by Pesach Lerner
Translated by Sandy Bloom
Donated by Howard Freedman and Michael Hirschfeld
Note: A previous, partial translation of this chapter was donated by Howard Freedman and Michael Hirschfeld. This translation incorporates their contribution.
Pesach Lerner was born in Shumsk in 1901 and emigrated to Eretz Yisrael in 1921. He founded the Organization of Shumskers in Israel. For more biographical information, see the translator's notes on page 199 of this yizkor book.
I implore the Lord of writing and memory not to let me down, and to enable me to write down accurately my memories in the Yizkor Book of Shumsk.
It was in Shumsk that I drew my first breaths in my life. The perfumed air of the forests and fields surrounding the town filled my lungs, and I enjoyed the scent of the town's orchards.
The town sheltered me like a pleasant greenhouse in my early childhood as well as during the lovely, happy years of my youth.
Despite the forty years that separate us, I can still see her in my mind's eye, standing there proud, including her friendly and honest people, full of warmth toward each other. Personal and communal responsibility prevailed, and the social life and national awareness were intertwined and alive.
Last visit to Herzl's grave
All the beauty of the hundreds of years of the town's existence seemed to accumulate in my lovely town.
Shumsk! Ostensibly there were hundreds and thousands of small, lively Jewish towns scattered in the fertile land of the Ukraine that was at once both blessed and cursed. Yet Shumsk was something special, exemplifiying the Volhynian Jewish community with familial warmth abundant in every corner.
Any stranger who found himself in Shumsk immediately felt accepted as if he were born there, and this feeling of brotherhood led directly to the philosophy and teachings of Zionism which espouses the unity of the nation and the brotherhood of its children.
Perhaps this stemmed from Shumsk's special geographic location. Most other towns were located near a big city or a district capital, thus came under a certain amount of social, cultural and spiritual influence. Shumsk, on the other hand, was located on the crossroads between Kremenitz and Ostrog, far from both cities and from foreign influences but not close enough to either to be influenced by them. Thus, a unique synthesis developed in Shumsk which did not exist anywhere else.
In addition, it is well known that the Jewish presence in Shumsk began from one lone family that branched out over the generations. (There are different opinions regarding the name of the family: some say it was Bahat while others claim Shumski.) Perhaps that explains the atmosphere of warmth and familiarity that characterized the town for generations.
The population of Shumsk was no larger than other small towns. Nevertheless, it always seemed to number tens of thousands of people, as life in Shumsk was vibrant and full of life. The population included diligent Torah scholars and those who studied in yeshivas. Many such students left Shumsk to learn Torah in other places, but they would return to their hometown regularly after their encounters with large cities and the foreign world.
Shumsk maintained an unlicensed Hebrew school. In fact, the school went back to the days of Czar Nicholas, may his name be blotted out, when such a school was extremely dangerous and risky. Nevertheless, those simple, honest Jews maintained that school faithfully even though they risked their lives to do so.
Commerce in the town was based on trade with farmers in the area. Due to the relationship with the farmers, a local liquor-schnapps industry developed. The latter industry reached a rather large magnitude, by the standards of the time. The town's flour mills were also well-known in the district; they were operated by river water which produced electricity that lit up the entire town.
Shumsk boasted organized public institutions, elected community leaders, a cooperative bank, a Free Loan association lending cash with no interest, and a group of people who volunteered to spend the night at the homes of sick people.
In addition, there was much dynamic Zionist activity which different parties operated, but all were united under one Zionist organization umbrella group. This made it easier to collect contributions to the various Zionist funds.
The Hebrew Tarbut school in Shumsk was on a high level, and all the Shumsk youths spoke Hebrew. This even included the so-called Communists and the amateur drama group. Names of some of the outstanding members of the drama group were: Zvi Marmelstein, director and leading actor; his wife Sheindel who excelled in typical Jewish roles of the Yiddish mama. Herzl Milman acted out tragic roles including recitations and speeches; Konyanski adopted comic roles. There was also Chaim Kleinshtein and others, whose performances are engraved in my memory.1
The Shumsk landscape was exceptionally picturesque and beautiful. If Kremenets was viewed as the Switzerland of the district, then Shumsk was a charming corner of this Switzerland.
Surrounding the town was the wide, merry river whose lovely water sounds were disseminated like a pleasant tune. This river provided Shumsk's adults with an excellent source of livelihood, but to us it was a meeting-place for youths to meet and enjoy ourselves: that was where we swam and sailed in the summer, and skated and played games in the winter. There was also an ancient, dense forest which began near the town, and had led all the way to Kiev in ancient times. The forest attracted hikers and offered a wealth of nuts and strawberries that didn't need to be disinfected because they were always clean and sparkling from the nighttime dew. Then there was a large orchard of fruit trees within the town, on the road to the liquor breweries; it was said that the people living nearby became drunk on the wonderful scents of the fruits in the spring. Then there was the pine-tree grove on the famous Gorka hill; it was surrounded by fields and a breakaway stream of water from a hidden spring. Its horizon seemed to extend indefinitely. There were also many more lovely areas that Nature gave our town. Yes, this was our lovely, pleasant town of Shumsk.
by A.M. Gejlichen
Translated by Sandy Bloom
|Note: Avraham Moshe Gejlichen was born in Shumsk in 1891 to Mikhel Luzer and Sara Rivka Gejlichen. Active in the Hechalutz youth movement in Shumsk, he came to Palestine in 1926 and was a lifelong member of Moshav Bet Oved. He was married to Rivka, a daughter of Tzvi and Esther Wilsker, also from a prominent Shumsk family, many of whom came to Palestine.|
Most of the towns in Volhynia resembled one another, and Shumsk was no exception. Shumsk's houses and streets, synagogues and even churches resembled those of the nearby villages surrounding them. The same was true for the way its inhabitants earned their livelihoods, and many other things as well.
No Zionist movement existed in Shumsk prior to World War One. There were a handful of people who paid dues to the Zionist movement and that was all. There was also not much in the way of public affairs or activities in the town; the sense of community was best expressed in the Batei Knesset, such as the onceayear election of the gabai (synagogue beadle), or election of the Town Elder, the strosta.
It was in the rabbi's house that most of the town's concerns were decided, as well as in the homes of other prominent local figures. One such example was the home of Kovke Bernsztejn. In the evenings, one could meet there a number of respectable male family heads sitting in a large anterior room around a large table on which was placed a shiny, polished kettle with boiling water. At the head of the table would be the head of the family with a velvet yarmulke on his head, always the gracious host and greeting everyone with sparkling, astute eyes.
Not only was Kovke one of the town's leaders, he was also accepted by everyone in town as a wise man with good, straight advice to all who turned to him. When anyone ran into a problem with the local authorities, the first thing to do was turn to Kovke who went to great efforts and troubles to help others. And, of course, he never accepted anything for payment.
Kovke was one of the partners in the large flour mill called the Rika Mill. The other two partners were Avraham Wilsker and Yaakov Gejlichen. When Kovke passed away, the entire town went into mourning and crowds streamed behind his coffin. Yehi zichro Baruch! (May his memory be a blessing.) He left behind an extensive family; many were killed, but a small percentage survived and live with us here in Israel.
At the time, some of the youths in Shumsk received their education in the local Russian elementary school, where they learned only Russian. Many parents didn't send their children to the school because the pupils there were forced to attend school on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays. Instead, most of the youths learned in cheder (Jewish religious school): reading and writing, but mainly Bible and Talmud. A small percentage also studied Russian with private teachers.
There was no library in those days. However, people could pay a fee to borrow readingbooks in Hebrew, Yiddish, and some Russian from Jehoshua the bookbinder. An important source for buying Hebrew books were the booksellers who circulated in the towns mainly before the Jewish festivals. Their first stop was the Beit Midrash (study room). The bookseller would unload the heavy package from his shoulder and place it on the table, and the pupils from the cheders would crowd around him. The especially prominent items he brought were: ritual objects, Passover Haggadahs, prayer books, holiday prayer books, packages of tzitzit, bentchers and the like. In addition were tales of righteous men, and books in Yiddish and Hebrew.
Monya Chazen was the one to provide the first push toward revival of the Hebrew language and recognition of Zionism. He boldly opened a Hebrew school with the help of Matitjahu Frejder, without any other budgetary allocation or public assistance. Many parents sent their children to this school, in which they studied Russian as well as songs about their Jewish homeland. There was another serious attempt by Rabbi Beirinyo 1 to organize evening classes on the Talmud, given by volunteers with the necessary scholarly backgrounds. These were: Avraham Shochet, Leib Greenberg, Ephraim Goldenberg, Aharon Gejlichen and Yitzak Mejer; each gave a class once a week, beginning with Masechet Shabbat. About thirty boys participated in these classes, but unfortunately the classes were canceled after one winter.
No organized socialwelfare help organization, such as a benevolent loan association, existed for the needy. One exception were the monetary handouts before Pesach, by the town's rabbi. Also, individual people sometimes took the initiative. For example, several righteous women would circulate on Fridays to collect Shabbat challah loaves for the town's poor people, or a couple would go from house to house to collect money for a person who had fallen on hard times or other needy person. Thus the town's affairs followed a regular course of action without many ups and downs or prominent happenings until the First World War broke out. Then, many families were adversely affected by the fact that their sons and husbands were drafted by force into the army. Some reported to duty while others went underground and went into hiding in various places, because they did not want to serve an army and a government permeated with antiSemitism. Thanks to this fact, many remained alive. Rabbi Beirinyo endangered himself by hiding many Jews in the Beit Knesset, who were saved as a result.
The great oppressor Nikolai Nikolaevich (uncle of the Czar and chief of staff) issued a decree forcing Jews who lived near the front lines to leave their homes and migrate to inner Russia within a few hours. The first convoys of Jews who had been expelled arrived in Shumsk. The town spontaneously organized to give first aid to the exiles who had been driven from their homes penniless and lacking basic necessities, as they were unable to salvage even part of their possessions, which were then pillaged by others. Some of them were put up in the synagogues and many were placed in private homes. The Shumsk townspeople treated the deportees with great dedication. They staunchly helped their fellow Jews without making a fuss or preaching about it or writing about it in the papers. It was out of an inner, humane and Jewish desire to help those in need. Of these deported families, several remained in Shumsk and managed to get along, with the help of the townspeople and all kinds of ways. One of these was the Sefarim family from Radzivilov, blessed with many sons and daughters. Sendar Sefarim laid the foundation for revival of the Hebrew language. His students were the foundation for the Zionist pioneer movement in the town.
Close to three thousand souls lived in the town. Some were wealthy, others middleclass and yet others were poor.
Industry: There were two flourmills in the town that supplied flour for the town and its environs. Quite a number of families earned their livelihood around those flour mills. In addition, the Kanfer family ran a small leatherprocessing factory while the Klejnsztejn family ran an independent cementtile factory in which all the family members were involved. They used to cover the roofs in cities and villages (Shalom Klejnsztejn lives in Israel). Zvi Wilsker ran an oil factory and, in later years, Szimon Wilsker also opened an oil factory. There were four mills for grinding groats, run by: Jeszayahu Hinis, the Kahanir family, Lejbci and Zedils, and one more. There were two workshops for cleaning sheep wool, one belonging to Jehoshua Duchowna's soninlaw and the other to Leib Gejlichen. There was a large liquor factory that was shut down during the war and a factory, called a 'brewer,' for beer. After that was closed down, plays were performed in the buildings.
Health: The only doctor in town was Jakobson. He was wellknown and respected in the entire vicinity, and also worked as a doctor in the government hospital (Bolnici). In addition to him in Shumsk was a Christian paramedic and another Jew who was called Alter Doctor; these last two were not officially certified. Nevertheless, when someone in the family became ill, they would call for Alter the Doctor. He would come immediately, examine the person, ask questions, but never wrote a prescription for medicine. He would verbally instruct the family what to do while already walking toward the door, would accept what he received, then left.
