A few of us did not even want to hear what he had to say, but the majority of the villagers signed a document agreeing to the demand. Later they regretted it. Appeals were sent to every quarter, representatives traveled to Minsk and attorneys retained, but it was all for nothing. The government official didn't budge from his position: we had to pay.
In the meanwhile, twenty years have flown by.
A few days ago, the police commissioner of Hlusk came to us and declared that according to the legal verdict the debt amounts to over twenty thousand rubles.
(From "Ha-Melitz" newspaper, No. 54, in the year 1884) ["Ha-Melitz", or "The Advocate", was the first Hebrew newspaper in Russia, beginning as a weekly in Odessa in 1860, and becoming a daily by 1886 in St. Petersburg, until it closed in 1904.]
My father was a specialist in rabbinic lawsuits. Even people from other towns from Slutsk, Bobruisk, Hlusk, and other places sought him out. Christians, too the priest, the doctor and the postmaster, for example were friends with him, and guided their behavior by his opinions.
My father was very wise, possessing a strong character brimming with fine qualities. I recall how once it was the Sabbath arriving home from synagogue, he came upon his mother, dead. He made Kiddush, sang Sabbath hymns, and after the Sabbath meal, sat down to study Torah as always. Once the Sabbath was over, only then did he begin sitting shiva, and only then did he let himself mourn, crying bitter tears for his mother.
Each day he would wake up at 3:00 in the morning to sit and learn Torah. He set out the samovar, and holding a glass of boiling hot tea in his hands would warm himself as he learned his page of Gemora.
Prior to Lyuban, he was the rabbi of Shemezova.
His character was such that he looked on everyone as equals; he was very unassuming. But he was also by nature a joyful and fun-loving man. The festival of Purim at our house was a particularly happy time. The villagers would send the rabbi packets of delicacies, Purim presents, as is the custom, but with great generosity. We would dance and sing, people would drink wine and generally have a wonderful time. After just a sampling of liquor, my father would get tipsy, and then, full of mischievous, would tell joke after joke.
After some time, a second rabbi came to work in Lyuban, and that led to an on-going battle of the minds, a feud. The two rabbis would sit in the corners or on the edge of the easternmost pew, the bench closest to the Torah. My father's supporters settled themselves at the end of the pew precisely where the other rabbi sat. So my father scolded them. By the end of all this, my father emerged as the only rabbi in our shtetl. The community built him a house with seven rooms, a spacious home including one room that functioned as a court, and a meditation room.
Three synagogues existed in our shtetl: The Kalte Shul [the "Cold Synagogue," a nickname used also for a synagogue in Slutsk], the Tailors' Synagogue, and the Rich People's Synagogue [also known as the Great Synagogue].
Here are the names of some Lyuban streets: Broad Street (Breyta Gass), Narrow Street (Shmola Gass), Gypsy Street (Tsigaynersha Gass), Synagogue Street (Shul Gass), Rabbi's Lane (Dem Rovs Gessela). Trees graced Uretche and Tal Streets.
The market consisted of a variety of stores--Reb Zalmen-Borukh's dry-goods store, Basha-Malka's grocery store, and so forth. Along the market square lived the prominent people of the town: Zalmen-Borukh Dem Rov's ["The Rabbi's Son"], and Yoshiya Dem Rov's [also "The Rabbi's Son"], Moishe-Velvl, Leyb-Volf (my husband's father, may he rest in peace), Sheyna-Leya the proprietor of the mill, Yankev Katzenelson, Streletz, Itsha the Doctor, Hayim-Berl, Faytl the Pharmacist, Mordkha-Ahron the dry-goods merchant, Ahron the Writer, as well as the Post Office.
Our mother was a woman of valor in the tradition of the Good Woman of Proverbs. Among other things, she spun her own thread, baked bread, and pastries, cooked every kind of food, milked the cow, made cheese and butter.
I remember the Great Fire. Some say that the neighboring Gentiles started it. The town burned down to the ground. All that remained of our home was the copper saucepans, the samovar, and a few metal pots. Our father got himself into a wagon, rode to the towns of Uretche and Tal, and picked up bread and supplies for the people of Lyuban.
My wise father early on took notice of the boy who later became my fiancé and husband, the rabbi Professor Simkha Assaf, of blessed memory. My father grew close to him after he came from the Telz Yeshiva to be with his parents in Lyuban. Simkha Assaf would come to our home every day to study with my father. My father perceived and expressed that this young man Simkha would one day turn into an eminent sage among the Jewish people. One time, in the presence of both of us, he spoke out: "Simkha, are you agreeable to marrying my daughter Hana? That's how the match was made and sealed, with a simple verbal assent, without even signing t'noyim [engagement contract], as was customary.
Our road was a long one before we ever reached the Land of Israel. We lived for a time in Odessa, neighbors with the great poet, Bialik, may he rest in peace. My brothers, meanwhile, had emigrated to America. When my father traveled to Omaha, Nebraska, to visit his children, it was proposed to him that he stay there as rabbi and in fact receive a rabbinic contract. He wrote our mother, asking her to come, and appealed to Simkha, my husband, to take over the rabbinate in Lyuban. But nothing ever came of all this, and finally, after all kinds of metamorphoses, he immigrated to Palestine. His children in the United States purchased a house for him in Jerusalem.
He passed away at a venerable age (76 years old), with a respected name in Jerusalem the Holy City.
