CHAPTER I - AMDUR, GRODNO and BELARUS
A. The History of Amdur and the Grodno Region
The town once called Amdur by its Jewish residents is called Indura by its Christian residents. Since the Jews are gone and the Christians remain, Indura is how you'll see it spelled on the maps.
Amdur is about 25 miles south of and a short car ride from the much larger city of Grodno (also spelled Hrodno). By horse and cart, it is probably a journey of half a day. Amdur is in what was once known as Grodno Guvernia, now called Grodno Oblast, which means the Grodno Region. Most historical events that affected Grodno also affected Amdur. Grodno would have influenced Amdur and my grandfather's family back in 1900; it was the center of area trade and transportation and had a very large Jewish population. Amdur and Grodno are located in the northwest corner of what is now the independent country of Belarus, close to the Lithuanian and Polish borders.
Human beings have lived in the Grodno area since pre-historic times. The first mention of the city of Grodno in European history was in 1128 A.D., and Jews have lived in the area since at least about that time. Grodno was founded at the crossing of the Nieman and Hrodnichanka rivers; the name Grodno simply means "town" or fenced settlement. I don't know how old Amdur is; Jews have lived there as far back as 1539 or earlier.
During the 1200's, Grodno and Amdur became part of Lithuania, as they remained for hundreds of years. In 1569, the area merged with the "Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania." The regions from Grodno in the west, through Minsk and to Vitebsk in the east became known as Belarus (or Byelorussia, "White Russia"). According to one source, "In 1588, there were two castles in Grodno, nine Orthodox churches, three Catholic churches, one synagogue, 31 streets, and 4,000 residents." Polish king Stephan Batori maintained a second home in Grodno.
Between 1640 to 1667, the Russians and Ukrainians expanded into southern Belarus. After the Cossack revolt of 1648 against Polish landowners and gentry, Cossacks joined with the Polish peasantry and murdered over 100,000 Jews, mostly in Ukraine and southern Belarus, but did not advance north to the Grodno region. Jews comprised 80% of the population in Grodno at that time; I was told that there were no pogroms in the Grodno area during the 1600's nor in subsequent centuries, including when my grandparents lived there.
Generally, there was peace and cooperation during these centuries between Polish Catholics and Jews, and Jews enjoyed a relatively high status at times. But there were some frictions. As in other places in Europe, there was an incident in Grodno in 1790 when a Jew was accused of killing a Christian child to use his blood for baking matzah. (This absurd accusation, which is abhorrent to Jewish law and, of course, in violation of the laws of kashrut, is referred to as the "blood libel" accusation.) The accused Jewish man was put to death for this alleged crime, and his body was cut into pieces for public display. But this was apparently a very isolated incident in Grodno.
Notwithstanding the fact that Jews were a majority in Grodno, they still had to obtain permission from the Catholic church in the 1600's to build the grand synagogue, which still stands today. Grodno was within the Polish king's lands, and overseeing religious matters was turned over to the church.
At times during the 18th century, Amdur was the meeting place of the "Council of Four Lands," a Jewish self-governing body that met for two weeks each year and wielded considerable power among the large Jewish community in the areas that now constitute Poland, Belarus and Lithuania. The meeting of the Council in Amdur indicates that the town was one of some significance.
In 1795, most of today's Belarus was annexed from Poland by Russia under the rule of "Catherine the Great." In 1812, the area was invaded by the Napoleon army, but ultimately the Russians regained control. The Grodno area remained part of czarist Russia until about 1915.
From 1835 to 1915, Amdur and Grodno were part of the "Pale of Settlement," an area to which Jews were restricted by Catherine's regime. They were granted certain rights under this regime, however, that had been previously denied by Polish rulers. The Pale of Settlement comprised most of today's Belarus and Ukraine; 4.7 million Jews lived in that restricted area in 1880.
In 1882, a fire destroyed much of Amdur, including its largest synagogue. A great brick synagogue was immediately built to replace it, and that structure still stands today.
As mentioned, a 1897 census reported 2,194 people living in Amdur, including about 1,800 Jews.
Grodno's total population at that time was about 46,900, half of whom were Jews. Grodno was one of about a dozen centers of the "Bund," the Jewish social democratic party established that year. Poverty brought on by the czar's policies, mandatory lengthy conscription in the czar's army, the lures of modernization known to exist in other places, word of pogroms occurring in nearby Ukraine following the assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881 and again in 1905, unrest in western Europe, and the beginning of the communist revolutions (the first of which occurred in 1905, the last in 1917) all contributed to the Jews of the Grodno region reevaluating their lives in this area.
