Jewish Farmers in the Plains of Russia




At a young age, I moved with my family to live in the colony Sehaidak, when my father, of

blessed memory, was appointed rabbi there. At first, I encountered: a Jewish settlement whose

inhabitants were farmers who worked the land, no Christian inhabitants there, the authority in the hands of Jews, instead of the police _ a Jewish sotski, over him _ an appointed shultz recognized by the government, and on the Sabbath the colony rested from all labor. I studied in the modern heder, and during free time in summer, I succeeded, along with friends my own age, to get a wagon hitched to two horses from one of the farmers and to transport sheaves of grain or wheat from the field to the threshing machine in the farmer's yard. In springtime, I helped one of the farmers run the sowing machine (dril) or to drive the pair of horses pulling the plow (booker) and sometimes I even got a horse to ride for pleasure or for racing.


One of the elders of the colony told me that in about the year 5608 (1848) Jews came here from

the Kiev district with the encouragement of the government and settled on the banks of the

tributary that flows south into the river Bog, and the name of the valley was Sehaidak. They

found fertile and rich soil on which wild grasses grew to the height of a man, and they

immediately began building houses out of clay. They mixed the clay with straw and prepared

bricks in wooden forms and dried them in the sun. They quickly built small houses, plastered the

walls inside and out with clay and covered the roofs with straw. Over time, other, more modern

houses were built out of bricks and the roofs were covered with copper or wood.


In the 70s and 80s of the last century, the government built the Kharkov_Nikolaev railroad

line. According to the plan, the railroad was supposed to have passed close to the colony, but the farmers asked the government to move the tracks away from the colony, lest... the noise of the trains frighten the chickens. The government agreed to their request and moved the track three or four kilometers from the colony... The people of the next generation regretted this very much, because the railroad station was also moved to a distance of 10 to 12 kilometers, to the Dolinsk station, which over time became a railroad intersection. Without a railroad station, the development of the colony was slowed.


Every settler was given a tract of land of 30 disyatinas (i.e., about 300 dunams) by the

government and in addition to this, government land for rent. When the heirs multiplied, the

tracts became smaller, to the point that in the twentieth century there arose the problem of

farmers with land tracts that were too small.


The chief crops were grains in winter, and corn, sunflowers and watermelons in summer.

An important branch was cattle which fed in the summer on the natural pasture and in the winter was fed from troughs with fodder that was cut during the summer in the uncultivated lands, with bran added. Because of the distance from the city markets and a lack of transportation, the milk was used for manufacturing butter which was marketed in the nearby cities. During World War I, several Jewish refugees came from Lithuania, who were experts in

the manufacture of Swiss and Dutch cheese, and they set up a modem dairy in which they made

hard cheese and butter. As a consequence of this, the profits grew for the farmers who supplied

the milk to the dairy.


In the valley there was a high dam which collected the rainwater and created a large lake

which became an important source of water for the livestock in summer and winter. Fishes called koors multiplied in the lake, and on the eve of every holiday the fish were caught in a long net tied with ropes which was pulled by people on both sides of the lake.


When the water froze in winter, the young people would skate on the ice with iron skates;

blocks of ice for the summer were also prepared. At the end of the winter it was customary to

announce a compulsory draft of all men to cut the ice in the lake and to transport it to a large

cellar designated for this purpose. This ice was given free to all who requested it, and it sufficed

for the entire summer for cold compresses for the sick and for preserving food.


As previously stated, authority was in the hands of the shultz (the head of the colony) who

was elected every few years by a majority of votes in the ballot box. As the election day for the

shultz drew near, the number of those criticizing his work would increase, and the agitation

against him would grow. Nevertheless, the shultz, old Hershl Abba Milman, he of the dignified

countenance and wise eyes, was reelected each time, and, if my memory does not deceive me, he served as shultz to the day of his death.


As in every Jewish community, a rabbi, shochet and feldsher [old fashioned doctor]

served in the village. There were also craftsmen in the colony who made a living by doing work

for the peasants in the surrounding area, and stores that provided for the needs of the farmers in the colony as well as the needs of the surrounding rural area. There was a modem heder in which Hebrew and Russian were studied, and a traditional heder with a melamed for the study of Talmud.


