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Chapters of memories
and Experiences

 

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Memories of the Distant Past[1]

by Isser Kamintzky

Translated by Jerrold Landau

Many memories of my childhood in Ratno remain with me today, and I will try to put some of them in writing. I remember very well the Shtibel of the Stepan Hassidim, which was very large and had many windows on all sides. Along the length of the shtibel were ovens that were lit in the winter. Several young men who had completed their studies in the cheders would sit and study in the shtibel.

I remember very well the house in which the Stepan Rebbe stayed whenever he used to visit Ratno. On winter Sabbaths, the house would turn into the women's gallery in which our mothers would worship. Behind the house was the yard that separated the New Shtibel from the Old Shtibel of the Hassidim of Stepan. A flask of water stood there for washing the hands after attending to the call of nature. The jokers of the town would light candles on the small wooden planks on the eve of Simchat Torah and sing heartily “Kol Mevaser Mevaser Veomer”[2]. I did not know then nor do I know now the meaning and purpose of this joke. To us children, the Old Shtibel of the Hassidim of Stepan seemed as if it was shrouded in mystery. Many legends were told about the place where the bed, table and chair of the Reb Yitzchak, the Tzadik of Nischiz of blessed memory, stood. Our grandfathers and grandmothers would tell about the great works of wonder of this Tzadik, and also about the great dispute between the Nischiz dynasty and the court of the Rebbe of Trisk. During our youth, we were very curious to know what took place in the four ells[3] of this Shtibel. We would peek through the cracks in the broken shutters, or follow Reb Chaim, the shamash of both the Great Synagogue and the Stepan Shtibel. He was very diligent about maintaining the cleanliness of the two houses of worship for which he was responsible. He was among those who “delayed taking leave of the Sabbath and hastened entering it,” as is said in the Sabbath hymns. I recall that when gas lamps were installed in these two houses of worship, Reb Chaim would carefully climb the ladder and light the lamps with awe and trepidation. He enjoyed the sight of the Jews coming to the Welcoming of the Sabbath service attired in their Sabbath finery, with their finely groomed beards. He was especially happy when he succeeded in finding hosts for all of the guests that had come to town for the Sabbath.

Behold, with the eyes of my spirit I see Reb Ben-Tzion Steingarten of blessed memory as he walks with measured steps from his place at the eastern wall behind the bima. Several important people, enwrapped with their tallises, with the silver tallis adornment (atara) covering their heads stand next to him. He recites the “Yehi Ratzon” prayer on the Sabbath preceding the New Moon (Shabbat Mevorchim) with a trembling voice.

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Reb Ben-Tzion, the pleasant and scholarly Jew, had the constant rights[4] to lead the congregation in this Rosh Chodesh prayer. He recited the prayers with sweetness, and with such a melody that it seemed as if he intended to “forcibly” extract a good month for his Jewish brethren from the Holy One Blessed Be He. His prayer “A long life, a life of livelihood, a life of fear of Heaven and fear of sin”, was splendid in my ears. When he reached the words “and all those who faithfully occupy themselves with the needs of the community”, it was impossible not to feel that he was attempting to convince the Holy One Blessed Be He that his brethren of his people were all precious and proper Jews. When the Days of Awe approached with the prayers of Rosh Chodesh Elul, Reb Ben-Tzion would instill upon the worshippers the fear of the approaching Day of Judgment. The next day, a larger number of Jews attended the services. Even those who would customarily recite the Shacharit service privately preferred communal worship during Elul. The sounds of the shofar blasted forth from all of the Beis Midrashes, and we, the jokers of the town, would take the shofar into our hands when nobody was looking so we could try our skill at blowing. The special melodies of the prayers of the High Holy Days could be heard from the homes of the prayer leaders as well as the Beis Midrashes. The elderly and youths would recite their daily Psalms with extra devotion during the month of Elul. Even Mottel the deaf mute, who was always an enigma in my eyes, seemed to become more observant. This Mottel had a great knowledge of arithmetic, and at times, when we would ask, he would demonstrate his prowess at mental calculations. During Elul, Mottel would get angry if we would ask him something in the middle of the services. He would put a finger to his mouth as if to say, “it is forbidden to speak.”

The trepidation of the approaching Days of Awe was also felt in the cheder of Nechemia the teacher.