Commerce and crafts: There were a significant number of craftsmen in the town. For example there were tailors for men and women who also served the rural people in the environs. These tailors worked from morning till night and barely eked out a living. There were a small number of shoemakers, their situation was rather meager; one or two saddle makers; and a blacksmith, actually a father and his son. There were several wagon drivers who froze in winter from the cold and suffered from the heat waves in the summer. Laundry was given once a week to a Christian woman from a nearby village; after a few days, she would return the clean, folded laundry. There were fish sellers and a few butchers, builders and whitewashers, and carpenters who built buildings and furniture. There were two tinsmiths who dealt mainly with the roofs of Christian churches: they fixed and repainted the roofs. Their work was hard, exhausting, and rather dangerous. They worked mainly in the summer, on high roofs of hot, burning tin. There were three glaziers (glass cutters) for the entire area; two or three barrelmakers; a gravedigger who was said to be a hundred years old and wouldn't let anyone else dig a grave but him; two bakeries and a few shochtim (ritual slaughterers).
A Keren Kayemet group meeting with Dr. Bernstein
Two men who stood out were brothers Yitzhak and Binyamin Shochet, of blessed memory; they were melamdim (religiousstudy teachers) who also taught Talmud. Another melamed named Shmuel was more advanced and he taught writing, arithmetic, a little Russian, and mainly Bible. Anyone who studied Bible with Shmuel to the melody of the Haftara underwent an experience he would never forget.
Then there were chimney sweepers and lumberjacks; but the cow shepherds of the town were goyim (nonJews). There were two barbers in town: Kjva the Bundist who became a communist and Josef Lerner, a decent, goodhearted Jew with two sons who worked together with him. He always contributed generously to all the moneyraising appeals. Lerner used to collect money for the indigent and give anonymous donations; most of the townspeople knew him, respected him, and trusted him completely.
In addition to all kinds of stores, Shumsk boasted a very developed wheat trade. Numerous villages surrounded Shumsk and they sold their wheat to the town's wheat merchants. One of the town's most prominent wheatmerchants was a woman called Lifchj (Frejda Wilsker). Although Frejda was illiterate and even her Ukrainian was poor, still she did her business mainly with landowners. They trusted her and treated her honorably, as a respectable lady.
Religion and tradition: There were five synagogues in Shumsk. In the Great Synagogue (Beit Knesset Hagadol), the prayers were generally led by a chazan (cantor) with accompanying singers. Chazan Szlome'la, with his two sons, made a unique impression on the worshippers. People would stream from the town's other synagogues to the Great Synagogue in order to hear Szlomela with his two sons and choir.
Most of Shumsk's residents were traditional Jews, yet few chassidim lived there (unlike the rest of Poland and Galicia). Those few chassidim living in Shumsk belonged to the two courts of Trisk and Olik; their rebbes would frequent the town one Shabbat every year. This was a special, exciting occasion, and Jews flocked to hear their words of Torah.
Weddings in Shumsk were grand celebrations. On the Shabbat before the wedding, the bridegroom was accompanied to the synagogue and when he was called to the Torah, the women threw candies and nuts on him. The children waited expectedly and then fought valiantly against one another for the sweets. Weddings were conducted in the middle of the week, mainly on Tuesday nights near the Great Synagogue. The guests would accompany the couple to the chupa (wedding canopy), and a large mob would join them mainly the youths who streamed to the happy event. Everyone jostled one another: to get to hold the chupa poles, to see the bridegroom break the glass, and at the end to abandon the poles that inevitably fell on the heads of the young couple. At the end of the chupa, the musicians marched at the front of the procession while playing joyous folk songs. If the bride or bridegroom had a grandmother, she would dance in front of everyone on the way to the bride's house. Welloff parents would hold a banquet, called a seudah, and when everyone was having a good time at the meal, the badchen 2 would announce the gifts for the couple; they called this the drasha geshank ceremony. The badchen would call on Mr. Soandso, the generous wealthy man, to give five coins in lieu of a drasha geshank (a sermon) by the bridegroom; then he'd call on another respectable wealthy man for half a dozen silver teaspoons on the side of the bride, and so forth. The merriment would continue until the late hours of the night, while happening outside too. The young fellows and girls stood under the windows, watching the proceedings inside the house.
An especially joyous occasion took place when someone contributed a Torah scroll to the shul. This was a celebration that included everyone, young and old alike. The festivities were held on the Saturday night following Shavuot. That was also the season in which the weddings began.
Some of the more wellknown town figures: An interesting couple was Mejer Lejzer and his wife, who sold tar to the villagers for their boots and a similar lubricant for their wagons and wheels; they engaged in this from morning to night. They were a sparkling couple: their hands, faces and clothes shone from the tar and smelled like it too. Everyone liked hearing Mejer when he led the prayer in the synagogue, especially on the Days of Awe (Jewish New Year and Day of Atonement), because he had a pleasant, sweet voice and it was a pleasure to listen to him. Many people went to that specific Beit Knesset to hear him. Mejer Lajzer was also the shadchan (matchmaker) of the town.
Ephraim Goldenberg was another prominent person; he possessed incisive wisdom and insight. He often served as arbitrator in inquiries and dinei Torah between people, conducted according to Jewish law, and always succeeded in patching things up between people in a positive spirit and without receiving remuneration. Goldenberg was a religious scholar, yet bravely allowed his storehouse to be used for the initial Zionist meetings after the war and also for the initial plays put on by the first drama club. He did not heed the haredim (ultraOrthodox) who criticized him for allowing licentiousness on his premises. Over time, he became a Zionist who contributed generously to Keren HaYesod. Unfortunately he was not privileged to make aliyah 3 together with most of his children who are with us here [in Israel], and that is very sad.
Zvi Wilsker was a goodhearted Jew, whose hand was always open to give charity and anonymous donations. The villagers with whom he did business had perfect trust in him like followers of a chassidic rebbe. It happened one day that most of the houses in the village of Sivka 4 burned down. The very next day, Wilsker went to the trouble of traveling to the village with money, which he lent to everyone individually so that they could rebuild their houses. Later on when there were pogroms, Zvi Wilsker's house was robbed and he was left penniless. Word got out to these villagers, who brought him all the best and got him back on his feet again.
