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[Page 3]

Eishishok in the Past

 

Beginnings

The beginnings of Eishishok are obscure as are those of many other small and medium sized towns of the wide plain between the rivers Niemen, Viliya and their streams. This area was largely overgrown with thick forests and green meadows running over thousands of square kilometers.

The Russian general encyclopedia (Brokhoize-Efron) informs us that Eishishok was founded by the Lithuanian military commander Aishis in 1070 and named Aishiskas after him. According to this version, Eishishok was founded about 300 years before Vilna, which was founded by Gadimin, the great Lithuanian prince (1341-1316). Apparently, Eishishok also preceded Lida, also founded by Gadimin and lately become capital of the district.

It is difficult to assess the economic and strategic importance of the town in that period. Eishishok is surrounded by no natural fortifications. There are no important mountains or rivers powerful enough to carry boats or rafts. It's importance came later when it was situated on the main transportation route connecting the fortified cities of the Lithuanian princedom: Vilna-Lida-Novogrodek. In any event, we do know that Eishishok was capital of the district for hundreds of years and the great Lithuanian prince Vitold (14th century) erected a Catholic church in the adjacent town Yourzdiki. (In Eishishok there was no Christian Church).

Over the years, Eishishok passed from one political power to another according to the political situation in the area. Thus, in 1569 Eishishok was an estate of the Polish king while 200 years later in 1771, its owner was Prince Joseph Solohor, of White-Russian origin.

Following the division of the Polish state (at the end of the 18th century), all of the Vilna region including Eishishok was transferred to the Russians. Eishishok was subsequently part of the Lida district in the Vina region. When Poland was re-established in 1918 following the First World War, Eishishok was annexed to Poland and became part of the Novogrodek region.


[Page 4]

The Beginning of the
Jewish Community In Eishishok

The Polish general encyclopedia of 1883 informs us that Karaites lived in Eishishok back in 1145, that is, many years before the big Karaite community in Troky was founded in the 14th century. Thus, though we have no other evidence that a Jewish community existed in Eishishok at that time, we may nevertheless assume that the Jewish community there dates far back and is probably among the first to exist in Lithuania.

The presence of the Jews in Lithuania back in the 9th and 10th centuries is confirmed in several documents. The Prague Bishop Adalbert who was sent in 997 to preach the new covenant to idol worshipers in Lithuania, wrote the “ many Christian prisoners were sold to Jews because of avarice and we have no means to ransom them”.

It is also known that both Prince Gidimin (1321) and his grandson Vitold (1341) gave rights to the Jews in Lithuania. Vitold published a special Jewish law which had 37 sections and was meant to define the relations between the Jewish inhabitants of Brisk, Troky, Horodna, Lotzk, Meretsh and other places. There is no doubt that the Jewish community of Eishishok was among them.

The elders of Eishishok claim that they themselves saw in the old cemetery, tombstones dating back 600 years ago. Exact information concerning the numbers of Jews in Eishishok, their profession and public institutions, we find only from later centuries, particularly the 19th century when Eishishok became a renowned center for the study of Torah and learned Rabbis. According to one source, there were approximately 660 Jews in Eishishok in 1847 but fifty years later in 1897, during the general population count in Russia, the number grew to 2376 and constituted 70 percent of the population of the area.

The growth cannot be attributed to natural increase only. The Jewish population of Eishishok in 1897, included many Yeshiva boys. The Jewish community also absorbed the country Jews who were for-bidden to live in the villages by order of the 1882 “ May Laws”.

More details of Jewish migrations in the Eishishok district were listed in the old register of the burial company which was burnt in the “ great fire” of 1895.

It is interesting to note that the increase in the Eishishok Jewish population came to a nearly total standstill at the beginning of the 20th century. Many left to make a living in the countries of the sea, in the regional city Vilna and in other Lithuanian and Polish cities. According to the Polish count of 1921 (which, though not particularly accurate, is the only relatively reliable source for numbers), there were only 1591 Jews in the town, a decrease to 65% of the general population.

The appearance of Eishishok of 70-80 years ago is described by Mr. Yaapaz, an Eishishok Yeshiva student, in the paper HaShahar (Dawn) of the year 5639 and also by the Hatzofe editor Horshai Freedman in his book “My Memoirs “ .

The following years brought great changes to the appearance of the town. After the great fire of 1895 which nearly completely destroyed Eishishok, the town was rebuilt, many brick houses were erected, the streets became straight and tiled and pavements were later laid. The main road connecting Warsaw with Vilna passed through the town and thus the formerly remote town (the nearest station in Bastuni being 24 km away), was now situated on an important crossroad and full of traffic . The town merchants, no longer satisfied with the merchandise available in Vilna or Lida, now reached Bialystok and Warsaw, the biggest industrial and commercial centers in the country.


