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[Page 241]


(Nechayevka, Ukraine)

47°30' 36°46'

Translated by Moshe Kutten

Edited by Yocheved Klausner

My colony, like all the other colonies in the provinces of Yekaterinoslav and Kherson, does not exist anymore; however, it is etched very deep in my heart, since it was where I was born at, where I spent my first childhood years at and where I made friendships among my age group. These were my first years of teaching – years full of amazement and wonder, and also of fighting and overcoming routine. These were the years of my dreams, which were in tune with the dreams of the generation about the salvation of the human society along with the salvation of the Jewish people. Some of the dreams were fulfilled, in a much deeper and wider scope than what the imagination dared to dream during those days, and some were found to be false in a way much more extreme than even the most pessimists and cynical could ever think about…

My colony was not related to those dreams. It did not take any part in all of the social and political events, which happened in Russia and to its nations, the Jewish nation among them, during the days that I resided in it, except two or three of its youths who were ignited by the fire of the idealism. However, it received a major part of the troubles and suffering during the stormy fights between the various freedom fighters and all sorts of demons, which erupted out of the opened bottle, and of the bitter disappointment that followed the awakening form the far–flung illusions. How tragic and cruel was its end! How big and horrible was the price it paid for a sin it never sinned in dreaming vain dreams, which captured a few of its best sons, who took part in the events that occurred in the “big world.” It paid in its heart and blood for the flame of their muddled social struggles, stormy discussions, fervent songs, glamourous dreams, and sleepless nights. It paid with its actual existence. It is no more. When I write these lines, my heart is crying without consolation…


Netchayevka was one of the Jewish colonies in the province of Yekaterinoslav, and not the biggest one. There were only fifty plus courtyards in it, arranged on both sides of one street. The houses were spacious one–floor clay houses whose roofs were made of straw, which grayed out from the years that passed. The yards were spacious – about half of a disiyatin (about 5

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dunams [1.35 acres]). Every one of them was narrow and long, stretching towards the fields, which encircled the colony. Except the residential house itself (sometimes two houses facing each other beyond the entrance – if the family was large), one could also find, in the front side of the yard, a cowshed (most of the time not more than one cow), a stable (not more than two horses), a small chicken–coop serving the house needs, and a shed for the wagon, plow, harrow, scythes, threshing stone, oil press and other primitive tools they used for agriculture in those days.

In some yards, one or two trees were planted near the house (mostly fruit trees, a blackberry tree by us) as well as some small and meager vegetable beds, serving only the family. The rest of the yard area was used for cultivation of grain crops and sometimes corn and watermelons.

Besides the few trees in the yards, there were no other fruit or ornament trees in the colony. The street was quite wide, relative to the rural standard in Russia during those days. It was covered with a thin layer of dirt in the summer, and in the winter with thick waterlogged mud, which could not be passed through without tall boots. Along the street, near the houses, there were narrow walks covered, here and there, with wood boards to walk on during the rainy days.

I do not recall having a well in our yard. It is possible that we drew water from a well in a neighboring house. It goes without saying that we did not have toilets in the house, and certainly no bathtubs. One would do his business outside, at the edge of the yard, under the open sky in a ditch that separated the yard from the fields. Only Aharon Noodle, the old bachelor, who did not get married and never established a family due to a disappointed love, built for himself, in his old age, a “modern” toilet close to his home. Jokers in the colony who were book readers used to say about him that “he is not rich after all, since the toilet is near his home but not near his table”… [a phrase by Rabbi Yosef in the book Ein Yaakov].

They would take a bath (only during summer days) in a small and shallow pool, that its bottom was muddy, located beyond the yard. They would also bring the horses to be washed there. The big children would take a bath together with the horses while riding on them. During the months of Tammuz–Av [roughly July – August], the water in the pool would evaporate leaving only some mud puddles, full of broken tools and rugs that the small children would throw into the pool when it was full and overflowing, to see the stirred rattling ripples moving in expanding circles, fading away and disappearing.

A synagogue, not quite large, built from dark–red fired bricks, stood in the center of the colony within a small yard. The arcs above its entrance and its windows, and the reddish tiles on the roof served like a wondrous puzzle for me during my early childhood. Facing the synagogue stood a new building, which was built when I was a youth 15–16 years old, while I was away from the colony. This was the large building of the state school, also built from fired bricks and a tile roof, however with no arcs above its entrance or windows. I saw it for the first time when I was 19 years old, when I returned to my native colony as a state teacher.

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That building had a large yard of about 1 disiyatin (about 10 dunams [2.7 acres]) which was slated for the cultivation of vegetables and fruit trees by the students under the teachers' guidance. In actuality, people from the colony were supposed to take turns in cultivating it, as a “tax” to the government for the benefit of the teachers, in addition to the salary paid by the government. In our colony, like in many other colonies, this “garden” was mostly un–kept. When the state inspector over the schools would come, he would find this neglected area as a natural fact.

