Historical Overview

by Jeff Ferber

The town of Koidanov is located about 23 miles southwest of Minsk, in present day Belarus. Koidanov had its name changed to Dzyarzinsk by the Soviet government in 1932 to honor Felix Dzyarzinsk, the head of CHEKA (the Soviet Secret Police). While many descendants of the area still refer to their family shtetl as Koidanov, the official name remains Dzyarzinsk. Some pronounce the town name as Koidanov/Koydanov, while the Lithuanian or Litvak pronunciation is Kaidanov.

In the 13th century, the town was a possession of the Polish aristocratic family, the Radziwills. During this period it was called Koydanava/Koidanova. Koidanov became part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (a union between the Polish Kingdom and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania) with its establishment in 1569. Koidanov's population was approximately 1,000 in 1588 and grew to about 1,500 by 1647. Jews began to settle in Koidanov in significant numbers by the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Disaster struck Koidanov, along with many of its neighbors, during the summer of 1655 as a result of the Khmelnytsky Uprising and the Russo-Polish war. The town was attacked on July 11, 1655, by the Cossacks, resulting in a significant loss of life, and much of Koidanov was burned to the ground.

The 18th century was a period of rebuilding and growth for Koidanov. There were 560 Jews paying poll taxes in Koidanov in 1766. Sources indicate that Koidanov was home to a synagogue, a hospital, two mills and over 40 shops. There was a beautiful Russian Orthodox church topped by five onion domes that is still standing today. There were also Catholic and Calvinist churches. Alongside its Jewish community, there lived Russians, Poles, Germans, Belorussians and Tatars.

Koidanov was struck by tragedy again in the form of a wide spread town fire in 1781, during which half of Koidanov was burnt to the ground. As a result of the second partition of Poland, Koidanov became part of the Russian empire in 1793. During the war between Russia and France, a French detachment in Koidanov was defeated by Russian troops on November 3, 1812.

Rebbe Shlomo Chaim established the Koidanov Hasidic dynasty in 1833. While the number of Koidanov Jews who considered themselves Hasidim were a minority within the larger Jewish population, the impact of the Koidanov Hasidim was considerable. Koidanov Hasdisic prayer houses would be established in many of the surrounding communities, including Vilna, Minsk, Lechovitch, Baranovitch, Pukhovitch, Novorgudok and Lida. There was an early Kollel in Tiberias, and the Koidanov Hasidim, led by its Rebbes, established Hasidic shuls in Jerusalem and later in Bnai Brak and Tel Aviv. Around the turn of the 20 century, the movement established several synagogues in New York City on the Lower East Side, as well as in Brooklyn and a little later, in the Bronx. The history of the Koidanov Hasidic dynasty is described in detail in its own section of this Kehillah web page.

By 1847 there were 2,497 Jews living in Koidanov. The town railway station was built around 1865 as part of the Moscow-Warsaw railway. The Russian census of 1897 records Koidanov with a total population of 4,744 inhabitants. The majority, 3,156, were Jewish. Much of our knowledge of the daily lives of Koidanov Jews from the 1890s through the 1920s derives primarily from three sources: The Koidanov Yizkor Book; the writings of Avraham Reisen; and the beautiful unpublished letter/memoir entitled, "From The Recent Past But Ever Far Away," by Isaac Rivkind.

Writing in the Yizkor book, Avremel Evanchik (Avraham Evans) describes the physical appearance of the town. The market square (Rynachnaya) was at the center of town. There were "groceries, gallantry shops (better goods and materials), manufacturers, hardware stores, stores with pots and pans, second-hand clothing stores, stores for shoes, for skins and furs, for herring, for dairy products and for meat." The Druzhyna match factory was built in 1899. It employed 208 workers in 1900. Aaron Mayer Meyerson owned and operated one or more hat manufacturing factories in Koidanov. Much of Koidanov's economy revolved around the trade of farm goods, especially trade in grains, wool, and flax. The Yiddish writer Avraham Reisen tells us that his grandfather, Moshe Reisen, as well as his father, Kalman, made their livings, in part, as grain traders. Reisen wrote several short stories that revolved around the precarious economic lives of Koidanover carpenters, shoemakers, bakers and tailors during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Reisen's story, "Avraham the Shoemaker," portrays the struggles of a shtetl shoemaker who would pray for the annual Autumnal rains that would inevitably arrive, providing him with a deluge of customers with mud damaged shoes in need of repair.

Koidanov held a local weekly fair and a much larger bi-annual fair in its market square that attracted buyers and sellers from surrounding countries. Many Koidanov homes had small yards that had room for one or two fruit trees as well as a garden, and perhaps a goat and/or a few chickens. Some Koidanovers would rent a stall at the fair to sell their extra produce.

The Russian Orthodox Church occupied one end of the town square. At the other end was the synagogue courtyard (shulhoyf) that began on the corner of Slutsk Street. The Shulhoyf contained four traditional congregations as well as the Hasidic shtiebl. The main synagogue was the Moyer, or Brick synagogue which also housed the Kleiner, or Small synagogue. Koidanov's tailors, shoemakers, carpenters and other workers attended the Shneider, or Tailors' synagogue which was known for its less lengthy services. The fourth synagogue in the shulhoyf was the Nier, or New synagogue. The Hasidic shtiebl (prayer house), the Rebbe's house and courtyard, and the town's bathhouse were by the shulhoyf as well. According to Avremel Evanchick, there were six streets that stretched out from the market. Two were parallel, called New Minsk and Old Minsk, and another two parallel streets that were called Slutsk and Rubizewycz, then one street called Vilna, and another called Parabotsk (or Stankov). Sadowa Street (Orchard Street) was near Rubizewycz Street. There was also a small street between the New and Old Minsk streets that was called the Tatar Mountain Street, which contained an old cemetery.

Koidanov Market and Shul Court

Writing in his 1920 memoir, Isaac Rivkind relates that, "Gd gave the town favor with beauty of the nature around it. The surrounding areas were comprised of beautiful forests and crowned with fields that were hearty and fruitful." Mr. Rivkind continues, noting that "the surroundings were very beautiful with flourishing trees and vegetation and pleasantly abundant grass. Both sides of town were planted with rows of pine and birch trees." Koidanov families would often go for walks on the Sabbath through the neighborhood called Tall Mountains which contained a valley and small stream called the Nitzatza. This is where the community would gather for Tashlich. A Get (divorce) document from Koidanov would record that the Get was issued in the town that sits on the river Nitzatza. The hills surrounding this valley "were covered with flowers and trees." "An old fortress with turrets and towers stood on the mountain." The fortress also contained the old Calvinist Church with a beautiful garden.   "The fortress was surrounded entirely by trees and vegetation. Spectacular flowers covered the walls." A few miles away, the mill stood beside the Helinka River. This is the river that people would swim in. Descriptions of Koidanov mention wheat and corn fields as well as abundant pear, plum and apple trees. There were many hawks and other wild birds.

Several stories about life in Koidanov speak of the good relations between Koidanov Jews and gentiles. Mr. Rivkind wrote, "I remember that one non-Jew made a wedding for his daughter; he prepared a kosher table and invited his neighbors to join in to celebrate. On Passover we would exchange gifts with them. When someone went ill, we felt it was our obligation to visit and give thoughtful advice…. The non-Jews also gave honor to the holy of Israel. On occasion they would bring pledges and gifts to the synagogue: money, candles and textiles." Mr. Rivkind affectionately recalls the old Calvinist priest who "would welcome the Jewish children into the church…he would come over and show us the organ and the rest of the holy items. We attributed care and love towards him." There was respect and affection between Jewish and gentile religious personnel as well. On the day of the celebration for the government, at the time of the prayer for the Emperor, the Provoslavic (Orthodox) priest would come and sit next to the rabbi. Isaac Rivkind recalls that the gentile young people of Koidanov would invite their Jewish friends to parties.

The Yizkor book also contains the heart stirring remembrance of the Koidanov pogrom of 1920, written by Eyda Aynbinder-Liberman. (Click here to read the 1st person account of the pogrom) Ms. Aynbinder recalls witnessing the brutal beating that a gentile neighbor named Ingoyle received at the hands of Polish soldiers for attempting to protect her family. Fortunately, Ingoyle and the Aynbinder family survived the pogrom and Eyda eventually immigrated to America.

We know quite a bit about the religious lives of Koidanov Jews during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Jewishgen's list of Jewish religious personnel from Koidanov from 1853-4 contains five names: Srol Gordin, Iosel Gutner, Berl Levin, Aron Lyuboshits and Shmoila Ozerskii. As well as the above-mentioned four traditional synagogues and Hasidic prayer house, there were cheders (children's religious schools) and formal and informal groups for the study of Torah, Talmud and Kabbalah.

There were also quite a few organized as well as informal choirs. The Jewish community often had the opportunity to enjoy Sabbath devar torahs (sermons) and niggunim (religious melodies) presented by traveling maggids (preachers). Koidanov was the home of the famous and talented cantor, Reb Fayve (Evenchik) who inspired a whole generation of Koidanovers. Cantor Fayve also visited and sang for the congregations of the surrounding shtetls. Koidanov was also the religious destination for hundreds of Hasidim during the High Holidays, especially during the period when Rebbe Aaron headed the Hasidic shtiebl (1870-1897). Isaac Rivkind recalls that "the synagogues were full of learning. Day and night the sound of Torah did not stop. Deborah Heller, writing in her family memoir, The Goose Girl, the Rabbi, and the New York Teachers, lists the Heller family rabbis who served Koidanov Jews throughout most of the nineteenth century. The first was the Talmudic scholar Rabbi Yisroel Heller. He was succeeded by Rabbi Avraham Chaim Heller who was followed by his son Rabbi Yechiel Heller. Rabbi Yechiel made aliyah after the Russian revolution and became a settler/farmer in Petach Tikva. Rabbi Hirsh of Minsk replaced R. Yechiel Heller. Isaac Rivkind writes about "Rabbi Yisrael Isaacson who was recognized as a great scholar in Torah…. He and his brother Reb Zevil Heivish were active Zionists as well." Rabbi Isaacson would eventually immigrate to New York where he led congregation Kol Israel Anshe Poland. Another Koidanov Rabbi from this period was "Rabbi Avraham Chaim Kassel who was a wise and great Jew (Gadol Ba'Torah)." Reb Avraham Chaim Kassel, z"l, authored a beautiful commentary on the Torah entitled Khumesh Bereshis."

Rabbi Israel Kravitz (who eventually immigrated to the U.S. and led his Brooklyn shul Kesser Israel for many years) recalls Koidanov's Tiferet Bakhorim, "a sort of Young Israel" which was established by and for the youth. It was led by his father the Rov Yitzkhak Kravitz. Rabbi Israel Kravitz recalls that the young men of Teferet Bachorim would "stream in to hear a Dvar Torah at night after work, but the older gentlemen and even the rabbi, Reb Shmuel Nakhum, of blessed memory, used to come hear and observe with the greatest pleasure as the young people practically inhaled a chapter of TaNaKH or Khumash." The written recollections of Rabbi Kravitz, Isaac Rivkind and M. Invensky provide inspiring first person accounts about the centrality and intensity of Jewish study, prayer and observance in Koidanov during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

These golden years also witnessed dynamic changes as many in Koidanov, especially the youth, embraced the ideas and movements associated with the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment). The changing roles of women during the very early 20th century are reflected in the remembrances of D. H. Feuerchtgott. Ms. Feuerchtgott recalls the Hebrew school for girls she attended while growing up in Koidanov. The school was established by Chaim Yehudah Merlis. The German-educated Merlis arrived in Koidanov and began educating young women around 1900. He was a dedicated Zionist as well as an educator. Classes in Sephardic Hebrew and bible were conducted at his home until the middle of WWI when Merlis was forced to flee to nearby Minsk.

