharif's son in law, Elye Yudelevitz, Berl Dvoretsky and Khaim Koyfman.


Matzah Bakeries

Right after Chanukah some Matzah bakeries would begin baking Matzah for the big cities. Feygl Meir's wife on Lipave Alley was one of the first. Frumche the glazier's wife's bakery was more respectable, meaning the wealthier would come to her to bake egg matzah. Moishke Solomon's matzah bakery was on Dvoretz Street.

Motl Krashinsky's mother in law was a kneader. I also remember Dobeh and Rokhl.

In the matzah bakeries there were water pourers, rollers and oven – men.

The following always had a matzah bakery: Yosl Yente's, Frumke Moishe Mikhl's, Moishe the tinsmith, Peretz Indershteyn and Khaim Meir Dvoretzky.

On the eve of Passover there was joy in the streets. People carried braided baskets with matzah and mortars to grind matzah meal.

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Prayer Leaders

I remember the prayer leaders and cantors in Zhetl who prayed tastefully: Hertz Leyb Kaplinsky, Reb Shloime Tcheplovodsky, Reb Moishe Tentzer, and Reb Yehuda Leb Khlebnik. Moishe Ayzhik would pray in the old House of Study during Saturday evening prayers and sing “You Are One”.

Prayers in the new House of Study were led by Yisroel Ber the gravedigger and Moishe Rozvosky.

The following lead prayers in the small chapel: Niyameh Guzavsky, Yitzkhak Rozovsky and Hirshl the blacksmith (Reznitsky).



I remember the great cantor and conductor who ran a good choir: Reb Eli Ber. Many Christians would come hear him pray on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). He was a ritual slaughterer and a great scholar. Some of the best singers in his choir were: Moishe Rozovsky and his sons, his grandson Efroyke, the Manor, Berl Koyfman and others. In the last years the cantor in Zhetl was Yitzkhak Kogan.


Beadles (Administrators)

The administrators of the Houses of Study in Zhetl were: Motteh Nokhem's, Leyzer Mordkhai Leyserovitch, and Yehuda Leyb Khlebnik in the old House of Study. Avrom Hirshl the beadle in the new House of Study and Moishe Yehuda Savitsky in the middle House of Study.


Respectable Well Off Men

Zhetl had respectable, well off learned men who continued to study regularly: Yisroel Avreyml Sokolovsky, Yosl Tchires, Menakhem Vernikovsky, Noyekh Eli Levit, Yosele Mendes, Moishe Tentzer, Shabsai Shuahan, Shmuel Levit, Yosl Belitsky, Zhameh Dunetz, Asher, Velvl Slutsky, Khaim Yitzkhak the electrician, Noyekh Rozovsky, Yisroel Ber Epshteyn, Yehuda Leyb Khlebnik, Kuperman, Shloimeh Tcheplovodsky, Borukh Man, Zalmen Khvinevitcher, Khaim Yitzkhak the tutor, Velvel Izraelit, Feyvl, Yisroel Gonuzovitch, Yisroel Bom, Mikhal Berniker the preacher, Areh Zlate Beylke's Aronovitch, Yosl Khaim Belitsky, Avrom Hersh Langbart, Shmuel Kustin, Avrom Ayzik, Avrom Leyb Eliyovitch, Moishe Beres, Hertz Leyb Kaplinsky, Yudl the ritual slaughterer, and Ginzburg the teacher.



I also want to mention the Hasidim in Zhetl: Shmerl Lobensky, Motl Tules, Velvl Slutsky, Yudl the ritual slaughterer, Yenkl Abelevitch, Khaim Nakhes, Hirshl the butcher, Yisroel Zablotsky, and the old Krupnik. They were all Slonim Hasidim.


Sons and Sons in Law

I remember respectable sons of Zhetl both in religious and secular education: Yitzkhak Shimen Etes, Isar Shotzkes, Mikhl the preacher's sons, Berniker, Yishayhu Moishe Pilnik, Avrom Ivenitsky, Gdalyahu Shvedslky, Yitzkhak Leybovitch, Mikhl Rabinovitch, Noyekh Lusky, and Avrom Langbart.

Respectable sons in law in Zhetl: Moishe Tentzer, Ruven Mordkovsky, Yisroel Krokhmalnik, Borukh Lipeh Pinsky, Yosef Mutchnik, Meir Kakenske's son in law, Moishe Leyb and Avrom Hersh Langbart.


