World War I Refugees in Exile

By Pesach Weitzer-Chittin (Beit Zera, Israel)

Published in “The Past,” a quarterly chronicle of Jews and Judaism in Russia, vol. 13. Tel Aviv, Iyar 1966. 


More than 50 years have passed since the event I describe here, which I can see in my mind’s eye as clearly as if it took place yesterday.

It was the beginning of May 1915, nine months after the outbreak of the World War I. The Russian army had suffered serious defeats, and it was no wonder: First, while the Germans prepared intensively for the war, the Russians were preoccupied for several years with the Beilis case and with enacting all sorts of laws to make Jews’ lives miserable. Second, a shameful treachery there began with the Russian queen, who was of German descent; the corrupt monk Rasputin; Foreign Minister Shturmer; General Paul von Rennenkampf; and ended with the high Russian administration that struggled to undermine the civil and military regime. Naturally they had to find a scapegoat, and it was easy for the reactionary Russian government to blame the Jews for all the disasters that befell the Russian army. At the same time, the government staged a military trial against innocent Jewish vendors, (one of whom was named Feldberg, I believe) who had traded with Germans since before the war. The court convicted them of spying and condemned them to death.

At the time, the Jewish population of the Kovno district, which bordered on Germany, was in a bad condition politically and economically. Trade was nearly paralyzed, and exiting the cities and small towns was dangerous. As the German army began its major offensive, we were residing in Keidan, 50 kilometers from Kovno. The Russian army would go in and out of our town. Fortunately for us, the soldiers behaved themselves well enough toward the Jews. In our home, for instance, five Cossacks were housed for a few weeks, and relations between us were good. We didn’t hear of any incidents between the army and the Jewish residents. I won’t say that relations were ideal everywhere; we heard of difficult incidents involving Jews in some places. In any event, we lived as if under siege.

On the afternoon of Sunday May 3, 1915, two days before Shavuot, posters were put up on the streets of our town (population 3,000) in the name of the head commander of the Russian army, Nikolai Nikolaevich, uncle of the tsar, and General Yanushkevich, of Polish descent, announcing that all Kovno district Jews had to leave the district within 48 hours because of their disloyalty to the state.

It is hard to describe the situation in which we found ourselves. We were in shock. We didn’t know where to go. Rumors began that the government was providing trains for the deportees on the Libau-Romny line, which passed two kilometers from our town. The Jews began packing their possessions. Some decided to go by horse and wagon, and ran to rent carts from local farmers to carry their goods. Notably, there was no restriction on the amount of property that could be taken away. Meanwhile Jews from the surrounding area began arriving, and the situation deteriorated. Looking at them, we thought to ourselves, “That’s us a day from now.”

On Monday, May 4, the exodus began. People bid each other farewell almost wordlessly. It was hard to speak. They thought to themselves, “Who knows if we’ll see each other again?” My parents, of blessed memory, decided we’d go by train. On our last night in Keidan, we slept on our bundles, as cannon fire shook the walls of our house.

At dawn, we loaded our belongings onto a cart and started for the train station. Every once in a while, we turned back to look at our town, from which we were being banished. The town was nearly empty.

We arrived at the station at five o’clock. That long summer day, which began at five in the morning and didn’t end until eight in the evening, is engraved in my memory. By the time we arrived, dozens of families were already waiting. Trains full of soldiers came frequently, heading in the direction of Shavl [Šiauliai]. From time to time the station manager would promise to arrange a train for us presently, but these were empty promises.

Meanwhile a few hundred Jews gathered in the station square. Time stretched out. We were miserable. We crowded together and waited. Suddenly a coach arrived from which emerged a military man with the rank of polkovnik [colonel]— a Jewish military physician. He approached and asked why we were gathered there. We told him that we were being exiled.

“Why?” he asked. “Because we’re Jews,” we replied. He nodded and exclaimed angrily, “I risk my head for them, and they exile my brothers!” There were tears in his eyes, as there were in the eyes of the Jews looking on.

