by Rabbi Zalmen Saratzkin (Jerusalem)
Translated by Janie Respitz
I took over the position of Chief Rabbi of Zhetl in 1912. Before I discuss the events of my rabbinate, a few words about Zhetl.
Zhetl was a poor town largely because the peasants in the surrounding villages were poor. They worked a sandy soil and did not enjoy success.
Understandably the financial situation of the villages had an effect on the Jews of Zhetl who primarily worked in retail and trade, as there were no factories in Zhetl.
Despite the poverty Zhetl excelled in Torah study and wisdom. The rest of the world referred to people from Zhetl as the Sages of Zhetl. If a Jew in Zhetl would arrive late for prayers he would not find an empty lectern even though the Houses of Study were large for such a small town. When I took over the rabbinate I was told that throughout the world there were close to 100 rabbis from Zhetl as well as great Talmudic scholars from Zhetl who were worthy of becoming rabbis.
I would like to mention a few: Reb Shmuel Rabinovitch Rabbi of Moscow, Reb Moishe Leyb Lusky Rabbi of Sventzian, Rabbi Shmule Khaim (I don't recall his last name) Rabbi of Genitzesk, Reb Avrom Alpert Rabbi in Shverzne, Reb Shabsai Alpert Rabbi in Polonke (now in America), Reb Zelik Kaplinsky (Reb Hertz Leyb's son) the Loykev Rabbi M. M. Lidsky Koretz Rabbi Reb Yisroel Senderovsky (Yasha Leyb the pelt seller's son) judge in the Jewish court in Rovno, Yakov Yankelevitch (Lyubtcher) judge in the Jewish court of Kovel and Reb Yehoshua Lidsky ritual slaughterer in Derevne.
From among the great scholars it is worthwhile to remember: Reb Zalmen Yoel Kaplinsky and his son Reb Avrom, Reb Avrom Leyb the teacher, Reb Aron Shatzkes, Reb Avrom the recluse, Reb Mikhl Berniker, Reb Yakov Ostrovsky (Yakov Moishe Ayzhes), Reb Yisroel Avrom Sokolovsky and his son Mordkhai (now a ritual slaughterer in Johannesburg), Reb Moishe Tentzer, Reb Noyakh Eli the teacher, Reb Shaul the teacher and his son Reb Leyb Khabadiker, Reb Feyvl Skidler, Reb Aron Hersh Langbart and Reb Moishe Gertzovsky.
Those who occupied the position of chief rabbi in Zhetl had great reputations throughout the world. I will mention a few beginning with: Reb Yosef Zvi Hirsh Dvoretzky, of blessed memory. He was a great Talmudic scholar. He was rabbi in Zhetl for 40 years. Jews of Zhetl often spoke of his intelligence and sharp mind.
After his death he was succeeded by the rabbi Reb Borukh Avrom Mirsky of blessed memory, a great scholar and among the first Hovevei Zion (Lovers of Zion), and the author of Shmatat Deraba. However a dispute over two slaughterhouses had an effect on him and shortened his life.
After his death, in recognition of their beloved deceased Rabbi Yosef Zvi Hirsh Dvoretzky, Zhetl hired his son Reb Mikhl Arye as chief rabbi.
Rabbi Mikhl Arye Dvoretzky was only a rabbi in Zhetl for 30 days when he died of a heart attack. People said the same dispute over the two slaughter houses shortened his life as well.
Since two rabbis died as a result of this dispute I must tell you about it.
A few years before the First World War a wealthy man from Zhetl Berl Dvoretzky built a slaughter house with the permission of the government. The butchers in Zhetl were suspicious of this slaughter house from day one. They were afraid of larger slaughter taxes, and most important, they knew they would be required to slaughter only in that slaughter house. Both slaughterhouses had its supporters and violent quarrels would break out which the rabbis could in no way appease.
In those years I was rabbi in Voronove. Zhetl invited me to eulogize the deceased Reb Mikhl Arye Dvoretsky, and right after the eulogy offered me the position of chief rabbi. I told the men that as long as there is a fight in Zhetl, I will not take on the rabbinate. These established men understood
and turned to me, to Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch of Moscow and Rabbi Kalmen Levin of Dvoretz and asked us to solve the conflict.
We remained in Zhetl for a few weeks and succeeded in bringing peace.
According to our verdict Berl Dvoretsky received compensation from the butchers and agreed to close his slaughter house. Later he opened a cotton factory in that same building. The butchers were obliged to give 10% of their slaughter house income to the Talmud Torah (religious school).
