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[Page 821]

Soviet Schedrin

by Yehuda Slutsky

Translated by Dr. Sheldon Benjamin

The year 1930. The Jews of Russia have for more than 10 years been as if on another planet. We know very little about what is happening, because all manner of free expression is prevented. A little book of 45 pages, entitled Schedrin, published in 1931 by the Belarussian Academy of Science, has given us the opportunity to look through the eyes of the Yevsektsia at what was going on in this Jewish township. This publication includes a study that was done in late 1930 by two workers of the Jewish section of the Belarussian Academy. These were two members of the social economic committee by the names of Hillel Alexandrov, the son of Rabbi Shmuel Alexandrov of Bobruisk, and Y. Hirshenbaum.

The first thing stated was the decline in the population of Schedrin. We cannot atribute this decline to the Soviet regime since the decline started at the turn of the century and continued into the Soviet era. In 1897 there were 4,234 people in Schedrin. Of these, 4,022 were Jews, about 95% of the population. In 1926 there were 1,930 residents, of whom 1,759 were Jews, about 91%. In 1930 there were 2,021 residents, consisting of 419 families. Of these, 379 families were Jewish, constituting about 90% of the total. In the previous 10 years, 44 Jewish families left the town. 13 of them moved to Bobruisk and the rest spread to different corners of the Soviet Union.

The years from 1927-1929, the period Yakov Leshinsky called the most tragic days of Soviet Jewry. We don't know many details of the collectivization and dismantling of capitalism in Schedrin, but probably the same “good deeds" that happened in other towns in Belarus took place in Schedrin. Even the Emes (apparently a Moscow Yiddish newspaper) warned about these events, and wrote that they took away the strong ones from the land. And later, they levied heavy taxes on those who couldn't pay. In the end they took away the right to vote. This was published in Emes on June 12, 1930 according to Leschinsky's book, The Jews in Soviet Russia, p. 106.

The process was similar in Schedrin. Poor people were thrown out of their houses by excessive taxation. Eventually they lost their civil rights and they became “leshentzim". Within a year or two, the so-called Jewish capitalism of Schedrin was broken and the days of socialist heaven arrived, Joseph Stalin style.

By the end of 1930, the 419 families of Schedrin were divided as follows according to their socioeconomic status: farmers 215 (51.3%); tradesmen 95 (22.7%); laborers 17 (4.2%); clerks 18 (4.2%); those without permanent employment 31 (7.4%); dependent 39 (9.4%); unemployed elements 4 (0.9%).

Who are these non-working elements who were left in Schedrin in the midst of the first 5-year plan? They were the holy assistants (kley kodesh: literally holy instruments) of the town Rabbi: the butcher and his 2 helpers.

Was all private trade eliminated in 1930? No. All private stores and pushcarts were eliminated and replaced by government stores. Private merchants adapted to the new conditions. They conducted their trade without license, store, signs, or advertising. Trade is now conducted by mailing packages. When we spend time in the post office, we can see packages arriving daily from Moscow, Leningrad, Dniepropetrovsk, and other industrial centers. Other packages in turn are being sent to those centers. We were interested to see what was being shipped to Schedrin and what Schedrin was exporting. Into Schedrin was coming fish, saltfish, shoes, soap, etc. Schedrin was shipping butter, pigfat (saleh),apples, etc. At this time they were shipping large quantities of apples to the Donbas, Kharkov, and Dniepropetrovsk. As far as we know the price of apples in free market centers was from 30-40 rubles a pud (Russian weight measurement), and in Schedrin it was 10 rubles a pud. There is a sub-rosa exchange in the market as well (black market). The study also reveals the existence of illegal hostels that operate almost openly. They feed guests with fish, salted fish, and other products obtained from the packages. These products can not be found in the local government stores and haven't been for a long time. These surprising grocers are included in the official group of those without permanent employment or those dependent on relatives.

There were many families in Schedrin dependent on other relatives, especially those who left in time to get to the United States. Every month, Schedriners receive 400-450 dollars support from their US relatives. The most important change in Schedrin at the time of the 1927-1929 crisis was the transformation to an agricultural economy. This transformation started at the beginning of the Soviet regime. By 1924 there were 104 farming families, representing about fourth of the families in Schedrin, a figure double the number of those engagingin agriculture prior to the revolution. By 1930, the number of farm families increased to 215.

Collectivization was a bit late coming to Schedrin. Of the list of 46 kolkhoz (collective farms) in the Bobruisk area by July 1, 1929, the kolkhoz, Sotzialistishe Veg (Socialist Way) established in Schedrin in the fall of 1929 is not mentioned. Elsewhere it is mentioned that the movement to start a kolkhoz actually began in early 1928 but the Jewish farmers resisted. Naturally, they wanted to become the nucleus of the new kolkhoz. At the time of the study, the kolkhoz included 198 families, 20 of which were Belarussian (the rest Jewish). There were 841 people in the kolkhoz, 456 of which were of working age. The kolkoz was the center of economic activity of the town. Only 84 families had been farmers before joining the kolkhoz. The other 114 familes came from “non-working elements" and those who lacked permanent employment (61 families), craftsmen (26 families), laborers and poor (21 families), clerks (6 families). For many the kolkhoz was a refuge for those with no other way out. The study tells of the widow, Basya Feyge Rifkin, who treated people with cupping (bankis), served as a midwife, worked in the bathhouse and the like. Of her, the local pundits would say, “the kolkhoz makes you sick and Basya Feyge applies the cups."

The commercial elements in the kolkhoz who had difficulty adjusting to the new conditions wished to leave and return to free trade. These elements look at the kolkhoz as helping them pass the time until they have the opportunity to reestablish their stores. The study described elements who practiced the “terrible" ritual of refusal to work on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. In answer to a researcher's question as to why Jewish kolkhozniks refused to work on the Jewish holidays, one of the Jews said, “You want us to work on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur but you don't give us any boots.” He immediately showed the researcher his torn boots. The researchers also claim that the Jewish kolkhozniks resold on the free market some of the crops given them to feed their families and their cattle.

The authorities responded by attempting to recruit the faithful and the youth. On Yom Kippur they announced the formation of “shlag brigades" and social competitions. They also deported 3 troublemakers from the kolkoz.

On October 1, 1930 the kolkhoz had 1500 disyatnus (archaic land measurement) of land. Of those, 1200 were for farming and the rest were for cattle. 400 dunam(land measurement) were incompletely eradicated forest and 300 dunam were sand of poor quality (the text describes it as sand that needed a lot of work to render it useful). The kolkoz concentrated mainly on growing vegetables, and by the end of the first year produced 80,000 pud (weight measure) of vegetables for towns around Belarus. 2 canneries were built for cucumbers and coleslaw. A large barn was established for 333 cattle. There were 140 pigs and 30 honeycombs in a large building, and a mechanical mill, previously privately owned. The mill served not only the kolkhoz but the surrounding farms. The kolkhoz also received 2 tractors, a few seeding machines, and other farming machines.

The condition of the craftsmen of Schedrin was not very bright. Especially hurt were the shoemakers who could not engage in their trade because of a dearth of raw materials that especially effected the leather trades. So the shoemakers changed over to fixing old shoes. There were 26 shoemakers, 25 tailors, 20 workers, 7 cart owners, 5 roofers. There were 4 cooperatives of craftsmen (artisan's guilds) established in 1927-1928 under pressure from the authorities. These were the tailors (18 men), shoemakers (22 men), the roofers (20), and the welders. The condition of the shoemakers and tailors was quite bad. The researchers saw no future for them other than moving to the kolkhoz or to big cities where they could find work in large factories. The iron smelting workers suffered from lack of iron, but had a future in fixing agricultural machines which proliferate in villages. The poor condition of the craftsmen was evident from their average pay: roofers - 82 rubles a month, tailors - 62 rubles, shoemakers - 45 rubles. Income was not steady and the economic condition of the non-union craftsmen was even more difficult. Most of them wanted to be accepted into the cooperatives, but they couldn't be accepted due to lack of raw materials. There was one iron worker who refused to join a cooperative because he wished to finish his life as “his own boss."

Even among the craftsmen, the researcher complains about hostile elements causing the cooperative members not to work on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

From the civil and cultural point of view, the dominance of the town hibiskim (?-implied meaning is secular--perhaps it's a term that refers to members of the Yevsektsia--the Jewish arm of the Communist Party) was complete, at least on the surface. Although we do hear that there was still a rabbi and a butcher in town. The rafashnikes seized 4 synagogues in town for other public and cultural uses. It appears, however, that a few of the 8 synagogues in town were left for prayer. The attempt to force kolkhoz craftsmen to work on Jewish holidays was not completely successful, though the attempt was made by the hibiskim. However, the iron fist of the authorities does do a job had an effect nevertheless.

Since 1920 there has been a school in town with 4 Yiddish departments. The school has 190 students. On the kolkhoz is a Jewish school with 46 students. It also offers night classes for adults. Shabbat observance was eradicated and the official rest day in the kolkhoz, cooperatives, and government offices was either Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday, depending on the specific circumstances in each establishment. There are still a few members of the artisans and kolkhoz who do not work on Shabbat, but these are mainly older members. During Sukkot workers make only a few sukkot. In contrast, everyone celebrates the revolution with pomp and ceremony.

