Baruch Zukerman, 1955.
Our withered town, Kurenitz, Villeyka Country, Vilnus District.
Her destruction was a drop in the days of annihilation of the European Jewry, reflecting in miniscule the currents of the sea in its enormity, so would the destruction of the little shtetl reflect the desolation of the whole Diaspora.
The force of the sea is the combined force of its many rivers and streams as is the creative force of the Jews, the intermingling of shtetls and cities, that in their midst flows the Jewish spirituality, generation after generation.
The book we are writing is a memorial to the life and death of a little unknown shtetl, one eternal flame in the enormous cemetery of shtetls and towns. These eternal flames will enlighten future generations and spark the thousand-year-old Jewish entity of Europe: the thousand year-old Jewish creativeness, original and constant. In the presence of the memorial, our sons and the sons of our sons will stand enlightened. It will let them comprehend "Where did you come from" and "Where are you going" and there they would realize from the glittering lights to the shadowy annihilation that the history notebook is ajar. There is an observing eye and a hand recording. The king of all kings in his divinity is listening, whether a metaphysical god or our eternal universal conscience.
We couldn't collect a thousand years of our shtetl's history in these pages. We don't know the days of her life, and what was her origin. When did they lay the foundation? And who put in her doors? By contrast, we know the continuance and it's clear to a tear her terrible annihilation. So we did the best that we could to make a megillah-like book of everything that we could collect and gather. We were helped mainly by the memories of living natives, but we also melded chapters from writings about her from former generations. So we believe that we were able to embroider on her life-quilt the way she was in her last hundred years.
Her financial picture was not complicated. The shopkeeper and tradesmen comprised a majority. Some shopkeepers had large shops, and some had miniscule shops. Some tradesmen had one or two workers, and some did all the work themselves. The city had tailors, shoemakers, hatters, woodworkers, butchers, and metalworkers. There was a large number of very poor peddlers that went from village to village trying to sell housewares, tools, and for that they would either get money or food from the farmers, and that they would sell to the storekeepers, and they would sell it to the bigger towns. Most of the exchange of merchandise was with the city of Smorgone that had real industry in those days. But this financial basis was falling apart, and the natives of the town, especially the young ones, didn't stay and started going into the outside world, first to Smorgone and then farther, to Vilnus and Minsk. Some of them found their way to Dvinsk, and in their travels they arrived to cities outside of the Pale of Settlement, like Riga and Libo. Later on, when poverty spread, the wandering spring found a new path: immigration to America.
Towards the end of the 19th century, many families in Kurenitz prevailed because of the infusion of American dollars. The dollar became a very important element in the economy of the town and America became the land (harbor) of opportunity for hundreds of families. In the final 20 years of the town, Eretz Yisrael became the harbor and the haven.
The general picture of the shtetl was similar to other shtetls in Eastern Europe and in the pale of settlement. Her spiritual life was very special and original. And I hope that the collections here will show us the uniqueness of her profile.
Unlike most shtetls in Lithuania and Belarus, Kurenitz was mainly Hassidic. It had three synagogues and two minyans. And from this, only one synagogue belonged to the "mitnagdim". Spiritually, the town was very blessed. The leaders were noble of spirit and spread their noble spirit on her image. Rabbi Yaakov Landau gives true image to the influence of this unique people. He tells us about the deep effect that the beloved renowned famed genius Rabbi Zishka, and the influence of the articulate and intuitive Rabbi Moshe Leib Landau. From his childhood memoirs of home, we picture essence of modesty, excitement of Torah studies and love of humanity.
Jacob Alpert vividly describes his family and long list of beloved neighbors, and with all their individual differences the commonality through the stories is the deeply committed social and spiritual essence of the town.
The town was blessed with a large number of unique teachers. They were not credential,( except for the beloved and respected Moreh , Ben-Zion Meirovitz) . What they lacked in pedagological methods, they compensated for with the deep desire to awaken their pupils' spirits with love for God, Jews, Zion, and the high ideals of our prophets. The teachers and rabbis spread their deeply spiritual essence on their flock and opened their hearts to experience a spiritual treasure that enabled them to withstand the extreme poverty and the severity of life in the Diaspora and unable them to continue to live as complete Jews. The ones that left for America will be witnessed that despite the enormous new influences of a new country, they could not erase the strong childhood impressions and values that they brought from their homeland. We witness this in their stories, especially in the spiritual journey of Rabbi Moshe Laser Kramer.