One-third of Europe's Jewish population left for North America and other destinations between the 1880's and the beginning of the first World War. Some of the less religious Jewish youth began to align themselves with the Zionist movement, the Russian communist movement, or the Bund. Some of Grodno's Jews were actually quite well-to-do and were among the wealthiest citizens of the city. Likewise, the better-off in Amdur were Jewish as well. And while many left during this period, including our family, many also stayed. Perhaps it was the poorest Jews who thought that traveling far away to the United States or Argentina would be worth the risks. (Of course, now we know that these Jews fared much, much better than those who stayed.)
In September 1915, during World War I, the Grodno area was occupied by Germans. From the beginning of the Russian Revolution of 1917 until 1919, Belarus was in a state of turmoil. In 1919, the area was taken by the Polish army of Pan Pilsudski. The eastern part of Belarus became part of the Soviet Union; Grodno and its nearby shtetlach were included in the western section that became part of Poland. From 1919 until 1939, Grodno and Amdur were in northeast Poland, bordering Lithuania and East Prussia.
Prior to the 20th century, the Jews of Amdur were very segregated from their gentile neighbors, though living peacefully with them most of the time. The Jews lived on different streets and had separate schools for their children. This changed somewhat prior to the second world war, when Polish authorities required that children study together in secular schools.
Immigration to America was halted by the U.S. government in 1924. As the second world war neared, some Jews managed to leave for Palestine. But as war loomed closer, the options for leaving Europe diminished.
One source cites Amdur's population at 2,650 in 1931. Industry at that time included distilling and brewing. One source estimated the town's population was 1,709 at the start of World War II; another source cites 2,500 Jews; and yet another cited 3,000 Jews and 1,500 Christians. Grodno's 21,159 Jews in 1931 represented 42% of its population.
In September 1939, Germans bombed Grodno briefly as it invaded Poland. Germany and the Soviet Union agreed to divide Poland, and the Grodno area became part of the Soviet Union. Many residents of Grodno, including many Jews, favored the reunification of Belarus under Soviet rule. (Stalin's now well known murder of millions may not have been clearly evident during that time.) Communist life was, apparently, kinder to Jews than life under Polish or German rule.
On the first day of Germany's attack on the Soviet Union, June 22, 1941, Grodno quickly surrendered. It was occupied for three years by the Germans. Two ghettos were set up in Grodno where Jews were quickly herded. Eighty Jews were murdered in Grodno within the first few weeks of occupation. Life in the ghettos continued for some time before all of Grodno's Jews were systematically transferred to the Kielbasin slave labor camp before deportation to the Treblinka or Auschwitz death camps. Twenty-nine thousand Jews from Grodno and nearby towns had passed through the large ghetto and 15,000 through the second.
Amdur's 3,000 or so Jews, who comprised the majority of the town, were probably sent to the Kielbasin camp and then deported to Treblinka for extermination in 1942. There was not, as far as we were told, a mass grave of nazi victims in or near Amdur.
Grodno's population was about 60,000 before the war began, including 25,000 Jews. Grodno's population at the end of the war was about 25,000. No Jews remained, and some 10,000 of the city's non-Jewish residents had been killed or fled during the war.
Two hundred Jews are thought to have survived the Grodno ghettos. Hirshel Grodzienski is believed to be the youngest survivor from Grodno. He changed his name to Harold Gordon after immigrating to the United States after the war. His experiences as a ten-year-old, from escaping the Grodno ghetto, to living in Bialystok's ghetto, Buchenwald, Auschwitz, and Dachau before freedom, are chronicled in his book, The Last Sunrise.
We know that a Jew named Elli Goldfand from Amdur survived the war because he was away at the time, serving in the Red Army. After the war, he married a Christian woman, Ludmila, and brought her back to Amdur. He lived as the only Jew in Amdur for the next 40+ years until he died in 1998. Elli and Ludmila had children who are now grown and who have left Amdur. Elli was in touch with another Jewish survivor of Amdur, Shalom Siegel, who left eastern Europe after the war. There may have been a few other Jewish survivors who either escaped to the forests and joined the partisans or who survived service in the Red Army and hence were not in the town when the nazis exterminated the Jews.
