The History of the Jews in Stoiptz (edited from Jewishgen.org)
by Mordechai Machtey
Translated by Osher Birzen
It is not an easy task to record the history of our town now, at the time when the Jewish Stoiptz no longer exists. In addition to this, we do not have the source material that could be used to obtain the information necessary for this job.
Remembrance of Stoiptz Jews, people of good virtues and warm hearts that exuded love, life and creativity, will never disappear from our memories, and it is untenable that they will be forgotten and descend in the abyss of oblivion.
Even though I am not a writer, and perhaps because of this, I have no choice but to record whatever I was able to dig up in my memory, as well as what I heard from my father, Reb Eliyahu of blessed memory, a long time Shochet (ritual slaughterer) of our town (born 2nd day of Rosh Hashona 5609 – 1848).
Stoiptz is situated on the sandy right shore of the Niemen (Nemunas, Memel) river, 80 km west of Minsk. Until WWI Stoiptz was part of Minsk Gubernia (Governorate). After the Moscow-Warsaw railroad was built, in the middle of the 19th century, Stoiptz became a railway station. After WWI, under Polish rule, Stoiptz served as a Polish-Russian border station, 15 km inside Polish territory.
The Christian population, the Belarusians, worked their fields in the mountainous terrain, and since this alone could not sustain their existence, they took additional jobs at the railway and sawmill in Stoiptz. So did the peasants living in the neighboring villages, approximately 2 to 5 km North-West of Stoiptz.
At the same time, the peasants living on the left shore of Niemen, for the most part were supplying the town markets with their agricultural produce, since their fields were very fertile.
Name of the Town
There was no other town in the area whose name had so many versions:
Stoiptz, Shtoibtz, Stolbitz, Stolptzi, Stolbtzi, etc. The only sort of reliable document was a GET [Jewish divorce contract] (as known, the (non-Jewish- not in the original) name of the town has to be registered in a GET, without a single letter in the name of the town changed).
In the GET, the name of the town was registered as STUPTZI, and if we take into consideration that it was one of the towns of Belarus, and that in the Belarusian language it is called STAUPZI, and that the final “I” is dropped in Yiddish (i.e. Romni – Romen, Liachovichi – Lechovitz, etc), it appears that the correct version is STOIPTZ.
STOIBTZ was also used, and in Russian the train station was called STOLBTZI. In all documents, however, STOLPTZI (with a P) is used.
I believe the version SHTOIPTZ, with the [Hebrew] letter Shin [sound SH], started to appear because Germans used to visit Stoiptz, and Jews used to travel to Koenigsberg, and in the German language, the letter S in front of the letter T is pronounced as “SH” – STOIPTZ.
When Did the Jews Settle in Stoiptz?
Unfortunately, it is difficult to give a clear answer to this question, since no documents are available from the previous century. . The only document is the Register of Chevra-Kadisha [book of the Burial society] from approximately 1768, when the Old Jewish cemetery ceased being used. In my opinion, burials there were discontinued even earlier; when my grandmother passed away in 1876, she was already buried in the middle of the New Jewish cemetery.
The Register does not record or mention important events, not even in passing. The Register is like a ledger of protocols recording elections of the Gabboim, which took place during intermediate days (Chol HaMoed) of Passover.
There was double material evidence in Stoiptz, which served as a proof that Jews had settled in the town hundreds of years earlier:
- The Cold synagogue;
- The Old Jewish cemetery.
The Cold Synagogue
When the Cold synagogue burned down in the summer of 1902, the town elders claimed it had stood for approximately 400 years. (This, of course, was not based on any documents, but rather on an oral tradition). Neither the size of the synagogue, which could accommodate 500 congregants, nor its architecture, could determine that it was already built in 1500. The Ladies section was built on two sides, and the roof had 5 sections, giving the impression of a hen hovering over its chicks. The Holy Ark was a work of art.
It is clear that such a large and expensive building could only have been constructed when a large and wealthy community needed it. One can assume that the synagogue was erected at the end of the 16th or the beginning of the 17th century, when Stoiptz already had a well-established Jewish settlement.
