Under the Polish rool, the shtetl of Chislavichi (Choslavichi, Khislavichi, Khoslavichi), situated on the right bank of the river Sohz, was a town ("mestechko") which belonged to Mstislaw woewodstwo. The Jews just resided there in the period of Russian-Swedish war (1700-1721), and in the year of 1766 in addition to gentiles it had a Jewish population of 237. From after the first partition of Poland in 1772 and the establishment of Russian Empire's authority over surrounding territories until 1918 it belonged to the Mstislavl District (uyezd) of Mogilev Province (gubernia) and was its biggest shtetl, except Mstislavl itself. In 1847, according to an "audit" of that year, its Jewish community numbered 2205, and 50 years later, according to the 1897 census, the Jews numbered 3901 (out of a total population of 5066). Approximately in the same period, there were 2 churches, 1 official synagogue (in reality, at least 8), 1 Jewish primary school and 1 yeshiva. In the pre-school period the children made their first steps to Jewish knowledge in numerous heders. The shtetl's owner, the earl Saltykov, was good to the Jews and even tried to protect them, when in the 1840-s they were persecuted as part of the so-called "Mstislavl uproar". He provided assistance to their representatives pleading in St. Petersburg for the Mstislavl Jewish population. The Jewish residents of Chislavichi were mainly day-labourers, artisans and petty merchants. In 1891 there were 3 tanneries, 2 groats producing factories and 3 creameries.(To find Chislavichi on original Russian map of Mogilev gubernia (under #26), click here).
There were at least 13 prominent rabbis in Chislavichi in various periods, many of them were famous far beyond the shtetle they served:
-R. Israel ben Menachem Man Bacharach (died in 1827), rabbi and A.B.D. in Chislavichi till his death.
R. Israel was a descendant of MaHaRaL from Prague and R. Shimon Yair Chaim Bacharach (1628-1701) of Worms, the author of "Chavat Yair". R. Israel married into Slavin family, descendants of R. Shabtai Slavin, the owner of the printing house in Kopust. The Slavin family occupied important position in ChaBaD Chassidic movement. After the death of R. Israel, his son R. Eisik took the rabbinate Chislavichi, and his daughter's son R. Leib Slavin was MoZ.
-R. Eisik ben Israel Bacharach, rabbi in Chislavichi from 1827 till his death in 1848.
-R. Moshe Nechamya Kahanov (1817-1887), the author of "Netivot Shalom", "Shnat Ha-Sheva", "Eretz Chefetz" and other works. He was a rabbi in Chislavichi from 1848 until 1864.
-R. Yom-Tov Lipman (Lippele) Ha-Cohen Baslavsky (1821-1893), the author of "Malbushei Yom Tov. He was ABD and rabbi in Chislavichi from 1865 till 1874.
-R. Benzion Sternfeld, the author of "Sha'arei Zion". He was rabbi in Chislavichi in 1874-1877. He was also rabbi in Kalvarija and, eventually, in Bielsk in 1900-s.
-R. Eliyahu Ha-Levi Feinstein (1842-1929), the author of "Halakhot Eliyahu". He was ABD and rabbi in Chislavichi from 1877 till 1884.
-R. Hillel Mileikovsky, Ha-Gaon from Salant. He was a rabbi in Chislavichi from 1884 till 1889.
-R. Avraham Yitzhak Maskil L'Eitan, rabbi in Chislavichi from 1889 till 1903.
-R. Menachem ben Zvi Hirsh Krakowsky (Krakowiako-Krakowsky,1870-1930), the author of "Avodat Ha-Melech", "Arzei Ha-Levanon", "Ya'ar Ha-Levanon". He was ABD and rabbi in Chislavichi from 1903 till 1913.
-R. Moshe Soloveitchik , the father of famous R. Yosef Dov Soloveichik. Rabbi in Chislavichi from 1913 till 1920.
-R. Israel Yaffen, rabbi in Chislavichi in 1920s, afterwards - rabbi in Smolevichi, from there moved to Latvia. Murdered by the haters of the Jews.
-R. Zvi Hirsh Liphshitz.(1863-1927, Chislavichi), the author of "Chamudei Zvi" (1896). He was rabbi in Chislavichi in 1920-s.
-R. Meir Stalevich (1870, Eishishkes-1949, Jerusalem), the author of "Mibeith Meir". Rabbi in Chislavichi in 1920-30s.
R. Meir first took position of rabbi in Lithuanian towns of Girtagule and Kopczevo, then moved to Chislavichi. He came to Eretz Israel in 1934 and served rabbi of Zichron Moshe community in Jerusalem.
