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[Page 140]

My Destroyed Town

By Helen Gun Vaynberg

English Translation by Murray Kaplan

Sixteen years have passed, as though in a dream, since I left my hometown for the last time. Long years have gone by: years of pain and struggle, perhaps the worst years that I've ever lived through. Something of a bitter premonition filled my heart then as I saw my beloved city for the last time.

Kremenets, this magnificent city with her wonderful scenery, with her lovely and dear people–these we can never forget. I love you to this very day, my Kremenets! I long for you night and day, and I can't stop mourning for my dearest and most beloved, whom the German devil killed with such venom.

Oftentimes my thoughts take me to the distant past, in a world of my own, of dreams, in a nicer world that is no more but that lives in my soul's very depths.

And here I see our Kremenets with its little houses laid out in a row, and around them are intertwined the hands of the wondrous, beautiful mountains.

Who among us, we Kremenetsers, doesn't remember this city's indescribable beauty, in which nature painted a magical picture of a thousand colors with its paintbrush?

I see my city in the splendor of springtime, blossoming, dressed all in green, interwoven with an array of colored flowers with intoxicating aromas. I see Kremenets again in the summertime, with the fruit trees' hanging bounty. I see my city in the rich golden autumn and in the white winter nights, and developed in her brilliant mantle of snow, like a magical queen. And what about the fields and forests–full of birdsong and the buzzing of bees and flies.

People came from all over the world to wonder at the splendor of our Kremenets, which was crowned with the name “the Switzerland of Volyn.”

And here above everyone the queen of the mountains arose–the Bona with its ancient walls of the old fortress, in which, according to legend, the Polish queen Bona lived at one time, and there she died. And again, the Mountain of the Virgins–the lady mountain–the Tsherntshe, Cross Montain, etc. On one side of Kremenets the Ikva River wound its way into the Krolievski Most–the majestic bridge–and from there stretched the aromatic pine forests that overtook the towns of Velikiye Berezhtsy and Pochayev. Furthermore, nature wove an even more beautiful tapestry in which the songs of birds were heard along with the murmur of the waves of the water, the buzzing of the bees, and the rustle of the trees and grass. It was a godly melody in a wondrous landscape.

My dear city Kremenets!

The Kremenets streets were noisy with the fever of city life. A Jewish heart beat in Kremenets. Interwoven families drew their roots from many, many generations. They were good, hearty people. Everyone loved each other. Lovely Jewish children streamed into the schools with the will to learn, to absorb more knowledge. Kremenets produced many educated people: doctors, lawyers, engineers, and chemists, teachers and technicians, and over all rang the Jewish language, the Jewish song.

[Page 141]

We can truly be proud of our Kremenets, which produced the world–renowned Yitschak Ber Levinzon and also that great Polish poet Yuliush Slovatski. How can anyone forget all that?

How beautiful was the Great Synagogue of Kremenets–the Jewish community's signature building. And there were other synagogues in which people prayed so devoutly and carried the love of the Almighty so deeply. Every little house, every blade of grass–how dear it was to all of us. And how much more dear it is to us now that we no longer have it.

Kremenets, my Kremenets! Where are you now?

Cities and towns have disappeared. Substantial buildings have fallen, forests have burned, but all of that is not the greatest pain. Cities can be rebuilt, but you, my dear ones, who will awaken you from your eternal sleep?

A frightful stillness has overtaken our Kremenets, it is still with the stillness of the cemetery; even the graves of our many generations have disappeared. The heart of our Kremenets has stopped beating.

There is no more Kremenets. The birds in the forest have been silenced; for whom shall they sing now?

Even the mountains have lowered their heads in sadness. The earth cries and shivers. She has absorbed too much innocent blood. She cannot bear it.

Sadness envelopes the dead town.

I cannot forget you, my destroyed town.

 

Section of Sheroka Street

[Page 142]

My Town, Kremenets, in Ruins

By Manus Goldenberg (Israel)

English Translation by Murray Kaplan

A monument to a Jewish community that has fallen in the struggle for her own honor and the honor of her people.

