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[Page 63]

In the Cycles of the City

by Dr. Reuven Ben-Shem

Translated by Amy Samin

1. A Lamentation for Kovel

I knew you Kovel, I knew you, loved you, engraved you on my brain and in the depths of my soul for you are, and were, deserving of that, Kovel.

I knew you from both sides of the bridge, the Zands and the city. I knew your streets, teeming always with Jews - men, women and children, workers and students, merchants and artisans, wearing weekday clothing and immersed in the practical business of living and economics, and then again adorned in Sabbath clothing with their souls shining from their eyes, examining the world of the Holy One, Blessed be He, and the world of the goyim.

I knew your youth, Kovel, the dear, pleasant Jewish youth who loved and dreamed, who yearned and dreamed, worked and expected, prepared for a life of exile on one hand and the release from slavery on the other.

And now you are gone, Kovel, now your name has been erased from the map of the Jewish people, that which lived and is no longer in Poland, and the Jews in their everyday clothes and their Sabbath finery no longer can be found in you, almost all of them were cut down. My heart, my heart goes out to you, dear beloved city, I lament you: “Woe for the beauty that is rotting in the soil!”

The Jews who fought and hoped are no longer in Kovel, those who expected salvation, who mourned - deep in their hearts, in the darkness of night and in the darkness of their lives - the lament of Israel; Jews who dragged their lives from one abyss to another, while deep in their hearts they carried the eternal hope, the great expectation of Israel Saba: the day will come, the day of emancipation, and the herald will call out freedom to the life-long slaves of the goyim – freedom for the Jewish people.

Today, no one waits any longer in Kovel, for there are no more to wait…no more Jews. Jewish Kovel is dead; it is dead and will never rise again. Only memories of what was familiar, known, and bound close with ties of love within them will bring Kovel to life, and they will carry it deep in their hearts because there is no freedom from that bitter memory.

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Foreigner and resident was I, Kovel. I spent months within your walls, months of work and creativity, immersed in the lively Jewish way of life that brought pleasure and satisfaction.

The year was 5684 [1924]. Polish and Jewish Kovel had barely managed to lick the bleeding wounds the war had inflicted, leaving the city in the ruins which served as living testimony to the German-Russian-Austrian-Polish-Bolshevist-Ukrainian explosions which fell time and again from the skies of Kovel upon the city.

Like her neighbors, Kovel passed from hand to hand, from a defeated enemy to a victorious enemy. The defeated took out their rage, and the victors celebrated their success, by spilling Jewish blood. Jews were massacred with the departure of the Ukrainians and slaughtered upon the arrival of the Poles. When the Germans left, the Ukrainians took over the massacre, and in a sort of Bolshevist Had Gadya they were replaced by the Poles – the legionnaires of Pilsudski and of Heller – and the Jewish blood flowed.

Between killings, from defeat to victory, the Jews of Kovel continued, with their vibrant Jewish strength that is so unique to our people, in their work and their labor, the work of Israel Saba. They did not give up, and with the dawn they would hurry to pray at the Great Synagogue, one of the smaller synagogues, or in one of the shtiebels [small houses of prayer] in the city and the Zands. Even late into the night, the sounds of prayers for salvation did not cease in the homes of the Jews. Although it may tarry, every Jew would wait for its arrival. Such prayers were constantly on the lips of the Jews, in the cheders, and the schools, where they would study, cry, sigh, and dream – dream of the great day of emancipation. Reality forced hundreds of Jewish youth to the goyish forces, where dozens of them died on the front lines on foreign soil.

Although in 5684 the Jews were still licking their wounds, and the blood spilled from the ruptured veins of the Jewish public was still fresh and had not yet dried, they still returned to a full life. There were two Jewish gymnasias in the city, in one of which the language of instruction was Hebrew, and the sounds of the Hebrew youth could be heard signifying a revival, and also an arrival yet to come.

2. The Hebrew Gymnasia

In the Hebrew Tarbut gymnasia, I wore three hats, for I was a teacher of Latin, Polish, and history. I discovered three things there which only Jews in the Diaspora were capable of bearing without harming or being hurt by them:

  1. A Jewish-nationalist teachers' group in which every heart, every soul, contained the same cry, the same longing, the same dream: Zion and emancipation. This group was under the control and instructions of the
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Polish governing body, which was hostile to the Jewish people and which harassed their way of life, their culture, their aspirations and dreams.
  1. A curriculum which was designed to inculcate in the hearts of the pupils a love for the Polish homeland, its past and its future. We were required to implant in the hearts of the Jewish youth a love for the Polish people, admiration for the rulers of Poland, its aristocracy and its despots, in a program which included learning Polish songs and reciting Polish poetry and the works of its authors, with no choice in my instruction. “The spirit of the youth is the property of our nation,” claimed the Polish supervisor, demanding the Polish soul of the Hebrew youth. The Tarbut Gymnasia fulfilled its obligations precisely, but from the opposite direction – from west to east, towards Jerusalem and its soul.
  2. And finally, the rending of the soul of the Jewish way of life in the Diaspora: the tear within. They stood camp against camp, Jews against themselves. The assimilated were on one side, the nationalists on the other, and communists in the middle, in the arteries of the people. Suspicion and instability placed obstacles and stumbling blocks, bad-mouthing and all of the other side effects that occur in nature in the miserable fight for existence and the search for a spiritual handhold under uncertain circumstances.
The principal, Asher Frankfort, may his blood be avenged, brought me into my position and then lay in wait behind the door, listening to see what would be my fate. Would the students be disruptive, ready to swallow me alive like a fox according to the obligation of every student in the world (and Jewish children were not exempt from this custom) of testing the new teacher, of learning what he is made of, and discovering what they could get away with?

My first morning passed successfully. I was called to the principal, and he presented me with his advice and fatherly instructions. Frankfort was the initiator, the founder of the institution, the organizer, the person in charge in the eyes of the public, and the official principal of the gymnasia. He was filled with anxiety over the fate of his life's work. Jewish cleverness and Hebrew tradition merged in him in his struggle with destiny. He fought with the Polish kortor [inspector] he struggled with the parents who preferred to send their children to the schools with “rights,” he strove to eradicate from the hearts of the students the negative attitude they had regarding the value of Hebrew and the Hebrew teachers, and he fought with himself, that the moth of desperation and the mosquito of doubt wouldn't consume him from within.

And I was absorbed into the staff of teachers.

The winter struck with full force. The bitter cold held the universe in its frosty arms with an iron grip. The snow squeaked underfoot, and the chill of the wind sent sharp needles into us and we, the teachers of the Tarbut school, warmed ourselves at the hot stove of the gymnasia.

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The head of the warm-up review was Leibovitz[1] with his witty jokes and his sharp insights, radiating cleverness, Israel Saba and his eternal dream.

His sidekick and some-time assistant, and frequently his scholarly opponent, was my friend Yaacov Netaneli-Rothman[2] who had a reputation as a lyricist and was an expert in the Torah of Israel on the one hand and the wisdom of the goyim on the other.

During this period HaTzfirah published his series entitled “Higionut” [Common Sense], and around the stove each and every word was dissected, and armed with our paltry knowledge we argued over every definition and every sentence. We raised doubts about everything, doubts to annoy him, doubts about the existence of what he had written in one of his articles, the doubt of common sense – like seasoning on food. Then the well-springs of his knowledge bubbled forth, and he flooded us with idioms, simple explanations, interpretations, and justifications from near and far.

Our friend Dr. Hollander, lawyer, history teacher, stood apart. His knowledge of Hebrew was not in direct proportion to his knowledge of history; his contributions to the discussion were limited to corrections of historical dates and ensuring that the facts were accurately stated. He was knowledgeable of all of the dates of the teachers' meetings, salaries and similar facts.

Angry and withdrawn sometimes, and with occasional outpourings, pacing in the small room that was used as the teacher's lounge, was my dear close friend Yosef Avrech, may his blood be avenged. He possessed a wealth of knowledge about the history of Israel and the Talmud. He sharpened his teeth with restrained anger and wrath that made his eyes blaze, and he tormented himself. He chastised not only us but especially the Diaspora, our poor living conditions, and the shame of the Diaspora which was exposed and revealed to all.

Our conversations might include a serious matter in the Talmud, or the words of the Rambam, an explanatory note (commentary) of the Rabad [Rebbe Avraham Ben David], and the adjutants of the Rambam, all of which found in him their knight and judge, one who fought their battles, who prosecuted their offenses and sought their repair.

And in his excitement, the man brought evidence from the Rif [Rebbe Itzhak Alfasi], from Tosefot, from Bialik, and from Yehuda Leib Gordon, all in one basket. I looked deeply into his eyes, and it seemed to me that a holy fire was burning in them, not to be extinguished. I felt in every fiber of my soul that that severe fire was fashioned from one skin, one material, one foundation, inquiring, “All of my days I have been disappointed – now that it comes to me I cannot fulfill it?”

And from far off, also in spirit, were the other teachers. The teacher Pip (Latin, Polish),

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the teacher Zidenzeig (drawing), the teacher Feinstein may his blood be avenged (music) – the staff of Hebrew teachers in the Hebrew gymnasia on Polish soil in a Volhynian winter.