Grodno was liberated by the Soviet army in July of 1944. There was no battle; the Germans merely left. The city's buildings, its synagogues and churches, the Jewish shops and homes had gone mostly untouched. But nearly all Jewish life in the entire area had been extinguished.
For the next four and a half decades, Belarus was part of the Soviet Union. A very small number of Jews who had survived the war returned to Grodno and surrounding towns. Other Jews settled in Grodno due to work situations; their families most often survived the war because they had lived further east where Germans never advanced: the Urals, Siberia, Kazakstan.
During these decades of the Soviet Union, religion was prohibited by the government. Churches and synagogues were abandoned and, in some cities, destroyed. Only Grodno's large Catholic church, which was considered to be part of the Vatican and thus untouchable by the Soviets, continued to function. Cemeteries of all religions were destroyed and built upon; the Soviets considered cemeteries without burials within the past 25 years to be subject to demolition. A large sports complex now lies on the site of Grodno's large Jewish cemetery.
In 1986, the Chernobyl power plant in the Ukraine exploded, spreading radioactive dust over southeast Belarus. The Grodno area is in northwest Belarus and was not directly affected; however, the Soviet Union evacuated people from the areas that were heavily affected by Chernobyl's contamination, some of whom were sent to live in the Grodno region.
Belarus remained part of the Soviet Union until April 25, 1991, when it declared independence. The Soviet Union came to an end in December of that year, at which time Russia, Belarus and Ukraine formed the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Jewish emigration has been virtually unrestricted since that time, and more than half of the Jews of the former Soviet Union have left for Israel, the United States, Canada or western Europe.B. Amdur, Grodno and Belarus Today (2000)
Grodno today is a city of about 300,000 people. The Jewish population is about 1,000. Most of the Jews of Grodno today do not have pre-World War II family roots in Grodno. Their families were in the eastern Soviet Union during the war: Moscow, Kazakstan, the Urals or Siberia, and they came to Grodno after the war. A few war survivors did return to Grodno and surrounding towns, including the one to Amdur.
The Jewish community in Grodno has declined from three to five thousand people some ten to fifteen years ago to just 1,000 today as a result in the change in emigration policies. From the 1950's until the late 1980's, emigration from the Soviet Union had been virtually impossible, while emigration has been virtually unrestricted since that time. Notwithstanding the recent decline in Jewish population, the religious and cultural life of the Jewish community has experienced a marked resurgence in all of the former Soviet Union countries now that such activities are no longer forbidden. Synagogues now actively operate in most major cities, and there are supplementary Hebrew schools, day schools and camps. There is a small religious group of Jews in Grodno that meets for prayers in an apartment, though most Jews in Grodno and in Belarus are secular.
In the center of Grodno is a large plaza; when my grandparents lived nearby, it was called "Parade Square." A row of stores owned by Jewish merchants had once been on one side of the plaza. My grandfather surely visited. (Amdur is about a half-hour drive by car today; it was probably a few hours' drive by horse and cart, and there may have been a train. By the way, horses and carts are still a common mode of transportation today; most people cannot afford cars.) The second home of Polish King Stephen Batori was on another side of this plaza square, where it still stands, as does the Catholic church that also dates back to the 1500-1600's. The old Jewish-owned stores were set afire by the nazi's in 1941. They were not rebuilt; that side of the plaza was turned into a park.
Grodno's two Polish castles remain. Both are now museums. The first dates back to the 1300's. It is high on a hill overlooking the river where you can see the bridge upon which Napoleon's brother crossed with his troops. There had once been a mote around the old castle and drawbridge. The second castle is just nearby and now bears the Soviet hammer and sickle in its stone exterior. It was here where the town's leadership surrendered to the nazi's.
The grand old synagogue lies at the edge of the large wartime ghetto. Originally built in the 1600's, this building remains a very majestic structure; it is being restored today with American Jewish funds. There were a number of other smaller synagogues before the war, along with other Jewish institutions, including a hospital, that are now used for other purposes.
In what is now the synagogue's parking lot, ghetto residents had to gather each morning to receive work assignments from their captors. Being assigned to the large Jewish bakery (which we also saw; it is in a state of disrepair) was considered a good job, as it offered the hope of receiving a piece of bread. The worst job was to work in the local tavern/restaurant, where Jewish workers were tortured by German soldiers.