R. Yehuda ben Binyamin Bacharach, teacher and shochet, a grandson of R. Israel Bakharakh, R. Sa'adya, the famous "blind of Chislavichi", R. Zelig Minkes, R. Shimon Moshe Diskin (1872, Shumyachi -1930, Lokhvitsa), the author of "Midrash Shim'oni" (1939) and activist of Zionist movement and his son, R. Refael Yehoshua Zelig (1896, Chislavichi-1970, Pardes Channah), they too were prominent residents of Chislavichi, though they served rabbis in other locations. R. Refael Yehoshu'a Zelig wrote the preface "Toldot Ha-Mechaber" to his father's work "Midrash Shim'oni" containing the history of his life, from which one can learn many interesting things about Chislavichi in that period.
As well as for its rabbis and scholars, Chislavichi was known for its yeshiva founded by R. Moshe Nechamya Kahanov (who was afterwards RaM in the yeshiva "Etz Ha-Chaim" in Jerusalem). Very soon it became a place of Jewish thought and learning, famous throughout the Russian empire. One of its most famous teachers was its RaM, R. Israel Pesin (d. in 1901), called "the Angel" for his devotion to Torah and mitzvoth. It was said that R. Hillel, Ha-Gaon from Salant used to say: "I have never been in awe of anyone, only of R. Israel the Angel am I because the awe of the Almighty shrouds him all day long". Another expert on Torah was R. Yitzhak Mirenburg. He was a devoted instructor of the yeshiva students who made sizeable progress in their studies under his guidance.
The greater part of Chislavichis Jewish population were misnagdim, though ChaBaD chassidim were also not infrequently encountered. Good neighbour relations and cooperation existed between the two mutually antagonistic groups, a rare event in that period. Local events which occurred during the Russian-French war of 1812 were the reason for this. When the French army invaded the Russian Empire, the founder of the ChaBaD movement, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Lyady, supported Russia in her war effort against Napoleon, whom he thought to be a danger to Russian Jewry by reason of the French Jews emancipation which came after the Corsican had gained power. The French accused R. Shneur Zalman and his chassidim of espionage on behalf of Russia and began to hunt him down. He was forced to take flight and found shelter in Chislavichi, among the misnagdim. After these events R. Shneur Zalman ordered his chassidim to trust and support the misnagdim rabbis who from now on were to be appointed rabbis of Chislavichi. And these orders were always strictly followed.
The most of Chislavichi Jews were poor toilers: tailors, shoemakers, petty merchants. But there were also few wealthy men who donated money to help poor and supported public facilities: the synagogues, the mikveh, the cemetery. One of them was R. Yehezkel Shor of Mogilev who donated to establish the yeshiva in Chislavichi, another one R. Yishayahu Gershon Czernyak who helped much to poor women in childbirth and sick to recover.
There was a big fire in Chislavichi in 1886, and another one in 1886 when many houses burned down. It was an omen of the coming of the great fire of revolutions, world wars and Holocaust that would completely change the shtetl's traditional way of life until its eventual disappearance.
Meanwhile, in the 1890s new winds began to blow in Chislavichi. The wind of "enlightenment" and assimilation took many young Jews from traditional ways of life to gentile vocations, including their involvement in Russian education, culture, industry, and, later, in revolutionary activity. In the opposite direction blew the winds of emigration, "chibat Zion" and aliyah to Eretz Israel. Actually, the first Chislavicher came to the Holy Land substantially earlier: some of them came with Chassidic aliya, others came with the waves of the Vilna Gaon's disciples (1808-1810). The founders of the famous Cheshin Family in Jerusalem came from Chislavichi. R. Meir Meizel (d. in 1904) settled in the Old city of Jerusalem, and was known there as Chaslavitzer. His brother-in-law R. Saadiah Shor from Mogilev, a son of abovementioned R. Yekhezkel Shor, helped him to maintain a synagogue "Kahal Yeshurun" in his house in the Old city, of which R. Meir was the chief gabbai.
One of the prominent activists of the Mizrachi movement became R. Shim'on Diskin from Chislavichi, a relative of the famous R. Yehoshu'a Yehudah Leib Diskin, A.B.D. of Brest and rabbi of Meah She'arim in Jerusalem. R. Shim'on went from shtetl to shtetl inside the Pale, appealing to poor Jews to go to the Land of Israel, and from town to town outside it, persuading wealthy ones to donate for this sacred purpose. He was a brilliant commentator and eloquent orator. He was on good terms with such leaders of the Zionist movement as Dr. Yekhiel Chlenov, the writer Avraham Yakov Slutzky, and others. But, later, he became disaffected with the movement by reason of internal strife, the activities of those whose real motives were determined by their personal interests, as well as other negative tendencies. He ended his life as rabbi of Lochvitsa in the Poltava Region.
