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Jewish Agriculturalists on the Russian Steppes

Livne, Zvi. 1965. Merchavyah, Israel.

Comments in parentheses marked # or Editor's Note are those of this author Chaim Freedman

 Translated from Hebrew by Chaim Freedman

(Editor's Note: This colony was known to the Jews as Peness and was located two versts from Trudoliubovka and five versts from Grafskoy. There lived the Gordon family, related to the Pogorelskys, and through them to the Komisaruks).

Pages 241-247 `Nechaevka' by Moshe Avigal (Beigel)

"My colony, like the rest of the colonies in the Governments of Yekaterinoslav and Kherson, exists no more. But it is engraved deeply in my memory. Nechaevka was one of the agricultural colonies in Yekaterinoslav Government, and not one of the larger of them. There were in all about fifty households stretching around both sides of one street. The houses, large houses of plaster of one story and thatched roof; the yards were large, about a half desyatin, were narrow and long, reaching to the fields which surrounded the colony. Aside from the dwelling (and sometimes two houses opposite each other on both sides of the entrance if the families were large), which one would find in the front of the yard, behind the house was a cowshed, horse stable, a small chicken coop and a shed for a cart, plough, grinding wheels and other primitive implements.

"In some yards were planted fruit trees and vegetable patches. The rest of the yard served to grow grain, corn and melons. The comparatively wide street was covered in summer with dust and in winter, deep mud which one could not cross without high boots. Along the length of the street, close to the houses, were narrow paths covered here and there with wooden planks to tread on during the rainy season.

"It is superfluous to tell that there was no lavatory in our house and certainly there were no baths. One's needs were done outside, at the end of the yard in the open, in a sort of channel, which separated the yards from the fields. We used to bathe (in the summer) in a small, shallow pool, which was used also for the horses.

"In the center of the colony in a small yard stood a small synagogue, built of dark red baked bricks. Opposite was a new building, the government school. Attached to the school was a large yard, a whole desyatin, which was supposed to be used for cultivation of vegetables and fruit by the students with the guidance of the teachers. But in practice the farmers worked here in turn to earn taxes due to the government to pay the teachers.

"In my memory the colony remains as a gray mass which only in spring and summer appeared patches of green. So I saw it whenever I returned home in a primitive wagon without springs seated on boards for a distance of 20-25 kilometers from the adjacent railway station at Tsarakonstantinovka. The wagon traveled along an un-surfaced dirt road with wild bushes on either side covering the flat plain as far as the eye could see.

"Like all the colonies in our district Nechaevka was entirely agricultural. All the families (about 50) worked the land with their own hands. Thus we all bore in our passports the title `worker of the land'. There was nobody who did not work his land, he, his wife and children. Even the sole shopkeeper and the Shokhet, the Starosta (# headman) and the Melamed, all worked, except for the rabbi and the government teacher.

"I do not recall if there was amongst us, in all seventeen colonies of Yekaterinoslav Government, more than a Minyan (#ten) of Zionists.

"If the sowing and ploughing was carried out by the colonists themselves, the harvest required hired help from the neighboring villages. At that season the colony was full of non-Jews from the village Heitsur. At times the youth from both groups had fun together but despite this I never heard of one single case of a serious relationship between a Jewish youth with a Christian girl.

"Amongst us dwelt one Christian family which had remained, like in many other colonies, from the time of the founding of the colonies. The second generation of Germans spoke fluent Yiddish and acted like us in every respect except religion, although they had no place of worship. The only distinguishing factors were that they did not intermarry with the Jews and served as `Shabat Goyim' for the elderly people and bought the Khametz on Pesakh.

"Grain crops were the main agricultural endeavor, wheat, barley, and some corn. Orchards were almost non-existent, at least in our colony. There were only a few trees in the yards. About 1909 the Jewish Colonization Association (ICA) financed the development of fruit trees, in the main grapevines. Also sheep were not raised by us, nor bees until the beginning of ICA's activities. On the other hand in every yard was a chicken coop near or part of the cowshed. During the day the chickens wandered freely in the yard and the young children would play in the chicken coop whilst their parents and brothers and sisters worked.

"I do not remember ever seeing a dog in our colony throughout my childhood nor when I returned after several years as a teacher in the government school and in the neighboring colony Grafskoy. Whilst there were no dogs in either of these two colonies, I well remember the many cats of varied colors and sizes which were tolerated and welcomed in every room since they were the sole cure for the many mice.

"Our ancestors, the founders of the colonies came from Kovno Government in Lithuania, most of them from the city of Shavli where they were shopkeepers and craftsmen. The elders who were youngsters when their parents came from that far-off place, told of the hardships of the long journey and of the early years of difficult work to build houses, dig wells, and their introduction to agriculture by the German farmers who often related to them like Pharoah's taskmasters. They suffered many hardships until they learnt, including drought and disease until they succeeded in the second and third generation.

"The elders told how they drove off with clubs and pitchforks the peasants of the district who rose up in great numbers against them during the pogroms of the eighties. In the pogroms of 1905the colonies were not affected at all probably due to the recollection of how the Jews resisted in the earlier period.

"All the colonists knew to read and write Yiddish, a chapter in the weekly portion, many with Rashi's commentary. There were those who knew a little of `Ein Yaakov' and could write a letter in `The Holy Tongue'. It was taken for granted that the traditions were acceptable to all and many could study `ShulkhanArukh'. A few amongst us knew a chapter of `Mishnayot' and something of `Gemarah' and some who even read a little of the Haskalah literature. Isolated ones could read or write in Russian or speak a garbled sentence which was half Russian and half Ukrainian. The colonists did not need the national language other than in special circumstances such as to give directions to the hired help at harvest time or for selling produce in the cities, a function usually carried out by Jewish intermediaries who lived in the cities.

"With the establishment of the government elementary school the knowledge of Russian improved amongst the younger generation. With the awakening of the freedom movements in Russia from 1905 onwards, political groups were formed amongst the youth including Socialists and some Zionists. At times they would gather to hear lectures or read literature."

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Research Contact: Chaim Freedman
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