Came the days that the flame of enlightenment spread around the town. Stronger yet, were the effects of the unstoppable radical socialist movement. The firebrands that tried to evoke hate to the tsarist regime did not need to use much persuasion. Their job was done by the evil deeply anti-Semitic authority. But neither the spirit of enlightenment nor the revolution would affect the town's spirit. Externally, things changed, but the deeper essence stayed the same till the arrival of Zionism that let yet unique new expression and longing surface. New tunes and ideals were heard in the hills and the valleys- Hebrew schools, beloved teachers that only spoke Hebrew, Zionist organizations, like hisdatroot, youth movements, like hachaloot, and hashomer hatzaier. But in some ways it was a new tune for an old song. Old wine in a new bottle…..
The size of the population hardly changed. Many immigrated, but new births replenished the departures. Hundred of families were left prey to the Nazi murderers. Our town collapsed in the bloody battle where the terrorists annihilated left and right millions. Millions of morally and spiritually committed and religiously obedient Jews.
The Jews of Kurenitz were also among the contributors and heroes of the resistance during the dark days of the Holocaust. Their sacrifice and braves had many faces. Can we forget the teenage girl, Chayalaiy Sesonsky, while taken to be murdered on the day of the slaughter 9/9/42, she scratched the faces of her killers with her tender fingers, and on her grave she cursed them, prophesizing that the sounds of bleeding souls would scream from the earth and the day of revenge would come… Can we forget the courageous actions of the teenage sons of Kournitz, organizing underground fighting, and connecting with the Russian army? Motik and Ellik Alperovich, Yunkle Alperovich, Yitzhak Einbeinder, Nachoom Alperovich, Zalman Uri Gurevich, Benjamin Shulman, and Zalman Alperovich, amongst others…. Will we forget old Leib Motisov, passionately calling Jews to action, warning and prophesizing the bitter end, and on the day of slaughter, jumping into the fire, wearing his talleet, before the killer's bullet would get him? Is it possible to forget the series of tortures of Yisrael Alperovich, the meat vendor that escaped the slaughter to the woods with a few hundred other Kournitzers? Yisrael, a god fearing Jew, ate only potatoes, refusing to compromise the kosher rules until starvation and died. And what about the torture and killing of Sarl's Faiga Leah. It reminds us of the torture of Hannah. She was caught alive by the enemy while hiding in the woods. She suffered every physical torture but would not give the names of the gentiles that fed them, even denying the words of ones that had already confessed.
All these testaments that tell about the life and the death of the Jews of our town will be printed in this memorial for eternity. But the most shaking testament is the list of the holy martyr, man and woman, old and babies slaughtered in the hands of the evil. The voice of their blood rises from the book. Their shouts combine with the shouts of the millions that perished that demand from us: remember what the pharaohs from Ashkenaz did to us.
Books of testament and memoirs are the answer to all those that want to deny our enormous destruction, the mark of shame on the forehead of humanity. By denying it they want to eraser the enormous crime. as If the numbers of our slaughtered is only 2 million and not 6, it makes less the crime of humanity that stood there and didn't intervene to save or help. As If the weight of the blood and the number of the victims are the only measures of the collective human order, "do not stand on the blood of your friend".
It's our duty and holy mission to register in all books like this the vastness of our destruction and the huge measure of our slaughtered . It's ours responsibility for each victim that didn't get to be brought to Jewish burial and for the whole Jewish nation.
For eternity our nation remembered our martyrs and this helped to us to endure. The memory of this mother of all annihilations that has no brother in our recorded history should be the weapon in our war for the future survival of the nation. And this will support us in the future as it supported us in the past: that our biggest enemy that wanted to annihilate us all did not succeed. The nation of Israel lives and will continue to live. And the high ideals of Isaiah and Micha will endure and their prophecies will come on the judgement day. The enemy wanted to kill our spirit, but they failed and will always fail.
Our little shtetl was killed only physically, she was erased from the maps of the Diaspora but her spiritual contribution will float to the horizon to mix with the rest of Judaism. These pages will bear witness that the spirit of our town did not die, and from the ashes will come life and faith.
Translated by Carmel Levitan in honor of her grandfather, Sali Gordin, who had the good sense to marry her grandmother, Rachel, a daughter of Kurenitzers.