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[Page 60]

Our Town

Translated by Jerrold Landau

Our Town Ruzhany

Our town Ruzhany remains whole in my memory, without weakness; and to this day remains before my eyes as alive and bustling, as it was when I left it. It does not enter the imagination at all that our town, which raised an entire community of Jews, nurtured many generations, gave rise to hundreds and thousands of sons and daughters, sent many to various lands throughout the seven seas and kept many of them in their own place, was suddenly destroyed completely, wiped off the face of the earth, and remains as a dream in the hearts of those who knew it at that time.

The Beautiful Landscape

The beauty of Ruzhany's landscape was known throughout the region. When approaching the town, a visitor would already be impressed by the Slonim Valley. A road wound atop this hill between the Christian cemetery with its prominent birch trees on one side, and the green valley of the Klibner Road on the other side. The road enchanted the eye of those beholding it from the higher street. The low houses dotted with numerous gardens laden with fruits and vegetables raised their heads above like white pitched roofs. The burnt castle, some distance away on the hill, rose above everything, adding additional impressiveness to the general view.

Continuing onward on the downward slope of the Slonim hill, the visitor would immediately find himself in the center of the town. He would see a large marketplace with many stores standing in straight rows like soldiers during a practice. The Catholic and Pravoslavic churches stood on the two sides, with their spires and crosses rising up.

Schloss Gasse was considered to be the main street of the town. The importance of this road was that it connected Baranovich with Brisk via Slonim, Ruzhany and Pruzhany. Those walking on the road could also continue their journey on the side streets. This road possessed extra importance due to its fine houses, and especially to the textile factories that were once centered around this road. Even after these factories disappeared from the horizon in the fire of 1915, this road maintained its earlier grace and significance. On Saturday nights, when people went out to chat in the evening, the road bustled with the crowds of people out for a stroll, especially the section that extended from the Slonim Road to the fire hall, and further on to the bridge over the Canal Stream.

The Canal Stream (Kanal Teichl), which wound its way quietly through the heart of the town, added extra grace to this street. This river crossed Schloss Gasse and Milner Gasse, and continued its way peacefully through the green meadows of the alleys of “the other side of the river” until it emptied into the Zlabay River.

The second most important road in the city was the long, broad Milner Gasse.

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ruz061.jpg [24 KB] - The Napoleon Tower on the Liskova Mountains near Ruzhany
The Napoleon Tower on the Liskova Mountains near Ruzhany

This street has large houses until the alley of the “other side of the river”, and from that point on, it had wooden houses. If you traverse the entire length of the road, you will reach the Zlabay River flowing at its edge. This river was the bathing place of the townsfolk during the hot summer days. As you cross the wooden bridge over the river, you would reach the Liskova Mountains (which were hills that were not too tall, but were called mountains due to the lack of mountains in the region). On one hill there is the remains of a tower that is known as Napoleon's Tower. Popular folklore claims that Napoleon erected this town as a lookout point in 1812 when he crossed through the town on his way to Russia. It is possible that there were battles in the area of Ruzhany at that time.

If you turn left from these Liskova Mountains, you would reach the Jewish settlement of Konstantinova, one of the two Jewish settlements that were established near Ruzhany.

A long and broad road leads northward from the town marketplace to outside the town. Houses surrounded by trees line both sides of that road. As the road continues, there is a broad area covered with wheat fields. Continuing on that road, one would reach the large Bliznaja Forest. From that point, the road is known as Bliznaja Gasse. This forest attracts many convalescents in the summer, who are housed in a building that was set up near the Smolnia (a place where turpentine was extracted from the forest trees).

Going eastward from the intersection of Schloss Gasse and Pruzhany Street, the vista opens to the short, broad Goszcziniec Street. This street leads to a broad road that leads to the other Jewish settlement of Pavlova, two kilometers from the town.

There was a synagogue on almost all of the roads in the town, such as Goszcziniec, Milner Gasse, Klibaner Gasse, and Kanal.

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However, most of the houses of worship in our town were centered in the synagogue courtyard, called Shul Hauf. From there, the voices of worshippers in the Talmud Torah, the Maier Beis Midrash, the Aguda, and the Tehillim could be heard. Prior to the fire of 1895, the Tailors Synagogue and the Shiva Kruim Synagogue were also located there. The Great Synagogue of the town was at the center of all of the synagogues on the Shul Hauf, rising in all of its splendor.

