Translated by Amy Samin
Traces of ancient days remain on a number of tombstones in the Jewish cemetery of Ludmir – evidence of a period that is no longer. When the author Ansky visited Ludmir during the First World War, he became very interested in the history of the old city, and particularly of the cemetery.
At the end of World War I, when Ludmir was occupied by the Poles and remained Polish territory, the Jews of Ludmir gradually began to clear the rubble of the city and return to a normal life.
Life was hard; shortages and poverty were rampant. The Jews of Ludmir, particularly since their income was based upon commerce and handcrafts, had become quite impoverished during the war and remained without sources of income and sustenance. A public committee was established with Itzhak Bovas at its head, and with great devotion it oversaw the foundation of public kitchens, charitable institutions and other organizations; through them, the necessary assistance was provided to the needy. Within ten years Ludmir had overcome its troubles and obstacles, and resumed a respected place in the lives of Poland's Jews.
The community leaders who were elected served the city with integrity, good deeds, and concern for their fellow-man, with devotion to the Torah and to the education of the children.
The way of life of the Jews of Ludmir was traditional, and was influenced by Hasidism. Every faction of Hasidism had its own shtiebel and rabbi. Most of the children of Ludmir got their earliest education in the cheder, then later in the elementary schools. At that time, there was a vibrant nationalist-public activity in Ludmir, and various leaders became active, as did a vibrant youth; the Zionist Organization was founded and became quite strong, and the youth movements and Hechalutz appeared. All had in common the orientation towards the Land of Israel.
The economic situation improved. Some of the Jewish population made its living in labor and handcrafts, and some in commerce and shops. Life in Jewish Ludmir was quiet, with each living according to his means and abilities, without impinging on others. They were kosher, God-fearing, traditional Jews who kept the commandments, and who behaved with feelings of comradeship, affection, and willingness to summon help for those in need.
Along with the improvement in the economic situation, the spiritual life of the Jews of Ludmir was revitalized; the religious Jews made sure their children were educated in the spirit of the religion and Torah.
A Talmud Torah and a yeshiva run by teachers and rabbis were founded, and with the passage of time the Jews of Ludmir came to be proud of their Yeshiva students, who sat day and night studying the Gemara. The reverberations of their debates could be heard throughout the Great Synagogue where they were housed in a special wing.
The Jews of Ludmir were content that some of their sons would occupy themselves with the Torah and continue the distinguished chain of their fathers and their fathers' fathers as judges, ritual slaughterers, and so forth.
|First row, seated from the right: Benny Carp, Pessiah Boim, Kahat Kleiger, Yaacov Kornfeld, Shoshana Ingber, Sheintop Zusia.
Standing: Yosef Skolar, Yaacov Budenstein, Bania Cohen, Bluma Cohen, Hannah Finkelstein, Bergman, Moshe Bavioda, Shmuel Shatz.
|Seated, from the right: Kleiner, Yehoshua; Dr. Babachok; Rochberger; David Bukser; Moshe Sheinboim; Rafael Birman; Haim Koffman.
Standing, from the right: Monish Luntboim; Leiber Leibers; Avraham Ingber; Leibel Grushka.
The Hebrew High School
The Jews of Ludmir deemed it suitable to found a high school, in addition to the government-run Polish high school, owing to the difficulty Jewish students had being accepted to the latter. It was not easy to do. The people of Ludmir had never been particularly wealthy (aside from an small group, at the head of which stood Reb Wolf Yohanzon and Reb Yisrael Shulman, who owned flour mills and forests). It was very difficult to establish such an institution without any help from the outside or from the government.
A great deal of effort was invested. A committee was set up. Dr. Satrar from Galicia was offered the position of principal and upon his recommendation teachers were hired who approached their work with vigor. With great respect and a sense of responsibility, the committee took upon itself the burden of the school's budget. Only a few students signed up at the beginning. The writer of these lines, who was counted among the first pupils, went more than once in the company of his classmates Leib Ingber and Haim Vilenchik, to try and persuade the parents of their friends to also enroll their children in the Jewish gymnasia. In the end they were successful.
