Collected and Written by Muni Chazen
Facts, stories, and legends that are tied deeply with David of Shumsk, founder and builder of Shumsk, whose descendents already number the tenth generation, and who now find themselves in America.
My Shtetl Shumsk
If you should look for Shumsk on the map, you will surely not find it. I confess that whenever someone asks me where I come from, I say from near Kremenets. Not that I am ashamed of our little town, but only because nobody has ever heard of it. For the Tsarist government Shumsk was of little historical or strategic importance. It found itself at the middle point between Kremenets and Ostrog.
However, Jews there did not complain about the towns which made their shtetl unknown, as long as they could live there peacefully and draw their livelihood from all of the goods which mother earth brought them there. The quiet waters which flowed there were a source of subsistence, but for the Jews of Shumsk the shtetl Shumsk had historical significance. Many of us may know that Shumsk has behind it a history that is already 200 years old, which is connected with David of Shumsk.
Everybody knows who David Shumsker was, but not everybody knows the great merits and appreciation which were due to him. Many of us will be interested to know that even before Shumsk became a settlement, Rachmanov already had a Jewish community. But over the years the situation changed. Shumsk became the well of livelihood, the Jews moved over from Rachmanov to Shumsk, and afterwards the small cluster of Jews in Rachmanov diminished.
But let us tell the story:
Approximately 200 years ago, in the times of Polish rule, a landowner would lease his properties to Jews. Such was the case in Rachmanov. Jews paid a lease for the inn, the mill, and the river. Rachmanov also possessed around it fields and woods, which were a source of subsistence for Jews. Moreover, not far from Rachmanov was found much clay and brown dirt, from which were wrought various bricks, roof tiles, and pots for cooking.
This created an opportunity for many Jews to make a living, and it did not take long for the community of Rachmanov to increase from a village into a town. The Jewish community built a synagogue in Rachmanov, brought in two Torah scrolls, and conducted a Jewish life.
Two factors played a role in the development of the brick industry: the brown earth that was found there, and the abilities of the manager, under whom the business blossomed.
This has all been to credit our ancestor David for nurturing the brick industry, but it is because he later bought large tracts of land in Shumsk, having found brown earth there in abundance, that he subsequently came to be known to all as David Shumsker.
The bricks that were produced in his brick factory had a reputation throughout the entire region on account of their strength. One could recognize him from his initials on them: D.Sh.
In the beginning the bricks actually came from around Tcherenka. People called Tcherenka the place where the brown earth lay. As the brown earth was depleted in Tcherenka, David purchased parcels of land in Shumsk from Lord Shumsky and erected a brick factory there, which was a success from then onward. This was in about the year 1745. It became known that the brown earth in Shumsk was even better than the brown earth in Tcherenka. David proceeded to build a brick house, and the work then moved over to Shumsk.
About the many who lived in Rachmanov, who had to come to the work and go home in the evening to sleep, people joked: "They go to Rachmanov to sleep in the coop." This saying goes on in Shumsk until the present day: "Go to Rachmanov to sleep in the coop."
From that time one can imagine how Shumsk developed. The Jewish community developed and Shumsk became a town. David received the name David Shumsker.
Silent witnesses to that time that have remained are the pits by the Polish church below the cemetery.
There was a legend about the pits by the church which merits inclusion in Jewish folklore, and which is told thus:
In the site of the pits in former times, there stood a church. It came to pass in Shumsk that a great tzaddik who was also the rabbi of the town passed away. They prepared the funeral, they brought the corpse to the synagogue, the funeral speaker was there, and the funeral started out towards the cemetery. Just then, the church bells rang. The pallbearers stopped, not knowing what to do. Suddenly, the deceased one sat up and uttered a few words. The church sank and disappeared, and these are the two deep pits that have remained in memory.
David Shumsker's business grew and he employed Jews and Christians alike. The gentiles had great respect for him, because he treated them like a father and they even called him "Batt," which means father. When the government assigned family names, David took the name Batt. All who carry the name Batt are his descendents. We Shumskers referred to him by the old name David Shumsker, because on every brick were the initials "D.Sh." And whenever a brick fell from a building, we recalled him.
