[English page 9]
by Abraham Schudroff
A memorial to our destroyed home town
Soon after the end of World War II, we set up a relief committee. We discovered the tragic fact that there was hardly anybody left whom we could help. No one will ever know exactly, but according to all reports, it is believed that all Jewish families in Kamenetz-Litvosk and its vicinity were put to death.
We could not rest, however. If it was not given to us to give material help, we decided to start a movement amongst our fellow-townsmen in America and in Israel to perpetuate the memory of the martyrs of Kamenetz-Litovsk by means of a Memorial Book.
Though there exists a synagogue in New-York, bearing the name of our town, and there are a number of Landsmanschaft organizations, unfortunately no initiative was taken to organize Memorial Assemblies or other meetings of similar character.
But this could not continue in such a manner and we, a closely-knit group of several fellow townsmen, took it upon ourselves to initiate the creation of a Committee for the Perpetuation of the Memory of the Martyrs of our town. Several attempts failed, but at the end of December 1960, when I was sent as delegate to the 25th Zionist Congress, I had a meeting with an active group of fellow-townsmen in the State of Israel.
During the reception which they organized in my honor, upon my arrival, and later on, at the Memorial Assembly to the memory of the Martyrs of our town, we talked over and elaborated the plan to publish a Memorial Book by the townsmen of Kamentz-Litovsk, which should consist of various memoirs, descriptions and pictures, reflecting the Jewish life in Kamenetz-Litovsk in the past and its destruction, and thus serving as a spiritual monument to our hallowed martyrs.
The above mentioned plan was brought to America and the first meeting of the Memorial Book Committee took place at my home. An executive committee was formed. At the first meeting there participated: Mrs. Sarah Horowitz, Secretary of the Committee, with many years of active work amongst the townsmen of Kamenetz-Litovsk behind her and her children Mr. and Mrs. Iser Goldberg; Mr. and Mrs. Haim Mendelson; Mr. and Mrs. Chatzkel Kagan; Mr. and Mrs. Itzhak Schoenfeld; Mr. Haim Rubin; Mr. and Mrs. Velvel Kustin; Mr. and Mrs. Harry Gers; Mr. and Mrs. Leizer Lifshitz; Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Post; Mr. and Mrs. Meyer Wisotzky; Mr. J. Jaffe; Mr. and Mrs. Benjamin Tendler; Mr. and Mrs. David Schudroff; Mr. and Mrs. Morris Siegel; Mr. and Mrs. Eli Chait; Mr. and Mrs. Golomb; Mr. and Mrs. Louis Horowitz; Mr. Alex Schudroff and Mr. M. Morgan.
In connection with the Memorial Book, I met together with the following fellow-townsmen in Israel: Y. Rimon, Simha Dubiner, Pinhas Rabi, Hayka Cracovsky, Mr. and Mrs. Alony, Yehudith Kostakevich, Pinhas Rabid-Rudnitsky and others.
We wish to note with great pride the fact that the fellow-townsmen in America responded very warmly to our undertaking. It was my lot to become the Chairman of the Kamenetz-Litovsk Memorial Committee, and to accomplish the project of creating the Memorial Book, together withmy faithful collaborators, and in cooperation with all Kamenetz-Litovsk organizations that raised the financial contribution for this purpose.
We also introduced the custom of arranging, on the 27th day of Nisan, a yearly Commemorative Assembly to the memory of the hallowed martyrs of Kamenetz-Litovsk, with the participation of well known rabbis, writers and people active in community affairs. A touching Memorial Meeting takes place, six candles to commemorate six million hallowed martyrs are kindled. All present recite publicly Kaddish Prayer for the Dead.
All of us should feel proud of having fulfilled our duty and of having erected a spiritual monument to our dearest and beloved, the Jewish men, women and children of the historic Jewish Community of Kamenetz-Litovsk, near Brest-Litovsk. I thank the Almighty God for having given me the physical and spiritual strength to build the bridge which united our fellow-townsmen in America and Israel and to publish this Memorial Book.
May our children and our children's children not forget the memory of the hallowed martyrs.
Blessed be their memory!
President and Initiator of
Committee in America
[English page 12]
(till the middle of the 18th century)
by Leybl Goldberg (Sarid)
To the Memory of My Martyred Parents Kalmen and Rachel Lea.
My Innocent Brothers Noah and Israel Itshack.
My Pure Sisters the Hallowed Martyrs Shifra, Rivka and Brakha.
Who were put to death by the abominable murderers.
God will avenge their blood.
I walked on the roads of the places which will be mentioned later on; I was in the villages whose history will be told. I grew up in the town of Kamenetz. I was brought up there and I brought up others. Therefore everything, is so close to my heart and so heart-breaking.
It is not easy to write the history of Jewish settlement in our town. It is made difficult by the lack of Jewish documentary sources, with the exception of several lines in Dubnov's Notebook of the Council of Communities in Lithuania. I have not found any document about those distant years. It is a depressing fact that we are cut off from the sources and treasures including also Jewish documents, that can be found in the archives of Brest, Grodno and others, from which we are barred. Therefore, there was no other possibility, but to write the history of the Jewish settlement according to non-Jewish documents, mainly those belonging to Polish State institutions here.
Those documents throw very little light on Jewish life in those distant years. Informations about Jewish settlements in our region appear only at the end of the 14th Century.
As it had already been told, the Jews of Brest were, in 1388, granted a privilege by Witold, the Duke of Lithuania; but it may be assumed that Jewish settlement in Brest had existed earlier too. We have clear information about the region only from the end of the 15th century. But even in this case it is to be assumed that Jewish settlements had existed earlier. Kobryn appears as an organized community at the beginning of the 16th Century. It should be stressed that Jews were expelled from Lithuania in 1495, during the rule of the Lithuanian Duke and Crown Prince Alexander. However, after he had been crowned King of Poland, he allowed them to return in 1503 and returned them their houses and property in exchange for an annual tax.
Thus it can be taken for granted that the Jewish settlement in Kamenetz began very early.
The Jews were for the first time mentioned in a document from the year 1525. We can conjecture that during the process of establishment of towns in backward Lithuania, when the Jews had the possibility not only to deal in trade and money but also to acquire land property and to exercise all professions, they lived in an important town, situated on a highway and close to such a big town as Brest-Litovsk.
In a collection of Lithuanian documents, published by the historian G. Bershadsky, the Kamenetz Jews are described as tavern-keepers. However, the above document is shrouded in obscurity and we do not know whether it referred to a Jewish population center in the town or to a few tavern-keepers. We may therefore assume that some Jews lived there; even if their number was not large, it reached at least ten men the number prescribed for community prayer.
From this follows that there had been Jews in Kamenetz even before that date. The aforementioned document includes the following statement:
On February 26th 1525 the town Kamenetz received
1. One additional market day, except Saturday. 2. Permission to build a synagogue, subject to the condition that it should not be taller and more beautiful than the local Christian churches. 3. Permission to build a ritual bath on a plot belonging to the town. 4. Permission to establish a cemetery in the town or outside it. 5. Permission to engage in commerce and trade without limitations, as well as to buy real estate in the town and to build houses.
Christian inhabitants of Kamenetz brings to light the sentiments of hatred and jealousy felt by the Gentile townspeople towards the Jews. The Christian inhabitants of Kamenetz were arrogant and contemptuous and led a struggle against both the nobility and the Jews.
Just like in other towns of Poland and Lithuania, so did the Jews of Kamenetz enjoy the support of the nobility.
We had already taken note of the first document from 1525, which decreed that the Jewish taverns be transferred to the Christian inhabitants of the town. Let us pay attention to the sharp tone used by Ladislaus IV in the privilege granted by him in 1635:
"We let it be known by our Starosta in Kamenetz and other municipal offices: we declare that it is our desire to confirm the validity of everything put down in the privilege and we order not to disturb (in Latin: inviolabiter) the freedom of the Jews which had been given to them by us."
The disappearance, in the privilege of Jan Casimir, of the fine-clause, with which the townspeople had been threatened in case they would sabotage the rights of the Jews, bears witness to the sharp struggle of the Christians in the town against the Jews. It ought to be understood that the sentence appearing in the decree of King Michael Wisniowiecki bears witness to the obstacles put by the townspeople in the way of realizing the privilege. They doubtlessly fought with all their strength against the fulfilment of the terms of the privilege.
At the end of the 17th century (1693) a protest, signed by 40 citizens, was lodged by the Kamenetz Town Council, against the Councillor Andrej Piablewicz who had leased the tax on alcoholic drinks to the Jews, without having previously consulted the other Councillor s and the entire town-council. It must be stressed that under the rule of King Jan Sobieski, in the years 1670-1696, the policy of the Central Government supported the Jews just like in the previous years. And so we see the Finance Minister Sapieha lease the taxes in Kamenetz to the Jews Isaac (Ajzyk) Nojgmowicz and Yeshayahu Jakubowicz.
At that time Kamenetz was still a district capital with a customs house to deal with the transit of goods from the Region of Brest to the Region of Podlasie.
