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The Last Generation

From: Sefer Vladimirets, 1963

Author: Yitzchak Yaakov Mudrik

** Webmaster Note: The following translation was generously provided by Diane Moore.  We have presented it here exactly as it was translated for us.  Yakov Mudrik moved in and out of Vladimirets several times, and has a perspective that can only come when you no longer live in your hometown. He also visited the town twice after the war, in 1948 and 1956.

THE LAST GENERATION

Our generation was the last of the Jewish community of Vladimirets.  All of us heard, more or less, about the Jewish life of former days.  But we can only remember our childhood years, a childhood which already stood, even in the years of peace, in the shadow of threatening disaster.  When the war broke out and the days of horror began, we were still children, twelve or thirteen years old, uprooted from the land of our upbringing and given into the hands of cruelty and terror.

Few were the peaceful years that we knew, and those few became in our minds like a beautiful beach, to which the heart seeks to cling.

I don't remember if there were class differences in our town -- great wealth versus downtrodden poverty.  But one must acknowledge that the Jewish population was divided into levels, and a silent struggle certainly took place between them.  Especially in the field of thought: "Why does the luck go to this one and that one and not to me?"

Between the children, on the other hand, there was no difference.  It seems to me that they were all equal.  Even poor parents struggled to give their children a proper upbringing.  In our time, raising children was very difficult.  Our parents were obligated to give us various kinds of education.  Our learning was fragmented into different studies: Hebrew and Jewish studies, Yiddish and Polish, and all with different teachers.

When a boy was five, he would be placed in cheder.  There he studied until he was ten or eleven.  The cheder was, actually, the first source from which we absorbed our knowledge.  I will try in a few lines to sketch the cheder where I learned -- the cheder of Reb Dov-Ber Blizniuk.  I was four and a half when I started cheder, where I spent eight hours a day.  There I learned to read, learned chumash and Rashi, and the blessings and prayers.  And although the teaching methods were old-fashioned, the cheder gave me a great deal.  I gained knowledge of the holy Torah, and a deep love for Eretz Israel, the land of our fathers, and the holy city of Jerusalem.

There shines in my memory a picture from my cheder days.  I wasn't more than six years old then. We were learning in chumash about the Tabernacle.  One day the Rebbe went out to market to buy something, and he told us children, left behind in the schoolroom, to study by ourselves the siddur "Vayakhel."  As soon as the Rebbe was out of the room, one of the boys stood up and said, "You know what?  Come on, we'll build a Tabernacle!"

The proposal enchanted us, and with one impulse we were out in the yard and starting to work.  The picture is before my eyes, clear as though it had happened this morning.

I remember that Manassah Weidelguz ran quickly home and brought sheets, and we drove poles into the ground, on which we stretched the sheets, which were in our eyes like the curtains of the Tabernacle, just as it is described in the book of Exodus.

The oldest children in cheder took on themselves the title of Kohanim; the middle group were Levites, and the smallest were called Israel.  One among us who had "golden hands" acquired the name of Bezalel ben Khur, and a second boy was "holiav ben Ahisamach" -- and so we created the Tabernacle.

One must tell the truth -- that for this game we were well punished, when our Rebbe came back to the cheder.  But the fact remains a fact: we couldn't be satisfied with only what stands written in Chumash, and our curiosity was great to see the reality.  Thus we tried to make it real.  And if the system was primitive, the lessons still took root in our imaginations.  And perhaps just because the conditions of our learning were simple, our imaginations were awakened to fill the gap.

When I was seven, I went to the Polish school, which in our shtetl was the official state institution.  Jewish children, Polish, and Ukrainian learned together there.  The system was modern; the teachers were Polish and the language Polish.  Everything there was organized; order and discipline reigned.  The first year it was hard for us to adjust to the new conditions, but we stayed in the school.  In the first grade we were a group of Jewish boys, bound together like brothers.  The friendship and devotion among us were extraordinary; that was a unity that grew out of our new circumstances.  The Polish and Ukrainian children, through their hatred, forced us to unite.  In fact, none of us wanted to be set apart from the other pupils.  We wanted to be ordinary pupils, but the gentile children prevented that.  It must be stressed, however, that the hostile attitude toward us did not come only from the other children.  The hatred toward us sprang from some principle and tendency; all were against us; all strove to prove that we were Jews, and not let us hide it.