Group of members of Hechalutz in 1929
Sitting (from right to left): P. Honik, Sh. Itzikson (perished), B. Cohen (Argentina), Sh. Pogatch and G. Karsh (perished)
Standing: A. Droog (perished), A. Held (Israel), L. Baion (Mexico), M. Shapir, G. Shapira, R. Ponetz, Ch. Marsuk, and L. Aharonson (perished)

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All of the students studied with extra meticulousness, and we worshiped with devotion. Reb Nechemia would tell us, “Remember that you young people can attain much more than we adults are able to attain through prayer from the depths of the heart.” It is no wonder then that during Elul, we would engage in soul searching and attempt to atone for the sins that we had transgressed...

Reb Avrahamche Telizon also taught in Reb Nechemia's cheder. He was a pleasant and precious Jew, who dressed splendidly. He would also give lessons (“Urok”) in the homes of the children. My father of blessed memory forged a special friendship with this teacher. He would bring him various gifts from his trips to Danzig: a pocket knife, a watch, a purse, etc. Later Reb Avrahamche, along with his friend Reb Yudel Konishter, founded the first school in the house of Reb Mendel Stoler. He was a teacher of Hebrew and Yiddish, while Yudel, who was nicknamed Yudel Malka's in the name of his mother, taught Russian. Yudel became known as an intelligent and erudite young man, who forged paths toward Haskala in the town and was a subscriber to the Hebrew “Hatzefira” newspaper. I remember well how our teachers would educate us toward the land of Israel, and the enthusiasm with which they taught us to sing the national hymn “Hatikva”[5]. Thus did the love of the homeland, the Hebrew Language and Zionism become instilled in our hearts already in our early youth. There is no doubt that as a result of this education, the majority of the youths of Ratno later joined the Zionist organizations.

The days of Selichot[6] are etched in my memory. We would arise at 3:00 a.m., when the entire town was still enveloped in sleep. Father would go in front, followed by the elder sons. Other Jews would come out from the various lanes, walking in the direction of the shtibels and the Beis Midrash. Some held a lantern in their hands, while others lit the way with a candle. When we arrived at the Shtibel, there were already several Jews there sitting next to the tables and lecterns. The main task of Selichot was of course filled by the cantor, who had prepared himself for this prayer beforehand. The Selichot lasted until the Shacharit service. Then we would make haste to the bathhouse to immerse ourselves prior to the onset of the festival. Reb Gedalia the bath attendant was in charge there. He would give the broom and pail of water to every important householder, and would run from the mikva to the oven in order to maintain the temperature of the water. There was great preparation and bustle in the bathhouse. The screams of the children reached the heavens... One child lost his underpants, while another was searching for his lost pants or coat in his friend's sack. New faces were seen on the streets of the town. These were the village Jews who lived an isolated life in their villages throughout the year and satisfied themselves with a bare minyan [prayer quorum] on Sabbaths. On the High Holy Days they would stream into the nearby town to celebrate the festival along with the other Jews. Such was the custom from days of yore, and they would generally stay with relatives and acquaintances. The village Jews would

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bring delicacies with them to town: fowl, eggs, dried fruit, and the like. The Jews of Ratno would welcome the villagers pleasantly. If any of them did not have a place to stay, they would accept the situation and sleep in the attic of the Beis Midrash. In town, they would joke a bit about these village Jews who were not knowledgeable in the customs of the festival and the various prayers. We, the children of the town, would dandy ourselves before them in our new clothes, shoes and hats.

I recall the home of my uncle Reb Avraham the shochet [ritual slaughterer], who would take on a new role prior to Yom Kippur, when all the Jews prepared their Kaparot and hastened to the house of the shochet with their chickens. My uncle would spend many hours sharpening his chalafs [slaughtering knives], so that no mishap should take place with the shechita, Heaven forbid. It was crowded all around as everyone shouted to the shochet, “Reb Avraham, please slaughter mine already.” My uncle conducted his holy task with great patience, as if the voices were not directed to him. He would carefully examine each bird, and then sharpen his knife very well again. Toward the evening, Reb Avraham would sit in his salon (“Stolowa”) with an open Gemara, completely immersed in the tractate, with a unique, sweet tune emanating from his mouth. He only stopped this melody for a moment when his wife Dova entered.