Once this conflict was solved I agreed to take the position.
A few months after my arrival in Zhetl another conflict ensued: a large portion of the population, mainly common folk, demanded another doctor in Zhetl. The only Jewish doctor, Shapiro had many opponents and they demanded a second doctor. I had to solve this dispute.
I would like to emphasize that during my time at the rabbinate in Zhetl I enjoyed a general trust which allowed me, with God's help to solve almost all disputes.
The 300th Anniversary of the Romanov House
In a similar fashion I succeed in untangling a dispute which arose in connection to the 300th Jubilee celebrations of the royal dynasty in Russia.
The year was 1913. An anniversary committee was created in Zhetl composed of the Russian Orthodox priest, the regional police superintendent and both tax collectors: Yakovlev and Pranyevitch. Yakovlev was a very honest respectable Christian with higher education and liberal tendencies. He gladly worked together with the Jewish intelligentsia in the fire station.
According to his plan, the firefighters orchestra, which was composed mainly of Jews, would be present at prayers at the Russian Orthodox Church and later play at the head of Christian procession with icons. Berl Mirsky, the head firefighter informed me of this plan.
I invited the important man Reb Menakhem Vernikovsky, a member of firefighter's administration to come to me and I asked him:
How is this possible? A Jewish orchestra in church and leading a Christian procession?
I warned him, if this takes place, I will leave town before the celebration and will not deliver a sermon in honour of the Jubilee in the House of Study. Zhetl was shocked by this news.
Reb Menakhem Vernikovsky promised me he would meet with Yakovlev and present my standpoint. A few days later Yakovlev came to me. He asked me to give my sermon in the House of Study. I thanked him and explained that if I am their rabbi they must listen to me and a Jewish orchestra is forbidden to lead a Christian procession. At first he wondered: the entire Christian intelligentsia will be present at prayers in your House of Study, so why can't the Jews be present at Christian prayers?
In place of an answer I told him the following story: in a certain city there was a liberal ruler. He allowed the publication of newspapers without censorship and meetings without restrictions.
Suddenly a state of war was declared in town and the liberal leader became strict. He instituted censorship and cancelled all freedoms. The same is with us Jews. We have been living for 1800 years in a state of war and must restrict our people otherwise folk life will be threatened. It is forbidden for us to look at your icons. However you, Russians, are not threatened by any danger and nothing will happen to you if you attend our prayers.
My example made an impression. Yakovlev promised me to cancel the Christian procession with the Jewish orchestra. He did however ask me to send a letter to my colleague, the priest. I agreed to write the letter, but I explained that it would take a long time before a rabbi will be a priest's colleague.
My conversation with Yakovlev and my letter to the priest helped. The orchestra did not play during the Christian procession, did not enter the church, and I gave a sermon in honour of the anniversary.
After the celebration Reb Menakhem Vernikovsky asked me why I didn't really want to give the sermon. I told him the following story:
Tolstoy recounts that Alexander the First did not die of a hemorrhage as described in the official sources. During his royal funeral they buried someone else and the Czar left for Siberia to lead a life of wandering and deprivation disguised as a simple man. The Czar agitated against priests and challenged them causing great upheaval. One day he was asked:
How could a believer not go to confession?
The Czar replied: if during confession I tell a lie, the sky will tremble. If I tell the truth,
the earth will tremble. Therefore, I don't go. The same is with my sermon. If I go up to the podium in the House of study and tell the truth about the Romanov House the earth will tremble. If I lie, the skies will tremble. Therefore I did not want to speak, but if I must, I have to be sure not to cause the earth or sky to tremble. Reb Menakhem Vernikovsky of blessed memory told this story to Yakovlev and even though he was a liberal, he was not happy with it.
Zhetl During the War
The First World War broke out during my third year as chief rabbi in Zhetl. Many refugees arrived in Zhetl, among whom were my wife's family. The mood was stressful. Wagon trains loaded with military dragged through Zhetl and the Russians dug trenches in the area.
During that time we had twins and one died. This greatly disturbed my wife and she left with the children and her family to Minsk. I remained in Zhetl.
After her departure Reb Yeshayahu Moishe Pilnik lived in my house. Every night the military wagons would wake us to ask directions. Reb Yeshayahu Moishe Pilnik would dress and go with them. I would go crazy until I saw him return safely.
Meanwhile I received letters from my wife asking me, with God's help to come to Minsk. However, I was busy collecting money for the Cossacks. They demanded money in return for not burning down the town. Thanks to the money we collected Zhetl was spared the fate of many other towns and cities.