Every morning, for instance, coming into school, we were compelled to stand during their morning prayers.  We would stand on one side and had to listen as they prayed, and alas, they didn't restrain themselves in the time of their prayers, and murmured things in soft voices.  Often they would trip us up so that we couldnít stand quietly and would disturb their prayers.

I recall how we once got into trouble through the shaygetz Mukha.  During their prayer time, he threw a piece of paper at Manasseh Vidlguz.  "What are you doing?" Manasseh asked him without thinking.  That's all it took.  He was summoned immediately to the school administrator and was severely beaten.  He parents were also called in to receive the appropriate dressing-down.

Up to the fourth grade, we were taught by Miss Malinovska, of Ukrainian descent.  Her manner toward us was not bad.  But later it became clear that she was among those who had a hand in the slaughter of Jews.  Also the music teacher, Gritzki, had taken part in the bloody deeds against Jews.  Who could pose as our givers of knowledge and be also the shedders of our blood?

In fourth grade we had a larger number of teachers, and they were all anti-semites.  This forced us Jewish children into even stronger unity, in resistance.  But how could our resistance be expressed?  First, we had to be the best students, and so we were.  We put all our energy and strength into our studies.  We used to help each other, so there would never be a laggard among us.  So every day we had to be organized against the impudent gentile boys.  Not a week went by without a war between us.  When we left school and got as far as the Spins' wall, and the goyim would attack and start hitting us, we were not afraid of them and always showed boldness.  Not once did we come away from such a battle without wounds and blood, but the slaughter among the goyim was greater.  Conflicts between us sometimes blazed so hot that the police had to get involved to separate the fighters.

Two of our comrades distinguished themselves in this field: Leybl Spin, whom we called Leybl the Devil, and Benjamin Sharfstein.  Both survived -- Leybl is in the Soviet Union and Benjamin was in Israel and emigrated to America.  

In the Polish school there was one Jewish teacher for religious studies, R. Pinchas of blessed memory.  His lessons were mainly in Torah, and he implanted in us a deep love for Eretz Israel.

We studied in the Polish school until one o'clock.  But we were Jewish children; with only Polish we couldn't be satisfied.  We all had to learn Hebrew from private teachers, to complete our knowledge.  From three to six in the afternoon we studied further.  My teacher was Lipman Volok, a good Jew and a good teacher.  With him we learned Tanach, Hebrew grammar, and Hebrew literature.  During the three hours we talked among ourselves only in Hebrew.  Lipman was a warm and devoted Zionist; he would enliven his explanations with various particulars from the Jewish life in Eretz Israel, and thus he gave us a strong love for the Jewish revival there.  When the second world war broke out, Lipman went with his family to Romania, and what fate he met there, I do not know.

 Vladimirets was permeated with love for Yiddishkeit and with belief in the Jewish future.  And we children absorbed it into our souls.  At six in the evening our lessons didn't end -- from seven to nine we learned more, either in cheder or in Talmud-Torah, which was held in the synagogue of the Stepaner Chasidim.  When I look back on the order of our studies and the hours we put in, I wonder where we got so much energy and stamina and how we managed to do it all.  So many hours were given to our studies, but still we found free time for various games -- in winter, skates and sleds; in summer, football and camping.

Not only was there a Jewish atmosphere, and a Zionist feeling, but also various organizations: Hashomer Hatzair (Young Guardians) , Hachalutz (Pioneers), Betar (Jabotinsky's Brit Trumpeldor).  But the community in general was not so strongly unified as were we, the Jewish children in the Polish folk-school.  Most of us were organized in Betar, but many were also in Hashomer Hatzair and Hachalutz. 

At Chanuka we would gather together, prepare a feast, and talk about the Hasmoneans.  At Purim the talk was of the situation of the Jews in the Diaspora, their oppression and helplessness.  We would arrange various performances and our admission money would go to the funds for Israel.  But our best holiday was Lag b'Omer.  Everyone would be out in the street with blue and white banners, and we went singing through the town and to the mountain groves.  There we built big bonfires and spent the rest of the day in singing and dancing, forgetting our exile and our troubles.

