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A. Shulman

Arkady Shulman


Village Bortniki is located literally several kilometers away from Ulla. In 2000 I came to this village. I wanted to see a place that once used to be a Jewish collective farm, meet the old-timers, talk to them and find out their opinion about Jewish ploughmen. I had heard a lot of jokes about them, told not by pathological anti-Semites, but by Jews themselves. In the end one can start thinking: maybe we are a nation that is unsuitable for agricultural work. (But then why does Israel have such highly developed agriculture?)

Jews lived and worked in Bortniki and a neighboring village called Sloboda long before collective farms emerged, before the revolution.

In the 30’s Sloboda became one of the first Jewish agricultural settlements in the Western region. In 1831 Jewish families bought a big lot of land and settled here. Apparently these people were not poor. They moved from Ulla, Ushachi, Kublichi, Lepel.

At that time the Russian tsar took numerous decisions which aimed at defining the fates of Jews. At times they contradicted each other, and at times were utterly illogical. Some decisions were connected with employment of Jews in general and agriculture in particular. There was an aim to establish Jewish agricultural settlements in Astrakhan province, Novorossisky region, Tavria and even Siberia. People left their settlements and headed for the new ones, and then came decisions to suspend the resettlements.

There were attempts to allocate Jews in the Western region. In 1847 a special Statute was approved by the state. It stated that the Jews, who would fail to develop their farms to a sufficient degree within 6 years, would be recruited. I still cannot figure out what the word “sufficient” was actually supposed to mean and who the judge was.

Those Jews, who moved to Sloboda, quickly became successful.

In 1898 there were 28 families of “native Jewish population”, as they were called. The families were rather big and the population grew to 185 people.

They were not particularly enthusiastic about the revolution, but it did not bother them, either. They considered that since they were earning the living by themselves, they would avoid the political unrest.

However, when general collectivization started, a national collective farm “Rotfeld” (“Red Field”, Yiddish) emerged on the territory of the Jewish settlement. And it could not happen in any other way, regardless of the wishes of the Jewish population.

I met Yevdokiya Lavrenovna Sapego (Sadovskaya), an old timer, who remembered the pre-war life.

– There used to be a Jewish collective farm here. Jews also lived in a neighboring village of Tsuruki. The collective farm had its own oil mill, flax spinning, pig farm, brick factory. It also produced brooms, which were sold in Gorodok. Jews are good at business and they were rich. “Rotfeld” employed all of Sloboda’s population.

In 1933 a stockyard for 100 cows and a granary were built in “Rotfeld”.

Matvey Timkin was the head of the collective farm.

Yevdokiya mentioned the names of her pre-war friends: Haika, Dora, Bentsia… And then she apologized:

– My memory is getting worse - I do not remember all the last names. You can talk to Fruza Gritskevich – she was born in 1926 and should remember Jews.

Fruza Nikolaevna Gritskevich was collecting potatoes near her house.

– Why are you interested in Jews? – She inquired.

As soon as she found out we were writing a book she started talking:

– I have always lived among Jews – it was a Jewish village. There were only a few Belarusians living in a couple of houses by the road. Out family lived in one of such houses. I worked for “Rotfeld” every summer. The salaries were decent and we got one liter of milk per day.

– Is there anyone else that can talk about the Jewish collective farm? – I asked.

– Dobrovolsky, - answered Fruza Nikolayevna. – He is at home now.

We entered a spacious house that belonged to Arkady Aleksandrovich Dobrovolsky. He was sitting at a table with felt boots on his feet.

– My feet hurt, - he confessed. – Maybe because the weather will change or maybe I am just old, - he laughed. – Before the war I used to live in a different village – Bagretsy. It is not far from here. “Rotfeld” had a Komsomol organization and we often came here for meetings.

I found some information on a Jewish school in Sloboda in the State archives of Vitebsk region. It was a four-grade school, opened in 1924. Naturally, classes were in Yiddish.

In 1924 the school was headed by Sonia Peisahovich, who was also the only teacher. She was 20, and it was known that she was an artisan’s daughter.

Among the students were 23 Jews and 4 Belarusians – all of them elementary school students living in Sloboda. It is noteworthy that Belarusian parents did not complain that their children went to a Jewish school and nobody argued what language the classes should be in. It was natural and did not cause conflicts.