Gradually the Jews of Ludmir, who were always concerned with spiritual values and the education of their children, came to understand and were convinced to send their children to the new gymnasia. Even though its origin was Polish, and the language of instruction was Polish, there were hours in the curriculum dedicated to the study of the bible and of the Hebrew language, under the instruction of the multi-talented teacher Mendel Lipsker. Over time, the gymnasia produced graduating classes, a considerable number of which continued their studies in Polish universities. A few of them, the survivors of the Holocaust, are today teachers, doctors, and lawyers in Israel and elsewhere.
Thus there began to grow an echelon of intelligentsia within the youth of that period. Those who did not continue their education upon graduation from school learned a trade; some joined their parents' businesses, in the grain trade (which at that time was centered in the hands of Jewish merchants) or in the lumber trade, storekeeping, clerical work and more.
The Zionist Movement
The nationalist movement featured prominently in the public life of Ludmir. The Zionist Organization and the national library were located on the third floor of the building on Parna Street, the main street in the city. The best and brightest of the Jewish youth of Ludmir congregated there, from the intellectuals to the working class. Young men and women, with their youthful, tumultuous blood, stirred up the fiery emotions of the established Zionists in the city.
From that central location emerged the voices of all of the leaders of the Zionist movement. Here stands David Bakser, the spiritual leader of the movement, before an audience of youth and adults, as he tells stories and lectures on the history of the people and the Land of Israel. This outstanding speaker never tired, standing for hours recounting our history, the wars (victories and defeats), and especially the vision of Herzl, the fulfillment of Zionism and the new life in the Land of Israel.
And here is Avraham Ingber, enthusiastic and inspiring, and Rafael Birman, who dedicated himself to Zionist activity, Kupervasser, Lev, Zusman, Zinger, Bergman, Sheinkastel. And here, long may he live, is Moshe Sheinboim, who captured hearts with his strong, confident voice. Yaacov Yellin, Mordechai Apter, Baruch Henig, and many others. These were the people who, for many years, dedicated their time and effort to the nationalist revival and to providing guidance to the Zionist youth.
It was a glorious time. Youth movements such as Hashomer Hazair, Hanoar Hazioni, Hechalutz, Beitar and others increased their numbers and their activities in the Zionist enterprise. With self-sacrifice and enthusiasm the youth devoted themselves to the nationalist funds, making and soliciting donations. There was practically not a single house without a Jewish National Fund box, and there was no home in the city in which the Zionist idea had not taken root. And counselors sat in the youth clubs teaching the Torah. They studied Hebrew, held conversations, sang the songs of the Land of Israel, and listened to lectures by the members of the board of the Zionist Organization and Zionist emissaries representing the center there. And after the lectures, there were endless arguments and debates.
Thus the Zionist idea spread throughout Jewish Ludmir. Thus they stubbornly fought, with the aid of the Zionist shekel [a sort of membership tax], on behalf of their groups – to send members to Zionist congresses, to hold elections to committees, to send representatives to committees, councils and more.
There were other leftist organizations, such as the communists and the Bund with Sameya Erlich at its head. On the first of May, the aforementioned groups would gather secretly under the red flag, and the police would find them, beat them and imprison them. We remember the trials of some of the finest young men of Ludmir, who belonged to the communist movement and who proudly defended their beliefs, and who were sentenced to long years of imprisonment.
A unique part of life and a special awakening of its kind in support of Zionist activity were the bazaars of the United Jewish Fund. Leibush Zusman, a member of the Zionist committee, and the women of WIZ: the ladies Sarah Shenkstal, Fruma Zuckerman, Frida Lichtenstein, and Sprintzah Leiberson (a very impressive figure and active in public institutions), and many others would organize special annual activities for the eight days of Passover – a market, with mini-bazaars which were run by volunteers. The proceeds were devoted to the United Jewish Fund. In addition to the physical goal, the bazaars would raise the nationalist, Zionist spirits
of the city's residents. Dressed in their holiday best, the residents of Ludmir, young and old alike, would throng to the bazaar and buy everything they could get their hands on, thereby contributing to the flowering of the desert in the Land of Israel.
