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[Page 68]


Translated by Jerrold Landau

The Plague of Fires

Most of the houses on the main street of the town were made of stone. The minority were wooden houses, with their roofs made of planks or tiles. The city generally appeared new, and there were few old, shaky houses with straw roofs, as in many of the towns of Pulsia. Three fires contributed to the freshness of these houses: the first in 1875, the second in 1895, and the third in 1915. The city was forced to renovate itself after each fire.

The Fire of 1875

The following is written in “Halevanon”, year 12, 1875 (8) about the fire of 1875:

“On Sunday, 12 Elul 5635, a fire went forth from the house of the baker and spread like an angel of destruction. It spread without stopping for about five hours. Ruzhany turned into a valley of the shadow of death. The smaller synagogues and the magnificently built Great Synagogue that had been standing in splendor for 300 years went up in flames. The hospital, the Talmud Torah, the slaughterhouse and other fine buildings were turned to ashes. The luck of Ruzhany was not good even before the disaster. Its inhabitants did not enjoy treasures of gold, for their source of livelihood was from taverns, small-scale business, work in the woolen clothing workshops and manual labor. Were it not for the benevolent societies that eased the toil of the poor somewhat, it would have perished from poverty by now.

Approximately 200 children found refuge in the Talmud Torah building, from which Torah and wisdom emanated under the supervision of Reb David the Great, a man who excelled in his many deeds. Any bitter, afflicted or tormented person found refuge in the hospital. There, balm and bandages were given to any ill person, and all the needs of the ill person were cared for until he arose from his bed. The upholders of that institution were the two wonderful people who stand out as gems, the wealthy, intelligent brothers, may their names be held in splendor from generation to generation, the Rabbi and Gaon Yechiel Michel and his younger brother who assisted him Rabbi Yerucham Fishel Pines. This building was also destroyed and ruined. Who will now tend to the sick, gather them in, and bandage their wounds?

Our daughter Ruzhany, how great is your injury! Your situation is very serious. Here a call of distress awakens, and there an ear listens to the voice crying out with bitterness. Many hundreds of people are wandering around like sheep without a place to sleep; and for many who do find a place to sleep, the house is too small for them, and they sit in crowded conditions. The Pines brothers do a great deal to help with the burden of the poor, but nevertheless, they are unable to assuage the pain of every tormented soul who sleeps under the open sky.

I hope that even the little that I wrote is enough to arouse the mercy of our Jewish brethren. Act, do not hesitate, come to the assistance of the afflicted, gather donations from everybody and send them to the rabbi and Gaon Rabbi Mordechai Gimpel Yaffa, the head of the local rabbinical court.”

Suffering with the agony of his nation: D. B. Starewolski

[Page 69]

We read about another fire, not quite as large, in “Hamelitz” 1886 (27):

From Ruzhany in the region of Grodno, Mr. Yomtov Epstein informs us that on Wednesday night of the Torah portion of Tazria, a fire broke out in the city that consumed approximately 20 houses. All of their residents escaped by the skin of their teeth but did not save any of their belongings.

The Fire of 1895

The second large fire broke out in 1895. The houses of the city were still small wooden houses with roofs made of straw. The houses were crowded one next to the other. It was the time of the warm, dry summer. Suddenly a flame burst forth from the “Kanal Fabrick” weaving factory. The fire spread to the nearby houses. Within several minutes the entire town was in flames. After about an hour, almost all of the residents of Ruzhany were left without a roof over their heads. It was impossible to save anything from the flames. People lost their entire fortunes and all of their property. They were left naked, and without anything other than the clothes on their backs. They survived, but with only their lives.

There was also one victim of this fire – a paralyzed woman was burnt alive. The fire took hold of the house from all sides, and people were unable to take her out.