Medics and Doctors

I remember the past medics and doctors who received a lot of practice: Velvl the “old time physician” (without training), Motte the “old time physician”, Berl Pagerer and Avrom Meir Lidsky. Their medical remedies included: leeches, castor oil, buckwheat leaves, cupping glasses and enemas. Those specializing in cupping were: Shloimeh Lidsky, Beyle Zelda and Tsirl Perl Berniker. The greatest specialist was the medic Artchik Green. The doctors were: Shapiro, Vafner, Vinik from Novogrudek and Yezhikovitch, who was a Pole.

After the First World War the whole town contracted typhus. The head doctor then was Shapiro. The nurse was: Peshke Izraelit. After she got married the assistant was a Christian, Vania.



The old time artisans in Zhetl once held an important position in all town matters. They would sit at the table in the new House of Study and learn Mishna, the Code of Jewish Law or Chafetz Chaim with the maker of children's shoes. After he died they studied with Yisroel Berl the gravedigger. Those at this table were: Motke the harness maker, Velvl the carpenter, Tzaleh the blind, Moishke the shoemaker, Avrom the blacksmith, and Avrom the recluse. Hirshl the blacksmith and Noyekh the bent would study in the small chapel near the lake.

The founders of the Artisan Union in Zhetl were: Motl Medvedsky, Moish Mendl Leyzerovitch, Hirshl Benyaminovitch, and Tzela Busel. They represented the artisans at the bank, the interest free loan society, the professional union, at City Hall and in the Zhetl Jewish community.


Rural Settlements and Jews Who Lived There

I remember the rural settlements around Zhetl and the fine respectable learned Jews who lived there like: Reb Leyb Khabdkier, Yenkl Orkes' father in law. He would study day and night.

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Shmuel Kovensky, Moishe Aron Yezernitsky, Shimen the gusset maker, Yudl Podveliker, Zalmen Refitsher, a scholar who also performed circumcisions, Yudl Yenkl Rashkin's father, Leyzer from Orlin, Khaim from Zhibertaytch, Simkha from Vohl – Berl Rabinovitch's father, Shelubsky from Pintchet, Zalman from Khvinievitch, Epshteyn the ritual slaughterer from Levanevitch.

I will take into account the Jewish nobility who owned their own estates but were forced by the Russian authorities to sell: Avrom Shloimeh from Zhikotchin, Reveh from Azhiran and Gershon from Zazhen.


Musicians and Wedding Entertainers

I would like to mention the old time musicians and improvisers (Badkhan) who would perform at Jewish celebrations. The band consisted of Arye Levit, Khaim Levit, his son Kalmen Levit, Avrom Busel, and Pinke Mnuskin on the drum.

Avrom Moishe Medvedsky, the improvising entertainer at weddings would say: Don't cry bride, as you are filled with charm.

Moishe Rosvosky would make up rhymes: Don't make such a fuss, the in laws will pay the groom in cash.

The main matchmakers in Zhetl were: Khasheh Beyleh, a fat lady who was always smiling. Khaim Nakhes, with a red scarf around his neck. He always had a handkerchief sticking out of the back pocket of his overcoat and carried a parasol in his hand. He was tall and thin with a pointed beard. He would run quickly in order to bring everyone happiness.


Hoyf Street

Neighbours would sit on the stoops in the courtyards and share the news of Zhetl. Sometimes they would speak ill of others. The street was happy and filled with sales.

Vazke travelled every day, summer and winter to Kaplinsky. At dawn they would send lumber to sell. In the evening when he returned it was once again joyful on the street. Motl Krashinsky took in receipts from his restaurant, Yakhke Kovensky – for whisky, Henieh Leykeh Slonimsky – for kerosene. Velvl Hinde Zlate's - for a glass cover for a lamp, Golda Lrokhmalnik – for challah and bread. Eli Moishe Borukh's for a hat, Tuvia Idl for giblets and non-kosher meat, Yoshke Leyzshe's – for paint and Dovid Shepetnitsky – a store filled with gentiles from Patsutchin.

Feytche Yosl Yente's and her husband always had a lot of work, sewing blouses and caftans for gentiles. Alter Feyshes and his brother Mordkhai would pump kerosene in all the shops in town. At Avreyml Krokhmalnik's shop, gentiles would buy oil cake for cattle and oil. At Feyge Mereh Levit's they would repair cimbaloms. Khaim Yaverer would stand with a washtub filled with pickles, Bune Berkes – with good apples and pears. This was life on Hoyf Street.