Many of the large ghetto's original buildings remain. Before the war, this was the wealthy Jewish neighborhood. Jewish merchants' stores had lined the main roads, and their homes were built on the second and third floors above the stores. These buildings are all occupied by the city's gentile residents now. Local historians know well where the ghetto borders fell and which structures had belonged to Jews before the war. The walkway where 29,000 Jews had to march as they exited the large ghetto to be sent off to death camps remains intact and is marked by a memorial arch and plaque.
Grodno's largest industries are located outside of the old historic town and include chemical products, textiles and electronics. In the downtown area, there are private shops; however, the large department store remains state-owned, as are most of the restaurants. This explains their very sterile atmosphere. The city's population grew from 25,000 at the end of the war to 300,000 today. Many live in city suburbs called "sleeping quarters" -- large, high-rise apartment buildings built during Kruschev's era that are now nearly all in a state of disrepair.
Privatization is coming slow to Belarus. Many Belarussians were not particularly happy about the break from Russia in 1991; some continue to support communism. Belarussians speak both the Belarussian and Russian languages (which share a common Cyrillic alphabet but have very different vocabularies) interchangeably, and don't prefer one over the other. They appreciate Russian art and literature. Most are still employed by the state. Average salaries are $20-$30 per month. The population is struggling economically. But they are well educated, dress nicely and are well groomed. The poverty spurred by the 1998 Russian economic crisis doesn't appear to suit them well, but they accept their circumstances. This is contrasted to the situation in Ukraine, where we also visited; Ukrainians, particularly in the west, are much more nationalistic, promoting the Ukrainian language and culture, and are much more anti-communist.
The food is the same throughout Belarus (particularly since the restaurants are almost all owned by the state): cabbage or beet borscht, salads (vegetables chopped very small with mayonnaise, sometimes with cold-cut meats), hard rye bread, and meats or chicken, usually fried. Restaurants are nearly empty. Belarussians cannot afford to eat out. The hotels are of substandard quality for Americans; public restrooms are horrendous.
Our primary guide in Belarus was a Jewish woman about my age: Galina Swartz. Her enthusiasm and knowledge made our trip to this depressed country not only interesting and worthwhile, but also exciting. Her English, learned entirely in Belarus, was outstanding. She was assisted in Grodno by a local licensed tour guide, Rosa, who did not speak English; Galina translated wonderfully.
After touring Grodno, we had a dinner experience worth noting. We took Galina, Rosa and Pasha, our driver, to dinner. This was our most expensive meal in Belarus: $20 for five people; we would have expected to have paid at least $150 for a comparable meal at home. As was typical for Belarus, the restaurant was quite large, but there were only three or four tables of people. There was a live band with five or six members. (The state obviously does not run these restaurants at a profit!) Rosa commented that she knew the lead singer; he was a Jewish fellow and he knew Hebrew songs. (Rosa herself was not Jewish but had been married to a Jewish man, now deceased.) I challenged Rosa, in jest, to request that he sing a Hebrew song. She thought that was a reasonable request and did, in fact, ask him to sing something in Hebrew. When he sang "Oseh Shalom" (which Alan and I know well), not only did he and the entire band know it, but everyone else in the restaurant seemed to know it as well. According to Galina, it's a well known song throughout Belarus, whose Jewish population -- once nearly half of the total -- is now only about 1%. Needless to say, I was surprised.
According to Galina, there isn't and never has been antisemitism in Belarus -- perpetrated by the Belarussians, that is. (Belarussian gentiles consider themselves to be a unique ethnic group, descendants of ancient Slavic tribes, closely related to the Russians.) There may have been trouble from the Poles and Lithuanians in the west, who long-ruled the Grodno area, and the Ukrainians in the south, but the Belarussians have always gotten along just fine with the region's Jewish residents. We saw or heard nothing to lead us to believe otherwise. This was in rather sharp contrast to nearby Ukraine, where we heard about antisemitism right from the beginning of our visit.
Amdur still exists today as a small town. Neither the town nor its people were what I had expected to find. I had expected to see a small but modern town where people would be busy with the ordeals of everyday modern life as we know it in the United States; I had expected to find people hostile to our visit or, at the very least, disinterested and too busy to be bothered with us. I knew I wouldn't see the shtetl of 100 years ago when my grandfather lived there.
I was dead wrong about all of that. Surprisingly, very little has changed. The shtetl remains. It surely looks much the same as it did 60 or 100 years ago. Only its Jews are gone. And as to the Christian population, I don't believe I've ever come across more friendly and warm strangers. Rural life is relaxed, and everyone was eager to help us.
