SHERSHEV YZKOR BOOK – Chapter 2
OUR HOMETOWN, SHERSHEV
By Zundl Yablonovitch
I write the following lines at a time when Shershev has already been reduced to ruins, when my hometown has been destroyed. It is not the history of our Shershev. These are descriptions that live in my memory. Of course, I may have forgotten some things, or have left someone out, but this was unintentional. We are dealing here with events that took place decades ago.
Shershev, in the region of Polesie, belonged in the time of Czarist rule to the gubernye of Grodno, and to the Uyezd (district) of Pruzhany (for Polish rule was called "powiat")). The town was located at a distance of 15 kilometers from Pruzhene. It was reached by the high road that led to the Bieloviez (Bialowieza) forests. From the high road a paved road 3 kilometers long led into the town. This road was called "The Brukovke".
Shershev had approximately 2,000 inhabitants, most of them Jews.
Before the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Shershev, as has been said above, belonged to Russia. In 1915 the town was occupied be the Germans. They stayed in it until the end of the war. After 1918, the town was transferred from one authority to another; first the Bolsheviks, then the Poles, the Bolsheviks again, and/or other groups and bands. Not until the peace between Poland and Russia did Shershev belong to Poland until September 1939.
In September 1939, the Red Army occupied Shershev (as well as the whole eastern part of Poland). During the German invasion of Poland, the town was under Soviet rule until June 1941 when it was occupied by the German army. After Hitler’s defeat in 1944-45 the town was returned to Russia.
Shershev considered itself an old town. It was said to be centuries old. Shershev was built in an old-fashioned European style: wooden houses, covered with wooden tiles. Some houses, especially the peasants’ houses at the edge of the town, were thatched with straw.
The main streets were paved and had wooden sidewalks. Shershev had four main streets in the pattern of a cross. Their names were:
1. Pruzhene Street water flowed through a roy (stream) over which Bridge Street crossed. Over the small river there was a wooden bridge.
2. Kominietz Street
3. Stariveske Street
4. Beyt Chayim (Cemetery) Street
There were also smaller streets, for example Untern Dol ["beyond or beneath the valley"]. This small street looked like a valley, in the middle of a pit from which yellow sand was dug. Around this pit was a circle of houses. The older people used to say that the pit was made in the time of the Povstanye [Polish uprising] when many people were killed. Indeed, when yellow sand was dug there human bones were found.
There was also the (Heif) Yard Street that, with its lovely appearance and densely growing tree-lined avenues, beautified Shershev. This was the place for summer walks.
From the central streets, yet other small streets branched off, looking like the veins of a human body.
The "heart" of Shershev was the market, where there was also a built in stone "circle of stores", where Jewish storekeepers sat waiting for customers.
The famous great old Synagogue, built in stone, resembled a temple with its artistic architecture. Two wide and round columns, with wide, high steps at the entrance, strengthened the impression of the synagogue. Inside, one was captivated by the artistically carved Torah ark and by the wonderful paintings on the walls. These decorations were very old. Even the grandfathers did not know exactly when the synagogue had been built.
The many fires that had, at various times, destroyed the town, had spared the synagogue
One of the worst fires happened in about 1908. People wanted to smoke out the worms from the trees in the priest’s orchard. A thatched roof caught fire and a terrible conflagration ensued. More than half the town burned down. This was one of the biggest fires. Houses near the synagogue burned, but the synagogue survived.
The synagogue also stayed intact during World War I. But shortly after that war, a small fire broke out in Shul (synagogue) Street. Then the synagogue did burn. It was not rebuilt. American landsmen sent money to repair it, but the work was not carried out. With the money from America and with the help of local householders a large stone "Bet Medresh" (study house) was build near the synagogue. It was the biggest in the town. This was where the town community meetings and gatherings were held.
Apart from this Bet Medresh, Shershev also possessed others: Reb Eyzhe's Bes Medresh, the Rabbi’s Bet Medresh, the New Bet Medresh and the Hasidic Bet Medresh.
The Jewish community also owned a "Hekdesh" (a kind of lodging for poor travelers), a town bathhouse and a rabbi’s house.
Of religious officers, we had a judge, a shochet (ritual slaughterer), a mohel (circumciser) and a chazan (cantor).
Every synagogue had its "shames" (beadle). There was also a "Shul-rufer" (person to call the congregates to prayer). Every Sabbath eve and holiday eve he walked through the Jewish streets crying, "Jews, to the synagogue".
At this point we should also mention the religious teachers and their schools: these belonged among the "Kahal" (religious institutions) of the town.
We also had a Chevra Kadisha (burial society) that was in charge of preparing the corpses for burial. But it was also involved in, and in fact played a leading role in, Jewish town-affairs.
In the "Bet Midrashim" (houses of study,) the authoritative word was from the "gabbais" (treasurers). Their word was also a leading suggestion in matters outside the Bet Meidresh.
There was also a court. The court was located at Heikel’s house on the Starivietzker Street. As for the Jewish population, the registry was kept by a “Tshlen” (a member) of the “Uprave”. I remember that his first name was Mendel. Very few people knew his last name. The elite of the town, who incidentally were intimate with our leadership, also included the “Felsher” (healer) and the pharmacist.
The court had a lot of work – quarrels between peasants about a piece of land, fights, arsons and stealing. The stronger person always was the winner. The discords among the Jews were mostly resolved by the Rabbi or the “Dayen” (a judge charged with settling minor disputes in accordance with Jewish law).
There were Jewish merchant’s “Perve Gildenikes” (association) who dealt with leather, furs and grain. There were forest merchants who dealt with wood. A substantial number were the village merchants who would travel to the villages and buy different products and material from the peasants. The shopkeepers would purchase their fabrics in the larger cities such as: Warsaw, Brisk, Bialystok and Slonim.
The main business was conducted through Pruzany. Everyday two horse-drawn wagons would arrive from Pruzany and go back and forth. They would bring wares and commodities as well as passengers. They used to also deal with people in Bialowieza.
Most of the craftsmen were shingle makers. The surrounding forests were full of fir trees that are suitable for making shingles. The Shershever shingle makers supplies the entire area with shingles. Among the Jews there were carpenters, chest makers, shoemakers, tailors, hatters, strap and thong makers, blacksmiths, butchers, horse and bogymen, horse traders and one watchmaker.
During the Christian holidays, there were fairs in Shershev. The market place and the central streets would be packed with the wagons of peasants who brought their products to be sold with them and then the peasants would in turn buy the town’s material for themselves.
One day, in 1914, the terrible news arrived – the war had started. Then there came an announcement of a mobilization of all men between the ages of 18 and 45 years. A few months thereafter, we already sensed the nearness of the front line. The town was full of Russian military Cossacks, Cherkesens and ordinary soldiers. Those inhabitants, who had the possibility, had a horse and buggy ready to be harnessed in the event they had to leave the town.
On a certain day, an order did come that the people had to leave the town because of an impending battle. The majority of the inhabitants left by horse and buggy or on foot carrying their packs and sacks. The well to do went to faraway Russia. Many others went into hiding in the forests. Some did not want to leave the town and went into hiding in the brick synagogue.
Several days later, the Germans arrived in Shershev. The shootings subsided and the inhabitants began to move back into the town. Half of the town was destroyed and burned down. A large number of the inhabitants, mainly those who had escaped to Russia, did not return. The previous occupations, business and craftsmanship, came to nothing. The situation was desperate. The Jews started to occupy themselves with different kinds of work. They went to the abandoned fields where they dug out some potatoes. They would pick corn from the husks and grind them up in a hand mill. In summertime they would go into the woods to pick blueberries and mushrooms. Many Jewish people went to work for the Germans.
It was difficult to obtain the necessary products. The hardest thing, however, was to find sugar and salt as these items were not available at all. Instead of sugar, saccharine was used; salt was brought in from Pruzany. Since there were no wagons going there, people would walk to Pruzany. They could get salt there, however it was very expensive.
Young men would travel to Bialowieza where they worked in the forests. It was forbidden to do business even though there was neither money to deal with nor any products to sell. Life was very primitive. People ate whatever was available. No new clothing was made; therefore to make do the old clothing would be resewn.
Already then, the Germans had exhibited their cruelties. The Jews were subjected to all kinds of suffering, harassment and insults. They would cut off the beards of the elderly Jews and the braids of the girls and women.
The German reign came to an end after the revolution in Russia and the peace agreement between Russia and Germany. On a beautiful morning, the Germans, in haste, began to leave the town. They dumped their weapons into the river. The Bolsheviks took over the town without any battle. The Bolsheviks established a new order that was supervised by a newly created civilian committee and civilian police. The townspeople’s income started to go up significantly as they did business with the military. They paid for everything in rubles, but later on the people found out that the money was worthless.
The Russian reign did not last long. Clashes began to erupt between the Bolsheviks and the Poles. The town passed from one regime to another.
The following tragic incident happened at that time: On a certain day, when the Polish military had to retreat and had to leave the town, one soldier remained in town. He barged into several houses and robbed from the Jews. This provoked some Jews who ran behind the town and caught the soldier. They beat him up and took away the robbed things. The soldier ran away and joined his detachment. He told his commander what happened. Late at night, a band of Polish soldiers barged in and with violent fury and shooting intruded in the town. All the people were terrified. First of all, the soldiers called the rabbi and demanded that all the Jews should assemble in the synagogue. The younger men were led away from the street to the staff of the military unit so that the soldier could recognize those people who beat him up. The guilty ones, understandably, had hid themselves beforehand. The commander of the unit said that if the guilty men would not surrender, every tenth Jew would be shot and the town would be burned down. The Jews lived through the night with a real fear of death. They offered ransom money but to no avail. The Jews were beaten. The Poles searched in all the streets until they found one of the men who beat up the soldier. His name was Aaron, the butcher. The Polish gang tortured him and shot him to death. With this act, their fury subsided and they left the town.
Several times, Shershev was a place for a frontline, for strategic positions and battles, until the Polish reign was strengthened.
When the war ended, life began to normalize little by little. The American landsleit (compatriots) began to help the Shershevers. A committee was established for the purpose of supervising the distribution of the material support that consisted of products and clothing. A kitchen was set up to prepare and distribute soup and food to the needy people. This made the difficult situation less severe and helped to mitigate the hunger.
The Polish reign strengthened and life began to normalize. Also, the town began to be more active with respect to social life. Modern speakers and delegates from different organizations arrived in town. Instead of the sermons of the old-time preachers and messengers, the people listened to lectures and propaganda speeches of the Zionist movement. Committees were established for “Keren Kayemeth Leisraeel” (Jewish National Fund) and for “Keren Hayesod” (Palestine Foundation Fund). The youths were drawn into these activities. In the beginning they joined just any organization, later on the “Hashomer Hatzair” (The Young Guardians) organization was formed where the young people would assemble.
At that time, the library was in the process of being established. Jewish and Hebrew books were gathered there. Later on, it became the “Tarbut” library that consisted of 800 books and a reading hall where Yiddish newspapers and brochures were available.
There were also young people who organized an amateur circle. They performed in the Jewish theater from time to time
With the help of our American compatriots, the “Yavneh” school was built where there were, besides the classrooms, the library and the reading hall. (A special article about the “Yavneh” school is written in the subsequent pages).
There was a bank in town that would lend money, without interest, to the needy people. Also, we had a group of people who would take care of the sick and stay with them overnight.
The town was rebuilt. There was a novelty in Shershev – instead of the horse-drawn wagons, an omnibus started to cruise in and around the town. Every time the omnibus would arrive, it was a special event. The young and the old would go out to the market in the evening to welcome the omnibus that would arrive in town with lighted lanterns.
At the same time, around 1930, Shershev was happy to see electric lighting. Motorized mills replace the ordinary windmills. This was a great development and progress for the community. People also started to act differently with new manners and new mores. After the years of hardship and discomfort during the war, people began to dress up and dress in style. They began to enjoy themselves. On Sabbath and on holidays they would stroll along the street of the courtyard.
The leased fields that belonged to the priests were taken care of by the Jewish workers. The young people would also stroll along in the fields. They would sing and would have a good time there.
Jewish celebrations during the national holidays were a frequent occurrence, particularly during the existence of the “Yavneh” school. However, the most embedded one in our mind was the first celebration of the Balfour Declaration (the declaration in 1917 by the British Foreign Secretary which viewed with favor the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people). It was a wonderful spectacle in Shershev. The Guardians in their uniforms, carrying the Jewish flags, organized a manifestation. In long orderly lines and with the singing of Hebrew songs, the manifestation went through all the streets in Shershev. When we now reminisce about those wonderful days, our grief becomes more painful. It was not meant for those Jews to see their dreams fulfilled – to have a Jewish country. Only a small number of them went to live in Israel. The largest majority of them were killed by the Nazi murderers.
At the beginning, the Poles had established a magistrate. Kopel Kantorovitch was chosen as Mayor. The Jews were a majority in the town council. Among the councilmen there were merchants and craftsmen. Later on, however, the Polish authorities in Shershev incorporated many surrounding villages and then they established a municipality (“Gmina”). Consequently, the Jewish population became a minority. The familiar politics of discrimination against the Jews started in Shershev. Exorbitant taxes and all kinds of assessments particularly effected the Jewish population. Also our non-Jewish neighbors started to exhibit their anti-Semitic acts. On a certain day, the “mieshtshanes” (the town’s inhabitants) stood with sticks and did not let the Jewish cows go to pasture. Because they had to pass through the Gentile streets, there were fights among the people. They were brought before a law court. The court decided that the Jews had to pay for the legal right to take the cows to pasture in the communal meadows.
It was customary, for many years, that the Jews would gather the dried up branches in the forest and they would use them for heating. This wood was free, without anything to pay. However, the peasants and the town’s inhabitants prevented the Jews from taking even these dry twigs. Also, the Jews were not allowed to pick blueberries and mushrooms. There were some cases when the baskets with the picked blueberries and mushrooms were taken away from the Jews. Oftentimes, different incidents occurred in the market place. Some hooligans would spread anti-Semitic propaganda. Many times, the Jews would chase away those anti-Semitic inciters, but the mood of the people was gloomy and depressed.
Very often, a call could heard in the streets – “Zyoy do Palestyny” (Jews go to Palestine). The same call was repeated in the “Szkola Powszechna” (The Polish public school). There were many Jewish children who went to the same school together with Christian children. The Jewish children had to endure all kinds of insults and pain. The same thing happened during the evening courses.
There were different activities in the same school in the evening. In the beginning, the Jewish young people would also participate. Later on, from 1927, it was impossible to take part in those activities. However people continued with their normal life. They worked, created, traded and studied. Despite the surrounding hatred and incitement, life was normal. The older generations spent their time in the synagogues in study groups, learning “Smas” (the six volumes of the Mishnah forming part of the Talmud) and the life of homo- sapiens. They also discussed politics in the same place. The young people had their library in the reading hall. The meeting hall was also utilized by those who belonged to “Hashomer Hatzair” (Young Guardians).
It was customary that at the conclusion of studying the tractates of the Talmud, the townspeople would prepare a banquet. The students, as well as all other people and the rabbi, would rejoice at this special occasion.
Our town was not big, however it possessed a charm and a grace. The houses, mostly made of wood, were clean and warm family nests. Every day of every week had its orderly routine. As in many past years, there was a repetitious order in our town – to work, to enjoy life and to prepare for the Sabbath and the holidays.
It was not a life of wealth and luxury, but it was a beautiful and a traditionally established life, even without the comfort and convenience that we have nowadays. Water was fetched from a community well or from a water pump in the market place. Central heating was unheard of. People would prepare bundles of wood for winter. The majority of the people had a cow that fed the family with milk, cheese and butter. Also, they raised chickens. Even in their plain and simple lifestyle, it was an exalted life. People would celebrate the Sabbaths and the holidays with their established special customs and practices. They celebrated at weddings, circumcision ceremonies and other joyous occasions. The entire Jewish community in Shershev celebrated such joyful events. Unfortunately, to make a distinction, the people would mourn in the event, god forbid, of a sorrowful happening, then the whole town would go to the funeral.
There were also quarrels among some people about private matters or about community affairs. However, they always took place among themselves in their own surroundings. The rabbi or the “mentshen” (the responsible people) would settle such disputes in order not to allow any injustice to prevail.
All of that ended with the destruction of the Jewish lives and, along with all cities and towns, our dear town, Shershev, was decimated with the murderous hatchet of the Nazi bandits.
Regarding those dark years, survivors who were in that hell are witnesses of the terrible times. These few survivors tell about our holocaust in another part of the “Pinkes”, the memorial book.