Kamenetz was mentioned in the above document among the important towns Brest, Pinsk and Yalovo to which belonged a number of adjoining townlets. One of the townlets subordinate to Kamenetz was Mlitsytch.
The townspeople did not rest and, throughout the entire reign of Sobieski, they sought all conceivable pretexts to act against the privilege given to the Jews of the town. In 1684, the chief town official requests that the privilege granted to Kamenetz by King Jan III (Sobieski) be registered in the Book of Documents in Vilna, upon the request of the town-Council. In this document the King confirms the rights which the town has received from Alexander, Sigismund I (Zygmunt), Sigismund III and others. In the document notice is taken, too, of the accusation levelled by the Kamenetz Christians against the Wojewoda (Provincial Governor) Ostap Tyszkiewicz, owner of the villages Klepiez and Pasieki. The accusation had already been dealt with in 1631 and was concerned with privileges which had been granted long ago. Jan III confirms the rights of the town-council and orders the Jews to accept its authority and jurisdiction. In this decree, Sobieski compels the Jews to obey the municipal instances and fulfil all duties imposed upon every citizen of the town.
All this should not mislead us. From the lines of the aforementioned documents we learn about good relations between the Jews and their neighbours. The Jews lived in Kamenetz and its vicinity and presumably also in the villages. In documents from 1733 we read about Jews from the villages Holoborek as well as about a Jew dwelling in a church estate.
From the wills included among the documents deposited in the archives of the Kamenetz municipality we learn about commercial relations and negotiations between Christians and Jews.
Landlords and estate-owners from the surrounding area traded mainly with the Jews and there were no limits to the transactions. The Christians townsmen could not bear it.
At the beginning of the 18th century, during the rule of August II, King of Saxony, we already perceive a change in the conditions. The importance of Kamenetz decreases. Another Starostwo (administrative unit) exists beside it; it is located at Klacze, which was Tyskiewicz's property, and its authority extends over the entire region adjoining the Bialowieza Forest.
Hard times arrived for the Jews of Poland and Lithuania.
Blood-libels and other concocted charges became a frequent occurrence. The political reaction, headed by the clergy, spread all kinds of prejudices among the people who became afraid of Jewish witches who allegedly had made a pact with evil spirits. Anti-Jewish persecutions became a daily occurrence. Simple people were frightened by stories about the Jews casting an evil eye on crops in the fields. An echo of this period reaches us from Kamenetz too. A document from June 17th, 1718, tells us the following story: Two Jewesses charged with witchcraft were arrested at Kamenetz. Hayka Shmulikha concealed in garbage a pot with strange objects, for example: flour, moon, eggs, oats etc. Hayka claimed she had done it upon the request of another Jewess Yospa. Yospa declared that she had hidden the objects in order to heal her daughter. The same Yospa, a musician's wife, cried and said she had visited a wise woman who had ordered her to prepare the mixture and hide it in order to protect it from an evil eye and the view of wicked people. Both of them were taken under guard to the fortress.
We know the end of the story of the two Jewesses, but this libel conforms to the false accusations spread about the Jews in Brest and its vicinity, who were flooded with blood libels and charged with having aided the Swedes in 1703 during their invasion.
Finally the struggle led by the townspeople against the Jews achieved its aim. The townspeople complain to King August II that in addition to the privilege from 1670 the Kamenetz Jews live comfortably, sell spirits, honey, beer and other drinks, trade quite freely, open shops in the market and in the town itself, buy and sell houses and property belonging to the nobility and the church, sell textile-wares at retail and at wholesale as well as haberdashery of various kinds, dump merchandise in the Old Town, cut down the prices of the houses, and with all this cause suffering to the citizens of Kamenetz.
King August II of Saxony replies to these accusations by an order which forbids the Jews to build flats in the courtyards, and to deal in alcoholic drinks. He also orders the Starosta to impose limitations upon the Jewish trade and shops. The above complaint of the townspeople is based on the privilege which the town received from Michael Wisniowiecki the same king who had confirmed the old rights of the Kamenetz Jews and added to them new ones. We have already noted that in 1684 the townspeople lodged a complaint against giving the Jews priority rights, and they did so on the basis of the privilege granted to the town inhabitants.
The whole thing is somewhat puzzling. But the problem looks different when we investigate the manner in which the Jews in Lithuania received privileges from the Polish kings. The Jews used to obtain the privileges with great efforts and large amounts of money. Therefore they used to be called at that time: hens that lay golden eggs", since every confirmation of a privilege or granting of a new one was connected with a delivery of golden eggs to the king, to his chancellery, to the provincial (voyvodship) authority and others.
We are familiar with the situation which arose in this manner. General and particular privileges were granted in addition to previous ones, given to the townspeople by the king and the principal aim of which was to restrict Jewish activity of a competitive character. Both sides would often reach agreement. The townsmen, however, could not abide by the terms of the agreement, for the life reality proved to be more powerful and so they used to apply for intervention of the authorities; and the Jews, in exchange for money, would procure new privileges. We learn from the above complaint that Kamenetz was divided into two parts the Old Town and the New Town. It is easy to understand that the western part constituted the Old Town which included the Litevska Street and its neighbourhood. The Jewish Quarter was located in the center of Kamenetz and comprised all the lanes around the Great Synagogue, besides Leszno with the religious school (Talmud-Torah), and the ritual bath.
The Municipality of Kamenetz was a powerful and active institution which displayed remarkable arrogance, refused even to receive orders from the provincial governor(Wojwoda) and often appealed directly to the king. This explains the hard struggle for existence led by the Kamenetz Jews. It is easy to understand that the citizens fought against the Jews and Jewish peddlers who hawked in the villages, estates and in Kamentez itself without permission.
The taverns which were a source of livelihood for the Jews, galled the Christian inhabitants. The aforementioned documents re-echo the accusations brought forth by Polish anti-Semites, such as the well-known Jew baiter Stanislaw Macinski and others.
The Jewish population in Kamenetz reached the number of several hundred souls. We learn this from a document dated 1705:
"The Treasurer of the Synagogue, Shimon from the Community of Brest delivered a budget of the head-tax imposed upon the Jewish Communities and townlets in the region of Brest. At the meeting the sum of 11084 Zlotys was imposed on Brest, on Kobryn 315 Zlotys, on Pruzhany 485 Zlotys, on Kamenetz 50 Zlotys, on Meltsch 100 Zlotys etc.
At the beginning of the 18th century, during the period of the Central Jewish Autonomy, the Lithuanian Jews paid an annual head-tax amounting to 60.000 Zlotys. But after the autonomy had been abolished in 1764 the communities had to pay 2 Zlotys head-tax for every Jew over one year old.
Therefore it may be taken for granted that during the period of the counting the tax amounted to one Zloty per person. The Lithuanian Jews paid 60.000 Zlotys at that time. Hence, we shall not make an error if we estimate the number of Jews in Kamenetz, at the beginning of 18th century at 200 persons whose age exceeded one year. It follows that Kamenetz was a small Jewish center, but according to the standards of those times such a center was considered important.
The history of Jews in Kamenetz has not yet been written. As it had already been told the documents concerning the internal life of the community, its cultural life, its economic struggle, its rabbis and sages learned in the Law, were not in possession of the writer of this outline. But even these few lines expose to view a Jewish Community in its historic struggle for existence.
Translation of the Royal Privilege granted in 1661 by Jan Kazimierz, King of Poland, to the Jews of Kamenetz Sixteen hundred and sixty years after the birth of Christ, the twentieth day in January, in the office of the Court of the Town of Brest, before the standard-bearer and under-Starosta Hieronim Casimir Olenski, with those who represent the Jews of Brest, Berek and Barukla, the heads of the Jews in Kamenetz. The Letter of His Grace Royal Excellency.
Letter of His Grace the Royal Excellency which is a privilege written on parchment in the Little Chancellery of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and which is given to the Jews in Kamenetz and is being copied in the books of the town of Brest, and this is its worded content:
Jan Kazimierz, King of Poland, with God's Grace etc. We announce in this letter: In order to bolster up and increase the prosperity and welfare of our subjects, we are concerned that our towns should have control not only over population but also over ramified trade. For this purpose markets have been set up in the towns.
Therefore we take the advice of our officials in the Royal Court who are together with us, and who have advised us that in conformity with the needs of people of religious and secular status, and also in conformity with the needs of our Jewish subjects who live in Kamenetz, we declare: In addition to the market-day which in our town Kamenetz, falls on every Saturday, every Tuesday in every week will be a market day, too, so that henceforth two market-days will be held in our town Kamenetz and so it will remain forever, without causing any damage to the adjoining towns.
Desiring to show our royal favour to the Jews in Kamenetz, and following the example of other towns and townlets in our Kingdom, we permit them to construct a synagogue and a Jewish religious School on the plot belonging to the Jew Baruch Szporzakowicz which is situated near the plot belonging to the citizen Chrustkowski, or in a different place, owned by a different man, but it should not equal in height and splendour the churches and mosques in town.