The whole time we were schoolboys, things weren't bad with us; our troubles began when we finished school.  "What happens now?" each of us asked.  Not all of us could continue our studies at secondary school.  There was no gymnasium or trade school in Vladimirets.  Most of the children stayed with their parents.  Some went into business to earn a living; some went away to learn a trade from a nearby craftsman; and some travelled to other towns to study in yeshiva.  I and my friends Yankel Milstein, Manassah Videlguz, and Isaac Ruzenblat went in 1938 to Stolin to study in the yeshiva there.  My friends left a few days before me.  Each of them was accompanied by someone of his family.

 

At that time my uncle Berl decided to make Aliyah to Eretz Israel.  Thus it was agreed between us that I would travel with my uncle as far as Hurin, and from there I would make my way to Stolin.  I recall, as if it were today, it was after Sukkot.  The autumn rains had already started.  In such weather we both set forth to the farther world, my uncle to Eretz Israel and I to Stolin.  That was my first train ride, and the first time I had left Vladimirets.  I was not more than thirteen and a half. 

The train soon arrived at the Hurin station.  It only stopped there for two minutes.  I didn't even have time to say a proper farewell to my uncle.  We kissed each other hurriedly, with tears in our eyes.  Quick, quick, the train could take off in the blink of an eye.  I made a fast jump through the door, and I was outside.  The train flew away and disappeared in the night, and I was alone at the Hurin station, on a dark, rainy night. For a few minutes I stood there, not knowing which way to turn.  Suddenly a weak light flickered from a distance.  It came from the little house that served as a station.  I went in and saw that there were only gentiles there.  I put down my bundle on the wooden bench, and sat down to wait for dawn.  Very early in the morning a Jewish hearse-driver came along, and I travelled to Stolin with him.  There I met my friends, who had already rented a room, and we lived together.

We were soon acclimatized to Stolin.  At first it was hard for us to go around to eat in different houses, but gradually we got used to that too.  The yeshiva where we studied was modern and progressive.  We weren't made to grow sidecurls, for instance, or wear special clothes.  We studied from seven in the morning till one, and from five till nine in the evening.  In our free hours we occupied ourselves with self-education, such as mathematics and other studies.  After a few months I had already begun earning, by giving lessons to children who were pupils in the Polish folk-school.  Studying in the yeshiva deepened our knowledge of Yiddishkeit, and also of Hebrew. At Pesach I went home to Vladimirets and was honored with a beautiful welcome.  The reunion of my friends in the shtetl was full of interest.  Some of them envied us, not for our yeshiva education, but for our travels in the wider world.  After the holiday we went back to Stolin.

We studied all summer until the month of Elul, with the intention of pursuing our studies through the coming winter, but our intentions did not become reality.

On the first of September, 1939, the Second World War broke out.  Already on August 28 it was known in Vladimirets that the Polish militia was mobilizing.  Fear seized everyone.  A few days later, refugees began coming into the town.  The first family was that of Rachel Gelerstein from Brisk.  They were put up by the Eisenbergs.  The Jewish town was bewildered; no one know what to do.  My friends and I met almost every day to talk about the war.  Soldiers were already appearing, back from the front.  We already knew that the days of Poland's independence were numbered.

On September 10, a long caravan of automobiles came through Vladimirets, and there were knowledgeable people who said that in the caravan were members of the Polish government, who were retreating in the direction of Romania.  The next day we saw the Polish police and other officials preparing to leave Vladimirets.  And the same day a rumor went out, that the Russian army was coming in.  In Vladimirets, Communists were not lacking - both Ukrainian and Jewish.  Now many who had been arrested and placed in various prisons were freed.

The Polish police had just left town, when the local Communists organized a Folks-Police, with red armbands, and  they prepared to welcome the Red Army when it came to liberate us.  Next to the "Gralnia" was established the "Triumphal Gate" adorned with red flags, with announcements and slogans. There all the Soviet sympathizers awaited their arrival.  Long hours they waited in vain -- no sign of the Red Army. So passed the days, and the community was already becoming impatient, but the communists always encouraged the others:

"Soon, soon they will arrive!"

