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[Pages 11]

The History of Rubezhevichi

by Simon Osherowitz

Translated by Ronald M. Miller

The town of Rubezhevichi [ed. pronounced Rue-be-ze'-vitz or Reb'-zhe-vitz] was built on a wide plateau of a hill. Rivers flowed from both its sides. On the west was the Sula River and on the east of the town was the Paracol River. At some distance from the town these two rivers flowed into one, and continued until the City of Nemun.

The town is 58 kilometers southwest of Minsk; 18 kilometers northwest of the train station at Negoreloya, and 20 kilometers west of Koidonov also known as Dzerzhinsk and Koidonova.

The surrounding area was very beautiful, full of hills and forests and rich in flowing water. In the surrounding area of Minsk there lived a Slavic tribe called Kribitsky. This tribe owned three principalities: Drusk, Vitebsk, and Minsk. The Lithuanians waged war with these three principalities and continually tried to conquer them and the territory of Belarus.

In the first half of the thirteenth century, the border of Lithuania stretched almost directly to the surrounding area of Brest-Novogrodocminsk on the way to Poskov. On the other side of this border in the territory next to Minsk, the Slavic border of Tressn is found. Strong fortresses were built on the length of this border in order to guard against the Lithuanian attacks.

Rubezhevichi was no doubt, one of the most important fortresses. As evidence of this, one could cite the big hill upon which it was placed. Built around it were the natural boundaries that were impregnable according to the concepts of that period. It appears that many battles were fought around this fortress. Skeletons of many people were discovered there every time they dug into the ground. The tartar invasion of Russia made the Lithuanian conquest of Belarus rather simple.

After the Lithuanian war in Belarus when the Lithuanian borders moved to the east, the fortresses of the area mentioned before, lost their military importance. Rubezhevichi remained a portion of the principality of Lithuania and was included in the Koidonov administrative territory.

In 1548, Sigmund August was crowned King of Poland, and Prince of Lithuania. This king was actually a friend of the Jews. He protected them against blood accusations (the blood liable) and he gave the Jews of Poland the right to elect their own Rabbis and religious Justices. He also exchanged letters with Prince Don Joseph.

In the year 1550, the King gave Koidonov and Rubezhevichi as a permanent gift to Prince Mickolai Rudzavel-Rudi. King Sigmund August's wife, who died a young woman, was from the Rudzavel family and therefore we see and understand the kindness that he extended to the Rudzavel's.

In 1652, Prince Buguslav Rudzavel became burdened with debts and as a result, mortgaged Rubezhevichi to Hurunjei Pakashiv for 92,000 gold coins.

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In the beginning of the 18th Century, Prince Cheronium Florian Rudjavel again mortgaged the town of Rubezhevichi to Stephen Ovorsky and his wife Helena Domaslavska for 40,000 gold coins.

This Stephen Ovorsky rented the city of Rubezhevichi in 1736 for the sum of 4,000 gold pieces per year. It is not known who the renter was; however, it is possible to assume that he was a Jew. The government of Poland aided the Poles and Jews in Belarus and in the city of Rubezhevichi in order to have them serve as a kind of buffer zone against the Russian desire to spread their borders further west to rule in Belarus.

In 1761, Prince Mikhail Rebunka gave Rubezhevichi as a wedding gift to his stepdaughter Tafullia Rudjavel, who married Stanislav Brustovski.

This couple had a beautiful home in Rubezhevichi. They used to come to the town frequently and remain there for long periods of time. One can imagine that their home was not in the city itself but rather outside of it. It was probably about a half kilometer from the town in a place where one finds the residence of one Vitohovich. Parenthetically, at the end of the 19th Century, a Russian Prince by the name of Sregiev lived there.

Today many tombstones, covered with moss, can be found not far from this residence on the hill. Discernible on them, etched in stone are the Christian Cross and letters that are mostly worn off. They are not easy to read. The Brustovski family also became encumbered with debt and mortgaged the town in the year 1769 to one Francesk Ratinsky for 1,550 ducats and 30,455 gold coins. In the meantime, Brustovski died. His widow no longer made good on her debt and was not able to redeem the mortgage. The matter reached the King of Poland who advised the sides to come to some kind of compromise or settlement. Finally, in the year 1775 the Polish Court recognized the right of one Retinsky to the following villages: Zedonovich, Dolna-Rubszina, Tatarszina, and Zohy. Along with these villages he had a yearly income of some 967 gold pieces from the leasing of six coffeehouses, and one flour mill in Rubezhevichi. This situation continued until the end of the 18th Century.