 

The Eishishok Surroundings

Situated in the great plain of Lithuania, Eishishok was not surrounded by high mountains or wide rivers. Only the two streams of the “ Hakantil” and “ Hoyrshoki” wound round it and disappeared in a horizon edged by dark forest shadows. The two closest forests, “ Seklutzki” and “ the Big Forest” were more than a kilometer away. In our childish eyes, the big far miraculous world began behind the “ Councillary” Building (the town's municipality) located on the crossroads of the Vilna road and the road leading to the “ Yourzdiki” village and the Catholic church. But, there were three places which attracted us in their atmosphere of myth and mystery.


[Page 7]

The Old Cemetery

Amid wide fields far from the town, behind “ the Big Forest”,' rose a long wide stretch of land, approximately 30 meters wide and 100 meters long, overgrown with low wild bushes, Most of the tombstones were deeply sunken in the land and those few Hebrew lettered stones were barely distinguishable. These are the remnants of “ the old cemetery” which had not been used by the Jews for 200 years. In our days, one could reach the cemetery by using the Vilna road, through the meadows behind the bridge on the Virshoky River, along the Yourzdiki village and thence via the road to Voronova village to the Seklotzky forest and thence down through the field paths.

But this way was dangerous for us children since there was the possibility of encountering gentiles with vicious dogs. We never ventured so far without adult accompaniment.

The elders claim that in early years a shorter and safer way was used, from the alley of the new cemetery, through the fields to the “ Hakantil” river, over the bridge and straight to the old cemetery. But in our time this way was impassable. Both sides of the Hakantil were overgrown with trees and bushes hiding it from sight and a large deep swamp made passage impossible. The Hakantil was visible only from near the bath house where the women liked to wash their linen and the children to play on its smooth stones.

There was no alternative to using the long dangerous road adjacent to the gentile village. One hot summer Sabbath, a group of us decided to take the risk and attempt to see the old cemetery with our own eyes. Our hearts were thumping with fear when we passed the dangerous stretch by the Seklotzky forest. As on every Sabbath, the forest was the gathering place of young men and women and the sounds of their merriment resounded. We bore right, passed through the tall corn and a few moments later were facing the cemetery which rose about two meters above the fields and was surrounded by a deep ditch, from that place one could see the whole town with perfect visibility. The two yeshivas were especially prominent and heading them stood the big synagogue with its three roofs, one above the other like three hats on the head.

The land was hard and barren - there were no signs of mounds or graves. A few stones were scattered interwoven with bushes and thorns. The “ expert” among us pointed to the place where horses, brought to plow the cemetery land, twice broke their legs…There is a legend about the cemetery and the story is the following: When the old cemetery became too small to absorb all the village dead, a new land was acquired, closer to the village. This was the new cemetery, which lay behind the synagogue court. The old cemetery remained lonely and deserted among the harvest fields of the gentiles. These latter eventually began annexing parts of the cemetery and ploughing there. All appeals to the farmers of the district authorities to avoid desecrating the memories of the righteous buried there for centuries, were in vain. The farmers continued their ploughing and the cemetery became smaller, while the Jews looked on in despair.

Then the miracle happened. One day, a farmer who was a renowned Jew hater, again began ploughing the cemetery ground. But as his horse stepped into the cemetery, it fell and broke two legs though there were no holes or howes in the particular spot.

When the farmer returned with another horse-the same happened. This recurred several times until the farmer realized the “ accidents” were not accidental at all. Fear of the G-d of Israel fell upon them and they ceased ploughing there. Thus the old cemetery was saved. It remained in loneliness and wilderness for 200 years surrounded by gentile fields, overlooking the village for afar, till the days of terror and destruction-the 4th and 5th of Tishray, 3702 (1942). Then again, it was filled with cries of thousands of Jews, men, women and children, led to slaughter by beasts in human form, again the parched earth soaked the blood of pious Jews. Four thousand holy bodies of tortured and murdered Jews found their final rest alongside the bones of their ancestors.


[Page 9]

The Maak (Fortress)

One of the places we children loved most was the “ Maiak”. On Saturdays and holidays, we loved playing hide and seek or thieves and policemen in its deep channels - overgrown with bushes and trees, among them raspberry and bloodberry bushes. One of our favorite sports was running down its steep slopes to the opposite side where the wheat fields lay. Often this sport ended with torn trousers or a bloody nose but the dizzying run, which required lots of courage, not all of the boys were able to muster, made us forget the punish-ment awaiting us for our torn clothing.

It was said that the “ Maiak” was erected by Napoleon during his invasion of Russia and that the Poles greatly fortified it during their great uprising against the Russians over 100 years ago. The mountain was not a natural one - it was man-made as was evident from its ring-like shape enclosing a rather large plain and surrounded by deep channels approximately 50 meters deep. There was only one entrance, from North, via a bridge crossing the channel. This bridge used to be lifted every evening by iron chains and then the Maiak was inaccessible.