I want to mention that this street had a good Jew, he did not speak badly of others, always wished others well and did not make demands from God. He kept the Sabbath, never tasted non kosher food, never stole a penny from anyone and yet, was shot by murderous hands in the garden near his house. I am talking about Dovid Hirshl the furrier (Medvedsky).

Areh Vinarsky was a good man. Never refused to give money to the poor.

I must mention Motl Leybovitch, a well off artisan. He participated in various societies and was a regular at Reb Zalmen's Saratzky's.


Old Stravinsky

I remember, and we must eternalize the name of the old land owner from Miraytchin, Stravinsky. He was beloved in Zhetl, because he provided Jews with an opportunity to earn a living. Flamuk the tailor worked for him. He also gave work to Shepsl Shushan. Every Passover he would give poor Jews wheat or flour for matzah and potatoes. A few Jews received help from him to build a house.

When they brought him from Warsaw to the Christian cemetery and lowered his coffin in the crypt where all the Stravinskys are buried, I saw Dovid Indershteyn, whose nickname was “Hindke”, recite the Kaddish (Mourner's prayer).


The First Car

Who remembers the first car in Zhetl 43 years ago? It arrived with the post to Meir Kovensky, at the house where Yudl Khaim Rashkin later lived. A wagon running without horses. Well, the whole town ran to see what an automobile looked like.

The next year a hot air balloon flew over our town with a braided basket. It dropped a string which got caught in a tree and two people emerged from the basket.

The first radio was brought to town by Ostashinsky. He had a restaurant at Khane Areyml's Kayle's. Before you put on the earphones to listen to the radio for a few minutes, he would take 10 groshen. Later on a couple more radios appeared in town.

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Jews Living in Rural Villages and Conscripts

by Avrom Leyzerovitch (Kfar Haroeh)

Translated by Janie Respitz

I would like to describe, as much as I can remember, the Jews who lived among gentiles in rural villages around Zhetl.

During the time of Czar Nikolai there was not a village where there were no Jews. Jews lived in the villages with their whole families, sons, and daughters, daughters in law and sons in law. They married off their children there providing dowries and lodging.


Avrom Leyzerovitch


Profitable Livelihood

These people earned a good living especially if they had few expenses . They would have a potato field, their own cow who grazed in the field therefore not costing anything. They did not lack in chickens and they baked their own bread from milled corn as well as other grains. They really had everything they needed. They would also sell: milk, butter, cheese and eggs. They did not have to pay rent as everyone had their own house and a stall.

Jews in the villages lived a calm life. If they earned a ruble a week, it was enough – as the only items they had to buy in town were sugar and kerosene.

Jews in the villages were for the most part tenant farmers who leased mills, breweries, inns or fields.

The inns were situated at the entrance of the village and everyone passing through could stop to rest and have something to eat.

I would like to describe these village Jews as well as I can remember. I would like to ask forgiveness as perhaps my writing is not one hundred percent as I am not a great writer.


Reb Avrom Shloimeh Namiyat

Number one of all the rural settlements was Zhukovchizne. It was a large estate with mills, forests and a brewery. This all belonged to Reb Avrom Shloimeh Namiyat, of blessed memory. All of his employees in the village were Jews, therefore he always had a quorum, 10 men required for prayers. He would come to Zhetl with a coach pulled by three horses, as the government did not allow Jews to ride with four horses.

When Czar Nikolai put forth the edict that Jews were no longer permitted to own estates, he had to sell his property to a countess for which he received seventy thousand ruble. With this money he bought a large brick building in Vilna. He also had a house in Zhetl which in the last years belonged to Berl Rabinovitch. His son in law was Reb Yisroel Rabinovitch the Moscow rabbi.


Other Village Jews

My father Reb Khaim lived in Zhibertyachshine. I was born in this village and this is where my father married off his children.

In Yanovtchine a Jew had the lease and brought milk to Zhetl. Recently, Wolf Farfl lived there.

Dovid lived in Strele but later moved to Zhetl.

Shimen Leyb was an estate farmer in Bogudzhenke. In recent years, no Jews lived there.

The families of Meir and Shmuel Kovensky lived in Nokrishok. In 1929 Meir Kovensky immigrated to Israel.

