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[Col. 821]

Way of Life and Personalities

 

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The eastern wall of the synagogue

 

[Col. 823]

Way of Life and Personalities

Shimon Kantz

Translated by Janie Respitz

In their own manner, the Jews of New Sventzian combined reality with the spiritual visions of Jewish history, the past and the future, strivings and hopes, and their own business efforts. This manner had two elements: one a folksy, for the common people, and one contemporary – according to thought and social content. This is how it was expressed by the survivors, who remembered the melodies, dances, wonderful stories, that dragged their fathers out of their daily clasps, from their grey reality; also the singing, lectures and readings at the cultural club. In the memoirs about these facts, happenings and personalities, we hear the ringing of the language of the day, the mood and atmosphere, the troubles and joys, the largeness and purity, the light and shadows of the daily life in the Shtetl, in the world, in the marketplace and the house of prayer. Here a new Jewishness was growing and being nourished; the Jewishness of the Enlightenment, the national Renaissance and Jewish socialism. They are, as such, and integral part of the old Lithuanian Jewish identity controlled introspection, carried out by spirituality. The former strict Jewish observance, the deep world scope, the passion of love of Israel of the Hasidim, had in a news fashion manifested in the carriers of modern Jewish culture – and the community activist. This is the golden chain, that connects the various types and personalities, the culturally active and their grandfathers, with the simple, good Jews rooted in soil of New Sventzian.

 

[Col. 825]

Longing

Ahron Tzintzinztus[1]

Translated by Anita Frishman Gabbay

 

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Proud, small, Jewish, Lithuanian Shtetlach!

 

They became etched deep within my memory. How many Jewish irritants, how many true stories with their intertwining people and memories – how much charm did each of these shtetls have? Here was the foundation of Jewish learning and the beginning of their cultural heritage: Haskahla (Jewish Enlightenment) , Chasidim, Magnigdut, Zionism, Populist, Bundist, and others.

In these towns various well– known personalities grew up and became devoted builders and influence in their shtetls.

They are all spinning now before my eyes, all those tiny shtetlach! Those pious Jewish souls, are still in my memory, the countless souls that went up in smoke together with their communities and institutions.

Each and every shtetl was vibrant and dynamic. The culture–clash on the Jewish street played a very important role, even with sharp opposition and language. The religious fathers burned the secular books and the young folk were not pleased by this so they bought more books. The shtetl slowly modernized.

Progress came in due course to the Lithuanian shtetls. After the first world war, many ideals were adopted by the young masses and even the fathers became involved with these new ideas.

In those years the culture–wars took on a new meaning. It was notably the war of the language: Yiddish or Hebrew! In each town 2 camps grew: Yiddishists and Hebraists. This went on to the Second World War.

Everything in the shtetl was duplicated: 2 folk–shuls, 2 libraries, 2 drama clubs, 2 sports clubs, 2 orchestras and even in some times, 2 Gemillut Hesed banks.

In these duplications it even produced additional concepts: for the diaspora, the Diasporaists “Doyoists” or Localists (those wanting to remain) or Zionists (those wanting to go Palestine) ”Poleshtinkentzis”.

[Col. 826]

The competition between the 2 camps were in all domains of their daily lives. If one group brought a speaker for the Shabbat, the other group couldn't remain silent and had to also arrange for his own speaker. It happened that many Saturdays, several speakers arrived at the shtetl and many heated discussions took place on the Yiddish street.

The hostility which was the main cause was about the Yiddish school. The fighting engulfed brothers and sisters, parents and children and even between friends. Everywhere, one was measured either as a Tarbutist or from a Yiddish school.

If, the Yiddishists built a new school, the Hebraists couldn't sleep (be at peace) , and also had to build a new school.

Fundamentally, there were days when the Jewish folk all came together. This naturally was when a tragedy occurred or something bad happened, or a new decree was issued by the regime.

The Jewish humanity always came first, to help one another.

This is their story why I feel such a nagging longing, for those plain, honest and earnest murdered Jews, the Jews of the Lithuanian shtetls!

Dr. Hertzel once wrote : Longing will bring the Mashiach! God willing! God willing!


Footnote:
  1. Ahron Cincinatus, born in Zgierg, Poland Return


[Col. 827]

Rabbi Zvi Ratzker z”l

Translated by Anita Frishman Gabbay

The first Rabbi of New–Sventzian was Zvi, son of Rabbi the” Gaon” Yitzhak Ratsker of Dvinsk.

His wise face with his stately physique and his gentle welcome, brought him great respect throughout the land. Friday evening, before the blessings of the Shabbos candles, he met everyone in a corner of the Synagogue Street next to the station and engage the people; this is where all the Jewish shops were located. He was dressed in his long black coat with his tall (cylinder–shaped) hat. Grey “payot” (side curles) encircled his gentle face.

As soon as we saw the Rabbi, all the merchants began to shut their shops and they all left quickly to prepare for the Sabbath.

For his good deeds, which was spread by newly arrived friends, he was known throughout the entire region with great respect and his good name was spread throughout.

[Col. 828]

Amongst other reasons, many came to New–Sventzian because of this well– known Rabbi.

His house was run by the “Eyches Chayil” (righteous woman) , the righteous Rebbetzin, Malka, who sold yeast and wine for the Shabbat and other holidays.

The children, Moishe, Yacov, Meir and Yitzhak were all tied to each other, both in Yiddishkeit and in wordly matters. However, they didn't want to inherit the Rabbinate. The daughter Baila married the Rabbi Yochanan Mirski, from Badke, and because of the hierarchy in the shtetl, he couldn't take over the seat of the rabbinate of the New–Sventzian community.

When Rabbi Zvi Ratzker z”l, passed away, the Rabbinate was passed to the grandson of Cheifetz Chaim, the Rabbi “H'Goan” Mereminski.

However until today the name of Rabbi Ratzker z”l is inscribed in our memory. May his soul be bound up in the bond of life.


The Kovarski Family
(The most important family in New–Sventzian)

H. Chaia Feiges

Translated by Anita Frishman Gabbay

In memory of my beloved mother Chaia Feiga, my beloved father Hirsh, brothers Motl with his family, Henech with his family, Leib with his family

[Col. 829]

In the 1800s it was still uncommon in Lithuania and Russia for families to take surnames. Everyone was known by his name, his father's name and even a “nick– name”.

When the order came from the Czar that each resident must take a family name, many decided to be named after their town or place of residence, that that is how the name like Vilner or Vilenski (after the town Vilna) Pinsker or Pinski, (Pinsk) , Warshaver or Warshavski after Warsaw.

That is the reason some Jews who lived in Kovarsk, took the family name Kovarski. A part of the family came to the Sventzian region.

Heshl Kovarski, the father of our grandfather Shmuel–Nachum, was living in a small village in Federiski, in Lithuania, not far from Sventzian.

Heshl was a Shochet (ritual slaughterer) , his first wife died young and left behind sons and daughters. His second wife was called Sheina–Riva and had 2 children with him: a daughter and a son. The daughter died as a young child and the son, Shmuel Nachum, remained a ” blessing” to her. Heshel alone supervised the upbringing of this son, who was very smart and talented, with a sweet voice. In later years, Heshel's decision–making towards his son produced fine results: Shmuel Nachum was an exceptional Jew with the knowledge of Torah as both reader and scholar.

[Col. 830]

In 1861 Shmuel Nachum married Zelda Yavitch, the daughter of Henoch and Keila, who lived in Trabutzishok (a small village in Belarus) , next to Lyntup.

After the wedding they moved into a “fancy” house in “Trodai”, next to Sventzian where the ran a dairy farm and production facility.

There they lived during through Polish Regime of 1863. Our grandmother Zelda often told us stories about those stormy days: how the Jews suffered from both sides, under the Poles and then the Russian Cossacks. Jews helped one another in those uncertain times.

In the village of Troidai, our grandfather's first 2 children were born: the sons Eliahu Yosef and Yitzhak.