So it went until seven-thirty that night. We despaired. We knew we were allowed to be there no more than another hour, and if they didn’t provide us a train, we risked being forced to leave the Kovno district on foot. So we organized a delegation to explain our difficult situation to the station manager. We begged him to arrange a train for us. This time he promised, and kept his word. The soldiers were taken off the next train to come through, and we were allowed to board. There were elderly and little ones among us. We began hastily throwing our bundles on to the wagons, however we could.

By the time we all boarded, the sun had set. Finally the train began moving. We remembered that it was Shavuot eve, and began praying ma’ariv [evening prayers] in tear-filled voices. We recalled Shavuots of times past. It was a short holiday, but an enjoyable one, with summery weather and a green landscape. Distress filled our hearts as we looked toward an unknown future. Someone took out a bottle of wine and we blessed it, but without chanting the traditional tune, which could always be heard emanating from the houses of Jews, wherever they were. Quite a few of us secretly shed tears.

After a long day of tense waiting, tired people began to doze off. They awoke at dawn, when the train arrived in Vilna, where the Jewish community received us warmly. The Jews of Vilna, who had been informed of our fate, had organized care for the refugees in advance. They brought us hot food, drink, and cigarettes, and didn’t even forget candy for the children. This warm reception brightened our spirits somewhat; we gained a little strength. We felt the Jewish heart reaching out to fellow Jews in trouble.

There were some among us who wanted to get off in Vilna, but the authorities did not permit it. Vilna was teeming with refugees; there was no more room. So we stayed on the train and kept going. The following day, the second day of Shavuot, we arrived in Minsk. Once again, the Jewish community rose and came out in droves to greet the refugees, to bring us food and other supplies, and to encourage us.

Our train had about 30 freight cars full of men, women, and children. On Friday, May 8, we arrived in Homel [Gomel]. The train parked on a side rail between freight trains, far from the station. I recall getting off to get water. Quite far away we found a boiler full of hot water, from which we filled a bucket and hurried back to our car. On the way, we encountered a station worker who grabbed the bucket, poured out the water, and went so far as to chastise us. It was then that we recalled the pogroms that had taken place in this town in 1905.

From Homel we continued on to Bakhmach [Ukraine], where it emerged that according to the plan (if indeed there was one), we were supposed to have moved to another track at Homel. In any case, we arrived in Bakhmach on the Sabbath. Remembering the Sabbath back home was heartrending. A few frightened Jews from the surrounding area came by with food. They couldn’t grasp our situation: They shook their heads, unable to help us.

We ultimately went back to Homel, and after a few hours more, reached Unecha station, alongside which was a hamlet by the same name. While we were tired from the journey, the concern and devotion of the Jews of this small town lifted our spirits. They helped us unload our belongings and move them together to one place, as we were supposed to transfer to another train to go elsewhere. When I recall, years later, how the Jews of Unecha, who in number were about a third of our group of refugees, divided us up amongst themselves and attended to all our needs, I have no words to thank them.

My family was housed with the rabbi’s family, the Margolins. The rabbi himself wasn’t there; he had left before the war for the United States to serve as a rabbi there, remained there because of the war and had not been able to return. In any event, we enjoyed the Margolins’ warm hospitality very much. Only once in my life since then have I had the pleasure of by chance meeting a Jew from Unecha, and I was quite excited — it was like meeting a brother. We stayed in Unecha for three days. From there we were taken on a narrow train line to Starodub, in the Chernigov district, where we were supposed to remain for the duration of the war.

In Starodub, the local committee for Jewish war refugees had already organized, as they had already been in close touch with the central committee of YEKOPO (Jewish Relief Committee for War Victims) in Petrograd, with the regional committee in Kiev, with ORT, AFA, OZE, etc. The Russian government also extended aid to the refugees in the form of, I believe, 15 kopeks per day. But most of the monetary aid and the actual work was done by the Jewish associations and organizations in Russia, whose names should be imprinted in the minds of every Jew for their generous assistance and heartfelt concern for the Jewish war refugees.

