Our second document is very different. It is a booklet, printed in Hebrew, JustingradSokolievka, A Shtetl Destroyed, published in 1972. This publication is the joint composition of school children of the Kibbutz Mashabei Sadeh, an enclave thirty miles south of Beersheba, in the middle of the stark and barren Negev desert, where the heroic settlers have created a garden community set in green lawns among purple jacaranda trees. The Israeli kibbutz, as a social and economic organization, generally speaking, is dedicated to production in two directions: magnificent foodstuffs (fruit, vegetables, cattle) and beautiful children. Their attention to children's schooling is phenomenal.
In the year 5726 (19651966) the seventh grade, called the ‘Rimon’ (pomegranate) class, accepted a suggestion from the Israeli Holocaust Memorial Center ‘Yad Vashem’ that they do a project commemorating one of the destroyed communities. These twelve year old children sent letters to survivors, mainly in the United States, and drew on the papers and reminiscences of the Kibbutz patriarch, Baruch Bernstein, nominally retired but very active librarian and inspired teacher, a native of Sokolievka.
With the help of their school staff, Amadah Or, Ada Shavit and others, the children wrote up the data they gathered, and their compositions were edited into this little volume, of which translation into English now follows. This work falls into three phases. The longest part describes typical shtetl life in the years 18901910. The second phase recounts the modernizing trends which began with the twentieth century. Third, and most moving, is the story of the horrible pogroms which end its life.
In the Kibbutz Library 1981.
JustingradSokolievka (from the traditions of the town)
The town was founded in the first half of the nineteenth century by Jews coming from the village called Sokolovka in Russian, Sokolievka in Ukrainian, a large village on the banks of one of the tributaries of the southern River Bug, at the edge of the boundary of the Uman district in the Kiever Gubernia. In the days of Tsar Nicolai I the mass of the Jewish inhabitants were driven out from the village of Sokolievka. These banished families crossed over the dike to the other side of the river, the place on one of the heights. They named the place of their settlement Justingrad, so it appears, after the name of Justina, proprietress of the estate from whom they acquired the lots for their houses.
The people never quite accepted the name of this settlement. They were people of Sokolievka, they and their forefathers, and so they also began to call the new settlement Sokolievka. The name Justingrad was used only on official documents and on letters sent by mail. It was inscribed in large letters on the sign of the drugstore and other community institutions.
From year to year the new settlement grew and became a town. In the year 5612 (1852) there came to settle there our Master, Teacher and Rabbi Reb Gedaliah Aharon. He was then a famous Tzaddik in his city of Linitz, and he had many Chassidim (as followers). Apparently he sought to encourage the young community and to strengthen its hands.
As time passed, gentiles settled in the surrounding area, occupied in farming. Between them and the Jewish inhabitants there developed strong relationships in trade and in occasional employment. They also counted as residents of the town. In the population census of 1897, the total number of inhabitants reached 3,194, of whom 2,521 were Jews and 673 nonJews.
The town was destroyed in the years 56795680 (19191920) after the end of World War I. In the summer of 5679 the armed bands of Zelyoni fell upon the town and massacred the Jews in pogroms, looting their possessions and killing hundreds of people, especially all the young men. At the beginning of 5680 Denikin and his murderers came and inflicted great slaughter among the Jews, looted the stores and burned the houses. The town was almost entirely demolished, and the Jewish inhabitants fled. The few who remained were massacred a few years later by the Nazis.
The town was wiped out before it became a hundred years old.
Appearance of the Town
Justingrad sat in the fertile and fruitful black soil of the Ukrainian steppes. In winter an endless expanse of white snow spread around the town, and in summer wide fields of grain, abundant with wheat and rye, standing as tall as a man.
From the end of the dike (Bridge) a long and wide street passed through the middle of the town westward until it met the road to the village of Popivka. In the lower end of the street, nearer to the Bridge, was the market place. Here were stands for fruit and vegetables, fish and poultry. Here began the rows of stores which lined both sides of that street, right and left. On the upper end of the street were residences and most of the workshops of the wagon makers and blacksmiths.
The stores were small, without signs or show windows. On market days a low stand would be set up in front of their wide doorways to display some of their merchandise.
This main street and likewise the other streets of the town had neither pavements nor sidewalks. In the days of autumn and again at winter's end when the snow melted, the mud on the Bridge and on the lower end of the main street was very deep, up to the wagon wheel hubs. (Automobiles came late to Sokolievka, and were a rare sight.)
Houses stood apart from each other. They had no courtyards or gardens or shade trees, except at the home of the ‘gvir’ (local rich man) and two or three others. (The gentiles on the town outskirts had fruit orchards and vegetable gardens.) The authori
ties at one time ordered trees to be planted along the streets. Lines of trees were then planted on the main street, and each tree was surrounded by a t all wood fence as a guard against damage from wagons and goats. However, most of them were nibbled up by the many goats that roamed freely through the streets.
The approaches to the town were, so to speak, enclosed as an Eruv: an iron wire was stretched between posts. Thanks to this ‘Eruv’, the whole town constituted one jurisdiction under the ‘Halacha’ (ritual law) so that it was permissible to carry something within it from one place to another on the Sabbath.
A Town at Work
Justingrad was a town of all kinds of craftsmen. Conspicuous at both ends of the main road were the workshops of the wagon makers and the forges of the blacksmiths, whose customers in the main were farmers of the countryside round. If a peasant came into town with a wagon damaged or broken down on the road, he immediately found a carriage maker and a smith ready to repair his vehicle. In those days the villagers' wagons were made in all parts of wood, including their axles. If these axles were not greased at regular intervals, they would scorch from the friction of the wheels.
These wheelwrights sometimes built to order different kinds of handsome and strong carriages from choice forest woods. The assembly work, and iron work were don by the blacksmiths, who, on order, also made household furnishings, various kinds of tools, and shod the horses' hooves. The wheelwrights and blacksmiths were husky men, confident of their muscles, and so were peacekeepers of the town. When a drunken peasant called for a fight, these men of skills were ready with a wooden staff or iron rod to maintain order or teach reason to the impudent.
Some of the townsmen were woodworking cabinetmakers who prepared simple furniture for sale in the market on fair days, and there were others, who, on order, would make fine furniture from costlier wood with delicate carving and inlay work. These were ordered only by welltodo householders and young couples.
Several tinsmiths were occupied in repair of kitchen utensils
and various household implements: pails for drawing water, pails for milking, pitchers, sieves, candlesticks, lanterns, Chanukah menorahs and Purim noisemakers ‘gragers’. In honor of Pesach they polished brass vessels, that is, lined them with tin.
There were also tailors, shoemakers and hat makers, working for the market, or to order, to suit individual taste. Hats for gentile children and their parents had shining visors, while Jews wore caps whose visors were of the same fabric. Making shoes was in low esteem among the Jews, so their apprentices were mainly sons of the gentiles.
In those days wooden barrels and wooden bowls were mostly used. Bathtubs were also made of wood. So there were coopers in town to make these vessels. Even the barrel hoops were made of wood. Drawers of water used to deliver drinking water in large wooden barrels, wearily carried in wagons by scrawny horses from morning to evening, distributing to each home its allotment, and going back to the well for a refill.
These trade skills passed from fathers to sons, who usually worked alongside of their parents. Work was manual labor, with simple tools, without power machinery, from morning darkness to evening darkness, but theirs was an honorable livelihood.
These craftsmen were in the main devoted to the communal affairs of the town. Mr. Michael Abramov tells of his father Joshua the carriagemaker who was ‘Gabai’ in the Bet Hamidrash Hagadol, and gave of his time and energy to campaigning among his acquaintance before the elections for the head of the town, and the like.
Here one many mention Moti Joel's, who was a jack of all trades and practiced many skills which no one else in the town did. Yehudah Blank, now of blessed memory, wrote of Moti, his father, He did everything. He engraved on stone, carved wood, wrote and drew street signs, bound books, assembled gadgets for cleansing sheep's wool. No house was built in Sokolievka for which my father did not draw up the plans. Yet in spite of all his knowledge and many trades, my father drew his bread in hardship.
Market Day (Y'rid)
Every Monday there was scheduld a y'rid, a market or fair day.
That day the face of the town was altogether different. The main streets and the y'rid spaces reserved were jammed with farmer's wagons. Everywhere one could see crowds of people, Jews and Gentiles, busily trading, trying in every way to peddle their wares to each other.
