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[Page 5]

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Troki – General Appearance

[Page 6]

In the sixth year of the establishment
of the renewed State of Israel,
Which is the thirteenth year
since the destruction of the community of Troki
in the province of the Jerusalem of Lithuania
by the defiled German State,
We, those who come from Troki
in the Land of Israel
and outside the Land,
Raise the memory of the community
that was and is no more


[Page 7]

With the Book

The Editorial Staff

For years the spiritual need has been felt among us, the people of Troki, to commemorate the memory of our Holy Congregation, which was among the first to be destroyed by the Nazi clans in the Second World War. However, the heavy fog that descended on that tragedy in our village without leaving a remnant, the shuddering of the congregation, her death throes and destruction – it was this that prevented us from hastening the mentioning of the tragic event into print. We thought, we hesitated: maybe the remnant would still appear, the living witness to this drama, the redeemer to this puzzle would be found, and would tell us about the death of the heroes among our near ones of body and spirit. Meanwhile, years went by, and the fear of obliteration and darkness began to burden the soul. We said: we can save from the ravages of time whatever is possible to save!

And here the book that tells is before us. We know how limited the material is and how inadequate the picture is, which doesn't contain enough to give us a living idea of a historical community in Israel and about a tractate of colorful lives, but in the paucity of information we made a choice in conformity with the conditions placed upon us. Perhaps historians will come along and complete the picture. The chapter of events is itself enough to arouse the interest of the investigators who will approach the creation of the image of Troki with greater breadth. We, however, did not turn to history and research, but to the memorialization of the lives that were cruelly cut short, the life of an ideal quiet village that pulled the thread of its existence with modesty and simplicity, with work and a vision of better days – and drank the cup of sorrow to the end, without sin or transgression. And if we succeeded at all in our task, it is the least that we were able to do.

The feeling pulses within us that we are the remains of a holy community in Israel, and as orphans it is incumbent upon us to say the kaddish without any flowery literary phrases, since it is from us and forward. And if even one heart beats to that which is written in this book, and becomes embittered over the pure blood that was spilled and the community that was destroyed and brings the pain of it to the next generation – then we have fulfilled our mission and our monument will be acceptable.

The Editorial Staff


[Page 9]

Troki

(A Poem, a section from the poem “Vilna”)[1]

I loved Trakai, wonderful village, behind your mountains,
and the seven rivers around it, though you look at them
          you won't get enough of her beauty
Where there, there are the Karaites—our inferior step-brothers
Jews and yet they are not Jews. With their strange prominent eyes
they gaze but don't recognize us...
Their daughters have the grace of Ruth, Moabite and
          tanned, but they won't go
After the sons of Boaz and his grandsons. Hebrew prayers are on their lips,
their black eyes ambush the children of the people of the land.

You can come and hear their prayers at their pure synagogue;
singing drawn out as weeping,
and sad as the moment of death,
sucking, and it has a single snap and a mournful Yemenite tone;
the sound of a limb that has been torn from the people of the Lord
          that convulses in pain,
it can neither live nor die. How will it heal us?
There is only the idea that will pass as lightening, and an
          ancient pride will stand you erect:
If this weak limb will yearn--how profound the life in the corpse!
If a mottled twig will still grow--the vine will not hope for naught.

 

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Center of the Village, the Tower, and on it a plaque with the date of its founding

[Page 11]

Troki – A Jewish Town That Was

Asher Shomrony-Straus

Hidden amongst broad green lakes to the west of Vilna dwells the village of Troki. Many islands are scattered within these lakes – the lakes of Troki – and the village itself is nothing but an island which divides a lake from south to north, and it is connected to the land by a strip of land whose width is a few hundred meters on the south side, and by a narrow sand-bar on the north side. Previously there was a wooden bridge whose posts still protrude from the water for the length of the new sand-bar.

However, before the bridges existed the village was a sort of long tongue stuck into the great lake, which was almost divided in two: west and east. The western part was only a large lake, on whose northern shores spread fertile green gardens that extended all the way to the houses of the village for the length of its single main street. On its opposite side was found: The forest of “Yarotzova”, the fields of the Karaites, and also their cemetery[2] with their beautiful and precious gravestones. This part of the lake was “bald”; there were no islands in it, and no trees surrounded it. Not even boats went it in, except for the boats of the fishermen, for even these, since there were few fish in the lake, went out only a few days a year. Nevertheless, the eastern side of lake was crammed full of large and small islands, which gave it a splendor not found elsewhere.

In the days of summer the islands were covered with greenery and white flowers and a not disappointing source of joy and pleasure from island to island on the crystal-clear water for its length and breath. In the days of winter the lake was covered with a thick layer of ice, and the entire surface of the lake was transformed into a great unchanging white plain. If the snow melted, then the ice was transformed into a weak, transparent, splotched coating: black, grey, and dark, whitish to bright white. There were no outlets to the shore, and in place of boating all, from old to young, would stream to the expansive lake with their ice skates to enjoy the winter sport.

The ruins of forts which were found on one of the islands in the lake – the island of “Tira”, and the remains of the ancient walls of the garden in the beautiful village, which was surrounded by water on all sides, in the center of which was a high and steep hill – the hill of “Tira”, testify to its important and illustrious past in the period when it was the place of residence of the great princes of Lithuania.

Nevertheless, the village was more full of life and livelier than any other village in the surrounding area. Even its houses were straight and upright and spread apart from one another. Each house had its own form, and never would you see a house leaning or about to fall down. The rooves of the houses were not made of straw but rather smooth, scrubbed wood shingles that showed no signs of age. Due to its narrow area, there were not many streets in the village, and even the single main street that spanned the length of the village was paved, in the way of well-maintained villages, with paving stones, and on its two sides were sidewalks for the passage of pedestrians. In order to compensate for the scarcity of streets, the single street was given two names: the southern section was named “Vilna Street” and the northern section was named “Kovno Street”…

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The Population

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The Paved Bridge

Events

The population of Troki, about 3000 souls, was different in composition from other villages in the region, which were made up of Christians and Jews. Here there was for some 100 years a famous Karaite community, in whose hands rested the spiritual authority for all of the Karaites, over all of the Karaite “nation” in Eastern Europe. The Karaites were brought to Troki at the end of the 14th century by the Lithuanian Prince Vitold[3], who expanded the borders of his country to the Black Sea and to the east, in which dwelt a large Karaite community. Together with the Tatar captives, the conqueror transferred groups of Karaites who also spoke the Tatar language[4] and were settled in the different areas of his empire in Lutsk which is in Volyn, in Halicz which is in Galicia, and Krasny Ostrov which is in the area of Meberg, and in Troki[5].

Most of the lands of the village were granted to the Karaites that were held in Troki, in addition to various rights and privileges. Besides agriculture, they also engaged in trade, but in they encountered stiff competition from the Jews, who settled in Lithuania and were merchants there well before the arrival of the Karaites. The economic competition also caused the raising of national opposition, and slowly but persistently, the Karaites began to withdraw from all partnership with the Jews, until they reached a complete separation, and even proclaimed themselves members of another “religion”. The opposition turned to hatred, and over the course of hundreds of years the Karaites harassed the Jews and tormented their lives mercilessly.

However, their hatred of the Jews did not bring to the Karaites great love from the Christians: they made for them, in the early period, the same disturbances as the Karaites made for the Jews, and charged them with the blood libel[6]. Then, in the 17th century, they did not entirely imagine that in the future they would rejoice in a later period over the Beilis blood libel accusation[7]. It never occurred to them, in the falling upon them of tormentors in the period of the 18th century, and in their destruction of their synagogue to its foundations, that yet in the future they would sate their pleasure in the destruction of Jewish synagogues by means of rioting crowds…. Meanwhile there was in them the plague of the matter of the 17th century, and wreaked havoc among them, to the degree that of all their community, only 3 families remained.

