Shavei Israel | Vysoki from the 1920 to 1941 – the Outbreak of WW2

Vysoki from the 1920 to 1941 – the Outbreak of WW2

Vysoki from the 1920 to 1941 – the Outbreak of WW2

Shavei Israel: Here’s the latest installment of our historical and ethnographic report about the history of Vysoki, Russia’s biggest location of the community of the Subbotnik Jews who embraced Judaism several centuries ago and continued to keep their Jewish identity during all these years in the most difficult of circumstances of Czarist oppression, Nazi persecution and Communist repression. A new part of this story will tell you about the first years of the Vysoki settlement and their life until the outbreak of World War II.

The people of Vysoki have written this about their own village.

Vysoki in the 1920s (part 1)

In this new place, the future people of Vysoki settled in one big street, lived in harmony with each other and observed the Jewish rituals. They did their best not to conflict with the other residents. But disputes arose over the most painful issue for the peasants — the issue of land. There simply wasn’t enough arable land for the expanding families. Therefore, when, during the revolution of 1917, the new land decree was issued, our ancestors tried to start a new life in a new place, where there would be enough land and where they could establish their own settlement without having any conflict with the neighbors.

In 1920, an initial group was created from the Jewish community of Ozerki. It included Ivan Ignatievich Bocharnikov, Solomon Ivanovich Zhabin, Zakhar Yefimovich Gridnev, Mikhail Petrovich Gridnev, Yaakov Petrovich Bocharnnikov, Avraham Eremeyevich Gridnev. They wrote a petition for the allocation of land for settlement and agriculture and they referred to an upland place six kilometers from Talovaya. They sent a petition to the land management committee of Bobrov. Soon they learned that part of the Kozlovka families, the future residents of Voznesenka, wanted to move to the same lands. In order for the Jews to receive their desired piece of land, they showed great ingenuity and cunning.

Old-timers remember that it was decided to bribe a land management committee official. The community arranged to supply him with dung and fat sheep. The official met the community representatives without making any problems and it turned out that he too was a Jew. Now it was necessary only to wait for documentary confirmation.

In the autumn of 1921, the decision of the Voronezh Provincial Council of the National Economy was published. “Residents of the village of Ozerki, Kozlovsky region, Bobrovsky district, are allowed to occupy a land plot six kilometers south of Talovaya.” The area of ​​the settlement was supposed to be: from south to north, 1,350 m. 50 cm. from west to east 1 250 m. 60 cm.

The community decided not to move in the winter. However, in the early spring of 1922 carts with household belongings and cattle were moved to the new place.

From the memories of S.Y. Konchakov:

“We transported everything on horses and cows, with great difficulties. I remember Mikhail Yakovlevich Bocharnikov, who used his cow. Her name was Rozhok. She was tired and refused to go on. The owner became angry with her, but he could not beat her as she would have collapsed. So he bit her ear to show his anger.”

At first people had to live in dugouts. There was tall grass around, if one did not watch out for the little children, they could get lost, and one could not find them in this grass. But for the cattle it was a perfect place. In a difficult period of settlement, it was the cows who saved people from hunger with their milk, because the grazing for them was good.

In 1923, the mills were already working and life was slowly improving especially as the people tried to be united and solve all their problems together.

From the very beginning, the village of Vysoki was planned to be a Jewish settlement. Each new resident had to receive permission to move there from the settlement’s central committee. The location of each new house was determined by lot. The first street built in Vysoki was called Lenin Street. The Gridnev family settled here. The Voronin family settled on the Karl Marx Street and the Konchakov family settled along the Buturlinovka – Talovaya Pervomayskaya Street lane. Komsomolskaya Street was built on the border of the village a little later. It was built by the first settlers’ adult children.

By 1925 there were 53 courtyards and 311 residents in Vysoki. Gradually, the village was settled by the  Gridnev, Bocharnikov, Konchakov, Voronin, and Zhabin families from the village of Ozerki and the Karpov, Matveyev, Golev, Drokin, Skorodumov, Chernykh families from Gvazda as well as the Shishlyanikov family from the village of Nikolskoe.

