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[Page 309]

Under the Soviet Regime

Translated by Janie Respitz


The drama Club during Soviet occupation

First row: the second – Pesie Mayevsky
Second row: Sholem Bas, Yoine Brestovitsky, Hinde Mirsky, Lazovsky, Khashke Ganuzovitch, Moishe Mirsky, unknown
Third row: Yosef Indershteyn, Peysakh Rozov, Alter Gertzovsky, Noyekh Mnuskin, Etl Ovseyevitch, Yudke Khlebnik, Leybl Beshkin

[Page 310]

Under Soviet Rule

Translated by Judy Montel

The period of Soviet rule in Zhetl was very short, only from September, 1939 until June of 1941, however in this short time decisive change took place. Zhetl shed its form and put on a new one.

The public and economic structure that had existed for centuries – was cancelled. All of the political parties and the institutions – left the stage. The veteran activists from the left and the right abandoned their positions. In their stead a young guard of communists arrived. Under their influence, Zhetl began marching towards complete Sovietization.

It was not easy to adjust to the economic revolution. The merchants were deprived of their livelihood and the artisans were commanded to organize into cooperatives and guilds. Goods vanished from the market and demand exceeded supply. The farmers refused to sell the fruits of their labor and the days of bartering returned. As a result of this, the currency lost its value.

Zhetl suffered no less under the yoke of the social revolution. The “Tarbut” school became a Belorussian school. The mutual aid organizations were dissolved. The rest day of the sabbath ceased. Freely held public opinion was throttled and Zhetl began to organize its life according to Soviet commands. And yet, all of this was like gold compared to what awaited the town in the fateful year: 1942.

[Page 311]

Under the Soviet Regime

by Efraim Shepshelevitch (Bat Yam)

Translated by Janie Respitz

Beginning in 1938 there was great tension in the world. Fascist Germany with the human glutton Hitler, may his name be obliterated, wired all of Europe. Disregarding that Poland felt they were pals with the Germans, they were also frightened.

In 1939 a partial mobilization was called. Young men from Zhetl were also mobilized and the situation was tense.


Efraim Shepshelevitch


Zhetl politicians would offer their hypotheses. The main speakers were Berl Dvoretsky, Avrom – Moishe Barishansky, Artchik Green, Khaim Mikhl Roznov, Khaim Levit, and others. The majority believed that the western states would not permit an open war with Poland.

This illusion was disrupted on September 1st. The German thieves crossed the long border and called up, with all their power, the Polish army. The air force, marked with the Swastika, flew very low and shot at towns, villages, suburbs, trains and buses. There was great fear to travel on the roads, but remaining in town was also scary.


My Return Home

On the morning of September 5th I left Vilna by bus and arrived in Zhetl in the evening. They were waiting for me at home impatiently. My mother could not sleep and waited for me to get off every bus. When I finally arrived home safely, there was great joy.

The joy was short lived as the mood in town was stressful. People were walking around confused and sad knowing full well what tomorrow will bring. Our father comforted us by saying: “whatever happens will happen to all of us, as long as our family remains together”. And with these words he wiped a tear from his eye.

When you met someone on the street the first question was: “So what's new? What are they writing in the newspapers? What did the last communique let us know?”

These communiques were not at all happy. German tanks invaded Poland and had reached Warsaw. Every hour felt like a day, and every day, an eternity. We did not sleep at night and during the day we were as if in a dream.


The Soviets Free Us

Suddenly a rumour began to spread that the Soviets crossed the border and were planning to free White Russia and Ukraine. We could not believe this. Most of Zhetl's Jews were happy with this news, because under the Soviets our lives were secure.

The communists in Zhetl were particularly excited with this news and began to prepare Zhetl to be freed from the Polish aristocratic yoke even before the Soviet tanks marched into town.

On September 16th the Polish police left town and for about 48 hours we were left without any legal authority. The communists in Zhetl issued a manifesto to the population in which they asked for calm and for people to follow their orders. By then the Soviet army was near Novoredok.

Suddenly we learned a group of Polish police were coming from the Slonim highway. A few communists met them, disarmed and arrested them. A barn served as the jail and they were guarded by Jewish boys.

When the Polish police realized the guards were not armed they tried to run away. They shot into the fire truck so we could not go after them and ran to the Lida highway. A few boys chased them. Araon Leyzer Novogrudsky was wounded in this action.

The noblemen around Zhetl ran away on time but the communists paid a few visits to their estates taking furniture, paintings and other items.

On the nights of September 17th and 18th people in Zhetl were confined to their homes. On the morning of the 18th everyone left their homes waiting for the Red Army. Everyone was now an expert

[Page 312]

and began to describe what a Red army soldier looks like as well as the commanders and the tanks. Small and big, young and old, stood in the marketplace and looked in the direction of Novoredker Street.