There was an Israeli atmosphere. The balls and parties that were held nightly in the halls of the bazaar earned a reputation throughout the area, and made a considerable impression.
The more that the Zionist spirit took over the city, the greater was the demand for instruction in and promotion of the Hebrew language. After much indecision and great effort, a Tarbut school was founded, under the direction of Mr. Zeitzik. With the passage of time, that school became the main source of the spread of Hebrew throughout the city. More than one Jew in Ludmir enjoyed hearing his children, upon their return from school, arguing and playing in Hebrew; and the school's graduates, who joined the Zionist youth movements, would go on to teach the language to the other members of their movements.
A nursery school, under the experienced direction of the kindly teacher Tzipora Zilberman, also provided a foundation in the instruction of the language.
There were also more than a few households in which the Hebrew language was spoken, and the children were educated in that manner, in addition to the education they received at the elementary and high schools.
My father, Reb Zissa Shatz – may his blood be avenged – was an educated man, an excellent student of the Torah and well-read, was a regular subscriber of the Hebrew newspaper, HaTzfirah. He was accustomed on Sabbath nights or in the afternoons on the Sabbath to read aloud to us articles in Hebrew and then begin debates with us, the children, on the purity of the Hebrew language. Many of the households in Ludmir passed the time in this manner. (In truth, I must credit my first steps and those of many of the other children of my city in the study of the language of the past to the teacher Yaacov Rappa).
And the story goes like this:
In the days of the First World War, as we all laid upon the floor, closed up in our homes and huddled together in fear, outside a bitter battle waged between the Poles and the Bolsheviks. Suddenly we heard knocking on the door. Frightened, we remained frozen in place, not making a sound. Suddenly the knocking on the door grew louder, and was accompanied by cries for help, Help me, merciful Jews! Save a Jew, in the name of the eve of Yom Kippur, save me and let me in!
At first we thought it might be a trick, for who knew who he might be, that man on the other side of the door, and what might happen if we let him in. But when his begging continued, my father of blessed memory could bear it no longer, and he opened Hechalutz Group in Ludmir, 1925
|Seated, from the right: Bania Cohen, Shlomo Yantis, Mina Gorevitch, Baruch Gorevitch, Tanya Goldstern, Naytal, Zuckerman.
Standing, from the right: Wolf Colton, Leibel Katz, Moshe Zinger, Yaacov Zipper, Shlomo Eger, Neta Bratz. Naytal, Moshe Babyoda, S. Kryshtal
|Seated on ground, from the right: Zev Weiner, Yechiel Birman, Yaacov Bernstein, Yisrael Goldstern, Niunik Kokel
Seated, from the right: Rafael Birman, Dr. Babchok, Yitzhak Bubis, Mrs. Strassberg, Yitzhak Greenboim, Mrs. Esther Sheinboim, Moshe Zinger, Moshe Sheinboim, Michael Brekner, H. Pearl, Berkovitch.
Standing, from the right: Mordechai Kuperstein, Moshe Zuckerman, Krelenboim, Aharon Bergman, Han, Yosha Morgenstern, Fishman, Leibel Berkovitch, Reiz, Chaim Kaufman.
the door. A gaunt young man was revealed, with torn clothing and an intelligent face; everything about him made a good impression. After we had given him food and drink, we learned that the Bolsheviks had taken him forcibly from his town and compelled him to fight on their side, and thus he came to Ludmir. He had no more strength to continue following after them. When my father of blessed memory heard that the young man was a Hebrew teacher, he was elated at this great discovery. After the war, the young man remained for several years in our city, making a respectable living teaching Hebrew. He also established a Hebrew-speakers' club.
The Pioneering Movement
A young generation arose that was recruited to the Zionist world and the nationalist lifestyle.
Among the pioneering youth, groups were organized for those who planned to move to the Land of Israel. Although at that time it was not considered acceptable to learn a trade, the sons of good families began to learn carpentry, construction and similar things and began moving to the Land of Israel.