At first we stayed in the synagogue in Starodub, and the local Jews did their utmost to alleviate our situation: They rented us apartments, found us work, and put the children into cheders and schools. We stayed in Starodub, where we got into the routine of normal life, for three and a half months. I particularly recall an extended family by the name of Lokshin, who worked hard for the refugees’ benefit, along with the rest of the community. Relations between the local Jews and the refugees were very warm.


Yet our wandering hadn’t yet come to an end. A week before Rosh Hashana 1915, we were notified that we were being sent farther into the vast Russian interior. Again we took up our walking sticks, packed our belongings and prepared to move. They took us back to Unecha on Rosh Hashana eve. Like Shavuot eve that same year, we were loaded along with our belongings onto freight cars and transported in the direction of Moscow. We spent the days of Rosh Hashana in the forests of Bryansk, far from any Jewish communities. The train moved slowly, passing only three to four stations a day. En route a train passed us transporting army recruits, who abused us. They went so far as to throw chunks of burning wood into our cars.

We reached Moscow two days before Yom Kippur. We stayed in Moscow one day; the next day we reached Vorobyovy-Gory, where they changed our route: Instead of Nizhny-Novgorod, they pointed us in the direction of Tsaritsyn[1], in the Saratov district.

I want to note here the generosity of the ordinary Russian worker: We’d sat in the cars for a few hours, ready to go, until about an hour before sunset on Yom Kippur eve. My sister and another refugee decided to go out and buy something for the final meal before the fast. They looked around and lingered a bit. Meanwhile the engineer came and announced that in a few minutes, the train would depart. Panic took over our car, the fourth from the engine. My mother, of blessed memory, began to cry bitterly. The engineer heard her and came back to ask what the matter was. We explained to him that my sister and another passenger had gone to buy something to eat. I still remember his words: “Calm down. I’ll delay our departure for ten minutes.” During the delay, they returned. We were so grateful to the kind engineer. Apparently to make up for the lost ten minutes, he drove fast to our next destination, making only short stops at each station.

At exactly sunset, as the People of Israel were gathering in synagogues for Kol Nidre, the holiest of prayers, the train began to move. It’s hard to describe our mood as we all stood in the train car (a police officer, representing the authorities, was also in our car, actually a quiet fellow), wrapped in prayer shawls, each of us chanting the traditional prayer, heartbroken and through choked-back tears.

This time the train moved rapidly, and the following day, just as Yom Kippur ended, we reached Kozlov [now Michurinsk]. Apparently Kozlov’s Jews had been notified in advance of our impending arrival, because they greeted us warmly: They brought us food, hot water, and most important, a very warm welcome. From there we continued, passing through the Don river area. In the morning, two days before Succot, we arrived in Tsaritsyn.

I recall stopping on the way to Tsaritsyn, I believe, at Paramonovo station. We got off the train and I saw from a distance an old, pleasant-looking Cossack standing next to an old Jewish refugee, his head uncovered, massaging the Jew’s temples. While I actually realized what was going on, I approached them and asked the Cossack with a smile, “What are you looking for there?”

“Horns,” the Cossack replied. “We’ve been told that Jews have horns on the head.”

“Nu? And did you find any?”

“No,” he replied with a smile. “His head is just like mine.”

The refugee committee of the Tsaritsyn Jewish community welcomed us with open arms and extraordinary warmth. They themselves helped transfer our belongings from the train to carts, took us into town, and immediately moved us into homes and rented halls. At first we were housed in shared apartments. They arranged work, established an elementary school for children, and enrolled a number of teenagers in gymnasiums. We found in our hosts a warm Jewish heart and willingness to help with everything.

On Succot eve, a few of us were invited to the sukkah of a prominent community member named Ratner. It was said of him that he had greatly assisted in purchasing land in Eretz-Israel for emigrants from Tsaritsyn. Tsaritsyn had a splendid synagogue, and on Simchat Torah, we were surprised to see a high-ranking army officer there dancing with a Torah scroll in his hands. When we asked who he was, we were told that he was a Jewish physician, Dr. Shapira by name, the son-in-law of Ratner and a member of Tsaritsyn’s Zionist committee. By the way, Dr. Shapira later made aliya to Israel and practiced as a surgeon at Hadassah Hospital in Tel Aviv.