The author states that apart from the 9 teachers, one can find in Schedrin 3 agronomists, 1 physician, 1 veteranarian, a midwife, a medic, and a dentist. Overall there are 17 intelligentsia. Nevertheless the town looks somewhat rundown. The local library has not yet been purified of its Zionist inheritance. In 1930 there was a subscription drive in town for Soviet journals and newspapers. Within a year their subscribers grew from 45 to 271. 115 of these were in Russian and Belarussian. The most popular paper was October, a daily from Minsk, with 64 subscribers. The Communist youth weekly from Minsk, Yunger Leninetz, had 40 subscribers. The children's magazine from Kharkov, Zay Greyt, 40 subscribers. The Emes (Truth) from Moscow had 4 subscribers in Schedrin. The Shtern, a monthly book review from Minsk had 5 subscribers.

From the government organization perspective, Schedrin was called a Jewish Nationalist Body. But the right to vote for the body was given only to the working elements. In 1929 there were 264 disenfranchised individuals. By 1930 their number had decreased to 144. The head of the body was Chana Mira Elkin.

The Communist Party had a local chapter which was the most important political body under Soviet rule. It was the eyes and the ears of the authorities. There were only 7 members in this party chapter. Among them was the chairman of the kolkhoz, L. Olshansky, and the director. The Communist Youth group, Komsomol, had 25 members. They were the activists in Communist and anti-religious propaganda in town.

Overall, the book gives us an opportunity to have some insight into what was taking place in Schedrin in this rather stormy transformation period. The book, however, obviously does not tell the feelings of the hundreds of people who saw everything they loved being trampled. The book does not describe the misery of those who were deported, those whose rights were usurped. Mainly, it cannot tell us what happened next. Were the Jews able to hold on to their status in the kolkhoz and the cooperatives. How the Jews accepted the Holocaust which suddenly came upon them in the summer of 1941. For these questions we must look to other sources.

[Page 825]

The Jews in the Villages

by Mordechai Katznelson

Translated by Daniel J.H. Greenwood

Many Jews lived in the villages in the Bobruisk vicinity. They can be classified into three groups based on their livelihoods:
  1. overseers for the landlords (the “Paritsim[1]”)
  2. small merchants, making their living mainly from the peasants
  3. artisans and craftsmen of various types, also selling mainly to the peasants
The Paritsim who owned land along the rivers had water-powered flour mills. These mills were leased for extended periods to Jews. They milled the produce of the Parits and the peasants. The peasants were poor and struggling, their land infertile and limited and their agricultural methods faulty, using primitive tools and without manure. Often, they were forced to buy flour from the Jewish mills.

Up to the end of the 19th century, sale of hard liquor was freely permitted and the majority of pubs in the villages were in Jewish hands (the “sheinkers”). Usually, the mill-lessee would open a pub as well. However, at the end of the century the government established a monopoly over the sale of liquor and this source of livelihood was taken from the Jews.

Another important economic branch was leasing fruit tree orchards from the Paritsim and buying and selling fruit. Generally, the mill-lessee would also lease the Parits's orchard. However, some rich merchants from Bobruisk—Mriasin[2], Slavin, and others—would buy fruit. They would buy the fruit in the spring, while it was still on the trees, based on an estimate of the likely harvest in the summer, post guards around the orchard, and then pick the fruit in August. Russian wholesalers would come from Petersburg and Moscow to purchase the fruit, which was packed in a primitive fashion.

Yet another important branch was lease of the Parits's cattle herds. The Jews who worked in this were called “Factors.” They would make the milk into butter, cream and so on. The work was done by hand, either just the labor of the lessees themselves or with the aid of their children or hired workers. The work was physically difficult, but its pay was good. At the beginning of the century, the Paritsim began to introduce mechanical separators (to separate the cream from the milk) into their farms. As a result, this branch left the hands of the Jews, and many families were left with no livelihood.

Among the mill-lessees were some who began to buy forests from the Paritsim and quickly transformed trade in forests and wood into the first and foremost branch of livelihoods.

This class of traders with the Paritsim was the most “established” of all. Some of them achieved genuine wealth. With their economic advance, they also advanced culturally—some of them studied in a Gymnasia[3] in the city and a few even reached higher education.

The grocers and peddlers in the villages were poorer. Sometimes the peddler would go with his wagon to peddle in the nearby villages and sell them whatever they needed, while his wife stayed behind in the store and minded it.

The situation of the craftsmen—tailors, shoemakers, carpenters, tinsmiths, repairmen of pots who used iron threads (“dratvin de tep”)—was extremely difficult. It was not easy to get the poor peasants to pay the value of the work done for them. Among the tinsmiths, for example, a type of agreement with the peasants was customary, by which the tinsmith would do all the work the peasant needed over the course of the year, receiving payment only after the harvest and even then not in cash but in agricultural produce. This poverty brought cultural decline along with it as well.