In our time there was no trace of the bridge. The channels were overgrown with trees and bushes. In the court there remained a few buildings formerly belonging to the owner of Maiak-the landowner, Seklotzky. These houses were empty and half ruined and we played there often, increasing the ruin.
Of the towers, only one ruin remained. On the north-west side, hidden among trees and bushes, arose on stone-heap, surrounded by mounds of earth and stones, which testified to the former massivity of the tower. The “ Maiak” was a favorite gathering place of the Eishishok youth. There they held meetings of the “ Hashomer Hatzair”, “ Hachalutz”, the club in memory of Brener, “ Herut ve Techiya” and others. Also, its scenic corners were a common place for picture taking and during the Sabbath and holidays, the air resounded with the sounds of youth rejoicing.

However, one year Maiak was chosen as the seat of the former Polish general, Dr. Riligion, Jewish children were forbidden access, and the attractive “ Maiak”, so full of memories for us all, be- came a place to behold but forbidden to approach.


[Page 11]

The Pool

The pool was the third attraction. It was situated behind the river “ Vershoky” not far from the Admovitz farm. It was not visible from afar since it was surrounded by high banks. There was also a legend connected to the pool. During the Polish revolt against the Russians, a group of Polish rebels fled from a Cossack battalion. The Poles reached the pool and decided to throw in their money box and ammunition, swords, hand grenades etc. Some say they even threw in a cannon to avoid it being captured by the hateful Russians. The Poles then fled and scattered and thus no spoils were found by the Cossacks.

During the summer, when the pool dried up almost completely and only frogs populated its bottom, we would go there despite the danger of the ranch dogs, and search among the bushes for the lost treasure or the ammunition. Despite repeated disappointments, we never stopped visiting the pool, looking down its clear water and listening to the frogs croak, as this was the only pool nearby.


[Page 12]

Eishishok the town
of Torah and Learners

 

M. Tzinowitz

Of all the towns in Lithuania, Zamut and White Russia, where Pharisee congregations existed, our town was renowned for its congregation of the best Yeshiva students some of whom later became Gaonim, and for the large numbers of students studying in the two Yeshivas, the “ old” and the “ new”. The townsmen were distinguished for their love of the Torah and respect for its students. The Rabbis of the town were Talmudic scholars distinguished for their acumen in the Gemara, Posekim and Tosaphat as well as in practical teaching. They were of great ser-vice to the Yeshiva students studying to be teachers. Hence the attraction of the town.

The elders-of Eishishok claim that the founder of the congregation of Pharisees in our town was a renowned righteous Rabbi named Rabbi Moshe. The following story about him was told: “ On stormy, snowy Saturday night, Rabbi Moshe was not to be found among the students in the synagogue. When the janitor came at dawn, He found the Rabbi standing outside the door to prevent it from blowing open so that no chill should disturb the Torah students. Since the lock had broken and there had been no time to repair the door, the Rabbi spent the stormy night guarding the door with his own body - those inside had not noticed anything.

We may assume that this Rabbi Moshe was Rabbi Moshe Berabibi(son of ) Aharon Halevi Horwitz, an Eishishok teacher in the time of Hagra, and one of the three Rabbis in Lithuania called upon to decide in the controversy of the Vilna Congregation, between Rabbi Shmuel Berabbi (son of) Avigdor the last President of the Court in the Vilna congregation and his congregation.

Eventually, a bigger and more elegant synagogue was erected and more Pharisees came to town.

In those days, approximately 150 years ago, the President of the Court in the town, was the famous Rabbi Yosele of Lipnishok, one of the best students of Rabbi Haim of Nalozia. He supported the Pharisee students in the town and was an example of Rabbinical authority.

At that time, Eishishok was famous for its Biblical expanders and the Pharisees had an opportunity to study this Rabbinical task. Thus, in 5574 (1814),

Rabbi Yom-Tov Lipman, son of the Vilna Rabbinical teacher Rabbi Moshe Shlomo, was an active Rabbinical teacher. His book, “ Kerod Yom Tov” (Honour of Holiday), on all the weekly portions (Sdarot) of the Pentateuch, met with the Approval of all the Lithuanian Scholars of the period, among them the author of “ A Human Life”. In later years, the renowned preacher Rabbi Itzhak of Vilkomir, the author of many books on Biblical exposition widely read in all Jewish communities in Lithuania, Zamut and White Russia, was an active expositor and preacher. Rabbi Idla of Volozin called him “ the little Alshich” and the author of “ Pithai Teshuva” (Gates of Repentance) referred to his novelties in the Aggadah as “ faithful to the Torah”. He spent the latter years of his life in Jerusalem and lived to be over 100.