I told the householders of Zhetl I would remain until the last Russian left. It was evening, then morning and I received news the last Russians were leaving. According to the agreement I should have left, but who would take me?
Coincidentally it happened, a gentile was travelling to Novoredek and I went with him.
The road swarmed with military wagons and Cossacks. I cannot say I felt comfortable in their company. Just think what a Cossack would do to a rabbi. While thinking about this I noticed a Russian officer. I felt a bit better. I tried to strike a conversation with him and succeeded. He told me the Russians were leaving their trenches around Zhetl and no battles will take place there. This was a great relief. I thought: if this news could reach Zhetl, the Jews would be thrilled.
Finally we arrived in Novorodek. I went to Eli Ber, the cantor's son. I rested at his home and thanks to him I got a wagon and continued on my way. On the eve of Sukkot 1915, barely alive, I arrived in Minsk.
There I found groups of refugees. Thousands of people roamed around depressed and despondent. I decided to help and began working for the refugee committee.
We would distribute 7 to 10 thousand ruble daily. We received the money from Jewish and state sources and we often had to travel to St. Petersburg to get the money for the refugee committee.
I enjoyed a general trust, even when the Bolsheviks demanded removal of the leaders of the committee, I remained at my job.
I used my stay in Minsk for broader community work. I organized a branch of Agudas Yisroel in Minsk which had around 10 thousand members. I opened a Talmud Torah and a school for girls. I also succeeded in freeing Russian rabbis from military service.
Among the 30 thousand Jewish refugees in Minsk were 300 rabbis. One fine morning they were mobilized, myself included.
That is when I went to St. Petersburg, stirred up all the Jewish businessmen and reached the Czarist Ministry of War. The Minister of War received our delegation which consisted of me and the rabbi of St. Petersburg, Rabbi Katenelnboygn. We argued:
When did you ever hear of spiritual leaders being taken to the front?
I spoke Russian fluently and with great pathos convinced him of our point of view. At first the minister wanted to evade the issue. But I stood up to him and finally he ordered the release of acting rabbis from military service but not the rabbis who were refugees. After much intervention we succeeded in releasing the refugees as well, but this happened under Kerensky's regime. Thanks to our intervention, among others, the great rabbi known by the title of his work Khazon Ish was released as well. He passed away not long ago in Israel.
During Kerensky's regime we held elections throughout Russia for a Jewish constitution. I organized all the religious Jews and in the Minsk region and we acquired 11 mandates out of 17.
At the end of 1917, when Minsk was occupied by the Germans, the linen merchant Avrom Avigdor Obershteyn came from Zhetl and took me and my family home.
We Bought the Electricity Plant
During the war the Germans installed an electricity plant in Zhetl. Now that they were retreating they decided to take it with them. I called a meeting and we decided to buy it from the German county department. We collected the money, bought the plant and chose Yisroel Ozer Borishansky as manager.
The Bandit Plague
Meanwhile Russian deserters were gathering in Liftshansk Putche. We later learned there were not as many as we thought. In total around 90 men. However they spread fear as if they numbered in the thousands. They would pitilessly rob and kill peasants, Jews living in the villages and people passing through.
One day, Shmuel Kovesdky from Nokrishok brought me a letter from the bandits. In the letter they demanded Zhetl pay them 120 thousand ruble within the week. If not they threatened an attack. I immediately called a large meeting which was attended by Reb Avrom the starch maker, Reb Zhame Dunetz, Reb Moishe Tentzer, Reb Moishe Ruven Mordkovsky, Reb Yisroel Ozer Borishansky, Reb Hertz Leyb Kaplinsky, Reb Menakhem Vernikovsky, Reb Avrom Moishe Kravetz, Reb Yosl (the painter), Reb Mordkhai Leybovitch, Reb Shabsai Shushan, Reb Wolf Izraelit and many other important householders whose names I do not remember. We decided: 1) to mobilize all the Jewish retired soldiers. 2) to call for a Jewish excommunication with black candles and blowing of the shofar, and to oblige every Jew in Zhetl to pay into the community fund 10% of his cash and 6% of his merchandise.
In order to achieve this we put out a box and every Jew in Zhetl had from 8 in the morning until 8 at night to put his payment in an envelope and place it in the box. We also warned people to calculate the true amount they owed before God. We ordered poor people to throw in empty envelopes.
This act brought us a colossal amount because there was not one Jew who did not pay his share. We sent Alter Bom, Nakhman Gal and a few others with this money to buy weapons. We distributed the weapons among 300 Jewish retired soldiers and ordered the Christian Gruner, a former Russian officer with Gypsy roots, to do military exercises with our armed army every Tuesday and Friday.
