The 900-year history of the shtetl Eishyshok, documented by the Tower of Life at the U.S. Holocaust Museum, is recounted.
There Once Was a World: A Nine-Hundred-Year Chronicle of the Shtetl of Eishyshokby Yaffa Eliach
When asked to work on a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, Yaffa Eliach decided that the best way to remember the dead was to honor the lives they lived. So in 1979, she set about a 17-year project to reconstruct the 900-year history of Eishyshok, a small Jewish settlement in Poland where no Jews now remain. There Once Was A World chronicles the centuries of Jewish life that so violently came to an end in World War II. There Once Was A World is a richly detailed history of changing life and enduring traditions in a small Polish shtetl.
The 900-year history of the shtetl Eishyshok, documented by the Tower of Life at the U.S. Holocaust Museum, is recounted.
- Little, Brown and Company
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Read an Excerpt
IF I SHOULD TRY TO
THE SHTETL OF MY
BIRTH, ALL THE TIME OF
MY LIFE ON THIS EARTH
WILL NOT SUFFICE. FOR
WHO COULD KNOW
BETTER THE TOWN AND
ITS PEOPLE, THEIR
GREATNESS, AND WHAT
THEY HAVE GIVEN TO
Rabbi Meir Stalevich
before his death, in EISHYSHOK
HISTORY HAS ITS OWN FASCINATING METHOD OF CHOOSING MATERIAL FOR THE permanent record. Who would have predicted that the obscure little town of Eishyshok would have a substantial entry in that record? But almost from the beginning, Eishyshok was a small town with big-city aspirations. During a span of nearly a thousand years, every one of the major events that shaped the destiny of Europe sooner or later meandered its way through little Eishyshok as well. Not only was Eishyshok a paradigm for a very specific kind of Eastern European Jewish town--the shtetl--but it was also a mirror to the wider world around it, its fate reflective of events hundreds and even thousands of miles away.
Neither the Eishyshkians themselves nor the world at large could ever quite seem to decide whether it was indeed just a small town or something much more significant. And if the latter, what did it signify? Whatever else it was, numerous sayings about it indicate that it was famous for being obscure. Until well into the twentieth century it was the town you named to make a point about something being remote, or primitive, or old-fashioned--the Eastern European Jewish equivalent of Podunk.
For example, a common Yiddish proverb to describe those who lost their way said that they were "farkrokhn in Eishyshok"--lost in Eishyshok. And the town was always ending up in the headlines in unexpected ways--as when the legendary Zionist hero Vladimir Jabotinsky singled it out in one of his famously flamboyant speeches during the 1920s. Urging a crowd in Warsaw to establish a Jewish self-defense system, he admonished that "even Eishyshok has a fire department to save the shtetl from fires," Isaac Bashevis Singer also cited Eishyshok when he wanted to contrast the urban addiction to timeliness and topicality with a small shtetl's sleepy, backward ways, writing, "New York is not Blendev or Ejszyszki, where people hold on to their newspapers forever!"
On the other hand, when Judah Leib Gordon, the poet of the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment), wanted to point to the greatest concentration of scholarly minds in Lithuania, he advised people to go stand "at the crossroads of Mir, Volozhin, and Eishyshok" For a small shtetl, Eishyshok loomed large in many minds, and not just as a symbol of obscurity!
Eishyshok might also stand as a symbol of antiquity. The history of Eishyshok begins in 1065, when the legendary Lithuanian military commander Eisys, serving under the Samogitian tribal duke Erdvilas, helped recapture some of the territories that had been seized by the Russian prince Yaroslav the Wise (980-1054). As a reward for his bravery, Eisys was granted land in a clearing in the forest, where he built a town and named it Eisiskes after himself. Or so the story is recounted in the ancient Lithuanian Chronicles, a sixteenth-century compilation of historical writings that recount the transformation of a group of warring tribes into the Lithuanian Duchy, and thence into a partnership with the Polish Kingdom, a process that began in the eleventh century and was formally completed with the Lublin Union in 1569.
After the Tatar-Mongolian invasions of Russia (1223-1240), areas previously under Russian rule were left empty as the Russians fled, and some of the Lithuanian tribal dukes were able to annex parts of these war-torn, deserted territories. It was one of these annexations that allowed Eishyshok to further expand its holdings.
