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[Page 323]


The Annihilation of Dunilovichi

Testimony by Nachke Svirsky

Translation supplied by Eilat Gordin Levitan and Daniel Wainer,
grandson of Mayer Svirsky Z”L, the brother of the author

Nachke Svirsky Z'L was born in Dunilovichi to Yoel Pinie (Pinchas) Svirsky and Ester nee Chanovitz of Vilna. In 1940 he immigrated to Argentina following his brother and his sister in law, Meyer Svirsky Z”L and his wifen Itke Z”L, daughter of Shmuel Ligumsky . Meyer and Itke arrived in Argentina in the 1920s. Nachke lived and worked with his brother. He was very attached to the family of his brothers' only daughter. There were two girls from the Svirsky family who survived the holocaust, they lived in the Soviet Union. The family, who mostly lives in Israel today, lost touch with them and wishes to reunite.

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Yoel Pinie Svirsky' family
from the people pictured, only Nachke
( standing in the middle) survived the war

The Geographical Scene

Prior to World War II, the shtetl Dunilovichi formed part of the Vilna Region. Between the two World Wars, the region of Vilna was part of Poland. Today the region is split from Vilna and the eastern part of the former Vilna region, where Dunilovichi is located, is now in Belarus. Dunilovichi was situated about ten kilometers from the train station Varpaieve, where trains traveling through Vilna stopped. A highway passing through the shtetl connected the station with the town. Dunilovichi is situated about a hundred twenty kilometers from Vilna (Vilna is the Capital of Lithuania now) and thirty kilometers from Glubokie.

Two large lakes surrounded Dunilovichi. The young people of the shtetl would often go boating on the lakes during the summer and ice-skate on the frozen lakes during the winter. A river spanned by two bridges cut through the shtetl. One bridge crossed the river and the other linked the two lakes. Abundant with color, verdant and dense forests encircled the scenic town.

Dunilovichi up to the onset of the First World War (1914)

The Jews lived in the center of the shtetl. The Christians only lived on one street, the largest one in town. In the old days, the marketplace, encircled by Jewish owned shops, was located in the center of the shtetl, next to the White Church. Later,
the market was moved to the vicinity of the Town Hall. Every Tuesday, the peasants from the surrounding villages would gather in the market place, bringing their agricultural products for sale. They traded the money they earned to buy provisions from the Jewish stores. Examples of the provisions include salt, sugar, kerosene, haberdashery, metal products, pines, etc. The shopkeepers and grain dealers would sustain their families for an entire week from this one market day.

Although the owners of metal and fabric businesses tended to be better off then others in the community, few wealthy Jews resided in Dunilovichi. With no credited physicians in town, the barber-surgeon served as a doctor and the pharmacist was a Jew. Considering the size of the shtetl, too many poor Jews worked as wagon-drivers. If one of their horses fell dead, they would not allow Torah readings to continue on the Sabbath until one of the Gabbaim (beadles) promised to supply them with a new horse.

A significant number of tailors and shoemakers worked in the shtetl. Earning their daily bread with difficulty, they labored from the early hours of the dawn until the dark hours of the night. In comparison, the glaziers were better off since they were not stationary, traveling through the neighboring villages. Jews who sold soap, cartwheel grease and kerosene also earned their fill of bread.

There were three synagogues in Dunilovichi. There was a “mitnagid” synagogue (A traditional orthodox synagogue, as opposed to Hasidic). As the oldest and largest synagogue in town, the synagogue supported its own rabbi. Most of the poor Jews prayed in the small shul, the most strictly observant synagogue in town. The wealthy and not-so-observant Jews prayed in the “aristocratic shul.”

The only bathhouse belonged to the Jews. The well-off Jews would rent this place out. Much of the income used for such services supported the rabbi and the doctor. There was also a gmilut chesed society with a small fund dedicated to “free loans.” They loaned individual Jews a few rubles, which they could repay in small sums, free of interest.

There were three Heders (small schools) in the shtetl. Zalman was the Melamed (teacher of religious studies) for the beginners. He always carried a whip in his hand. The second Melamed was also named Zalman. He was nicknamed the “he-goat.” He would teach Humash and Gemara. He also supplemented his income by baking buns and bagels. The third Melamed was Pesach Leib Mushkat, a teacher that followed the modern fashion. Besides teaching Chumash and Gemara, he also taught classes to develop proficient writing skills in Hebrew and Yiddish.