Peasants who came to the market saw everything and informed the bandits who then sent me a second letter, where they demanded an answer to their first letter. I answered them like this:
Actually, you should all be home. The war ended a long time ago. The least you can do is go home. Anyone lacking money can come to us and we will help him with expenses.
As an answer to my letter the bandits attacked Bielitze and robbed their stores. Right after they sent us a third letter and threatened we would face the same end as Bielitze.
Also this time we were not afraid. We divided the town into four regions, placed 30 of our soldiers in each region, and they did tours of duty all night. We organized a headquarters with a telephone and were ready for battle.
We lived in this atmosphere all winter. The bandits declared a blockade on us and would not allow any agricultural products into town. We, understandably, were afraid to go to the villages to make our purchases.
Salvation came faster than we imagined. It happened like this: the Bolsheviks were nearing Zhetl, they were already in Novoredok. The Poles were stationed in Dertchin. The bandits calculated that if the Poles would be victorious they would kill them as Russians and communists. So they reached an agreement with the Bolsheviks. A political instructor went to the bandits in the forest and advised them on how to retreat.
A few days later, accompanied by Bolshevik authorities, they marched through Zhetl. They prepared a meal for them in the community and then sent them to Novoredok where they were beaten with chains and shot. This is how our story of the bandits ended and the admirable self defence of Zhetl's Jews. Immediately after our army disbanded.
The Audacious Attack of the Poles on Zhetl
It was Purim. The Bolsheviks were stationed in Zhetl. At dawn I heard violent shooting in town and right after a knock on my door. A Jewish militia told me Poles and Bolsheviks were shooting at the marketplace and the Polish commandant ordered I should come to the marketplace. If not he will order shooting in the Jewish homes.
I immediately went to the marketplace and found the Polish commandant at Wolf Dvoretsky's hotel. The commandant ordered me to get him 50 wagons and breakfast. When I asked how many men we needed to prepare breakfast for he did not respond. Later I learned there were only 12 men. They attacked suddenly, and chased out 200 Bolshevik soldiers who were staying in garrisons in Zhetl. In order not to divulge the secret of their strength, they did not answer my question about how many men needed breakfast.
Meanwhile, I sent our beadle from the old House of Study, Reb Leyzer Mordkhai to mobilize the wagons in which the Poles loaded the ammunition they captured from the Bolsheviks.
They did not eat the breakfast we prepared, and in the midst of great chaos and confusion decided to leave Zhetl. However, before they left Zhetl they ordered me to call for a prohibition and oblige Zhetl Jews to surrender the weapons that belonged to the armed Jewish defence.
I attempted to clarify the matter, but they did not want to hear my arguments and threatened me that if I didn't obey their order they would take me together with the loaded wagons. I knew very well what that meant.
I escaped their hands and went to the House of Study. Even though it was Purim, the place was empty. Jews were not praying and not eating. Meanwhile the Polish soldiers left and we breathed more freely.
When the wagon drivers returned they told us the Poles took Bolshevik prisoners with them. They released the Christians but shot all the Jews in the village of Khadzhelan.
Zhetl Without a Regime
In the meantime Zhetl was left without authorities. We lived in great fear. Who knows who will attack us next? We called a large meeting and decided to collect money for problems that were sure to arise. We also ordered everyone who had wine, whisky or weapons, to bury them. Everyone was also ordered to hand over the decided amount of cigarettes. If a soldier would ask for cigarettes, he should be sent to the rabbi.
In those days, groups of Polish soldiers would come to Zhetl every couple of days. One of these groups, due to a denunciation, arrested the daughter of Reb Shmuel Mirsky allegedly because she was a communist.
Wolf Dvoretsky explained to me she could be released through a bribe. I went to the Polish commandant. Life then did not play a role and I dared to give the commandant an envelope with money. He took it and left.
A few hours later Reb Wold Dvoretsky returned and told me the commandant was talking about releasing the girl, but he wanted me to come back.
When I came to the commandant he honoured me with his moralizing as to why Jews are Bolsheviks and wanted my opinion of the Mirsky girl.
Before I had a chance to respond he explained that if I signed a document stating that she was not and will not be a Bolshevik, he would free her. I had doubts if I could commit myself to the fact that she would never be a Bolshevik, but I obliged and saved a Jewish daughter.
