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[Page 342]

Market Days in Volozhin

by Israel Levinson, Ramat Gan

Translated by Meir Razy

Thursdays were market days in Volozhin. In the early morning hours, peasants from the nearby villages would arrive in their horse-drawn wagons full of milk products, fresh eggs, fruit, pig bristles, flax, different types of grain and more.

The peasants, after they sold their produce, would then buy herring, salt, sugar, oil, kerosene, cloth and shoes, kitchen utensils and other necessities at the Jewish-owned stores. They also spent generously in pubs and inns. Thursdays were good days for business.

Many people attended market days, especially towards the end of the summer. The nature of the trade changed as autumn approached. The villagers ordered winter clothing, boots and other necessities. The Jewish merchants went to Vilna or Warsaw and bought boots and cloth. The local artisans, the shoemakers, the tailors and even the carpenters filled orders for coats, boots and new furniture.

The market played an important role in the economy of Volozhin.

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Volozhin during and after the First World War

By Reuven Rogovin (Petach Tikva)

Translated by Jerrold Landau based on an earlier translation by M. Porat z”l,
and edited by Judy Montel

The “strategy specialists” debate the war in the kloiz

When the nationalist Serbs in Sarajevo shot and fatally wounded the Austro-Hungarian crown prince and his wife on July 28, 1914 – shots that shook up the foundations of the world and caused the First World War – Feive the tailor, Baruch Leib the tailor, Oizer the Raznostik (mailman), Naftali the bookbinder, Meir Pesha Yente's, and others sat in the kleizl (small kloiz) and debated the principles of strategy and warfare in stoic calm.

They reached the conclusion that the war would not reach us in Volozhin, and therefore, we should not be afraid or worry. Russia is vast. If it wishes, it can fight with the Germans in Siberia, and if it wishes, it can fight with the Austraks (Austrians) in the Caucasus. If it desires to torment its enemies, it could fight them in the large steppes and wildernesses of Ukraine, or it can fight in Manchuria, where Lipa the butcher was serving. “Everything depends on the decisions of the upper command” determined Oizer the, the great “Strategist.”

Nahumke Telzer, a Yeshiva lad, who was reading a book the entire time, suddenly raised his head and said: “My masters, with your permission, I will tell you a true story.” The audience became attentive, and Reb Nahumke began, saying: “A Jew, a poor lessee had six ugly daughters. Due to their ugliness, it was impossible to marry them off. A matchmaker arrived one day at the lessee's home, bearing the news that he has an excellent match for the eldest and ugliest daughter, but he could not reveal the groom's name fearing the lessee's anger. The Jew swore on his beard and peyos [sidelocks] that nothing bad would happen to him. The matchmaker became courageous and revealed the secret: the suggested bridegroom would be the only son of Count Tyskiewicz, who live near Volozhin, and owns large, vast estates.

“The lessee became very angry upon hearing to whom his daughter was suggested. He shouted, ‘It could never be! I would never give my daughter over to apostasy!’ The matchmaker went on his way, but the match began to irritate the lessee's mind like Titus' mosquito[1], giving him no rest. His wife too was giving him no rest. She told him, ‘Had you agreed to the match, we would have ascended to greatness. Is having the Count as an in-law a small matter! We would marry off all our daughters in honor and wealth, and enjoy life in this world.’

“The lessee consulted with his friends and acquaintances. The unanimously advised him to hurry to the matchmaker and agree to the match. He called the matchmaker and told him, “After much inner conflict and unbearable deliberations, I have decided to give my daughter to be the wife of the count's only son.

“‘Fine,’ answered the matchmaker, ‘but you must wait a bit, because your agreement alone is not enough. ‘I must now receive the agreement of the Count and his only son.’”

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“The moral of this story is,” continued Reb Nahumke, “you claim that, as per her desire, Russia would be able to lead the fights in Siberia, the Caucasus, Manchuria, and Harbin – but have you received the assent of Germany and Austria for this? Are you certain that they would agree to conduct the battles specifically in those places?”


The Torah Didactics of the Yeshiva Lads

(This subsection translated by Meir Razy)

While the guns thundered in the distance and many soldiers died, life in Volozhin continued uninterrupted. The Head of the Yeshiva was Rabbi Raphael Shapiro. Rabbi Kotick was the head of another school, and Naphtali Hertz Askind was the third rabbi in the town. Sounds of liturgical singing emanated from all the schools and the yeshivas. Many of the students were occupied in hair-splitting arguments about religious questions.

Reuven Ladzcher was the apprentice of Avreima'le the Slaughterer. He quoted the Talmud passage “All may slaughter, and their slaughtering is valid, except a deaf person, an imbecile or a minor, lest they invalidate their slaughtering; and if any of these slaughtered while others were standing over them.” (Talmud - Chullin Chapter I, page 2A). he asked: if “All may slaughter” why should he pay for his training? And if only trained men are allowed to slaughter – why is this entry in the Talmud?

Kalman'ke “Der Zaslar”, a well-dressed young man with dreamy eyes asked about the Talmud's topic of “an egg that was laid during a holiday”.

Leibe'le Brisker was very intelligent and considered a philosopher. He wondered about the Bible but not the Talmud. The Bible tells the story of the Prophet Elisha who was walking back to the town of Beit El after his teacher, the Prophet Elijah, went up to the heavens. Small boys “mocked him, and said unto him, Go up, thou bald head; go up, thou bald head. And he turned back, and looked on them, and cursed them in the name of the LORD. And there came forth two she bears out of the wood, and tore forty and two children of them.”

(Kings 2, Ch 2, 23-24). The prophet then continued on his way as if nothing had happened. Leibe'le Brisker asked: How could this be accepted? It is possible the Prophet was bald but how could he use G-d's name to cause the death of forty-two boys?

