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Translation of Ratno chapter from
Pinkas Hakehillot Polin
Translation of Ratno chapter from
Published by Yad Vashem Published in Jerusalem
Project Coordinator and Translator
Morris Gradel z"l
Project Coordinator and Translator
Morris Gradel z"l
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This is a translation from: Pinkas Hakehillot:
Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities, Poland, Volume V, pages 187-189, published by Yad Vashem, Jerusalem
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(A Townlet in the District of Kowal)
Ratno (R) is an ancient settlement from the time of the Russian Kingdom of Kiev. In 1366 it passed into the possession of the Polish King Kazimir the Great. It was at the time the regional capital of Chelm in the Province of Belz. In 1440 it received from King Vladimir Jagellioni the rights of a Magdeburg town.
Jews in R are first mentioned in official sources in 1516. According to Jewish sources, however, they may already have been there at the time of the expulsion of the Jews from Lithuania in 1495-1503, since the town was within the Kingdom of Poland but close to the Lithuanian frontier, and Jews were wont - like the Karaites - to stay there after the expulsion until things quietened down again.
From 1540 till the end of the 16th century more detailed information about the Jews of R is available. In 1563 and 1564 the Jews there paid a poll tax of 60 guilden a year. In 1565 there were 12 Jewish houses in the town, as well as a synagogue and a mikvah (ritual bathhouse). These two institutions indicate that there was also a community. Details of their economic situation may be gleaned from the fact that one Jew rented agricultural land, another a strong drinks distillery with an option to purchase, and a third, together with a Christian, three flour mills belonging to King Sigismund I. Jews were among the first state tax-collectors in R.
At the beginning of the 17th century the town was hard hit economically and almost emptied of its inhabitants. To aid its recovery King Sigismund III granted it a set of privileges. There are no data available on the fate of the Jews in the middle of this century, and it may be assumed that they too were affected by the Decrees of 1648-49. In the second half of this century there were signs of revival, but at the beginning of the 18th century R again suffered in the wake of the Swedish Wars and was virtually destroyed. It was then rebuilt, but on the banks of the River Pripjat - to the north of its former site. When at the end of this century R passed under the authority of the Russian Empire, it was incorporated into the District of Volhynia(Wolyn, Volyn). Paving of the road from Kiev to Warsaw, which passed through R, brought with it some improvement in the condition of its Jews, and their number increased. Despite this, however, R remained a poor townlet: most of its Jews earned their living by petty trade and crafts . There was no local doctor, or any sort of medical service, nor even a religious school for the sons of the poor. Only wealthier parents sent their sons to the cheders.
At the beginning of the 20th centuries the situation began to change. Some educated youngsters returned to the town of their birth and began to infuse into it a spirit of the times and of culture. They introduced a Hebrew press, organised a branch of Chovevei Zion (Lovers of Zion), and set up public and private libraries. They demanded the opening of a reformed cheder, which was accomplished, but forced to close again due to Chassidic opposition. There was now a Talmud Torah (religious school) in the town, struggling to exist because of lack of funds. A doctor, a pharmacist and a woman dentist had by then settled in R - all of them Jews. The year 1912 saw the opening of a school with Hebrew as the language of instruction, but where the curriculum also included Yiddish, Russian, Natural Science, and more. This school existed in various forms and at intervals until 1921, when it was closed by order of the Polish authorities. In 1912 a Merchants' Bank was established, but this too shut down two years later, upon the outbreak of the First World War.
There were now several synagogues in R: some of them were of Chassidic sects, mainly those of nearby Nezkisz. The Admor, R. Yitzhak Szapira of that town (son in his old age of R. Mordechai, founder of the dynasty) used to visit the Chassidim of R once a year. At the end of the 19th century the rabbi in office for some time was R. Jakob Arya Szapira of the above Admor's family, until he moved to Kowal, where he died in 1908. Thereafter the rabbi of R was R. Josef Szor, who was appointed by the rabbi of Turzysk; and R. Szlomo Tovja Friedlander. The former did not remain in R., while the latter continued to officiate in the period of Polish rule.
In the summer of 1915 the Russian army began to withdraw from R. The Cossack troops in the rearguard took some of the local notables with them as hostages, and even set fire to many of the town's buildings, including the Great Synagogue. The town was quickly occupied by the Germans. The Jews who had fled returned and crowded into the houses that remained. They were obliged to do forced labour, also on the Sabbath, which caused much distress. At the same time a lively commerce developed, including smuggling to the zone occupied by the Austrian army. Later on, during the civil war, an independent defence force in R prevented attacks on the Jews.