The Black Passover Seder
We managed to observe the first Seder in 1919. During the second Seder Polish legionnaires marched through Zhetl. They planned an attack on the Bolsheviks 12 kilometres from Zhetl. While marching through Zhetl the soldiers demanded whisky and cigarettes. Our police, who were placed on all the streets told them we do not have whisky but they can get cigarettes at the rabbi's. Understand, after this announcement, the soldiers did not allow me to conduct the Seder. A row of 100 soldiers snaked around my house. Each one received 6 cigarettes for one ruble. The price was symbolic and I wanted to emphasize that Jewish property is not arbitrary and we don't give it away for free. A cashier sat in my house and a second person distributed the cigarettes.
That night I ran out of cigarettes. I sent for more, but getting to my house was not easy. The cigarettes were passed down the row from hand to hand until I received them. From time to time a soldier rebelled complaining only 6 cigarettes? I would explain it would be unfair if one would receive a lot and another, nothing.
And this is how, instead of leading a Seder I spent the whole night handing out cigarettes. At dawn, the Poles ran away. On their way out they broke window panes in a few houses on Novoredok Street and shot Yenkl Ebes.
This case left a difficult impression on the town. The next morning a Polish officer came to me to ask forgiveness for this act. Of course I had to forgive, but I did give the officer a little taste of my moralizing.
We Organized a Bread Action
Until this time the record books of Zhetl were looked after by Reb Moishe Shatzkes. After he died the Jewish community council decided I should now be responsible. Controlling the record books I now ascertained that during the German occupation 350 Zhetl Jews died of stomach typhus. As you know, stomach typhus is a direct result of hunger. I then decided to alleviate hunger in Zhetl.
To achieve this goal I set up a cooperative whose goal was to distribute 4 kilograms of bread per person every week for a cheap price. I placed Yakomovitsky, the owner of the mill in Shilevonk as head of the cooperative. Together with him and Yisroel Kaplinsky, I would go to the surrounding villages to buy wheat at cheap prices, mill it into flour, and bake and distribute bread. This is how I alleviated hunger in Zhetl.
At the same time an office opened in Slonim to distribute American help for the starving population. I became friends with the manager (I don't recall his name) and began to bring goods to Zhetl: wheat flour, potatoes, rice, sugar and oil. Twice a week I would travel with the wagon drivers Hilke and Notke to Slonim and return with wagons filled with goods. With the produce I brought we opened a children's kitchen and served warm tasty food to Jewish children.
The Christians in town grew jealous and sent the priest to Slonim for produce. He did not agree to go and in the end they asked me to bring products for them as well and allow their children to enjoy our kitchen as well.
One fine morning I received news that there were two wagons of wheat flour for us in Slonim. Fetching two wagons of flour was no small feat. Firstly where to find the required amount of money? And secondly how do we mobilize so many carts?
Finally I collected money from Jews and Christians, organized the carts and set out for Slonim. With me were Reb Shmuel Mirsky, two militias and the priest.
It was a difficult trip. From Kazlayshchine we travelled accompanied by Polish soldiers who were shooting recklessly. When I asked the priest to calm them down he replied he was also afraid of them. We finally arrived in Slonim, devastated and exhausted.
On our return home, peasants were stealing our bags of flour. I stopped the wagons, climbed up on a cart of flour and said to the peasants in these words:
I understand you are hungry and haven't seen wheat flour for a long time. But understand, this flour is for children. I ask of you, return the flour and we will, here on the field, cook a big pot of Zatcherke (noodles like farfel) for you. And that is what we did. The peasants returned the flour and we cooked a Zatcherke for everyone.
We Fought for a City Council in Zhetl
When the Poles took power in Zhetl, they felt embarrassed. On one hand they wanted to show they were democratic, on the other hand they did not realize that we comprised the majority in town. They also could not count on the Christian population as they were Belorussian and a minority in Zhetl.
Therefore, in principle they were forced to nominate a city council with a Jewish majority. This Jewish majority was like a thorn in their side and they decided to incorporate Zhetl into the township. And that is what happened.
We however decided not to switch to their agenda on this decision. We went to Slonim and stated our case that we didn't want our taxes to go to the surrounding villages. We wanted our money to support our city. Our complaint was heard and Zhetl was declared an independent unit headed by a magistrate within the framework of the township. The magistrate nominated was a local Pole by the name of Yaroshevsky along with a council. We however, did not relent and explained to the authorities we would like to elect a magistrate and council and don't approve of a nomination. Our candidate for magistrate was Motl Man.