The Gentiles brought their wagons full of grain, garden vegetables and fruit, and filled the cattle market with horses and cows, goats, sheep and hogs, all for sale. On both sides of the main street peasant women displayed their merchandise: strings of onions and garlic, peas and dried fruit, pitchers of fresh milk and buttermilk, ball of cheese and slabs of butter wrapped in fresh leaves. They sold fruit of the season, cherries and plums measured by the pail, and other produce of village gardens.
On their stands shopkeepers exhibited the merchandise of their stores, flowerpatterned cloth and notions. Craftsmen set up stalls with their handiwork, summer hats, winter hats, shoes, clothing, tinware household utensils, furniture.
Grain merchants of the town used to buy grain from Gentiles, vegetable dealers used to buy greens and fruits. Bargainhunters, men and women, wandered among the farmer's wives and bought whatever came to hand: finished hides, sheets of linen woven at home, balls of wax, hog bristles, May beetles (gathered from trees and bushes and sent to makers of medical preparations). Part of the bristles and wax were used by local shoemakers.
With the money that the Gentiles acquired at the fair, they bought, from the Jewish shopkeepers, white flour, groceries, dry goods, manufactured articles, household utensils and apparel. They would also buy presents for members of the family, all kinds of costume jewelry, personal ornaments, sweets. The bakers of Sokolievka used to bake ring cakes, sweet, sparkling and attractive, for the market. Their children used to string them together in the bakery, counting them with a melody to pass the time. The bakers also sold cake shaped like birds, seahorses, decorated in many colors. No villager left the fair without buying some of these for a child awaiting his return home.
The large crowds that came to the fair jammed into the houses where food was served. There were also stands in the market which sold food. Jewish women sold platters of meat aspic (leg gelatin), a delicacy for Gentiles. Others sold tea from boiling kettles. (Wintertime,) Gentiles with mustaches stiff with frost warmed themselves with sweet hot tea.
The whole town took part in the fair. Boys and girls stood at various points and sold kerosene, matches, and roughcut Russian machorka tobacco. Housewives strolled among the peasant women and bought eggs and chickens. Husbands went out to buy straw for roof covering, or for kindling.
Storekeepers from nearby towns also came to the fair. There were also stands of Katzaps: these were bearded Russians who sold wares not found in Jewish stores, such as pearl necklaces with crosses, icons, eyeglasses and toys. They also sold tomatoes, which Sokolievka Jews were not accustomed to eat.
Children used to come to the fair, either on errands for their elders, or just to look on and have a taste of anything. Adding to the tumult of the market, the goats squeezed in between the wagons to enjoy the confusion, to gorge their mouths with the fresh grass and fragrant straw from the peasants' wagons.
Parnossos How They Made a Living
One cannot enumerate all the occupations (‘parnossos’) of the Sokolievka Jews. They were blessed with many children and they put their hands to any kind of work to earn a sustenance for their homes.
In town there were inns with stables for horses and wide parking areas for wagons. Merchants passing through, or coming for the fair, found here lodging for the night and their meals. There were many coachmen who made a living transporting passengers to the nearby city of Uman. Other wagoners acted as purchasing agents, buying merchandise in Uman, and delivering to storekeepers in the town (in Yiddish, they were called ‘loifers’, meaning runners.
There were a number of petty industries. A soft drink plant produced soda water and a reddish seltzer with the aroma of violets, with the brand name Fialko (meaning violet in Russian).
The cork was fastened to the top of the bottle neck with a thin wire so that it would not pop off from the gas pressure. Tanneries were near the river, probably because of their foul smell and large quantity of wastewater. Near them were the shops that made harnesses for horses, saddles, belts and other leather goods.
Another industry was making of tallow candles. The stores already sold stearin candles, but the villages still continued to use tallow. The Jews also used them to massage their heels and limbs that were frozen in the winter cold.
More developed was the weaving of rope from hemp fiber. The peasants of the vicinity grew the hemp, and brought the fibers for sale with the remnants of the stalks still on them. The rope makers would beat these before spinning. The twining of the rope required a large area, and the twiners used to stretch the roped along the street. A typical sight was the children gathering round, offering to turn the big spinning wheel in exchange for a few stalks of hemp which they needed for their games.
Many families made a living from the egg business, which was in partnership with the storekeepers. Buyers would go through the villages in wagons, stopping at peasant courtyards to buy the hens' eggs, packed them carefully in the wagon between layers of straw and chaff, bringing them to merchants' warehouses. Here they were candled (examined for blood spots by lamplight shining through), classified, packed into wooden crates to be carried by train to foreign countries.
Women bore the burden of making a living together with the men. They tended the stores, traveled from fair to fair, sold fish, fruit and vegetables in the market. Many women used to fatten geese by forcefeeding so they would yield a great deal of fat. In Russia, goose fat was used the way we in Israel use margarine and butter: spread on bread, dip foods in it, fry with it. Some women, not many, made a living from different trades: sewing, embroidery, knitting, braiding wigs. In one family the daughters engaged in knitting stockings by machine.
In Sokolievka there were quite a number of people who had functions involved with the religious life, with worship, with the study of Torah, people popularly known as ‘Klei Kodesh’.
There were six synagogues in the town, and each synagogue had its ‘chazzan’ (cantor), its ‘Ba'al Korei’ (Torah reader) and its ‘Shammos’ (sexton). Their maintenance depended on the synagogue congregation. An important source of their income were the holidays and family celebrations: circumcisions, engagements, weddings.
From these ‘simchas’ (joyous occasions) many other people profited, the cooks and the bakers, the ‘badchonim’ merrymakers and musicians. The Sokolievka orchestra was well known and used to play in neighboring towns and at evening entertainments of the landed gentry.
Near the courtyard of the Rabbi was the house of the ‘Dayan’, to whom would come questions dealing with the dietary laws (kashruth), executions of contracts, litigation of disputes between one man and another, sometimes between a Jew and a Gentile. Also nearby stood the communal bathhouse.
The town had four ‘shoctim’ (approved slaughterers for kosher meat) who slaughtered cattle in the town abbatoir, and poultry, which were brought to their hoses. Several of these had been granted ‘smicha’ to ‘paskin shalles’ (equivalent to rabbinical ordination, with authority to decide questions of kashruth). Some of them also acted as a Board of Arbitration in disputes between one and another.
According to the recollection of Mr. Peretz Shuman (who settled later in Buffalo) in his time there were twelve ‘melamdim’, Hebrew teachers, each with his own ‘cheder’, and all of them povertystricken. Tuition fees paid by parents were extremely low. Children were enrolled in a ‘cheder’ only for half a year at a time, for one ‘z'man’, one term. Twice a year, at the end of the summer and at the end of the winter, an intersession time, ‘melamdim’ would be going from door to door to convince parents to continue to send the pupils to them.
The Sokolievka Rabbi
The (second and last) Rabbi of Sokolievka, Rabbi Pinchas Rabinowitz, affectionately known as Reb Pinchas'l, inherited his rabbinical seat from his father, (the first), Rabbi Gedalyahu Aharon of blessed memory.
Rabbi Gedalyahu Aharon left Sokolievka against his will. The
Tsarist regime persecuted Tzaddikim and had marked him for arrest and banishment to a distant part of Russia where there were no Jews, Judenrein. On the eve of the Succos holiday 5628 (1868) two hours before police came to arrest him, his Chassidim spirited him away to safety. He succeeded in escaping to Romania, and was active there until his death.
Reb Pinchas’l was a great Torah scholar, a saintly and humble man, all his days devoted to Torah and to worship. He had a following of Chassidim in Sokolievka and the vicinity who came to visit him from time to time, to bring a donation and to ask his blessing. His house was spacious, with a large dining room. A path paved with wooden blocks led from his house to his synagogue that was adjoining. The Rabbi had a room or alcove in the synagogue, on the side, opening to the dais where the Chazzan stood at his pulpit to lead the worship, and he would come out from this alcove only for the opening of the Torah Ark and when he was called up for a Torah ‘aliyah’.