Alter Jukelson was a fellow who enjoyed the company of those younger in age than him, and was accepted by the youths as a member of their social circle. Jukelson was erudite in the Talmud as well as secular texts. He always participated in Zionist activities. It was a pleasure to talk to him; his witticisms and jokes were among the most wellknown in the town.
Avraham Rajch, owner of a flour mill and a very wealthy man, was a maskil 5 with heretical views. His heresy bordered on assimilation and despite his erudition, he negated everything Jewish in general, and Zionism in specific. When people would collect money for Zionist causes they would enter his house too, but turn to his elderly mother, not to Rajch directly. The hospitable mother would welcome everyone and say to her son, Avraham, give the children some coins, and he'd do so.
Hercik Milman, a modest and goodhearted young man, was active in all the town's institutions, wellliked by youths and adults alike. By day he worked as a bookkeeper and by night he devoted all his time to Zionist activity: to Hechalutz 6 and to the drama club. He was a counselor and lecturer in Hechalutz and orator at all the other Zionist assemblies, while also encouraging others to be active as well. Milman always had the lead part in all the drama plays. He, together with Vaad Hechalutz, would be the ones to authorize Hechalutz members to make aliya. Milman was in charge of the Hechalutz organization's funds, and was also one of the founders of the Hitachdut party, to which most of the Hechalutz members belonged. He sent many chalutzim (pioneers) to Eretz Israel and guided them, but unfortunately he himself never made it to the holy land. Dina Sztejnman 7 told us the story of his death: After the ghetto was liquidated, several bunkers remained and Hercik hid in a bunker with five other people. At night, when they suffered from thirst, Hercik would go out with a bucket to draw water from the nearest well. One day he was caught by the Ukrainians who still guarded the ghetto. They promised that they would let him live, if he would show them to the hidden bunker. Hercik of course refused to do so; they stripped him naked and tortured him with the butts of their rifles until he died. Yehi zichro baruch (May his memory be a blessing).
Changes in the town: When the [Russian] Revolution broke out in 1917 and the Jews received equal rights, all the draftdodgers who had been living in hiding came out to the free air. They enlisted in the army with the sense that they, too, were obliged to defend the Revolution, and did so admirably. Everyone wore red ribbons on their lapels and were all called citizens. It was a wonderful feeling; the youth felt reborn and erupted into the streets. Suddenly you heard songs in Hebrew, Yiddish and Russian and the songs seemed to take on special significance.
The Revolution was supposed to unite everyone together, without respect to religion or language. But in Shumsk, for some reason, things were interpreted differently: If there's equality, then I can choose my own life. Almost from nowhere, a Zionist national sentiment began to beat in the hearts of the youths, and burst out. Public life in the town took a significant change. I remember the first large public assembly, which took place in the square in front of the Catholic church, when Nam Kostyuk spoke in Ukrainian and belted out revolutionary slogans. Afterwards, Mutil Segal got up on the same stage and spoke in Yiddish, his voice shaking with emotion (and fear of public speaking). That was the first national Zionist speech; in fact, one can say that Mutil Segal laid the foundation for the Zionist Organization in Shumsk. Afterwards people began canvassing for donations to the Keren Kayemet, to develop cultural activities and make contact with other Jewish centers in the big cities. Mutil Segal, a young man of only twentythree, headed all these activities.
Segal's assistant was Nachum Asher Geldi, and Tuvil Wilsker with his lovely handwriting served as secretary and treasurer. Geci Coref was a fine, pleasant and also goodlooking young behalf of the General Zionists. The youths were thirsty for all this: they studied Hebrew intensively with private teachers. Money was collected before every festival, event, or occasion including Simchat Torah when men were being called up to read from the Torah, and during weddings. Percentages were deducted from entrancefees to amateur plays, for the Keren Kayemet fund.
All the Zionist activities took place in Ephraim Goldenberg's storeroom: the Zionist meetings as well as the first plays of the drama club and the rehearsals. The place served as a clubhouse where everyone met in the evenings. Then, Pesach Lerner from Berditchev showed up and founded the association of Bonei Tzion. Lerner together with Zalmen Weksler, Sender Milman, Chava Burdman , of blessed memory, and Leib Coref became the first chalutzim (pioneers) who moved to Eretz Israel in the Third Aliya, from Shumsk. At that time the Hechalutz movement was founded in the town, a movement that attracted many of the youths; the founders were: Yisrael Akerman, Herci Milman and Rivka Wilsker.
At the beginning, Hechalutz was a very broadbased organization in Shumsk; its members assisted all Zionist endeavors in the town. They were members of the drama club, under the guidance of Mirmelsztejn, who called it The Yiddish Dramatic craze. Over time, the club split into smaller groups and the Hechalutz members funded their own drama club under Herci Milman, in order to raise money for penniless immigrants to Eretz Israel.
More than forty years have passed since I left Shumsk. Its memory alone remains, and the figures who once populated that town remain forever dear to my heart. They were special souls, unique for their generation, creative and dynamic. May their memory be a blessing and may they never be forgotten.
by Pesach Lerner
Translated by Sandy Bloom
|Note: Pesach Lerner was born in Shumsk in 1901 and emigrated to Eretz Yisrael in 1921. He founded the Organization of Shumskers in Israel. For more biographical information, see the translator's notes on page 199 of this yizkor book.|
All the Jews from Shumsk without exception shared sterling qualities and values; they cared about each other, were always hospitable, and gave aid to those in need. When outsiders would visit Shumsk, they would feel at home immediately, as if they were with their own families. People were always ready to help those in need, without expecting any kind of payment. Thus, newcomers felt at home quickly, as if they were born in Shumsk.
I recall one episode, during the First World War (1914-1918). It was a fall evening when all the residents of the town were shaken up to receive word via a messenger from Kremenets that a large group of [Jewish] refugees were on their way to Shumsk to sleep in our town at night.1 These refugees had been quickly removed from their homes under orders from the military commanders in Radzivilov, after the front lines had been breached and now moved closer to the town. Therefore, the people living in the town and nearby areas had to leave, since the area was likely to turn into a battlefield within a few hours. The Jews packed up what they could under such short notice and were forced to leave behind their homes, their property, and all that was dear to them and their ancestors over the generations.
