Since September 21, 1942
there were no more Jews in Kobylnik. On this day the last 120 Jews were
massacred. In this manner the German fascists and their local
collaborators put an end to the Jewish community of Kobylnik, which
existed for hundreds of years.
It is not exactly certain when Jews first
settled in this area. Based on excavations at the Jewish cemetery, it is
possible to assume that Jews lived in Kobylnik in the 17th
century. Based on data from previous generations, a permanent Jewish
community, although a small one, existed in Kobylnik during the war of
1812. At the beginning of the 19th century a decree issued by
Czar Alexander the First forbade Jews to become involved in agricultural
business. Jews were forced to leave the villages and relocate to small
towns. Jews relocated to Kobylnik from Verenki, Melniki, Molchani, Sluki,
Posynki, Cherevki, Yanevichi, Balashi, Kupa and other villages. Families
coming from the villages were identified not only by their family names
but also by the names of the villages they were coming from.
The Jewish population of Kobylnik by the end of the 19th
century grew to about 100 families (600 people), which amounted to half
the town’s population. The Jews were craftsmen, such as tailors,
shoemakers, carpenters, blacksmiths, tinsmiths; they served local
landowners; kept stores (shops), sold fish, furs, and agricultural
products. With these products they served the local population, and were
productive elements of the community.
Beginning at the end of the 18th century, Kobylnik, like the
entire Western Byelorussia (which belonged to Poland), became part of
Russia. Jews in Russia were circumscribed and oppressed. By the end of the
19th and beginning of the 20th century pogroms were
visited upon Jews with the support of the government. In those years
hundreds of thousand of Jews left Russia, including some from Kobylnik;
the majority immigrated to the USA.
It should be noted that the most numerous families from this area were
the Narotskys, Khodos’ and Gordons. One of those who immigrated to the USA
(in the year 1900) was Aaron of the family Khodos (in English Cohodos),
whose sons became well known and were influential people in the American
A book that was published in 1977 described the history of this family.
The first part of this book is devoted to Kobylnik (with a translation
into Russian). A grandson of Aaron Khodos was Bill Khodos (William Cohodos)
who lives in the state of Michigan, and who has been in touch with me for
many years. He is interested in Kobylnik and the preservation of Jewish
Bill, who is 90 years old, like other surviving grandsons and great
grandsons of Kobylnik emigrants, remember their roots, despite the fact
that they were born and live in the USA. Some of them visited Naroch and
the restored Jewish tombstones (cemetery and brotherly graves), and
consequently spurred others to do the same.
Among those who left Kobylnik for the USA in 1912 was also Narotzky
(Harry Narotzky) who for many years headed the "Society of Kobylnik
Emigrants" in the USA. This society provided material help to Jews in
Kobylnik until the year 1939. A son of Aaron, Norman Narotzky, a
well-known artist, lives in Barcelona, Spain. We are staying in frequent
contact. Norman’s young daughter visited the Naroch area in 1992.
LIFE IN POLAND
From 1921 untill 1939 Kobylnik and
surroundings (Western Belarus) belonged to the Polish government (Zone of
Vilno , District of Postavy). In those years I spent my childhood in
Kobylnik. As a consequence, the history of those years I remember as an
eyewitness or as it was related to me by surviving emigrants. How did Jews
live in those years? The prime economic and cultural center for all little
towns of the area was Vilno (now called Vilnius). Vilno was connected with
Postavy by a stone covered road, which passed through Kobylnik. To travel
to Vilno and back, with a stop in Kotlovka, took five days by cart or
sled. Later a bus became available once a day. There was also a narrow
gage train from Kobylnik to Lyntup, where after a transfer one continued
The population of Kobylnik in those years reached about 1000, among
them 350 Jews – 65 families. The majority of Jews were in business,
traders or shopkeepers. Kobylnik was also a center of the fish business.
Jews were providing fishermen with required gear and purchased their fish,
which was sold in Vilno, Warsaw and Lodz. My father David Swirski was
involved in this business. There was a close relationship with the
fishermen, as if they were true relatives.