Mr. Yehudah Blank, whose parents' house was near the Rabbi's recalls, The Rabbi's house was of two stories, large, high, really a palace. Around it was a large courtyard surrounded by a tall wood fence. Several kinds of fruit trees grew there, and also beds of vegetables. The upper story had nine large rooms, comprising the residence. The lower story had storerooms, and one wide chamber with a huge over for baking ‘Matzah sh'murah’. (This baking was done on Passover eve, and only males took part. As a little boy I began to participate in this baking, and my pay was three matzos for our ‘Seder’ night.) One ‘Shabbos’ and on holidays, the Rabbi had a table set as a ritual feast for his Chassidim, especially for those who came from other towns. (One of these outoftown followers used to stay over at our house.) The Rabbi habitually spoke little, and was sententiously brief when he spoke ‘D'var Torah’ (words of Torah) during the dinner. Sometimes he spoke of his great father, Rabbi Gedalyahu Aharon. He spoke slowly and softly and his Chassidim followers listened very attentively. The Rabbi ate very sparingly. He would taste something, and push the platter away. The Chasidim used to snatch the leftovers (‘chapp'n sh'rayim’), in the belief that anything with the touch of the Rabbi's hand was greatly blessed.
A home passed from father to son by inheritance. As long as the older folks were alive, married sons resided in the house with their parents. If the place was very crowded, a room might be rented for a time for the young couple in a neighbor's house.
Most of the houses were of clay, sagging with age. The carpenterbuilder, most often a gentile, would put up first the framework, wooden beams, post by post. They filled the space between these posts by boards set crosswise. Then they would dig a pit in the ground. For a meter down there was the black soil, and then they would reach clay. The builder would bring women, wives and daughters from the villages to knead this clay with their feet, mix it with straw and shape it into blocks. The builder used to stick these blocks of clay to the two surfaces of the wall beating the lumps with his fists so they would cover the boards, adhere well, and make a straight wall. When the walls were done, they would cover the roof with straw thatch.
The farmers used to thresh their grain with flails. During this beating, the kernels fell separately from the straw and the husks. With this straw, roofs were covered. Bundle after bundle of straw was carried up, and densely tied together by straw knots to the laths.
Roofs were high and steeply slanted, leaving a large attic space, the ‘boidem’. Here were stored the Passover dishes from year to year, and here were kept the geese in wooden cages while being fattened. In winter they hung their wash there for drying. The ‘boidem’ was a favorite place for children to hide and to play games.
The house was usually in two parts. Half had no ceiling, and served for storing wood and straw for fuel, for keeping goats and chickens, at times also a horse or a cow. This was the rear side of the house, and had a rear entrance towards the kitchen area. The front half, with a ceiling (really an interior roof under the ‘boidem’) was the residence. The floor was not covered, and every Friday it would be plastered afresh with bright new clay. The children were not allowed to enter until it was dry.
The house might have a bedroom for the parents, a dining room and a kitchen, sometimes a bedroom for children, and a living
room. A third of the kitchen was taken up by the oven for cooking and baking. It was tall as a man, wide, and vaulted at top. It was stoked with a wood fire until very hot, the ashes were raked out, and loaves of bread were put in to bake on weekdays, ‘challeh’ for ‘Shabbos’. On Sabbath eve they would put in the ‘tsholent’, the meal for the Sabbath, and keep it on the flat top to keep it warm. In winter they might sleep on top of the stove.
There were no indoor toilets in the house. In the corner of the kitchen hung a basin for washing hands and face, with a tub beneath to catch the overflow. Adults and grown children used the communal bathhouse for bathing. Little children were bathed at home in a wooden trough. Water for household needs was kept in a barrel, near the rear door of the kitchen. Water for the whole town came from a well near the Bridge, delivered once every two days by the water carrier. One who wanted a drink of cold fresh water in summer might draw a pail full from one of the other wells in some of the streets.
Besides the big oven, houses had a winter stove, built of granite stone, narrow, plastered and whitewashed, looking as if it were part of the wall separating rooms. In winter it would be stoked with wood, straw, reeds, anything suitable for burning. Window panes in winter were covered with frost in flowery and other fantastic patterns, which delighted the children.
At night kerosene lamps hung on the walls or stood on tables to give light. In the dining room or living room, large chandeliers (for candles or oil?) hung for light and for decoration.
Furniture was simple and solid. Young couples might decorate their bedrooms with beds with high backboards, and wardrobe closets carved in floral designs. No house was without a cradle of woven wickerwork, hung from the ceiling; or more expensive cradles made by carpenters, with legs on rockers. A clock might hang on the wall, with pendulum and weights. Sometimes the walls might be adorned with portraits of grandparents, or distinguished personalities, such as the Vilna Ga'on, or Moses Montefiore. Some homes hung a ‘Mizrach’ on the eastern wall, a tablet with pictures and the word ‘mizrach’ (east) to show the direction faced during prayer.
Homes were simple, without luxuries, and often very impoverished, but happiness was pervasive. There was always at
least enough bread to share a piece with a poor man. The tea kettle whistled, and a glass of hot tea was always ready for anyone who came.
A Child is Born
A child was born at home. There were no hospitals. To help the woman in labor there came a midwife, old and tried.
When a son was born, on Saturday night the friends and neighbors came over from the synagogue worship for a Shalom Zachar, a modest festivity. The main treat was boiled chickpeas. Friends might bring wine for good cheer, especially if the family was poor.
The evening before the day of the Bris’ (circumcision), children of a nearby ‘cheder’ would crowd into the house, to welcome the infant into their congregation. Under the leadership of the ‘bahelfer’ (assistant to the rebbeteacher) they would in unison repeat the ‘Krias Sh'ma’ and the Guardian Angel blessing (Genesis 48:16), and then they would be treated to cookies by the women in the house. The happy mother lay in her bed behind screening sheets on which were pinned copies of Psalm 121, (Shir HaMaalos, A Song of Ascents) as an amulet for good fortune.
From the day of its birth, the child was wrapped in swaddling clothes, not like baby clothes today. These were tight linen wrappings, enveloping the entire baby. Hands were pressed tightly to the body, feet tied together, and the child could not move a limb. It was funny to see the infant after bathing, when the mother had wrapped it in these swaddling clothes and rolled it on the bed like a rolypoly teddy bear, chirping to it, lovingly calling it Berele, Berele, my little teddy bear. In the cradle the baby was rocked to sleep with lullabies sung to it. (When a new cradle was bought for a baby, for good luck the mother would first rock the family's cat in it.)
Up to age two, and sometimes longer, there was one kind of dress for both boy and girl, a wide robe that reached to the heels, rolled up behind so the child should not soil it. In this kind of dress, clean and festive, the child was brought for the first time to the synagogue. The child grew up under the devoted care of its mother, often with the help of older daughters, especially when the mother was employed in a store or the market.
In the Cheder
When the boy was three, he was brought to the ‘Cheder’. First the teacher taught him the names of the letters of the alphabet (all consonants). Then he taught him to read each letter with the vowel signs, ‘kametsaleph aw, kametsbeis baw’, aloud from the prayer ‘siddur’. The teacher taught each child individually, in turn, teaching the lesson once, and then giving him to his assistant to go over again. A child spent the whole day in the teacher's house. Between one lesson and another, the child might play in the schoolroom or outside. When evening approached, the assistant took all the children together to teach them prayers and blessings, orally. He would ask, What blessing is said over bread? What blessing is said on wine? The children would give the answer in chorus. They learned their first prayers, the ‘Krias Sh'ma’, the ‘Modeh ani’. For two more years the child studies with the ‘DardakiMelamed’, the primary teacher. Then he advanced to the ‘ChumashMelamed’, teacher of the Five Books of Moses.
‘Chumash’ was also studied by the children in unison. They sat around a big table, reading aloud word by word and repeating its translation in Yiddish. Thursdays the teacher examined his pupils one by one. Woe unto him who did not pass this testing.
At evening twilight the Rebbe would leave the children in the ‘cheder’ when he went to the synagogue for evening prayers. In the house it grew dark. Afraid as they were of the darkness, the children passed the time telling stories of robbers, bandits and demons. When the Rebbe returned, the light was lit and they sat down to resume study until all were tired. Then the Rebbe sent them to go home. The Rebbitzin helped the little ones into their warm clothing.
The children lit candles in their lanterns, went into the street sounding off out loud a song about little children who study at night, happy to be grown up enough to study at night, boasting about their ‘cheder’, saying good night, and above all, satisfaction that they were free now to go home. The song began with the words, ‘Baruch Sheptarani’, Blessed be He who has liberated me. How sweet is freedom!
Children's Games and Pleasures
Children in Sokolievka had no idea of storebought toys. They made their own toys, and played a great deal. They sought and found every kind of junk, as well as sticks and stones, branches, leaves and other natural materials.
Even in the Rebbe's ‘cheder’, as they sat, they found ways of play. A child might take a piece of young garlic from his lunch, roll its green leaves till its soft inner fiber was destroyed, then blow into it with all his strength till it filled with air and stood up like an onion leaf.
When the teacher tutoring one child sitting before him, others would slip out and play all kinds of games. Two, three or more children stretched out on the ground around a hole playing a button game with great enthusiasm. One who lost all his buttons could not withstand temptation, would tear buttons off his garments and continue in the game. Buttons were their means of exchange: with buttons they could buy anything from each other. Their pockets were always filled with buttons, nails, pieces of colored glass and so on.
On the streets and empty lots you could see children ‘playing horse’: one child put a cord in his mouth to serve as bit and reins, and played the horse, the second held the reins and both ran and galloped; or bigger children ran with little ones on their backs. Children both small and big used to throw stones at a chosen target, such as the thatch on the Rebbe's roof. After summer rains, when the streets were full of deep puddles, children competed in expert throwing of ducklings: a stone thrown parallel to the water surface would dip and rebound in a curve above the water bouncing till it sank.
Holidays provided children with a multitude of games and pastimes. From Rosh Hashanah to Succo, the ‘chaleh’ or other bread (over which the ‘Motzi’ blessing was said at the beginning of a meal) was spread with honey: children saved the honeycomb wax and played with it at ‘cheder’. From the palm leaves of the Succos ‘lulav’ they braided finger rings, baskets and mats. As Chaukah approached, they gathered lead for the teacher's assistant to cast into ‘dreidels’ (putandtake spinners). It was traditional for the
assistant to pass out gifts to each child at some holidays: a ‘dreidel’ at Chanukah, a bow and arrow at Lag B'Omer, a wooden sword for Tisha B'Av.
Card playing, like ‘dreidel’ (gambling for beans or buttons) was customary at Chanukah. Older children, in ‘Chumash’ and ‘Gemara’ class, who could imitate printed Hebrew letters beautifully, used to design their own playing cards, ‘kvitlach’. These were numbered from ‘aleph’ (one) to ‘lamedbeis’ (thirtytwo). They inscribed the letter numerals on ordinary paper, pasted them on heavy packing paper, drying them in the ovens, because winter air is damp. They cut the cards apart, and colored them, using crayon pencils blue at one end and red on the other. For yellow they borrowed cinnamon from mother's kitchen. They also made paper purses for collecting ‘Chanukah gelt’.
Each holiday had its fun, bows and arrows on Lag B'Omer, ‘grager’ noisemakers at Purim. Many and varied were the children's games, activities, pleasures.
A child beginning to learn to read in the ‘cheder’ would be tested by his parents. They would set him before them and tell him: if you read well, an angel will toss you a penny from heaven. As the boy read, his mother stood behind him, holding the penny over his head. When the reading went well, she let the penny fall onto the ‘siddur’ and the child was so happy!
On winter nights, when the winter stove was lit with straw, children would spread the straw looking for husks with kernels still in them, which they toasted over the fire and ate. When mother bought a pumpkin, she let the children split it and take the seeds for drying. Mother usually shared lighter and pleasant labors with her boys and girls, in baking, in plucking goose feathers to stuff pillows and bed covers (feather beds), in caring for the goats that were in most houses.
Girls had games of their own. They played a lot with jacks, ‘tsheichen’, using small bone joints of sheep or goats, smooth and shiny from play. The game was like five stones that (Israeli) girls play nowadays. Girls were permitted to buy rubber balls at the Katzap stands, and they bounced them interchanging hands and feet, as they do now. Girls were always closer to home, and had the burden of house chores.
Both small boys and older sought for adventures. They went out to open spaces, hunted for junk and all kinds of finds (‘metzios’). They risked their lives rowing on pond waters in broken wooden troughs. Summer time they would go in groups to bathe in the river, and to spend hours in the craftsmen's workshops, where they would pick up materials for work and for play.
On y'rid days they would roam the market in packs. When the boys came to the cattle market, they would repeat the Talmud passage about the ox which gores a cow, and in their naivet? would wait to see it happen.
Imagining: A Sokolievka Child's Story
Today I will tell you my life, the life of a boy in Sokoliveka. What matters that I am child? A child also has his life story. First, please get to know me. My name: Chayyim ben Shmuel ben Eliyahu from the town of JustingradSokolievka. In short, from Sokolievka.
To begin, let me tell you about my father and mother. My father's name is Shmuel ben Eliyahu and my mother's name is Esther'l. At home, and not only at home, Father looks like a very preoccupied man who knows none of the joys of life. He walks around the house like an army officer or commander, expecting that every order that comes out of his lips will be done at once. I confess: I am afraid of papa. But this papa, who gets angry, and even beats his children, serves as my model of life.
At this moment, I am going to visit my grandpa. Not every day do I go to visit grandpa. Your grandpa is a complete goy, says my mother, because grandpa, a baker of ring cakes by trade, employs gentile apprentices. It would seem, not to be a complete goy, grandpa employs me, my brother and his own sons in stringing the cakes. We sit in front of a big basket of warm ring cakes, and string them on a thin cord, while counting them one to five in a Yiddish melody, eins, zwei, drei, fier and finf.
My brothers and I study in ‘cheder’. In the morning, about eight o'clock, we get up and dress (wash fairly not exactly), eat breakfast and walk to ‘cheder’. In ‘cheder’ we learn rather little. Why? Because the Rebbe is not able to teach all the children
together, so he takes one child at a time, teaches him by himself five or ten minutes, sends him off, and seats another child before him. The first child runs out to play, with sticks, with buttons, as horses, or sits and braids stalks of hemp. Later the child studies again with the rebbe's assistant.
At noon my big brothers go to learn writing from a teacher (‘moreh’). In between times we all go to watch how ropes are made (from hemp) in the streets. At times, when it is a fair day, we ramble in the market.
I have many brothes, ‘keinehora’ (evil eye, avaunt). All had names from ‘T'nach’: Yehudah, Zevulun, Joseph, Benyamin. My parents also had twins, good luck to them; one they called Yitzchak (not, God forbid, Esav), and the second, Yaakov. Me, your humble servant, they named Chayyim, so that I should merit long life. After me was born my sister Hadassah. Why did they call her Hadassah? Because she was born Purim, and my mother's name is Esther'l, so they called her Hadassah (Biblical Esther's other name).
I have told you about Papa and Grandpa. About whom have I not yet told you? About Mama. After Mama feeds us breakfast, she turns to her work in the store. In the store Mama has whatever you might want. So we think. And since many customers come into Mama's store, she stays there from morning till evening. Only noontime does she have a break (else who will feed us?). We help her in her work, deliver a bundle to a customer.
But we also have another Mama, the Mama with whom we laugh, and are happy when we are with her, Mama who bakes our bread, Mama who says the blessing when she lights the festive candles, and Mama who feasts us at supper (Saturday night) at the week's end, when the bread in the house is all exhausted. Mama cooks up dough dumplings for us. At this supper we especially laugh a great deal. Each one of us tries to make the next one laugh, so none should be sad, and all of us laugh together, and Mama laughs most of all. Truly, that's how Mama is.
The year's calendar was reckoned by festivals. So many and so many weeks before ‘Pesach’ or after ‘Pesach’, and likewise with other festivals. That was the date. Certain specific Sabbaths also
served as dates. After ‘Shabbos Korach’ (the Sabbath when the weekly Torah portion was read about Korach, Numbers 16) or just before then, cherries start to ripen in the gardens. To the child the holiday was linked to nature's season.
Children loved these festivals. All days of the year, except Shabbos, the child walked the streets barefoot or in torn shoes, and wore old patched clothes. For the Festival, however, new shoes were ordered and holiday clothes. In addition, for the child there were prepared tasty holiday delicacies and sweets, and all kinds of enjoyments.
At Passover, tradition gave the child a featured role, concerned with what the child should be asking, and what relating. Where tradition failed to provide such a role the child saw to it himself. For example: st ‘Slichos’ time (the month before Rosh Hashanah, when in the synagogue ‘piyyutim’ versified prayers, asking forgiveness, are chanted during the wee hours of the morning), children would stay up till near midnight and wait for the hour when they might go with parents to the first ‘Slichos’. They also would arise to ‘Slichos’ during the middle of the night, and then the night with all its wonders would be revealed to them. Going to ‘slichos’ was for them a kind of great heroism. During the month of Elul (before Rosh Hashanah) children poked around the synagogue till they discovered the hiding place of the ‘shofar’, and tried to learn how to sound it. They blew and blew again, till they got some feeble sound out of it, weak, but still the sound of the ‘shofar’.
And lo, the Holy Day is come, the first evening of Rosh Hashanah. In the synagogue the children surround the Chazzan, chorusing to his melancholy chants. When they come home, they find the table set, and in a saucer the honey which they had gone to buy when Mama sent them to the ‘honiglecker’, honey dealer. On the morrow they go with all the synagogue worshippers to ‘Tashlich’ at the river and its will trees.
Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur there were many activites of interst. Mama bought ‘kapporres’ at the market, a rooster for a boy, a hen for a girl. The children used to swing these live ‘kapporah’ chickens around their heads and bring them to the ‘shochet’. On Yom Kippur eve they would go with their parents to make the rounds of friends, neighbors and kinfolk to beg for honey ‘lekach’ (honey cake: a euphemism for going round to make up after any past disagreements, or simply to wish a happy new year).
Children used to particularly look forward to the making of the wax candles for Yom Kippur (especially long, to burn more than twentyfour hours). This was Mama's holy work. She twisted the wicks from flax thread, into lengths which she had measured on the graves of kinfolk in the cemetery, and she made marks on them, marks for the soul candle, to be brought to be lit in the synagogue, and marks for the life candle, to be lit at home. When she stood making these candles, all the children gathered around her as if looking upon some great wonder.
Which child does not remember trying to fast on Yom Kippur, and the final closing ‘Ne'ilah’ prayer, at the end of the day, when all sins may become white as now? When all the prayers were done, everyone would return home, to have something to eat, and to rejoice, and the children would get the leftover honey to anoint the corners of the house, as a charm to ensure a good life and sweet.
Next morning boards and planks were brought down from the attic, and used to set up the ‘sukkah’ for the Succos holiday. Children off from ‘cheder’ filled the streets or helped to erect the ‘sukkah’. The older ones handed the green boughs to cover the ‘sukkah’ up to papa on the ladder, while the little innocent ones would be sent to a neighbor to ask for the loan of a ‘Sukkahshears’.
How sublime it was to sit (mealtimes) in the ‘Sukkah’, how sublime all of Succos, with its intermediate days. Children played games with nuts (like marbles), romped in the ‘sukkah’, went to the market to see the autumn fruits brought in to town by the gentiles. In the streets men passed by carrying ‘esrog’ and ‘lulav’.
The day before Hoshanah Rabba (seventh day of Succos) the older boys went to the river to pick willow twigs to make ‘Hoshanos’ for sale. When the ‘Hoshanos’ were beaten (against the prayer stands) in the synagogue service, the children's delight knew no bounds. They also got into their hands the ‘lulavim’ and ‘esrogim’ discarded by the elders.
Succos winding up, comes the festival of Simchas Torah. The children run around to find sticks for Simchas Torah flags. The Rebbes' assistants used to sell these sticks made from willow branches. Then all that was needed was to insert the (paper) flag in the slit in the staff, and top it with a red apple with a wax candle.
stuck into it. On Simchas Torah all the boys were called up to the Torah (in an ‘aliyah’), all crowded together under a big ‘tallis’ spread over their heads while the first chapters of Genesis were read. On this day they chorused together with the ‘Chazzan’, and all the worshippers, and afterward were given cake and wine. All day they mingled with the merrymakers who danced and sang in the streets. The celebration peaked towards evening. Reb Avraham, the ‘Chazzan’, climbed up on the roof of the synagogue, and there, next to the chimney, he chanted the ‘Mincha’ service, he above, the entire congregation below, responding in a loud voice, dancing and chanting Holy, Holy. They loved to rejoice in their festivals.
Next day the children joined in dismantling the ‘Sukkah’. They were a bit sad, and the season was also a bit sad. Autumnal winds were blowing, leaves beginning to fall. A little more and gray days will begin. Children start going to ‘cheder’, some to their previous one, some to a new, dressing in warm winter clothing and whole shoes, while the heart looks ahead to when a new holiday will arrive.
It would take a very long time to tell all about these festivals and how the children enjoyed them. The children always had more fun than the adults. At Chanukah, the grownups were satisfied to light the candles, to sing ‘Al HaNissim’ and ‘Ma'oz Tuzur’, but for children Chanukah had every joy. They played ‘dreidel’ and cards; ran to all their relatives, grandfathers and grandmothers, to every uncle and aunt, to collect ‘Chanukah gelt’, to be treated with (potato) ‘latkes’ and (fat gooseskin) craclings. Cheder studies were half a day only.
The taste of these ‘latkes’ was still in our mouth, and already it was ChamishoOsor B'Shvat (the fifteenth day in the month Shvat, observed as the New Year of Trees, actually six weeks after Chanukah). In the Diaspora there was no planting of trees, but we marked the holiday by enjoying ChamishoOsor B'Shvat fruits, at home and at the ‘cheder’. The little children, innocents, were convinced that all these fruits, the bukser (dried carob), figs, almonds and raisins all came from the Land of Israel.
In the Diaspora it was not customary to put on masquerade disguises on Purim, but, for many days before, children were busy making all kinds of ‘grager’ noisemakers and rattles to drown out
the name of Haman during the reading of the ‘Megilla’ (Book of Esther) in the synagogue. During the day children circulated through the streets bringing ‘shalachmonnes’ (customary exchanges of cakes and other baked delicacies as holiday gifts) to relatives, neighbors and friends, and for their service received some of the goodies as a reward. Poor boys and girls would receive money gifts. Towards evening the streets became empty, as everybody went home to the jolly Purim ‘se'udah’ (festive dinner).
To the children by far the most b eloved of all holidays was Pesach. There are thirty days from Purim to Pesach, but all of these became the ‘eve of Pesach’, days filled with the many preparations for the festival. Beets were pickled, chickens were bought, matzos were baked, and ‘chometz’ was cleared from the house. Every single thing was moved out of its place, whitewashed, scrubbed, aired out, till every nook and cranny was cleaned. They brought down the Passover dishes from the attic, and bought wine for the four cups. Boys and girls shared in all these preparations. On Passover eve they put on their holiday clothes, everything new, from shoes to hat, and awaited the Seder.
In the Diaspora they conduct two ‘Seder’ evenings, on the first and second days of the holiday. At each ‘Seder’ were asked the Four Questions, the ‘Haggadah’ (story of Passover) was read, the Four Cups of wine were drunk, the Afikoman was stolen, and the delicious Passover dishes were eaten. After four intermediate ‘Chol HaMoed’ days, during which children were exempt from going to ‘cheder’, playing their nut games and strolling about at will, came the last two days, the seventh of Pesach, and the final (eighth) which is observed only in the Diaspora. Pesach is also the festival of spring; trees put forth leaves, birds chirp, and fields freed from their mass of snow begin to turn green anew.
During the days of Counting the Omer between Pesach and Shevuos, days of mourning in which they would not cut their hair or put on new clothes, there was only one day of rejoicing. Lag B'Omer. Little children would get bows and arrows and go walking with their Rebbe in the meadows to shoot the arrows. Older boys fended for themselves, went looking and found hoops from old barrels, perfect for making bows, sneaked up on horses to pluck hairs from their tails for bowstrings. Mature and wellbehaved children were sent to collect candles, going from house
to house, and all these candles were lit in the synagogue in honor of the anniversary of rabbi Shimon Bar Yocha'i.
Three days before Shevuos, the three boundary days, during which Moses set bounds around Mount Sinai beyond which the people might not ascend, children were free a half day from ‘cheder’. Nature was then in its fullest glory. The open spaces in the town were green, and covered with wild flowers. Village women brought fragrant greens to market for sale. On the holiday eve, the children decorated the home with green plants, and the synagogue was also decorated that way. In the Diaspora the holiday of Shevuos is celebrated for two days. On the second night candles, previously collected by the children, were lit in the synagogue windows and on shelves in honor of King David, who, according to tradition passed away during Shevuos.
The festivals were over. Then came the days of mourning, the restricted days from the Seventeenth of Tammuz to the Ninth in Av. Children, however, did not forget their games even in these days of mourning. On Tisha B'Av eve (when the adults sat on the floor in stocking feet to lament the destruction of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, and the exile dispersion of the people from their ancient homeland) children came to the synagogue with pockets full of ‘berelach’ cockleburs, thistles, thorns. In the dim gloom of the synagogue, during the chanting of the Book of Lamentations, they threw these burrs on the congregation, into their ‘payos’ (sidecurls) and beards. This was accepted custom and no one would scold the children for it.