The bell would ring, and we would flinch as if bitten by a snake, leaving our places and going to the classrooms. The stove was abandoned, and the fire brought into the classrooms, where the process of squeezing Jewish knowledge while within a ghetto created by the goyim, or goyish knowledge with a Jewish spice, into the heads of the Jewish pupils would begin.

The students of the Tarbut gymnasia in Kovel were fortunate in that the hearts of their teachers beat, as did those of the pupils, in a rhythm of grief and longing, in a yearning aspiration, hidden and bubbling deeply and intensely.

3. The Domain of Hashomer Hazair

Before noon I was a teacher; after noon my time, energy, and experience were devoted to Hashomer Hazair.

When I arrived in Kovel, I discovered a chapter that was meager and neglected, one that was in the process of crumbling away. Its biggest competitor was Shomer Trumpeldor which, under the direction of Lusia Hodorov, was as an omen for Hashomer Hazair, and the chapter and its spirit were diminished. The parade of the Trumpeldors -

 

Dr. Ben-Shem in the company of the older group in Hashomer Hazair

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their uniforms, their songs, their leaders, and especially their customs, and their venerated leader-commander Hodorov - attracted the youth to their ranks. When I arrived in Kovel, Hashomer Hazair was in decline. Only one step stood between it and extinction.

These were my virtues:

  1. A reputation as a leader and organizer of youth
  2. Membership in the highest ranks of Hashomer Hazair
  3. A teacher with a doctorate in philospohy
  4. An exciting speaker
  5. A faithful observer of religious ritual and belief in the ways of Hashomer Hazair

When I left Kovel, the chapter there of Hashomer Hazair was one of the largest and most important (both in quality and quantity), the best organized and most beautiful in Poland. As successful as I was with the chapter of Hashomer Hazair in Grodno, such was my success in Kovel.

All of my time, thoughts, actions, feelings and aspirations were focused on my labors on behalf of the movement. I performed many practical acts of kindness, from early in the morning until late at night. My room was the headquarters, a beehive of activity, filled for hours with action and instruction. All of my books, visits, meetings, words, and plans were devoted to one thing: Hashomer Hazair.

The chapter grew to a marvelous size. Students from the Tarbut school, in their desire to become endeared to me, joined the ranks of the movement. The students of the Karla Davidova gymnasia envied them, and they too joined the chapter. And whenever I set out in my Hashomer Hazair uniform, wearing my boots and Baden-Powell hat and with a walking stick in hand, the youth would stare at me and run to join our ranks. In Hashomer Hazair we inspired intense longing for Israel, the ritual of work, a love of singing, respect for society, demand for change, and aspirations for action.

And when every night wonderful songs burst forth from lungs and hearts, the parents of Kovel would stand in a column of surprise with tears in their eyes. They would wait for hours for their sons and daughters to return from the chapter.

Twice I was asked by the secret police to come and discuss my group. I remembered well the stories of the young men who were suspected of communism, and who were cruelly tortured (blows with a doorknob in the ribs, under the lungs in the area of the liver, pressure on the fingernails, suffocation, freezing of the feet and so forth) in the interrogation rooms of the same secret police. I went to those interviews with an agitated, pounding heart. I was warned and sent home with a characteristically polite Polish accompaniment. The authorities of the school (the kortorion, the inspectorate), began to take an interest in me, arguing about Zionism, society, youth, and loyalty.

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The Lag B'Omer parade of Hashomer Hazair in 5690 [1930]

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In praise of the Jewish youth, I will say that while the gymnasia students would dance the Hora all night at the chapter, they took upon themselves the burden of the strictest of discipline during their classes in the day time.

4. Kovel Nights

On Simchat Torah I went out, accompanied by the heads of the regiments and groups of Hashomer Hazair, to watch the Trisk Rebbe (of the famous family of sages from Trisk) dance. In the heat of a fire not of the world of judgment, with books of Torah in their hands, the Chasids danced, their faces impassioned, their eyes closing and opening, their legs pumping up and down. Carried on the wings of eagles, dancing, becoming excited, as if day and exile, sin and sleep did not exist. There was only the leap heavenward towards the unseen, but soon to be known, infinity. They skipped, jumped, rose up, passed over, hopped, and lifted their legs in an incomprehensible dancing experience, on and on until the watchers were short of breath. The hearts of the dancers beat like cuckoo clocks, their hearts shaking heavily, a dance over the chasm of forgetfulness, the chasm of memory, to the pinnacle of creation, the peak of the Temirin, a dance of joy, joy in the Torah, joy in forgetfulness, in revival, in desperation, without pride.

