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Volozhin on the eve of the Holocaust


By Bela Saliternik (Kramnik)


From Volozhin Yizkor Book (code 80, Page 525)


Translated by M. Porat 


I visited Volozhin at the dawn of World War Two. I left from Haifa to Constantsa (Romania) with the Polish vessel "Polonia". From there I took the international train to Warsaw. Amid the passengers there were scores of Polish functionaries and military people. As soon as I stepped on the train I observed some incidents of clear and open Anti Semitism. During a stop at a railway station, I witnessed a group of young Jews embarking on a train, starting their way to Eretz Israel. A group of elderly relatives surrounded them. They were weeping in desperation and their eyes were tearing at the the idea of the impending separation. The Polish passengers sitting next to me made cruel remarks about the desperate scene we had just witnessed. The remarks reeked with humiliating comments, venomous language and were full of hatred toward the Jews. I was overwhelmed by their conduct. The few years that I lived in Eretz Israel had caused me to forget the bitter taste of Anti Semitism.


When I finally reached my place of birth I found Volozhin in almost the same state as when I left it, about five years prior, except there were some noticeable alterations. A big change occurred in the infrastructure. The road from Horod’k rail station to the town was paved and a bus replaced the horse cart. The town’s authorities constructed a water pond on Vilna Street. Trees were planted and benches placed around the so-called "Sazhelke". The Volozhin inhabitants had the benefit of navigating rowboats during summer and ice-skating in winter.


The young boys and girls, like the once who came before them, were very involved with the Zionist organizations. The various youth movement’s leaders connected their main events to cultural affairs and instruction in Zionism.


The economic state was bad. The Jewish businesses had significantly decreased in valiums under the government oppressing taxes that were aimed mainly at the Jews. The change in policies diminished the Jewish businessmen capacities to compete with the more favored Polish businessmen and that left less and less money to pay the increasing taxes. The merchants borrowed the necessary currency with high interest. It created an endless loop, which farther diminished the earning. The vicious loop brought the weaker part of the shtetl’s population to be working for a slice of bread.


The new waves of Anti Semitism spread like impossible to control wild fires. It became dangerous to walk down the street. When we took a walk near the Orthodox Church, the gentile children throw stones at us. In the government shop on the market square a large sign was erected, with an inscription in huge letters "Swooy Do Svego", ("Every one to his own" - in Polish). It called the gentiles to avoid Jewish shops, not to do business with them and to boycott all " foreign-Jews".


Some of my mother’s old clients from the Ponizhe hamlet told us about the administration new policy of incitements against the Jews. The prior pretence of "good" times and a desire of coexistence between the Jewish and Christian populations became a mirage. Now all liberal ideas seemed to disappear. The Poles seized and implemented the resolution to destroy their Jewish citizens economically.


The Volozhin inhabitants longing for a homeland, for Eretz Israel, seemed to be endless. Any information from "Eretz Israel" was immediately spread and became known by all. I experienced it as soon as I arrived. Many people came to welcome me. The Volozhin inhabitants’ encountered every person who was coming from Eretz Israel with extreme excitement. They circled me and asked many questions. they were eager to hear every detail. They posed more questions then I had the capacity of answering. With much difficulty I finally made my way home.


Their curiosity expressed a sense of an inner knowledge that all the bridges had been broken and the delivery from this mess might only be in Eretz Israel. The state of Volozhin at this point was best expressed by our national poet’s (A student of the Volozhin Yeshiva) verse: "We have no hope here, brothers, We are hopeless like a dove in the hawk’s claws, Now both my eyes turn eastward" ("The little letter"-Bialik). But, to our great sorrow, the Volozhin Jews understood it to late. It was late, much to late, to flee the hawk’s claws and this dying land. The "German Thunder" rolled his way here and eventually arrived to our area. Volozhin stood on the eve of a bloody disaster, on the brink of such a calamity that had never come to pass before in the human history. Nobody among the Volozhin Jews could imagine the catastrophe’s magnitude and the atrocities that would soon happen. There was a sense, an intuition, that something is coming, but nobody thought that this "something" would be the end of the days. No, nobody raised such an analogous, despondent reflection. The daily survival seemed to be almost tranquil in some ironic mode. Although, the Jew-haters spread their massage and they did whatever they did in the name of national pride. Their ugly deeds did not alert our Volozhin brothers to act against the impending events of their unavoidable horrible doom, the German assassins band, the primary actors company that would play the ultimate gory game that will terminate with the ABSOLUTE destruction of the Volozhin Jewry.


When I left the town and said farewell to my mother, my sister and all my friends I had in mind the "Farewell" of Hayim Nahman, our most estimated Poet and I repeated his words at our separation: "Rest in peace clay houses, beggars dwellings, leaking roofs and broken walls, sinking in dust until belly. Peace on you all, and best regards to the last of lasts, to the lowest among you, to the weakest tent".


At midnight on my way back to Eretz Israel many people crowded together near my bus. They said goodbye with tearing eyes. They wished for each other to meet me in Eretz Israel. In my mind I see their sorrowful eyes daily. I will never forget my last night in Volozhin. The separation was full with fear for the future and with my sincere love to my dearest. What did they think at this separation? I will remember their sad eyes forever. As I write my pencil is weeping in my fingers. In writing these memories, I completely admit to myself that the beloved Jews of Volozhin do not exist any more.


Notes by Bella Nee Kramnick; 

My father, Michael Kramnick, son of Yoel, was originally from Kurenets and his father and brothers lived there when I was growing up. We were also related to Hillel Kramniks’ family (My grandfathers’ brother) and Aharon Shulman family from Kurenets. I don’t know what brought My father to Volozhin. My mother was the daughter of Yakov Weisbord and Matkah Nee Dolgov. I was born in 1914. A year later World War I arrived in our area and Volozhin was at the forefront for most of the war. In 1917 my father began to feel horrible pain and my mother called the Feldcher, which was an unlicensed doctor, to help him. The Feldcher suggested putting hot bottled water on the pain stricken area. The pain got worse and my mother in spite the war managed to call a doctor from Minsk. However it was too late. My father died of a burst appendix. My mother was left with me— a three year old, and my sister Freydle, who was only 6 months old. Financially, the situation was not bad. We had a ready-made clothing store. My mother made a vow not to remarry. She didn’t want her daughters to grow up with a stepfather. Shortly after my father’s death, there was a fire in Volozhin and our house was burnt to the ground so we all moved in with my grandparents. Also in the house was mother’s brother, whom was an old bachelor. He, together with his parents had a store for furs and hats. We were a very close family and I never felt like an orphan. I was very close to my grandmother. She would often talk about her relatives. She had three sisters and one brother that left Volozhin for America many years before. Also from her mother side she had relatives in Vishnevo. ( Yehoshua Rabinovits, Zvi Duday Dudman,Chaim Abramson) A few years after the fire, my mother built a home in which one of the rooms was used as a grocery store. When I was still a child I had a horrible pain in my side. My mother, remembering how my father died of a burst appendix, took no chances and during the night decided to take me to a very famous doctor in Warsaw. At that point we didn’t have electricity in Volozhin so I remember that the students of the Yeshiva that lived with us lit the road with candles while I was carried out of the house. The appendix operation was successful and I recovered quickly. In 1932 I had the opportunity to go to Eretz Yisrael and from then on I did everything to get my sister to join me. At one point I worked for a very wealthy family that was related to someone from Volozhin, the Zacks family. I became very close to them and they arranged for papers for a man to come from Volozhin to work in their business. The man would be Baruch Meir Meyorson, who was the leader of Beytar in Volozhin. We planned for him to fictitiously marry my sister so she could join him. Everything was arranged but someone from Volozhin, a member of another Youth Movement was upset and told the authorities that this is all a scam and they canceled the visa. In 1935 I was married. My husband and I once again tried to bring my sister to Eretz Yisrael by paying someone in Eretz Yisrael to go to Volozhin for a month and bring her back with him as his wife. At that time the unemployment was big in Israel and people were willing to do this for a free trip and a month of support. The man stayed in Volozhin with my mother for a month but my sister at that point had fallen in love with a man named Shlomo Zolzo, who had come from Lodg as a representative of a factory. He would not accept her going to Israel and the guy ended up bringing back a neighbor of ours from Volozhin named Rachel Rogovin, whom already had her sister Fruma and brothers Peretz and Efraim there. When I was pregnant with my daughter in 1936 I decided to visit my family in Volozhin. I ended up having the baby in Vilna at the same hospital where Mina Berman, one of my best friends, was hospitalized and later died from complications in pregnancy. When I came back to Volozhin with my baby girl Mika I felt very badly when I met Mina’s mother who had just lost her daughter and unborn grandchild. Shortly after I left for Ertz Israel and I never saw my Family or Volozhin again. My mother Feygel Kramnik, her brother, Haim-Izhak Aharon Weisbord. her sister Hana with her husband Berl Levin, their children Beylka, Hasia, Miryam(daughter of Berl Levin first wife also my mothers’ sister who died at a young age) and Yosef. My grandparents, Yakov and Matke nee Dolgov Weisbord. My sister Freydel her husband Shlomo and their son Michael and my father brother, Baruch Kramnik family in Kurenets and many other relatives and friends all perished.