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The Shtetl


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Turiysk: People and Landscapes

by L. Olitzki

Translated by Jerrold Landau

Donated by Rebeca Bialik Gilad

Turiysk is situated on the banks of the Turiya River (or brook). It is about 850 years old (in Jewish terms). It is surrounded by three larger cities of Wolyn: Kowel, which at one time was renown due to its “Kowel Rebbe,” and later, until the Holocaust, on account of its Tarbut Gymnasium: Ludmir [Wladimir] which was known for its “Maiden of Ludmir” who wore a tallis katan and tefillin like a man, and eventually made aliya to the Land of Israel where she was buried; Movchaniv, which was known for its old, wooden synagogue, and its rabbi, the author of two rabbinical books.

Turiysk was known in the world of secular knowledge on account of its great maskil, the famous physician Dr. Moshe Markuzi. He was also the personal physician of the Polish landowner [poretz], under whose auspices his “Book of Cures” was published in Turiysk. This was the first medical book in the Yiddish language. Turiysk was well-known in the Hassidic world, for a scion of the Chernobyl dynasty, the Admor Reb Avrahamele, the Maggid of Turiysk, was from there. (Y. L. Peretz mentions him in his “Zichronot” [Memoirs] and “Sipurei Am” [Stories of the People].) He was known for his Magen Avraham book on Torah ideas. The youngest of his three sons, Yaakov, inherited his position. It is said that during his youth, he sought to unite with the spirit of prophecy as he studied Torah day and night for 1,000 consecutive days and fasted for many months. They called him the Rebbe of Trisk. His wedding with the daughter of another rabbinical dynasty was publicized in Hashiloach at the time.

It is told that Turiysk merited to have the son-in-law of the Tosafot YomTov[1], who was the rabbi in Ludmir, serving as rabbi there for a period of time. There is even an inscription on an old gravestone, half buried in the ground, on the grave of the daughter of the Tosafot-YomTov. However, the moss and mold from many years makes it impossible to decipher the engraved letters.

Among the other rabbis of the city during the lifetime of the Maggid, Rabbi Zecharia Rozenfeld earned his renown. He inherited the rabbinical seat from his father Rabbi Gavriel Rozenfeld. Aside from being a great scholar, he was also a healer of the sick. Jews and gentiles would come to him. Even though he was not certified, he would go to the pharmacy and prepare medicine on his own, for he was loathe to write prescriptions on paper. It is said that he was also a great expert in this field. Later, however, when opposition to him arose in the court of the Maggid himself, Hassidim kept from any contact with him. They held on to him in the court of the Maggid, even though they regarded him as “a worm who could crush the seeds in the heart of an apple.” They honored him and were afraid of him. He had an “establishment” in Kowel, where he would redeem young Jewish scholars from the hands of the gentiles. He would free them from the duty of service in the army of the Czar in a wondrous fashion, until things got complicated and he failed. He escaped, and quickly fled to the United States, where he served as the rabbi of the Jewish community of St. Louis. He published two books there.

Turiysk was a city of wood, low and small. The quiet was only disturbed for several hours on the days of the fairs and on Christian holidays, when the ringing of the church bells added a tense roar to the usual bustle of the town.

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The town became especially noisy on the days of Jewish holidays during the time of the Maggid, even during the time before the railway. Thousands of Hassidim would come, some by horse and wagon, and others on foot. The town was forced to expand at those time, as if by miracle, as Jerusalem of old when all of Israel would come for the pilgrim festivals. This was also the situation later, on the 2nd of Tammuz, the yahrzeit of the Maggid.

The calm of the town was also disturbed when a fire broke out. The church bells would ring to sound a loud alarm in the town itself, the suburbs, and even in the nearby town of Stavok. In later years, the alarm would be sounded by the thundering of the trumpets of the firefighters. During the fire, the town was filled with screams, shouts, weeping and wailing. People ran about to drag out belongings. A fire in town brought with it the meaing of – lack of a roof over the head, going naked and barefoot, wandering about, and want, poverty and destruction for many years thereafter. Large fires are etched in the memory of the history of our towns, and some are even noted in the communal ledger: “A large fire in…” or “the fire at Shaya Leib Brener's place”; “The fire of the rabbi's wife”; “The fire of the war”; and “the fire in the courtyard.”

The center, or the “other side of the city” served as the large market square, looking over the Kowel-Ludmir Road. The road arched over – with stones sticking out appearing as a hunched back – throughout the entire town, with trenches along both sides.

