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[Page 278-288]

My Memories of Slutsk

by Eliohu Shulman (New York)

Translated by Paul Pascal

(Toronto, Canada, January 1994)

General Overview

White Russia, or Byelorussia [“Raissn” in Yiddish] was frequently depicted in Jewish literature: Avrom Reisen, Dovid Einhorn, Moishe Kohlbach, Leib Naidus, H. Leivick, and the “grandfather', Mendele Moikher-Sforim, portrayed the landscape the fields, and the forests with their little white birch trees. Somehow a delicate, quiet sadness enveloped this countryside. The sadness could be felt in the folksongs of the White Russian peasants, and in the descriptions found in Jewish literature.

But you could not say that White Russia was entirely poor and drab. Slutsk was a lively town, full of activity and of wonderfully energetic Jews. The town was a regional seat, an “oyezdne gorod,” – the center of economic and cultural life for a large district. In the surrounding shtetlach (Jewish villages) as well, creative activity bubbled over. Slutsk is noted in the chronicles of Chmielnitski's [Cossack] uprising. It is believed that Jewish Slutsk is 400 years old.

Slutsk, A Jewish Town

I remember Slutsk as a Jewish town, although many Christians also lived there. All the government appointees, the teachers in all the Russian schools and gimnazias (high schools) were non-Jews. In Slutsk there also lived Lutherans; on Broad Street (Breiter Gass or Shirokoi Ulitsa) near the Boulevard, there was a Lutheran church. Many Poles lived in town as well. In 1918, a Polish gimnazia was founded, which had many students. Christians lived on Tritshan Street near the monastery, on Broad Street, on Yuryev Street near the Zemstva (District Administration), on New Street, on Ostrava, and on some side streets. However, the largest part of the population was Jewish.

Slutsk Jews absorbed themselves in commerce and labor. I can recall only a few non-Jewish stores in Slutsk, such as Mukhin Bros. Co., Gorokhovich, and a few others. Almost all the other stores on the Chaussee (main street) and on the streets near the Chaussee were Jewish. Besides running stores, Jews were also skilled. workers of various kinds. The town was full of Jewish tailors, cobblers, quilt-makers, bricklayers, dyers, carpenters, comb-makers, potters, cutters, wig-makers, and so on.

Slutsk was a true intermediary between city and country. From every direction, each Sunday peasants would arrive in town with their produce. Jewish men and women would buy up corn, wheat, barley, eggs, potatoes, chickens, and cows, from the peasants. Sunday until noon the businesses would stay closed, because that was the time for the Christians to be in church, but after twelve o'clock all the stores would open and the peasants would buy whatever they needed.

The countryside around Slutsk produced a lot of grain and the Slutsk merchants would purchase the grain and ship it all over the Russian empire. In Slutsk there were three steam-run mills: Fainberg's, Gutzait's, and Mishelev's. Their flour was sent to the most far-flung places. Jews would also buy up pigs' hair and even export it abroad.

In the hardest times of the First World War or the Bolshevik period of December 1918 to August 1919 (after which the Poles occupied S1utsk) – even when all of Russia was starving – Slutsk bad enough bread not only for its own needs but also for export. During this period, so-called meshotshnikes would arrive in Slutsk daily, people with sacks come to buy up broad. Every day, thousands of pounds of flour would be taken out of Slutsk, whether by train or by wagon.

Slutsk had an abundance of orchards and gardens, both in the town proper and in the outskirts, and the well known. “Slutsk berries” were packed in cases shipped deep into Russia. Slutsk also produced a fine goose- schmaltz, which was famous everywhere. In general you could say that the town was truly alive, industrious, and creative.

Slutsk was full of Jewishness. Among her residents were real Jewish scholars and students. In every synagogue, between afternoon and evening prayers, people would pore over the religious books such as Ein Yaankev, Hayei Odem, and the Talmud. After dinner on the day of the Sabbath the synagogues were packed.

Slutsk had 18 synagogues and studyhouses. In the Shul Heif (Synagogue Courtyard) alone there were five: the splendid and truly magnificent Kalteh Shul (Cold Synagogue), the extremely old Kloiz, the Beis-Medresh Ha-Godl (the Great Synagogue), the Karnayim Shul (Horns Synagogue), and the Schnaidersheh Shul (Tailors' Synagogue).

Not far from the Shul Heif were the Katsovisheh Shul (Butchers' Synagogue), Reb Isserkeh's Shul, and the Mishnayes (Talmud-study) Shul, In the Kalteh Shul were two little houses of prayer – the Moirevankes [or Muraveinikes: the Yiddish spelling seems to allow for two pronunciations, and therefore -two meanings – in Yiddish, “The God-Fearers”; in Russian, “The Ant-hill”!]; and the Vatikin Shtibl, (Sages' or seasoned One's House of Prayer) was situated in the Beis-Medrash Ha-Godl.

In the Mishnayes Shul was the only Hassidic house of prayer. Besides those, there were other shuls: the. Kapulyer Shul, the Bal Ha-batisheh (Well-to-do) Shul, the Kirzhner (Furriers' or Hatters') Shul, the Zaretser Shul, the Vigoder Shul, the Ostrover Shul, the Shmidesheh (Blacksmiths') Shul, and the New and Old Shuls on Khapashker Street.

