by Eliezer Barkai (Burak)
fromYalkut Vohlyn, Issue #1, April 1945
[Translation by Avrom Bendavid-Val, 1999]
The town of Trochenbrod, about 30 kilometers northeast of Lutsk and around 15-20 kilometers from the main road and railway line connecting Lutsk and Rovno, was also called Sofiyevka, after the name of the Russian princess Sofia who donated her land in order to found a Jewish settlement. And thus the town was established in the year 1835 as a Jewish agricultural settlement. Over time it became a town, though it remained agricultural in character until its last day.
The Kivertzi-Rovno railway line [a segment of the Warsaw-Kiev railway line] was originally planned to pass near Trochenbrod, according to the town’s elders, but the inhabitants of Trochenbrod objected because they feared their cattle grazing near the tracks would be injured, and so the authorities changed the plans. As a result Sofiyevka, together with its neighbor village Ignatovka [Lozisht], was always cut off from the main routes of travel in a region of Ukrainian villages. In 1889 there were about 1200 people in 235 families in Trochenbrod. In 1897 its population reached 1580 people. In the following 40 years the town continued to grow, and in 1938 it contained 3000 Jews, and not a single Gentile. To keep the oven fires burning on Shabbat, for example, Gentiles would come from the adjacent villages, and their payment would be a piece of white challah. Even the letter carrier in the town was Jewish, although the postmaster was a non-Jew appointed by the Russian and later the Polish regime.
The inhabitants of Sofiyevka, the Jews, engaged in agriculture, in milk production, and in tanning [leather goods], and they were known throughout the region as industrious and skilled farmers. The children studied in cheder, and from there many went elsewhere to study in yeshivas. Many among them also excelled in general studies.
The whole area of Trochenbrod was 1,728 acres [“decyatins”], and because it was not possible to enlarge and develop the town as it should have been, many were forced to emigrate to different countries, to North and South America and also to Argentina, and they engaged even in those places in agriculture with great success.
In the years of the war (1914-1918) Trochenbrod suffered greatly. The front was close to the town -- about seven kilometers away -- and forced labor was imposed on the townspeople by the Austro-Hungarian army that camped in the area for nine months. The army would distribute to the people small portions of bread and salt and also the innards and feet of the cattle that were slaughtered in the local slaughterhouse by Jewish shochets who also worked for the benefit of army.
With the outbreak of the Russian revolution the youth of the town awoke and began to undertake Zionist activity: they collected money for various funds, and they established a Hebrew school and several other public institutions, but with the Bolshevik takeover their work was interfered with and suffered mainly during the period of the change of government. During several months Trochenbrod was in no-man’s-land between two fighting forces -- the Poles on one side and the Bolsheviks on the other. And from time to time one or the other would enter the town and cause the townspeople trouble.
From the cities of Kovel, Rozische, and Lutsk -- that were already in the hands of the Poles -- merchants would come to Trochenbrod and sell various goods to the townspeople in exchange for Russian gold pieces, or sell them to merchants from Rovno and other cities that were under Bolshevik control. This commerce was carried on the entire summer of 1919. Some of these merchants lost their lives on the roads that were in confusion, at the hands of robbers [“leestim, leesters”] that would lay in ambush in the forests in to assault or murder them. People from the town would go out in groups to look for the bodies of those who fell this way in order to give them a Jewish burial. In the Trochenbrod cemetery there was a special section designated for Jews from elsewhere murdered in the area.
With the Polish conquest of Trochenbrod Jewish national [i.e., Hebrew, Zionist] activity resumed. The youth began to engage in practical Zionist deeds with gusto: they collected money for the national funds, and they studied Hebrew in the Hebrew school that was headed by Rabbi Eliyahu-David and Yitzhak Shuster, and also studied Hebrew in night classes. The study of Hebrew was one of the basic principles of Zionist activity. In the period of the Fourth Aliya a good number of Jews [from Trochenbrod] went to Eretz Yisrael, and those who didn’t manage to get certificates [British permits to immigrate to Palestine] tried their luck in different ways (the illegal immigrant ships Parita and Atlantic contained people from Trochenbrod). In the end many of the youth of Trochenbrod went to Vilna in hopes of somehow getting from there to Eretz Yisrael. Only seven of them succeeded in overcoming the many obstacles and arriving in Eretz Yisrael, and the remainder -- what became of them is unknown to this day [it’s assumed they stayed in Russian territory].
There were seven synagogues in the town, three of them large ones that encompassed most of the worshipers, and the other four -- Hasidic houses of study -- were named after the great Master Teacher Rabbis of Matrisk, Olyka, Berezne, and Stepin. But when the Matrisker Rabbi visited the town the Hasidim from the other houses of study would also come to hear Torah from his lips. The people of the town would honor any “good Jew” (that’s why they referred to the synagogues by their names).
Rabbi Baruch-Ze’ev Beigel was Chief Rabbi in Trochenbrod for about 30 years, until the war. He was very learned, humble, simple in his ways, and intelligent, and despite that he did not manage to win the hearts of the Trochenbrod Jews, who held high also a second rabbi, Rabbi Moshe Beider, of the Berezner Hasidim, who also was a great scholar and very educated in matters of the wider world. His origins were with the Zionists; he was called the Berezner Rav.
During the years of the First World War Rav Beider developed a good relationship with the Austrian commandant with authority over Trochenbrod. He used his influence to obtain the freedom of the townspeople from forced labor on Shabbat and holidays and a lighter work load at other times. During the period of the Austrian occupation Rav Beider continued to teach the children and cared for the youth of the town in general.
In 1917 a typhus epidemic broke out in the town that took many lives, including that of Rav Beider. But his memory remained blessed among the Jews of that place.