The Defamation of Motl Man
In order to discredit our candidate the Poles devised a false accusation. They found witnesses who said that during the war between the Poles and the Bolsheviks, Motl Man and two other Jews disarmed Polish legionnaires.
On the basis of this statement, Motl Man was arrested and threatened with a severe punishment. I travelled to Warsaw and with the help of Senator Mendelson from Agudas Yisroel, I brought it to the attention of the Polish liberal Professor Kanopke and he agreed to take on Motl Man's defence. The Jewish lawyer from Vilna, Yosef Tchernikhov also agreed to participate, free of charge.
The trial took place in Slonim. Under cross examination from our defence the accusers became confused and in the end admitted this was a false accusation. Our lawyer Yosef Tchrnikhov renounced the accusers and Motl Man was freed.
I remember in his closing remarks Tchernikhov said the following:
They say Bismarck falsified documents in order to unite Germany. For something important, everything is worth the effort. However, it is far from important and undistinguished to devise a false accusation in order to avoid the election of a Jewish magistrate. I believe, the time will come, when a Jewish president will be elected in Poland and no one defame him.
We Fought Against Grabsky's Methods
The period when Grabsky was finance minister in Poland is well known. In those years Poland wanted to choke Jewish business with taxes. There was also a little Grabsky in Slonim. He totally ruined Jewish business in the region and there was nothing we could do to him.
One day he came to Zhetl for an inspection. He went from store to store inspecting finances and inventories. One storekeeper was not prepared. The inspector wrote an official report. When the storekeeper, on one foot, in the presence of the inspector prepared a statement (just imagine how much merchandise he had), he rejected it due to an inaccuracy and charged him a heavy fine which he had to pay on the spot.
This was not the only case. Thousands of such cases happened all over the country and there was a huge outcry. The central merchants union in Warsaw organized a convention of all merchants in order to offer advice on the situation.
The Zhetl merchant's union lead by Yitzkhak Kaplinsky asked if I would represent them at the convention. I was the only rabbi and the only Yiddish speaker at the convention. In the presence of Polish minister of commerce and the leaders of Jewish businesses Vishnitsky and Shereshevsky I explained:
How does a rabbi come to business? The reason is in order to permit Yiddish to be spoken at a Jewish convention. Then I told a story about a Jew who came to his rabbi with an emergency.
He had eaten dairy immediately after meat. The rabbi said to him:
How can you do such a thing, young man.
The person in question replied: Rabbi, I came to you for something completely different: I need to know if I am now considered meat or dairy?
I want to know the same thing about my poor little store in Zhetl. Is it meat or dairy? If he did not have his list of inventory, how could he be punished for an inaccuracy? And if he had it, then why is he punished for not having it? And secondly: I understand, taxes are demanded straight from the citizen as he is evaluated, however the solution is not incumbent on a punishment. Punishment should not be demanded if it is submitted in a reclamation.
My speech made a great impression. It was immediately translated into Polish. The next morning I participated with Vishlitsky and Shershevsky in the delegation to the finance minister.
Our intervention was successful. A few months later a decree was published saying fines can not be demanded before considering the reclamation. What made us even happier was the fact that we got rid of our own little Grabsky.
We Renovated the Bathhouse
At first the bathhouse in Zhetyl belonged to the burial society. At this opportunity I will say a few words about the society. Belonging to the burial society in Zhetl was a great distinction. This honour was inherited, passed down from father to son. A Jew could snot simply join. The society was known for its banquets. I believe throughout the year they would hold 78 banquets. I did not like this very much and once during a banquet I gave a sermon with a bit of moralizing. I will not repeat it here, but anyone interested can read in in my book Ideas and Words, part A.
The burial society sold the bathhouse to a village Jew named Yudl from Podvelik. Besides a one time down payment, the burial society promised him at a banquet he would have to pay a yearly payment of 50 ruble and the rabbi Reb Yosef Zvi Hirsh Dvoretsky of blessed memory made a declaration prohibiting the building of a second bathhouse.
When I became chief rabbi of Zhetl, Yudl from Podvelik was already running the bathhouse. Understandably, he was not concerned with modern installations, comforts or sanitary conditions.
While I was chief rabbi I was inundated with many complaints about the sanitary conditions, but there was nothing I could do. Had there not been a prohibition I may have decided to build a new bathhouse.
A Story of Swamps
Just off the highway to Lida there was a meadow overgrown with weeds. The peasants in the area knew the meadow belonged for many generations to the Jewish community of Zhetl, and only Jews were permitted to have their horses graze there. However because of the swamps the pasture was really bad. People and animals would often sink.
