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[Page 109]

kob109.jpg [35 KB] - The memorial in Kobrin
The Memorial in Kobrin
The Russians erected it in 1912 to signify their victory
over Napoleon's armies in 1812. The Germans removed its bridge
and the Poles mounted a sculpture of Kosciuzko seen in the picture.

A Visit To Kobrin

by Sh. Anski

Kobrin is a small town and is surrounded by many gardens. It has a memorial to the victory of the Russian over the French in 1812. The town became a center for the retreating army and those who fled and were chased away. In the streets there passed without interruption groups of soldiers and carriages carrying freight. All the courtyards, the markets and the squares in town, all the empty places, the riverbanks and the gardens, were filled with refugees, especially the men and women farmers who attracted the eye from afar with their colorful clothing.

Every place there were crowds of people, fires where soups were being cooked and here and there clothes drying and horses and other animals in pasture. The great crowds looked like ancient desert shepherds who traveled with their flocks from place to place without paying attention to the mighty stream of the soldiers and the refugees. The people of the place seemed to feel quite secure and peaceful. All the stores were open and everybody was busy. The fear of the war has not reached yet.

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The residents did not sense the danger that was coming closer to town. None of them thought about leaving and fleeing. It didn't cross anybody's mind that there was a possibility of being chased out. How would that happen? The day before yesterday hadn't their fear been quiet and at peace? Could it be that suddenly their residents would be chased away?

In the town there was a committee, a Jewish committee, for assistance. The chairman was the local rabbi who told me that this committee had been in existence for several months and it carried on with money that was collected in town. In this committee worked almost all the young Jews in town. At the beginning there was not enough work for everybody, but when many of the youth left the town there was more work because there was a scarcity of workers. In the last days the stream of refugees had become very great. Every day about a thousand and maybe more refugees came and still the committee fulfilled its duty with the money they still had. They distributed bread and a warm dish. For that the committee received from societies 120 rubles a day.

But there was a scarcity of bread and you could not buy it even with money and also there was no place to put up those refugees. All the private homes had already taken a family or two. Even the synagogues were filled with refugees. The rest of the synagogues were serving as homes for the soldiers. And in all that, while we were waiting for thousands and maybe tens of thousands, especially from Brisk, where would they put them? To send them away from here, even for that there is no money. When there was a train for refugees, the Christians went first and took all the places in the trains.

I went with the rabbi to the synagogue, a big stone building with a lot of little synagogues around it with a big courtyard, and all of them were filled with refugees and their families and everything they had, healthy ones and sick ones together. And on everything there was the stamp of humiliating poverty. The first moment my ears almost went deaf with the noise that came from all directions. Kids crying, screams, curses, sighs, and in all of that a quiet sound of verses from the psalms. I was told that two days before a woman among the refugees gave birth to twins and died from cholera. Her husband lost his mind and disappeared. The children stayed under the authority of the committee. Our group stood by the train station and started immediately accepting the wounded that it was possible to take from the hospital because there were only four empty cars. I asked Tolopov to permit me to transport Jewish refugees in those cars to Pinsk. Tolopov had already visited the synagogue with the rabbi and he had seen how crowded it was there. He agreed to my request. I notified the committee that I could take with me a hundred people, but these had to come within three or four hours with all their belongings to the train.

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The committee promised me this. After two hours, a member of the committee came and announced that the police did not allow the carriages loaded with belongings to pass toward the train station, which is why they were forced to go through fields and gardens that were ploughed and through holes and to come to the place where the train stood, but from the other side, under a steep and tall mountain.

Meanwhile, night came. During the night, the carriages moved from side to side. Many of the belongings and the boxes fell off them. The Christian coachmen cursed the Jews and wanted to throw all of their belongings all over the field. Women and children cried and screamed. Suddenly I was notified that the wounded had already been put on the cars and the train was ready to leave.

When the carriages came to the hill and the refugees started climbing onto the cars. There was more trouble. When the Christian refugees who had stood in the field saw the Jews climbing onto the cars, they came running to the train and started climbing onto the cars themselves. Talking to them and forbidding them did not help. It seemed that the Jewish refugees were going to have to stay in the field. With a lot of effort I succeeded in talking the Christians into agreeing to take for themselves only one car and to leave the three other cars for the Jews.