The town founded by Eisys was among the earliest settlements in the region of Lida and Vilna, its name frequently preceded by the phrase "the ancient city of," Although there are other versions of when it came into being, including one that suggests Eishyshok was not established until the middle of the thirteenth century, the existence of Jewish tombstones in the Old Cemetery that bore dates as early as 1097, for which there is evidence in a number of different sources, Lithuanian, Russian, and Polish, as well as Jewish, refutes that theory.
Besides the several versions of the founding of Eishyshok, there are also other versions of the name of its founder--Eiksys and Aiksys among them--and numerous other versions of the name of the town: Ejszyszki in Polish; Eisisken and Eisiskes in Lithuanian; Aishishek, Aishishok, and Aishishuk in the late-nineteenth-century record books and correspondence of the shtetl's own landsman society in New York. In 1384 an agreement between the Crusaders and Grand Duke Witold of Lithuania bore the seal of a functionary who signed himself "Sigillum Sudemond de Wesisken"--"Wesisken" being a clear reference to Eisisken. Around the same time, the Crusaders themselves left descriptions of the town, which they referred to variously as Eyksischeken, Eykshissken, and Eyksiskindorf (a "dorf" being a village, though Eishyshok appears in other documents as "eine stadt"--a town). In late-fourteenth- and early-fifteenth-century Russian chronicles, the town appears as Eishishki, Jeshishki, Eikshishki, and Ekshishki, and in later centuries it appears in an even greater variety of spellings. Indeed, if posted vertically, the names would probably occupy a column as long as the huge market square at the town's center.
Just as there is no agreement on what the name of the town is, there is no consensus on how it got its name. Many of the Poles in the region, who didn't accept the idea that the Lithuanians had been there first, believed that the name came from the word sheshkes, meaning conifers or pine cones, a reference to the abundance of pine trees in the region. Their version, too, entered the local mythology, and then, after World War I, when Eishyshok came under the rule of the Second Polish Republic, it found its way into the visual shorthand of heraldry as well: In 1935 the Poles created a new coat of arms for Eishyshok consisting of three pine cones beneath which the year of its founding, 1065, was inscribed. Whether there were any antecedents for this in earlier coats of arms is not yet known.
Another possible explanation, at least for the last part of the name, has to do with a Lithuanian coin called the shok, which was a currency common among many taxpayers in the Middle Ages. The Yiddish translation of shok was the number 60. Some scholars have suggested that the many Lithuanian shtetlekh whose names end in shok (Eishyshok, Vasilishok, Deveneshok, and so on) were called so to indicate that they were about sixty kilometers from the town or government facility where they paid their taxes--in shoks.
Local Jewish folklore had its own account of how the name of the town came into being: Once upon a time in the early days of the shtetl, a man came home and was greeted by his wife with a special treat of freshly cooked varenie (preserves), made from the berries that grow in such abundance in the region. Not realizing they were still sizzling hot, he took a big bite and scorched his tongue, which caused him to yell "Heishe-shok!" (Hot sauce!) at the top of his lungs. The scorched-tongue story is also used to account for the peculiar way in which Lithuanian Jews, especially those from small towns, often reverse their pronunciations of s and sh.
As one of the oldest Jewish communities in Lithuania, Eishyshok has a history that encompasses much of the drama and vitality, the triumph and tragedy, of nine centuries' worth of Jewish settlements throughout Eastern Europe. Indeed, its history can be seen as a paradigm for that of hundreds and even thousands of small Jewish towns in Lithuania and beyond.
Located on a wide plateau between the Neimen and the Wilja rivers and their many tributaries, Eishyshok is part of a landscape of gentle rolling hills and thick, deep, quiet forests. Its rivers flow peacefully, its lakes and marshes are still. But its mild; tranquil scenery is in sharp contrast to the natural disasters and devastating plagues that have afflicted it, and the violent wars that have been fought there during the long course of its lifetime--wars waged in the name of land, of faith, of riches, of ideology, of nationality, and of sheer ethnic hatred. For this is a region teeming with different peoples--Lithuanians, Tatars, Byelorussians, Russians, Germans, Poles, and Gypsies--and different religions--pagan, Catholic, Provoslavic (Russian Orthodox), Muslim, and Jewish--with all of them battling one another for control, or for mere survival. Alliances among the different groups would be formed, only to be renounced at a later date in favor of others deemed more advantageous when circumstances changed. Each group had its moments of ascendancy when it claimed Eishyshok as its own and attempted to reshape it (and rewrite its history) in its own image.
