Translated from Hebrew by Aviva Kamil I can not recall when the first stage performance of the Novogrudok theatre took place. But two things are firmly engraved in my mind: a) the first play which we staged was titled The Jewish Heart, b) the people of Novogrudok called our theatre group triater [a deliberate distortion of the Yiddish word te'ater - the theatre], to indicate how ridiculous, in their opinion, our experiment was.
We did not enjoy this attitude, but it did not weaken our resolve to establish a theatre, perform in it, find an outlet for our theatrical talent and, most important of all, help the needy of our town.
There were many charitable institutions in Novogrudok, but they could not take care of all the needs of the poor amongst us. Conditions worsened as winter approached and many of the town's poor were in need of firewood, clothing and some money to buy matzos. The mitzvah of charity at Passover was very important in our town, which was known as the town of matzos.
The first performance took place in Leizerovski's private home. Its success was obvious, because after a short time we had to find a larger venue. We moved to the Firemen's Hall. It added to our tasks. Preparations for the evening performance started in the afternoon, all the red firemen's trucks had to be taken out and benches arranged in the hall. Suspense was high and the atmosphere was very much like that of a proper theatre. Interest in the theatre grew.
For the first performances we, the players (we were called komediantoon [comedians] by the people of Novogrudok) went from house to house selling tickets, emphasizing the charitable aim of our group as the main motivation.
Later we sold tickets on the premises, and I remember that it was very difficult to buy a ticket for many performances. It became a real theatre, but we remained amateurs and accepted no reward.
Leizer (Eliezer) Rabinovich was our director. He was an amateur and a volunteer. He was also a cantor. Many in town did not look upon it favourably - should a cantor be connected with a triater?. But many were also against any change in the established order in our town, and many others were unconcerned about any problems of the Jewish community.
It should not be forgotten that the famous yeshiva of Reb Yoyzl [Yosef] was in Novogrudok. The town was a bastion of Jewish orthodoxy. This could have been the reason for the unrest among the youth; we were looking for new activities and spirituality. The cantor, Leizer Rabinovich, always supported the young. He approached his work as a director with great enthusiasm, at times exaggerated. It gave him a lot of satisfaction. Sometimes he was asked to write a piece of music to accompany the play. This pleased him enormously. Once he brought a handwritten play from Warsaw, as yet unpublished, Der Dorf Yung [The Village Youth] by L. Kabrin. It impressed him greatly and he wanted us to perform it. We staged it with everyone's help. The artistic and monetary rewards were great. And then came a crisis. We began to regard ourselves as real actors. We demanded that a professional director should be engaged, one who would be able to develop our hidden talents. A director, Madam Domb, was brought from Vilna. She directed the play The Kreutzer Sonata. Then another director was brought to town. I cannot remember his name.
Not long after, the theatre came to an end. The directors' fees swallowed the income. The main aim of the theatre, which was charity, was forgotten. We matured and the joy of creating the theatre and the charitable ideal evaporated. The group disbanded. Of course there was no shortage of unpleasant incidents, insults and quarrels. The process became tiresome and when it was clear that we could not control it any more, we decided to close.
There were some funny episodes, I would like to relate one of them. It happened after a suspenseful and elated rehearsal. We could not go straight home and went together to the Shlossbarg to have fun. Suddenly the policeman, Karshun, appeared, cursing and shouting at us to stop the noise and let decent people sleep. He took down our names and delivered the list to the appropriate authority in order for us to be fined, as the law of the land required. After the intervention of some good souls the case was quashed and we were left with pleasant memories.
Here is the list of the amateur actors:
Avraham, Hindl, Sonia ZL* IvinieckiTitles of plays that I remember are: Jewish Heart, The Blind Yudeleh, The Orphan Chasia, The Unknown, The Kreutzer Sonata, Der Dorf Yung.
Yosl Israelit ZL,
Golda, Itzhak Rabinovich,
Chana Shwartz ZL.
[*ZL - zichrono librocho - of blessed memory]
Many more plays were performed, it was a long time ago and in the meantime all that is left is to try to remember those distant days in Novogrudok.
[This article describes events that occurred, quite clearly, before the first World War. There certainly was another theatre movement in Novogrudok, which functioned after the First World War. They performed in the old cinema Pogon in the market square. There must have been a lot of interest in the theatre, because one can recall many discussions and lively comments after each performance. The word triater was still used. The people of our town were nothing if not consistent.]
Translated from Hebrew by Aviva Kamil
Edited by Judy Montel I can picture in my mind the town of Novogrudok as it was in my early childhood, at the time of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and at the end of WW1, the hard times, the battles raging. I remember very little of the German occupation, but I can recall clearly the battles between the Bolsheviks and the Poles, when the town passed from hand to hand back and forth. Those were anxious days for the Jewish residents of the town. The Jews feared both sides: the Bolsheviks, who considered the Jews to be illicit traders (speculanty) opposed to the revolution, and the Poles, who proclaimed that all Jews were communists, and thus opposed to the creation of an independent Poland. The Poles would raid Jewish homes to catch youths and force them into the army. The Polish authorities often made public spectacles of catching and publicly flogging innocent Jews. This sowed fear and despair among the Jewish population. Jews suffered no end during the four years of war and were looking forward to peace.
When eventually the Poles took control of the town, life stabilised to an extent and slowly returned to its usual underprivileged existence.
I am a son of a Chasidic family, yet I never felt fanaticism or experienced a rift between the young and old. As to the mitzvot (the observance of the religious laws), the conflict between the various factions never reached the level of the present day struggles in Israel.
The Jews were mostly small self-employed shopkeepers and craftsmen. There were few professionals, too few to meet the needs of the town. The town had the now renowned ambience of a shtetl. The water carriers; I still remember the Jew who carried on his back two buckets of soft water for tea from the cemetery or the spring in Grodno Street. This water was considered especially good. I remember the balegoles- the drivers of horses and carts - they must be mentioned too. Things were similar to any small township of those parts.
An important economic support for the town was the village. The Jews waited for the twice-weekly market days, like waiting for the mashiach [Messiah].
Apart from the Yeshiva, there was a primary religious school of 4 classes in the Third Lane, (Drite Gesl). I remember three teachers from that school: Gerber, Parnes and Mirski ZL.
When the school was closed down, Gerber and Parnes started their own cheders. Mirski's home was Zionist and devout. Hebrew was spoken as a matter of course. For us, in those days, it was a wonder to behold.
There was another primary school, which was secular. It was located in the market square, in a building it shared with the Byelorussian high school. The classes were in two shifts: the first shift was the Jewish primary school and the second the Byelorussian high school, where many pupils were Jewish. The Polish high school did not exist at that time.
The primary school was progressive. Religious studies were not a major part of the curriculum. The spoken language was Yiddish, but most books were in Hebrew. Learning Yiddish literature was of particular importance. Our friend David Cohen taught at that school. He still lives with us in Israel and takes an active part in perpetuating the name of Novogrudok.
The Jewish intelligentsia was greatly influenced by the Russian culture. This was particularly noticeable at the beginning of the Polish rule. As usual, snobbishness was evident. All those who spoke Russian saw themselves as the social elite. This trend was evident throughout Polish Byelorussia.
As Polish rule stabilised and Polish schools and cultural centers were established, the influence of the Polish culture increased markedly.
I will not exaggerate when I say, that most of the town's Jews tried to give their children the best education they could afford. I do not remember even one youth who was deprived of education. Of all the teachers in my first years at school I remember two who left a deep impression on me: Peresiecki and Lidski. I think that none of their pupils would forget them. They taught for many years in our town and were experienced in their profession. We learned elementary Jewish subjects: Peresiecki taught Hebrew, Yiddish and History and Lidski taught the Bible.
At the beginning of the 1923 school year the students of the primary school were told that the school would be teaching all subjects in Yiddish, even Jewish history was to be taught using Yiddish books. The students resented this and started to rebel. Those amongst us who supported the retention of Hebrew took that message home to their parents. It became clear that most of the people, even the ones whose Hebrew was only the language of the prayer books, disliked the innovation and wanted Hebrew to be retained in the school.
The arguments went on for two years. Then the Hebrew school Tarbut was established, with the help of the central office of the Tarbut (culture) movement, and the supporters of the indoctrination of the Hebrew language. The principal of the new school was Koren.
At the same time, compulsory education was introduced by the government. This meant that seven years of primary education would be available free for every boy and girl. The economic situation prevented many from sending their children to Tarbut, where tuition was paid for by the parents. Therefore, many sent their children to the Polish primary school. Jewish religious study was not part of the state school's curriculum, though it was studied in Jewish schools. Only later was the teacher Bruk, engaged to teach religious studies to the Jewish students of the Polish schools for one or two hours a week.
At this time a Polish high school was founded. This school became over the years one of the best in the region. Many Jewish youths from the town and the district (Karelich, Lubch, Ivie, Selub and others) studied in that school. [In the mid nineteen thirties a limitation (numerus clausus) of 10% was imposed on Jewish enrolment at the Polish high school. At that time 60% of the population of the town was Jewish.]
None the less, the number of students attending Tarbut was substantial. Many parents preferred their children to learn Hebrew at least at the primary level [Tarbut was a primary school]. It is a matter of pride that the children of the Orphanage studied at that school.
Political life expressed itself, first of all, by voting in elections, and there were a few of them: for the Polish Sejm, municipality, Jewish community, and the Zionist congress. I was not aware of any active Zionist party, apart from organisations that collected money for Zionist causes. They were represented by people who came from the centre or from Erets-Israel. The party Poalei-Zion(the workers of Zion), though it had a lot of sympathisers, did not make an impression on the daily life of the Jewish street.
There was no Zionist body that attracted many youths. I do remember the Chaluts movement, to which some young people belonged, but, as I recall, the numbers were small, especially after the crisis and the decline, which followed the end of the fourth aliyah. Two old Zionist families returned to Novogrudok: Gurevich and Efron. The Gurevich family returned to Erets-Israel with the fifth aliyah, the Efrons remained in Novogrudok.
I do not remember any extra curricular cultural activities in the early twenties. At that time the Maccabi was established and Jewish youth could participate in organised sporting activities. But cultural needs were not catered for. Young people were mostly idle in their free time, they lingered around the market place or the Shlos-barg, bored. In the summer they walked to the lake for a swim, in winter they went skiing.
The young were thirsty for news. They could pick up some snippets of news in the synagogue. There were always political discussions in Rudnidski's cellar, where soft drinks and ice cream were sold. Newspapers were relatively expensive and not everyone could afford to buy them, but if you passed Michalski's kiosk, you could catch a glimpse of the headlines in the newspapers that were displayed on the front counter.
My story would not be complete if I did not mention the Jewish community library and its head Katrashinski ZL.
A member of Hashomer Hatsair, a shaliach (a delegate from Erets Israel) from Baranovich appeared. His name was M. Zuchovicki and he spoke to us in Hebrew. All listened with gaping mouths to every word he uttered. A date was set for the next meeting and the assembly dispersed singing the Socialists Anthem Tehezakna.
Thus the Hashomer Hatsair unit was established in Novogrudok. We still did not know its aims, but the shaliach, his dress, his manner of speaking, attracted and charmed us from the beginning.
The establishment of the Hashomer Hatsair movement in our town was followed by recognisable changes in the conduct of the Jewish youth of the town. It was significant that disparate groups of Jewish youth joined the unit - mostly students, but also some working youths. It was a revolution in those days to bring the two into the one movement. At the head of the unit were Kalman Gordon, Sima Shapiro, Raya Klubok, A.Rakovski, and the leader was the Tarbut teacher Piltski, who now lives in Israel.
The organisation of the unit, the division into groups, the activities in the evenings and on Saturdays, the hikes that were held, meetings with units from Baranovich, Lida and other towns, all that brought an atmosphere of activity and interest to the life of the Jewish youth of the town. Only the lack of experienced guides madrichim - prevented a more vigorous growth.
At that time the Young Chaluts movement was already established in town, it was connected to the general Chaluts movement, which was in crisis because of the lack of prospects of early migration to Erets Israel - the aliyah.
The Hashomer Hatsair unit in Novogrudok - as, initially, a scout movement - was approved by the local government as a regional unit that could establish other units in the district without a special permit. Such units were started in Lubch, Zetl, Ivia and other towns. Our activity spread.
Scouting, as the main component of Hashomer Hatsair education, constituted the principal attraction for the youth and brought interest to their lives. Youths, who could expect only a depressed life, found their way to the movement and held on to it with great enthusiasm.
One of the elements of the Hashomer Hatsair education and its guideline was rebellion of the sons- rebellion against the existing traditional life, the boring existence, stagnation and opposition to parents who did not understand their children's desires.
Because of the large number of members who did not know Hebrew, the slogan learn Hebrew became one of the important aims of the unit, where all the activities were conducted in Hebrew.
A particular problem in the early period of the movement in Novogrudok, was the relationship between the students and the working youths. Polish high school students considered themselves to be the elite of the youth in town. Work was held in contempt and the workers considered inferior. The threat that a Jewish boy would fail in his studies and become a cobbler was still common.
Despite the problems, the work of the unit was expanding, it became an influential body in the Jewish community, and no activity took place without involving the unit. We took part in all Zionist functions in town. For years we were the foremost collectors of the Blue Box. We were active in the movement The Working Erets-Israel (Land of Israel Funds, Chaluts and more). We were responsible for many combined Zionist projects, together with shlichim from Erets-Israel or other Zionist centers. We participated in collecting donations, in elections to the Zionist congress and in many other activities.
With the guidance of the cantor, Eliezer Rabinovitch ZL (Menashe Rabina's father) we organised a choir. It became well known in our town, it performed well and with its help many pleasurable Friday evenings (Oneg-Shabbat) were celebrated. It brought together many Jews who were starved for this kind of activity. Members of the unit looked after the preparations. The camps at Lag-Ba'omer were also well known events.
As a legitimate movement we were permitted to organise parades in town. During every festival we congregated in an orderly fashion in the centre of the town and from there marched through the streets of Novogrudok. It was a powerful demonstration and the means of influencing all levels of youth.
Hashomer-Hatsair was closely involved in all Zionist activities, including elections to the Zionist Congress, to the city council and other bodies in town. Zionist leaders, who arrived to raise funds or to speak in support of the Zionist cause, always visited the unit for a discussion, for a lecture or just to sing and dance with our members. It seems that the years from 1927 onwards, were the most beautiful years of the Zionist movement in town, especially for the young.
The revolution that Hashomer-Hatsair brought to the town - a change in life style - questioning the parent's ideas of what was acceptable, friendship among members of the movement, the awakening of national pride - all that was felt in the town - and despite what people thought of the ideological side of the movement, and objections to it by other circles, all of them had to admit to the benefits which the unit brought about.
The positive attitude to work caused problems for parents, who saw in their son a future genius and wanted him to become anything but a tradesman. One incident is memorable; a daughter rebelled against her parents and despite their objections decided to become a shoemaker, she preached to them moral objections to being merchants and of living a life of exploiters. The tension was great and she was forced to leave home. For a few weeks she lived with different members of the unit and in the end she was forced to return home. We came to understand that it was not easy to organise a revolution in the family. It was beyond us to control the destiny of the parent's generation. The revolution could only occur among the young. The daughter eventually went on Hachshara and then to Erets-Israel (Rivka Yedidovich).
Erets-Israel was to us, at the beginning, a romantic aim, a dream that we did not know how to fulfil. We had a vision and enthusiasm, but there was no power, which could take advantage of our enthusiasm.
The ideological guidance of the Hakibbutz-Haartsi (Hashomer-Hatsair) was based on three principles: Zionism, Socialism and Communes. The teaching spread by Hashomer-Hatsair in the Diaspora followed those guidelines. The time came when every mature member knew that there is no other way but to fulfil the ideal, which meant Hachshara and going to Erets-Israel to live on a Kibbutz.
In the meantime a group of members reached the highest level and became senior members of Hashomer Hatzair. They had to make one of the most fateful decisions of their lives: to fulfil the ideal and go on Aliyah or to leave the movement. This situation had to be faced by some of the members who studied in the Polish high school or at the Teachers' and Kindergarten Teachers' seminaries in Vilna. They had to address the prospect of discontinuing their studies and going on Hachshara, which was the necessary step to Aliyah. Hashomer-Hatsair did not see any alternative for its members but to discontinue their studies. As long as the work in the unit involved every day activities with no future obligations, neither parents nor children interfered with the situation: let the boys play. The fact is that many parents felt that membership in the movement benefited their children in their studies and well being. Then came the first crisis in the unit. The struggle was hard: many parents did not want their children to remain members of the unit. The excuse was that it interfered with the children's studies. The unit's educators made a special effort to prove them wrong. They maintained that the opposite was true. Some members, out of weakness, surrendered to their parent's wish and left the unit, while others fought tooth and nail to stay.
We had the example of previous Aliyahs to Erets-Israel - most of them were students from high-schools and universities - who left their parents' homes and had chosen the new hard way of following their ideal.
Discussions and clarifications went on among the adult members of the unit. It was not easy, and in the meantime the gates to Erets-Israel were closed to Aliyah.
It was the period of the 1929 riots, the declaration of the White Paper by the government of MacDonald and the infamous Passfield laws.
For the first time in the Jewish history of the town, a group of boys and girls went on a one month workingcamp (Moshavah - settlement). It involved 4 hours of work per day and the rest of the time was taken up by studies and other activities. On the Moshavah were the youths from Novogrudok as well as senior members of units from Baranovich, Nesviez, Molchad, Slonim and other towns. The site of the Moshavah was 8 km. from Novogrudok on the new road from Novogrudok to Baranovich, which was being built at the time. The contractor was a Jew, who helped us to set up camp. The manager of the Moshavah was Piltski, who was assisted by Yaakov Horovits (he is now a member of Ein-Hachoresh).
I remember an incident: The mother of one of the members was opposed to her son joining the Moshavah. The son was insisting on staying in the unit. One day his mother came to the camp on foot early in the morning to search for her son and to take him home. The son was hidden, and after a day's search mother left empty handed. But that is not the end of the story. The unit's madrichim were students from the Polish high school. Membership in the unit was forbidden by the school. The mother threatened to tell the authorities. After some persuasion, this did not occur and a great harm to the unit was avoided.
In the following year a 3 month summer Hachshara was organised during the school holidays. It was an agricultural Hachsharah on the farm of a Polish landowner near Nisviez - Lachovich -Baranovich. The proposed task was hard and only a few went. For those who did go it was an unforgettable experience, though working 11-12 hours in the field, for those who were not used to it, was not easy. In the assembly of the senior members of the district a stormy argument erupted between the hesitant and the idealists. The latter visualised a district Kibbutz as a first step to Hachsharah, followed by Aliyah.
In that period, when Aliyah was stopped, arguments were rife in the Jewish communities. There were doubts whether Zionism could fulfil the aim of the gathering of Jewish people in Erets Israel; and if Erets Israel could absorb most of the Jews. This controversy involved our community. Opinions from different sectors of the community were discussed in an assembly. The non-Zionist left was determined to prove that Erets Israel was not capable of absorbing more than half a million Jews. They referred to the Passfield laws and the White paper. It was particularly difficult to convince people, when the gates of Erets-Israel were closed to Aliyah. All that occurred, of course, before Hitler's rise to power.
Because of the uncompromising ideal of Aliyah, it was the duty of every senior member of the unit to belong to Hachaluts and participate in the daily work, but they still were free to continue their involvement in units. That brought the different levels of society together and no doubt had a positive effect. When the high school students finished their studies and the moment of decision arrived, many dropped out.
In 1930 the first three senior members went to the Hachsharah, which was organised by the Chaluts (S. Kaminski, Shmuel Dobrin and Yehoshua Bruk). The Hachsharah was near Polesie, in one of the big sawmills on the river Horin. But for various reasons that venue had to be abandoned. After staying a month in Baranovich, living on very little and sleeping on benches (they had not a single dime to their name) they were forced to return home. The movement decided that they should join the district group, which was organised at the time.
In 1931 a few members of the unit were asked to go on Hachshara with a district group called Hamefales. The organisation of the venue for the Hachsharah was the task of the participants. This proved to be difficult. The search for work included the forest districts of Baranovich, Hancevich and Luniniec, where many sawmills were concentrated. In the event the members from Baranovich, Nisviez and Slonim joined other groups. The group from Novogrudok and the surroundings, which was connected to Hamefales, was too small. It was hoping to join another group. These changes caused a loss of some members. With no Aliyah, people started to doubt the merit of continuing. Persistence and patience were needed and the weak dropped out.