The town was filled with one-room Jewish schools (kheders), small schools of higher Jewish learning (yeshivahs), and one big yeshivah, two community-supported Jewish schools for the poor, and a modern Jewish school. The great Slutsk Yeshivah was respected throughout Russia. Yeshivah boys came there from the most distant places. The Yeshivah published a periodical, “Yogdil Teireh” (“God Makes the Torah Great”). In the Yeshivah an on-going battle raged between the Muserniks (followers of a nineteenth century religious movement which stressed moral strictness) and their opponents. Slutsk was totally absorbed in Jewishness.

The World Comes to Slutsk

But the spirit of modernity also infiltrated the town. Slutsk had many Russian schools: the classical Men's Gimnazia, the Women's Gimnazia, the Commerce School, the Pension (Boarding School), several pro-gimnazias [preparing the student for gimnazia], the government-run Jewish school (Yevreiskoye Utshilishtshe), the municipal school (the “Gorodskoye”). Near the monastery there was the Greek Orthodox religious school (the “Dukhovnoye Utshilishtshe” or “Spiritual School”). In the gimnazias a certain percent were non-Jews, but many Jewish children studied there. In addition, the “Realist” School arrived in 1917, as well as the White Russian gimnazia and a technical school.

Slutsk was truly a cultural center, and the town was filled with scholars from the surrounding villages and hamlets. They needed textbooks and so consequently there were a number of booksellers in town: Greenwald's, Rubinstein's, Tomashov's, Feitlson's, and a number of others. In the Byelorussian and secular bookstores you could also buy Jewish and Hebrew books, newspapers, and periodicals.

The town's community library had a significant place as well. It was founded at the beginning of this century by the Zionists. It held a large collection of Russian, Hebrew, and Yiddish books. At one time, it was located on Khapashker Street or Vilensky Street [on next page author confirms it was Khapashker]. After the great fire of 1915, it was moved to another location, on a side street near the Exchequer (kazna-tshestva). Later it relocated in the one-time home of the government- run Jewish school. Among the librarians were Elyeh Charny, Afelsin, Zoluskin, Bunin, and Aaron Rolnik. It's amazing that such a small, out-of-the-way town should contain so many Jewish and general cultural institutions.

As mentioned earlier, Russians, White Russians, and Poles also lived in Slutsk, her surroundings, and her estates. These were landowning families, but even together they would not have been able to sustain any post- elementary schools without the help of the Jewish population.

Another phenomenon in Slutsk were touring theater troupes, both Jewish and Russian, as well as amateur groups. Theater was staged at Soloveitchik's Hall in the “Squires' Club” (later called the Democratic Hall), and in the auditoriums of the Commerce School and the Gimnazia.

My Family

The writer of these lines left Slutsk in October 1920, during the time the Polish army occupied Slutsk for a second time. I was then just a young fellow, but I clearly remember our town, before the First World War, during the Revolution, during the German and Polish occupations, and during the early Bolshevik regime from November 1917 until the Germans came in January 1918. The Bolsheviks took Slutsk a second time and ruled from December 1918 until August 1919. The third time was from July 1920 to October 1920.

My father left Slutsk when I was four years old, consequently I spent a lot of time in the home of my grandfather, Yossl Barhan. He lived on Khapashker Street, where he had a grocery store. Other Barhans lived on the property as well. The oldest, Shaia-Yoba Barhan, an uncle of my grandfather, was a retired soldier of Nikolai's army. In the army he learned shoemaking, so he took this up when he came back home. His wife Riva worked with medicinal suction cups, leeches for bloodletting, and so on, and for that reason she was known as the “doktorsheh.

Shaia-Yoba's oldest son was Isroel Barhan, a well-known personality in town – the head of the town's volunteer fire brigade, (gorodskaya pozharna), a friend of all the police officials, of the Marshallek (chief of police), and of the landowners, and a frequenter of the Squires' Club. A story is told of how Isroel traveled once to the governor in Minsk on a mission for the Marshallek but took the opportunity to bring back revolvers for the Jewish self-defense group [against pogroms]. Isroel Barhan did many favors for Jews. As a confidant of every regime, be was successful in freeing [falsely-] arrested Jews.

My grandfather Yossi Barhan, the boilermaker, had been to America a number of times – the first time in 1892 – and lived in Odessa and Ekaterinoslav for a period of time. An enlightened man, a reader of [current] Jewish literature, he would lend and trade books with the Hebrew tutor Pesach Ezra (Pesach Karon), who had a private library. Along with Dovid Nisenson and Itsheh, the official Torah chanter, he subscribed to Jewish newspapers. On the same property, right by the river, lived Isroel Barhan. That's where the orchestra of the “Firefighters Commando” would rehearse.

The Neighbors and The Neighborhood

The Zionist library was in Finkelstein's house on Khapashker Street until 1915. The owner of a furniture business and its cabinet-maker, Borukh Postov, was active in the Zionists'charity fund, or as it was officially called, the “Tshaina” (teahouse), because at the beginning of the Zionist movement a teahouse-Zionist club existed there.

