Pochep, current population about 17,000, is a town in the Bryansk oblast of the Russian Federation. (The Bryansk oblast is a knob-shaped territory that extends between the Ukrainian and Belarussian borders.) Pochep is 52 miles southwest of the town of Bryansk and 250 miles southwest of Moscow.
The town was the property of various noblemen under the area’s feudal system of government. In 1750 it became the property of Hetman (leader of the Cossacks) Kirill Razumovsky, from whose time a palace and a baroque church remain.
20th Century Jewish Life as Seen Through the Perspective of One Family
(Much of the following is abbreviated from stories told by Chaya Levitin Amrami.)
The city was located in a low area, and during most of the year it was muddy. There were wooden walkways along the rows of houses, but they were mostly rotten and weak. A person would try to avoid the mud by jumping and balancing, often sinking in the dirt.
On the other hand, the town enjoyed a nice view. There was a river whose course created a small lake, surrounded by a pretty forest that stretched to the hill at the end of town. The forest was a favorite for romantic outings of youngsters.
A large estate in Retchicha, a suburb of Pochep, was owned by Count Kleinmikel. He had a big mansion on a hill, with a beautiful tree-lined avenue leading to the river. Chaim Levitin, a Jew, was his trusted estate manager. He and his wife Esther, a midwife, lived in a spacious house on or near the estate, and their four sons built houses nearby. Chaim, known as “die Retchicher,” was greatly honored in the community.
The Chabad yeshivah in the town was headed by the local rabbi Joshua Nathan Gnessin. As young men two well-known Yiddish writers studied there: Uri Nissan Gnessin (the rabbi’s son), and Joseph Chaim Brenner. The Levitin family boarded many young men who studied at the yeshivah.
After the passage of a decree limiting Jewish landownership, Chaim’s son Eliezer moved the family to a country estate about 14 miles from town. The estate, known as Chuter Kalachova, was owned by another Russian nobleman, Vassily Vassilovitch Breshko Breshkovski.
It was a large farm [about 42,000 acres] with forests, lakes, mountains, and rivers. Rye, wheat, potatoes, linen and flax were grown. There were horses and poultry. There was a herd of 100 cows, which were mainly raised for the fertilizer they produced. The family gathered dairy products to send to Pochep for needy families. Farm labor came from gentile peasants, and the family worked hard beside them.
One day a rider arrived from Pochep with the news that the landowner had a heart attack and died. His funeral would be held in three days, then his will would be read and his property divided. The family knew they would be thrown off the land. They sent to all the villages in the area, loaded hundreds of wagons with all their property— horses, cows, grains, tools and furnishings— and sent them to Pochep.
The family now lived on a large property at the edge of town. Its garden, with many fruit trees, was six acres. So was the courtyard, which included many buildings: an office, kitchens and homes. The Big House was at the center. It was spacious and elegant. The large porch was glazed with menorah-shaped windows. A Holy Ark containing three Torah scrolls was placed in the large dining room, and people gathered there on Shabbat and holidays.
Food was cooked not in the house but in one of several kitchens in the courtyard. The largest of the kitchens was a complex of several rooms. It served for cooking the large meals. During weekdays, families ate separately; on Shabbats and holidays, they all dined in the big house.
Dirty laundry was kept in a closed room over the winter. In the spring when the river thawed, water would be carried up from the river, poured into tubs, and put over a fire to boil. Then the dirty clothes and sheets were washed by hand, using washboards, and spread on bushes to dry.
The family’s income was derived mostly from a factory that made oil from flax seed. To supplement this income they began a forestry operation, leasing forest land, cutting trees and selling them to be used for railway sleepers and scaffolds in coal mines.
Between 1903 and 1907 pogroms increased in the area, and the young people of Pochep organized a secret self defense force and practiced using handguns. Of 10,000 residents of Pochep, one third were Jews. They did not live in a separate area; neighborhoods were mixed. The roofs were made of straw or wood, and it was clear that if the Jews were attacked and fire broke out it would spread from house to house. Fortunately for all this never happened.
Spurred by a worsening economic situation and increasing numbers of pogroms, Jews began to leave for America and what was then Palestine. In 1939 there were 2,314 Jews living in Pochep.
The Massacre of Pochep’s Jews
Yad Vashem reports that the Germans occupied Pochep on August 22, 1941. Only a few Jews succeeded in escaping after this. In November the Jews of Pochep were forced into two ghettos, each surrounded by barbed wire: one for men and the other for women and children. The conditions in the ghettos were appalling and the mortality rates high. Then over two days in mid-March 1942 about 1,800 people were shot to death by the Germans and their local accomplices.
According to one account 1,340 of Pochep’s Jews were slaughtered in the massacre. The victims were forced to dig their own graves, into which their bodies fell after they were shot.
There does not appear to be a Yizkor book to memorialize Pochep or its surrounding towns and villages.
The town is now mostly known as the location of one of six facilities designed to dismantle Russia’s stockpile of Cold War-era chemical weapons. It is still surrounded by beautiful forests of birch trees.
More Information Welcome
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