Shtetl Routes. Vestiges of Jewish cultural heritage in cross-border tourism in borderland of Poland, Belarus and Ukraine

 

Shtetl Routes. Vestiges of Jewish cultural heritage in cross-border tourism in borderland of Poland, Belarus and Ukraine

 

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Ashmyany guidebook

Pol. Oszmiana, Bel. Ашмяны, Yid. אָשמענע

Pre-war buildings in Ashmyany
Pre-war buildings in Ashmyany (Author: Sanko, Pavel)

Beginnings

The establishment of Ashmyany is traditionally linked to the Lithuanian expedition of Prince Yaroslav the Wise in 1040, but the first mention of the settlement dates from 1341. After the death of Grand Duke Gediminas of Lithuania, Ashmyany came into possession of his son Jaunutis. The origin of the town’s name is usually associated with Lithuanian words: aszmenies – “blade,” or akmenas – “stone,” although in the chronicles of the Teutonic Knights in the late 14th century, the town is referred to as Aschemynne (“a town with wooden buildings”).

In 1556, Ashmyany was granted Magdeburg rights, confirmed in 1683 by King John III Sobieski and later by the last King of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Stanisław August Poniatowski.

The Jews of Ashmyany

The first documentary mention of the Jewish community in Ashmyany dates to the second half of the 18th century. Jews were attracted by the proximity of the town to Vilnius, which was conducive to the regional economic development, as well as by the municipal status of Ashmyany, which created favourable conditions for the development of trade and crafts. In 1766, the kahal had 376 taxpaying members, and towards the end of the 18th century, a total of 2,212 Jews and Karaites were registered in the County of Ashmyany (Oszmiana). In 1897, Ashmyany had 7,214 residents: 3,832 Jews, 1,981 Belarusians, 812 Russians, and 525 Poles.

The synagogue

The construction of the synagogue, which has survived to the present day, was completed at the beginning of the 20th century (in 1902 or, according to other sources, in 1912). This synagogue is a red-brick building, rectangular and austere in form. Its external ornamentation includes pilasters at the corners and between the windows and a round window over the entrance. There is also a beautifully tiered roof. The façade is decorated by a wooden pediment with carved figures of lions. The plastered walls of the interior are embellished with painted floral designs. On the pilasters, there are small recesses with symbolic representations of animals and insects. The dark blue ceiling, imitating the starry sky, is especially impressive. In 1940, the synagogue was closed, and the building began to serve as a warehouse. In 2015, an exhibition room of the Franciszek Boguszewicz Museum of Local History in Ashmyany was opened there.

The town’s religious life

Towards the end of the 19th century, three or four prayer houses functioned in the town in addition to the synagogue. In 1846–1860, the head of the Jewish community of Ashmyany was Rabbi Meir Kohen, elected to the post five times and approved by decrees of the Vilnius Guberniya Government. In 1859, Rabbi Kohen was awarded one of the highest distinctions at that time – the gold medal “for services, to be worn on the St. Stanislaus ribbon around the neck.” The medal was granted at the initiative of the municipal police, on whose behalf a request was submitted to the provincial administration to award the rabbi because he performed his duties “honestly and diligently.”

The community in Ashmyany became known due to Mordechai Rozenblat (1836–1916, known as Motele Oshmianer), an eminent theologian and Kabbalist who served as the rabbi of Ashmyany for more than 10 years. Rozenblat was well known as a tsaddik (a righteous person with charisma) and gained a reputation as a miracle-worker whose blessings came true. Thousands of people from all over Lithuania came to see him, Jews and Gentiles. The general respect and love for him is confirmed by the words engraved on his tombstone: “Herein concealed is a holy ark, a truly great [rabbi], a prince of the Torah and a spring of fear [of the Almighty], a teacher and a luminary of the Jewish nation…”

Rabbi Yehuda Leib Fein (1869–1941) was also one of the most prominent spiritual leaders of the Jews in Ashmyany. In 1906, he opened a small yeshiva in town. During World War I, he showed great devotion in helping Jewish refugees. After his appointment to the post of the rabbi of Stolin in 1920, he continued his commitment to social issues. In the 1930s, Rabbi Fein vehemently protested against the ban on shekhita (Jewish ritual slaughter needed for the preparation of kosher meat) in Poland. He perished in the Holocaust.