Outside the old town center, there is some modern housing, but inside, many pre-World War II houses remain. We became somewhat adept at identifying the "old" versus the "new" housing (that is, pre-World War II or post-World War II) and the Jewish (pre-war, of course) versus the non-Jewish housing.
The more well-to-do people in town had been Jewish. Their houses were built of bricks, more carefully mortared together than other houses and more ornate, with decorative brick patterns. Jews were frequently merchants, and their houses were stores downstairs and homes upstairs, two stories. But these were the better-off Jews. The poorer Jews lived in wooden homes made of dark wooden planks with thatched or wooden roofs.
Today, chickens and ducks still run loose in the streets. The roads are very narrow. Some are cobblestone; most are unpaved. Large vegetable gardens grow between the houses. There is electricity, and some, at least, have phone lines. But there is no plumbing in most of the old town. People have outhouses and wells. Very few people have cars. Farmers have horses and carts. There are a few old cars in town, motorcycles and farm trucks, but not many. Most farming throughout the countryside is done manually, with horses but no powered machinery.
I wouldn't have been surprised to have seen Tevye the Milkman or Yente the Matchmaker. Of course, there are no Jews in Amdur. But if you want to see what Amdur looks like, watch the movie, "Fiddler on the Roof."
Today there are Belarussians, Russians and Poles in Amdur. About half are Catholic and half are Russian Orthodox. The old folk suffer from poor nutrition and lack of dental care. They look and dress as you would expect of the Russian countryside: old women with their colored scarves, old dresses, sweaters, and boot-shoes to navigate muddy streets, old men with Russian hats, trousers and boots, faces and hands hardened from a lifetime of farm work.
The only specific hope we had with regard to learning about our family of Amdur was that we might learn something of my grandfather's half-brother, Yankel Eisen, and his family. Yankel didn't leave Amdur for America when his siblings left because he was disabled and couldn't make the journey. He had married and, we believe, had three daughters. No one ever heard from him after the war. Surely he was killed by the nazis. But maybe a teenage child survived? Or maybe someone could remember this family and tell us something about them? Most disappointingly, and notwithstanding the fact that we talked to half a dozen older folks who had been youngsters in Amdur before the war, no one could remember the Eisens. This was somewhat surprising, since Jewish and Christian children during those years under Polish rule attended public schools together. But each older person, some 60 years later, can understandably only remember a few Jewish families of the several hundred families that had perished. As to town documents, none exist from before the war. We searched the post-war records from 1946 for about a half hour and found no trace of an Eisen. So we had no luck discovering the fate of this uncle and likely never will.
The town center includes a "soviet" (village council office), a well-kept small Catholic church supported by Catholics in Germany, a Russian Orthodox church, and a monument to Red Army World War II soldiers from Amdur. We stopped in a tiny pharmacy that had once owned by Jews.
Right in the middle of town, near the "soviet" and churches, is the very large abandoned synagogue. This synagogue, which had not been the only one in town but was clearly the largest, was the "great shul" Efron refers to as having been built in 1882. (There is a photo of it in Efron's book as well.) Today it is used as a warehouse, and though it is in a reasonable state of disrepair, the structure is probably sound. Perhaps it will be restored one day, if the economy ever improves. This shul survived because it is brick; only one wooden shul has survived in all of Belarus.
We spent some time in the Jewish cemetery. Again, this was our first visit to an ancient eastern European Jewish cemetery, and we found it all at once awesome, eery and fascinating. It sits atop a hill and overlooks a beautiful view of the town. Some graves were literally dug into steep slopes. There were hundreds or thousands of burials here. Nearly all of the headstones are illegible, toppled, worn down, moss-covered and eroded. But a handful had Hebrew lettering that was quite legible. The only name we were able to read clearly was that of "Yechezkiel Landau." We weren't told, but I can imagine that many of the newer stones of the 20th century may have been taken after the war to build foundations for homes, as was done in other towns. But we saw no indications of vandalism, only a lack of upkeep. Homes stand nearby, children play and farm animals wander.
We visited the widow of Elli Gelfand. She bragged of the awards he had received as a Red Army soldier and showed us a certificate they had received from the Soviet government on the occasion of their 50th anniversary. She showed us the many letters Elli had received in his lifetime inquiring of the fate of other Amdurer Jews. She said it was a shame we hadn't visited a couple of years earlier; Elli surely would have known the fate of the Yankel Eisen family. But Elli died in 1998, and she still grieves today.