In 1864, the family of Shmuel Nachum moved to the village of Fimpelka, where there was a mill, which belonged to the same noble as the one in Troidai. Here the grandmother ran the dairy farm and grandfather worked the land.

 

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The descendants of the family in Eretz Israel in 1926

Sitting: Avraham, Dovid, Yechiel Yoselovitch, Henech, Sima Kovarski, Heshl, Henech Gurwitz, Binyamin, Yoceved Kamin
Standing: Yehushe Kovarski, Rivka Yoselovitch, Eliahu, Shoshana Kovarski, Nechama Gurwitz, Avraham Yitzhak Miler, Shaike Kamin

[Col. 831]

In Fimpelka, the daughter Chaia Feiga and the son Heshl were born.

Of importance, the spot that was chosen for the most important rail way line to pass through from Warsaw–Petersburg was not far from Fimpelka; thus a new station was built and was given the name Nova– Sventzian.

Thanks to our grandmother's connections, grandfather began to work at the train station as a glazier. Slowly, the New–Sventzian train station attracted new Jewish families from the surrounding shtetls. Our grandfather Shmuel Nachum arranged for a piece of land there (New Sventzian) and built a house. When it was ready, he resettled his entire family and was one of the first settlers of New–Sventzian.

Besides the 4 previous children, 14 more were born here, of which 9 are alive. Zelman, Shimon–Ruben, Noach, Henech, Abraham and Moishe– Yacov, the daughters, Baila, Ruchel–Leia, Kasia.

The train stain expanded and the shtetl spread. Grandfather, besides being a glazier, starting working in milling. His economic situation grew. Shmuel Nachum quickly engaged his children in his work, and later his in–laws (children's spouses) : Hirsch Gurewitz, the husband of Chaia–Feiga, and Ozher Yavitch, Baila's husband, (by the way, a brother of grandmother Zelda).

The work load couldn't be handled by them alone, so grandfather had to hire other workers.

Grandfather's house played an important role in the development of the city, as it continued to grow. The railroad linked many Lithuania–Belarus routes. Grandfather had to travel often to Petersburg for business. Later, the sons and son– in– laws travelled to Petersburg as well.

The greater world influenced them greatly, when they returned to their small shtetl, life began to change. After work,

[Col. 832]

every evening at grandfather's house, there was lively entertainment and sometimes a harmonica could be heard.

The house was slowly rebuild on the corner of Sventzianer and Optaker Street. A large house now stood in its former place, with a large glass porch, a special roof was made for the porch, so that it would be a support when we needed to build a sukkah on the veranda.

All around he planted fruit trees, this piece of land was the only Jewish plot in the shtetl. (in those days Jews didn't understand the usefulness of trees). Grandfather shared the fruits with everyone.

Shabbos, the entire family assembled at grandfather's house, all the children and grandchildren, and all his Jewish workers. He was hospitable to all and took much pride in these gatherings.

He was a wonderful teacher and also had a beautiful baritone voice.

After “Davening” (praying) , we loved to go to our grandfather for Kiddush (blessings). The elders performed a lively “L'Chaim” and grandmother gave the children sweet cake, biscuits and taigelach (fried dough covered in honey).

For Succoth, grandfather invited the entire family and received them in his beautiful, decorated sukkah, we were all envious. Grandfather was blessed with a good sense of humour mixed with intelligent conversation and jokes.

Although he was a Misnaged, he was blessed with an inner enthusiasm and devotion, like a true Chasid!

Until this day the older folk remember my grandfather's famous dance: the “beigele”.

I had the opportunity to dance this “beigele” with my grandfather. I can still hear the music ringing in my ears of this famous dance.

Grandfather was a broad– shouldered Jew, with a long blond beard, with sharp grey eyes, which were covered with thin eyeglasses. He looked like the “Patriarch” of our family.

Grandmother Zelda was a thin, small Jewish woman, black–cherry– like eyes with a wig on her head. Her face was the expression of goodness. She was a quiet and simple woman and walked quickly.

[Col. 833]

Often, we thought, she was not walking, but she was flying through the house. With all her wealth, she always looked after the needs of others.

The grandmother Zelda was the head of the entire family. When someone got sick, she was the first one to look after him. She always had warm words for everyone, with honesty. With her intelligent demeanour she understood how to handle things, if someone was angry, she always tried to find a peaceful solution. Everyone confided in her, therefore she knew what was going on at all times.

[Col. 834]

We never saw her angry. She always spoke in a sweet and loving manner.

It is no wonder that grandfather and grandmother led such a peaceful and harmonious life.

The years passed like this, they eventually got older and all their business was transferred to their children. The sons and son in laws were treated equally, and they started to work at the train station.

On the line, which stretched from the Russian– German border at Virershbolove through Kovne, Vilna, and Dvinsk almost reaching Paskov on the way to Peterburg

 

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The Kovarski wedding, 1927, the largest family in New Sventzian

1 – Lying: Avrasha Yoselovitch, Israel Kovarski, Yeciel Yoselovitch, Dovid Ben Abraham Kovarski, Moishe Kovarski
2 – Kneeling: Katia Kovarski–Vofnik, Rivka Kovarski–Ravitch, Sheina Kovarski–Lichtsteyn, Sheina Kovarski–Spiegel, Surah Kovarski, the tiny Tehila Yoselovitch
3 – Sitting: Shmuel Nachum and Zelda Kovarski, parents of the bride, Zelman and Hana Laia Kovarski, the groom, B. Tenenwurtzel, bride Berta, mother and father Tenenwurtzel, Michal and Elia Yose Kovarski
4 – Standing: Henech Ber Itzhak Kovarski, Hirsh and Chaia Feiga Gurwitz, Yitzhak and Sheina Kovarski, Heshl and Sara Kovarski, Abraham and Shifra Kovarski, Esther Beit Itzhak
5 – Standing: Baila Yavitch, Abraham Vinik, Kalman and Genia, Abraham Ber Eliahu Yosef, Fania Kovarski, Leib and Genia Kovarski, Dovid and Rivka Yoselovitch
6 – Standing: Tenenwurtzel, Osher Yavitch, Tenenwurtzel, Sara Bat Itzhak Kovarski, Motel Gurwitz, Yosef Ber Abraham Kovarski, Basia Kovarski, Israel Gurwitz, Rochel Leia Kovarski, Rochel and daughter Vidutzinski.

[Col. 835]

Almost all the train workers were under the direction of the Kovarski sons and sons– in– law.

Grandfather and grandmother, in those years, decided to rest more. They wed all their children. The family grew. Grandfather sold the large house with the large garden and built a smaller one with a smaller garden on Vilner Street. He kept busy only with glass making. As he was used to working the land all his life, he attended his small garden in his free time. Like this he spent a quiet and peaceful life.

Shabbos and Holidays the children and grandchildren came to him for the traditional Kiddush.

We came to grandfather to ask advice, and to grandmother, to tell a secret. We all gave them great respect and honor.

They took great pride in the large and well organized family they raised!

In the meantime, the first World War began, and the Jews were attacked and made to flee

[Col. 836]

New–Sventzian was also affected. In 1915 the entire Jewish community left New–Sventzian, they suffered for 4 long years. In this time the family suffered 2 tragedies:

The youngest son, Moishe Yacov, arrived in Koslov, and was infected with typhus and died. Shimon–Ruben died when he was caught in the fight between the Bolsheviks and the Belarusians which took place on the way from Rostov to Koslov.

In 1919 the Kovarski family returned to New–Sventzian. The grandmother and grandfather returned to their former house. The children had to find other means of support. Under the Polish regime, Jews could no longer hold the position of railroad master. They all had other income and made a good living.

In 1931 grandfather died, in his 88th year, and in 1932, grandmother died, also the same age. They were alert and knowledgeable until the last minute.

May their memory shine forever!