From time to time there were some rare possibilities for Aliyah, through attending the Eastern fair and the Maccabia. Even then it was difficult to arrive in a conventional way. Those were, as a matter of fact, the first attempts to arrange a camouflaged Aliyah Bet (illegal entry). This was the way some of our senior members reached Erets Israel. Some others were permitted to come because they were invited by their relatives. Despite the crisis in the Zionist movement caused by closure of the Aliyah, and the crisis in our unit (many dropped out and some joined the Communist party), it is worth noting that the unit continued to exist and carry out the necessary work. Thanks to the persistence of the remaining senior members the unit was thriving, the youth-groups were strong and guided by good and experienced madrichim.
The second group of senior members from the district - Plugat-Atid, also had to confront the decision of joining the Aliyah. In time, they established Kibbutz Masad (today Kibbutz Eilon in west Galilee).
The third group of senior members Baderech worked within the movement. They formed Kibbutz Hachsharah Achavah. Today part of this group is in Kibbutz Dan in Upper Galilee and the others in Kibbutz Eilon.
In 1932 Hashomer Hatsair decided that the first group of senior members from Novogrudok, Alizim, would join Kibbutz Volyn B which was the district kibbutz of Volyn. It was sent on Hachsharah to Chelm and later to Rovno. The conditions in the Hachsharot were very hard; lack of money, appalling accommodation, sleeping on benches in crowded rooms, and the very bad supply of life's necessities. There was unemployment, and if some work was found, it was not enough to better the conditions. It is difficult for us today to understand the situation at the time. It is possible that training of young Jews, mostly town's people, to the hard life awaiting them in Erets-Israel, demanded those preparations. After 1933 a considerable change occurred. The Chaluts organisation realised that for a prolonged Hachsharah better conditions were required: improved accommodation, sleeping arrangements, food and health care. There were also those who were ready to go on Aliyah, but the long stay on Hachsharah weakened them and they needed recuperation. Special accommodation was built for that purpose near Warsaw.
The closure of Aliyah influenced the mood of the movement. With no prospect to go to Erets Israel soon, members changed their plans and sometimes left Hachaluts. We felt that the situation would be completely different if prospects for speedy departure were better.
In 1933 the senior members of the group Baderech went on Hachsharah, first to one of the big farms near Novogrudok to do agricultural work. After a Hachsharah centre was established in town. Accommodation was found with a Tatar family near the football ground, not far from the Jewish cemetery. For the Jewish residents of the town, it was an unusual scene to see Jewish youths doing jobs like felling trees and cleaning the town's square. And, surprisingly, girls took part in the activities too.
The market square, after two market days a week, had to be thoroughly cleaned. Scores of workers (non Jews) were employed by the municipality to do this work. No one thought that Jews would do it. And here was a group of boys and girls from good families that demanded this work and fought for it. It was not easy. With the help of the deputy mayor, our friend Avraham Ostashinski, we managed to get the job. Those days (and nights) are well remembered, when the town's people looked with curiosity on the young boys and girls sweeping the market place.
At that time, the task of education in the unit passed to the third group of senior members, the group Baderech. The rest of the members of Mefales and The Future later joined the Slonim Hachsharah. That Hachsharah was more stable.
In the same year the writer of this article returned from the Hachsharah, which lasted, with a few intervals, two and a half years, to prepare for Aliyah. And in the meantime he started to work again in the unit and in the Chaluts.
A club named after Haim Arlozorov was established as a joint initiative of the senior members of the unit and the members of the Chaluts, in the building that once was the Tarbut school. The club was opened every evening and many kinds of printed matter could be found there: daily news in Yiddish, weeklies, monthlies and publications from Erets-Israel. The club was of considerable importance. Youths and adults could read a paper or a book, play games and avoid boredom.
In 1934 the writer left for Erets-Israel. A very interesting period in Novogrudok, in Hashomer-Hatsair and Hachaluts came to an end. With a great deal of interest I followed the happenings in Novogrudok from Erets-Israel.