The fishermen were from the village of Nanosy, who came to our town and
were frequently guests in our house. A witness to the close relationships
is Olga Rolitsh with whom I am in contact even today. Jews bought from
farmers on market days (Tuesday in Kobylnik, Monday in Postavy and
Thursday in Myadel) furs, livestock, eggs, poultry, mushrooms, and
berries, and sold hides, tar for carriages, haberdasheries, footwear,
fabrics, etc. Jewish families were owners of the town’s millhouse (Yavnovich),
the pharmacy (Gole), and a silver fox farm (Gilman). All Jews, like the
rest of the population, were relatively poor. It should be noted that the
town had neither electricity nor a central water delivery system in those
days. All necessities were located on an adjacent yard (outhouse; water
well). The sanitary conditions were fairly poor. Many families lived below
the poverty line. Those who were more prosperous helped others of
inadequate means. The local population was constantly receiving some help
from people who have relocated to other countries.
Several of the town’s Jews were fishermen in Naroch. There were also
those who leased gardens and land for agricultural purposes. One such
person was Michael Milkhman who lived with his family in Valai (near
Kusevishtsheny), cultivating 16 hectares of land. Many had their own
houses with small gardens, which supplied vegetables. A few families,
including our own, owned a cow.
Jewish children attended Polish schools. There was also a Jewish
school, where children learned the ancient Jewish language, Hebrew, and
the Bible. The Jewish community of our town lived in close fellowship.
There was a special loan society for mutual assistance; and a synagogue
where people prayed daily and on Sabbath; and a bathhouse that was
attended on Fridays. There was also a Zionist Organization, where the
younger generation was represented.
Our grandfather’s generation was quite religious, and all of them wore
beards. Our fathers tended to shave and many of them strived for a general
education. The younger generation hoped for obtain a higher education.
The second part of the 1930’s was marked by increasing anti-Semitism in
the whole of Poland, including our area. The local population was agitated
and urged not to buy anything from Jews, or trade with them in any
fashion. Part of the local population, although not too many, actively
supported these actions and participated in instigating actions against
Jews. One could frequently hear the expression "Jews go to Palestine".
It should be noted that the year 1934 must be recorded as a year of
"bloody Libel". A woman from a neighboring village walked into a forest.
Her 9 year old son followed her. She ordered the boy to go back home.
Evidently the boy got lost and failed to come home. The woman turned to
the authorities for help. After a few days of searching, the boy was found
dead in the forest. Rumors were immediately disseminated, directed against
Jews. The main rumor was that the Jews killed the boy in order to use his
blood for baking Matzo for the upcoming Passover. A wave of malicious
rumors enveloped the town’s Jews. The Postavy police got involved. An
established commission determined that the boy died of hunger and the low
temperature in the forest. Notwithstanding the commission’s finding the
disorderliness in town continued for several months, until a second
commission from Vilno arrived and confirmed that the boy’s death was not
caused by a forceful act. Slowly things quieted down, thanks to the better
more progressive and more cultured part of the town’s population. It is
worth noting that the majority of the local population of towns and
villages continued to maintain normal relations with the Jews.
For Jews, particularly the younger generation, there was no future in
these areas. Notwithstanding the difficulties encountered in those years,
16 girls and boys succeeded in immigrating to Palestine (now Israel). They
became the founders of the community of emigrants of Kobylnik’s Jews in
In September 1939 the Germans ended the relatively short period
(1921-1939) of Polish independence. Poland was partitioned between Germany
and the Soviet Union. On September 14, 1939 the Soviet Army entered
Kobylnik, and was met with open arms as a rescue force, and a hope for a
better life. The new regime imposed many changes.
Anti-Semitism was prohibited by law. Jews received rights of
citizenship equal to anyone else. The better educated Jews became members
of the established government administration. Jewish children were taught
like children of the general population, in a Russian school.
Possibilities to obtain an education opened up, which previously was
impossible to achieve. We became pioneers, and we liked it. Summer camps
for pioneers near the lake Naroch became accessible to us. Simultaneously,
the new regime prohibited Jewish children from attending a synagogue on
Sabbath and on holidays. I remember when the director of our school chased
the children from the synagogue. Parents could not resist it, it was
understood that they would be threatened. Some whole families that were
considered harmful to the new authorities were shipped to Siberia. Private
stores closed; even though there were inadequate supplies of clothing,
footwear and groceries. The Jewish school was closed as well as the
Zionist Organization and the society for mutual assistance.
