Dokshitz Memories

Arieh Henkin, Holon, Israel


1: Dokshitz in the Soviet Era

I would like to briefly depict the period following the arrival of the Red Army to Dokshitz on September 17, 1939 and up to the entrance of the German Army. The only reference to this 21-month-long period is in Joseph Shapira's article in the Dokshitz Yizkor Book (p 209), where he notes that the various Jewish institutions all ceased their activities in that period.

We woke up that morning to a noisy roar of motor engines in our quiet street, and found this to be accompanied by many hundreds of Red Army units rolling on ceaselessly, and mostly on foot, towards the town center.

They were surprisingly friendly to the locals who stood on the roadside, waving enthusiastically. These were all Jews, since only Jews lived in the new extension at the end of Polotzk Street.

The soldiers were sweating profusely in their heavy winter overcoats, under the relentless sun. However, they refused even the water which we offered them. There seemed to be strict regulations in this issue, possibly for fear of poisoning. They did, however, generously offer us candy on their part. In all, there was a feeling that this was a friendly army or, in the official terminology, a 'liberating' army. This was in sharp contrast to what one may have expected having heard about looting, robbing, and raping committed by the Russian soldiers in previous wars. Moreover, a sense of relief reigned, as the fear of the German advance eastward diminished somewhat.

When the military march was over and the initial excitement had dissolved, it turned out life had to continue in the new situation. The new reality slowly infiltrated our awareness.

In our house we kept documents of ha-Shomer ha-Tza'ir movement, passed on to me by Kalman Schultz pending his Aliyah, when he had appointed me their trustee. Among these was a thick volume where the outgoing graduates had formulated their thoughts and opinions over the years. These were naturally pro-Zionist in orientation, hence somewhat anti-communist, as communism opposed Zionism; some also opposed Jewish movements such as the Bund or Beitar. These youngsters with no formal education whatsoever had amazing intelligence, rhetorical ability, and grasp of world-wide problems. Little wonder that they attracted the town kids to their movement and its ideology. Indeed, when I was about 14 or 15, we were lectured a course on political economy by 18-year-old Gilinson, whose words we swallowed with lust.

This book obviously contained much incriminating evidence. So, along with my next door neighbour Henekh Frankfurt, I set out to destroy it. We lit a fire in the stove and began tearing out the pages one by one, barely catching a glimpse of the name of the writer, of the article, and occasionally of a short segment of text before it caught fire. Many of the writers were already in Israel, but some, like Chaske Yolk, Berl Dvorkind, and Henekh himself, were still pending Aliyah in the town. Moreover, all still had families here.

There were also 'split' families, like us, who already had several members in Palestine, and the rest were stranded here waiting for Aliyah. In fact, most of the Jewish population in the town was Zionist to a certain extent. A glance at the photographs of the organizers of Keren Kayemet (Jewish National Fund) Bazaars in the Dokshitz Yizkor Book will show the inter-class character of these Zionist activities.

Following the entrance of the Russian army all the administrative and public institutions were closed down; commerce was crippled and money unavailable. The Polish currency was formally valid, but noone was willing to trade with it; the Russian currency was not yet available. A few shopkeepers were forced to open their stores and sell supplies to soldiers who were in desperate need of local merchandise and not in a position to argue about its price &endash; which was not known to the merchants anyway, in roubles. Sometime later Chuchman, the shoe shop owner, was accused of speculation, sentenced and exiled to Siberia or sent to prison. His family was forced out of their spacious house, right across the road from us. The military office, Voenkomat, was consequently housed in one half of this house, the commander and his family in the other.

To the best of my knowledge the military representatives of the new government were 3 politruks, permanently stationed in our town. The first, Sluzky, was a Jew. He was later moved along with his wife to the former home of the Dubnov family in Polotzk Street; the second, of Lithuanian origin, was housed in the home of the vice vicar in that same street; the third was a Russian.

Preparations got under way for elections of West Belorussian representatives to a general assembly which was to decide on the future of the area, not before expressing gratitude to the Soviet Union for liberating us from the Polish rule. These elections took place in late October 1939, when the following three candidates were elected.

The first was Leibe Rozov, a former communist who had also been appointed commander of the militia, composed almost entirely of service-eligible Jewish youth clean of any anti-Soviet record.

The second was a local villager who had been detained for a long period at the Kartuz-Bereze concentration camp for communist activism and had been recently released due to deteriorating health. Shortly before the Russians' arrival, he had come to our mill to grind some sacks of wheat, as all the farmers used to do. I got acquainted with him, and we became good friends. He was later appointed regional chairman of all the local villages (gmina).

