Chechelnik, my native place
Memories of Jewish life in Chechelnik before and during WWII
By Alexander Vishnevestkiy
Note: This article appeared on News of week (Israel, Russian-language newspaper), on August 18, 2005
Thanks to Alexander Vishnevetskiy who permitted to publish the article here.
The Shtetl of Chechelnik where I was born and raised was for centuries a place where life was on the set of old Jewish tradition. The main language of the shtetl was Yiddish, which everyone spoke, including children.
Among the local Ukrainian population were people who also understood and even spoke Yiddish. Jewish artisans in the shtetl produced everything, what the peasants in the surrounding villages might need, and lived off the earnings.
In short, Chechelnik, as in many parts of Ukraine, the Jews completely fit into the ethnographic and economic reality. However, if someone tries to figure out now, if Jews ever lived in Chechelnik, then it will not be easy.
Even the Concise Jewish Encyclopedia fails to contain separate article about my home town, and in other reference books one can find a mention of the fact that this "urban village, district center in Vinnytsia region," where there is a railway station and a sugar refinery.
Recently, I thoroughly researched the Internet in Russian and Ukrainian, everything connected with my native shtetl - Chechelnik where I was born, was in the ghetto during the war and then studied in high school. Here, too, found no detailed mention of Jewish life in the shtetl. Only in one of the U.S. portals did I manage to find a picture of our synagogue. And one of the materials found there, surprised and angered me. On the "Vinnytsia regional portal" www.portal.vinnitsa.com, a brief historical note on Chechelnik contains quite detailed information about the shtetl, but no word about the Jews, although the whole almost 500-year old documented history of the shtetl is connected with the Jews.
For example, in 1939, there were 1327 Jews living in the shtetl, which accounted for 66% of the total population.
And if now the Jews were gone, then does that mean that this issue should be ignored altogether? Probably, some people want to silence our tragic Jewish fate in the Diaspora, especially in light of the Holocaust; for example, our link to Ukraine, its people and its history?
However, this trend is occurring in different countries and is closely linked with the growing anti-Semitism and hatred of the Jews, and, above all, attempts to silence the Holocaust, in which a considerable portion of the blame lies with the countries and peoples, where the Jews lived.
By an old unwritten tradition, the inhabitants of each shtetl had their own nickname. Inhabitants of Chechelnik were nicknamed "meshugim" (crazy), but the only real mad man of the shtetl was shot and killed by the Germans in the early days of Nazi occupation, when he ran around the shtetl and shouted in Yiddish, "Mom, Mom - the Germans are decent people!"
For the rest of my life I will remember the people of the shtetl not only for their wit and humor, but work ethic, willingness to come to each otherís aid. Maybe that's why, after such a terrible trials of war, they were able to do without the psychological and medical rehabilitation, and managed to function in spite of all they were dealt. Even now, meeting with my countrymen after many years, I can feel the warmth, intimacy and family-type connection.
Many generations on my fatherís side, spent their lives in the shtetl. When the war started, and it became clear that the Germans were approaching the shtetl, my father was given a horse and carriage at the farm, and the family hastily evacuated.
But just as we got to the Dnieper River, and by this time the German paratroopers were already beyond the Dnieper, cutting off our further journey. We had no choice but to turn back.
On the way back, we visited the village Pokotilovo, Kirovograd region, where my motherís father lived and two of her sisters with their families. They offered my father to stay with them in Pokotilovo. But father refused, and it saved us. It was after the liberation, we learned that all Jews of Pokotilovo were exterminated and that the Nazis specifically tortured my motherís father before his death.
A month after the outbreak of war the shtetl of Chechelnik was captured by invaders and on the second day, they opened fire and drove the inhabitants from their homes to their execution. People were herded into the square, and only the intervention of the German high ranking officer, who had arrived at that moment, saved people from death. Since that time, there is a legend that it was a partisan in disguise. German and Romanian military with the help of Ukrainian policemen from the local population and a number of Jewish traitors began to rob, kill Jews, to expel people from their homes.
Often, these actions involved the Ukrainian peasants from nearby villages. By the end of August 1941 the Germans transferred control over the territory between the rivers Bug and Dniester and from Mogilev-Podolsk to the Black Sea, to Romanians, and the area became known as Transnistria.