THE YEARS OF GERMAN OCCUPATION
Like thunder from the blue sky came the attack by Germany on the Soviet
Union on June 22, 1941. The German army moved eastward with unimaginable
speed and ease. The streets of our town were full of soldiers of the
retreating Red Army, and refugees. Autos, military units, loaded horse
drawn carriages, people, everything moved east.
According to information from refugees of Western occupied Poland, the
"special" treatment of Jews by Germans became known. It was necessary to
escape. But, escape to where? How does one move with children and old
people? People rationalized as follows: "if it is meant to die, it is
better to do so at home". And therefore the Jews of Kobylnik, with sad and
melancholy faces sank into wearisome anticipation. With the prevailing
mood Jews faced July 27th when the first German reconnaissance troops
arrived. Within six days a significant number of German troops arrived in
town. At that time an organized police force consisting of local citizens
came into being, who were ready to accept the new power and diminish the
rights of Jewish citizens. Non-Jewish citizens met the Germans with joyous
anticipation. Krugliak Avsiuk who knew a little German was the key
welcomer. The Jews immediately felt the hostile attitude of the new power.
In the first days of the occupation Jews were prohibited from walking
on sidewalks, visit the marketplace, or leave their houses in the evening.
Every Jew was obligated to wear on their chest and their back a yellow
Star of David in order to be easily identified from a distance. Everyone
was obligated to work every day as directed by the local authority.
Everyone was ridiculed physically and morally. There were local people who
were deriving satisfaction from watching how the Jews were beaten,
insulted and humiliated. Forced labor was imposed on adults as well as on
youngsters (children). I was barely 14 and I was forced to work every day
on a variety of jobs. We sawed wood; built a road near the town of
Sheremetovo (15 kilometers), fixed a road at the village of Gluboky’s
Creek, picked potatoes, and executed any request by the Germans or local
authorities. I especially remember the cleaning of snow from the road at
the village of Vareniki (8 kilometers from town). The winter was a cold
and difficult one. We worked no less than 14 hours a day, without warm
clothing, food or rest, with ridicule and mockery by onlookers. We
returned home at night, walking eight kilometers against the piercing cold
wind. For our work we received neither pay nor food.
Jews stopped coming out of their homes, they stopped turning on lights
at night to avoid attracting attention; they lived in total isolation.
Only through gardens at night did they try to stay in touch with
neighbors, and with those local residents who, despite the potential
punishment for contact with Jews, continued to sympathize and help. So far
as foodstuffs are concerned each person handled it in the best way they
could. We stayed and lived in our house, near our garden, but without a
cow that was taken away from us. In the basement we still stored
vegetables, but good people provided other essentials at night. For this
they usually received in exchange shoes or clothing.
In our family there were six children; I was the oldest. The youngest
brother was born 10 days before the start of the war. Mrs. Vertinskaya
provided milk from time to time in the dark of night for my breast-feeding
brother. She earned our greatest gratitude (we are still in contact with
three of her grandchildren, two of whom live in Naroch).
At first nobody fully understood the German attitude toward Jews, and
it was truly hard to comprehend why the local population offered the
Germans such ready assistance. It is true that the people were completely
impotent vs. the arbitrary local authorities. Yet there was no response to
the question "for which sins are Jews being punished?" Jews lived in
Kobylnik for centuries, with the belief in Moses and tradition of their
ancestors. During all those years there was no record of Jewish community
drunkenness, robbery, fights, divorces, not to mention murder. Jews lived
an honest and generous life as taught by the bible, and helped by their
admirable nature. We knew, however, that over the millennia Jews
experienced discrimination, insults and ridicule in many places.
Soon the first murders took place. On July 2nd fifteen
communists were arrested and shot, four Jews among them. Shai Veksler —
the tinsmith, Shimon Tsofras — the hairdresser, Boris Solomon — the
teacher, Khaya-Rivka Gordon — the housewife. Ultimately they were brought
and laid to rest on the Jewish cemetery.
The following mockery of the town’s Jews occurred on July 12, 1941.