In those years I became a member of YEKAPO's (a Jewish social service agency) central office in Vilna. Among other things they supported Jewish farmers. At one meeting I put this issue on the agenda. YEKAPO showed interest and decided to send engineers who worked out a plan to drain out the water through canals. Unemployed boys from Zhetl carried out this work. We achieved a few goals. Firstly, Zhetl now had a good pasture for its animals; secondly we dried up the swamps which would spread plagues; and thirdly, we provided work for the unemployed.
We Planned to Move Zhetl
During my time as chief rabbi I saw Zhetl Jews were suffering greatly from tuberculosis. The reason was clear. Zhetl is situated in a valley, on the filthy small Pomerayke River.
I never understood why that spot was chosen for settlement. However the fact is I decided to look for new healthy territory to build new homes. Such land existed on the sandy hills behind Zalmen Green's house.
I decided to bring this to the attention of the Polish authorities and suggested they divide up the land into housing lots. The authorities liked my plan.
They asked us to work out the division plan. We invested a lot of money and with the help of YEKAPO worked out the plans we had agreed to supply. The authorities approved our plans but to our great disappointment decided to distribute the lots among Polish legionnaires. Only two Jews obtained lots on this property, Moishe Ruven Mordkovsky and Leyzer Mordkhai, the beadle's son. This is how this fiasco ended after we invested so much money and energy.
We Renovated the Talmud Torah
The Zhetl Talmud Torah was situated on the bank of the Pomeryake River near the old Jewish cemetery. The old Talmud Torahs were very different from todays. Firstly, wealthier Jews would not send their children there as they believed the Talmud Torah was for poor children; secondly, very little was taught.
The situation was the same in Zhetl, although the teachers were very good. There was an excellent teacher for beginners, Yosele Mendes. He had a special method. He would teach each boy separately for half an hour resulting in great success. For the older boys the teacher was Yudl the ritual slaughterer's son in law, Yenkl. He taught the bible and succeeded at this work. In those years wealthier families would send their children to a private tutor. Those tutors in Zhetl were Reb Yisroel Khonen and Reb Noyekh Eli. They both produced great results, a generation of well prepared boys who went on to study in Yeshivas.
However the Zhetl Talmud Torah had another disadvantage. The building was sinking and was neglected. I made use of my work at the Medico Sanitorium in Bialystok and got them interested in our Talmud Torah and actually received a large sum of money from them. We also received help from the rabbi Reb Khaim Ozer Grodensky from Vilna and the Mrs Reding, formerly from Zhetl, now living in Australia. With their help it was decided to rebuild the Talmud Torah.
Since the construction cost a lot of money I decided to organize people to help with the work.
One day, during prayers, I called everyone together from all the Houses of Study and announced the poor condition of the Talmud Torah and our plan to rebuild. Actually, many of those praying came with me to help with the work.
A short time later the Talmud Torah was renovated and we now had four large rooms.
First row: Eliyusha Lusky, Soreh Levoranchik, Peshe Dvoretzky, Frume Shilovitsky, Yekhezkl Garber
Second row: Sonia Shilovitsky, …Frume Gankovsky, Etl Mordkovsky, Teacher Golda, Leah Rabinovitch, Eltshe Kogan, Khane Rashkin, Soreh Mayevsky
Third row: Khaya Rokhl Senderovsky, Libe Yoslevitch, Roze Daykhovsky, Dvoyre Rashkin, Shayna Berman, Feygl Lidsky, Etl Rozenfeld, …
Last row: Hirshl Rabetz, …Yehushua Lisky, Krinsky, Motl Mirsky, Yudl Lusky
We also hired new teachers: Ginzburg and Eliezer Rozenfeld.
As a result of this reorganization, Reb Menakhem Vernikovsky and Reb Moishe Tentzer registered and taught many boys. I would come to test the boys. This stimulated the teachers and encouraged them to keep their teaching at a high level.
At the same time the problem arose about educating girls. There were not yet any Beys Yakov schools (religious school for girls). I decided to organize evening classes for girls in the Talmud Torah. From 4 o'clock in the afternoon until 8 o'clock in the evening 180 girls received a Jewish traditional education.
This is a short and partial summary of events in the communal life in Zhetl during the 18 years of my rabbinate.