In 1920, when the Poles first conquered the town, Balchowicz's gangs were on the rampage in the area -- they killed three Jews and collected a ransom of 25,000 rubles. After the Polish regime had consolidated itself , towards the end of the year, a criminal was appointed local Chief of Police, and he, together with his fellow ruffians, plundered and even killed Jewish families. He was removed from office in 1922, but remained unpunished.
Nearly all the artisans in R were Jews; most of them (70) had no workshops but worked at home. Economic activity was supported by the Popular Jewish Bank, established in 1923,which was affiliated with the Central Bank Cooperative and existed until 1939. In 1921 a Provident Fund was set up, but this declined towards the end of the 30s. In 1929 the artisans inaugurated a loan fund, but this closed down shortly after.
In the 20s the Jews were well represented in local government: eight of the 12 town counselors were Jews; a Jew served as Deputy Mayor and another was an assessor (lawnik). In the 30s Jews were barred from the office of Deputy Mayor, Jewish participation on the Town Council was restricted, and the only Jewish assessor represented R on the District Council of Kowal, which was merely an advisory body.
In the elections to the community that took place in 1929 an executive of nine members, including a representative of the Town Council was chosen. In the previous year, 1928, a violent fire destroyed 82 buildings, including the Great Synagogue, and 135 families were rendered homeless. An aid committee was set up in Kowal and through its efforts most of the houses were quickly rebuilt.
In the inter-war period R had the same two rabbis as before: Josef Szor (of the Turzysk Chassidim) and Szlomo Tovja Friedlander. After some time R. Friedlander remained the sole occupant of the post; he died in the Holocaust, together with his congregation.
As stated above, the Hebrew school closed down in 1921. In 1926, however, a Hebrew school of the Tarbut network opened its doors and had some 200 pupils. This school existed until 1939. In 1927-28 protagonists of Yiddish established a school with this language, but it closed after a few months. Cultural activity in the town centered around choirs and ensembles and lecturers who visited it from outside.
The first youth movement, called in fact Hanoar (The Youth), appeared in 1924. Thereafter came Hashomer (The Watchman) and Hechalutz (The Pioneer), and these in time became the largest organisations in the town. In the early 30s branches of Dror (Freedom) and the right-wing Beitar (after a Jewish fortress that had withstood the Romans) were established. Prominent among the parties was The Labour League for the Land of Israel , but there were also branches of Poalei Zion Smol (Left Workers of Zion), the right-wing Revisionists, the General Zionists and the religious Mizrachi. The town also housed a small group of the non-Zionist, Socialist Bund; and of the Progressives-Communists (who operated clandestinely).
Results of the various elections to the Zionist Congresses were as follows:
1929: 31 votes - General Zionists 7, Mizrachi 2, Revisionists 2, Federation of the Young Watchman 12, Poalei Zion 8.
1933: 431 votes - General Zionists 74, Mizrachi 70, Revisionist Alliance 85, Labour Israel List 202.
1937: 232 votes - General Zionists 74, Mizrachi 13, Labour Israel List 145.
1939: 222 votes - General Zionists 22, Mizrachi 10, Labour Israel List 152, Zionist Youth List 35.
On July 16th (the Hebrew says June), 1942, partisans took control of R, killed two German officers, and called upon the youth of the town to join them, but there was no response. On the morrow, July 17th, a unit of the SS entered the town and retaliated by killing 120 Jews.
The final extermination of the Jews of R began on August 25th, 1942. Some 1,300 persons were taken to the quarry outside the town and there fire was opened on them. A few hundred fled with the help of a Ukrainian policeman. Some of them were shot while in flight. A few dozen artisans remained in the town but by March 1943 these had been gradually killed off.
Of those who had fled some 30 families gathered in the forest. They succeeded in obtaining a few arms and they set up a sort of camp. During the next three months nearly all of them were slaughtered. A handful from R and the surrounding villages joined various Soviet partisan units; some too joined the Wolyn League under the command of General Aleksej Fjodorov.
R was liberated by the Red Army on March 22nd, 1944, and 14 survivors quickly returned.
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