 

The Holy Rebbe Lula,
may his righteous memory be blessed

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All around us, in great numbers were many pleasant Jews of Volhynia. I knew them. They were a mixture of Jews, a geo-political-topo-ethnographical mixture. Volhynia, near the border of Russia, Poland near Lithuania, Melorussia, and Belorussia absorbed the blood and life from them all. The Jews of Volhynia did not have in them the cold logic of Lithuanian common sense, nor leniency of opinion, nor the vulturine character of the Poles. Rather, the Jew of Volhynia had within him the enthusiasm for a mixture of longing for the Ukrainian plains, and a yearning for Belorussia and for Lithuanian insight as well. And above all, simplicity; simplicity within a multiplicity of idioms, the simplicity of the steppes and the Ukrainian plain. And the eyes of those watching the dancing blazed, enjoyed and moaned, enjoyed and nodded.

And the rebbe stepped out to dance. The Chasids stepped aside for him, leaving space in the middle of the dance floor. The rebbe closed his eyes, lifting his head, swaying back and forth, thrusting his fingers into his broad sash, adjusting the hat on his head, stepping past the table and past the crowd, and into a dervish-like dance, mysterious, wild, and enthusiastic, the likes of which I had never seen.

The Chasids around him applauded, sang and hummed, sighed and prayed, and the rebbe danced. Half an hour passed, then an hour, and the dance continued without ceasing, neither becoming greater or less. The rhythm was frozen. The world was frozen; life itself was frozen. It was as if the life-giving sun was inside the Kovel rebbe's synagogue and with it the Chasids and the observers. Walking and jumping, jumping and spinning, spinning and hopping, hopping and skipping, skipping and making a half-bow, without speaking a word and without changing expression. Only the face of the rebbe was burning, blazing, illuminated.

I was jealous, so jealous, of the power of the idea, the force of which was strong enough to warm not only one heart, but the hearts of many.

The winter nights continued. With various kinds of sports activities, I enriched the paltry life of the Diaspora and enriched and roused the youth and myself.

Every Sabbath Eve I went out with the heads of the regiments and groups for a nighttime trek. The unhappy parents objected, and wouldn't change their attitude even knowing that I, the teacher, accompanied them. The number of trips increased, and so did the number of participants. The frost and the cold put the world and the houses of the goy villagers in the area surrounding Kovel to sleep. Lights were extinguished, dogs barked, and Jewish youth trekked through the fields of Poland – Volhynia, walking, taking in the sights, searching, longing, dreaming, learning to strengthen body and soul, learning to wait, to aspire, and to achieve.

On one of the nights, I swore in all of the graduates with the Hashomer Hazair pledge. After I had commanded them all to seclusion in the darkness, at a distance of a one kilometer radius, those who returned had made a steadfast decision to remain in Hashomer Hazair for the rest of their lives. And in the darkness of a Polish night, opposite the villages of vast Volhynia, accompanied by the bites of Ukrainian dogs, in foreign fields and secret forests, the Jewish youth swore eternal devotion to their far-off homeland and to a life of work in a sincere social manner.

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Group of members of Hashomer Hazair from Regiment B in the year 1927

Other nights, I would take them out for field games. In the darkness the members of Hashomer Hazair would crawl, moan, and lie down, becoming familiar with the scent of the earth and the sweat of their fellows, the scent of the sweat of fear, and the taste of search and wandering.

And bonfires erupted in the night, lighting dark fields and restless hearts. And also in the cold and darkness we journeyed together on sleds far from the agitation and tumult of the city, to the heart of the surrounding nature; slapped by the strong wind we rode at a gallop, and the youth kept up with us.

I left behind hundreds of youth with saddened hearts, clutching a photo of me dressed in my Hashomer Hazair uniform close to their hearts with the real love and fondness of friendship, when I left Kovel. I took with me the best of my memories and part of my dream.

And Kovel was destroyed, as were her Jews – the young men and women, the teachers, the leaders, an entire dear and sacred community; a community where dreams of salvation were spun and the urge for a life of freedom was woven.

It died and will not rise again. The ministers of the nation will not extinguish its candle; it will be passed on to light the darkness of the land of dreams, the land which the heart of the Jews and youth of Kovel, in moments of death and strangulation, embraced and kissed in their souls.

Notes:

  1. Today the principal of the government school named for Haim Nachman Bialik of blessed memory, in Tel Aviv and the author of textbooks. Return

  2. One of the directors of the gymnasia Sokolov Leor in Tel Aviv-Jaffa, poet and author. Return

 

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