Nevertheless, notwithstanding all this, the Karaites developed lives of spirit and culture and established

[Page 13]

scholars, scribes and well-known circles of friends. Of the well-known among them, Isaac Troki[8], (16th century) a famous researcher and historian, who earned recognition with his book “Chizzuk Ha'Emunah” (The Strengthening of Faith), which included a sharp inquiry on the New Testament and Christianity in general. Solomon Troki [see note[8]] the author of an important book “The Book of Apiryon” on the foundations of Karaism[9], and Nathan Troki, who stood in relationship with the famous Jewish mathematician and philosopher, a student of Galileo, Joseph Solomon Delmedigo (17th century) [see note[8]].

With the division of Poland and the annexation of the region by Russia at the end of the 18th century, a new period in the life of the Karaite community begins. While the Polish-Lithuanian authority did not prefer the Karaites over the Jews, it imposed on all of them equal obligations and granted to all of them equal rights. Abraham Firkovich[10], one of the most talented leaders of the Karaite community, managed to convince the Russian authorities that the Karaites were preferable [over the Jews] to the Russians in their diligence and their loyalty to the government. As a result of this, the Karaites were granted comprehensive rights, that in many cases were greater than that of the Catholic Christians. The Karaites began rising on the social ladder at a surprising rate. The way was opened before them for various government positions and even military leadership. In their ability to adapt to the government, they really reached a pinnacle; they acquired for themselves the Russian language, and not just in secular life, but even in the synagogue they conducted their discussions and gatherings in Russian. The language of instruction in their religious school was Russian, and even their Tatar language was more and more forgotten as time passed, and no memory of it remained in public life except for in the wedding ceremony, since the “Ketubah”[11] was written and read in this language (like the Jewish ketubah, which is written until today in Aramaic). More than that, the essential attachment to the religion was reduced among them, and even though most of them were educated, the number of them that understood the contents of the prayers – which were in Hebrew – contracted and decreased in each generation.

In the recent period, there occurred within the Karaites a particular economic development; from the time that the gates of government service and military leadership were opened to them, they lost interest in trade. Little by little they abandoned this position, for which they fought so much over the years, and for which they opened grocery stores that achieved almost artistry. Their fields sprawled the length of the banks of the ponds and were watered by them, produced praiseworthy vegetables of every kind, especially cucumbers, whose good taste and juiciness created for them a reputation in all the streets of Lithuania.

 

Christians – Pravoslavies and Catholics[12]

The Christians, about 2500 souls, that constituted the majority of the population of the village, were, by a decisive majority, Catholic. In the days of the Tsarist Russian government there also existed in the village a Russian Pravoslavie [Orthodox] community that was essentially composed of government officials, police officers, military officials, teachers and the like. The village at that time had the status of a city; it was a head district of a population that was greater than 200,000 persons (among them about 10,000 Jews), and all of the institutions of the head district were concentrated

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in the village. To the Catholics, and even more so to the Jews, not even a toehold was given in the institutions of the government, which was comprised, therefore, of the population of the Pravoslavie aristocracy in the village. They had a marvelously beautiful church, which had giant bells, that when pealing every Sunday and holiday carried their sounds great distances to summon “the faithful” to worship.

There were two Russian-governmental schools in the town, one a grammar school with four grades, and the second “regional”, which also had four grades, preparatory for the gymnasium. This served as the sole grade school for the acquisition of education “beyond the basics”, to which streamed students from the whole district.

After the Russian expulsion in 1915, the Russian community was diminished. The schools were closed, and the beautiful church, whose bells were taken town and sent to Russia even before this, was closed and locked for most days of the week.

The Catholics, even though they spoke Polish and proclaimed themselves Poles, were in actuality descendants of a mixture of Poles, Byelorussians and Lithuanians who lived within the region of this country. Here, in the village, it was as if there was an ethnographic boundary between Lithuania and the Russians, and while the Polish language was the dominant language (which it wasn't actually, except for a few rare cases, rather, it was Byelorussian) in the homes of the Catholics who dwelled in the villages or the towns in the area, the towns and villages that were within 15-20 kilometers of the town were populated by Lithuanians who understood not a word of Polish. The Polish element arrived at this point in the period that followed the 1385 Pact between Poland and Lithuania[13] and many Poles migrated from their birthplace and settled, according to the district records, as follows: they intermingled with the existing population, Byelorussians and Lithuanians, and as a result a unique branch of the Polish “book” was created, which possessed excellent physical and spiritual qualities. Indeed, there came from them famous personalities, composers and statesmen, such as: Adam Mitzkovitz [Mickiewicz][14], Pilsudski [PiŁsudski][15] and others who made an indelible imprint on the events of the Polish nation.

Nevertheless, it must be pointed out that even though the accent of the Poles of the village was like the accent of the population of the “Book”, they were disparaged by the Poles of “pure blood” from Congress Poland[16], but in comparison to the Lithuanian farmers, a few kilometers to the west, they stood at a higher cultural level. Many of them knew how to read and write, and their children, even the villagers',

 

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A view of Troki from the hill of the Prison

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would visit at the elementary school and sometimes even at the regional school in the village.

Nevertheless, the political situation of the Poles was quite bad. The Czarist occupational government that granted to the Poles in Congress Poland several rights and cultural autonomy oppressed the Poles that were in this no-man's land mercilessly. The Poles did not even have their own school, and the Catholic Priest was granted permission to visit the governmental grade school only once a week to guide the Catholic student in matters of faith. These lessons, which were conducted in Polish, were the sole reminder of the existence of Polish nationality and culture, except for the Catholic Church, whose secular language remained Polish.

The economic situation of the Polish residents was likewise difficult. Only a few had small plots of land of their own, and most lacked property, earning their bread by the sweat of their brow and exhausting labor for hire. Many would work the lands of the Karaites in fifty-fifty land tenancy, or they were day-laborers in their vegetable gardens. A few of them supported themselves as hired fisherman with the Jewish lake tenants, or would fish on their own in the broad lakes of the village.

 

The Jewish Settlement: Its Growth and Change

The story of the Jewish community in Troki was filled with dramatic events, and the suffering of the Jews was multiplied immeasurably more in the village than in other villages in the Lithuanian exile. This “privilege” developed for them as a result of the war that their Karaite brothers waged on them, in which they harassed them with all kinds of troubles, until the point of their expulsion from the village. Even before the Karaites' arrival in Troki, there were individual Jews present in it that existed by trade and labor. The Karaites, who also engaged in trade, encountered, therefore, stiff competition from the Jewish merchants, and requested assistance with this from the Lithuanian rulers, including special rights. The Jews did not sit idle, and took advantage of their influence to obtain similar rights so that they would not be discriminated against to their detriment. Regarding the relationship of the Lithuanian rulers to the two parts of the population, they held out their kindness one time to the Jews and one time to the Karaites, but, since they could not be familiar with the dispute between these two tribes of Israel, they would designate the two of them, the Jews and the Karaites together, by the name “Jews”, and by this name they would use the various declarations that were published for their benefit in the various “Writs”. In the scroll of rights that were published in the name of the Jews of Troki “Judei Cives Nostri de Troki” (our Jewish Citizens of Troki) the governors did not trouble themselves to clarify to whom it referred: to the actual Jews or to the Karaites. The provisions of the “writs” did not at all imagine that they were likely therefore to contribute to the conflict and the dispute that would be continued for hundreds of years, and to endless suffering of the two sides together. The copy of these documents “The Scroll of Fundamental Rights” that was given in 1388 to the Jews of Troki[17], and refers, apparently, to both the Jews and the Karaites (although on this, researchers disagree), constitutes a foundation stone to the lives of the Jewish community and to their relationship with the government and their neighbors. (The document as it is written and its language is given at the end of the article in a Hebrew translation of the original. [p.52]

The fact of the Jews' existence in Troki is proven by another document from the same year, which was written to the Jews of Brisk[18] and in which is mentioned the names of the Jews in Troki, whose number, apparently, was not great. However, the lives of the Jews in Troki did not become quiet on their watch. Only a little more than fifty years passed in which a Jewish community developed that was teeming with life and quite influential. To this community in 1441 was given an additional historical “Writ”, which granted to them the “Magdeburg Rights”[19]

[Page 16]

 

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The Palace (Polish: Zamek)

According to this writ, broad internal autonomy was given to the Jews. The ruler (voivode)[20] would appoint the head of the community (voit) and all matters of law between the Jewish citizens would be brought for his decision. However, this “Golden Age” came to an end all too soon.