Zvulun lived on the estate in Zielane. On the Sabbath there was a quorum at his place and Jews from Fintchitch and Kurfish would come there to pray. In his later years he left for America.

Mordkhai lived in Kurfish.

My uncle Reb Ayzik Lipe lived in Fintchitch. His wife was my mother's sister. He was a learned Jew who studied a lot. I remember he would sit all day and study Gemara. His son in law the rabbi Reb Dovid Rovensky was a preacher in Zhetl and later rabbi in Pinsk. Hi son, Reb Asher lives in Israel.

Reb Avrom, my grandfather live in Nartzevitch. He had two sons and three daughters. One daughter was my mother, the second – Reb Ayzik Lipes' wife and the third, Zalmen Shepshelevitch's wife. The last one would travel from Zhetl to Vilna. His grandchildren live in Israel.

Reb Berl lived in Khiliman where he ran the mill.

A Jewish blacksmith lived in Zashetshe.

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Hirshl lived in Romanovitch. His children Shayna and Eliyahu live in Petach Tikva.

Reb Yisroel Kaplinsky lived in Hantshri. He leased a mill from the nobleman Stravinsky. He sat every day and studied while his wife, Cherna Rokhl ran the mill. His son, Reb Shaul Kaplinsky was a gentle man, studied a lot and dealt in lumber. His grandchildren: Borukh Kaplinsky and Arye Zelikovitch live in Israel.

The Jewish blacksmith Moishe Zelik Bushlin who lived in Khabadki now lives in Israel.


Draftees to the Polish Army, 1922


Two Jews lived in Pager: one was a blacksmith and his son Reb Moishe lives in Israel. The second one was Berl, the old fashioned (untrained) doctor.

There was a Jewish forest merchant in Mizevetz. His daughter Shayna lived in Zhetl and from Zhetl she left for America.

Jews lived in the following villages on the road between Zhetl and Slonim : Bodonovchine, Zadvarie, Shundri and Kaladishke.

Just as I began with a wealthy man I would like to conclude with a wealthy man who had his own estate with forests and fields. His name was Berl Zhelaner. Novoyelne belonged to him. He managed his business on high standards and the gentiles were afraid of him. When it was forbidden for Jews to own estates, he sold.


Russian and Polish Edicts Against Village Jews

I calculated about 20 villages where Jews lived. However there were more villages around Zhetl where Jews lived: Petruki, Pesutzky, Zatshefitch and others.

Jews lived in these rural villages for generations and withstood many Czarist edicts and persecutions. Among others, the last edict in Novoseliene. According to this edict the Czarist government forbid Jews to live in a village if their parents had not lived there. However, despite the Czarist edicts the village population treated the Jews favourably.

The situation changed under Polish rule. The Polish government organized the peasant population against the Jews, took trade out of Jewish hands and created an atmosphere which was wired in danger.

In view of this danger, Jews began to leave the villages.


Military Conscription

Conscription in Zhetl took place after Sukkot, in the month of Cheshvan (October) when the rains begin. As at this time there were no paved highways and the road from Slonim to Zhetl had to be repaired so the district police chief and the doctor could travel comfortably. Authorities would travel by horse, which in those days was called a stage coach. They would travel from Slonim to Zadvaria and change horses there. Berke the tanner owned the coach in Zhetl. If authorities had to come from Slonim, he would supply the horse and wagons.


Recruits in Zhetl

Conscription would last for 8–10 days. During this time all the taverns and shop would close as all the recruits would steal everything. There would be 400 – 500 conscripts.

Many would be released as they were not capable of military service. However, 150 – 200 men

[Page 95]

were taken into service. Every recruit would arrive with a father, mother, brother, or sister, so that during the period of conscription there would be between 1500 – 2000 people in Zhetl, among them, many bandits and drunks. They would receive liquor for money and go through the streets looking for something to steal. The Jewish recruits were scared and were not spared beatings.



Now I will tell you about our Jewish brothers who were conscripted, who had no defects and were sure they would be taken into the military. They would make a list of those who would not go to the military due to a defect or would receive an exemption for which they demanded money. An exemption could happen if the conscript was an only son. That was the first exemption. Another reason for exemption was that your father was over 55 and your brother was under the age of 16. Another reason for exemption was if you had a brother in the military.