In addition to the houses that David erected in Shumsk for himself and his children, he never forgot the needs of the city. He erected a house of prayer and, l'havdil, a bathhouse, a house for welcoming strangers, and a hospital for the poor. Three lines of stores in the market, which went as an inheritance to his descendents, benefitted a fund for the greeting of brides. A bit later he administered the construction of the great synagogue. The synagogue was of pure brick, high and beautiful, with a fence around it. Not everyone knows that from the synagogue to his house, which stood opposite the Russian church, he built an underground cellar, also from brick. The purpose that the underground cellar served is not known. The cellar was spread out under the entire market. With the passage of years, it has become sunken in and damaged in several places. When they built the pharmacy, they also struck this cellar, but because of the bad odor they could not enter it. Neither could they go near the synagogue’s cellar for the same reason. Legend tells us that in the depths of the cellar lie casks of gold, held under the power of little dwarves with chicken's feet. The dwarves bring blessed luck to those people who have the keys to the cellar. Therefore, people say in Shumsk that Yudel Zak became rich because he had the keys to the synagogue cellar, where he stored wooden wheels, and every time he rolls out the wheels, he brings blessed luck...
According to the details engraved in golden letters on the western wall of the synagogue, the synagogue was finished in the year 1780. Here was recounted what had happened in each time: when David Shumsker should have already finished the building of the synagogue, the authorities interfered, not wanting to allow the building to remain so tall. The work ceased. However, he remained a allow the building to be completed on the condition that he first build a brick wall around the Russian church. The story goes on that, after the synagogue was completed, lightning struck this wall and knocked down a large section.
The synagogue was indeed quite high. However, when one came in, one first had to ascend several staircases, which made the synagogue still higher, so as to fulfill the verse Out of the depths I call You, O Lord. In 1896 when Yossele Rosenblatt prayed in our synagogue as a boy, the throng on Shabbat was such that after praying, they had to pull him out by the hand.
In the center of the synagogue was an elevated area with a gate around it. Men came from both sides up to the bima, where they read from the Torah. They did hakafot at Simchat Torah and Hoshanot on Hoshana Raba around this platform. Lamps were suspended by long chains hanging down from the ceiling, and what held up the ceiling was a mystery. During the summer it was a joy to pray in the synagogue, but in wintertime we prayed there in furs and caught shivers. The legend is told that once a boy was lost on a Friday night. People looked around for him and could not find him. The father remembered that he had been in the synagogue with him, but he did not think about him after praying. He went to the sexton so that he might open the synagogue, but the sexton was afraid because it was already midnight. So they went to the rabbi. The rabbi told the sexton to get a gentile to light a lamp and that, before the sexton could open the door, he should knock three times. With terror they opened the door and indeed found the boy sleeping in the corner. He explained that he did not arrive on account of the ghosts that came out at night...and the ghosts furthermore did not need him.
In the present year 1946 it will be 165 years since David completed the synagogue. What has now become of the synagogue? God knows!
This is, in brief, the story of our town Shumsk, which was the cradle of our childhood, where our father's fathers were born, and which is dear to the heart of all. How every house, every tree, hill, and blade of glass stands before our eyes and the synagogue with its pride remains engraved in our memory. What remains after the Holocaust? God knows!
We, the descendents of David Shumsker who found ourselves in America, are already the tenth generation. Let us be united and spin the thread on the American soil. Our society had for its short existence the name Shumsk, and did a lot more than the big cities of Russia, which we will do in the future. We who draw our descendency from David Shumsker are all one family, who will maintain the remembrance for generations.
This is the story of 200-year old Shumsk, dedicated to the memory of Shumskers, and written by one whose great-great-grandfather contributed to the development of Shumsk.
Article appeared in souvenir journal of a 1946 benefit dinner for war refugees sponsored by the Shumsker Relief Society. Translation from Yiddish by Howard Freedman.