The appointment of Aleksander Jagiellończyk as Grand Prince[21] in 1492 brought great calamity to the Jews of the city. This Prince, who became embroiled in wars against the Russians and the Tatars exhausted his funds, and inasmuch as the work of the German Princes was an example to him he decided (1495) to expel the Jews from the region of Lithuania and to plunder their property. The Jews of Troki and even the Karaites were forced to take up the wanderers' staff. The decree fell upon them suddenly, without an opportunity to sell their property or take it with them. The Karaites wandered to Carpathian Ruthenia (Eastern Galicia)[22], to an area in which, at that time, there existed a number of Karaite communities. Part of the Jews remained in Lithuania illegally, and part wandered to Poland; the name of the king there at that time was Jan Olbracht (John I Albert)[23], brother of the Polish prince Aleksander Jagiellończyk, who received them with particular kindness.

A number of the Jews who remained in Lithuania joined the Tatar bands of robbers, which carried out attacks on the agricultural settlements of eastern Prussia to plunder and rob for booty and spoils. The exiles remained outside of their city for about 8 years, but in 1503, when Prince Aleksander Jagiellończyk was crowned King of Poland, he changed his mind and permitted the Jews and the Karaites to return to Lithuania. Once again the Trokian community came into existence, and even benefitted from the particular kindness of the King.

The special taxes to which the Jews were obligated were nullified, and in a special “writ” in 1507 equal amounts of taxes were levied on Jews and non–Jews alike. The Jews were freed from any additional burden, especially from work in the fields for the benefit of the King, to which they had been previously obligated. Restrictions of movement on the roads were also voided, and the right to travel on the roads and to boat on the rivers was granted to the Jews equally with the rest of the inhabitants of the village. These were important steps in the equalization of rights. The liberal atmosphere regarding the Jews found additional expression in the order that was given in 1516 by King Sigismund[24] in accordance with the request of “all Trokian Jewry”, in which the King establish two “Fair Days” annually. In order to bring about additional improvement for the town's commerce, the tradespeople, who used to travel from Vilna to Kovno to sell their wares, were ordered to serve this purpose exclusively on the road that passed through Troki.

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The “Writs” of rights that were granted to both the Jews and the Karaites did not make peace between them, and perhaps even fanned the fires of jealousy. The Karaites tried, at every opportunity, to demonstrate the fact of their separation from Judaism and sought to break off all cooperation with the Jews. The desired opportunity presented itself at that time when King Sigismund appointed (in the year 1514) Michael Yosefovicz, a Jew from Brisk, as head of Lithuanian Jewry and granted him the right to represent the Jews before the King. He even appointed him judge for the Jews. The Karaites opposed this appointment and refused his authority with the explanation that – for the first time – they were not members of the Jewish religion. Their explanation was accepted by the Troki ruler of that time – Gusthold. In this way, the Karaites were freed from linkage to the Jews by the payment of taxes, and from then on, they would submit their taxes separately to the royal treasury. This victory was only one step in their war to be freed of any connections to the Jews. After it came other steps, and in the Karaites' imagination the possibility was perceived for driving the Jews out and taking their place; even their complete expulsion from the village. This was the plan for a long time, but the Karaites pursued it diligently, patiently and with strength. Indeed, only about 130 years passed before they achieved their goal: on December 12, 1646, King Vladislav IV published a “writ” revoking all of the rights of the Jews of Troki, on the pretext that all of the writs from 1441 and 1507 never really applied to the Jews but rather to “Judeorum Trocensium Rithouse Karaimici” (The Jews of Troki of the Karaite Rite)[25], and that therefore, a decree of expulsion was imposed upon the Jews, but (it is possible to suppose that) this decree was never carried out, and the Jews never left the village at all. It is understood that the Karaites never ceased complaining, and from time to time they would bring accusations again the Jews that owned – as it were – houses in the village and were carrying out business ventures “for their own good and the detriment of the Karaites”. As a result of these complaints the King renewed his action and ordered the head of the city to expel the Jews, and even threatened the death penalty for failure to carry out this order. However, a “secret gift” [bribe] that was generously given to the head of the city strengthened his will to maintain his refusal; the Jews remained in place and were not expelled.

Once again the Karaites resumed their sabotage, but King Vladislav only confirmed the rights of the Karaites and no more (in the years 1645, 1670, 1679 and 1701).

The arguments and friction between the communities in Troki led to serious clashes in the economic and communal environments, both in the cities and in certain villages, and this in turn led to additional worsening of relations in Troki. The authorities called occasionally to impose order between the rivals – in the opinion of both, these relations that continued to worsen forced the leaders of the two communities to gather one day to find a way towards a solution. As a result, an agreement was signed in 1714 which called upon the two sides to establish peaceful relations and to refrain from damaging the other's rights, and not to cause him any harm. According to this agreement a ban was placed on any Jew who harmed the rights of any Karaite, and the Karaites were announced to be entitled to enjoy all of their ancient rights in all the towns and villages, “and we forbid every Jew to cause them even the slightest harm in the endeavors by which they earn their livelihoods. It is also incumbent upon the Karaites to refrain from harming our Israelite brethren in their settlements in any way. If, nevertheless, one of our Israelite brethren should cause injustice to the Karaites, the rabbi nearest to where the event took place is obligated to use all the power of his influence, including imposition of a financial or physical punishment, and to compel the violator to repair the damage. This ruling of the rabbi is the equivalent of a ruling issued by all of the rabbis of our land.”

With this agreement, which was initiated and authorized for 5 years afterwards, and again after 40 years in 1740, the exclusive right of the Karaites to dwell in Troki was emphasized, and the Jews were obligated to leave there. They kept their promise, and in fact not one Jew remained in the village. The Jews maintained the agreement for close to 90 years,

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and only in 1804, from the time that Russian rule began[26], when they annexed the region to their empire, to expel the Jews from the villages, others from among the exiles turned “without knowing anything about the special rights of the Karaites” to pass through Troki, and with the knowledge of the authorities, settled there. At the time of the event, the Karaites did not express any objections, and only after 5 years were they reminded of their special rights and raised a voice in protest. The “new Jews”, understandably, did not recognize the rights of the Karaites, or the “agreement” that had been made three generations prior.