The “ Golden Era” of the Eishishok Pharisees was during the service of Rabbi Abraham Shmuel (5607-5615; 1847-1855), student of Rabbi David Teveli of Minsk and Rabbi Alexander Ziskind of Novoorodok. He was called the Great Gaon by Rabbis of the time and indeed, his excellent book “ Pillars of Fire” published after his death, testifies to his greatness.

Rabbi Abraham Shmuel was also famous- for his righteousness, his deeds, and his noble character. He was sickly form youth and also very poor. Some large. communities asked him to honour them by residing with them but he rejected these offers since he wished to remain in Eishishok, the town of Torah, There he died in 5529 (1859) ,, He had served for a few years as president of court in Reisen in Zumyt but then returned to Eishishok where he died.

In the book “ Ahavat David” the Love of David we read these, words of appreciation for this great man: “ He never ate unless a guest joined his table2 bi§ law was law of truth and all was based on moderation and observation.”

Of the rabbis in the town who exerted much influence on the Pharisees, one must note Rabbi Ben-Zion Sheternfeld, whose talmudic composition “ Shaarei-Zedek” (Gates of Justice) is well-known in the Rabbinical and Yeshiva world. He was an advocate of traditional education and his great pamphlet “ The Way of the Torah” which is a sharp reaction to the new system of education and the method of learning a summary of the main principles of the Torah, made a strong impression. The author of “ Chofhetz Haim” appreciated him greatly and adorned his own first compositions with Rabbi Shternfeld's approval. Notable among the later Eishishok rabbis is Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Ma-Yafit, a very clever man who held public office. He later became president of Court of the Volkoviski community of the Shavli district. Also notable was Rabbi Joseph Zundel Hutner, former rabbi of Deretshin, considered one of the great Lithuanian rabbis of the era and whose important compositions on all parts of the Shulchan-Aruch made him famous.

Some famous “ Gaonim” spent time in Eishishok as “ Pharisees”. After studying in the Yeshivas of Volozin and Mir, some of these then made Eishishok the center for their studies. For some, Eishishok served as their only center beside their home towns. Of these we should note Rabbi Meir Simcha Hacohen author of “ Or Sameach” (Happy Light), president of the court of Dvinsk, Rabbi Moshe Denishevsky, author of “ Beer Moshe” (The Well of Moses), president of the court of Deslovocoka and one of the founders of “ Hamizrachi:, Rabbi Avraham Ben Haim Liv Tiktinsky and others.

One of the natives of Eishishok, Rabbi Meir wrote of his native town that if was “ world famous as a great Torah Center, which attracted many great Torah scholars who later became Rabbis and leaders.

Other notables who studied as Pharisees in Eishishok are the learned Rabbi Mordechai Plungian, teacher of Talmud in the Vilna Yeshiva for rabbis, later chief proof- reader in the famous publishing house of the widow and brother Romm and author of famous books on linguistics and Hebrew commentary.

With the establishment and development of the Kovna Yeshiva, the increase of Yeshivas in Lithuania and especially the development of the Talmudic of the Talmudic community of nearby Redon to a large and central Yeshiva, the importance of the Eishishok “ Kibbutz” decreased. Yet, till the outbreak of World War I Eishishok held a considerable collection of Pharisees.

When Eishishok was annexed to the Lithuanian state of Kovna in 5700 (1940), the Radun Yeshiva transferred to Eishishok which also served as an initial transit station for the Polish refugees, especially Torah students, who fled from the internal Jewish enemy, the Jewish Communists. The people of Eishishok headed by their last Rabbi, Rabbi Shimon Rozovsky, acted in accordance with the famous Eishishok tradition and did much to ease the suffering of the refugees.

When the Jewish communities in Poland, Lithuania and Russia were destroyed, Eishishok, was among them. In the spiritual history of Israel, Eishishok will symbolize glory and beauty. (Published in “ Hazophe” no. 2437, 1846).


[Page 15]

From Letters to the Editor
Rabbi Meir Stalwitz,
may his memory be blessed
(the late rabbi of Zichron Moshe, Jerusalem)

If I should wish to depict my native town Eishishok, my whole life on this earth would not suffice for doing so. Who can be more familiar than myself with the town, its people, how treat they were and how much they contributed to the world.

I know that great men, observant and Gaonim, renowned in all the world, studied as children in Eishishok . Eishishok was world famous as a Torah town, and from the time I have been aware, I remember the names of the learned great rabbis of Eishishok: the Gaon Rabbi Ben Zion of Bilsk, the Gaon Rabbi Elyakum of Grodna, the Gaon Rabbi Zvi Hirsch of Volkovisk, the Gaon Rabbi Zundel Hutner and the last Gaon Rabbi Shimon Rozovsky, may G-d avenge him!