Many of the inhabitants would come out of the houses to receive them in vain.  On the third day, a special envoy arrived and announced:

"The Red Army is coming!"

With their red flags, people stood expectantly, eyes to the east.  And now the waiting was not in vain.  Now was heard the sound of horses' hoofs.  And soon appeared in the distance a group of riders -- real riders -- in the distance the picture was not clear, but soon they came nearer and we could really see them.

But alas, again chance had played a joke on us, and instead of a group of Red soldiers there was revealed to us a detachment of Polish cavalry -- a remnant of their defeated army, gone astray, which had come here by mistake.  At first they looked very miserable, but when they recovered a bit and saw the preparations the Jews had made to welcome the Soviets, they were quite themselves again and began striking out to right and left.  Everyone began running away.  The tumult and shouting were tremendous, but there were no casualties, except the triumphal tower which the cavalrymen smashed, and the red banners which they tore up.  By evening the local communists had rebuilt the tower, hung more red banners, and begun again to await the arrival of the Red Army.  There was great fear of an interregnum, with no authority in place.

Finally the Soviets did arrive, on Yom Kippur.  Tables were set up in the streets, and many came out to see the newcomers.  The fear had passed, and joy was great.  The scoffers in town said that it was more like Simchat Torah than Yom Kippur.

We in Vladimirets had never seen a military presence like this.  The tanks they brought were so big.  And for us boys of fourteen and fifteen, it was a great novelty.  But along with it came disappointment.  We hadn't imagined that the army would look like this.  We remembered the Polish soldiers who were splendidly got up, a pleasure to behold.  And here we saw an army whose costume was very simple, with peaked caps that looked crude and clumsy.  We couldn't imagine that this was an army.  Most of them wore old cloaks.  Mixed feelings struggled within us, disappointment and gratification at the same time.  The soldiers let us ride in the tanks and on their horses.  What more do children need?  But the delight was only temporary.  The soldiers went away and left behind only a small detachment which was quartered in the local park.  We got used to the Soviet soldiers and began to feel at ease with them, and to find faults even in some of their officers. I recall that one of them had a habit of saying with every word "vat-immenu", and the expression stuck to him as a nickname.

Very soon the Soviets, with the help of the local communists, began to look for capitalists in Vladimirets, and many Jews were victims.  At first the shops were still open, but the "comrades" started to buy up everything they liked and to pay with their banknotes, so that nobody knew what they were getting.  Before long the shops were shut down, and the town took on a strange look.  Everyone lived on whatever resources he had put aside.  Those who had nothing saved suffered greatly.

The situation worsened from day to day, until the Soviets decided to build an airfield in the town.  The airfield was set up on the fields of the local farmers.  The field was planted with potatoes.  Soon an order was given to the population to dig up the potatoes and clear the ground.  Payment for the work was a fifth of the potatoes that each person showed he had dug up.  Winter was approaching, and many families were out in the fields digging potatoes.  I too, and my mother, went out to the work, and the pay we got fed us for a long time.  Others worked at threshing in the farmers' barns.  Among them was my friend Reuben Sussel of blessed memory.  I recall that his hands were frostbitten from working in the cold winter damp, and hurt him very much.

In the winter of 1940 a school was opened in Vladimirets in the name of the Soviet government, and we were back on school benches.  Alongside the Ukrainian school, a Jewish school was established.  The director was Yitzkhak Pinchuk.  All my friends went there, to the first official Jewish school, but I didn't go there long.  My mother went to Sarny to work as cook in a children's home, and I left Vladimirets with her.  In Sarny I finished Ukrainian secondary school in 1941. 

Thus I left Vladimirets, not knowing how long and terrible the separation would be.  On June 22, 1941, the German murderers invaded Russia, and the next day Sarny was already being bombarded.  The confusion was tremendous; people didnít know where to run.  On the 27th I left with my mother and brother, and set out to walk to the railroad station, to go to Kiev.  We thought then that the war would not last long, not more than two or three months.  Of course I will not attempt to describe all my troubles of the war years.  In September I found myself in Leningrad, and there I was drafted into the Russian Army.  I fought against the Nazi murderers on almost every front.

In January, 1944, my brigade was in a bitter struggle to free the towns of Mozir and Klinkovits; from there we went on attack in the direction of Sarny.  In early February we found ourselves in the village of Tsipchevitz, near Sarny; from there we crossed to Lurets, four kilometers away.  Now we got an order to proceed with an assault and liberate the town.  Meanwhile we were furloughed for three days, and waited for reinforcements.  Those were winter nights; rain and snow fell without stopping, and turned into frost on the ground.  The short furs we wore froze on us, and became hard as iron.

When I learned that we were getting three days' furlough, I asked my commander for permission to go to Vladimirets, my home town.  Permission was granted, and all alone, on horseback, I started out in the darkness to visit my birthplace, where all the beautiful memories of my childhood were bound up.  I had been told that in Vladimirets, power was in the hands of the Partisans. 

Arriving at Antonovka, I met a Jew at the station, a Partisan from Zalutsk, and asked him what he had heard about Vladimirets.  I got no clear information from him; he only advised me not to go there at night.  I went into a house where there were Partisans and a gentile from Horodets.  There I learned the dreadful truth -- the truth about the bitter end of the holy community of Vladimirets.  They told me that there was no reason for me to go there, since as far as they knew,  there was no government in Vladimirets.  But I couldn't keep from going there. At six o'clock in the morning I set out together with the gentile from Horodets, to visit my beloved Vladimirets.  On the way, the gentile stopped for something, but I was very impatient, every nerve strained toward the fearful encounter.  I didn't wait for my companion; I went on alone.  At eight in the morning I arrived in Vladimirets.

I will never forget that hour. I almost couldn't recognize my town.  It was empty and vacant.  I had come expecting to see the house where we lived, Pessia-Rivka's house.  I couldn't find the place.  I started to look for where Chaya Eisenberg lived.  The doors and windows were boarded up.  I walked around for an hour and found no living soul, only an abandoned dog dragging itself around.  From time to time a goyish face looked out a window.

With tears in my eyes and with stumbling feet I walked about until one of the goyish children came along, and I asked him if he could tell me where Zakharke Suslev might be.

To this day, I don't understand why he was the one I asked about.  The little sheygetz led me to his house.  I waited a long time, until he opened the door.  He didn't recognize me, but I knew him at once.  I started to explain to him who I was; I reminded him that I went to school with his daughter Tanya.  Hearing that, Tanya herself came out to me.  I was invited into the house, and offered breakfast, but I couldn't taste the food.  Instead I started asking them about all that had happened there.  He told me all about how the slaughter in our town took place.  He also said that someone had told him that a few Jews had survived and had been seen wandering in the surrounding forests, but he didn't know just where.  He led me to the road into the Zhulkin woods, and said, "This is the place."  I stood for a long time by our mass grave, the grave of my dear ones, friends, comrades and family.

I stood and wept like a little child.

I turned back and wandered through the streets of my beloved town, which is to me now become a great cemetery.  When I came back to my military camp, the commandant asked me,

"What brings you back so soon?"

I told him all I had experienced that day.

I visited Vladimirets a second time, in 1948, after I was demobilized.  My mother wanted to recover, through the courts, some of her possessions which had been left behind in the shtetl.

It was a Sunday when we arrived; all the gentiles were dressed up in Jewish clothes.  Mama could even recognize whose they had been.  At that time two Jewish families lived in Vladimirets:  Chaya-Leah, the daughter of Shmuel Frumes, and Kamiser from Dovolia. We went to Chaya-Leah's house and together we went to the old cemetery, and then to the mass grave near Zhulkin.  At that time there were still clear signs that this was a field-grave.

The third time I was in Vladimirets was in 1956, before I left for Poland.  That time we came to bid farewell to our unforgotten martyrs.  To our astonishment and horror, we found almost no memory of the field-grave; the old cemetery was in ruins; we were told that a sawmill was to be built there.  On a part of the field where our martyrs fell, there was a highway; the other part had been plowed under by the collective farm.

Silent and heartbroken we stood and looked with tearful eyes at the place where our dearest ones met their frightful death.


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