R. Shim'on Diskin
Another famous orator and Lover of Zion in Chislavichi was R. Yehuda Zvi Evzerov. Just being old man he came to Eretz Israel and was a darshan in the Great Synagogue in Tel Aviv.
R. Yosef Yitin, a son of R. Chaim Pinchas, was famous in Chislavichi for his profound knowledge of Torah, and his son Yehuda Yitin was among the first settlers of Hadar quarter in Haifa. The family of one of the richest residents of Chislavichi, R. Yosef Kamenezky, after their 17-years-old daughter had died, sold its property and moved to Eretz Israel. They took with them few old men who had no money to cover the travel expenses.
In the period between the first Russian (1905) and the Bolshevik (1917) revolutions, out of fear of pogroms, Jews in Chislavichi actively organized their self-defense as a result of which no pogrom took place there in that period. After the Bolshevik revolution some territory of the Mstislavl District was admiistratively transferred to the Smolensk Region of Russia. Many Jewish families left Chislavichi, some for big cities in Russia, some were deported by NKVD to the Urals (including my father's family) and Siberia accused of belonging to "class of exploiters". Those who remained were later killed by the Nazis.The Bolsheviks waged uncompromised war against Jewish tradition. One by one the synagogues were closed, the main synagogue turned for stoking producing factory, the parchment of Torah scrolls was used for manufacturing of drums.
After the last rabbi of Chislavichi R. Meir Stalevich left for Eretz Israel in 1934, the spiritual life of the remaining Jewish community was concentrated around R. Naftali Herz Bacharach, shoichet and MoZ. But it also did not last long: in 1938 R. Naftali was arrested and sent to Smolensk jail, and, eventually, to a labor camp in Siberia, denied of correspondence with his family which did not even know where he was sent. He was never seen again and was believed to perish in Siberian forests.
I met the last Jewish family in Chislavichi in the course of our (with my father) trip there in the middle of the 1960s. It was the family of one of my grandfather's cousins, Benche (Benzion) Gurevich which included him and his second wife. As though I am seeing him before me today, I remember a hale old man with sad eyes full of tears. I do not know what he mourned then: the destroyed Temple, or the family perished in the Holocaust, or his young years, the previous life of a once Jewish shtetl, and now a big Russian village where he, Benche, was the only representative of the native population. The nearest minyan was in Pochinok, the district center 40-50 km from Chislavichi, and on every Yorzait Benche would harness a horse and ride to Pochinok to recite "Kaddish". After he came back, he would go to the cemetery. I remember this Jewish cemetery - upturned and broken monuments, graves covered with grass peacefully grazed by the goats coming here for breakfast. There was no monument, no marker on the hillock of the common grave shared by the Jews shot there. I remember that my father was extremely indignant about it. Upon our return, he wrote a letter about it to the official newspaper "Izvestia", from where the letter was forwarded to the Kalinin obkom (the regional committee of the Communist party) based on my father's place of residence! Only in the late 1970s did the authorities succumb to pressure, and the cemetery was cleaned up and a monument was placed on the common grave. But not one Hebrew letter, not a sign that the slaughtered were Jews - only the dry customary words about "Soviet citizens fallen at the hands of the Nazi occupiers".
At the common grave. In the center-Benche Gurevich
It would be superfluous for me to say that nothing about the outward appearance of Chislavichi reminded one of its Jewish past: the synagogues had been closed and destroyed, the Jewish kolhoz dissolved, even the forest where my father used to collect berries and mushrooms in his childhood cut down. Shabby wooden houses, dusty streets, a monument to Lenin, a club, a church. Wretchedness and neglect. Misery. Benche was a pensioner, his pension was about 20 rubles a month. My father and his cousin Tsiva sent him money every month, and he always answered with gratitude. I remember his house - a wooden isba (peasant hut), scarce furniture, and books, many books in a strange, unknown language with incomprehensible inscriptions - then I could identify neither Pentateuch, nor Talmud and Mishnayot. Benche died in the late 1970s, and I do not know whether he had any children - apparently he did not. As far as I know, his widow left this place. So, there are no Jews left there now. Absolutely. The Jewish shtetl of Chislavichi does not exist any more.
Attachment 1. The article in the Smolensk Province newspaper Workers Path
Synagogue Replaced by Stockings Factory
October 27th, 1928
Chislavichi Stockings Artel (workers cooperative) is the biggest one in Smolensk Province. Lately, there were 150 new applications to join it, in addition to the 200 Jewish families who are already members. But the Artel members are still forced to work at home because there is no suitable building in Chislavichi for a workshop.
