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[Page 157]

Our family in the shtetl

Although many years have passed since I left my shtetl, nonetheless everything still remains alive in my memory: the shtetl, the landscape, the surroundings, the people. Childhood stamps its impressions for ever.

Vysotsk, as it names implies, is situated high above its surroundings. It seemed like a tiny island among rivers and rivulets. There were many pleasant corners in the shtetl and nearby. You only needed to cross the Goy street and there was the rushing river Horyn, with green hills and fresh trees and meadows on the other side. You walked on a bit and saw the rivers kissing, merging with one another and raging. And forests spread for kilometres. In the forests there were berries. In the summer, in those long days, they would go out in groups to pick the berries from which they would make jam.

From the window of my house, which stood at the end of the street, I could see the landscape all around. Sometimes it seemed to me that some gifted and talented artist, rich in imagination, had drawn this landscape. There were four rivers and four strips of grass about a kilometre apart from each other. The landscape had been partly shaped by man. People had built bridges over the rivers and planted avenues of trees between them.

In your walks it was always a pleasure to follow these avenues again and again. It would all change and renew itself according to the seasons of the year. In spring the meadows were flooded. In front of you were sky and water. Only black dots were to be seen in the distance. These must have been the shacks where the peasants lived on the other side of the streams. In winter the boundary between water and land was blurred, everything turned into an enormous area of ice and snow, everything was clothed in white, including the straw roofs of the houses. In spring the snow would melt, blocks of ice began to burst and shift.

I remember one spring when we - a group of children - watched the adults standing on the bridges. They were holding iron bars and pitchforks with which they were pushing the enormous blocks of ice away from the bridges to prevent the bridges being uprooted. Hour after hour the battle continued. Blocks of ice approached the bridges, and the people pushed them away. But then suddenly some large blocks of ice charged and raged, uprooting one bridge on top of the people standing on it.Pushed by the blocks of ice, it carried them with the stream. We stood rooted to the spot for hours until we saw the people returning safely in the boats that had gone to their aid.

How could we not remember the summer mornings, the time for women of the shtetl to take the cows on to the street and wait for

The Kortach family: the father Leyb, the mother Rivka, Chaya and Rivka

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the herdsman to collect them and take them to pasture. And towards evening the time for the herds to come back, herds of all sorts, cows, horses and pigs, surrounded by clouds of dust.

And so life flowed past, silently, monotonously, weekdays and holidays. Every festival had its customs, the same festive food year in year out. Families with many children, if we want to compare what is normal on a kibbutz [in Israel] – a day nurse for every four children – every mother in the shtetl was equivalent to a nurse for two groups of children. In our family there were four children. This was considered a small family.

I don't think it would be an exaggeration to see our family as a typical example of many Jewish families in exile. Father was called up to the army when the four of us were at a very young age. Mother summoned up all her strength to raise us without any feeling of privation. She did all she could to make sure there were no clouds over our childhood. For five years, patiently and with understanding, she managed to raise four small children by herself, although Grandmother also helped her to the best of her ability.

For four years Father was in German-Austrian captivity. He was at the front for almost a whole year, enduring hellish sufferings on the Russian front. In addition to that, as a Jewish soldier he had his fill of hatred and humiliation. Assistance given by the state for the family, for the wife and for the children was minute in the extreme. Our shop was also plundered in the pogroms and robberies in the shtetl.

At the end of the war Father returned and here he was, badly wounded. His hair had turned white. He had to start everything from scratch and he was already tired from the years of suffering in the war. Like all the Jews of the shtetl our family endured the hellish torments of the murderous gangs that sprang up after the war. All the dark impulses found release in persecution and pogroms against Jews. The gangs had various names – Petlurovtzy[442] and Belkhovtzy and so on. One Sabbath a Belkhovetz soldier 'made himself at home' in our house. He brought his horses into the cowshed, turned the house upside down, searching in every corner, constantly


Grandmother Minke Kortach


talking about killing and slaughtering Jews. Grandmother, who was by nature brave, dared to answer him that death would not pass anyone by. To that he replied scornfully saying 'Death is only child's play compared with the bitter fate that's waiting for the Jews'. At the same time he showed he had some humanity when he advised us to leave the house and hide.

Indeed, on the Sunday a group of Belkhovtzy arrived. Immediately shouts were heard in the shtetl. We managed to leave the house and hide with one of the Germans who lived near the shtetl. In those days they were on friendly terms with the Jews (by the way, they said that in the period of Hitler's rule they turned into devoted Nazis). At the German's place we met the Ratner family. Together we hid in the loft of the stable where mice and rats were scurrying around. Then we hear the stamping of hooves, a horse galloping. We hold our breath. They will discover us and then what will happen? But our host comes at the right moment and manages to

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convince the hooligans that there are no Jews here. Once the hooligans had departed our host comes back to us and says: 'Jews have been beaten! Ayznberg has been murdered and they are now looking for Beylke's father…' These were terrible times which I shall always remember.

One memory chases another. In my head are echoes of one Kol nidrei[443] prayer. This was at the time when authority in our area passed from one side to the other, from the Russians to the Poles and back again. Our family and the Khover and Kolkovsky families together hired one of our 'Goy' friends to guard us, the children. Through the windows we saw gangs of soldiers roaming. Then they banged on our door. The terror grew, but we did not give in to it. It seems they were in a hurry and they went away! We were tense and fearful. The Goy 'guard' had meanwhile disappeared. Suddenly we hear sounds of crying and lament from the synagogue… We heard afterwards that soldiers, members of the gangs, had entered with their horses the synagogue - and on the Day of Atonement of all days!

I remember how,during the long winter evenings on a Sabbath or on festivals, we would all of us sit together at the table around the warm stove. Father would tell about various events from the time when he was at the front or in captivity, tell of the hard, crushing labour, about the various strange humiliations, about the sufferings inflicted on him as a Jew by his fellow prisoners. But all the horrors of the war did not succeed in eradicating his kindness. He was an honest, good-hearted man. His good-natured laughter never left him.

On that bitter day, the 27th day of Elul 5702 [Sept. 1942] Mother, Father and Grandmother and my young sister, Chaya, were killed, along with people of the shtetl, hundreds of brother Jews. It seems clear that Vysotsk, itself afflicted and hungry, took in hundreds of fellow Jews from the nearby shtetls in their distress. These Jews were housed in shtetl homes and also shared their food. Father, not for nothing, was always proud of the common folk of Israel. During the war years of suffering and captivity mutual help thrived among the Jews. Everywhere a great deal of fraternal help was given to the Jewish prisoners. Father said that as soon as they came to the German frontier a Jewish delegation was already there, waiting for them at the first station, ready to offer help to the Jewish prisoners. Throughout all the years of imprisonment the care offered by fellow Jews encouraged them and gave them relief. We, the children, learned and understood his stories about the help given by fellow Jews. From these stories we also absorbed a love of the Jewish people and of mankind.

May their memory be gathered in our life for ever

  Lea Kortach-Baharav
Ramat HoKovesh


  1. Followers of Symon Petlura(Petlyura), born in 1879, a Ukrainian nationalist who became head of the government of the short-lived Ukrainian National Republic (1919-1921). Jews held him responsible for the wave of pogroms. He was assassinated in Paris in 1926. return
  2. Prayer recited at the start of the Day of Atonement return

[Page 160]

At home and in the shtetl

I remember a low tottering house. Windows sunken almost to the ground. A warm stove. Next to it a low wooden bench. On one cold winter day I am standing on the bench next to the stove. Mother is dressing me. Then suddenly the door opens. A man of short stature, wrapped in a long military coat, wearing a Russian hat and carrying a military haversack on his back, comes into the house with a surprising 'Good morning'. This was my father.

For four years he had been in the war, in the First World War. I was only a few months old when he left the home and the family and went wherever he was ordered to by the Russian Tsar. Here he was coming home, healthy, unharmed. But I, four years old, didn't recognise him at all.

These post-war years were extremely difficult. This was a time of hunger, pogroms and persecution. Gangs roamed in the shtetls and on the roads, killing and robbing. Various military groups, one after the other, were constantly attacking our shtetl. They stayed in the Jewish homes, terrorising and frightening the inhabitants.


Grandmother Basya Fialkov


I remember three such soldiers. Even their names I remember: Abel, Pushkrov and Nikolai. These were actually good soldiers, helping us in every way they could at that difficult time.

Then a soup kitchen (paid for by the 'Joint'[444]) opened in the shtetl. Children of the shtetl would stream towards it, morning and evening, in order to get a portion of bread and a mug of cocoa. I remember when I received a piece of white bread for the first time. It was the first white bread I had seen in my life. It was so strange for me that I threw it on the ground as something useless.

As has been said, this was a time of pogroms and fear in the shtetl and in the whole area. Gangs would attack the shtetl, enter the houses, look around, search and rob. One evening a member of a gang tied his horse to the fence of our house, came into the house and asked for my father. My father was then hiding in the loft and while the gang member was weighing up the situation his horse got free. Our 'visitor' ran after him. This is how we were saved that morning.

I remember one particular night of horror when a group of Belkhovtzy settled in the shtetl. Their only demand was boots for their people and fodder for their horses. In order to sew boots for the gang all the shoemakers of the shtetl gathered in the house of one of the shoemakers whose name was Zelig Asher. He was one of our neighbours. At the same time the house served as a refuge for Jews seeking shelter from the hooligans. The house was filled with men, women and children, sitting, lying on the floor in a huddle, waiting for dawn and for the hooligans to go away. Towards dawn they indeed got their boots and departed. We all were relieved.

This was a time not only of hunger and fear; it was also a time of hope and lofty inspiration, of the Russian Revolution and the Balfour Declaration[445]. As in all

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the shtetls of the neighbourhood, the youth in our shtetl were also roused to ambitions and to Zionist activity. A Zionist club house was established. It was in Binyamin Shnayder's house, next to ours. We, the children, would sneak slowly into it, crowd around the door and look in amazement. A blue and white flag, a picture of Herzl, Hebrew slogans and then also gatherings, speeches, memorial eulogies etc. The People of Israel, Eretz Israel, Hebrew, a new life. Everything inflames the imagination, awakening dreams and ambitions…

Then came the Fourth Aliyah[446], the high tide of immigration to the Land. Many residents of the shtetl, among them those who were ' simply' Jews, go to the Land. Echoes reach us. The Land is being built, there is work, there is a new life. The awakening in the shtetl grows. There arises a branch of HeKhalutz and in its wake the Khalutz HaTzair. They go off for training. The first pioneers make aliyah.

But then came a crisis of the Fourth Aliyah and with it came Yerida[447] from the Land. Also some of the residents from our shtetl came back. The pioneering Zionist spirit in the shtetl also declined and the misnagdim[448] gained the upper hand. They were many and varied. Parents, Bundists, Communists joined forces to ridicule the 'pioneers' and fight them with all ways and means. But at the same time the Khalutz HaTzair was organised again. The pioneering aliyah grew with the renewal of the Fifth Aliyah[449]. Younger age groups joined the branch of HeKhalutz HaTzair. In the branch they were called 'the young ones'. After a short time, when the 'older ones' went off for training, they took over responsibility and continued the chain.

The heart pines when it recalls a vibrant life that was cut off and is no more, extended Jewish families that were torn out and destroyed, my father, my brother and my two sisters who were wiped out in the great Shoah.

My father was a simple Jew, a carpenter by trade, with a pleasant temperament. Everybody loved him.


The Fialkov family (1939)

From the right, standing: Feygl, Arie, Teybl and Aaron-Shmuel;
Sitting: Gitl and Anshl (Arie was on a visit from Eretz Israel)


He was always ready to offer help to others, even to a 'Goy'. He lived a hard life, working a long day, from dawn till dusk. The majority of the weekdays he would be working in the villages with 'Goys'. On Fridays he would return home and bestow on us, the children, a good spirit. He did not know anger, he did not scold us. Everything was done with a smile, without complaint.

[Page 162]

I shall always remember my brother and my two sisters. My sister Teybl, 22 years old, went off for training to a kibbutz in Lodz. She knew how to cook, to mend. These were her occupations during training. How she longed to come to the Land. She was indeed already on the threshold of aliyah when the war broke out. She moved to Vilna to the training kibbutz, to the centre of pioneers intending to make aliyah. From Vilna she moved to Lithuania to the training kibbutz in Shavli[450]. With the outbreak of the Russo-German war she went with the wanderers and they did not see her again.

My brother Aaron Shmuel, 19 years old, finished his studies and helped Father in his carpentry work, bearing the burden of earning a living for the family. He engaged in a lot of sport. In his childhood he would sneak off from the house to the river bank to fish. Mother worried about him because he was skinny and thin. I would go out to look for him at the edge of the river and found him immersed in what he was doing. Afterwards he grew tall and became a strong young man, working and bearing the burden.

But suddenly the axe came down on him, as on all his friends in the shtetl. He went off with the column to his death. When they were passing close to the river there a commotion broke out among the column and many began to escape. He, Aaron Shmuel, was among them. They ran to the river Horyn. With all their might they tried to swim to the other side of the river. But the bullets of the savage animals pursuing them hit them while they were in the river. 'Goy' witnesses reported afterwards that the river was red with the blood of those who had been shot.

Why, for what did they kill my innocent brother? And Feygele, the youngest daughter, I shall remember for ever. Feygele, 16 years old, beautiful, happy, talented, full of life and hopes. How her soul yearned for life, for happiness, for beauty, and then, on the hillock opposite the cemetery, where you and Father were holding on to each other, you were murdered and fell. From behind they shot you, the murderers, and flung you down into the ground. Mother, unconscious, with blood flowing from her head from the blows she received from the murderers' rifle butts. They thought she was dead too.

Your memory, dear ones, will remain in our hearts for ever.