Rivne and Zdolbunov have been freed. The thunder of the Red Army artillery has, for some time, been within earshot of my city, Kremenets. However, not a single Jewish soul remains there to capture with fear and trembling its echo, which brought forth the premonition of liberation the way it did in 1919, when the bandit Petliura's sword hung over their heads and bloodshed was a daily phenomenon.

Oh, with what great happiness did the Jews greet the young Red Army that came to redeem them, to give them back their humanity. How close to them where those tattered and frayed young men with red stars on their caps and tiny red flowers in their rifle's sights, fatigued from the slaughter but with beaming, friendly faces.

The city whose doors and gates had been locked and shuttered for months suddenly came to life. Young and old breathed the breath of freedom in deeply. Now, however, the Red Army found only burning embers and their comrades' graves.

Back in the fall of 1942, about a half–year before the Warsaw ghetto uprising, the Kremenetsers rose up against the Germans with their weapons; for several days, they fought the enemy, and when all options were closed off, the surviving Jews burned down the city in its entirety with their own hands and left it to be consumed by fire.

This short account was delivered by a surviving child who ran away from nearby Vishnevets and, through a miracle, arrived here in the Land of Israel.

In my eyes–and deep in my soul–she stands, the city of my birth; a city that has stood for many centuries and still carries the signs of Tartar and Turkish rule. I see it–the city that was so beautiful and went by the name the “Switzerland of Volyn”–crowned with awesome mountains and dipped in the greenery of her orchards.

And in the middle of all this rises the great Mount Bona, with greenery on its highest peaks. This summit–the ruined fortress of the Queen Bona from the Middle Ages–is steeped in wonderful legends and fearsome stories that have been passed down from generation to generation.

The mountains that have encircled the city have protected her from strong winds, and no fires have occurred in my Kremenets. Many of our city's houses have endured in their original style. In these very houses, in very crowded conditions, lived Jewish laborers, artisans, bazaar salesmen, butchers, and deliverymen, with their colorful language sprinkled with Jewish and Ukrainian colloquialisms, Jews strong as oak trees in the forest.

In the last few years, many storm winds have passed over these oak trees, and they have withstood it all with stubbornness. World War I brought war to the suburbs–to the city gates–of their city, our Kremenets.

[Page 143]

For two years, our citizens' ears were consumed by the thunder of artillery and the screech of shrapnel flying over their heads. Then revolutionary storms and civil war spread throughout the city. Some fine, heroic stories were written about the well–organized Jewish home security forces by the families of “Noach Pandera” and “R' Shlome Nagid,” who returned from the trenches with their weaponry. I remember them well in their uniforms as they marched into battle, throwing the neighborhood's saloons and restaurants into disarray.

Again in 1918, when the German forces arrived with their savage regime, the local farmers rose up and attacked the city a few months later. Two Jewish boys were in command at the front of this army, and the end that the farmers visited on the traitors was bloody indeed.

Then came the catastrophe of Petliura, the murderer. Days of fear and trembling followed by the Bolshevik takeover of the city, with all the bitter peculiarities of Cheka, among whose collaborators was one of my school chums. He used to recite Y. L. Gordon's poems of so beautifully and was also a Hebrew teacher, an intelligent and fine gentleman. Later, the Bolsheviks abandoned Kremenets, and the city fell under the whip hand of the White Russian authorities. It had hardly caught its breath before the outbreak of the Russian–Polish war. The city changed hands several times. There were months of rumors and arrests. The Jews, the Bolsheviks, escaped.

Days of peace came again after stormy years, but they didn't ease the Kremenets Jews' lot. Tax collectors and their underlings came after them. Against their will, the younger Jewish generation was relegated to unemployment and became a burden on their parents, who became more and more poverty–stricken.

Just a few days after the outbreak of the war in 1939, Kremenets was the recipient of a great honor: the Polish authorities, who had just abandoned Warsaw, their capital, quartered themselves in Kremenets along with their diplomatic corps. It didn't take long for the Luftwaffe to find them in the city and bomb them constantly… And again came Soviet tanks, which saved the city from a terrible fate. Immediately, the citizenry's life became regimented. The new authority in Kremenets deviated from its regular footpath and struck out anew. It was lenient with the Jews. Jewish trees began to bloom and became leafy. However, the city's fate was apparently sealed, and soon Kremenets had fallen.

