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[Page 293]

Semyatitch Between the Two World Wars


Donated by Robert Cherniak

During the era of Polish independence, Yiddish life in Semyatitch greatly flourished. No longer oppressed by Tsarist decrees and restrictions, Jewish social life encompassed areas of general Jewish interest, but concentrated mostly on local needs, such as schools, sanitation, koshrus, taxes and so forth. Although the various factions involved did not always see eye to eye, nevertheless there were far fewer disagreements in Semyatitch than in other places. In Semyatitch, the Jewish religious community even got along better with the Bund { the Jewish Socialists}

On the subject of taxes, there were 2 factions – those who wanted to maintain a flat tax and those who said that the richer families should pay more. The religious organizations and the secular ones also disagreed as to how the tax money should be allocated.

In 1929, there was a conflict between the kosher slaughterers and the butchers. But ultimately this was resolved.

It was decided that the government of the Jewish community should have 2 members of each political party as representatives. [The representatives of each party are listed, then the officers of the government of the Jewish community are listed.]

In 1926, there were approximately 800 Jewish families in Semyatitich, according to one source. According to another, there were 1,000 Jewish families in 1928.

Most of the Jews were involved in some sort of business, as were most of the non-Jews. [A listing of how many of the various kinds of factories there were and what percentage of their employees were Jewish follows.]

After the First World War, the Jews of Semyatitch received financial assistance from the “Joint” and from the Semyatitich Relief Society in America. With some of the money, a communal kitchen was built. Semyatitch was on the road to economic recovery .Many Semyatitch Jews sought to improve their lot through emigration to Israel and other parts of the world.

With increased economic activity, the Folksbank became more important, since it extended credit and gave loans. [An account of the rise of the Folksbank at the turn of the century follows.] In the 30's, people lost confidence in the Folkbank due to a robbery which caused many people to lose their savings.



After Polish independence, the strength of the religious schools was diminished, because it was difficult for them to compete with the more modern schools. [The organizers and the teachers of the “talmud-Torah” schools are listed.

There was also a school that was prepatory to yeshiva. For a time, it was supported by American relief funds. But by 1930, the number of boys studying there was only 35, down quite a bit from the 75 in 1926.

From approximately 1925 to 1930, there also existed another yeshiva called “Bais Yosef”. Two yeshivas were too much for such a small town to support, and in 1930, “Bais Yosef” moved to Pinsk. [a list of people who served on the Yeshiva committee follows.] Some of Semyatitch boys went to other yeshivas. [A list of boys follows.]

The secular educational institutions flourished in Semyatitch only during the two World Wars. Before World War I, only one secular school existed in Semyatitch. This was the Jewish-Russian elementary school for girls, which had been founded in 1912 but closed in 1917.

During the German occupation, students were required to go to a German school.

The Kadima School was the most influential school in Semyatitch It had between 200 and 250 students Because of the education the students received, many of them became strongly imbued with the spirit of Zionism. [ A list of teachers in the school follows one of whom is named Chernyatski.]

Delegates from the Semyatitch schools attended all the educational conferences in Poland.

The Kadima School existed until the Bolsheviks came to power in 1939. At that time, the school was completely reorganized. It continued to function, but Hebrew gave way to Yiddish. All the subjects were now taught in that language. The school continued until the Holocaust.

In the 30's, a Yavne School, sponsored by Agudas Israel { a very religious organization}, was started. In 1936, it had more than 120 students.

There was also a Yiddish elementary school. [A list of teachers follows.] The school closed in 1924.

There were also some private schools, but they didn't last long. Children of rich parents had private tutors.


Political Parties

Semyatitch was a Zionistic city .The spirit of Zionism pervaded the social life of the town. At the time of the Balfour Declaration, there were many demonstrations. The people of Semyatitch contributed quite a lot of money to Palestine. During 1929 and 1930, when there were Arab pogroms in Palestine, there were many demonstrations in Semyatitch protesting the passivity of the English mandate government.

There was one main Zionist party on Semyatitch. Although, there were other lesser Zionist parties at one time or another, they didn't last long. [A list of some members of the Zionist party follows.

The major Zionist party had a custom of learning Tanakh [Torah] every Sabbath.

Most of the young people belonged to the Workers-Zionist organization. They, of course, supported Israel and were followers of Jabotinsky.

[Page 309]

Episodes from the First World War

Dovid Kimchi

Donated by Robert Cherniak

During the First World War and the period immediately following it was the time that the Jews of Semyatich suffered all of the same troubles that was the fate of all of the Jews of Eastern Europe during that era.