Suddenly there was a deafening noise. A large black tank appeared in the marketplace followed by another. The applause could be heard throughout the town. People began to give kisses of joy and threw flowers at the tanks.

The army arrived at night. They flowed in like a river, with cars, motorcycles, trucks, armoured cars, tanks, a motorized division and horse drawn machine guns. Many of the Red Army soldiers thanked us with smiles for the applause, but some sat with pensive faces, not looking at anyone. They must have been missing their wives and children, family and relatives who they left at home and perhaps they also were thinking if they will ever see light again.


The New Order

A short time later about ten party officials arrived and began to organize things in the Soviet style. They confiscated a few large homes in the marketplace. The party secretary moved into Rabinovitch's brick house. Hendl's house was renovated and unrecognizable. This was now the party club. Other houses were inhabited by various institutions that ended in “com”, “yuz” and “targ”. The entire Soviet was in Shikeh Dvoretsky's house. The N.K.V.D and passport division were set up in Motl Krashinsky's house on Hoyf Street. Zabelinsky's house became a produce store but of course, there was no merchandise.

I remember very well when they brought sugar, once in a blue moon, and people lined up in the evening. They stood all night in the cold and rain only to find out in the morning it would not be distributed that day.

“Why?” everyone asked in despair.

“We received an order” was the answer.

Some went home but others did not want to believe it and remained to guard the door. When they finally did distribute food only the privileged and those with fists received any.

There were some who were agile and received food two or three times while others received nothing.

The Zloty now had the same value as the ruble. No new goods were brought to the stores, old things were set aside and sold against other goods. We were living in times of antiquity. The farmers who could not buy anything for money demanded goods in exchange for their produce and paid the craftsmen with rye, eggs, meat and the like.

Many Zhetl Jews lost their livelihoods and looked for a way to earn a zloty. Craftsmen organized cooperatives and shopkeepers tried to find work in warehouses or other workplaces.

Since Novoredok was no longer the regional capital, my father was no longer “Avreymke the Starosta (Village Elder), or as others referred to him “Mr. Provincial Governor”. There was no longer any reason to go to Novoredok.

The Raikom proposed, any one who wants to, should work the soil. A few Zhetl Jews began to do this work. My father also received a few hectares of land and we worked with our own hands.


We Went to Soviet Schools

The youth, who were not yet worried about earning a living and did not want to know where their parent's found money to buy bread, eagerly went to study.

The Soviets believed their school curriculum was at a higher level than the Polish and they placed students two levels below. The seventh graders were now in fifth grade.

The Soviets opened three schools. In the building that had housed the Yiddish Folkshul, they taught with Yiddish as the language of instruction. In the “Tarbut” School and the Public School the language of instruction was White Russian. They also opened evening courses for adults.

The first year, the majority of Jewish children attended the Yiddish school. The second year some students switched to the Russian School.

Only three Jewish teachers taught in the Russian School: Yisroel Pergomenik, Muliye Zablotsky, and another from Vastochny whose name I do not remember. The school year passed quickly and everyone was making plans for the following year.

We had the idea to learn the material of the eighth grade on our own in order to save a year. But as the expression goes: “Man plans, and God laughs”. Hitler did not allow us to realize our plans.

[Page 313]

The Tailor's Cooperative

by Lize Rozvosky

Translated by Janie Respitz

In 1939 when the Soviets arrived in Zhetl we were persuaded to create a cooperative. This was difficult because tailors who had worked independently for years in their own workshops found it hard to adjust to these changes.

These specialists began to call meetings, made a big commotion but could not create a system. Then, a few people, more audacious, put together a list, and personally went to each house.

First we went to Khaye – Soreh the seamstress. Truth be told, she was the goddess of all the surrounding villages and ran a prominent workshop. She could not comprehend the idea of leaving everything, and in her old age, join a cooperative. When we explained to her they would suppress her no matter what, she had no choice but to sign onto our list. It can be said that we broke down walls.

When Hinde Zamoshchik and Dvoshke Haydukovsky saw Khaye – Soreh's name on the list they wiped their lips and said: “Well, so be it. It is what it is”.

After the list was compiled they gave us a two story brick house on Slonimer Street, where the Pole Bogulitch once lived. We brought all of our work tools to the cooperative and hung a large sign on the street: “Women's and Men's Tailor Cooperative in Zhetl”.

However, this is when the main commotion began: to which category does one belong, who will be the leader and who will be the cutters. In one word, it was cheerful.