In 1793, Minsk and its environs were annexed to Russia. One of the relatives of the Rudjavel family, Rustolf, paid the debt that burdened Rubezhevichi; the town with its surrounding villages went into his possession. He also became encumbered with many debts, both official and personal. The governing power in Russia appointed one Kozokvicz as an overseer, over all these possessions. He was a surveyor from Memozurosk. He utilized his authority for evil. He dealt very harshly with the farmers, collected illegal taxes and accepted bribes.

In 1814, a special committee was established to look into the citizens' complaints and as a result of this, Kozokvicz was acquitted. The villages were leased for some 12,150 paper rubles to one Rudolph Fishzeller, but Rubezhevichi, itself, remained in the possession of Princess Stefania Rudjavel, who finally sold the town to one Prince Vitigenstein.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, this town had some 200 wooden houses. There were over 2,000 inhabitants, the majority of them Jews. Until the year 1740, the town was governed by a parliament called the Eunia. A big fire broke out in Rubezhevichi in that year. The parliamentary building (the governmental building) was burned and never rebuilt. In 1831, after the Polish rebellion, Nikolai the First, disbanded the Eunia of Brisk and compelled the Christians in White Russia to accept the Parvaslavic Religion. The Catholic Church remained in the village of Sula. In 1866, the Catholic priest at the time, converted with the majority of his adherents to the Parvaslavic faith. This priest, whose name was evidently Kostzivl, changed his name to Zharkov. The Bishop from Minsk, Mikhail Kolavovitz came to Rubezhevichi by himself in order to install Zharkov. Czar Alexander the Second sent a very precious gift to Zharkov in 1867. It was a statue of the Kossonyt Virgin embroidered in gold and precious gems.

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In spite of anti-Catholic persecutions, the Catholic population there grew and in 1889 it reached the number of some 2,060 persons. The following villages belonged with it: Simkovich, Lechatzi, Mikolitz, Koloki, Talshevitz, Potroshevitz, Padzarna, Nasale, Rudnya, Zohy, Harineovka, Okoluvu, Yozefenov, and Yanusk. In the majority of these villages, many Jewish families lived who engaged in agriculture, milking, dairy farming, leasing of inns and flour mills.

There was also a public school in Rubezhevichi consisting of four grades for Christian children. It was closed in the spring and Summer time, because that was the time when the farmer's children had to help their parents with the work in the fields. They studied in the school only in the fall and winter.

In Rubezhevichi there also were great Market Days to which many merchants from Russia used to come. These merchants were called "Muscamim". These market days took place at set times; the 9th of May, the 29th of June, the 15th of August, the 8th of September and the 6th of December.

The population study at that time in 1866 shows that the area consisted of some nine village territories, in which were some 1,089 households consisting of 5,137 people, occupying an area of some 14,873 hectares of ground.

Jewish concerns were handled by the head of the Jewish community, (Mostonski Starosta), who was elected through a closed ballot system, in cooperation with the head of the principality, the governmental representative. This Jewish head used to conduct and keep track of the lists of births and deaths, issue passports and deliver to the Government the list of those who were eligible and obliged to go to the Army. He received a very minimal wage for his work. The Polish historian, who gathered much information about Rubezhevichi in 1888, concludes his overview with these words: "Rubezhevichi, which was a beautiful and charming town in the days of the Rudzavel's and the Barstopscy's has now deteriorated sorrowfully such that there is no vestige or resemblance of its gorgeous and glowing past." (1)

One kilometer from Rubezhevichi on the way to Koidonov there is a very ancient Tartar cemetery. Many of the people in the city weren't even aware of it, but the Tartars knew about it. Each year at the end of the summer, many of them used to visit the graves of their ancestors. Who was buried in that cemetery that drew the Tartars to visit it for generations? There is no clear answer to this question. But, there is a theory that says that famous Tartar leaders who fell in battle with the Russians in the years 1241 to 1249 were buried there.

In 1241, a very big bloody battle between the Lithuanian Prince Skermont and the Tartar invaders was waged near the place known today as Koidonov. On that battlefield, the Tartar leader Balkali was killed.

Again in 1249, in the area of Koidonov, another great battle between the Lithuanians and the Tartars took place. In that battle, the Tartar leader Koidon died. There are many who believe that the name Koidonov was given to that place by the Tartars in order to memorialize the name of their very famous fallen hero, Koidon. This name, Koidonov, remains until today. Where could these leaders be buried, the ones mentioned above, that fell in the battles? One cannot imagine and one would not assume, that they were buried on the battlefield itself where they fell without any kind of ceremony or tombstones to mark their burial places. They had no time for that because they were busy with the battle, and certainly after the death of their leaders they retreated. It is therefore plausible to assume that the bodies of their leaders were taken by their colleagues when they retreated on the way through Rubezhevichi. It was there that they buried their leaders.

Among the many advantages of Rubezhevichi one can also count that it was used as a fortress city for the Tartar conquerors. The nearby village of Tatarszina gives evidence to the fact that it was a center of Tartars. The descendants of these Tartars are still living today in the cities of Uzda, Mir, Koidonov, and Minsk.

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Who were the first Jews that reached Rubezhevichi? Where did they come from? And, when? I'm afraid that this is shrouded in mystery. Almost all that we know about the Jews of this town date from the very end of the 19th Century.

In a population study published in 1897 there were exactly 1,482 residents in Rubezhevichi of whom there were 912 Jews. In a population study published in 1816, Jews numbered some 156 men and 181 women. In 1811 there were a total of 76 Jews living in Rubezhevichi.

At the end of the 19th Century, one Jew from Volozhin by the name of Kreiness owned three flour mills in Rubezhevichi. He later sold them to the Jews of the town. According to reports, he bought those flour mills at a public auction that took place in Minsk. But, it is not known from whom he bought the mills. It's also unknown from whom and when the Jews of Rubezhevichi acquired their fields or plots of ground. Going back a hundred years, they were paying rent for these plots of ground to the owner of the town. Some of the home owners of that time added agricultural grounds to their own small plots or grounds on which their houses were built. But, very quickly, they tried and were successful in ridding themselves of their agricultural ground because of a law that was enforced among the landowners at that time in the city; i.e. they were required to serve as Captains of a Hundred, that is, they were put in charge of other people, this is called "Sutsky". Is it possible to imagine that a learned Jew would go around on the market days, in the streets of the city, proudly showing a shiny badge of the Russian eagle on his chest and look after the order of what everyone was doing?; and to control these people or to drag a drunkard off to jail? On account of this, a great amount of confusion was raised among the Jews. After much distaste they abandoned these agricultural plots of ground.

In 1937, the government of Poland began to institute a new rule concerning the land of this town. If one examines the old maps, one discovers that there were some 80 hectares (800 dhnum) of agricultural ground that belonged to the Jews that were worked by Christians. Most likely this is the agricultural ground that the Jews had abandoned earlier.

In Rubezhevichi, there were many Jewish scholars and learned men. Among them that we mention is one Arye Lieb Hacohen, who was the son of the famous Chofits Chaim, who married Rabbi Abraham Eli Halpern's daughter who lived in that city. He lived there during his married life. He founded a Talmud Torah for the children of the poor, and taught them Bible and Hebrew grammar. He also established a public kitchen for them, founded a Gemilit-Hasidim Society and in general did a great deal of communal work for the people of the town.

At the end of the First World War there were some 200 families in Rubezhevichi numbering 1,000 people in all. The Jews of the town occupied themselves mainly in merchandising and crafts. The merchandise consisted mainly of agricultural produce, such as grain, flax, hog bristles, fruit, eggs, butter, dried beans and skins. This merchandise was sent to Minsk.

From 1921 and on, when the town of Rubezhevichi became part of Poland and a border separated it from Minsk, they used to sell their merchandise to the merchants of the area. There were all kinds of Jewish craftsmen, with the exception of those in the building trade. In order to build a house or to repair it, they had to call in Christian workers.

After the First World War, a Christian blacksmith, a shoemaker and a barber appeared in town. A good number of Christian stores were also opened there. Anti-Semitic Christians tried many times to convince the Christian farmers of the area not to buy Jewish goods. Eventually, a Christian bank opened in the area too.