Although one can't compare Wilhelm's soldiers to Hitler's soldiers, nevertheless the German occupation was very difficult for the Jews of Semyatich. It is true that some of the citizens of the shtetl knew how to accommodate themselves to the new situation and they were successful in making a good living, but for the most part, the hardships and the new decrees left their mark on the Jews of Semyatitch.

They especially suffered from the Germans' tendency to commandeer people for forced labor. Those who were caught were used not only for work in the city and its environs but were also sent dozens of kilometers away to, for instance, Gaynevke, the Byalavezher Woods, and other dangerous places located near the front lines. For this reason, Jews used any means that they had to get out of German forced labor. There were also many attempts by Semyatitch Jews to escape from this kind of work. Some of these attempts ended with the escapees being shot.

There were also problems that arose as a result of provocations and libels. One libel, and this occurred while yet under Russian occupation, was about the teacher, Yehuda Kalut. In 1915, several shots were fired from a window in Semyatitch. It wasn't known whether or not these shots “hit a Russian or if any shots had, in fact, been fired at all. In any case, the Russian Commandant called for the arrest of Yehuda Kahut as a suspect in that shooting. Yehuda Kahut was taken out to a hill behind the city to be shot but he was freed at the last minute.

Before leaving the city, the Russian General gave the order to burn down the city .The soldiers started to spray the houses with benzene. The streets were deserted, because bullets were flying from every direction. As soon as the news reached Rabbi Kuselyevitch, of blessed memory, he sacrificed his life. He ran through practically the whole town until Belkis' house – that's where the General's staff was billeted – with complete disregard for his own safety, he tore through to the General. The rabbi must have fallen at the General's feet and cried before him like a child, but he was successful in having the terrible decree rescinded.

The example of Rabbi Kuselyevitch, of blessed memory, who risked his life for the good of the community and the facts which will follow are examples of our spiritual heritage, of the continuation of the Jewish tradition of self-sacrifice, of familial fidelity , and clear examples of devotion between husband and wife.

The good, refined woman, Khaya Montcher, was shot by marauding Russian soldiers as she protected her husband, Reuben Montcher, with her own body, saving him from certain death.

Henye Tikotski acted, successfully, in exactly the same way when the Polish Army occupied Semyatitch. Because of some sort of provocation, Yakov Tikotski was lead out into the middle of the marketplace to be shot. His wife, Henye, protected him with her body, screaming: “You will have to shoot me first!” It was only because of her struggle with the soldiers that Yakov Tikotski remained alive.

The Russian soldiers, like the Germans, stole Jewish possessions from stores as well as from houses.

Before the Russian Army retreated, the soldiers broke open the doors of the Jewish shops and stole the merchandise. A soldier who had just looted our store was caught red-handed by the Germans. The Germans sentenced him to death by shooting for this robbery. But we never got the merchandise back…

During the time of the German occupation, the Germans appointed Moishe Pakhter as the mayor of the town. He was an educated person but very stern. He demanded that the citizens of town remove their hats for him.

Moishe Pakhter had had a very stormy life. Under the Czarist Regime, he had taken part in revolutionary activities. The police were searching high and low for him. That was the reason for his escaping to Palestine in 1905. There he became an active member of “HaShomer.” In a tussle, he killed an Arab, and that forced him to leave Palestine and return to Semyatitch.

When the Polack's rose to power in Semyatitch after having retreated from the Bolsheviks, they arrested Moishe Pakhter. He was deported to Warsaw, where he was imprisoned. Rumors circulated to the effect that he was shot in prison. - There were many other rumors and provocations going around during the time of the Polish-Bolshevik War. One time, the Bolsheviks rounded up several hundred citizens of Semyatitich, because a local Polack, named Bagashevsky, shot at a Bolshevik. Those who had been arrested were later freed. Another time the Bolsheviks set fire to a row of houses.

[Page 310]

The Expulsion of the Jews of Semyatitch
During the First World War

Avraham Mazur

Donated by Robert Cherniak

This was either in the year 1916 or 1917; I don't remember the date any more. The occupying Germans suddenly issued a decree that the Jewish community of Semyatitch had to send approximately 70 families out into the outlying villages. The reason for this decree was soon known. The Russian population had escaped deeper into Russia, and since the Germans needed workers to plow the fields and to chop wood, they had decided to use the Jews for this purpose.

I was still a little boy at that time, nevertheless that decree remained etched in my memory .