Four rows of shops built of bricks were in the center of the square. The space between the rows formed a crisscross. There were old walls with gardens on top, like patchwork. There were patches of trees that were white and fresh, old and grey, and even old and black. There were patches of “old age” with yellow-green moss. The talons of time wore away at the thick layer of clay and whitewash upon the walls, and settled upon them in full force until cracks formed in them here and there, and the large, old bricks, crumbled into red dust.

Opposite, on the other side of the city, the market square overlooked the two oldest walls of the town: to the low, stone bridge and the brick kiln, covered by a green, tin roof; the Pravoslavic Church with its large, square windows; leaning over the gate – the new Chayana [tea house] that was built during the time of the time of the Beilis trial by people of the black century[2] with the purpose of serving as a general store for the Christians, so as to steal the livelihood – morsel of bread – from the Jews – something that was fulfilled only during the rule of the Polish Sanacja Party.

The Catholic church was near the Pravoslavic church. It was somber and raging, with high, closed off walls and narrow windows – long and pointed. Its tin roof was light brown. It had a tall, white gate. There was a separate structure next to it – the narrow, pointy bell tower. In the forward part of the roof, above the carvings, there was a large clock with frozen hands, as if instructing the Catholic world that time stands still, and does not move in the full sense of the term.

The roads of the town spread out from the market square. The main road (the street) extended from Kowel Road to Ludmir Road. The second road was the Road of the Monastery. Its muddy,dirt road led to the village of Stavok. The Pravoslavic Monastery was located between the town and the village. Around it were trees with overhanging branches. The monks were inside. They wore long, black cloaks,

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which draped over their heads and covered their eyes, and crosses made out of bone on their chests. They would collect donations on the days of the fairs, with open prayer books and silver bells in their hands. The third large street was Machev Street, leading to the village of Machev behind the cemetery.

From these large roads, paths led out to the smaller roads and alleyways: The Synagogue Street, from there to Kowel Street, the Crooked Alleyway, and Itzia Ishiner Lane that lead to the Koklir Street. This lane was populated by Christians even though it bore a Jewish name. Itzia was the kitchen manager in the Rebbe's court already in the time of the Maggid. He enjoyed the honor of having a street named for him. He lived a long life. He was also an excellent gardener. He planted flowers and trees. He once grafted a branch of a pear tree onto an apple tree, and the tree produced both apples and pears. Of course, the tree disappeared like a passing shadow, for it was liable to bring shame to the court of the Rebbe[3].

These were the Jewish names of the streets. The Germans gave the streets their official names during the time of the First World War, and the Poles did so later. Nevertheless, the Jews continued to call the streets by their own names. Indeed, I have only listed a very small portion of the streets and lanes, for if there were, for example, 400 houses in town, there would have been a similar number of lanes. Many houses had vegetable gardens in the back, as well as barns for cattle and goats – until the “edict of the goats” which banned Jews from raising them, for they would destroy the vegetable gardens.

The old cemetery was located on a hill at the edge of the town. It was surrounded by a fence of boards. It had already not been used for decades. It had a white hut in the front corner where the Maggid was buried; wooden canopies for the Rebbetzin and their daughter Malkenyu; and general wooden gravestones that had become bent with age, covered with moss, and partially sunken into the ground. There were also broken and disintegrated gravestones. The old-timers could point these out just like the aforementioned grave of the daughter of the Tosafot YomTov.

The Pravoslavic cemetery was not far from there, opposite the road to Machev. Further up, on the road to Kowel, was the Catholic cemetery, which stood isolated like an old fortress from the middle ages. It was full of trees, flowers, and greenery. In the middle, there was some sort of church structure from which the graves of prominent people, powerful people, Polish nobility protruded, held in place by silver chains.

The new Jewish cemetery was about 1 ½ verst[4] from the town. It was fenced with a thin, wooden fence. It was a large cemetery. Its clay ground was empty, crouching, and waiting, as if inviting the Jews from the town: “You can give up your pure souls. There is enough room here in the clay for your deceased. This is a reminder of mortar that did not protect the living-dead of the Children of Israel in Egypt…”

The elderly Luba-Chaya, who was once the bath attendant and later a teacher of young children in town, relates that she heard from the older generation while she was still a child that there was once a larger Jewish cemetery near the forest. This was the first Jewish cemetery in Turiysk. Others were able to point out signs of this holy place: tens of sunken gravestones whose tops were still peeking out from the ground between the damp thistles and dry leaves, like

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teeth from the jaws of animals… It was said that Christians were afraid to walk there, and would cross themselves. When Luba-Chaya heard that the train passes by there today, and that there is no trace of the Jewish cemetery, she sighed deeply – “They do not even let the Jews rest after their deaths… This must be only because we have sinned greatly. The younger generation does not know where the bones of their ancestors disappeared.”

