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A Bundle of Memories
- prior to the First World War

By the Agronimist Asher Malkin of Holon

Translated by Jerrold Landau based on an earlier translation by Moshe Porat z”l


Volozhin Topography

The marketplace was at the center of Volozhin. It was very large, and almost a square area. Only its northern section, near the shops, was paved. Vilna Street, through which one would travel to the train, extended from the west side. Fields and forests spread out at the end of the road.


Market Square


From the east side of the market, one would go downhill to the second side of Volozhin – to “Aroptzu.” From the north side of Vilna Street and from the market, one would find several alleyways with Jewish residents. On the south side, there was the courtyard of Count Tyskiewicz. Parellel to Vilna Street at the north, a large village, Aroptzu, spread out. In the southern direction, there was a second large village –

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Ponizha, which led to the town of Baksht and to the forests of Count Tyskiewicz.

Jewish houses and shops were built in the middle of the town and in the streets and alleyways. Some Christians lived there as well: the pharmacist on the marketplace, and the owner of the liquor monopoly. The priest lived on Vilna Street. The police chief and others lived in Aroptzu.

In the southeastern corner of the market, there was an entrance to a large gate in the courtyard of Count Tyskiewitz. The entire administration there was Polish.


Livelihoods in Volozhin

The majority of the Jews of Volozhin Jews mostly earned their living from the Byelorussian peasants in the surrounding villages who were occupied with agriculture. The soil between the forests was not good, so they grew corn rather than wheat.

The peasants were poor, and they could not spend a lot of money in Volozhin. When Heller's office purchased an area of forest near the village of Belakorets (a verst from Volozhin) from Count Tyskiewicz at the end of the19th century, my father, who was the manager of the forest exploration (Heller himself lived and had his main office in Berlin), built a large house in Belakorets with workshop buildings, and set up a main office there.

Many Volozhiners were employed in the office. Heller's office was one of the sources that bought the orders into Volozhin. Volozhin earned a portion of its livelihood from this.

The peasants set up stalls and sold to the flax dealers of Volozhin. There were several flax dealers, including Weisbord. His house and workshop were on Vilna Road. There was a large press in his yard to pack the cut flax.

The second flax dealer was Abba Levin. His house and workshop were near the Yeshiva. With Weisbord as well, the workshop was in

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a large, wooden hut. Levin's had a separate large house with iron shutters to prevent fires. The press stood near the workshop. From the Yeshiva, one could see the flax being packed for transport by train.

Abba Levin was one of the enlightened Jews. He sent his children to study in a middle school in a big city. His manufacturing shop was located in Perelman's brick house in the market. He would keep the best textiles for the wealthy homeowners from Volozhin, the employees of Tyskiewicz' court, and the well-off citizens of the surrounding area.

The second source of income was from Count Tyskiewicz' possessions. The count, who owned the bathhouse in Volozhin, was the owner of much property. He owned many agricultural farms, such as the Volozhin farm, Andepolia, Kapustino, and large areas of the forests.

The count's office was also located in his courtyard, in the southeastern corner of the market. Within it stood large buildings constructed of brick and stone. The palace of the count was among them. The buildings were used for administration, the employees, and the workers.

The courtyard was beautified with a park, full of various trees, flowers, and greenhouses to cultivate plants that were moved to the gardens in the spring. Aside from decorative trees in a grove, there were also fruit orchards. The workers of the court cultivated the orchards, and Jewish lessees would purchase the fruit while it was still on the trees.

There were Jews in the city who rented gardens and cultivated vegetables, cucumbers, cabbage, and carrots. Others leased large agricultural farms. Two Bunimovitz brothers lived in Volozhin. One of them rented the Sakovshchina mill. He was a wealthy man. In 1905, his house was expropriated in the middle of the night by the Jewish anarchists who took money and valuables.

The second brother leased the Andopolia farm, three or four verst from Volozhin. Our family was friendly with the Bunimovitzes, and we would often visit Andopolia on our horses. To us, it seemed that this was not just a farm, but rather a Garden of Eden. It was a large house, as the wealthy people in Russia used to have (Pomeshtshike), with a huge yard filled with

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grass, a storehouse for wheat, a large barn for cattle and calves, as well as a large stable with red horses and for work.

Aside from wheat and cattle, they had large areas for the cultivation of industrial potatoes, which were delivered to a distillery near Volozhin. On their way to the Polochany railway station, butchers would stop before the plant to let the cattle enjoy the offal (the leftovers of the potatoes after squeezing out the spirits) so to fatten it before sending them on wagons for slaughter.

The second source of livelihood was the Yeshiva, in which several hundreds of lads studied. Almost all of them came from other cities towns. Many of them received supports from their parents, and Volozhin gained livelihood from the Yeshiva lads. In addition, emissaries who collected funds for the Yeshiva in all Jewish communities brought in money to Volozhin.

The economic basis of the town's inhabitants was commerce. There were many stores in the market square and in Aroptzu. Aside from commerce, Volozhin Jews were involved in various trades.

There were peddlers who used to travel through the villages, selling merchandise to the peasants and purchasing calves, grain, and flax from them.

Excluding the water driven mill and Kotler's soda water factory there was no small-scale industry in Volozhin. It is therefore easy to understand the great astonishment in the town when Michel Wand- Polak brought the first steam engine for his mill, which was situated on the left bank of the Volozhynka.