We also permit them to build a bath on a municipal plot of land, which has already been acquired by Jacob Kushnir whose name is famous and praiseworthy.
They are also entitled to establish a cemetery within or outside the town-limits. And finally, we grant them all freedoms to open shops, taverns and to engage in every trade and to acquire property and plots of land in the town.
And in order that they should not thereby sustain hardship and damages (praeditiones in Latin) at the hand of our townspeople, we impose a fine, in accordance with the letter of our brother, Wladyslaw IV whose memory we hallow, of the eleventh of December sixteen hundred and thirty five of our era. We declare and stress it again with all our strength and notify about it our citizen the Starosta, now and in the future; we also notify the town authorities and order them to protect the freedoms which we had conferred upon the abovementioned Jews and the rights of the Jews of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, without any disturbance whatsoever.
Given in Warsaw in elected Crown Sejm (Parliament) on the sixteenth day in the
month of June, in the year sixteen hundred and sixty-one, in the thirteenth
year of the reign of our Polish and Swedish Lord King Jan Kazimierz.
|Signed with my own hand|
The Chancellor of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania brought this letter to be recorded in the books of the town Brest.
|The historical White Tower of Kamenetz,
erected in 13th Century
[English page 26]
by Leybl Goldberg (Sarid)
We, the last generation of its Jewish inhabitants, dispersed all over the world, know very little about its past. We remember the old dilapidated little houses, the long rows of miserable looking shops, but are unaware of the resplendent past, when kings and princes used to shape the town's history.
Kamenetz lies near Brest-Litovsk, which has always been an important crossroads. Roads joining all regions of the united Polish-Lithuanian monarchy met there. Merchants and other travellers used to stop there.
Kamentez-Litovsk was situated on the main highway which led from Vilno to Lvov and already in the Middle Ages was one of the most important routes.
According to the Chronicles, Kamenetz was established in 1276 by the Volhynian Prince Vladimir Vasilevich. He was motivated by his desire to protect Brest-Litovsk against the Tartars and Kamenetz was to serve as a fortified outpost.
A fortress was built on the banks of the Lesna river on elevated ground and its remnants can still be seen today. The fortress was called the White Tower (Biala Wieza in Polish) and gave its name to the adjoining gigantic forest (Puszcza Bialowieska).
Because of its important location Kamenetz was a bone of contention between the Princes of Little Russia, Lithuania and Masovia; at the beginning of the 14th century it came under the rule of Lithuanian Princes. At that time it was the central town of a large region (Starostwo) stretching as far as Kobryn, Siemiatycze and Pruzhany.
Later on Kamenetz was attacked by the Teutonic Knights but though they caused heavy damages their occupation was of short duration.
Janusz the Prince of Masovia captured Kamenetz, but the future Polish-Lithuanian King Jagiello recaptured it after a successful siege. From that time onwards Kamenetz belonged to Lithuania; hence its name Litovsk. Polish kings were frequent guests at Kamenetz. They came there to attend joint councils of the United Kingdom and to hunt in the adjoining forests. Some of the rulers resided at Kamenetz for shorter or longer periods; one of the reasons why they chose Kamenetz was its location which made it an ideal meeting place between the Polish and Lithuanian Szlachta (nobility). The Starostwo was considered as royal property.
In 1525 new Privileges were conferred upon the town, it possessed its own municipal-council headed by a burgomaster, and its own municipal courts headed by a Woft. Its jurisdiction extended over the neighbouring localities.
Some of the famous noble families, which left their imprint upon the history of Poland, lived in the vicinity of or were connected with Kamenetz. They include the influential families Tyszkiewicz. Paczewicz, Radziwill and Sapieha. One of the local families belonging to lower nobility became very famous in the 18th century. It was the Kosciuszko family whose most important representative Tadeusz fought in the American Revolutionary War and later on led the unsuccessful Polish uprising of 1794.
From the documents collected by the Vilna Historical Commission we know about the bitter competition between the powerful nobility and the townspeople of Kamenetz.
The royal decrees and privileges had freed the town from various obligations and it enjoyed a large measure of independence as well as the rights to fell timber in the adjoining forests. No wonder that it gave rise to constant friction with the powerful Szlachta which considered itself as the ruling class. The above mentioned documents bring to light the numerous conflicts between the litigants the townspeople supported by the royal decrees and the nobility jealously guarding its privileges.
In the 17th century, during the Cossack and Swedish wars, the town suffered considerable damages. Therefore, it was exempted from paying certain taxes for the period of 4 years. The Jews, too, were exempted. Customs duties and taxes on the sale of alcoholic drinks, however, which were the main source of the state revenue, were not included in the decree. It may be noted that the rights to collect the taxes were leased to the Jews.
In the 18th century the glorious period of Kamenetz ended. It loses its royal status and becomes the possession of a magnate, Wielhorski. Many noblemen sold their property and left Kamenetz. Its importance decreased after the partitions of Poland and it became a typical little town. In 1878 there were 6885 inhabitants in Kamenetz and the adjoining villages; 5900 (90%) of them were Jews.
[English page 29]
By Yehezkel Kotik
My native townlet, Kamenetz, is known for its old historical tower-like building. Its origins are unknown. Apparently it is a remnant of an ancient fortress. This aforementioned structure is quite tall, it has thick bricked walls and openings through which it was possible to shoot with guns and rifles. Cannon balls weighing ten pounds could still be found there in my grandfather's time; it was a sure sign that shots had once been fired through the openings.
The bricks of the tower are so strong that it is impossible to break away a piece of the wall. People in Kamenetz say that egg-whites had been used as mortar during the construction of the fortress, and for this reason it is so strong. When Tsar Alexander the Second, accompanied by European princes, went hunting in the Bialowieza Forest, which is seven miles away from Kamenetz, all the ministers and generals came to the townlet to see the historic tower.
I purposely mentioned the tower first, because whenever I recall my small town, at once the memory of the ancient building surges up, like a sign or a symbol of unknown meaning.
And now I can turn to the townlet itself. About sixty years ago, the starting point of my memoirs, Kamenetz consisted of two hundred and fifty little old, blackened, houses, covered with steep roofs, and the number of souls that is inhabitants appearing in the Russian Government Register, was four hundred and fifty. At this point a logical question comes to mind. Two hundred and fifty houses as compared with only four hundred and fifty souls? How is that possible? The answer is very simple. Before 1874, when the new recruiting law came into force, two thirds of the Jews were not registered. The Government, which had in fact known about it all the time, did not intervene and remained silent on the matter. Only in 1874, after the Tsar had decreed that those who were not inscribed would not be punished if they registered, did all the missing begin to register. Government commissions travelled all over the country, from one townlet and village to another, and they registered the missing.
It is interesting how, in those bygone years, the inscribed four hundred and fifty Souls of my townlet provided the prescribed number of recruits for military service.
Four miles away from Kamenetz there lies a small town Wysokie. It had about five hundred and fifty souls listed in the official Register. All the time, Wysokie and Kamenetz jointly mustered the recruits. But soldiers are called up in accordance with a certain ratio, let us say one soldier to a thousand inhabitants. Since that was the Population of Wysokie and Kamenetz joined together, both townlets has to provide Tsar Nicolas the First with one soldier only. The share of Kamenetz however, amounted to less than half a soldier, and that of Wysokie which is larger, to somewhat more than half a soldier.
This provided the authorities with a hard nut to crack. Finally the matter was settled in the following mater: Kamenetz provided the recruit one year and Wysokie the other year. One year in ten, though, Kamenetz was exempt. The reckoning was simple and account was taken of the difference in the number of inhabitants in the two town-lets. In such a manner, after mutual agreement had been reached, soldiers used to be recruited as the years passed.
As it is customary two rows of stores stood in the market. A lane stretched between the rows, and it was so narrow that a horse-drawn cart could hardly pass. Three or four stores sold textiles of better quality. Their customers were Jews and estate owners from the vicinity of the town; three or four ,storekeepers sold aprons, kerchiefs, drapery etc.; the remaining ones were haberdashers, merchants of tar, pitch and others.
Only women and young, girls and maids ran the stores. All these women used to sit opposite one another, excited and flushed. Of course there were helpers around, girls or married women who dragged and pulled the prospective customers, mostly a villager or a peasant woman, to the shop, or call them in a loud voice.
But the high class customers, the Jews and the estate-owners had their own particular shopkeeper, and no one dared to pull, forcibly like a herring, such a customer to one's own store. Perhaps quietly, such a customer was accompanied by a curse which was addressed also at the merchant-woman who sold him the merchandise.
Actually, the turnover was very low, except on Sundays, because on other days the peasants hardly came to town. Therefore, the women used to sit idly in front of the shops. Sundays, however, were market days with the villagers coming in large numbers. They crowded and jostled near the doors of the shops like buzzing f lies on a window pane covered with powdered sugar.
