Last updated September 16, 2012
Schedrin Reunion Articles
Contributed by Jerrold Keilson
Russian Heritage, P. Steinberg, 01/16/86
At 2 p.m. on Sunday, January 26, a reunion will take place at C.B. Smith Park in Pembroke Pines for descendants of the Russian village of Schedrin, in the Minsk area. The village has an interesting but sad history. Interesting because originally only Jews lived there and sad because there are no Jews there today.
Shedrin was founded in 1844 by a Lubavitcher rebbe named Rebbe Isadik. It is located 40 miles from Bobruisk in Minsk. Desiring to aid the impoverished Jews of the area, the rebbe went to a rich Polish prince named Schedrin and offered to buy 1,000 acres of dense forest land and to name the land after the prince. His attempt was successful and shortly after, the tsar of the region conferred citizenship on the Jews of Schedrin. This was quite an achievement for the tiny vil-lage of Jews because Russian Jews at that time were state-less and not allowed to become citizens.
Out of the dense forest, the people of Schedrin chopped down trees and made log cabins which became their homes. They chopped down more trees and made a schoolhouse and a synagogue. There were no Christians in the tiny village. Each Shabbos, a Christian from a nearby community came to put on the lights in the totally observant Lubavitcher community.
From the original 1,300 families in Schedrin in 1845, the population soared to 4.022 in 1897 The people of Schedrin were happy in their small village as they toiled and prayed together until the Tsar began pogroms against the Jews. In 1931, the population shrunk to 2,021 and then the Christians in the neighboring communities began to infiltrate Schedrin.
By 1943, there were only 1,200 Jews left in Schedrin. On a somber day In 1943, the Nazis paraded Into the town of Schedrin and asked the Christians in the community to identify the homes of the Jews. All of the Jews were taken from their homes and marched down to the edge of town where they were forced to dig a massive grave. When the Jews completed the digging, they were simultaneously slaughtered by machine guns. In one day, the 1,200 Jews of Schedrin were erased from the face of the earth.
Elsie Briner, age 90, and a resident of Century Village in Deerfield, was one of the more fortunate members of the community of Schedrin. Elsie left Schedrin in 1917 at the encouragement of her mother, a widow with five daughters.
"We had a small farm with 18 goats because we had ten children in our family," said Briner.
"My mother said we needed so many goats in order to have enough milk to drink.
"After my father died, my mother encouraged us to go to America and seek our fortunes.
"My mother was afraid that all of her daughters would not find husbands in Schedrin so she sold a goat or an animal or two and when she had enough money, she sent a child to America.
"None of us knew what we would find when we arrived. One of my sisters ended up sleeping on a fire escape at a relative's home in New York because there was not enough room in the apartment for her, but all of us who were fortunate to come to America survived," said the spry 90-year-old with a twinkle in her eye.
Briner fulfilled her mother's wishes and married in America, had two children, four grandchildren and now has six grandchildren.
Another Schedrin booster is Harry L. Katz, also of Century Village in Deerfield. Unlike Briner, Harry is a second-generation Schedriner. His parents came to the U.S. in 1903. Katz was born in Pittsburgh.
Interested in the genealogy of his parents, Katz has collected photos, constructed family trees and had former residents of Schedrin draw maps of the city. He has been attending reunions and collecting Schedrin data for the past 15 years. The club actually began in 1910 and Schedriners have clubs in different cities throughout the U.S.
"Every year at the reunion new descendants of Schedrin attend," said Katz.
"Many are youngsters, third and fourth generation Schedriners.
"They are hungry for their roots," says Katz.
While many of us are fortunate to be able to visit the birthplace of our parents or grandparents, the Schedriners are not.
"Jews are discouraged from going there. The village has been turned into a Christian collective farm community and the only remaining Jewish presence is a single monument which is dedicated to the 1,200 Jews who were massacred there in 1943. No Jews live there any more.
"The temple has been turned into a storage barn for farm equipment and supplies," said Katz.
Many Schedriners long to know about the past. They come to the reunions seeking information about the family shtetl. They talk to one another about what their ancestors did to earn a living and they search for answers about what life was like in the village. Katz tries to help the Schedriners relive the past. He has carefully constructed family trees for Schedriners. He has each family tree mounted on a separate poster. Each time a new member of the group comes to a reunion, he helps them construct their individual family tree and trace their heritage.
"There are thousands of Schedriners living in the United States," boasts Katz.
"I look forward to the reunions because each year I meet new Schedriners," he smiled.
Present at the reunion will be former first-generation Schedriner, Jack Gorelick, folksinger and writer. Gorelick writes in Yiddish for the Jewish Daily Forward. Gorelick, who spends his winters in Miami Beach, will entertain Schedriners with songs he originally heard in the shtetl of Schedrin. Gorelick came to America in the 1920's and writes humorous short stories about Schedrin. Gorelick will also lead a short memorial service in honor of the 1,200 members of the community who were massacred by the Nazis.
