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Our Vitebsk
by Shmuel Abramson (Abramis)


The city is geographically divided into two sections, the big and the small one, and in between, the Dvina River flows. Although a bridge crosses the river, passengers were carried by boat from one side to the other by paying one or two cents per passenger.

The Dvina River had a large influence on the economy of the city and its surroundings, especially during the spring and summer. After Passover, after the ice melted, barges, built from all kinds of beams, transferred the trees from the thick forests to the main Baltic Port, Riga, to be locally consumed as well as for export. Also, large steamboats used to transfer passengers and merchandise to smaller points. During the winter, the river froze and was used as a playground for ice skating as well as a shortcut from one bank to the other.

The industries, trade and banking, were mostly dominated by rich, well-known Jews. These included: Kolbanovsky (a tobacco factory), Lewinsohn (a brewery), Hershman and Markowitz (a mill), Jachnin and Mindelin (smoked fish, herring etc.), Heltzer (oil business), Markowitz and Mintz (textiles), Feigelson (medicines), Glazerman (gold, silver and ceramics), Pisravsky (steel), Stronsky (leather), Makler (paper goods), Wishniak, Ginsberg and Solovey (banking).

The retail trade was held between Jewish merchants and farmers from adjacent villages. Twice weekly, the farmers would market their goods such as tree logs, hay, cattle, calves, leather, poultry, eggs, potatoes, fruits and vegetables to the grocers and in turn would buy from them necessary items.

Like other cities in the Jewish settlements, Vitebsk contributed to the development of Jewish culture. Among its citizens were important public and political figures from different organizations including activists for the social and economic liberty of its inhabitants. The Jewish section of Vitebsk was composed of scholars, Hassidm, intellectuals, traders, civil servanats, skilled workers and wagon drivers. The main concerns of the community was the kosher tradition, meeting taxes, mikvehs, education and social voluntary work. A committee of rabbis, judges, physicians, bankers and important family representatives, represented the community in the government. Among the respresentatives, when I was in Vitebsk, were some well known names such as: Rabbi Medallia, Meir Noah, the municpal slaughterer, Shmariah Makler, Solovey, Z Wolfson, Ginsburg, Wishiniak, Shneerson and the physicians, Liberman, Brook, Iserson, Yakirson and Shainin.

The chairman and speaker of this committee was Shmariah Makler -- a long black bearded scholar, a successful trader. In his youth he was considered a liberal, but after his mother passed away, he became a fervent Hassid as a member of the Admor from Bobervisk group. Every morning he studied a full Talmud page from his well known teacher, Israel Shlomo Melamedov. Before proceeding to his normal commerical business in his shop, he went to pray with Hershman in the small Lubavitch sysnagogue. Makler visited Israel once as the representative of his community. In his report, he described the new Jewish settlements in a positive way. Although he was busy in his office material shop, he always found time for volunteer work, even belonging to the Hebra Kadisha.

The physician, Dr. Lieberman, was orthodox and prayed and studied during his leisure time. In order not to violate the Sabbath, he employed a young gentile to write medical prescriptions for his patients. He was a Zionist and spoke Hebrew. He treated scholars and poor people free of charge and was active in the Talmud Torah. His brother, Israel Joseph, was a teacher at the same Talmud Torah School and was a scholar who worked at the Rabbi's office. The police sent all types of literature to them for translation into Russian. The Rabbi and the brother covered up the forbidden elements in the translations.

On the ``small side'' of the river, there were a few Talmud Torahs where Rabbi Meir Abramis worked as the manager and principal teacher until his death. He used to offer the poor students clothing and a warm meal. The teachers, Itzhak Avram Heims and Itzhak Menashe, worked with him. The later previously had a Heder and Mark Chagall and I were his students. I remember the small horses and eyes that Chagall used to draw on small pieces of paper and all over the Heder's walls.

More than 100 children between the ages of two and six learned at the Talmud Torah. 4 different branches were spread over town and were divided into 3 classes: (a) grades l and 2, reading and writing; (b) praying, Psalms and the books of the Pentateuch; and (c) the Bible, Rashi's interpretation, Shulhan Arukh and Gemorah. They used to learn from 9 in the morning to 8 in the evening with a lunch pause which was available at a low cost. In the upper classes, the students studied Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian and math. At that time, the teachers' monthly salary was between 25 and 30 rubles.

There were 2 schools in Il'insky St., the big Lubovitch one and the small one, Hershman's Synagoguge. Hershman, Markovitz, Makler, Stronsky, Heltzer brothers and small merchants and teachers used to pray in the small one. They were extremely religious and made sure that strangers always were invited for a meal.

Most of the congregation in the big synagogue belonged to the middle class. They were grocers, teachers and scholars. Following the manifest of 1905, the synagogue was used for Zionist assemblies and for the socialistic movement of Jews and gentiles. There, the center of self-defense distributed weapons to underground members. Often the police would surround the meetings and arrest the participants. The principal Shamash, Avraham, did not approve, but pretended not being aware of the ongoings.

On Il'insky St. between Vygon and Popkov, there was another synagogue consisting of shoemakers, tailors, porters etc. They would listen to speeches. It was here that the ``Hebrew Movement'' started with members, Zelig Shneiur, Itzhak Sapir, Jesaia Novieue, Samuel Blinki, Dov Shapira, Kraslevsky, a brush worker and myself. Zelig was blind and in 1915 was arrested with other Zionists and deported to Siberia. We used to gather in the basement of his apartment in Popkov St. where we taught classes in Hebrew, Talmud and Jewish history. We were joined by Melamedov, Zavirov, Haikin and others who taught Hebrew language.

In 1906-1907, my younger brother, Avraham, who worked in Shmariah Makler's paper shop, was drawn towards the Socialist Revolutionary movement. Together with his colleague, Shechmeister, he decided to organize the Cossacks in garrisons. They gathered the Cossacks in a private home, distributed forbidden literature and organized propaganda for the party. The Cossacks informed the secret police about these activities, and one evening they burst into the house, confiscated the literature and arrested the activists. I used to bring food to my brother in jail. On a Friday night, when I got to jail to bring him food, Jacob Moshe Alter Hen Avraham, who also worked in the shop, approached me and asked me to bring Avraham a pot of milk. This pot had two bottoms. In between them he placed newspapers and forbidden articles. The guard, who knew about this, would measure the depth of the pot with a metallic wire and knew according to its length if something were hidden in it. So I was arrested and sat in jail for 12 days. Shmariah Makler persuaded the Chief of Police to release me. My brother and the other prisoners were sentenced to one year of imprisonment. When he was released, he went to Minsk, but was followed. My parents realized it was too dangerous to stay in Russia, so in 1908, he left for New York.

In 1916-1921 I settled in St.Petersburg. In 1922, I returned to Vitebsk and got a job as an assistant to the accountant in an office that received wood for trains. After a while, I was elected as the Secretary of the Professional Committee in the town and suburbs. I devoted my leisure time to the ``Halutz'' branch which was officially named ``The Agriculture Cooperative''. The government assigned to the cooperative a large tract of land, material, a horse and a house at the end of the town near Zarotsev. A worker's committee was elected to manage this cooperative which grew potatoes, carrots, cabbage, radish and tobacco.

During the holidays and Saturdays we used to gather for discussions, conferences and lessons. Also we sang songs and danced till late at night. During harvest time, the committee would gather people for temporary work. The permanent members of the cooperative lived, ate, drank together and, shared the crops. The money was put in one basket to be shared economically among the members.

One evening, during the farewell party to Harifai, who decided to emigrate to Palestine, Checkists surrounded him with guns, searched him, found letters and forbidden books and arrested the whole group. We were led through the streets surrounded by soldiers and brought to the CheKa on Zamkovaya Street. After questioning, they released all who were not involved in the ``Halutz'' movement and in the distribution of the Socialist Zionist idea. Shneer Shneerson, Zvi Gordon -- an accountant, at the moment in Israel who had worked as an accountant in the city hall of Rishon Le Zion, and I were put in cells with revolutionaries from the surrounding villages. We were put in different cells so we could not talk. The cells were narrow, filthy and full of lice. We slept on wooden boards whereas some were forced to sleep on the floor. In the middle of the night we were taken to the investigator. We were offered a seat, a cigarette, asked questions on Marxism. Then they started to threaten us with guns, whips, and confinement if we would not divulge the names of the principal leaders against the revolution. We were isolated from all our relatives and we would not get books, letters or newspapers. Thus, we were tortured during six weeks. Since they could not prove our guilt, we were finally released. Many of my friends escaped and reached Israel.

next up previous
Next: Not yet translated Up: Vitebsk Amol; geshikhte, zikhroynes, khurbn Previous: Pages of rememberances by Alexander
Ed Sternin