Vysoki in the 1920s (part 2)

In the history of the village, various motifs were intricately intertwined. It was a Jewish settlement, but there was no synagogue. However there was a real rabbi – a Polish Jew, who had fled from the horrors of the First World War and fortunately ended up in Vysoki. People called him Ribiyazek, most likely the incorrect or Russian way of saying Rabbi Yitzchak. He planted raspberries and melons but teenagers stole them from him. But Rabbi Yitzchak never took offense; but offered to teach them Hebrew instead.

In 1928, 22 young men were sent from Vysoki to study the Jewish religion in Kharkov and Konotop. At the same time, the village actively participated in the life of the country and region. Many people survived the civil war, joined the Communist party and even the street names reflected the revolutionary mood of the founders of Communism: Karl Marx and Lenin. People argued strongly about who is right in the inner-party discussions and awarded each other nicknames for it. Even until today one of the Gridnev families of Vysoki is still associated with Trotskyism.

People wholeheartedly supported the authorities’ campaign to eliminate illiteracy. At first, in 1926, a new school was opened in Yaakov Grigorievich Voronin’s house. Only 20 children attended the lessons; the teachers being brought in turn by cart from Talovaya. Then people decided to build a special building and did so in 1929 on the site of today’s first-aid post. They paid for it out of their own meager peasant funds.

Even then, one of the main traits of character was revealed: diligence and the desire to achieve everything on their own and not to rely on anybody else.

In organizing their lives, the people dug two ponds within the area of their village. They also built a forge, a thresher, and public barns. Even before the beginning of collectivization, two co-cultivation partnerships were created – they were prototype of collective farms. One farm had a name – “August 1, 1924” in honor of the day of education. It included the Gridnev and Zhabin families. People bought a foreign-made Fordson tractor. The first tractor driver was Monasiy Petrovich Gridnev, and the head of the partnership was Yaakov Ignatievich Bocharnikov. The second farm “Red Plow” got its name from the color of the plow’s paint. This plow united the families of the Bocharnikov, Konchakov, Voronin. They also purchased a tractor with an unpronounceable name for the locals: “Oil Pull”. The first tractor driver here was Isay Prokofyevich Gridnev.

From the memoirs of Elizabeth Yakovlevna Konchakova (died in 1998):

“We lived together, we all worked: both adults and children. I remember how trees were planted in a cemetery. Ananii Efimovich Gridnev supervised us very young girls. He was a respected man, rezak (shoichet), he slaughtered all the cattle for the people and circumcised the boys. He studied Jewish thought and philosophy in Melitopol.  Also, the trees around the cemetery are the oldest in the village. ”

1929 was a year of great change. Collectivization began in the country. Our fellow villagers also created the “Vysoki” kolhoz (collective farm).Partnerships and individual farms became part of it. According to the memories of the old-timers, they mostly joined the collective farm voluntarily. Arable land and cattle were collectivised, but at first the owners of horses did not want to part with their animals. The collective farm authority made a compromise, as long as there was no public stable, people could keep horses at home but they would also be used for the collective farm’s needs.

Monasiy Petrovich Gridnev was elected the first chairman of the kolhoz. The district officials visited the village and said that its territory belonged to the Voznesensky village council. All important documents, acts of birth, marriage, etc. were located in Voznesenka. The fate of the two settlements was again closely linked. The collective farm “Red December” and “Vysoki” – often challenged each other in competitions etc. Despite the differences in religion, the people coexisted peacefully, especially since their children continued to study at the seven-grades Dokuchaev school.

Vysoki in the 1930s

In the 1930s the life of the people of Vysoki was not easy. They had to endure all the difficulties and contradictions of collectivization. Some families once again left their homes and moved to Kuban, in the Krasnodar district. There they settled again with their co-religionists in the village of Rodnikovskaya. But actually, most of these settlers came back before the war. The land of Kuban was good, but their hearts belonged to Vysoki.

