Born in 1930 into a family of five, young Michael Kutz grew up in a decade that thoroughly transformed Jewish life in eastern Poland. Jews in the region struggled to maintain individual lives and communal cohesion amidst Europe-wide arguments about the status of national minorities, strong currents of antisemitism in Poland, increased overall secularization and urbanization, and, by the end of the decade, annexation and war.
Michael’s description of life in his hometown of Nieśwież gives the reader a window onto these times. With a population of almost 7,000 inhabitants, among them some 4,000 Jews, Nieśwież exemplified the crystallized image of a shtetl and its transformation in the interwar period: a small Eastern European town with a strong Jewish presence, where Jewish tradesmen and artisans were the driving economic force. The Belorussians and Ukrainians living in the town spoke and understood Yiddish, and much of the daily and weekly life followed the rhythm of Jewish religious observance. Several synagogues and cheders catered to the large Jewish community.
Beginning in late summer of 1941, the Jewish communities between Minsk and Borisov were annihilated in a concerted campaign of murder sometimes referred to as the “Holocaust by bullets.” Nazi killing squads called Einsatzgruppen, together with collaborating police formations comprised of locals, Lithuanians, Latvians and Ukrainians, began mass shootings in ghettos throughout Eastern Europe. When the Jews of Nieśwież were gathered for execution in late October 1941, Michael Kutz was separated from his parents and his siblings. The anguish and despair is palpable in the older Kutz’s memoir, as he relates what it meant for him as a young boy to lose the people closest to him in such a violent atrocity and the connection to a whole world of learning, caring and planning for the future. Kutz barely escaped the killing of 4,000 people on that day.
In the summer of 1945, when Michael Kutz realized that his whole family had been wiped out, that there was no one left, he began a long journey in search of a new home. That summer marked the end of his youth in Nieśwież, a small town in present-day Belarus, ninety-five kilometres south of the capital, Minsk. The orphaned fourteen-year-old recognized that alongside his family, a whole world was gone – the world now often compressed into the word shtetl: a town populated by a tightly knit Jewish community, its geography shaped by synagogues and religious schools, and its daily chatter inflected by competing visions of where and how Jews should live – in the ancient homeland or within other societies around the world. The Nazi genocide had eradicated one of the possibilities; there were no more Jews in Nieśwież at the end of World War II.
Below is Michael's depiction of life in the lost Jewish community of Nieśwież, a poignant memorial to all those murdered in the Nazis' genocidal mission.
I was born in the town of Nieśwież, in what is now Belarus, on November 21, 1930. The town is about one hundred kilometres southwest of Minsk and thirty-five kilometres northwest of Kapyl, where the world-famous Yiddish writer Mendele Mocher Sforim was born.
During my childhood, Nieśwież had a Zionist Hebrew school and a Yiddishfolkshul (elementary school) on Michalechok Street, where a lot of working-class Jews lived, a yeshiva and a wonderful library where one could read Hebrew books and journals from all over the world. Students from other towns came to study at the Polish Gymnasium (high school) in Nieśwież because universities always accepted students who graduated from there. Local Jewish children studied there as well because their parents believed that higher education would make their children’s lives easier than theirs had been.
Nieśwież also had four cheders – religious elementary schools – and fourteen synagogues. I have fond memories of the Kalte synagogue, the largest one in town. At its centre was a grand bimah, a platform covered by a canopy that looked like a chuppah – the traditional wedding canopy – from which hung little silver bells and Stars of David. Across from the bimah and up several steps stood the aron-koydesh, the Holy Ark, where the Torah scrolls were kept; it was decorated with the most beautiful gold embroidery. The eternal lamp hung from the high ceiling on a long, golden chain, and in the centre of the ceiling was the painting of a large fish holding its own tail in its mouth. Adults told us that if this fish, the Leviathan, were to let go of its tail, the world would be flooded. When I was young, I spent many sleepless nights afraid of what might happen to everyone. The adults also told us that there were demons in the synagogue at night and if children were to pass by alone, the demons would drag them inside and carry them off to swamps from which they would never return. Whenever I passed by the synagogue after dark, I was so afraid of what might happen to me that I ran as fast as I possibly could.
When I was growing up, Nieśwież’s Jewish population was about 4,500, which was 60 per cent of the total population. The Jews in the town were mostly tradesmen – hard-working people who exhausted themselves trying to eke out a living for their families. To better their situation, they created a local union and eventually their working conditions improved a great deal. Other Jews in our town practiced a wide variety of professions in the pharmacy, hospital, emergency services, medical clinics and dental offices – I particularly remember the surgeon Dr. Litckowsky, doctors Yacob Ginsburg and Lola Segalowicz, who were loved and esteemed by the entire population, and the dentists Dr. Benjoma-Aizenbid and Nachman Kagan. Mr. Messita, the Jewish lawyer, and Mr. Poliwoda, the Christian lawyer, were among the top jurists in the province. Boruch Shapiro was the chief of our fire station, which had a volunteer brigade of firefighters with fine uniforms, shiny metal hats and its own brass band conducted by a young Jewish man named Pesach Bursky. And how could a town exist without its royfe, the old-fashioned self-trained doctor? Moishe the Royfe, as we called him, was a man with a warm heart who would make house calls day and night, foregoing any payment from the poor. Both Jews and Christians adored him.