A long street divided the town lengthwise into two. The southern portion of this street was called Stolbtsy Street; the northern portion was called Rokov Street. The market place with many stores was in the middle of the city. The streets that led to the rivers were called Ivenets Street and Koidonov Street. This last named one, Koidonov, also led to the Russian Border. There were also two courtyards in the town. In one rather small courtyard were eight houses. In one of the lived the "Melamud", the teacher, Rabbi Noah Chaim, in whose school the majority of the Jewish children of the city studied. In the second courtyard, called the Bet Kenesset courtyard, the very ancient Jewish cemetery, the synagogue and the house of study were to be found. The Jews prayed or worshipped in that synagogue only during the summer months. In the fall and winter, it was closed. It was a very big building, with rather strange architecture, i.e., it did not have a roof.

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As mentioned, the synagogue was in this courtyard. At the river's edge there was a public bathhouse. At the end of Rokov Street there was sand that stretched for many kilometers. They called that section of the street, Hacovolk, which means simply "sand." Behind it, next to the river, were army barracks for soldiers who were guarding the Polish border. On this street there was also a post office. The inhabitants were mixed, Jews and Christians. The street was made of cobblestone. From this street a path led to the Jewish cemetery that was right next to the Paracol River.

The city jail stood at the end of Stolbtsy Street. It was a small and old wooden building. Inside it were the local governmental offices and a Polish Public School of two stories. A small old Russian Church was also on this street. The majority of the inhabitants of this street were Christians. There was also a second Catholic Church in town near the marketplace; between the houses of one, Chaim Mordachai Rachelson, the tinsmith and Osherowitz. This church was surrounded by beautiful landscaping. On warm summer days, the Jewish youth of the city used to stretch themselves out on the green grass and read books or talk about future dreams.

On Ivenets Street the population consisted mainly of Jews. On one of its sides were found a bridge and a flour mill. But, Koidonov Street had the greatest population of the Jews. There were a bridge and two flour mills on this street. Behind the bridge there was a building that was occasionally used as a public Russian school. Behind it, on a hill, a Russian cemetery was found. Behind the bridge on the way to Simkovich, one Avraham, the blacksmith lived. He was a Jew who was without both his feet. They had been amputated. The cemetery could be seen not far from his house. Many of the Jews of the City were buried there.

The nearest railroad station was Koidonov. After the Russian/Polish border was fixed, Stolbtsy became the nearest railroad station, some 28 kilometers away. People used to travel to the railroad station in carriages. Many Jews held the occupation of furnishing these carriages (with horses and all the accessories). In 1932, the Poles managed to buy and institute a bus line going between Stolbtsy, Rubezhevichi and Ivenets.

After the First World War an excitement raged among the Jewish youth of the City. They began looking elsewhere, going far away. Some of them crossed the border and went into Russia. Others emigrated to Argentina, Cuba, Africa and the United States. Some went to Israel. Many of them went to neighboring cities to study Torah. The youth that remained in the town however, did not remain idle. They began organizing and establishing political party journals, such as "Gordoneh", "Bataar", "Grosmenistein (Agodos-Yisrael)". They also put on plays, conducted cultural evenings and studied Hebrew. The plays they put on were in Yiddish. Many Christians who understood Yiddish visited and went to see these plays. They were almost always staged in the firehouse. Much later the people of the town built a communal center for Catholics. The priest Karsowicz, permitted the Jews to use this assemblage house without pay.

Among the Jewish communal institutions, it's important to mention the bank for loans that they established. It helped out a good number of the craftsmen and small businessmen. There was also a Kindergarten for children, a school and a library.

There was a committee that took up the needs of widows, orphans and the poor. The committee used to distribute flour, potatoes and wood fuel to them. Money was raised for this organization through the payment of weekly taxes of the Jewish residents of the town. On occasion they would also put on plays for fund raising necessities. They would dedicate the income of the play to the needs of the organization.

In the population census published by the Polish Government in 1931, there were 908 Jews in Rubezhevichi. In the surrounding communities there were 207 Jews as follows: in Rudnya there were 4; Zodanovitz – 6; Chotovah – 16; Golovka – 4; Rusicke – 8; Vuki – 3; Gran – 13; Volma – 153.

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This City lived out its quiet and sleepy years until June 22, 1941 when war broke out between Germany and Russia. Then tempests of hatred and rivers of blood flooded the World, swallowing up and eradicating forever from the face of the earth, this quiet, small, beautiful City. All that remains are a few fond memories and a great cemetery of our brothers.

Of the 900 Jews that were in Rubezhevichi at the beginning of the Second World War, only 75 survived. Early in 1942, 800 Jews of Rubezhevichi were murdered by the Nazi invaders.

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