Historical Sites of Lyakhovichi
by Deborah G. Glassman, copyright 2005
It is hard to pick a single monument with which to begin a survey of the area. Do we concentrate on those that meant the most to the Jewish population? Clearly, the 500-year-old synagogue, called the Kalte Shul, would stand out to our ancestors. They might also cite the Great Synagogue, called the "Groyser Beys Midrash", as a testimony to the community’s view of its continued importance in the Russian Empire, though it was, perhaps, more a mirror of the past than a reflection of the actual status of the day, in its size and importance of its central location.
Do we look to the greatest monument in terms of size? The Lyakhovichi Castle may have been built first in the eleventh or twelfth centuries as a hill fort, no archeological studies have been done, but it was already there in the days of Gedimin, Kestutis, and Vytaut the Great. It was rebuilt repeatedly, the record of the refurbishing of its wooden walls by Marcin Gostatuas in the mid fifteenth century, is echoed by the replacement of those walls in stone in the sixteenth. Under the leadership of Jan Karol Chodkewiecz, Great Hetman of Lithuania, it received the latest technological defenses in addition to its proven earthenworks, towers, and fortified walls - he built the water surround that could be regulated by a dam. The Sapieha owners in the seventeenth century maintained its armaments to the point that Lyakhovichi was the only castle in the region not overrun by Cossacks in the Khmelnitzky massacres and in the subsequent wars with Russia. The Sapiehas also refurbished the palace, the residential side of the castle, and imported Italian architects to design it as one of their primary households. But the Sapiehas were high-handed and overreaching and the other Lithuanian noble families joined forces against them at the end of the seventeenth century. The animosities were seemingly put aside to fight the Great Northern War but when the Radziwills saw their chance, they had the crown requisition the cannons of Lyakhovichi (a Sapieha possession) for the defense of Sluck, (a Radziwill possession) and the days of Lyakhovichi castle were numbered. The only castle in Lithuania to withstand Cossack sieges repeatedly, fell after its food was exhausted to the Swedes in the Great Northern War. Sluck had successfully held off the Swedish invasion of its walled city, by main force, and its Jewish population was on the walls defending it. We know that Jews, in towns across the Grand Duchy, were equally active in their towns’ defense. We can’t imagine that in a city where the Jews had resided at least since Vytaut’s 1380s accession, the Jewish young men were less active. The women were also required to be available to help in fire brigades during the fighting, but all of Lyakhovichi’s defenders were required to stand aside as the Swedes who were Protestants, entered the surrendered city and burned the Catholic Church and the Lyakhovichi castle, to the ground. There is no evidence that any synagogue of the town, or that the Tatar mosque, was disturbed. The sources referenced with the Castle information were 1) "Arhitektura Belarusi. Encyklapedychny davednik" ("Architecture of Belarus. Encyclopedia") - ed.: A.A. Voinau and others, Minsk, Publishing house 2) "Belaruskaia Encyklapedyia" by Piatrus’ Brouka, 1993.