 

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The Karaite Cemetery, view from the pond in the winter

The campaign that was begun by the Karaites in 1809, bringing a demand to expel the Jews, continued for many years. The scales of justice rose and fell alternately, and caused many surprises and cruelties. In 1822, via the courts and many steps the case finally arrived at the Supreme Court, where it was nullified. To the rejoicing of the Jews, who had been expelled from the villages where they dwelt, where with difficulty they had found a place to lay their heads, there was an end, but the Karaites refused to accept the court's decision, and they turned with the complaint to the Czar himself. The Czar's Council, after it ruled on the matter, was divided in its opinion: Prince Gallitzin maintained that the court's ruling was illegal, in that it opposed the legal interests of the residents of the village – the Karaites; but opposing him, Finance Minister Kankrin[27] supported the rights of the Jews. This Kankrin had three reasons: 1) the ancient rights of the Karaites became invalid with the conquest of the region by the Russians; 2) the Jews established peaceful relations with Karaites in other places, and there was no reason to disrupt relationships solely in Troki; 3) the distancing of the Jews would cause detriment to the financial situation. The ruling was passed, therefore, from the Czar's Council to the Senate, which ruled on the case in 1830. The Senators accepted the decision in favor of the Jews. The victory was “in the bag”, but the matter took a surprising turn when the decision was passed for approval to the Royal Council. With the influence of the enemy of the Jews, Novosiltzev[28], who was Chairman of the Council, the decision of the Senate was nullified, and an order of expulsion was given. However, Novosiltzev had a merciful heart [editor's note: this must be sarcastic], and he slightly softened the severity of the decree: the expulsion would be carried out after a year, and to owners of immovable property was given a period of 5 years to liquidate their holdings. This a community of 192 souls, that only a generation before had found refuge here, had to once again take up the wanderer's staff in its hand. Troki became a living space for the only the members of the Karaite community (172 souls) and the Jews who were expelled were scattered to the nearby towns and villages. It is understood

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that the Jews did not reconcile themselves to their fate, and sought a correction to the deformity [damage].[29] In 1835 they turned to the Tsar himself, and their petition was: the Jews never purchased any lands from the Karaites, the houses that the Jews built were built on lands that they purchased from Christians; the central intention of the Karaites (in expelling the Jews) was to possess the property of the Jews in the absence of others to purchase, except for the Karaites; the expulsion of the Jews would increase the number of beggars in the state and diminish its revenue.

It is possible that the wheels of the Czar were wheels of justice; without a doubt they were quite prolonged. The inquiries and investigations continued endlessly, and only in 1862, in the days of Aleksander II[30], after the course of a full generation that the Jews were kept away from their homes and awaiting permission to return, the expulsion decree was nullified. The conflict that continued for almost 400 years was ended, and the Jews were permitted to return to their homes (and lands). The exiles, who returned together with “new Jews” that apparently joined them, began to establish anew and successfully, diverse communal life. On the threshold of the 20th century, over the course of only one generation, their numbers had already risen to about 1100 souls – almost a third of the population.

 

Economic Life

Commerce

As in most of the villages in the area, commerce was the central source of the income of the Jews of Troki. There were no great merchants – of furs, forestry and produce – in the village, and life here was based mainly on peddling, small trade, and shops. Mostly, the shop was in the same house where the shopkeeper dwelt, and it was open from morning to evening, ready to serve customers at any time.

The essential work of the shop was placed on the shoulders of the woman, who was also responsible for the work of her home. A bell was affixed to the door of the shop, which would ring when a customer entered. The woman would stop her work in the kitchen and run to the store to serve them. Most of the stores were grocery stores, and their merchandise was largely designed to meet the needs of the farmers in the area – sugar, salt, fuel, salted fish, and the like.

However, there were also those with initiative that added to this list household supplies, such as:

 

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Wintry view

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shovels, scythes, sewing thread, and sometimes even cosmetics. One unique kind of shop was textile shops (manufacturing). These belonged mainly to veteran residents in the town center, and were considered a kind of monopoly of two families – Aharon–Kadish Klausner[31] and Shimon ben Zalman Bezalel[32]. Likewise, there was a jewelry store, that belonged to Rabbi Avraham Shuv the Watchmaker; there were also for sale there watches, gold and silver chains, silver cutlery, pins, combs, and similarly a number of kinds of jewelry suitable for every member of the village, including the female sex. There was also a shop for iron works – locks, hinges, plows, that belonged to Benjamin, the son of Abba–Zalman Halperin the locksmith [metal–worker] who could not, understandably, be supported by only one type of work, and it was the store that provided the main support.

There existed two stores in the village that sold flour wholesale – one of Yehoshua Zablodovski and the second of Reb[33] Yaakov Sandman. Most of the shopkeepers would buy flour from them for retail sale or for baking bread. There was also one public house. The right to hold a business of this kind was not given to every Jew. One Jew alone, Jacob Veretzky, got a permit to sell schnapps in the single “restaurant” that was in the village, which belonged to him. By contrast, the license to sell beer was given with greater generosity, but clearly not to all the rabble. In order to obtain a license of this kind, a Jew had to be propertied – the owner of his own home. A few Jews outsmarted this rule and obtained licenses in their neighbors' names, or their Russian or Polish servants, who were eligible for a license even if they did not own their homes. In addition to this, they engaged in the selling of wine and beer even without a license – with the help of bribes, which they would pay periodically to the tax agents (aktziznik [lessor]) and the police.

 

Fishing

Fishing in the lakes that surrounded the village was an important source of livelihood for a number of the Jewish residents. The lakes belonged in part to the village (Magistrate) and in part to Graf [Count] Tyszkiewicz[34], and over the course of many years were found in the lease of one Pole – Mazowlesky. Here, since the lakes that belonged to the village were leased by public announcement for one year to the highest bidder, three Jewish fishermen joined together in this bid – Reb Moshe–Menachem Pokroyski,

 

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Sailing race on the lake

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R' Shimon Kotch and R' Yosef Patashnik, added to the price and took the lakes out of the Pole's lease. After another few years, the Graf [the Count] also leased them his lake and, in this way, fishing became a Jewish occupation. However, only from the aspect of the occupation, since the workers were and mostly remained Christians, except for two or three Jews who were experts in it. The most famous of them, Yaakov Chatchnaski, was head of a group of fisherman and the eldest in the association[35]. He spent all his days on the lake; he was their master and did not leave his work even after he reached the age of eighty. He knew the lakes and all their details, and he used to set the order of the fishing as if according to “Urim and Thummim”[36]. He excelled at speaking “goyat” (language of the masses – Belorussian) like one of the Christians; he used to mingle with the Christians more than with the Jews, and all of his manners were that of a real man of substance. His orders to the workers: “Pull!”, “Stand!”, which were given in a thunderous voice, were heard across all the expanse of the lake, upon which his group was spread out. His tremendous physical strength and the man's health added great respect for him in the eyes of his workers and masters alike. However, he reached the height of his glory after he had lived 80 years and more, when he was a grandfather to grandchildren who had reached marriageable age – he married a young woman and fathered a son and a daughter one after the other.

Reb Aharon Aharonovich, who was a relative of Reb Yaakov, also belonged to the class of hired Jewish fisherman, but because of a lack of physical ability and also since he didn't have the knowledge of fishing that others in his family had, his standing in the group was not recognized. Yet, in contrast to Yaakov Chatchnaski, Reb Aharon mingled with Jews, was a member of workers' association, and on occasion was chosen by it to be the gabbai. More than once, Reb Aharon used comic material in the domain of the Study House. Most of the time, since fishing regularly stole sleep from his eyes at night, during the Sabbath morning prayers he would fall asleep in the middle of prayer or during the Torah reading, and would even snore loudly. His neighbors on the bench would then love to play pranks on him, serving up tobacco into his nose, and taking strange pleasure from the sound of his sudden sneezing. Aharon's wife Leah was a woman of valor[37]. Reb Aharon's salary, such and such many rubles, in cash and a measure of fish from the catch equivalent to cash, was not enough to support the family, Leah the “fisherwoman” would help alongside her husband by selling the fish at retail prices or by trading with the villagers – eggs, butter, poultry – that they would bring to the village on market day. This Leah was a wonderful woman, and even with

 

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Zatrotzki [Užutrakis] – the Palace of Count Tyszkiewicz

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the difficulties of her life notwithstanding, she was full of humor and had a good temperament. She particularly revealed the goodness of her heart in forgiving, which was actually contagious. She was in charge of one of the city schools. Without any qualms and in spite of all rules of caution, she used to visit at the hospital, relieving the exhausted family members, and sitting by the patient continuously for hours by day and by night, tending, feeding, washing and administering medication, and all of this, of course, without expecting any reward.