Active members of the Zionist Organization of Shumsk
These Jews were exhausted, mentally and physically, by the time they reached our small town Shumsk. Immediately, the Shumsk people went to assist the unfortunate guests. The first thing they did was to requisition the bakeries to be used at night. All public structures and synagogues were commandeered for the refugees. The youths came of their own volition to assist, and argued among themselves who would be the first to extend a helping hand. Owners of private houses turned their kitchens into miniature restaurants, where they offered hot drinks and food to the newcomers. Thus the newcomers were welcomed with open arms, and in an encouraging atmosphere. When the convoy readied to leave in the direction chosen for them, Shumsk people organized wagons and horses to send preparatory notices to all the relevant sites slated to house the refugees; one example is Kuniv-Ostrog.
Under the influence of our warm reception, several families in the group decided to settle in Shumsk, out of love for the town and its people. Names of families that I remember: Seforim, Strit, Teper, Freidel, and Kozolka.2 I have forgotten the other names.
The refugees did not have to worry about housing because all the Shumsk homes opened their doors to them. Thus, many of the refugees became bona fide members of the town, as if they were born there.
This example of supreme brotherhood, and other, similar characteristics of our forefathers, the founders of Shumsk, constitute a shining example of true brotherhood. May we, too, have the strength to continue their traditions, ourselves and our offspring.
by Mr. Aryeh Mordosh
Donated by Howard Freedman and Michael Hirschfeld
Twenty-six years have passed since I left her, facing east with the hope of an early return to my town, my home where my parents and grandparents lived, and to the streets I roamed with my friends.
It was on the night of the 26th of June 1941, the night Elkena Weitzman and I stood watch on the bridge of the flour mill belonging to the Reich family. The commotion that night upset us, because we saw an army retreating eastward and members of the Communist Party hastily evacuating their families on wagons. Everybody was milling around that night, sensing that something was about to happen. We had a short consultation and decided to leave the bridge, go home, and then head east before it was too late.
I remember that when I reached the clearing near the Ackermans' house, a group of people were assembled, including my teachers I. Ackerman and Mundra (of blessed memory), and discussed what to do and where to go. Nobody had a clear answer.
Early in the morning, I, my sister Leah and her husband, and the family of Alter Reisman (of blessed memory) left town in the direction of the village Surge. The border guard would not let us pass, but we detoured and moved eastward. My mind was made up that under no circumstances would I stay among the Germans. Vivid in my mind were the pictures from the press of burning synagogues in Berlin in 1933, and my father Leisel's stories about the cruel Germans and their actions against the Jews. We did not imagine anything yet about the Holocaust, but we decided to escape the systematic and planned cruelty.
The parting from Shumsk was hard. I remember well when we reached the hill before Surge, and we looked back with tears in our eyes and asked ourselves when we would see our dear hometown again.
That day when we crossed the border, we felt we had to draw a line separating from our past life in the town. We marched with a heavy heart toward an uncertain future.
We had a hard childhood. We were sensitive to the hardships of eking our a livelihood that rested on our parents' shoulders, and we were grateful for everything. We respected our parents and counted our blessings. We made do with a ragball and a circle around the kitchen stove. Modest were our needs, and even more modest were our demands from life. But the happiness and the familial closeness and the intimate ties to our town exacted a loyalty to Shumsk. Especially pleasant were the intimate family gatherings for the Sabbath and the Seder evenings that foretold an end to the mud, etc. The town was like one big family--we all knew each other, and everybody knew about a happy or sad occasion in a family. We lived in the present and did net give a thought to the future. Nevertheless, we gathered in the Young Halutz, Betar or Hashomer Hatzair clubs in the evenings and embroidered dreams about a distant land for which we yearned.
Responsible in large measure for our yearnings for Palestine was our beloved teacher Israel Ackerman, who devoted a large part of his lessons to Eretz Yisrael and Zionism.
The war years were hard, and in 1944 Shumsk was liberated without her inhabitants. My company commander in the Red Army read aloud the announcement about the destruction of my family and called for revenge. In 1951 I first returned to Shumsk. It is hard to describe the feeling, when you return after ten years to your hometown where you were born, grew up, learned, and had a family and friends. You want to see them again, feel their closeness, exchange a few words and impressions, be again a Shumsker among Shumskers, and all is gone...You walk the narrow streets, look at the few remaining houses, and it seems the people you knew are still living there, but it is all a mirage. The awful truth is revealed when you stand in front of the large mass grave where the townspeople were buried, the awful silence all around, and you try to comprehend, try to believe that all this happened. This is the bitter truth.
By Aharon Lokaczer
Translated by his son, Joshua Lapid
Donated by Mel Werbach, who is researching his Kanfer family of Shumsk
|Note: Aharon Lokaczer was born in Shumsk in 1903. He emigrated to Palestine in the early 1920s, working in road construction and agriculture and later in the immigration department of the Jewish Agency. He passed away in 1979. His parents, Alexander Sender Lokaczer and Rachel (Kanfer) Lokaczer, and his sister Raisel were killed in Shumsk in August 1942. His sister Yehudis Szomsztejn was killed along with her husband and little daughter in Kremenets.|
It was the years 1918-1919, a period without government in southern Ukraine in general, and in our little town of Shumsk in particular. The rulers changed almost on a daily basis. Sometimes you went to sleep under the reign of Petlura1, and woke up under the reign of Bolsheviks, Makhno2 or somebody else.
One day it happened that the town was left with no governing body. The guards of the town -- three policemen and a commanding police officer -- disappeared. No one knows what happened to them. Were they killed by one of the armies or did they decide to run away while the going was good? Whatever the reason, Shumsk was left with no one in power and under no government authority.
Here the story starts. During one of the summer days at noon on Friday, the Jews were busy with preparations for the Shabbat. The marketplace was almost empty although it was only noontime. Even the gentile farmers, who used to walk around the shops hoping to obtain a little salt (which was very expensive in those days) had returned to their villages, and the quiet atmosphere of Shabbat Eve descended on all the streets. The children played in front of their homes, exempt now from the burden of their cheder studies, the women were busy putting chulent3 into the ovens, and the men hurried to the bath house. Everywhere it was quiet and unworried. In spite of the turmoil that was all around Shumsk, here it was quiet.
Suddenly four horsemen appeared riding on their horses, wearing, as was the custom in these days, Russian army uniforms so that you couldn't know which warring faction they belonged to. Armed with rifles and submachine guns, they appeared from out of nowhere and ordered everyone to disperse and get into to their homes.
People panicked and hurried to closet themselves in their homes and close the shutters tightly. In a few moments all the streets had emptied and the horsemen rode their horses through the town and did as they pleased: robbing, stealing and raping. The first victim was the Akerman family (from the New Town4). Aharon, the father, was killed and his wife Rachel was wounded while holding a baby in her arms. Her arm had to be amputated. (Two of Rachel Akerman's children later immigrated to Israel: a daughter residing in Kiryat Motzkin and a son who is a senior worker in the Haifa branch of the Hamashbir Hamerkazi.)
Their next victim was an elderly man, Prilucki.5
The nameless horsemen seemed to enjoy themselves, and so they returned once in a while, and every Friday became a disaster-prone day with nobody to prevent the attacks. The whole town, including the men and the youth (some of whom were soldiers), were afraid to show any sign of resistance.
Who knows how serious the situation would have become if the horsemen hadn't wanted one day to tamper with one of the villages in the area. Here they did not wreak havoc in the way they did to the Jewish community of Shumsk. They only wanted free food for their horses since they had become used to surviving by theft. Here, however, they raised the wrath of the farmers of the village, who proceeded to surround and catch them and then put them on public trial.
Somehow, in the middle of the trial there was a change in their favor and they were going to be released. However, the head of the community, who was one of the leaders of the group who had caught the horsemen, was afraid that once freed, they would get even with him. He opened his shirt, bared his chest and said: If you release these robbers, shoot me.
His words embarrassed the local community, and so the verdict was the death sentence.
Before the execution, the elders of the village asked the horsemen what their final wish was and they asked for a large plate of verenikes.6 The women of the village volunteered to prepare this dish and immediately afterward they were executed.
Finally our town of Shumsk breathed freely.
Later on it was discovered that the four horsemen didn't belong to any of the warring factions fighting in our area. One was a Christian from our town, born and raised among Jews, and the rest were also from the surrounding area.
When I reached Israel I joined the Haganah.7 During nights while I was sometimes alone on guard duty in dangerous places, I remembered this incident in Shumsk and compared the differences in the situations and in our reactions. Then I fully understood what the Jewish homeland has given us. Here we stand tall. Here it would not be possible for even the smallest village to live in fear of such a small number of thieves.
by Chana Rosenberg
Translated by Sandy Bloom
I happened to find out that you are working on publishing a book commemorating the martyred people of Shumsk. I would like to contribute my tiny part to this collection of memories.
Shumsk was a shtetl like dozens of other shtetls scattered throughout Poland and Volhynia. What set it apart from the others is the fact that it was a Zionist shtetl and very aware of what was going on at the time in the world in general, and in our Jewish world specifically. At the time, I was a member of Histadrut Hechalutz,1 with strong ties to our pioneering youths in the area, including Shumsk, which I often visited. I have lovely memories of the period, and of one special visit I made one evening that connected me to your town.
It was a wintry Friday night when I went out to visit my friend Manya Sztejnman.2 It was quiet outside; snow covered the town in white, making Shumsk look like a bride waiting for her bridegroom. Since I was alone, I had time to look around me and think. I passed low houses, where in each and every house the lit Shabbat candles seemed to greet me warmly; how precious were these candles to the Jews. I felt as if the town itself was resting and had wrapped itself in the Sabbath cloak after the trials and tribulations of the week. I wanted to hug all this, which suddenly became so close and dear, and I felt as if I belonged. I don't understand why sadness gripped me suddenly and would not let go. Perhaps it was some kind of subconscious sixth sense.
There is another reason that Shumsk stands out in my memory: It was in this specific town that I first inhaled an Israeli atmosphere. (The Tzoref and Gejlichen families were on a visit at that time.) We, the youth, hungrily swallowed their words about life in the Land [Eretz Yisrael] and what was taking place there. I recall the stormy discussions regarding the Histadrut, lectures given by Herzog, M. Segal and others My heart aches for the Sztejnmans, the Wilskiers and the rest of the dear Jews in Shumsk. Despite their Zionist yearnings, fate prevented them from realizing and fulfilling their dreams.
My heart aches for those who refused to leave their town and were later wiped off the face of the Earth brutally, without any reason. I am not able to accept their fate; however, deep inside my soul, their memory lives on forever.
by Frieda Bendman
Translated by Sandy Bloom
|Note: Frieda Bendman, a daughter of Leib and Etil Bendman, was born in Shumsk in 1910. Two of her brothers and their families perished in Shumsk in the Holocaust.|
We, former Shumsk people, now live in Haifa and we organized a party for all former Shumskers. This event inspired me to write about a similar kind of party I had helped organize many years ago in Shumsk itself.
I was a pupil in the Tarbut school1 when we rehearsed a play, Chana and her Seven Sons. I was supposed to be Chana. The other actors were: Yisroel Wilskier,2 Dov (Barish) Geler, and Zeidel Zilberg,3 who all died in the Holocaust. It was directed by Monica Tzoref (now living in the U.S.) and by Mirmelstztejn;4 the latter was the one who created the drama club.
Everything was ready for the performance, except for one important thing: The town's mayor, who of course was not Jewish, refused to dispense a permit. Thus it was a sad and flustered Mirmelstztejn who returned to tell us the bad news: that the voyt5 refuses to dispense a license, and the play was canceled.
When I heard this, I was shocked and furious. My blood boiled, and I said, I'll go to him; let's see if he'll refuse me. I was only 12 years old at the time. But my father, may he rest in peace, had good contact with the town's higher-ups, and the local council members used to frequent our home. So I went to the Gemeinde (Council), stood in front of him and argued, We have worked long and hard on preparing this play for Hanukkah, and everything is ready. Now you refuse to approve it, and our play won't take place? I can't believe that you are such a terrible person to disappoint us like this. I invite you to join us at the play.
My words had an effect. He stroked my head and said, Take this permit, girl, and may you be successful! I returned, happy and cheerful, with the permit in my hand. And, yes, the Council people came to see the play, as well as a few others we invited from Oistoptzok, and the local doctor. The light defeated the darkness!
By Shlomo Batt
Donated by Howard Freedman and Michael Hirschfeld
Shumsk was a simple little town, out of the way like the small towns in the district of Volhynia--cut off from cultural centers, without good roads, and thereby separated from other small and bigger towns in the district. The majority of the Jewish townspeople supported themselves through retail trade. Only a small segment did menial work like carpentry, shoemaking, or haircutting, and barely eked out a living. The majority of the people were self-supporting, except a few unlucky ones. But there was some unearthly quality in these Jews, a source of wonderment and admiratlon to this day.
Nearly everybody in town was like one big family. They shared joys and troubles in spite of class differences; they formed a cohesive unit.
Until the First World War there was no school in Shumsk. The children were educated in cheder and only a few parents dared send their children to the Russian government school in town. There were some that left to study in the world beyond their town, but they were very few.
An important turning point, I think, was the experiment of the teacher Dickstein from Lutsk who founded the private school. I do not remember who his supporters in Shumsk were.
The special thing about this school was that it gave parents an opportunity to advance and enrich their children's lives and futures. From that point on there was regular secular education, with considerable influence on the whole town. The parents had a different perspective on the education of the coming generation, and it later helped greatly toward the establishment of a Hebrew school by the name Tarbut in which we were privileged to get an education.
This school was the catalyst for the genesis of Zionist youth groups, and brought new life to the town.
The majority of the townspeople were dedicated Zionists, in words as well as in deeds. Workers for the public good had emerged. They volunteered and were very dedicated.
There were social, economic, cultural and Zionist institutions in town, as in other small, outlying towns in Poland that had a generally low standard of living. There were some heads of family that were fully self-supporting, and there were those who barely made a living and were in need of community support from time to time. Some support was organized, like money for heating wood in winter, Passover money, and bridal dowries. These were small steps, but they established the direction towards more organized mutual aid institutions like Linat Tzedek and home visits to the sick, that were organized by the young people of the town. The latter institution was organized when typhus broke out. The epidemic affected whole families and, without the help of this institution, many more people would have succumbed. I remember Dr. Jacobson making the rounds everyday, and there was not a house that escaped. Abraham Shochet and his son Mendel accompanied the doctor, and were given instructions. They worked twenty-four hours a day to take care of everybody that needed help, and all of this without any pay.
This institution remained, and grew later under the direction of Leibzi Woskavonik, who was very dedicated. It extended medical help to the needy and raised funds. A plot of land was bought with the plan to build a hospital.
Later, a bank was founded through the initiative and dedication of Rabbi Israel Sudman. He devoted many years of effort to overcoming the townspeople's fear and suspicions. It was not an easy task, but once the bank opened, it was a blessing, and many availed themselves of its services.
Parallel to the bank was a charitable agency founded with money sent from the United States, under the leadership of Mordechal Chazen, who acted as the cashier, and a small committee for public scrutiny. This agency fulfilled its mission with extraordinary honesty and dedication. I remember when I was elected the director of the library. I took advantage of these agencies with small loans for the acquisition of books. It was hard to convince Mr. Chazen to give us a loan for that purpose, but Hershel Milman and I succeeded after long discussions in convincing him that the purchase of books was worthy and for the public good. At last he agreed, and I was in charge of repaying the loan, and renewing it.
by Shlomo Batt
Donated by Howard Freedman and Michael Hirschfeld
I was told of an incident that involved my grandfather, David Hirsch. It happened before the First World War, when Shumsk did not have electricity. The police decided that the streets should be illuminated for their convenience. There were places designated for kerosene street lanterns, and the homeowners next to whose house a lantern was installed were responsible for lighting them each night and guarding them.
My grandfather's house was in the center of town. A lamp had been installed there, and he was responsible for it. It happened that he forgot to light it one night. A policeman passed by and called my grandfather outside and yelled at him about why had he not lit the lamp. Grandfather explained that he had simply forgotten, and that he would go and get a chair and light it. The policeman followed him with curses and obscenities. Then my grandfather got angry at this rude treatment by the policeman, raised his hand, and slapped him. The policeman took him to court. Of course, he was sentenced to three months In jail, but the sentence was not carried out.
About a year after the beginning of World War I, when I was approximately seven years old, an incident occurred that I remember distinctly. I was at that time a student at the cheder of Simcha Melamed. He lived on the hill. In the wintertime we stayed late into the evening and then all the children went home together singing and carrying their lanterns. My father had given me a small, beautiful lantern as a present. One evening when we went home singing and swinging the lanterns, we were near my house and a soldier grabbed me and yelled at me to extinguish the lantern. I did not understand his order and was frightened, screaming and crying, but he did not let go of me. This was not far from Pasya Lerner-Gertzfeld's store. She was still in the store with her mother. She apparently recognized my voice. She came out, saw me crying, and took my hand. She talked and argued with the soldier about why he was mishandling a small child like this, and said she would report him to his superior. He got mad and broke my lantern. I continued screaming but Pasya took me home. This was the first antisemitic incident that happened to me as a child.
In the later part of World War I our town was right on the border. On one side stood the Russians and Ukrainians, and on the other side the Germans. Many essentials were scarce under these conditions. My father used to go and buy kerosene, and he had to cross the border. To his misfortune, some German soldiers apprehended him and brought him, wagon barrel and all, to their officer. The officer was busy and let him wait. After several hours he came out. My father got up and approached him, but apparently forgot to remove his hat. The German officer yelled at him and was very abusive. For about an hour he screamed at him, Hatoff, Hat on, etc. and my father, who had not eaten the entire day, fainted. This enraged the officer even more and he struck my father's head with his whip, hitting his left eye, which swelled and turned blue. He ordered his soldiers to put Father back on his wagon and see to it that he crossed the border. Father returned home late at night. I opened the door and saw his condition and cried out, but he told me that everything was going to be all right and not to wake up Mother.
When Hitler gained power in 1933, Father told this story to everybody and foresaw the bad times in store for us all. At the end of the War there was no stable government in our area. Sometimes the Bolsheviks ruled for a while, sometimes other rulers, and sometimes criminals and murderers descended on the town. There were many deaths during this period. Nearly every Friday several armed riders appeared in the square and commanded everybody to disperse. When the square was empty they went to the Rabbi's house and gave him a list of items to be collected for them within a few hours, with threats of dire consequences if the list was not complete. The Rabbi and some of his followers made the rounds of all the houses, and, with tears of fear and humiliation, begged the householders to contribute. Everybody gave to the best of their ability, but the list was never completed, and the Rabbi had a hard time negotiating with these murderers.
One Friday the same thugs gave an order to disperse and they went to Prelutski's house. They knocked on the door, and when it was not opened, they broke the door down, beat Prelutski, and demanded his money. He gave it to them and they still killed him. On the same day they also killed Millman. My friend Zanvel Ginsburg and I went to the center of town to find out what was going on in order to tell our parents. We climbed on the gate of my grandfather's house that faced the square, and we saw the riders riding away fast. We heard crying, and we arrived at Millman's house and saw the tragedy.
One day two armed soldiers caught Leizel Mordosh and demanded tobacco. They led him to the square and told him that if he could not supply them tobacco, it would be bad for him. Suddenly my father passed by and saw his friend Mordosh, who pleaded with him to help. The soldiers grabbed my father, and he took them to our house and gave them the tobacco my mother was saving in a drawer from butts. They also demanded some linen, but when my mother found only dirty linen waiting to be washed, they turned on my father and wanted to beat him. We ran to the house of our neighbor, Joseph the butcher, and he gave us some clean linen. They were satisfied and left.
There was a small police station in Shumsk, as in the other small towns, with one officer and a few policemen who considered it their duty to oppress the Jews. One Sunday evening we heard voices outside and did not know what had happened. I ran outside, opened the door, and found Herlich wounded and bleeding. I took him into the house, set him at the table, and he told us:
I met two people with clubs passing near the house. I recognized them and they said hello to me and told me to get in the house. They continued to the pharmacy of Motel Chazen and sat on the fence. They were the policemen in civilian clothing. When I turned to go back in the house, I heard some noise. Several brave Shumskers grabbed the pair and beat them up, in spite of the fact that they recognized them as policemen. Then they marched them like hoodlums to the police station. On the way one gentile came out and also recognized the policemen, and, since he had suffered at their hands too, he grabbed a pot and smashed it into the face of one of the policemen. The officer saw immediately who the hoodlums were that had been brought before him, so he started to negotiate with the young Shumskers to leave the pair and let him handle it. First the young men did not agree, but later went along.Later we heard that the pair underwent medical treatment and were dismissed from the Police. This incident stuck in our memories when we think of the Poles that suffered and were oppressed for many years and the antisemitic feelings that caused them to act irrationally.
One summer the Polish army held maneuvers in our area. The officers wanted to celebrate the conclusion with a special meal for all the officers. They asked the Polish Mayor and he recommended our restaurant. They came with the mayor's representative. My father was not too eager because there were more than fifty officers and it was short notice to prepare so much food. By chance my uncle Sholom Wechsler was visiting and he promised my father he would help. it was harvest time and business was slow, so we agreed and started the preparations. We planned to hold the affair in our new house not our old one where the restaurant was. We arranged tables and chairs in the large room. The walls in this room were hung with pictures of Herzl, Weitzman, Sokolov, Balfour, etc. that my sister and I had cut out from magazines and newspapers.
The day of the affair, two high ranking officers came to see if everything was okay. They went to our house and were satisfied. The officers came and were seated, and my sisters and I and Uncle Sholom started serving them. When we went for the second course, we heard noise and laughter and did not know what had happened. When we came back, we were stunned. All the pictures were ripped off the walls and strewn on the floor. I already knew how to speak Polish and I wanted to make a fuss, but my parents did not let me. When everybody left and the two officers settled the bill, they told my father to forget the whole thing. But I did not forget. It was one more proof of the attitude of the newly freed Poles to the nationalistic stirrings of another nation. I knew that antisemitism would not let up and I drew conclusions.
In Shumsk there was no courthouse, and it was necessary to go to Kremenets to stand trial. Later it was arranged that once a month the judge would come for a few days to take care of judicial business. With him also came some attorneys, and all were patrons in our restaurant. The judge loved gefilte fish. Once a young Polish attorney came with his clients in the morning. They ate, drank, paid, and left for court. At lunch time they came back, and he ordered for everybody. He showed me that he had plenty of money, assured that it would be all right, and also reserved a place to stay overnight for himself. I added up the bill and was assured that the client would pay. I went to sleep and left the bill for my father. In the morning the attorney got up, drank tea, and paid, and when my father presented him with the big bill from the previous day, he refused to pay and left. At that time the stop for the bus going to Kremenets was near the Polish church. My father awakened me. I ran to the bus and saw the attorney boarding. I went up to him and asked why he had not paid in spite of the fact that he had shown me plenty of money and promised to. He started screaming Dirty Jew at me and boarded the bus.
I did not give up, and went around the bus. He sat down near Yehoshua Duchovna. I jumped on the wheel, spat in his face, and called him a dirty Pole. Duchovna, who was my godfather,bawled me out and said he would tell my father. The bus left and I went home and told my father what had happened. A few weeks later the attorney passed our house, told my mother she had a fresh son, and paid his bill. The whole thing left a bitter taste in my mouth.
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