Village Jews who lived in the forests worked in removing pine roots. They would erect factories for processing resin (“smaliarnes”) and they manufactured, in special ovens, turpentine (“skipirar”). They would bring this material to Bobruisk. I remember one by the name of Feinstein, who would clean and purify the turpentine to prepare it for sale in the great markets of Russia.

The profession of “dreyen di lazen” was quite popular among the village Jews who lived in the villages along the river Berezina. This involved producing special ropes from wood, with which they would bind bunches of trees and rafts in the river. Jews engaged in this difficult work for generations and generations.

Children's education was the responsibility of melameds[4] who came from Bobruisk. They would rent a house and open a heder[5]. Tuition was according to the number of boys—approximately 10-12 rubles for the teacher's time, and in addition to this, they would receive kest, that is, each day they would eat at the table of a different student's family. There were also a few villagers who had acquired some Jewish education and worked as melameds in elementary education.

On Shabbat and Jewish holidays, all work stopped. There were no synagogues in the villages, but there were houses with a room that was used for prayer, with a Torah scroll. Purchase of a Torah scroll was thought of as a major mitzvah[6]. My father, who was a rich miller in the villages Kochinka and Berezina, bought skins, had them worked and brought a sofer to write the Torah. The sofer[7] took two years to complete the work and all that time lived at my father's expense. When the Torah was finished, an elaborate celebration was held, and many Jews from the surrounding villages gathered at our house. From then on, our house served as a synagogue for Jews from the vicinity. On Shabbat and holidays, 40-50 Jewish men and their wives would gather at our house.

On the Days of Awe[8], you needed a chazan [9]. So, they would travel to a nearby municipality to find someone who knew how to lead prayer (a baal tefila). To us came a chazan from Omelinu named Gershon der Ganer[10]. He got this nickname because of his huge Adam's apple, which would jump when he spoke or sang. He would receive 7-8 rubles for praying on the Days of Awe. Half of this sum my father paid, and the other half came from the rest of the congregation. This cantor would live in our house from before Rosh HaShana until after Yom Kippur. There was also a shofar-blower who knew how to interpret the Biblical verses, and the congregation enjoyed his interpretations. From the evening of Yom Kippur, an atmosphere of sanctified celebration filled the house. Straw was spread on the floor and we would keep our shoes off. Everyone who came to pray would set out a large beeswax candle and light it. And the candle would remain lit for more than 24 hours.

The pioneers of the new Haskalah[11] in the villages were the “externals,” who came from Bobruisk to gather a little money in order to be able to continue their studies. Among these were excellent and well-educated teachers. These teachers brought news of Zionism to the village Jews. Different private teachers regularly lived in our house, and they taught me and my two sisters. The teacher would receive 120 rubles for his time—four and a half months—as well as room and board. They taught us Hebrew, religious and general studies. I remember that I regularly read the Hebrew newspapers “Olam Katan” (Small World) and “HaHayim v'haTeva” (Life and Nature) which we subscribed to at our house.

[Page 827]


by Mendel Elkin

Translated by Odelia Alroy

The Jewish colony Kozlovich [Khislavichi], 18 verst [about twelve miles] from Brazhe, had a population of about 100 families, a Rabbi, a shochet [ritual slaughterer], two or three teachers and all the other important Jewish communal institutions, like a shul and a bathhouse and so forth. The people of Kozlovich were farmers. Each family had its piece of land that it worked. The older ones in the family worked in the fields, gardens, and meadows and the younger ones took care of the goats and often a cow, if there was one.

The oxen and horses were with the adults in the field. There were no sophisticates among the Kozlovich Jews. They lived in a simple village manner.

In the winter, when there was no fieldwork, many of inhabitants would occupy themselves with profitable occupations: tailoring, shoe-making, masonry, and barrel-making. Some busied themselves in trading. The chief business was butchering—taking care of the surrounding settlements with meat or buying oxen in the neighboring village, cows and cattle for the city dwellers.

Translator's footnotes

Words that are italicized in the text appear in Yiddish in the (otherwise) Hebrew language article.
  1. Yiddish for noblemen, with an echo of a Hebrew word meaning a violent lawbreaker. Return
  2. Since the text is not voweled, the two family names are approximations, although Slavin is a fairly common name.  The other name is unknown and, thus, more of an approximation. Return
  3. High school. Return
  4. Elementary school teachers of the traditional religious curriculum. Return
  5. A one room school for teaching boys to read Torah and a little Talmud. Return
  6. Commandment or good deed. Return
  7. Ritual scribe. Return
  8. I.e., Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur. Return
  9. Cantor. Return
  10. Gershon the Gander. Return
  11. "Enlightenment" movement. Return
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