From "The Annihilation of Lithuanian Jewry"

by Rabbi Ephraim Oshry

Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Judaica Press, Inc,

        z'l (1914-2003)

Part Two - The Cities and Towns of Jewish Lithuania


Lithuanian Name: Kupiskis Russian Name: Kupishki

Location: In the Ponevezh district in northeast Lithuania, a few miles northeast of Ponevezh.

Jewish population in 1939: 400 families

Jewish history: Kupishok was settled by Jews in the 17th century. On the way into Kupishok was the new Jewish cemetery and, near the town, was the old cemetery, where the names on the graves were no longer recognizable. Only a few old worn out tombstones told of a 300-year-old past. Kupishok was one of Lithuania's oldest Jewish settlements, and it is where I grew up.

Kupishok reveled in Jewish living, Jewish tradition, and Jewish knowledge. I will tell you what erev Shabbos - Friday - looked like. Early Friday morning the village peddlers would return from their rounds, daven (pray) with an early minyan (quorum), and rush off to the market to buy fish at Yudel the Fishman's before he ran out. Housewives were at home baking challah (braided loaves of bread). The scent of delicious Shabbos dishes wafted out into the streets. Soon you could see Jews rushing to the communal bathhouse to clean up for Shabbos. Immediately after noon, Rav Sender Falk was at his seat in the beis hamidrosh reciting Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs) with a beautiful tune. When I was a child in Kupishok, I would hide with the other children in the women's section and listen to Rav Falk's sweet nigun (melody). An hour before candlelighting a loud horn was blown at Chona the Miller's mill to announce that the Shabbos Queen's arrival was imminent, and it was time to close the shops. A second blast on the horn announced candle-lighting time. Menda the shamosh would stand in the marker, announcing "To synagogue!" Every window glowed with Shabbos illumination as the men and the boys streamed into houses of prayer.

On Shabbos, every beis hamidrosh was filled with men and boys studying Torah. Daily Talmud lessons were given by the town's rabbi who was succeeded by the martyred Reb Moshe Zundel Leizerovitz. At the Chassidic kloiz, the gemora shiur was given by Reb Getzel Hoffman, who was succeeded by the Chassidic Rav. A scholarly Gemora blatt taught by Rav Zalman Pertzovsky was instituted at the Tiferes Bachurim.

Every year on the holiday Simchas Torah, the town's Jews rejoiced with the Torah and danced in the streets. Can I forget how Yisroel Moisheles used to don his coat inside out and dance in the street with us children around him? He would hand us pieces of kugel and honeycake he had collected from the nearby homes.

The rabbi was led to synagogue under a canopy, accompanied by a singing and dancing crowd. The custom was to go to the synagogue called the Cold Shul, where we davened in the summer, and say a brocha (blessing) there, after which the crowd proceeded to the beis hamidrosh. All the boys returned to Kupishok from their yeshivas all over Lithuania to join their families and their community and share in the celebrations of Yom Tov (holiday).

Menda (Birger) the shamosh of the beis hamidrosh was a short, bent Jew who carried his hundred years with equanimity. He davened without eyeglasses, and still possessed a full set of teeth. When he'd tell a story about life in town, and I'd ask him, "Reb Menda, when did that take place?" he'd reply, "Recently." "And when was recently?" "Around 85 to 90 years ago." He knew everyone in town and remembered their fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers. He displayed his virtuosity when calling men up for aliyos (the honor of reciting the blessing over a portion of the Torah) and when making El Moley Rachamims (prayer for peace). When I asked him, "How does a 100-year-old feel?" he answered, "Like yesterday." He died a year before World War II began.

The town mailman was a chosid named Nochum Leib. His father had been a chassidic

moreh horoah (rabbinic scholar of Jewish legal issues) who died young. In order to help the family earn a living, a number of community members signed a power-of-attorney authorizing Nochum Leib to pick up their mail for them from the post office. The people would give him a small sum of money when he brought them their mail. After World War I, Nochum Leib became the official letter carrier for the whole town, Jews and non-Jews alike. The Jews continued the habit of tipping him for delivering their mail, particularly when registered letters from husbands and sons in the U.S. and South Africa began to arrive. Nochum Leib, too, died before World War II.