The Synagogues of Sokolievka
Mr. Peretz Shuman, a Sokolievker settled in Buffalo, in one of his letters, tallied all the synagogues in the town: the synagogue of Rabbi Pinchas'l; the synagogue of the Tolner Chassidim; the Big Bess Medrash; the one called ‘Dos Shulech'l’ established by a group which withdrew from the first. All in all, six houses of prayer.
On Sabbaths and festivals, most of the synagogues were full of worshippers. Children stood with their parents, prayer book in
hand. During intermissions they slipped out into the yard noisy with little boys and girls brought by older sisters.
Most of the synagogues had bookcases full of books, particularly volumes of the Talmud and of the Mishna. Worshippers who were learned in Torah would continually study them. Youth who had finished ‘cheder’ also used to study here in these books, by themselves, or under the supervision of a ‘melamed’ set up here by their parents. Children loved the synagogue, and would come to play in the yard in hours when they were free from the ‘cheder’.
The Synagogue and Communal Needs
The town was a constituted municipality. The town head was nominally chosen by the inhabitants, but he was subject to the (central) Tsarist regime. His functions were limited mainly to fulfilling the regime's decrees, the issuance of passports (for internal travel and identification) to inhabitants and those registers in the town. There was no municipal education department or welfare department. Communal needs were the concern of the charity ‘gabaim’, and various support ‘chevras' (societies): the ‘Bikurcholim chevra’ to visit the sick, the ‘chevra of GmilasChassadim’ for making interestfree loans.
In times of trouble and emergency, for instance an epidemic or a great fire, or when there was an urgent need to help the poor and widows at the approach of a festival, this was proclaimed as a public notice by the Rabbi and the Gabai in the synagogue. They would delay the reading of the Torah (portion of the week) until people volunteered to give a hand to organize help. Sometimes the worshippers would be asked to leave their ‘talleisim’ in the synagogue after prayers, so that they would come to redeem them after the Shabbos (by making the needed financial contribution).
Once a year each ‘chevra’ held a general meeting and banquet for members. Each ‘chevra’ had its particular ‘Shabbos’. The ‘Chevra BikurCholim’ chose the Sabbath of the blessing of the month of Iyar, because the Hebrew letters of Iyar are the initials of the words I am the Lord your Healer. The ‘Chevra GmilasChassadim’ which loaned money (with no interest charge) to the
poor chose the Shabbos with the Torah portion ‘Mishpatim’, because it includes verse Exodus 22:24, If you shall lend money to my people, (it shall be without interest).
Charity to the Poor
Besides the charity ‘chevras’ there were also good hearted people, especially pious women, who busied themselves collecting donations, for a poor bride, for a widow with many children, and the like. There were women who on Fridays (Sabbath eves) went from door to door and collected ‘chalehs’, fish, meat, and secretly brought these to the homes of the needy. People were very embarrassed of their poverty.
There were also poor people who begged door to door, but they came from other towns. The poor of Sokolievka were ashamed to put out their hands in their own town. They went to other places. There was a kind of exchange of poor between one settlement and another.
A poor man who came for alms might receive a penny or a piece of bread, sometimes a glass of tea. People of means would invite the poor in for a meal. For someone whose clothes were very ragged, they would find some used garment. So that no poor man should leave any house emptyhanded, there was instituted in the town a custom of charity coupons, a kind of local currency. On these parchment coupons, were inscribed in scribe's lettering, Sokolievka Basket. The nominal value of the coupon was a half penny. A poor man could buy what he needed to eat with these coupons in any store in town. When leaving town, he could exchange the coupons for real cash in any store or at the Charity Gabai's. On the eve of Shabbos and festival nights, worshippers in the synagogue would invite such a poor man to their home and give him food and lodging. The ‘Shammos’ of the synagogue was in charge of the assignment of these poor among those who invited them, and took care that no poor man remained without an invitation. Since there was no municipal lodging house for poor (transients), the ‘Shammos’ used to give permission to spend the night in the synagogue near the winter stoves.
A special intensification of help for the poor was felt before festivals, especially before Passover. When it became known that a
certain widow's turn had come to have matzos baked at the baker's, and she could not pay the wages of the men and women working at the bakery, neighbors gathered at once and went to the bakery, women, boys and girls, and shared among themselves the work, the kneading, the rolling, the perforation. Since the baker used to assign these widows' turns to a late evening hour, when the regular men and women employees left the bakery, the donated labor continued to a late hour of the night, but the volunteers fid not leave until they had completed the work, and took their leave of the widow with hearty exchanges of blessings, after helping her carry the matzos to her house.
Visiting the Sick
When a man fell ill, his neighbors and friends came to visit him. Women would bring preserves of their own making, especially raspberry preserves, good for sweating. It was a great ‘mitzvah’ (good deed) to lend a thermometer to the sick, or a rubber bag to put ice on the head, and other utensils. If the sick person was poor, neighbors and goodhearted people did not wait for the ‘BikurCholim Chevra’ but themselves called a doctor, brought medicines, and supplied the invalid with chicken soup to keep up his strength. When an epidemic broke out, such as the cholera, there were people who volunteered to wage war against the disease. Healthy and courageous men did not flinch from the danger, as soon as the symptoms of the illness appeared, massaged the sick man with vinegar, and warmed his body in every way. In that way they saved many from death. The company of life savers was always ready for action. Even on ‘Shabbos’, if word came to the synagogue that someone had been stricken, these men would immediately take off their ‘talleisim’ and hurried to bring help, because the saving of life supersedes the Sabbath.
It happened once that a poor woman was ill, and the doctor prescribed massage for the feet. The women of Sokolievka knew various methods of nursing the sick: to apply a mustard plaster, they knew ‘shtellen bankes’ (cupping) but massage was not in their ken. But the younger generation was also alert to the fate of a solitary invalid, and a group of teenage girls understood to massage her feet, and also to take care of feeding her until her recovery.
Changes and Innovations
During the last twenty years of Sokolievka, from the beginning of the century to its annihilation, there were great changes. New institutions were founded, new developments in the field of the economy and of culture, and these were mainly the fruit of the initiatives and the efforts of the new generation.
The members of the old generation were not adaptable to novelties, and to any activity that deviated from the bounds of tradition and custom.
When an economic crisis struck the town in the first decade, in large measure due to the weakened status of Russian Jewry of that day, conscientious members of the community who were deeply rooted in its life were affected by despair and depression, and left their families to seek their fortune in America.
It was the young merchants who were stimulated to seek improvement in the town. They obtained permission to open a financial institution which helped craftsmen and storekeepers with loans for constructive purposes. These merchants also importuned the authorities to hasten the opening of a post office in the town. These young men founded the modernized cheder and the young married men sent their children to it. These youth organized a public library, initiated literary evenings and other cultural activities, drawing on local talent and on forces from nearby towns. If a writer chanced to come to town, immediately a committee of the youth appeared to invite him to lecture, and a troop of enthusiastic youth spread through the town to sell tickets.
This was one of the qualities of the town, voluntary contribution of effort with spirit, the traditional joy of doing a ‘mitzvah’ (good deed) with all your heart.
In this awakening of Sokolievka to improvement and innovation, an awakening that blended with the great yearning of youth for education and the acquisition of knowledge, may be seen the peculiarity of the development in the shtetl. Under the external shell of the frozen absence of motion, there were budding new and creative forces from whom emerged new builders and renewers. Yossel Chertov the apikoros, Yitzchak Yoel Kuzminsky the intellectual, and Shimon Geisinsky, a modest and popular good fellow, these blossomed and grew on the quiet.
No one taught them, no one trained them for all they did and tried to do. They arose from themselves and came forward to service of the people, because the hour had come, their service was acceptable and was a blessing to the whole town.
These last twenty years of JustingradSokolievka might have been a turning point in its history. There was a kind of changing of the guard between the generations, that brought tidings of a new era, but all that was nipped in the bud by the annihilation of the town.
Previously someone who was in need of a loan had to turn to a usurious money lender or to the charitable Free Loan Society (‘Chevra GmilasChassadim’). In either choice the application for a loan involved unpleasantness. A borrower had to accept humiliation, and bring personal belongings as security collateral: a valuable garment, a pillow, a silver vessel or jewelry. Whoever borrowed from a money lender had to pay very high interest usury.
And hereupon arose a cooperative among the merchants of the younger generation, led by Joseph (Yossel) Chertov, an intelligent and understanding man, who succeeded, after many approaches to the authorities, in receiving permission to establish a Savings and Loan Fund. This depository, for short called the Bank was a very useful institution and helped advance industry and commerce. To get a loan from the Bank was not a matter of pleading and a pledge. The borrower simply filled in an application. The management validated the application, and the borrower and two cosigners as guarantors signed a note promising to repay on time. The money could be repaid in monthly installments, and with normal legal interest.