….Many of the students of the town's Yeshiva later became great biblical scholars … The home owners of Eishishok boasted that in this aspect their town was superior to all the big towns. One great scholar once suggested to them that they dispatch envoys in all the world and thus increase their “ kibbutz” and they could support an additional few hundred Pharisees, but they replied that they did not wish to share with others. After the Almighty had endowed them with wise hearts to support 100 Pharisees in great honour, they did not want to give their goodness to others.

How my heart aches now that these towns were ruined and the great scholars murdered, their blood shed for no reason. Why was the anger poured on them???

I do not know if ever there was such a time, and there is nothing left for us to do but turn to G-d, Judge of the World that He may do justice when He judges the whole world.


[Page 16]

Rabbi Avraham Berish Rosing

I am pleased that you wish to perpetuate the memory of Eishishok, since it was the first center of our holy Torah in the state of Lithuania. I am greateful that I had the privilege of studying there in my childhood in the company of great scholars. Many of those who studied there later became great and renowned scholars, I do know that the Gaon Rabbi Meir Simcha may his holy memory be “ blessed, and the Gaon Rabbi Eli Haim Meizel, The Honourable president of the Court of Lodz, and the Gaon Rabbi Yonatan who was Rabbi and president of the court in Bialystok, and was called “ Vilaavaar Elui” and the Gaon Rabbi Haim Ozer Grodzensky of Vilna and many others, learned in their childhood in Eishishok.

The rabbis who held rabbinical seats in Eishishok were famous in the Jewish world. Eighty years ago, the great Gaon Rabbi Avraham Shmuel, authors of “ Pillars of Fire” (Amudei Esh), was in Rabbinical service, followed by the great Gaon Rabbi Benzion Bilsker, the energetic author of several books of “ Questions and Answers”, followed by the energetic Rabbi Elyakum Grudrner who was followed by the great Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Ma Yafit who had great insight into worldly affairs. In the days I studied there, the great Gaon and righteous man was Rabbi Yosef Zundil Hutner, whose nights were as days and who was extremely sharp and knowledgeable in all aspects of the Torah. He was author of several books on the four parts of the “ Shulchan Aruch” (The Prepared Table). He was brother in law to the righteous Gaon Rabbi Haim Liv Stwisker may his sacred memory be blessed, author of the Question and Answers” book “ A Lion's Face”. Father of the great Gaon Rabbi Meir Stolevitch, author of “ From the House of Meir”, formerly Rabbi in Heslevitch and later Rabbi in Zichron Moshe in Jerusalem,

Rabbi Avraham may his sacred memory be blessed, was a great expert in the Torah as well as being a very righteous man. The excellent Rabbi Gaon Yohanan Zopovitch,Rabbi of Tiberias and formerly of the Lithuanian town Radzivilshky, was also a native of Eishishok. Also the famous preacher of Minsk, Rabbi Benjamin Minsker, was a native of Eishishok. And the righteous Gaon Rabbi Henoch Hacohen who taught Torah for over 40 years, was also Eishishok born; he fathered the following Gaonim Rabbis:

Rabbi Yoel Hacohen who was also dean of the rabbinical college in Vilna for nearly 40 years, and the Rabbi Gaon Aharon Shmidt, formerly Rabbi of the Vison Community in Lithuania and presently of the rabbinical society of the Hagra (Gaon Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna) Yeshiva and preacher in the “ Gemara Society” and the society of “ Tiferet Bahurim”. Also the “ Gaon of Dvinsk” studied in Eishishok in his childhood as well as the Rabbi Gaon Avraham Kalmanovitch Honorable President of the court of Tiktin,

The Gabbais (managers or treasurers of the synagogue) who endeavored on behalf of the Yeshiva students were: in the old Yeshiva, Rabbi Avraham Openheim and his brother in law Rabbi Benjamin Ratner and in the new Yeshiva Rabbi Shlomo Drucker (“Ferber”), father of the Rabbi Gaon Yaakov, president of the court of Osstrin and author of “ Proverbs of Wisdom” (Imrei Haskel) and other books. He was very knowledgeable in the Bible and an excellent expositor, intelligent as well as a very pleasant man.

The second Gabbai was also an excellent man of the distinguished lineage of Rabbi Baruch Eli, son of the Gaon Rabbi Menachem Mendel, the honorable president of the court of the Radon community.

The home owners in Eishishok were excellent people, G-d fearing and knowledgeable in the Torah and even the poorer ones supported the needs of the yeshiva students with great respect. Due to their respect for the Torah, they had the privilege of having rabbis as sons and sons in laws. Eishishok was the only community which did not send emissaries to the Diaspora communities since the home owners shouldered the responsibility of supporting the Yeshiva students and donated considerable sums of this purpose, even beyond their means. Not only prosperous and middle class home owners participated in this effort; but also the artisans; coachmen, shoe makers, tailors, and other hard workers. It was a great pleasure for them to support the “ Pharisees” and they treated the students as loyal fathers treat only sons. Happy is the eye which beheld all this! And how great is our sorrow that this large town of Israel and its dear inhabitants, worthy before G-d and their fellow men, were victims of evil men and that we have no remnants of this Torah center, mother of the largest Yeshivas in Lithuania.