B. Grossman gives us some insight into the powerful yearning for education among Koidanov's youth during this period. He notes in the Yizkor book that "Everyone wanted to become an educated person." The shtetl youth were particularly interested in learning Russian and Hebrew. Mr. Grossman recalls that "there were, in fact, teachers of Hebrew: Khayim Yehuda Merlish, Slavin, Drabkin, as well as the well-known writer, 'Yakhenaz,' (Pseudonym of Yeshaye Nisn Hakoyen Goldberg; 1858–1927)…. There were also good teachers of Russian, such as Marshak, Valakh, Kelman, Akkon, Feygenson, and others. There were also teaches of Russian and Yiddish, such as: Avraham Reisen, Shloymeh Khayim Plimak, Yoseif Haznovitz, Yitzhok Moshe and many others. The quest for education by the shtetl youth culminated in the establishment of a secret (not authorized by the Russian officials) town library. The leaders of the library were: Feygl Ahron and a young man named Valakh.

Zionism, both religious and secular, as well the many manifestations of Socialism were important to the Jewish residents of Koidanov. The above mentioned teacher Chaim Yehuda Merlis was also a leader in the Poale Zion movement. The Koidanov Zionist movement is recalled in personal terms by Isaac Rivkind. Mr. Rivkind and many of the youth from Koidanov would eventually fulfill their Zionist dreams and make aliyah around the beginning of the 20th century. The Socialist movement is expressed in literature and historical writings by Avraham Reisen and his siblings.

Avraham Reisen's brother Zalman would become one of the preeminent Yiddish scholars of his time. He is especially remembered for creating the multi-volume Lexicon of New Yiddish Literature. Zalman, along with other Yiddish writers and scholars, co-founded the Jewish Historical and Ethnographic Society and the Yiddish Scientific Institute - YIVO, the predecessor of the present-day YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. Their sister, Sore (Sarah) Reisen, was also an accomplished writer and poet. Sore's story "Chaim Yosl's Hopes" is included in the Koidanov Yizkor book.

The socialist and union leader Joseph Schlossberg was from Koidanov and would eventually immigrate to America and become an indispensable leader in the garment workers unions. Schlossberg recalls the religious life of Koidanov during his youth in a 1957 article from the Tog-Morgen Yiddish Journal entitled "Hasidim un Misnagdim Amol in Mein Stetel."

At the outbreak of WWI, many of Koidanov's young men were drafted in the Czar's army, including Avraham Reisen. Most of them served under the Russian General Rennenkamf. Others chose to evade the Russian army by immigrating to America and Israel. World War I, the Russian revolutions, the Polish pogrom of 1920 and Stalinism would collectively result in significant emigration and have a devastating impact upon Koidanov's Jewish populace and its economic and cultural institutions. Avraham Reisen would return to his home shtetl for a visit in 1928. His poem "My Return Home" graphically depicts Koidanov's decline during these years (click here to read poem).

The Nazis arrive in Koidanov during October, 1941. On October 21, 1941, approximately 1600 Jews living in Koidanov were massacred by the Nazis and their collaborators, the Lithuanian Auxiliary Police Battalion. Alex Kurzen describes the destruction of Jewish Koidanov in his 2009 "60 Minutes" interview with Bob Simon.* These events are also recounted in The Mascot, written by Alex Kurzen's son, Mark Kurzem. (To watch the 60 Minutes interview, click here) *There is considerable controversy associated with Alex Kurzem's story. I take no position in regards to this controversy. A second massacre of Jews from the nearby Minsk ghetto was perpetrated close to the Koidanov railway station. Several videos recalling specific events associated with the destruction of the Jews of Kodianov may be viewed at Simon Wiesenthal Multimedia Learning Center and at Jewishgen.com.