The third was a woman.

As expected, all the representatives supported unification with Eastern Belorussia, and we subsequently became nationals of the Soviet Union.

I cannot say much about life downtown, as I continued to work in the saw-mill. Both the mill and my house were on the outskirts of the town, namely the new extension.

The mill continued to operate as before, except that an executive committee was elected, which included me. The actual management was left for the time being in the hands of Hirshl Frankfurt, one of the former owners, who was liked and respected by the workers. However, life was not easy under communism for individuals associated, rightly or wrongly, with either Zionism or capitalism, as both were considered negative, unreliable elements in the present atmosphere, and aroused suspicion. Thus after a while Hirshl chose to move to Neeman, where one of his sons, Benny, was employed in his profession as a chemical engineer. Henekh, another son of his, also moved there and was enlisted in the army. Only their daughter Chaika remained here, married to Shalom Chuchman,.

Several other families moved out of Dokshitz for similar reasons. Those that I know include Chaske Yolk and her mother and husband, Yakov Kazinitz, who moved to Vileyka; my cousin, Rivka Sheyman-Shleyfer and her husband and daughter also moved out.

In fact, these fears did not materialize. No measures were taken against Zionists -- none were exiled to Siberia, unfortunately, since this could have saved thousands of lives.

In the evenings we still would get together in the Shomer ha-Tza'ir, where landscape photographs of Palestine and the commandments of the Boy Scouts were promptly replaced by posters of Stalin, Lenin and the Motherland; also, the songs we were taught there were now in Russian, which we picked up fairly quickly, as it was rather close to the local peasants' Belorussian, which we knew. In fact, I was told that in my early childhood I actually spoke Russian.

We were cut off from supplies, and as I said earlier, there was no money either. I received my pay in flour, which is what the customers paid with at the mill. When I later took private mathematics lessons with Joseph Kaminkovitch, I paid with the same flour.

For the young generation, however, this period was a true revolution. Previously, there had been no horizons nor prospects for the future, other than the hope of emigrating to Palestine with its closed borders; suddenly all the barriers were removed to education, public positions, professional training, etc.

One of the major events was the opening of an evening school. Till now there had been 7 Polish classes and 6 Hebrew classes. Upon graduating from the Hebrew system one could continue to Polish 5th grade, but that too would soon be over. Only few could afford gymnasium studies in Vilno, Gluboky or Disna. My sister Peska and Chaska Yolk did go on to study in Disna; and from my age group only Bebe Kazovich did so -- he was later to become the chairman of the Association of Former Residents of Dokshitz in Israel.

Almost all the youth, certainly the Jewish youth, seized this opportunity to return to school. I enrolled in Grade 5 of the evening school. When that was over, the school principal approached to my older brother Aharon with the suggestion that I should take private lessons in Maths (and Communist Party History!) during the summer, in order to cover the syllabus of Grade 6 and 7, since they were compelled to open a Grade 8 class for the sons of some Eastern functionaries. As their number did not justify opening a class, both locals and some Polish gymnasium students would be encouraged to apply for the entrance exams. School in the Russian era was, incidentally, the only place and time when Jewish and Polish youth interacted as equals.

These functionaries included the second Party Secretary, Voronov, whose family was Jewish. He was housed in the Wolfovich villa on Borisov Street, after the Polish forest director who had rented it had been moved out.

The regional council (Ispolkom) chairman, Wilensky, also Jewish, was housed in the Levitan house on Dolhinov Street.

The third secretary, Levin, also Jewish, was lodged on Polotzk Street. in the house belonging to the Gordons, who were moved to their brothers' house out in the back yard.

The official language of the Belorussian Republic was Belorussian, a language close enough to both Russian and Polish to confuse us in its acquisition. At school the only lesson conducted in Belorussian was Belorussian itself, the rest being in Russian. But my 8th grade graduation certificate, received June 20, 1941 with distinction in studies and behaviour, was written in Belorussian and adorned with photographs of Lenin and Stalin.

The extended school absorbed many teachers from Russia, all unmarried except the principal who had a family. They were housed along with the locals in parts of houses.

The Russians were friendly towards us. The daughter of the second secretary, Sonya Voronov, was a classmate of mine and a good friend. Almost every day I would go to her house after school along with Sheyman's grandson Arthur (my cousin Fanya's son). We would be invited in, even if her parents were home.