They would take money from the above mentioned guys. Those who were recruited said: they are staying home and we will go into the military, therefore they should pay.

There were also Jews who were registered in Zhetl but lived in different cities. They too had to come to Zhetl for conscription. For example, I lived in Zhibertaychshine which belonged to Zhetl, however I was registered in Polonke, and was called to conscription in Novi – Mush, near Baranovitch. I also paid taxes in Polonke.

One of the taxes Jews had to pay in the days of Czar Nikolai was for permission to light candles.



One received a passport where you were registered therefore many Jews were registered in Zhetl and reported for service in Zhetl. Since in those days there were no photographs, they would send “angels”. Why did they call them angels? Because they would go to every conscription, today here, tomorrow somewhere else. This was their profession. Obviously, these were young men with defects and they would present themselves instead of a healthy guy and of course, they would be released from service.

Many of the Jewish recruits ran off to America in order to avoid military service.


Draftees into the Polish Army 1928


Consequently the government gave an order that before you are taken into the army your parents must pay a 300 ruble fine. Because of this fine people had to show up. It also happened that after they were enlisted, they left for America, so the Russian government gave an order that until you take your oath the 300 ruble had to be paid, which meant only after 6 months of service, the 300 ruble fine did not have to be paid.


Jewish Recruits Cause Scandals

Now let's turn to the Jewish recruits I described earlier. They would take money from those who did not serve in the army, often with beatings. They would use the money to make parties every evening.

Besides this, they would demand money from the city,

[Page 96]

but this they would not receive easily. First they would approach the town elder of Zhetl, who in my time was Avrom Patzovsky. Everyone was registered with him and he would distribute passes. He was the leader of the town.

The recruits would go to him for money, but understand, they did not receive any money from him. What would they do? Saturday morning they would lock all the prayer houses and notify everyone they could not pray. They would only leave the old House of Study open and all those wanting to pray had to go there. During prayers they interrupted the service and demanded people give them money.

My father and I, Reb Khaim, of blessed memory prayed at Avrom Patzovsky's. That morning, when all the prayer houses were locked, we went there as usual. Everyone was afraid to pray, but Avrom Patzovsky said he was not afraid of anyone.

There was turmoil in the old House of Study. Finally they said they would call upon Avrom Patzovsky. When the group of recruits found us praying they began shouting and things got out of hand.

We promised we would all go to the old House of Study and they demanded Avrom Patzovsky come as well. He did not agree and they threatened to beat him up and bring 20 more friends to take him by force to the old House of Study. Finally he agreed to go but without anyone accompanying him.

This commotion went on for two weeks. Finally, in the end everyone drafted into the army received 2–3 ruble and peace was restored.

In the last years under the Polish government people reported to the army Novoliyenie, however the custom of taking money and making parties ended.


For These Are the People of Zhetl!

Translated by Judy Montel

I wish to speak about the Jews who lived in the villages in the Zhetl area during the rule of Tsarist Russia.

There was no village in the Zhetl area without Jews. In the village they had sons and daughters who grew up there, married and sometimes were there for years, around their parent's table.

There was not much concern for livelihood. Usually, it was near at hand since the village Jews could meet most of their own needs. The cow that grazed in his meadow provided milk, butter and cheese. There were many chickens which supplied meat and eggs; frequently there was a calf for meat, potatoes and other vegetables that grew in the field. There was no rent to pay since for the most part they lived in their own homes.

Thus, the Jew of the village could live in ease and peace. If he earned one ruble a week, that was enough for him, since he only needed cash to buy sugar and kerosene.

What was the occupation of the Jew of the village? Mostly he would rent a flour mill from the landlord, or a brandy still, an inn or fields. The Inn stood at the entrance to the village and was a meeting place for the Christian villagers and a place to sleep for visitors.

The main village in the Zhetl area was Zhukovschizna. This estate included a flour mill, a brandy still and forests. All of this belonged to Reb Abraham Shlomo Namiot of blessed memory. All of his clerks on the estate were Jews, so that he could always count on a minyan (quorum) for prayers. To Zhetl he would travel in a carriage with three horses. After the publication of the ordinance of the Tsarist government that forbade Jews to hold property in the village, he was forced to sell his estate for 70,000 rubles. With this money he bought a large house in Vilna and in Zhetl. His son-in-law was the rabbi, Reb Shmuel Rabeinu-Beech, a rabbi in Zhaludek and later in Moscow.