Maybe the community would have pointed out the unusual. Proud of its five hundred year history in Lyakhovichi, the Jews were aware that they shared that distinction with "the Lipkas", the Tatar Moslems that Gedimin and Vytaut brought to the country in the fourteenth century. They were Sunni Moslems who traced their descent from the White Horde of the Mongols. The Lipkas were a crucial part of the defense capabilities of all of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and were here prior to the replacement of the wooden fort of Lyakhovichi by the stone castle of the Lithuanian Chief Military Commander. ...The Lyakhovichi mosque was probably fairly plain looking, as from the sixteenth century Union with Poland, the Moslems were forbidden to build them in stone. A simple geometry of a square wooden building, topped by an elegantly slender onion dome cupola, was the norm. Most of the buildings were painted green; some were left in a natural wood stain. The Novogrodek mosque was already three hundred years old when the new "no stone mosque law" went into effect and may have been "grandfathered." The surviving building of that community appears to be masonry, painted a bright and cheery yellow. In other communities where the small Lipka community lived in close proximity to Jewish neighbors, relationships were generally good. Because the population of Lipkas was so much smaller, there were a number of recorded instances in the civil registers of the area (none so far for Lyakhovichi) where Lipkas converted to Judaism to marry. At the least, the adaptable Lipkas were certainly influenced by their neighbors, both Jews and Christians. When the Lipkas intermingled with other Tatar populations, it was noted that they had a number of differences from the Moslem norm. Their women went unveiled and participated in the business affairs of the community and also the houses of worship were of a different form, built to hold both sexes simultaneously, though not allowing either to see the other during worship. Those changes might not have seemed an overt influence from their Jewish neighbors but the nineteenth century Lipka leadership did chastise their congregations for importing Polish Christmas trees and Easter eggs into Lipka Moslem practice. The site of the mosque is not noted on any plans that I have seen, but possibly it was on Tatarskaya, the street of the Tatars, which while Jews lived there too, was still home to a number of Tatar families in the 1870s.
The large and pleasant-looking Catholic church would not have won monument status in most towns. It was attractively appointed and dated to 1602 when the Hetman, Chodkewiecz, had it built, but structurally it is not much different than the Great Synagogue "der Groyser Bais Midrash" of Lyakhovichi’s Jews which was thought to have been built around a hundred years later. That statement was based on photographs from the Soviet period, originally the Church of St Joseph, as the Catholic Church was properly known, had a steeple and a superstructure that was removed during the Soviet period. In the time of its building, it was a monument to the prosperity of the Hetman and his dedication to the Catholic Church In the time of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Roman Catholicism was the official religion of the area but even at an early date, the Catholics were in a minority in the area. Only by combining with the Uniate church did they move into the higher numbers in the 1700s, but when the Russians divided Poland, they took quick action to gather the Uniates back into the Orthodox fold. The Chodkewiecz family church remained a small, l active, church patronized by the Catholic townsmen and the Catholic Nobility of Lyakhovichi at least until World War I. Countess Rejtan, whose husband had offered to rebuild a major synagogue after its 1879 burning sat in its seats on a weekly basis until the Soviet invasion. Their pew was called the "founder’s pew," and presumably dated back to the Chodkewiecz donation.
The ramparts and moat of the castle had to have impacted the imaginations of the Jews of the town - you can see it in the postcards they sent to their cousins abroad; and the games the children remember. The sounds of Christian Feast Days and the bells of the Catholic Church and all of the holiday activities of the Russian Orthodox community around them, had to have resounded through the Jewish community’s homes and markets.
The Shuls of Lechowitz was written by Alter Brevda on his sickbed, shortly before his death in 1947. It first appeared in Lachowicze: Sefer Zikaron, edited by Y. Rubin, published Tel Aviv 1965 by the Association of Former Residents of Lachowicze 1948-1949 (printed in Hebrew and Yiddish). It was beautifully translated by Andrew and Stephen Warshall, with their thanks to Mr. Moshe Inditsky of Tel Aviv, Israel, representative of the Lachowicze landsmannschaft for permission to use the material. Mr. Inditsky has been equally kind to those who are working to bring information about Lyakhovichi to the public’s attention from this website. He has continued to share more information about the Lyakhovichi landsmannschaft, some of which is on our Emigrant Groups page.
Alter Brevda started out a career in photography that lasted decades, as an assistant to itinerant photographers. By the 1890s, he had established his own photography studio and its artist-studio like others remembering the town recalled glass-walls and courtyard. His name appears on a photography business in Lyakhovichi from the 1890s through the 1920s. If his trade was photography, his eye was an artist’s. He developed a very visual memory and you feel as if you are seeing what he describes in his memories of Lyakhovichi’s synagogues. But, he doesn’t put time frames on the material he describes. We can’t tell if a synagogue vanished under a Nazi boot, or was wiped out in World War I bombings. A report that the Kalte shul which he so movingly remembers, was burned down in 1874, needs someone else to dispute it, as he blends all of his memories of Lyakhovichi into a single timeless event. When Alter Brevda, (born Mordechai Gershon son of Dov Ber Brevda) died in 1947, he was an old man and his memories included events from the 1860s and 1870s. But because he cared so much about these landmarks of his life, his descriptions are equally timeless.
