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[Pages 420-421]

Slutsk Suburbia - Townlets (Shtetlekh)


(Urechcha, Belarus)

5257' 2753'

by Nakhmen

Translated by Hershl Hartman

Uretshe was a distance of 25 verst (or vyorst) from Slutsk (1 verst = 2/3 mile). The shtetl spread across both sides of the old highway – a dirt road that led from Slutsk to Bobruisk by way of Uretshe and Hlusk. The houses were mostly wooden and many were also roofed with thatch. There were about 200 families. Most of the residents were shopkeepers, laborers or peddlers who would travel among the surrounding peasant villages, dealing in whatever came to hand: flour, hides, flax, kerosene, herring, etc. Transportation between Slutsk and Bobruisk was sustained by coachmen, both local and from Slutsk, who also delivered everything needed by the shtetl and its environs, even letters, newspapers and any requirements of the religious leadership.

Uretshe had an old, modest rabbi, a great scholar by the name of Avrohom Aaron Peshin, along with a large house of study [synagogue], plus a few minyonim [prayer groups] for Sabbath and holy days, khadorim [elementary religious schools] where melamdim [teachers] of the old style held forth and taught Torah to Jewish children. There were also intellectual Jews, Zionists like Avrom Borekh Epshteyn [Abraham Barukh Epstein]. Epshteyn was a flour merchant – known as the teacher Lvovitsh [Lev's son] from Bobruisk – and from time to time he would dash over to his hometown for vacation or simply to visit.

With the extension of the railroad line from Verkhutin to Uretshe during the time of the First World War, Uretshe blossomed. A post office opened. The former house of study, which had been destroyed by fire, was replaced with a new large and spacious synagogue. Starting from the train station, in the shade of tree-lined avenues, two rows of magnificent homes were built, comprising a new street over a kilometer in length. A branch of a kerosene firm from Baku was established, with a large kerosene reservoir. The tanks could be seen distinctly from far-off in the distance. The yard was filled with customers and wagons from the entire surrounding area. The branch was managed by Shmuel Resnik, a Jew and an ardent Zionist.

With the noise and whistles of the locomotive, a new and intense life was ushered into the shtetl. New faces appeared from time to time, trade blossomed and grew stronger day by day. Yiddish, Hebrew and Russian newspapers could be obtained by anyone who wanted them in the town's new bookstore.

A great dispute arose in the shtetl following the death of the old rabbi. The shtetl divided into two camps: amkho – the common folk – along with the workers, wanted the young rabbi Apelman, who entranced them with his folk-sermons, whereas the intelligentsia and the businessmen wanted the Hresk rabbi, Ben-Tsiyon Tsvik, an erudite Jew with an imposing presence. The dispute lasted some time, during which the coachmen and their followers poured kerosene into the flour sacks of Epshteyn the flour-merchant (one of rabbi Tsvik's admirers).

Eventually the dispute calmed down, and the shtetl merited the honor of having two rabbis, each one earning a paltry sum.

A new spirit swept into the shtetl with the modernized “Kheyder,” which opened in 1915. It was established by the talented teacher, Glinik, who had come from the [pre-state] Land of Israel. He earned the support of Uretshe proprietors, and the Kheyder's two classes, where the method of instruction was to teach “Hebrew in Hebrew” [Hebrew immersion – “Ivrit b'Ivrit”], became filled with pupils. Alta Asaf, sister of the late Rabbi Professor Asaf, also taught Hebrew in Uretshe for a short time.

The richest man in the shtetl, Dobrobarski, opened a private Hebrew school for his children and those of the other elite. He brought in a young teacher, Gurevits. With his help, and the aid and leadership of Mikhl Reznik, a passionate Zionist and talented Hebraist, a Zionist organization was founded. From time to time a variety of lectures would be presented, as well as Zionist sermons from the pulpit in the house of study.

The propaganda of the Bundists and other opponents [of these Zionist trends] had no effect at all. Collection plates would be placed in the synagogue and in the facilities of the smaller prayer-groups on Yom Kippur Eve, for cash contributions to the Yishuv [Jewish community] in the Land of Israel. Shekels [fund-raising coins] and Zionist stamps were sold, and public Zionist meetings were held quite often – especially on the 20th of Tammuz[1] and on the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration[2]. A [secular] literary circle existed as well, which held lectures on various themes.