Vysoki was not exempted from the state campaign of land confiscation. More than ten families were evicted, arrested and exiled. This period was tragic. After all, everybody in the area was related to someone else in the area. The regional authorities were in a difficult situation. Because Vysoki did not fulfill the land confiscation plan, the authorities began to seek out the poorest and the non-indigenous people – the most embittered ones – who pointed out their wealthy fellow villagers. In those days, these poor ones were considered heroes as they fought against the rich people. People still remember the names and nicknames of the activists: Anastasia Ustinovna Zhabina (after marriage) – not local; Claudia Malysheva (also not local) and Yaakov Voronin.

Large families collapsed and households were lost. But those who had been purged mostly returned and survived. And what is most remarkable is that they did not hold a grudge against their fellow villagers or the authorities. This is fate, they said. Basically the people of Vysoki were exiled to North Russia, to the Caucasus and Solovki. Some remained in the village but were deprived of freedom of movement and were constantly under the control of the NKVD.

Since 1997, many of the descendants of the purged families have received certificates of rehabilitation for their relatives as well as modest monetary compensation. History, your lessons are bitter.

In 1930, it became obvious that the collectivization policy was a failure, so that the “Pravda” newspaper published Stalin’s “Dizzy with success” speech, and top-ranking party functionaries were sent to the regions to correct mistakes in collective-farm construction. Talovsky district was visited by the Chairman of the Central Executive Committee, a member of the Politburo of the Central Committee of the CPSU (b.), Mikhail Ivanovich Kalinin.

In February 1930, he spoke to the residents of Voznesenka. The meeting was also attended by the representatives of Vysoki. Isai Prokofievich Gridnev was among them. He recalled: “M.I. Kalinin spoke simply and warmly with us and advised us to learn to manage our farming more quickly. When the collective farmers of the “Red December” (Voznesenka) suggested that Kalinin become their chairman, he smiled and replied, “I guess you will not get along with me! After all, I do not like lazy people! I’ll be too pushy.”

Anyway, people became used to living on collective farms and they worked conscientiously. “Vysoki” became one of the best collective farms. Below is the text of the certificate of honor, which it was awarded on November 7, 1933.

“Following the instructions of the leader of the Communist Party and all the working people, Comrade Stalin, about turning the collective farms into Bolshevik and the collective farmers into being well-run, the Vysoki farm in 1932-1933 financial year achieved the following indicators: it completely harvested the crop from an area of ​​818 hectares of winter sowing on an area of ​​3,131 hectares by September 3. The annual plan of grain deliveries to the state that included 1841 centners was fully implemented by September 24th. The payment for the work of MTS was fully paid. The Vysoki collective farm achieved success thanks to a conscientious, honest attitude to work, high labor discipline, and a careful attitude to collective-farm good. Only in this way will all collective farms under the leadership of the Communist Party will achieve new successes.

The best workers of the collective farm were the chairman Monasiy Petrovich Gridnev, field cultivator Anatoly Iosifovich Bocharnikov, foremen Simon Ivanovich Chernykh, Mikhail Nikitovich Shishlyannikov, Yaakov Petrovich Bocharnnikov, Yaakov Mikhailovich Shishlyannikov, Claudia Alekseevna Malysheva.

This letter was given to the collective farm on the day of the 16th anniversary of the October Revolution by the political department and the Directorate of Talovskaya machine-tractor station for exemplary work.”

1933 was also remembered by the fact that a new school building with two classrooms and a corridor was built. To build it, people bought two houses in Buturlinovka paid for by the collective farm. The construction was led by Anatoly Yakovlevich Chernykh. Classes were held in this school until 1969. It still exists and is connected with the new school.

The educational system was organized in two shifts as the number of children increased all the time. Only a few of them tried to continue their education, because they were needed to help their parents with the housework. Even eleven year old boys worked in the fields. The girls nursed the younger siblings. It was typical in the summer when the women were busy in the fields the little nurse sitting on a nearby cart would try and calm the babies and stop them from crying.

The labor was still mostly manual. Although there were already horse rakes, binders, reaping machines, lobogrejka, mowers and iron harrows, etc. Tractors were also used, however, they did not belong to the collective farms, but to machine-tractor stations (MTS). The Vysoki collective farm was served by two MTS, Talovskaya and Terekhovskaya. Some people of Vysoki worked on the basis of the 9th tractor detachment: among them Ruvim Iosifovich Konchakov, Aron Nikolaevich Voronin, Moses Yakovlevich Bocharnikov and others. Many people dreamed of becoming tractor drivers, but a certain training for this was necessary.

Vysoki from the 1930s to 1941 – the Outbreak of WW2

Despite the new trends, the life of our fellow villagers changed very slowly. Their huts were still unsophisticated, most often thatched with straw. A standard hut had one, rarely two large rooms and sentsy (corridor). There was a large Russian stove with sleeping shelves, a place for old people and children, benches along the walls, wooden tables and of course a chest and a kerosene lamp. The house adjoined the outbuildings. People usually kept a cow and calves. There were large vegetable gardens, where people grew not only vegetables, but also flax and hemp. Many of them also had flower gardens.

The clothes were also mostly made by themselves. People spun, wove and sewed. The museum now exhibits a spinner, part of the loom as well as a comb and clothing made locally. These local clothes include sundresses, shirts, ponev (skirt) and aprons surprisingly decorated with purely Russian motifs. At the same time, in each family the Torah was kept, all Jewish holidays were observed and children were called by Jewish names. Rivas, Sarahs, and the Chanas wore Russian kerchiefs, Moses, Reubens and Aharons danced Russian dances at the gatherings. But marriages were made only within the community. The young people respected their elders and the people generally did not get drunk. Fights were a rare and extraordinary phenomenon.

Any original thought in Vysoki was intertwined with the peculiarities of the life of that time. Mass brainwashing was very influential. Many people, especially the youth, sincerely believed that they lived in the best country in the world and they respected and loved Lenin and Stalin.

In 1935, the first pioneer detachment appeared in Vysoki, its leader was Varvara Fyodorovna Bondareva. She was a student of the Verkhneozersky technical college and a member of  Komsomol youth organization. Varia began to create a group of young Leninists. After the war, Varvara Fyodorovna returned to Vysoki and, until her retirement she worked as a primary school teacher. Selezneva (after marriage) educated several generations of the Vysoki people, and they still remember her with gratitude.

In 1937 the local Komsomol (communist youth) organization was organized. Its first secretary was Samuil Yakovlevich Konchakov. The young people were actively building a new life. A collective farm “Vysoki” achieved all the best results. In 1937, a year that turned out to be very sad one for Russia due to the government’s political and military purges. However, the collective farmers gathered a good harvest and received seven kilograms of bread for the workday. They could breathe easily and hunger did not threaten the village.

More than once the residents of the village became guests and participants of the Soviet Agricultural Exhibition, in particular, in 1940. Who could have thought then that this was the last peaceful year?

Sunday, June 22, 1941. The people of Vysoki were working in the fields. It was the time to bring in the hay. The day was hot and sunny. People decided to have a rest and suddenly they saw a horseman. He was riding fast and shouting all the time. Anxiety crept into the people’s hearts; they had a premonition of evil. “The war, the war has begun!” the messenger suddenly cried out. “Stop working. A meeting will be held at the collective farm board.” Overnight, the peaceful life had come to an end.

Because there were no radios in Vysoki, a representative of the district recounted the content of Molotov’s speech about the beginning of the war. A moment of silence was replaced by screams, weeping and loud conversations. Some people were drafted into military service at this meeting.

According to the Decree of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, citizens born between 1905 and 1918 were drafted into the army. The first day the new recruits left was June 23, 1941. On the night of June 22-23, very few people slept in Vysoki. Mothers and wives helped their sons and husbands pack their belongings. The atmosphere was full of excitement and tears, instructions and requests, and unbearable longing. Early in the morning of June 23, those who were drafted went to Voznesenka, to the village council. They were accompanied by their relatives who were trying to postpone the separation. A barefoot, a six-year-old girl, crying, screamed to her father: “Dad, I won’t see you again.” Near the village council building, several columns of men were formed from neighboring villages, and early on the morning of June 24 they went to the Talovaya station. Here they were put into trains that headed out to the Front.

to be continued…

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Esther Surikova
Esther Surikova
esther@shavei.org