Heard from Yosef Abramovitch during the memorial to the martyrs of Ruzhany

The Synagogues of Ruzhany

As has already been mentioned, our town had a significant number of synagogues. The main one was the Great Synagogue, rising in splendor from the Shul Hauf. It was re-erected after the first fire in 1875, and built in the same place where the Great Synagogue that had been constructed in 1657 in memory of the two martyrs had stood.

During the latter period, Avigdor Michel Goldberg, Moshe Zisking the smith (the jeweler) and, may he live, Abba Leviatan, served as gabbaim (synagogue trustees) during the latter period. Cantor Gershon Kaplan conducted services on special Sabbaths and festivals. Eizenstein served as the wonderful Torah reader on Sabbaths.

The Maier Beis Midrash was located near the Great Synagogue. It was never locked. During the day it served as the place of worship for many members of the community including the rabbi and rabbinical judge, as well as a place of study for the Talmud study group. At night, it served as a hostel for any guest who wished to stay over. Meir Guber and Nota Lisovitzki were the gabbaim. The beadle (shamash) was Leizer der Shamash, one of the four Leizers in the town. The three others were Leizer Liboshitzki, an educated Jew; Leizer Goldin and Leizer Hachanski. All of them lived long. The biggest joker of them was Leizer Liboshitzki. He would say, “A man lives until 70 years, and then he is born again, so a 75 year old is like a 5 year old”. Another one of his sayings was, “The table stands on four legs, and the world – on the four Leizers”. When Leizer the Shamash was about to die, Leizer Liboshitzki joked and said, “The table is wobbling – the world is shaking”.

The Tehillim Synagogue was also located on the Shul Hauf. For the most part, tradesmen worshipped there. Leib the Carpenter (der Stoliar) was one of its chief spokesmen for some time.

The nearby Talmud Torah served as a house of worship as well as an educational institution. Aside from the relatively large study rooms, this building had a small room where Aharon Yaakov Pitkowski lived, who served as the shamash in the house of worship and also the first grade teacher in this educational institution. He was dedicated to both jobs.

The two-story Aguda synagogue was also located in the Shul Hauf. The sound of lads reviewing their Gemara lesson would burst forth from the second floor windows. The guest house was located on the first floor of that building. It had been moved from the Maier Beis Midrash by the two righteous women: Lipshe the wife of Shimon the shochet, and Yenta Rushkin. There was also an old age home on that floor.

There was a synagogue on the “Other side of the River” alleyway whose name was the same as that of the street. Many tanners who lived in that area around the Chwojnik tanning factory worshipped there.

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ruz063a.jpg [24 KB] - The south side of the Maier Beis Midrash
The south side of the Maier Beis Midrash

ruz063b.jpg [25 KB] - In front – the north side of the Great Synagogue
In front – the north side of the Great Synagogue
On the side – the east side of the Maier Beis Midrash

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The gabbaim of this synagogue were Abba Chwojnik and Leizer Segal.

The Gershonovitch Synagogue was located on Klibaner Street. It was named after the descendent of one of the martyrs of Ruzhany. Aside from the many Misdnagdim, a few Chaverim [1] worshipped there. The gabbaim of that synagogue were Hershel Katzin and Yehoshua Soroka.

The Chaikin Synagogue rose above the Goszcziniec. This was far from the center of the city, and the residents of that street worshipped there. The gabbai of that synagogue was Gershon Lipowski. There was a Yeshiva in the Achim synagogue on the Kanal. The gabbaim were the Polak brothers, from whence it derived its name. About ten Hassidim lived in this town, and they gathered for prayer in the house of one of them. Thus, the town was filled with the sounds of prayer from end to end.

By Zeev Rushkin

Public Life in Ruzhany

During the First Half of the Last Half Century Prior to the Holocaust

Until approximately 50 years before the Holocaust, it was not customary for the communal activists to be elected. They would come from the wealthy class, and take the greatness and authority for themselves. For who would run the communal affairs if not they? Indeed, some among them occupied themselves with communal affairs in good faith, but there was no shortage of others who did as they saw fit.

