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[Pages 23-33]

The Town from the End of the
Nineteenth Century to the Thirties

by Abraham Starovin

Translated by Shmuel Winograd

According to the notes of Avraham Starovin
z"l, in the pamphlet "Yekufu", published in
the Spring of 1928, and from the pamphlet
"Rakov", which was published in 1930 in
the United States by the organization of the
Rakov expatriates.

The Economy

Rakov was known, before the First World War, for its special industry: agricultural machinery and pottery. These products were the main contributors to its economy. The factories employed tens of workers, and produced hundreds of machines for threshing, harvesting, and sorting of seeds. They also provided for iron-smiths, painters, salesmen, and more. The salesmen spread their net afar, and marketed the products in the districts of Minsk, Vitbesk, Tcharnigov, Smolensk, and Mohilov. They would spend most of the year away, and would come home twice a year, for the Holidays [Rosh HaShanah and Passover], with pockets bulging with "Asignatziot" (money bills). The town would wait impatiently for their return: They would pay the manufacturers, and they in their turn – to the workers, and the workers – to their debtors, and thus the money would go around supporting a large circle of families. After the Holidays, the salesmen would, again, be on their way to open new markets for the products of the town, and would return home half a year later. And thus the [yearly] cycle continued… The second industry in town was of pottery and bricks. This industry also employed many of the town's people, who made their living from its production. These products, too, found their market near and far, and reached as far as Bobroisk and Smolensk.

The Proletariat

As the number of factories increased, the town acquired its own proletariat [working class], which was organized in many organizations according to the fashion of the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth – such as "Hevrat Humash" [Bible Society], "Hevrat Tehilim" [Psalms Society], 'Hevrat Ein Ya'akov" [Society of the Spring of Jacob], and more. Others, more "modern", would organize themselves in dancing clubs and … the "Hibat Tzi'yon" [Love of Zion] movement. The common feature of all these organizations was that they did not engage in the struggle for bettering the working conditions of their members, whose working days lasted at least 15 hours. No sooner did the revolutionary workers' movement make its appearance in the Jewish street, that the Rakov workers were drawn to it. They organized and formed a Workers' Party, declared strikes in some of the larger factories, and fought for their rights forcefully and proudly, fully conscious of their status. And sure enough – their struggle was crowned with success; they gained a shorter workday and many other fair working conditions.

This mighty stream in the Jewish street bore fruits in the general area of social-cultural awakening as well. The same young Jews, who had not been aware of what was happening outside their small town, had their horizons widened. They started to think of larger matters, got interested in social issues, searched for books that dealt with the problems facing them, and started reading general literature. Consequently, a large library was established in Rakov in those days, in 1912.


In spite of the changes which took place in the consciousness of the young people during the revolution [of 1905], no change occurred in the area of education: The heder [religious elementary school], followed by the yeshivah – to the extent that boys continued their education after the heder – was the lot of the boys in Rakov. In practice, most of the boys did not continue their studies: some started working in their in their father's store or shop, and some went idle. Not so with the girls. They were not sent to the heder but to the local Russian school, and some of them, the daughters of the well-to-do, were sent to Minsk to continue their general education.

The Years of Reaction and Migration

The years of reaction, which came after the 1905 Revolution and the Pogroms, caused the migration of tens and hundreds of thousands Jews throughout Russia. In Rakov, too, there were tens of families and young people who migrated in those years, despairing of living their lives in it. Most of them migrated to the United States, the land of liberty, and the minority to Eretz Israel and other countries.

The Social Conditions in Town

Many were uprooted from their place of birth, and went in search their lot in the big world, but life in the town continued as it had been. The owners of the factories and the stores were well established, sure of making a good living, and felt comfortable in the synagogues and other institutions in town. Those were calm days, as far as public life was concerned, and they felt on solid ground. At the head of the "Ofrava" [town Council] was Starosta, a drunken goy, and the 'ba'alei batim' [the well-to-do of the the Jewish community] knew how to manipulate him, and also how to find the 'back door' to the Lord Hauradnik [the higher official].