Continuing on, Leibe'le Brisker said “this might just be a story.” He remembered another story: a Chasid and a Misnaged (an orthodox Jew opposing Chasidism). The Chasid praised his Rabbi whose Shabbat fish weighed more than a PUD (a Russian unit, 16Kg) and the person who delivered the fish to the Rabbi was the Prophet Elijah himself, dressed as a fisherman.

Then the Chassid asked the Misnaged what was so special about his Rabbi. The Misnaged answered, “My Rabbi is very skilled at playing cards. When you have two aces, he will show you three of them. When you have three, he will show you four, and when you have four he will show you five.” “Wait a minute! There are only four aces in a deck.”

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“When you reduce the size of the fish, then I will reduce the number of aces. This was just a 'story' and the story about the bears killing the boys was just a story too”.

This was the nature of the discussions and arguments among the Yeshiva students during those long days of war with little food and no sleep.


Translator's Footnote
  1. For the Talmudic story of Titus and the mosquito or gnat, see https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/953573/jewish/Tituss-Death.htm Return

The Economic Situation in Volozhin
Before the First World War

By Reuven Rogovin[1]

Translated by Jerrold Landau based on an earlier translation by M. Porat z”l,
and edited by Judy Montel

There were three synagogues in the city at that time: in the marketplace, in Aroptzu, and the small kloiz on Vilna Street. Itshke the Shamash served as the primary shamash in the synagogue in the marketplace. His deputy and the Torah reader was Leibe the Shamash (his daughter lives in Israel). Kopel Deretshnski served as the shamash and Torah reader in the synagogue in Aroptzu. Moshe Lavit (his grandson is in Israel) served as the shamash on the synagogue on Vilna Street, and Moshe Shlomo the Melamed [teacher] (his son is in Israel) served as the Torah reader. Rabbi Rafael Shapira, the shochet Yehuda Avrahamel Perski, and all the Yeshiva students worshipped in the Yeshiva. The Korovka [tax] for shechita [ritual slaughter], yeast and candles was in the hands of my uncle Leibe Eshkes (his daughter, Gitel Eshkes is in the United States). The shochet [ritual slaughterer] was Yehuda Avrahamel Perski. Velvel Bloch served as the cantor and shochet.

The butchers of the city were Yehuda Chaim, Chaim Yitzhak Zusia (his son Joel lived in the United States), and Areh the Koltun. Bread was provided by: Zlotke the baker (her son is in the United States), Elka the baker, Sorke the baker, Feytshe the baker (her daughter is in Israel), Fruma Leizer's the baker, and Hershel the baker (his son is in Israel[2]).

Milk was provided by: Reuven the lessee[3] (his son is in Israel), Golda the lessee, and the lessee from Kopuschina. Yehuda Mordechai and Gershon Rogovin (both have sons in the United States) were involved in the fish business. I will especially discuss my uncle Yehuda Mordechai, for he was a very interesting person. He was short, and his voice was hoarse. He was already about sixty years old at the time, but nevertheless carried the heavy crates of fish on his shoulders.

We both worshipped in the Kleizl. He abstained from smoking in the synagogue, and did not even smoke in the anteroom, for it is forbidden to smoke in a holy place. He would smoke fine cigars from Havana. I surmise that half his income from the fish business went up in “smoke.” He would be our guest on every holiday, and we honored him greatly.

Reb Yehuda Mordechai visited the United States several times. When he longed for Volozhin while he was in the United States, or for the United States while he was in Volozhin – he would take his suitcase and travel to Volozhin, and then after a short time, take the same suitcase and return to the United States

Volozhin and America were in his eyes like a room and its anteroom. He used to consider a two-way journey from New York to Volozhin as a journey on Avraham Leib Shmuel's horse and wagon from Volozhin to Minsk and back,

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or as Chaim the Galanterinchik's trip by foot from Volozhin to Rakow, a distance of 40 kilometers.

He prepared his burial shrouds while still alive. Leah Yoel Areh's took his measurements. He paid her generously. He purchased a burial plot, and paid good money to the Chevra Kadisha. He told me, “I want to arrange this during my lifetime, so that no dispute will arise after my death.”

The following melamedim [cheder teachers] served in those days: Kalev the Melamed, Moshe Shlomo, Moshe Feive, Simcha and Nachum (the melamed from Grieva), and Eliyahu Yitzchak (who later served as the religion teacher in the Polish gymnasja). Avraham Goralik (who went with his entire family to the United States), Pesach Jeruzalimski, and Kaminstein of Mizeiki served as Hebrew teacher of the new style.

The following worked in the carpentry trade: Michael Garbiel and his son Hershel (the mute), Yudel Eli, Zalmanke, Moshel Shimon's, and Zalman Sheiva's. The shoemaker were: Leizer Itshe, Yitzchak Getzel, Alter Dvoshke's, Hershel the Large (Groiser), Avraham Yitzchak, Eliyahu Chaim, Izik Elke's, and Hershel Elke's (his son is in Israel). The blacksmiths were: the brothers Reuven, Avraham, and Zalman Wolf, Saneh the Zielaner (his son is in Israel), Moshe Yona, and Avrahamel (his daughters are in Israel). The tinsmiths were BenZion and his sons. Leibe Kaganovitch was the sole glazier. The builders were: the brothers Feive, Yehoshua and Matisyahu, and the Christian “Fulzhidkes)[4]. Pharmacy owners were: Yitzchak Shrira and Avraham Berkovitch (the daughter has a son and two daughters and the second one, a daughter[5] in Israel)[6].

Sheike the Potshter served as the postman. Aharon Tzart, who was also a medic, served as the mohel. The city physician was Polski the Pole. There was no electricity yet in Volozhin. The owner of the only steam driven mill was Michael Wand-Polak. (died in Israel at an old age). Wine could be bought in two stores; one owned by Moshe Perlman (his grandson lives in Isael, and the second from Yochanan Rodke's (the Rebbetzin Unterman of blessed memory[7]). There was no dentist in Volozhin. Dentists from Minsk would visit the city on occasion.

Merchants of manufactured goods who provided textiles to both the residents of the city and the residents of the villages were: Avraham Shaker, Bashke Mendel's and Rela Levin. Avraham Leib Kukse's and Avrahamke Ozer's owned the matzo factory. Itzia Tane and his son Areh, called Areh the Zavaznik, provided water to the Jews of the city.

Kushe the Amerikanietz, or Kusha Rode's managed the Talmud Torah. The only inn in the town was owned by Velvel Zelig Przchulska.[8] Yankel Yosel Skliot sold beer. Soda (seltzer water) was manufactured by Yaakof Shpetnicki (his son is in Israel). Eliahu Moshe Golda's sold grain. There were two liquor stores (Monopol) in the city: one in the marketplace and the other in Aroptzu that belonged to the Gendarme (government official) Buksztanowicz. Every year, a ruckus broke out next to those stores, when the “Prizivniki” (army conscripts)

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from Baksht, Nalibok, and Derevna would go to Oshmyana to present themselves before the conscription committee. When they arrived in Volozhin, there shops closed immediately by order of the command. The draftees wanted to break into them, but the Pristov (police chief) and officers guarded them with drawn swords.

In Volozhin, there're were two Pravoslavic churches and a Catholic church at that time. The relations between the Jews and the Pravoslavic and Catholic priests were good.

The castle (Palac) was in the center of the city, where Count Tyskiewicz's estate was located. The Grafshiks (nobility family members) lived with their grandmother near Vilna, and would visit Volozhin in the summer. They were still “kids” and only became “goats” – that is mighty counts – after the war. The castle was surrounded by a large fruit orchard. Several families leased that orchard in partnership. They were had inherited rights to this. Zwirko the guard only permitted special people to stroll therein.[9]

The Starosta Yosef Yozel Perski served as head of the community. His son, Shimshon Perski served as the government appointed rabbi of Volozhin (his son is in Israel).[10]

The tailors to whom the trade passed by heritage were: Chaim the Shneider, Yaakov the Blinder, Hillel Moshe Yudke's, Binyomke the Ainbinder's [bookbinder's son], and Izak Minke's. Yankel the Kirzhner was the sole hatmaker. Naftali Arotzker was the bookbinder. Shimon the Bord repaired the shingled roofs. Chaim Meir Shaya's was involved in the rag trade. The former Yeshiva student, the genius Peretz, and the Nikolaev soldier Itshe (Nikolayevsker Soldat) transported passengers to the railway station. There were two railway stations, Listopad and Polotshan, both located about 22 kilometers from the city. Even though the distance from Volozhin to Minsk was 70 kilometers and the distance to Vilna was 110 kilometers, 98% of the trade was conducted through Vilna. The sole dealer traveled the Volozhin-Minsk line to important merchandise for the shopkeepers of the city was Avraham Leib Shmuel's (Rogovin, his two sons are in Israel).

Mr. Heller, the renowned forest trader, had purchased a huge forest from Count Tyskiewicz. It served as an important source of livelihood for many lumber merchants of Volozhin. Among these specialists were Menachem Yoel HaKohen Potashnik (his grandchildren are in Israel), Yisroel Kaplan, Alter Bunimovitch, Yosef Kaganovitch, Moshe Rogovin, Eliyahu Brudna, Tsvi Eliashkevitch, Meir Levin, Chaim Shulman (his son is in Israel) and Hirsh Jozefovitch (his daughter is in Israel). Tsvi-Hirsh Malkin served as manager (his son Asher Malkin now lives in Israel)[11].


Translator's Footnote
  1. The original translator, M. Porat, indicates that this section was written in 1968-1969. Return
  2. Note from the original translator, M. Porat: His son Beniyomke Kleynbord came to Israel on the Altalena and was member of the Volozhin Committee Return
  3. M. Porat notes that the term for lessee in Yiddish (which would have been used as these people's nicknames) is Arendator (feminine: Arendatorke). Return
  4. According to M. Porat, this refers to half Jews. M. Porat also notes that he was a stove mason. Return
  5. M. Porat identifies Berkovitch's daughter as Shoshana Nishri. Return
  6. M. Porat added the following at this point: Alter and Meyshke were the town barbers. There was no running water in Volozhin. Water was drawn from wells by a bucket on a rope and brought home in a pair of buckets suspended on a rod – “Koromislo”, from the shoulders. But it was possible to buy the water at the door from Hirshl Der Wasser Feerer , Itshe Tane's and his son Ore who was called “Ore der zavoznik”. Each one of them transported a barrel of water on a horse cart and sold it to the housewives. Return
  7. M. Porat indicates that the Rebbetzin's name was Chaya Feiga. Return
  8. M. Porat added the following this point: The brothers Mikhl and Moyshe Weisbord, Yankl Rudenski brothers and Levin were flax traders. Return
  9. M. Porat added the following at this point: A group of Volozhin children once discovered a brand new, until then unseen, red fruit growing inside the garden. It was a new plant in Russia, the tomato. The children were attracted by its color and beauty. They chose a dark night to sneak inside the garden and to flee with some fruits. After the escape they assembled to taste the fairy fruit. They divided and tasted the trophies. And as great as their expectations were, the frustration was just as large. They foresaw the sweetness of paradise, they found acidity and sourness. The tomato became known in Volozhin as the… “Khazershe Eppele”- “the piggish apple” (I also heard this story told by my father, he was one of the children –translator's note). Return
  10. M. Porat added the following at this point: Volozhin was situated at the intersection of the Vilna-Minsk road with the road to Novogrudek. The shtetl received an abundant number of visits from beggars and emissaries, so the Starosta's hands were full with work. Return
  11. M. Porat added the following note: Tsvi-Hirsh Malkin, the translator's Grandfather with his wife Haya-Riva were murdered by the Fascists in Volozhin on May 10, 1942. Osher Malkin, the Translator's uncle (his mother's brother) made aliya to Israel in 1952. He served 15 years as manager of Mikveh Israel, the famous agriculture school near Tel Aviv. Osher Malkin passed away during the fall 1973 Yom Kippur war in Holon, Israel. Return

The following sections were translated by Meir Razy


The War did not follow our “Masters of Strategy”

The war did not follow the plan that our “Masters of Strategy of the little synagogue” hashed out. Instead of fighting in Siberia and Ukraine, it took place in France, Belgium and East Prussia.

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The Russians, after three months of bloody battles in the Carpathian Mountains, retreated from Galicia and Poland and the front stabilized near Volozhin.

Groups of Russian officers arrived in Volozhin, surveyed the town and left without revealing their intentions. People were confused. Many Yeshiva students left town. Ivanov, the Governor, who had lived in the city of Ashmyany, moved his office to Volozhin.

A Russian General established his headquarters in the palace of Count Tishkivitz. The army placed three mortars on the roof of the palace. Armed soldiers guarded the gates around the clock while soldiers filled the streets. Officers confiscated the nicer homes for their quarters, and the synagogues became barracks for the soldiers. The town looked like a city under siege.

In 1916, Rabbi Raphael Shapiro moved to Minsk. The whole town came to see him off. Rabbi Naphtali Hertz Askind was then nominated as the new leader of the community.

New economic opportunities, such as supplying food to the soldiers, developed. The soldiers bought herring, bread, and any many other baked products. The demand was greater than the supply and the merchants profited. They placed barrels of herring and piles of fresh bread in front of their store and saw everything disappear very quickly. Every family baked bread, challah or bagels with the flour they had bought in Minsk.

Although the front was not far, only about 20 kilometers away, the town was quiet. The nights were silent; everyone, except for the guards, was asleep.

Tragic news started to come out. Alter the Barber was killed in a battle. Alter-Eli the paver returned from hospital with his leg amputated. Binyamin Rogovin returned, but with four fingers missing from his right hand. Then we heard that Yochanan Leibush was killed.

Some people were able to buy their way out of military service but most did not have the required sum of money. They literally went “underground”. Chaim Kinkin, the son of Simcha the Melamed, dug a small room under his bedroom and stayed inside it for twenty hours each day. He came out at night for just a few hours. By the end of the war, his beard was very long, and after he shaved, his skin was as yellow as a leaf in fall.

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My mother, Batya, hid a Yeshiva student from Pinsk for five months before we smuggled him to Minsk. He lived in Minsk until the end of the war. He was murdered in 1920 by the hoodlums of Pilsudski.

During the holidays, the synagogues were filled with Jewish soldiers. We welcomed them warmly as guests in our homes. I did not encounter a single Jewish officer. Jews were 90% of the players in military bands. A soldier from Ukraine fell in love with Matla Chatzkels of Zbazaza [maybe Zbaraz] and married her. They moved to the Ukraine. Matla had a brother – Eliezer Yachas.


The Refugees are flooding Volozhin

Several dozen Jewish families came from Vilki to Volozhin in the second half of 1915. The local residents did their best to welcome and accommodate them. Some of them found apartments and others settled temporarily in the synagogues until they too were able to rent apartments. They returned to their town at the end of the war.

Another refugee family who arrived around the same time was the Rogovins with their son Avraham who was then a Bar Mitzvah boy. They settled in the home of Shmuel-Ytche “the angel” on Vilna Street. Chatzkel's “the Africaner” lived nearby and had two daughters, Grunia and Esther. The boy and the girls crossed paths many times a day but never said a word to each other. Years passed, the war was over and Poland became independent. Avraham Rogovin immigrated to the U.S.A. in search of a better life. The sisters, Grunia and Esther also move to America. One day Avraham and Grunia met in the street. They fell in love, got married and today are living in California.

Another family was the Meltzers from Vishneva. The father was Hersh, the mother – Alta. They had a son and a daughter, Yoseph and Sara. Sara was the mother of Shimon Peres. I remember them settling in the home of Velvel Zelig's and running a tavern where they would sell beer and soda.

I did not know then that Reb Hersh was a good cantor. On Rosh HaShana of 1916, the Beadle invited him to lead the “Musaf” Prayer. A few attendees started to express their frustration about calling on an unknown Cantor. The Beadle slammed his fist on the pulpit and Reb Hersh started to sing “I am the poorest of deeds ..”. We have never heard such a touching prayer. The atmosphere became very joyous and reached its peak when he sang “Unetane Tokef”. I have always attended his performances since that Rosh HaShana prayer.

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A terrible thing happened in Volozhin

I remember a tragic event from wartime. It happened on Tisha Be'Av of 1916. Many men were in the small synagogue waiting for Rabbi Naphtali Hertz Askind to join them for the Morning Prayer, but, unusual for him, he did not appear. One man asked what had happened to the Rabbi. Another answered, “You know the Rabbi is old and frail.” After a few hours, someone said, “I am afraid the Rabbi is sick. I cannot remember a day he did not come to pray, no matter what was happening. Let us pray, then we shall read “The Book of Lamentations” and later we will go and call to check up on the Rabbi.”

As soon as they started praying, the Rabbi, completely well, entered the synagogue. However, once he started praying people realized that he was also crying. At the end of the prayer, they asked him what had happened.

“I will tell you. Last night at midnight I was reading the book “Choshen Mishpat” (a fourteenth-century book explaining legal aspects of property) when someone knocked on my door. I opened it to see a young Russian officer. He apologized for coming at such a late hour and asked if I was the Rabbi of Volozhin. I told to him that I was temporarily filling in for Rabbi Raphael Shapiro. “I was ordered to bring you to General Lomakin. A horse and carriage are waiting for you outside.” “What is it about?” I asked. “I do not know. I was just ordered to bring you.”

The journey took more than an hour and when we arrived, the officer led me into the General's office. He told me that I had been brought there for a humane reason. Yesterday, a Jewish soldier was sentenced to death for treason. The verdict would be carried out in three hours. We asked the condemned for his last wish and he asked to see and speak with a Rabbi. Please fulfill your duty.

An officer took me to the dark basement. He gave the password and an armed guard led me into the cell where they were keeping the condemned man.

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It was a small room with exposed concrete walls and a blocked window. A young man of about 25 years old with thick black hair was sitting on a mattress which was on the floor.

He gave the impression of being a Russian university student. He got up, greeted me and thanked me for coming so late at night. He said, “I want to die as a proud Jew. I wish to tell you everything. My name is X, my parents are X from town X. One of my brothers went to Eretz-Israel in the 1890s and still lives there. My sister is a well-known children's medical doctor in Petersburgh. My younger brother is a student and my mother a renowned singer. My father is a famous lawyer who dedicates a lot of his time to community affairs. He attended one of the Jewish Congresses with Herzel. I grew up in a Jewish home and was a student at the University. I volunteered to serve in the Army six months after the onset of the war. I behaved as a proud Jew in my military service and many people, especially Citnick, the Battalion Commander, did not like it. He ordered his staff to monitor me. They invented infractions I did not commit and when investigated, were proven false. Two days ago they summoned me to Headquarters where I saw several high-ranking officers present, including Battalion Commander Citnick.

They told me they were going to search my suitcase. When they opened it, I was shocked to see a wire-cutting tool and a pair of leather gloves. Citnik said, sarcastically, “These are the tools this Jew used yesterday when he tried to cut through our fence and desert to the Germans. However, he saw one of our soldiers so he came back to wait for another opportune time.”

I told the Commander I did not recognize the cutter or the gloves. Someone had put them in my suitcase in order to incriminate me.

It did not help. They court-marshaled me yesterday. The cutter and the gloves were the evidence. The prosecutor asked for the death penalty and I got it.

The Rabbi continued: The verdict was sent to the Empress for approval (Alexandra Feodorovna was Empress of Russia. She was the spouse of Nicholas II—the last ruler of the Russian Empire). She read the document of the verdict and ordered him released. It was clear to her that this was a false plot, but it was too late. They had executed him by the time her order reached the army base.

The “February Revolution” started on February 27, 1917. This was the end of the three hundred year- long Romanov Dynasty. On April 6, 1917, Kerenski, the Minister of War, ordered the Russian Army to attack the Germans near Maladzyechna [Molodechno]-Vilna. We could see the bombing of Lask from the “Bialik Mountain”. The attack failed, and the Bolshevik Revolution had that started on November 7 finally reached Volozhin.


Under the Bolshevik Rule

The first action of the Bolsheviks in Volozhin was to depose the leaders of the community and the town and to nominate “new leaders” from among the “working class”.

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Some of the appointees were Neta the saddle maker, Fitel the shoemaker, Chaikel “the lip”, Avram'ke the shoemaker, Alter-Leizer “of Itche”, Hillel “the tailor” and alike. These men welcomed the Bolsheviks.

Volozhin was only a stop on the route of the Red Army moving westward. Two soldiers were left in town. They were members of the Communist Party and not “real” soldiers and their assignment was to establish Soviet rule in Volozhin. Their names were Mishzerski and Zotov and they used to walk around town wearing long military coats, carrying pistols. They nominated a Christian man named Balashko as the Superintendent of Police and he then hired several police officers. Most were Christian but he also hired Jews. The Jewish police officers were Benim'ke Itzkes (Benyamin son of Yitzhak Rogovin), a war veteran who had lost three fingers on his left-hand and Alter'ks Avraham Yashkas.

Mishzerski created the “Revkom” (A revolutionary committee) and nominated himself as Chairman with Zotov as Deputy. Zorkovich was nominated as Secretary and Marisha Radanovich was the clerk. Lawyer Sidorsky became the head of the Culture Department and Fidotov (who had been born in Siberia, moved to Volozhin and eventually was killed in 1941 by the Germans) was in charge of military relations. The Head of the Social Services Department was Krastianov, a lawyer who served as a judge during the time of the Holocaust. He was sent to Siberia by the Soviets and died there.

Mishzerski nominated Neta Zimmerman, who could not even sign his name in Russian, to manage the City Council. Jewish members of the City Council were Feitel Rubinstein, Chaikel “the lip”, Avram'ke the shoemaker, Hillel “the tailor” and Moshke “the glazier”.

The new Soviet regime had no impact on the local economy or its religious life. People traded as before, brought merchandise from Minsk and prayed in synagogues as before.

Cultural activities flourished in the Byelorussian language. A retired actor named Chabayoff lived in a nearby village. He had organized a troop of amateur actors and they performed, free of charge, every two weeks. People stayed after the plays and danced until the early hours of the morning. All of the Volozhin young people attended these performances.

Visiting propagandists promoted the Soviet ideology daily until a war broke out between Poland and the USSR. The Red Army retreated and, following the Riga Accord of March 18, 1921, the whole region of Volozhin then became part of Poland.

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Self Defense

The Russian Army lost its discipline after the February 1917 Revolution. Soldiers did not obey their commanders' orders, the military police lacked authority and occasionally soldiers entered stores and “forgot” to pay for their purchases. Subsequently, towns set up their own local police forces to protect themselves.

Military units organized local town councils. Propagandists from Petersburg, Moscow and Minsk arrived and promoted the idea of making peace with Germany. The atmosphere in and around Volozhin was that of lawlessness.

One night, a small group of soldiers entered the town, robbed dozens of Jewish stores and killed one man, Nishka Glick. The situation forced the community to organize a self-defense group that would protect their life and property. The organizers were Avraham Berkovich, Michael Vand-Polack, Arka “der Feldshar” the Medic, Chaim Velvele Persky, Yehoshua Shmerkavich (a soldier from Dzhankoy in Crimea), Zvi Ziversko and many others. They all obtained rifles legally.

The town was divided into three defense sectors: the Market, Arapecho and Vilna Street. The command post for Arapecho was set at Michael Polack's home; the one for the Market was at the house of Chelem the shoemaker and in Moshe Perlman's stone house. The Vilna Street unit met at Velevle Zeligs'. Their leaders were Hershel “valick-macher” the wool merchant and his son Yoseph.

A General Headquarters, consisting of Avraham Berkowitz and Michael Vand-Polack, was set up at the Berkowitz house. They nominated a commander for each sector and issued instructions. They recruited all the able-bodied young men and assigned them to different sectors. The men were stationed in their command posts and they patrolled in three-hour shifts at night.

Thirty Jewish men, some of them parents of small children, carried weapons, protected property and defended the honor of the Jews of Volozhin.

This self-defense activity was effective and successfully deterred would-be thieves and murderers from carrying out more crimes. The streets of Volozhin were under control and the fear of the population subsided.

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Volozhin Jewish Defense Brigade

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The Fire Fighting Brigade

In the early years of independent Poland, towns in the regions of Vilna and Navogrudok competed with each other to establish Fire Fighting Brigades and marching bands. Both the fire fighters and the band players were Jews. Volozhin was enthusiastic about having a fire-fighting brigade for a good reason: the great fire of 1918 destroyed the fire station and all its equipment. In addition, the service lost many of its men. Some of them were killed in the war, others move to other towns, and only two fire fighters remained in Volozhin: Anton Mandrick, an over sixty years old Christian, and Simon Lapes, a little younger.

Four men started the project. Avraham Berkowitz was responsible for managing the project and recruiting the firefighters. Getzel Itche Beres (his name later was Getzel Perski) was in charge of organizing the band (he was a band member during his military service), Mota'le Yudels was in charge of procurement (pumps, ladders, axes, etc.) and Chaim Velvel Perski was looking for the land where the new station would be built. They reported their progress every Saturday at a meeting in the home of Chaim Velvel Perski.

The new building of the Fire Station stood across from Ara Polack and was ready in two years. They bought all the necessary equipment and the Brass Band was ready too. All the firefighters and the players were Jews except for Roman Horvachebski and Semion Zhorkovitz. Avraham Berkowitz was elected as the Fire Chief. He was the first Jewish Chief in independent Poland. The firefighters received uniform, a coat and a helmet.

Like the rest of Poland, Volozhin celebrated the Third of May (Poland Independence Day) and November 11(the Miracle on the Wisla[Vistula] - the 1920 victory over the Soviet Army). The town erected a large sitting platform for these holidays. The churches and the synagogues carried out special prayers for the state, followed by public celebrations. All the Christian town leaders (never a Jew) and government representatives, the town's elder (Starosta) and the Priest sat on the platform. The Band assembled near the platform.

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The Firefighting Brigade

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The parade started with the Band playing a March. The Police marched first. Police delegations from many surrounding towns participated in the March to give the impression of power. The Band followed the police and schoolchildren marched last.

The Fire Brigade operated for many years. Sundays were dedicated for training. More people got involved and the government provided a budget. The year 1925 marked the 50th year of the Brigade and a celebration was carefully planned. All the Fire Brigades from the nearby towns and cities were invited to join the parade that was set for a Sunday.

Guests started arriving already on the Friday before the parade. A forty men delegation that included a marching band came from Lida. Their leader was Moshe Dvoretzki, the principle of Lida's High School. A 35 strong team and a band came from Iwye with their leader Mr. Bakshet.

The list of the distinguished guests on the platform included the town Elder, members of City


The Community Leadership Committee (VAAD)

An emissary from the Ministry of the Interior visited Volozhin at the end of 1921. He called for a meeting with the leaders of the Jewish Community. In that meeting, which took place at the home of Chaim Aizers (Tzirolnik), he instructed the leaders to elect a democratic Leadership Committee. The leaders nominated Shlomo Chaim Brodno to manage the election process.

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Shlomo Chaim Brodno proposed a nine–man body, three delegates each from the three Jewish neighborhoods; the Arapecho, the market and Vilna Street.

Hershel “the Great” proposed Yoseph Simarnitzki, Yehuda Avraham Dubinski and Yaakov Tzadok Kantorovich as representatives of the Arapecho. They were voted in without any opposition.

Similarly, the members chosen from the market region were Chaim Meir Shayas, Meir Pesha Yentes and Naftali “the Bookbinder”. The Vilna Street neighborhood elected Menachem Yoel Hacohen Potashnik, Chaim Rogovin and Israel Lonin. None of the nine members of the Committee had any experience in leading a community. However, they were all honest men.

Shlomo Chaim Brodno was elected as the Chairman. He appointed Moshe Weisbrod as his assistant. Their office was in a small room near the entrance of the synagogue on Vilna Street. The room had an iron door but no heating, so it was cold during winters.

The Committee worked without financial support or staff. Through the dedication of its members, it supported the poor, impoverished students, the library and other good causes.

Over time, Volozhin became the capital of the region and the nature of working with government agencies called for a more sophisticated community leadership. Younger and more active people were elected to the Committee and the Jewish Community continued its growth.

The new Chairman was Yaakov (Yani) Garber, a Zionist. He negotiated a large increase in the town's financial support and organized all the activities of the Committee with great efficiency.

A new election was called at the end of Garber's mandate and Reuven Rosenberg was elected Chairman. He, too, was a skillful and a very energetic man who dedicated his time to helping the poor and assisting Jews in their dealings with the government.

The next VAAD was led by Meir Chalopski, the husband of Mara Shrira. He was an officer in the Polish Army and a successful merchant in town.

A new election was called at the end of the mandate and Anie Rubin (from the town of Radashkovichy) became the new Chairman. Membership in the Committee was changed from a geographic base to economic and political affiliations. It included representatives from among artisans, merchants, Zionists and Revisionists.

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As a result, Committee meetings became a forum for infighting among the different groups, especially when the topic was allocating the Budget.

The Secretary–Treasurer was Chaim Krugman, who was a graduate of the Yeshiva.

The Red Army invaded on September 17, 1939. One of its first orders was to terminate the operation of the Community Leadership Committee. This was the end of eighteen years of the VAAD.

The following Committee members died naturally: Yaakov Tzadok Kantorovich, Hershel “the Great”, Feive Yasha Simarnitzki, Yehuda Avraham Dubinski, Meir Pesha Yentes, Naftali “the Bookbinder”, Chaim Rogovin, Shlomo Rosenberg, Mordechai Potashnik and Mosh'ke “the African”.

The following Committee members were murdered in the Holocaust: Chaim Tzirolnik, Shlomo Chaim Brodno, Kopel Drachinski, Chaim Meir Klein, Israel Lonin, Yaakov Garber, Reuven Rosenberg, Mendel Alperovitch, Meir Chalopski, Moshe Wainer and Chaim Krugman.


The Founding of the Jewish bank

Until 1915, the only financial “Institution” in Volozhin was “Gmilut Chasadim”, the traditional Jewish charity. The charity gave people small loans that they had to repay in tiny weekly installments every Saturday, after the end of the Shabbat. This modest organization operated from the home of Berka “Der Rimer”. It was managed by Binyamin “the Store Owner”, who was also known as “the Yellow Binyamin”. Binyamin married Shprinza, the daughter of Rabbi Yoseph Yozel Perski who carried the title of the Elder of the Town (Starosta). Following Shprinza's death, Binyamin moved to the town of Dzwoneczek[Devenishkis].

Not a single financial institution operated in Volozhin during the First World War or during the Russian Revolution or during the Polish–Russian war. However, following the Riga Peace Treaty between Russia and Poland, aid started to arrive from American Jewish Organizations: ORT built schools in many towns, HIAS assisted in immigration affairs and YEKOPA opened Bank branches.

The YEKOPA's operated from Vilna. They called for a conference where they presented their plans for assisting the Jews of Poland. Shlomo Chaim Brodno was the delegate from Volozhin. After the conference, he reported to the community that a local Jewish Bank was being planned. The assembly elected him to become the Manager of the local branch.

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Each neighborhood selected their own delegates to the Management of the Bank: the delegates from the Arapecho were Feive “the horse trader”, Natta “the saddle maker” (they were also the delegates to the Burial Society), Moshe–Yona “the blacksmith” and Israel “the pipe smoker”. Meir “Pesha–Yentes” was the delegate from Braverna Street. The delegates from Vilna Street were the treasurers of the synagogue, Chaim “the butcher” and Menachem–Yoel Potashnik. None of the Board Members possessed any knowledge of finance.

Shlomo Chaim Brodno, the Manager, rented a room in the home of Elka “Berka Dam Rimers”. It was, in fact, only half a room as a large baking oven filled the other half.

Shortly after, Shlomo Chaim Brodno invited me to help him manage the Bank. Each borrower received a little booklet that listed the details of his miniscule loan and his payments.

Akiva Potashnik had studied accounting in Vilna. He could not find a position as an accountant and we invited him to “volunteer” at the Bank. Shlomo Chaim Brodno did not like the situation where I was salaried (although it was only a symbolic salary) while Akiva had been asked to volunteer. He proposed that Management increase my salary and pay Akiva too. Both Akiva and I were present at the Board Meeting but were asked to leave for that discussion. At the end of the discussion, we were called in only to hear that the proposal had been rejected because the Bank did not have enough profits.

This situation continued until I was offered a position at the company of Michael Vand–Polack and, subsequently, Akiva started to be paid.

Over time, the Jewish Bank became one of the most important financial institutions in town. It relocated to the home of Rykla Shepsenvol on Berko Yoselevich Street. Akiva became the General Manager and Sonia Zelzer was his assistant. Another employee was Dov–Ber Levit. The new Management included Israel Lonin, Avraham Zart, Shlomo Chaim Brodno, Yaakov Garber, Volf Perski and Chaim Tzirolnik. The “old guard” of undertakers and synagogue treasurers was no longer involved. I was nominated as the Chairman of a new Audit Committee. Many community leaders including Yaakov Zimernitzki, Michael Vand–Polack, Mendel Alperovitch, Shmuel Bunimovich and Shalom–Leib Rubinstein raised donations for the Bank, which continued to grow. People could receive loans of up to 1,500 Zloty.

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The Bank continued to flourish until September 17, 1939, when the Red Army entered the town. I do not know if the Soviets found any money in the safe. At that time I was detained in a political prison in Kartoz–Bereza.


A Nekrasov story in Volozhin

In 1861, Nikolay Nekrasov, the great Russian poet, published a poem called “A Merchant”. The poem tells the story of an innocent man who spent twelve years in jail because of a small administrative error. A similar event happened in Volozhin exactly fifty years later.