All Schedriners are invited to take a giant step back in history and find their roots at the annual Schedrin reunion at C.B. Smith Park.
For more information about the reunion, contact Harry Katz at 427-9716.
PEMBROKE PINES -- The last thing Joe Witkin of Boca Raton expected when he attended a reunion last Sunday of descendants of Schedrin, an all-Jewish town in Russia, was to find there a former customer from the Bronx.
When he arrived at the reunion at C.B. Smith Park hare, he immediately recognized Helen Pessin Sarrett, now of Queens, who was visiting her brother in Tamarac.
"Helen, who was born in Schedrin, was a friend of my parents, Louis and Belle Okon Witkin," he explained. Witkin's parents were also from Schedrin, which was founded by Jews in 1844 near Bobruisk.
"My parents made famous Witkin's Delicatessen and Restaurant on 180th Street in the Bronx," he said. Helen Sarrett used to frequent the deli, where they realized they were landsleit.
Although Witkin's parents are now deceased, he remembered Helen and greeted her warmly, posing for picture with her and anxiously sharing memories.
Schedrin was founded by a Lubavitcher Rebbe Isadik, who offered to buy 1,000 acres of forest from a Polish prince named Schedrin and named the area after him. The Jews built log cabins from the trees and flourished in the settlement. By 1900, there were 4,000 people living in the ghetto, and Russian administrators of the region conferred citizenship on the Jews, which was unusual at that time.
By 1931, the population shrank as pogroms began against the Jews. By 1943, there were only 1,200 Jews left in Schedrin, and they were all killed in a Nazi attack and massacre. They were forced to dig a massive grave, then shot with machine guns.
The parents of Harry Katz, organizer of the Schedrin reunion here, were born in Schedrin, and came to the United States in 1903. He started researching his roots when his son began asking questions 14 years ago about the family. The son, who later became an Orthodox rabbi, helped him with the research.
Discovering new links to the original settlers of Schedrin was the main reason for organizing these reunions, explains Katz. The Deerfield Beach resident has been holding annual summer gatherings in Pittsburgh, Pa., for the past 12 years and now will sponsor annual Florida meetings as well.
At the reunions, Katz displays family trees of many of the original names in Schedrin, and has photos of gravestones in the Jewish cemetery there.
Other Schedriners have gathered in various places since 1910.
In fact, Katz said he was overwhelmed by the response to his plan for the South Florida gathering. After sending out invitations and getting some publicity, Katz received calls from 12 different states, one from as far away as Anchorage, Alaska.
They wanted me to help put together the missing links," Katz explained. "I see a resurgence of interest in finding one's roots."
He even changed the site of the reunion to a larger area when the number of people expected jumped from a dozen to five times that.
He estimates that relatives of the original Schedrin community, which began with 300 families, now number in the thousands.
Ruth Sussman, a cousin of Joe Witkin, was so interested in attending the reunion, she flew in from Cherry Hill, N.J. Her brother, Aaron Ginsberg, now of Hollywood, was born in Schedrin.
Sussman brought an album of photos from the Russian settlement, which provoked many memories among the survivors and relatives of survivors present at the reunion.
Another who attended this year's reunion was Joseph Demberg, a descendant of the Zuber family, who is today a Lubavitcher. He urged the group to "not only carry on the memory, but to practice what was lived in Schedrin." He added, "It's fine to speak about the past, but if it stops with the bubbes and the zaydes, then we're missing something."
For more information about the Schedrin settlers, contact Harry Katz at 427-9716
Although friends and families gathered to share memories Sunday afternoon, the occasion wasn't a cheerful reunion. The sunny park in Pembroke Pines didn't fit the somber mood, as 60 people recalled the massacre of their relatives in the small Russian village of Schedrin during World War II.
Most of the families had stories to tell about the day In March, 1943 when the Nazis pulled into Schedrin, marched the 1,300 Jewish residents to the edge of town, forced them to dig a mass grave and then opened fire on them with machine guns. Lloyd Livstone's was one of the few happy stories. His sister, Sara, was the sole survivor.
"Sara hid in a closet. The Germans came in the house and bayonetted the closet on the other side. Later; she had to jump off the roof of the house, while pregnant, to escape," be recalled.
Sixty of the villagers' relatives from all over the country gathered in C.B.. Smith Park, trying to learn more of their heritage and praying and singing for those who died.
"This is how hungry people are for roots," said Harry Katz of Deerfield, whose mother had moved away before the killings. "I had no Idea what a hunger there was."
Rabbi Yossie Denburg of Coral Springs reminded the Schedriners to carry on "not only the memories, but also the feelings and the promise of Schedrin."
Afterward, he said his father, Leibl, narrowly missed the 1943 tragedy.
"When the Communists began to put pressure on the village in 1939, he went to Moscow. He was supposed to have gone back [to the village] in the summer of '42. He became sick and postponed his train ride one day. That's the day the Germans came in."
"Eight people who were born in Schedrin came to the program Sunday and shared stories of the way of life in the village.
"One of these days, it will all be in a computer in Tel Aviv," Katz said, pointing to several thick files of names as he struggled to keep a blue beret on in the wind. "You'll be able to punch a button and see all the history.
Genealogy has always been an important part of Jewish tradition. Even people who aren't familiar with Genesis as a whole know about the famous "begats."
The Bible is filled with hundreds of genealogies, some long and spanning many generations, others quite short. In fact, hardly a character in the biblical drama is introduced without some mention of his or her family history for at least a generation or two.
Today most people can't trace their family back beyond a generation or two. But those whose ancestors came from the little shtetl of Schedrin in what was once white Russia are lucky they can contact Harry Katz of Deerfield Beach, who has been unofficially designated Schedrin's historian, for information.
Katz keeps a file with people's names, addresses, and family connections. "Everyone from Schedrin is somehow related. The Okun family built the town's synagogue. Today in America, many Okuns are still builders. The peole of Schedrin were virile and had very large families," Katz said.
Schedrin was founded in 1845, by the Lubavitcher Rebbe on land purchased by a family of wealthy lumber merchants, the Holedetz's, from Prince Schedrinov. Three hundred families initially settled the town; by 1900 the population had grown to 4,000.
Shortly before the Russian Revolution and right after, people started emigrating. Most came to the United States and Canada, and some went to Palestine and South America. By 1926 there were only 1759 Jews left in Schedrin.
In the '20s and '30s, Schedriners living in New York met regularly. Most of them belonged to the same synagogue, and later to the same lodge. People drifted away during the ensuing years and the group died. In March 1942 the Nazis massacred the Schedriners. Fourteen hundred were killed. But some managed to escape to the woods and fight with the partisans.
Katz resurrected the Schedrin connection 10 years with about 50 families, and now his mailing list numbers 300. The Schedrin connection spans the globe. Katz said that he has received letters and requests for information from as far away as Asia.
The Schedriners hold annual summer and winter meetings in Florida. This year's' winter affair was held Sunday, March 1, at Esterlin Park in Fort Lauderdale. Drawings of family trees, showing all the interconnections, old photographs, and newspapers were displayed. About fifty people attended, even though the event was outside and storms threatened all day. Some were there for the first time, all were seeking more information about their forebears.
"Every year we discover a new clan, new relatives," Katz said.
One of the people at Sunday's gathering is alive because he missed a train. Leib Denburg, now of Montreal, Canada, was returning to Schedrin from Minsk. When he arrived home, he found that the Nazis had murdered the entire town the day before. Denburg is the father of Coral Spring'' Chabad rabbi, Yossie Denburg.
Eighty-five-year-old Jacob Gorelick of Pompano Beach is the oldest living Schedriner. He arrived in America during 1920s and knows what all the families did for a living, who married who, and what kind of people they were. People eagerly questioned Gorelick, calling out parents' and grandparents' names. He told one woman how some of her family escaped from the Germans and became partisans. Gorelick sang some special Schedrin nigguns or Sabbath melodies that Katz recorded and preserved for posterity.
Schedrin at the turn of the century was a bustling town, Gorelick recalled. The town had many businesses and two yeshivas, one sponsored by the town and the Lubavitchers.
Ida Okun Boretsky of Pompano Beach "I'm thrilled to be able to trace my family so far back. I know as far as my great-great grandmother on my mother's side and six generations back on my father's."
"It's good to feel connected to something that goes further back than 50 years," said Celia Seligman Safran of Sunrise.
People proudly spoke of being Okuns, Pinskys, Seligmans or other family branches. Katz said that Schedriners "list of accomplishments is impressive. Many are listed in Who's Who in America. We have builders, financiers, diplomats, and many prominent rabbis in the U.S. and Canada."
Rabbi Yossie Denburg addressed the gathering. "In 1942 the Nazis destroyed the town what that was Schedrin. It is a fitting memorial to those who perished if we do mitzvahs with the same joy they did," he said. The spirit that overcame Nazi and Russian persecution can overcome American apathy and build a strong Jewish community in America, Denburg concluded.
Katz received a letter from Gladys Botinin, a third generation American living in Haifa, whose ancestors came from Schedrin. When she was researching her family tree, she discovered that she had a cousin in Russia who is a refusenick.
Boris Chernobilisky, his wife and three children live in Moscow. In 1976 they applied for an exit visa. Immediately Boris lost his job as a radio engineer and the KGB began harassing them. Boris was arrested in 1981 and served a one year prison sentence in a labor camp for "obstructing justice." The Chernobilisky family is religious, despite the hardships of being so in the Soviet Union.
Katz circulated Botinin's letter detailing her cousin's plight and the Schedriners are mobilizing a letter writing campaign to draw attention to their situation. "The Schedriner connection is still strong and by helping the Chernobilisky family you can help make it stronger," Katz said.
Harry Katz notes, on a copy of the original article, that the above news report is essentially correct, but notes the following corrections:
Return to KehilaLinks Scadryn at Jewishgen.org
Email any changes to Melissa Kaplan.