On Khapashker Street a wealthy man, Ostrovsky, lived in a two-story house. His sons, students, would come home during vacations, wearing their student uniforms. The happiest house on Khapashker Street was Zelig Maniuk's. Zelig was a tailor. A large sign with a blue background and big gold letters announced that this was the location of a “tailor of military and civilian clothing.” Military men and nobility would bring their finery to Zelig. Besides himself, there were his sons, Yonkl, Araleh (killed at the front in the First World War), Elkana-Neyakh and his young son Velvl, and Hayim helped out. Several associates also worked with him. Zelig had daughters in America, and they sent home plastinkas (phonograph records) with songs from the Yiddish theater. The gramophone played all day long, and everyone sang along. In particular I remember one song, “Look, God, See For Yourself” (“Gott, zeh allein”).

Two synagogues were on Khapashker Street: the Old and the New. The Old was a wooden affair containing a beautifully carved holy ark, a fine Torah-reading platform with polished railing, and heavy brass chandeliers. My great grandfather, Itzik-Mikhl Barhan, was the assistant shammes (sexton) in the Old Shul. The New Shul was a brick building, whitewashed, and much bigger than the Old Shul. Rich influential people davvened (prayed) in the New Shul. All the Barhans davvened in the Old Shul except my grandfather, who had a reserved seat in the New Shul.

Like all synagogues everywhere, the New Shul on Khapashker would be decorated in honor of Simkhes Teireh (Simhat Torah). Around the reading platform and throughout the whole shul wires were strung on which there hung colorful paper lanterns. Red apples were fitted into the chandeliers with candles stuck in them. People lit fireworks shot from little rifles. The older, established folk would object, but in retrospect, I think they were also envious.

On the eve of Tisha B'Ov (a solemn day of fasting and mourning), young boys would gather pinecones and, during the dirges, fling them into the thick beards of the important people, and inside their collars. On Yom Kippur at Kol Nidre time, the rich folk would bring big, thick, wax candles, and set them into small boxes filled with sand the candles would burn the entire twenty-four hours.

Purim was very joyful in shul, except for youngsters who were crippled. We would arrive with big sticks and beat up on Homen (Haman) with all our might. Epstein the dentist passed out money to the kids who were toughest on the legendary villain.

The Streets of Slutsk

Khapashker Street was connected to the Chausee by a number of side streets. One street started next to the New Shul – Sadover (Orchard) Street. A number of very beautiful wooden houses existed on that street. In one of them lived the wealthy Evin family. In another lived Migdal, an agent for an insurance company. Across the street was Krainess' Hotel, where gentile landowners would lodge. A little further along was Soloveitchik's Theater – and in the garden was the “Summer Theater.” Russian and Jewish troupes would perform at Soloveitchik's. Kids from the street were taken for roles in the Jewish productions. This is how I “performed” a few times in the Jewish theater.

A second street, linking Khapashker Street with the Chausee, started opposite Tshiptshin's Pharmacy. On that street you could find Vitkin's brick house, Shaia-Mendl Dretshin's large haberdashery, the Bristol Gastinitsa (Hotel), and at the very end, the home of Epstein the dentist. Opposite Epstein lived Bronstein the pharmacist, whose son was the Kazyoner rabbi.

A third street began next to the little wooden church [on Khapashker]. It went toward Tritshan. Mainly Christians lived on this street, but the lawyer Tshiptin [sic; Tshiptshtin or Chipchin] had his house there. The same street went through Drai Bedli Klatkess (a narrow footbridge over the river) and connected to Krivisolka Street and the [Jewish] cemetery. Khapashker Street -stretched past the monastery, but the second section of the street, closer to the monastery, was referred to as Tritshan Street.

The monastery grounds were surrounded by a thick brick wall. Inside were a number of churches, a residence for monks, for priests, and the tombs (mohilhas) of the Christian aristocracy. There were beautiful pictures inside the monastery. Boys would often go into the monastery to play on the huge grounds there and watch how the gentiles pray. Sundays and on Christian festivals great numbers of gentiles would make their way through Khapashker Street toward the monastery.

The children of Khapashker Street were not very taken up with Jewish learning. They played in barrels, swam in the river, marched around in imitation of the volunteer fire brigade, and spent a lot of time playing with pigeons. On our block there also lived a Christian family – Petryl and Shakloita. Their children went to the Greek Orthodox religious school, but they spoke a good Yiddish and chummed around with Jewish children

The Great Fire Forces a Move

In the summer of 1915, a great fire broke out. Everything on Khapashker Street was burned down, including both shuls, the library, and Tshiptshin's pharmacy. Our family resettled on Bobruisk Street, near Leizer Vilensky, the shammes of the Great Synagogue and of the Linness Ha-Tsedek (hostel for the poor). This new location was a complete change – a narrow, crowded street, with no river and no trees – but we got used to it. It was a new neighborhood with new faces.

