THE SOCIETY OF WOODCHOPPERS FOR THE STUDY OF MISHNA IN BERDICHEV
Among religious Jews, talmudic scholars are regarded with the same awe and respect with which secular society regards Nobel laureates. Yet throughout Jewish history, study of the Mishna and Talmud was hardly restricted to an intellectual elite.
An old book saved from the millions burned by the Nazis, and now housed at the YIVO library in New York, bears the stamp THE SOCIETY OF WOODCHOPPERS FOR THE STUDY OF MISHNA IN BERDICHEV.
That the men who chopped wood in Berdichev, an arduous job that required no literacy, met regularly to study Jewish law demonstrates the ongoing pervasiveness of study of the Oral Law in the Jewish community.
According to the census of 1789, the Jews constituted 75% of Berdychiv’s population (1,951 out of 2,640, of whom 246 were liquor-dealers, 452 houseowners, 134 merchants, 188 artisans, 150 clerks and 56 idlers). In 1797, Prince Radziwill granted seven Jewish families the monopoly privilege of the cloth trade in the town. Jews were a major driving force of the town’s commerce in the first half of the 19th century, founding a number of trading companies (some traded internationally), banking establishments, and serving as agents of the neighboring estates of Polish nobility (szlachta).
By the end of the 18th century, Berdychiv became an important center of Hasidism. As the town grew, a number of noted scholars served as rabbis there, including Lieber the Great and Joseph the Harif and the Tzadik Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev (the author of Kedushat Levi), who lived and taught there until his death in 1809. See also Berditchev (Hasidic dynasty).
Plan of Berdychiv city. 1825
In its heyday, Berdychiv accounted some eighty synagogues and batei midrash, and was famous for its cantors.
Berdychiv was also one of the centers of the conflict between Hasidim and Mitnagdim. As the ideas of Haskalah influenced parts of the Jewish communities, a large group of Maskilim formed in Berdychiv in the 1820s.
In 1847, 23,160 Jews resided in Berdychiv and by 1861 the number doubled to 46,683, constituting the second largest Jewish community in the Russian Empire. The May Laws of 1882 and other government persecutions affected Jewish population and in 1897, out of the town’s population of 53,728, 41,617 (about 80%) were Jewish. 58% of Jewish males and 32% of Jewish females were literate.
Until World War I, the natural growth was balanced by the emigration. During the 1917 October Revolution and Russian Civil War, the mayor of the town was the Bundist leader D. Lipets. In early 1919, the Jews of Berdychiv became victims of a pogrom and in 1920 the advancing Soviet troops destroyed most of the city by the artillery fire.
The Soviet authorities closed or destroyed most of the town’s synagogues.
In the 1920s, Yiddish language was officially recognized and in 1924, the first in Ukraine official law court to conduct its affairs in Yiddish was established in the city, but in the 1930s, the use of Yiddish was curtailed and all Jewish cultural activities were suspended before World War II.
Most civilians from areas near the border did not have a chance to evacuate when the Nazis began their invasion on June 22, 1941. An “extermination” unit was established in Berdychiv in early July 1941 and a Jewish ghetto was set up. It was liquidated on October 5, 1941, after all the inhabitants were murdered.
The Nazis killed about 20,000 to 30,000 Jews who had not evacuated Berdychiv. A 1973 Ukrainian-language article about the history of Berdychiv says:”Гестапівці стратили 38 536 чоловік.” (Gestapo killed 38,536 persons.) In line with the official Soviet policy regarding the Jews and the Holocaust, the article does not mention the word “Jew” and did not acknowledge the genocide of the Jews.
This song sounds an alarm to the nations that all mankind must fight against the rising tide of anti-semitism which presently is at it’s highest point since WWII. The video draws a clear parallel between Nazism of the past and radical Islam of the present.