The residents of the town call out for help in “Hamelitz” of 1895 (106):

“Ruzhany, Grodno District. The voice of the outcry of the afflicted: men, women and children, the sound of weeping and wailing reaches the heavens over the terrible disaster that took place in our city. On Friday 23 Iyar at 9:00 in the morning fire descended from above, and almost the entire city went up in flames. The flames sprouted from the factory of the Pines brothers-in-law and spread to the entire city. All of the synagogues, Beis Midrashes, benevolent institutions that were always the pride of the Jews and regarding which our community excelled above other smaller or larger cities, were consumed by fire. Even one woman, a merciful mother who was paralyzed and was not able to free herself from the wrath of G-d, was burnt by fire as a sacrifice and a burnt offering. Of the more than 300 houses in our town, including the tanning factory of H. Wolpiansky, the liquor factory, all of the stores and businesses, only about 60 were left intact. The rests are mounds of ruins, a memorial to the destruction. Hundreds of people are wandering in the outskirts of their city without anything, without any shelter from the rain. Therefore, we are greatly anguished as we see honorable people, heads of the community, charitable and benevolent people, extending their hands to request food so that they can satisfy their souls and those of their families.

The nearby cities must be remembered favorably: Pruzhany, Volkovisk, Slonim, Byten, and Byaroza, Shereshevo, and especially Kossava for restoring our souls with bread and food. Thanks must go to the masters, the righteous gentiles, Mr. Dzikonsky, Mr. Ivanov, and especially Mr. Shihen for participating in our agony and for helping us with whatever they could. However, the handfuls did not satiate the lion and the pit was not filled. Therefore, our brethren of the house of Israel, praised as 'merciful ones the children of merciful ones,' wherever they live, please have mercy on your brothers, members of your nation, the residents of our city, who extend their hand to you from afar. Let every person send donations of clothing or money in the name of 'the charitable fund for those afflicted by the fire,' for every coin will add into the total sum, and the blessings of those saved and assisted by you will come to you.”

Meir Isser the son of Y. Sh. Pines. Aryeh Leib Pines

[Page 70]

“The aforementioned words are correct and I request that the editors of 'Hamelitz' give them a prominent place in the publication, for one cannot imagine the magnitude of the difficulty. The words written by the aforementioned Mr. Pines are true. The charitable deeds should be in peace, and in this merit, may G-d grant blessing, contentment and calm. As a witness I affix my signature on Monday, 26 Iyar 5655, here in Ruzhany.

Shabtai Wallach who lives here in this community”

The Assistance is Delayed in Arriving

Nevertheless, the assistance was delayed in arriving, and the suffering residents of the town write the following in “Hamelitz” 1895 (122):

“Ruzhany, May 31. (After the fire – great hunger!) Three weeks have passed from the day that the city of Ruzhany was judged with fire and went up with flames heavenward. Food is cut off from thousands of men, women and children. Everyone is moving about, wandering in the outskirts of the city, without anyone asking about their welfare. Then, thank G-d, the nearby towns were the first to send bread and other provisions to restore the souls of those overtaken by hunger. They also sent some clothing, cloaks, kerchiefs and dresses. However, what was the value of all this? The number of weary, hungry people was more than 3,000. How could all the nearby cities such as Pruzhany, Volkovisk, Slonim, Kossova and Malech help? These cities could not provide bread for all of the hungry. Thank G-d, until last week there was no shortage of bread and food, but today, all hope has gone, for a handful does not satisfy the lion. The sources of livelihood and sustenance have dwindled and dried up. Everyone is hungry for bread! Thousands of souls are withering away and bloating from hunger. If our merciful brethren in other places, even far off places, do not have mercy, who knows what will be the end of the victims of the fire of Ruzhany. Our dear brothers, the nation hungers for bread!

Do not be shocked that I am using the word 'hunger' for this is a word that goes forth outward from the language. Know that all the people are dying of hunger – all the people from the maid to the mistress, rich and poor, child and baby – they are all begging to restore their souls, and asking for something simple – bread – and there is none! They are requesting a cloak to cover their nakedness, they are requesting the spirit of life! Please, oh generous people of the nation! Have mercy upon the city of Ruzhany, for its crisis is great, terrible and very severe. It is weeping and lamenting over the destruction of its Beis Midrashes, Talmud Torah, charitable organizations, and many other institutions. It is wailing, spreading out its hands, and requesting mercy to restore its souls with food and sustenance. It is groaning with a broken heart and a hungering soul, hoping that you will have mercy upon it to revive it, to strengthen it, and to heal it…”

Help Begins to Arrive

Slowly, the brethren were aroused and began to send help, as is related in “Hamelitz” 1895 (199):

“Ruzhany, 3 Av, 5655. To the editor of 'Hamelitz'. I have received your precious letter with the sum of 236 silver rubles. Many thanks to you for this. May G-d grant to all who donated to this wonderful good deed an abundance of good and eternal success. I request that your honors express thanks on my behalf to the gabbai of the Ana'ch Synagogue in Rostov for donating 100 silver rubles for the victims of the fire here, which was sent by you. I cannot describe to your honors the terrible scene in the city, where only desolation and great destruction is seen. The pressure and difficulties are affecting everyone, and it has literally become a situation of life and death.

Shabtai Wallach who lives in this community.”

[Page 71]

The residents of the city began to restore it. This lasted for months and years. We hear about the continuation of the restoration three years later in “Hamelitz” from 1898 (158):

“The community of the city of Ruzhany expresses its gratitude and blessings to the generous, noble philanthropist Rabbi Moshe Aryeh Leib Friedland, may he be well for his generous spirit, for he sent a sum of money after the fire for the benefit of the victims. Now he has sent several hundred copies of his book “Daat Kedoshim” by the author Rabbi Yisrael Tovia Eisenstat of blessed memory, which he published at his own expense. The income from the book is dedicated to finishing the construction of the Beis Midrash of the late Rabbi Gershon Zakheim of blessed memory. This Beis Midrash is very much needed by the residents of the city, for it is still missing five Beis Midrashes which were not rebuilt after the fire. They are forced to worship in cramped and crowded quarters.
(From various sources)
Meir Sokolovsky

Leib “Yachid”

Reb Leib Yachid Pines worked greatly in the area of the development of our town. His nickname Yachid came to him because he was the only son[1] of his parents, for he had only sisters. He was childless. Leib Yachid, the nephew of Leib Wasz, was the head of the Ruzhany community for many years. He worked a great deal for it, and made it his life's passion. After his mother died, he built the Talmud Torah in her memory, where the young children of Ruzhany would study reading and Torah.

ruz071.jpg [9 KB] - Leib 'Yachid'
Leib “Yachid”

He especially rose to the occasion after the great fire of 1895. As we know, most members of the Jewish community were left without clothes, without means, and without a roof over their heads. The few who had insurance on their homes received the insurance money and began their repairs. However, what should be done about the rest? This included 80% of the fire victims, who did not have one penny for their day-to-day needs, let alone the money needed to rebuild their homes. What did Leib Yachid do? He began to help them. He donated large sums himself, but since the handful did not satisfy the lion, Leib Yachid sent letters to all of his acquaintances and friends, including well-known businessmen and manufacturers in Russia, requesting help for the fire victims. Of course all of the many people who knew him understood the need and donated according to their ability, some more and others less. The houses of Ruzhany began to be rebuilt one after the other. Dozens of familles, with their men, women, possessions and children entered their new homes. All of this was thanks to this dear man. He also made efforts to rebuild the Beis Midrashes. He repaired the Great Synagogue that had been mainly destroyed.

[Page 72]

How the Fire Brigade in Ruzhany was Set Up

Fires in the town often spewed forth their wrath upon the wooden houses with straw roofs, without anyone to help. This situation gave no rest, and demanded a solution.

I recall that in 1901, after I returned from the army, as I bathed in the river enjoying the waters of my town, destruction came. Fire rose up, spreading heavy pillars of smoke that rose up and darkened the sky. I quickly came out of the water, dressed quickly, and hurried to the area of the fire in the shortest way possible. I came and saw the fire spreading from house to house, with the straw being consumed and nobody coming to help. I stood with nothing to do, as did others, for we had no fire fighting tools, and a little bit of water would be of no avail here. You can imagine our mood as we stood helplessly in front of this destructive enemy that took the form of a consuming fire. We then woke up from our helplessness. The fire reached a garden with several rows of trees. If we were to stop it there, there would be hope that the houses on the other side of the garden would not catch fire and burn down. I got to work. People gave me water with any vessel that they had, and I threw it upon the threatening fire. The extinguishing effort went on for several hours in this dismal fashion. At the end, we overcame the flames, but I had no more energy left and I fainted. People carried me out and laid me down on one of the benches outside. They brought me something to drink to restore my soul. The smoke slowly cleared out of my lungs and nose. I opened my eyes and regained my consciousness that had been obscured due to the flames and the smoke inhalation.