Ashmyany was the birthplace of the writer and traveler Yakov Sapir (b. 1822, d. 1885, Jerusalem). After an expedition to the Middle East, he published his travelog Even Sappir (vol. 1 – 1866, vol. 2 – 1874; republished in 1969), which contains important information about the life of Jews in the Middle East in the 19th century; Sapir devotes special attention to Yemen, describing the everyday life and customs of its Jewish inhabitants. He was the first to publish fragments of the Yemenite Jews’ poetry; he also described the syntactic and phonetic features of the Hebrew language used by Yemenite Jews. One of the settlements in the Judea Mountains, Even Sapir, was established in 1950 and named in his honour.

The entrepreneurs of Ashmyany

In the 1890s, Jewish factory owners occupied key positions in the town developing economy. Lev (Leiba) Strugach (1842–1906) owned yeast and distillery plants. The factory founded by the Strugach family continues to produce yeast through the 21st century. In the village of Budenovka, one km from Ashmyany, ruins of the former Strugach family estate have been preserved: a modernist-style house, outbuildings, remains of the orchard, the place for a pool, and the stone wall with columns at the entrance gate. Lev Strugach, his wife, and his son Abram were shot by the Nazis in 1942. They were buried in the Jewish cemetery.

Other entrepreneurs included the owners of tanneries (Aviel Piktushanski, Leizer Bloch, Itzek and Yankel Sołoducha), the owners of a snuff tobacco factory (Borukh Rishdinski and Shlomo Gershator), and the owner of a plant manufacturing raisin wine (Yulyi Schmidt). The mineral water plant belonged to Berko Daniłowski, and the local printing house – to Ziska Mekel. The owner of the brewery was Josef Yezelson.

Jewish farmers

In addition to the Jewish entrepreneurs, merchants, and craftsmen, there were also farmers among the Jews of Ashmyany; about 58 of them lived in the vicinity on the eve of World War I.

Jewish schools

Children aged 5 to 13 received elementary education from melameds (elementary-school teachers); each melamed taught 6–9 students. Parents paid from 4 to 12 roubles per student for half a year of instruction. Initially, in order to work as a melamed, one had to finish a Jewish school and have good basic knowledge of Russian. In 1872, there were 18 melameds in Ashmyany, teaching 132 students. The teachers were Leib Baron, Kapel Shylevich, Josef Kikovich, and others. In 1876, a rule was introduced that a melamed should have higher or secondary education or be a graduate of a rabbinic seminary (two existed at that time in the Russian Empire, one in Zhitomir, another in Vilnius/Vilna). The teaching process was supervised by the rabbi – and by the police, who reported to the provincial administration, the situation in the field of Jewish education, particularly how Jews were learning Russian language.

After completing several years of instruction under a melamed, a child could continue education at the Jewish state school in Ashmyany. Tsarist authorities began to establish Jewish state schools in the 1840s seeking to promote Russian culture among the Jews. In the 1850s and 1860s, the school in Ashmyany had one class of 35 students. Apart from that, there was a private one-class female boarding school (with 12 students) and a private Jewish school for girls. In 1881, a one-grade Jewish primary school with a preparatory class functioned in the town, and in 1910, a state boys’ school with a department for girls was opened. With craftsmen in mind, a school with classes taking place on Saturdays was established in Ashmyany. In addition to the schools with the Yiddish language of instruction, schools with Hebrew language of instruction also emerged (Tarbut and Yavneh), usually with Zionist political orientation. The Tarbut school building has survived and is now situated in Mickiewicza Street.