Inns were also among the more important establishments in town. They were quite numerous. The peasants could find a bite there cheese, herring and cucumbers. But there was plenty of liquor, too. Only members of the gentry (Szlachta) or at least small estate-owners could offer themselves such a treat. After they had a drink, they would not be satisfied, like the peasants, with a bit of cheese or herring, but ate a piece of goose-meat or fish. These inns, just like the shops, were also run by women. Only on Sundays, when business was brisk, and the turn-over large, the menfolk helped out too.
This being so, what was the occupation of the men? They did not sit with folded hands either. In the vicinity of Kamenetz there were several hundred estate-owners. Each of them had several hundred or even more serfs. These serfs toiled and sweated by day and by night and were penniless on the other hand the land owners, quite obviously, had to enjoy life. Each of the estate-owners had dealings with one or two Jews in the townlet, who profited from them to a lesser or greater degree.
If the noble man had two Jews in his entourage, one of them had to be a nice Jew and a respectable merchant, whereas the other one was less outstanding as regards both the outward appearance and the respectability of his commercial dealings. Both Jews were the estate owner's factotums. The nice Jew served him more with advice, the other one was more of a Jack-of-all-trades, whose occupations were of the shadier sort. Both of them, however, lived in great fear of their patron. Though they derived part of their livelihood from him, and he acted like a protecting Tsar in their dealings with the authorities, nevertheless we ought to praise God ten times a day hat this kind of relationship with the estate owners has disappeared from the scene of history.
If the squire fancied so, he might beat severely his Jew and then say to him if you keep silent, you will stay with me, if not I shall give your job to another Jew. Just the same you will not be able to do anything to me, because both the magistrate and the police-chief are friends of mine.
The Jew kept silent thinking to himself well, I got beaten. That is why he is a squire. But on the other hand, I eat my piece of bread thanks to him, and when I close my eyes forever my child will gain his livelihood from him.
His reasoning was quite correct. When a Jew serving a land-owner died, the squire took in his place the factotum's son or son-in-law, whomever he liked more. This was not unlike a marriage contract, and the Jew received the squire as a sort of inheritance. Perhaps it is worthwhile to mention here that the estate owner also had his own artisan in the townlet, to whom he would give all his work. There were numerous artisans in the townlet cobblers, tailors, tinsmiths etc.
It is understandable that they found it more difficult to earn a living than the shopkeepers. Even though the rents were low and one had to pay only ten to twelve rubels a year for a flat, they could not afford to live by themselves in an apartment and the lodgings in a little house were shared by two or three families.
In those days the assessor and the district police-chief were the real rulers in the town. When a quarrel broke out between two Jews, they at once brought their case to the assessor. They appeared before him accompanied by their wives, children, helpful assistants, good friends and relatives. The assessor ruled in favour of the one who had bribed him with a larger sum or who had evoked greater sympathy in him. And if one of the litigants was daring enough to challenge the verdict and lodged a complaint, with the district police officer in Brest, against the assessor, it was seldom effective. On the contrary, the bold fellow was not worth a half penny afterwards, because the assessor tormented and persecuted him, as much as he could, and went as far as to beat and arrest the victim. As a rule the district police officer went hand in glove with the assessor.
At that time, the district police officer exercised full authority in the region. The notions people had about the provincial Governor were indeed strange. He was regarded as being on the same level as the Tsar, and nobody would ever conceive the idea of involving him in Jewish affairs.
The squire had a Jewish factotum who lived in his country estate. He also had a lease-holder, usually a Jew, and when he possessed several estates and several villages, a Jewish factotum and a Jewish lease-holder lived there too. It can be understood that such Jews trembled with fear before the squire.
At that time, when it was a mere trifle for the landowner to lash his peasants, men and women, young and old alike, what weight could such a little Jew carry?
One can imagine how the factotum, the lease-holder and their children lived in deadly fear of the estate-owner. If, God forbid, they had good-looking daughters, this was regarded as a terrible calamity. One had to fear lest the daughters should attract the squire's attention, because he had power to do whatever he fancied.
Pretty girls of the village-Jews were always dirty, unwashed, covered with soot and grime so that their good looks might remain unnoticed. Only when the girls went to town, and after they scrubbed and washed themselves with soap, did the people know that the village-Jew, had a pretty daughter.
The squire employed his Jews to handle most of his affairs, since he believed the Jew was a clever being, cunning but nevertheless honest. Every estate-owner regarded only his own Jews as honest, but the others were, in his opinion, swindlers and thieves.
He used to send his Jews on missions to his colleagues, the other land-owners. Though he had a Christian steward running the whole estate and giving orders to the peasants, he preferred to deal with the Jews. The squire who believed that a Jew could accomplish his task in a more skilful manner did not lift a finger without his Moshke and Shmulke.
The majority of the estate owners who lived around Kamenetz were not very rich. The soil of the Kamenetz region is sandy and not particularly fertile.
The crop from one morga of land (two thirds acre) amounted to no more than four shocks of sheaves; each shock yielded about five-six wagon loads of corn. Not much wheat grows in the region of Kamenetz. Only here and there a patch of fertile land occupies several square miles and there the yield per acre amounts to eighteen to twenty shocks of sheaves.
The land owners, who lived two or three miles away from one another, arranged frequent balls, each time at the residence of another squire. These feasts were grandiose, with the best wines stored up for the occasion.
In fact, these balls drove quite a number of the estate-owners into financial straits, so that they were constantly short of money.
The Jews used to buy grain, alcohol and wool. The payments, which amounted to large sums of money, were made in advance. Often they exceeded the value of the bought goods.
Also merchants were not lacking, who would run to the estate-owner and try to cut the price offered by the steady buyer. Yet whatever the squire needed for himself, was bought from his exclusive Jews, with whom no one could compete.
As was fashionable at that time, the estate-owners were fond of dogs. Each squire had different sorts of dogs. There were hounds and beasts that would silently, without barking, fall upon a stranger and almost tear him to pieces. There was a third kind too dogs that would only bark but not bite; but there was a fourth kind as well dogs that barked and bit at the same time. Each estate-owner kept all these kinds of dogs in his courtyard, and the torments the Jews, who were on their way to the squire, had to suffer from them could fill quite an important page of the history of Jewish dispersion.
A Jew, who was on his way to the squire's residence, would first of all stop his horse-cart near the gate to the estate and wait till he saw a peasant man or a peasant woman. The man or woman would take him to the factotum, who usually sat in some corner, and from there someone would accompany him to the squire.
When the Jew had to leave, the estate-owner would send a servant to take the Jew to the front entrance. This applied only in case the Jew merited the honour of leaving through the front entrance.
If he did not possess this privilege, however, the Jew had to walk in deadly fear from the palace to the Jewish factotum, so that the latter might accompany him to the gate.
But not until he reached the gate was the Jew secure from the bad dogs. Should the estate-owner bear the slightest grudge against the Jew, the latter's life was not worth a dime. In such a case the Jew was left without an escort and had to undergo the methodically applied tortures of mockery and pain.
At first the squire sent out several dogs of the barking-but not biting kind. They were soon followed by the other kind and finally came the real biters. The whole pack fell upon the Jew, not letting him budge from the spot; at the same time he received a considerable portion of bites.
While the cries of the Jew rent the air and he was frightened to death, the squire with all his family was standing on the porch and laughing heartily.
Sometimes, a land owner, to whom the Jew had caused the slightest displeasure, would tell a servant to accompany the Jew to the gate, at first, and then to have him alone in the Jew to the gate, at first, and then to have him alone in privileged one, would receive the same treatment as an ordinary Jew.
We cannot generalize however, and say that all squires acted in such a manner. There were others, more decent ones whose attitude toward the Jews was different.
The Jew was half dead when he returned home and many became sick as a result of the fright. The wife and particularly the children, who saw their father as he arrived tottering and pale, burst out crying and it seemed as if Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) had arrived But it often happened that, after a couple of days, the estate owner again sent for the Jew to come, because he, the squire, needed him urgently. And the Jew, to be sure ran at once at full speed to the estate owner, because what will a Jew not do for title sake of gaining a livelihood?
The Jew used to console his wife constantly that basically the squire was not a bad fellow and that one could earn money from him; only when the evil moment overcame him things were bad apparently all this comes from God. Nothing in the world happens without God's will. When God squire's head. May this expiation put an end to my troubles, and may God continue to protect me from the bad dogs.
[English page 38]
Author of My Reminiscences
Particular interest was evoked by the first volume where the author gives us a bright picture of Jewish life in Russia in the middle of the 19th century.
In this volumes Kotik depicts the social, economic and cultural conditions of that period. He drew a picture of the people who lived there and the struggle between the Hassidim and the Mitnagdim,etc.
Except for its cultural-historical value, Meyne Zikhroynes has also purely literary values. The personages appearing on its pages are very vividly described.
Kotik died in Warsaw in 1921.
|Front The Eternal Source
(Morgen Journal New York)
[English page 39]
Lausanne (Switzerland), 10.1.1913
Very respected and unfortunately unknown colleague, Yehezkel Kotik!