The need for access to books was great. But in Russian, authorization from the regime was in those days required for opening a library, and all representations to the officials to this end were in vain. A grouping of local young people determined to set up an illegal library, without authorization.
According to Mr. Baruch Bernstein, who was one of this association, the effective role in this movement was taken by the young Maskil Yitzchak Yoel Kuzminsky. He was the son of the Shochet, and in line to inherit that post from his aged father, becoming ‘Shochet’ in his place (a position requiring unquestioned orthodoxy in the public eye). Therefore Yitzchak Yoel could not openly participate in this activity and so he worked behind the scenes. He would invite the youth, the older boys and girls, to his home, guide them with his counsel, encourage them to take part in the cultural field. He arranged the lectures by visiting writers, evenings for readings and for plays. Thanks to his expertise in Hebrew and Yiddish literature, with the funds collected, the library was opened with a selection from the best in both languages. In a short time a large number of readers subscribed.
The library began with one shelf, but as readership increased so did income, and with that, the number of books. Russian books were also added, and pamphlets dealing with current questions, the Russian revolution (of 1905) and the socialist movement, reading matter taboo in the eyes of the regime. The library was kept in rented space in private homes, and for fear of betrayal of its secret to the local authorities, it frequently had to be moved from one place to another. But the activists involved never weakened. Teenage youth brought wooden egg crates from the egg dealers and built cases for the books. The library grew, and became an important factor in the education of the youth and the masses of the people in the shtetl.
The Post Office
The shtetl suffered through many years for lack of proper postal communications. Letters, packages and money were sent from Sokolievka by wagoners, and special messengers. Mail sent to Sokolievka from other places arrived after much delay through the nearby village of Popivka. From there, it was brought by an old Jewish man, Chayyim Yehoshua, who distributed it to homes and was paid for his trouble. All the mail, few letters and fewer periodicals, were tied up in his kerchief a small one. With the opening of the post office in the shtetl, a sense of extension came to the settlement. The shtetl ceased to be isolated. A doctor, or any
enlightened person, to whom a post office was a necessity, now more readily settled in the town. The post office was both an economic and a cultural stimulant to the shtetl. Though the post office not only letters and packages, but many periodicals and books came, in Hebrew, In Yiddish and even in Russian.
The Old ‘Cheder’ and Its Defects
The ‘cheder’ was an antiquated kind of school, and its methods were old and obsolete. The ‘melamed’ was not a professional. Any man who failed to find himself whatever source of ‘parnossa’ would open a ‘cheder' and persuade parents to send their children to him. Arithmetic and writing were not taught in the ‘Cheder’, and so many of the children went in the afternoon to a teacher (‘moreh’) who taught the four operations of reckoning, and writing in Hebrew and Yiddish. They made a particular point of beautiful script: how to begin writing the letter, when to press down on the pen point, when to release it, all according to prescribed rules. Usually the teacher wrote on the top line of the notebook page some proverb or verse, and the pupil undertook to copy it, trying to imitate the teacher's beautiful handwriting, repeating it to the end of the page. In a higher grade, they copied letters from a book of sample correspondence composed in flowery style.
Generally boys studied in ‘cheder’ until their Bar Mitzvah. Poor children stopped by age ten or eleven, and went out to help their parents to support the family, to wait on customers in a store, or to sell matches, kerosene and the like at a stand on market day. Some were apprenticed to learn a trade.
Some talented boys and children of the welltodo continued their studies even after age thirteen. Their parents would hire a ‘melamed’ deep versed in Torah, who tutored them in his house or in the synagogue. These arrangements did not always work out well. Parents complained that there no longer were good ‘melamdim’ in the shtetl. In 1903 two young boys were sent to the Perlmutter Yeshiva in Kishinev where in addition to their religious studies there were also taught secular subjects. New winds were blowing in the shtetl, the arrival of the era of ‘Haskalah’, and devout parents wanted their sons to learn Torah and also acquire
secular culture (‘Haskalah’) and so find favor in the eyes of God and man.
The Modernized Cheder
Yitzchak Yoel Kuzminsky was also the initiator of the modernized ‘Cheder’ in Sokolievka. Thanks to his connections with the enlightened ‘maskilim’ of the shtetl, some fifteen pupils, children of cheder age, were assembled and entrusted to Baruch Bernstein as their teacher (‘moreh’). He spoke Hebrew (as a living language) and had teaching experience. He was acquainted with the new method of teaching reading of that day, called the oral method and the Invrit B'Ivrit method of teaching the Hebrew language in Hebrew, without translations into Yiddish.
This modern Cheder was held in a small room in the home of Yitzchak Yoel's parents. One of the pupils was his younger brother Alick.
The rapid progress of the children in reading and in speaking Hebrew on the shtetl streets made a strong impression, and this small modernized cheder exercised great influence on Hebrew education in the shtetl. Teachers who were, so to speak, progressive, discarded texts that used Yiddish translations and adopted HaDibur Halvri (The Hebrew Word) of M. Krinsky, with its many easy conversations and illustrations for discussion, from which the children by themselves learned the Hebrew language and to speak Hebrew. The modernized ‘cheder’ used as a text the P'rakim Rishonim (First Chapters) of Jacob Fichman, whose poetic spirit was much loved by the children. The modernized ‘cheder’ was set up in 1912 and soon afterward a modern Hebrew School was opened in the town.
The Youth of Sokolievka Acquires Haskalah
Years after years the youth had been content with what they had learned from the local instructors: to write a letter in Yiddish and address the envelope in Russian. But all things change and advance with time. Little by little the longing awakened in the youth to know more than this, to learn Russian in a systematic way, to acquire a general education. Some even dreamed of taking
the university entrance examinations given in the nearby city of Uman.
Teachers of Russian began to appear in the shtetl. They offered private lessons. At first they had girl pupils, who in effect were excluded from studying Torah at ‘cheder’. soon they were joined by boys who had finished ‘cheder’ and saw little value in Bess Medrash studies. The whole household would be studying. Each one sat in his own corner and memorized verses of Russian poets, the rules of grammar or the rules of arithmetic. In those days they did a great deal of memorizing.
Boys and girls saved pennies from market day earnings to pay teachers' tuition fees. At night they sat and studied with diligence and devotion. It was a great ‘mitzvah’ to help the children of the poor, and those who were more advanced in their studies would give them free lessons.
With the acquisition of the Russian language, speaking Russian and reading of Russian books spread among the youth. In those days there began to come into the shtetl youths without names, comrades. They would call the youth to secret meetings outside the town, and tell them about the great revolution coming soon in Russian, and the necessity, in the coming time, of organizing strikes and protest demonstrations. At these meetings there were distributed leaflets and propaganda pamphlets to read and spread. Sokolievka had no industrial factories and workers, so there were no strikes. The youth came to hear what the speakers would say and to learn what was in the pamphlets. The youth sought knowledge.
(A letter from Bennie Berkun touches on another development.) You ask about Zionists in Sokolievka. In 1911, when I was fourteen, I already considered myself a member of the ‘Tz'irei Tzion’ (Youth for Zion). Gedalyahu Mendl, grandson of Rabbi, Samuel Kaprov, and Konstantinovsky conducted Zionist activity. We had a club and public meetings. A man named Moshe used to come to us from Zashkov to lecture on the Zionist movement (probably Moshe Skriton, who was related to the Dayan family). We organized a club in the village of Voronoye. Older folk were General Zionists, sons of the ‘Baalebatim’ were ‘Tz'irei Tzion’, sons of working craftsmen were Seimovtzim. We used to argue in the streets of the town, especially after the Revolution, before
elections, till Zelyoni (may his name be blotted out) came and killed them all. 
and on the dramatic company in Sokolievka, runs a letter from Miriam Geisinsky, widow of Same Kaplan, The group put on several plays. My brother Shimon (Shimon Geisinsky, son of Yitzchak Yoel the ‘Shochet’) Sought out the plays, casted the players, prepared scenery decorations and directed the staging. Among the actors were Shulki Menachem's, Berel Herzl Peretz's (a fine lad, played very well), Mani Dubobis (she was outstanding in Mirele Efros, a classic drama by Jacob Gordin); also Perel Dratsh, and Yocheved NachumElye's. Alick Kuzminsky played the role of a child beautifully. Traina, his sister, also was a good actress, and my sister Feige did not do so badly either. Shimon started with the plays of Abraham Goldfaden and Jacob Gordin, and went on to those of Peretz Hirschbein. The shtetl of Monastrichtsh invited Shimon and his troupe to come and play for them. To our sorrow the pogroms then began and a tragic end came to the dramas of Sokolievka.