Old Jewish Cemetery
While it is impossible to determine precisely when the Jewish settlement was established in Stoiptz from the Cold synagogue, the Old Cemetery allows us to make this determination with greater clarity. I remember, as a child, that the few gravestones in the middle of the cemetery were already half-sunk in the ground. The inscription on these stones and their design were erased and blurred. If it had been possible to decipher the etched letters and years, we could have learned something. For example, when did the people die 100 years before they stopped burying the dead there, but even then it would still be unclear to us when they started using the cemetery?
The elders of the generation used to say that the beginning of the Old cemetery was approximately between 1560 and 1570, two hundred years before the Register of the Burial Society was started in 1768. That assumption is almost certainly accurate, as attested by the large area of the cemetery, along with the assumption that the small settlement had expanded over the years. My father, of Blessed memory, told me, that he himself saw a manuscript, where it was written “STUPTZI [situated] near Szwierzne”. This shows that at the time when there was a Jewish settlement in Szwierzne, the Jewish community of Stoiptz was taking its first steps. It is reasonably plausible, that prior to that time the Jews who died in Stoiptz were buried in the Szwierzne cemetery, and as the Stoiptz community grew it established its own cemetery. Based on the above, we will not be mistaken to conclude that the first Jews settled in Stoiptz in the first half of the 16th century, and perhaps even earlier.
Growth of the Town
As mentioned above, Szwierzne was older than Stoiptz. A Jewish settlement had existed there for years. Szwierzne was located on the major road that lead from Brest to the east and the left bank of the Niemen, which was very fertile, as opposed to the right bank – sandy soil, it’s only advantage being proximity to the large forests, on one side ARTSUKHI, SHVERINAVA to the east, and on the other side DEREVNA and the famous “NALIBOKI PUSHCHA” (during WWII this huge wild forest, within its vast territory, saved many Jews from the claws of the blood-thirsty Nazi beast).
Those settlers who decided to skip the established town of Szwierzne and continue on to the empty and exposed right bank of Niemen, had two reasons for doing so: (a) the nearby large forests; b) the flat bank of the Niemen.
Trees were an important item of export to Germany, and were shipped and transported via the Niemen which flowed into the Baltic Sea. Since on the bank of Niemen (where Stoiptz was established) there was a natural “port”, suited for storing all kinds of materials, trees were brought here from the forests. They were assembled into various rafts and floats, and sent to Germany. All those who dealt with this: the merchants, their representatives, their clerks, their guards and their Jewish workers settled in Stoiptz.
The Niemen served as a waterway not only for the trees. Grain and flax were also hauled and towed to Germany using towboats (called BATN in Stoiptz). From Germany, of course, various goods were brought in, and thus normal and intensive commerce developed between Stoiptz and Germany, especially with Koenigsberg. Thanks to this, there was tremendous development in the settlement of Stoiptz, and its population grew far more than the population of Szwierzne. The growth peaked in the 19th century, when Stoiptz became the first station on the new, Russian built, Brest-Moscow railroad (Baranowicz did not yet exist as a town).
Relations with the outside world greatly affected Stoiptz and placed it ahead of other neighboring towns not only in terms of economy; culturally it was more developed than other towns in the area. Stoiptz appointed and invited to its community outstanding Rabbis, Cantors and Shochtim (ritual slaughterers). As a result, representatives of large cities came to Stoiptz and hired them to serve in their communities. Rabbi Dovid Tevele became a Rav of Minsk, Rabbi Simcha Shmuel “Meshores Moshe” – Rav of Mezrich, Rav Meyer Noach Levin became the Rav of Moscow. After the Jews were expelled from Moscow in 1891, he was invited to Vilna to serve as a Preacher. An interesting fact: not a single Rabbi was buried in the Stoiptz cemetery until 1904. Rabbi Avraham Yitzchok Maskileison (father-in-law of Rav Reuven Katz, the chief Rabbi of Petah-Tikva) also passed away from a heart attack 3-4 months after moving to Stoiptz.
Since Stoiptz was surrounded by vast forests, the trade of lumber developed. While the trees were felled and cut by the gentile villagers, the rest of the work was done by clerks, merchants and wagon drivers, who brought the trees to the river’s edge and almost all of these, were Jews. Those who transported the rafts to Germany had to be provided for and supplied with bread, cereals, etc. in time. Such a trip took about four to five weeks. This is how shopkeepers and bakers, metalworkers, builders, carpenters, tailors and shoemakers appeared in Stoiptz – the urban community grew and developed in strides.