Written by Rabbi Avraham Brish Rosing, founder of the “ Tehilat Israel” society in the big synagogue in Tel-Aviv, Rabbi and president of the court in the Limberg community in Latvia, called “ Ber Salanter” in Eishishok.

 

eis017a.jpg
HaRav HaGaon, R' Yosef Zundel Hutner, one of the great geniuses of his time. Served as Chief Rabbi of Eishishok for 25 years (the picture is on a German identity card from 1916 - two years before his death, and he was then about 71 years old)

 

eis017b.jpg
HaRav HaGaon, R' Shimon Rozovski hy”d - the last Rabbi of Eishishok (see page 125)

 


[Page 18]

From the Press of the Period;
Hashachar (The Dawn)
4th copy, 1879; by Yaapaz, written in 1878

Eishishok is a small town with lots of people, one of the worst towns in Lithuania. It has three crooked streets. Its market is very wide, equaling in width its length, and at its center there is a circle of 30 shops, which have turned green with age. The elders believe that demons dance there at night. The shops are as small as chicken pens, they have side-entrances and it is no small difficulty to enter them. The turnover is small since there are more shops than buyers, Thursday is market day and then the air is filled with the quarrels of old ladies. They are surrounded by stacks of barley bread and cakes as black as raven wings. These are bought only when someone is ill because otherwise people bake for themselves. The noise and curses here remind one of Yatkaaiva street in Vilna, In 1865 the whole town was burnt down, and only the circle of shops, the end of Vilna street and the “ old” Yeshiva remained. The houses are dilapidated, the streets unpaved and dirty. The women are occupied chiefly with washing clothes while their husbands roam the villages to make a living. The two Yeshivas and a synagogue form a triangle. They are surrounded with stables, a toilet house and not for the cemetery.

There are about 80 “ Pharisees” studying in the two Yeshivas. One man, Haim “ Treger”, brings food to the Yeshiva for 10 kopeks a week from each Pharisee. In the old Yeshiva, the food carrier is Gedalya Shekradz. Ropes are tied round his back and these are beaded with pottery and mugs. Gedalya goes from door to door to collect cheese, milk and herring for the Pharisees. In the old days when the inherited land still belonged to the Eishishok Jews, Gedalya was a cow herd.

Each year a Rabbi would come to test the Pharisees in the laws of Tfilah and Niddah (non kosher food and impurity) and for 5 RO he would give them rabbinical ordination. But because of lack of rabbinical seats most were forced to become teachers and remained bitterly poor.

The town had three butchers, two shames and two permanent Dayanim. The new Yeshiva had four Gabbais, the baker - an old sinner who harassed the learned, - a repentant who afflicted himself and was as dangerous as “ a bear robbed of its cubs”, The second Gabbai, Shalom Gershon G,-harassed the Haskalah lovers. The third-,,, Bitz - was as hypocritical as Lava'n the Aremite. The fourth-Yehuda K. a commoner from a family of wagoners- was a cheat and a thief.

Their righteous rabbi issued a decree forbidding the acceptance of bachelors to the Pharisee community but when the numbers of those joining the community decreased, the decree was cancelled and as a result the numbers of boys who came increased, among which were many Haskalah lovers. At the point, the fanatics began persecuting the latter and one yeshiva boy, son of a famous rabbi, was expelled in disgrace. Letters were written to his home town accusing him of scepticism and he was tormented on this account. In the month of Elul, the synagogue treasurers and the fanatics convened and decided that those who handed over their heretic books to be burned and signed in the book that they would turn their back on their evil ways, would not be harmed. Many of the soft hearted succumbed and turned over their books to the fanatics. But other Haskalah lovers continued to pore over their books in secret until an informant made the practice known. Arie, the baker, turned heaven and earth till at last it was decided to burn the books in public and this was done. One boy was found to have an edition of “ Hashachar” (The Dawn) and the town was in uproar but he could not be expelled since he supported himself.

The Gabbais invaded the Pharisee rooms, broke locks and carried away books by Shulman, Smolenskin, “ The Sins of Youth”, “ Love of Zion” to the rabbis' house where they were burned.

In the summer of 5637(1877) a bookseller came to town with Haskalah books most of which he had in the hotel. Judge Rabbi ben Yehoshua wrote the hotel owner to hand over the heretic books to Gabbai Shalom Gershon and pawn them till the bookseller left Eishishok so that he would be unable to sell them to the Pharisees and influence them.

