“World War I inaugurated a period of disintegration in the East-European Jewish community, which had hitherto been an arena of both spiritual and political renaissance. The political decline was accompanied by an intensive economic degeneration that forced two and a quarter million Jews to emigrate between the years 1881 and 1914. Most of them turned to America. On the eve of World War I, eight million out of the ten million Jews in Europe still lived in the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires.” The situation was drastic.
“The war was played out between the borders of Russia and the Central powers where embattled armies advanced and retreated. In the cities and town of these borderlands lived the great majority (75%) of the Jews of the world and it was they who suffered most at the hands of the warring hosts.” “In these areas, for 1,000 years the Jewish center of gravity has lain in Europe.”
In 1914 at the beginning of the war Telechan had been occupied.By the fall of 1915, Germans had conquered Russia, Poland and Lithuania. Russian military losses (killed, wounded and prisoners) were 2,500,000.
“In the countries affected by the war, Jewish nationalist activity was almost dormant. Jewish youths were fighting in the armies, and the government had smothered all dissenting activities. The Jews of Russia were branded by the Tsarist officials as disloyal.
When Poland and Lithuania fell to the German-Austrian armies in 1915, the Jews hoped that their condition would be improved. However, Jewish aspirations were again ignored. In Russia, the situation changed, for a short time, after the Bolshevik Revolution. Thousands of Jewish nationalists burst upon the scene. Mass meetings, conferences, conventions abounded. Parties were reconstituted. A Jewish press appeared overnight. Jewish political rights were theoretically no longer in question, since the new government had promised to remove all restrictions which Russian subjects had suffered on account of their religion or nationality. Instead of political rights, Russian Jews began to press for national-cultural autonomy. In 1917 a congress was held of all Jewish nationalist groups. The proposed program sought the furtherance of Jewish self-government in Russia, and the acquisition of legal guarantees for the Jewish national minority.
At the end of World War I, the great Jewish concentration in Eastern Europe was broken up and its fragments now became parts of the newly established states. The greatest blow fell when the Jews of Soviet Russia were cut off by their government from contact with the Jewish people as a whole. Three million people, about one third of European Jewry, were sealed off behind an impenetrable barrier,” which has only recently been breached.
“The remaining five million lived now in the newly created countries between the Soviet Union and Western Europe. All of these countries had been major battlefields during the war, and all of them had endured much suffering. With the end of the fighting, all of them eagerly looked forward to the possibilities of a new national existence and cultural flowering.”
These accounts by Abba Eban and Rufus Learsi describe world and European events. The following two narratives describe how my family and Telechan were directly affected by these events. The first is from the Telechan Memorial Book. It is about my grandfather, Azriel Ajzenberg. I believe it is the very story that caused my father great embarrassment and motivated him to conceal the existence of the book from his children.
The second account is an excerpt from the memoirs of Nate Godiner who recalls his experiences as a youth in Telechan.
“THE TRAGIC DEATH OF AZRIEL THE MUTE
It was in the year 1915, during the First World War, when the Czarist soldiers were running in panic from the onslaught of the German armies. During the night the demoralized Russian soldiers and their officers wreaked havoc in the Town of Telekhan, especially amongst the Jewish population.
In the morning Azriel the Mute and his brother Chaim together with their wives, Minka and Libby ventured into the street to find out how their mother and father Berel and Elka had fared in the terrible night. The rising sun did not forecast what was in store for Azriel, his brother and their loved ones.
They found their mother and father unmolested, still in their grocery store. As they came in, a peasant also entered and asked for change for a ruble. The demand for change was a provocation, since at that time the anti-Semites were reporting a story that the Jews were collaborating with the Germans. Part of the lie was that the Jews had shipped all of their money to Germany, including silver and copper coins. When the father told the peasant that he was short of change, it seemed to lend credence to the story, and the peasant began to beat the father with a stick.
The mother’s pleas fell on deaf ears, and it was only after she had bribed the peasant with some merchandise was he willing to stop.
While this was going on, a horde of drunken Russian army officers approached Azriel and Chaim. One of the officers began to molest Azriel’s wife, the comely Minka.
At the same time he hit Azriel in the face so fiercely that Azriel fell to the ground. Azriel, however, was very strong. He stood up immediately, recovered from the shock and began beating the officer.
As his brother Chaim and the two women tried to stop the struggle, the other officers seized Azriel and Chaim, handcuffed them and leaving them on the ground, began to debate the punishment they would mete out to the two men.
In the meantime the German armies were closing in on Telechan. Fearing that they would be trapped in the town, the officers and the soldiers decided to leave in a hurry, but they took the two brothers with them. While on the run, the officers sentenced the two brothers to corporal punishment. Chaim was given ten lashes and Azriel 15. Azriel did not survive the beating. Chaim survived, and now lives with his family in Hadera, Israel.”
In this same interview, my uncle Yitzhak said that his father (Azriel) was born with the ability of speech and in fact did speak early in life. At a young age however he stopped talking. “Something frightened him. He was a mute the rest of his life." This suggests that my grandfather’s muteness was a hysterical reaction to some trauma rather than a physical problem. If this account is true it means that Azriel never talked with his wife and children.
The TMB indicates that Azriel died in 1915. I believe that this date is NOT accurate. It is more likely that he died 1917-1919 after 10-12 years of marriage (1907) to Minka and as the father of six children. My father, the oldest child was age 9-11 at the time of his father’s death.