As fate would have it, our family was one of those families which were driven out. We wound up in a village called Mashtsyane located between Semyatitch and Mileytsits.

It is difficult now to describe the hardships that all of us suffered. My mother cried bitter tears and absolutely refused to leave our dear home. It hurt our hearts to abandon all of our worldly possessions and go live like refugees in Polish shacks.

Our lamentations were in vain, however. The Germans quickly brought wagons and loaded up some of our household articles and soon we were off. On both sides of the wagons, rode German soldiers on horseback, who carefully watched to see that none of us escaped.

Every family settled into an empty peasant's hut – and the very next morning, a new life started for us, a life of hard work in the field and the forest.

The German police turned us over to an overseer and strongly warned us to carry out his every order, otherwise our lot would be very bad.

Since we weren't given any horses with which to plow, we had to dig the earth with shovels so that we could plant the potatoes. Every family was given a certain area of land which it had to work. Everyone worked hard, and soon the potatoes began to grow.

The work in the forest was completely different. There we had to bore holes in the trees and put in pieces of metal into them to form grooves. We had to make deep cuts in the bark of the tree. The tar[1] would then run into the grooves and every day we had to go out with large pails and collect it.

The women had to help in this work. This “tar” was brought to a sort of office and there we would receive our small wages.

In addition, every family would also receive a bit of bread and some potatoes, but this was far from enough to keep us sated, and very often we went hungry.

Since the shacks were quite dilapidated, disease spread rapidly among the displaced Jews. For the most part, we suffered from dysentery and typhus, and several people died. One of them was my brother.

Slowly, the empty fields became useful to us. There we would go to gather sorrel, so mother had something to cook for us. In the woods, berries and mushrooms began to appear as well as fruit in the abandoned gardens. Many of the Jews began to do business. Some of the tar was skimmed off the top of the buckets and traded in town for soap, sugar, tea and other items.

In time, life began to be a bit easier and our hunger decreased. The epidemics also slowly disappeared. Then other concerns started to arise for these displaced Jews, like what kind of a future would their children have. While hunger and disease were raging, there was no time or patience for these thoughts, but now that life became a bit easier, the question was very real – what should be done with the children. Only a short time passed and a teacher was brought in and a kheder was opened.

A table and a few chairs were brought into a small, empty village house and the teacher began to instruct the children in Torah. I was one of his students at the time. The teacher's position was not an enviable one. The surrounding nature was too pretty .The fields on all sides were covered with green, all of the rivers full of fish, and the woods filled with singing birds. The Jewish village children didn't have any interest at all in sitting with a teacher in a classroom. They wanted to be outdoors enjoying nature. Children would very often escape from the classroom and run to the river or disappear into the woods. The teacher struggled valiantly against the attraction of nature, but it wasn't very often that he won the battle.

A minyan was also formed at that time, so that the Sabbath and holiday services could be held. A Torah scroll was brought from town, and the first minyan was held in my uncle's house, Reb Khaim Gershon Shamesh.

It seemed that life was becoming normalized and taking on a Jewish style. We had also become used to our expulsion. The young people found ways to amuse themselves and to pass the time. The older generation did everything in its power to be able to live a Jewish life in the village. But, suddenly, everything was turned upside down. The terrible news spread that Semyatitch was burning. There was much weeping and wailing, and scouts were sent out to find out what happened. By evening, we knew the whole truth. Over 300 houses were destroyed by the fire and smoke. Among them was our house.

Sadness overtook our whole little village, but it struck our family especially hard. Our whole fortune, everything that we had left there, had burned. We were left without a home, and from then on we knew that we would always have to remain in this desolate village.

A short time later, we learned the cause of the fire. A Jew was boiling tar and the sparks set fire to the synagogue courtyard, and from there, the fire spread.

Winter was, meanwhile, drawing closer, and we had to hurry to dig the potatoes out of the fields. That year, the Germans brought many prisoners of war to work in our village, and all of us worked to dig out the potatoes. We dug deep ditches and put the gathered potatoes in them.

Practically every family had a sleigh and we drove into the forest to gather wood to prepare for the cold winter.

Very soon, the whole area was covered with thick, deep snow. The work in the forest and in the fields came to a stop. The Jewish displaced persons had time to think about their lot and to look at the future with open eyes.

Our family had no illusions. We knew that even when the war would be over. We would not return to our old home [in Semyatitch]. There everything had burned…

  1. I think that he means “sap.” Return

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