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Under the Soviet Regime

By Rachel & Ruven Rogovin

Volozhyn Izkor Book, page 529 (Hebrew)

Translated by M. Porat

The Germans invaded Poland on Friday, September 1st-1939 The Blitz-Krieg lasted 17 days. On September 17th, after Poland’s swift defeat, and according to the Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement, the Soviets occupied all of Western Ukraine and the Western Belarus territories that were part of Poland for more then sixteen years. Volozhyn was part of these territories.

The town circumstances turn out to be poles apart from the previous rulers. The new rulers forbade any private commerce. The governors established food cooperatives. Government owned shops were opened. Self employed craftsmen and artisans were forced to join professional cooperatives of tailors, shoemakers and so on. All Jewish institutions, like the Kehila, the commerce Organization and other, were automatically liquidated.

Two-store houses such as Rosenberg’s and Bunimovitsh- Rozenshtein’s were nationalized. Some other business like Mr. Gluhovski’s pharmacy shared the same fate. The new "people authorities" confiscated all factories and saw-grind mills marked by high chimneys, such as Polak’s, Perelman-Rapport’s and Shif’s (in Yuzefpole, a village near Volozhyn ). The owners of the nationalized mills were put in prison and later deported to the Soviet Gulag. Their families (wives and children) were expelled and "resettled" in Siberia.

The Volozhyn Eytz Hayim Yeshiva became a restaurant. The synagogues remained open, but the prayers lost their Jewish essence and flavor.

In spite of the requisitions and edicts there was no hunger in Volozhyn. The majority had found jobs with the new regime. Although they earned small salaries, every one started a side business for extra income. One had some Polish zlotys. Itshe Muni’s used to cross the border to change the Polish money in Bialystok into Soviet rubles. Others had accumulated food reserves. Additionally the peasants started to bring to town plenty of food and sell it for low prices. All the above and other "components" assisted most of the Jewish Shtetl families to endure the new regime.

Changes that could be seen as both comic and tragic occurred in the Volozhyn Jews style of dressing. The treasured fashion trend of the soviets was high boots. It was a distressing giggle for us to see the distinguished Balabatim such as Reb Isaak Shriro, Reb Hirsh Malkin, RebYakov Veissbord, Reb Avrom Shuker, Reb Mordehay Shishko, Reb Namiot der Sheliver (name of his natal shtetl), Sholom Leyb Rubinstein and others walking in high boots. Most people desired to please the new rulers. They threw away the elegant tied shirts that symbolized the polish bourgeoisies and "decorated" themselves with the Soviet khaki "Guimnastiorka".

The borders opened and many people visited Minsk after many years were it was impossible for the polish population. Relatives from Russia visited their families in Volozhyn. Among them was Sholom Leyb Rubinstein brother in law.

Jewish boys and girls attained new privileges and potentials to study in the schools and universities of the Soviet Union.

For most people life appeared normal and safe. Nobody thought about war, and particularly not a war between Germany and Russia. Anyone who would raise such a suggestion at that pointwould be held as a fool. Even Two days before the messershmidts bombed Minsk, Kiev Lida and Molodetshno not one person in Volozhyn believed that the war is at our door.

The Friday evening of June 20th, 1941 was different from the Saturday evening of June 21st only in the text of the prayers. On Friday a Jew honored the Shabes holiness singing "Havu neranna", on Saturday evening he said the "Mavdil" workaday prayer "In my salvation I trust".

Bad news did not reach us except the distressing fact that tomorrow morning, on Sunday, June 22nd we should accompany the Volozhyn activist Fayve Yoysef Simernicki to his last journey. Late at night we heard a concert in radio Moscow dedicated to the writer Louis Aragon who visited the capital. After hearing the news that were read by Youri Levitan we all went to sleep.

On Sunday morning we did not turn on the radio. We did not expect any dramatic news. I hurried to join Simernicki’s funeral. On the way I met my friend Shpatsener, Bela Paretski’s husband. We worked together for many years in Michael Wan-Polak’s Business. Shpatsener was an officer in the Polish army and fought against the Bolsheviks in the twenties. He detested the Soviet regime.

Convinced that I heard nothing, he answered:

When I returned from the funeral, I saw many of the Volozhyn Jews crowded together. They argued in loud voices. They formed two camps: one was Pro Soviet and the other Pro German. Workers and artisans were sure that the Soviets would overcome the Germans swiftly. To the Contrary, merchants and dealers were convinced that the Germans would win. They refused to listen to any of the refugees’ tales about the German atrocities and their blood curdling deeds against Jews. They considered the counts of horrors as Soviet propaganda. Many Volozhyn inhabitants witnessed the German 1918 invasion. They assumed that the 1941 Germans would not be in any great dimensions different from those in 1918."During the occupation of the First World War they did not hurt any Jews." So they said "It is not reasonable, that this cultivated and organized nation could change during one generation. Why would they hurt us now? The people working for the Bolsheviks, and in love with them, they should be afraid now, but not the common Jews". Such were those critical days conversations. Few were the Volozhyn inhabitants, who chose to escape with the Soviets.

As the war started all men less than fifty years old were ordered to stand before the mobilization committee. More than 1000 men arrived. There were not enough facilities and personnel to mobilize so much people. Fifty at all were accepted. With the rest I was sent to pass the night in the Volozhyn Gymnasia (High school). In the morning we went again to perform our duties. All of a sudden German planes filled the sky. We were ordered to disperse. We did not return.

The town reigned with bewilderment and panic. The connection with Minsk broke off shortly after. The authorities were busy trying to evacuate the Important Persons to safe places deep inside Russia. The Soviets did not tell us what to do, should we stay in our town with the German enemy approaching rapidly or should we escape to Russia. Each person had to decided for himself.

The predominant majority stood at their homes. Waiting for some inspirations.

They had not collaborated with the Communists they said. Not having time to think over their decision neither having a place where they could go, they committed a fatal error and made a tragic choice.

My family was among the very few who chose a different path. On Wednesday night just hours before the June 26th enter of the German force to Bogdanovo on its way to Volozhyn (25 Km), we took our two children and family and fled Volozhyn with the Soviets.