[Col. 835]

Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Volyn for the United Israel Appeal

Translated by Meir Razy

 

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The Gaon Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Volyn, son of Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Volyn, was born in the city of Braslaw, in the region of Vilnius, Belarus. He served as a Rabbi in Krasnopol and, in 1915, had been nominated as the Chief Rabbi of Novo–Sventzian where he established a Yeshiva. He later moved back to his home town of Braslaw as the Chief Rabbi and also served in the city of Goldingen (Kuldiga), Lithuania.

He sons–in–law were famous Rabbis: Rabbi Moshe Ze'ev Stern, known as Moshe Rakishkar, the founder of the “Yeshiva Beit Yoseph” in Mezritz and Dvinsk, who served as the Rabi of Shimberg. And Rabbi Eliezer Yehuda Nadzadwitz, a graduate of the yeshivas of Lomza and Radin, who was the Rabbi of Luski.

Rabbi Volyn was among the Polish Rabbis who signed the manifest supporting “The Keren Ha–Yesod” (United Israel Appeal) that was published in Jerusalem in 1926. He also authored the manuscript for the book “The Way of Zvi”, dealing with Jewish law and Jewish legends.

Both he and his sons–in–law were murdered in the Holocaust.

Two of his sons came to Eretz–Israel in 1925 and were among the pioneers who built the country. Moshe Volyn is a famous theatrical agent, and Israel Volyn, who was a Rabbi in the U.S.A and recently returned to Israel.

He and his wife Sara Hinda, daughter of Rabbi Yehuda Vilkomirsky of Sventzian, perished in Goldingen (Kuldiga), Lithuania.


[Col. 837]

The New Nigun (Melody) and its Perpetuation

Heshl Gurwitz

Translated by Anita Frishman Gabbay and Janie Respitz

Between the Kaltinianer and Sventzianer Streets there was a small street called: the Synagogue street. On this street the first Balabatim (wealthier Jews) of the shtetl built a Synagogue, which was later called, The Old One, because several years later, opposite the Old One a new one was built, called The New One.

The Old One retained its original members, the disgruntled ones “davened” in the New Synagogue, together with the ordinary folk.

Both synagogues were in the same Misnagdim stream. In the evenings, a handful of Chasidim prayed in the Old synagogue in the hope to increase their numbers. They wanted to open their own Synagogue. New folk arrived which were Chasidim, such as the well– known export–director Rabbi Hirsh Deitch with his sons, coming from Braslov; Yose Shneur from Postov, exporter of clothing and old iron, Beiner and others. The directors from the Baranover region, the manager Yudelevitch and cashier, Elkind; the head operator of the mill, Hirsh Kisberg, the son– in– law of Sholem Leib Gordon from Ignalina; Rabbi Shlomo Maimon, the manager of Hetzkel Persutzkes' store of heating oil and geese; Natan Shapiro from a large manufacturing enterprise, and others.

The Chasidic Minyan was built near the small railroad line, behind Eltchik Rudnitski's house, but we called him Eltchik the “village elder” in Russian.

On the high holidays, the brothers Tzipkins came to the Minyam, assimilated Polish Jews, who owned the only pharmacy in the region. Rabbi Deitch's children also came from Peterburg and Berlin: Zelman–Mendel, Ahron and Avraham, his son– in– law, Stanietski. They were dressed in frocks and top hats.

[Col. 838]

To Rabbi Yose came: his son, Zelman, dressed in his school clothes, his brother Rafael from Warsaw, in his elegant hard hat and new clothing.

To Hirsh Kisberg, his sons Monia and Sasha came, in their clothes from the Gymnasia, to Rabbi Schlomo Maimon came his sons Michal, Zalman and Shmerl from Dvinsk, where they studied in the Gymnasia. To Rabbi Abraham Teitz, his sons Schmuel and Sholem–Yitzhak from Vilna, to Rabbi Shmuel Shteingold or Schmuel the matchmaker, his sons Pinchas and Chaim–Motel from Riga and other youth. They all came for the high holidays to pray in the Minyan.

When the Minyan burned down in the great fire of 1901, a new building was put up made of brick.

The rebuilding was done by Rabbi Yose Shneur, a pleasant and quiet Jew, deeply devoted to charity. He prayed with holiness, but also with his soul. Rabbi Hirsh Deitch was more restless, he shook from side to side, always fiddling around with his long beard, his “tallith” on his head and always in a hurry to bring out the Tefillim. What was brewing in his heart?

Rabbi Shlomo Maimon was always happy, and fiddling with his fingers as if he was directing a choir. Rabbi Shmuel, the matchmaker was completely different, broad shouldered and of medium height, was also in a hurry when he prayed.

Rabbi Fingerhoyt was small in stature, quiet and laid back, eyes always focused on the ground. As in his private life and his religious life, he was always devoted. And with one finger he tapped to the tune of the “davening” melody.

We used to joke, Rabbi Yose Shneur and Rabbi Hirsch Deitch from either side, together with Rabbi Zachariha, were always competing for attention.

On the other side stood Partun, praying,

[Col. 839]

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Sheet music for Zachariha's Melody according to the memory of Heshl Gurwitch

 

who was” swimming (was drowning in his own world) in the higher worlds”, Reb Avrom Teitz, the Holy man, prayed sweetly with heartfelt fortitude. Yom Kippur he would sing Kol Nidre with wailing and the next morning, he would once again pray passionately Musaf and Neilah

Reb Dovid Milner would” tear the heavens” with his cries. He appeared to be standing, representing the Jews before the Almighty. His voice broke into one thousand pieces, he lifted up his arms and he pleaded for “mercy”. His shoulders shook and he cried.

Together with his belief and longing for redemption, Reb Avrom–Yitzhak's Tcharnebrodki's voice rang out as he read the Torah.

This is how the Chasidim, each in his own way, sang while learning and praying, “chasing away the sadness toward the eternal heavens”.

Every Shabbos, between afternoon and evening prayers, we would hear the best singers: Reb Shloimeh Maimon, a soldier in the Czarist army, where he was a musician in the military orchestra: Zekhariah Fingerhot,

[Col. 840]

a player of Chasidic melodies and marches. Their metallic voices were captured by the crowd as they rose to heaven.

On Simchat Torah Shmuel the matchmaker would go through the streets and sing with great devotion. With great holiday joy, he would dance in the mud. Children, big and small would clap their hands and happily dance with him.

Once, Reb Shmuel the matchmaker's eldest son, Yisroel Henekh, came looking for his parents. He belonged to the Chabad. He brought new melodies. The Chasidim repeated the new melody with great joy and passion all afternoon. Reb Zakharia repeated it often so he could continue to sing this melody every Shabbos and holiday.

The next morning, Sunday, when Reb Zakharia went to open his spice shop, he tried to hum the melody. After a few bars, he realized he had forgotten the melody. He knew that Yisroel Henekh had to leave that morning for Riga. Without thinking too long, he ran to the train station. Tired from running, he was delighted when he spotted Yisroel–Henokh from a distance. He asked him to sing the melody for him. The train arrived, and they sang it a few times. The bell rang out and the train was about to depart. Yisroel–Henekh stood at the open door of the train and sang sweetly. Zekhariah repeated the melody.

The entire day in the store he was distracted, carried off elsewhere, humming the melody. His customers noticed his absent mindedness and did not understand what was happening.

The following Shabbos, between the afternoon and the evening prayers, in the darkness of the third meal, the Chasidic quorum was filled with the longing for the Shabbos that was ending, Reb Zakhariah gathered his

[Col. 841]

entertainers amongst those praying and began to sing his new melody.

This is how they continued the tradition, on future Saturdays, to sing the melody over and over. The “new melody” was the favorite. Even the Misnagdim sang it. They called it Zakhariah's melody because he sang it with such passion. He sang with the heat of a hot Jewish soul.

[Col. 842]

There is no longer the Chasidic quorum, with the singing Zekhariahs, Yisroel–Henekhs, Hirshs and those that sang along. But in a few places around the world, there are those that continue the tradition. Even people who left the Chassidic world, remember the melody and hum it deep in their souls, in the eternal silence that lives hidden everywhere, and will never end.