As the town expanded, the Jewish cemetery, which was then situated in the northwestern corner of the town, found itself at the southern edge of the town. The market became the commercial center, and all craftsmen settled to the north of the market, in the Hiorzdika neighborhood, which was populated almost exclusively by artisans, until the destruction of the town during WWII.
The Jewish community was not content with lumber trade alone; a new branch of export was developed – grain and flax. In those days, as in my childhood years, small steamboats were used for grain commerce. Barges were built on the banks of the Niemen; the steamboats towed them to Germany. Building these boats required builders, wood and plank cutters.
With the arrival of the train and the establishment of workshops for the repair of locomotives and wagons (depots), another 200 workers were added. Together with their families, they became serious customers in the town.
Thanks to the railroad transportation, in the 1880s or 90s Nochum Boruch Rozovsky founded a match factory which, for various reasons, was closed in 1895. With the closing of the factory and transfer of the railroad workshops to Baranowitz, at the end of the 19th century, Stoiptz economy was based more on commerce.
We find information on the development and growth of the Jewish population in the second half of the 19th century, in the Jewish-Russian Encyclopedia of Brockhaus-Efron. It is said among other things: according to the national census of 1847 the Jewish population of Stoiptz reached 1315 souls. According to the 1897 census, the general population of Stoiptz reached 3754, of which 2409 where Jewish.
We can see that the Jewish population reached its peak of 65% of the total population. A great decline began with the emigration to North and South America, South Africa and Palestine. To a large extent this was caused by WWI and the Great Fire of 1915.
We do not have precise numbers, but it is estimated that in 1939, on the eve of WWII, the total population of Stoiptz was about 8,000, of which 2,500 were Jews, i.e. 31%.
We must note with great satisfaction, that thanks to the large emigration overseas and to Palestine, hundreds and perhaps even thousands of Stoiptz Jews managed to avoid death and a terrible fate in the years of WWII, and managed to remain alive and witness the defeat of the enemy of the Jews.
How Steibtz Was Destroyed
On 22nd June, 1941 the calamity befell. Only a few hours after the outbreak of the war (between Germany and Soviet Russia) the town was bombed.
Jews ran hither and thither without any goal along all kinds of paths and tracks, like driven animals. Each and every one was asking, how can we get to Russia?
During the early days the frontier was still open. The young men were the first to leave, and together with them went others urged on by the instinct to save their lives. But most people remained in the town. The deep spiritual bond with the family was what kept them to the spot. Most of the inhabitants who had children remained. Nobody imagined how little time there was.
The Germans invaded after three days had passed. On Friday morning we still went down to the River Nieman. It was a fine day with a friendly sun warming and caressing us. All of a sudden artillery began to fire. The city burst into flames. We were deafened by the whistling bullets. Alarmed Jews dashed down to the River Niemen, from the fire to the water. But here was the peril of the bullets. Many ran with a knapsack on their backs to the threshing floors, to the mountains. Dozens of Jews were killed. Many households lost the husband, the son or the son-in-law. Yet many people stayed where they were. It is hard to leave the place where you are born, where you have grown up, where you have become mature and have brought up a family. It is a pity to leave the little you have scraped together with so much toil and sweat.
The town was in flames. Red fire was rising from every building. When the fire reached our house we took our paralyzed old grandfather and brought him over to the people who had run away to the threshing floors.
When the Germans entered the town we began to leave our shelters, and everyone went to visit his own ruin, to see what had been burnt and which children had lost their lives in the fire or the shooting.
During the early days the Jews were still permitted to bury their dead and the Hevra Kadisha had a great deal to do. Hundreds of families remained without a roof over their head and went to kinsfolk and acquaintances. The congestion was overwhelming, ten families in a single room. Most of the buildings had collapsed, but the Yurdzika and Pocztowa Streets had not been touched. Afterwards the ghetto was established there.
The first Sabbath passed quietly. On Sunday the Germans accused the Jews of the town with shooting at them from the forests of the district. On account of that charge they destroyed the Szpitalna Street and murdered several hundred Jews and several dozen Christians. The Jewish homes suffered most. Yet if you came to a Jewish house to ask for shelter you were not turned away in spite of the dreadful crowding. But when the Jews appealed to their Christian acquaintances for a corner in which to lay their heads, most of them answered that their great hour had come and they were waiting tensely for the moment when they could pillage the Jews and “inherit” what was theirs. However, it should be remarked that there were also a few Christians who showed that they shared in our distress and wished to help their Jewish acquaintances; but they asked us not to get into touch with them because they were very much afraid.