It happened on a summer evening, when many horses harnessed to a large platform on big strong wooden wheels carried the steam engine from the railway station through Vilna Street. Many children ran behind the engine. Young and old stared with curiosity at the great wonder.

A generator, installed in Polak's enterprise, generated electricity. It was the source of the first electrical light in Volozhin. On Friday before candle lighting, a whistle of the steam engine announced the onset of the beloved Sabbath.

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Post and telephone in Volozhin

There was a post office but no telephone in Volozhin. The post office was situated in Aroptzu, on the right side of the road, next to the Volozhynka. Every day around ten o'clock a horse driven cart arrived bringing the mail from Vishnyevo. On Fridays, the wagon would be escorted by an armed policeman, because, aside from regular mail and newspaper, it brought in registered mail, packages, and especially money.

The postman who served the Jewish population was Oyzer der Raznoshchik. For the entire year, aside from Simchas Torah, he was an easygoing Jew with a dark yellow beard. He was a reserved man and an ardent Hassid. Incidentally, it should be noted that almost all the Jews of Volozhin were Misnagdim. Hassidim could be counted on the fingers. The other Hassidim, apart from Oyzer, were Kukse the matzo baker, Shlomo the Hassid [Shepsenwol], and perhaps two or three others. On Simchas Torah, they would demonstrate the difference between Hassidim and Misnagdim.

Since Oyzer was an observant Jew, he of course went to the Beis Midrash on the Sabbath, and did not deliver mail. He would bring the mail on Sunday.

Many inhabitants, particularly the young ones, got together on Saturdays near the post office, hoping to receive some mail. Very few people actually received letters, but many gathered in the yard of the post office. They took the opportunity to take a stroll, meet with acquaintances, have a chat, and speak of Volozhin gossip and various news.

The first telephone in the area was in our home. We lived on Vilna Street, near the Sazhelke [pond]. Tyskiewicz' courtyard was connected with a telephone cable to his woodland horse mounted guards. My father took advantage of that cable to install a telephone connection between our home in town and his forest office in the village of Belakorets. That is how the first telephone in Volozhin was born.


Volozhin Barbers

Two barbers worked in Volozhin, Mosheke and Alterke. Mosheke was the first and most important. The important people of the city and the officers of Tyskiewicz' court went to him for haircuts.

Mosheke lived in Perelman's big brick house, which stood on the

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north side of the Market Square. Shops occupied the first floor, one of them was Mosheke's “salon”.

The second barber, Alterke, a small, dark Jew lived in another small house on the narrow lane leading to the Beis Midrash. To get to Moshke's, one had to climb several stairs, but to Alterke, one had to go down, because his flat was in half a cellar with tiny windows, flush with the ground, through which one could see what was going on in his home.

Alterke did not have a special salon. In one room stood a chair, on the wall a mirror and beside it a small table with barber's tools. His clients were the common folk, laborers, tradespeople, and youth. I used to have my hair cut at Alterke's. One felt at home there and could fool around, mostly when Alterke suddenly left his client in the middle of a haircut to go to the second room, where there was a cradle with his crying child. There was always a child in the cradle, for one followed the other.

Alterke had a goat. Between Alterke's flat and the Beis Midrash was an empty lot surrounded by a fence. Alterke often took his goat to pasture there. We children would often let the goat into the synagogue, close the door behind it, and quickly run away.


Mutual Aid

An organized community did not yet exist in Volozhin prior to the First World War. There was only a poorhouse, where the transient indigents used to go. A hospital or a savings bank did not yet exit. Private individuals dealt with charitable endeavors. There were Jews in Volozhin who would borrow money for investment. However, several wealthy families would lend money without interest, for humanitarian purpose, and to fulfill the mitzvah.

My mother kept a special fund of few hundred rubles for this purpose. Before every fair or large market day, our home would be visited by small-scale merchants, especially manufacturing businessmen. My mother would lend everyone 30 - 50 rubles to buy merchandise. The loans were repaid after the fair.

The shopkeepers did not travel themselves to buy the goods. There were Jews who owned horses and carts. They traveled to Smorgon or Minsk immediately after the Sabbath to buy the merchandise for the shops.

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Shaker's “Private” Zionist Organization

As I recall, no Zionist organization existed at that time. In Volozhin, there was a shopkeeper named Shaker. In his shop on the market, one could buy all kind of goods, from small to large: manufactured items, haberdashery, tools for children, and even gramophones with records. On fair days, Shaker used to put a gramophone on the entrance steps of his shop and turned the handle. He aroused the attention of the crowd with the music. In those days, that was an excellent advertisement for his merchandise. Shaker was also the sole photographer in Volozhin.

One of his sons (now in America, then a youth of my age) developed Zionist activity in the city. He wrote well and made contact with Zionists in Vilna. He possessed Keren Kayemet stamps, pictures of the Land of Israel, and sold them to his friends.

He obtained a significant number of shekels [tokens of membership in the Zionist movement] for one of the Zionist Congresses. I bought one shekel, even though I did not yet understand the procedure of the Congress elections.