But in the midst of this multihued, many-threaded, and ever-changing tapestry, composed of peoples who were constantly assuming new identities as they transformed themselves into the image of whatever new power had assumed sovereignty for the moment, were the Jews. The Jews of Eishyshok, like those of the Jewish settlements throughout this part of the world, belonged to a strong community with remarkable cohesiveness and continuity. Their social, religious, cultural, and familial institutions, rooted in a tradition thousands of years old whose legacy was always being passed on and renewed, would remain in place until the towns themselves came to an end in the Holocaust. (And even then many of them would set seed in new places, better times.)
The Lithuanian Jews in particular held fast to the qualities that made them unique. No matter where the latest national boundaries lay or what flag flew above them, they remained within the fixed, permanent borders of their cultural identity. To be a Lithuanian Jew--a Litvak--was to have traits, values, and cultural ideals that set you apart not just from your non-Jewish neighbors, but from the Polish Jews, the Hasidim, and the Jews who lived in the Pale of Settlement. The Jews of Eishyshok were the very embodiment of these Lithuanian Jewish characteristics--sharpness of intellect, pungency of wit, a deep dedication to scholarship, intense religiosity, stubborn self-sufficiency, and unceasing industriousness--especially during the shtetl's last four centuries. They were to remain so even under the influence of Polish Jewry, which had an ever greater impact from the sixteenth century on.
From the evidence of the tombstones in the Old Jewish Cemetery, Jewish Eishyshok is almost as old as the military settlement founded by Eisys. A chain of memories, stretching across the generations, supports that claim. Such memories were passed on during the traditional visits paid to the graves in the Old Cemetery, which were occasions for the elders to tell the family history to the young people.
One man interviewed in 1984 could remember being taken by his grandfather to pray at the site of the tombstone of one of his ancestors, dating back to the eleventh century. Though the stone itself was no longer there, having either sunk into the ground or been destroyed by Christian farmers from nearby Juryzdyki, the grandfather said that his grandfather had seen the stone and had been able to read the inscription. Until the destruction of the Jewish community in 1941, it remained the custom for young people to visit the Old Cemetery with their families on the Ninth of Av, a Jewish fast day (and on other dates on both the religious and the personal calendar), there to listen to their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents tell stories about the ancestors at rest beneath their feet.
According to the evidence of the Old Cemetery tombstones, as recounted during such visits, the founding families of Jewish Eishyshok bore the names Ben-Yossef, Ben-Asher, and Azrieli. (Actually, there are thought to have been five founding families, but the original Hebrew names of the other two--whose descendants included the Senitski and Shimshelewitch families--have been lost.) The Ben-Yossefs were later known by the Russified Hebrew version of their name, Josephowitch, and the Slavic version, Kabacznik; similarly, the Ben-Ashers became Asherowitch and Yurkanski; the Azrielis became Azrielowitch and, through marriage, Edelstein.
These families are believed by some to have been Karaite Jews--a sect dating from eighth-century Babylonia, which by the eleventh century had shifted one of its centers from the Middle East to Europe. Unlike the main body of Jewry, known as Rabbinites, who recognize the authority of both Scripture and the Talmudic, rabbinical tradition, the Karaites looked to the Holy Scriptures as the sole and direct source of religious law. (The word Karaites is from the Hebrew Kraraim or Benei Mikra or Baale Mikra, meaning "People of the Scripture.")
Whether the original Jewish settlers in Eishyshok were Karaites or Rabbinites, no one really knows. Some remnants of distinctly Karaite practices survived into the twentieth century in several families, but they hardly constitute proof of any kind. Also unknown is the geographic origin of those first settlers; but local tradition, official records, the ancient tombstones in the Old Cemetery, and family histories all seem to confirm the hypothesis of the Orientalist scholar of Jewish history and literature Abraham Elijah Harkavy (1835-1919), who maintained that the first Jews who settled in Lithuania came from Babylonia, other places in the Middle East, Crimea, and the Khazar Kingdom, which existed from the seventh to the tenth century between the Black and Caspian seas.
What is known is that the Jewish settlers who came to Eishyshok in the eleventh century, whoever they were and wherever they came from, were later joined by a continual influx of Jews from Germany, France, Spain, and other parts of Western Europe where Jews were made unwelcome. In the late fourteenth century there may also have been an influx of Karaite Jews from Crimea, because Crimean Karaites were among the prisoners Grand Duke Witold brought back to Lithuania after defeating the Tatars in 1392. They settled in Troki, Lutsk, and other locations, which may have included Eishyshok.