The Annihilation of Sokolievka
(World War I ravaged Russia from 1914 to 1917, and Jews served in the Tsarist army (David Feldstein served in the peacetime army before he came to America). Yet this memoir makes no mention of that war. The Russian Revolution and the ensuing ‘civil’ war thoroughly disrupted all daily life, yet this memoir, and the letter received from survivors which formed its basis, make no mention of the events of 19171918. So frightful were the events of the 1919 pogroms that those earlier cataclysms were blurred out of the minds and memories of the survivors.)
The years 1919 1920 were years of agony to the Jews of the Ukraine. Various armed factions made war against the central Moscow government and against each other for control of the region. Anarchy prevailed, local authority collapsed, every place was open to robbery and murder. In between their battles among each other, these various bands broke into quiet towns and wreaked atrocities upon the Jews.
At first the Justingrad community kept its spirit up. Chayyim Greenspan, who later settled in Buffalo, recalls: With twelve rifles, they set up a night watch, and stopped night robberies.
When the goyim of nearby villages came to seize their arms, they resisted. These goyim then seized a number of Jews, dragged them to the Bridge to throw them in the river. Fortunately some goyim from Sokolievka proper at the other end of the Bridge intervened to protect their neighbors, and the other goyim left.
On another occasion a bandit troop of 150 invaded the shtetl, demanded the people give up their clothing and boots to the bandits and pay a ransom of half a million rubles. This time the shtetl was saved by the courage of two men who slipped away and rode to Monastrishtsh where they made contact with the government forces (Bolshevik) camped there. When the bandits were making ready to let loose their terror of the shtetl they were surprised by the arrival of a force of regular soldiers headed by a Jewish commander.
The people of the shtetl saw these deliverances as miracles. From mouth to ear the word was passed the Reb Pinchas'l the Rabbi had said, As long as I live, no blood will be shed in my town.
The Murder of Reb Pinchas'l the Rabbi
It was ‘Shabos Chazon’, the Sabbath before Tisha B'Av, 5679. It was a pleasant summer day. People were relaxing after a week of fear and anxiety, walking in the streets, talking about the latest news. Suddenly about five o'clock firing of guns was heard at the western approach to the shtetl. A horde of the rebel bandit Zeliony numbering in the thousands announced its entrance. At once there was panic in the streets. People ran home in utter confusion, parents hunting for their children, children for their parents. Screams of fright rose everywhere. People locked themselves in their houses, women and children hid themselves in the cellars.
Towards evening residents on the Rabbi's street heard the sound of horses' hoofs, and saw several mounted horsemen approaching the Rabbi's house. One of them went into the courtyard, up the steps and opened the door. The Rabbi had just finished the ‘Se'uda shlishit’, the third meal of the Sabbath, and was about to begin the Ma'ariv evening prayers. In the twilight
dusk the murderer came to where the Rabbi was sitting and shot him dead.
The intruders saw him fall, and they left without further violence or looting. It is surmised that the bandit leader had been told by the goyim of the vicinity that the town was under the protection of the Tzaddick who dwelled there. This murderer was sent to remove the Rabbi before they attacked the town.
During the night looting and vandalism began. Sunday morning saw streets deserted, some houses already devastated. At daylight a hunt and roundup began, the bandits seizing all young men, especially any from eighteen to thirty. They were dragged to the synagogue of the Tolner Chassidim and locked up there.
The bandit chief announced that a war tax was imposed of not less than a million rubles, to be collected and turned over in two hours. A communal worker, surrounded by armed bandits, went from home to home to collect the money. Meanwhile the hostages in the synagogue were being beaten down with their prayer stands by the armed bandits who then stomped on their heads.
Two hours passed, and the sum demanded had not been reached. Ten men were taken out and killed. Another hour passed, and another ten were killed. At noon the collectors returned to the synagogue, having amassed only about half the amount demanded. The bandit officer took the money, refused to release the prisoners and gave the word to start plundering the houses.
The bandits spread out through the shtetl, broke into stores, looted the merchandise, beating people with their whips. There was shooting of men, and raping of women. They spoke of killing all the men in the synagogue.
About five o'clock the bandit horde began to move out of the town. They separated out about a hundred and fifty young men from the rest in the synagogue and took them along as captives. At first some thought that nothing very serious would happen to them, because in another two Zeliony had also seized a large number of young men, but only warned them not to help the Bolsheviks
and turned them loose. Alas, on the captives of Justingrad, the wrath of the Lord descended.
When the captives were led out on to the Bridge, some parents overtook them, and pleaded for their children, offering still more money. They were shot down and thrown into the river: among these parents were Menachem Tchernus and Yitzchak Snitzer.
Some of the young men, seeing what was up, pleaded with Zeliony to take them as recruits to his band. The murderer mocked their words and ordered them to be mowed down. A withering fire was opened on them from a hidden ambush, from a machine gun concealed by bushes. The best of Justingrad's youth fell dead, many young fathers, the strength and glory of Sokolievka.
(The shooting having done its bloody work, the bandits waded in with their swords to silence the voices of the dying, among whom there were some who with their last strength cried out the Sh'ma Yisroel, the martyr's creed, Hear, O Israel.)
One of the young men, Yitzchak Pushkalinsky, though severely wounded in the head, managed to drag himself out of the heap of the dead, and to reach town. He died two months later in the hospital in Uman, but from him were learned the details of what had happened. The bodies were first found in a ravine by Gentiles who notified the town.
Chayye Shuman, four of whose brothers were among those killed, recalled, The Gentiles refused to bring the bodies to the shtetl. The Jewish population rented horses and wagons from them, and themselves brought back the dead. My father was among those digging graves for my brothers. Nachum the apothecary tried to help him digging. My father said to him, Take it easy, Nachum; let me take care of my children. My brother Baruch who was killed was married and the father of a little boy.
The Deniken Atrocities
After Zeliony's massacre the shtetl was raided often by local gangs from nearby villages. No day passed without some tragic event. So the year 5679 came to an end (September, 1919).
On Rosh Hashanah 5680 (September 25, 1919) the army of
Denikin (Tsarist) passed through the shtetl on their way to fight against the Bolsheviks. Three Jews whom they chanced upon on the way they killed. Again there was robbing, looting, setting homes afire.
In Denikin's days, there was total anarchy. From the old town of Sokolievka, hoodlum ruffians came night after night, rioted, attacked Jews, burned houses to force the Jews to leave. Many families did flee at that time. This went on about three months.
The Denikin forces were defeated. On their retreat from ByeloTserkov they again passed through Justingrad. Again they began with burning homes, and this time they ended killing some two hundred. In the severe frost, the Denikin forces seized Jews, dragged them to the ice of the frozen river, stripped them naked where they froze to death.
The shtetl was in ruins. The community of stunned mourners, crushed by these disasters, wandered around in a delirium of despair. The ground burned under their feet. They fled, some to nearby Uman, others to Odessa, crowding miserably into emergency shelter in the synagogues. Many decided to leave the country, making their way on foot overland to the River Dniester, the Romanian border. Risking their lives in the river crossing, they filtered stealthily across the frontier and reached Romania penniless and starving.
Families broke up. Some, who had relatives in America, were able with their help to cross the ocean to the United States. A few families after great hardships managed to reach the land of Israel and settle there.
The End of the Shtetl
There is no way now of getting any details about how many families or people remained after the mass exodus and how they lived from 1920 to 1941. Only this is known: when the Nazis invaded, they found some Jews in Justingrad/Sokolievka and left not one alive.
A young woman physician of the family of Yehoshua Abramov hastened to Sokolievka after the defeat of the Nazis. She did not find one living soul of the former Jewish residents. The houses were empty ruins. She spoke to the Gentile residents of the town. They told her that the Nazis led the surviving Jews of Sokolievka out to the forest and forced them to dig their own graves. They shot the adults and buried the children alive. (Who knows what share the local Gentiles had in this final massacre.)
Dr. Joseph M. Gillman, the chronicler of The B'nai Khaim in America, visited the site in 1965; it was his birthplace, where he lived from 1888 to 1902. All was gone, homes, synagogues, the cemetery. Not a trace of the old town remained.
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