Leizer Vilensky, otherwise known as Leizer the Shammes, had two daughters – Khasheh-Reizl and Riva. Khasheh-Reizl gave private lessons in Russian and arithmetic. She was a Zionist, and when Zionists would get together at the Vilensky house she would read out various literary pieces, sing, and recite Hebrew and Yiddish poetry. Among the visitors to the house were Avrom-Itsheh Shpilkin, Nokhum Chinitz [one of the editors of this book], Shmuel-Neyakh Goldberg, Shmaryohu Barhan, Feigl Tucker, Kaminsky, and other Zionists. Khasheh-Reizl was also friendly with a number of very intelligent girls such as Feigl Lisbaran, Dona Epstein, and Raitseh Katzenelson. Raitseh Katzenelson would often take a Russian book and read it aloud directly in Yiddish. Leizer's younger daughter Riva was a student of the gimnazia. Riva Vilenskaia and Gabai would present Zionist lectures in Russian.

Besides the comings and goings of Vilensky's daughters and their friends, many other people also came to the house to learn accounting with Leizer's wife.

Messl [Moishe] Immerman and his family lived in the second house next to us. His wife was a baker. In that same house lived Henya, whose occupation it was to stuff tobacco into paper cigarette-tubes (papirosn). It was always cheerful in that household. You could come and buy baked goods and unpackaged cigarettes. At the end of the street lived a family whose name I recall as “Coffee”(“Kaveh”). Coffee's son Eliohu-Borukh was a Bundist (follower of a leftist Jewish diaspora-centered nationalism movement) from as early as 1905. He would often visit us and carry on discussions about Zionism and Bundism; he found no lack of people interested in discussing those topics.

The daughter of Yabrov the carpenter was a Bundist. Yabrov's son, Neyakh, was one of the first members of the Jewish Communist Party of White Russia, which existed for but a short time. Later he was a high-ranking officer in the Red Army.

Hayim-Leib the Scribe

Right next to us lived my uncle, Hayim-Leib the seifer (i.e. – soifer or sofer – scribe). Hayim-Leib would ship Torah scrolls, mezuzahs, and tfilin (phylacteries) all over Russia and even to America. Scribes would sit in his house and do their calligraphy. Right in the house they would turn raw skins into parchment. I was there, dragging the wet pelts to and from; my dream was to become a parchment maker.

Hayim-Loib took an interest in the welfare of yeshivah students. He would arrange free accommodation for them, and help get up a community rotation of free meals (essn teg, lit. “eating days”). His sons, Eliohu and Binyomin, were scribes. Eliohu also studied Talmud with the congregation at the Great Synagogue.

A third son was the well-known maggid (preacher), “Meisheh Yidaber”, author of the interpretive religious works, Meisheh Yidaber [note that the author's name is derived from his book, not vice versa; lit. “Thus Spoke Moses”], and Face of the Sun. He was a son-in-law of Reb Nekhemya, the head of the Yeshivah. Reb Nekhemya's daughters were learned girls, Folkistkehs. [Followers of the Folkistn Movement asserted that Jews as a group were not members of the proletariat, as the socialists believed, but of the middle class.], and teachers at Slutsk's first Jewish Secular School. Later one daughter became a doctor.

Further Down Bobruisk Street

Also situated on Bobruisk Street was the Shelter for Poor Wanderers (Hakhnosses Orkhim). Later the Jewish Assistance Committee (“Yekapa” or E. K. P.) opened a soup kitchen there. The Landes family had a fine house with an orchard not far from the “beetshak” [meaning unknown]. They had a dry goods business. Their oldest son was the bead of the Zionist Youth, the middle son was active in the Bund, and the youngest was a member of the Jewish Socialist Workers' Party. They had two lovely daughters, one a dentist and the other a teacher in the White Russian gimnazia. At the end of the block in a brick house lived the family of Yossl Harkavi, who produced cheese. His daughter, Musya, was a passionate Zionist. She left for Palestine, got married, but died young. Harkavi had sons, students, who were also Zionists. At a large Zionist demonstration at the Shul Heif (main Synagogue Courtyard), following the February 1917 revolution, one of the sons gave a fiery speech, declaring that Jews must be able to defend themselves.

At the end of the street was the new Yeshivah building and next to that lived my teacher, M. -Hazanovich, of the Jewish “Modern School”.

The “Modern School”

When I turned six, I began the Moriah Modern School. It was different from the old-fashioned kheders. First of all, school went only till 3 p.m., instead of 8 p.m., as the kheders did. Secondly, the Modern School was divided into classes. Students didn't sit at long tables but at separate desks. However, these are only the formal distinctions. The Modern School differed in more important details. The learning style was more progressive, using modern readers, teaching Hebrew grammar and Bible study, Jewish history, geography of the Land of Israel. In a short time the students were speaking Hebrew. Soirees would frequently be held in the evening where slides would be shown, Hebrew poems recited, and songs sung. During my time there, Russian and mathematics were not taught, but in comparison to the old kheder, the Modern School was a progressive phenomenon.

When I left the Modern School, my grandfather sent me to a regular kheder, to Avremeleh the Melamed (Avremeleh Zaturensky, the Hebrew tutor). Why, I don't know. I was already well versed in Bible and Scripture, and here I was sitting, in an old-fashioned kheder, studying Genesis. “In the beginning…” from the beginning. After a term there, I spent a second term learning with Stifakov, a follower of the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment Movement). His method of teaching was pretty outdated, though we did learn Hebrew as a living language, and we did write essays.

By that time, the Moriah Modern School no longer existed. But Gutzait opened a private school, at the home of Ben-Tsion Shpilkin, together with Avrom-Itsheh Shpilkin. I was a student there until I went to the Commerce School in 1917.

Jewish Children in Russian Schools

After the February 1917 revolution, Jewish children flocked to the Russian schools. The quota system, which restricted Jewish attendance, had been abolished. A Jew no longer had to pay tuition for a number of gentile children in order that his own child would be able get around the quota. The traditional kheders closed down one after the other. In order to stem the tide to Russian schools, even Agudas Isroel (a very traditional institution) opened a modernized religious middle school. I, however, opted to wear “the hat with the green trim”, the uniform with green stripes at the collar, and prepare myself for government exams.

Riva Vilenskaia tutored me, and very soon I was sitting for the exam. In September 1917, 1 entered. the Slutsk School of Commerce – the Commerce School. It was headed. by the liberal director, Dmitri Ivanovich Ivanov. The students in the higher grades were evenly divided, Jews and Christians. In the lower grades most of the students were Jews. The Jewish students spoke Yiddish among themselves – not only during recesses, but also in class proper. Most of the teachers were Russian women. The physical education instructor was a Pole, who, later under the Polish occupation, became the warden of the Slutsk Prison. Another teacher was the well-known Bundist, Leib Mishkovsky. The Commerce School, in contrast to the old kheder, was a real academy. Frequently, dances and pageants were held at the school. I was a student there for three years.

In spring of 1920, the Polish gendarmerie discovered a communist cell at the school, and the school was shut down. A short time later, the Poles evacuated, but not before burning down the Commerce School, among others. By the fall of 1920, the Commerce School had opened again, in the building of the former Men's Gimnazia. As for me, it was already the eve of my departure for America.

In the course of just three years, the Commerce School had accomplished a great deal. During the German occupation, the occupiers had not interfered. As long as the German language was taught from the earliest grade on, they were happy. During the Polish occupation, there was a course in Polish language and history. When the Bolsheviks returned (December 1918 to August 1919), definite reforms were carried out: homework was abolished; nature walks were instituted on the estates and in the countryside; lectures on the history of the Revolutionary Movement were held; tuition fees were eliminated.

The three years at the Commerce School were interesting and important for young people. At the same time, however, I was continuing my studies of Hebrew and Hebrew literature. That was around the time of the founding of the evening courses at “Tarbess” (“Tarbut” or “Culture”). The evening classes took place in the building of the old Jewish community school (the “Talmud-Teireh”). My teachers were Hazanovich, Chinitz, and Nekritsh.

A Story About Gabriel

In 1912 the Jewish population of Slutsk was fearing a pogrom, in connection with the proposed transfer of the Holy Gabriel's bones from the Suprasl Monastery to the Slutsk Monastery.

This is how it happened: “And it came to pass...” the head priest of the Slutsk Monastery one day stood up and told his congregants that the Holy Gabriel came to him in a dream and requested that his bones be transferred back to Slutsk's holy “Tritshan Monastery”. A new church was built on the grounds of the Slutsk Monastery as a tomb for Gabriel's bones. For weeks prior, people were housecleaning and washing the town. Slutsk had never been as clean and tidy. The inmates of the Slutsk Prison, in their jail-frocks and round hats, swept and cleaned the main streets, painted the houses and the fences.

The police were outfitted in new uniforms. As if anticipating a pogrom, police were brought in from Minsk and Bobruisk, and the local firefighters were mobilized. A few days before the ceremony, important guests started arriving: the governor of Minsk guberniya, the archbishop, bishops from Moscow and Kiev, and high-ranking military officers. There were fears of disturbances.

The great holy day began quite early. Tens of thousands of people came to Slutsk. The procession streamed through Khapashker Street. Holy pictures and flags were hold aloft. The White Russian peasants remained quite peaceful. Since you couldn't buy liquor on that day, even the drunkards couldn't make trouble. For the entire morning, the Jews stayed in their homes. By noon., however, they ventured out into the streets, and mixed with the guests. On this occasion, the police actually did keep order, and everything transpired peaceably.

« Editor's Note: The story of the Holy Gabriel is mentioned in “Sketches” Volume I, by H. Boyarsky, and we present it here translated from the Hebrew:

In 1690, an accusation of ritual murder was dreamt up against the Jews of Bialystok and Zabludove, alleging that they had killed a Christian boy named Gabriel. In time he was made a saint. His bones were interred in Slutsk's Greek Orthodox (Provoslaz) Monastery. The blood-libel was commemorated a number of times in the Russian Duma (Czarist era parliament) and also at Beilis's trial [an influential blood-libel trial in Kiev, 1911]. In 1908, in accordance with a decree from the Orthodox Church, Gabriel's coffin was moved from the Slutsk Monastery near Bialystok, to the Suprasl Monastery near Bialystok. There a huge procession of priests and ever-increasing crowds took place. At that time, also, they circulated a newly printed Russian brochure entitled 'The Young Gabriel.” »

1914-1920: War and Its Results

In the summer of 1914, a general mobilization was called. The First World War was beginning. The town was filled with mobilized soldiers. Inasmuch as Slutsk had no train in 1914, the soldiers would go on foot to the nearest train station – Uretsheh. Each day, whenever a group – Christians and Jews – would prepare to leave, terrible shrieks and cries broke out. Men gave their wives a tnai-get (a conditional divorce that frees the wife to re-marry if her husband does not return from war). Wives were left without the means to get by.

