WHAT WE REMEMBER
According to historical data, Beshenkovichi was founded approximately in the 15th century on the bank of the Western Dvina River, halfway between Vitebsk and Polotsk.
The name of the town has a legend. They say there were two brothers, who came from Lepel and settled near the river (Lepel is a town 60 kilometers away from Beshenkovichi). Their job was pottery and their nationality – Jews. Their last name was Shenkin. At that time Latin was a fashionable language. “Bi” is “two” in Latin, so they called the place Beshenki. Then, years later, the name was transformed into Beshenkovichi.
Beshenkovichi has a long history. According to the Jewish encyclopedia, the population of Behsenkovichi in 1776 was 325 people (nationality not mentioned). In 1897 it grew to 4423 people, 3182 of them – Jews.
The Jewish population of Beshenkovichi could be divided into the following groups:
* The biggest group: craftsmen, including tailors, carpenters, shoemakers, blacksmiths, tanners and tinmen. This group also included a considerable number of coachmen, who were in their turn divided into two groups: the ones who transported cargo inside the town, and the ones who carried out inter-city transfers.
* A considerable number of Jews was involved in trade. Some of them owned shops, while others just sold grain, flax and other agricultural products. Some of them would travel to neighboring villages and sell small things.
There was a trade square in the town center. It had a square shape and was surrounded by shops. The fire brigade was always located in the city center as well.
The official day of trade was Sunday, while on Saturday Jews had Shabbat.
Twice a year trade fairs were organized. Hundreds of people from other towns, villages and small settlements would flock to Beshenkovichi with a great variety of goods to sell.
Despite a relatively big distance from the railroad, Beshenkovichi was connected to the rest of the world though the Western Dvina River. As soon the winter ice melted, ships and cargo barges arrived in the town.
In 1922 Beshenkovichi had a fire, which I witnessed. The summer of 1922 was very hot. That year the town was frequented by horse-thieves.
It was September and we had not had rain for almost a month. The days were becoming shorter and the nights longer. We did not have electricity and were sitting at home with only the light of an oil lamp.
One night father looked out of the window and did not see our horse, so he went out to look for it. After walking about a kilometer he found it eating grass on a field. So father came back home and told us that the horse was safe and sound. He also added that he saw a strange light at a distance, which he had noticed. Mother told him to go out again and make sure that it was not fire.
When he came out he saw a raging fire…
We ran outside. The neighbors were sleeping soundly, so father ordered me to wake everyone up, which I did. Next we heard the sound of the main church bell. Even though our houses were not at risk, because the wind was blowing in a different direction, all the people came outside. The wind was spreading at an incredible speed.
The fire brigade was located really close to the spot where the fire began. The primitive fire engines had been quickly destroyed by fire before anyone could use them. Our neighbors crossed the river on a ferry to help their relatives and friends in their tragedy.
Being a witness to this nightmare, I observed the fire gobble up different parts of the town.
The fire blew burning chars to a distance of hundreds of meters, thus forming new spots of fire.
The houses in Beshenkovichi were mainly wooden. Brick or stone houses were scarce. Al the houses stood in close proximity to each other…
About three hours later the fire reached Lugovaya Street, which was close to the river. At the light of the fire we saw people dragging their furniture, clothes and personal belongings towards the river. I remained on our side of the river and we were lucky the fire did not spread to our side.
By 5 a.m. the town had been turned into ashes. About 90% of the town was burnt down.
A little later we received the horrible news that eight people had been burnt in the fire, six of them – from the family of rabbi Alter Reznik. The fire killed his wife Haye Sore, son in law Velv Gilman and four grandchildren.
The exhausted people were rambling in the ashes in hopes of finding their things. It looked like they did not know what they were looking for. At that time rabbi Alter was asking the locals if they had seen his relatives. He was still hoping he would find someone. His face looked grief-stricken and I saw tears in his eyes.
My uncle Peishe gave shelter to him and his widowed daughter Hashke with her three children.
After the fire many people left the town. Some of them moved to Vitebsk, others – to Leningrad, or other towns, where their relatives or friends lived.
Some of them had doubts that the town would ever rise again from the ashes. Nevertheless it did, because the people, who remained in Beshenkovichi had to move on with their lives.
Many people moved to our side of the river and were sheltered by the locals. Since our house was small, we only gave shelter to Reizel, a lonely woman. She used to live with her husband Joseph on the other side of the river. They did not have children and about two years before the fire they decided to separate. Reizel said the reason was that they did not have children. Her husband was against, but in the end they split up and the husband moved away. As it turned out, the real reason for the separation was the fact that she was in love with another man. Before her marriage Reizel had been in love with Zalman. She found out that Zalman was widowed and decided to start a life with him. However, Zalman was not particularly infatuated with her anymore. So, Reizel remained alone in the end. Joseph visited her all the time, begging her to come back, but she refused.
In our house everyone went to bed very early and woke up at about 5 or 6 a.m. When we woke up, we would talk to each other. Reizel was sleeping in the corner of the room. There was a bench outside the house, which stood by the window. That morning my parents and Reizel were talking about her divorce with Joseph. She was telling them they had split their belongings fairly and were not angry at each other. It seemed to my father she was talking too loudly, so he said: “Don’t talk so loudly. Even walls have ears!” But my mother said: “Well, I am sure Joseph will not be here to listen to listen to our conversation.” And at that moment we heard Joseph’s voice from outside. “Reizel, - he said – don’t tell lies. It did not happen like that!” We were shocked – Joseph had slept on the bench outside the whole night! Later they got together again and Reizel moved to Joseph’s house in Senno.
Very soon the authorities declared that the people, whose houses had been burnt, could receive free timber to build new dwellings. And the new houses started to spring up. Now it was clear that our town would return to its normal everyday life.
Memories of Leib Itskovich Yudovin.