By Asher Goorshtel

I now put my pen into the blood of our martyrs to tell how our dear little village was born, and the brutal manner in which it was destroyed.  Those before us carried on traditions, from generation to generation.  It was near the end of the 15th century that the small village of Telechan began to develop.  That was the era when the Tartars, part of the Mongol hordes, occupied the Ukraine, Poland, and huge areas of Russia of which we were a part.  At that time, large stretches of land in our immediate area belonged to a wealthy landowner, Graf Oginski.[2]  In that same area, there was an inn leased to a Jewish family and Jews were welcome there.

Let us stop for a moment to investigate where the name Telechan came from.  In Hebrew it could have been taken from the words ‘tele’ and ‘khan’ that means ‘beautiful hills.'  More probably the name came from a combination of a Russian word and a Mongol word.  History tells us of the battles carried on between the natives and the Mongols.  One of the Mongol army leaders, with the title of ‘Khan’ was lost in battle in this area and the others could not find his body.  They spent much time looking for his remains.  Wherever they went, they asked if anyone had seen ‘tele’ of the ‘khan.'  The Russian word ‘tele’ (tyelo) means body; the Mongolian word ‘khan’ means the person ‘Khan.'  Together they mean the body of Khan.  That, according to legend, is how the name of our village came to be.



In the mid-16th century, there were a number of Jewish families throughout the area in villages and on small farms.  They earned their livelihoods through various crafts.  They were cobblers, tanners, tailors, and carpenters.  Some of them were specialists in dyeing cotton for the peasant women to use in making clothes.  Most innkeepers were Jewish[3].  Their lives were very hard and they felt isolated among unfriendly gentile neighbors and the large landowners.  They feared for their livelihoods and their lives.  Although these families were cut of from Yiddishkeit, they nevertheless wanted to live among Jews, so they began to leave the tiny farming communities and move closer to the old inns that were leased by Jewish families.  Slowly, a Jewish community was created which eventually grew into the small town of Telechan.

Graf Oginski owned the entire area surrounding the inn that included miles of forests.  The Graf looked favorably at the members of the Jewish community in his inns because he thought that they would increase his income through their commercial activities.  He encouraged the Jewish population to relocate near his inns by furnishing them with lumber, free of charge, with which to build their homes and helped them to develop large gardens so they could sustain themselves through the harsh winters.

Over the years the Jewish community grew in to a small town to which the peasants and farmers from the neighboring villages came to obtain necessities.  Most of the trade between the Jews and the farmers was based on the barter system.  The farmers received goods and services from the cobbler, tailor, carpenter, etc., and paid the artisans in agricultural products.  Gradually little shops opened with merchandise from Pinsk, and from this simple barter economy a surplus of agricultural products developed in Telechan.  Artisans then had to sell their goods.  That is how the market place developed.  Around the small shops, houses and streets began to appear.  Telechan grew larger.

Graf Osinski contributed a great deal to Telechan’s growth.  He was a talented and energetic man with a desire to pursue new enterprises.  He undertook the digging of a canal, named after himself, to unite the two rivers: Pripet (near Pinsk) and Schara (near Slonim).  His goal was to increase shipment of his lumber from Russia to Germany.  The Graf owned vast forests and needed additional markets for his lumber.  The canal would permit navigation to the Schara River and from there to the Niemen River and on to Germany.  To accomplish this it was necessary to build a ten-lock canal.  Modern machinery was not yet available so the heavy work was performed by manual labor.  Since the Graf owned all the land, with thousands of serfs[4] (farmer-slaves), this undertaking, the creation of the canal, did not present a problem to him.  The work was especially difficult because the Pripet River covered a very flat, low area while the Schara River was much higher.  The building of the locks required extremely hard work by the serfs who had to carry the materials on their backs.  The project started in 1776 and took fifty years to complete.  It was opened for navigation in 1826.  Many thousands of serfs lost their lives in the process.

During those years Telechan was a center of activity and greatly benefited from the canal construction.  Jewish artisans earned considerable incomes building the canal.  Jewish engineers were responsible for the complicated work on the sluices, and they became specialists in that field.  The serfs, although very poor, also benefited, as did the contractors and storeowners.  As the city continued to grow, more Jews were attracted to it.  Telechan became a nice place for Jewish families (cobblers, tailors, blacksmiths, lumber and grain merchants).  When the canal opened and navigation began, some Jews became merchant ship owners and boatmen.  They transported cargo and passengers from Telechan to Pinsk, and back.

