After World War I
The aftermath of World War I, and the Russian revolution which followed, created a chaotic political situation in Eastern Europe. The stirrings of Belarusian independence, which began around the turn of the century, and the Russian revolt in 1905, intensified during this period. In 1918 an independent Belarus republic was declared, but it was short lived. The Poles and Russians continued to fight in the area, and Belarusian territory was breached by both armies. Eventually, the territory was split between the two nations. By the end of 1922, the Soviet Union, which evolved out of the Russian Revolution, was formed and a Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic (B.S.S.R.) was established in the Russian controlled territory. Dolginov was located in the Polish sector. Wolf’s take on the postwar situation in Belarus is revealed in the following passage from his writings.
After World War I, Latvia received independence and became a sovereign nation, but the going was hard politically. It’s a well-known fact that “it’s difficult to breathe between two fires”. To exist independently economically, fine!, but prosperity wasn’t certain given Latvia’s precarious situation: Russia on one side and Germany on the other, both sharpening their teeth. They both had one and the same aim: to seize control of the Baltic Sea, to gain possession of the Gulf of Riga, the lovely bathing and resort places, the large, well-established factories, etc. In 1940 Russia ruled over all of Latvia and began to make it a communist possession.
In 1920, Wolf had returned from his wartime captivity and sojourn in Poland. Altogether it took him two years to reach his family in Dolginov. When he arrived he found his town in total destruction. The village had been entirely ravaged and his house almost totally demolished. It was very difficult for Wolf to see such devastation. Wolf and the remaining members of his family managed to rebuild half of their home. The other half was never completed.
In the early 1920’s, Wolf resumed his journalistic activities and began writing articles for the local papers — “Belaruski Zvon” (Belarusian Bell), “Belaruskija Vedamasсi” (Belarusian News), “Nash Sciah” (Our Flag) and others, and he became more socially and politically active in his community. On May 10, 1922, he and a group of men were arrested by the Polish police for cooperation with the Belarusian revolutionary press and participation in the illegal celebration of May Day, the socialist holiday celebrated on the first of May. They were taken to the village of Kostenevichi and then to Molodechno. During incarceration he was tortured quite severely, then released and, with his enduring stamina, managed to recover and make it back to Dolginov.
He joined the Youth Movement for the War Disabled and organized the construction of a hospital for war victims suffering from dysentery and typhus. Those without financial means received treatment for free; wealthier patients paid what they could. The group also helped to open a local pharmacy outlet. Wolf would receive prescriptions from the local physicians and travel by train to Vilna to pick up medicines and bring them back to the pharmacy in Dolginov. The medications were subsidized by charging a fee to attend local shows and plays and from selling flowers.
During one trip to Vilna, he traveled to nearby Mizlav, in order to catch the Vilna train. Upon attempting to purchase a ticket the ticketmaster refused to sell him one. When questioned why, the ticketmaster explained that there was only one train coming though at that time, and it was packed with soldiers who took priority. When Wolf explained the purpose of his trip and showed him the prescriptions, he was sold the ticket “on his own responsibility”.
The train to Vilna was indeed packed solid and he had to squeeze himself into the train car. The moment the doors shut, he found himself in trouble. The Russian soldiers recognized immediately that he was a Jew and started taunting him. One soldier grabbed his fur cap and they decided among themselves that, at the next station, they would throw him off the train. Since Wolf understood their language, he knew what their plans were so he began to sing. And when he was finished, he sat himself down on one of the seats. When the soldiers asked him to continue singing, he refused to do so until his cap was returned. And it was.
As it turned out, his singing helped not only himself but the other Jews on the train who also feared for their lives. During the years that followed, he gained a reputation, and, whenever a Jew from a neighboring hamlet saw him, he would point and say, “Here is the Jew that saved us with his song.”
Wolf married his childhood sweetheart, Rochel Leah, in 1921, and they had 6 children, five boys and one girl, named Henya.
Wolf (on the left) with his family in Dolginov
Unfortunately, Rochel Leah died suddenly, in 1935, leaving him alone to care for his large family. Somehow he managed to do so with help from Rochel Leah’s mother.
Backside of the photo; List of the children: Mordechai Leyb (1930), Avraham (1932), Baruch (1922), Zelik (1934), Henya (1928), Reuven (1923)
In the early 1930’s, Wolf wrote to Yanka Stankevich, a well-known linguist and historian, and suggested an interesting topic for research: Jewish religious songs in the Belarusian language. Stankevich published one of the songs Wolf had sent him, “Batska, Batska”, which became part of Wolf’s hand-written collection, “Belarusian-Jewish Folklore from Dolginov”. This compilation of songs is stored to this day in the Library of the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences.
Wolf left behind a comprehensive listing—in Latin terminology—of various herbs and plants, available at the time, and their medicinal uses. It is not clear when he complied this listing, but it may very well have been during the period when he was involved with the pharmacy.
In 1927, with the support of friends, Wolf was elected to the Dolginov Municipality (a unit of local self-government, similar to a village council), but after several disputes with the local nobility he gave up his position.
Wolf was an indefatigable fighter for justice and truth and against high taxes. The local residents of Dolginov often approached him for legal advice on various complex and controversial issues. In 1929, he acted as a witness in the case of a peasant revolt against the police.
Clashes between the Poles and Russians continued throughout the 1920s and 30s resulting in the border switching back and forth almost on a daily basis. The residents, especially the Jews, were treated badly by both sides and they suffered greatly from this situation.
Lithuania, with its capital, Vilna, alongside western Belarus were ruled by the Poles, and they imposed hefty taxes on the Jews. Businessmen and merchants banded together to try to protect their interests by opening banking cooperatives. Dolginov picked up on this idea and opened their own cooperatives, similar to merchant unions, and also charitable foundations. Wolf was active in his cooperative for 14 years and reached the level of assistant to the bank president.
In 1933, the directors of the cooperatives decided to construct a building for the Tarbut School which, until that time, had been forced to hold classes in the homes of private citizens. Wolf’s daughter was attending the school, and he was chosen to head the committee to organize and develop the new construction. He worked for the cooperative until the Soviets took over Dolginov.
Despite the many acts of abuse by the Poles against them, the Jews somehow managed to show strength and integrity within their community. At one point, Wolf was accused of being a communist. He spent six months in prison under extremely difficult conditions and was unwell for a year and a half following his release. His condition didn’t slow him down, however. He continued the fight for his community and remained involved in many cultural and social activities.
Raya Sosensky, Israel
(to be continued)
Published 06/27/2021 12:09