The Soviet tanks will perhaps someday again show up on its streets, but this time they will be greeted by dead silence and only the cawing of crows in the fine old Lyceum Park, which was a Polish youth center in the 19th century. In its hallowed walls sprouted the Polish writer Yuliush Slovatski.

A cemetery spreads out on the slopes of the highest mountain, among the stones and wilderness and close to meandering streams. Its squeezed–together grey stones overlook the destroyed city like a frightened flock of sheep. A great congregation of many thousands of Jews lies here, hidden; they were the mute witnesses of the terrible tragedy that overtook their children and children's children.

And one day, when I can come to you, my dear city of my birth, I will summon the strength and go up the narrow footpath to your cemetery. I will place my ear on your gravestones and absorb this terrible tale of heroism in order to leave it as a legacy to my children and those who come after me, to the end of all generations.


 

[Page 144]

The Great Synagogue

By Henekh Hoykhgelernter (New York)

English Translation by Tina Lunson

That is what they called the synagogue that stood in the center of town, pressed on one side by Front Street, which ran the length of the town. It was also called the Old Synagogue. The exact date of its construction is difficult to ascertain, but people said that, according to legend, it was built in the first half of the 18th century. This can be deduced because of its architecture in the Gothic style, which was revived in that era. Set in its high walls were narrow, vertical windows with half–round vaulting at the tops. Inside, the ceiling was diagonally vaulted like a cupola. There were two such windows in the eastern well, and three in the south and north walls. The entire building was made of stone, with thick walls two arshins [28 inches doubled] wide. The length of the synagogue was about 30 fathoms on the outside and 20 on the inside. Its width was 22 fathoms. Inside, in the western part, high up, a picket made of stone was the women's section that ran the whole length of the synagogue. Several hundred people prayed there, mostly of the working class.

 

The Great Synagogue in Kremenets as it appeared before the Nazi and Ukrainian murderers burnt it down

[Page 145]

People only prayed in that synagogue. There were no bookcases with holy books to study. Most of the furniture consisted of book stands. Only one long table with side benches stood in the north corner, near the high wall. The poorest of the “ordinary folk” sat there. One entered the synagogue by way of wide, white stone steps leading down to the floor. There were steps in the middle, at a height of two yards, that led to the Torah–reading desk. On the eastern side, where the cantor's desk was, there was another deep stairway to the cantor's place, where he sang “from out of the depths I call upon the Lord.” Above the cantor's desk there was a tall inscription in handwritten Torah–script, a shiviti[1], stating “I place myself before God at all times,” that was adorned by lions, who stood on diagonally marked pillars of gold color. On both sides of the shiviti, in its entire width, there were various paintings. The shiviti was enclosed in a hand–carved mahogany frame. The colors flowed together majestically in the lights of the two gleaming tall brass candelabras and from the leaping flames of the tall glinting brass menorah at the front.

Splendor also emanated from the tall ark holding the Torah scrolls, which was entirely hand carved. Two angels spread wings that reached to the domed ceiling. Their gilded beaks supported the carved crown from which two vertical poles extended at the sides and one in the middle, from which was suspended the wood–carved Ten Commandments, covered in gold. The wide, folded green velvet curtain with gold tassels that covered the ark, the light glinting from the transparent crystal of the lamp garlands–all lent a stately elevation to the majestic elongated interior of the synagogue.

Aharon Kazultshik, a very old man, was one of the three cantonists who came back after 25 years of service in the czar's army. He had only one expression of Jewishness of his own: the synagogue. “Time for synagogue, in the old synagogue,” was his farewell to a Jewish homemaker after selling her a caulking brush to seal the door of the oven after the cholent had been put inside. The Czar Nicholas cantonist used to come to synagogue in his old military uniform with a czarist medal on the breast.

A paved courtyard of wide stone pavers led to the synagogue entrance. There were two entrances in the thick stone walls. One, on the south side, led to the women's section. There was also a blocked–off corner on the south side, where several sunken gravestones still remained, as a symbol of a special cemetery where–according to legend–lay two couples of wives and husbands who died during an epidemic on their day wedding.

The community tailors' small synagogue was in the vestibule of the Great Synagogue. The southwest corner of that synagogue served as a pillory and for giving release from a Levirate marriage. A case of such a release occurred in the beginning of this century. The ceremony took place about an hour before the afternoon prayers. In that corner, a high, sloping board had been set up, up to the ceiling. In front of the board was a low bench. The board was to indicate the division between the living and the dead. The widow removed the left shoe[2] from the man, the brother–in–law. Rabbi Hertsele set two candles enveloped in black on the Torah–reading desk. He himself was dressed in a black robe. And while he lit the lights, his lips trembled as he met the spirit of the dead man and asked for his forgiveness. After that, he told the widow to put onto the brother–in–law's foot a kind of slipper made from one piece of leather. She then had to put on the leather band made from the same leather as the slipper. She covered her head with a black shawl. Meanwhile the rabbi was talking and talking. A shudder went through his body. At last he turned to the board and asked for forgiveness. The woman repeated something after him, accompanied by a wail of fear. The rabbi then twice called out “renounced, renounced,” and told the Jews to stand up and start the afternoon prayers.

[Page 146]

The famous prayer–leader from the great synagogue, R' Avrahamtse the Teacher, used to study the weekly Torah portion with the people every Sabbath day, and explain the Alshikh commentaries. And in summer he also studied the Ethics of the Fathers with them.

At the same time in the women's section, Alte the ritual slaughterer's wife read out the weekly lessons from the Tsene U'rene[3] for the women.

All of the wedding canopies for the town were set up in the synagogue courtyard, at the entrance.

 

The Holy Ark of the Great Synagogue

[Page 147]

Just so, during a funeral, the bearers stopped with the body on the same place to recite “God, Full of Compassion.” In Kremenets the body was carried. That is how it was done in Kremenets for generations, that life and death were sanctified near the synagogue.

According to custom, there was no mezuzah at the synagogue entrance. The left side of the door post was black from the fingers laid out like the letter shin where each person crossing the threshold had laid his finger and then kissed it. This was explained as follows: one should not point the way with the shaday on the mezuzah, for the dead who come to pray every night at midnight. And as the story goes…

Very late one Saturday night, in the winter of 1904, during the Russo–Japanese War, a whole street of Jews was frightened by wild voices in the middle of the night.

A large number of Jews had been taken from families with children into the military and were sent off to the front. They were not heard from for many long months. People were certain that their bones lay submerged someplace in the water where the Japanese had sunk Russian ships. It happened that the two ritual slaughterers, R' Mendele and his son, Leybele, were coming home from work late at night. They walked past the Great Synagogue. The street was completely dark: only the low candle from the eternal light spread sprightly shadows on one of the windows. Leybele felt, in his imagination, that it was sunken souls from those who had died. Soon he turned to his father with a quaking voice: “Do you hear murmuring in the synagogue?” The fear in him began to overtake him. When he was barely on the street where he lived, he could no longer control it and he collapsed into a heap of icy snow in a faint. Mendele quickly ran to the door of a house, calling, “Come out and take my son into your house!” They came out to the street half–dressed, talking loudly. The whole street was awakened from their sleep. When Leybele was revived, he looked around, blinking fearfully at where he was, and called out, “Are they back to their rest?”

The next morning, the town was all astir. Near the back of the synagogue lived a grandson of the sainted Rabbi Mordekhayle, R' Moshkele. His attendant made light of the incident, as for him it was not news. He–he said–hears it all night. R' Moshkele and his usual colleagues deliberated the issue and by general consensus decided that the souls were not resting and that they must appease them. And so it was done. On Monday, when the long “and God is merciful” is recited, a minyan was gathered in the evening. They studied Talmud commentaries until midnight. At midnight the minyan went into the synagogue. Before the sexton opened the entryway, he knocked on the door three times, while calling out, “Dead ones, a minyan of Jews has come to placate you! Those in this place, be calm. They have come into the synagogue in fear and in love, and to stand on the steps for a while.” They began reciting psalms as they were leaving. They all recited the “rabbi's Kaddish” together. And from then on, the town was quiet.

Years later, when Sh. Ansky came to Kremenets, Mendele the sexton related the story and also added another similar story about a Yom Kippur night. It is worth bringing in this kind of folklore as relevant to the custom of not having a mezuzah on the synagogue.