  Rivka Fialkov


Basil and Moyshe Katz and their daughter Sara-Miriam


  1. American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, founded in 1914 to assist desperate Jewish communities in Palestine, the JDC was the main source of external funding for Jews in eastern Europe, including the Soviet Union, between the wars. During the Second World War the JDC saved many thousands of Jews and assisted displaced Jews following the war return
  2. On 2 November 1917 British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour wrote to Lord Rothschild, a leader of the British Jewish community, confirming that the British government favoured the ‘establishment in Palestine of a national homeland for the Jewish people’ return
  3. During the period of the Fourth Aliyah (1924-1929) 67,000 Jews arrived in Palestine, the majority from Poland return
  4. Return from Eretz Israel return
  5. Orthodox opponents of Chassidism (Hebrew: mitnagdim) return
  6. During the decade 1929-1939 almost 250,000 Jews went to Palestine, many of them professionals from Germany return
  7. Now Šiauliai, the fourth largest city in Lithuania, 142 km from Kaunas and 210 km from Vilnius return

[Page 163]

A memorial to my ancestral home

My mother Rakhel, daughter of Reb Zalman, and her daughter (our sister) Feygl. In all it was a family of six. The sons Israel and Zalman made aliyah to Eretz Israel.

With the outbreak of the war nothing further was heard from them. The father of the family, Reb Asher son of Reb Yakov, was sent away to a land of exile by the Soviets. Nothing further was heard of him. Itzhok, the young son of the family, also went, as a conscript into the Soviet armies. He disappeared without trace[451]. Mother and daughter, the two of them, lost their lives for being Jewish. The loved ones, the modest ones, were not separated from each other even in death.


The Gutman family

Sitting, right to left: Asher Gutman, his wife Rachel, Grandmother Lea Lopata, Israel Gutman;
Standing: Zalman and Feygl Gutman, Gitl (Moyshe's daughter) Lopata, Itzhok Gutman


Mother, Mother, who did not know your kindness? Who was not enchanted by your beauty when it was at its most radiant? How beautifully you treated other people, how generous was your charity. How devoted you were to your children.

Some days before I made aliyah you said to me while we were sitting together in the yard: ('Look, my son, here is the hen picking on the head of her chicks who grew up in order that they will leave her for independence. But I am not picking on your heads…') - although she was not against my aliyah to the Land.

Feygl, our good, devoted sister, where did your youth go? In one of the letters you wrote to us in the good days: 'I sorted all the domestic business and I think I can already go …'

Dear Father! Where is your place in the world? Your parents cherished you as their only son. They did not grudge paying Kheykl the Kleyzmer[452] from Olivsk[453] to teach you to play the fiddle. Until you were middle-aged you would play traditional Jewish wedding tunes at the end of Sabbath. How did they take you away

[Page 164]

for ever?! To my question the rov answered that in the prayer Yizkor[454] you do not say the words 'that they go to the world to come'. And you, Ichile, what was your fate in the Soviet army? There is no voice and no answer. Only the heart is forever grieving, till the end of days…

And how did you, Grandmother Leah, go to your death? Every Sabbath you were surrounded by sons, daughters and grandchildren saying Shabbes sholem[455]. On the eve of every Yom Kippur[456] you used to try on your shrouds, which were ready, before lighting candles of the holy day. How did all of you go, Uncle Moyshe son of Reb Zalman, and his family, Uncle Dovid Leyb son of Reb Zalman and his family, Uncle Yakov son of Reb Zalman and his family, Aunt Pesil daughter of Reb Zalman and Uncle Nakhum son of Reb Zalman and his family. How is it that all of you were suddenly destroyed?

May their souls be gathered in eternal life

  Israel and Zalman Gutman


Nakhum Lopata and his wife Feygl (1928)


  1. In August 2006 a letter arrived in Vysotsk from a voluntary organisation in St. Petersburg concerned with the recovery and official reburial of soldiers’ remains (Общественный Фонд «Поисковых Отрядов Ленинградской Области»). The letter stated that the remains of ‘Gutman, Itzko Osherovych’ had been found in Kosye Mosty in the Tosno district of the Leningradsky province (Tosno is c.50 km. south-east of St. Petersburg) and were to be reburied on May 9th 2007 in the military cemetery in the village of Miny in the Gatchinsky district of Leningradsky province. return
  2. Musician return
  3. Olevsk, on the railway line 80 km. east of Sarny, itself c.50 km. south of Udrytsk, the nearest railway station to Vysotsk return
  4. Memorial prayer service that takes place four times a year on Yom Kippur, the last day of Sukkot, the last day of Pessach and the last day of Shavuot return
  5. 'Sabbath peace', the usual Sabbath salutation (Hebrew: Shabbat shalom)return
  6. Day of Atonement return


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