The people of Amdur were extremely friendly. One woman spent a couple of hours showing us around. The employee at the council helped us look through records. We knocked on doors, met a number of people, and everyone tried to help.
Only a few older folks have pre-war roots in Amdur; the other residents settled there after the war sometime. According to the older folks, Jews and Christians in Amdur always got along without a glitch. At least during their time (1920's and '30s), everyone went to school together and were friends with one another. The Jewish kids learned Polish, and the Christians understood Yiddish. Our guide, Galina, a Jewish Belarrussian of my generation, believes this entirely. We truly saw no signs of antisemitism in Amdur or, for that matter, in Belarus. Jews were the overwhelming majority in Amdur during my grandfather's day. Jews and Christians kept separate, which may have caused some tensions, but if there was real trouble from gentiles, it would have been perpetrated by the czar's authorities, not by the local gentiles, who were quite a minority.
Harold Gordon, in his book The Last Sunrise, speaks of the hostility between the Jews and Poles in Grodno, with some name-calling, breaking of windows and light hooliganism. It's hard, after all these years, to get the Jewish perspective of how things really were in these towns during the 1930's, or in the 1890's, when my grandfather was a kid. Gordon does mention that the Jews got along much better with Russian (and perhaps Belarussian) families when they moved into Grodno when the Soviets gained control of the city in 1939. Perhaps the tensions were greater between Jews and Poles.
The economic situation is Belarus' biggest challenge today. In 1986, it was mostly the soils of Belarus, not Ukraine, that were contaminated by Chernobyl's nuclear power plant explosion. Seventy-three percent of land in Belarus can no longer be farmed. This, coupled with the economic crisis in Russia of the 1990's, has led to a very depressed economy in Belarus. In terms of the people's health, some contend that thyroid cancers among Belarus' children have been rising dramatically following Chernobyl. It is hard to find any concrete research on this, and whether the government is covering up the problem, doesn't have the money to deal with the problem, or whether there isn't, in fact, a significant problem but merely uncertainty in the minds of the people is something I really could not figure out. What is certain is that the people of Belarus, especially the very old and the very young, have health problems due to poverty and its resulting malnutrition. People aren't starving from lack of food here, but they lack the nutrients found in diets that include a variety of food. The poor eat little more than potatoes and cabbage.
This booklet consists largely of a translation of Efron's book about Amdur. Before reading that, it is useful to understand the common characteristics of the shtetlach of 19th century European Jewry.
We define shtetl as a small, pre-World War II, Jewish-populated town in eastern Europe. Most of these towns also had non-Jewish populations. The Jews and non-Jews transacted business together, but their relationships usually did not extend far beyond that. Jews preferred to stay amongst themselves, maintaining their own schools and synagogues and living in kosher homes. Of course, there were exceptions, where strong friendships were forged between Jews and gentiles. In later years, just before World War II, Jewish and gentile children studied together in the same schools (primarily by force of the government).
Jews lived in eastern Europe from the time of its earliest civilizations.
The Turkish Khazars ruled the areas of Russia-Belarus-Ukraine for a few hundred years until the mid-800's A.D. This group is of particular interest to Jewish history. Nearly 2000 years ago, when the Second Temple of Jerusalem was destroyed, some Jews migrated north to Turkish lands and assimilated into Turkish societies. The Turkish Khazar tribes then moved northward to eastern Europe and included some of these Jews. Later on, very large numbers of additional Khazarians converted to Judaism, while some were also Christian and Moslem.
In the 13th to 15th centuries, large numbers of Jews from Germanic lands in western Europe migrated east. It is believed that these Jews eventually intermarried and assimilated with the Jews of Khazarian descent already living in eastern Europe. While the German Jews outnumbered the Jews of eastern origin, some historians today believe that most of today's Ashkenazic Jews from eastern Europe (us!) are about 75% of Germanic origin and 25% Khazarian. This is particularly interesting because most of the Khazarian Jews were converts and not from the biblical Hebrew tribes.
The Jews from the German empire brought the Yiddish language with them to eastern Europe, and it was ultimately adopted by all Jews of the area. Yiddish uses Hebrew letters, but its vocabulary more closely resembles the German language; it had originated in German lands (which extended over a much larger area than does the present-day country of Germany). Some Hebrew and Aramaic (the everyday language of the Jews living in Arab lands after the Babylonian exile) words were incorporated into Yiddish, and Russian and Polish words were also added. The language varied depending on what part of Europe one lived in.