On the 17th day of Kislev [mid-winter] of that year we began to hear of murders in the surrounding countryside. We responded by calling a religious fast. Before the prayers were said, our rabbi went up onto the pulpit and cried out, through bitter tears, "Brothers! Terrible news! In Kuzmitz they've killed the shoykhet [kosher-meat slaughterer], and Jews in other nearby hamlets have also been murdered!"
After prayers, a committee was appointed to assess our plight. Fear of traveling prevented us from bringing the murder victims into town for proper burial. As soon as Hanukah arrived [a week later] we tried persuading the Revolutionary Commissar to order the local Christians to bring us the corpses. And it was done. They brought in the bodies and we buried them quietly. After Hanukah they brought in more murder victims from the area. The same thing happened in other villages. In every cemetery you could see freshly dug plots for martyrs.
Our above-named committee ascertained that there was only one remedy: to ask the [Soviet] regime to send soldiers to our village. The Soviets had, in fact, already dispatched two squads of military police to catch bandits and deserters. The military had commandeered the little synagogue as their jailhouse. This only provoked the Christian population and increased their hatred toward Jews. As a result, the Jews needed to endure the soldiers' presence all the more.
An investigator arrived. He sucked our blood, exacting heavy payments from us Jews, while accepting bribes to free the criminals. He often arrested innocent people, which only turned the Christians' hatred into rage.
The soldiers left before Purim, but then Jews were not safe to travel outside of the village. If extreme circumstances forced a Jew to travel into the countryside, he would be robbed or murdered. The few Jews who lived in the country were frequently attacked and killed. In the days leading up to Passover, several Jews from outside of town were murdered, and those who survived took refuge in Lyuban. However, it wasn't necessarily safe in our village, either. During the Passover seder, Jewish sentries circulated in the streets. A small watch was organized on every block. Our young people quietly supplied themselves with some weapons. Life came to a standstill. After Passover, the wealthier Jews drove out on their wagons and left the shtetl. The poorer ones didn't even have a wagon.
Just before the holiday of Lag B'Oymer [springtime], alarming rumors spread about a possible attack on the village. We had already managed to rent a wagon so that the children could be spirited off somewhere safe. But the citizens' patrol we had set up did not permit travel outside of the shtetl. They tried to reassure us, saying that soldiers and weapons from Minsk and Bobruisk had been promised and would shore up their defense. But the writing was on the wall. The Revolutionary Commissar himself had left town. From the little town of Pohost came seven mounted soldiers. We were given to understand that 40 armed soldiers were on their way, and this calmed us for the moment.
Our calm was shattered by gunshots from the other side of the river. The seven soldiers returned fire. Panic followed, with people running in every direction, not knowing where they were heading, and leaving their homes unlocked and open. We began running in the direction of Uretche, 20 versts [about 13 miles] away. The citizens' patrol sent out riders to turn us back. They explained that the shooting by the seven soldiers was designed to give the attackers the impression that our shtetl was filled with military. We all decided to head back and at least stay overnight.
All of a sudden we heard machine-gun fire. There was me, my wife (may she rest in peace), our three children, our daughter with her ten-month old infant, and my in-laws, who had come for refuge to Lyuban from a nearby hamlet. Their children were at that time in Slutsk. The streets of Lyuban were filled with screaming and chaos. People were running in every direction, stopping only to take cover. Then suddenly, a booming voice shouted [in Russian]: "Stand where you are!" And we found ourselves surrounded by bandits. They took everything we had, then confined everyone to a house. Grief-stricken, we sat and waited for death. In the background, voices, bitter cries and wailing, mixed with the roar of gunfire.
In hushed voices, we each said our Vidui [Final Confession], and made our last goodbyes to each other. At this point, without warning, two bandits broke in, and like wild animals, broke dishes, the mirror, the clock. Whatever appealed to them they took, and the rest they destroyed. As for us, they lined us up and pressed the points of their blades against our hearts, yelling: "Bring out the gold you're hiding!" We begged them to understand that we had no gold and tried the best we could to prove it to them. They didn't want to listen, and they assaulted us with the butts of their rifles. One of them took out a rope and passed it to one of the others to string up somewhere, saying he'd hang us if we didn't give them any gold. The other gangster said, "Why are we wasting our time here? Let's go find some place richer."
They left, threatening that they'd be back soon. We waited a bit, then crawled up into the attic. The poor children were shuddering and trembling from fear and from the cold. We wrapped them up in old winter things until they warmed up a little and were able to fall asleep. Meanwhile we heard the attackers breaking windows and doors, the terrified screams of victims, and the wild shrieks of the half-human criminals.
We stayed in the attic until about 10 a.m. Hearing quiet weeping, I dropped down from the attic and saw my sister-in-law, my wife's older sister. She told us: "In the synagogue the bandits carried out beatings, murder, rape. The thugs wanted to blow up the synagogue, but the church priest and other Christians prevailed upon them not to."
Not long after that, more victims appeared. Each one had his or her own story. One woman was grieving for her young son, whom they dragged from his sickbed to the synagogue, where they murdered him.
When we were sure the desperados had gone, I left the house and went out looking for our daughter and her child. As I passed by one hamlet, I saw the bodies of butchered Jews, one of whom I knew my brother-in-law. In a garden I saw one girl with a foot shot off. Terrified people were beginning to crawl out from the barns and thickets.
I went about on foot like this for several hours, coming back home exhausted and drained. I found my wife again, and both of us went out looking for our daughter until around 5 p.m. We were too frightened to stay in the house, so we spent the night in the barn of a Christian we trusted. By then our younger children were already there with us.
Suddenly more people were fleeing from the shtetl. It seems the seven soldiers sent to protect us had links with the bandits.
Meanwhile we carried some of the dead bodies to their homes, carried others to the synagogue. We helped the wounded get to various houses. Behind the village more families with small children were arriving, as well as frail elderly people. Every bush, every rustling in the woods, revealed yet another horror. As the hungry children burst into tears, it was decided: we had to hide overnight in the forest.
By luck, we found an abandoned, partly overgrown cabin in the forest. Everyone crowded in and lay down uncomfortably on the grass floor. I was worried about where we'd get water, in case we had emergency. There was no choice but for me to go to the village, about two versts away [one and one-third miles] by way of forest and field. Perhaps I would succeed in bringing back some water. A girl whose grandmother was still in the village came with me. As we emerged from the forest, we saw more people walking away from the village, others running. Whoever had their own horses, rode. For fear of the marauders, the Christians were not renting their wagons to the Jews.
When we heard that the criminals were returning, we turned back into
the forest and told the others. Everyone got up and started running, a
congregation of the damned and their little children. Along the way we
found corpses strewn on the road. As we passed one hamlet, a Christian
woman whom we knew came out and informed us that our daughter and her child
had been through there that morning. She said they'd been walking in the
direction of Uretche. Suspending our trek for the moment, we decided to
stay overnight in the nearby hamlet of Tal.
Just then a regiment of soldiers did, in fact, appear, marching along the road that led to Lyuban. With them were many who had fled our shtetl at the same time as we had. They asked after the welfare of their friends and relatives. Some of them stayed in Tal to spend the night, while others continued on in the direction of Lyuban, together with the regiment. The Jewish householders in Tal did not let any Christians into their homes. But at the far side of town there were Jewish millers who were happy to take in everyone.
Come daybreak, we left the children in the care of our hosts and returned to Lyuban to see how conditions were. In the synagogue lay many corpses, not all recognizable. Dejected and depressed, we nevertheless knew the dead had to be buried. The organizing of this job fell to me, because I had been an official of our Burial Society. The dead in the synagogue numbered 15 men and eight women. We also went around to collect victims who had been murdered in their homes. A heart-rending scene took place in every house where we had to take away a body.
Suddenly bedlam. The barbarians were back. A few soldiers had been stationed on watch, but most of the regiment had gone to the front. Many of us ran, but a number of us stayed behind. In the midst of this, our group managed to bring the eight women who were killed to the cemetery and bury them. Then part of our group rode back to get the murdered men. Some in our party did the job of carrying back the corpses, while others, including me, buried them. This continued through the day until 6 p.m. At that point we took our leave of the holy ground, and with embittered hearts headed home.
At home I found my sister-in-law, now a widow, with her orphans, who were sitting broken and crying. My hands were covered with blood from the corpses. Anguished, I went back to town to see what I could do for others who were suffering.
All this happened on the eve of the Sabbath. We conducted our Sabbath service in total darkness. The newly bereaved said kaddish [the prayer for the dead]. On all sides, new moans, new tears. Everyone attending wanted to know if the soldiers were still in the village. Sabbath morning at the synagogue felt like Tisha B'Ov [Jewish day of fasting and mourning for the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple].
The following morning, Sunday, we got up and gathered a quorum for prayers with the mourners. I tried to record entries in the Burial Society register, including information as to where each new grave was located. I soaked the register with my tears, just as I had done to the graves themselves. I went out into the street. The devastation was overwhelming. Every window was broken, every family was left with only one or two members, after the rest had been killed or fled.
So I returned to my own home. There we tried to decide what to do, because the children, whom we'd left in the neighboring hamlet, had by now been taken to Uretche. They were terrified to come home. We concluded that it really was not yet necessary to bring them back to Lyuban. Instead, I got myself ready to go to them: I gathered together clean underwear, milk, and a few other things for them.
Then, several days later, yet another worry: the soldiers were leaving, and there was fear about remaining in Lyuban unprotected. Consequently, we decided all to go where everyone else was going. By then the children had come back from Uretche; there had been an attack on a family there, too, and many people had fled in fear. It was clear that the children were languishing and weak, yet now it seemed they were going to have to summon the energy and courage to run back with us to Uretche yet again.
After a great deal of difficulty, I managed to borrow a wagon from an acquaintance. I placed my children in it, and a few others placed their children in, too. Many of the old, the sick, and the blind were forced to struggle on foot. As for the very little ones, who were being carried, their small mouths so parched and cracked, I tried to moisten their tiny lips with a drop or two of milk.
By dusk we arrived in Uretche. Terrified Jews from Lyuban and elsewhere asked us anxiously for news from home. What's happening there? What are they doing now? For my part, I at last found my daughter and grandchild, lodging with a friend of mine along with some other unfortunates. The ad hoc Refugee Committee of Slutsk was providing bread and other necessities. The hands that were given bread trembled as they took it.
That night the children lay on hard floors, while the adults sat outside
until morning. There was very little indoor space where you could sit;
Uretche was ablaze. The Poles had set it on fire before retreating. We
decided to head for Slutsk.