I see the Sabbath afternoons in our town before my eyes. After the ample Sabbath meal, Jews would go out to stroll on the sidewalks. Men were going to drink cold soda water to help the kugel or the chulent, the main courses of the Sabbath meal, “go down in peace.” After that, they would observe the commandment of “sleeping on the Sabbath.” After their nap, the tea flasks prepared specially for the Sabbath would be removed from the stoves, and several glasses of tea would be enjoyed with or without spices. Then people would go once again to the Beis Midrash, to recite “Pirke Avot”[7], attend a lecture, or study “Ein Yaakov”[8]. This was also the time for visits of guests, and for the children to stroll on the streets. It goes without saying that on these walks, “rumors” would be spread about a certain boy who apparently loves a certain girl “over the ears,” or a certain girl who has her eye on a certain boy... On these Sabbath afternoons, the more serious youths would engage in debates on issues of the day or on books that they had read during the week. We would borrow the books from the library of Itzel Spilman, who was nicknamed Itzel Kli Zemer [the musician], since he played the violin at all of the Jewish weddings that took place in the town. More than one bride shed tears during the “seating” ceremony at the sound of his sad melodies. The image of this Itzel stood before my eyes when I later read Sholom Aleichem's “Stempenyu.” His was the only private library in town before the First World War, and one could also find there the various monthlies and weeklies to which Itzel subscribed.

Dust was raised in the city toward evening, when the gentile Winka brought back the

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In the Old City in the winter

 

Agricultural Hachsharah, in a manner of speaking, in front of the camera...

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flocks from the meadows. The housewives would sit on the sidewalks next to the houses, examine each animal well, and express their opinions about the “Jewish animals.” The gentile Nesczia, who spoke Yiddish as if she were a proper Jewish woman, ran from one Jewish house to the next to milk the cows[9]. She had pieces of challa in her purse that were given to her by the women in honor of the Sabbath. I see myself entering some Shtibel for the Mincha service. The characteristic melancholy of the departure of the Sabbath was already felt in the Beis Midrash, as the extra soul exits and the weekdays, filled with their worries and tribulations, stand at the threshold. Several dozen Jews sit along the table, including Yehuda Meir Richter with his long neck, reciting the Aramic prayer “Askinu Seudasa.” The custom was that on each Sabbath late afternoon, people would take turns in bringing the challa, more precisely “Kviltz,” and salted fish for the Seuda Shelishit (third Sabbath meal). Each one of those at the meal received the “kezayit[10] that would be sufficient to recite the Hamozie blessing. The time came for the hymns, which poured out as the pinnacle of lofty, sweet tunes. They began with “Baruch Kel Elyon,” and moved on to “Yetzave Tzur Chasdo,” etc. Reb Moshe, the cantor, would often teach a new melody to the congregation that he himself had composed, and the enthusiasm overflowed. The Jews did not want to part from the holy Sabbath, and they would be ready to sit a long time and continue with these sweet melodies. However, Reb Chaim the shamash lit the candles next to the Holy Ark and someone began the Maariv (evening) service with the gloomy chant of “Vehu Rachum Yechaper Avon”[11]. This was a clear sign that the Sabbath had departed. Several shopkeepers hastened to leave the Shtibel so that they could open their stores, with the hope that some income would be realized to greet the upcoming week.

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Jews and Ukrainians at the Third of May Celebrations

 

A Wedding of the Honik family. The grandmother is in the center

Translator's Footnotes

  1. In the table of contents at the front of the book, this chapter is called “Memories of the Recent Past.” Return
  2. A refrain from one of the prayers of Hoshana Rabba, which occurs two days before Simchat Torah. The refrain means, “The voice of the herald heralds and proclaims,” a reference to the bearer of the tidings of the coming of the Messiah. Return
  3. An ell is an archaic unit of measure, often considered as an alternate form of a cubit. The expression 'four ells' generally refers to a restricted space, not just in area but also in mindset and outlook. Return
  4. The Hebrew term here is 'chazaka' which implies an established right to a specific ritual synagogue honor. Return
  5. Today the national anthem of Israel. Return
  6. The period of recitation of penitential prayers prior to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The elongated Selichot service described in the lines below, followed by immersion, is likely the Selichot of the eve of Rosh Hashanah. Return
  7. The mishnaic tractate “Chapters of the Fathers”, customarily studied during summer Sabbath afternoons. Return
  8. An anthology of the aggadaic (lore) sections of the Talmud. Return
  9. An act forbidden on the Sabbath to Jews. Return
  10. A halachic volume (of debatable size) that defines the required amount for any obligatory eating. It is the required amount for the matzo and maror on Passover eve, as well as the required amount of bread that would result in an obligation to recite the Grace after Meals. (There is a halachic error in this sentence, as the Hamotzie blessing can be recited on any amount of bread, whereas the Grace after Meals requires a “kezayit”.) Return
  11. “And He, being all merciful, forgives sins” -- the opening phrase of the weekday Maariv service. Return