 

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Among the Sailboats and Sailors – On the Lake

Aaron's son–in–law, Shabtai Glikin, was a bookbinder. He was from the Vitebsk region, and arrived in Troki due to his Russian army service, with his unit, which was encamped in the barracks in the village. Once he was released from the army he did not return home. He married Rina, Aaron's daughter, and opened a book–bindery. Within only a few months he had rebound all of the torn books that had always been found in the village, as well as the compendia and the prayer books of the synagogue, and once there were no more leather books to bind, on his father–in–law's prerogative he joined the fishermen's association, and supplemented his livelihood with the wages of the hired Jewish fishermen.

There was no industry in the village, unless you consider the factory for all kinds of mineral beverages that belonged to Y. Strauss, which, despite his resounding name that appeared on the labels of seltzer bottles, was only a very modest home–bottling works. You need to know that this “factory” supplied soda water also to the surrounding villages, and employed, besides members of the family, only one employee. Even Reb Yitzchak Straus himself was in need of additional means of support, and he had a store like most of the other stores, in which everything was sold: from bread, which was baked by Pesya his wife, to polish for wagon wheels. In this way, Reb Yitzchak would acquire funds: he would buy calves and lambs for slaughter, and from them he would profit with meat for his household. Or, he would buy produce from the farmers of the area, and sell it at a profit to merchants from Vilna. However, the profits from all of these endeavors, which were enough for the ordinary household living expenses, were far from enough for all the needs of existence. For example, a daughter would reach marriageable age, and it would be necessary to consider a dowry. The man was a lover and learner of Torah, one of the regular participants in the study of the daily page of the Six Orders of the Talmud, and the Mishnah[38], and endeavored to pair his daughters to one of the Talmidim Chachamim [“Students of the Sages”][39]. This echelon [of bridegroom] would cost him more. Indeed, after the expenses of the wedding and the initial arrangements for the new couple, he was left as if after a fire…. [with nothing].

A similar fate was the lot of the other residents of the village,

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who were known as merchants and men of business. Ren Shimon Kotsch was essentially a fishing contractor. As is known, fishing is like a game of cards, which sometimes brings a profit and sometimes a loss. And here, after the course of a year or two the fish yielded barely enough to cover the expenses of the business, such as the leasing fees, wages, taxes, and payment of loans for the nets, which generally were purchased on credit, there was not enough left in the home to open a store in order to bring in the needed income to support the family. This Reb Shimon, incidentally, was a talmid chacham [see note 42]; he knew Bible and even Talmud, on the one hand, and general knowledge, more than was usual, on the other. As one of the few who attended the Russian provincial school, Reb Shimon commanded the language of the country, and was accepted by both Jews and non–Jews. For a few years, he lived in Vilna, and even left the country a few times, something that elevated the esteem in which he was held by the villagers. Indeed, he was generally chosen as representative to the authorities, or as a member of the community council or as a gabbai[40] of the synagogue.

There were, therefore, almost as many stores in the village as there were Jews, and even more, as also some of the Christians and Karaites had stores as well. It is clear that the shopkeepers did not see great blessing in this livelihood. The proceeds on all the days of the week were exceedingly minimal, and only on Thursday, which was market day, on which villagers from the surrounding towns would come to purchase necessities, would the volume of business increase slightly. And, since there was not any chance of being supported with any decency in a store, it was necessary to worry about sources of additional income. Whoever did not succeed in that and relied on his store alone could expect only a life of poverty and want.

 

Craft

Craftspeople, who constituted a not–insignificant percentage among the community, added variety of their own to the town. The essential professions were tailoring and shoemaking. There were about 5 or 6 tailors in the village, and each one had his own type of customer and his own style. Of course, they had no patterns for sewing, except that in their work rooms, that is, their homes, there were stuck to the walls pictures from 20 years or more before of the masters of fashion design. The tailor Fochman was one of the new ones that came to the village from Vilna, during the time of the German conquest of the first world war.

 

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The Fisherman in Winter – in the Photo, Reb Shimon Kotin, May the Holy One Avenge His Blood[41] , with his workers

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A Sewing Course That Was Organized by the Singer Company

From right to left: 1. Judith Vershel 2. Esther Swersky, May the Holy One avenge her blood 3. Bella Zamitchnetsky, May the Holy One avenge her blood
4. Yentl Grosavik, May the Holy One avenge her blood 5. Rivka Aharonovitch, May the Holy One avenge her blood 6. unknown 7. Yonah Lauter 8. Leah Broder
9. Shayna Vilkisky, May the Holy One avenge her blood 10. Sonia Klausner 11. The Instructor 12. Moshe Zamlin 13. Name not known

While he was in Vilna he joined the professional organization, and attained a certain level of the intelligentsia, and because of the pleasantness of his ways together with his knowledge of the profession, he acquired for himself as customers members of the younger generation who frequented his house even on matters not related to his work, but simply for the purpose of conversation or for the purpose of raising a glass in a circle of friends on a festival or holiday. Compared to him, the other tailors were elderly, and their customers were householders of their own generation, or villagers from the surrounding area. The eldest of the group, Reb Bezalel Aharonovitch, was also a professional tailor who had a pleasant personality. He was careful in observing the commandments, and did not miss praying in a minyan[42] even on the regular weekdays. He was modest and shy, and from an abundance of modesty refused to pass before the Ark[43] except on days that he was observing a yahrzeit.[44]

Reb Bezalel had a son that magically attained the degree of “Provisor” (pharmacist). The place in which the son sojourned was Vilna, and when he would come to the village to visit his parents, all of Reb Bezalel's modesty would disappear, and there would be no limit to his pride. “The Provisor is coming!!” he would tell all who knew him. And the Provisor himself he did not know how to address; in the second person? Could it be possible? For after all, he is a “Provisor”! In the third person? But he is his son! His wife, the mother, who was caught in the same confusion, would solve the problem by eliminating all personal pronouns – and would address him impersonally – to wash? To eat? To sleep?

Compared to Reb Bezalel, his colleagues Reb Moshe Bas and Reb Yitzchak Broder were far from humble – he was the opposite; there was recognizable in them the kind of haughtiness of those who support themselves by their work and the fruit of their labors. There was almost no lack of work in this profession, and if their livelihood was not distinguished by plenty, they were not in need of the kindness of strangers, (except of course help from relatives from America). In the synagogue, they were accustomed to claim their rights and their share of all honors that were accorded to worshippers. They had a kind of “monopoly” on passing before the Ark during the Shabbat afternoon prayers, almost in turn, unless Reb Yitzchak[45] the son of Reb Shimon, the son of Zalman Bezalel Milner had pranks to play, since it was not enough for him to be the prayer leader for the Sabbath morning prayers, he had to insert mischief also into this “monopoly” and grab the afternoon prayers from others.