At the same time that I wrote to you, I wrote to Nicrer that we should exchange the books. It turns out that you had sent to Niger the copy dedicated to the poet Abraham Reisin - and Reisin is now in no other place but in New York, in America! If this had happened a few years ago, when Sholom Aleichem was still light-footed, it would have been child's play for me to get up and take a trip to America. But since right now this is a bit more difficult, what was I do if I was dying to read your Reminiscences? I put the entire blame on you for committing the transgression, cut open Niger's copy and I feel no regrets. I began reading your Reminiscences and what shall I say? I do not remember a year when I experienced such great pleasure, such enjoyment real spiritual enjoyment! That is not a book that is a treasure, a garden, a paradise, full of flowers and singing of birds. It reminded me of my youth, my family, my heder,my holidays, my dreams, my types. No! Compared with you, I, with my bunch of types and pictures, many of which I had known and many of which I had invented - I am a poor little boy and a beggar, and I say it without any flattery or false modesty.
If I had your experiences and family I would by now have flooded the world with them. For Heaven's sale, where have you been till now? A man possesses so many brilliant diamonds and pearls and nothing happens! A Jew collects precious coins,as the pious ones from your hometown would say without even mentioning to anyone that he possesses such a treasure.
I began to read and was unable to teal myself away from your book. It almost drove me crazy! Who is that Kotik? I had heard about someone whose name, I believe, is A. Kotik and who is a young man - and you are a Jew with a grey beard. What enchanted me in your book is the sacred, simple truth, unadulterated simpleness. And now the language! No, you are not only a good, honest, faithful watchman of a rich, an enormously rich treasure you have a talent blessed by God and an artist's soul which has no self-knowledge. There were not few Jews in your Kamenetz and in Zastavye, not few relatives in your noisy as you call it family. But why has none of them collected such reminiscences as you have? Why has none of them displayed anything like your imagination which flames?
I somehow feel that your family is my family, and every reader probably feels the same. I know your grandfather Aharon-Leyzer, and your grandmother Beyle-Rashe, and your father, the Hassid Moyshe, and all your uncles and aunts, and even the district police officer and the assessor, with all the estate owners, the good ones and the bad ones, and the religious teachers (Melanadim), and the Hassidic Jews with their opponents, the Mitnagdina, and the doctors, and the rabbi, and that sceptical atheist, the writer from Brest, willing to write for a rubel, and both Israels, and Aharon-Leybele, and Hatzkele, and Moshke, and Berel-Bernt, the steward and just all of them! They are all alive. I know them all and I share the joys and sorrows of all of them. After all some force is necessary to make me not only laugh (there are spots in your book when I burst out in a side-splitting laughter), but also to extract tears from my eyes. I swear upon my word of honor that I was crying together with all of you, when your grandfather gave his blessing to you all, before the Day of Atonement, and when your pious and righteous Grandmother was lying, dead on the floor and your grand-father fainted a hundred times. Let us rejoice as much in a speedy deliverance of Israel as I shed my tears, and Oh Almighty God, I did not do it because a human being died. How many people are dying every day, at any time and at any hour!
But I was crying because your grandmother and your grandfather - they are mine, mine, mine! And because they are living, golden-hearted people, whom you had cherished and snuggled in your soul and whom you had invested with your entire fiery truth. I am really filled with pride that we possess such people, such Jews like you to whom we owe it that the small coins,thrown aside and neglected in nay opinion many of them are still lying around have not been lost for our people. I am really proud that our still young Yiddish folk-literature has been enriched by such a book like your Reminiscences.
Will you continue writing, your Reminiscences? Will they be as rich and as masterful as the first volume? Masterful? I am sure they will be. But rich? I do not know; I am afraid their contents will be poorer, thinner. Those Jews are no longer! It means they are, but not so much in the foreground; they are like a drop in the ocean, in particular in large towns.
Today, on a mountain called Leson, which is 4,500 feet high and tops Lausanne, I accidentally met a writer Izbicki (Michalowicz). I told him how much admiration was aroused in me by a book of a respectable Jew, Y. Kotik, which moved me to tears. It turned out that Izbicki knows you very well, that you are A. Kotik's father, that you are the owner of the coffee house on Nalewki Street and that everyone has known for a long time about some Reminiscences of yours. One must ask: Where have they been all the time, the idiots? Why did they keep silent, if they knew about it? And where was I, an idiot myself? Was I not myself in the Nalewki Street and did hot I drink coffee there - with Spector, I believe. Why was I unaware where I was and at whose place I had a coffee? Why is our book market being flooded with the worst of trash, at a time when treasures like yours are lying around in a crate, in a drawer or under a mattress. Murderous hatred rises up in me against our critics whenever I recall to mind how they praise every young scribbler who produces an obscenity taken from the Goyim. I boil with indignation while reading the digested and spitted out obscenity of Artzibashev and similar filth, which enrage the good humorist as I am called and deprive me of the desire to write. I become a vicious criminal; do not imagine that it lasts long I am just like the proverbial Jewish robber.
Well, I have been chatting too much about myself. If you have time, answer this question, please. Are you still writing your Reminiscences and what period and what circles are you dealing with? Is it going as smoothly as previously? Are you dealing with the family? There are persons and characters whose stories you must carry on and on.
Live long, be healthy and cheerful and write! Your thankful reader, friend and pupil,
[English page 43]
By Abraham Shudroff
I was a little boy attending heder,the traditional religious school, when the First World War broke out. A year later, in 1915, the German and Austro-Hungarian armies occupied Kamenetz-Litovsk. Difficult times full of hardships and sufferings began.
A fine generation of Jewish youth grew up in Kamenetz after World War I. Many of them emigrated, but a considerable part remained at home. Schools, libraries, and many educational circles were established. But on the whole, the Jews suffered under the anti-Semitic Polish administration.
The year 1939 came. The Second World War broke out and we were cut off from the townlet. And then came the accursed Hitler, the worst oppressor and enemy of our people in all times:
In 1941, when the Nazi murderers entered Kamenetz-Litovsk, they immediately shot the leaders of the Jewish community and locked all Jews in a ghetto. Later on the entire Jewish community, headed by the Rabbis Reuven Burstein and the Yeshivah-Principal, Hayim Garfinkel of blessed memory perished in the gas chambers and death camps of Treblinka and Auschwitz. The Jews of Kamenetz shared the tragic fate of their six million martyred Jewish brethren.
[English page 46]
By Dvora Dolinsky-Pansky (New York)
And when Kamenetz was finally occupied by the Germans, the people of the town felt sharply that they were really caught in a war and subjected to strict military laws. Life was even more restricted and hopeless. The food problem became more acute, the population hungered. After the Germans had come, parts of the defeated Russian army remained in hideouts, formed different gangs which used to rob and murder Jews in the area comprising the neighbouring towns and villages. As a result the Jews were forced to leave their homes and move into neighbouring towns where there was a larger Jewish population. Being herself one of the victims, the writer of these lines moved with her family to Kamenetz and became a permanent resident there. In that little town I lived during most of my youth, that is, in the years between the two world wars. I do not have to search for any materials in libraries or archives, but only to turn to my own memory, though the events and experiences could not be recorded when their impression was still recent and fresh. At that time there was no possibility or rather no necessity to do it. However, after they had lost some of their weight and can now be considered as belonging to the past, I am better able to arrange them in an orderly manner and to revise everything I had heard, seen or experienced personally, as a direct participant in the events, even though I can not recollect every detail.
Kamenetz-Litovsk lies in Byelorussia (White Russia) on the Lesna River, which flows into the Western Bug. Judging by the religious institutions, as, for instance, the beautiful Great Synagogue with its original Holy Ark, old synagogues, the Jewish cemetery with its old tombstones and many other sites, it is possible to state that Kamenetz was an old Jewish community which had existed for many centuries. An obelisk erected many centuries ago by a Lithuanian duke may be added to the list of the relics of ancient times. The obelisk provided Kamenetz with a special attraction which other little towns did not possess. Memories of wooden houses, of signs over shops, of old men with long beards, of visionary youth, of zest for life and above all, of tragedy, come back to my mind. Those images are enduring and unforgettable.
I find in my memory materials for a family chronicle, memoirs and in the main, recollections of a little town that was alive, a townlet with its images and human types. I remember bright and shady figures, a gallery of portraits of tailors, cobblers, smiths and other craftsmen; religious teachers, school teachers, cantors; the water-carrier, the bath-house 'attendant, the beadle. A popular saying, which stated that every town has its madman applied also to Kamenetz. We had our Alterke though it must be said that he was not completely crazy. In other words, he was harmless to the inhabitants of the town. Alterke was short, skinny and his face deathly pale; his eyes were dull; he always wore a stained, sweaty cap and a long coat; he used to hang out near the municipality building where he swept the rooms. He also performed another function in the town: whenever a circumcision ceremony took place he had to set the pillow on which the boy rested.
