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Kaddish for our shtetl

by Gershon Winer

Donated by Batya Olsen

More than half a century has elapsed since the destruction of our shtetl Widze. Year after year, in the beginning of the month of Nisan, the Widze remnant in Israel gathers in Tel Aviv for the annual memorial, bringing to mind nostalgic recollections of home and family intermingled with remembrance of years of suffering and death. About 1100 cities and towns in Eastern Europe have their history, life, institutions and personalities recorded in memorial volumes along with personal testimonies on the tragic destiny of victims and survivors in the ghettos and camps and the heroic deeds of Jewish underground fighters. Widze is not among them. Our Jewish shtetl was erased from the face of the earth with no monument nor written record for future generations, for children, grandchildren, students and researchers.

The publication of the present volume finally amends for the omission. It took some years of planning, communicating with townspeople and their descendants dispersed throughout the world, assembling data, securing written memoirs, commissioning specific articles, searching libraries, editing material and assuring the necessary funding. Our obligation to past generations and our responsibility to the future have thus been fulfilled, at least as far as the printed word is concerned.

Let us begin with geography and continue with history.

A report issued in 1930 states: Widze is 26 kilometers by road to the train station at Dukst, on the Vilna-Dvinsk line, 125 kilometers northeast of Vilna. It is located in a beautiful area, surrounded by lakes, forests and also mineral springs which during the nineteenth century served as healing centers for near and far. Russians, Lithuanians, Poles, Tartars, and of course Jews, make up the local population. There's a Catholic church, a Greek Orthodox church, a Mohammedan mosque, and three synagogues of which the two smaller ones are of the Hasidim.

Throughout history, Widze, often spelled Vidzy, was regarded as one of the four largest market places in Lithuania. Established over 500 years ago in the Lithuanian kingdom, its history was marked by numerous wars: Russians vs. Swedes; Lithuanians vs. Poles; Germans vs. Russians. Prior to World War I, it belonged to Russia; afterwards, it became Poland. During World War II, again Russia, then Lithuania, later Nazi Germany, and finally it was incorporated into Belarus. The same fate was shared by many towns in the Vilna district. Widze was destroyed numerous times, in various wars and by fire. It happened twice in the lifetime of the previous generation. At the beginning of the First World War, battles in the area forced nearly the entire Jewish population to flee. About fifty who remained were subjected to persecution, torture and rape, while most of the town was left in ruins. After the war, less than half of the previous population of about 4,000 Jews gradually returned to rebuild their lives and the Jewish community. The last destruction began with the invasion of the Germans in June 1941, which culminated with the final chapter of the Widze ghetto, as the remaining survivors were transported to their death in the Ponar woods near Vilna on April 5, 1943. In the early 1990's there remained one old Jewish woman in town and she would not identify herself as a Jew.

I left my hometown at the age of eight. When I returned nearly sixty years later in 1989, the only landmark I could identify was the church with its two steeples that struck us with awe when we were children.

There were Jews in Widze already in the fifteenth century. The 1894 census lists the following breakdown: Catholics 661, Russian Orthodox 407, Greek Orthodox 320, Tartars 200, Karaites 5, Jews 4348. A 1931 report by a Jewish relief agency mentions a population of 450 families, among them 230 Jewish, in round numbers. This would mean some 1200 to 1500 souls. The sharp Jewish decline reflects the flight during the war years.

Widze earned "honorable mention" in our people's history on account of the conflict between Hasidim and Mitnagdim. The World History of the Jewish People by Shimon Dubnow records that in 1798, in the midst of a violent controversy dividing the Jewish community, as rabbis fought to suppress the newly emerging Hasidic movement, a Hasidic shochet of Widze was responsible for informing on irregularities in the Vilna Kehilla, which led the Russian authorities to arrest its leaders. Though the founder of Habad, the school of Hasidism which took root among Lithuanian Jews, Rabbi Shneur of Ladi, issued a call against further strife, mentioning the Widze incident by name, relations between the factions became even more strained following the release of the Vilna leadership. In a remarkable coincidence 130 years later, another controversy between Hasidim and Mitnagdim broke out in Widze, though not in such brutal form, involving once again the local shochet. I recall the episode when "Reb Mendl the shochet" (Klumel) was crowned by the Hasidim as their Rebbe, and prominent rabbinic personages were brought in to resolve the issues.