[Col. 841]

Rabbi Eliyahu Kimkhi

Khaya Las

Translated by Janie Respitz

On the Shul Street, in the house where Rabbi Zvi Ratzker once lived, later lived Rabbi Eliayahu Kimkhi and his family. Rabbi Kimkhi came from White Russia, from the town of Motele, where the first president of the state of Israel, Chaim Weitzman, was born.

Even though we were neighbours, I could not value his greatness and deep understanding of the Torah. I could however tell you, that Rabbi Kimkhi was a kind, warm person. His character was displayed in his appearance. He had a beautiful persona, a kind face, and deep, dreamy eyes. Thanks to his warm, heartfelt understanding of our town, he got used to our Lithuanian New–Sventzian. He was respected by the establishment and the youth who appreciated his progressive approach to the problems of Jewish life.

Belonging to the Mizrachi movement, he participated in all the Zionist activities and showed great interest in the exuberant Zionist youth.

Friday evenings, he would walk by our home, with his 2 sons, dressed in Shabbat clothing. In the summer we would wait by an open window to wish him: “a good Shabbos, Rebbe”!

As a neighbour, I would often visit their house and enjoyed spending time with his learned, clever wife, who had a lot of tact and would familiarize herself with the goings on in the town. The Rabbi would sit in the other room and study.

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Often, I would notice, he would glance at us over his glasses and perk his ears to listen to our conversation. That's when I felt his involvement with the daily problems. He had a sense of the thread that tied him to the surroundings.

He had a great concern for the orphans, helping as much as he could. When it came time to marry off an orphaned girl, and there was a need for a dowry, he would collect money from the wealthier Jews. His wife would offer their home, bake and cook, and all the neighbours were invited to help make the wedding. This was not only for the orphans, but for all those in need.

When Hitler's hoards captured our town and the Lithuanians collaborated, Rabbi Kimkhi was chosen to sit on the Judenrat. He tried to do the best he could to help everyone. Together with everyone else, he was murdered in Poligon.

Working as an instructor with social workers amongst the Yemenite Jews in Rosh Ha'Ayim, I befriended a nice family, and told them about the greatness of our Rabbi, Rabbi Eliyahu Kimkhi. They were so taken by his justice and simplicity, they named their son Eliyahu, in memory of the great rabbi of New –Sventzian.


[Col. 843]

The Painter in Our Town Motel Bak

Freidel Bak

Translated by Anita Frishman Gabbay

 

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He was always quiet and modest, with controlled steps and controlled words.

He was naturally gifted with an inborn talent to paint and he loved music. He had a warm heart for every friend and every person. He loved animals, birds and plants. Besides all his “loves” he had another great “love”, the “love of Zion”. He was a devoted Zionist and he gave his whole being for the cause.

His day job started early every morning, when he went to the home of the Balabatim (rich folk) , first he went to attend the hens and geese: every hen had a name, one was called” the stuck up one”, because she always kept to herself, as she was too good for the others. Another one, the “Panienke”, because she had a pretty haircut. The third one, the ”Loud mouth” as she was always quacking!

If God forbid a hen was sick, Motel was besides himself: he would do everything necessary to make them better.

After attending the hens and geese, Motel went into his garden. He was an excellent gardener. With much patience he tied up the tomatoes, watered the berries, pulled the weeds: all this he did with such agility. When he finished all his personal chores, he left for his day job

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in the bank, here was his work: Motel Bak's work: the work of Motel Bak was performed with such skill!

At night when he arrived home, he made a second round inspecting the hens and geese and garden. But his best time were the hours he spent afterwards at his painting/drawings. He was the only theatre art director in the shtetl,

 

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Motel Bak z”l

 

but I don't know how much time he devoted to music, composition. I remember he colored with rich vibrant colors.

He was interested in landscape, figures, and used to draw signs and decorations.

He could spend long hours until the work was finished.

His dream was to make Aliyah to Eretz Israel, which he loved and held dearly.

Later he would not see the birth of the state of Israel, as he was murdered together with the other Jews by the Nazi and Lithuanian sadistic beasts!


[Col. 845]

Festivities and Weddings in Town
(a few memories from my childhood)

Sholem Yitzhak Teitz z”l

Translated by Anita Frishman Gabbay

Sventzian and Vilna are like a room in a house, said my mother one winter Shabbos morning, as I was laying under my warm duvet in my bed. My father was sitting at the table saying his weekly prayers. Father interrupted his reading, listened to our conversation and wanted to know why we were interrupting him.

Mother told him that Shneur left every Thursday at 6 in the morning to the train and at 9, was already in Vilna. He spent the day buying goods and by 8 in the evening was back home. He brought me a hearty good wish from my older brother, Shmuel, who worked in Vilna as an employee.

The purpose of her conversation was not the activities of Shneur, the store keeper, but of the wonders of the iron–train, and that we are so close to Vilna.

Being still a young boy, I didn't quite understand the importance of these words.

Shabbat Shira

I was lying under my warm duvet, deeply immersed in my dreams. It was very early, through the window I saw a light snowfall, which was swirling in the wind. It didn't stop snowing and later, all was covered in a white blanket. It covered the rooftops, the bare branches of the trees in the parks and gardens. I thought the entire shtetl would become a huge pile of snow.

Father was still sitting at the table reciting his prayers, it was Shabbat Shira.

[Col. 846]

Father read and sang every word with a fine melody from this portion.

I was completely smitten with these words, which brought me to another world, far, far away from the shtetl, to strange foreign lands. I was with the other Jews of Israel at the Dead Sea, I marched together with all our ancestors between the two walls of the frozen waters….

“Sventzianke and Vilna”–these few simple words were said in a tone of arrogance and that is how we became known in the entire region as the “Arrogant” Sventzianker people.

Not so important, but we were such close neighbours with Vilna. We welcomed them like a long lost relative. This was not so important for us young lads, there was never a more beautiful and delightful place on earth than our Sventzianke! Our beloved place of our birth! What do we need those large towns with their Tzadikim, Rabbis, Yeshivas and Yeshiva lads. Do these Yeshiva Lads know how to climb trees like us? Can they throw stones in the rivers like us? Are there such beautiful forests in those large towns? Fields and valleys like we have here? Do they have such a beautiful river like our Zemiane? Do they have a larger hill than us, where we sled in the wintertime? Is there a lower valley where we have our old bath house?

We young folk were so in love with our shtetl, with all its nature and beauty!

A Wedding in the Shtetl

Our shtetl was like one family, together we celebrated all joyous occasions, as well, we suffered together in grief. When a child got married, this was a Simcha for the entire shtetl,

[Col. 847]

everyone was a relative, everyone was invited. The whole town was busy, the “tickets” were sent out by Yose the Shamash. He went from house to house, greeted everyone first and then laid the ticket on the table. The tickets (invitations) were printed in gold on colored paper.

For us young ones, more important than the invitations were the envelopes, which we opened with a sharp knife. Each color had its own worth, the white one, if received, was worthless. You didn't even want to touch it! A green one was worth buttons, the red ones were the most expensive, worth 3 copper buttons, “Officer's” with an eagle!

A red invitation was very valuable, no one wanted to sell it.

The invitation was only a formal process, the whole town knew of the invitation.

The day of the wedding soon arrived, all the people arriving by train went to the hotels. In the hall of Abba Gorfein, where the wedding was to be held, the noise and bustle was terrible. Here they fried teigelach and other things, cooked fish and roasted meat, all under the supervision of Chana Reizel, Abba Gorfein's wife.

The Klezmers would arrive early from Sventzian. Itshe the fiddler, Moishe Yode with his flute and Katzkel with his bass and cymbalom.

A few of us waited for the right moment, when they brought the bride–bridegroom to the Chuppah (wedding canopy). The Klezmer played a happy march: Abraham Leib the master of ceremonies sang to the bride, women were crying and sobbing, the old rabbi recited the blessings and the Chazzan Schulman sang folk songs.