It so happened that at that time in Slutsk there were a number of Jewish actors so benefit performances were staged. A huge concert was arranged in the Cold Shul, starring the famous actor Lensky.

The war was creating tremendous tension. People would grab any newspapers from Minsk, Moscow, and Petersburg. The printer Tomashov put out a daily bulletin, and a large crowd would continually stand by the print shop and wait. Since the Slutsk Chaussee led directly to Brest-Litovsk, large baggage transports streamed daily along that road toward the front. The town became full of soldiers on their march to the war. They would be billeted overnight in private homes.

In no time, masses of White-Russian refugees began appearing, coming from Grodno and Suvalki guberniyas. They had abandoned their farms and were fleeing into the Russian interior. They trudged along in covered wagons. As a result of all this hardship and suffering, sickness accompanied them; many of their young children died. The Ziemtsva (District Administration) helped them a little, then sent them on.

Very soon Jewish refugees, as well, began appearing, running from the Polish towns around the German border. These refugees, Polish Jews with long beards and peyess (religiously mandated sidelocks), long kaftans, and deep Polish accents, brought out a sense of wonder in us. The Jewish Assistance Committee (E. K. P.) immediately took them under its care.

Overall, in fact, the refugees were warmly received. They were billeted in private homes and in synagogues. Kitchens were open to them. Most of them eventually traveled more deeply into Russia. Refugees also arrived from Baranovich, Brisk, Lekhevich, Sinyavka – villages that were close to the front. A special school was opened for the children of the refugees. This was a Jewish Secular School, with Yiddish as the language of instruction and Hebrew as a subject. Later, in 1917, this school became part of the [new] school system operated by the [post-Czarist] Educational Committee of Slutsk.

The front was drawing closer. Soon the highest-ranking staff of the Third Army arrived in Slutsk. The whole town was transformed into a military camp. Officers and soldiers were quartered in private homes and in public buildings. Synagogues and houses of study were confiscated and occupied by soldiers. Military hospitals were opened.

Wherever you walked and wherever you stood, all you would see were soldiers and officers. Large warehouses with provisions were set up. Transports headed to the front daily, and always returned with wounded. It was during this period that the railway line was extended to Slutsk [for the first time], from Uretsheh. Because of the overcrowding, epidemics broke out in town: cholera, typhus, dysentery. I myself was sick at this time.

Thanks to the stationing in Slutsk of the Third Army, the town became rich. Suddenly the town had new moguls, new entrepreneurs who had been able to stock the army with its needed supplies. They bought up corn and wheat and sent it deep into the interior of the country. Abundance creates new rich people, but it also creates new poor people who cannot adjust to the new circumstances.

Life in our town was accelerating rapidly. Theater and movies had come to Slutsk, balls and military parades were taking place. Army Cossacks showed off fancy tricks, riding on their adorned horses. But you couldn't say that the Jewish youth showed enthusiasm for fighting on behalf of Nikolai. They tried finding ways around having to go serve. Bribes would be given to the Marshallek and other members of the [military] “Presence” (“Prisutstva”). In the “Presence” at that time was a Jewish doctor named Marakhovsky. (He married Ora Zindel's daughter.) Since the whole “Presence” was mixed up with graft, he was made into the sacrificial lamb. He was arrested, and his colleagues had him poisoned in prison.

The Revolution

In February 1917 rumors spread that uprisings against the regime were occurring in Petrograd and Moscow. Within a day, students appeared in Slutsk streets proclaiming, “Down with Self-rule” and “Down with the Monarchy”. They marched down the Chaussee. The police and military command were nonchalant about it. It became clear that Russia had been liberated from its monarchy. There were daily assemblies and meetings. A town election was set, and huge election rallies were held. Political parties developed all kinds of activities.

On the Jewish streets, activists appeared as if out of nowhere: Zionist Youth, Labor Zionists, Mizrakhi (Religious Zionists), Agudas Isroel (Religious Non-Zionists), Bundists, the United Jewish Socialist Workers' Party (Sionistsheskikh Sotsialsti or “S. S.”) the Volkspartei. In addition there were other active groups in town: the “Cadets” (Constitutional Democratic Party, which favored an interim constitutional monarchy leading to a republic sometime in the indefinite future), the Socialist-Revolutionaries, the Mensheviks, the Bolsheviks. There was constant excitement and discussion. The parties opened clubs and reading rooms.

One morning, my sister ran into the house with great enthusiasm: there was a Jewish announcement – a poster had been put up in Yiddish. I went straight out into the street and saw a large notice in Yiddish about a Sholem Aleikhem evening in Soloveitchik's Theater. Very soon a Yiddish theater was indeed created. All the actors were amateurs. The principal actors were the Tsimering sisters from Lekhevich. They performed Hirschbein, Kabrin, Sholem Aleikhem, Gordin, and Andreyev. Another of the principals was Salap.