By some time in the sixteenth century, a turning point had been reached, with Jews gradually changing from a minority to the majority of the town's population. From then until the end of the Jewish community in 1941, all the Jews of Eishyshok, including the descendants of the original settlers, were Rabbinites.
No matter how distinct a niche an ethnic group carves out for itself, however, nor how much it may try to remain apart from the conflicts consuming its neighbors, there is no escaping history. The story of Jewish Eishyshok, of Lithuanian Jewry, and beyond that of all of Eastern European Jewry, cannot be told apart from the history of the region. Just as it was said, in tribute to the excellence and impact of the legal scholars of Eishyshok, that the learning that took place at its distinguished yeshivah had ramifications as far away as the British Parliament in London, so, too, the people of Eishyshok found their fate bound up with that of their neighbors, and beyond them with events on the national and even global scale.
If the Duke of Lithuania married the Princess of Poland and converted to Catholicism in 1386, there were far-ranging consequences--both good and bad--for the Jews of Eishyshok. If the Crusaders were on the march in the vicinity during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the Jews lost lives, land, and property as readily as the pagans and Muslims did. If the Cossacks and the Tatars joined together in a revok against the Polish nobility in the mid-seventeenth century, the Jews suffered massive devastation too. And so it went, until the worldwide conflagration that began with the German invasion of Poland and resulted in the murder of 6 million Jews, including nearly all of the Jews of Eishyshok.
EISHYSHOK IN EARLY
Given its location at a strategic intersection of the roads leading to the fortified cities of Lida and Navaredok, it is natural that Eishyshok should have begun its life as a military settlement. It was responsible for protecting the southern borders of what would later become Lithuania against the many different invaders who would try to stake claims to the land: the Russians and Tatars from the south and east, the Crusaders from the north and west.
In 1323 the Grand Duke of Lithuania, Prince Gediminas (c. 1275-1341), moved the capital of the country from Troki to the new city of Vilna, which meant that the safety of the three major roads that ran from Eishyshok to Vilna, including one that went on to Cracow, became of primary importance. Probably it was around this time that Gediminas began reinforcing and expanding the ancient castle that had been built high on a hill overlooking the Vilna-Radun highway near Eishyshok. Flanked by the Virshuki, the Kantil, and the Dumbla rivers, which are tributaries of the Vistula, the castle guarded the road and the town nearby, thus becoming an important factor in the steady growth of the area, for, as the historian S. Abramauskas has noted, "Construction of a fortified castle is an inseparable aspect of settlements."
Part of Eishyshok's original vitality can perhaps be attributed to the tolerance with which the Lithuanians treated the Jews. The Lithuanians prided themselves on being the last pagan people in Europe, which was one of the factors in their tradition of religious tolerance--a tradition that made the Jews feel relatively secure at a time when blood libels, expulsions, forced conversions, and worse were the lot of the Jews in much of the rest of Europe. In fact, the Jews seem to have been not just tolerated but welcomed, because the princes of the land considered them trustworthy allies against their many Christian enemies, who included the Crusaders as well as the Russians. The result was that the Jews identified very strongly with Lithuania, and felt themselves to be part of it. In 1288, for example, when Lithuanian Prince Vladimir died, the Jews were said to have lamented his death with as much passion as they had mourned the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.
In Eishyshok as elsewhere in Lithuania, the Jews prospered, serving in the Lithuanian military, gradually rising in status until some of them were granted the privileges as well as the titles of nobility, being rewarded with land in recognition of their services to the rulers of the duchy. On the evidence of the size of the tracts of land that were owned by descendants of the original Jewish settlers in Eishyshok, it seems that their services were very highly valued indeed. Their emotional connection to that land, a tie forged over the many centuries the land remained in their families, proved enduring. (Their ownership rights, alas, did not, for the land was taken from them in the nineteenth century, by a series of decrees issued by the Russian tzars.)
As long as Lithuania remained pagan--and for some time thereafter--the tradition of tolerance for the Jews continued. This was fortunate for the Jews, because Lithuania persisted in its pagan beliefs long after the rest of Europe had abandoned them. Well into the fourteenth century the Grand Duke of Lithuania, Prince Gediminas, still put his faith in Perkunas, the god of thunder and forests, who ruled over the many other gods and goddesses in the Lithuanian pantheon. When emissaries of the pope attempted to convert the prince to Christianity in 1324, the prince told them he would like to be treated by them as he treated those within his domains: He did not interfere with the Christians who worshipped their God according to their laws, and he hoped that he and his subjects would be left to worship God in their own way. He concluded his remarks by saying, "We all share one God, our Creator," The papal emissaries left without accomplishing their mission. Some see in Prince Gediminas's response, with its monotheistic theme, a sign of the influence of his Jewish subjects, who were then concentrated mainly in southern Lithuania.
Whether this is true or not, there was no doubt that the Jews of Eishyshok prospered during the reign of Gediminas, as did the Jews throughout his realm, and the country as a whole. An empire builder who issued an open invitation to people of various nationalities, religions, and occupations to come and settle in Lithuania, Gediminas presided over an expanding economy, which was receptive to the contributions of the many peoples he had welcomed within his borders.
The religious tolerance and goodwill of Gediminas's reign continued to prevail during the reign of two of his sons. For example, when the Black Death of 1348-1350 took its toll on Lithuania, as it did throughout Europe, no one thought to blame the Jews for the devastating tragedy, although they were a common scapegoat in much of Christian Europe. And Gediminas's legacy of tolerance was furthered by Grand Duke Witold, known as Vytautas the Great, who on June 24, 1388, granted a charter to the Jews of Troki, Brisk (the Jewish name for Brest-Litovsk), and, a year later, Grodno, spelling out their legal and economic rights, guaranteeing them personal and religious security, and allowing them certain tax exemptions (on synagogues and cemeteries, for example). According to the Russian historian Sergei Bershadsky, this charter laid the foundation for a system of Jewish autonomy under which the Jews would flourish for several centuries.
Their economic and political well-being was also enhanced by the eventual routing of the Crusaders. Indeed, it was the frequent attacks by the Livonian and Teutonic Knights against that population which forced the many tribal dans of the area, most prominent among them the Samogitians, to try to protect themselves by uniting into the state of Lithuania some time in the middle of the thirteenth century. After the Battle of Grunwald in Prussia in 1410, a major international battle in which the Teutonic Knights were defeated, the final decline of the Crusaders was set in motion. As a result, the roads and the countryside, as well as the towns and villages themselves, became much safer. The Jews of Lithuania were now joined by Jews who migrated from Bohemia, Crimea, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain in the hope that they, too, would be able to benefit from the peace, prosperity, and religious freedom that had begun to spread throughout the land. The followers of the Czech Christian reformer Jan Hus (1369-1415) also found a haven under the tolerant regime of Grand Duke Witold, after years of persecution in Germany.
With its large tracts of land that had been cleared from the surrounding forest, its abundance of water and timber, its central location, and its proximity to major roadways, Eishyshok was in an excellent position to benefit from the commercial prospects that came with this new security. Inns and other businesses now began to spring up along the now safe roads, to service the many noblemen, and other civilians and soldiers, who passed through Eishyshok or came there for business.
Over the following centuries Eishyshok continued to grow in importance, gradually being transformed from a military settlement to a market town, a place where tradespeople, artisans, and farmers as well as soldiers could flourish, and where many of the new emigrants found a home. Sometime in the fifteenth century the town became a district seat, one of the administrative centers of Lithuania, along with nearby Grodno and Lida.
What would have been one of its greatest moments of glory occurred--or rather, didn't occur--in 1429, when Grand Duke Witold, who was to be crowned the ruler of Lithuania, arranged to have his coronation take place in Eishyshok, which some historians believe was the birthplace of his wife Anne. Upon arrival in Eishyshok, he was met by the bishop of Vilna and a group of nobles, but the coronation they had all gathered for never took place, because Witold's cousin and rival, Jagiello, now the king of Poland, withdrew his consent. Witold died the following year.
In 1433 the Livonian Order of Knights burned the town down, but it was quick to rise from its ashes, once again showing the vitality that was to characterize it for many centuries to come. In 1453, at a time of tension between Poland and Lithuania, Eishyshok was chosen to host the Council of Lithuanian Lords. By the beginning of the sixteenth century it was being referred to as one of the most important towns in the Grand Principality of Lithuania. In 1513 records show that it was paying a "war tax" equal to that of Troki and other prominent settlements, which was an indication of the size of the town. Its military status was evident from the number of noblemen who resided there: 238 in 1528-1529, a significant number of whom were cavalrymen.
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