At one point a woman in Sidney Shaievitz’s audience ducked her head, saying, “Enough — I can’t hear any more!” Those around her, at the May 18 talk in Livingston, nodded in agreement, sharing her horror at the questions he was reading aloud. They were queries addressed to the rabbi of the Ukrainian shtetl of Felshtin asking how to honor their dead.
In February 1919, around 600 of Felshtin’s 1,800 Jews were massacred by Cossack mercenaries. The survivors were faced with dilemmas almost too gruesome to put into words — on how to deal with the dismembered remains of their spouses, their elderly, and their small children.
“Our little town has drowned in blood,” one Felshtiner wrote in a massive memorial book written by the survivors and published in 1937 in New York. Shaievitz, who has been dealing with this material for more than 25 years, had a friend read out some of his material because it still brings him to tears.
The Bloomfield-based lawyer first came across the 670-page book about the tragedy at his mother’s house back in 1989. Her father was among the victims, a loss she had never discussed with her son. “She hadn’t even told me his name,” Shaievitz said.
His mission since then has been to keep alive the memory of the town and the pogrom victims, and to make their story accessible to as many people as possible. On May 18, he addressed the League of Women Voters of Livingston. His late wife, Rhoda, was a longtime member — and he along with her — and he was invited to share this labor of love.
Only two chapters of the original Felshtin Yizkor (commemorative) Book were in English; the rest is in Yiddish. Despite limited knowledge of the language, Shaievitz gradually found out what was contained in the passages written in Yiddish, in the essays and lists and reports. It was published in 1937 by the First Felshtiner Progressive Benevolent Society, a group of immigrants who, like so many others, had settled in the United States, in place of a monument to their dead.
With the help of family members and fellow descendants of those Felshtin Jews, Shaievitz has been trying to complete and publish a full English translation. In the process, he has brought together around 200 families with a link to Felshtin (now Hvardiyske), just about as many as belonged to the original society.
“We have people in Canada, England, Israel, and Argentina, as well as this country,” he said. “One of my cousins thanked me. She said it had changed her life, finding out about our grandfather.”