In Zhbertoishchina my father, Reb Chaim lived. In this village I was born, grew up and married.

In Nortzvitz my grandfather, Reb Abraham, lived. He had two sons and three daughters. One of them, my mother, the second, the wife of Reb Aizik Lipa and the third, the wife of Reb Zalmen Shepshelevitch whose grandchildren live in Israel.

In Romnovitch lived Reb Hirschl Romnovicher; his daughter Yafa and his son Eliyahu live in Petach Tikva.

In Hanchri lived Reb Yisrael Kaplinski. He leased a flour mill from the landlord Strebinski. All of his life he studied Torah and his wife, Tcherna Rachel, ran the business. His son, Reb Sha'ul, was a student of the Torah and traded in wood. His grandsons, Baruch Kaplinski and Aryeh Zelikovitch live in Israel.

In Poger lived Reb Moshe the Blacksmith and the “Doctor” Berl the Pogerer.

Since I began with the owner of a large estate, I will also end with the owner of a large estate. That is, Reb Berl Zhloner. He owned the estate at Novoilania that included fields and forests. He ran his farm with a firm hand and frightened all of the villagers in the area. After the government ordinance was published, he too was forced to sell his estate.

Avraham Layzerovitch


[Page 98]

During the First World War

Translated by Judy Montel

On August 1, 1914, World War I broke out. Its initial events hit the Jews of Zhetl hard. The sons were conscripted into the Russian army, and the fathers were set to digging defense works. Streams of war refugees passed through the streets of Zhetl as well as the columns of the Russian army, retreating from the front. Many families fell victim to looting by the rampaging Cossacks and in more than a few houses hunger and want appeared. Because of this situation, quite a few families decided to escape to central Russia, far from the front.

In September of 1915, Zhetl was conquered by troops of victorious Germany. The fact that the town was somewhat distant from the front line allowed the German authorities to set up a civilian administration with a local police force and a local municipal government. Leib Luski OBM was appointed chairman of the city and Meyrim Epstein OBM was appointed police commander.

Although the Germans enlisted the townspeople for forced labor, in general they governed decently and Zhetl could heave a sigh of relief after the years of Tsarist rule. Creative forces that had been suppressed and functioned underground, now burst forth unbridled and openly organized public activities. Two clubs were set up in the town: the Zionist and the Dramatic-Literary, whose lectures, question and answer parties and reading rooms concentrated all of the forces that hungered for culture. The Zionist club, on which interest centered, led by Efraim Blogolovski-Hermoni also published an oral newspaper in Yiddish and in Hebrew that reflected the life of town.

However, alongside the cultural development, the poverty and deprivation the community suffered must be mentioned. In order to ease the lot of many, community leaders set up a popular kitchen that gave out 100 meals a day for free or a nominal fee. 150 families received financial aid and hundreds of refugees and forced-laborers were helped. Above all others, the children's kitchen was most notable which saved hundreds of children from hunger and stunted growth.

In November of 1917 [sic – this actually took place in November of 1918] the German revolution broke out and as a result German troops retreated from the conquered areas. To mark the liberation from German occupation, Zhetl organized a public celebration. However, before Zhetl had recovered from the joy of liberation it was caught up in political upheaval, groups of Bolsheviks and Polish Legionnaires came through from time to time, but neither established their rule in the town. Sometimes one group would arrive and sometimes they would leave the town and all of this was accompanied by fear, looting, searches and at times even arrests and murder. In order to escape this terrible fate and to release the town from the nightmare of the Polish Legionnaires, the community leaders, headed by Rabbi Reb Zalmen Sorotzkin and Yisrael Ozer Brishenski, used the method of mediation and giving bribes. These time-tried methods brought a temporary calm to the Zhetl community. In this period the “Jewish Republic” was also founded in Zhetl, the home rule of the Jews of Zhetl equipped with arms and defenses, as described in this volume by Efraim Hermoni.

In 1920 the Russian-Polish war broke out. The columns of retreating Poles, and afterwards the fleeing Bolsheviks and the persecution by the deserters who gathered in the forest all had an effect on the Zhetl community.

For two and a half years, Zhetl was thrown from one government to the other and as a result of the constant political changes deprivation, hunger and disease only spread. Only in the middle of 1921 did the civilian Polish government stabilize and then a new period began in the history of the Zhetl community.


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