Famine stalked the streets, for a great deal of the foodstuffs had been burnt. Barter trade with the Christian population began. The currency was: coats, high boots, clothes. For any of those it was possible to obtain a little flour, groats and potatoes. If anyone had money or jewelry he could still obtain bread with it.
The first Germans who entered the town from the front began to recruit Jews for work. These “happy” ones received 125 grams of bread and a little thin soup daily. I still remember very well the scene in the home of Hayyim “der Glatter”. The father came back from work with a tiny loaf of bread. The children waited half fainting with hunger. Their eyes burnt as they waited for the bread to be shared out piece by piece in accordance with the scales of the highest justice.
During this first period bread was still to be found in the homes of craftsmen such as locksmiths, carpenters and shoemakers. The Christian neighbours came furtively to order shoes or chairs. But very soon an order was published which forbade commercial relations or work between Jews and Christians.
Little by little ‘equality’ was established amongst the Jews. Those who had been eating bread only yesterday wandered about starving today. Orders were issued that all the Jews must move to the Yurdzika quarter and the half of the Pocztowa street. Dwellings began to be exchanged with the Christians. The Jews were forbidden to take any belongings or furniture out of their former homes. That all remained in the possession of the new Christian neighbors.
The establishment of a ghetto had not yet been proclaimed, but preparations were perfectly obvious. A Jewish council was established by order of the Germans. They took a Jew from Lodz as the chairman. The members were : Alter Yosselovitch, Berl Moshe ben Schmerl Nehama-Ettas, Velvel Paramnik, Weinreich and Press (who was vice-chairman of the council). The decrees and harsh commands came one after the other. We were ordered to wear the yellow badge. We were forbidden to walk on the pavements. In addition every Jew had to take off his hat six steps before passing a German. But when the Germans saw the Jew taking off his hat they burst into a fury at the “impudence of the cursed Jews” removing his hat to a German and would beat them savagely. If anybody exchanged a word with a Christian he was liable to receive fifty lashes.
An order of the council head required all the Jews to gather outside the town. He would select a few to send to death in order to terrify those who remained alive. People aged fourteen to sixty had to work.
The work was at the Besorezna sawmill and at Kitaievitch, and near the railway. Some were taken to work as servants to the Germans. The chief work was shifting the broad rails of the Russian railway line to the narrower European gauge. They worked from sunrise to sunset. The Germans established cooperatives where the workers were Jews exclusively. The manager of the carpentry cooperative was cruel beyond imagining. For the slightest error the worker had to stretch himself out and he thrashed him savagely. Afterwards he would bandage the injuries himself and feed the man with fattening food. His murderous blood only quietened down after he killed at least one Jew a day by shooting him. On the eve of the New Year and the Day of Atonement all the Jews were gathered to a single place in order to terrify them entirely. On one occasion twenty young men and women were selected and taken away to an unknown destination, after which all trace of them disappeared. Sometime later when building a pit behind the slaughterhouse, the bodies of women and man were found. Their faces had been mutilated so as to be unrecognizable but the clothes were still left and from them the corpses were identified as belonging to the twenty young people of Steibtz.
From time to time the Jews were collected and the first, the fiftieth and the hundredth were taken out of line and sent to die. One order pursued the other. Once we were ordered to bring all the copper and zinc vessels, candlesticks, etc. On another occasion large cash payments were imposed and the Jewish council worked hard to collect them. Thus the Jews were required to pay a million roubles, and the amount was provided in money and securities. The Jewish police played a big part in collecting money and supplying the Germans with high boots and clothes. The Jewish council did its best to spread the illusion among the Jews that if they were obedient there would be no more pogroms. Yet this was an illusion. The liaison officer between the Jewish council and the German municipal authorities was Press.
His relations with them were “in order”, and they “promised” him that in Steibtz “everything would be quiet”.
Winter 1941 was unbelievably harsh. There was no wood for burning, most of the household belongings had already been sold in order to buy food. One could only “warm up” in the dense atmosphere of a hundred people in a dwelling. Those who suffered most were the old folk and children, while the youngsters and adults who were working used to receive a meager ration and maintain themselves on the scraps of food left by the Germans. It should be noted that there were a few individual Germans in whom the spark of humanity still flickered. These expressed their disgust as the cruelty of their own people. But “orders are orders” and had to be fulfilled.
Worst of all was the situation of the Jews when S.S. men came to town. They gathered a group of Jews from out of town, ordered them to dig a grave, put them in a row and shot them dead. On one occasion they took forty young men and women to the police station, ordered them to kneel down and straighten their bodies. Anybody who did not succeed in “straightening” the body, was beaten with rubber truncheons and in this way, kneeling with their faces to the wall, a different one was taken out each time and sent to his death. The state of those who remained alive was unbearable. Hungry, in rags and tatters, degraded and tortured. Your brother or comrade was taken to death before your eyes. A row of S.S. men stood, “working” with their rubber truncheons and giving orders to run, to run as long as you had breath. Run fast, otherwise you were dead. You gathered the last remnants of your strength and ran home. If you were lucky you escaped from that hell, but you came home broken and broken-down, dejected and weary to death.
All this, as remarked, was before the ghetto was built. Only after a while was barbed wire placed round the Yurezdika and half the Post office street. People went our to work every morning through a narrow gateway. Each one received his own work card on which was marked the name of the factory or plant where he worked. Within the ghetto there were many revelations of personal self-sacrifice one on behalf of another. People divided their last crust with others. To our own shame it must be said that there were also manifestations of the loss of every vestige of humanity. There were cases where one stole bread from another. The ghetto had its own “autonomy”: a Jewish council, Jewish police, Jewish starvation and Jewish suffering. Everybody worked and everybody suffered and starved. In daytime only old folk and little children remained in the ghetto. The White Russians and Letts exploited this situation and often swarmed into the houses in order to pillage or just do some thrashing.
One day the Jewish council received instructions to provide seven hundred young people for work. The Jews secretly debated whether they should go or not. At the demand of the council volunteers were found as well. They hoped that they would save their lives by this. Of the people five hundred were sent to Baranowice and two hundred to Minsk. They could not run away because they were afraid that vengeance would be taken on their families who had remained in the ghetto. The Jewish council was required to notify every escapee and it carried out this duty faithfully.
On the other hand, very close friends began to discuss an organized revolt. They spoke about putting the town on fire, pouring boiling oil in the faces of their tormentors. Material was prepared for this. We were ordered to maintain absolute secrecy, which meant that only a few exceptional people could be trusted to know about it.
The local police was interested in winning German approval.
When the Germans had reached Stalingrad a rumour spread that the Russians had dropped a paratroop division near Bialystok. In Steibtz there was a Jew named Speigel. He encouraged the younger generation and insisted that we must believe in the collapse of the Germans. He also conducted propaganda to go to the forests and join the partisans. More than once a group of Jews met in order to leave for the forest, but at the last moment the local Steibtz folk refused to join them. This Speigel, who came from Warsaw, was the initiator and vital spirit among us. He preached and encouraged, disturbed Jews in their lethargy and called for vengeance and deliverance. When a scouting group was sent, the Judennrat came to know of it and warned and threatened that this step endangered the residents of the whole town and those who endangered the others would be responsible for the bloodshed.
In spite of this there were some Jews who paid no attention to the warnings and threats. The first group went off to the forest. It should be noted that it did not include a single former Steibtz resident. Next day the Germans learnt of this. They took the families of those who had run away and murdered them. In the ghetto there was a storm. Jews cursed those “lightheaded people who had destroyed the safety of a whole town for their own benefit”. This exerted a most depressing influence. The “forest” movement was suspended for a time.
The movement to the forests continued from the neighboring small towns, but they always returned home because there was no organized partisan movement as yet.
The scent of slaughter could be felt in the ghetto. The men were taken to camps. Old people and children were left. The young folk were engaged at work in the sawmills and on the railway. We went out to work in the morning and came back in the evening.