Two Jewish women lived in Volozhin at that time. One was “the short” Chaya–Eska and the other – “the long” Chaya–Eska. “The short” Chaya–Eska was about sixty years old, married to a very religious man.

She earned her living for her family by making samogon, the Russian term for moonshine, an illegal occupation at the time. It was a very successful business until the day she insisted that one of her regular customers, a local drunk, pay his growing debt to her. He reported her illegal business to the local Police instead of paying up. She was sentenced to two months in a jail that was located in another town. The Chief of Police sent her a written order to appear at the Police Station on a given date in order to be sent to that jail. She, however, left town and hid on the farm of one of her acquaintances in a nearby village. When the Chief realized she had not obeyed his instructions, he decided to act.

The Chief did not hate Jews. In fact, he liked Jewish gefilte fish and Chulent. The head of the Jewish community, Rabbi Yoseph Yozel Perski, made sure that a regular supply of gefilte fish and Chulent reached the Chief in addition to the regular “peace and quiet” payments.

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At 2 PM, on the Friday of Shabbat Nachamu (the Shabbat that follows Tisha Be'av), the Police Chief instructed a police officer to go and arrest Chaya–Eska immediately and to keep her locked up until Sunday morning when she was to be sent to jail.

The police officer went to “the long” Chaya–Eska and told her to come immediately to the Chief. She went without suspecting anything. Two hours later, when the merchants were closing their stores and people started to gather in synagogues, her father, Yaakov Yosel and her husband started worrying. They went to see the head of the Jewish community, Rabbi Yoseph Yozel. As soon as he understood the severity of the situation, he told his family to continue their Sabbat meal without him. Rabbi Yoseph, Chaya's father and her husband all hurried to the police station. There they found only the police officer who would not tell them anything and just sent them away. They returned home very much worried about the fate of the woman.

The Shabbat services in all of the synagogues of Volozhin were disrupted. People discussed the arrest of Chaya–Eska. Ozer, the assistant mail carrier, told the crowd in the Market Synagogue that last week he had delivered a registered letter to the secretary of the Police Chief. That letter bore several wax stamps and looked very official. He believed the letter came from a “high place”, maybe the Security Service in Saint Petersburg. He felt the letter carried bad news for someone but he had not guessed it was “the long” Chaya–Eska.

“The short” Chaya–Eska told the women around her that Chaya–Eska was not arrested without a valid reason and that they would soon find out why. Avraham Shaker shouted, “The Christians will say bad things about us!” Neta “the saddle maker” told the crowd in the synagogue of Arapecho that this may be a disaster for the Volozhin Jews and even Graff Tishkivitz, who was known to like Jews, might now stop hiring them as workers for his fields.

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People spread baseless rumors. Feive “the builder” told them that while he had been repairing the oven at her father's house, he saw her talking to a stranger that did not look Jewish. Leib “the philosopher” described a suspicious box that was delivered to her house very early in the morning. He was sure it was a printing press for forging money.

The Chief of Police was just returning to town and the crowd gathered around his house. Yaakov Yosel went in and told the Chief he had come about his daughter. When the Chief heard the name of Chaya–Eska, he exploded and shouted that she would stay in jail for a long time. Her father slipped a one hundred rubles note into the Chief's hand and the Chief then relaxed somewhat.

During the conversation that followed, the Chief began to understand the mistaken identity problem and instructed his men to release “the long” Chaya–Eska immediately. The policemen then hurried to the home of “the short” Chaya–Eska and instructed her to prepare herself in order to join the next day's convoy to the jail in Ashmyany.

And indeed, the following day, on a Sunday at 11 AM, a group of nine prisoners, including “the short” Chaya–Eska was on its way to jail.

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Volozhin at the end of World War One

by Sara Perski (Meltzer)

Translated by Meir Razy

Donated by Anita Frishman Gabbay

The year was 1915. The German Army was advancing towards my hometown of Vishneva and bombing it. The approaching front caused many Jews to move to Volozhin, which was some 18 kilometers farther from the front. My family of nine souls walked that distance and found a temporary refuge at the home of the “starosta” – the head of the Jewish community – Yoseph Yozel Perski. We all shared one room while other refugees and Russian soldiers lived in some of the other rooms.

The town was under war conditions and a blackout was enforced. At night, the Russian Army patrolled the streets, checking that no light was visible and no one was out in the streets.

One night a German Zeppelin flew over town but did not cause any damage. Airplanes, on the other hand, bombed the town many times. People had dug shallow shelters and hid in them during bombing.

All social and cultural activities stopped. The Yeshiva was deserted and its head, the Gaon Rabbi Raphael Shapiro, was yearning for the return of the days of its glorious past. The Community fed the hungry refugees and distributed warm meals. My family opened a teahouse.

Regardless of the war situation, children's education remained a priority, Elka Svirski managed the Russian Library. A Jewish school continued to operate with its teacher, Pesach Yarozlimski. In the evening, adult classes for Hebrew had many students as–well.

I witnessed the evolution of a new world. Russian soldiers spent many idle, boring days in their trenches. One day they left the trenches and their first action was shedding Jewish blood. They entered Volozhin, rioted in the streets and killed a young man named Glick. A few days later, we received the news that a Communist Revolution had started. The walls of the houses were covered with posters saying, “Comrades, the Tsar's rule is over. Freedom to all!” People were excited by the change and were hypnotized by public speakers who talked about equality and freedom. They sang the Marseillaise (the French anthem) in the streets, and silent movies were shown in open theatres. People believed the coming of the Messiah was near.

However, reality soon hit home. A local REVCOM (the Revolutionary Committee) settled in the home of the “starosta” Yoseph Yozel Perski and started confiscating the property of landowners. Rioters and thieves attacked, without fear, under the cover of the Revolution. Jews felt unsafe and started organizing a self–defense force.


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