Widze contributed its share to the galaxy of personalities who played a leading role in Jewish life in the last century. Rabbi Joseph Kahaneman, founder of the Ponevez yeshiva in Bene Brak, the largest yeshiva in Israel, had served as rabbi of Widze for five years before the First World War. He established a yeshiva for 150 students which was destroyed in 1915. Israel Aharoni, who pioneered in zoological and botanical studies in Israel, was born in Widze and came to Palestine in the early part of the century. In his numerous research expeditions throughout the area, he assembled a fauna collection still preserved in a church museum in the Old City of Jerusalem. His autobiography written in Hebrew, Memories of a Hebrew Zoologist, made fascinating reading for me as a youngster. Our town also made its contribution to literature in the person of Natan Goren (Greenblatt), Hebrew essayist and literary critic, who held the position of chairman of the Israel writers' organization. Then there was the Yiddish poet, Baruch Gelman, whose volume of poems published in 1937 depicts local scenes and expresses the prevailing and often gloomy mood in the town, while striking a nostalgic tone. It was reissued in 1990 by the Widze Association in Israel. The young poet met his death together with his five brothers and sisters in the Widze pogrom of 1941. There was also Dr. Meyer Klumel (of the previously mentioned Klumel family) who played a leading role in the Zionist movement in Warsaw before leaving for Palestine in the 1930's, where he died in 1936.

Jewish community life presented numerous opportunities for religious, educational, political, artistic and recreational activity. Besides the three synagogues listed, functioning in the traditional pattern for worship and study, there was the Yiddish school building serving as the cultural center. Established in 1921 largely through the generosity of the Zlatkin family, it offered a six-year curriculum of Jewish and general studies. It was a secular school and, in keeping with the then accepted practice, all disciplines, including science, were taught in Yiddish. I recall to this very day a lesson in physics, conducting an experiment on how metal expands when heated. Most children of elementary school age were enrolled in the school. The teachers were dedicated intellectuals sent in from the central office of the Yiddish school organization in Vilna. These would become actively involved in the cultural life of the community. The memoirs appearing in this volume include nostalgic recollections of the teachers and the warm atmosphere generated in the school which was carried over to a wide range of extra-curricular activities, both in the school building and in the countryside with its woods and lakes. Students remember with fondest sentiments teachers such as Sioma Halpern and his wife Dina. The building also provided facilities for a choir, a dramatic group and had an auditorium for lectures and artistic performances.

Then there was the "Heder" of "Yankel der Lerer", as he was known, the only one in town during my childhood years. The very appellation of "lerer" instead of "rebbe" is revealing as to the content of instruction and the religious and cultural climate of our shtetl. The traditional Heder curriculum throughout the centuries had been aimed largely at introducing the pupil at the tender age of seven or eight to the rigor of Talmud study, with its emphasis on legal technicalities and minutiae at the expense of everything else, with the exception of the weekly Torah portion. In contrast, our Heder opened up for us -- among other subjects -- the world of the Bible with its exciting tales of ancient Israel and the inspirational rhetoric of the Prophets. I still cherish fond memories of the book of Isaiah, recited with a chant along with the Yiddish translation by the "older" students of age 10, and how I envied them. The fact that many children attended both the religious Heder and the secular "Shule", is a further indication of the prevailing unifying spirit, as borne out by the composition of the board of the school which included leaders of the religious community as well.

The marked division and even gulf separating the religious from the secular in Israel today, and to a somewhat lesser though significant degree elsewhere among world Jewry, did not exist in the Lithuanian shtetl before its destruction. This is not in keeping with the stereotype shtetl in the mind of the contemporary Jew. The fanatic zeal of the ultra-orthodox manifested in temperament, garb and practice which we witness today, was alien to the Litvak mentality. It is largely a modern phenomenon, though we find its roots among our Polish and particularly Galician and Hungarian brethren of previous generations. Beside the Yiddish school-cultural center which played such an important role, Widze could not boast of a Tarbut school, with its modern Zionist-Hebraist education, as some towns in the area. However, its only continuously functioning Heder was quite different from what the name generally conjures up in our minds, the curriculum reflecting the changes introduced by the modernizing tendencies of the Haskala (enlightenment) movement of the preceding century. Neither was there a Yeshiva, though as mentioned, one did exist for a few years before the first war. Nor should this be regarded as any negative reflection on the religious life of the community, its rabbis, synagogues and institutions. In this respect, it represented the norm rather than the exception in Lithuanian Jewry which nevertheless produced the leading Orthodox sages and Talmudic scholars in the twentieth century. And to this very day, the "Litvishe" yeshivas in Israel and abroad, with their ultra-Orthodoxy, are recognized as the most prestigious.