Throughout the latter 50 years, communal life advanced by giant steps. Great changes took place in communal life. The wealthy gabbaim gave way to young activists who from that time stood at the head of the communal institutions and worked diligently to develop them. These young people stemmed from various classes and were elected by the masses of the various parties and organizations that existed in the town.

I wish to point out that our town was already very active in communal affairs 50 years ago. Communal, cultural and even self-defense institutions appropriate to the times were founded. Everything was founded without assistance and without external directions. With all this, the institutions were set up and developed properly, and served as an example to others.

As has been said: for the most part, the communal leaders and activists carried out their duties faithfully. There was never a case in Ruzhany where the communal activists took advantage of their position for personal benefit.

Rabbis and Rabbinical Judges

When we speak about the community of Ruzhany and its activists 50 years ago, we must mention positively the era when the Gaon Rabbi Shabtai Wallach of blessed memory and the two rabbinical judges Rabbi Hirsch of blessed memory and Rabbi Meir Idel of blessed memory headed the community. We can say that their upright actions were the pride of the community.

Shochtim and Cantors

The shochtim Reb Shabtai and Reb Shimon, and the cantors Zisel Nishiozinski and Gershon Kaplan, among others, were considered to be among the clergy of the community.

Cantor Zisel Nishiozinski was famous for his pleasant voice. He had a well-organized choir.

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He was he father of the director of the Yiddish theater in New York, and of Mr. Avi-Leah, the professor of music in Israel.

Cantor Gershon Kaplan enchanted the townsfolk with his singing on festivals and the High Holy Days. He was the father of Shlomo Kaplan, who today is the conductor of famous choirs in Israel.

Other Communal Notables

The following were considered to be among the communal notables:

  1. Reb Leizer Liboshitzki, who represented the community before the government and issued passports. He was a learned, scholarly Jew, known for his general knowledge. He was the father of the teacher and writer Aharon Liboshitzki, who was later active in the large city of Lodz.
  2. The government appointed rabbi, Eliahu Nota, who also had generous character traits, was educated, and had influence in the city.

By law, the community was only responsible for providing for the religious needs of the population, but in practice, communal life was far richer and variegated due to the fact that numerous important communal institutions were established and fortified.

From where did the community obtain the money needed for this? The principal source was the mean tax, nicknamed the “takseh”.

From A. Leviatan

The “Takseh” (Meat Tax, “Korovka”)

As is known, an official Jewish community with the power to impose special taxes on the population in order to maintain the communal institutions established by the community did not exist during the Czarist era. The government only officially recognized the rabbi of the town and the gabbai of the synagogue, who had the authority to collect donations for religious purposes. The rabbi and other members of the clergy received their salary from the “takseh”.

This tax did not generally have a good name in the Jewish communities. For many, the word “takseh” implied the strong-handedness of the collectors, of personal privilege and easy profit for the wealthy “owners”. This tax was symbolic of a despotic government that took advantage of the poor. However, I can state with full certainty that there was never any incident to justify this opinion in our town, at least during the period that I lived there.

What is the nature of this tax? The authorities of that era permitted the imposition of a tax on Jewish ritual slaughter (shechita), and allowed a certain portion of the income to be given to the community for its religious purposes.

According to the protocols of those days, the government of the city and the district would lease the meat tax to the highest bidder. The official lessee who was sent by the community would then lease this tax to another person who paid an even higher price. In return, the second lessee would have the right, with the agreement of the heads of the community and the gabbai of the synagogue, to impose a tax that would yield some profit for himself as well. Of course, when this tax was set, they would take into consideration the local poor, ensuring that this tax would not be too onerous for them. The difference between the prices of the two lessees would be the income of the community, through which it would maintain the communal institutions, including the Bikur Cholim (society for tending to the sick), the Hospital, the Talmud Torah, and the Beis Midrash.

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Monthly payments (a form of a bribe) to the Pristov (police chief) and supervising officer, so that they would not cause suffering to the Jews by issuing a command to close the stores on Sundays, issue reports of lack of cleanliness, or order the taverns to be closed due to lack of permits, etc., were also paid from this income.

In Ruzhany, the collection of the meat tax was organized as follows. On the date set by the authorities, the person designated by the heads of the community to collect the tax was sent from the regional city of Grodno. He would then, without competition, lease the tax for the sum that was agreed upon by the heads of the community at the outset (2,000 rubles).