From the sizes of the cemeteries, once can deduce that the number of Jews of Turiysk buried beneath the ground is larger than the number of gentiles buried. This may because more of them died, or because they were the first to settle there.

The majority of the population was Ukrainian and Jewish. There were very few Poles during the time of Czarist rule. A child could count them – the members of the priesthood and those who served it. Their numbers were not great even during the time of Polish rule: postal employees, the city council, railway officials, and the teaching staff at the Pochszani School, most of whose students were Ukrainian, with only few Jews and Poles.

The Jewish homes were on the eastern roads of the town. The Christians lived on the other side. Their streets were remarkably clean, even though pigs and piglets peeped out, screeched, and oinked from the houses. The houses there were whitewashed, small, and low. Straw coverings were over the windows. Small, flowering shrubs could be seen through the glistening windows, exchanging glances with the aromatic greenery and flowers in the narrow gardens in front. Vegetable gardens, usually with fruit orchards at the end, were behind the houses. In the summer, when the Jewish houses stood naked on dusty ground, parched from dryness and thirst, with every light wind raising a cloud of dust against the fiery sun – it was as if the Christian houses were immersed in greenery.

There were also larger fruit orchards in town, leased to the Jewish merchants” that of Dayaj on the Road of the Monastery, of Kzjundz behind the church, and the garden of Sara-Luba. The latter was not particularly large, but it was wonderful: it was a Jewish garden that passed from generation to generation.

The Jewish population was composed of clergy and scholars; a small number of forestry merchants, later including owners of flourmills; cattle and grain merchants, some of whom sold drinks, made the rounds to the villages, peddled eggs, hides, pig hair, etc.; many shopkeepers, butchers, wagon drivers, and teachers. However, the vast majority of the population were tradesmen, with assistants and apprentices – their own children or the children of others. There were tradesmen from all the branches of trade that existed in Jewish towns in those times. There were people whose main source of livelihood was insufficient, so they had side sources of income: a teacher who was a matchmaker, with his wife helping him by selling milk; a shopkeeper who also leased fruit trees, whose wife sold fruit in the market, etc. That is, as people say, “Many jobs, and few blessings.”

The Turiya is a narrow, calm river. When the water would rise in the springtime, people would float barges in it.

During the spring and summer, all the ground was waterlogged and diluted. Often, in the morning and the evening, thick, white clouds would rise from it. It was swarming with frogs. At night,

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the sound of their croaking would reach the heavens and fill the air. Therefore, their enemies and assassins – the storks – would stroll around calmly and without worry with their thin, red legs, for their food source as been assured to them from the six day of creation. They would call out joyously from their round nests atop the straw roofs of the barns, “Young storks, go forth. There are frogs!”

Wild geese would sometimes burst through the air with their screeches. They would rise from the thick, wild vegetation on the banks of the river, and from the water. On summer nights, there would be some sort of concert, as if a dialogue, with their songs. This would last until dawn.

In a certain place with the bog rose to form a sort of island, which to this day is called the palace. This was the unvanquished fortress of the poretz [landowner]. The fortress was connected to land only via a narrow path, covered with grasses and reeds. The river split into two, looking like a hand in the water. The parts were joined together by a bridge with a dam, that could free up the stream of water during wartime. The water would then burst through the banks and the path would be submerged, as if it never existed. Then, only the birds could reach the fortress.

How was this fortress of the rulers destroyed? Even the elders of the generation do not know. Portions of its thick foundations stuck out of the ground for many years, reminding the cheder boys of the (to differentiate) Western Wall. Rumor spread that one could still enter its damp, dark cellar, but who would ready to sacrifice their lives, for demons and spirits rest there! Perhaps thieves and witches also hide there. People were afraid of passing by there, even in wagons, at night. The town dealt with such frightful rumors of this place until the First World War. A woman who once tried to shorten her route by passing by the river-fortress to beat her laundry became suddenly afraid: dark images peered out, like strange birds, and hovered over the water and the bogs. She never walked there again. Another case – a woman's sheet was stretched over the water. It began to fall, and took on a half-human, half-bird form. It suddenly rose up and fluttered away… the woman fainted on the spot. It was a miracle that a Christian woman was doing her laundry not far downstream. When the current brought her the sheet, she figured out what had happened, ran to the Jewess, and aroused her from her faint. Stories are also told of cases where young women miscarried after their wedding when doing laundry in the river near the fortress. Indeed, why did they even go to that place? Did they not know that impurity was lying in wait?