My father. Rabbi Yisrael Dov Cohen, of blessed memory, always saw to it that the modern

heder maintained high standards; it always had excellent teachers, from the students of the Odessa Yeshiva and graduates of the courses for Hebrew teachers in Grodna. The synagogue, in addition to serving as a place for prayer and study groups of Mishna and Eyn Yaakov, also served as a meeting place for lectures and meetings and was always bustling with life. There was also no lack of assistance organizations such as: Society for Study of Torah, Bread for the Poor, Providing for the Bride, etc. The collectors for the societies were the students of the school who would go to the houses in the colony once a week with receipt books in their hands.


Until the outbreak of the February Revolution and the outlawing of Zionism in Russia, the

colony was predominantly Zionist. Even after the uprising, the Zionist shekel was sold and

activities were held for the Jewish National Fund, which was popular with the public, and funds

were collected on the eves of holidays, at weddings, circumcisions and Bar_Mitzvahs.

After the February Revolution, the Tz'irei Tziyon [Youth ofZion] Party was active in the

colony, and it had many members. The party organized meetings, lectures and parties which

attracted the entire community. Branches of HehaIufz and Maccabi were also organized; an

organization was founded called Geulat Ahim [Salvation of Brothers], which had about one

hundred members who planned to immigrate together to the Land of Israel and to engage in

agriculture . However it did not come about because the Bolsheviks forbade the existence of the organization and immigration to the Land of Israel. Only the young people from Tz'irei Tziyon

and Hehalutz succeeded in crossing the Polish border illegally, and from there went to the Land of Israel. Some of them settled in Kfar Vitkin.


After the October Revolution, when the government passed into the hands of the

Bolsheviks, there were many gangs in the surrounding cities whose commanders proclaimed

themselves leaders, and their existence was largely based on plundering and robbing the Jewish

colonies. Excellent armed self_defense was organized in the colony. In one of the colonies in

1918, a train filled with the people of Hetman Grigoriv was stopped on the railroad tracks next to

the colony, and they began walking to the colony and shooting at its houses. An uproar arose,

and the people of the colony fled to the fields and hid in the standing grain and among the stalks

of corn. Thanks to the fleeing, no one was killed, only property was stolen. But this event

spurred the youth organization of the colony to set up self defense worthy of its name, and every young person was drafted for training in arms and guarding day and night. A joint staff was set up with the neighboring colony Yazer to rush aid and mutual defense in time of need. After that all was quiet in the colony: the neighboring Gentile villages spread the word of the existence of a strong protection organization. In 1919, when the Red Army retreated from the troops of Dinkin, which passed through the colony for three straight days, a small band of riders was seen returning from the direction of the retreat. The defense commander thought that they were a band coming to plunder, and he ordered that the riders be stopped and to fire on anyone coming near the colony. But these were the forward unit of the camp of Commander Budyoni of the Red Army. The large army following the forward unit surrounded the colony and captured it with much shooting and machine guns. On that day the defense commander and seven of his aides fell in a trench in which they were defending themselves against the soldiers. In addition to them, twelve people were killed by the shooting. When the peasants in the area learned of this, they streamed in large numbers to the colony, plundered and stole from everything found in the houses, in full view of the troops of Budyoni.


It is worthwhile to recall the name and memory of the brave defense commander, Eliezer

Seltzer. His young wife Shoshana would not be consoled and was one of the first people from the colony to immigrate to the Land of Israel as a pioneer. In the Land of Israel she became a nurse in Kupat Holim and devoted herself wholeheartedly to her work.


-Haim Cohen (Kfar Vitkin)

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When I recall the fields, the way of life, the lively youth, our Hebrew school and the people of the colony, my whole heart is moved. Has all this indeed been erased from the face of the earth? In our colony there were one hundred hard_working farm families, simple in their ways and high_

spirited. Unlike in the other colonies, the farmers of our colony worked mainly in agriculture.

We had to travel to the city for dress_up clothes and shoes, since there was no tailor or shoemaker in the village. For many years there was not even a barber in the colony until one day the farmer Zeidel announced that he was a barber. Zeidel was a well_established and well_to_do farmer with golden hands, and he apparently learned this skill on the heads of his children. On the days before holidays, his house was full to the rafters, with people sitting and standing, and those waiting in line would argue about everything: about the Beilis case or an anti_Semitic article in the newspaper Novoye Vremya. It would sometimes happen that one of the farmers who knew music would begin singing a Hassidic song or a holiday prayer, and everyone would join him, and even the barber Zeidel would stop his work and conduct the singing congregation.


These simple, kind Jews were not distinguished in Torah or education. As they in their

youth learned from melamdim, and more than they learned, they helped their fathers on the farm, so they continued to have their children taught in heder by melamdim who were brought from the outside, not all of them learned enough in Torah to teach others.


But in my youth there occurred a fundamental change in the area of education and

teaching. This turn came about thanks to two or three people who brought a new spirit into the

colony. One of them was Rabbi Yisrael Cohen who was appointed after his predecessor was fired

because of his taste for the drop. Rabbi Cohen was a Lithuanian Jew, a great scholar with a

beautiful character and a Zionist in his outlook. He created an air of Torah and culture in the

colony. His sons and daughters, whom he educated, all immigrated to the Land of Israel and

worked here in agriculture, and he himself immigrated to Israel several years later along with his

wife and served as a rabbi in Har Hacarmel.


The second was a native of the colony, Eliezer Pupkin. From his earliest youth, Pupkin

excelled in Talmud study. When he became Bar_Mitzvah he studied in the Kremenchog Yeshiva,

and he distinguished himself there by his talents and his diligence. From there he went to

Lubavitch, the center of Habad Hassidism in order to learn the "revealed" and the "hidden"

[mysticism]. While studying Torah and Hassidism, he became infected by secular literature,

abandoned Hassidism and enrolled in the Odessa Yeshiva where H. N. Bialik, Dr. Y. Klausner and Rav Tza'ir [Rabbi Haim Chemovitz] taught. Pupkin is the one who founded a modern Hebrew school in Sehaidak whose the students spoke fluent Hebrew, read Hebrew books and aspired to immigrate to the Land of Israel.


Shmuel Dashkovitch was Pupkin's partner in his educational activities. He too was a

graduate of the Odessa Yeshiva who married a girl from the colony, settled there and served as a

teacher in the Hebrew school. When Pupkin was appointed principal of the Hebrew school in

Samara and enrolled in the Agricultural University, Dashkovitch continued in the educational

work. Many of the youth of our colony immigrated to the Land of Israel and became industrious

farmers in the workers' colonies.


In those days the revolutionaries who operated secretly were suspect in the eyes of the

police, and those who were about to be arrested fled to out of the way comers. Our colony

served as a convenient refuge for those suspected Jews from the nearby cities, because the police viewed the colony of simple farmers as being "clean" of the revolutionary plague. These

refugees, most of whom were maskilim, were bored in the colony with nothing to do, so they

made it a point of coming in contact with the local youth and spreading revolutionary ideas

among them. Among them were also Zionists who preached socialism and Zionism. Because of

the opposition of the Czarist police, many of them refused to be drafted into the army during the time of the War. For them, and for those who enlisted and then deserted, our colony served as a safe haven. We called them "rabbits," and because of their influence, there were also local youth who were required to enlist who refused to do so. Because of suspicion of the "rabbits," they could not show themselves in the streets during the daytime, out of fear that a peasant from one of the nearby villages who knew the local boys might chance to pass, would see the strangers and notify the police. A special committee saw to it that the "rabbits" would not be seen outside, especially on market days. The colony was entirely emptied of these guests with the Kerensky Revolution.


The awakening of the Jews after the Russian Revolution did not pass by Sehaidak. The

percentage of those who knew Hebrew in our colony was the highest among the Jewish farmers in southern Russia. The youth used to organize Hanukkah and Purim celebrations, stage plays and call meetings at which the situation of the Jews in Russia, and especially Zionism and immigration to Palestine were discussed. We were helped in our Zionist activities by Zionist leaders such as Zev Tiomkin, Dr. Stein, and especially by one of the leaders of Tz'irei Tziyon, Nahum Varlinsky, who was a captivating speaker and very active in the youth groups. As in the other colonies in Kherson, young men and women from the neighboring cities would appear in order to receive agricultural training before immigrating to the Land of Israel.


When the Bolsheviks took control and the borders were closed, our Zionist activity

became more difficult from day to day. The paths of immigration to the Land of Israel were

blocked; some of the people of the colony joined the Komsomol and interfered with our work.

There was also fear of arrest. In order to evade the authorities, we organized ourselves into small groups and very secretly went out of the colony. We made our way at night and escaped to the city Berdichev. There we lived a communal life for about a year and a half,, and from there we left via Poland and Rumania, and with adventure and at risk of life, in a situation of malnutrition and contagious diseases, finally arrived in the Land of Israel.


Thanks to our agricultural past, and to the life of labor to which we had become

accustomed, and likewise our Hebrew Zionist education, most of us continue here in agriculture _

and in other labor. More than forty years have since passed. Children and grandchildren have

been bom to us. We have lived to see political independence. But when memories of the colony

are awakened, the heart tightens: the colony, its good, kind, simple farmers who excelled in

working the earth, in handiwork, the wonderful, Jewish way of life _ where are you, where are

you? Except for those who immigrated to the Land of Israel, and the few who escaped to other

lands, all were murdered by the animals of prey, and the soil of Sehaidak, which was plowed and

worked by Jews for over one hundred years, has been cleansed entirely of Jewish toil and labor, of Jewish footsteps.


May these lines be a monument to the pure and innocent victims.

-Tziporah Kaminker (Haifa)

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From the beginning of the century, the farmers established themselves in our colony in a

noticeable way, thanks to the help of the counselors, the work with superior tools, the good

organization of the local institutions, and above all else, thanks to the local youth and children

who had adapted themselves to labor and loved it. Unlike other colonies, the fields of Sehaidak

were close to the colony, and this made working them easier. Aside from the cultivation of field

crops, many expanded the cattle branch. Some of the farmers prospered to the point of wealth,

and the farmers whose farms were not especially developed, worked in transporting grain to the

city. This work served as a secondary branch to agriculture also for the Christian peasants in their nearby villages.


Our teacher Pupkin founded a school with the ivrit b'ivrit (Hebrew in Hebrew) approach,

and, at his encouragement, a Zionist club of young farmers and youth was founded. During the

war years Pupkin led a youth group which belonged to the right wing of Tz'irei Tziyon. In the

colony, we founded a public library which contained many Hebrew, Yiddish and Russian books.

Thanks to our Hebrew, Zionist education, our colony provided a notable number of halutzim

(pioneers in the Land of Israel), most of whom continue working the land in Israel, whereas not

even a third of our numbers immigrated to Israel from our neighboring colony Israilovka (Yazer).

During the war years, our colony suffered from all the tribulations that passed through the

other colonies: the drafting of the youth into the army, the drafting of horses for transportation

and the confiscation of food. Our colony was also tried by a frightening, bloody event. Bands of

rioters who murdered hundreds of thousands of Jews throughout the Ukraine and destroyed entire communities did not dare enter our colony, thanks to the defense that was organized, led and armed by the local colonist Seltzer of blessed memory, a brave young man who served in the artillery during the war.


As fate would have it, the mass murder was carried out by a company of the Red Army.

The event occurred because of a fatal misunderstanding. When a company passed close to the

colony, they disarmed two of the defenders. In Seltzer's eyes, this company was suspected of

being one of the bands of rioters, and, in order to stop it from entering the colony, he commanded that fire be opened in their direction. This shooting, though they struck no one, aroused the ire of the company commander. He gave an order to break into the colony and take revenge. In a few hours they succeeded in murdering nearly forty people, among them the commander of the defense, and of course they did not stop themselves from plundering, destroying and demolishing the colony during the days that they spent there.


If before this only Zionists and members of Tz'irei Tziyon intended to immigrate to the

Land of Israel, after the bloody riots and the Bolshevik control, a general desire to make

immigrate prevailed. A man of initiative was found _ Dr. Stein of Yelizevetgrad _ who organized

the farmers of the colony and friends from the city into a cooperative for immigration and

settlement in the Land of Israel. Rules were prepared, a committee was elected and plans were

made to send a delegation to the Land of Israel, in order to guarantee land for us for settlement.

But in the meantime the borders were closed, and a concentrated exodus was impossible. The

unmarried men and women took provisions for the trip and a few things and set out across the

borders. All of those who succeeded in stealing crossing the border immigrated to the Land of

Israel and settled there. The others, especially people with families, waited for an opportunity and missed the opportunity. At the end of the 1920s, the colony was proclaimed a kolkhoz, and in the years of the Hitler Holocaust, the cruel end came to the colony and its Jewish inhabitants.

-Avraham Toren (Kfar Vitkin)  

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My colony's name is different than the names of the other colonies in the Kherson district which

had Hebrew names like Sde Menuhah [Field of Rest] and Yazer. It was named after a Ukrainian

national hero _ Sehaidak. Sehaidak and Yazer, which was about six kilometers away, were set up

away from the rest of the colonies of the Kherson district, away from the cities of the area and the rivers that flow to the Black Sea, as though they were simply thrown into the fertile plain.