When the groom said his,” I do”, he broke a glass, and everyone in the hall shouted “Mazel Tov”. There was kissing, hugging and finally everyone sat down

[Col. 848]

at the beautifully set tables, said a “L'Chaim” and ate with hearty appetite the wonderful prepared food.

Then the dancing started. In short, a typical Jewish dance, a kosher–dance, an angry dance, or Sherele, which we don't discuss. We do the customary dances as in most weddings. Also, the Kadril, like we called it, which was a traditional dance at all the weddings, even the Balabatim did this dance in a circle.

This is how the weddings enfolded until the early morning.

Simchat Torah

Weddings were not the only time the folk enjoyed themselves, also during the holidays, nothing to be ashamed of! We especially had a good time at Purim and Simchat Torah, celebrated in the synagogue, and especially “joyous” in the Chasidic Minyan.

On Simchat Torah, Hirsch Deitch, the wealthy one in the shtetl, made a L'Chaim with Ezriel the shoemaker; the Gabbai, Yose the Postaver, would share his cake with Yodel the watchmaker. Zacharieh Fingerhoyt, the Rabbi, sat in a corner singing a melody with several young folk.

You cannot describe the celebration by the Hakkafot. The ectasy was great! Shmuel the matchmaker went out in the streets with the Sefer Torah, dancing and singing.

“Oh, you dear Jews!”

What which spring do you draw such Joy? Such confidence?

Whoever saw this celebration, compared to a tree with roots that can never be torn out, couldn't believe what they were seeing!

Who could foresee, that a day would come, when we will be erased from this earth and this life! Which took years to build! That we will be swallowed up alive!

No word, no tears, which will ease our pain and suffering after such a mass destruction!

“ Through Light and Darkness we will bear the pain of the dead”


[Col. 849]

Personalities

Heshl Gurwitz

Translated by Anita Frishman Gabbay

Abraham Yitzhak Rabinovitch

Abraham Yitzhak Rabinovitch was born in Sventzian, went to cheder here and then to the Telz Yeshiva in Vilna. As a young man, he started to work in the Baranover village, where they exported the wood from the Baranover forests, owned by Kovarski–Ragovin firm in Minsk.

He wed Sonia Krasnaselski from Ivye and made his home in New–Sventzian. Using his knowledge in the forestry industry, he became a forestry exporter and did a lot of business with Germany.

During the First World War he didn't leave the village like many of the others, and remained in his beautiful house that he built on Rog Dolne and Shul– Street. During the German occupation, the industry of wood export was ended, he then opened a small grocery store, and thus survived financially. The remaining Jews used to get together in the synagogue, and Jewish life started anew.

In the meantime, the youth decided to forgo the German school and language and to open a Jewish school, in their own language. This had to be given in writing to the German authority and signed by the elders of the shtetl.

Avraham had several children and his attitude was honest and devoted to the cause of Jewish instruction. He was one of the first to acknowledge the need for a school in the mother tongue, not in the regimes' language. Besides New–Sventzian, there were no Jewish Folk Shuls in the region.

[Col. 850]

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Avraham Yitzhak Rabinovitch

 

The others were frightened of his new ideas, but eventually came to see the benefits of a school in the Yiddish language with new pedagogical and nationalistic ideals. The development of the school was initiated; the arrival of the teacher Leizer Hellerstein, also a Telz Yeshiva Bocher, and with Rabinovitch, they rekindled their friendship. They benefitted, and together they began formation of the new school began.

In several years, when the community in the shtetl grew, Abraham Yitzhak Rabinovitch became one of the most important businessman and spokesperson.

Love and devotion for the Folk Shul and all the other needs of the community, Abraham was an important representative for his community.

When the Poles returned to the region, Avraham returned to his wood export business

[Col. 851]

and earned a nice salary. He was an ardent Zionist and was a member of the radical Shibut Zion. In 1923 he sold his business and made Aliyah to Eretz Israel. At that time it was considered an outstanding deed. An established Jew, with means and a business, well rooted in his community, to uproot and make Aliyah to Eretz Israel with 8 souls, was remarkable! Many couldn't understand this!

He made his home in Rishon Letzion, and started to plant tobacco. The cultivation of tobacco did not go well and he lost all the money he brought with him.

In order to get back on his feet, he left behind his family and returned to New–Sventzian. He started again in the wood industry, and when he made some money he returned to Rishon Letzion. He opened a building supply store and things started to improve.

As a newcomer, amongst the older folks and older community, he became readily accepted and respected, well liked amongst the community.

Later he no longer upheld the religious ways. His health deteriorated and he died after a long and difficult illness.

The New Sventzianers in the whole world will always remember him!

Rabbi Chaim Leib Segalavitch

Rabbi Chaim Leib Segalavitch was the symbol of “Reactzia” in the shtetl. This continued from the time of the Russian Revolution of 1905. When the shtetl youth were protesting, he came out with an appeal, he made a disturbance and would not accept their protests.

After the death of Rabbi Zvi Ratzker, the division amongst the Rabbis produced 2 streams, Rabbi Chaim Leib was against bringing a modern Rabbi.

[Col. 852]

Rabbi Meyersetyn was brought and his biggest opponent was Rabbi Chaim. When trouble between the Mignadim and the Chasidim broke out in the shtetl, Rabbi Chaim Leib was the representative of the small Chasidic community.

When the Yiddish Folk–Shul was opened, Chaim Leib continued his fight. And again when the “Hahalutz' was started, always a “no–sayer”. Against new ideas and any new institutions.

He was different in other constructive ways: when the Jews were brought to Poligon, for the Gemillut Hesed, the Children's soup kitchen, the Peoples' Bank–always eager to help out.

He was also a wood merchant, as well as a Beer and Brandy merchant and was busy with his enterprises. He often felt guilty and ran to perform his religious duties.

He was broad shouldered, a little stocky, a wide face with a blond beard, but his community service he performed with diligence and accuracy.

He was quite popular in our shtetl and involved in its everyday activities.

He was a man of honor and popularity!

Hebrew

Shalom Berman

Shalom, the son of Sara and Israel Eliahu Berman, was born in 1893 in New–Sventzian. In his youth he studied at the cheders in the shtetl and later he went to the commerce–School in Dvinsk.

At the out break of the First World War, his family transferred their manufacturing business to Belarus. Shalom returned alone and lived in the brick house on Vokszalner Street.

[Col. 853]

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Shalom Berman

 

He ran a restaurant and coffee house here, and earned a nice living from the German military that passed through. Shalom took an active role to restore the Jewish way of life. He helped found the Folks– Library when the shtetl changed from a German to a Jewish school.

When the Balfour Declaration was declared, he founded the Ha'halutz society in his home for the workers. He was an ardent Zionist and preached the return to Eretz Israel, his enthusiasm was to transform the Jewish youth into workers devoted to building the land of Israel.

In 1918 when the Sventzianer region was taken over by Bolshevism ideals, Shalom Berman was hypnotized by the socialist movement. A short while later he changed course, discouraged, and his activities leaned more toward Bolshevism.

He returned to Zionism and was known as a hot–headed extreme Zionist. He was a follower of Zev Jabotinsky.

He parents returned from Russia and went to live in Vilna. He didn't have a steady income to support himself.

His dream was to make Aliyah to Israel. He didn't have a visa, therefore he engaged in illegal ways to go to Eretz Israel. In the end he succeeded and arrived in the land.

It was not the “land of milk and honey” and he suffered hunger for many years. After many years he finally got a position as a librarian and succeeded with this small income. This had an impact on his life.

[Col. 854]

When a friend wanted to help him, he refused. He decided, to everyone's wonder, to become religious, and at the old synagogue he became a Torah Reader.

He moved to B'nei Brak, and began a strict religious life. Everyone was shocked. Now he became known as religious and righteous.

Suddenly he was struck by bad luck. He had a heart attack and died in B'nei Brak. At his funeral, many orthodox Jews attended and gave him a great honor. He died in 1954.