The Turiya split into three at that place. Further on, the streams reunited in the form of a large letter Shin. It continued like a snake until below the wooden railway bridge, crossing wheat fields and meadows. It disappeared here and there within cities that appeared, and in the sands near the entry to Kowel. It flowed on slowly in the low parts of the city and flowed further on, reappearing somewhere in Pulsia.

The elders relate that the Turiya was once a very large river. Nets full of fish would be drawn from the water. They would glitter like the light of the sun as they fluttered on the riverbank. The river would overflow its banks during the spring and threaten to flood the entire low lying area of the town. Then, people would approach the Beis Midrash in the courtyard by boat. Only the merchants from the city, the brokers, and the boat drivers would utilize the situation for the benefit of their businesses, as they sent their barges “to Danzig.” However, the Turiya did not rage forever. It heated up with the light of the sun, and calmed down. It fell back to within its banks. The fishermen's nets failed. The choir of frogs started to sing

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their songs. Men, women, and children came to immerse in its waters, to swim, and to enjoy themselves to their soul's desire. Wasn't this good and nice? However suddenly – a scream, a shout, confusion in the town, people running to the river: “Someone drowned!” “Who?” “Where?” -- -- --

Annually, without fail, the river would snatch a victim from the town, a Jew or a Christian, a drunken gentile who was beaten until blood flowed and ran to calm his anger and his hot blood in the chilly water, or a Jewish lad who snuck away from cheder and dared to learn to swim with a pair of balloons… After he was pulled out of the water, the drowned lad lay on the green grass or the golden sand, blue and swollen. They Turiya, as if nothing happened, chuckled in the sunlight like an innocent child…

If that is the case, why was it… People were cunning. They would catch a kitten or a puppy, tie its neck with a rope to a heavy stone, and toss it into the dark river as a scapegoat. Let this be our atonement. Jews did not regard this positively, like some sort of kapparot[5] ceremony of idol worshippers, Heaven forbid. The enlightened ones [maskilim] of the town mocked them to their hearts content – this will succeed! Indeed, this was a valid remedy [segula][6], and the proof was: it has been two years since there was a drowning in town…

A distance from the river, the women bathed in the clothes of Eve [i.e. naked]. The water was shallow there. Even someone who did not know how to swim could not ever drown there. In general, swimming was not something for women. It was not fitting for modest Jewish women. When the women were not there, members of the Christian intelligentsia would bathe there: the postmaster, the school principal, and others. They would relate in the market square, either in a mocking fashion or in astonishment, that the school principal was bathing together with his wife… “Only an uncircumcised person can do so..! Fooey!” – a women would spit as she heard this.

When their young gentile daughter drowned while her mother was teaching her to swim, the Jews regarded it as the finger of G-d, even though this principal was not an anti-Semite…

Before candle lighting on the eve of the Sabbath, when women would no longer be seen at the bank of the river, the healthiest of the young blacksmiths would hurry there as a shortcut, for there was really no time to swim. He only wanted to endanger himself to remove his “demonic mask” of a blacksmith. He peeked and saw that the red sun was setting, immersing in the sea of fire in honor of the Sabbath. The lads put on their white Sabbath clothes very quickly. From afar, the lit Sabbath candles already beckoned to them from the houses of the town.

The men bathed in the second arm of the river, literally next to the bridge, where the water was deep. They too were naked as on the day of their birth. You might say, was it possible that a woman would cross the bridge – and see? And who would tell her to look? She would look at the other side, at the route of a bird in the sky. They relied on the modesty of the Jewish woman. Even so, at times, a brazen youth cast a glance over to the women's river, causing the pink nakedness of the women to blush. A man is a pig.

The flourmill stood next to the third bridge. There were dams to stop the flow of water at each of the three bridges. They ensured that the paddles of the mill would not be dry. With the help of the dams, the miller could utilize the steams of water throughout the year.

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The mill was owned by the landowner [poretz] and leased to a Jew, who employed a gentile miller. When the blades of the windmill rested on their backs due to a lack of wind, the farmers of the area would bring sacks of wheat and grain to the water mill. It would be rare when a Jewish grain merchant brought a wagon of kernels there. For some reason, the Jews did not regard the mill as a Jewish business.

This was not the case during the weeks before the Passover holiday. Then, the mill belonged to Jews only. They koshered it according to Jewish law. The koshering of the mill in the presence of the rabbi, and under the supervision of the religious judge was an important event in town. It was an important event for the entire community – no less than the immersion of a groom in the ritual bath [mikva] prior to his wedding.