Sonia Peisahovich writes in her annual report: “As I started work, we strongly lacked Jewish books. The first semester was taught without books. Later I went to Polotsk and brought the necessary literature. However the school does not have a library, which is negatively reflected on children’s development... The school is involved in social work, we stage performances devoted to revolutionary holidays…”

There is no evidence why, but the school’s teachers changed frequently. Perhaps, just as nowadays, young people are attracted to bigger cities.

So, in 1926 the teacher was Etka Solomonovna Asovskaya, and the following year – Mikhail Yalov. The school rented Mendel Kagan’s house to hold classes.

Fascists invaded Bortniki, Sloboda and the neighboring villages at the end of June, 1941. To be more exact, Germans only passed through these villages, and the new authority was represented by their assistants: Nazi policemen.

At the beginning of August, 1941, Germans and their assistants brought all the Jews from neighboring villages to Sloboda.

– My school teacher Anna Arkina was among them, - remembers Yevdokiya Sapego.

Old timers remember a Jewish family that used to live in a big house next to the forest. Parents and sons (for some reason they were worried about them in particular) had gone westwards and daughter Haika was responsible for the household. They hoped Germans would not do anything to the girl…

For almost a year the trapped people lived in inhuman conditions – they were tortured and forced to do hard physical work. Food supply was a little better than in other ghettos, no people died of starvation.

It happened in the autumn of 1942, nobody now remembers the exact date. 12 Nazis, together with policemen, came to Sloboda.

– One of the senior policemen was a rotten man, - remembers Fruza Gritskevich. – He spoke fluent German and tried to gain favor of the Nazis.

They gathered all the Jews at Mushka’s house (she was a Jewish woman from the village). Those who did not fit into the house were waiting for their fate outside. First men were taken to the forest. There were not many of them. They were ordered to take spades and told they would be building a road. Naturally, they had a feeling something bad was going to happen but they could not expect they would be executed.

Two trenches were dug out. That was when Germans started shooting. People were falling into the freshly-dug trench. The rest of the trench was filled with ground.

Fruza Gritskevich was among those, who were taken to Mushka’s house.

– I was dark-haired and they thought I was Jewish. I was standing in the yard with my friend Dora. After shooting men they started taking women and children to the forest, ten people at a time. They were usually accompanied by 4 policemen to the trench and shot. When it was my turn to go, the senior policeman said I was Belarusian and they let me go.

Very few people managed to survive on that day. We heard that doctor Zarogatskaya and Anna Gurevich were hidden by Ivan Semenovich and Anastasiya Stepanovna Zhernosek. A boy and a girl also managed to escape the execution, we did not find out who they were.

The ground in the area of the execution was moving for several days…

An unpretentious unattended memorial can be seen today on the place of the execution. Very few people approach it… The memorial has no plate with the names of the people, executed here. However we found names of the Jewish schools students in the archives. Many of them were buried here: Kogan Rokha, Timkin Zislia, Aksentseva Braina, Dubman Khava, Khaikina Mira, Kogan Isaak, Gershanskaya Freina, Aronson Riva, Kogan Busha, Rappoport Sholom, Timkina Braina, Akishman Mania, Kogan Riva, Natarevich Fantia, Gershansky Gersh, Khaikina Khania, Natarevich Sholom, Gershanskaya Galia, Natarevich Mulia…

Jewish settlements in Vitebsk region

Vitebsk Albrehtovo Babinovichi Baran Bayevo Begoml Beshenkovichi Bocheikovo Bogushevsk Borkovichi Braslav Bychiha Chashniki Disna Dobromysli Dokshitsy Druya Dubrovno Glubokoye Gorodok Kamen Kohanovo Kolyshki Kopys Krasnopolie Kublichi Lepel Liady Liozno Lukoml Luzhki Lyntupy Miory Obol Oboltsy Orsha Osintorf Ostrovno Parafianovo Plissa Polotsk Prozorki Senno Sharkovshina Shumilino Sirotino Slaveni Smolyany Surazh Tolochin Ulla Verhnedvinsk Vidzy Volyntsy Yanovichi Yezerishe Zhary Ziabki

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