With the eruption of 1936 riots Aliyah was almost completely stopped, and members of the movement were detained in Poland. Their prospects of Aliyah had become very slight. At the same time, changes occurred in the structure of the Kibbutzim in Erets-Israel. In the Diaspora the number of members in the Hachsharah of every Kibbutz was high, because inevitable rejections and dropouts were unavoidable.
Few people were allowed to come by the Aliyah. When the early groups arrived they established independent kibbutzim. They were initially temporary kibbutzim, usually in existing Moshavot. They kept in close contact with their members in Poland, who were sitting on their suitcases waiting for Aliyah.
In 1939 I had the chance to visit Poland and my home town-Novogrudok. It was an unforgettable event in my life. It was a period of political upheaval in Europe, with the threat of Hitler to Danzig and Poland. We were a small group of kibbutz members on a ship. We had a good time, with our friend Klavoriski ZL. Then we heard the rumour that Fascist Germany had invaded Danzig. We decided that if this rumour was true we would turn back to Erets-Israel the moment we arrived in Constance. On our arrival we found that the rumour was false, but the tension was great and the atmosphere electrified. Fearfully we continued our journey to Poland.
When I arrived, after an absence of 5 years, to the town where I had spent 22 years of my life, I found a great change. Anti-Semitism was rife. The Poles were never friendly and the Polish youths were permeated with virulent hatred of Jews. Jewish residents told me that a short time ago, they could not go out at night for 5 weeks because of Polish hooligans in the streets. There was encouraging news of Jewish self-defence. The economic situation had changed too. The local peasants (mostly Byelorussian) were no longer trading with Jews. They used other outlets such as stores, credit institutions, rural banks etc. They were not dependent on Jewish traders. [These may have been the plans for the future, in 1939 the poverty was due to the disastrous ineptitude and anti-Semitism of the Polish government]. Making a living became harder for the Jews; the rug was pulled from under their feet.
Among the youths I found frustration and despair. The atmosphere was saturated with gunpowder from Germany and the unlimited hatred by the Polish population. My friends and acquaintances were astonished that I visited Poland at such an awful time. You could sense danger in the air. I wanted to return to Erets-Israel as soon as possible. My parents pleaded with me to stay longer. Disquiet enveloped me even more. News from Erets-Israel was of bloody riots. My kibbutz went to settle a place in the south called Negba. I was cruel to my parents by my reluctance to stay longer, but I had the feeling that I should not extend my stay. Two weeks before the eruption of WW2 I returned to Erets-Israel.
Whilst I was still in Novogrudok, the members of the unit kept asking me what they should do. There was no Aliyah. Many people wanted to leave Europe. Aliyah Bet was active in Poland, but in those days there was little they could do. I knew that it was difficult. I advised them to be as active as they could, and not to accept that they had to stay there. I had a subconscious feeling of dread of the future. Like anyone else, I had friends and relatives, I feared for their future. I knew that I could not save them.
With the eruption of WW2 the doors were closed. With fear and painful longing I followed the events in the town and the fate of my dear family and friends. I still remember the few words that my dear mother wrote to me when the town was held by the Soviets: for the first time in my life I have to admit that you were right, I thank God that you did not listen to me when I pleaded with you to stay longer, I am happy that you did get away. She still did not know what the cruel future was preparing for them and what fate was awaiting them from the hands of the monstrous Nazis.
So was lost forever the old, rooted Jewish settlement in Novogrudok and its fertile life. A small group was saved from the Nazis, thanks to the partisans who fought, defending their souls and their honour. [It was estimated that 10% of the population of Novogrudok was saved by joining the partisan movement. This was not a small group by any measure.]
In 1946 I came as a Shaliach to the refugee camps in Germany. Among other things I took it upon myself to trace the survivors from Novogrudok who roamed the sad roads of the European Diaspora. I met some of them in camp Foehrenwald. I found among them members of our movement. In time I met more people from my hometown. In Munich I met Nachman Kirsner, who studied opera singing with a German musician. I think that he is a cantor now in the U.S.A. I received messages about other survivors in West Germany as well as Austria. I am sorry to say that some of them subsequently left Israel. I met Raya Klubok. Sima Portnoy is with us today. I was for some time in the Ashuga camp (a refugees camp near Kassel) with my neighbour from Novogrudok, Liza Shwartz and the youngest son of the family Zeshukovski from Koscielna Street. I was glad to meet these people, but it was with mixed feelings of pain and sorrow to know of the hell that they went through and that so few survived.