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The Yiddish School, 'folkshul'
(secular Jewish elementary school). Winter 1922

The War Of 1914 (The First World War)

Soon after the war broke out between the Russian empire and Germany, many Russian soldiers of the Czar passed through Dunilovichi, part of the Russian empire. As was the custom then, soldiers were quartered in private houses. Soldiers who came to town on their way west to the front, were found in every home. Since there were no alternatives, they had to sleep on the floor. With the coming of the soldiers, commerce picked up and Jews earned a good livelihood. They had almost gotten used to the “benefits” of the war, as long as the front would remain far from them

However, on one nice day, the front suddenly came closer and shells began to fall on the shtetl. Amidst great panic and indecision, people asked each other, “Where should we go?” Others asked, “Should we remain here and hope that it will pass or should we run away to the east, away from the rapidly approaching front?”

We saw many of the Jewish people running into Shmuel-Yehudah's cellar. When we arrived there, we met numerous families, loaded with all of their bedding. There were a few amongst us who were sick with very high fevers. Covered only with white sheets, the afflicted lay like corpses on the bare earth.

Deathly silence reigned there. No one dared utter a word. In this way we spent several days and nights. We found ourselves stuck between two fires. When it momentarily got quieter, we ran back home to take a look, to see whether the peasants had robbed us of our humble possessions. Many of the non-Jews did not hide. After the Jews left to their hideouts, they used this opportunity to wander about the Jewish homes and steal whatever they wanted.

After a few days, the bombardment finally ceased. During the battle between the two armies, many homes were damaged. Curious as to whether the shtetl belonged to the Germans or the Russians, the Jews began to creep out of their hiding places. Suddenly, Yisroel-Laizer appeared in front of us. Everyone found their tongues and began asking him, “Who controls the shtetl?” He said that he knew nothing about this. He quipped, “I only know that Merke, my wife, is cooking “shtshav” (sour leaves) and eating it.” The crowd laughed at this sign that the danger was over and that we could allow ourselves a bit of fresh air. The children climbed out of the crypt. With their belongings in hand, everyone spread out onto the streets of the shtetl.

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A group of youth

The War Between The Bolsheviks And The Poles

The community of Dunilovichi experienced much of the ways of war by the time that Germany was defeated and the Soviets took control of the Russian empire. Battles between the Bolsheviks and the Poles soon started over control of our area. Once again, the Dunilovichi Jews began to hide in the one suitable cellar, belonging to Shmuel-Yehudah. Some hid in the White Church, which belonged to the Russian-Orthodox. The bombardments were not as heavy as they had been previously, but we were still afraid to walk through the shtetl. Shells feel around every step that we made.

When it all quieted down, we came out and found that we were under Polish rule. The first meeting with them ended tragically. On the first day, the Polish soldiers seized a Globokie Jew, who had all his life traveled through the villages and sold needles and soap. When they looked through his sack and found other merchandise, as well as a pair of Tphillin to boot, they were sure that they had captured an honest-to-goodness spy. They beat him brutally and then took him to the cemetery, where they shot him. This made a strong impression on everyone. It didn't take long before the Poles retreated from the shtetl and the Bolsheviks took over. The first person to come out of the hiding place and greet them was Tzire Gendel. She immediately ran back to the cellar and announced that “the comrades have arrived and there is no reason to fear them.” Upon hearing these words, everyone grabbed their bedding and returned to their homes.

Dunilovichi soon revitalized. The air was filled with proclamations, flowers and fiery speeches, which promised that good products were plentiful in Russia. People actually danced for joy in the streets. “An end to slavery arrived; everything belongs to us now: The forests, the fields, the lakes! All belong to the people. We are the proprietors of everything.” We indeed went out to the forests and brought back enough wood for heating our homes for the winter. Whoever didn't have a horse, borrowed one, and brought back dry twigs. A rumor spread later that anyone who wanted potatoes could go into the nobles' fields and dig out as many as he wished. For many days people lay in the fields and filled their sacks with potatoes. We, the insignificant ones, went into the fields of Graf Sod, shook the trees and pulled off apples and pears. We used the fruits to cook up a compote, the best treat to eat with bread.

Once while sitting in the trees at the right height for putting apples into a sack or holding it in our bosoms, a non-Jewish boy ran up to us and began yelling at us to stop. But no one listened to him. Within a few days, nothing but leaves remained in the orchard. The Jewish-owned domestic animals also had a party. Previously they had the worst pasture, and now they pastured with the Graf's domestic animals.