Each one of these types and figures had his own specific charm; each one of them cherished the traditional folklore and possessed hidden talents. There were religious Jews, though some of them had been tinged by the Has kala (Enlightenment) movement and were also partly interested in worldly affairs. And there were free-thinkers who derived their pleasure from reading the works of modern Jewish authors and dreamed about better days to come. Kamenetz was just one of the many towns and townlets spread all over White Russia and Poland where the majority of the Jewish population lived in hard and painful conditions; it embodied, in miniature, the whole Jewish national existence with all its shades from the extreme right to the extreme left. Tradition and a profound Jewish religious feeling reigned supremely at home and in the sphere of social life. The synagogue was a meeting place for young and old. All problems, including the political, were solved there. On the other hand, it is a fact that the strict and fanatical adherence to tradition brought in its wake some petrifaction of Jewish life. In spite of it, Kamenetz was not an ignorant town belonging to the dark ages but adjusted itself to the modern world. There were parties and circles striving toward other aims; they had their own vision of a better future for the Jewish people and the working masses. All this added color and warmth to our existence.
I shall never forget the Saturday afternoons in our town. After eating tscholent (a Sabbath dish kept warm from Friday) the Jews went to sleep and complete silence enveloped the town, with its closed shops and empty streets. This was a day of rest and the worries of the past week were shoved away into a distant corner of the mind. But gradually the whole town woke up from the deep slumber. The ordinary working days returned, with their grey reality and worries about the following day. This went on year in year out.
Kamenetz was surrounded by villages with a large population. They supplied bread, potatoes, dairy products, hides and wood. The regular fairs taking place in the market square full of stands, drew noisy crowds, milling about and buying and selling. Peasants from the neighbouring villages used to come to town to sell their products and to buy the necessary articles for the whole week.
There was hardly any industry in Kamenetz. There were a few rich Jews and there were some extremely poor ones. There were small and big Jewish merchants, middlemen, tradesmen, money-lenders and idle loafers; there was also a small number of salaried workers. Here and there the knocking of a shoe-maker's hammer could be heard.
There were some good craftsmen and some incompetent bunglers. I remember a cobbler who used to mend the shoes of my family. He lived on the Napiska Street in the house of Tsirel Dubiner; I do not remember his name. Before I had time to ask him about the price, he would tear off the soles and throw the shoes into a bucket filled with water; only then would he tell us the price, because by then he could be sure that I would not take the shoes away from him. Most of the workshops were small. Their proprietors usually worked alone or with an assistant. I can also remember Alter's tannery on the Napiska Street, Bershtig the shoemaker, David the miller and the brewery which belonged to Guterman and was then considered a large industrial enterprise. But the workers in that period did not manage to get organized in trade union. Through the thirst for knowledge and education was great, no systematic propaganda work was done and therefore the fields of trade unionism and social activity were somewhat neglected.
Notwithstanding the expanding number of employed Jewish workers and craftsmen, the majority of Kamenetz Jews were shopkeepers and merchants. The typical house in Kamenetz was built of wood with thatched or tiled roof. This was the cause of frequent big fires which devastated large parts of our town.
In the cultural sphere, Kamenetz was far from being a backward town. It is always the human material which can secure cultural advancement and we possessed such people. Our youth was very keen and sensitive to everything going on in the world. I should like to honor them by recording the good example they gave. Though our life was hard and hopeless, our town possessed a beautiful and intelligent young generation, which, in spite of the difficult conditions, was full of energy, zest for life and strove to accomplish its vision of a better future.
After World War I economic and social pressure was felt in many ways. From this resulted further impoverishment of the Jews and the strengthened desire to emigrate, but the gates of the wide world were not open to everyone. Many young people were jealous of me since I had a chance to go to America. I shall never forget the day when I had to part with my parents, will my town and with all those close to me: I felt as if I had known that I would never see all of them again. Until the First World War there were mostly traditional, religious schools of the heder type in Kamenetz. At that time there were many teachers of religious subjects and special teachers for the very young. They taught the Hebrew alphabet and how to write letters in Yiddish and Russian. In that period it was important to know how to address letters to America because there was hardly anyone without relatives or friends there.
But all these institutions were not sufficient. Some of the well-off Jews used to send their children to larger cities to obtain secular education. The nearest city was Brest-Litovsk.
There was also a two-grade Russian State school. At that time the percentage of Jewish students in Russian state schools was very small; as far as I can remember there was not a single Jewish child in the Russian state school at Kamenetz. During the First World War, after the Tsarist administration had fled and the Germans occupied Kamenetz, a new type school was established. During the time of the German occupation changes took place in the entire educational system. The Germans established a school where German, of course, was the language of instruction and Hebrew one of the taught subjects. Hebrew was taught by Israel Unterman, Lea Bobrovsky, and Malca Poliakevitch. The school which existed until the end of 1918, when the Germans left Kamenetz was the fortuitous start of a new Jewish school net which was organized in the later years; it comprised Jewish elementary schools where modern methods of teaching were used under the supervision of well known pedagogues. With great desire and enthusiasm the Jewish children strove towards a brighter future; they were attracted by a free world away from the narrow confines of the heder with its old-fashioned teachers. The new school was directed by the Sapirstein brothers, Nahum Gelerstein and Israel Pomerantz. In the years 1919-1929, the writer of these lines herself opened a school, together with Lea Bobrovska, in the school building which remained empty since the German occupation. The building had previously been used as the municipal post-office, therefore the street in which it was located was named Pocztowa (Post Street). The building was new, handsome and sunny almost ideal for a school. The street, too, was very beautiful, in particular in the days of spring, when the lilac shrubs, full of white and violet clusters of flowers, and the blooming apple trees were caressed by the warm sun. And the street looked even more colourful and beautiful when the children rushed out of the school building and their young, delicate voices resounded in the open air. Hebrew and Russian were the languages of instructions. Several subjects were taught in Russian. Later on we were joined by the Sapirstein brothers, Nahum Gelerstein and Israel Pomerantz, and together we formed a kind of teachers society. Only those few children whose parents were well-off paid school fees; the majority of parents could not afford to pay; therefore the school budget was not big enough to allow the school to function normally. The American Joint Distribution Committee helped us a lot; it sent clothes for the children and teachers. I shall never forget the costumes we received from America. The kids put on fancy brown dresses and black aprons and if I am not mistaken also shoes and caps. But we, the teachers, received pyjama jackets; since they looked very much like Russian shirts (rubashkas) we adorned ourselves in the fancy pyjama jackets and paraded in them on a Saturday night thinking that the whole world was smiling together with us.
The school was a fine institution. We were a group of teachers who, in the course of our work, became a closely knit circle of personal friends sharing the same ideals. We thought that nothing in the world could ever separate us.
Our youth was strongly attracted by Jewish culture. They were avid readers of books in Yiddish and members of the Jewish library. The library at Kamenetz possessed a considerable number of books ranging from fiction to works on social and economical problems. The library served also as a meeting place for the people who sought answers to their social problems.
In the period between the two world wars the spread of Jewish press made only little headway. The Haynt and The Moment were the two most popular Yiddish newspapers. I remember that in Kamenetz there were only few regular subscribers; they subscribed jointly for a paper. Quite often we used to talk in our circle about the need for our own dramatics section, stage players, singers and reciters, so that we might have our own cadres for the literary or other cultural evenings. Unfortunately, several attempts to organize such a circle failed. After it had finally come into existence it fell apart after several performances. Perseverance and endless patience were required. The Sapirstein brothers and Rahel Atlas had those qualities. Rachel Atlas, who died in America, had originally come from Brest and lived for many years in Kamenetz. It is worthwhile to mention her activity. She was a fine actress with deep understanding of her roles and a very cultured person. Selda Steinberg-Sapirstein, too, was quite talented and she contributed her share. After all, we were far from such great centres where good performances could be seen and serve us as examples. Despite the fact that the theatrical performances took place in the barn belonging to Motye Klepatcher, Kamenetz possessed a circle of quite good amateur actors who appeared on stage from time to time.
I should like to devote a few words to Velvel Sapirstein who was one of my intimate friends. Usually, after a friend dies, the memory of his personality becomes dimmer every year. Sometimes the memory disappears altogether but this did not happen in the case of our unforgettable Velvel. On the contrary in the course of time his image has become even shaper and deeply impressed upon my memory.
Let us honor his shining memory!
Let us go back to the town with its cultural and spiritual life. In the years when the Jewish colonization in the Land of Israel was still young, economically weak and constantly endangered by Arab attacks, a pioneering (Halutz) movement came into existence in the towns and townlets also in Kamenetz. Till the outbreak of the last war, the Zionist organizations carried out a great national mission in every field of their varied activities. Thanks to them there was a cultural advancement. Most of the young people studied Hebrew. Kamenetz did not stay behind in this respect; it had a large Zionist youth organization.
Remembering the years of my youth, I recall those who were my friends during the largest part of that period. I remember my mother, my father, my family, my friends, neighbours and close friends; I shall never forget them. I see the torn threads which linked me with each one of them. How painful it is to realize that I shall never see them again. I had dreamed for many years that I would see my home town again. But my desire remained unfulfilled, my hopes were all in vain. One still does not want to accept the fact that everything is lost, that everything perished and nothing but a desert remained.