Zionism was banned and every cultural activity dissolved at the time of the Russian Revolution, and whenever governments [ruling Uretshe] changed, whether during occupation by the Germans [in World War One], Poles, or Bolsheviks.

Uretshe was set on fire by Polish soldiers before retreating [ca. 1920] and almost the entire shtetl was burned down.

Lastly, the hand of the Nazis wiped out the Jewish community of Uretshe, with only a very few
managing to escape the murderers.


Rabbi Avrohom Aaron Peshin

The rabbi of Uretshe, Avrohom Aaron Peshin, was born in that town, of poor parents, and died in 1912 at the age of 75. Besides being a great religious scholar, he was also a great mathematician. As a young man he once stayed briefly at a Minsk inn and noticed that everyone there was upset over a resident who was a candidate for graduation from the gymnazia [high school]. The landlady of the inn told her husband that she feared the student-candidate might take his own life. The rabbi found out the reason for the distress. Two young Jewish men were about to take their final exam at the Minsk gymnasia, an exam involving a very difficult mathematical problem. If they failed to solve the problem they would not receive their diplomas and their efforts of long years would be for naught. The rabbi asked to see the problem and within half an hour he had solved it. Some months later the rabbi received 10 rubles with a copy of a letter written to the previously-depressed Minsk student by the Ministry of Education in Petersburg. The student had received the letter along with a prize of 50 rubles. It turned out that the teacher who had assigned the problem was an antisemite who had wanted the two Jewish candidates to fail their final examination. He himself was unable to solve it and considered the solution to be impossible.

Thick forests surrounded Uretshe. Two merchants, a Jew and a Christian, bought a forest in partnership. Unable to come to an agreement, they turned to the courts. The issue was very complex and the judge was unable to make a ruling. He then told them that he knows the staroste [Polish: mayor, reeve] of the shtetl, a wise person whose father was the rabbi of the shtetl. Rabbis could also pass judgments, so he advised them to turn to him. He gave them a written document of permission to use the rabbi. The rabbi succeeded in reaching a decision that pleased both the partners. Later he received a letter of thanks from a higher court.

In another case, the rabbi failed at first. He once replied as follows to two Zionists who sought to recruit him to their cause: “It is fortunate for you that you cannot add. If you could, you would see that the calculation is simple: The entire collective wealth of Jews around the world is insufficient to buy the Land of Israel. Even if we assumed that the Turk [i.e., the Turkish Sultan, then-ruler of Palestine] would turn the Land over to us free of charge, our total funds would still not be enough to transport all the world's Jews there. Not to mention that the Land is small and a wasteland. Therefore we must wait until the Supreme One will send his Holy Redeemer [i.e., the Messiah] at which time all the promised wonders and miracles will occur. The desert will bloom and there will be a total redemption.” The two Zionists were the ritual slaughterer, Alter Marshak, and his brother-in-law, Mordkhe Finkelshteyn [Mordechai Finkelstein].

Rabbi Peshin himself taught his only daughter the Hebrew Bible and told her: “You must learn Torah for two purposes. First, a Jewish daughter should know the mitsves [commandments] and Jewish history; second, I hope that you will one day come to know the Holy Tongue of Hebrew. When I studied at the yeshiva a great scholar told me that I would live to see 'the Messianic Times.' If he guessed correctly, I will see the Messianic Pangs and you will live to see the Redemption. Consequently, there is no doubt that you will have need to know Hebrew.” That
daughter now lives in the State of Israel. His prophecy has come to pass. Several of his grandchildren by his other children are also here. Others are in America and in Russia, even in Uretshe.

Uretshe landslayt [compatriots] in New York founded a synagogue which they named in his honor: Beys Haknesses Anshei Bnei Avrohom – Children of Abraham Synagogue.

Translator's Footnotes

  1. Just prior to a midsummer Sabbath during which the Prophetic reading in the synagogue is Jeremiah 1:1-2:3, describing God's judgment of the nations at the gates of Jerusalem. Return
  2. Statement of Nov. 2, 1917, by British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour, affirming that “His Majesty's government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people...” The date was subsequently celebrated by pro-Zionist Jews in the Diaspora and in Israel. Return
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