He died alone, no family, his means were distributed to the Gemillut Hesed,” in memory of those who perished in Poligon”. (which exist by the name ”those who come from Sventzian to the land of Israel”).

A separate plaque with his name was presented and this is how his memory is perpetuated by his friends and acquaintances.

With Shalom Berman's death we lost a just and righteous Jew.

Elyiahu Meyer the Melamed

A short, broad shouldered Jew, with a thin blond beard and weak stature, but with a strong belief and faith (confidence) , was the painter Elyiahu Meyer. His weak and sickly demeanour was due to his constant fasting and hardships. His deep faith gave him strength.

This world was only a passage, that lead to his “palace”. To the world to come! The worse one lives in this world, the better off he will be in the next life.

Elyiahu Meyer the Melamed was a man burdened with 8 children, and nothing seemed too hard for him to provide for his family: to fast, to eat a dry piece of bread, and sleep on a hard bench.

His life, the core of his existence, came from his study of the Torah. Whether alone or with others, especially with the schoolboys of Beit Rabin–with the small children.

[Col. 855]

At Elyiahu Meyer, studying from early till late at night, in a crowded room with small thin windows and clay floors, seated around 2 tables were tens of children studying Gemara and Tenach, swaying fervently.

Elyiahu Meyer sat in the middle and took great pride in his students. A small sacrifice he made, his wife, Malka, would bring him a little meal, which she prepared beforehand, like a piece of bread and an onion, or a piece of garlic and a thin soup.

Elyiahu Meyer led a very pious life, performing all the commandments. He fasted every Monday and Thursday.

His greatest joy was to welcome guests. When he heard that a guest or a poor man arrived in town, he ran to bring him to his home and shared his last piece of bread with him.

He was especially strict for the Shabbat. If his wife put the bread in the oven too late, he pulled it out half baked.

After his supper, which was a black soup, cooked with a bone, he continued his prayers with great fervour, and with “bloody tears he cried”?” Hebrew

[Col. 856]

He didn't allow his children nor his students to go to the woods on the Shabbat. His two reasons” they should not carry anything in their pockets, if (God forbid) there was no “Eruv”, and secondly, if forbid, they should destroy the grass or the twigs” (when they walked on them).

Another Mitzvah he coveted: when a woman came to him to write a letter overseas to her husband, as he had a clear and beautiful handwriting, he was also able to write the English address.

Even in the worst cold weather, he went to the Mikvah to cleanse himself. A pure body and a pure soul went hand in hand.

When the Czarist Interior – minister Trepov declared that all the cheders were to closed, Elyiahu Meyer wasn't frightened by this decree.

What can he do to him? Feed him bread and water? Put him in prison?

He was used to cold and hunger his whole life! The Mitzvah of learning the Torah was more important.

During the First World War, Elyiahu Meyer was in Russia, where he lived through the Revolution, it did not affect him, he did not change.


[Col. 855]

A story of the Rabbi and the Wolf

Shifra Kovarski

Translated by Anita Frishman Gabbay

 

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When Rabbi Heshele was the Rabbi in Sventzian, this tale was told:

A wild wolf came into the town at night, he knocked at many doors and when they were opened he torn the people to pieces. About 20 people were injured. When he knocked at Rabbi Heshele”s door, he didn't answer, so the wolf became very angry. The wolf went to my grandfather's door, Rabbi Chaim Tzarenovrodke, and he opened the door. The wolf attacked him and torn his over– coat. He shut the door quickly. But from such a fright, his wife got sick and died.


[Col. 857]

The History of one Family

Arie Anat (Popiski)

In memory of my parents, my grandmother, brothers and sisters who were tortured
by defiled men, and murdered by bloodthirsty, man–shaped animals

Translated by Meir Razy

 

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– 1 –

The fourth son of Joseph and Leah–Bilha Popiski (of the Gavenda family) was born in 1873 and was named Ze'ev.

Joseph, the father of the large family was a village man, a Jewish farmer with all his heart and might. He leased land from Mordovinov, a landowner who lives in Sventzian. Since it was difficult to support the large family from the meager harvest that the land was giving, he looked for other sources of income. Once he met a forest owner who suggested that they would work together and transport the harvested trees through the river to Vilna. Joseph immediately accepted the offer and entered into wood trading.

The boy Ze'ev studied in a “modern cheder”. The Rabbi instilled love for the Jewish people, for the land of Israel and for the nation's heritage. Ze'ev grew up and was educated in the spirit of Chibat Zion and believed, since early childhood, in the complete redemption of the Jewish nation in the land of Eretz Israel.

When he was 15–year–old he realized the difficulties his father had earning enough to support them all and he decided to help the family.

He borrowed money from his older brother Shraga–Yitzhak and leased a fairly large plot of forest. He hired workers and started to cut and process the trees, sorting them according to their type and quality. He went to Vilna and sold the processed wood at a nice profit. His first step was successful and the wood merchant from Vilna predicted he would have a bright future.

The first business success encouraged him to focus on this industry. He had the right attitude and the knowledge of selecting and sorting the wood by quality and types and was well versed in prices. He kept working towards his goal – the wood trade.

Ze'ev was 17–year–old when he lost his father, who was run over by the train while riding in a winter carriage to the market in Sventzian. The horse, which for the first time in its life had seen a steam locomotive, went wild and knocked Joseph down on the tracks. The family, acquaintances, and friends mourned. They all praised the qualities of Joseph, humble in his manner, a warm and honest man.

[Col. 858]

Ze'ev considered his father his guide in life and followed him. He developed an excellent reputation among the forest merchants.

He was 25 years old when he married his wife Chasia–Mary, the daughter of Rabbi Moshe Lapidot and Sarah–Elka Cruz (of the Pelt family), residents of Novo–Alexandrovsk. Rabbi Moshe was educated as a Rabbi and was a respected member of his community. Sarah–Elka loved Ze'ev very much and referred to him as “my son” and he was like a dedicated son to this noble, gentle, heartfelt, and spirited woman. Sarah–Elka's brother was a well–known philanthropist in the area and received a gold medal from the Czar for helping others.

 

– 2 –

The young couple went to live in Novo–Sventzian after the seven days of the banquet and set up a home together. He soon moved his wife's parents into his home and provided for them generously. In his spare time, Ze'ev studied Torah from his father–in–law.

Ze'ev was already a well–known forest merchant and very wealthy. His business expanded and he was promoted to a ‘Class “A” Merchant’, a rank that gave him permission to travel all over Russia. He also had contacts with a well–known German merchant across the border in Konigsberg, Germany. All this he achieved before the First World War. All his wealth, which was the wood he harvested, was stored in the port by the river Neiman near Kovno, facing the military fortifications.

While growing his business, he started supporting public causes. He devoted time and money to many public enterprises. His yearning and soul's desire were for Zion and therefore he lovingly participated in every fundraising and every campaign for the building of Eretz–Israel.

In addition, he was a philanthropist and would help anyone who turned to him. His hand was especially extended to any forest merchant that had lost his business and needed help in restoring it.

Thus the happy times and life of the Popiski family continued until the outbreak of the First World War.

[Col. 859]

– 3 –

Trains full of singing soldiers passed through Novo–Sventzian one evening. This was very unusual. People said that a war had broken out between Russia and Germany.

Ze'ev Popiski immediately tried to reach Kovno in order to see what was happening with his vast possessions located on the shore of the Neiman River, but, he returned home the next day. Citizens, and especially Jews, were no longer permitted to travel on trains. The following day, many refugees started arriving in town from their homes near the Russian–German border.

Ze'ev realized that he could no longer save his property and found some solace in helping with the plight of the whole community. He was grateful that he was able to remain in his house and was not forced to take a “walking cane” and join the thousands of Jewish refugees.

The refugees arrived hour by hour, by car and by foot, and the tide was increasing more and more. The townsfolks understood that they had to quickly make some sort of arrangement for these displaced people who were suddenly torn away from their homes. A large meeting convened and it was decided to establish a special committee for war refugees. Among the members of that committee was Ze'ev Popiski. By now his family had grown to nine persons. He decided to put the whole family in one room and put the rest of the rooms and warehouses he had at the disposal of the committee for the war refugees. His wife, Chasia–Mary, set up a field kitchen in the courtyard and took care of the refugees and served them hot meals.

 

– 4 –

These “good” days did not last long. One day the community of Novo–Sventzian was instructed to vacate the town. Ze'ev Popiski and his family packed up their belongings, loaded as much as they could on a wagon, and together with his wife's parents and the rest of the family they set out for central Russia.

Halfway between Sventzian and Haydutishok the wagon broke down.

The family turned away from the main road, repaired the wagon and continued on the main road.

Tired and exhausted they arrived at a Jewish village at sunset. This beautiful village, Stoyatishok, was unique in the surrounding area. It stretched between a ridge of hills and a river of clear water, where Jews lived quietly and peacefully on their land. The farmers were all simple Jews, good–hearted and G–d–fearing. They welcomed the refugees with love and devotion, as was the tradition of the congregation for many generations, following the Jewish edict “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” They urged the Popiski family to stay with them until the storm passed and G–d would be with them. Ze'ev listened and decided to stay in this Jewish village.

[Col. 860]

German scouts appeared, two weeks later, near the windmill that stood on the top of the hill. It was not long before fully equipped German troops began to move on the road near the village towards the nearby town of Haydutishok.

 

– 5 –

The next day at dawn, Ze'ev Popiski decided to load all the belongings and to return to Novo–Sventzian. Again they drove through the fields and side roads and arrived at dawn of the second day, after many tribulations and anguish, to their home, where they found the house broken–into and robbed. But Ze'ev did not despair. He gathered his strength and began repairing the house. Life seemed to settle in the estate.

But the days of tranquility did not last long. An announcement posted in the street instructed all residents of streets listed below to leave their homes within 24 hours. The decree particularly affected the Jewish residents, who lived in the streets adjacent to the railway station.

Ze'ev Popiski and several other Jews who, like him, had returned to town, decided to go to the city Commandant and try to petition him to cancel the edict. To this end, they went to the Army Secretariat Office and submitted a written request. The secretary arranged for an interview with the Commandant the next day.

Ze'ev and his friends got up early and arrived at the office well before the time of the meeting. They waited impatiently in the corridor; everyone feared that it would be for worse rather than for good.

The door of the Commandant's office opened after a long wait. A lieutenant stood at the door, looked at them and asked graciously “Who among you is Mr. Popiski?”

Fear gripped Ze'ev. Who knew what the officer was up to? Why was he interested in him? There was no way out and Ze'ev introduced himself to the officer, who must have recognized his embarrassment and assured him with pleasant words: “My father is the timber merchant from Konigsberg. I heard a lot about you. He always appreciated you and said you're an honest man.”

The delegation was immediately invited into the office and the Commandant listened attentively to their request. It turned out that he tended to make it easier for the Popiski family but not for the rest of the population.

Ze'ev proved his greatness. His responsibility and devotion to the Jewish nation as a whole made him graciously refuse to accept this personal favor. This attitude made a tremendous impression on the Commandant and the rest of the staff. They consulted and reached a compromise that only the nearest houses to the railway station would be vacated and the rest would stay in their houses.

[Col. 861]

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Velvel Popiski

 

This arrangement did not particularly harm the Jewish population, so the delegation returned to town, pleased with the interview.

Ze'ev decided to ask for a permit to open a cafi that would serve the army. The permit was issued and the house soon became a sophisticated cafi.

 

– 6 –

The Jewish population slowly began to adjust to military rule. This was not easy at all. Trade was almost stopped. Special licenses were needed to transport goods from one region to another. It was very difficult to get groceries and all the residents were given Food Rationing Cards, without them it was impossible to buy food. The amount of food bought in accordance with Food Rationing Cards was small and could not feed a large family. Everyone tried to sneak food across the border, an action which brought one into mortal danger.

Ze'ev Popiski took advantage of the Commandant's friendship and accepted the offer to become the supplier of beef to the military. The rest of the Jewish residents often benefitted from this business too.

Ze'ev Popiski's family had a large income but the Jewish population as a whole suffered from starvation and diseases. Ze'ev and his wife did what they could to save the Jews from the terrible hardships. Openly and secretly, they deliver food, clothes and wood to the needy. Their children, too, participated in doing good deeds. His wife, Chasia–Mary, prepares additional portions of food every day and gave them to the children in order to distribute the food to the other children who had come hungry to school.

Ze'ev himself used the darkness of the nights to transport flour, grits, meat, potatoes and packs of wood, to the needy to relieve their distress and to warm their bodies.

 

– 7 –

The military authorities quickly tightened a suffocating belt around the civilian population. One order followed another and it was almost impossible to breathe. Infectious diseases were rampant in all the towns because of poor food and a general malnourishment.

The regime kidnaped young people as slave laborers for the front, and those who were not sufficiently healthy - were at risk of dying.

They also kidnapped people whose “appearance” was “not right” (mostly Jews) and sent them to the quarantine camp called Pohilanka – 18 kilometers from Novo–Sventzian.

[Col. 862]

People lived under siege and barbed wire with armed guards. They were without hope and starving - death was not far.

 

– 8 –

At the same it became known in Novo–Sventzian time that many Jewish prisoners were starving in the camp in Poligon. Once again, all the leaders met to find a way to help them and immediately mobilized all prominent homeowners: Rabbi Chaim Segalovitz, Rabbi Yisrael Portnoy, Turgal the pharmacist, Leib Kovarsky, Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Rabinovich and, of course, Ze'ev Popiski. Other members of the committee were the leaders of the Jewish community who are still alive today, Yehoshua Heschel Gurevich and the Gaon the Rabbi of Ponevezh, Rabbi Kahanman, who is now serving as the head of the Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak.

Transporting food from Novo–Sventzian to Poligan was fraught with danger to life, but the flow of aid did not stop even for one day.

World Jewry, including the Jews of Novo–Sventzian, heard about the Balfour Declaration in 1917 and considered it as the “coming of the Messiah”. The home of Ze'ev Popiski housed the elementary school with its two classrooms at the time. I remember how Teacher Hellerstein spoke to all the children and explained to them the historical value of the Declaration. Ze'ev was enthusiastic about the teacher's nationalistic speech and had the vision that his childhood dream of “the Land of Israel for the people of Israel” was coming to realization.

After the teacher's speech and the addition of Hebrew education to the curriculum – Ze'ev became a supporter of that school rather than the Talmud Torah school.

Meanwhile, the war was quickly approaching its end and the Russian Revolution broke out. One day a luxury train had stopped at Novo–Sventzian and all the residents ran to the station. It turned out that Trotsky was traveling with his entourage in one of the cars. That train was on the way to Brest–Litovsk to sign the peace treaty between Russia and Germany.

The German army began leaving our town immediately afterwards and the Red Army, the Bolsheviks, those who promised to bring social redemption to the people of Russia and humanity in general, entered.

 

– 9 –

The first thing the Bolsheviks did was to organize a revolutionary council (RevCom) in the town. Only revolutionaries and proletarians were allowed to participate in this council.

The first act of the new “saviors” was to impose a fine, a “voluntary contribution”, on the wealthy households of the town, and whoever would not pay the fine in its entirety would be sentenced to death.

This was the start of a terrible period of terror and murder in the surrounding area against people whose only crime was being wealthy.

The rich, of course, paid out the fine in full, but that did not help them in the long run.

[Col. 863]

Members of the RevCom went from house to house at night and pulled the prominent homeowners out of their beds and transferred them to prison. Among those arrested were Ze'ev Popiski, Israel Portnoy, Haim Gordon, Eliyahu Joseph Kovarsky, the elderly local rabbi, the local priest and others.

The Bolsheviks took the prisoners to the House of the Revolution Council where they were read a manifesto in which they were accused of exploiting workers, being the enemies of the working class and opponents of revolution. In a nutshell: counter–revolutionaries who were condemned to die.

Reliable reports began spreading in the town that all the prisoners would be executed the next morning at 4 am. The sad atmosphere of Yom Kippur engulfed the Jewish population. Various public figures and family members began running to every official, trying to prevent the abominable crime.

Ze'ev's wife, Chasia–Mary, run to all his acquaintances in order to save him. At midnight she returned home with heartbreaking tears and began plucking her hair and shouted:

– Children, they are going to kill your Father!

Everyone burst into bitter tears and sensed the approaching terror. Then the eldest son remembered that he had one acquaintance, named Petka, among the Revolution Council. They immediately ran to beg for his help.

Two hours later the door opened and the mother and son returned home. At the door they spoke to someone in Russian. The man refused to enter and demanded that no one else stay in the room in order to arrange the matter without witnesses. The children were sent away.

Chasia–Mary counted the ransom – 30 pieces of 10 ruble gold coins. She did not bargain for her husband's life.

Petka returned with Ze'ev at three in the morning. Petka wished him “all the best” and advised him not to be found at home because “things may happen.”

When Ze'ev caught his breath he went to the synagogue to recite the haGomel blessing (thanking G–d for his redemption).

The Bolshevik regime did not last long. The control over the town moved from one power to the next. The Lithuanians came after the Russians and then came the Poles.

 

– 10 –

After the liberation of Poland from the German occupation and after the liberation from the Bolsheviks, the “new liberators”, the Lithuanians, came to Novo–Sventzian. Their first “job” after the “conquest” of the town was “freedom and rest” for the soldiers. They spent two days looting Jewish homes. Naturally, they did not skip the Popiski house.

They treated all properties as their own. They confiscated, robbed and distributed whatever they saw to the mob. Local Poles followed them, expecting to share the loot. Jewish property and Jewish lives were fair targets. The Popiski family, including the father–in–law and the mother–in–law was sitting in the back room, behind lock and key. The front door was breached and a group of soldiers swooped over the property in the house. The father–in–law, Rabbi Moshe, had a long snow–white beard that he wrapped in a kerchief. It was said that the Poznan Poles and the Hellerian Poles particularly “liked” to “delight” themselves over the Jewish beards, so Rabbi Moshe tried to be careful.

[Col. 864]

The door of the back room was opened and a Polish soldier approached Rabbi Moshe. He pulled a bundle of paper money out of his coat pocket. With so much “success and triumph” he grabbed the beard with his other hand to pull it. Rabbi Moshe's daughter, Chasia–Mary, with her national pride, stood beside her father and tried to protect his honor. The “brave soldier” ran out to call for help and then a miracle happened. A Polish Jewish Officer was walking in the street. When he saw what was happening he went in and drove the thugs away, registering their names. After half a year of Polish rule there, the Poles were expelled by the Bolshevik forces that were moving quickly towards the capital of Poland – Warsaw.

Novo–Sventzian was hit, for the second time, by the same anti–Semitic regime, the same regime that will always be remembered in the Jewish heart for their actions against Jews. Once again death was hovering over the heads of the rich and the dignitaries including Ze'ev Popiski. And like the miracle on the Vistula - a miracle happened in Novo–Sventzian. The Polish army attacked Novo–Sventzian at dawn on the same day that the death sentence against the rich and the dignitaries were to be carried out. This saved them from certain death.

Trade began to flourish once again with the establishment of Polish rule. Ze'ev returned to his previous profession, trading wood.

After all the calamities – the first item on the public agenda was building a new school. The space In Popiski's house was too small to accommodate all the classrooms and it was necessary to look for another, more suitable building. At the initiative of five homeowners it was decided to buy the house of the pharmacist Tzipkin. The money for purchasing this house was donated by the YEKAPO organization from Vilna and by local donors: Avraham Yitzhak Rabinovitz, Ze'ev Popiski, Israel Portnoy, Haim Gordon and others. The renovation of the building was done with donations collected from the rest of the town.

The new school had space for classrooms, a teachers' room and a beautiful hall with a stage for performances. The language of instruction was Yiddish, but teacher Hellerstein taught Hebrew according to a fairly broad curriculum.

There was no cultural or Zionist enterprise that did not benefit from the generous hand of Ze'ev Popiski.

His wife, Chasia–Mary, was a loyal assistant in every way. Every needy person found support and assistance from her.

Together they educated their children to respect others, to love the people of Israel and the land of Israel, and to have national pride.

 

– 11 –

With the opening of the gates of Zion and the increase of immigration – Ze'ev Popiski was elected chairman of the Zionist Organization in town. His sons and daughters followed in his footsteps and were among the first to join the HeChalutz (=The Pioneer), the HeChalutz Hatzair (=The Young Pioneer) and were among the founders of the HaShomer Hatzair (=The Young Guard). The oldest daughter was one of the first immigrants to Eretz–Israel after the war. Ze'ev himself dreamed all his life about immigrating to Eretz–Israel to settle in it and to start a new life in the Land of the Patriarchs.

[Col. 865]

He was just waiting for some fateful day when he would sell all his trees, which, according to careful estimate, would have been enough to buy land and build a beautiful farm in the Land of Israel. He did not, of course, expect that one day his business would collapse like a house of cards.

The great crisis of the timber industry broke out in 1926. Ze'ev sold all the wood that was used to make paper to a well–known timber merchant in Warsaw, without any written agreement. He only received an advance of 10% of the amount.

Ze'ev waited a month or two, and the merchant was gone. He sent a telegram, but the answer was: Patience, everything will be arranged for the best.

Again he waited a few months and there is no answer from that merchant.

Eliahu Kramer, a well–known wood merchant in Vilna, needed a large amount of wood to fill a contract with a certain paper factory and even offered to pay half a dollar more for every cubic meter of wood. Ze'ev Popiski did not accept this offer because of the promise he had made to the first merchant. Keeping his word was precious to him.

The end of this miserable deal was bitter. A severe crisis broke out in the trade of wood at the end of the year, and the trees remained rotting in the forest. All of Posiski's vast property was destroyed overnight.

Ze'ev did not despair. He was always full of confidence and hope. He bought a plot of land on the main road to Kaltinian and decided to build an estate there. He soon built various warehouses, a barn, a cowshed and a nice house with a modern bathroom. With the completion of all the construction he celebrated the dedication of the farm in a very festive manner. Dozens of guests from all over the area came and everyone was amazed at the wonderful country estate of the well–known timber merchant.

During the time he lived in his estate he was offered a high position in a wood trading company, to trade timber abroad, but he declined the offer.

[Col. 866]

A year and a half later he tried his luck trading wood again, but he did not achieved his previous success. Difficult times overtook the Jews of Poland. Anti–Semitism intensified and Polish merchants began to compete with the veteran Jewish merchants. The government heavily taxed Jewish merchants while easing upon the Polish merchants.

 

– 12 –

Important changes took place during the late 1920s. Since the language of instruction in Jewish schools was Yiddish, it was decided that in order to connect the children of Israel to their past and to their national aspirations, to open a Hebrew school in Novo–Sventzian.

Among the founders of the new “Tarbut” school were: Ze'ev Popiski, Israel Portnoy and Avraham Kovarsky and his wife Shifra.

 

– 13 –

In 1941, when the German and Lithuanian murderers took control of Novo–Sventzian, Ze'ev realized the situation and wanted to save his family. He planned to hide in the farm of one of the farmers in the forest. One of his servants from the estate, a guy who had worked for him for over 20 years, discovered the plan and informed the authorities of the hiding place.

Ze'ev's fate was then the same as that of all the other thousands of Jews in the province of Sventzian. They were taken to the camp in Poligon. After severe torture, they were massacred and exterminated by the defiled people, and many of them were buried alive in a huge common grave.

We shall, for generations to come, tell of all that those human predators have done to our loved ones.

The memory of the saints and the pure will forever be engraved on the pages of Jewish history.

G–d will avenge their blood!

 

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