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[Page 525]

Volozhin in the Holocaust shadow

By Bela Saliternik (Kramnik)

Translated by M. Porat.

Edited by E. Levitan

I visited Volozhin close to the breakthrough of the World War Two. I left from Haifa to Constantsa (Romania) with the Polish vessel “Polonia”. Here I took the international train to Warsaw. Amid the passengers were many Polish functionaries and military people. Already in the train I came up against Anti Semitism. During a stop at a railway station, we witnessed a scene of some young Jews starting their way to Israel. A group of elderly relatives surrounded them. They were weeping at the separation. The Polish passengers remarks on the Jews were humiliating, poisonous and full with hatred. I was overwhelmed by their behavior. The few years that I lived in Eretz Israel had caused me to forget the bitter taste of Anti Semitism.

I found Volozhin in almost the same state as I left five years before, although some modifications were made. A big change occurred in the transport means. The road from Horod'k rail station to the town was paved and a bus replaced the horse cart. The town authorities arranged the water pond on Vilna Street. Trees were planted and benches placed around the so-called “Sazhelke”. The Volozhin inhabitants had the advantage of sailing on rowboats during summer and ice-skating in winter.

The young boys and girls, like before, were involved with the Zionist organizations. Their main actions were related to culture and instruction.

The economics were bad. The Jewish business volume has significantly decreased under the government taxes press. The turn over diminished and left less and less money to pay the increasing taxes. The merchants borrowed the necessary currency in interest. It created an endless loop, which destroyed more and more bread yearning places. The vicious loop brought the weak part of the shtetl's population to a slice of bread.

The Anti Semitism did break out all the damps. It became dangerous to pass the street. When we took a walk near the Orthodox Church, the gentile children threw stones on us. In the government shop on the market square a sign with huge letters “Swooy Do Svego”, (“Every one to his own” - in Polish) was exposed. It called the gentiles to avoid Jewish shops, not to do business with them and to boycott the Stranger-Jew.
Some of our mother's clients from the Ponizhe hamlet told us about the government-disheveled incitement against the Jews. Even at the “good” times was the coexistence between the Jewish and Christian populations not more then a mirage. Now it came to its end. The Poles implemented their decision to destroy the Jewish citizens.

The Volozhin Jew's longing for his homeland, for Eretz Israel was endless. Any knowledge from “Eretz” was immediately spread and became known by all. I experienced it myself. The Volozhin inhabitants' encountered each person coming from Eretz Israel with excitement. Many people welcomed me. They circled me and asked information about each possible detail. They posed more questions that I had answers. With difficulty I made my way home.

Their curiosity expressed the inner knowledge that all the bridges had been broken and the delivery from the miseries might be in Eretz Israel only. The state of Volozhin was well expressed in Hayim Bialik's, our national poet's verse: “We have no hope here, brothers, We are hopeless like a dove in the hawk's claws, Now both my eyes turn eastward” (“The little letter”-Bialik). But, to our great sorrow, the Volozhin Jews understood it to late. It was late, much to late, to flee the “hawk claws”. The “German Thunder” rolled his way and arrived. Volozhin stood on the eve of a bloody disaster, of such a calamity that never happened during the human history. Nobody among the Volozhin Jews could imagine the catastrophe's magnitude and the atrocities that would soon happen. There was a felling, an intuition, that something is coming, but nobody thought that this “something” would be the end of the days. No, nobody raised a similar, hopeless reflection. The existence seemed to be tranquil in a strange manner. Although, the Jew-haters turned around and they did whatever they did, but in their ugly deeds our Volozhin brothers could not see the coming on horrible future, the German assassins band, the main actors company that would play the true game, the TOTAL destruction game of the Volozhin Jewry.

When I left the town and said farewell to my mother and all my friends I had in mind the “Farewell” of our great Poet Hayim Nahman Bialik, and I repeated his words at our separation: “Rest in peace clay houses, beggars dwellings, leaking roofs and broken walls, sinking in dust until belly. Peace on you all, and best regards to the last of lasts, to the lowest among you, to the weakest tent”.

At midnight on my way back to Eretz Israel many people crowded together near my bus. They said goodbye with tearing eyes. They wished each other to meet in Eretz. I see the sorrowful looks always. I will not forget my last night in Volozhin. The separation was full with fear and with my sincere love to my dearest. What did they think at this separation? I will remember their sorrow eyes forever. My pencil is weeping in my fingers. In writing these memories, I completely admit to myself that the Volozhin Jews do not exist any more.

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vol525.jpg [30 KB]

Bela Saliternik-Kramnik; Daughter Mika, born on eve of WW1;
their 2nd daughter Tammie; Yaakov Saliternik Bela's husband. (1950)

Translator's note:

Bella Saliternik – Kramnik was born in Kurenets in 1914. At the end of World War One, after her father Michael's death, Mrs Freydl Kramnik with her daughters, 4 years old Bella and 6 months old Feygl resettled in Volozhin, where mother Freydl established and managed a clothing store. Bella was part of the first students in the Volozhin Tarbut Hebrew School and has been involved in the Betar movement activities. In 1932 Bella accomplished her aliya to Erets Israel. She made many efforts to provide an Aliya visa for her sister Feygl, but without success. In 1935 Bella was married to Yakov Saliternik. A Year later, when pregnant, she decided to give her baby's birth in her mother's home. She made her long journey by ship and train to Volozhin where Mika was born.

Bella's home in Tel Aviv became a second home for many of the Volozhin Shoa survivors during their first years of their life in the fighting for independence Israel. The family warmly and very friendly welcomed me with my arriving and immediate enlisting in the IDF. In Saliternik's home took place some new coming Volozhiner's marriages (Feygl Shepsnvoll, Yakov Kagan and others). Bella stays now in Hayfa after successive deaths of her daughter Mika and husband Yaakov.

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