On the streets I came across more refugees from our shtetl. A few found friends or acquaintances they could stay with, while others slept in the synagogue. Myself, I looked for a place to stay, too, but money was always demanded up front, and I had none. Later I tried places at the edge of town. There were many wagons there, carrying Jews from Lyuban. Christians from surrounding farms and hamlets had brought these vehicles to Lyuban, and the fugitive Jews gave their last savings to rent the wagons and escape to safety in Slutsk. From the people in the wagons I learned that my daughter had done what they had done, and had managed to bring a few supplies along with her, as well.
I found my daughter. She told me that Lyuban was now completely empty of Jews. She had grabbed whatever bedding and linen she could, had locked the door, and had given the key to a Christian neighbor. She had asked the neighbor to keep an eye on our house, our cow, and our chickens.
Some acquaintances had to be persuaded to look after the few things my daughter had retrieved, because space was tight for everyone. In the end, we found a place to stay, at the edge of town. The proprietor did not ask for the rent money ahead of time. He received us in a friendly way and gave us our own room. However, there was nothing to eat. Our landlord was himself a pauper. So together we all suffered, and together we kept silent.
In the meantime, escapees were streaming into Slutsk from all the surrounding villages and hamlets. We were advised to form a Refugee Committee and the government would provide support. At the home of the town rabbi a meeting was held of all the influential people in Slutsk. Money was collected, as well as bread, provisions, and linen. In addition to that, the refugees did form their Committee, and I was part of it. A representative came from the provincial government in Minsk and registered the homeless. The procedure took many days, and during that period no provisions were forthcoming from the government. They had promised five pounds of corn meal; for the smallest children, they had previously sent wheat flour, sugar, potatoes, and salt, which was then a rare commodity. When provisions did finally arrive, officials portioned out rations to two or three people, but after that it was only by scrambling and jostling that you got anything at all.
A shelter for orphans was organized, with a limit on the number admitted. As a result of this restriction, a great deal of effort had to be devoted to running around and determining which children needed to be given priority.
Since there wasn't room in the shelter for all the orphans, people had to be convinced to take some of them into their homes.
Myself, I made a habit of visiting the hospital where the pogrom's wounded
lay. Each time I walked home from there, I was tormented by anxiety over
where to get food. This is how I lived for almost a month, partly hungry,
partly sick, and entirely consumed by heartache.
When the hooliganism started, they decided to move to Slutsk. They took a few things with them this was a Wednesday and returned to get more, intending to be back in Slutsk before Saturday. Friday went by, Saturday, Sunday, and still they hadn't come back. I was preparing to set out to urge them to come back when I felt someone's hand on my shoulder. It was a woman I knew who had relatives in Starova. She broke down in tears, saying, "Have you heard what has happened in Starova? The marauders were there tonight. To my question as to what exactly did happen, she answered that she didn't actually know the details. I felt she was keeping something from me. Later she did reveal that a nephew of mine had been brought from there to Slutsk, wounded.
I sought out my nephew, and when I found him I took him to the hospital. He was no more than 17 years old, horribly beaten up, his teeth knocked out. In anguish he told me his story: he had been staying overnight at a neighbor's. In the middle of the night the bandits fell upon the village, bludgeoning everyone, including himself, stealing everything from the houses. He said that when he had recovered enough from his assault to move, he made his way home. There he saw all the windows broken, his father sitting immobile with serious injuries, his mother and sister dead.
During my nephew's account, some Christians from Starova arrived and reported that there were 14 murdered people there, among them my sister and her daughter, and many, many wounded, including my brother-in-law. Many of us wanted to go there, but we were intimidated. Instead we went to the authorities to beg for more soldiers who could bring us back the dead and the wounded.
This was on the 20th day of Sivan [late spring, early summer], a date infamous in our bloody history. Escorted by 10 soldiers, we entered Starova. The sun was almost setting, and the soldiers were pressing us to be quicker in gathering up the bodies. The windows had all been smashed with boards. My sister's house was locked. I went looking for the key and found the friend who had kept it hidden. I entered the house with him. In horror I saw my sister, lying in a pool of blood, my two-year old niece dead in a second room. I stood there like a man deranged no sounds came from me, and no tears.
They led me out of the house, directing me to sit in a wagon where a body lay. When we set out, the wagon bore other bodies, and I understood that I was traveling with my saintly sister. The cart drivers brought the bodies to the grounds of the Old Folks' Home, unhitched the horses, and headed home. As for me, I stood frozen next to the wagons.
At dawn the watchman found me. He told me to come in and lie down, to get some rest. From somewhere behind him I could hear snatches of screaming and wailing by the victims' relatives. The wounded had been led away earlier for help elsewhere. In a few hours, the grounds of the Old Folks' Home were overflowing with people. The cries and screams were too much to bear.
Special arrangements for the funerals were decided on by Rabbi Meltzer [eminent head of the Great Yeshiva of Slutsk] and the community leaders.We would gather at the Shuleff [courtyard shared by the five main, adjacent, synagogues] and from there proceed as a cortege to all the major government departments to protest their complicity in the spilling of Jewish blood. They had given us no arms for self-defense and they knew we had none of our own. We would bring the dead bodies with us in the same carts with which we had retrieved them. All stores and businesses would be closed. We demonstrated at every government institution.
When we arrived later at the cemetery, there were eulogies, wailing, and screams.