A large contingent of mashgichim [kashruth supervisors] accompanied the shmura [guarded wheat] for Passover to the mill. This harvest of wheat was supervised by Jews who ensured that, Heaven forbid, no drops of sudden rain would fall on it, lest it get wet. It was taken immediately after the threshing to the Beis Midrash in the [Rebbe's] courtyard, where the sacks of grained were tied with ropes to the boards beneath the ceiling, until the day would come. The first to the mill was the Rebbe's shmura, then that of the rabbinical judge, etc., in accordance with pedigree and age. Disputes broke out from time to time about who takes precedence to whom, but it never came to bloodshed, Heaven forbid. On the contrary, they compromised, entered the hut of the miller that was tied over the water like an ark, drank “lechayim,” and enjoyed a cookie. They also treated the gentile miler with glasses of liquor, so that he would do his work in a trustworthy manner, directing the water and the millstones in the proper measure so that they would not grind too coarsely, and that Heaven forbid, a crumb of chometz [leavened grain forbidden on Passover] would not enter… The supervised him with seven eyes, and then treated him to a second cup. It was safer to win over his heart. The hut vibrated from the motion of the wheels and the rotation of the millstones. The rush of water could be heard, and the fierce stream could be seen from the window of the hut. One would feel like Noah in the ark during the flood. However, Noah was a righteous man, and there was a mezuza in the ark, unlike, to differentiate a million times, the cross drawn with black coal on the door, and the larger cross etched into the ceiling… The Jews hastened to empty the flask, and to escape – for it was a mortal danger!

When the grinding of the precious shmura flour finished, they began grinding the regular Passover wheat for the regular Jews of the town.

All of this was prior to the First World War. This mill, as well as the first steam mill, went up in flames during the war. After the war, the Segals erected a second steam mill in the empty yard that had once been the Rebbe's courtyard. Everything changed at that time. There were no dams under the bridges, and no wooden barges. Transport was by train. The Turiya dried up. The fish nets were set up perhaps once a year. A fisherman with a rod was rare. The fish all fled. If the water disappeared, so did the fish. The proper fish retreated from the marshy river, which was left over to the frogs.

The women again had no area to bathe. Only the men bathed. Then a decree came from the Poles: One can no longer bathe without a bathing suit. If one failed to heed this, a report would be issued, and “Woe, how did we come to this, where the Poles supervise the modesty of the Jews. Where was their supervision when the Hallerczyks[7], may their names be blotted out, 'shaved' elderly Jews down to the skin of their faces with their swords, certainly not in a modest fashion?” The elderly Jews stopped bathing. They fulfilled their duty, summer and winter, in the bathhouse and by immersing in the ritual bath [mikva]. On the other hand,

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the youths bathed in bathing suits, boys and girls together. The times were new, the Jews had no recourse. In the Beis Midrash, they talked about immodesty and desecration of the Divine Name, Heaven forbid: “Just like the gentiles, to differentiate!”

The fear of underworld forces in the fortress, of demons and spirts there, disappeared with time. Schoolchildren would go there for hikes. Perhaps they chased away the demons and spirits with their song and dance. Women no longer miscarried from washing their sheets in an impure place. However, with the passage of time, other strange things took place, albeit rarely. It was told from mouth to ear: a woman in her third or fourth month of pregnancy miscarried artificially, inheriting the addiction from the years of occupation during the First World War[8]. Love blossomed amongst the youth, and one had to pay off the fruits of sin. The old, pious people preached morality, and uttered bitter words with their dry lips, “After the sin, the snake of punishments slithers naturally, and G-d in heaven will yet sweep it away, Heaven forbid, in His great anger he will sweep and kill, the sinner and sin together, just like the generation of the flood, and will wipe out their memory from the face of the earth… May G-d protect!.”[9]

(Translated in shortened form – N. Livneh)


The destroyed flour mill of Liss, the road, and the walkway of the town


Translator's Footnotes
  1. See Return
  2. See Return
  3. Grafting branches of different types of fruit trees is forbidden by Jewish law, although use of the fruit is permitted. See Return
  4. An old Russian unit of measure, 2/3 of a mile, or 1.1 km. Return
  5. See Return
  6. See Return
  7. See section on Anti-Jewish violence in Return
  8. A very unclear sentence, but its meaning becomes clear from the following sentence (a veiled hint to an abortion due to pre-marital sex). Return
  9. One cannot miss the hint of prophecy in this last sentence, although nothing is stated explicitly. Return


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