Upon hearing of the massacres, Koidanov Jews living in America established a relief fund to assist the few survivors from their home town. The work of the Koidanov Relief Society is recounted in the Yizkor book along with grateful letters from survivors. Virtually all the survivors express heart felt appreciation for the relief packages, but more so for the concern, love and emotional support that they experienced when they read the letters that accompanied the relief packages.

The Shoah was not the end of the Jewish Koidanov story. Included among the Koidanovers who immigrated to America and built families and businesses are Max Osnas and his sister Shifra. Max was the founder and owner of the famous Stage Deli on 34th Street in Manhattan and Shifra helped run the deli for many years. Another Koidanov immigrant to the Lower East Side was Dora Evans. Dora perished in the famous Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1911. Dora remained unidentified until genealogist Michael Hirsh was able to piece together historical accounts of the fire and in 2011 was able to identify the six victims whose bodies were burned beyond recognition. (Click here to read the New York Times Story about Dora Evans)

Many of the Jews who emigrated from Koidanov continued Koidanov traditions and religious practices in America and Israel. Several Koidanov shuls were established in the early 20th century on the lower eastside of Manhattan. These included the Hasidic Beth Aaron Anshei Koidanov (established 1907) at 141 Madison Street and the Traditional/Orthodox Chevrah Anshe Sholom Koidonov (1920-5) at 33 Jefferson Street. There was also a Koidanov Hasidic shul established in Brooklyn at 922 Eastern Parkway. It was led by Rabbi Schneerson Twersky. Rabbi Schneerson Twersky's grandson, Rabbi Mordechai Dov Pupko, continues the Koidanov Hasidic tradition at his Brooklyn shul, Damesek Eliezer Beth Torah. Rabbi Naftoli Glickman established the Sosnowiece-Koidanov shul at 2024 Honeywell Ave. in the Bronx shortly after immigrating to the US in 1947. His children and descendants continue the Koidanov Hasidic traditions in Haifa and Tel Aviv. After the Shoah, the surviving Koidanov Hasidim in Israel reestablished the Koidanov hasidic tradition in Bnai Brak and Tel Aviv. This dynamic, growing community is led by Reb Yaakov Tzvi Meir Ehrlich.

The Koidanover Benevolent Association was incorporated in New York City in 1899. Other auxiliary Koidanov associations in New York and Philadelphia would soon follow. These landsmanshaften associations were important mutual aid societies providing loans and burial services. Just as important was the social role played by the various Koidanover societies, especially for the newly arrived first generation immigrants. The Koidanover Relief Society created the post-Holocaust relief group whose efforts on behalf of the survivors are recounted in letters of gratitude preserved in the Yizkor book. The Relief Society was soon reorganized into The United Koidanov Association, which funded and published the Yizkor book in 1955.

All Yizkor books are unique and special. Most were in fact a response to the Shoah and this is true of the Koidanov Yizkor book as well. This beautiful Yizkor book is special in that it was edited by the renowned Yiddish writer Avraham Reisen. It was his last published work before his death in 1953. The first half consists of recollections, poetry and photos, written by educated and accomplished writers. Many of the chapters are written by every day, ordinary Koidanov landsmanshaften. They are all heartfelt and of tremendous historical and genealogical importance. The second half of the Yizkor book is at this point completely untranslated. It consists of a book length series of short sketches by Avraham Reisen and others about growing up in Koidanov. Simply put, it is a literary and historic treasure waiting to be translated.

There are very few Jews living in Koidanov/Dzharzinsk today. The Soviets destroyed much of the remaining physical structures that were representative of Jewish life. There is a small memorial there that honors the Jewish lives that were lost in October of 1941. The cemetery is gone. Koidanov lives on in the lives and memories of its descendants. It is hoped that this kehillah web page becomes a useful forum for sustaining the legacy of our ancestors from the shtetl Koidanov.

                                      Compiled by Jeff Ferber
                                      Copyright © 2016 Jeff Ferber
Website is created by Adam Trubnikov
Historical content is produced by Jeff Ferber.
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Last updated on August 13, 2016

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