The burials were done by family. In one Starova household, eight people had been murdered: father, mother, daughter, son-in-law, three grandchildren, and a tutor. The interments continued on until nightfall.
From the cemetery I went straight to the hospital. My nephew [must have been in shock, for he] was still inquiring about his mother and sister. I told him that they had been wounded and were in another hospital. My brother-in-law, meanwhile, lay unaware of his surroundings or himself. They did not permit water to be given to him. He didn't speak for two weeks and even after that he didn't recognize me. Every day after saying kaddish, I would go to visit the wounded in the hospital. In the end, my nephew, too, was liberated from his suffering. We brought him to where he would join his father, his mother, his grandfather, his grandmother, his sister and brother, though not in one grave.
During all this time, the hunger at our house was getting worse. When
any of us would come across someone we knew, usually as afflicted as we
were, the two would talk it out and quietly have a cry together.
Some time later, I began to hear rumors that there might be a prayer service on the Sabbath in Lyuban. In my own family, there was no one I could travel there with. The children were too young, my wife too weak. As for myself, I was terribly apprehensive. All this notwithstanding, my wife and the children did risk going back to Lyuban for very brief visits, to obtain a little milk from our cow, vegetables from our garden. This food did not go very far. Consequently, I looked for my own ways to make ends meet, to improve our circumstances. The committees had by then terminated their support. Those individuals who had been lending money were now deferring their loans, saying, "Tomorrow," or, "Maybe later on," to the point where it was loathsome to go to them.
I felt I had no choice but to face the danger of crossing the border into Poland. From there I would seek help from relatives in America. It was painful separating from my family. But deprivation can crack iron, and what deprivation is greater than hunger? I didn't have a penny for the journey, however a friend lent me five banknotes of 500 rubles each, and I prepared myself to go.
On the 12th of Tamuz [mid-summer], I left Slutsk and made my way to a small town just inside the border, seeking a way to cross over into Poland. I attached myself to a group which was in the business of spiriting people across the border. Two days of hiding, then a full night of running through forests, across fields, in and out of swamps and ditches. Despite all this, after what we'd lived through and what was yet needed, nothing seemed too difficult. At long last, on the 18th of Tamuz, we landed in a little Polish town hungry, parched, and terrified. But safe. To the wretched, homeless souls who were already sojourning there, came a new crop of wretched and homeless, and among them, Binyomin Wolfson of Lyuban.
On the afternoon of May 25, a reconnaissance platoon of seven soldiers on horseback, from the 21st Frontier Brigade, rode into Lyuban. They were on their way to Pliusnya. In Lyuban they intended to meet up with an infantry detachment of 60 men, whose equipment included a machine-gun. Evening fell and the detachment had still not arrived in Lyuban, so the cavalrymen had to spend the night there.
The peasants in the district were by then covertly passing the word on to Jews known to them that bandits were in the vicinity of Lyuban and that an attack was imminent. Obviously, we all wanted to believe and hope that help would arrive quickly. We dispatched a deputation to the battalion in Pustin, near Uretche, as well as one to the 21st Brigade in Slutsk. But no help came. The panic in our shtetl increased. A group organized for self-defense never slept, and every night they were on their watch from the Great Synagogue. The cavalrymen were quite pleased with this; they shared their password with us, then went off to sleep!
As soon as I ran out of the synagogue, I was immediately overwhelmed. What I saw was a horrifying attack; the gang was vicious. Thoughts began flying through my mind: I tried to think of something that would delay the marauders, so that all those who were fleeing would have time to escape. A few friends were also standing there with me. One of them had a rifle, but he wasn't able to shoot.
I grabbed the rifle from him and found a way to make it work. I fired five shots, but that was all the ammunition there was. In the market square there was shouting: "Ura, ura, sdavayesya!" ["Hey, you there! Give yourselves up!"] I ran behind the Tailors' Synagogue and through the Rabbi's Alley. I saw countless people running, as if they were a single body. At this point, a friend gave me another supply of bullets. I loaded the rifle and fired four more rounds. Then I heard, not far off: "Surrender!" Two of the hooligans had run into the alley. Still, they seemed fearful of trying to catch us [because of our rifle]. Their companions called out to them: "Hey, boys! Over here!" Three more bandits had appeared.
However, by then we were already on Gypsies' Street. Again we encountered a hail of bullets. The street was swarming with bandits. Through a yard we managed to escape to a field at the edge of the shtetl. A whole army of bandits was chasing after us. Heavy shooting persisted, while the sound of a single voice could be heard wailing inside our shtetl.
Bit by bit, through cultivated fields, forest, and muck, we emerged onto the road to Uretche. Even here a trace of gunfire followed us. But the danger was now not as intense. I came upon a large party of fugitives--old people, women, girls, small children. They were running in silence, and only sporadically did a few of them speak, to ask whether we'd seen their loved ones among those who had escaped.
One father was considering leaving his child in the ryefield and continuing the flight on his own. But the child cried inconsolably. The father picked the child up again and carried him further, then decided to leave him in the field after all. He was tortured by bitter regrets.
At one point along the way there was an old man spread out, lying on the road. No wound was visible. It turned out that he had died running. A long red ribbon extended across the road [presumably to demarcate a respectful space for the deceased].