Police forced a group of Jews to take out of the synagogue all holy books
and Torahs, in order to burn them in the center of the marketplace where a
group of curious onlookers appeared. The police poured ignitable material
onto the books, and ordered the Jews to set them on fire. Nobody agreed to
do it although they were beaten, particularly the young Rabbi – Leib
Makovski. Two of the curious bystanders lit a candle and set the fire. The
fire instantly spread to the top of the heap and the holy books were
converted to a handful of ashes. Surreptitiously, at night the Jews
collected the holy ashes and buried them.
A good example of some help given to the Jews was the behavior of the
Russian Orthodox Minister. He lived on the left side of Postavy Street,
not far from us. My father entrusted the minister with some of our
domestic valuables for safekeeping, including an old marble clock.
Somebody reported about it to the police, who arrested the minister and
transferred him to Vileika. We never saw him again. Later it became known
that he was questioned and tortured but did not admit or betray anyone. He
is in Heavenly Kingdom.
Into our town came in, mostly at night, single refugees from Lithuania
who succeeded in escaping during executions carried out by the Germans.
They told us how Jews were mercilessly exterminated. It became clear what
we could expect. It is worth noting that in Lithuania the local German
collaborators were particularly cruel toward the Jews. At that time there
was talk about the possible annexation of our area by Lithuania. This
unsettled the Jews as well as many local residents who considered the
Lithuanian authorities to be antagonistic and cruel. The attitude of the
Germans became more hostile particularly after a German military official
was killed, for which the Germans retaliated by killing hundreds of
On October 5, 1941 a special German military outfit arrived in Kobylnik
and began to arrest the town’s Jews. Vantzekovich, the mayor of Kobylnik,
prepared a list of Jews and identified them as communists. Fifty one Jews
were arrested. Another twelve were sent to excavate a pit near the
Catholic cemetery, for an obvious purpose. The following statement was
made by one of the twelve people who dug the pits, and who eventually
became a resident of Israel. "This happened at 3 o’clock in the daytime.
Those rounded up were led on Vilenski Street to jail, where they were
forced to take off their shoes and upper clothing. Khaika Botvinik with a
nursing child implored the police to spare her child. In response the
policeman grabbed the baby and smashed its head against a tree. The
trembling body was thrown into a pit and Khaika, the mother, was shot
dead. Shooting started…. People were falling dead, the wounded were shot
again or buried alive….Shlomo Yavnovich succeeded in crying out with pain
in his voice to the twelve people: "Jews avenge for our spilled blood"
Zelik Narotzky attempted to escape. He succeeded in running about 50
meters when a bullet cut him down. Yankel-Beinish Greenberg who was among
the twelve could not contain himself and began hysterically cursing the
killers; for which he was shot and thrown into a pit".
Among the twelve was Afroike Kravchinski (subsequently an Israeli
resident, 1924-1995) in front of whom his entire family was shot: his
mother, his father, four sisters, grandmother Rivka and grandfather
Moishe-Zelik Khodos. This tragedy remained with Afroike for his entire
life. The remaining eleven Jews, who were certain that the same fate
awaits them, were forced to fill in the pit. Why then were they allowed to
return home? Nobody knew.
Eyewitnesses later related that the pit was still moving the following
day. Into the pit were thrown quite a few wounded. It was extremely
difficult for the Jewish community to survive the first massive murderous
killings. It left a great spiritual trauma. There was no doubt about our
future destiny. Hopes for a rescue disappeared. Only pain and suffering
From the eastern front no gunfire was heard for some time. German radio
was stating that they had a series of victories on all fronts. Bitterness
and despair followed us; we could not even cry; our anger and curses were
aimed at the Germans and their collaborators. Fortunately there were
people who were spiritually strong and did not give up. The most prominent
among them was Sholem Yavnovich who was the head of our community. Through
him the local authorities transmitted all orders and demands to the Jewish
community. After some time Sholem succeeded in getting permission to
transfer the killed to the Jewish cemetery. I remember this awful picture
when the grave was opened and people began to bring out the dead bodies.
This was accompanied by sobs. We the young ones helped the older people.
Throughout my life I remember the "last meeting" with my best friend, Yuda
Gantovnik whom I took out of the pit. We buried all 52 coffins on the
eastern boundary of the Jewish cemetery in the presence of our entire
community. Their names of the buried are:
his wife Khaya, son Joseph, and breast feeding child Sholem
his father Israel, wife Feiga, son Yakov and daughter Sarah-Rivka
his wife Gita, son Yuda.
sons Yuda, Aaron, Shail-David, daughter Rachel. The parents of
Abraham — Izaak-Yankel Gordon and wife Grunia
Kravchinsky; wife Khaia-Basia, daughters Sarah, Rachel, Raisel,
Khaia-Liba and Nekhama
sons Abraham and Israel-Meier, daughter Feiga
--Leib Makovsky —
Rabbi; wife Liba, son Abraham
wife Keila, son Velvel, daughters Beila and Dvora
son Leibka, daughter Sarah
wife Leia, son Leibka, daughter Sarah
Khodos; wife Rivka
--Potelik — Rabbi
All of Everlasting Memory.
Winter arrived with unwelcome cold and hunger. The German military
units were advancing. Hope for a rescue was diminishing. The Germans
ordered the Jews to collect and deliver to the district commissariat in
Vileika: clothing, footwear, furniture, money in golden rubles, in short
anything of value. The Jews gave anything that was possible in the hope of
saving their lives. These goods were loaded onto 25 sleds. Representatives
of Kobylnik’s Jews were supposed to accompany this shipment. Since only a
part of the "order" was collected, it was reasonable to assume that the
accompanying people will not return. Two volunteers came forth. They were
Khona Dimenstein (whose only son Leizer succeeded in going east at the
beginning of the war) and Shalom Yavnovich, a single man, who was head of
the Jewish community. Fortunately it happened that in Vileika they were
beaten up and sent back to collect the part they failed to deliver.
At the end of April 1942 massive murders of Jews took place in the town
of Krivich. Three refugees from Krivich came in secretly at night to
Kobylnik with the hope of finding a hiding place at a relative of Khona
Dimentstein. A man who cooperated with the Germans noticed them. Khona and
his wife succeeded in hiding themselves, but the refugees were arrested as
partisans (freedom fighters) in a Jewish home. The Germans also took five
other hostages: Khaim Reider. Yoshka Yablonovich, Ryvka Steingard, Itzka
Yavnovich and Israel-Bine Berger, and they ordered Khone and Esther to
show up at the police station. Only Esther showed up. They freed Itzka
Yavnovich, but all hostages, the three refugees and Esther were shot at
the Jewish cemetery. Two of the hostages, Reider and Steingard were
married and had children. The police decreed that the other family members
be killed. They arrested Reider’s wife, Ida, daughters Slova (10 years
old) and Esther (8 years old), the wife of Steingard — Khana, daughters
Reisel (10 years old) and Khava (8 years old). They were kept in prison
for days. We heard their weeping and begging for mercy. The women and
children were also shot at the Jewish cemetery. All were buried at the
"eastern section" of the cemetery.
In those days people prayed and begged God to allow them to die of
natural causes. Three representatives of our community’s older generation
died like "normal" people. They were envied… Among them was my
grandmother, the mother of our mother, Riva Gordon, Azriel Yablonovich and
a close friend of our grandmother, Sima-Hinda Berger.
The following attack by the Germans occurred on July 17, 1942. That day
they caught and terribly beat, on the presumption of a connection
with the partisans (freedom fighters), Yosef Khodos, David Gliot and
Abraham Goldzeger as well as members of their families: Yosef’s wife Beila
with daughter Khaia, and three year old son David-Hirshel and the one year
old daughter Yenta. (The execution of the children I described in the book
Small partisan groups appeared around the Naroch forest in the summer
of 1942. Some single Jews from surrounding towns, who succeeded to escape
execution, joined them.
Among them Myadel Jews, headed by Yosef Narotzky, Zelik Estrin and
Michael Patashnik (refugees from the town of Hodutishki) established
contact with the partisans, particularly with Yakov Segalchik from
Dalhinov. In addition, they succeeded in obtaining secret data from one
German, that in two days, on Monday, would arrive a penal (punishing)
detachment in Myadel for the final destruction of Myadel’s and Kobylnik’s
Jews. Several Kobylnik Jews and I worked at that time in Myadel, as
demanded by the authorities. There was neither time nor an opportunity to
inform Kobylnik Jews about the gained information. At night on Saturday,
the largest part of Myadel’s Jews, I among them, a total of 80 people ran
in the direction identified by the partisans. The way pointed toward the
villages of Bakunki and Lesniki, south of Dalhinov. The partisans were
already there. That night the Germans and their police became inebriated
making it possible for us to walk away without being noticed. At night
with little children carried by hand the people walked 15 kilometers to
the village of Nevery. There we rested a while and then divided in small
groups and moved on. This way we started our forest wandering, which
deserves a separate description.
Some of the people died in the forest, others marched at nighttime to
the east, still others remained in partisan units. Time has shown that
some distinguished themselves as partisans, among them Meier Khodos ,
Herzel Gordon, Khaim Steingard, Peretz Krupski, Abraham-Itzke Khodos,
Geshel Krukov (died on 4/17/1943) and Khaim-Osher Gilman (died at
Koenigsberg, now Kaliningrad, as a member of the Soviet Army). I was among
the partisans who crossed the front line in November 1942. I was then 15
On September 21, 1942 the last mass murder of Kobylnik’s Jews took
place. The same day the remaining Jews of Myadel were also killed. During
the gathering of Kobylnik’s Jews onto the market place, some succeeded in
hiding or leaving town. All the rest were herded into a public house,
which was close to the local church. The windows were boarded up, and the
police and Germans surrounded the house. Tevia Feitelman attempted to
escape but was shot at once. The same day a few families were released
among whom were special workers that were needed by the Germans. Among the
released was also our family. The released families were transferred to
Myadel and settled in the Ghetto. The remaining one hundred twenty people
were executed at dawn of the following day. A witness was Leibel Solomon,
the only one who succeeded in escaping (he lives in the USA). When the
doomed were led to their execution, several people attempted to run to the
bridge spanning the local river. German bullets met them all. Solomon was
lucky. The people were brought to a prepared pit in the same area of the
Catholic cemetery as in October 1941. All were extremely exhausted and
worn out, without hope of rescue or will to live. Nevertheless, there were
some who loudly condemned the killers and threw at them shoes and stones.
All were killed… Thrown into the pit and covered with earth.
Names of the killed on September 21, 1942:
Yuda-Leib Einbinder (Rabbi), wife
Mendel-Leib Alsfein, wife Gisia.
Shepsel Berger, wife Nekhama, son
Moishe, daughter Khana.
Leiba Gilman, wife Ida, daughter
Beila Goldzeger, son Menakhem,
daughters Sarah, Raisa and Khana.
Samual Golfman, wife Khana,
Abraham-Leib Gordon, wife
Fruma Gordon, daughters
Nekhama-Dvora and Sheinka.
Mina Greenberg, son Leiba,
Moishe Gershator, wife Tamar, son
Barukh Danishevski, wife Menukha,
daughter Sarah, sons Abraham and Izaak.
Rivka Dimenstein, daughter
Khia-Sarah Klumel, daughter Gita.
Izaak Klumel, wife Rivka,
daughters Beila, and Shulames, son Abraham.
Keila Krivitzky, sons Benny and
Liba-Malka Lifshitz, daughter
Shepsel Lishnatzky, wife Rachel,
sons Shmuel-Hirsh and Itzka, daughter Bella.
Khaim Leizerovich, wife Liba,
Izaak Mashitz (Rabbi), wife Tzita,
Michael Milkhman, wife Mina, son
Dodik, daughter Yokhka.
Aaron-Leib Narotzky, wife
Breine-Tsherne, daughters Khia and Beila.
Rivka Solomon, sister Khana.
Tevia Feigelman, wife Khia-Sarah,
Leiba Khodos, wife Asia.
Ishua Tsernotsky, wife Rivka, son
Freidel Tsernotsky, sons Yankel
Gdalia Tsernotsky, wife Sarah-Rivka,
Basia Shneiderovich, son Itzka,
daughters Sarah and Khia.
Merl Yablonovich, daughter Tsifka.
Zlata-Esther Yanovsky, daughter
Merl Yanovsky, daughters Sarah,
Rachel, and Leia.
Feives Yanovsky, wife Sarah,
Khaim-Yankel Yanovsky, wife
Eli-Yoska Yanovsky, wife Reisel,
daughter Keila, sons Abraham and Menashe.