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[English page 46]

Kamenetz as I Remember You

By Dvora Dolinsky-Pansky (New York)

In July, 1915, Kamenetz and the neighbouring townlets were captured by the German-Austrian army which had successfully marched forward. The Russian army was shattered; it was retreating in confusion and carrying out anti-Jews pogroms. Pools of blood, dead horses, wrecked wagons could be seen on the roads. People, with a look of despair in their eyes, were wandering on every highway. They lost the ground under their feet, the events dazed and confused them, driving them into titter desperation. Everybody saw clearly that a period of chaos was setting in. People were being driven out of their houses, all their property was being set on fire and destroyed. Every day, homeless, evacuated people entered the town, some of them on horse-drawn wagons, and others trudging along with tired, pale children by their sides. Hysterical cries could be heard everywhere. With bundles in their hands and on their backs, large crowds were standing and searching f or a way of escape. But how could they flee when no trains were leaving Kamenetz. The only thing to do was to march on one's own feet toward the horizon. When the Russian army began its retreat the situation deteriorated even more; during the last days of its stay Kamenetz and vicinity turned into a military center. The retreating Russian army enjoyed itself at the expense of the Jewish population and began robbing and destroying whatever they could. Everyone was seized by fear; people hid in the houses, fled to their neighbours or even sought refuge in the cellars and waited for one fighting army to supersede the other.

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] [Yiddish pp. 389-399]

The Jewish Agricultural Colonies

By Velvel Kustin (New Jersey)

Three Jewish agricultural colonies lay in the vicinity of Brest-Lito: Abramovo, Sarovo, and Lotovo. These colonies, situated close to each other, were established approximately 160 years ago.

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.[1]

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.[2]

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 the 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 lifespan 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 century, 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 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 everyone 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 he 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 Eliezer, 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 stopover 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.[3]

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.

[English page 68]

Josef Soroko


A colonist


Translator's Footnotes

  1. Yiddish version adds: My father's three brothers also remained in the colony. They purchased additional land and inventory. When their families got bigger, my uncles went to America—one of them once and another twice. There they worked very hard for several years. When they returned they didn't go to the town; instead they applied themselves to work the land even more energetically. Return
  2. Yiddish version adds: Every day several of the men studied Mishna [the core text of the Talmud]. Reb Yudel Kravietzky and Reb Zimel Simchovitch used to teach these study groups. Return
  3. Yiddish version adds: I consulted with several fellow townsmen, and we decided to purchase a performance. We sold tickets and made a profit of over sixty dollars, which we sent to start a Jewish library. Return


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