Revolutionary Circles in Volozhin

During 1905, the year of the first Russian Revolution, revolutionary parties developed in Volozhin, as in many Jewish towns. These included the Bund, S.S. and Anarchists. I remember that it was said that Leizer the Baker's daughters and other lads and girls being members in an organization named “Siostry I Bracia” [Sisters and Brothers], in which both Jews and Christians were members. Various anecdotes spread around Volozhin at that time. It was said, for example, that Motke the Shoemaker's would transfer from the Bund to the S.S. for a glass of cocoa… This was probably just for fun, but this was characteristic of those times.


Melamdim, Learning Institutions and Theater

From among the cheders, which functioned from dawn to dusk with a midday break, there were a few in which the teachers [melamdim] were at a high level, and the number of students was limited.

My first rebbe was Nachum the Melamed, an easygoing man with a yellow beard. He used to speak slowly in a calm voice. However, he would beat the students without anger, as though he was washing his hands before eating.

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At first, my mother used to come to take me home from cheder. Once she complained to Reb Nachum about my naughtiness. Reb Nachum looked at me with his cold eyes and said in a florid style: “If your son is naughty, I am obliged to make a blessing over his challos.” He meant that he would beat me over my bare buttocks.

My mother did not understand Reb Nachum's innuendo, and answered that when she bakes challos at home, she makes a special, small one for me, and she recites a blessing on it.

All the students burst out laughing. From then on, they would tease me, saying “a blessing on my challos.”

From Reb Nachum, the melamed of young children, I graduated to Gorelik. After he immigrated to America, I was transferred to Schwartzberg. Both Gorelik and Schwartzberg were higher level melamdim. Only eight to ten people studied in the cheder. The cheder and the rebbe's home were located in Perelman's house.

From my cheder year, the “Alef-Beit” [song] of Warshawsky is etched in my memory. I include a few stanzas of the song:[1]

A fire burns on the hearth
And it is warm in the little house.
And the rabbi is teaching little children
The alphabet.

See, children, remember, dear ones,
What you learn here;
Repeat and repeat yet again,
“Komets-alef: o!”

When you grow older, children,
You will understand by yourselves,
How many tears lie in these letters,
And how much lament.

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When you, children, will bear the exile,
And will be exhausted,
May you derive strength from these letters,
Look in at them!

Aside from the cheders, there was a Jewish primary school in Volozhin, founded by the “Jewish Society for Disseminating Education Among the Jews.” The society was established during the Enlightenment [Haskala] Period. The headquarters were located in Petersburg. The primary school received a subsidy from the government, and the tuition was free.

The school had two grades. The curriculum included the Russian language, arithmetic, singing and hand crafts for girls. The majority of the pupils were girls. The building was placed opposite the Sazhelke [pond]. The manager's house was in the courtyard.

The manager, Director Freedman, was a graduate of a teacher's seminary. The society sent him especially to Volozhin to manage the school. The language he spoke with his wife was Russian. Freedman was a strange person. He was of medium height, of dark complexion, with marks of black hair. I say marks, because Freedman shaved not only his beard but also his whole head, during both summer and winter. He was a misanthrope. He had no friends, and he never visited anyone. He always walked alone, without his wife or any other acquaintances. He taught the children in the upper grade. He also taught singing, accompanied by his small, six-sided harmonica. His playing captured the hearts. Often during the evenings, when he played for himself, we would stand under the school windows to hear and to enjoy his delightful melodies.

His wife, on the other hand, knew everything that was going on in town. She had Jewish and Christian acquaintances. Freedman's wife came to our house often. Blustering into the house like a wind, she told all the stories she knew. Mother would serve her a glass of tea. She would drink a glass of tea and run to spread her gossips in another house.

There was a teacher named Bakshtanski in the first grade. Boys who learned in cheders and wanted to acquire general education would take lessons with a private teacher. All the teachers I had who prepared me to the secondary school were not native to Volozhin.

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They were itinerant teachers who were skilled in teaching arithmetic and the Russian language. They came to the town for a few years, earned a bit of money and moved on to another area. My last teacher was someone with the name Tekt. There was always only a single teacher, for the number of children who took private lessons was small.

There were no Jewish students in the city at that time, aside from Areh Polak's daughter, who studied and graduated in Peterburg. She did not return to Volozhin.

From among some of the Polish employees in Tyskiewicz' court as well as from the Polish pharmacists, there were children who had studied in Moscow. They came home for the summer vacations. They put on performances in a large attic. Many Jews frequented those events and enjoyed the performances, that were in Russian. The last show I saw was [Anton] Chekhov's “ The Bear”.

There was a Yiddish dramatic circle. One of its top artists was the blacksmith's son, a beautiful boy with a pleasant voice. His most significant role was in “The Sale of Joseph”. The Yiddish language show was performed in the Firemen's barracks.

Important cantors would sometimes visit Volozhin as guests with several singers. Our cantor would criticize them harshly, but we youngsters enjoyed them greatly.


The Gaon Rabbi Rafael Shapira

When one talks about education and synagogue personalities in the city, one must recall in the first place the great religious pedagogue in that time, the Gaon Rabbi Rafael Shapira, who was the head of the Yeshiva in Volozhin. He was a wonderful man. I had opportunity to meet many rabbis during my long life, but none could be compared to our Rabbi Rafael. His standing for Shmone Esrei, and especially his worshipping, his face, his figure, and his entire demeanour remain before my eyes to this day. Just like the other great rabbis who were in Volozhin before Rabbi Rafael, and who were known by their first names, there were may Volozhin Jews who did not know the family name of our rabbi. It was enough to mention the name “Rabbi Rafael” for all of us, young and old, kith and

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kin, to know that they meant “him,” our rabbi, the Gaon, the first among the firsts.