I recollect the Friday nights or the Saturdays or the holidays; how joyful and heart-warming was our modest home! I remember so many happy moments. We thought that such idyllic life would last forever.
Everybody came to our home to sing and to rejoice. Until today the hearty melodies accompany me.
From our home we used to run down to the Napiska Street, to meet the remaining members of our circle and to take a walk past the Zastavye Bridge. The bridge served as a place for promenades and dates there we used to make new acquaintances and from there we went wherever we fancied.
[English page 56]
By Velvel Kustin (New Jersey)
The first to be established was Lotovo; it was named after Lot. The other two were also named after Biblical personages: Sarovo, after Sarah; Abramovo, after our fore-father Abraham. The first of these colonies, Lotovo, was also known as Plisich.
The reason for these colonies being set up by the Jews is unknown to me. However, some people used to say that this was one way of avoiding military service, which in those days could last up to twenty-five years. Conscription in our sense of the term was not practiced. The military would seize young children and induct them for long periods. Only tillers of the land were exempt by law. Therefore, the Jews, it is believed, settled on the land and in that way protected their children. However, no one really knows the actual reason for the founding of the colonies.
At the time of its establishment, the colony of Sarovo consisted of 24 families, each of whom received 65 acres of land from the Russian government. All of the Jews of Sarovo originally came from Brest-Litovsk. They were tradesmen and merchants of various kinds. My great-grandfather, for example, was a manufacturer of candles. His name was Hershel Lichtzier-Kustin. I can recall the names of some other first colonists: Eliezer Ashkenazi, Yosef Sokolovsky, Hershel Seidinger, Mordecai Simhovich, Kravietsky, and Chorny.
The founders of the colonies tilled the soil year in and year out, but when their children grew up the enlarged families could not live off the land anymore. The profits from their labours were insufficient. Since there was no possibility of acquiring additional land, some of the colonists were forced to leave the settlement, and they moved back into town. The majority of these colonists went back to Brest and some of them went to Kamenetz Litovsk, the nearest small town. There they worked as coachmen and as millers. Meanwhile, their abandoned land was rented to the colonists who remained. I say rented because according to the laws of that period, the departing colonists were unable to sell their holdings to non-colonists. And since the colonists who did remain in the settlement had no money with which to buy the land, the best thing was to rent it. Among the second generation of settlers was Israel Ashkenazi, who did not want to return to Brest. Instead, he left for Palestine and became one of the founders of the colony of Yesod Hama'ala in Upper Galilee. Many stories are told about him; how he taught the first Jewish settlers of Yesod Hama'ala to plow and to sow. He brought his father and mother, Eliezer and Gittel Ashkenazi to Palestine.
Their numerous descendants settled in various parts of the country. They still live in Yesod Hama'ala and other parts of Israel. One of the descendants of Eliezer Ashkenazi, Zvi Ashkenazi fell in the defense of Kfar Giladi, in the year 1946. Their entire story is told in two Hebrew books which deal with the history of Yesod Hama'ala.
The Kustin family were the only ones whose descendants remained in the colony of Sarovo for the entire life span of four generations. My great-grandfather, Hershel Lichtzier-Kustin had an only son, my grandfather Velvel. Hershel bought 65 acres of land from a colonist who had gone back to town, and because of his large holdings, he was able to gain a livelihood from agriculture.
Grandfather Velvel had four sons and three daughters. One of his sons was my father, Moshe Yossel. The daughters grew up, married, and settled in adjoining small towns. The sons rented additional land from ex-colonists, but even so, it was difficult to earn a living. They began to migrate to America. My own father sailed to America twice. Returning home from his second trip in 1909, he bought an additional 32 acres, which doubled his original holding of 32 acres which he had inherited previously. He also acquired ten head of cattle. He bred horses, raised chickens and ducks and became an established colonist.
Regarding our religious life, it is to the glory of the original settlers that once their homes were built and their colony established, they erected a Beth-Hamidrash. This is a synagogue and religious school combined. They built it in the center of the settlement so that it could be conveniently reached by everyone.
It was a square-shaped building with a thatched roof. It was distinguished from the surrounding houses by a sign over the enclosed porch displaying that it was the Beth-Hamidrash. Within the building itself, the Holy Ark containing two Torah Scrolls, was flanked by two lions and surmounted by the Tablets of the Law. The pulpit, located in the center of the Beth-Hamidrash, was surrounded by six columns. The ceiling was decorated with stars in a blue field and the signs of the zodiac.
Prayers were recited in the Beth-Hamidrash three times a day, and I can recall even as a boy we always had a minyan and that the prayers were conducted alternately by different members of the colony. After the prayer service, many remained to study Talmud.
Religious instruction for the children was given in a room within the Beth-Hamidrash. School began at 7:00 in the morning and ended at 8: 00 in the evening. In my time, the teacher came from the town of Kalenkovich. He taught us the Five Books of the Law with Rashi's commentary, as well as Talmud with annotations. I can recall the names of other teachers, such as Reb Eliezer Rogoznitsky, Reb Pinya Rappaport, and Yosel Terk. But one name I can recall with particular joy, for his coming was not only a joy to me but a festive pleasure for the entire colony. He was Rabbi Leyser Velvel of Blessed Memory, the Rabbi and religious Judge from Zastavye, our neighbouring small town. Before the Passover festival he would arrive in a wagon and come to pray at the Beth-Hamidrash. On these visits he would take up a collection for the poor. It was my father's privilege to have the visiting Rabbi as a guest for dinner in our house, when I would be examined in chapters of Talmud that I had studied. At his leave taking, a committee of home owners would collect corn, wheat, rye, and even potatoes, and the Rabbi would leave with the wagon, in which he had arrived, fully loaded.
Although the children had the right to attend the village school where Russian was taught, the instruction there was not suited for Jewish children, and our parents, despite their great economic difficulties, maintained constant, regular Jewish instruction in the colony in the Beth-Hamidrash. They did not forget the reading from our Bible and repeated in our prayer book . . . And ye shall instruct your children diligently. In the matter of hiring a teacher they never haggled for the cheapest. He had to be one of the best, not only a versatile scholar, but a good pedagogue as well and knowledgeable in secular subjects also. This was a standard of excellence not easy to maintain and I can recall that the majority of the parents whose children were attending our Heder were usually obliged to borrow money from the wheat merchants in Kamenetz against their next year's crop. The Rebbe (teacher) was not only well paid; he was provided with food and lodging.
The colonists paid no dues to the Religious Council (The Kehilla). Whatever business we had in connection with our religious life was carried out by an elected Community Council. This election took place on the night of Simchat Torah, when they would also elect their Gabay, (the chief officer). This honor was bestowed upon my father every year and he served as Gabay for his entire life. It was on Simchat Torah night that the Gabay used to make a statement to the assembled community as to the expenses for communal needs and the homeowners would promise to pay them in part. The colony had no cemetery of its own and the deceased would be buried in Kamenetz Litovsk. But there were other expenses. For the High Holidays a paid cantor was brought in from Kamenetz. For several years the cantor was Reb Shlomo Rudnitsky from Kamenetz. He was called Shlomo Lysker because he was an overseer in the village of Lyski, where he was in the service of a rich non-Jewish landowner. He was the farm manager. Part of his duty was to keep strange cattle from rambling into the landowner's fields at night when they might damage the crops. Due to this, some of the peasants aimed to kill him and so he left the village. Not wanting to become a Gemora teacher because this would deprive the teachers of Kamenetz of their livelihood he became a teacher for beginners. But during the High Holidays, he was the cantor in our colony.
There are other facets of our religious life that I can recall. Our Sabbaths were observed strictly, and only the necessary labours, which were forbidden to be done by Jews on the Sabbath and Holy Days, were performed by peasants from neighbouring villages. They milked the cows and fired up the stoves in winter. Our relationship with them was peaceful and at times even friendly. Naturally, they were paid extra for doing these chores. There was one among these gentile peasants, Ivan the Shepherd as we called him, whose job was to look after the herd as they roamed the fields. In addition to being the shepherd of the colony, he was also the colony's Shabbat-Goy. He would turn off the lamps in the Beth-Hamidrash and tend to the stove there during the winter. He was devoted to the colony and I remember that soon after the First World War, there was a shortage of Ethrogim (citrons) which were used for Succoth, the Feast of the Tabernacles. The neighbouring town of Zastavye had both a citron as well as a Lulav (ritual palm branch). Each day during the Feast of the Tabernacles, Ivan would run the distance of three miles from Zastavye to our colony holding the citron and palm branch as he ran, and after our services in thee Beth-Hamidrash he would run back with them to Zastavye.
There is one more item concerning our religious life that needs to be recalled and that is the renovation of our Beth-Hamidrash.