Alter Brevda (nee Mordechai Gershon Brevda)
Alter Brevda’s article continued speaking about the Kalter Shul’s noted figures before he went on to discuss the other synagogue buildings still extant in his day. "And as the shul, so also its gabais and clergy: beauty leads to beauty. The two gabais of those whom I remember: - Yakov Layzer, a Jew, a scholar of uncommonly stately appearance, and Eliyahu Liess, my brother-in-law, a great scholar, (and) the Cantor Lippe was known as the pious maskil (enlightened one) of that time."
The Shul Plaza
The Tailor’s synagogue was one of five synagogues in the Shul court or plaza. In the article, “The Shuls of Lechovich”, by Alter Brevda it says The Schustershe (Shoemakers’) Shul, the Schneidershe (Tailors’) Shul, two Chasidic meeting houses, one where in its time prayed the great R. Aharle, and the other of the Koidanover Chasidim, all of these were also to be found in the shul-court." Those buildings were somewhere located in the bombed site in this photo from WWI, but the photo caption just indicates the two buildings still standing were the Bais Yakov synagogue on the left and the Schneidershe Shul on the right.
The Kalter Shul was an architectural rarity, not only to us, but renowned in the whole neighborhood. Over the door was written the age (was it necessary to point to the indication of the construction date?) from 500 years back. To come into the shul one had to descend 5-6 little steps, to fulfill what is said: " from the depths I call to you Lord". Right across from the door was the great circular bima, for the reading of Torah, and over it was a canopy with a carved giant eagle within it. In its beak the eagle always held a cake. That was the eruv, in order to prevent the Lechowitzer Jews from desecrating the Shabbos, Heaven forbid, to have to carry a burden on the Shabbos. The aron kodesh, in the eastern wall, with its powerful height held up the ceiling. It was composed of a whole network of rarely beautiful carvings. At every opening of the aron kodesh doors flew out doves-cherubim, which bore a delicately carved keter torah. A little higher, two other doves held the Crown of Priesthood: two priestly hands held up with their fingers as during the Priestly Blessing. And even higher glistened with its splendor the Crown of Kingship. On both sides of the aron kodesh were set in the earth four-cornered stone tables and on right and left there were menorahs on them. The lectern was decorated with short verses and abbreviations. The ceiling of the shul was like a great basin painted in sky blue, and on it painted the sun, moon, and stars, as well as also all twelve tribes with their flags and symbols, woven through with various flowers and with verses. By the ledge of the walls were a lot of little candlesticks. On Chanukah and Simchas Torah candles were lit in all of them to achieve an appearance of fiery illumination. All four walls were covered with carved texts of prayers and supplications and of angels and seraphim-names. On the western wall, over the door were a pair of large lions with open mouths. Over us children - I remember - they would always cast fear, just as in the verse carved nearby: "A lion roars, who shall not fear?". Our Kalte Shul was the real "small Beis haMikdosh". When you would come in to this our shul from outside, from the small dark little houses, and set eyes on all the splendor, you used to begin to understand the sense of "this is nothing but the house of God."
500-year-old Kalter Shul of Lyakhovich with a construction date over the door from the reign of Vytaut the Great (ruled 1390s-1430s).
The Groyser Beis Midrash, or the Great Synagogue, dates to sometime before 1795 and was a large building with vaulted immense doors, where was the place of study for Chevra Sha"s, Chevra Mishnayos, Chevra Ayin-Yakov, Chevra Tehillim. This eighteenth century synagogue was a monument to the power and standing of the Lyakhovichi Jewish community in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, a bit overreaching for that same community in the Russian Empire.
The Groyser Bais Midrash - Just before WWI
That any building in this area lives to an old age is remarkable, but its survival in the Soviet period can be tied to a simple fact - it is a masonry building of uncomplicated shape and could be put to a number of uses. Most recently it has been a fruit-packing factory. The rear stairs, which no doubt today partly work as a fire escape, were built to allow women a discrete entry to the second floor mezzanine where they sat to hear the service.
Groyser Bais Midrash today
There, all strata of the congregation, from scholars to ordinary Jews, used, as they say, to concentrate on studying and saying Torah for its own sake. From among the eminent members of that Groyser Beis Midrash, should here be remembered Hirshel der Schreiber (his official family name: Mishkowsky), who received his name "schreiber" in recognition of his talent for writing written letters just like printing. He printed out and ornamented the walls of the Beis Midrash, between all twelve windows, with texts of various prayers, blessings of the Torah, counting. With pithy printed texts was provided also the lectern, over which the eternal light burned constantly, day and night.
The Schustershe (Shoemakers’) Shul, the Schneidershe (Tailors’) Shul, two Chasidic meeting houses, - one where in its time prayed the great R. Aharle, (Rebbe Aron Malovitsky, the Lechovicher Rebbe, son of Rebbe Mordechai II of Lechowitz) and the other of the Koidanover Chasidim - all of these were also to be found in the shul-court. For the sake of completeness one must also recall the Beis-Yakov Shul, which was erected through the rich man of the town, R. Avraham-Yakov Kaplan, a Jew a great scholar and master of charity with a branched-out beautiful family. His son Pinye took for son-in-law the Pinsker Rabbi’s brother, a famous son of Torah, who in himself combined Torah and enlightenment (he, that son-in-law of Pinye’s, Tzizling, with his children and children’s children, Pinye’s grandchildren and great grandchildren, live with us in the land of Israel and occupy a distinguished place in local social life)."
The Schneidershe Shul
The white building in the picture is a masonry warehouse on Market Square belonging to Bogin and Kantorovich. Kantorovich’s side of the building was used as the Stoliner Shul.
The Masonry Warehouse and Stoliner Shul
This unnamed synagogue survived because its brick structure made it easy to reuse for other purposes.
19th century brick synagogue
During World War I, the Beis Midrash (School of Torah Study) was filled with those too old and too young to be drafted, but clearly still on the front lines of the War, the studies went on.
The Beis Midrash (School of Torah Study) during World War I (high-resolution version)
This little primary school from the Russian period was on the quiet upper class residential street shared by Jewish merchants, Russian officials, and Polish professionals that was called "Sanitarian Street". Young Russian, Polish, and Jewish, children were educated together in the early grades.
Streets and Houses
Lyakhovichi’s Market Square Street (Bazarnayaskaya) included Nehama Raisel’s Inn which belonged to Reb Itze and Nehama Raisel Kogan/Cohen. The inn was the building with the protruding second floor; teamster-driven cabs are tied up out front. We can trace the ownership of this building from Mrs Nekhama Raisels Kagan who owned it at the time of the Holocaust, to her husband. Her husband Itze Kagan was a taxpayer owning this property in 1883. Reb Itze Kagan whose Hebrew name was Zeev Yitzhak b Abram haKohen may have gotten it from his father Abram but he may have also purchased it or received it from his wife’s family. All we know about his wife’s family so far is that her mother was probably named Raisel as Nechama was called Nechama Raisel’s.
Market Square Street
In the olden days wooden cottages were on both sides of the street, now there is a triangular open space on the right side where previously had been the house of Crown Rabbi Samuel Joseph Mandel. This wooden house in Lyakhovichi displays the lacy brick-a-brack detailing around the windows that was considered typical for Jewish householders.
Wooden house in Lyakhovichi
Pinsker Rd in Lyakhovichi including an unidentified "Jewish" building: These photos were taken by Neville Lamdan in 2003