I am happy that all the memories and events have found a deliverer and will reflect the suffering, the unity and the communal undertakings of the small, poor but spiritually rich Jewish community: Zhetl.
by Yosef Vinyetzky of Blessed Memory
Translated by Janie Respitz
As it is known, during the German occupation the population was in great need of food. In this respect Zhetl did not lag behind other cities and towns that were occupied and it is possible they suffered more as the breadwinner of Zhetl, the German county supervisor, was the type of person who spoke a lot and did nothing. Due to these traits the local Jews crowned him with the name: Miracle Worker.
On the first day of every month he was supposed to distribute to the local citizens' committee a set amount of rye and other products for the population that should have amounted to a half pound of bread daily per person. But instead of distributing these life sustaining goods on the first of every month he would delay it by a few days and would deduct the amount of food for the days missed claiming the people already survived those days and no longer needed those portions.
Naturally the members of the citizens' committee opposed this and they would begin to bargain with the supervisor. However, given that the amounts were previously established, he would bargain a bit.
The Spiritual Life
As a result the Jewish population was satiated with spiritual nourishment. The Jewish population had never before shown such an interest in cultural matters as during this time of hunger. The German authorities distributed for free German books, and a newspaper from Bialystok (published in German, Polish and Yiddish) which people read with great enthusiasm.
The Jewish youth opened two locales: a dramatic literary club and a Zionist group. The members of the first one were mainly young workers. The second, besides Zionists, included almost all the wealthier residents in town. Both groups had their own libraries which were filled every evening with Jewish male and female readers who would either take home books or read there. Besides this, they held meetings, literary discussion and the like.
Most people went to the Zionist locale which was right in the middle of town. Every Friday night local intellectuals would hold lectures on many issues, but mainly on Zionism. The evenings ended with the writer of these lines reciting his own humorous poems for the audience.
Saturday night would be a checkers evening. The leaders of the Zionist group would distribute a weekly journal called (The Friend) which contained literary articles, stories in Hebrew and Yiddish and a humour section. That section mainly reflected life during the occupation.
Due to technical issues only one copy of The Friend was printed and it would be read aloud to the audience. During a fire which was set by the Polish authorities, all editions of The Friend were burned together with the desire of the local youth for a cultural life.
Zhetl's Enlighteners and Writers
Our town produced doctors, engineers (the Namiyat brothers), authors of enlightened books, moral teachings and journalists. The following were among the enlightened: Menakhem Mendl Merlinsky, (the father in law of the Bialystok writer Peysakh Kaplan), who was a teacher in Zhetl for many years, Avrom Shalkovitch (Ben Avigdor) the founder of the publishing houses Toshiah and Central, Yehoshua Aysnshtat Barzilay.
I would like to mention a local writer Asher Vikhnes' (Shushan). His wife Vikhne was a woman of valour. She would run their store and their inn while he sat in the House of Study learning all day, allowing him to become very knowledgeable in bible and Hebrew grammar. In his older years he became a teacher and taught his pupils bible and grammar which he explained in an original manner. Not long before he died he published a book called The Story of Shushan containing biblical explanations.
Saniye the teacher (Natanel Patzovsky) in our town excelled even more with his writings. He was an exceptional teacher of young children who later in life wrote books of moral teachings, particularly dealing with the after life. He was also a preacher who travelled from town to town giving passionate sermons in Houses of Study, offering moral teachings. He would sell his books which after hearing him speak, the audience would buy enthusiastically; in many towns, artisans would form groups that would get together between afternoon and evening prayers and read his works.
His brother Mikhl Dantchik's (Patzovsky) also taught young children. He devoted himself to reading books on Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) of which he had a large library. For many years he wrote with beautiful calligraphy handwriting, in half rounded lines, books about Kabbalah, but due to poverty they were never published.
Four Old Men
From the 4 old men in our town, Meir the Stagecoach (Orlinsky 100 years old), Areh the carpenter (Namyiat); Noyekh Eliyahu the teacher (Levit) and Aryeh the musician (Levit), who had lots of sons, daughters, daughters in law, sons in law, grandchildren and great grandchildren, Arye the musician deserves special recognition. In his nineties besides being a musician he also worked in masonry, he built almost all the walls in Zhetl.
He also understood the so called musician's language (as seen in Sholem Aleichem's Stempenyu chapter 3) which had its own unique expressions. For example: a soldier was called a cop, and they had their own words for hat, meat, girls, brides etc…they even had their own expressions not used by others.
Seated from right to left: Efraim Kharmoni, Solomon Lubtchansky, Yosef Vinyetzky, A. Sideransky
Standing: M. Bender, Mikhl Rabinovitch, Nekhemieh Razovsky, Yakov Zimelevitch, Shmuel Shapiro, unknow, Shloimeh Khaim Vernikovsky
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