Meanwhile, not only the life of several hundred working Jews depends on development of the stockings manufacturing industry, but also the continued development of the whole shtetl.
And so the working people and the Soviet public recently proposed that the building of the Rovsshtibele synagogue one of the nine Chislavichi synagogues be turned over to the collective of the Stockings Artel. Turning the synagogue over to the Artel would make it possible to electrify production and develop the factory into a major stockings manufacturing center, something for which all necessary prerequisites exist.
The meeting of the Stockings Artel members adopted unanimously the demand to turn over the synagogues building to the Artel.
Attachment 2. Excerpts from the report by the Evsektsiya of the Smolensk Regional Committee of the All-Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks)
About the Fall Anti-Religious Campaign
1. The work of preparation for the coming anti-religious fall campaign started at the end of August
2. In all places meetings of the active part of the population were held with 350 delegates present; in Chislavichi 2 conferences of Jewish youth dedicated to anti-religious issues and the problems of socialist construction took place.
5. In the town of Roslavl, in Chislavichi and Shumyachi special youth meetings were held.
7. Important anti-religious work was accomplished in all Jewish schools of socialist education, school meetings being attended by the schoolchildren together with their parents. All the schools operated during Jewish holidays.
8. With few exceptions, during religious holidays all the artels where mainly Jews were concentrated operated normally.
9. Donations for "Birobidjan" aircraft construction in the region totaled 918 rubles In some places (Chislavichi) fund-rising for that purpose has not yet been completed.
10. In some localities torch marches took place on Yom Kippur eve.
12. The anti-religious campaign is proceeding with great enthusiasm. Significant changes in this area are clearly discernible. But in some locations misinterpretation of Party orders concerning anti-religious activity have occurred, at other locations anti-religious work was accompanied with administrative and suppressive measures directed against those who did not come to work on Saturday 6 October 1929. There also was an attempt in one school to expel 18 schoolchildren who did not come to school on 6 October. In the mestechko Chislavichi a woman worker in one of the Artels went insane after working on Yom Kippur, and the believers spread rumors that it had happened because she had been working on the Day of Atonement, and the same would be happen to the rest
Attachment 3. An excerpt from the report by the Nazi Einsatzgruppe responsible for extermination of Jews in Chislavichi
October 9, 1941
Operational Situation Report USSR No. 108
Actions against functionaries, agents, saboteurs and Jews
In Khoslavichi, the Jews living in the ghetto there, according to reports of the Russian population, tried to create panic by spreading false rumors to the effect that the Bolsheviks were supposed to be advancing. Furthermore, they threatened to take revenge after the return of the Bolsheviks. Thereupon, the Vorkommando sent a Kommando and liquidated 114 Jews.
Attachment 4. Report written 5 days after Chislavichi had been liberated by the Red Army.
On atrocities of German Fascist authorities in the mestechko Chislavichi, Smolensk Region
The commission which included Major Erofeev, medical service Lieutenant-colonel Novikov, medical service Major Leikin, medical service Major Chelnozhin, Judge Advocate General Corps Major Khmalin, medical service Lieutenant Popova, secretary of the Communist Party District Committee Gaidge, Security Service Lieutenant Vachkin and the local residents have drafted the present act as follows:
In July of 1941 when the German troops invaded mestechko Chislavichi, they established a camp for all the Jewish population which occupied three streets. All the Jews - children as well as adults, had to wear a yellow armband with a black center. The Jews were prohibited from leaving the camp. From the very beginning the Jews were abused, beaten, robbed. In October 1941 150 men were selected, allegedly for work. They were put on trucks, driven to the vicinity of the nearby MTS (machines and tractors station) and shot in a ditch.
In January 1942 some part of the Jewish population young boys and girls also were put on trucks and driven off somewhere.
In March 1942 total extermination of the rest of the Jews women, elderly people and children took place. One morning they were herded to a ravine, 150 m northwest of the shtetl. All were ordered to get undressed and naked they were shot with rifles and submachine guns. Some people began to flee but were shot while running. The corpses stayed in the ravine unburied for more than two weeks, devoured by dogs.
On that day, according to local residents, not less than 800 Jews were exterminated. All Jewish-looking residents were shot.
Before World War II the Jews constituted about 40% of the entire population of Chislavichi. Now there was not a single Jew left, except a 12 year-old girl who was saved by the citizen Denisovich. And his wife and child a baby were shot by the Nazis.
All the executions were directed by the commandant Dolerman and his deputy, Meiss.