At that time, in the group, which called itself “The Disseminators of [Jewish] Enlightenment” (Mfitsei Haskoleh), there was great discussion on the pros and cons of Yiddish versus Hebrew. The proponents of each side brought in speakers from Minsk and Bobruisk. An animated political and cultural revival was going on. Our neighbors, the Byelorussians, had begun their own cultural revival of the Byelorussian language. Theater presentations were given in Byelorussian, White Russian books and newspapers were published. Ostrovski, one of their key activists, opened the White Russian gimnazia.

(After the Bolsheviks consolidated their power in White Russia, Ostrovski fled to Vilna, from where he pursued his campaign for an independent White Russia. In Vilna, he was director of a White Russian gymnasia. Later he cooperated with the Germans in trying to create a Nazi-controlled White Russia. In Smolensk he issued anti-Semitic appeals).
The war with the Germans continued, even after Kerenski's unsuccessful military offensive. [Kerenski held positions of power in Russia's Provisional Government, after the start of the revolutionary process but before the accession of the Bolsheviks]. A terrible demoralization spread throughout the Russian army. Each day soldiers from the Slutsk garrison turned back home. The Bolsheviks became active in Slutsk. They held huge meetings in the hall of the Democratic Club, where they prepared the public for new developments. Newspapers from Petrograd and Moscow were quickly snapped up; something was expected to happen.

But in the meantime, people were getting ready for the elections of the Constituent Assembly and for the All-Russias Jewish Convention. Agitators for various political streams arrived in town – Zionists, Agudas, Isroel, Bundists, United Jewish Socialists. Jewish newspapers from Petrograd also found their way to Slutsk – the great Zionist paper “Togblat” ('Daily Bulletin”) from Minsk; the Bundist “Vecker” (“Alarm”); “Der YicIff” and from faraway Kiev, the United Jewish Socialists' newspaper, “Di Nayeh Tsait” ('The New Times”).

In October 1917 the Bolshevik Revolution [i.e., the second of the two 1917 Russian revolutions] took place. In Slutsk, the soviet (people's council) of workers/peasants and soldiers/deputies made it known that the reins of power had been transferred to the soviets. At the very same time, the Zionists put on a huge celebration in the Great Synagogue – in honor of the Balfour Declaration [recognizing Jewish aspirations in Palestine].

Before the Bolsheviks could fortify themselves, Slutsk was occupied by the Germans in January 1918. Suddenly – in the middle of the day – in rolled trucks full of German soldiers, accompanied by cheers. The Germans stayed until December 1918. Many local opponents of Bolshevism were happy with the occupation. Those eleven months were tranquil ones. True, the Germans shipped out food and other things. They took the entire stockpile of iron that the Kerenski regime had collected on “Iron Day.” And they also had people do forced labor. You could “buy” your way out if you supplied someone else to take your place.

Since there were so many unemployed in town, the richer townspeople would hire unemployed to work for them. Contact was lost with America, and many wives whose husbands were in America suffered greatly, and needed to find some way of surviving. But, for that reason, links were established with Warsaw, Vilna and Berlin. In Hirsch Getzav's store on the Chausee the Germans had opened a book dealership, and Jewish newspapers from Lodz, Warsaw and Vilna would be sold from there. The Germans didn't concern themselves too much with the affairs of the town, as long as they could appropriate food. And the streets had to be kept clean.

They began to build a power station [the town's first]. Every day a military orchestra would play next to the commandant's office. Jewish prisoners of war in Germany would come home. The authorities also permitted political parties to function. Around October 1918, rumors were afoot that the Germans were about to surrender. The German revolution had broken out. This first expressed itself when [German] soldiers at a military bureau hung out a red flag. Soon after armistice, the Germans prepared to leave Slutsk.

Who would replace them in Slutsk? No one knew. Would it be the Polish legionnaires or the Bolsheviks? The White Russian newspaper “Rodne Krei” imagined that it would be the Poles. In only one night, the Germans vanished. The authorities undertook the administration; their hats were those of the Firefighters. After a few days, the Bolsheviks moved in. This was now December.1918.

The Bolsheviks began by a mobilization into the Red Army, with contributions and confiscations. The Cheka (counter-revolutionary secret police) had begun its work. Because of a famine in Russia, every day mesholshnikes (“sack-carriers”) would come to town wanting to buy up food. Slutsk had a lot of flour, so a great deal would be shipped out to other towns. But the scarcity was encroaching.

It was at that point that the poor compelled the rabbis to carry out a herem (religious ostracization, excommunication) against anyone who exported flour from town. The herem was executed in the Cold Shul. Both rabbis came. Black candles were lit, the faareh-bret (board on which dead bodies are ritually cleansed before burial) was brought out, and those who dared to ship out food from Slutsk were cursed [literally]. The herem had a huge impact.

In the meantime, the undeclared. war between Poland and Russia had broken out. Poland took Vilna and Baranovich – and were marching on Minsk and Slutsk. The Bund and the Labor Zionists mobilized their members for war. The Jewish Communist Party of White Russia, which had been founded at that time, also mobilized her members. (This was the only time the Bolsheviks permitted an independent Jewish communist party, as distinct from a sub-group of the broader party. The Jewish Communist Party lasted about one year.)

Berger, a Labor Zionist, and son of the Hebrew teacher Berger, was killed near Minsk, as were Yosseleh Krainess and Meisbeh Barhan. My uncle Alter Barhan was wounded. Shleimekeh Granat saved my uncle's life, by carrying him for miles on his shoulders.

Although business was still permitted at that time, co-operatives were opened with privileges for workers. The entire school system was made Communist, and the students had to vote as to which teachers should be allowed to continue teaching. Two theaters were opened, a Russian one and a Jewish one. Lectures, meetings, and parades were staged. In the market square, a rostrum was set up, and agitators made speeches. One of the main organizers in the soviet was Tivin although the head of the soviet, the boss of the town, was chosen from above.

The Jewish parties were all rendered Communist. The Bund opened a large club under the name of [a late Polish Bundist leader] Bronislav Grosser, in Marder's brick house where. there had once been a bank. The Labor Zionists opened a club in the hall of the former government-run Jewish school (Yevreiskoye Utshilishishe). All the while, the fighting went on between the Bolsheviks and the Poles-and in August 1919, the Poles occupied Slutsk.

The Poles came in with a great deal of fire and explosiveness. For the first few days, the soldiers looted a bit, but slowly order was restored. During this period of Polish occupation, America opened up again – letters and money arrived. Two delegates from New York visited, Naiburg and Tsurkov and brought a lot of help. The “Joint” [American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, or JDC, founded in 1914 to relieve Jewish overseas war sufferers] sent support. The Jewish Assistance Committee (E. K. P.) was revived. A soup kitchen was opened. Assistance was apportioned.

The Poles ruled with an iron hand. Elections for town council were indeed held, but since the majority elected were Jews, the council was never convened. A town head (“galava”) was appointed, but it was the military authorities and police who kept the reins of power. The anti-Semitism was undisguised, although it never got to the point of pogroms. Zionist Youth, the “HeHalutz” (the “Pioneer”), began to function again, while the Bund had its cooperative, “Einikait” (“Unity”). In the schools, the study of Polish and Polish history was instituted.

The arrest of a group of Communists in the nearby countryside caused a great stir. They were convicted of waging guerrilla warfare. On a Sunday when the town was packed with peasants come to market, eleven partisans were marched through the streets in chains in the direction of the tombs where they were shot. The peasants murmured: “Those communists must be Zhids (Jews) since it's our people who are doing the executing.”

When the Polish army took Kiev in spring of 1920, the authorities in Slutsk riskily undertook to put on a military parade on the Boulevard. But soon afterwards, the Red Army defeated the Poles, and the Bolsheviks began their Great March. The battered Polish army, which was streaming through the Slutsk Chaussee, had for several weeks in a row been terrorizing the populace, beating them up and pillaging. On the last day, the Poles set fire to the town and tore up the bridges. The fire was put out. However, the beautiful structure housing our Commerce School was burned to the ground, as well as a number of houses in the Colonia section of town.

The first thing the victorious Bolsheviks did was to have a celebration in Tsvirki's garden in honor of the “liberation”. Speeches were given by representatives of the “political prisoners,” Labor Zionists and Communists. The Cheka became active again, and shot more than twenty people that they had arrested. Every day, masses of soldiers passed through Slutsk asking, “How far to Warsaw?”

This round, the Bolsheviks stayed in Slutsk but a short time. The Red Army had suffered a huge defeat near Warsaw and later near Brest-Litovsk, and the great retreat had begun. But prior to that, the Bolsheviks had, with great fanfare, exhumed the bodies of the executed partisans and re-interred them in a collective grave in Colonia. In Krainess' Club (formerly the Democratic/Squires' Club) public courts-martial were conducted against deserters and civilian counter -revolutionaries. They were sentenced to death.

The arrival and discharging of the train bringing back the Red Army was completely orderly. Tens of thousands of soldiers filled the Chaussee. The soviet had put up posters warning Poles that for every Communist or worker [that came to harm], the Bolsheviks would shoot a Polish bourgeois. The Bolsheviks also arrested a number of Jews as “hostages” and. led them out of town. Among them were Isroel Barhan, Tshiptshin the pharmacist, and others.

After a battle in town, which lasted several days, the Poles recaptured Slutsk. This was now September 1920. Several townspeople were killed in the fighting. Soloveitchik's Theater was burned down, as well as Rozovsky's brick house, where the Jewish community offices were located. This time the Poles remained surprisingly subdued.

Before long everyone was anticipating that Slutsk would again pass into the hands of the Bolsheviks. A large part of the population left Slutsk. Some remained in Poland – in Slonim, Niesvizh, Baranovich, and Kletsk. Others went to Palestine and America.

I visited Slutsk in 1936. It was no longer the Slutsk of 1917 or 1920. Of all the synagogues, only the Tailors' Shul remained. A Jewish folk school still existed. But signs of the spiritual devastation were visible everywhere. A small Jewish presence remained until the Nazis came and ravaged it, erasing it altogether.

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