After his death the various factions compromised and together elevated Rabbi Gershon Weisman to the position of Chief Rabbi. Rabbi Gershon Weisman was the son of Rav Haim Weisman who served as Cohen on special occasions in the town and was the son-in-law of Rav Baruch-Ze’ev Beigel. Rabbi Gershon Weisman was a unique individual who preferred to pray in accordance with traditions of the Karliner Hasidim, extreme and fanatical in his manner and in his life. When the Russians conquered the town in 1940 the local Communists wanted to rid themselves of such a fanatic -- they accused him of secret trade in salt and exiled him to Siberia.
From among famous people from Trochenbrod:
Rav Yehezkiel Potash, the permanent “Starusta” [Elder] (head of the town chosen by and beholden to the government) in the days of the Czarist government. He was a scholarly and learned man, and served the people of the town well with his honesty and intelligence. In 1922 he left the town and joined his sons in America.
Rabbi Avraham-Yonah Drezner, a trusted businessman and permanent representative to institutions in the town from the region of Slishetz.
Hirsch Kantor, a comedian who was master of his profession and very talented. At weddings and other gatherings he would bring joy to everyone with his rhymes and his cleverness. When he left this profession he examined his various characteristics and decided to become a merchant. He was also a public figure in the town and was chairman of Keren Hayesod there. He died without children in 1924.
Mendel Apteker -- the pharmacist Mendel Yelner -- was also among the important people of the town. A veteran Zionist activist from the days of “Havat Zion” [the earliest Zionist organization]. He worked vigorously on behalf of the Zionist funds. In the days of the war he would help the people of the town obtain medical help. He caught typhus and died. His sons followed in his footsteps and stood among the tradespeople and Zionists of the place.
Moshe Hirsch The Scholar ran a cheder in the town, and also served as chazan, and he too had great talent as a comedian. His jokes were published in the newspapers “Heint” and “Moment,” which pleased him a great deal.
Trochenbrod produced two high-level communists: one was Motel Schwartz who was a well-known commissar in the Odessa fleet, and the other was Yaakov Borak who was an admiral on a Russian warship and a university graduate. In the period of the Soviet purges Schwartz disappeared, and Borak drowned with his ship near Kronstadt in the war between the Bolsheviks and the Whites. It’s noteworthy that these two studied many years in the Slobodka yeshiva, and Motel Schwartz was even a certified rabbi [“smichut”].
Remembered here are a few sons of the town, activists in the field of life and spreaders of Hebrew culture in the town and the surrounding area:
Eliyahu David Schuster, who worked for many years as a teacher in the town of Rozische.
Zvi Drezner, who finished the teacher’s course in Grodne, excelled, and served as a teacher in Novomias, near Warsaw.
Yitzhak Schuster, who went to Vlodava in Poland and established a Hebrew School there.
Yisrael Beider, the son of the Rav Beider mentioned above, was a teacher in nearby Olyka, and after that moved to Mezerich near Brisk, and continued his literary work.
Yitzhak Aronski, who worked as a young and talented journalist and was a feature writer published widely in Polish Jewish newspapers, and helped establish “The Vohlyner Shtima,” which was published in Rovno, and who worked hard to encourage the reading of newspapers and books widely, and founded a library in the town.
The young Motel Blitshtein, who was among the pioneer leaders of the General Zionists in Poland, and came from Warsaw to say goodbye to his mother before leaving to make his way to Eretz Yisrael, and didn’t meet up with his comrades in Vilna in time.
Tzvi Klapko, Yisrael Shpulman, and others who labored in their time and devoted all their energy on behalf of their town, so that it wouldn’t be spiritually choked off by the persecution of several powerful scoundrels under the cover of the “B. B. Club” -- the party of the Polish government at the time -- who did deeds that did not add to the honor of the simple and innocent Jews of the town.
The Jews of Trochenbrod were brave and determined and tended not to let themselves be bullied. There was an incident in 1925 in which a decree was imposed on them that they could no longer graze their flocks in the pasture lands of Prince Radziwill. The decree was issued by the manager of the Prince’s land, and his forest wardens, who were people of Balakhovich (the known tyrant) ["Balakhovchi"] saw to it that the decree would hold. But the people of Trochenbrod didn’t accept the decree, and as a result big fights broke out between the wardens and the Jews. When the wardens saw that it would not be easy, that the people of Trochenbrod were bold and resolute, the matter was brought before Prince Janush Radziwill, and he ordered a cancellation of the decree and a return of pasturing rights in his forests to the Jews of the town.
According to the information that has reached Eretz Yisrael calamity befell the Jews of Trochenbrod when their Jewish brothers in other cities and towns in Vohlyn were in the hands of the German oppressors. The Jews were transported to the town of Trostjanetz, 12 kilometers from Trochenbrod, and were murdered there. However, several of them escaped to the forest and joined the partisans, who fought the Nazis with animal ferocity and caused them heavy losses. The town went up in flames and was destroyed, and there remains there not a single Jewish soul. The partisans from Trochenbrod and others who escaped, who at the end of 1944 numbered 33, were found mostly in Kivertzi near Lutsk.
- Eliezer Barkai (Burak)
[The news that Eliezer Barkai had when he wrote this was early and sketchy. The Jews of Trochenbrod were murdered at Yaromel, only a kilometer or two from Trochenbrod - in fact, Jews from other places in the area were brought there to be murdered also. According to Nahum Kohn in his book “A Voice from the Forest” and villagers in Domashiv, the closest Ukrainian village, empty houses did remain in Trochenbrod, and were looted and ultimately dismantled by people from villages and towns in the area. Also, there are other stories of how the town was founded and how it came to be named Sofiyevka.