Rabbi Rafael was a tall, slightly bent man. His virtuous eyes radiated kindness. You could see in them the long day and night hours-spent on studying Torah.

My father worshipped in the same synagogue as Rabbi Rafael. As a small boy, I often used to leave my father to stay close by the rabbi, as I loved to listen to his prayers. He pronounced each sentence slowly, clearly, and with great devotion.

Volozhin Jews, who usually thought themselves as well pedigreed, had great awe for Rabbi Rafael. When he entered the Beis Midrash, it was so silent that one could hear a fly passing. All the worshippers looked upon him with great respect. It seemed to me that the High Priest used to be treated in such a manner as he entered the Holy Temple.

My father used to go to Rabbi Rafael Shapira's house at Shavuot, to hear the rabbi's sermons for specially invited Torah scholars. I remember my father later explaining to my mother the depth of Rabbi Rafael's thinking.

When you looked at Reb Rafael G-dly image, it seems as you were standing before a man not of this world, a man who was indeed created in the image of G-d.

Rabbi Rafael was the sandek at the bris of my brother Yitzchak (Izio), who currently practices a doctor in Paris. Anyone who saw Rabbi Rafael remained enchanted by his personality for his entire life.


The Perelman Family [2]

The Perelman family belonged to the Jewish intelligentsia in the city. Moshe Perelman's father was the rabbi of Vishnievo[3] Moshe married Malka Yitzchakin, who was related to Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin (as is known, the family name of Rabbi Chaim Volozhiner was Yitzchakin, after the name of his father Yitzchak). Malka was a beautiful, refined, and cultured lady.

Moshe Perelman's father left Vishnievo before the First World War

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and made aliya to the Land of Israel. He changed his surname to Margolis[4] and served as a rabbi in Rehovot.

All the Perelmans were talented, educated people. The two sisters never separated from their Russian books. The younger[5], later became a professor at the University of Moscow.

At that time, the Jews of Volozhin would receive the Jewish newspapers from Warsaw, Heint, and later Moment. Russian newspapers were seldom read. Moshe Perlman regularly received the Moscow daily newspaper “Dos Russishe Vort” [Russkoye Slovo].

The Perelman's brick house was built in 19 century. Count Tyskiewicz built it and gave it as a gift to Rabbi Hayim Volozhiner. Malka Perelman inherited the house. This house was similar to those in Count Tyskiewicz' estate. Behind, on the Beis Midrash side, there were dwellings. On the market side in front was a row of shops. To reach them you had to climb a few steps. There were dwellings behind the shops. On some of the houses, a second story was built. The Perelman family lived in one such second story. A large balcony extended out into the market from the house. This was the only balcony in Volozhin.

Steps descended from the left side into half a cellar in which the wine shop was located. Many bottles with a variety of colored labels were arranged on the shelves. The sales counter was located on the left side. Perelman's younger daughter, Chaya Dina, usually sat on a chair at the table, engrossed in a Russian novel. While she was reading, she was not aware of what was going on around her and it was possible to remove entire bottles of wine from the store.

Steps ran down from the shop to a second and then to a third, deep, underground cellar. Here the liquor was transferred from barrels to bottles.

A wooden building stood next to the brick house, close to the Beis Midrash. There one would pour out beer from barrels into bottles with a special pump, and cork them with a small hand-machine.

Moshe Perelman was one of the insurance agents in the city. He had a great deal of work as an agent, in Volozhin and in the entire area, because all the houses were made of wood, and fires broke out often. Time periods in Volozhin were reckoned according to the fires:

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“A few years have passed since the great fire,” “So and so was born after the great fire.”


Areh Polak

Areh Polak was the wealthy man of the town. He was of medium height, well dressed, with a “classic” belly, a gold chain, a French small beard and his hair parted in the middle. This all gave Areh Polak the appearance of a wealthy man. Everyone related to him with respect and always was the first to greet him with a “good morning.”

As a widower, he lived by himself for long time in his large house on Vilna Street, opposite the Sazhelke [pond]. The house had many rooms, including a parlor with pictures on the walls and soft furniture.

We children were mostly interested in his collection of flies, insects, and butterflies. They were pierced and packed in boxes with glass covers, which hung on the wall. The scientific and common names of each one was marked beside each box.

In his elder years, Areh Polak married Mrs. Kromnik, the midwife of Volozhin. Her son, my friend, took me often to the parlor, and I could not look at the collection enough.

In Volozhin one did not say “I am not Rothschild” but rather “What if I was Areh Polak?”


Happy Childhood and Boyhood in Volozhin

Youth and adults had their best time spending at Sabbath evening walks on Vilna Street. The street was crowded. The strolls were far into the fields. We had no theater, movies, or concerts, but we were happy and joyful. We cheder boys sneaked into fruit orchards to taste the delicious apples and other fruit.

At the end of summer, when the sun was still warm but no longer too hot, it was such a pleasure to wander in the distant fields. We would dig potatoes, cook them in the fields, and then return home tired and exhausted.

In later years when I was a high school student, and would return home for the summer, I used to walk to Kapustina in the middle of the night, get Michel Polak's brother, and together sneak into the creamery to fry remnants of Holland

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cheese with butter. We would enjoy the taste of the Garden of Eden, and then return home with the first rays of dawn appearing in the east. At other times, we would go to to Kaldiki, a village about ten kilometers from Volozhin to bathe in the Byaroza River, and then walk in the forest to collect blackberries and strawberries. We might lie with a book, becoming intoxicated by reading Mapu and Mendele, Artsybashev and Tolstoy.

We would often walk at night to Stolb, at the end of Vilna Street, along the path that led to the forest, together with our sisters, and often with their friends. The first feelings of love were aroused in our hearts. This was the desire of the lads mixed with joy and happiness…

With longing and sorrow, I remember my happy young years, my hometown, and my home that was destroyed.

Translator's footnotes

  1. I took the lyrics for the stanzas of the Oyfn Pripetshik song from http://www.jewishfolksongs.com/en/oyfn-pripetshik The same translation is used in the Wikipedia article. Return
  2. Note from the initial translator: Les parents de Yosef Perelman, pere de Sonia et Monia. Return
  3. Note from the initial translator: Vishnievo - a small shtetl near Volozhin, in which Shimon Peres was born. Return
  4. Margolis means pearl in Hebrew, so it is a Hebraization of the Yiddish surname. Return
  5. The original translator identified her name as Fania. Return

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Inside Volozhin

by Avraham Halevy, Kiryat Tiv'on

Translated by Meir Razy

Donated by Anita Frishman Gabbay


The Kippa

On the hill behind the Volozhynka, about half a kilometer from the city, was a round pit. It was several meters wide and two meters deep. It looked like an upside-down kippah, wider at the top and narrower as you descended into it. This was how it got the name “Yarmulke”. People said it was dug by the Army of Napoleon.

Sitting inside the pit, one would feel oneself floating between heaven and earth. You could see only the sky and the wall around the pit. It was that special place where one could be alone with G-d and feel very spiritual. It was said that the poet Chaim Nachman Bialik used to sit there and so became inspired. People said that this is where he wrote his song El Ha-Tzipor (“to the Bird” – Bialik's first published song).


The Livelihood of the Jews of Volozhin

Of course, not all the Jews of Volozhin earned their living in the same manner. As in most of the towns in the “Pale of Settlement”, there were tradesmen, merchants, storekeepers and people with many other occupations. I want to describe the occupation of the forest Manager. Timber trading was a very common occupation among the residents of Volozhin.

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A rich landowner (a “Paritz”) would sell the rights to a parcel of his forest land to a wood Merchant, who then hired a forest Manager to supervise that land. The Manager's job was to protect the area from illegal loggers and thieves, to hire laborers, to supervise them and to pay them for their work as cutters and haulers.

I remember one Manager who lived in Volozhin. He was responsible for a large forest and had many sub-managers reporting to him. He owned a beautifully embellished carriage and looked noble. His house stood on the main street near the lake.

Another Manager lived in Arapecho. He used to return home to Volozhin every week for Shabbat. He was liked by everyone in town but, unfortunately, he became ill with pneumonia while he was working in the forest. With no help, he died there and his family, a wife and two children, remained devastated and pennyless. This was a time before pensions, compensation or life insurance. The employer had no responsibility towards the employee's family. The widow became a baker and provided for her family by baking and selling bread.


The Argument over the Secular School

Some of the town's people promoted the idea of creating a modern, secular school instead of the “Cheder”. This was in 1910 and the leader of this group, a beer importer, was related to the richer families of the town.

As soon as the Yeshiva heard about this, they summoned Rabbi Elyakim Getzel, a famous leader in Bialystok. He arrived at Volozhin, went on stage, put his tallit over his head and spoke vehemently against the “Epicureans” and the idea of modern schools. He was known to be an anti-Zionist and he attacked the Zionist Movement in Volozhin. “If there are 'Sons of Zion' and 'Daughters of Zion' we must hope that their children will be 'children of Zion'”. He made a great impression on the crowd. Some of the women in the crowd wept and Rabbi Elyakim Getzel left victorious. The idea of opening a secular school was thus summarily dismissed.


My Last Place Stay in Volozhin

For more than a year, I stayed in a big family home in Arapecho. The house had ten rooms and was the only hostel in town before it became a private home. At that time, some fifty years ago, it was the only place for traveling merchants to spend their nights. The property had a large stable, which made it very convenient for the traveling merchants.

The homeowner had good relations with the head of the local police and used his connections to assist Jews. That man was a sad and miserable man. He had lost his first wife and his second wife and, at the time I was staying with him, he was living with his third wife and all his children. The atmosphere in the home was that of melancholy and even today, when I think of this family, I feel sad.

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The Volozhin Yeshiva and Town
during the Time of Rabbi Raphael Schapiro

by Aharon Zvi Dudman-Dudayi, Tel Aviv

Translated by Meir Razy

Donated by Anita Frishman Gabbay


I studied at the Etz HaChaim (The Tree of Life) Yeshiva in Volozhin at the time of Rabbi Raphael Schapiro who was the son-in-law of HANAZIV (Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, 1816-1893). About 300 students attended the Yeshiva at that time and some of them married local women. Eliezer Kapuler married the daughter of Zalman, a flax merchant whose home and barn stood across from the Yeshiva. Rabbi Israel Lonin (he was later called “The Kazacker Rabbi”) married the daughter of Feitche. The “Shaliver” married Reitche's daughter.

Volozhin benefited from the Yeshiva, which operated as a state within a state. The Yeshiva issued paper notes that carried the Yeshiva's stamp and local merchants accepted these notes as money. Once a month the merchants would redeem the Yeshiva notes for money.

The supervisor, Rabbi Avraham Drushkowitz, wanted to introduce the study of Ethics and Morals into the curriculum as a course similar to those available in other leading Yeshivas. However, he could not overcome the resistance from the other Rabbis and the Yeshiva continued focusing only on the Holy Texts.


Vilna Street

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The Yeshiva had a charity that lent money to its students. Students rented rooms in the homes of Exter, Stiker, Elka Ramza, Rivka Chaya Shoshes, Brodna, and others. I lived in the homes of Yaakov Weisbrod and Michael Kramnik. Later, I moved to Vilna Street and lived in the home of Rabbi Gertz Askind. He was a devoted student who studied while standing throughout the whole night while holding a candle.

Many of the Volozhin Jews were flax or wood traders. Mr. Heller's office stood next to the Yeshiva. Mr. Malkin was his office Manager.

Rabbi Chaim was the Yeshiva's tailor. Shoes and boots were made by the shoemaker, the son of Yekutiel. The town's physician was Rabbi Aharon Tzart, who was later succeeded by his son Avraham, the son-in-law of the baker Eliezer. The SHAMASH was Rabbi David.

I remember one of the water carriers. His name was “Pinye the Water Carrier”. He owned a horse and wagon which had a large barrel on board. He would carry water from Aropecho [refers to going downhill] to Arufecho [refers to going uphill]. At times, the horse would not climb up the hill but just stood there. Good Jews gathered around and fulfilled the mitzvah of “help the animal” (Exodus 23, 5) and would help stop the wagon from rushing downhill.

The famous homeowners in Volozhin were Moshe Perlman, Itze Hillels, Yochanan Rootkas, Berl Romer, Eliezer Pini-Nettas, Yehuda Avraham'le the slaughterer, Ara Polack, Michael Polack, Avraham Berkowitz, Menachem-Yoel Potashnik and Uri Rapaport.

Volozhin, the mother of all Yeshivas in Russia, Lithuania and Poland – lost everything. The terrible Holocaust destroyed it. All our holy relatives were consumed by fire.

Let their memory be blessed.

Looking back
(Memories from the Time of First World War)

by Yehuda Chaim Kotler, New York

Translated by Meir Razy

Donated by Anita Frishman Gabbay


I was one of the early “deserters” of Volozhin. Both Jewish and general studies played equal and important roles in my life.

My time at the Yeshiva “Etz HaChaim” (the Tree of Life) was the happiest time of my life. I remember the wagon driver Rabbi Peretz, an outstanding Yeshiva student who, following his marriage, bought a horse and a carriage and made his living by shuttling the Yeshiva students to and from the train station. He was an interesting character who was very knowledgeable in Mishna and Talmud but kept a modest, low profile.

[Page 334]

One time, on my way to Vilna, he was driving me to the train station. I intended to study in Vilna as an independent student, a student who did not need a teacher to instruct or supervise him. Independent students received a small stipend for their food from the Yeshiva. In contrast, the Yeshiva students were fed by local families on assigned days (this arrangement was called “Eating Days”).


During the First World War
Standing (right to left): Velvele Persky, Avraham Gurewitz
Seating: Akiva Potashnick, Moshe Weisbard, Yehuda Chaim Kotler
Laying: Eliahu Malot

[Page 335]

I told Rabbi Peretz about my plans and he stopped the horse. “I am going to test your knowledge of Gemara to see if you are capable of independent study.” He wanted to test me on NEDARIM, a portion of the Talmud. I asked him to test me on a different portion because NEDARIM was not explained by RASHI, and he said: “if you are not capable of studying TALMUD without the RASHI interpretation, it is as if you admit that you are not ready to be an independent student. You'd better stay here and continue with the arrangement of ''Eating Days''.”

Hunger in those days was prevalent in Volhynia and the only available food was potatoes. One Yeshiva student lived in a hostel where the property owner was feeding him plate after plate of potatoes. She used to listen to him blessing the meal and noticed once that he said, “Who brings forth bread from the stomach”. She asked him why he did not say the common blessing of “who brings forth bread from the earth?” “You grow your potatoes in the earth but I grow them in my stomach.”

A little later, I move to Vilna to study at the Epstein's TARBUT School during the days and at an Agriculture School in the evenings. In 1918, I returned to Volozhin to find it burning. We had a “tradition” that a major fire broke out once every seven years. My mother and sisters were pouring buckets of water on our burning house while I ran to the library to save the books. This heroic deed made me famous among the educated people of Volozhin who then selected me to manage the library.