After long discussions it was decided Itchke Lisagursky would be the chairman. Itchke Benyaminovitch or “The God” as he was called, would be the manager and Hirshl his brother, the cutter.

This issue was more difficult with the women, but finally they chose two cutters: one for old clothes and the second for new orders. The bookkeeper was Yente Rivke Gal and the treasurer was Itke Berkovitch.

With luck we were accepted by the whole town and began to work diligently. After we had been working for a month, no one actually thought how we would be paid.

A few people thought this was an opportunity to relax after so many years of hard work. Others thought, who would know, and who do we have to report to?

The mood changed at the end of the month when salaries had to be paid. This is when we saw there were different salaries. For example, Nekhame Breskin was earning more than Krayne Mokolovsky, and Krayne more than Khaye Busel. We ran to Itke the treasurer and let out our anger on her.

“What is this, Itke “Thunder” (that's what we called her). Why did I earn so little”?

She would pathetically ask: “Why is it my fault you've been played?”

The same thing happened with the men, let them be well. You could not compare Shaul Yoselevitch with his long feet and big hands, who ran a piece of merchandise through his machine, pressed it with the iron and it was ready. Ruvke Meir's, “The raw potato pancake” had to sweat a lot to catch up to him.

Later it was clear to all they had to get used to the conditions at the cooperative. But now new problems arose, namely working on the Sabbath and holidays, even on Yom Kippur. This was difficult for Zhetl's Jews who were not used to this. Of course we came to the cooperative, but we did not work.

Our boss was a Russian Jew, Gershman, the first secretary of the Raikom party. He understood the issue and came especially on the Sabbath.

When people saw him coming they ran to their machines. Everyone would grab something in his hand. In the evening when we barely lived to see going home a speaker would descend on us, usually Mikhal Rabinovitch.

He would stand and speak, like a passionate patriot, and when everyone noticed he entered a state of ecstasy we would quietly hold our laughter, pushing each other away, until he was left standing there alone.

[Page 314]

During the Years of Soviet Rule

Translated by Judy Montel

The Germans advance at incredible speed. After just a few weeks they are already fighting in the outskirts of Volkovisk The danger is drawing near our town, but we don't yet realize its severity.

On September 17th in the morning, we heard on the radio that the Soviet Army had crossed the border and it was drawing near to Zhetl. The Polish police stations are abandoned. The policemen fled without taking their families. The city is left with no government and the population is terrified, lest the Germans conquer Zhetl first.

On September 18th at 5 pm, the first Soviet tanks arrived in Zhetl. A large crowd gathered in the market square who greeted them with loud cheering. Soviet soldiers got out of the vehicles and started conversations with the townspeople. They were interested in knowing about our lives and told us about their lives in Russia; these conversations later became the material for jokes about life in Russia.

During the first weeks of Soviet rule no change was noticeable in the commerce of the town. The stores were full of customers and there were plenty of goods.

After a few weeks, the representatives of the central government arrived in Zhetl and began to organize the governmental offices. These officials made many changes in the town. They nationalized the large shops and in a short time liquidated private commerce. At the same time, they nationalized large homes and forced their owners to leave them.

Merchants and shopkeepers began to look for work, something that involved many difficulties, even though Russia did not suffer from a lack of work, but for traders and their children, it was not easy to manage at a laboring job. The children of wealthy families did not get jobs in offices and in government institutions and they were sent to work in forests and in camps, which were run with strict military discipline.

Many Poles were exiled to Siberia, but the Jews were not affected, with the exception of the family of Chaim Kaplinski. This was the only Jewish family that was condemned by the Soviets to exile in Siberia, apparently because of their activity in the Bund party during the period of Polish rule. Later on, the “Tarbut” school teacher, Nachum Shochat was also exiled to Siberia.

At the government's initiative, two hospitals and three schools were established in Zhetl. The languages of instruction in the schools were: Russian, Belorussian and Yiddish. In addition, they established a library, a reading room and a municipal park.

Over time, the authorities agreed to allow people from Zhetl to visit cities in central Russia and life resumed its course.

Only in the spring of 1941 did it become apparent that the political situation was unstable. This was also evidenced by the train traffic. In addition to the cars full of grain and agricultural produce that Russia was sending to Germany in accordance with the agreement from 1939, one could also see cars full of ammunition. Russia gathered them on the border for any trouble that might come. We felt that war was fast approaching.

At a club next to the Catholic church, we would gather to listen to the radio. France was conquered… the Balkans were in danger… now it was clear to us that Hitler (may his name be erased) would try to execute his plan of conquering the Ukraine and White Russia, but none of us imagined that the war was so close.

June 21st was a regular nice day. The sun sent its rays and woke the inhabitants of Zhetl up from their deep sleep, but they still didn't know that the war had already broken out. When the news spread of the war, it shocked the town.

The authorities announced a general enlistment. Hundreds of men were enlisted from Zhetl and the surrounding villages who were gathered in the municipal park. All day they registered the enlistees, sorted them, and didn't let them leave the park. The following day the enlistees were driven to the train station in Novoyelnya, but they were too late, the train was already destroyed and didn't run. The enlistees felt the embarrassment and left one at a time.

The non-Jewish population in Zhetl, who did not hide their joy at the failure of the Soviets and openly showed their sympathy for the German army, followed the released enlistees with cries of contempt.

A no less depressing impression was made in the town with the arrival of the first of the injured from Dvoretz. The Soviets had built a large airfield in Dvoretz and the Germans had succeeded, already on the first day of their war, to destroy its facilities and to cause loss of life. Heavy mourning descended on Zhetl with the appearance of the first of the injured from Dvoretz.

Embarrassment also spread amongst the Soviet ruling circles in Zhetl. Loaded automobiles left Zhetl and drove the bureaucrats of the Soviet government eastwards, but the leaders of the communist party calmed the inhabitants and demanded that they stay in place. Later we found out that they already had evacuation orders but they hid them from the civilian population. Eventually, the heads of the communist party fled and abandoned Zhetl and its Jews to the German army that was drawing near the town.

The Jewish youth in Zhetl that had become connected to the Soviet authorities and were active in it, packed their things and fled with the Soviet government. A few of them were able to successfully cross the border and reach Russia, but many of them returned and several were also hurt on the way.

[Page 316]

On the Verge of the Destruction

Translated by Judy Montel

Two dates sealed the fate of the community of Zhetl. The first date: June 20th, 1941, a bitter day, on which the Nazis conquered Zhetl. And the second date: August 6, 1942, on which the final and horrendous slaughter of the Jews of Zhetl took place.

Between these two dates, the Jews of Zhetl experienced a period of 13 months of torture which brought them systematically nearer to their staggering catastrophe. We will make note of several of the horrific events to the eternal shame of the human animals who butchered our dear ones, members of the holy community of Zhetl.

14 July 1941. On this day the Nazis published the Yellow Patch command according to which the Jews of Zhetl were ordered to attach a yellow patch to their chests and backs. The intention of the command was to depress the spirits of the Jews of Zhetl and to prepare them for their physical liquidation.

15 July 1941. On this day the first six Jews of Zhetl were executed for the crime of communist activity. This was the first murder, a sign of further ills, that terrified the Zhetl community.

23 July 1941. On this day 120 of the dear people of Zhetl were taken for labor, but were in actuality shot two days later in the forest near the barracks in Novogrudok. The intention of this murder was to liquidate the respectable people of the town and thus prevent the organization of any future uprising.

28 November 1941. On this day, Zhetl was relieved of its gold, its money and all of its wealth. At the command of the Germans, the Jews of Zhetl turned over their assets that they had saved over many years.

15 December 1941. On this day, 400 Jews of Zhetl were sent to a labor camp in Dvoretz. The Jews of Zhetl struggled mightily for their existence in Dvoretz, until they were wiped out by the Nazis.

All of these events suppressed the spirit of the Jews of Zhetl, but were as nothing compared to what awaited them, and which did not tarry long in coming. On 22 February 1942 the Jews of Zhetl were ordered to abandon their homes, their property and to move to a closed area called a Ghetto. Crowded, shut in and isolated, plagued by hunger, fear and illness, the Jews of Zhetl in the ghetto drew near their tragic end.

From the darkness of this destruction two phenomena look at us that disperse the clouds of the holocaust and they are our comfort in our great catastrophe. The first phenomenon: the organization of dozens of young men in the Zhetl ghetto headed by the lawyer Alter Dvoretzki, whose photo looks out at us from the title page of this section. This group stored arms and planned a rebellion in the Zhetl ghetto. And the second phenomenon: The activities of the Judenrat, or Jewish Council in Zhetl, which included the faithful communal activists of the town and that eased somewhat the terrible suffering. Yet this suffering appeared, later, as a paradise compared to the catastrophe that overtook our town.

On 30 April 1942 the Jews of Zhetl were congregated in the area of the old cemetery and a thousand of them were led as sheep to the slaughter in the Kurfisch Forest.

On 6 August 1942 the Jews of Zhetl were congregated in the market and in the nearby buildings and two thousand of them were executed in the new cemetery. After these two slaughters, the end had come for the 450-year-old community of Zhetl.


[May Their Souls Be Bound in the Bond of Life]


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