Within a few weeks the Bolsheviks had to retreat and the Poles returned ( c 1920). The difference was immediately felt and the atmosphere changed. People lost their confidence and this was obvious on the faces of all. We found out that Mendl Abes had been shot for no reason while sitting on his own porch. Even though the front was now far from the shtetl, we were afraid to be on the street. The remaining few hooligans became the lords.

Slowly, life returned to normal. People began to work, stores opened again, peasants brought their produce to market on Tuesdays to sell and buy their necessities in the stores. The front had moved to the area of Glubokie-Disne.

At this point, I must recall a horrendous event. One early morning, I heard terrible screams piercing the quiet of the street. I ran out to see what had happened. Panicking people were running everywhere and filling the streets. What had happened? A soldier had passed by Michael the blacksmith's house and noticed a few girls on the porch. He had removed his rifle from his shoulder and shot one of them, hitting her in the head with a dum-dum bullet (which explodes), so that the entire wall was splattered with her brains. The town of Dunilovichi had never witnessed such a tragic funeral. They had to gather up pieces of the girl's skin and place it in a sack. Her uncle Shmuel-Yehudah Skiransky rolled on the ground and screamed with shrieking sounds. I had never before seen a whole shtetl cry with such anguish. When the public went afterwards to demand justice from the Commanding Officer (there was martial law and the military was in charge), the soldier excused himself by saying that he meant only to fool around and had not thought that his gun was loaded. The entire incident ended in this way. There was no one else to complain to. The fate of the Jews of the shtetl lay in the hands of a few hooligans. Since the border was far from the shtetl, it was there that trade (illegal trade with the Soviet Union) developed. There was a shortage of many products. Sugar, for example, couldn't be found at all. People started drinking tea with saccharine or dried fruits. There wasn't much of a supply of bread either. Salt was completely lacking. People struggled to sustain themselves until peace was declared between the Bolsheviks and the Poles and Dunilovichi became part of Poland.

The new Polish rulers without delay demonstrated their capacity to govern. In a short time, they set up a city council, a bailiff (judge) and a Jewish village magistrate. His name was Aron-Zelik Drutz, a shoemaker, who couldn't read or write. Nevertheless, he held the position for 4 years. When he had to deal with documents concerning taxes, he would touch them with his fingers and say, “Here, this must be for you!” Interestingly enough, he rarely made a mistake. It was often said in the shtetl that Aron-Zelik reads with his fingers better than the bailiff reads with his eyes.

Dunilovichi became poverty stricken during the war years. The stores were empty and after being robbed so many times, the former wealthy had become poor. Many people left as the front came near and moved east to Russia. Some died during the war as soldiers, and a few remained as prisoners of war in Germany. In short, Dunilovichi was emptied of most of its populace.

The will to survive slowly caused people to forget the hard times. They started to look forward to the future. It seemed that everyone, each in his own way, set about looking for some source of livelihood. The Dunilovichi Graf, whose name was Tiskevitski, owned all of the walled stores, some houses and the well. Many of the buildings and homes were bought from those who had previously lived in them.

The new Polish rulers quickly set about converting this old White Russian area into a Polish community. The local inhabitants had spoken their White Russian language for hundreds of years. No one there spoke Polish or even understood it. In a short while, the White Russian Orthodox Church became a Catholic Church. This greatly angered all of the Belarusian villagers in the area. The root of the anger was the fact that the Holy Portraits had not been turned over to them in order to be transferred to the nearby village (Azun), 5 kilometers from the shtetl. In this White Church, many Jews had hidden during the crossfire that had taken place during the war.

Quickly a notice arrived from the government, announcing that a beginners' school would be set up to serve the entire population. The teaching would be done in the Polish language. Tuition would not be required and it would be free for all. Despite this, a very small number of children enrolled in the new Polish school. I don't know the reasons, but it is a fact that from the entire shtetl, only ten Jewish children enrolled. The remaining children continued their studies in the Heders with Peise-Leib and Zalman Razov. Rozov was by this time a qualified teacher and not just a “melamed” (Heder teacher). One could learn Yiddish, Hebrew and singing from him. I recall that one day during the period between the afternoon and evening services, Alter, the rabbi's son, told the group to take a break until the evening service. We all went outside. When we returned, the rabbi asked where we had all gone. When no one answered, he made us stand in a line and gave each one of us three heavy piles of logs to hold. Everyone kept quiet, but one kid by the name of David Skriansky threw the pile away. The rabbi “honored” us with a couple of smacks and sent us home.

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The Yiddish school in 1932

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