submitted for a Contest organized by the Newspaper "Tog"
The title of the Contest:
"What do you Remember of the Old Country?"
Originally written in Yiddish
Translated by Jeremy Grant 2000
A picture of the city of Volochisk forty years earlier. A true story that many people still remember. A story that shows how one may have an impact on a city, so much so that the city becomes totally different…all thanks to the evil Prostav…
Volochisk, prior to WWI (under the rule of the Tzar)
One of the cities and towns that Hitler (may his name be blotted out) and his bloody troops attacked and destroyed was the city of Volochisk. This is one of the many cities who did not escape the present disaster taking hold the entire world; who knows how today’s Jews, those few remnants still living there, are surviving under the Nazi regime? I hesitate to call it "living" …staring death in the eye every moment, every hour of the day. It is true that 19 days before the Nazi attacked Russia (June 3, 1941)’ the Soviet authorities helped those who wanted to leave town -at their own expense- travel to safer areas, away from the battle zone.
The city of Volochisk is found in the Ukraine (Volhynia Province), near what was once the Austrian-Russian border (Eastern Galacia), by the river Zbrutch which divided the city of Volochisk, Russia from the city of Podvolochisk, Austria. Though not a big city, Volochisk was a famous place because Volochisk was the "gate" to the Ukraine (from the West), the so-called "box of goodies" between Europe and Asia, a target of Hitler’s big appetite.
During WWI Volochisk was the first to taste the fire; its population was forced to leave the city and seek a place where they could be safe, away from the battlefields. Volochisk was known just about everywhere in Europe; three passenger trains entered and exited the city every single day since the station served the direct lines Odessa-Volochisk, Kiev-Volochisk, and the one crossing he border to Podvolochisk, Austria. Austrian trains entered Volochisk as well. In fact, three foreign train companies had agreements with the Russian authorities to use the lines. People could travel abroad with passports issued by the Russian-Province authorities. There were Russian tourists who traveled through here to warmer places; in the summer months they would go to Marienbad, Karlsbad, the various spas in the Carpathian mountains, and many cities throughout Austria. Many foreigners traveled through here as well. This made for a very noisy and busy place, just like in the big cities. (World renowned Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem, on his way to America, passed through here too; he described the border-town in his writings.)
Freight trains were mostly filled with wheat from "fat Ukraine" on their way to Austria, Germany, England, and France; some continued to Podvolochisk where the contents were transferred to other trains; some were transferred right here in Volochisk. Products that were unloaded in Volochisk were transported into town by ox-driven carts (the distance from the train station to the city was four kilometers.) Company representatives sold the stuff to Austrian merchants who then transported it across the border via the "tamazhne", the custom house. Every day thousand of tons of material passed through this custom check point - grains of all kinds, wheat, corn, barley, and so on. …also, Swiss cheese, and other food products…and live chicken, wool, bacon, fish, and what not…
The entire Jewish population benefited from this border crossing situation;" expeditors," brokers who handled all kinds of transactions, "komisaners," who used the city warehouses where the various products got sorted out and sent on to their final destinations. These warehouses were usually used to package eggs. A place where eggs from towns and small villages, from near and far, first arrived , got sorted out, were packed into boxes and sent off to markets in Austria, Germany, France and England. Over 100 Jewish families were involved in this business. They worked together in one big partnership, a kind of cooperative system. They distributed the profits accordingly among themselves.
Buyers would roam the neighboring towns and villages to purchase all kinds of farm products, Then they would bring it to the warehouses where the dealing and wheeling took place. These buyers had middlemen all over - in nearby places and faraway places - all over the Ukraine; These middlemen would work on commission; anywhere from a hundred, to thousands of rubles, changed hands every day. Some of the middlemen’s profits were used to cover the cost of transporting eggs and other products abroad. At the train station one could find the "Otprovitelies", people who made a living from the train traffic. In town, one would find the "expeditors." At the customs station there were those who supervised everything that went through there, especially material that came off the trains and was shipped to the city (they made a good living, too). Then, there were the "agents" and "brokers", those with big offices in town… the men who negotiated for big foreign firms the purchase of Ukrainian and Russian imports of agricultural machinery and other products.
In the end everyone profited from the fact that the border was nearby. This, in short, is why for many Jews in town and surrounding towns, Volochisk was seen as a better place to live than elsewhere. This is why people showed respect towards Jews from Volochisk, some even envied them. they were seen as "big city" folks, which, in fact, they were. All this happened because of the border. The Volochiskers actually dressed nicer. They went by the fashion trends in Vienna. They were more cosmopolitan, better educated, sent their children to schools abroad. Thus lived the Jews of Volochisk, until one fine day…
Market place Clean-Up Operation
At first when the new Prostav, "Volshtenko" took over town hall things were pretty chaotic. One fine early morning, as the merchants began arriving in the market, they noticed with amazement that people were cleaning up the place - sweeping every entrance to their houses, the sidewalks. The policemen were checking everyone’s property and demanding they clean up or else. They warned that strict fines would be imposed if they did not comply. Right away a commotion started in the small market place; this was the case in the big one as well. People were talking, wondering who sent them this curse; some thought that it must have been because of a visit from the "Ispravnik," even possibly the Governor? How else can one explain all this?