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The shoemakers in the village were fewer than the tailors, if one does not consider those who sold shoes, who had work–houses and Christian workers that grabbed at opportunities to glue on soles when they had the chance. Yet, their livelihood stood quite close to the level of poverty, and even below it. Lack of work was a frequent guest among them, since the villagers were accustomed to buying new shoes from the shops (products of Vilna or local manufacturers), and the field of the shoemakers' work encompassed primarily repairs, or the making of boots to order for the villagers. A special type of customer were the fishermen, who needed tall boots that could prevent the penetration of water. Reb Yitzchak Laututah was a great expert in this type of boots. In contrast with his family name, he was an excellent craftsman, and the boots, the fruit of his labor, earned a reputation on all of the lakes in the area. Reb Yitzchak was, incidentally, one of the most interesting personalities in the village. As a praised professional, his customers needed him more than he needed them. As such, the man did not know what it was to flatter anyone. He had a sharp mind and a vast memory, and he developed and deepened his experience in life into a kind of philosophy. For every event, whether in the life of the community or in matters of the utmost importance, he knew how to bring a parable from his experience, from events that happened and in particular from the sacred writings. Among all those of his generation, Reb Yitzchak was connected to the tradition, and never skipped prayer – whose meaning he understood fully – not in the morning and not in the evening. In the sacred writings, which he used to study frequently, he would always find the moral of the story. He frequently quoted from the Prophets: from Proverbs and Job, and would explain and interpret them against the background of the village and its elders. In his sharp language, he would lash out at the distinguished members of the village, her rulers and her wealthy; even the Rabbi and other “Holy Vessels”[46] were not left untouched. With the appearance of the writings of Mendele Mocher Sforim[47], he switched immediately to enthusiastically reading him, and would quote extensively from “My Horse” and “The Tax” [on kosher meat], and to his close friends he would even loan these books (which during this period were impossible to acquire in any place in the village) for reading, although he acquired them with difficulty, actually at the expense of his daily bread. The elders in the village could tell about a great argument that broke out between this Reb Yitzchak and one milkman – Rosenthal – a famous money lender. This milkman had a particular weakness for reading the maftir on Shavuot[48], because of the piyyut “Yatziv Pitgam”[49], which he loved to trill. Reb Yitzchak Laututah used to irritate him to death by softly singing the “Yatziv Pitgam” next to him at every opportunity, until the matter came to blows and to the civil courts. When the matter was clarified before the Russian judge, who with his “Goyishe kopf”[50] could not understand the “Yatziv Pitgam”, Reb Yitzchak Laututah volunteered to demonstrate the entire matter, and began to softly sing the song before the judge in the way that he used to sing it to the milkman in order to tease him. Since the entire community, who was present in the courthouse, was breaking up with laughter, the milkman jumped as if he had been bitten by a snake before the judge, screaming “here, My Lord the Judge, that is just the way he always used to insult me”.

Reb Aba Malletz was also a shoemaker, but from the aspect of style he did not even reach the ankle of Reb Yitzchak Laututah. He was the poorest of the poor, and hunger was (literally) a frequent guest in his home. He took no part in public matters, and distanced himself from the matters of the community. Most of the time he prayed in the first minyan in a remote corner, and did not engage with the crowds. He had one singular pleasure in all the days of his world – the making of shoe trees. On the cold winter days he used to rise early and polish shoes trees. Local farmers used to bring him the wood in exchange for labor, but instead of using it to heat up the oven and dispel the terrible cold that pervaded the house, he used to make from it different shoe trees. However, when he needed a shoe tree for some piece of his work, he would buy it at full price, since he never completed his own shoe trees. He would saw the wood and carve it with an ax until it resembled a shoe tree, and set it down and not finish it. His house was, therefore, continually filling with wood trimmings for shoe trees, until there was no room, but his soul would never be satisfied, and he would continue

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to get up every morning and by the light of a tiny fire he would saw shoe trees and throw them onto the pile. Once, when his neighbors annoyed him about his strange habit, he burst out: “what do you care about my shoe trees? There are those who enjoy strong drink or cards, but I take pleasure from making shoe trees!”.

Yet, if there is a speck of truth in the legends about the treasures that once fell into the fate of poor people and turned them into happy wealthy people until the end of their days, these fell into the lot of Reb Aba Malletz. It seemed that the man dreamt a dream, and with all his strength he strove to make it real: to see his sons become knowers of Torah. This hope was without foundation. His own knowledge of Torah was quite minimal, and he was unable to serve as a role model for his sons. Nevertheless, the man burdened himself with the yoke. Each week he would rise early one morning, throw over his shoulder a sack with a little bread and some potato that he literally saved from own mouth, and bring them to his sons who studied in a yeshiva in Vilna. It is possible that this devotion was what influenced the children as well, and impressed upon them some of the strength of their father's persistence and perseverance until they reached the goal. Three of his sons continued to study Torah, and passed from yeshiva to yeshiva; they became beloved to their teachers, and were crowned one after the other with the crown of the rabbinate. And, when they came to their father's house to visit, his heart was full to capacity with joy and happiness.

Arieh the shoemaker, the “yellow” (because of his red beard), was not distinguished; not in his character attributes, and not in his devotion to Torah, but the man was fated to serve as a great sensation in his town and in his generation. The man lacked children over the course of twenty years, but nevertheless he loved his wife and respected her exceedingly. In general, the two of them were happy, and brought aid and assistance to all who were in need. It happened once that an orphan girl arrived at their house, and they put her up and became close to her. Not a year passed and the village was all in an uproar: the girl was pregnant, and was about to give birth. The shoemaker admitted that he was party to this matter, but not, God forbid, from sinful motivations. He was only curious to know if he was sterile or his wife, and from now on he would not continue to sin. The wife, out of the goodness of her heart, agreed that the girl would stay in their house until she gave birth, and after she gave birth, it was still not possible for her to leave, and so she helped to raise the child.

Sometimes in the village there were also a few Jewish blacksmiths, but this hard work was not appealing, and from the time the old ones went away, others did not come in their place. In the end only one blacksmith remained, Reb Aba Melkinsky.

Reb Aba lived at the edge of the “Catapult”, and in addition to blacksmithing he engaged also in buying and selling with the farmers that came to his workshop. He recognized in the area every cow that was about to give birth, and every ram that was about to be sold – and he was the first that came to buy a calf or the sheep from the farmer.

They conducted the negotiation in the way of most blacksmiths, and Aba would announce with an enormous clap of his oversized calloused palm on the farmer's palm every addition to the previous price that was offered, so that not once the farmer would concede and yield so as to save his hand from the danger of being crushed. Aba, once he knew the secret, would wink at his apprentices a mischievous wink, saying: “one hit or two more, and the calf will be given to me at my price”.

Nevertheless, the bulk of Aba's income came to him from trade, and he worked at his craft for love of the profession. Indeed, the man made sure to excel at his craft, and did all of his work with only a few tools. A hammer, an awl and a vise served him for every kind of work. He had, indeed, a drill, but he never used it; he preferred the awl for making holes. There was no lack of modern technology or division of labor in the work at all; it never occurred to him, for example, to buy ready–made horseshoes from the factory and to sell them for cash. He regularly kept his apprentices after the end of the work day, in order to hammer out a few horseshoes for the next day's work. Even nails he would

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refuse to buy, preferring to make them himself by hand. He did not seek out modern tools, and he used to boast to his apprentices that with a vise and a hammer he could make any implement, even a watch. A bitter and hasty end was destined for the man of this wonderful temperament; one of his apprentices, who with a mallet was striking hot cast iron that was held in Aba's hand, erred and struck the mallet outside of the anvil. The hot iron bounced, was knocked off by the mallet, and hit Aba's belly. After a few days, Aba passed away, and the dynasty of Jewish blacksmiths in the village came to an end.

There were two carpenters in the village; a carpenter was also a glazier. For some reason, they called one Velvel the Glazier and the other Shmuel Meir the Carpenter. Shmuel Meir had a very small family. Since their only son wandered in sea crossings, only he and Fayge his wife (the dreidel, since she used to talk a lot) remained alone. The man was a good professional, and he made a comfortable living, although he never attained luxuries. He was always happy, and in good spirits. It was pleasant to meet him and have a conversation about trivialities. Not so Velvel the Glazier. He had established a large family; the children were small and it was crowded in the house. His salary was not enough even for meagre bread and water, and the hunger that prevailed in his house was difficult to imagine, even in the context of the poverty and want of the village. It is no wonder that from time to time, especially before the holidays, the women of the village used to go out to collect donations in order to ease the hunger in Velvel's house a little.