The young people of Volozhin were idle during the years of the war because the Yeshiva and all the Talmud Torah Schools were closed. We instituted lessons in the library and taught people how to read. Another educational activity was the creation of an amateur theater troop. We did not have real actors but found several men who could act. It was, however, close to impossible to find an actress. Being an “actress” cast shame on her family so women refrained from the stage. Eventually, we found a married actress, Gitel, the daughter-in-law of Gershon “der bunir” and a sister of Sara Shlomovitz who now lives in Israel. Her husband approved of her participation only after we promised him that there would be no kissing on stage. We also had an all-female string quartet with Rashka Dubinsky, Chaya Feigle Malot, Tamar Tzart and Malka Rubinstein.

We selected “The Yeshiva Bucher” play. The leading actor was Moshe Veisbord who had a nice voice and his song “Mai Ka Mashma Lan” touched many hearts. The performances were successful and we collected several hundred rubles. We used the money for our activities and created a no-interest loan Bank. Leibel Shepsenwol was the treasurer and used to carry the whole “Bank” in his pocket. Later on, this “Bank” became the City Bank of Volozhin.

[Page 336]

We were enthusiastic and expanded our activities. We reorganized the community services with the financial aid we received from the Volozhin ex-patriates who were now living in the U.S.A. Mr. B. Persky (his name now is Harrison) lead the fundraising activity and Mr. Metzer brought the money to us. We used this money to repair the Mikva, to rebuild the fence around the cemetery, to support students in the Yeshiva and for other community needs.

The Flour Mill, Electricity
and the First Movie House in Volozhin

by Michael Vand-Polack Z”L

Translated by Meir Razy

Donated by Anita Frishman Gabbay


In 1910, I moved from my town of Halshany to Volozhin. I had married the daughter of Esther-Ethel who was the daughter of Yochanan Rodensky. My father-in-law was a flax merchant whose business took him to faraway cities, even to Germany, and he introduced new western technology to our town. One of these new inventions was a kerosene lamp which would hang from the ceiling and illuminate the whole room. Until then people used a little tin can that held a small amount of burning material. Matches were new and hard to find so people used to keep a smoldering piece of coal in the stove. Sometimes the coal was extinguished and people would go to a neighbor to light a piece of wood. People carried flint and cotton in their pockets so they could light a stove or a candle at will. Things improved in 1910 when they started importing matches from the town of Vyazma, Russia.

I had some experience operating a flour mill and I decided to build one in Volozhin. There was no flour mill in town. The nearest one was in the village of Sakovshchina, some eight kilometers away. That mill, which stood on the river Berzina and operated through the power of the water, belonged to Count Tishkivitz. It was leased by Yitzhak Yaakov Bunimovitz who lived next to it. The operation was slow and people had to wait up to eight days before their wheat became flour.

I decided to improve the life of the local farmers by building a mill in town. I imported old-style machines from Minsk and from Germany. My flour mill was operated by steam power.

Yitzhak Yaakov Bunimovitz predicted that my project was doomed even before I started. He had tried to build a flour mill in Volozhin and lost a bundle. He predicted that this too would be my fate.

[Page 337]

His words were “you will be trapped in this like a rooster in a ball of cotton”. His warning did not deter me and the mill was working by the end of 1910. It worked around the clock at full steam and I was the Master Miller.

A disaster hit us right at the start. A big flood washed away all the wood I had prepared to burn in order to generate the steam. After the waters subsided, the Christian neighbors claimed that the wood, which was spread all over town, was theirs and I had to buy it back from them at full price. The mill was soon working again.

The First World War ended with Poland winning over Russia and major technological improvements followed. The new Governor of Volozhin (“Starosta niegrodowy”) came to see me. He had previously been the Land Supervisor for Count Tishkivitz and was familiar with my abilities. He appointed me supervisor for the installation of an electric power grid. In addition, I was responsible for building a movie theater in town. I installed a large electric generator at the site of the flourmill and initially used it to operate the mill during the time period we were installing the new electric power grid. Having light and power in every house was a great achievement that changed the whole atmosphere of the town.

Then I set up the movie theater inside one of the Count's deserted barns. I renovated the barn and installed benches and electricity. Mr. Komay, a Jewish engineer from Vilna, was the Project Manager. Mr. Zvi Kershtein from Vilna became the theater's Manager and was also in charge of the projector.

The first movie ever shown in Volozhin was “Shulamis”. A tragi-comic event at the premier night occurred with my mother–in-law, Sara Rodensky, who had very much wanted to see this new invention. It was her first-ever visit to a movie theater and she was sure she was seeing “real life” people and animals on the screen. When a horse galloped towards the audience, she started screaming and crying that she was afraid of the horse and wanted to go home.

When I came home later that night, she was happy and relaxed. “I did not know you are so rich! All those houses, the streets, the horses, the slaves, the princes and the princesses with their beautiful dresses are all yours!” After that, she thought very highly of me.

[Page 338]

Estate Owners in Volozhin

by Meir Shiff, Tel Aviv

Translated by Meir Razy

Donated by Anita Frishman Gabbay


Three Jewish families from Volozhin leased the estates of Count Tishkivitz. The Count liked the Jews and leased out all his 400 square kilometers in the villages of Adampol, Michalow, Chechovshchina and Sakovshchina to Jewish families.

The lessees were Avraham Moshe Shiff who leased the Chechovshchina estate, the family of Bunimovitz who leased the Adampol estate, and the family of Michael Weisbrod who leased the estate in Michalow.