In 1909, on my father's second return from America, the colony decided that our religious house was in need of refurbishing. It was my father's proposal that this be done and again he was chosen to be the Treasurer. Each member not only pledged a financial contribution but in addition, his own work to rebuild and to embellish the building.
The most active in the project of reconstruction were my father and his three brothers: Reuben Leyb, Hershel, and my favourite Uncle Ephraim Shimon. It was the last mentioned who was the permanent official representative of the colony in its dealings with the local authorities. He was the Starosta. He was also the most accomplished Reader in the synagogue; that is, leader of prayers, a Baal-Tefilla. To be sure, every member in the colony was able to do the same, but each had his own variations but none was quite as authoritative as my Uncle Ephraim Shimon. Another uncle, Manche Ashkenazi, a born artist, made his contribution to the rebuilding of the Beth-Hamidrash. All the fine wood work and carvings contained on the Ark and on the Bima were done by his God given talent to his hands.
Now, to return to the beginning The first generation of colonists found agricultural life difficult and strange. It became advisable to hire peasants from neighbouring villages, the nearest to our colony being the village of Bilyeve. This practice of hiring peasants continued well into our days. that is for the life-s an of four generations. At harvest time, when it was necessary to gather the yield rapidly, it was usually the Bilyeve peasants who were hired to help with the work. After a small part of the colonists had left the settlement, those who remained, the hearty and determined, lived a real good Jewish farm life. It was a hard life but well-organized, Winter was naturally the hardest period but during the summer months, our youth were busily engaged in the fields, and with the grazing of cattle. It was not unusual for young boys to be awakened at three O'clock in the morning to begin the farm chores, if there were no older brothers or sisters to do them. One should remember that Heder (Hebrew school) began at 7:00 A.M. But it was all in a day's work, including a watch on the herd to keep them from grazing too close to the borders of the corn fields. Usually a gentile would be hired for this purpose.
In my time, there remained fourteen families in the colony numbering over fifty people. Living conditions had improved, thanks to the help given by the Jewish Colonization Association. At the turn of the country, our colonists had applied for agricultural assistance to the JCA. This organization sent experts who gave instruction in modern methods of fertilization and the use of agricultural machinery for ploughing, threshing and harvesting. Some of the s settlers put little trust in the new methods but those who began using them were successful according to the standards of that time.
One of these settlers was Zimel Simchovich. By a stroke of good luck, he had succeeded in acquiring additional land from several families. Employing the new methods of farming, he became a rich colonist, envied not only by his Jewish neighbours but also by gentile landowners who bought from him seed, hay, and straw in large quantities which he had accumulated before onset of winter. He also planted an orchard of some 250 fruit bearing trees, an achievement that was new in the entire region. He raised apples, pears, cherries, plums of the larger size, and gooseberries. Professional literature from the JCA on how to be a successful orchardist helped Zimel with his work. He also bought saplings from the same source.
Needless to say, Reb Zimel was the most outstanding member of our colony. While every one in the colony was kind, generous, and hospitable, not to mention warm-hearted and agreeable, Reb Zimel, however, was the shining example of all these virtues. One of the best students of the Mishmar Yeshiva in Brest, Rev Yosel Soroka, who became his son-in-law, was sustained and maintained by him in the traditional manner of a rich man supporting a Talmud student who was to marry into the family. Reb Yosel Soroka was descendant of a Hassidic family and was himself a Hassid.
On the Sabbath we wore a silk coat with a silk woven belt (gartel) and a little Polish cap on his head.
But it was not all work in the colony, especially for the young people. In the summer, the young folks did put in their licks in the field, but winter was the time for entertainment. They would gather in large houses to dance and to sing love songs and Zionist songs. These gatherings generally took place on Saturday night when everyone was well rested. No one ever missed any affair or event that took place in the little town of Kamenetz.
As for the adults, they too had their fun. On Holidays, the settlers visited each other for Kiddush and housewives were afforded the opportunity to show off their cooking and baking arts. Such delicious cakes and pastries! The young fry, meanwhile, played parlour games, sang and danced and recited poems by Morris Rosenfeld, Abraham Raisin, S. Frug, Haim Nachman Bialik, and the stories of Sholom Aleichem and Peretz. As a lad, I too was among those who recited these works.
Then came the bad days!
During the First World War, almost three quarters of the colony, as well as the town of Zastavye, were burned down and completely destroyed. The people were driven out and most who returned found no place to live. The retreating Russian Army had burned all our crops and barns and stolen livestock and our farm tools. But miracle of miracles, the Beth-Hamidrash was not destroyed and three families moved in there temporarily. They hoped to settle elsewhere, but a man named Yankel and another called Jacob Hertsky Chorny died there.
Following the retreat of the Russian armies, bands of robbers formed and our colony suffered greatly from their criminal assaults. Then came the Germans. When they withdrew, the Poles set up their own State and occupied our region. But then the Poles and the Bolsheviks fought, and when that was over the Poles carried off everything they could lay their hands on in our colony. Not only live stock but even children's shoes. However, after a while, order was established, and it was at about that time that my intended wife, Sarah Ashkenazi, and I, began to think about our future. This was shortly after her father, Chaim Itche, may he rest in peace, had passed away.
It was difficult everywhere.
More than half of Zastavye was destroyed during the First World War but the Jewish streets and the two synagogues bore the brunt of the destruction. Some of the Jewish people moved into Christian homes on Christian streets where the residents had fled although their homes had not been damaged. This was in marked contrast to what had befallen Jewish homes, for only a very few Jewish houses had been spared. These were the homes of Shaye Nahum, Yosel Nehemvas and Velvel Prohotsky. Among their first consideration was to find a place where a Minyan of 10 Jews could meet for congregational prayers. Reb Yankel Olier, a pious Jew living in the large house of Shaye Nahum, at once put his living room at the disposal of the congregation. It was there, until the house was sold, that prayers were recited. Then Velvel Prohotsky invited the congregation to pray in his three-room house. Part of this dwelling provided him with the means for marking a living, the part which was the bakery, where on market days people made a stop over for a bite and a purchase. Despite this, Velvel Prohotsky offered his home for several years, and it was used for religious services until the Beth-Hamidrash was rebuilt. The little town of Zastavye had such worthy Jews!
The horrors of the war brought a measure of relief from America with the creation of the Joint Relief Committee (JRC).
It sent food and clothing to Brest, which was the distribution center for our area, and we chose Reb Zimel to be Zastavye's and the colony's representative. In this capacity, he would go to Brest from time to time to settle matters pertaining to relief work and food distribution for the colony and Zastavye. Once while walking in the streets of Brest a Polish soldier from General Haller's army assaulted him and tore out a large part of his beard. I still can remember the painful impression and the grief this created in our colony and in Zastavye. Reb Zimel sat in mourning for his beard for seven days, and I may say that his grief and anguish were so great that he became ill and never completely recovered.
It was in and around these days that the Jews of Zastavye began to suspect that there was something unfair in the way the food relief from the JRC was being distributed. The amount that was being given to the individual families was constantly getting less.
One Saturday, after prayers were over, an assembly was held and it was decided to appoint a new committee. The proponents of this movement were simple, honest, upright workers men like Itche Klotz (a nickname I do not employ in a derogatory manner but simply to identify him properly); Eli Yakir, son of Moshe; Gabriel, son of Yakir Moshe, Pesach Kaletsky, and several others. The people assembled at that meeting decided to elect young and energetic workers to the new committee. Shouts went up: We want Velvel Toybe's! (This was my name, the Toybe part having been added when I became the husband of Sarah Ashkenazi, her mother's name being Toybe.) Two others were chosen, dear friends of mine who later were murdered by the accursed Germans. On was Moshe Savshitsky, an upright, intelligent young man; the second one was Mendel Caplan, the son of Heske, a miller and a neighbour of ours, a fine young man.
The new committee was formed but, the old committee refused to disband. However, the whole community went to the Kamenetzer Rabbi, who decided in favour of the new committee because it had been democratically chosen. This, I may say, is an example of the peaceful manner in which a simple people who had suffered and had been wronged, adjusted to its Grievances.
But life, as the Bible had taught us, is not by bread along.
Despite these hardships, the Jewish community in Zastavye remembered that their children also needed spiritual nourishment. Joint efforts in this direction produced some results. The children studied under very difficult conditions but those who wanted to broaden their education could not do so. There was no library in Zastavye.
It was at about this time that I saw the haplessness of the Jewish situation in Europe, and I decided to leave for America. Soon after my arrival in New York I received a letter from my wife's sister, Bracha, may she rest in peace written in an excellent Hebrew and requesting that we raise the money for the creation of a Jewish Library in Zastavye. My own circumstances then were indeed meagre. I took the matter up with several fellow townsmen and among us we dispatched to Zastavye for the purpose requested.
There is much more that can be said and written, but in the briefest of summaries this was the life as we lived it in the colony of Sarova and the town of Zastavye. The world knows that the German murderers exterminated one-third of our people, but we, from Sarovo and Zastavye, know and can remember the victims in our communities.
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