The Christians climbed onto the car, 64 people, and brought with them their belongings, quickly and leisurely. But not so the Jews. Every family brought with it many, many packages and each package a yard-and-a-half in length. A barber brought in one package, four tall mirrors. Wheat, two sewing machines. One family brought with them a bed and a closet. All those things they tried to pull up the hill. Ten people would hold a package and all of them doing it with great nervousness while talking and screaming and with the helplessness of sick people. And around them stood the Christians and looked at those sad sights and laughed. Lastly, I hired a few soldiers to help the refugees put their belongings into the cars. In the three cars there was not room for more than a hundred people, but the refugees came in a larger number and I could not leave them with their children and their belongings in the field. So I went to the head of the station and with great difficulty I convinced them to add two cars to the train. All the refugees that came from the town found places in the train. And in the first hour after midnight we left on our way. On the 5th of August, at 8:00 in the morning, we arrived at Pinsk.

At 3:00 in the afternoon, we travelled to Kobrin. But soon as we distanced ourselves from the camp five versts [a Russian measure of length], then the train stopped.

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We found out that in front of us there were several tens of trains moving heavily to Kobrin. For three or four hours, we travel only one verst. In a time of twenty-four hours, we passed only twenty versts. And up until Kobrin there remained still six versts. I went to town by foot. The whole road to town looked like a tent of desert nomads. Thousands of soldiers, peasants, men and women sat alongside and cooked their lunch. Over an area of half a verst, the road in the slope of the rail was broken and damaged. There were burned train cars and heaps and heaps of official telegrams and other papers. Two days before there had been at this very place a collision between a mail train and a train of medical orderlies. During the collision, thirty-five people were killed and many were wounded.

In the train station in Kobrin, I met Tolopov. He told me that the rabbi of the congregation had come to visit and together they were in the committee of the city association and they asked that he organize help for the Jewish refugees. Their asking bore fruit. He visited with the rabbi of the synagogue also and what he saw there horrified him very much. Thousands of refugees were all crowded in the synagogue and the courtyard. Among them were many with cholera. The sick and the dead lay together with the healthy ones, actually hell.

From Tolopov, I learned that for the time being there were no more wounded coming from the front, so I asked him to give me the train immediately when it came so I could transport in it a caravan of new Jewish refugees. “Don't you know,” he answered, “that I always respond to you. I think that there wouldn't be anything that would stop me from giving you the train. But this time you will have to also receive into the train not only Jewish refugees but also Christians.”

“This is self-evident,” I said, “but you also should pay attention that the expenses of the trip I am taking from the monies of the Jewish health committee. That I can use it only for the needs of the Jewish refugees, but I will take Christian refugees to the train. But then I will have to get some money from some institution for their travel expenses.” “Is this the reason you make the distinction between Jews and Christians?” Tolopov exclaimed with pain.

“I am not the one who makes the distinction, but others. Every day there are tens of trains passing transporting refugees and among them there is not one Jew. They do not allow the Jews to enter the cars. Here, the commandant of the train does not allow the Jews to approach the train station.”

“All that you say is true, but even if they do that we still think that this is not correct, that this is not the fitting, the human honor, but why do you want to limit their deeds? Jews, Christians all come here. At the same time poor refugees.”

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“This is not a question about the refugees, whom I also consider poor people, all of them.The question is.which of the special health committees for Russians (and there are such) will give help to Jews? And in addition, even if I would agree to it, I would not be able to do it without a permit from the health committee to give up some of the money for the Christian refugees.”

The local rabbi would have to come to the train station to see Tolopov, but he didn't come so I went to town to see him. The traffic in the streets was very, very crowded, a regular picture of soldiers retreating to the rear in a hurry. I went with a rabbi of the congregation to the synagogue. The picture that we saw there was very scary. In the synagogue, among the holy arks with the Torah scrolls that were brought here from all the synagogues and prayer houses in town, among them tens of boxes and bundles stood and lay on the floor, hundreds of people, big and small, all crowded, and there were sounds of screams and cries and there was a horrible stench and dirt in every corner.

In the first moment I was appalled, and my innards turned on me from the smell of the stench. On the eastern side, in the corner, on the ground, lay a girl of about ten. Her face was green. By her stood an older woman who was crying. I asked what is with her.

And the mother answered crying, “It's her belly.” Maybe we can bring her a doctor.

“Cholera,” the rabbi whispered in my ear. And as he spoke he showed me with his finger a whole row of sick people who were lying beside that girl. Some of their faces were covered. They were already dead. Not far from them lay a child, his face burning with fever: rubella.

“Isn't there a place to transfer the sick?” I asked the rabbi.

“There isn't. The hospital is given to the needs of the military. And private patients are not being accepted by any place. Especially these people with cholera.”

“Maybe we can transfer them to a synagogue.”

“The synagogues and the churches previously served as barracks for soldiers. Now they took out the soldiers and put their Jewish families, the shoe-makers and the tanners who were working for the military.”

“When it became known that I had some connection to the health committee, tens of refugees came upon me, everyone with their special requests.”

“We need to transfer a part of the refugees into town where there were private homes.”

“Couldn't we find several apartments?” I asked the rabbi.

“Of course you could find them,” answered one of the refugees.

“But you cannot go outside.”


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“Because they beat up and wound the Jews! Now they take here into the military the youngsters who will reach the age in the year 1917. In the street, the youth are wandering, the youth that have been taken into the military are wandering around drunk and attack every Jewish person and beat them up severely. They are not making any distinction, even to those young Jews who are being taken into the military. People complained about it to the military clerk and he issued an order not to beat up the Jews any more, but the youngsters do not pay attention to his order.”

In the large courtyard, the same picture as in the synagogue. Here there were several thousand people. In some places there were bonfires. Food was being cooked like in a barracks. Everybody knew that I was supposed to have brought bread and from every direction they asked me, “Where is the bread?” In town, one could not even with a price get bread or flour. With great effort, yesterday, they succeeded in getting thirty pod (measurement) of bread and this was as nothing for three thousand people, less than half a pound per person.

A few Jews approached me, former soldiers.

“For two days we have been begging that a hut be built here in the yard for the sick people so they will not have to lie with the healthy ones. There are a few planks here and some artisans among us. And in two days we can erect the building.”

“And what stops it? The lack of money stops it. There is a need to pay for the planks and to pay the workers. We need at least 200 rubles.”

I told him that they could start immediately with the work and I promised them to find the money that they needed. They immediately arranged for a group of workers and promised me to start the work that same day.

Before that they told me that among the refugees there was a young rabbi with his wife. She was pregnant and became sick with cholera. And while she was sick, she gave birth to twins, two children, and died. The father became insane and a few days earlier he disappeared. The children remained under in the supervision of the refugees and there was a need to find them a wet nurse.

The money that I had had run out almost entirely. The expenses were great. When I was in Pinsk, I telegraphed to Petersburg and to Kiev to send me money in Pinsk, each one of them 5,000 rubles. This forced me to go again to Pinsk to get the money there and to find a wet nurse for the twins and a physician for the refugees. When I come back from there in the train that was given to me, there was a number of refugees that I could transport.

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The bread train that I brought was still four versts from the town. I talked to the rabbi and told him that as soon as the train came to the train station he and the youngsters, the members of the committee, should transfer the bread to the synagogue.

There was no money received for my name (in Pinsk), but Mr. Chefetz lent me the several thousand rubles. I met a woman doctor who worked at the cities association and she agreed to travel to Kobrin. Also a Jewish nurse agreed to travel there. They promised me to come the following day and bring with them a wet nurse for the twins. I wanted to travel away from there the same day. I went to the train station and there I found a hospital train on its way to Kobrin and I sat in it. I sat in the train for several hours, but it did not move. Meanwhile, the physician came and told me that the train was not going to go to Kobrin. I got off the train and I met a physician who worked in evacuation hospital No. 25. He told me that my train had already left Kobrin. An order had been given not to let any train come to Kobrin and to return everyone to Prachansk.

The reason for the order was clear. The railroad was full of trains coming back from the war areas. Since the morning, there passed the train station one train every ten minutes. All of them were loaded with fortification cannons. There was no doubt in the matter. Evacuation of Brisk had started hastily. The travelers in the trains said that the enemy had entered Malorita, that the Zshabinka had been burned, and Brisk, and that in Brisk there were bombs dropped from airplanes and more than 300 soldiers had been killed. The whole town was burning. I became very scared and I didn't know what to do. Not only was the opportunity taken away from me to transfer from Kobrin with the refugees, but I had not even delivered the bread that I had brought for them. For five days that bread had been in the train car and it had already become stale and who knows if I could transfer it to Kobrin. I went to the train station manager. I promised him a significant gift if he would connect the bread car to some train on its way to Kobrin. He promised me, but on the first day there was no train. On the following day, there came a hospital train, No. 2240, that was sent to Kobrin. With a lot of effort I succeeded in receiving a license from the elder of the doctors on the train to transfer the bread to one of its cars and to bring it to Kobrin.

In the morning we came to Kobrin. In the train station there was a tumult. On the platform and on all the shelves there were thousands of boxes and packages. They were taking out everything they could. Behind the train station on the rails were tens of trains filled with refugees and various articles that had been taken from local institutions and various items of merchandise. They were waiting to be sent away from here. On an area of several versts around the train station there were tents of peasant refugees.

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The hospitals by the train station were filled with the wounded and a non-stop line of carriages bringing from the front new wounded in addition to the ones already there. From the direction of Brisk one could hear loud and frequent shots. The hospital train in which I had come started receiving wounded. I knew that it would be several hours before the train was full so I decided to go into town to see what was happening there and to find some carriages to bring the bread into town.

In town, the movement of soldiers who were retreating was very great. In the streets, there were carriages – three, four in a row and the pressure was unbelievable. With great difficulty I found a carriage but it had to stop at every street corner for a long time until it could make its way. On one street corner, my coachman, a Jewish person, was beaten on his back with a whip of one of the officers.

The coachman turned to me. His eyes were burning with anger. “Listen,” he said to me in Yiddish. “I know that a lot is still expected for us. They will take my horses. My little house will probably be burned. Before they retreat they will probably burn the town and God knows what will happen to my wife and children, and still it is a great holiday for me to see that they are defeated soundly. If we have to die, let us both die together. So much has he bathed in our blood. Why did this murderer hit me so with his whip? Why?”

I went to the rabbi of the congregation, but his house was closed. I was told that he and the members of his family were at the train station. As a government clerk, he had to leave the town together with the other clerks. I went to the synagogue. The situation there had not changed from what I had seen three days before, only the sick were transferred to one of the hospitals in the yard. They hadn't even begun to build the hut. I asked the members of the committee to send carriages to bring the bread. I investigated and I found out that the physician and the nurse and the wet nurse had not arrived from Pinsk. The wet nurse was not needed anymore, said to me one of the refugee women. One of the twins was already dead and the other one was dying.

As she spoke, she brought me close to the child who was dying. He was lying in the crib. He looked like a small skeleton covered with a white, thin and transparent film. His hands and legs were like small twigs. His face was pale and green, distinguished with lines and the eyes big and dark. I will forever remember the expression in the eyes. A deep look filled with endless sorrow, like the look of an old man who already understood everything, forgave everything, and got used to everything.

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Not out of the sorrow of children, but out of peaceful thought looked at me those sad eyes and entered my soul. The mouth of the child was round with no lips. The space was like a penny. It looked as if he intended to whistle and that gave his pale and transparent face an expression of a small angel of the kind that used to be painted in the days of Rafael on the pictures of the saints. The child lay dying. For two days, he did not eat anything, and in complete quiet and without pain his soul left just like a small candle being extinguished by the holy ark. My heart shrunk with pain and my eyes filled with tears to see this silent victim of the war. It seemed to me as if in front of my eyes my own son had died. What could be done? What could be done to save him? The old woman who stood by me nodded her head in sadness. With what can you save him? Let him die in peace.

I thought that the refugees would be very sad that the train had passed already and that they could not leave here, but I was wrong. Nobody wanted to leave the place. They were all sure that in two days the Germans would come and then they would be able to return to their homes in Brisk and to the other towns and villages. The youngsters and the members of the committee told me that before he left the rabbi of the congregation visited the commander of the third army in his headquarters in Kobrin. The commander had accepted him nicely and promised him that when he retreated he would not burn the town and he would attempt to see that there would not be a pogrom. He said that he had already taken care of it, that the last hundred of the army would not be composed of cossacks but of soldiers from the regular army, who would leave the town leisurely. In addition to that, he distributed in town orders that those who were caught stealing would be given to a military court. All these things made the refugees relax.

The members of the committee went to find carriages to transport the bread and I went to the train station. Since the bread car was assigned to receive the wounded, I was forced to leave the bread on the platform behind the train station until the carriages arrived. For about two hours, the mound of bread was on the open platform. Those hours were saddening and annoying. The retreating soldiers and the hundreds who were wounded only lightly were attracted to the mound of bread like butterflies to fire. Every moment a poor soldier, looking like Hell and perhaps bandaged would, with a pitiful voice and sometimes with tears beg, “Your excellency, have pity on me and give me a piece of bread. It's two days since I have eaten. Soon my energy will leave me.” How could I turn them away?

I gave everyone who requested at the beginning large pieces of bread and then I made them smaller. At the end I began to turn them away.

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I said that the bread belonged to other people and I had no permission to divide it. But around me stood tens of hungry people and their hands were stretched and their eyes expressed hunger. And all of them did not stop from asking for bread in a trembling and begging voice. For several hours I distributed against my will from three to four pod of bread. If the bread would have been there for another two hours or if I had been more amenable and soft, there would have been nothing. Nothing would have been left.

In the end, the carriages came. Four hours passed before we could make way with the carriages among the masses of soldiers to the synagogue. The loaves of bread on the carriages were covered nicely so no one would see them. But nevertheless, on the way there were several loaves snatched without anybody paying attention to my threats and my scolding, or to my threatening the snatchers with my sword. The bread that I brought had not been baked sufficiently. During the last five days, it had become moldy and rusty, but when I brought it to the courtyard of the synagogue and the refugees saw it, there was no end to the happiness.

In a moment they were ready to distribute the bread, but it was difficult to stop the hungry. The refugees attacked the carriages and snatched the bread from those who distributed it and also collected all the crumbs that fell to the ground. It was especially sad to see the distribution of the bread among the children, the elderly and the sick. “Are they so hungry?” I asked the committee people.

“True, they were that hungry, and the trouble was that you could not get, even at the price, flour or bread. With the bread that you brought, three thousand people would live until the Germans came and that was why they guarded it so.”

As I was transporting the bread to the train station, I happened upon the rabbi of the congregation, Panovka, who was already sitting with his family in the car. He told me that in his possession there had remained three hundred and eight rubles for the refugees, and he had given them to the local committee. To this sum I added another three hundred rubles that I gave to the local committee. After I explained to him how to behave, I parted from the refugees with hearty greetings and I went to the train station so I could go back to Prachansk and my unit.

At the train station I met unexpectedly with Dr. Zukerman from our roving group. From him I learned that the mobile hospital under the direction of the physician Rosenzweig was in Malarita. It had barely escaped.from there and it was now here and united with the main hospital, and here they would stay until the last opportunity. The work was very difficult. Wounded came from all directions.

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Zukerman promised to come into town and to sign the contract with the assistance committee to try and protect the sick if there were the necessity. I left in his hands 400 rubles to be kept with him to help the local refugees or to help other refugees in places where he went.

All the institutions had already moved from town. In the train station remained two trains, one for the commandant and one for explosives. Aside from them stood the hospital train that received 600 wounded and was prepared to go on its way. I boarded the train. Before we left we saw several airplanes that started dropping bombs on the masses of the refugees in the fields and around the train station. Close to thirty people, women and children, were killed and wounded. With me in the train traveled a member of the court in Kobrin. He said that the order to move the institutions was sent from the county governor in Grodna on the 6th of the month and in Kobrin it was received on the 12th of the month. That morning had been appointed a committee to confiscate the cattle still held by the residents. I was also on that committee and after two hours we were all ordered to quickly leave Kobrin. (From the book, “The Destruction of the Jews in Poland, Galicia and Bukovina”).

kob119.jpg [35 KB] - The ruined monastery
The ruined monastery

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