Rabbi Avraham Moshe z"l [of blessed memory] had sat on the throne of the rabbinate for 53 years and supervised the life of the community honorably and with a firm hand. He was respected by all for his honesty, and served as a role model by the pleasantness of his ways and by his soft spoken manners, without preaching or chastising. His manners were simple and modest, and he unified the members of the community into one family, without controversy or divisiveness.

Suddenly everything changed. The old rabbi passed away and left three granddaughters. In his will he asked that a husband would be found for the eldest, who would be worthy to succeed him on the throne of the rabbinate. In the beginning it looked like everything would go smoothly. A committee was chosen from among the 'amcha' [town people], headed by several well-to-do, which was determined to fulfill the request of the will. And they did so. They brought, from the Slovodka Yeshivah, a young scholar who was an ordained rabbi, worthy by all accounts to assume the local throne of the rabbinate, by the name of Rabbi Kalmanovitz; an energetic man, full of initiative, and many great deeds could have been expected of him. But this caused a controversy in the town, the unity was broken, and the name of Rakov was defamed. In a short time there arose an opposition to the young rabbi by a fraction of the community and they brought in another rabbi – Rabbi Polak. The town was divided into two quarreling camps. The controversy got worse and worse until friends and relations became enemies, a son rose against his father and a woman against her husband – literally speaking. There were many bans and excommunications, which were disastrous and caused material damage, and even deprived many of their livelihood.

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Rabbi Polak

First World War

The year 1914 arrived, and in August of that year the First World War broke out.

Rakov sent her best sons to the front, a draft followed a draft, and the town was emptied of its male population under the age of 50. The number of the needy increased, and some were starving. In the Autumn of 1915, after the defeat of the Czarist army in the front, and its retreat from the enemy, the high command of the Russian army started to fan the hatred of the Jews, pointing to them as the real enemy of the Russian people, and as spies for the Germans. The order was issued to expel the Jews of the border areas, and hundreds of thousands of Jews became refugees overnight. The front was approaching, Brazina, Smargon, Kreva, and Yashniva were burning, and the wave of refugees was growing. Rakov, which was situated on the road between Vilna and Minsk, was flooded with refugees. Many of them continued on their way eastward, others lost all their strength and found their grave here. But many of them remained in Rakov, unable to go on, and the town, depleted of much of its material goods, welcomed them with a warm heart like brothers. The front was approaching, and the roar of the cannons could be heard. In the ensuing fear and panic, many left the town and took the 'wandering staff'. Some of them never returned and found their death while away. This was the fate of R. Shalom the Butcher, R. Yoseph Berman, Shimon Halper, Tolya Goldberg, and others.

The End of the Traditional Industry of Rakov

The World War brought complete ruin and destruction to the industry of Rakov. Because of the economic difficulties and the drafting of the farm workers, the farmers and estate owners stopped buying the agricultural machinery which was produced in Rakov. Many of the factory owners (or as they were called: "Mechanikers") were drafted into the army; others left Rakov and were spread all over the globe. As a result, factories were shut down, and the end came to the industry of which Rakov was famous for generations. Only one factory continued to exist until the coming of the Nazis.

The Establishment of YEKOPA

In this dark and bitter period of the Russian Jewry, the Petersburg community provided a ray of light. Some public-minded members of the community established a society to aid Jewish refugees and other Jews who suffered because of the war (YEKOPA). The Russian Government, too, finally decided – under the pressure of public opinion – to help, and established, with the aid of the "Zembasto" and the Red Cross, a fund for helping those who suffered as a result of the war, regardless of religion or nationality. Rabbi Kalmanovitz took the initiative and organized the Refugee Aid Council in Rakov, and did it successfully and with much skill; even though, as always, he did it all by himself, without consulting others, as if it were his personal property.

The Winter of 1916-17

Heavy clouds hovered over the Russian Jewry. The High Command, wishing to cover up its defeats on the battle field, found a scapegoat and poured its wrath on the Jews. A flood of decrees was poured down on them. All the males of Rakov, up to the age of fifty, had already been drafted. And as it was close to the front line, they also seized the elderly for forced labor. They were put to work digging trenches, cutting down trees, and other forms of hard labor, in exchange for dry bread and water. One cannot describe the great suffering of the town people during that period.