The people asking these questions were Jews who bought farm products
from the Gentiles and would come to the market places in town every morning to
sell chicken, ducks, geese, eggs, calves, a little wool, wheat, hay, and other
things. All these Jewish merchants had something to sell to the Jews in town;
the poor as well as the "balabostim (the
rich)," while making a few pennies in the deal. This way all made a
living. Some of these merchants - smart people- when they realized that things
are not what they used to be in the market place, put on their thinking caps
and figured out what this is all about. They realized that they were now
dealing with another "prostav", an evil
man, a stricter one. They figured out that they should fear him. In fact, the
entire city began to shake with fear. Especially since a rumor was spreading
that the Prostav had sent for the "Kazuane Rabbi - the Staroste",
as well as for some of the well-to-do Jews in the city. Upon hearing this,
people would walk around very upset, all along thinking of a new
"curse" that the new Prostav would impose
During prayer services, in all the shuls and smaller houses of prayer, the town’s prominent Jews made sure everyone was familiar with this new Prostav and his wishes. Right now, all he wanted was for the people to clean up the city, for, as he claimed: "This should be better for the city, healthier for the people". Jews took a deep breath, however, the fear of the new Prostav did not disappear.
People Plant Flowers
The city is in an uproar again. People walk around nervously. They can’t stop talking to each other in the market place; merchants are seen standing in front of their stores; people are confused. One thing, however, was clear: workers are seen digging holes on both sides of the road, all the way from the "Tamozhne" to the front yard of the Prostav’s house, the whole length of the road. What are these holes? Why holes? No one knows, until a few weeks later. One beautiful morning, as people were coming to the market, one could see that next to each hole there was a tree. Gentiles were seen working hard at planting trees into these holes on both sides of the road, from the Tomazhne to the Prostav’s home. And when the much-beloved month of May arrived, the trees burst into bloom. Indeed, it was something to see. The city was totally different, especially if you were traveling from the train depot to the center of town. One might think you were going through a beautiful flower path. In the evening, people would take walks alongside the road of the blooming trees; there was nothing more pleasant to do in the whole city. Still, on everyone’s lips, the "new Prostav" is an "evil Prostav."
The Pozherne Commando (The fire fighters)
People began to notice that outside the Prostav’s house, workers were digging, bricks were brought in. It looked like they were going to put up a building. Before long bricklayers wee hard at work. Sure, they’re building. But what, no one knew. The structure was long and wide, more than two stories high. It had a big tower with steps going up to the top about 5-6 stories high. At the top it had a wraparound balcony. One could see the entire city from this balcony, as well as the surrounding villages. From high above, the city stretched out like a flat table. We were told that the building was going to serve as a "Firehouse," a place equipped with all the necessary machinery to put out fires.
The Prostav organized a group of volunteer firefighters, the so-called "Pazharne Commando" with Grisha Kovalev as the Captain (the boss) and Segal from the train depot as his Lieutenant. The city was abuzz with this. They made uniforms for the volunteers, beautiful clothes, and the boys who signed up as "volunteers" were proud of their duties and responsibilities. City officials decided to organize a fire drill on the grounds near the "green church." People came to see this novelty. Girls were only too happy to date the boys of the "Pazharne Commando." Other boys in town were jealous of the uniforms; they were so striking looking. Every evening two volunteers had to stay guard at the station. They waited there, they wanted already to have a real fire. A little excitement. The entire city was impressed by what the new Prostav had accomplished. And yet, he is still an "evil Prostav."
When the new Prostav
built the fire house, he didn’t merely intend to improve life in the city by
providing it with a fire station. No, he also made sure that people had some
entertainment in the city. He wanted that from time to time, theater groups
would perform in the city; so, soon enough, in addition to the fire house, he
ordered the construction of a theater hall. When it was finished, the city
could attend a variety of shows that were joyful and lively. Young and old,
every evening, one could see that the place was filled. And still, the city had
an "evil Prostav."
Simple Folks have rights Too
As soon as merchants were allowed to cross the border they received
from the Prostav a 28 day permit to stay abroad.
After that, one had the right to renew it. Also, the new Prostav
announced that anyone over 18 is eligible to get a permit to cross the border;
the only thing was that every citizen wishing to do so had to obtain a
passport. People traveling who already had a passport had to come to the Prostav - to his "Chancellery," to get it stamped
each time they intended to cross over. People in the city were jumping for joy;
they used to come in droves to his office to get their papers in order to
People’s lives changed completely, especially the middle class. But for the others as well; everyone now had the right to travel abroad, to Austria. There, they found another world. Podvolochisk is a beautiful city with beautiful storess. Stores filled with great products, things one cannot see in Volochisk. People bought clothes, shoes, hats, all according to the latest fashions in Vienna. And yet, the Prostav is still an "evil Prostav." How come? Every morning masses of people would wait outside his office to get their passports or to get them stamped. The lines were very long and it was impossible to please everyone. At nine a.m. the doors closed; as usual, some were very disappointed since they could not get in. They had to return the following day. No one could convince the disappointed ones that the Prostav was not evil…and just in case someone asked why the Prostav Voloshtchenko is an evil man, the answer was: "Because he did not except Chavar (bribes)."
Copyright by Estate of Samuel Trugman 2000
Translation by Jeremy Grant 2000
This page is authored and maintained by Renee Gottesman and Helen May.
We welcome all corrections, additions, and comments.
Copyright by Helen May & Renee Gottesman 1998
Last updated July 1, 2012
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