In this territory before the war, lived 300,000 Jews, 185,000 of them were later killed by the Germans and Romanians. The Romanians deported to Transnistria tens of thousands of Jews from Romania and Moldova. Shtetls trapped in the Romanian occupation zone, were filled with refugees. The terribly cold winter of 1941-1942, the famine and the crowded homes led to mass epidemics, especially typhus and dysentery. My mom told me that mortality among the Jews, especially the refugees, happened in that winter at a mass scale.
My mother graduated from medical school in Gysin in 1933 (where all instruction was in Yiddish), and even being in the ghetto, she worked at a local hospital. Here is an excerpt from the testimony of one of the deported Jews of Chernivtsi region in Chechelnik. His name was Israel Taygler, he was born in 1918, his file record at Yad Vashem is under the number 03,246 (the translation from German which is how he gave testimony and the presentation of this material are mine). He was from the village Kadobeshti, which at the outbreak of the war was home to 20 Jewish families - all were deported. At the time of the liberation only representatives from 5 families were still alive. In November 1941 they were driven out on foot for many days and brought to Chechelnik. On the way his mother died, she was shot because she could no longer walk from hunger and cold. He arrived in Chechelnik with the first group of deportees and then another group was brought in from Bukovina and Bessarabia. Since 1939 there were already 10 families who had fled from Poland. Previously empty houses were over-filled with deported refugees. Immediately there was an outbreak of typhus among them and at least half of these people became victims of this epidemic.
His father died of typhus one of the days after arrival. The corpse was in the same room as Israel Taygler for 8 days who lay near him in typhoid delirium. When he regained consciousness and was able to get up, he went to the local community and asked for help with the burial of his father. But it could be done only after a few days. Since the number of corpses was very high, there were not enough people to dig graves and no means for transporting the corpses to the cemetery. In the shtetl there was a community committee, headed by Iosif Zaslavsky, Bileníky and Granovsky and the Jewish police, under the leadership of Volokh.
Jewish leadership was run by the Romanian Gendarmerie. By order of the gendarmerie, Jews were sent to forced labor at the railway station, sugar factory and to the fields. Some of the deportees were sent to Nikolaev to build bridges. Penalty for going outside the ghetto was death. Despite this, many went to the adjoining villages begging Ukrainian peasants for a meal, or tried to earn it through manual labor. Sometimes, the community shared a small ration of produce, funds for the acquisition of which came from the Jews who remained back in Romania. Among the deportees were physicians willing to provide assistance for free, but they did not have medication. This is the content of memories from Israel Taygler about the Chechelnik ghetto.
The vilest of behaviors came from Jewish traitors, who served the invaders. Two residents of the shtetl - Red Army soldiers, Yankelí Tentseru and Motl Blyumental managed to escape from German captivity back to the shtetl.
Yankelí had a head wound. They were surrendered to Romanians by Iosif Zaslavsky. They were shot by Romanians in front of some shtetl residents, including the wife of Yankelí.
The Germans also periodically broke into the shtetl and killed the Jews. Daily terror was also performed by Ukrainian police. One of the worst pages associated with them, was an attempt to exterminate the Jews of the shtetl by provocation. At the wedding of his daughter, a local policeman Pavel Gnida killed the Assistant Commandant of the Romanian Gendarmerie, and then tried to throw the corpse into the ghetto. Fortunately, the Romanian soldiers caught him in this act, and then shot him and those policemen who were at the wedding.
In my memories, a young child at that time, remained a sense of horror, fear, hunger and cold. I remember my mother's hysterical laughter at the most dangerous moments associated with the threat of death. Often, in these types of situations we stayed in the basement of our house, afraid to even cough. Closer to the arrival of Soviet troops, we were hidden in the home of a Ukrainian family, on the outskirts of town.
In general, my parents had a good relationship with local Ukrainians, and this was largely due to both the skills of my father as a barber and a wealth of experience of my mother as a nurse, ready at any time of day and night to help the people of the shtetl and the surrounding Ukrainian villages.
In our family, since 1935, lived our nanny, a Ukrainian - Anna Boyko, who was regarded as one of the family. During the occupation, she also stayed with us, despite the danger to her of our living together.
But do these factors somehow affect the successful outcome of our family? Our parents, like all Jews of the shtetl, were subjected to harassment from the Germans, Romanians, Ukrainian policemen, and even the Jewish traitors.
Their lives had been transformed into hell. But they tried to do everything to protect us, children, from all that fell on top of them. My sister Dora with her friend Liza Fisher, even in these terrible years were studying in secret from Soviet textbooks with the teacher Shura Spector, which helped them to start school in the 4th grade instead of first immediately after liberation.