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My First Attempt at Agriculture

by Simcha Lavie

Translated by Jerrold Landau

The built up portion of the town had already been located on the north branch of the Pripyat River for some time. We had a plot of land at the bend in the main road, which my father had received from his father-in-law as a dowry after he married my mother. This plot of land had been passed down for many generations as an inheritance within our family. At first, my father used it as a vegetable garden for the family that had grown with the passage of time. I recall that preparing the plot for planting was accompanied by worry and concern. We planted with worry and harvested with joy. Pavel Zhuk and his family dragged away the harvest. This Pavel Zhuk was a Ukrainian, not necessarily from the highest classes of his people. His name was often involved with acts of crime, and not without basis. When he did not stop pillaging the vegetables from our garden, my father girded himself with strength, entered his house, and spoke to him at length. This Ukrainian did not attempt to deny his acts, and told my father with a cunning smile, “You are an intelligent and learned Jew, and you see with your eyes that I am unable to suffice myself within the bounds of my plot of land. Come and let us make a business deal and remain friendly. You will transfer your plot, which is next to mine, into my name, and I will transfer a larger plot to you in the region of Ricz-Spunczyk on the way to the village of Ukuszy.” My father did not immediately reject the proposition. He deliberated, took advice from his friends, and finally decided to agree to the proposed business arrangement. Thus did my family begin to grow grain and potatoes. Several years later, when I grew up, I took upon myself the responsibility for cultivating this plot of land. I supervised the plowing and planting, but the wheat harvest was performed by Anatoly, one of the finest of the Ukrainians who lived in Ratno. We had an agreement with him that he would keep 2/3 of the harvest, and the owner of the plot would keep 1/3.

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From that time, I was the constant overseer of that plot of land, and thus my first relationship with “mother earth” was formed. My frequent visits to the plot of land were surprising to the farmers, who had trouble understanding why a young Jew would be involved in working the land, for they were accustomed to seeing Jews in their roles as merchants and shopkeepers. To the merit of Anatoly it should be noted that he did his best to respond to this “misunderstanding”, and even explained to the farmers who could not “comprehend” the situation that I was planning to travel to the Holy Land and earn my livelihood from working the land.

I myself derived great satisfaction from my closeness to the earth and working the land. I always remembered the enchanting stanzas of Bialik's poem “In the Field”:

“Tell me, mother earth, broad, full, and large

Why does your field not deliver a lowly and yearning soul also to me?”

I went out to our field, not as a stranger. I attempted to listen and understand in accordance with the words of the poet, “That which G-d is speaking from the stalks of standing grain, how slowly the wind is causing the bent stalks to rustle, what the Ziz-sadai[1] is secretly embroidering.” Even if my ideal of becoming a tiller of the land was not realized during those days -- I still recall those days in Ratno with satisfaction, when I was so close to nature and the work of the land, to the merit of Pavel Zhuk.

Translator's Footnote

  1. A mythical bird. Return


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The Terror of Fires

by Chaya Frusman

Translated by Jerrold Landau

Memories of recurring fires from my early childhood accompany me. Our street bordered on the alleys of the anti-Semitic Ukrainians, who schemed against their Jewish neighbors in various ways. Even members of the citizens' guard, who made the rounds at night with kerosene lanterns to protect the Jewish houses, did not succeed in protecting us from fires and arson. I recall that we children went to sleep without getting undressed, and prepared to exit the house in haste in the event of a fire. At times, we would go out half naked in the middle of the night. We were afraid to go to sleep, and nightmares afflicted us even after we fell asleep. I would often awaken at night screaming. It seemed to me that I heard voices saying, “David, David, get up, there is a fire!”

I recall one night, when I jumped outside and saw light as if the middle of the day -- light from the large tongues of fire ascending to the heavens along with rising pillars of smoke. People screamed and wept, and ran hastily to the well and river to fetch water. We children were also involved with extinguishing the fire. We ran with pails full of water, and when we reached the place of the fire, we would give the pails to

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older people. Our house burned down that night, and we were left without a roof over our heads. We sat on the bundle of belongings that we succeeded in salvaging and wept. Do not forget that all of the houses of the city were made of wood, and one spark would be sufficient to cause the fire to spread. I saw one woman lamenting over her burnt dough-trough since she would have nothing in which to prepare her dough for the baking of the Sabbath challas. We sat next to the embers and burnt houses until morning, guarding our remaining household objects lest they be pillaged by the gentiles. Jews gathered around us in the morning, offering assistance. All of those afflicted by the fire spread out among neighbors. My family and I lived in the house of my father's wagon driver. We lived there until we rebuilt our house.

Many years have passed since then, but even now, every time that I see a fire or hear the word “fire” -- I remember that night when our house went up in flames along with many other houses.


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How do you Teach?

by Berel Kahan

Translated by Jerrold Landau

One of the most important melamdim [teachers of young children] who had his own cheder in town, was Menachem the Melamed. I recall him as a man in his early fifties, tall and thin, with a very straight gait. White hairs could already be found in his black beard, and his yarmulke under his hat was full of sweat.

Menachem the Melamed lived close to the Pripyat River that cut our town in two. There were three rooms in his house: a large room, a bedroom, and a small kitchen with an oven for cooking and baking bread. In the large room that served as the study room, a long table stood with two long benches next to it for his 10 - 12 students. A footstool stood at the head of the table that served as the seat of the melamed himself. Aside from this furniture, there was a chest of drawers, a closet and a bookshelf in the room.

Menachem's wife, or, as she was called, the rebbetzin, was a very young woman of approximately 30 years old. She was his second wife. She always had a year or two- year-old baby in her arms. The wicker cradle in the room belonged to that baby.

Menachem was known in town as a good teacher of Chumash and Rashi, but not everyone wished to send their children to his cheder, for he was known as someone who was prone to anger and who did not spare the strap from his students. He would whip them on their buttocks, and he would even tie them with chains. On the other hand, on “Nitl” night[1] when it was the custom to refrain from teaching, Menachem would entertain his students. He would teach them to play dominoes and make good plays in the game. He would derive a great deal of pleasure when he realized that we caught on.

During the days of Chanuka, we would bring two or three kopecks for preparing latkes. During the evenings, the Rebbetzin would fry very tasty latkes for us. We would eat the latkes, play dreidel and cards, and we would all wish that these festive days would continue on and not be followed by the regular grey days of studies and whippings by our teacher.

After we already knew the trop[2] and the Torah portions, Menachem would begin to teach us Chumash and Rashi, and then the Early Prophets. Every two students shared one bible. The teaching methodology was that the Rebbe would read outline, and we would repeat after him “Vayedaber-Hot Geret, Adoshem-Got, El Moshe, Tzu Moshen, Leemor-Azoi tzu zugn”, etc.[3] Friday was designated for tests. Every one of the students had to recite two verses from the first section of the weekly Torah portion, in turn. I recall that on one of those Fridays, when Matas, one of the students who was the son of Nisi the Shoemaker, did not know the explanation of a certain word in the weekly Torah portion,

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Menachem slapped him soundly on his cheeks, and the boy burst out in bitter crying. “You will cry more,” shouted Menachem, “You are a veritable gentile, and I need to hit you more. Lie down immediately!”

Menachem's way of doing things was that if a child was to be whipped, he would have to pull down his underwear with his own hands, lie on the bench, and, without saying anything, present his back for the whip of the melamed. However, this Matas felt that the Rebbe was too stringent this time, and that slapping him on the cheeks was a sufficient punishment for not knowing the explanation of a certain word, therefore he decided to not present his back for the beatings, not pull down his underwear, and not lie on the bench in accordance with the Rebbe's command. He remained sitting on the bench and did not move from his place. This rebellion set the Rebbe off. He attacked the student and tried to force him to lie down so that he would be able to whip him. However, the student began to kick the Rebbe with his feet, and hit him on his heart and his face. The Rebbe gave in. This was the first and perhaps the only time that his verdict was not carried out…

It seems to me that the primary skill of our Rebbe was in teaching the first section of every Torah portion, as well as in the first chapters in the Book of Joshua. That far, and no more. If we had finished studying the Book of Joshua and the term had not ended, for some reason, he would begin to teach us the Book of Daniel. He would manage somehow with the Hebrew portion of that book, but when he reached the Aramaic chapters, it would be like the “wagon began to grate,” as if the wheels were broken…

This Rebbe's methodology in teaching Yiddish writing was very interesting. Before I began to study with Menachem, I had learned writing from the teacher Zelig the Hunched, as we would call him on account of his way of walking. Zelig's methodology was straightforward: We would purchase a piece of paper for a small coin and bring it to the Rebbe. He would fold it into four sections, and draw straight lines on it. These would be the writing lines, and it was forbidden to go outside them. The Rebbe would write the entire aleph beit on the first line in pen or a duck quill dipped in ink. On the rest of the lines, we would have to write the entire aleph beit with our own hand in accordance with the Rebbe's writing style. After we already knew how to write all the letters, we had an additional exercise - to write the aleph beit backwards, starting from the last letter and in groups: Tashrak, Tzafes, Nimlach, Yatchaz, Vehadgba

When I began to study with Menachem, I already knew how to form words from the letters. I remember that I would often write the sentence that is commonly written in the cover of books, in this form: “This book belongs. To whom does it belong? To he who bought it. Who bought it? He who paid. Who paid?” Etc. Etc.

With Menachem, we began with a veritable steel pen. Once a month, Menachem would prepare a form of a letter for writing (“Firgris”), and we would copy it throughout the month. I recall the text:

Baruch Hashem, Day… In our community”

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“To the honor of the sage and leader, Mr. …”

First I wish to inform you that I am feeling well and living in peace. May G-d let me hear the same from you, Amen Selah. Second, I wish to inform you that I am sending fifty oxen with the person bearing this letter, and the Blessed G-d will help, and everything should be with blessing and success. Amen. From me, the undersigned.”

Menachem would change the form of his letter each month. He would exchange the oxen for grain or boards, and instead of Warsaw, he would send them to Danzig or Leipzig…

It is worthwhile to note that Menachem the teacher became well-known in Ratno for his methodology of teaching writing, and his exercises. Other teachers did not involve themselves at all with teaching writing, perhaps because they themselves did not know how to write…

 

Teachers and Writers

Jewish education was not only in the hands of the melamdim. As time went on, other educators who were called morim (teachers) or sofrim (writers or scribes) arrived on the scene. I will mention a few of them here. The first is Hershel Shachne's. Before he arrived here, he tried his luck in the United States. Apparently, he did not succeed there. He was known as a great scholar, for he was one of the few in town who was able to write a letter of request (“Frashenia”) to the district judge. This Hershel would teach us Yiddish, Russian, and also a bit of English, so that we would be able to write the address of a letter to the United States when necessary. He lived in the home of his father Shachne, who was known as Shache the Doctor, in a tiny room that was designated for the entire family. The larger room in this house served as the teaching room. I only studied Russian with him. He had one textbook that he had purchased from a Russian peddler during one of the fairs. I recall that, aside from the Russian alphabet, this book had a story for children called “Golden Fish.” Teaching did not provide enough income for Hershel to support his family, so his wife knitted socks. She was born in Brisk, from where she had brought a sewing machine, the first of its type in Ratno. Since she was always busy with the machine, Hershel had to fill in for her in various household tasks, especially in caring for the children. Since the couple had many children, one could often see and hear Hershel busy with his children in the small room, while his students were sitting and reading the story of the golden fish in Russian out loud in the large room. Hershel would correct the mistakes while he was caring for one of his babies… The meager tuition fee (60 kopecks per month for two hours of lessons a day) was not enough to keep Hershel in teaching. Hershel did not last long in Ratno. He returned to the United States, where he was employed in preparing Jewish children for their Bar Mitzvahs.

 

The Teachers David Finkelstein and Avraham Telison

After Passover in 1899, a young Jew named David Finkelstein came to Ratno from the town of Liwona.

[Page 135]

In town, they said that he had to leave his hometown because he did not have good relations with his grandfather, who was the rabbinical judge of the town. He was divorced, and he brought with him his tallis and tefillin, but not one piece of clothing worthy of the name. He lived with the Frishberg family as well as in the home of Getzel Konishter. Instead of paying rent, he taught their two daughters. Two members of the intelligentsia of the town, Yehoshua Pogach and Zalman Burstein, felt it necessary to order a suit for him from Eliahu-Pesia the tailor, who also served as the jester at weddings. I do not know what David Finkelstein did for a living in his hometown, but in Ratno he set up a four grade school scattered in different places: one class with the Gemara teacher Yaakov Prossman, a second in the home of Berl Vernik, a third, only for girls, in the home of Reizel Kuperberg, and a fourth, also for girls, in the home of Asher Shapira. The tuition fee in those days was one ruble per month. There were two hours of lessons per day. This was a reasonably high rate in comparison with the tuition fees receive by other melamdim. David Finkelstein taught us Hebrew and Yiddish. His teaching style was literal translation. He used the textbook of M. M. Dolitzki during his Hebrew lessons. He made us transcribe a chapter of the book, and then corrected our mistakes. Once a week, he taught us the Book of Proverbs, and I also recall that he taught us the Book of Ben Sirah[4]. I also recall that he once wrote out for us a large Hebrew article in the religious nationalist spirit. He read us the article and we wrote it in our notebooks as he was reading. One of the students of the class showed the article to the Lithuanian teacher in our town, who enjoyed the juicy expressions and noted that he had never before seen anything in that style. There were rumors in town that he taught the Song of Songs in the style of the heretics - that is: in accordance with the literal content as a romance between a young man and woman, and not in accordance with the commentary of Rashi, who interpreted it as love between the Holy One Blessed Be He and the community of Israel. This resulted in him losing his rights to teach girls in the home of Asher Shapira. Sometimes, he would read us an article from the Hamelitz newspaper, to which he was the only subscriber in Ratno. (Aside from Hamelitz, two copies of Hatzefira would be sent to Ratno. One was for a group of young people who read it together, and the second was for Yitzchak Marsik, the son-in-law of Chona Tyktiner, who had a fine Hebrew library in his home). I do not remember for how long David Finkelstein remained in our town, but I do know that he was finally forced to leave the town because he was in dire straits, literally to the point of hunger. I myself was a witness to the fact that my friend Getzel, the son of Chaim-Yudel, brought him a package of food without anyone seeing in the evening. My heart was literally pained at the dire straits of our teacher. I do not know where David Finkelstein went after Ratno, but he once came to visit the town, and I went to see him. I saw an edition of Hamelitz on the table in the room where he was staying, and the address on the wrapper said, “The Correspondent David Finkelstein.”

[Page 136]

Pages from “Hamelitz” with an article about Ratno by Y. Finkelsteinl[5]

Translator's Footnotes

  1. Christmas Eve, or possibly the eve of the Eastern Christmas, when, by Jewish tradition, one is not supposed to study Torah. Return
  2. The cantillation notes of the scriptures. Return
  3. Each word or phrase of the verse was read in Hebrew and then translated into Yiddish. This verse is “And G-d spoke to Moses saying.” Return
  4. A book of the Apocrypha. Return
  5. The photocopies are of poor quality, especially on the right side. The top right article is only the last part of a longer article, apparently, and was written by David Finkelstein. The lower right article is under a headline called “Telegrams”, dated Saturday, August 19 (13 Elul). Top left is the bottom portion of an article written by Ch. Shakhabenson. The lower left article is written by David Finkelstein, and states that it is from Ratno. It discusses the visit of the “holy grandson” (evidently a Hassidic leader) to our town. The right side of this article is partially obscured. The text of the top right article and the lower left article appears on the side articles of page 134 and 135. Return


[Page 132-alt]

With the Stain of Poverty

by Berel Kahan

Translated by Jerrold Landau

Just like many other small, remote towns in Poland, our town was also very poor from an economic perspective. It had no factories or industrial enterprises, and it was also far from the railway station. In my time, Ratno had no bank or loan fund that could provide economic assistance to small scale merchants or forestry dealers. Therefore, it was natural that the town was enveloped in poverty and hardship, and there was almost no difference between the poor and the rich.

The forestry traders floated lumber to Germany via the Pripyat River. The cattle merchants would pass through the villages in the region, purchase the cattle from the farmers, and export them to the capital city of Warsaw. This was the occupation of Itzikl, the cattle drover. He would gather the cattle together to take them to Brisk, and from there on to Warsaw.