In the colony there were two long streets with one hundred households. The houses were

thatched or wood tiled and were no different from the houses of the peasants in the area, aside

from a few mansions, businesses and a general store which buzzed with shoppers on market day,

when the Gentiles of the area used to come to sell vegetables and fruit and to buy kerosene, cloth, etc. On market days we caused worry for the melamdim who spread Torah and fear of heaven among us: rather than studying the Torah portion of the week, a chapter of Mishna or the Talmud Tractate Bava Metzia, we used to spread out among the wagons and come late to class, bringing with us all sorts of "finds": cherries, plums, seeds to crack, well hidden in our pockets out of fear that the melamed would harshly punish those who were caught red_handed. The deception was strong, despite the punishment, perhaps because fruit trees and vegetables did not grow on our property. In the village there was only one resident who had a large fruit orchard with all sorts of fruits and also a beehive. He was a watchmaker named Alter "the Liar." And why was this name attached to him? Apparently, he did not find it difficult to boast about his fruit yields and to exaggerate his finds of new species, because no one could be found to refute him, until the boys came who were educated at the ICA [Jewish Colonization Association] agriculture school in the Novo_Poltavka colony and refuted his exaggerations. We too, my friends and I, reduced his yield. We had all sorts of openings and alleys through which we would enter the orchard in order to taste the first fruits and to put some in our clothes.


Our main agriculture was in field crops, raising cattle and manufacturing Dutch cheese.

The yards were large and the fences were made of cattle waste; the land was fertile and it was not necessary to fertilize the fields. The waste would break up, flow down in the direction of the lake alongside the colony, and feed the fattened tilapia fish. On the eve of every holiday, the gabbai used to bring fishermen to the lake with a net that they would spread from one end to the other, and the entire village would go out to pull on the ropes of the net. The catch was very large and it paid for the expenses of the synagogue, the mikveh, the bath house and other communal necessities, and even to hire a cantor for the High Holidays. The high point in the agricultural work was the threshing, and its completion, gathering the grain into the granary. Young and old helped in the threshing; wagon_ladders filled with sheaves would unload the grain into machines; the noise of the threshing, the clouds of dust and haystacks were a common sight in all of the yards.


We children were first taught by a melamed, and afterwards by one of the men of the

colony, Eliezer Pupkin, who had graduated a teachers' college in Zhitomir and taught us Hebrew

song and literature. He was the founder of the Zionist group Tz'irei Tziyon, which was actually a

branch for both of the colonies.


Until age seventeen I lived in an atmosphere of tranquility. When I turned seventeen, the

Revolution broke out. Announcers of freedom ran to and fro in the streets and the fields and

chased the bands of Machnovitzites and Petlyurites. Some retreats and attacks of camps passed

through the village; day and night we would be alarmed by crazy, running trampling of strangers

and vehicles. The bands did not injure anyone, they only imposed taxes and took food for their

soldiers. Our defense was directed not against them but against the neighboring Gentile villages

who boasted that they would come up against the Jews to plunder and riot.


My uncle Eliezer Seltzer, who had been a sergeant in Nikolai's army, organized the defense. He organized 40 youths from the colony and also acquired weapons and ammunition, set up watches and the entrances to the village and every convoy that passed on the village roads to Dolinsk (the railroad station) was searched thoroughly, and its weapons were confiscated. And, in fact, no try was made at attacking the colony. We might have been able to go through all of the changes in government without riots, but it happened that legions of the Red Army passed through Sehaidak. One of the detachments was mistaken for one of the bands intent on robbing, plundering and murdering; my uncle ordered that they be met with force and not be allowed to enter. The other legions who were retreating following this legion surrounded the colony and began to rain down heavy gunfire on it, and, as a result, most of the defenders fell, among them my uncle Eliezer, the defense commander, and several older people who were hit by stray bullets. From then on we had the feeling that we were not living on our own land. The colony was open to rioters and plunderers because we did not have the power to oppose them; most of the inhabitants left the colony and migrated to the cities and to relatives in other places. About ten young people reached the land of Israel and most of them are to be found in Kfar Vitkin.


From letters that we received from relatives we have learned that years of famine passed

on the remnants who remained in the colony. Most of them died in 1921, and the rest of them

went to all of the corners of large Russia, which was so cruel to the farmers it professed to help.

-Yisrael Seltzer (Kfar Vitkin)



Translated from Hebrew by  Mark Alsher


Livne, Zvi. 1965. Jewish Agriculturists on the Plains of Russia.  Merchavyah, Israel. (Hebrew)

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