He was of small stature, with a shrunken body on which sat a flat little head. A pair of green catlike eyes peered out from under a small, short forehead. The entire visage looked like that of a gnome. The scraping little voice usually tossed out un–enunciated half–words. The lively little sexton Mendele always kept the Great Synagogue tidy and clean. In summer and in winter, everything in the synagogue gleamed. It was hard for him to understand wanting to stay in synagogue a little longer, after praying, except for a yahrzeit, when he himself provided whisky and egg cookies to raise the soul. Mendele was familiar with the dead in his synagogue; or as Leybeshekhe the reciter for her cemetery used to maintain, as one is with the Master of the Universe on Yom Kippur.

[Page 148]

One summer evening in 1912, Sh. Ansky observed a supposed yahrzeit in the great synagogue. Mendele promised that he would prepare a flask of whisky and egg bagels for the evening minyan. Ansky recited the mourners' Kaddish with proper emotion. After praying they sat around the only long table, in a corner near the vestibule. A whole minyan of Jews. Ansky led a discussion about the salvation of souls. The group gradually softened up. With a wink, Ansky signaled Mendele to bring a little more whisky and food. They each “sampled” another glass. They got into a discussion about the dead that pray in the middle of the night. And Mendele told the story about what had taken place many years before, when he was a child.

It was a Yom Kippur night, after Kol Nidre. The congregation had left the synagogue. No one had noticed that at the table near the oven, someone had fallen asleep in the middle of the prayers. And so he stayed alone the whole night, sunken in sleep. In the morning, the congregation, agape, heard from him what he had experienced in the middle of the night: deep in a heavy sleep, he was aware of a strange humming, like that of a flying bird. As time went by, the movement became stronger, with whispering and hushing. He wanted to raise his head, but he could not. There was some heavy pressure on him. After a while he heard someone crying out “The King,” and later a pouring from the hand laver, and from around the Torah reading desk someone calling his name to approach the Torah. A cold sweat poured over him in his nightmarish sleep. He was seized by a feeling of dread that he would die that year. In a kind of fever, he woke himself as day began when he heard the souls flying away, the flapping of wings as from a flock of doves.

And that year–the sexton said–that man really was called into the next world…

The Great Synagogue inspired reverence in those who came there. On the neighboring plaza where the peasants used to park their wagons on market days, they would never even stand near the fence. The uncircumcised had respect for the “Jewish church.”

Only at the Great Synagogue was there a cantor with a boys' choir whose voices blended with the mysteries of the holy seraphim and cherubim that were carved into the Torah ark.

The synagogue was also attended by those close with the [Russian] authorities: Mikhael Shumski, the general representative to the Duma; Government Rabbi B. Kunin; lawyers and others of that cut. Official ceremonies took place there on the coronation day Czar Nicholas II. By the Torah desk, during the reading of the Torah, the bailiff and the mayor stood like taut strings while the cantor took out the Torah scroll, and the government rabbi recited the prayer for health and well–being, accompanied by singing from the cantor and the choir boys.

Big meetings took place in the synagogue in important cases. Thus, in that synagogue the constitutional delegation from the czar was celebrated with enthusiasm, after the Revolution of 1905. Zionists, Bundists, and others spoke there at large gatherings of the people, and people left from there singing “Hatikvah” and “The Oath” in the streets in demonstrations. Binyamin Yospe, Tsadok the ritual slaughterer's son, led the singing of “Hatikvah.”

The synagogue is no more, just like the Jews. Their spirits no longer have anyone to come to, to pray for. The spirits of the murdered bodies have become dust. May their souls be bound up in the bond of eternal life.


Translator's and Editor's Notes

  1. A shiviti (literally, “I have set”) is a meditative ornate plaque for contemplation of God's name. The name and concept are based on the verse in Psalms 16:8: “I have set the Lord always before me.” [Trans.] Return
  2. Release from a Levirate marriage is the ancient ceremony in which a woman removes the shoe of her deceased husband's brother, releasing him from marrying her, according to Levirate law. [Ed.] Return
  3. Tsena Urena, first published in the 16th century, contains Yiddish adaptations of portions of the Bible. The title comes from Song of Songs 3:11: tse'ena ure'ena benot tsion (Go forth and look, daughters of Zion). [Ed.] Return

 

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