And the month of February 1917 arrived, and the great Russian Revolution broke out. New winds started blowing across Russia. Together with the other millions of the population, the oppressed and distressed Jewry started breathing more easily. New life and new hopes were awaken. All the restrictions, which had fettered the lives of the Jews of this huge land for generations, were made null and void by the stroke of the pen of, the then prime minister, Kerensky. It is hard to describe the waves of joy which inundated the populace as a whole, and the Jews in particular. Rakov, too, had its small local revolution: First of all, the "Ofrava" [town Council], with its drunken Starosta, was dismissed, and democratic elections were held, with the active participation of Jews and Christians alike. A new Council was elected, headed by the Jew Michael Pupin; a mixed popular Militia was organized, headed by L. Cohen, and with Shalom Ferber as an officer. Later, after the Bolsheviks came to power, Cohen was appointed as the Commissar of the whole Rakov County. But he came to a bitter end. One market day, on Purim of 1919, he stood on the balcony of the Police building in Rakov and addressed the thousands of gentiles, who gathered in the market square of the town, on their obligation to join the army and defend the Bolshevik Motherland. His words evoked a great agitation and much anger. Hostile shouts were heard against the Jew, who was demanding of them to give away their sons, who had just returned from the front. Someone of those assembled threw a stone at the speaker. This was the signal for the crowd to grow wild. The melee grew. And with wild shouts the multitude of gentiles started marching towards the Police building. When Cohen saw the danger which was awaiting him, he ran into the building and shut the door. The crowd broke down the door, burst inside, charged at its victim, and attacked him. Mortally wounded he was brought to Minsk, and died there a few days later in a great agony.

All of that happened two years later, but during the 'honeymoon' period of the great revolution everything was done with joy, when all the dams of the Czarist regime were torn open, and the waves of the revolutionary activities were rising. The Jewish and the Christian youth of Rakov organized lectures, arranged joint parties, and founded a community center and a reading room for the soldiers in the front and for passers by. The slogan "Equality and Fraternity" was displayed everywhere. It truly seemed that anti-Semitism and xenophobia sunk to the bottom of the sea, and disappeared from the face of the earth.

But the honeymoon period ended quickly, and the Bolsheviks took hold of the government. A civil war was raging all over Russia, and in its wake chaos and utter confusion. Bands of robbers were roaming the neighborhood, and the government could nothing against them; even the militia was powerless against the well armed bands of robbing soldiers. Terror fell over the town. In its distress, it sent a delegation to the authorities in Minsk, who dispatched a cavalry unit to protect the town. But even they could not stand up to the bands, and in the battle against the robbers, which took place in the Woods of Zadzhichovski, the cavalry was defeated, and the road to Rakov stood open to every looter and seeker of booty. On the fourth of March, 1918, a gang entered the town, and for three days they rioted, looted, and plundered, with no one to stop them, and only after the stores and the houses had been emptied, did they leave the town.

rak028.jpg [30 KB]
Administration of the associations “Bikur Cholim” [visiting the sick]
and “Linat Hatzedek” [hospice for the poor] in Rakow

After the peace treaty of Brest-Litovsk [between the Bolsheviks and the German Government], the Germans entered Rakov. The Jews were glad to see them, hoping that they would reestablish order. And, indeed, they were not disappointed. The Germans fought forcefully against the gangs, and rooted them out of the area. Also, they treated the civilian population fairly. On the other hand, because of the German occupation, the ties with Russia and the large Russian Jewry, and consequently the ties with YAKUFU, were severed. Because of the lack of financial support, the Aid Committee, headed by Rabbi Kalmanovitz, stopped functioning. Yet, the poverty in town was great, and the need to help those who had suffered by the war, as well as the many refugees and orphans, was very pressing. A new Aid Committee was established, by the initiative of the author of this report [Avraham Starovin], which organized the best of the youth, and gave help to all who needed it. Parties were arranged [for fund raising], contributions were collected, and pledges of fixed monthly payments were given by all who had the means. When the German authorities saw this private initiative, they, too, helped by supplying food and by giving the necessary permits for its purchase.

In the Autumn of 1918 came the end of the World War, and the peace treaty [really an armistice] was signed with Germany. The Germans left the town and the Bolsheviks returned, and chaos reigned again. Every one focused on his own affairs and on his own troubles – and there was no shortage of troubles. The Aid Committee was dismantled.

A new war broke out on the first of July, 1919, this time between Poland and the Red Army. The Poles came nearer to Rakov, and we were caught in the fire between the two sides. The Woods of Solominka became a battle ground between the armies, and after a hard and cruel battle the Red Army retreated, and Rakov passed into the hands of the Poles and to their control.

As soon as the calm was restored, the community started to reorganize its affairs anew. A new Community Council was elected, comprising of nine Kalmanovitz supporters and six of the supporters of Rabbi Polak. The National Committee in Minsk and the Joint sent financial support. Also, while the war was going on, and one army was advancing and another army retreating, a messenger came from the "Rakovian Relief" in America, bringing 1000 dollars to be divided among the needy in town. Individuals, too, received various amounts of money from their relatives in America.

In the winter of 1919 Rakov became a border town. Peace was finally set, and the control of the town passed into the hands of Poland. The area of the Barbina was declared a demilitarized zone, and Rakov became a border town with all its implications: On the one hand, it was separated from the wealthier villages, from whom it had received much of its income, and on the other hand, being a border town opened up the great opportunities of smuggling. Russia was impoverished, hungry, lacking everything, and in Poland one could get hold of all the goods of the West. And the Jews of Rakov knew what was ahead of them.

During the period of smuggling, when the border guards were weak and poorly organized, the Jews managed to smuggle into Russia everything which could be carried in packages or bundles: clothing, haberdashery, saccharin, and leather goods; and in return – brought gold, diamonds, furs, and other expensive goods. Each such "Yazda" (trip) was profitable. These easy profits were enticing, and went to everybody's head. Old and young, men and women, all were consumed by the business of smuggling. Artisans left their shops, the store owners left their customers, heder teachers left their Talmud books, butchers their stores, and teamsters their whips, and all of the were engaged in the business of gold. At first – with the help of the gentiles, and later – on their own. They forgot God and Man, Sabbath and Festivals – everything was pushed aside. Everybody was smuggling, without fear of the danger involved. Respected and honored merchants partnered with the ne'er-do-well; long bearded Jews with side curls roamed the border woods, on winter nights, in the company of hefty and corpulent 'shikzes' [gentile women], anything for the sake of the "avodat ha'kodesh" [literally, sacred work; used here in irony for work which is anything but sacred]. Everybody went wild: no family life, no life at all, just the madness of smuggling. And Rakov filled with magnificent cloths and chains of gold, with expensive furs and diamond studded gold bracelets. The same out-of-the-way Rakov, which had hardly been known, became famous as a trading town, and its name was recognized throughout the land. The doors of the most splendid stores in Vilna and Warsaw were opened to the Jews of Rakov, and credit – as much as your heart desires, just buy our merchandise. Young lads, who had not known the shape of a coin, left their studies, smuggled, and filled their purses with gold; and afterward they filled the theater halls of Vilna, and also their bellies – with great delicacies and expensive drinks. They grabbed the "Mizrach" [the seats at the eastern wall – the most honored seats] in the synagogue, bought the best "Aliyot" [being called to the Torah reading] and paid handsomely for them, and the previously honored "ba'alei batim" [well-to-do members of the congregation] were forced to be satisfied with the less honorific "aliyot" such as "acharon" [the last reading, which comes after the mandatory seven readings]. And woe to the eyes that beheld this…

All the community related activities were neglected in those days, and the public institutions were paralyzed, for who was foolish enough to engage oneself with the needs of the community when gold was pouring in the streets, and wine and liqueur were flowing like water, and everybody was acting wantonly?

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The Slump Period

The smuggling period, which opened for the Jews of Rakov the fabled world of easy profits, lasted four years – 1920 to 1924. Four years – and in the fifth the catastrophe suddenly struck. The border was stabilized, armed guards were posted on both sides of the border, no one could enter and no one could leave. Smugglers were being caught, fined heavily, and jailed. Many lost all their money and ended up with nothing. And Rakov became, again, what it had been before the smuggling – impoverished, and crying for help from relatives in America. The popular bank widened its activities, started to give low-interest loans and extended credit in difficult times. The Tradesmen Organization, too, started an extensive activity in this area.

To sum up:

  1. The fact that Rakov was separated from the wealthier villages and estates, after the border was stabilized, was the main reason and the primary cause of the general impoverishment of the town.
  2. Even the estates which remained on this [the Polish] side of the border, were divided and given to new owners by the Polish authorities, and they were not a substitute owners of the large estates who had been the source of much of Rakov's livelihood.
  3. The peasant learned to be a trader.
  4. The Jewish store owners had new competitors: A new class of Christian store owners came into being, side by side with the Jewish store owners, and took away some of their livelihood.
  5. For some reason, the big traders of old – before the First World War – vanished. These traders would buy grains and linseed when it was inexpensive, fill their storehouses, and sell it when it was dear. With the profits, they would bring in warehouses full sacks of flour from the Ukraine. In their place there appeared the peddler, who would buy one sack of flour and take it home on his shoulder or in his cart. The trader became a peddler.
  6. The situation of the craftsmen and artisans got worse as well. He, the craftsman and artisan, could not attract clients. In modern times, nobody buys custom made shoes, people prefer shopping for ready-made ones in the shoe-store; they are nicer and less expensive. The same thing with the tailor – people buy ready-made suits in the clothing-store. This 'secret' became known not only to the Jew, but also to the gentile. Also, the agricultural machinery and the Rakov pottery, which for generations upon generations gave town people their livelihood, and whose fame was spread afar, got out of fashion, and could not find many customers.
  7. Both the store owner and the artisan would have been happy to earn enough to pay the rent for their apartments and their shops, and pay the taxes – those taxes which destroyed and ruined the position of the Jews in Poland. The writer of these notes is an eyewitness to the fact that out of the 300 Jewish families at most fifty had solid ground under their feet, and their economic situation was more or less firm.

So how did the majority of the Jews of Rakov live? To a large extent on the regular support of relatives in America; some were using what remained from the 'four good years'; others were surviving on dry bread and potatoes; and for some families even that was a luxury, and they were starving. And what about the young people in those days? They were mostly unemployed and idle, and therefore were looking for any way to migrate.

The Institutions

Against the background of the generally dismal situation in the town at that period – the early Thirties – the financial and cultural institutions stood out as beacons of light. They functioned on a high level thanks to the energy and dedication of those who ran them, and most of all – thanks to the financial support which was received from America.

  1. The Popular Bank which gave out loans, of 50 – 70 gold coins, with a relatively low interest rate.
  2. The "Gmilat Hessed", which gave out loans of up to 100 gold coins without charging any interest. The credit which the shopkeepers and received from these financial institutions saved them during the hard times, and enabled them, somehow, to keep their businesses going.
  3. The "Linat Tzedek" Society also functioned on a high level. Not only did it give the poor sick people medical help and the use of medical equipment free of charge, but it also gave, when needed, a glass of milk, an egg, a quarter of a chicken, or some wine for Passover.
  4. The "Tarbut" School. The "Tarbut" [Culture] school gained the attention and the general appreciation of the town.In spite of the big 'disadvantage' that all classes were taught in Hebrew, a language which was not generally spoken in town. It has to be noted that, as the only school, it was an important factor in the life of the town. Most of the students who studied there were from the lower class, and the "Tarbut" school enabled them to avoid attending the general Polish school, which would have cut them off any connection to "Yidishkeit" Jewishness]. The management of the school was in trustworthy and industrious hands.
  5. The Merchants and Craftsmen Organization. It served mainly as the go-between the authorities and its members concerning licenses and similar matters.
  6. Among the rest, we must not forget the place and importance of the synagogues, and their role in the general life of the town.
  7. The "Hevra Kadisha" [burial society], too, deserves a favorable mention. It purchased additional land, fenced the cemetery, and put an end to the neglect that had prevailed there.
  8. And last, but not least – the library. It served as a center for the well educated and idealistic youth of the town. It grew from year to year, and its management, which well understood the cultural value of that institution, worked hard at improving and extending it. It has to be noted that the current [i.e. of the early Thirties] management does not shame its predecessors.
  9. A special place in the life of the town in those days was held by "Va'ad HaYetomim" [society for caring for orphans]. Without its work and devotion to the 'sacred mission' it undertook, many an orphan would have been, literally, living in the streets. As to the financial aspects, it, like many other institutions, depended on the support received from America.

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