Activities that were initiated in the town and surrounding villages included folk dancing and choirs. The nearest village, Laput, sent a troupe of dancers to perform in the Eastern region. One summer day a massive happening took place in the Swistafolia forest clearing, where all the guest and local dance troupes performed.

A spacious Culture Center was erected at the end of Borisov Street -- formerly the large house of an estate owner, it had been taken apart and towed into town to serve as a center for entertainment and cultural activities.

There was a serious shortage of imported supplies. There were almost no books for purchase, and we had to make do with one copy for the whole class. The only store in town would occasionally have the most basic supply. The Russians had their own exclusive store where supply was relatively abundant, but this too was limited per family.

Noone was accepted into the Communist Party, not even local ex-Party members. To enrol in the Komsomol, special recommendations were needed from Party and Komsomol members, but this was problematic, since these were all newly arrived, and did not know the candidates. Consequently, the enrolment process was conducted at a public gathering where the audience was invited to speak up and refer to the candidate and his suitability. For example, during the discussion concerning my brother Aharon, a youth of my age stood up and recounted a conversation that had taken place at Vant's, the barber. Aharon, who then held the prestigious post of director of the consumers' department (Potreb Soyuz), had declared that he would willingly quit his post to join his father and sister in Palestine. This, by the way, did not prevent his acceptance.


2. Some memories of Dokshitz

In order to understand, or at least to recognize, the situation in Dokshitz, it must be borne in mind that it was a typical East Polish shtetl of the 1930's

The new extension contained a large area of land purchased from Wilhelmina Proshinsky, estate owner of Blonie, by Shoshanna Chuchman-Dreyzin's father,1 and divided into individual plots for housing and cultivation, as well as the Sheyman-Frankfurt flour- and saw-mills (Dokshitz Yizkor Book p. 89).

Our neighbourhood was located further down on Polotzk Street, from the junction towards Laput. The last house before Laput belonged to the family of the blacksmith Ziklin. At the corner on the way to Laput there were two adjacent tall crosses, one belonging to the Catholics, the other to Pravoslavs. Nearby there was also a wooden frame of a large house, 200 metres away from the next inhabited house, that of the Reitman family. On my way home from the Kheyder on dark wintery nights I would be terrified, despite the hand-lamp with its burning candle. Behind the black window frames there could be lurking thieves, robbers, or plain lunatics, maybe even ghosts out of the black, ominous block away to the right, namely the Jewish cemetery.

As the years went by my fears diminished, not least because I was no longer alone, as we would come home from the youth movement in twos at least.

There was no public transport, no private cars, except one that was temporarily kept by Borka Yolk (who emigrated to Israel after the war to settle in Ashkelon) and a lorry temporarily kept by the Raskind brothers. There was no running water, sewage or toilets in the houses. A communal well served each block of houses; it had a roll system with a chain to which a bucket was tied and suspended to a depth that varied with the season and rainfall status. In winter a thick layer of ice would form around the well at about the height of its opening, so I would fear falling inside while rolling.

Our winter was characterized by piles of snow, occasionally reaching up to the roof. In the mornings much tough work was needed to clear up a passage to the street or to the toilet. Children would enjoy sledging, especially down the two steep roads leading down to the river, namely Dzika and the road towards the Chuchman and Kabakov houses.

The major means of transport were a horse and cart in summer and a sledge in winter. However, as the only paved streets were those of the city center and its immediate surroundings, driving around in a cart could be very tough both in spring, as the snow melted, and in heavy rain spells of the summer -- the cart wheels would sink in the mud right up to the cart axle. In the winter, heavy loads, such as logs from the forest would be transported to the saw mill on the snow.

There were very few horse owners, two or three balagoles who owned a cart, and two or three farmers, like the Tilis who owned a plot of land in the new extension at the end of Polotzk Street, as well as a house which they rented, while they themselves lived at the corner of the market and Borisov Street

The nearest train station was situated 10 km. away in Parafianov. It linked us primarily to Vilno, which is where the closest University Hospital was located, probably the only one in the North of the country. Our link to the other towns and villages was by horse or by foot.

Electricity for light was available from the Proshinsky power station at Blonie, situated 1.5 km from the edge of our neighbourhood. Not everybody could afford it, however.

Only few owned a radio, or a telephone. Even bicycles were rare, owned by the five local policemen for riding to the neighbouring villages, some young clerks who took their (Jewish) girlfriends out to the country, and young villagers who would come to town on market days and on Sundays.