The first known written documents in Yiddish date back to the 1200's. For hundreds of years, the Jews of eastern Europe communicated amongst themselves in Yiddish, learning only as much of another language (for example, Russian or Polish) as was required to transact business. Prayer books were occasionally written in Yiddish, but throughout the centuries, learned Jews also knew Hebrew for praying and studying the Torah and Talmud.
Religious law and observance defined the ethos of the Jewish community. Men were frequently judged not as much by their wealth as by the extent of their Jewish knowledge. Families made staunch sacrifices so that a son, son-in-law or husband would be able to devote his time to studying the Hebrew texts.
Women, on the other hand, were expected to tend to the home and needs of the family. In some instances, women raised the children, cared for the home, garden and farm animals, prepared meals and earned the family's livelihood by maintaining a store or other business so that the husband would be free to pursue study of the Torah and Talmud.
At times, Jews led culturally and spiritually rich lives in eastern Europe. The Jewish klezmer music spirited weddings and other celebrations. The literature of Y.L. Peretz, Shalom Aleichem (author of many tales, including that which became the basis for "Fiddler on the Roof"), and hundreds of other Yiddish writers accurately depicts life in those days. As the haskalah ("enlightenment" or modernization) movement grew in the early 1900's, Yiddish theater grew and became the foundation for a group of shtetl Jews and their children who later became the Hollywood studio greats (Universal, 20th Century Fox, Warner Brothers, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Columbia Pictures and United Artists were all founded by men with shtetl roots).
The relationship between the Jews and gentile authorities varied throughout the course of the eastern European experience. At times, the Jews were an integral part of the larger society, working closely with the nobility as active and loyal citizens and soldiers, working and fighting for their respective countries. Their industriousness often led to positions of relative authority and prosperity, exceeding the successes of the gentile peasant population. But Jews were usually stopped short of holding the highest positions of authority or gaining too much wealth.
As I've mentioned before, I believe it was a combination of things -- poverty, the czar's required lengthy army service, rising communism and related violence in Russia, signs of future war in western Europe (World War I), stories of antisemitic murders in Ukraine, and the cultural stagnation and lack of modernism in shtetl life -- that may have led our families to leave. Droves of Jews left beginning in the 1880's, moving to the U.S. and to other countries (such as Argentina, where many Amdurers settled) and our family undoubtedly heard of better opportunities abroad.
In America, the Yiddish language and shtetl culture rather quickly and nearly entirely died, as Jews found themselves anxious to successfully assimilate among the many ethic groups of the American "melting pot." At the same time, other groups of young Jews in Europe were abandoning the traditional life in favor of the communist and socialist movements, and others were joining the Zionists' flight to Palestine or trying to assimilate into the bigger cities in central and western Europe. Shtetl life was coming to an end.
The nazis abruptly completed the end of the shtetl era in the 1940's. Town by town, Jewish families, entire shtetls, were lined up and gunned down into mass graves. Others were forced into fenced-in ghettos before being sent to die in death camps. Shtetls -- homes, businesses, synagogues, holy books -- were burned to the ground. Seventy percent of Europe's Jews were murdered or died of disease or starvation in the nazi ghettos and camps, between six and seven million people. Three million of those Jews had lived in shtetlach or cities of Poland (92% of the Polish Jewish population was killed), and more than a million had lived in the Soviet Union -- today's Belarus, Ukraine and Russia. The shtetl was no more; though many of these towns remained or were rebuilt, their Jews were gone forever.
In the Soviet Union, where religious life and culture was repressed for 60 years, most Jews lost all connection to their former culture. Influences of shtetl life helped to mold the flavor of Jewish life in the United States and in Israel. But shtetl life is now truly extinct. Only tiny groups of ultra-religious Jews, mostly Holocaust survivors who resist assimilation, speak Yiddish in their daily lives. Jews in Israel abandoned Yiddish in favor of Hebrew on ideological grounds. While Yiddish language and music has made somewhat of a comeback in American universities and in the American Jewish community, Yiddish is essentially gone as a spoken language.
D. Religion in Amdur
Most of Amdur's population was Jewish in the 1800's, and the Jewish religion was very important in the town's daily life. It is likely that Amdur was heavily populated with Jews for centuries before the Jewish community was extinguished.