The sun was already high in the sky. We headed for a group of farmhouses. Milling around the gates of the houses were groups of peasant women, wringing their hands, evidently not knowing what to do. Their husbands stared at us anxiously and questioningly. Lying on the porch of one Jewish house there was a wounded man. He begged us to help him. One of the Christians who had accompanied us in our escape, the Red Army soldier Borodeyev, tried to procure a horse from the leader of the farm community, so as to take the wounded man away for help. The answer was: "We don't put ourselves out for those who are ahead, only for those who are underprivileged." We ran on.
By 7:30 in the morning we were in Uretche. I telegraphed Slutsk, Bobruisk and Minsk to notify them about the attack.
Half of Lyuban was there in Uretche. Everyone was running up to me asking about a father, mother, sister, brother. Heart-rending cries filled the air. A few people kissed each other, others broke down in mournful weeping. Everyone was depleted, everyone was depressed. A large percentage of the refugees had no idea of the whereabouts of their parents or children. Great numbers of people were heading for Slutsk. Myself, I was feeling beaten down and deeply pained. Clumsily, I stumbled into a house and fell immediately into a deep sleep. On the morning of Friday the 28th, I went back to Lyuban.
In Lyuban very few people were left. The hooligans had driven some 200 Jews into the synagogue men, women, and children. Then they picked out the prettier and younger girls, 17 and 18 year olds, dragged them to the women's section in the balcony of the synagogue, and in the most vicious manner raped them. The cries of the girls tore at us to get out of our confinement. Everyone in the sanctuary fought the bandits with sticks or carriage whips. When the "Captain" entered the synagogue it suddenly got quiet. He went up onto the Torah platform and demanded that we provide him, as ransom for the girls, the sum of 1,000,000 gold rubles in cash, twenty pounds of silver, 10 pounds of gold, 80 pairs of boots, and 500 pairs of undergarments all by 10 o'clock in the morning. And with that, he picked out three older Jews and made them responsible for collecting this astronomic sum.
The ransom was obviously too steep, impossible to come up with. In the end, those who could, resorted to redeeming their daughters individually. Others borrowed up to several thousand rubles in cash from the Russian Orthodox priest and in this way were able to buy their daughters back.
They killed on the road one of those they had delegated to collect the ransom an old man. After a while the "Captain" again came into the synagogue and said, "You can all thank your village's priest and his wife! If not for them we would have incinerated you and your synagogue together! The viciousness and cruelty of these cutthroats cannot be described.
Another of the bandits got up on the Torah platform and gave orders for us all to be gone in half an hour. Then the bandits went back to the high school, where they spent time with the director, Yasenov, with the village doctor, and with other Gentiles. Above all they were especially kind to the priest. Before they left they burned down Volispolkom's house. And the "Captain expeditiously dumped Volispolkom's briefcase on a table in the synagogue, with all its important documents.
By 11 a.m. they left, back through the hamlets of Shipilovitsh and Yurkovitsh, back to the forests and their farms.
Astonishingly, we were able to come and go without interference, to
and from Lyuban, and to let everyone know we were not harmed. This included
our dear father, our beloved mother, Hayim, Tsipoira, Hava and her two
children, and our other relatives and friends, to whose names we must now
add, "May they rest in peace." But the joy of our cherished parents was
not to last long, for very soon the bloody agenda of the German murderers
was set into motion, in collaboration with their dogs, the Russian police,
who played a substantial role in the doom of Lyuban's Jews.
At the beginning of August, 1941, a German "Punitive Battalion" [of the Einsatzgruppen] captured over 200 Jewish men and murdered them in pits near [the village of] Kastiuki. Of those who had not been captured, no one believed that these men had been murdered. In fact, when the pits were exhumed the next morning, no one recognized any of the victims, and people assumed that our men had merely been taken away on work detail. It should be understood that none of the exhumed bodies were turned over.
The remaining men in Lyuban, including my dear father, Berl, stayed in hiding. They did not dare be seen by those evil eyes. Day after day, they would stay in deep holes in the ground where not a ray of sun could penetrate. Such an irony! In effect, they had buried themselves alive. They would barely hold on until nightfall when they could come out and catch their breath briefly, then seclude themselves again in their burrows like moles.
Obviously, hope and the will to live were great. The first day of this,
in August, Yankev the shoykhet [ritual meat slaughterer], Heshl the Torah
tutor, another shoykhet from Poland, and many others, did not survive.
All of us in the village were convulsing in fear, because the Germans,
and their Russian dogs, were endlessly making their "inventories," taking
the last of our measly possessions and food, and beating us mercilessly.
With a single word, each new day was made more unbearable than the last,
in our short, accursed lives
And the days passed, and those who survived lived to see the most obscene of the assassins' bloody acts. They forced all the Jews to gather in the ghetto, which was set up in the finest streets of our shtetl, behind the market square. Hayim and I moved in to the home of Hertzl, Yidl's son. (He, himself, had perished by then.) They caged us in with barbed wire, and no Jew had the right to walk out of the gates.
Oh, what dark clouds were then hanging over us! It felt as if the sun had forever abandoned us and how right we were. For us, the damned, the sun never rose again. The severity of our living conditions intensified unabated, but Jews were nevertheless forced to go to work. A local Jewish merchant, Borukh Malin (you may remember him), had to take on all Jews as employees.
Under those circumstances, it was difficult to hide. But even
this didn't last long.
On November 8, my beloved father and Uncle Yisroel perished, along with 50 other Jewish men and boys. Even now I can picture my father, completing his prayers, and with a morsel of bread in his mouth. His features at that moment are etched in my memory forever, for this was the last time I saw him.
November 8 was a Sabbath. The cries of "Shma Yisroel" [a key Jewish prayer; recited by observant Jews who know they are about to die] still ring in my ears today. I don't understand how you couldn't hear, or how Heaven could stay silent and not see, such merciless acts of savagery.
I find it very difficult to write about these things. Perhaps it is altogether too early to be telling about them. For one thing, I don't even know who will read these terrifying accounts. I want to believe that my dear grandmother, my uncles Yoisef and Lipa, along with my aunts and their children, and Motl, Hayim's son, with his wife and children, are alive and are waiting to hear a few words from us. I don't want to acquiesce to dark thoughts. We have been punished enough And so, for their sakes, permit me to continue.
My dear ones! After the horrific tragedy, Lyuban was enveloped in depression. From one day to the next, people waited for death. There was no longer any possibility of bearing our grief, and to expect a swift deliverance we had no right. Every day that we survived only brought the anticipated death closer. Our life was so oppressive that death became that much dearer and more urgent. We thought of death as a remedy, thanks to which we could be liberated from our anguish. That was the attitude of most of us, consequently we bore every punishment, every inflicted tax and burden, every murderous assault, quietly and without protest.
Escaping from Lyuban was impossible. First, there was nowhere to run to. Jews had no safe haven. Secondly, for every Jew who escaped they murdered 100 others. With just a word from our torturers, we had to accept our "pay" duly. But I'll have to break off from writing now; it's too much.
My dearest ones! I fancied that all of our troubles, all of our torments
until now, were no torments at all. Only in this way, despite terror and
starvation (they did not allow us to keep more than a few days of food
rations at a time), could we survive for almost a month following the death
of my father. Hayim was then still alive. Thursday, December 4, at 11 o'clock
in the morning, another "Punitive Battalion" of the criminals rode into
Lyuban. Following that, not a single Jew was left
Jews perished by the hundreds, suffering terrible deaths. Shot in their sickbeds, buried alive Those who lay face up from their graves and watched, petrified, those whose eyes waited for the murderers to cover them with earth their last breaths were of air that was humid with Jewish and non-Jewish blood.
[After the war] I returned again to Lyuban. I was told with even greater detail what had happened there, and I went to the ground where over 1,000 people lay. The place was filled in with grass, but here and there you could still see a tattered rag. The field is behind the shtetl as you go toward the valley, by the path, along the Gromica [River?].
It seems that after the barbarous pogrom, a few Jews were saved, but they, too, died during two and a half years of homelessness and wandering. My beloved mother, Hava, and I all clung together in the same locality, deep in the swamps (of Zahalia). The Germans seldom went there. Partizans dwelled there, leading an oppressive, a terrible, existence.
Among the partizans there were a few Jews left. The horrible times had taken their toll on them. Their last shred of hope had gone, though obviously, when the Red Army launched a counter-offensive in the summer of 1943, hopes rose again and spirits were more buoyant. But the front came to a standstill in January of 1944 near Mozyr, that is, not far from Lyuban, and then our situation grew even worse. With the front close to us, Germans and their police [accomplices] were rife in every hamlet and throughout the forest. We had to leave the farmhouse we'd been using and live in the mud. You have to realize that from February 1944 until the arrival of the Red Army on June 30, we did not see a single house. We survived in the open air, pelted by the snow and rain. Even this would have been tolerable, if the Germans had left the bog alone. Picture 2,300 dogs surrounding the Zahalia swamp, with every farmhouse and every bush held by the enemy.
And it was here I experienced my worst moment. We lost our devoted mother forever. A German sentry post had noticed us and opened fire. As we found out later, our mother did not have time to extract her foot from a twisted root. There were so many calamities that we obviously had not protected our mother from, but it was to our everlasting sorrow that on that Wednesday, April 12, she was not right by us. Later, however much we searched for her, it was useless.
And so we were left orphans. Our mother had written and sent you a letter when we were still at the farmhouse [in the swampland]. Airplanes came and went, but they never brought a response. Many times she would say that if you had known where we were, you would have dispatched a special airplane for her. I know she wasn't wrong about you.
We had no news of Uncle Hayim and his family until we got to Lyuban, because Hayim had by then determined to hide out with a peasant he knew in Shipilovitsh. To join him would have added too much of a burden. As a result, on Saturday night, the 6th of December, we parted ways with him, forever. Last I heard, Hayim had died in a cellar from coal fumes. Tsipoira and Hava perished separately later. Exact details as to how and where, I don't know. The whole time that we lived in Lyuban, before the invasion, they had lived in our house with us, because the area around their house was always swarming with Germans.
That's all for now. I can only add that we have had letters from
our Leya, from Haya Feygl, and Simkha. Leya has had no news from
Motl after 1942. For the time being, there's also nothing from Hirshl.
Feygl and Simkha don't mention anything about him.
Taken all together, I don't know. How does one bear it? How does one keep from going mad? How can I prevent my heart from breaking?