I personally became involved in the bicycle business since I was 14, when Vulya Wolfowitch, the blacksmith, agreed to accept me as an apprentice without taking pay from us, as was customary. Most of my work in summer was repairing bicycles, and in winter it was producing lighters and polishing copper containers and vessels.

After a year with the blacksmith I entered the mills as a laborer. We were just four Jewish laborers and the rest were villagers from Laput across the river. Sunday, the official rest day, was when we were needed most for taking care of the machinery, waxing, etc. We were in fact the Shabbes Goy of Sunday.

As a child I used to enjoy being taken along in a horse- drawn cart to transport and distribute manure or to spend many hours digging potatoes out of the earth, just to be given a hold of the reins for a couple of minutes or to be able to make a bonfire and bake potatoes in it at the end of the day.

An additional summer pastime would be to join up with a boy whose father had gained possession of the entire crop of an apple or pear orchard and needed to have it guarded against theft. Our fee would be worm-infested apples that had fallen off the tree pre-maturely.

Cowshed owners would bring in freshly gathered hay at the end of summer to last till the end of the winter. This hay had a wonderful smell and we loved rolling in it and sleeping over together.

We were 4 boys of my age living up my street and in summer we would go out to Swistapoli Forest beyond the Polish cemetery looking for berries, mushrooms, and even nuts that grew in a distant spot that we didn't always manage to find.

The Berezine River, famous for its historical connection to Napoleon's conquests, or rather his retreat from Russia, had its source in the vicinity of our town; twice at least we decided to go off during recess and look for them. We never found them and barely managed to get back in time for the end of the school day to be duly punished.

The river itself, which could barely be called a stream, supplied water to the reservoirs in the beer factory owned by Gordon and in the Sheyman-Frankfurt mill. A special extension was contructed there to supply water in case of a fire, and it served us as a swimming pool. For real swimming there was a part of the river near Laput, on its far side. It was a considerable walking distance away, so that only a few swimming enthusiasts got there, and only rarely. The swimming season was rather short anyway.

Narrow and unimpressive as the river ordinarily was, it could turn into a real danger in spring with the melting of the snows. The houses located between the bridge and the public bath were right on its banks and I recall a terrible flooding with many houses involved.

The distance from our house to the center, where the marketplace, the shops, the schools, the synagogues, the Youth Movement, the bakery, the butcher, and everything else were located, was at least 2 kilometers, which I walked at least twice a day. This distance may have been what put an end to the violin lessons which I took with the Friedman family &endash;they were all violinists and whoever happened to be free would tutor the pupils.

We baked our own bread once a week in the large Russian kitchen oven, on which the maid, when there was one, used to sleep.

There were two or three brick houses: the Korbman pharmacy in the market place; the Yolk house at the end of Slobode., which was transformed to serve as the governmental bakery in the Soviet era; and a couple of two-storey buildings, one belonging to Luska Kaminkovich in the market place -- an inn downstairs and a clinic above, and the other belonging to Zeitlin, which housed the Polish police on one floor in Borisov Street

Most of the local houses had a yard with a cowshed, in one half of which the cow lived while the other half was reserved for hay for the winter. In the summer the cows would be led out to pasture. Each morning the cowherd would set out of the town center, proceeding down the main road with more cows joining, till they reached the nearest farm past Polotzk Street This was in Blonie, the lands of the Proshinsky brothers. The Proshinsky brothers, Wilhelma's sons, were bachelors &endash; the elder an engineer, and the younger was the only motorcycle owner in the vicinity, which made him an attraction as he rode past us on his way to town.

The officials in the municipality, the province administration, even the post, were Poles who had arrived after the establishment of Poland at the end of World War 1 and the Poland-Russia war. Most of the teachers at the public school were likewise 'imported' Poles. Noteworthy among the local teachers was Slovik, who taught the exact sciences. He gave private lessons to me and Arthur to prepare us for skipping a grade. I was told that this man risked his life to hide Sonya Chuchman for a while, but I am not sure about the details.

The five uniformed policemen, and one in civilian attire, were the true rulers and the goal of our dreams, as they represented the highest elite and ruling class. There were also some families of ranked personnel of the Border Patrols, a section of which, or possibly even a platoon, were posted locally. Their ranks were merely Corporal and Sergeant, but for us they were the utmost peak of the social pyramid.

The local Jewish fascination with uniforms, ranks, drills, and marches was realized in the local Fire Brigade, where all these obsessions could materialize, and which was indeed all-Jewish. The children loved playing army games. organised in military stroys. The commander would be a lad lucky enough to possess an old medal or some similar military object, that could be pinned on to his chest and win him the desired authority.

When it came to enlisting in the Polish army, however, it was a different matter. Some of the eligible youth would starve and exhaust themselves in an effort to lose weight and escape recruitment. These bursts of high-energy activity would sometimes benefit the community, as they would transfer logs from rich peoples' houses to poorer peoples' houses in a local Robin Hood fashion.

Many Polish settlers (Osadniks) were brought in; they received agricultural land, while the local villagers remained crowded as the land was gradually split up among family members in inheritance.

Then there were the owners of the large farm estates -- feudals who kept cowsheds, stables, sheep-pens, and pigsties in the yard, along with buildings that looked a lot like them and housed the farm workers and their families; these would join the labor force, actually slave force, from an early age.

There were two rabbis, one each for the Hassidim and the Misnagdim. The majority of the population prayed at the four Hassidim synagogues, while the Misnagdim had just one.

There were two feldshers, or practical physicians, in the town, a Jew named Monya Shapira, and a gentile. At this time, however, there was also an authorized imported physician, who too was Jewish. The clinic was located on the second floor of Luska Kaminkovich's house. When a physician would leave, another would be brought to replace him. The teachers at the Tarbut school would also be imported and temporary.

Two of the local butchers sold non-kosher (pork) meat. Both businesses were located in the market, and were successful...

There were also two prostitutes in the town: the Christian Verka who received clients at her home in an extension of Borisov Str; and Esterke who ran her business at the family home at Schulhoif, where she lived with her mother, sister, and younger brothers. This did not prevent my friends and me from visiting her sister, who participated in the Youth movement, to find a Polish soldier waiting in the entrance hall for his turn to be taken to a side room.



-- In his book "A Period in Brackets" (p. 61) Dov Levin cites the following example for Jewish representatives: In the town Dokshitz in Western Belorussia, 18-year-old Chana Bloch, daughter of a horse-dealer, was elected member of the local municipal council. Following the occupation of the Red Army, she completed a course in accounting and worked in one of the municipality offices." In the Dokshitz Yizkor Book (pp. 149, 212), her subsequent fate is described.

-- The German occupation of Poland started a stream of Jewish refugees eastbound, which continued after the Russian occupation. Among these refugees was Itzik (Itzchak) Wittenberg, who was to become famous in the Vilno ghetto, when he turned himself in to the Germans to prevent them from carrying out their threat to execute a large number of inmates.

-- Aharon Chuchman was not among those murdered. After the war he emigrated to the United States, where he married and raised a family, and succeeded in business as a contractor.

-- I personally met Simcha Kremmer, who likewise appears in the list of the holocaust victims, in 1946 in Valbzhich. He was then a released Polish soldier, and owned a bakery. His mother and two sisters had lived with us in our house during the Russian occupation.

-- Arieh Fogelman sat next to me at school in Tarbut's 6th grade. There were 6 of us to begin with, and 2 emigrated to Palestine with their families in the middle of the year &endash; the second of these was Chayele Markman. I was the next in line, since my father had already emigrated. When I finally arrived in Palestine at the end of 1946 I had the opportunity to travel around visiting friends and acquaintances. I spent an unforgetable weekend with Arieh at his Kibbutz, Sarid. He took me in a horse-drawn cart to Genigar, from the tower of which the whole area could be viewed. His happiness, pride, and fulfilment simply overflowed and infected me, strengthening my desire to become a Kibbutznik, which I did later on.

-- Speaking of mills, there was an additional mill at the end of Slobode, run by and owned by Sheyman, Frankfurt, and Yolk. Sometime in the late twenties, Mikulsky, a local estate owner, apparently demanded, and acquired, possession of it. Sheyman and Frankfurt built a new mill at the extension, at the end of Polozk Street Yolk did not join them. I was told that he built his own mill at Pafianov.

About 2 years ago a friend of mine who lives in London sent me a clipping from a Jewish periodical where the writer inquires about his family's mill -- this letter is enclosed.

-- Fanya married Dr. Kronenberg and they lived at Tzichanov near Warsaw, where Arthur and Ala were born. When their father died, the children would spend their holidays at their grandparents; and when the pre-war tension rose, Fanya moved with them to Dokshitz. She worked at organizing, distributing, and instructing about defence equipment against air attacks. When the Russians entered, she got a job in the health system, which lasted through to the German occupation. She put an end to her own life along with that of her children, as mentioned in the Dokshitz Yizkor Book (pp. 189, 255).

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