At the time of Tsar Nikolay II, Jews were not allowed to live in villages and the leases were registered to Christian men. Each of the lessees had a nice house in Volozhin but they spent most of their time on the estates. They bribed the local official and he ignored the infraction.

They produced wheat, vegetables, milk and milk products for the residents of Volozhin.


Floating timber on the Berzina River
First person on the right: Chatzkel Glick)

[Page 339]

My family lived in Sakovshchina until 1914. When the war broke out, we move to Minsk and I was subsequently drafted into the army. After I was discharged, we moved to Volozhin and then to Sakovshchina. Before the war, the Bunimovitz family operated the flourmill they leased from Count Tishkivitz. Now however, the mill was burnt out and no longer functioning.


The flour mill of Yuzefpol [Estate] (1929)


Mr. Baruch Kuchevitzky lived in Sakovshchina and was an expert in operating flourmills. Together, we bought a plot of land in the Yuzefpol[Estate] and built a new flour mill. The flour was sold in Volozhin as well as among all the neighboring villages. The Jewish population preferred it for making matzahs for Passover. We built a sawmill, and as the business grew, we built a second one. The flourmill burnt down in 1929 and, within six months, we built an even bigger one. The sawmill produced wooden roof tiles, some of which we donated for the roof of the new synagogue in Zabrezhe.

My time in Yuzefpol[Estate] was very happy. When the Soviets invaded in 1940, I fled to Volozhin. This was the end of a beautiful period in my life.

[Page 340]

Flour and Torah in Volozhin

by Chaim Zvi Potashnik, Holon

Translated by Meir Razy

Donated by Anita Frishman Gabbay


Volozhin was not a particularly commercial town with a thriving economy. Living was not easy and there were no big factories or mines in the vicinity. Most of the Jews earned their living as “go-betweens”. Some were storeowners, some peddlers and there were a few artisans as well. The largest segment of the economy stemmed from renting rooms to students from the Yeshiva, to travelling fund-raisers and to the messengers and representatives from Jewish Communities all over the Russian Pale of Settlement. This was the Volozhin's version of the “Tourist Industry”.

The retailers bought wheat and flax from the local farmers and sold the products to the wholesalers – Yaakov Weisbrod, Moshke Weisbrod, Getzel Persky, and Berl Yoshkas.

Timber trading was an important part of the town's economy and many Jews worked as clerks in Mr. Heller's business. After the end of WW-I, the town came under Polish rule. The government moved many services from Galicia and Central Poland to Volozhin. There then began a housing boom to accommodate the needs of these government employees.

The government stationed a battalion of Border Guards in town and the army, too, helped drive its economic development. It needed a new military base and food supplies. Shneur Kivilevitz won the tender for supplying bread and built a new, modern bakery.

New co-operatives imported goods. Arie and Mussia Tofef imported beer from Vilna and from Lida. The preferred brands were Pupko, Zhivitzer and Filco. Velvele Persky and Shevach Rogovin were tanners and developed a business processing leather. Fruit and vegetables were sold both in and around the town.

Several families leased orchards and sold fruit. Many Jews found employment in the flour mills, sawmills and the power generator station of Michael Vand-Polack. Members of the Zionist training camps worked in these plants as well.

Work and material matters, however, were not the center of life in Volozhin. They provided the support needed for its spiritual life – learning the Torah. As soon as work was over, people hurried to their studies. In the morning, you could hear morning prayers coming out of the many synagogues and in the evening people gathered in groups to study the Talmud, “Ein Yaakov” or the weekly Torah portion. The sound of holiness filled the town.

In the years preceding the Second World War, Polish anti-Jewish sentiment grew. They organized themselves into co-operatives and distributed pamphlets to the peasants. They encouraged Polish peasants to boycott the Jews and sell their produce only to Polish merchants.

[Page 341]

All this negative anti-Semitic activity severely affected the economic condition of the Jewish community.

Young people were idle. They did not study nor could they find work. They were supported by their parents who did their best but could not change the circumstances. Those “idle” people were called “Engineers” – in reference to surveyors who walked and measured distances on the streets.

They invested their time and energy in Zionist activities. They helped to educate the older generation, they collected donations for national organizations, they sold “Shekels” for the Zionist Congress and were busy in discussions and arguments among themselves. All of this was done at night but during the day they were idle.


Free Embroidery Training Course by the Singer Company
Top Row (near the wall) right to left: a) a Christian woman b) Gittel Rogovin c) a Christian woman d) Zipora Kramnik e) The Company representation a Christian man
Second row: a) Fruma Kivilevich b) Levit c) Taybel Kivilevich d) Bella Kramnik e) a Christian woman
Third Row: a) a Christian woman b) a Christian woman
Fourth Row: Chaya Liba Shepsenvol

[Page 342]

A chance for improvement for young women was the opening of a Singer Sewing Machine Sales Office in town. The office, as a publicity stunt, ran a free Embroidery Training Course. Many women registered and acquired new skills that were not, however, very useful.

The Jews realized that there would be little or no economic improvement in Europe. Many immigrated across the oceans. Others decided to immigrate to Eretz-Israel and joined Zionist training camps.

No one saw the dark forces that would soon destroy their world.


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