Another interesting character was Heshel the tailor, who was called Heshel the Bulbala (Belorussian for the potato). He was an itinerant tailor who spent all week making the rounds of the nearby villages and farms. Because he ate no food in the Christian homes where he worked, he would cook a sackful of potatoes before leaving home, and eat them cold all week long. He was too poor to afford bread. Heshel was a short man with a very calm disposition.

When I knew Heshel, he was already the teacher of the daily Mishnayos class that took place between Mincha and Maariv (daily afternoon and evening prayers). Everyone enjoyed his class greatly, yet the man was not as knowledgeable in Talmud as in Mishnayos. When I once asked him about that, he told me, "As a child, I did not have the opportunity to learn Torah because my parents were extremely poor and I was left an orphan. I was apprenticed to a tailor when I was still a child. When I married, I used to travel around the villages sewing coats for the Christians, and therefore my only opportunities to sit at the table in the beis hamidrosh came on Shabbos and Sunday. Whatever I learned from Reb Nechemya Steinberg those two days I would review the rest of the week while working. By the time I had been doing this for thirty years, I knew all of Mishnayos by heart. After the (first world) war, when my Rebbi, Reb Nechemya, died, I became the Rebbi of the Chevra Mishnayos (Mishnah study group)." Heshel was tragically butchered when he was 80 years old.

Then there was Blind Zalman, blind in one eye and illiterate, with a unique memory for birthdates - including the hour - and yahrtzeits (anniversaries of deaths). Despite his disability and his illiteracy, Zalman worked for the credit union delivering letters and notices, and never misdelivered a letter.

Love for Torah was visible at all times in Kupishok. How fortunate and proud was a mother whose son went away to learn in a yeshiva, and how much sacrifice that entailed! Can I forget the sacrifices my dear, martyred mother made so that my Torah study could be more comfortable? In order for me to receive a parcel of her freshly- baked goods for Shabbos, my mother would -- after a wearying business day at the market on Thursday -- get up in the middle of the night to do her baking. Then, she would walk two miles to the train early in the morning -- rain or shine, frost or heat -- and beg passengers to take the parcel with them and deliver it to me at the yeshiva in Ponevezh that same day! Her joy was to get a report that I was a masmid (student devoted to Talmudic study) at the yeshiva, and that the yeshiva deans were satisfied with me.

The same was true for the other mothers in town. No wonder that Ponevezh Yeshiva -- which was a preparatory yeshiva -- normally had 30 to 40 Kupishok boys studying there every semester. We were the largest group of students from any one city or town. Older boys studied at the advanced yeshivas in the towns of Slobodka, Telz, Radun, and Mir.

And not only were our mothers proud of us. When we came home for holidays, the men of the town would greet us as if we were adults and look on us with respect. All the more so when I grew older and delivered my first sermon in the beis hamidrosh on the first day of Pesach, and the Jews in town expressed their pride in me: "You see, we've produced our own Rav." "The Rav is a native Kupishoker."

This warmth and concern for Torah extended to the kind treatment of mesholuchim, the itinerant collectors who traveled from town to town to raise money for specific yeshivas. The townspeople were pleased and honored to share their paltry funds with these collectors. As Malkala from down the hill once said to me: "What I use to buy myself food is only temporary, but what I give for Torah is my eternal portion." How often did my mother give away her last coins to a meshuloch, because she feared she might not have done enough for Torah! When a meshuloch with whom I was well acquainted told her, "You don't have to give, you have your own talmid chochom (Torah scholar)," my mother retorted, "And making a talmid chochom out of someone else's child in not a mitzvah?"

You could almost literally weigh the fear of G-d, the genuine Yiddishkeit, in Kupishok. And today there is no place to set up a tombstone to commemorate our dearly beloved ones. Once there was town named Kupishok; today it's no longer there. Uprooted were its holy souls ... what we possessed and what we have lost!

Economy: The Jews made their living as small traders, as flax- workers, and in crafts.

After 1925, many young people could not find employment in or around Kupishok. Most of those who emigrated settled in South Africa. Thus, several hundred families in Johannesburg and Capetown hail from Kupishok. Emigration saved their lives physically, and the contemporary teshuvah (repentance) movement is bringing their grandchildren back to Yiddishkeit (traditional Judaism).

Institutions: Kupishok had many chadorim for the education of its children. It also had two elementary schools -- including a Yavneh (religious) school; a preparatory yeshiva, a Talmud Torah; and the usual social and cultural organizations. Kupishok's Tiferes Bachurim was the place where the young married men came to study Torah in a minyan of their own after work.

Kupishok had an old, large synagogue, built of unfinished stone. Its aron kodesh was a masterpiece with eye-catching carvings. During the first fire in Kupishok, that irreplaceable ark was destroyed. Near the synagogue were a beis hamidrosh and a Chassidic kloiz. Down the hill there was another beis hamidrosh.

Before World War I, Kupishok hosted many perushim, married men who left home with their wives' permission to study full-time for several months to a year. Many of them became famous rabbis.

When Rav Abba Yaakov Boruchov opened his yeshiva in 1886, the mashgiach was Rav Chayim Halpern. His base of support were former Kupishokers who had emigrated to America. One of the best known students of Kupishok's yeshiva was Rav Yisroel Abba Citron who married the daughter of the Rogatchover Gaon, Rav Yosef Rosen. In Kupishok he was known as the iluy of Utyan, his native town. He became rabbi of a suburb of Dvinsk, and later rabbi in Moscow, where he died.

The primary gemora teacher was Reb Moshe Mordechai, who taught two levels of boys. In the town's beis hamidrosh there were always men studying Torah, people like my grandfather Reb Moshe, who spent the last 20 years of his life in retirement studying day and night. No one arrived earlier than he did, and no one left later. He was a man of extraordinarily fine character; if anyone embarrassed him, he did not react, but immediately forgave him. He was particularly careful not to speak loshon hora (gossip and slander); he was a very silent man. He died on 28 Tamuz 1928.

Reb Zala Menda Alufovitz, another relative of mine, learned through the entire Talmud every year, making a siyum (celebration marking the completion of a scholarly work) on Simchas Torah.

Kupishok had a Chassidic community, mostly Chabadnik, who had their own synagogue, their own shochet, and their own rabbi -- called moreh horoah so as not to diminish the stature of the town rabbi -- the last of whom was the martyred Rav Yisroel Noach Chatzkevitch. Before World War I, the Chassidim had their own bathhouse and mikveh (ritual bath) near the river. They never had their own cemetery.

Spiritual Leaders: Among Kupishok's most famous rabbis were Rav Alexander Sender Kaplan, author of Shalmey Nedorim (1881), debates on the Talmudic tractate Nedorim which discusses vows; Rav Yitzchok Trivis; Rav Meir Segal Epstein, know as Rav Meir Shnipishoker, moreh horoah in Vilna; Rav Abba Yaakov Boruchov, author of the halachic responsa Chevel Yaakov (1881) and founder, in 1886, of Kupishok's yeshiva; Rav Leib Fein, later rabbi in Slonim, where he was martyred by the Germans; Rav Eliyohu Meir Feivelson, author of the halachic discussions Pikuach Nefesh and Netzach Yisroel, who was a founder of Agudas Yisroel and a prolific polemicist; and Kupishok's last rabbi, the martyred Rav Zalman Pertzovsky.

Kupishok's native sons became renowned scholars and rabbis. One of these was my uncle, Rav Nochum Gershon Oshry, who served Kupishok as a dayan. Another was Rav Elchonon Cohen who became rabbi of Dvinsk; during his student years at the Volozhin Yeshiva he was called the "Iluy of Kupishok." He married the daughter of the gaon Rav Mordechai Eliasberg, rabbi of Boisk. Others include Rav Moishe Etter, rabbi in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Rav Eliyohu Lutzhk, rabbi of Zidik; the martyred Rav Lipa Zilber; and Rav Yonah Cohen of New York.

1939-1945: In June, 1940, when the Russian government took over Lithuania and introduced its Soviet regime, the yeshivas came under immediate attack. The Baranovitch Yeshiva, headed by the martyred Rav Elchonon Wasserman, having escaped Soviet oppression by fleeing Poland, was compelled to disband. Its students formed small units, each of which moved into a different town in Lithuania in order to keep out of the Soviet regime's eyes. One group settled in Kupishok, and the story that follows was told to me by Rav Nosson Kotlowitz, who was a member of that group.

As the Germans approached, the Baranovitch yeshiva students did not know whether to stay or flee. Rav Kotlowitz asked the local Catholic priest for advice. The priest told them that they should not leave, that he had enough food for them to last two years, and a cellar in which he could hide them. Rav Kotlowitz did not take the priest's advice and left town on one of the last coaches out. The rest of the Baranovitch students shared the fate of Kupishok's Jews.

On Wednesday, June 26, 1941, some 40 families managed to escape into Russia. Others fled into nearby villages to hide with Christians there until the bombardment would end, as they had done during World War I. Tragically, that is not how it worked out. As soon as the Germans occupied the town, the Jews began to suffer at the hands of their Lithuanian neighbors, with whom they had once lived peacefully.

One of the worst was Pezes, the secretary of the town council. All the Jews who had fled to the villages were stripped of their possessions and forced back into town barefoot and almost naked. A temporary ghetto was fenced in with barbed wire around the synagogue yard, and that is where the Lithuanians abused the women and children, among them my dear mother and my beloved sisters, my precious little nieces and their parents, and the other friends and neighbors of my family.

They set upon the two rabbis, Rav Zalman Pertzovsky and Rav Yisroel Noach Chatzkevitz, chased them into the Chassidic kloiz, and put them through Job's tortures. Then they set a fire around them to burn their bodies, and then gruesomely led them out behind Kalman Levin's house, where the gentiles had a cemetery for atheists. The murderers insisted that the Jewish martyrs would have to be buried there. They also killed some of the most important members of the community, including Reb Moshe Zundel Leizerovitz, the melamed (teacher); Avrohom Klip the shochet; Rav Meir Shteinbach, the son-in-law of the Chassidic rabbi; Isser Ezrach; Yisroel Gapanovitz; Gershon and Naftoli Meyrovitz. Two weeks later they killed the women and children.

Rebetzin Chaya Leia Pertzovsky and her children, and Mrs. Bassa Meyrovitz and her children managed to hide in the home of Dr. Franzkevitch. But they were discovered and murdered six weeks later.

After my liberation, when I visited my hometown, the Christian woman Tonkicha, who had been my grandfather's neighbor, handed me a coat that she said had belonged to little Eliyohu Meir, Rav Pertzovsky's oldest child. Searching through the coat, I found a note that read, "They're taking us to be killed. Take revenge."

Nachum Shmid, the richest man in town and one of the most generous when it came to helping a fellow Jew, hid for three months in Shmilag, a village near Kupishok. After the Lithuanians stole his money, they reported him to the Germans. He was shot to death on the bank of the Kupa River.

Kupishok Jews were also murdered in the town of Rakishok, on their escape route to Russia. The pits in Rakishok are on the count's estate. Kupishok Jews were also murdered in the towns of Ponevezh and Payost.

Many of those who escaped to Russia and survived, returned to Lithuania and settled in Vilna, Kovno, and Ponevezh.

There used to be a town named Kupishok. 

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