Political turbulence

The population of Ashmyany included a large group of workers and artisans, who welcomed revolutionary ideas and new socialist political agenda. A particularly important year for the workers of Ashmyany was 1896, when a series of riots took place. A Bund-type Marxist labour organisation operated in the town at that time, which campaigned among the workers in Yiddish, Russian, and Polish. In 1896–1897, Ashmyany tanners fighting for their social rights held more than ten strikes, inspired by the tanners of the town of Krynki where the tanners captured the town council and held Soviet power .

From the mid-1890s, a branch of the Jewish socialist Bund operated in Ashmyany coordinating the activities of Jewish workers against the local administration and entrepreneurs. As a sign of solidarity during the revolution of 1905, it opposed the repressive measures taken by the tsarist administration against proletarians in Łódź and Odessa. Together with the social democrats, its members set up an armed, self-defense unit of 40 people. At that time, the local branch of the Bund had 150 active members.

World War II and the Holocaust

In autumn 1939, the town was captured by the Red Army, and the Soviet administration took radical steps towards nationalisation of all privately-owned industries. It seized Jewish-owed commercial and industrial enterprises, and repressed the non-employed people: they were arrested and deported to the Eastern parts of the USSR. All Jewish religious schools were shut down following a ban on religious education, and only secular schools were allowed to function: it was at those Yiddish and socialist-oriented schools that the Sovietisation of the young generation took place. According to data from August 31, 1940, four schools functioned in the town: Belorussian, Polish, Russian, and Jewish. A part of the Jewish population supported the new authorities. Jews held seats in the town council, and Zalman Yudovich became Chairman of the Executive Committee – among the 35 members of the Executive Committee there were 10 Jews. Ashmyany town councillors included the director of the local children’s home Sonia Shleifer, the editor of the local newspaper Yankel Chaimovich, and the leader of the blacksmiths’ union Solomon Karchmer.

When the Nazis occupied Ashmyany on June 25, 1941, the town filled with refugees from the surrounding area. There was no time for the Jewish population to flee. The occupation authorities established a Judenrat, headed by a rabbi. The Judenrat was forced to execute the Nazi orders concerning the supply of Jewish property for the Germans’ needs.

The first extermination operation (Aktion) took place in the summer of 1941. Between the end of July and August 14, 1941, some 1,000–1,200 Jews were killed in Ashmyany. In October 1941, a ghetto was established: in Polna St. (currently Avdieieva St.), Wileńska St. (currently Krasnoarmieiskaia), and as far as Savietskaya St., including the synagogue. Initially, the Jews were allowed to leave the ghetto after showing a special pass, and once a week they were also allowed to do shopping at the market. They were later deprived of this possibility. With time, the occupation authorities tightened the regulations for ghetto dwellers. They were sent away to labour camps to do forced labour, or to death camps, where mass executions were carried out. The United Partisan Organisation of the Vilnius ghetto sent Liza Migun (Magun) to Ashmyany to organise rescue for ghetto inmates. Thanks to her activity, about 80 people escaped from the ghetto and joined the partisans.

Few Jews of Ashmyany survived. The names of about ten of them are known. Some lived to see the end of the war in Vilnius, Dachau, and Stutthof; others survived because they hid outside the ghetto’s walls. One of these survivors is Aron Segal, who, with his mother, found shelter on the “Aryan side” in Ashmyany. David Deul survived a mass shooting and managed to get out of the death pit. He was then hidden by a Belarusian family.

Memorials

In 1958, a memorial stele was established in the Lugovshchina forest opening, at the site of the execution of 573 Jews from Ashmyany. In the Roista forest opening, a mound was constructed and an obelisk was erected in 1967 to commemorate 353 Jews from Ashmyany shot at the beginning of July 1941. In 1967, a memorial plaque was placed near the small village of Uglivo at the grave of 700 Jews shot in November 1942.