From then onward the nationalist, Zionist, Hebrew spirit controlled the city, and the leaders of the Zionist Organization claimed exalted positions in all of the public institutions in the city, such as the municipality, the community, banks, ORT, TAZ, the orphanage, the hospital, the almshouse, etc.
The Zionist youth movements branched out, sending representatives to conferences, conventions, managers' camps, summer camps, etc.; places where the local youth were taught all they needed to know, from vision to fulfillment. Youth from all over Poland set out for these preparation spots, and such places were established around the city and within it, and many pioneers began moving to the Land of Israel. Those who worked to train the pioneers are now scattered in various kibbutzim and throughout Israel.
Still cherished in my memory are the nationalist celebrations and rallies that drew in people from all levels in the city, and which took place during the receptions for the Zionist emissaries from the center in Warsaw. I remember how we received our teacher and rabbi, Yitzhak Greenboim, with a welcome fit for a king, a visit from the familiar figure of Hertzfeld, the visit of singer Bracha Zefira, of Nerdi, and many others. The visits of those emissaries became holidays for the local Jews.
I recall an enormous demonstration, the likes of which Ludmir had not before seen, when the news was received of the pogroms taking place in the Land of Israel in 1929. Thousands of the city's residents crowded into the courtyard of the Great Synagogue, and with tears in their eyes heard the speeches and eulogies in memory of the victims of the pogroms. All levels of society took part in the mourning speeches, from the city's rabbi to the leaders of the youth movements.
We also recall days of happiness and joy, when the Jews of Ludmir wore their holiday finery, closed their shops early, and went, family by family, to welcome their children home from their Lag B'Omer trips, which had been transformed to a nationalist holiday. With Jewish pride they followed the magnificent procession of hundreds of youth as they marched in their scouts' uniforms, with the national flags waving above their heads. More than one eye shed tears of joy, and more than one person said the Shehechiyanu blessing at the sight of this sign of redemption.
Plays and Choirs
I remember the excellent performances put on by the Zionist youth movements on Tu B'Shevat, Purim, Chanukah, and more. Each movement had its own troupe, and they showed their artistic strengths in their theatrical performances. A great many locals would throng to see them and would enjoy the pictures, the recitals, the songs and the dances of the Land of Israel.
Of special note were the choirs under the musical and artistic direction of the composer Leib Kleiger, the son of the cantor of the Great Synagogue, Reb David. Leib Kleiger, who inherited his knowledge of music and playing musical instruments from his father, continued to pursue his own education while raising an entire generation of musicians upon his return to Ludmir, particularly violinists. He arranged fabulous concerts performed by his students and organized choirs among the youth movements which took part in the program of performances.
There were other musically-talented young men like Yaacov Bard, who played in the Philharmonic Orchestra of Warsaw, Vavka Laks, an excellent violinist who played in accompaniment to the silent films, and who always succeeded in suiting his melodies to the program of the performance.
Also of note was Berel Mendir who, with his musical talent, was able to promote and integrate singing and the playing of musical instruments among the youth.
There was another population in Ludmir, one that was far from insignificant, and that held a highly respected place in religious spiritual life.
These were the Jews of the shtiebels [Houses of Study]: Trisk, Carlin, Lubavitch, Steppen, Bludvaker and others, for whom Torah and righteous acts stood at the pinnacle of their lives. Day and night the sounds of voices reading from the Torah would issue forth from the shtiebels of Chevrat Mishna, Chevrat Shas and the like. At the end of the work day, the Chasids would find contentment each in his own shtiebel. Each Chasidic group had its own rabbi, and the rabbi would customarily visit his followers once a year.
I well remember the enthusiastic welcome the Trisk [Turiysk] Chasids would prepare for their rabbi, the descendant of the rabbis of Trisk. The rabbi would sit at the head of the table with his followers around him.
A great many Chasids of Trisk and others sat and stood with gaping mouths, listening to the rabbi discuss Torah, and the cantor from the Trisk shtiebel, who was known for his pleasant voice, Reb David Shreiber, would entertain them with his songs. The Chasids would pour all of their enthusiasm into song, and would bid the rabbi a zealous goodbye. The same picture was repeated in all of the other shtiebels.
The Zionists were also members of the shtiebels though the Zionists arranged their own minyans on the holidays, especially during the Days of Awe, with cantors such as Aharon Vegenfeld and Yaacov Gorner, who would pass before the ark and lead the group in song. However, most people belonged to the shtiebels mentioned above, and took an active part in their religious and public activities.
And woe to the Chasids of the shtiebels if they should try to smother the rights of the Zionists. For example, in the Trisk shtiebel there was a special table at which the Zionists sat, and the Chasids would call them the table of the goys. The Zionists in the shtiebel always fought stubbornly for their rights, including being called to the Torah, the recitation of the prayer for the sick on behalf of Zionist leaders, and so on. And more than once, they fought successfully for the transfer of funds to benefit various nationalist organizations and the like. The same was true in all of the other shtiebels.
The Chasids ran their lives with honesty, devotion, and faithfulness to the Torah; their lives were spiritually abundant. Their wallets were always open in aid of others, they gave stipends to yeshiva students, and on the eve of the Sabbath they would always invite guests to share in their meal.
accompany the rabbi who came to visit in Ludmir
The Great Synagogue, which apart from its regular worshippers (among them the Feldesher Tabak, who was well-respected and loved in the city) was open to all, from passing visitors to simple Jews of all kinds and from all levels of society.
The Great Synagogue of Ludmir was built in an antique style and was quite expansive. (A story was told that at the end of the 18th century when Tosefot Yom Tov served as the rabbi of Ludmir, suddenly those who were against him began to harass him and make his life miserable. One fine day, the rabbi went to the center of the city and cursed the place with fires and plagues, then left. After a short time a fire broke out in the Great Synagogue and it burned to the ground. In time it was rebuilt. At first it was one story high, but years later two more stories were added).
The Great Synagogue was used as a place of prayer and of public religious celebrations. For many years the chief cantor was Reb David Kleiger. A scholar and a well-known musician, he succeeded in raising a generation of poets.
Well-remembered are the concerts orchestrated by his oldest son, Leib, during Chanukah and Purim. Folks songs also appeared on the program, accompanied by an orchestra, and to this day I recall the concert in which a member of this choir, Bichmacher, appeared as a soloist and astounded the audience with his rendition of the song, My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me? [from Psalm 22], accompanied by the choir and the klezmer orchestra of Matka. The song and the concert reverberated in the heart and left a lasting impression on the audience.
Public Celebrations in the Great Synagogue
The Great Synagogue was also used for public celebrations. On the 20th of Tammuz, the date of the passing of Dr. Herzl of blessed memory, in addition to the memorial services the Zionists would hold in the Zionist club and the clubs of the youth movements, there would also be a large service for all of the city's residents. The Zionist leaders would make speeches and the cantor, accompanied by the choir, would sing the Yizkor prayer.
The local Zionist organization wanted to transform the 2nd of November, the date of the Balfour Declaration, from a Zionist holiday to a national holiday for all Jews. To this end, it ordered a cessation of work and, waving nationalist flags, the city's inhabitants congregated in the Great Synagogue. In addition to the communal prayer, the many Jews there listened to the remarks of the local heads of the Zionists, as well as those of the well-known leaders from the center in Warsaw, who had been invited specifically for that purpose.
On May 3rd, the date of the emancipation of Poland, the residents of the city, dressed in their holiday best, would arrive voluntarily at the Great Synagogue where, in the presence of representatives of the army and the local Polish government, they would conduct a prayer service, then would listen to the remarks of Rabbi David Morgenstern, as he spoke of current events.
Tradesmen and the Work Movement
Another not inconsiderable population in Ludmir was the one composed of tailors, shoemakers, carters, porters, and other tradesmen who, though they were perhaps not excellent scholars, were good Jews; God-fearing men who observed tradition and followed the commandments. They had warm Jewish hearts, and were willing to sacrifice their souls for Jewish honor. They had their own little corner of the world. After a hard day of work, they would gather in the distant corners of the Great Synagogue or in the large house of study, and they would come for the afternoon and evening communal prayers; later they would spend considerable time reciting from the book of Psalms with the rabbi.
I must mention the memory of two water bearers of Ludmir. Yossele and Manis, with their simplicity and honesty, captured the hearts of the people of Ludmir. At the weddings of their children, the residents of the city contributed to the dowries and the gifts.
Then there began a big change, a sort of revolution in the lives of the youth of Ludmir. Immigration to the Land of Israel, the news and the echoes that came from there about the new way of life, a life of hard work, had an influence on them. The majority of the wealthy youth, the aimless, and the directionless, began to
|Seated, from the right: Meir Szejntop, Shoel Boim, Haim Bones – Apelzoig – Michael Berkner, Avraham Brick, Moshe Mendel Boxenboim, Meir Aharon Livin, David Boxer.
Among those standing: Hesbel Moshe (Drikoff) Yehiel Shapira, Mendel Babioda
sense that that was not the way live, supported by their parents and expecting a dowry.
They came to recognize of the value of work, which for a long time had been a concept foreign to them. They began studying to take on such professions as bookkeeper, pharmacist, electrician, and so on. Gradually the young generation came to stand on its own two feet. Some of those young people went on to join the pioneering youth movements, and some of those went on to immigrate to the Land of Israel, while others continued with their easy lives.
Special mention should be made here of the tireless activist who, with his superb organizational talent, contributed greatly to raise awareness of the value of work and professional training – Michael Berkner, one of the founders and managers of the people's bank (Bank Lodobi). He was a multi-talented man who was an enthusiastic supporter of every constructive organization and activity. His posture was upright, and his face bore a cultured expression that was quite impressive. His beard was pointed, his dress neat, and his eyes kept a close watch on every single area of life in Ludmir. Among all of the various institutions, he particularly favored ORT, where professions were taught to boys and especially girls (who, up until then, had not received such training). The girls studied under the supervision and guidance of professional teachers, and went to on achieve respectable places in the modern sewing industry in the city.
As a Zionist, Michael Berkner saw the aforementioned organization as a source of preparation for life in the Land of Israel, and indeed some of them did immigrate and continue to make use of their professions there.
There were two cinema houses in Ludmir, most of whose patrons were Jews. Occasionally, the great artists of Poland would appear there, together with their choirs.
There were two weekly Jewish newspapers. One was aligned with the Zionist Organization, and the second – which was apolitical – was called Onzer Laben (Our Life).
In addition to the large library next to the Zionist Organization, there was another, exceptional, library which was named for Sholem Aleichem.
The library became a center for classes suited to every strata of society in the city. It introduced and disseminated a lot of theory, knowledge, and literature to young and old alike. The library was run by young people who devoted all of their time and effort to the place, which grew and expanded from year to year, enriching its shelves with hundreds of books by the greatest authors in the world. The receptions, gatherings, and question-and-answer evenings were always at the highest level of culture, and drew in many participants from all of the streams.
Mention should be made of the troupe of dramatic hobbyists which became, with the passage of time, a real theatrical company. The group was founded by the library, and its artistic quality brought the troupe renown in the city. Many people would attend its performances in Ludmir and the surrounding area.
Most of the success of the library must be attributed to Issak Stern. He was a man of the people, one who cared about his fellow man and who was an excellent speaker. As a member of the community board, he fought valiantly for the interests of the poor sector and the tradesmen, who saw him as their representative.
In the theatrical world, he was a great artist. In his youth he was a member of the well-known company of Esther Rachel Kaminska. With every fiber of his soul and his artistic talent, he devoted himself to the instruction of the troupe, and he always found complete satisfaction in their successful performances. More than once, he himself performed in a major role.
More than once, on the initiative of the members of the library's board, directors who were well-known throughout Poland were brought in, who raised the cultural and artistic level of the troupe.
One by one the memories come, joined by sorrow. Oy, Jews of Ludmir – where have you gone? How can it be that we are orphaned and alone?
You also drank the poisonous portion served by the hand of the cursed Nazis. You drank until the end, the end of the Jews of Ludmir. The community was demolished to its foundations, and erased.
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