The poverty and the crowding were evident on the face of a Jew of this hard labor, his voice weeping and entirely full of depression and despondency, such that only the expression of “Velvelicha” his wife could compete with it.

The great wonder in his house were the children: these, who barely ate one meal in a week, did not know what sadness was, and the sounds of singing and music playing, singly or in a chorus, would burst from the windows of their house all hours of the day and evening…. In the matter of the children's education, no wonder occurred and there were no surprises: reading from the prayer book was the maximum that they achieved. Indeed, one of the sons “Milke” (Yerachmiel) was the exceptional one in this exceptional house. For many terms he learned in the Talmud Torah[51], but no matter how many times he was struck by the devoted hands of the teachers, he never succeeded in mastering the art of reading from the payer book. Once they saw that there would be no benefit to this, he ended his studies. The boy was handsome, agile and strong, but since he was neglected from a young age, there was no controlling him. He did not learn a trade and he did not know discipline. He went around, therefore, all of his days in idleness, and his life was wasted like an unwanted object. When he grew up he joined a unit of the Polish army that was encamped in the village, and as wages for his work in the kitchen he received food and also old clothing sometimes. When he reached the age of enlistment, his education was turned over to the “faithful” hands of the Polish army, who had its own methods for teaching discipline. Milke could not withstand it, and fled. He was caught and sentenced to imprisonment. Again he fled and again he was caught. He never returned to the village.

 

Education and Culture

Cheders[52] and Schools

There were no Jewish or Hebrew schools in the village, and the younger generation would receive its education in the traditional “cheders”. Girls were taught reading and writing (reading – the prayerbook, writing – Yiddish) by the teacher Tayva, and in the course of one or two terms they would attain fluent reading in the prayerbook and the ability to write a letter in Yiddish (the Brivnshteler[53] was used as a textbook for this). After they reached this level of education, the female students would leave the cheder and enter into housework, or they began to learn a trade – such as sewing – and to the degree that the financial conditions permitted, they would continue the Russian public school to learn.

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The cheders for the boys held a highly honored place in the village. The cheder of Reb Velvel “The Teacher” served as a school for beginners who were 5 – 6 years old. For a number of generations Reb Velvel introduced reading in the prayerbook, Torah in translation from Hebrew to Yiddish, and writing. The cheder, which also served as a living space, was clean and orderly. His children had left some time ago and emigrated to America, and the wages for teaching, which were paid by his students, provided enough of living for him and Pesya–Gitl – his “helpmate”. He was a quiet man, and did his work honestly – to the best of his ability. With a “strap” that he almost never used, he was modest, without any demands and without any exaggerated self–esteem. When it was not enough time to teach his students prayerbook reading during the course of one term, he would continue and teach him for another term, until he succeeded.

The cheder of Reb Shabtai Lev (Benkbatzer) was designated for youths at the level of Torah, Rashi[54] and Tanakh[55], and sometimes even at the level of “this is what he finds”[56] – Gemara.[57]

The method of learning was, as usual, translation to Yiddish. The idea of the verses was a secondary matter. The word was the important thing. Every word of the Holy Tongue had a teitsh [translation], that is, a meaning in Yiddish. Even the Hebrew words that were considered part of Yiddish required translation. Chen [grace or favor] was not the “chen” known to every school boy[58], but “graciousness”, and when the suitable translation in Yiddish from the Hebrew was not in his dictionary, Reb Shabtai Lev needed to provide all kinds of words in Germanized Yiddish[59], to provide German, and use them as a translation of the word. From the students' side, they had to remember the exact translations of each and every word very well, even if they often did not understand its meaning. “Foreign seed” meant “קאלאנדרעס” [kalandras – congress], and the fact that the word “kalandras” sealed away the word “foreign seed” even more did not matter. A translation was a translation, and required for learning. Indeed, the regular chapters of Torah general had nothing bad in them, and only when they got to the complicated chapters with the owl and the starling[60], the tumor, the scab and the bright spot[61] – did the Rebbe gird his loins and make extremely valiant efforts to impress the various translations on the students' memory, for the one who missed out on interpretations such as these missed out on words of Torah… it is no wonder, nevertheless, that in matters such as these the man was meticulous, and woe to the student who became confused between the translations of “tumor” and “scab”.

In this cheder, as was usual, 20 – 30 students of various ages and knowledge used to learn. They were divided into a number of groups. When the Rebbe was teaching one group, the other groups would repeat and review (as it were) what had been learned, or would read out loud in the prayer book, or (frequently) played with buttons. The noise from the mouths of this “Holy flock”, which erupted and rose towards the windows of the cheder, could be heard from afar. These were not, given all that, ideal conditions for the acquisition of learning. Nevertheless, most of the students succeeded, even if only after a number of terms in the cheder, to acquire respectable knowledge, essentially in that which was connected to the meaning of the words in the prayers, and even in the Torah and the Tanakh. These results proved that a man who did his work faithfully and devotedly – did it. Indeed, generations of students that he established so weakened his heart prematurely, that while he walked one day from Troki to the train station to go to Narvorova, he collapsed suddenly, fell and died. He had a heart attack, and was no more.

Teaching was the sole profession of Reb Velvel (Rabinovitz) the Teacher and Reb Shabtai Lev (Benkbatzer) the Melamed[62], and all of their years they maintained a cheder. In contrast with this, Reb Shmuel Chasda maintained his cheder intermittently – for a year or two, and then stopped. After a number of years he would once again arrange a cheder for a term or two, and then again would stop, since Reb Shmuel was a shopkeeper, like most of the Jews in the village. In addition to that he had a number of other professions. He smoked fish, and also helped his wife Chana with baking bread. He was the only man in the village who knew how to remove the sciatic nerve from the hindquarters of an animal, which was sold, generally, as unkosher meat.[63] He would buy this meat therefore for the cheap price of unkosher meat, de–vein it, and make out of it sausages that were more kosher than kosher. Nevertheless, all this income was not enough to sustain him, and when he was drowning in debts, to the flour–sellers, to the butchers, to the fishermen or to the wholesalers from Vilna, he would renew his cheder to get out of the pit. As in every cheder, he had children from the age of Torah until Tanakh and Gemara. His own education Reb Shmuel acquired in the various Yeshivot of Poland and Lithuania[64] (indeed, he was an erudite student!). Besides this, he read widely in Hebrew and foreign secular literature (to the extent that it was available in Yiddish or Hebrew translations), and therefore he had fundamental knowledge in the history of Israel and in general history.

He became an ardent Zionist from the beginning of the movement, and devoted himself to the idea with all his soul and might. He brought into his house the “box” of the national fund[65] as soon as it was established and bought shares from the Colonial Bank[66].

With all this, he was not a modern teacher. He taught the Tanakh with the traditional chanting[67], and in translation to Yiddish, even if it wasn't literal translation. He loved the Tanakh with a love that was deep in his soul, and he would explain it (not translate it) to the students. The plain meaning and the idea were not less important than knowing the words. Thus he taught Hebrew and its grammar no longer as sacred language, but within a living connection, as a language that was returning for rejuvenation for daily usage. He also provided Talmud instruction to his students, by way of the simple meaning according to Rashi's interpretation, and, as much as possible, avoided, despite his being proficient and expert, tiring his students with the long–winded debate of the commentators[68]. He invested interest and thought into the work of his teaching, and on occasion he arrived at original methods and ideas. In general he knew how to acquire the hearts of his students, whether with a nice story or even with song, and even with an act of mischief. He was an excellent swimmer, and in the summer he would go almost every day with his students to swim in the lake and teach them to swim[69]. It is no wonder that his students respected and even loved him.