The laws and customs of the Jewish community were dictated by Jewish law. In order for someone to live within the Jewish community, he or she had to abide by Jewish law. Since Jews were mostly segregated from the gentile community, they usually conformed to the requirements of the rabbinate. Unlike in western societies today, being a secular Jew was really not an option. Further, today's designations of Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism did not exist. The Jewish community was Orthodox, regardless of the precision with which individuals did or did not abide by religious law within the home. Hasidism, considered an ultra-conservative sect today, was thought of as radical in the 18th century. It attempted to bring fervent spirituality to a religion its followers believed had become stagnant with meaningless ritual.
The Jews of eastern Europe chronicled their history according to the rabbis, synagogues and institutes of religious learning of the time, just as modern countries organize their histories according to their heads of state and military operations.
For these reasons, historical information below, along with sections of Efron's book, include the hierarchy of rabbinical figures of Amdur.
Amdur was known as an important rabbinic center in Lithuania in the 1700's, contributing numerous eminent Jewish scholars. Efron includes in his book a chapter on the Yeshiva of Amdur, noting that other more populous Jewish communities did not have a proper Yeshiva. From Efron's description of rabbis, cantors, Talmud teachers and Torah scribes, it is clear that religion was played a prominent role in the lives of many of Amdur's citizens. The town of Amdur is featured in Chaim Grade's novel, The Yeshiva.
Hasidism was a popular movement in this area, and Amdur was a significant center for Hasidism. In 1747, 1764, and 1772, about 300 Hasidim went from the Grodno area to Israel, settling in Jerusalem, Hebron, and Tiberias, where they founded yeshivas.
Amdur Hasidism is the topic of Chapter 3 (pp. 121-143) of Lithuania Hasidism, by Wolf Zeev Rabinovitch, forward by Simon Dubnow (Schoken, New York, 1971; ISBN 0 853 03021 9; a translation by M.B. Dagut (University College of Haifa) from the Hebrew original, (HaHasidit HaLitait) published by Moshe Bialik, Jerusalem). Amdur Hasidism was a branch of Lithuanian Hasidism. Rabinovitch regards Karlin Hasidism (from another nearby shtetl) and Amdur Hasidism as two of the three branches of Lithuanian Hasidism.
There was bitter sectarian strife between Mitnagdim (those who were against Hasidism -- Mitnagdim means "they are against") and Hasidim for 30 years. In 1781, in the face of Mitnagid "bans and boycotts," Karlin and Amdur were "the refuge of Lithuanian Hasidism." Rabbi Chaim Cheikel established a Hasidic center in Amdur in 1772-1773. He authored an 18th century kabbalistic book republished in Israel called Hayim v'Hesed (first edition: Warsaw, 1891). Renowned Jewish philosopher Martin Buber mentions Cheikel in one of his books. Cheikel died in 1787 and was succeeded by his son, Rabbi Shmuel of Amdur (active in 1798). Amdur Hasidism did not continue thereafter; Rabinovitch attributes that to Mitnaged opposition.
Early rabbis of Amdur included: R. David ben R. Yisrael Zack, head of the Court of Zablodvi; Bierz. R. Yisrael, son-in-law of kabbalist R. Josef Yoska, who was the head of the Rabbinic Court of Dubno; R. Shmuel, author of "The Responsa Shmuel," son of R. Josef ben R. Shmuel, who wrote "Beit Shmuel," a commentary on the Shulchan Aruch section pertaining to marriage and divorce, who passed away in 1777 in Rackov, near Minsk; R. Tuvya, and after he left Amdur he was appointed the head of the Jewish court in the city of Metz in the province of Tiktin; and R. Chaim Cheikel, who was well known in rabbinic circles. In 1912, Ruben ben Shimeon HaCohen Katz, born in 1880, was the rabbi of Amdur (Kagan, 481; Shetl Finder, Diaspora Museum).
The strong religious community in Amdur, including the Hasidic base, is curious to us; after all, my grandfather truly had no use for organized religion whatsoever (he told me that God has no use for fancy buildings, such as the then-newly constructed Morman tabernacle in Washington that we drove past in the 1970's; so he may have believed in God, though not in religious ritural). He got into trouble as a teen for not going to shul. Dad remembers him inviting people into the house to eat during Yom Kippur (when one is supposed to be fasting). But he was, undoubtedly, a paradox. It's clear that most of Amdur's Jews were very pious.