I have to say something about the socioeconomic status of Russian Jews on the other side of the Pale of Settlement. First of all, their numbers were small relative to the rest of the population, and they were either offspring of Nikolai I’s soldiers[2] (the fourth or fifth generation), or holders of academic degrees, or tradespeople of the first guild. Their economic status was very good, and they were highly respected by the local gentiles. In the three years that we spent in Tsaritsyn, we didn’t witness a single anti-Semitic incident.

Most of the Jewish inhabitants were of Ukrainian or White Russian descent, with a few from Lithuania and Poland. As I mentioned, even before our arrival, there had been a branch of the Zionist movement there headed by a Dr. Vilensky, an ardent Zionist with a warm Jewish heart. Other prominent Tsaritsyn Jews I recall are Dr. Slabotsky, who fought in the Russo-Japanese war; a nice-looking Jew, unpretentious and the owner of a golden heart; Dr. Tager; Dr. Chefetz; Dr. Bolitansky; Dr. Maskilaitin; Tzipkin the pharmacist; Shpont the chemical engineer, whose eldest son returned from Eretz Israel in 1914 and headed the local Young Zionists branch; Falkovich the engineer; Dubrovsky the teacher, a course director from Grodno who ran a Hebrew speakers’ group; and many, many more whom it’s now difficult for me to remember.

Tsaritsyn’s Jews helped us a lot to get through the war years. We never dreamed that in the distant reaches of Russia, far from the Pale of Settlement, we’d find Jews with strong national consciousness and hearts of gold. Afterward, whenever we’d meet Jewish refugees from other cities in Russia, we discovered that everywhere, no matter how far from the Pale, there were Jews with sensitive hearts who extended themselves to help their brothers in times of distress with boundless loyalty and devotion.

I’d like to recount one incident: At the beginning of 1916, the Tsaritsyn refugee committee found itself in a financial crisis; it had not received its government allowance on time. This information reached two Jewish brothers who had converted to Christianity, and who owned a large watch and gold jewelry store. I recall their names, but I’d rather not say them here. Apparently their consciences tormented them, and they sent a few thousand rubles (a large sum in those days) to the refugee committee. But when it came up at a committee meeting, Dr. Vilensky rose and said in an agitated voice, “We must return this money immediately. We can’t take a kopek from those who have left us!” On the spot, within a few minutes, the required sum was collected and returned to the donors.

Over time we became acclimated to Tsaritsyn: We worked, joined political parties, mainly Zionist, and joined many societies. Jewish music ensembles, singers, orators, and lecturers started to arrive. The local Jews were an enthusiastic audience, reminiscing afterwards about the genuine Jewish culture and life that had been forgotten in their hearts. The refugees got along well financially, and their relations with the local Jews were always warm.

The revolution took place in February 1917. In October of that same year, the communists took over. Because of the war and these events, the economic situation began to deteriorate. By 1918 we were experiencing the start of the crisis in Russian Jewry. As an urban element, the Jews felt the economic crisis most intensely. Russia signed a peace treaty with Germany. Little by little, the refugees began making their way back to Lithuania.

Fifty years have passed since that sad event – the exile of Kovno district Jews. Yet, along with the troubles that befell us because of the war, we will always remember with love and admiration the generous and warmhearted aid, the brotherly help extended to us by the glorious Russian Jewish community.

One thought often comes to mind: How much could idealistic Russian Jewry have contributed to building the State of Israel, if we take into account that this community played a major part in laying the foundation of Jewish settlement in Eretz-Israel? The thought breaks the heart. Nevertheless I hope (and subconsciously believe) that Russian Jewry is yet destined to occupy a place of honor in building our new country.

[1]Later Stalingrad, now Volgograd.

[2] Under Tsar Nikolai I, (1825-1855) Jewish males could be drafted as young as 12 to serve for 25 years in the Russian army. After discharge they were permitted to live outside the Pale of Settlement.

Translated by Miriam Erez

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *