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Hebrew Schools on the Eve of the First World War

by Leibel Wahl, New York

Translated by Jerrold Landau

I came to Ratno in 1913 from my small town, Liubsiai, close to the Passover holiday. My aim was to set up a modern cheder in that town, which would teach holy subjects as well as Hebrew and grammar. I got off the train at the closest stop to Ratno, Zabolottya, but I did not find any wagon driver who transported the travelers from the train station to the town. However, I succeeded in finding the train wagon that carried the mail to and from Ratno, and the mailman agreed to take me to the town. He brought me to the home of Necha Ginzburg, who owned the store as well as several rooms that served as guest rooms for Christian visitors who would come in from the region. The son of this Necha, Mottel Ginzburg, was the first to engage me in conversation. He was a happy, pleasant youth. When he found out that I was a teacher and had come in order to open a Hebrew school, he became very enthusiastic, but he saw the need to warn me that difficult work was awaiting me, for the parents were accustomed to sending their children to the melamdim (traditional teachers) throughout the entire day, and that the innovation that I was intending to institute -- a 5-6 hour teaching day -- would not be willingly accepted. Mottel continued to explain to me that, aside from this, a battle was awaiting me with the melamdim and teachers who were already in the town, for I was intending to encroach on their livelihoods. I explained to him that I would need a teacher or two for the school that I was planning, and perhaps even one melamed. In addition to this, I intended

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to charge no less than 15 rubles per semester for each student, and only the children of the wealthy people would be able to afford such.

Mottel introduced me to a young teacher in the town, Yudel Konishter, who I liked at first sight, for I saw that he had the character of an intelligent Maskil whose roots had been forged in the Beis Midrash, as was usual in those days. I told this teacher about my plans, and immediately offered him to be my partner. This teacher hesitated at first for fear of failure, but after I continued the discussion with the details of the plan and proved to him that this would not harm any person, he accepted my offer of partnership. Later, Mottel brought me to the home of Reb Avraham-Eliezer Rozman, who owned the guesthouse for outside guests. I was put up there. My first step was to produce posters about the intended school and post them in all the synagogues of the town. As expected, these posters aroused many echoes, and the town was in ferment. The melamdim opened up with the first attack, as they declared in public that a “Litvak” has arrived in town who may, Heaven forbid, lead the children to apostasy. To my luck, my host Reb Avraham-Eliezer, himself a Hassid of Stolin was daring enough to testify that he saw with his own eyes that I put on tefillin and ate with a head covering. This testimony softened the attack against me, especially once people saw me worshipping in the Shtibel on the Sabbath.

On Sunday, I went out along with Yudel Konishter to the areas around the town in order to register students for the new school. We registered 40 children within two days, which by all opinions was a great success. We also rented a large, pleasant room, and ordered appropriate furniture for the school from one of the carpenters. Very satisfied with my achievements, I returned to my town for the Passover holiday. I was very surprised, however, when I received a telegram from Mottel Ginzburg just on the eve of Passover, that I must come to Ratno immediately. I began to be suspicious of the fate of my entire enterprise, and I was already in Ratno on the first Intermediate Day of Passover. It quickly became apparent to me that the melamdim in town had succeeded in convincing Yudel

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Konishter to break his partnership with me. They even made him understand that they were preparing to “deal with” that “Litvak” (i.e. me) in a way that would knock sense into me and warn others against attempting to open a modern school in Ratno. I took into account the “refined” situation of my partner and advised him to stand at the side and not become involved in the matter at all, while I would conduct the battle myself.

Mottel Ginzburg and one of the important householders in the town, Reb Binyamin Kamfer, were enlisted to assist me. Along with them, I visited once again the parents of the children who had been registered for the school and spoke sincerely to them, telling them that they would not be disappointed. Our joint efforts succeeded. I opened the school, I also hired the melamed Reb Nota Shapira, I brought a Russian Language teacher from Brisk, and we began to teach.

Results were not long in coming. Within a brief time, many other parents came to register their children, and I prepared to rent two additional rooms for the needs of the school. I also held negotiations with two melamdim who accepted for themselves the duties of teaching the holy subjects. However, due to technical reasons, I was forced to abandon the expansion plans, and had to satisfy myself with accepting only 25 additional students. I added the veteran teacher of the town Avraham Telson to the teaching staff, as well as his son-in-law, the melamed from Brisk. I exchanged the teacher of Russian, replacing her with Nina Gwirtzman, who later married M. Ginzburg.

The town was small in those days, but there were already youths with nationalist feelings who were active for the funds, in the dissemination of the Zionist idea, in the organization of youth groups and book debates, etc. In the home of the pharmacist Mogilensky, a Zionist and a man of intelligence, as well as in my home, these youths would gather for discussions on current events, sport topics, and the like. We also founded a band. There was no shortage of fiddle and mandolin players in Ratno, and the girls would sing the popular songs of those day.

I recall the names of many of these youths: Henich Karsh, Leibel

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Shapira, Avraham and Mordechai Ides, Mottel Ginzburg, Berl Held, Baruch Hindich, Yehuda Finkelstein, the sisters Breindel and Reizel Cohen, Gittel Hindich, Perl Kaminsky, and others. I began to feel at home in the town that became dear to me, especially after luck shined its face toward me, and I got to know Gittel, the daughter of Shalom the shochet, with whom I fell in love and married. A life of happiness was awaiting me were it not for the outbreak of the First World War a short time after my marriage

The first day of that war is etched very well in my memory. It was the Sabbath, the eve of Tisha Beav. The draft edict that was published aroused fear and terror. Husbands were separated from their wives, brides from the bridegrooms, and children from their fathers who were sent to the front. The situation in the town became very grim, and people lost their mutual trust. My first loss was the private lessons that I gave. A short time later, the number of students in the school started to decline. The situation continued to deteriorate as the front approached the town. One could hear the thunder of the cannons, and the Russian soldiers began to dig pits around the town -- a clear sign that the Germans were approaching. The school was closed, and the fear about what was awaiting the next day swept over all the residents of the town. I purchased a horse and small wagon, loaded up my wife and young child, and we traveled back to my town of Liubsiai. From that point, our period of wandering began. Here is not the place to describe this

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tiring period. All of the paths were blocked by war refugees. We were not able to rest in Liubsiai once we arrived there, for the Germans arrived and issued an order to evacuate the residents because the battles in the region were about to break out. I once again picked up my walking staff, and we began to wander in the direction of the town of Maciejów, where the family of my brother-in-law Yehoshua Hindich lived. There I found out that my beloved town Ratno had been destroyed completely, with only one road remaining. People from Ratno arrived in Maciejów in order to purchase flour and food provisions for the starving population. Since I had nothing to do, and I wanted to see Ratno again, I also hauled food provisions there. I was shocked when I arrived there. There were heaps of ruins, and the pillars of smoke were still rising and covering the sky. The house of my good friends Reb Avraham the shochet and his wife Doba was not burned down, and I went there. A pleasant experience awaited me in their home. At lunchtime, a young man entered and asked the head of the house if he could get some food in exchange for payment. I looked at his face, and immediately two shouts were heard, “Kotzker!”, “Wahl!” as we recognized each other. We had been friends already when we were studying together in Pinsk. Kotzker remained in Ratno until the Holocaust, whereas my family and I immigrated to the United States.

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