(The above letter is presented in its entirety though some matters mentioned are vastly exaggerated. We can learn however of matters concerning earlier generations which the author mentions incidentally, It is an irrefutable fact that Eishishok, supposedly so dark and obscure, produced many authors and learned men who honorably represented their home town , the town of Torah and Pharisees, signed, The Editors,)


[Page 20]

From the Memoirs of A.A. Freidman
5686(1926) Tel Aviv

Mr. Friedman was formerly Warsaw Editor of Hatzopheh

Eishishok is an old, worn-out town, Its streets are covered knee-high with mud. Its houses are decrepit wooden structures and its Jewish inhabitants are bent and broken. Their whole life is concentrated on the worries of making a living, petty minded details of their trade and low pay.

But their deep black eyes also transmit feeling of pride, This pride is due to their being inhabitants of Eishishok which is a center of Torah in Lithuania, second to the nearby Volozhin. The Yeshivas are full of all kinds of students from near and far. All studiously pore over the Torah while the townsmen provide them with bread and stews and some of the fanatic Orthodox home owners conduct the whole business. Some of these are hypocrites who furiously persecute any student found with a suspect book. In such cases they invade the students' sleeping quarters and search through their belongings. Any “unkosher” book is confiscated. At times, following a general search, they conduct an auto-da-fe in the synagogue court. I myself witnessed how a book found in the quarters of Pharisee was brought to one Gabbai but the title page had been torn off. Students did this several times in order to prevent suspicion. On the first page of that book a dedication had been written. The dedication began with capitalized letters reading “El Kavod”. The “learned” mistook these words for the title of a famous banned book and triumphantly ordered it burned.

One tall man whose face was roughly lined was pointed out to me. His name was Todros and the following legend was told about him: when he was a baby, his parents gave him to the care of a wet-nurse, as was the general practice in Lithuania, His parents later took him from the first wet-nurse and transferred him to another. The first lady issued a legal claim to the court in the town and later transferred the claim to a higher court. The baby had meanwhile spent two years with the second wet-nurse and eventually reached the age of Bar-Mitzvah, marriage and good deeds. When Todros was 30 years old, the court finally issued an order that he be treated by the first wet nurse... who by that time was an old woman. Hence the Lithuanian proverb, “Todros must suck” which is said to express dissatisfaction when settling a matter is delayed for a long time.


[Page 22]

The Great Fire of 1895

One of the major events in Eishishok was the great fire of 1895, Most of the houses in the town, which were built of wood, were destroyed in this fire. Also the Yeshiva schools were burned. After the fire, the dates of event in Eishishok such as births and weddings were calculated as of the “ great fire”, The big register of the burial society which was several hundred years old, was also destroyed.

The fire received wide coverage in the Hebrew press of the time, Rabinovitz, the editor of “ Hamelitz” and author A.L. Levinsky, both former Eishishok yeshiva students, wrote several articles on the subject. It is interesting to note that Levinsky and other writers emphasized the fact that the home-owners had themselves supported the yeshiva and its hundreds of Pharisees and did not turn for help from the outside as was the practice of the other famous yeshivas of the time, Volozhin, Novogrodek and others. There is therefore, these writers claim, a double duty to help reconstruct and generously support the Torah-town.

A special committee was formed under the patronage of the district governor, which collected contributions for the town.

We now bring excerpts from “ Hamelitz” newspaper and the book of the Dayyan Rabbi Elazar (Rabbi Layzar) Vilkansky, The Jews of the village were responsible for reconstructing not only the ruins of their village but also the center of Torah learning. The yeshiva schools were slowly built and Pharisee students again began to flock there. The Eishishok Jews despite their own financial distress, welcomed them hospitably and shared with them their bread. Their main concern was the scarcity of books many of which had been destroyed by the fire, An article published in the newspaper “ Hatzfira” a year after the fire, testifies to this need, In this article, Mendel Itzhak Berman appeals on behalf of the committee of Hatzfira readers, for contributions of books to the yeshiva schools in the town for Eishishok to become once again a center of learning. He writes that the treasury of the yeshiva is empty and there still remain outstanding bills for the yeshivas burned in the fire. Contributors names, he promises, will be immortalized in the register of the community,


[Page 23]

Hamelitz
(24 Sevan, 5655-June 4, 1895)

Three weeks have passed since G-d's anger was poured upon the Jewish towns and newspapers are full of terrible descriptions of the state of these towns and their unhappy inhabitants. It is wondrous that among the other burned towns, the forsaken Eishishok is mentioned only in passing. …” the child will not cry and its nurse will not rush to its aid” ….Eishishok is silent and no one takes it to heart, Indeed, the town has been silent thus far…shocked into silence since the disaster is unbearable. 400 houses were destroyed and the few whose houses were spared, lost their money and property to the destitute who saved nothing. Thus all the town's residents are wretched together.

Eishishok is situated far from a city, the business of the town was concentrated in the town itself and the residents made their living off each other. The fire left them naked and therefore the disaster is so great and intolerable,

Please be merciful, generous Jews, and have compassion for the 3000 destitute people now tramping the streets and fields, hungry and naked, with no support and nothing to lean on. Remember how Eishishok has served as a center for Torah learning and has never depended on outside assistance. Support it now as it is so very poor.


[Page 24]

The Fires and the Burned
(Hamelitz-20 Tamuz, 5655; June30, 1895)

A.L.Levinsky

Had Eishishok been the only town burned, there would be hope for its reconstruction, But Eishishok has no luck even in burning. It was burned just when Brisk, Kobrin and others were also burned, This makes everyone think: what is Eishishok in comparison with Brisk? Only a native of a small town who realizes what ruin a fire can cause to such a small town, will understand the situation of Brisk and Eishishok,

In Eishishok no Jew can earn a decent sum of money in one year to enable him to build himself a house-so who would take the trouble of rebuilding the ruined town? But Eishishok is not a town to be compared with other small towns, Eishishok is extraordinary. It is a center of Torah learning in the full sense. It cannot be compared even to Volozhin, Volozhin lives off its student guests, its Torah is of Israel and its living if off its Torah. Eishishok in contrast, supported its Torah center not for the sake of a reward, and indeed, it supported a fine Torah Center, All its guests were satisfied and earned their bread honorably.

In my childhood I heard wonders about Eishishok's love of the Torah and its Pharisee students who were supported by the natives themselves, the natives would rather go hungry and thirsty so long as the students would suffer no want. Those who study before G-d will not want for bread or water; there will always be a candle to provide light and wood to keep them warm, the good people of the town supplied everything - they never asked for charity, nor did they send out emissaries, nor did they negotiate nor make a big fuss. This small town often supported 500 students. And this town was burned.

We have an obligation to honour and rebuild it. Eishishok never asked the holy congregation of students for anything and preferred to support the Torah itself and this involved supporting perhaps myriads of our brothers. Now the town is burned, we all have a responsibility to support the survivors, May they rebuild their homes and the center of Torah studies!


[Page 25]

Hamelitz-September 14, 1896

Four months have passed since our town-center of Torah studies-has voiced its appeal for the mercy of our merciful brothers. Chaos and destruction are still wide- spread. More than anything else, we are concerned about the yeshiva schools while we , residents of Eishishok, can in no way completely rebuild ourselves,,,, Well-known Gaonim came from our town, For approximately 100 years the Eishishok schools provided education and when the Volozhin yeshiva was destroyed, Eishishok remained alone. Eishishok has not healed from its heartbreaking misfortune even after the contribuitons it received. Where shall Eishishok look for help if it cannot depend on those pure-hearted people cpable of appreciating its qualities and importance?

We must conclude with the following announcement: our president of the court is moving to the town of Vilkavishk, We therefore request the honorable rabbis to avoid exerting themselves to come to Eishishok to apply for the vacancy since we will only summon and offer the rabbinical seat to a rabbi of our choice.

Speech of Haim son of Rabbi Moshe Strelitzky


Excerpt from the book “From Wave to Wave”

by Meir Vilkansky

It was market day and the town was full of Goyim and carts. When the fire broke pit everyone tried to escape from the town, pushing through the pedestrians…The fire leapt from roof to roof… it suddenly appeared in unexpected places…The fire spread throughout the town, women and children were rushing through clouds of dust and flames of fire., the whole town became one great flame…the people fled to the grass banks of the river and crouched there or rushed about. A howl arose from the crowd for the babies and holy books burned in the fire. Children and hid from the fire beneath the bench in the “ Heder” and there burned alive. My niece was burned in her crib. Her father came running home from his shop; he shouted out to find out of anyone was at home and no one answered; he grabbed a pillow in his hand and fled. Woe! He did not look in the crib! The pillow was saved and the baby burned….

People were pushing along the river and through the fields frantically searching for lost ones…the day was ending ,,,the fire receded, but the sky was red and enflamed. ..when dawn broke the city had vanished from the face of the earth.,,only a group of houses.in the “ new street” (Radun St.) survived, This was due to the trees in the Pharmacy garden which blocked the fire and arrested its advance, The weeping did not cease.,, people searched for burned bodies… seven mothers were howling beside the bones of their children burned in the heder and the sound of their cries rose to the skies, the ruins of the two yeshivas and the synagogue stood naked.

Days passed. Carts loaded with bread and clothes came from nearby towns. Money was also sent. The editor of “ Hamelitz” sent 3 rubles for the survivors and published an article and a call for support for this town which had always provided support for its yeshiva students. He neither took vengeance nor bore a grudge, He forgot how Eishishok had expelled him in shame from the yeshiva and the town (after being caught reading Haskalah books - the editor).

 

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