The following day, I received a prize of 25 rubles from the city council. I refused to accept it, and stated that I would donate that sum to set up a fire brigade in the town. This proposal met the favor of all the town officials. The city council gathered its honorable members, the factory owners, the merchants, the wealthy people, etc. They organized among themselves the beginnings of a voluntary fire brigade in Ruzhany. Each of them pledged three rubles. A sum of 300 rubles was collected in total. The aforementioned 25 rubles was added to this sum. The brigade came into being and started its first important activities, which yielded great results in the annals of the town.

I was then appointed as the head of the brigade. I remained faithfully in that post until the day when I left the city to make aliya to the Land.

From A. Leviathan

The Voluntary Fire Brigade in Ruzhany

Today, when we talk about “firefighters” we see red trucks hurrying around with a loud siren blaring through the streets of the city, as it speeds along to offer assistance and put out the fire. Experienced firefighters stand on the truck, who know how to use the fire fighting equipment in their hands in order to stop the destructive menace.

There is no similarity at all between the situation today with what was called the “Voluntary Fire Brigade” in our town. Nevertheless, this brigade had many tasks, not all of which were known to the townsfolk. In theory, the brigade only had to serve the town in the event of a fire, but in practice it gave the Jewish youth of the town the chance to organize as a unit that would protect their independent honor in any contingency.

[Page 73]

ruz073.jpg [30 KB] - The Volunteer Firefighters Brigade of Ruzhany at its inception
The Volunteer Firefighters Brigade of Ruzhany at its inception
Seated in the bottom row from right to left:
Avraham Yitzchak Chwojnik, Kamintsky, Fishel Pines, –, –, –, Mordechai Pines.
Next row up: – , – , – , – , Moshka Kaplinski, Shayka, Yaakov Shemshinowich,
Abba Leviatan (the fire chief), Aryeh Leib Pines, Fishel Chwojnik, Leizer Chazatzky, –

In theory, this brigade would accept anyone who desired as a member, both Jew and Christian. However, in practice, almost all of the members were Jews. Of course, the organization was officially recognized by the authorities. Therefore, when the district minister visited, it was this brigade that greeted it.

Not only was this brigade able to take credit for the acts of bravery during the extinguishing of fires; it was also able to do so for many independent acts of assistance and self-defense – the extinguishing of fires of a different sort.

On three occasions when there was a change of government in the country and the town was left as a sheep without a shepherd, the members of this brigade protected the local Jews and prevented disorder and acts of plunder and pillage.

Whenever the young men of the brigade passed by in formation wearing their shiny brass helmets and fine uniforms, the Jewish residents of the town would straighten their backs and, with justified pride, feel an extra measure of safety, according to the verse “Behold, He who does not slumber and does not sleep is the guardian of Israel.”[2]

The Drills of the Firefighters Brigade

When the sound of a trumpet was heard as a sign to summon the firefighters, and I was a young child among the other children, everyone hastened to the headquarters. It was a special delight for me to see the brigade organize itself, and to accompany it in its practices, training and official drills. The instruments of the fire brigade were flashing in their hands and sparking in the sunlight.

[Page 74]

ruz074.jpg [35 KB] - The Volunteer Firefighters Brigade of Ruzhany after WW1
The Volunteer Firefighters Brigade of Ruzhany after the First World War
Third row from the bottom, standing right to left:
–, –, –, Tzvi Epshteyn, –, Heshel Gebzah, Szkliravitz, –, –, –, –, Slutitzky.
Second row from the bottom, seated right to left:
Alter Epshteyn, –, –, Katzman, –, Aber Liverant, Yisrael Nyumeches.

[Page 75]

Those marching would sing pleasant marching songs.

Our eyes could not see enough of the pleasant sight of our marching youths, and our ears of hearing the lively and encouraging trumpet blasts. The marching songs of the firefighters' band during the parade filled the heart with pride and strength. Visions of the past were awakened in me – from the time when we were living in our own Land and our soldiers marched outside of Zion and Jerusalem with an upright stature. Hope beat in the heart: we will yet renew our days as old. We wanted for the parade to continue for a long time, and it was a shame when the pleasant moments during which the parade passed by our houses were over.

Meir Sokolowsky

Fear of Pogroms in the Town in 1904

New winds began to blow in Russia. The workers, whose work to this point had been backbreaking with endless hours and meager payment, began to organize. Strikes broke out. Demands were made. The Russians were concerned about this awakening and decided to direct the wrath of the suffering masses against the Jews. This constant incitement had its effect on the gentile residents of the towns. They prepared to pillage, plunder, and murder their Jewish neighbors. The aroma of revenge against the Jews wafted through the air and also entered the nostrils of our neighbors, the residents of the nearby villages, who were also preparing to rise up against the Jews of the town.

I organized the Jewish members of the firefighters brigade (who were the majority of its members) into a self-defense unit. However, the weapons were few: approximately 12 guns in the entire city and three additional ones in the fire hall, for a grand total of 15 guns. We searched for effective means of defense. If someone says he searched and he found, you should believe him.[3]. We decided that in the event of disturbances, we would set a fire in one of the wheat storehouses in one of the neighboring villages, known for its wild people. Since they would have to hasten to put out the fire in their village, they would leave the town.

ruz075.jpg [10 KB] - Abba Leviatan
Abba Leviatan

We requested the help of the police force to protect the Jews of the town from the incident hooligans. A new Pristov (police chief) appeared accompanied by several brazen policemen. The police chief related to me in an inimical manner, for they told him that I do not permit him to be given an appropriate bribe each time. One day I was summoned to him. When I arrived, he received me in his room. He was sitting and writing, not paying any attention to me. I was standing the entire time and waiting, for a person does not sit down in front of a high officer before he is requested to do so. He continued his writing. I leaned on his writing table. He raised his head and called out in anger:

“This is not your carpentry table!” (I was a carpenter.)

“My carpentry table is as important to me as your writing table is to you”, I answered.

He straightened his head and looked at me, who had been brazen with him, in anger.

[Page 76]

“Who are you?”, he asked me.

“A resident of the city of Ruzhany, the head of the volunteer firefighters brigade, and a trustee of the Great Synagogue.”

He lowered his voice as he spoke:

“Why did you come?”

“Because you summoned me.”

He called his secretary and asked:

“Why did you summon him?”

“Because you wanted to speak to him,” answered the secretary.

“Oh yes, I wanted to speak to you, and since you are here, let us discuss: why are you arranging the strikes?”

“This time you did not turn to the correct address,” I answered him, “what do I and my organization have to do with strikes?”

“You know that these strikes are causing unrest, and the farmers are getting wild.” (The government itself was among the inciters.)

“Perhaps you want us to assist your few policemen?”

“We have no need for assistance. We are able to maintain the order ourselves,” was his answer. Our conversation concluded with this.

We organized and were prepared. One bright day, when we saw that matters were not proper, and that the farmers were planning a real activity against us, we sent one of the youths to ignite the wheat storehouse in the village of Vylia. When the fire broke out, and was clearly visible in the town, the farmers cast aside their weapons in their hands and ran to extinguish the fire in their village and in their houses. Of course, they scattered in all directions.

Our plan succeeded. From then, our gentile neighbors in Ruzhany stopped dreaming about pogroms, for they knew that the Jewish youths would pay them back measure for measure.

By A. Leviatan

Translator's Footnotes
  1. Yachid in Hebrew means 'only'. Ben Yachid means 'only child'. return
  2. Psalms 121:4. return
  3. A Talmudic adage. return

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