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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.