Approximately half of the livelihood of the town came from the village population. The many shopkeepers in the town were primarily dependent on this source of livelihood. During the fair days, the farmers from the village would stream to Ratno to sell their produce. With the money they received, they purchased all of their needs for their farms and households in the village. On the other hand, the livelihoods of the Jewish tradesmen were dependent on the city population.

The condition of life of the farmers was very primitive, and they got by on very little. On the other hand, the standard of living of the Jews in the town was significantly higher than that of the villagers. The Jews depended on the carpenter to fix their table or bed, the tinsmith, the watchmaker, the bookbinder, etc. Indeed, there were tradesmen in town who were needed by both the city Jew and the village gentile, such as the shoemakers, tailors, furriers, blacksmiths, hat makers, etc. Even they did not earn any more than “water for porridge,” as we used to say, and a single worry always pressed at them: how to obtain the provisions for the Sabbath?

[Page 133-alt]

I recall many episodes that highlight the great poverty in the town. I will relate one of them that relates to me personally. My father was employed in a lumber business. He spent all the days of the week in the forests, and only returned to town on Fridays. He returned to the forests early Sunday morning. Despite his backbreaking work, his income was barely sufficient to sustain the family. I was the only son of my parents, and I often walked through the alleyways of the town with torn pants. One day, when I was innocently walking in the direction of the market, I passed by Shapira's textile shop. By chance, Shapira's son, who assisted his father, was sanding next to the door of their store. He noticed me and my torn pants, and called out, “Child, go tell your mother that I have a piece of cloth in my store that can be bought cheaply, and then she can sew new pants for you”…

I recall that these words made me feel embarrassed, despite the fact that I was then a young child. I did not tell anything to Mother, for I knew that she did not have money to buy me new pants. However, from that time, I made efforts to avoid going by Shapira's store…

Berl Kahn (Chanche's)


[Page 134-alt]

Articles from “Hamelitz” Newspaper

by David Finkelstein

Translated by Jerrold Landau

“Hamelitz” edition 37, 1901

Ratno (Wolhyn District) - It has not even been a month since one “Holy Grandson” left our town after spending a few weeks here, rescuing many “channels.” Already another Rebbe with six gabbaim [assistants] has come to our city and opened up his treasury consisting of many different types. The residents of our city who believe in everything that may bring a benefit without detracting from any good and effective thing in general, and who place their opinions with the nationalist idea in specific - believe that such a Rebbe is righteous in all his ways, and has the strength and ability to bestow influence upon their heads from his bountiful “treasury.” Therefore, all the residents of our town stream to him, and he gives to them everything they ask for. He gives to them, and they give to him… There are many in our city who claim that they see the wonders with their own eyes while he is residing here. I myself will not contradict his wonders in public: for throughout the entire time that the Rebbe did not come, our city was quiet and peaceful without any movement of life. However, from the day that the Rebbe appeared, the city became like a seething pot. People would speak in the gateways about the greatness of his honor and splendor of his holiness. Coins would clang from hand to hand… In short, there was bustle and movement in all directions.

[Page 135-alt]

“Hamelitz” edition 177. August 8, 1899.

Ratno (Wolhyn District). There are two evils in this city, aside from the fact that it has no spiritual physician who would set his heart to improve the spiritual status that has fallen greatly, and found an orderly charitable methodology, since all charitable endeavors here are disorderly; there is also no school for poor children, who grow up without Torah and without worldly knowledge, for their parents cannot afford to educate them in the ways of Torah and commandments, and they wander through the streets every day. There is one more evil that affects every individual: that is, the lack of a physician. This is felt strongly, but there is nobody who makes any effort to rectify this lack. There is no railway line here, and the city is approximately eight miles from the Brest Litovsk railway station[1]. If a person gets sick, and the relatives of the sick person cannot afford to bring in a physician from far-off Brest, these unfortunate souls have no means to fend off the evil. It is wondrous that despite the fact that the face of the Rebbe appears here three times a year, and they have money for him, but they cannot afford a physician.

David Finkelstein

Translator's Footnote

  1. (From the editor): As the crow flies, the distance between Ratno and Brest Litovsk is approximately 80 kilometers, not eight miles as the text suggests. Return

 

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