For many years, the regular purchaser of that tax was the shamash of the Beis Din (court of law) and also the head shamash of the synagogue, Chaim Leib Shifrin. He was a quiet Jew, G-d fearing and intelligent, who was known in the town as someone who suffices himself with little. He was always in good spirits, full of faith, and comforted every person by saying: “If G-d wants, it will be good”.

From A. Leviatan

From The Days of My Childhood in Ruzhany

(From the book “For my Descendants”)

I was born in Ruzhany in the district of Grodno on the 17th of Kislev 5629 (1869) to my parents Reb Yechiel Michel Pines and Chaya Tzipora, the daughter of the renowned wealthy man Reb Shmarya Luria. Both of these houses were noble in Torah, wisdom, charitable deeds, tending to guests, and other such good traits. To this day, our life in our home in this quiet, small town passes before my eyes.

The Home, The Sukka, and the Festival Days

From my childhood, I remember our large, nice house, with its large yard in which we, the four sisters and our cousins, played. I remember well our Sukka that stood in our yard. I helped decorate it nicely along with the older people. I will never forget when we used to sit in it along with our wise, noble grandmother, my parents, sisters, and many aunts and uncles.

I especially remember the festival of Passover with its large, set table, decorated with flowers and the finest silver and porcelain vessels. There was a splendid chandelier on the ceiling above, which spread light to the entire room. The women were wearing silk and velvet clothing. Their heads, necks and chests were adorned with fine ornaments that suited them well, and added grace and nobility to their appearance. How lovely and how splendid! The men wore kittel (white ritual robes) made out of the finest linen. Their yarmulkes on their heads were made out of the same material. They appeared like angels to me and to all of those around.

The Nights of Chanukah

How lovely were the nights of Chanukah, as well as all of our national holidays in general. At that time, the nature of these holidays was entirely different from what it is today. The entire family celebrated the holiday inside the home, among friends and acquaintances. The festivities were not brought outside, as is done nowadays, when the splendor and grace of the family are missing, without the holiness of tradition. I remember one specific Chanukah night.

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My father returned that night from Brisk with several guests. He brought them into the parlor where the family was gathered. They came to the latke party and the card game. Obviously, they also brought gifts to our house.

My Uncle's Wedding

I remember the wedding of my uncle Abba. I can still see the large rooms and open doors through which one could go from room to room. The rooms were set up through the length of the house. Crystal chandeliers were hanging throughout the length on the ceiling. Each one had about 20 wax candles. It looked like the whole house was immersed in electric light (at that time, there was still no electricity in our town). The in-laws came from Warsaw, Mohilev, Grodno, and Kovno. All of them stayed over in the rooms that were set up by the local families in their homes. The wedding was celebrated for seven days and seven nights. The entire town was astir.

Our Family

My grandfather Noach Pines had four brothers. Each of them had sons, daughters, and great wealth. They owned a factory for blankets and woolen textiles for the Russian army. (The Talmud Torah building, the hospital, and other Torah and charitable institutions were run by the Pines family, who ruled over the city and region as a sort of kingdom within a kingdom.) My grandfather Noach of blessed memory had six sons and three daughters. All of them married into the wealthiest and finest pedigreed families of that time. Zev Javitz, Berl Friedlansky and Leibush Davidson were his in-laws. His sons also found wives who were well-pedigreed and wealthy, from the family of Shmarya Luria and others. Three of the sons married into the Pines family itself, for they guarded the honor of the dynasty of this family and did not want to intermix too much with other familles, as was the custom among noble families.

The Palace

I remember the palace that was called the “Platz”. The Russians burnt it down during the last war[2]. Many of the Pines and Mintz family members lived in this palace. We would go there to visit our uncles and aunts every Sabbath. Surrounding it there were buildings built like fortresses and splendid dwellings.

ruz067.jpg [28 KB] - The entrance to the palace in Ruzhany
The entrance to the palace in Ruzhany

Itta Yellin

Translator's Footnotes
  1. Chaverim means 'friends'. I suspect that there is a typo here, and the intention was Hassidim. return
  2. There is a footnote in the text here as follows: This refers to the First World War. return

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