The first ship owners were the Goorshtel (Gurshtel) brothers.  When the first power-driven ship (steamboat) came to town, the sirens announced its arrival, and much joy and pride were felt.  They said a Shehecheanu, (a prayer for the beginning of things).

Our Telechan was also blessed by nature.  It was located in a valley surrounded by hills full of huge pine trees.  It looked like a gigantic plate cut out of Mother Earth.  The beauty of the surroundings and the healthy climate created by the pine forest made Telechan a beautiful resort place.  During the summer many people from the larger cities came to our little Telechan to enjoy the fresh climate and divine beauty.  It became an additional source of income for our townspeople.

As the years went by, passenger and cargo transportation on the canal increased.  Telechan’s economy expanded.  Many offices opened which employed clerks, contractors and engineers. This brought a new kind of Jew to Telechan, a more secular and worldly Jew.  For example, there was a Jewish engineer from Pinsk who dared to work on the Sabbath.  Although this created a problem with religious Jews in town, the majority of Telechan citizens saw it as a sign of newer trends-a new era- and no one seemed to object to the change.  The chief representative of the general contractor for the canal was a Jew named Reb Laib Turack.  He had inherited the job from his father-in-law, Rev Joshua Eisenstadt, who in turn had inherited it from the previous generation.  Laib Turack was also a scholarly man.  In his large library at home, besides numerous Talmudic texts, he had many contemporary/modern books of secular Hebrew literature, Haskalah (Enlightenment) books.  Although he was a Lubashier Hasid, and attended synagogue regularly, he did not refrain from participating in the development of the city.  He was active in town affairs and was a very generous and worldly man.

The people of Telechan lived as one large family, sharing joy and sorrow.  Spiritual life in Telechan developed gradually, bringing about the creation of schools where children studied the alphabet, the Talmud, the commentaries of Rashi and others.  Eventually schools were created where Modern Hebrew was taught.  Rabbi Eleazar Olivitsky led his congregation with great dignity and was highly respected by all Jews.  Because of this Rabbi, Telechan also developed different groups for the study of Talmud, Mishnaes, Torah, and Rashi.  There were also arguments, bickering and feuds in the religious/cultural sphere, and confrontations between various clergy representing Hasidim and their opponents, Misnogadim.  There were three different Hasidic synagogues and one of the ‘opponents,' whose different religious interpretations carried over into religio-cultural lives.  For the uneducated Jews, the Rabbi created a group to study the Book of Psalms.  On Saturday afternoons in the summers, they studied the ‘sayings of our fathers.'  All these studies, these spiritual activities, helped overcome the misery of everyday life, and enabled them to survive the various decrees, and the gruesome persecutions they had to suffer from the Czarist regime and the Landlords.

And so the people of our little town, like their counterparts in so many other towns in Eastern Europe lived and worked hard to sustain their poor lives.  There were a few well-to-do families, but the majority were poor artisans, storekeepers, and just plain poor folks.  Most of the week they worked hard and lived from hand-to-mouth, but were able to save enough for the Sabbath.

Any Jews that could spare time would go to synagogue or a house of study to hear religious words or to read a religious book.  The materialistic life was not primary.  A Jew would manage to get along on very little.  The main concern was one’s spiritual life.  Years passed by and generation after generation carried on the same way: people believed that nothing would ever change.  That’s the way the world was created and that’s the way it will remain.

[1] Taken from the Telechan Memorial Book.  This is a composite of two separate translations from the Yiddish by Joe Chappell and Maltsya Batelman, edited by Arthur Eisenberg

[2] The title Graf is comparable to that of English ‘Earl’ or German ‘Count.'

[3] Before the turn of this century, Jewish inns and taverns were important as social centers for Gentiles and as a place where traveling Jews could get kosher food. 

[4] A person in servitude, required to render services to his lord.  Serfs were commonly attached to their lord’s land i.e. not allowed to leave the land in which they worked; they were transferred with the land from one owner to another.


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