Two days after the Day of Atonement we saw that ghetto was surrounded by police, S.S. men, Letts and White Russians. Only the most skilled specialists were being sent to work. The will to live whispered that there beyond the barbed wire life was safe. The awareness of death was absolutely certain. We went back home. There were tears in all eyes, running down the cheeks silently, silently so that nobody should know. You could feel as though they were all choking themselves with tears not to cry loud, so that nothing should be heard, to that nobody should know that there was a living soul here. Everything had frozen and died – died while it was still alive. My mother clung to me, embracing me and kissing me. If we have to die, my son, let us better die together. But you are still young and you have to live, to live. So go and try your luck, my son, and may God preserve you among the living. My face was red with tears. I burst out and pushed my way to the gate, my head full of the single thought: would they let me pass through and go to work or would I have to stay here and die with my mother?
I passed the gate. On my way to work I heard bloodcurdling shrieks and wails. Some of the German foremen understood why we were so exhausted and gave us easier work. It is hard to describe our feeling. You work, living and breathing near Germans, while shots are splitting the air only a short distance away. There they are taking your nearest and most precious to destruction. You feel that it is pure chance that has kept you alive, that has kept you for a few days. Tomorrow or the day after your fate will be the same as the fate of your brethren.
The extermination continued for eight days. The murderers could not finish off the Jews of Steibtz in one single day.
Once again talk began about a plan for vengeance, but the cunning Germans promised the Jewish council that the Steibtz ghetto would not be liquidated, and they succeeded in putting the Jewish forces to sleep. The sparks of revolt were extinguished. The only one to rise was Elyakim Miltzensom. burst out like a tempest and awakened those who slumbered. He set fire to the largest two story house in the ghetto in which there were about a hundred and fifty Jews.
Two days before the liquidation the Germans woke up the peasants of Drezdi, Strosworzena and Pertuk and took them to work. For two days they dug a pit that was a hundred and fifty meters long and two and a half meters deep. The Jews were loaded on lorries. Those who refused to climb up were beaten savagely or killed on the spot.
The shrieks of the poor people split the heavens. The lorries were driven by local White Russian drivers. Beside the pit stood Germans, Letts and White Russian police with machine-guns. The Jews were ordered to take their clothes off. Men, Women and children stood naked. Their belongings, their rings, their money and everything else was taken away from them. They were placed in a row on the edge of the pit and the machine-guns began chattering and killing. Living people also fell into the pits which were then covered with a layer of sand. Next day other groups of Jews were brought from the bunkers to the identical fate. There were some who joined this journey to death of their own free will when their families were taken. So it was with Dr. Sirkin, the district physician. The Germans wanted to leave him, but after they had taken his wife and child he saw no point in living. There was no place for him in the world that had turned dark and he went together with those who were taken to death. Rabbi Joshua, the rabbi of the community, went to the slaughter wearing his prayer shawl and tefillin.
Some Jews hid in caves, in attics and cellars where they stayed for eight days without food or water, In some cases the choked weeping of a little child revealed the hiding place of the Jews to the murderers and they burst in like wild beasts and dragged them to the pitgrave. When they burst into one of the bunkers they found a seven year old child of Dosia Hankin. The boy fell at their feet and begged to be left alive. He was murdered in cold blood. Zimmel Hayyatovitch and his wife were enfeebled after eight days in hiding without food and came out into the ghetto. We took them to work with us in order to save them. When the foreman saw the children he said cynically: “I know that you hid yourselves, but I’m prepared to leave you alive because I disapprove of slaughtering the Jews. But the order is that no Jewish child is to be left alive and so I must kill them.” The children clung to their parents but in vain. With a cruelty that froze the blood they took them and killed them before the eyes of their parent.
After the slaughter which continued for eight days the Germans took fifteen of the working Jews and ordered them to take the belongings out of the homes whose owners had been exterminated. Pillows, kitchenware and furniture all in order and with German precision, each kind separately, every type together with those like it. They loaded everything on buses and took them away.
When we came back to town we were met by local peasants with a malicious smile on their lips. There were some whose faces showed their astonishment and disappointment, their eyes asking : “How have you had the impudence to remain alive?”
The peasants of the neighborhood and their wives dragged off everything valuable that they could: furs, pillows and cushions with Jewish bloodstains on them. Here and there we saw piles of sand where the Germans had buried the Jews who had refused to mount the lorry. Almost the whole ghetto had been transformed into a graveyard.
There were still pools of blood in front of many houses.
We began to think once again about going to the forest. Maybe somebody would remain alive there in order to tell later generations what Hitler had done to the Jewish people.