From my early childhood, and later from my four–five years of serving as a teacher in Netchayevka, the colony is pictured in my mind as one gray lump, in which only in the spring and summer, several green spots would sprout, here and there. This is how I saw it when I returned to it for a trip, riding on a primitive wagon, most of the time sitting on a bench with no springs, a distance of 20–25 kilometers from the nearby train station in Tsarakonstantinovka. The wagon would swing around on an unpaved dirt road, which stretched through the wild prairie bushes that filled its desert wilderness in all directions to the horizon.


Like the rest of the colonies in our area, Netchayevka was a real agricultural colony. All the family members, who resided in the colony (more than fifty families), worked the land with their own hands. The name along with the title – “Yevrei zemliedieliyetz” (“a Jew who works the land”) was written on their passport. This must be understood literally – not “agriculturalist” or farmer but a person who “works the land”. This was also what was written on Hebrew documents. During the first decade of the 20th century, there were some youths who left for the city to acquire there a general education, to settle in the city and work in one of the “free” professions, among them there were some who were ashamed of the title. However, these were the minority, if there were any. At the end of the day, we were all proud of that title, especially when we became Zionists. The members of the “Bund” [an East European socialist party – by the name of the General Jewish Worker Alliance], the Social Democrats party and the Social Revolutionary Party among us, actually bragged about their “pure“ proletarian background. There was nobody in the colony who did not work his land by himself – him, his wife, sons and daughters. Everybody worked – even the only shopkeeper. A native of the colony was also the Sh“uv [slaughterer and Kosher inspector], as well as Yanke (Ya'akov) Cohen – the “melamed” [Torah teacher] (partially, at least, during the burning season), and obviously also the “starosta” – the colony elder, the owner of the wealthiest farm. Everybody worked the land except for the Rabbi and the teachers in the state school, who were mostly not natives of the colony. Even among them, I do not recall anybody who looked at working the land as a disrespectful occupation. If there were people who did not themselves work the land, it was not because they were ashamed of that work, but because they did not find it important from a national or general human point of view. I do not recall

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having more than a minyan [10] Zionists among all of the seventeen colonies in the province of Yekaterinoslav.

The colony members performed their work in the fields, mainly plowing and sowing, by themselves. However they added hired workers from the neighboring villages for the harvesting and threshing tasks. During that season the colony was bustling with male and female “Shkutzim” [derogatory term for gentile youths] form the neighboring villages Heichur. They filled the streets in the evenings with singing, games and laughter, while we were amazed at their “gentile” energy which was ample enough for games after a hard and long day of work, from before sunrise to after sunset, although our youths were not weak either. These workers were hired in return for half of the harvest. That was the reason that they were called Polovinchik (Polovina in Russian means “half”). Almost every farmer in our colony had permanent workers who came to work with him every year during the harvest season, and would work along with their “masters” and their families during the same hours of the day.

It happened, albeit rarely, that the youth of both sides hung out together. It also happened that an initiative “Shiksah” would drag behind her a husky Jewish youth, who was captured by her scorching gazes, and would connect with him in one of the yard's hideaways. The following day the youth would get plenty of calls of contempt and booing from his male friends and the Jewish girls would evade meeting with him or would act as if they avoid approaching him. However, I did not hear, during my many years in the colony, about any serious attachment resulting from such unions…

One of the colony residents was a German Christian family. Like in other colonies, it remained in it from the period of the initial settlement. The second generation of these German, and certainly the third and the fourth, spoke fluent Yiddish. Their agricultural expertise diminished somewhat and they were like the Jews in all aspects except for religious matters. By the way, none of the members of the second generation was orthodox in piousness, and many boasted about being non–believers. The German family did not excel in their piousness either and they did not have a place for praying in the colony. One sign of their uniqueness was the fact that they did not circumcise their sons, nor did they get married with Jews. They served as the “gentile of Shabbat” in the houses of the elderly and the synagogues. On Passover's eve, they would buy the entire leavened food in the colony from the Rabbi.

The cultivation of grain crops was done in an extensive way, and it was nearly the only agricultural sector. It included mainly wheat and barley, a bit of corn and sometimes millet and oats. They virtually did not cultivate orchards, at least not in my colony. Even the ornamental trees were very few – perhaps one or two in some yards. Only in the middle of the first decade of the 20th century, the JCA organization [Jewish Colonization Association] which began to take interest in the state of our colonies (established a credit union and introduced modern agricultural machines), tried to plant fruit trees and vineyards. However, as far as I know, that development bypassed Netchayevka, at least until 1909 when I left the colony.

We also did not grow sheep or goats nor did we raise bees. Only at the beginning

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of the activity of the JCA organization, one could see a beehive here and there. However, one could find, in every yard, something like a chicken coop, in the corner of the cowshed or in a small clay structure attached to the cowshed.

I do not recall seeing a dog anywhere in the colony during my early childhood and not even when I returned, years later, as a teacher in the state school. I resided in the colony and in the neighboring colony Merapeskaya for more than four years. Weren't there any dogs in these two colonies or perhaps its residents fulfilled the statement in Exodus [11:7]: ”But against any of the children of Israel shall not a dog move his tongue, against man or beast…”, so well that I did not hear them, and therefore the fact about their existence was wiped out from my memory? Against that, I do remember the many cats very well. Cats of all sizes and colors, who received a tolerant treatment, were also allowed in the rooms of the house as they were the only solution for the plague of the many mice.


The ancestors of our colony people, the people who established and built it, came from the province of Kovno, Lithuania, most of them from the city of Shavli, where they were shopkeepers and craftsmen. The colony elders, who were children during the days of the foot and wagon wandering from Shavli to the southern prairies, used to tell stories they heard from their parents about the hardships they encountered on the long road and during the first years after they settled. They described the hard and grueling labor in building the first clay houses and digging the water wells, and about their introduction to the primitive agricultural methods under the guidance of the arrogant German farmers, who treated them like the treatment the Children of Israel received from the oppressors of Pharaoh. They experienced many troubles until they learned the hard labor. They even managed to succeed in it, particularly during the days of the second and third generations, if not for the calamities from heavens such as drought, diseases, mice and the like.

The fathers described how they drove away, with the handles of the shovels and rakes and with sticks, the young hooligans from the neighboring villages who attacked them in droves during the pogroms of the 1880's. Throughout the pogroms of 1905, during the days of Czar Nikolai the 2nd, the colonies were not harmed at all and the elders explained that their fathers learned the lesson during the first pogroms. Indeed the Christian population learned to treat the Jewish farmers with a certain amount of respect, or at least with some care.

The entire colony knew reading and writing in Yiddish, and the Torah portion of the week,

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mostly with Rashi's commentary. There were also people who had a taste of the book “Ein Yaakov” and knew how to write a short letter in Hebrew. Obviously, the traditional Jewish way of life was accepted by everybody, and in time of need, many knew to read in the shortened “Shulkhan Arukh”. There were some who had knowledge of the Mishnah tractates, and knew some Gemara [Talmud]. There were even some “enlightened” who read some of the Enlightenment literature. A few knew to read and write in Russian and even express several sentences, in a marred language, which was half–Ukrainian and half–Russian. The people of the colony did not need to use the state language except for some exceptional cases such as for giving instructions to the farmers from the nearby village, who worked in the colony during the harvest season, and when selling the grain in the nearby city, a business that was done using city Jewish brokers. When somebody wished to write a letter, once in a blue moon, or read a document which was received from the authorities and had to be responded to, or other such cases, the elementary knowledge of the few learned people was usually sufficient. In a time of need, they could turn to the colony clerk, who resided in the colony where the official management of several neighboring colonies was concentrated.

Upon the establishment of the elementary state school, whose main objective was to spread the knowledge of arithmetic and reading and writing of the state language, as well as a shortened version of Russia's history, the elementary knowledge of the Russian language, both verbally and written form, increased, particularly among the young generation. During the first few years after the establishment of the school, a few older boys and girls, 15–16 years old, were among its students. During my first year as a teacher in the Netchayevka's school, three big girls studied there and one of them left the school in the middle of the academic year, to get married with good luck and all the best. I would not prolong the description of the school and my work in it, except to add that the state schools in the Russian villages were three–year long. In the German colonies, the Greek villages in the south and the Jewish colonies, they added a fourth year, in order to add the study of the state language to the existing curriculum.

The teachers who worked in the state schools in our colonies were all (except those who only taught Jewish studies) certified teachers who passed special state examinations. Only a few were from among the graduates of the “Hebrew Pedagogical Courses in Grodno”, and those were considered elite in the colony as opposed to the “melameds” and “private” teachers. Most of these graduates did not boast about their “European” education or about their position as state teachers and were involved with the public. The few observant among them, used to come to the synagogue during the Shabbat and holidays.

With the awakening of the freedom movement in Russia in 1905 and the following years, some of the teachers discussed the social revolutionary trend in libraries, in discussion groups and lectures. I, in Netchayevka, organized a youth club to discuss “current social matters” and the subjects were socialism, Zionism (sometimes), general culture matters, literature (mainly in Yiddish) and more. We sometimes gathered in the large classroom of the school, particularly during the long winter nights and included adults, especially the “educated” homeowners and their wives in the lecture.

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L.M. Shapira, the school principal, would lecture on one of the subjects in a popular style in Russian, while translating the hard words and terms to Yiddish. I would read to a larger crowd from the stories of Shalom Aleikhem, Peretz, Pinski and others.

Some of the colony elders would sometimes come to Shapira's private flat, which was located inside the school, for a cup of tea, to discuss general political topics. Shapira was a man of an extensive education, an intelligent and clever man, from among the leaders of the Social Democrats party from the county seat Yekaterinoslav. He was sent to our remote colony, to serve as the principal of the small state school, as a punishment for his revolutionary views. Twelve to thirteen years later, when the punishment system of the Soviet government (and not only during Stalin's days) was introduced, what could a “deviant” like him, particularly a Jewish person, who undercuts the government foundations expect to receive?

Moshe Avigal (Beigel) (Tel Aviv)


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