Often I have a feeling of guilt. Could more people from my hometown have been saved and brought to Erets Israel, as they were saved from other towns? And more: when you look around you and you see many people from your home town that are working in industry and in the kibbutzim (Negba, Eilon, Dan and I think a few in the Kibbutz Hameuchhad kibbutzim) and some work in the professions, then you have a pleasant feeling, you feel good.
Having been brought up in Hashomer Hatsair, I am proud that the time we invested in our work in the unit in Novogrudok was not in vain. A good many of the Hashomer Hatsair youths of Novogrudok came to Erets Israel. They preserved the values of our movement. They remembered its aims and the call to create Zionist Socialist Pioneering.
[This is a narrative of a life devoted to Hashomer-Hatsair and Erets Israel. We hope to add translations of stories of other people and other movements, which also played vital parts in the existence of Novogrudok.]
Translated from Yiddish by O. Delatycki
Translated from Hebrew by Aviva Kamil
The Polish authority recognised Rabbi Meirovich as the town's Rabbi. He was a studious Jew, erudite in all Jewish subjects; he was a "Maskil" as well, soundly educated in German philosophy and literature. In his speeches he used to mention the names of German classics, mainly those of Goethe. He was a Zionist and fought for the Zionist's cause in town; he was also one of the leaders of the "Mizrachi" in Poland. The Chasidim called him the "Zionistisher Rav"É He was proud of the fact that he could exhort Zionists' ideals in the Jewish town. Later on when he was very old and frail, when Hitler came to power and anti-Semitism grew in Poland, he anticipated the coming catastrophe and urged the Jewish youth to go to Eretz-Israel. He did not care if they were religious or "Hashomer-Hatzair", the main thing was to go to Eretz-Israel and there one could decide how to live. In his "Drashot" (speeches) to "Agudat-Israel" he argued: "go to Eretz-Israel first, there you could try to influence the non-believers"...
He asked the Polish government to make concessions for the Jews who wanted to go to Eretz-Israel.
In the beginning the dispute between the Rabbis was bitter, a small group of zealot Chasidim and the people of Shlas-Gass (Castle Street) led a strong conflict against the "Zionist Rabbi", but over a period of time the town became a Zionist town, and the sons of the Chasidim "saru miderech hayashar" (left the path of righteousness). The sons of the people of Shlas Gass joined the Zionists of the town, and some of them went to Eretz-Israel. The quarrel between the rabbis weakened and the virtues of Rabbi Meirovich were acknowledged by all in Novogrudok; even the people who disputed his ideas revered him. He died at an old age shortly before WW2.
Rabbi Abovich directed the small yeshiva in town, which taught 80-100 pupils. He managed also the "Talmud-Torah", which had three classes and prepared gifted pupils for the Yeshiva. The pupils of the "Talmud-Torah" were mainly poor and their number was small. Among the followers of Rabbi Abovich were the students from the big Yeshiva, which was known as the Reb Yozl Yeshiva. Rabbi Abovich was the head of the committee for the Yeshivas of Novogrudok. Basically it was a bastion of "Agudat-Israel", which conducted a war against Zionism and Eretz-Israel. The rabbi controlled the distribution of yeast and the wives of his followers bought the yeast for Chalot from the Rabanit (rebetzen - wife of the rabbi). Rabbi Abovich was a tall man with an imposing face and a beautiful beard. He was harsh in his rulings, while Rabbi Meirovich was lenient. His son, Yaakov Abovich, did not follow in his father's footsteps; he wanted to study and became a grain merchant in town. Rabbi Abovich died a natural death before the outbreak of WW2.
JewishGen, Inc. makes no representations regarding the accuracy of
the translation. The reader may wish to refer to the original material
JewishGen is not responsible for inaccuracies or omissions in the original work and cannot rewrite or edit the text to correct inaccuracies and/or omissions.
Our mission is to produce a translation of the original work and we cannot verify the accuracy of statements or alter facts cited.
Novogrudok, Belarus Yizkor Book Project JewishGen Home Page
Copyright © 1999-2017 by JewishGen, Inc.
Updated 7 July 2006 by LA