I have found work. For now I'm a bookkeeper at the school division in Lyuban. Our homes, ours and Hayim's, have been torn down. When I'm by myself I feel depressed and lonely. There have been no additional Jews arriving back, from among the one-time residents. Besides a few evacuated families, 14 people were left. Not including Hava and me, there's Alta, daughter of Yankl the Blind, Haya Dvoira, niece of Nekha Mashegua, and the rest you don't know: Dvoira, daughter of Hayim Rukhover, Alter Mannes, Yankl Berkovits, and a few other families. Please understand that at this point we are, as it were, bare naked, barefoot, without hope of getting dressed up sometime.
It has been raining for three days non-stop. The mail is not yet functioning properly. I must close now. Forgive me for writing so much. Perhaps it seems to you that what I've written is exaggerated. I swear to you that the whole truth is more bitter still.
I can't let you go. You are now the only friends with whom we
have any hope, yet the distance between us only grows more removed.
Warmest regards from Hava and the remnant of Jews here. I await a detailed letter from you.
The head of his yeshiva predicted a great future in Torah for Katzenelson. However, this was the era of Dr. [Theodor] Herzl's trail-blazing treatises and of the First Zionist Congress, which shot through Jewish towns and villages like a meteor. Katzenelson felt that Talmud alone would not satisfy him. Among his friends he started to become an agitator for Zionism.
The supervisors of the yeshiva were opponents of the new movement. But out of respect and love for this young man, they turned a blind eye to his activities. When news of Herzl's death reached the yeshiva, however, the head of the yeshiva received the report by publicly reciting the Biblical verse, "At the loss of the wicked joy." That rebuke prompted Katzenelson to leave the Mir Yeshiva and begin studies at the Yeshiva of Lida with Rabbi [Isaac Jacob] Reines, the famous Talmudic genius, Zionist, and founder of Mizrachi [Religious Zionism].
Katzenelson studied diligently and with great success for several years at the Lida Yeshiva. But when he learned that Rabbi Hayim Tshernovitsh (also known as "Rav Tsayir", i.e., "Young Rabbi") was founding a modern, outward-looking yeshiva in Odessa, and that its teachers included Dr. Yosef Klausner [the renowned historian] and Hayim Nachman Bialik [the legendary Hebrew and Yiddish poet], Katzenelson lost no time in becoming a student there. He stayed several years, and he left his mark there.
With his completion of the "Odessa Yeshiva," Katzenelson ended his formal schooling. His plans to continue his studies were temporarily interrupted due to his marriage and a year-long trip to Palestine in 1911. With the onset of World War I three years later, his education plans were permanently shelved. On the other hand, his self-taught, "unofficial" learning continued constantly. Study from a holy book was a daily need of his. He found time for that, regardless of how busy he was with other things. His private library of over 10,000 volumes covered the walls of his home.
After the war, Katzenelson settled in Baranovitsh [west of Slutsk] (which was under Polish jurisdiction until World War II), and worked as a teacher of humanities at high school there for 20 years. He educated thousands of students, and many of them remember their captivating and devoted teacher with honor and respect. In the standards he set for his students regarding the Hebrew language, Katzenelson did not brook any compromises. His two children heard no other language spoken in the home outside of Hebrew, and were the only children in the entire Minsk Guberniya [present-day Belarus] whose only mother tongue was Hebrew. Even the Byelorussian nursemaid had to stutter her way through taking care of his children using only the few dozen Hebrew words she had managed to learn.
As for Zionism, Katzenelson devoted himself to it with all the fire in his soul. For many, many years he was chairman of the local branch of the General Zionist Organization, and was also a member of the wider General Zionist Organization ("Et Livnot "A Time to Build" a middle-class faction of the G.Z.O.; chief delegate of the Jewish National Fund; member of the Jewish community council; president of the "Oneg Shabbat" Society. In the town's Zionist-leaning synagogue, hundreds of people would gather on the Sabbath as well as during the week to hear Dovid Katzenelson deliver Torah commentary, views on issues of the day, or perspectives on Jewish history. He was almost always head speaker at any mass meeting of the town's Jewish community. As a speaker, he would communicate in a popular style, wittily injecting a familiar passage from the Talmud, or, offhandedly, something from the ancient sources which applied to the theme, in this way creating a tight, intimate connection between himself and his audience. To this day, Jews of Baranovitsh tell how Dovid Katzenelson inspired them with his discourses.
The onset of World War II found Dovid Katzenelson a broken man, due to the tragic death of his older son in Palestine. By then he was no longer a young man, and trying himself to establish residence in Palestine was a very difficult undertaking. After a great deal of struggle and grief, he finally secured part-time work at a Tel Aviv high school. He lived austerely, but did not complain about his fate.
As it happens, he was among the first to get a letter from Lyuban even before the end of the world war. His sister, running from Lyuban with a band of partizans, was notifying him about the death of their mother and another sister and her family.
Dovid Katzenelson did not live a long life. He wrestled with death for five days following a heart attack, but died on February 7, 1948 (25 Shvat 5708).
|1.||"Reb" is a title of respect, like "Mr." It does not necessarily denote a rabbi. Return|
|2.||This nickname may indicate that Katzenelson or an ancestor of his originally came from Rukhov or Rokhov. Return|
|3.||The term "minyan" was used here, in the original text. It may have been figurative, meaning simply "group," or it may have been literal, meaning "religious quorum." If it was the latter, it was unusual to find it in combination with its adjective, "Zionist." In those days Zionists were mostly secular, and the Jewish religious world was antagonistic to the idea of a modern Jewish homeland. Return|
|4.||One-room religious schools. Return|
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