About 100 Jews lived in Ashmyany in the early 1980s, but most of them left for Israel with the last wave of emigration from the Soviet Union.

The Jewish cemetery

The earliest burials at the Ashmyany Jewish cemetery took place in its southern section, where about 180 matzevot from the first half of 19th century have survived. The tombstones in the western part of the cemetery, about 370 matzevot, are arranged in even rows; they date back to a later period and bear inscriptions in Yiddish, Hebrew, or Russian. The nearly 200 graves in the northern part of the cemetery date to the second half of the 19th century. There are also two special gravesites at the cemetery: one of them is the ohel of Rabbi Menashe Shmuelzon, and another ohel most likely indicates a place where a damaged Torah scroll is buried. Surviving to the present day is the well where people symbolically washed their hands when leaving the cemetery. Closed in 1969, the cemetery was renovated in 2008–2009 at the initiative of Avina Shapiro, a native of Ashmyany, thanks to funds collected by the Ashmyany Compatriots’ Association in Israel. With the help of the local public utility company, most of the matzevot were restored and the entire cemetery was enclosed with a wall.


Worth seeing

  • Former synagogue, Savietskaia St.
  • Jewish cemetery, Krasnoarmieiskaia St.
  • Franciszek K. Boguszewicz Museum of Local History in Ashmyany: the exhibition includes F.K. Boguszewicz’s personal belongings, objects of archaeology and numismatics, items of everyday use, works by folk artists, as well as documents and photographs dating back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 2000, it was moved to the building of a pharmacy once owned by a Jew, Ilya Vladimirovich Ajzensztadt; 128 Savietskaya St., tel. +3750159342593.
  • Church of St. Michael the Archangel (early 15th c.): in 1900–1906, it was renovated in the Vilnius Baroque style, and in 1950–1990, it served as a factory; masses were resumed in 1990; 17 Verasnia Sq.
  • Franciscan church (ruins) (19th c.): fragments of the previously pulled down late-Gothic 16th-c. church were used in its construction; Frantsishkanskaya St.
  • Orthodox Church of the Resurrection of Christ (19th c.), renovated in 1988–1990, Savietskaya St.
  • Water mill, built towards the end of the 19th c.
  • Hospital (currently the court building), erected in the early 20th c.


Surrounding area

Halshany (22 km): a wooden water mill; buildings around the market square (19th c.); ruins of the Sapieha Castle (17thc.); the Church of St. John the Baptist and the Franciscan monastery (1st half of the 17th c.); St. George’s Orthodox Church; ruins of a chapel; a hill fort; a Jewish cemetery.

Baruny (23 km): the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul and the former Basilian monastery (late 17th c.); a World War I cemetery.

Kreva (Krewo) (30 km): Algirdas Castle (mid-14th c.); the place where Grand Duke Jogaila (Jagiełło) of Lithuania married Polish Queen Jadwiga and the Union of Krewo was signed; a former beth midrash (early 20th c.); a Jewish cemetery; a collection of Judaica at the school museum; the Orthodox Church of St Alexander Nevsky (1854).

Smarhon’ (35 km): the birthplace of Yiddish poet Avrom Sutzkever as well as poet, prose writer, and playwright Moshe Kulbak; a collection of Judaica at the school museum; Church of St. Michael the Archangel (early 17th c.); World War I fortifications.

Mikhalishki (54 km): a Jewish cemetery with about 150 matzevot and a memorial; Church of St. Michael the Archangel (circa 1670); a cemetery chapel (1885); the Brzostowski manor house; the birthplace of poet Menke Katz.

Svir (75 km): stone foundations of a synagogue; the former Jewish restaurant and hotel, currently a hospital; a Jewish cemetery with more than 200 matzevot; the Byszewski Palace (early 20th c.); Church of St. Nicholas (1653); wooden Orthodox Church of the Dormition of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

 

Author: Margarita Korzeniewska, Tamara Vershitskaya

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