My fatherís two nephews lost their health in ghetto. One of them Sasha Makarevskiy was forced to go to the shipyard in Nikolayev and returned a few months later, half dead. The other, Hananya Vinokur, was beaten so badly by policemen that he became a stutterer for the rest of his life. Both of them died then, still quite young.
There was no hope for salvation, although the shtetl had a Jewish underground group and in the surrounding forests were partisans.
In my fatherís barber shop worked a youngster named Monya (Boris according to other sources Ė Note from the Translator) Tsukerman who eavesdropped all that the police and the Germans were saying and then conveyed this information to the underground workers.
Leading the underground community of the shtetl was Isaac Granovskiy with the help of Evgeniya Boroda. They had close links with the partisans in the nearby woods.
It is from Granovskiy that my parents learned of the victory of Soviet troops at Stalingrad. And yet we were fortunate to have ended up in Transnistria. After all, the territories occupied by the Germans, did not have the ghettos, and the Jewish population was subjected to immediate extermination.
On March 17, 1944 the shtetl was free. Survivors were still faced with famine in the Ukraine during 1947 -1948.
After surviving the Holocaust, hunger, anti-Semitism, disloyal attitude of the authorities, the desire of Jews to leave the place of mass destruction and humiliation, as well as the desire to move to big cities to give children an education, led to the fact that Jewish life has diminished, even in those shtetls where some of the Jews survived the war.
Soviet Union collapsed and the opportunity to make Aliyah (move to Israel) or go to the Western countries brought this process to its logical conclusion. Predominantly Jewish shtetls such as Chechelnik completely lost their Jewish population. However, the Jewish life of the shtetl continued and continues to go on, although its former residents are in different countries, and especially in the U.S. and Israel. Even in Soviet times, in June 1985, former residents of the shtetl - about 40 people - gathered for a meeting in Odessa. And 10 years later, in honor of the 50th anniversary of victory over Nazi Germany, 80 former residents of Chechelnik met in New York. At the meeting were people who had not seen each other for decades and did not even recognize each other. In addition to the current residents of New York City, there were representatives from Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, Maluoki. Some came from Canada. Later, it turned out there were many more people, who did not know about the meeting and were sorry they did not get to take part in it. A movie was filmed about the meeting and its participants received the tape.
How great it would be to have another such "International" Chechelnik meeting, but this time in Israel.
The generation of Holocaust survivors is diminishing and such meetings should always take place with participation from our children and grandchildren. Let them know where we are from, where our roots are, what we had to go through. I think we have something to talk about at such meetings and, for those who are going to take our place; it will be a worthy story.
My subsequent life has been linked to Tashkent where our family moved completely in 1954. But even after so many years I continuously remember my stay in the ghetto.
The Soviet authorities, until the 1970s, considered Jews that have been in a ghetto, traitors! I remember well, the many forms with questions, "Where were you during the war?" upon entering college, upon its completion, when applying for a job.
Since 1988, when the Tashkent Jewish Cultural Center was created, I was introduced to its leadership and led the association of prisoners from the Tashkent ghetto. We were able to arrange German compensation for former prisoners, including former residents of Chechelnik, which they received in Tashkent. An important role in this played my participation in a seminar in Jerusalemís "Yad-Vashem" about the history of Holocaust, in February and March of 1992. With the assistance of "Yad VaShem," we received all necessary legal advice in drawing up documents for the subsequent receipt of compensation from Germany.
It's been 60 years since the end of World War II. There are fewer and fewer people remaining who, despite the terrible conditions in the camps and ghettos, have survived to this day.
Especially hard and terrible burden of memories stayed with young prisoners, deprived of childhood, who now make up the vast majority of Holocaust survivors.
They are now more than 65 years old and thereís not much time left for them to bear witness to their experiences.
Time flies. Now to my nature of public affairs in Jerusalem, where I arrived as a new immigrant in December 2004, I am faced with the survivors of the Holocaust in the ghettos and concentration camps.
Many of them eke out a miserable existence. They are affected by those terrible ordeals that have fallen upon them during the war.
Our government is obliged to recognize the special status of prisoners of ghettos and concentration camps, and alleviate their living conditions.
And itís also very important to collect the documents and evidence of settlements, which were once large Jewish communities. After all, those who still keep in memory information about the once prosperous towns that disappeared in the flames of the Holocaust, with each passing year are less and less ...