The traditional teachers, the “melameds” belonged to the landscape of the village, and created for it its character. Nevertheless, from time to time there were brought to the village, for a year or two, Hebrew teachers from outside – modern teachers, who used innovative methods for Hebrew language acquisition. They did not become integrated into the village, and would leave it after a short time, but in the meantime they were able to leave their impression on it. Many years after their departure, people could still tell about the period of the teachers Freund, Piloynski and Zilberman. One of them laid the foundation for the village library, whose beginning was slender pamphlets for children of a young age from the collection “Flowers”, “Buds”, “First Fruits”, and more, and whose end, was as one of the excellent cultural institutions in the village, a wealthy library with hundreds of high quality books in Yiddish and Hebrew, a center for the cultural events of the village.

In the last years Saperstein served as the teacher. He married a woman from a village in the area, and the woman's parents arranged a shop for him in Troki. Once it became clear that he could not earn a living from the shop, he was forced to turn to teaching – at first only a few hours a day, and afterwards every day, like all other cheders. This Saperstein was sharp in the Torah but extremely irritable, and was furious at the bitterness of his lot. With this, he had a feeling of greatness, and prided himself on his general knowledge, expanding, as it were, on his great knowledge of Hebrew grammar. Nevertheless, the truth was that he knew Talmud and no more. He hated the female instructors with a great hatred, and he also didn't like his students. With all this he continued to maintain his cheder out of financial necessity, and the parents turned their children over to him out of a lack of any other teacher.


Translator's footnotes:

  1. https://books.google.com/books?id=raUYBwAAQBAJ&pg=PA251&lpg=PA251&dq=Zalman+shneur+Vilna&source=bl&ots=ODTf7sETWc&sig=Teul7GFwdgbFzr3gAXVnLX4C2Iw&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiYgJ_Q5bLOAhVK7IMKHfpTAvwQ6AEIHzAA#v=onepage&q=Zalman%20shneur%20Vilna&f=false Return
  2. http://www.seniejitrakai.lt/place-en-48/text Return
  3. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Vytautas-the-Great Return
  4. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Tatar-language Return
  5. http://www.everyculture.com/Russia-Eurasia-China/Karaites-History-and-Cultural-Relations.html Return
  6. http://www.yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Blood_Libels_and_Host_Desecration_Accusations Return
  7. http://www.yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Beilis_Mendel Return
  8. http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/14525-troki Return
  9. http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/9211-karaites-and-karaism Return
  10. http://www.yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Firkovich_Avraam_Samuilovich Return
  11. http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/9290-ketubah Return
  12. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Russian-Orthodox-church Return
  13. https://www.britannica.com/place/grand-duchy-of-Lithuania Return
  14. http://www.eilatgordinlevitan.com/novogrudok/nov_pages/novo_port.html Return
  15. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Jozef-Pilsudski Return
  16. https://www.britannica.com/place/Congress-Kingdom-of-Poland Return
  17. http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/10033-lithuania Return
  18. http://www.jewishgen.org/yizkor/Brest1/Brest.html Return
  19. http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/10256-magdeburg-law-magdeburg-rights Return
  20. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/voivode Return
  21. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Alexander–king–of–Poland Return
  22. http://www.yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Trakai Return
  23. https://www.britannica.com/biography/John–I–Albert Return
  24. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Sigismund–I–king–of–Poland Return
  25. pressto.amu.edu.pl/index.php/ka/article/download/4039/4105 Return
  26. http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/troki Return
  27. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Egor–Frantsevich–Graf–Kankrin Return
  28. http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/novosiltsev–nicolai–nikolayevich–x00b0 Return
  29. This idiom is from Ecclesiastes 1:16, which states “that which is crooked cannot be made straight” Return
  30. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Alexander–II–emperor–of–Russia Return
  31. http://www.eilatgordinlevitan.com/kurenets/k_pages/klausner.html;
    https://www.geni.com/people/Aharon–Kadish–Klausner/6000000003006210441 Return
  32. Fred Millner, private correspondence: “Shimon Ben Zalman Ber Milner.” See also note 49. His father's name was more often recorded as Zalman Ber. Return
  33. “Reb” was a common honorific, similar to “Mr.” and does not necessarily denote “Rabbi” Return
  34. http://www.seniejitrakai.lt/u–utrakis–manor–estate/ Return
  35. https://books.google.com/books?id=wZI5fWbSaSEC&pg=PA53&lpg=PA53&dq=troki+fisherman&source=bl&ots=HUBTvha5NR&sig=LLBXoMwth76oPAk8kxwHycJ8XmA&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi_uO38_MDVAhXl6YMKHU7kBdsQ6AEIQjAG#v=onepage&q=troki%20fisherman&f=false Return
  36. http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the–urim–and–thummim Return
  37. http://www.mechon–mamre.org/e/et/et2831.htm Return
  38. http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the–oral–law–talmud–and–mishna Return
  39. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talmid_Chacham Return
  40. http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/gabbai/ Return
  41. This honorific “May Hashem avenge his/her blood” is used for an individual who perished as a result of anti–semitism, for example pogroms or the Holocaust. The Hebrew version is “Hashem yinkom damo” (m.) / “Hashem yinkom dama” (f.) and in the Hebrew: (f.) “ השם ינקום דמה” \ (m.) “השם ינקום דמו.” The English abbreviation is “HY"D” and in Hebrew “הי”ד.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Honorifics_for_the_dead_in_Judaism#May_Hashem_avenge_his.2Fher_blood Return
  42. Traditionally, a quorum of ten men required to recite prayers that included sanctification of the Divine name. Return
  43. Meaning recite the Amidah and thereby aid others in fulfilling their obligation.
    https://www.sefaria.org/Daf_Shevui_to_Megillah.24a.9?lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en Return
  44. The anniversary of the death of a first–degree relative – that is, parent, child, sibling or spouse. Return
  45. Fred Millner, private correspondence: “Yitzchak Yaakov ben Shimon Milner was one of three Milners with the same two given names, all three of whom were born in 1871 and 1872, and registered in Jonava. I have not been able to find out in whose memory they were named.” Return
  46. http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/human–vessels–for–blessing/ Return
  47. http://www.yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Abramovitsh_Sholem_Yankev Return
  48. http://www.chabad.org/parshah/article_cdo/aid/682530/jewish/Aliyah–Summary.htm Return
  49. http://www.yutorah.org/lectures/lecture.cfm/836261/davida–kollmar/the–minhag–of–reciting–yetziv–pitgam/ Return
  50. http://www.jewish–languages.org/jewish–english–lexicon/words/1279 Return
  51. The communal school where Jewish children learned Torah. Return
  52. Literally “a room”; https://www.merriam–webster.com/dictionary/cheder Return
  53. http://www.yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Brivnshtelers Return
  54. http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/who–was–rashi/ Return
  55. http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the–tanakh Return
  56. A quote from the Gemara, Baba Metzia 2, which deals with lost and found items. Return
  57. http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/gemara–the–essence–of–the–talmud/ Return
  58. Aramaic Return
  59. דייטשמעריש http://www.yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Language/Planning_and_Standardization_of_Yiddish Return
  60. Leviticus 11 Return
  61. Leviticus 13:1 Return
  62. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Melamed Return
  63. https://www.ou.org/torah/mitzvot/taryag/mitzvah3i Return
  64. http://www.yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Yeshiva Return
  65. http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jewish–national–fund–jnf Return
  66. http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jewish–colonial–trust Return
  67. http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/cantillation–chanting–the–bible/ Return
  68. http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/commentaries–on–the–talmud/ Return
  69. Babylonian Talmud Kiddushin 29a: “The Gemara comments: According to this interpretation, we learn in this mishna that which the Sages taught in a baraita: A father is obligated with regard to his son to circumcise him, and to redeem him if he is a firstborn son who must be redeemed by payment to a priest, and to teach him Torah, and to marry him to a woman, and to teach him a trade. And some say: A father is also obligated to teach his son to swim.” Return

 

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