In addition to the cultural panorama, with its library, choral group, drama circle, guest artists and lecturers, the young people were politically alert and involved. There were Zionist youth movements, mainly Hechalutz, aiming to prepare for kibbutz life in Palestine. Communism attracted a high proportion of adherents -- some fulfilling their dream of crossing the border to help build the new socialist society, where they soon shared the tragic fate of other revolutionaries. Political and economic conditions being as they were, with their entry restrictions in Soviet Russia and Zionist Eretz Yisroel, the flow of emigration was directed to countries across the ocean. Many may have reached North America, but the majority of those who left Widze landed in South Africa and Argentina. The Israel contingent of Widze descendants consists largely of survivors.

A word about the economic picture which was no different from other communities: Jews were largely storekeepers and merchants. There were craftsmen -- shoemakers, tailors, blacksmiths, carpenters and coachmen, the latter being so indispensable because of the many hours of travel required to reach the railroad town. A 1930 survey refers to 120 storekeepers, 60 merchants, mostly of flax and 40 craftsmen. The economic policies of the government in their preferential treatment of the Polish working population placed ever increasing obstacles for Jews to eke out a living and compelled them to emigrate to other lands. Those who were forced to do so, were spared the fate of the Holocaust. Among them was my own father. Ironically, the anti- Semitism of the Polish government turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

The major thrust of this Memorial book is of course the Holocaust, just prior, during and immediately after. The prior begins with the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939, dividing Poland between them. Widze therefore "belonged" to the Russian partner and the Soviet army entered the town on September 17, 1939. For nearly two years, while the Second World War was being waged on the Western Front, the town was under Communist rule. This meant elimination of private property, and subjection of all forms of community activity to the Soviet system including educational and cultural institutions. Life became problematic but tolerable. The particulars are found in the personal recollections recorded in these pages. On June 22, 1941, Germany launched a surprise attack on the Soviet Union and Russian troops withdrew from Widze, with the Germans entering five days later. In the interim period, local criminal elements began to rob and harass Jews, until some semblance of "order" was restored by the occupying forces. For the nearly two years that followed, the tales of unimaginable woe that transformed that span of time into nightmarish horror in the ghettos and camps, are unfolded in this volume.

Initially, we had intended to present English summaries of the Yiddish and Hebrew memoirs of the Holocaust years as they appear in this volume. However, after exposure to the details of limitless brutality, the diabolic and endless torture, wanton murder, sadism, humiliation, starvation, deprivation, crushing labor, victims digging their own graves before being shot, relegation to vermin-like mass extermination, blood curdling scenes of bayoneting babes in arms, hiding in pits and animal dugouts, while the last spark of humanity, with few rare exceptions, extinguished even among one's own former Polish and Lithuanian neighbors -- I lacked the stamina to undertake such an agonizing task, not having been there in person. Then there are the acts of heroism, maintaining the human image under all conditions, joining the partisans in their desperate struggle against the Nazis, reunification of surviving members of families, waiting in DP camps before setting out, in some instances by illegal routes, to reach the promised land whose gates had been closed tight by the British rulers. All this and more is told in various versions, some appearing repetitious of others, but with individual nuances justifying their inclusion.

The present volume with its reminiscences, historical data, Holocaust testimony, also contains information on institutions and colorful personages, along with brief biographies of prominent personalities who emerged from the shtetl and left their impact in various fields of endeavor. Then there is local folklore representing a rich mine of characteristic anecdotes, idioms and nicknames -- and just about everybody was identified by a nickname, not necessarily complimentary -- the latter inspired by some physical, social or other trait and idiosyncrasy in the bearer's appearance, habits, behavior, occupation, status or relationships. All this, which added coloration to the local scene, does not readily lend itself to translation. An attempt has been made to render a few of the articles in an abbreviated form into English, while some of the material contained in the others has been incorporated in this introductory chapter. The contributions of the authors are published in the language in which they were submitted -- Yiddish, Hebrew and two in English -- with one or two exceptions translated from Polish. The commemorative pages for individuals and families appearing in this volume were made possible by the financial participation of Widze families in Toronto, New York, New Zealand and Israel.

Let this book be our recitation of the Kaddish -- in the very meaning of the words of the prayer itself -- the sanctification and remembrance of our martyred brothers and sisters and forebears, of the life they led and the death they met. Amen

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