Jews who were quite poor arrived in Nieśwież on an almost daily basis. The Jewish community built a house for them not far from the synagogue called a hekdesh, or poorhouse, where they were given a place to sleep for the night, food, and warm coats, shoes or boots, all donated by the townsfolk. The hekdesh was always full of both travellers and the poor. I remember my maternal grandmother, Mariasha, bringing me with her when she delivered warm cooked food and old clothing there. Nieśwież also had a g’milas chasodim, a free loan society, where Jews could borrow money to help them build a house or open a small business as long as two townspeople acted as guarantors for the loan. Our chevra kadisha, the burial society, was led by religious establishments and operated the funeral home located near the synagogues. They, too, administered to the needs of the poor free of charge, covering the costs of burial and erecting gravestones.
Each spring, a few weeks before Passover, the Jewish community council opened a matzah bakery. The workers, all volunteers, baked enough matzah for the town as well as the nearby villages. People in our community also campaigned outside our community to ask for help in supplying Passover food to impoverished Jewish families. The Nieśwież Hilfsverein, or aid society, in New York often helped out the Jewish community by providing funds for its various needs. The members of this group, who had lived in Nieśwież before immigrating to New York, contributed a great deal toward the construction of a building for a new library and also provided money so that children from poor families had milk to drink at school every day.
In the summers, through the ongoing generosity of our community, poor Jewish children in our town were able to attend camp free of charge. The toz (Towarzystwo Ochrony Zdrowia Ludności Żydowskiej, or Society for Safeguarding the Health of the Jewish Population) set up a summer camp for Jewish children to learn about nature and enjoy the fresh air. The camp was located six kilometres from Nieśwież in the Mestiansky forest. Every summer, I left town with other children to spend a month participating in activities like hiking deep into the woods and learning how to use a compass to find our way back. We also played football, did gymnastics and learned how to draw. We all came home in good physical condition, with rosy cheeks. I often took part in the other athletic activities offered in our town through the Maccabi sports club, which had both a soccer team and a handball team.
In the fall, on Simchat Torah, my family and I went to synagogue for the hakafot, the traditional dance with the Torah scrolls, and I held a white-and-blue paper flag with a candle stuck in an apple on top. Afterward, cakes and cookies were distributed to all the children.
In winter, some of the people in our town could afford to pay my mother’s second cousins Yankl and David Zaturensky – who were known as the water-carrier brothers – to bring them water by horse and sleigh, but I remember getting our drinking water from the public wells in town. The closest one to our house was near the market across from the high school. It was difficult to get to the well in winter because of the ice that formed around it; people often slipped and broke an arm or leg. Sometimes the hand pumps would freeze as well, so we would hold some burning straw near the pump to melt the ice. All the children liked to go to the well because it gave us the opportunity to use our skates, which we tied to our winter shoes or boots with string. We skated by the well because none of our parents allowed us to skate on the nearby lake by ourselves. The ice there was not always sufficiently frozen and children sometimes fell through the ice and drowned.
In December, when Chanukah arrived, I remember lighting the coloured candles on the menorah. Everyone sang Chanukah songs and played with dreydls, ate hot latkes (potato pancakes) and received Chanukah gelt (coins) from family members. My father would tell my siblings and me about the holiday and recount the heroic struggle of the Jewish fighters. On Purim, the holiday that followed a few months later, we children would go with our older brothers to storekeepers’ courtyards to collect wooden boxes. On Purim eve, we took these boxes with us when we went to the synagogues to hear the Megillah, or Book of Esther, and whenever the reader of the Megillah stopped at the name “Haman,” who was the villain in the story, we hit the boxes with big sticks as if we were hitting Haman. We made even more noise with our gragers, the traditional holiday noisemakers. The shames (caretaker) of the synagogue always chased us out and called us paskudnyaks, little rascals, but five minutes later we’d be back inside again doing the same thing. The synagogue’s warden, as well as members of our community, were on our side and let us continue to “hit” Haman. The following day, we visited our neighbours and relatives to bring them shalach-manos, a gift of food, and they would give us shalach-manos in return. [...]
I grew up in a home filled with love. My parents ensured that their children were given everything, especially the opportunity to study and to learn what was happening in the broader world. Journals and newspapers were delivered to us daily and I listened to the discussions at home about various world events. Every evening, some of my father’s friends and acquaintances would come to our house to hear the Polish-language BBC broadcasts from London on our Philips shortwave radio.
The dark clouds that hung over Europe once Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933 worried my parents and the Jewish community as a whole. I was almost eight years old on that wintry night in November 1938 when the Nazis in Germany and Austria, together with the Hitler Youth, set fire to synagogues and other Jewish institutions and shops. They burned sacred books, broke windows in Jewish homes and even shot Jews. The following morning, news of the pogrom, known as Kristallnacht, spread through our town. In all the synagogues, prayers were offered for the Jews of Germany and Austria. At my school, principal Zaltzman ordered all the students to assemble in the main hall. He told us what had happened the night before and how the Nazis had justified Kristallnacht. He explained that Herschel Grynszpan, a seventeen-year-old Jewish boy, had shot and killed the assistant to the German ambassador in Paris, Ernst vom Rath. Herschel, who was born to Polish parents in Germany, could not bear the suffering that his family and friends were enduring at the hands of the Nazis – losing their homes and their jobs, as well as being arrested and forced to leave Germany – and he had decided to do something about it. I prayed for Herschel along with the rest of the students.
This experience had a huge impact on all of us. When I arrived home from school my parents tried to calm me down, but the event was etched in my mind. The following Saturday, in all the synagogues of our town, there were speeches about Hitler’s campaign, about how he and his supporters had declared war against the Jews of Europe. The powerful German war machine was ready to occupy parts of Europe and execute its anti-Jewish decrees. We all wondered what would happen to us.
Witness the tragic end of Nieśwież's Jewish community and Michael's harrowing escape:
And witness Michael's painful trip home and confrontation with what was truly lost in the aftermath: