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[Pages 73-85]

About Kovel, City of My Birth
Memoirs and Notes

By Dr. Michael Greiber

Translated by Amy Samin

From the Depths of the Past

Within the darkness of the clouds, which in our time darkened the skies of Eastern Europe, there sometimes broke through shining, glowing rays. They rise up and intensify into streams of memories of exemplary Jewish life. Innocent and modest, quiet and honest in Kovel; this was Kavele, the city of my birth.

Similar to the lives of most of the Jews in the cities and towns of Russia, Volhynia, Lithuania, and Poland, the life was, in many ways, and in particular from a moral standpoint, one of altruism and mutual aid, the complete opposite of the lives of the Christians in those countries.

I remember Kovel from the earliest part of my childhood, during the 5660's, or the start of the twentieth century in their numbers in memory of Jesus, which were soaked with Jewish blood, from Kishinev to the massacres of the murderous Hitler, may his name and memory be erased.

An ancient record existed in Kovel and was preserved by the Chevrah Kadisha [burial society] there. The writer Ansky Rapaport visited Kovel and became very interested in the place. In the old cemetery on Matisov Street (near the center of town in those days), there remain unbroken tombstones carved nearly four hundred years ago. The Jewish community of Kovel has existed for more than four hundred years, but until 1758 it was subordinate to Ludmir; only then did its dependence on the other city cease according to the decision of the Polish government. Even in those days the merchants of Kovel ran large businesses, and had trade connections with merchants in the Tartar city of Ochkov. In the days of the edicts of 1648 and 1649 Kovel was also destroyed. Its Jewish citizens were killed, and only about 20 families remained. The Jews of Kovel rebuilt the city fairly quickly, and resumed commerce activities. On the third of March 1666 at the Jaroslaw fair, the leaders of the Jewish communities signed a financial commitment to the treasurer of King Jan Casimir and the first to sign was Yisrael ben Shmuel of Kovel.

In 1687, the record of the Council of the Four Lands tells of the presence at the Jaroslaw fair of those leaders, eighteen in number, and the fourth to sign was Rabbi Haim bar Moshe Meshulam from Kovel.

In 1690, in Jaroslaw, the sixth to sign according to the order among the fourteen Jewish leaders was Yehoshua Segel of Kovel.

In 1697, the record of the Council of the Four Lands regulations for printers was signed by Rabbi Yeshayahu bar Natan-Neta of Krakow, previously of Jaroslaw, and later of Kovel.

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In 1700 Rabbi Naftali-Hertz Ashkenazi, rabbi of the holy community of Kovel, was registered, and in 1701 on the 27th of the first Adar of 5461 it was written in the community record of Tiktin: “Our rabbi and teacher Rabbi Naftali-Hertz bar Yisrael (Ashkenazi) was named chief justice of the rabbinical court and teacher in the holy community of Kovel. After a year, he was appointed chief justice of the rabbinical court in Lvov - and the list is long.

In the book in praise of the Baal Shem Tov, edited by Horodsky (Dvir Publishers, Tel Aviv), on page 160 it is written: “And by the way, I will write that I heard from the Rabbi Yechiel, chief justice of the rabbinical court in the holy community of Kovel, etc.”

The name of Kovel was well-known amongst the greatest Jewish authors. Also Y.L. Peretz wanted to glorify it in his story Mishnat Chasidim; in the groom's speech it is written: “And the exalted court in the holy community of Kovel showed astuteness and there is no higher.”

Thus many generations ago there were great, glorious and well-known rabbis in Kovel up to the great Rabbi Meshli Pinsker who was, in fact, the last rabbi in Kovel. After his death more than fifty years ago, the people of Kovel did not receive a new rabbi because there were three or four judges and a teacher of Jewish law. Just a short time before the outbreak of World War II (1939) and the destruction of Kovel; upon the death of the judge Rabbi Shaul Grebitzer may his righteous memory be blessed, a place opened up, and they brought over the Trisk Hasids (most of whom were from Kovel), for many years the neighbor of our rabbi and teacher Rabbi Yaacov-Arieh of Trisk, the son of the Magid of Trisk. The decision was made in the community council led by the businessman Moshe-Aaron Perl may G-d avenge his blood, to select as the city's rabbi the son-in-law of the Trisker rabbi, Rabbi Nahum-Moshe, may G-d avenge his blood.

 

Kovel's Jews

The Jews of Kovel (it is possible to say without exception) were exceptional in their purity of hearts, pleasantness, and love of their fellow Jews. I never saw a Jew of Kovel raise a hand against another Jew. In spite of that, I was an eyewitness at a very early age to how the Jews of Kovel defended one another with no distinctions, in a case of suspicion of an injury done by a goy.

It was enough that a Jewish child of about 7 years old would burst into a home or shop, shouting: “I saw a goy chasing after a Jew” and immediately, in the blink of an eye, a group of dozens of Jewish youths would gather to judge the goy who would dare to attack Jews. I saw a young Jew, about 17 years old, a shop assistant (if my memory serves me, his name was Sushnaski, son of the Jew Izboyzchik) who attacked a group of Russian soldiers with a corporal at their head, for insulting a Jewish woman who sold pottery in the marketplace, threatening to treat her as if they were in Kishinev. That corporal was taken to the hospital smashed to pieces. His friends nursed their injuries for a long time, and only through the intervention of many goyim

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The public kitchen for Jews in the army

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on that market day were the Jews stopped and taken to the police. From there, understandably, they were freed because of a bribe.

The Jews of Kovel in the street, at home, and in the synagogue, were always ready to help any Jew in need with a generous hand, and all the more so foreign Jewish soldiers in the area. Since Kovel was so close to the border, there were always many battalions of regular soldiers, cavalry, and artillery corps around. In the spring and summer, on the days when the Russian army performed maneuvers, they were joined by many regiments from other places. There were always many Jewish soldiers, and every resident found it necessary, at every opportunity, to invite one or more soldiers to his home for a meal, all the more so for Shabbat or a special day.

Sometimes, if a Jewish soldier refused to be parted from his friends, the homeowner would with a wide smile include all of the soldier's friends in the invitation to a meal.

In about 1909 a proper and excellent restaurant for soldiers was organized, serving meals on holidays in the Talmud Torah building, first in the old building on Malovalodimirski Street and later on in the new building opposite Pirogov's Gymnasia which was besmirched in the days of the Nazis.

I recall one time, on the first of the intermediate days of Passover in the morning, they suddenly announced that a great many Jewish soldiers had arrived and were in need of proper food for the holiday. Immediately, youth of every stripe - from students of the Gymnasia to apprenticed workers, daughters of good families and housemaids, and with great enthusiasm baked, within just a few hours, matzahs and everything that was required, in the matzah factory of Monish Roizen of blessed memory.

There were many charitable organizations in Kovel, both official and unofficial: Moshav Zkenim, Bikur Cholim (apart from the well-known Jewish hospital), Laynat Tzedek, Malbish Arumim (providing, in particular to the students of the Talmud Torah, food, suits for holidays, and shoes), Beit Yetumim (orphanage), and Gmilut Chesed. All of those organizations existed thanks to the regular monthly donations made by the Jews of Kovel, and each one of those organizations had a regular collector of donations. (When I visited for the last time in 1934, I found ten such public organizations, not counting Gmilut Chesed funds and unofficial organizations).

I remember in 1914 at the outbreak of World War I when the expulsion of the Jews of Galicia by the Cossacks began, the first refugees came to Kovel in six freight cars that stopped by the old train station. Within just a few hours the cars will filled with food, clothing, and household objects, and they added - of course - traveling expenses.

And another example of the generous hearts of the Jews of Kovel: on his way to Constantinople [Istanbul], as an emissary of the management of the World Zionists to publish a Zionist newspaper, Jabotinsky of blessed memory was delayed for a day

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and a night in Kovel, without anyone knowing of his arrival or his departure. He discovered two Zionist activists who knew the purpose of his journey and at his request he received eight hundred rubles in cash (an astonishing sum in those days). The money was given with the personal guarantee of my father, Reb Moshe-Haim Greiber, may G-d avenge his blood, who was one of the board of directors of the Mutual Credit Bank, which was later covered by donations at the end of the year at the time of the dividend payment of the stocks in the Jewish Colonial Bank.

I also remember one time when Judge Shik became gravely ill and needed a dangerous operation by a famous professor in Warsaw who demanded an enormous sum. A delegation of movers and shakers, with the attorney Appelboim of blessed memory at their head, insisted that the head of the Gmilut Chesed, Motil Fishbein of blessed memory, provide the entire sum required from the coffers of the Gmilut Chesed. Fishbein was against the idea, saying, “We cannot empty the entire fund for the sake of one person in need, even if he is a very important man.”

On the morning of the Sabbath, before the reading of the Torah, Appelboim and his friends appeared on the stage of the Great Synagogue and in an impassioned speech he appealed for the aid of those assembled to put pressure on the gabbai, Fishbein.

In a heart-wrenching cry Fishbein explained his reasons, protesting, “We cannot sacrifice an entire city of poor Jews and peddlers, who need the Gmilut Chesed for their survival. I will contribute 50 rubles from my own personal funds.” The gathering supported Fishbein's position unanimously, promising to raise the necessary funds, G-d willing, after the end of the Sabbath. And so it happened.

Those leaders and the generosity of the Jews of Kovel did not cease even after World War I. Kovel raised an exceptional sum in aid of the Jews of Russia in 1922 (delivery of food packages) as well as in fundraising campaigns for the Keren Hayesod [United Jewish Appeal] (as was declared with great enthusiasm by the head of the Keren Hayesod, Mr. Leib Yaffe, may G-d avenge his blood).

 

The Origins of Zionism in Kovel

The Jews of Kovel (like the Jews of Volhynia in general) excelled at having a warm Jewish heart and strong nationalist feelings, extraordinarily so.

During the time of the Hibat Zion movement and the Odisay Committee, they used to go to the various houses of prayer in Kovel (which, taken together with all of the synagogues numbered more than twenty) in an organized fundraising appeal on the eve of Yom Kippur in support of the settlement of Eretz Yisrael. In the statements printed by the Odisay Committee, one can find all of the details, including the names of the wheeler-dealers.

This close tie with Eretz Yisrael existed thanks to several families, who would continuously receive greetings and letters from their elderly parents in Jerusalem (such as those that, Moshe-

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Haim Greiber, may his blood be avenged, received from his father Reb Eliezer in Jerusalem, and the Kastelnesky family from their mother in the Holy City).

Delegations from Tiberius and Jerusalem would regularly visit Kovel in the winter, in order to empty the collection boxes in the name of Rabbi Meir, Master of the Miracle, in order to receive the donations in cash given with a generous hand as was the custom of the Jews of Kovel.

After the First [Zionist] Congress, a Zionist committee was founded in Kovel which was headed by physicians Dr. Perlman and Dr. Feinstein, the dentist Dr. Lipshitz (the son-in-law of Yisrael Hanich), Reb Moshe-Haim Greiber, Yisrael Projneski, and the assistant pharmacist Porer (from Eismont's pharmacy).

The first Zionist gathering in Kovel took place on 2 April 1898. A committee was elected, and it was decided to send a representative to the Congress. On 15 August 1898, Dr. Feinstein left Kovel as the representative to the Second Congress. Dr. Feinstein wrote the following words in his journal in the Russian language: “Here I am, suffering from melancholy and oppression; it seems to me that Zionism will be my cure.”

On 24 August 1898 a public gathering took place in the big house of study (in the Sands). More than 800 people took part in the gathering, according to the testimony of Dr. Feinstein and other eyewitnesses. Dr. Feinstein, who was the speaker, provided a detailed report of the Second Congress. At the time, Dr. Feinstein wrote in his journal that in his opinion, he personally suffered a complete failure.

After that, Dr. Feinstein focused his attention principally on the matter of the construction of a Jewish hospital. On 23 May of the same year, the government permitted the use of 10,000 rubles cash of the meat tax funds for the hospital building. That autumn, the foundation was laid but from the beginning there were disputes with the contractor Projneski.

In January of 1900 there was a stock distribution enterprise in Kovel for shares in the Jewish Colonial Bank of London. It goes without saying that the members of the Zionist committee and their friends among the merchants of Kovel were among the first to sign up for the shares. That same month, Dr. Feinstein wrote that he had saved 40 rubles for “a rainy day” and he used them to buy four shares in the bank.

After the Fourth Zionist Congress, there was a decline in Zionist activity in Kovel. The Intelligensia group was disbanded. Dr. Feinstein publically announced the transfer of all of his matters to Dr. Perlman.

On the 1st of October 1900 the Jewish hospital building in Kovel was completed. Dr. Feinstein still continued, for a certain time, his activities on behalf of the committee members mentioned above, until the 1st of January 1901. At that time he withdrew from Zionist activity, and continued his work at the hospital. In the report he delivered at the time, it says that “70% of the signing fees on

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the bank stocks had already been collected in cash, in other words four thousand three hundred and ninety one rubles.” Dr. Feinstein of blessed memory transferred his four shares to the Zionist Committee in Kovel.

At that time and for the next few years there was a big decline in Zionist feeling in Kovel, especially among the elderly with Dr. Feinstein as their leader. In his journal entry dated 24 September 1903 Dr. Feinstein writes: “Since Kishinev, Homel, and just before the matter of Uganda instead of Palestine which was, still, very far away from us, we had no choice but to return to the urgent matter of assimilation.”

However, Dr. Feinstein was mistaken. Although Dr. Perlman and Dr. Lipshitz left Kovel, there still remained other devoted Zionists and go-getters in Kovel (among them, Yisrael Projneski, Moshe-Haim Greiber, Yehuda Hite, Yaakov Bork and a new star who had come from Projny, Mendel Kosovski of blessed memory).

After a while there appeared in Kovel young forces. According to custom in Czarist Russia, educated young people who were suspected of nationalist activities were sent into forced exile in far-off parishes (especially after the assassination of Pinchas Dashbasky of blessed memory. He traveled from Kovel to Petersburg for this purpose. The Russian Interior Minister Palva, gave this order in a special and secret dispatch sent to the ministers of the shire). Several enthusiastic students from Kiev, Odessa and other places arrived in Kovel. I remember Luitzki and Zalichneko and a few of their friends. Expatriate students like that were almost always equipped with a letter of recommendation for my late father. In cases like that, they made sure, first of all, to provide the guest with a source of income, in other words, teaching one or two private lessons, from which he would be able to earn a decent living. I, myself, studied with the two I have mentioned, one after the other. Most of the time those two young men were dedicated to the public, especially the youth.

After a few years a group developed for the young “intelligentsia.” They recruited to their number the student, Asher Frankfort, may his blood be avenged. Hefet's two sons joined, as did a few other youths from nearby towns.

The distribution of the Zionist shekel and also the organizations that supported the Keren Kayemet L'Israel (emptying the collection boxes, collecting donations on the eve of Yom Kippur, and on Purim) was well-organized and the money would be sent regularly to Odessa, to the main committee run by Ussiskin of blessed memory. Kovel was famous, in a good way, among the Zionist leaders in Russia; therefore various speakers, lecturers, and emissaries would frequently come to visit. In most cases, the speeches were delivered to limited groups on Saturday nights in the house of study of Projneski of blessed memory. Only rarely were the speeches made in the auditorium of the theater or the cinema, with announcements and ticket sales. The first Zionist speech I heard was on a Sabbath

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afternoon by a Zionist preacher (I believe it was Rabbi Nissenboim of blessed memory). The speeches of Moshe Kleinman of blessed memory (later the editor of the Zionist HaOlam) I heard in my childhood on Saturday nights in the synagogue of Projneski. The first lecture I heard in the auditorium of the Expert Cinema was given by Haim Greenberg of blessed memory. Also present at that lecture was the student Asher Frankfort, who was the organizer as well as the ticket seller and usher at the entrance to the auditorium; he founded the Hebrew Gymnasia in Kovel.

There was another very important public Jewish center in Kovel which was very active in aiding the Jewish residents of the place, both materially and spiritually. At that time, there were five official banks in Kovel: a) a branch of the government bank; b) a branch of the Commercial and Industrial Bank of Russia; c) the First Mutual Credit Bank; d) the privately-owned Weintraub-Lobzovsky bank; and e) the Second Mutual Credit Society Bank, led by Brish Rabinrazon of blessed memory. The First Mutual Credit Bank was the Jewish commercial and labor center of Kovel, and also a center for matters relating to Zionism.

Zionist and nationalist activists were employed at the bank, like Heft, Yehosha Leiberman, Yosef Burstein (a product of the yeshiva in Novoharodek and a person of high morals), the genius Yosef Valular of blessed memory, and others.

Kovel was also one of the first cities to send students to the Herzliya Gymnasia in Tel Aviv, including attorney Yaacov Eisen. From Kovel, one of the most praiseworthy teachers of the previous generation, Turkanitch of blessed memory, moved to Eretz Yisrael. Also Dr. Avraham Kastelnesky of blessed memory left Kovel; he went on to become a special advisor on economic matters of Eretz Yisrael at the Jewish Agency in London.

Nationalist-Zionist publications such as Resevit, Yebreiskiya Jashan, and the publications of the K.K.L. in Yiddish) were used as proof against the strong spiritual outburst which swept over the Jewish youth of Kovel during that confusing time, after the Russo-Japanese war and the failure of the Russian Revolution, when the Jewish youth were helpless and oppressed. During that confusing time that feeling was expressed in Bershadsky's Aimless, two essays by Ahad Ha'am, and Brener's admiration for Jesus.

In Odessa at that time a group of Jewish youth - graduates of the gymnasia - changed their religion and as a group took to the streets of the city. But the Jewish youth of Kovel attempted every experience, and Jewish defense existed in Kovel during that period, which may have been the reason there were no pogroms against Jews there, nor any injury to their property.

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Spiritual Life in Kovel (Before World War I)

Education in Kovel was of interest to each and every individual and to the community as a whole. On almost every street, large or small, there were small religious elementary schools (cheders) headed by experienced and expert teachers.

As I recall, there was one teacher of young children just starting their schooling, known as the Melamed (teacher) of Leibishov, who taught for generations, dealing in the sacred work for more than fifty years, and in whose school there were always 40 - 50 students.

Out of the great love and respect I had for him, I would create a memorial to him, if it were not for the fact that I can't remember his first name. He was a pedagogue of the highest order, and it is difficult to find another example of his success in teaching and the influence he had on those tender, refreshing and lively children.

Of all the teachers I had, until I left the cheder at the age of 11, his marvelous and patriarchal example remains with me, the glory of a first teacher, the grand old man with his long, meticulously trimmed white beard, the marvelous figure of the Melamed of Leibishov.

In many of the houses of study and synagogues in Kovel teachers sat during the week, teaching babies from the Beit Raban in the side rooms of the houses of study.

In addition to those, there were modern schools and cheders founded by the Jewish enlightenment movement in Kovel. In particular was the influence of the municipal school (as it was called, because there were two, not one, completely separate - one for girls only and one for boys only). The boys and girls from the two schools would meet only once a year, at the graduation ceremony at the end of the school year. Parents of the graduating students were also invited to the ceremony.

All subjects were taught at the municipal school, in the Russian language of course. The school was a very good one, and there were only three preparatory classes and two departments.

Graduates of the second department, the last one, were proficient in the Russian language, grammar and mathematics, and also some history, geography, and biology. They were offered positions as bank clerks in the government-run bank (kaznatsheistva), in the post office and in any government office as well as in privately-run department stores.

Those who wanted to continue their studies were readily accepted into the third department of the gymnasia, but the best students would study a little German during the summer months and were accepted, following an examination, directly into the fourth department of the Czarist gymnasia.

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School teachers under the directorship of Mr. Weinberg in 1916

From right to left: Beryl Rozin (Hebrew), Solomia Perlmutter (Polish), Yania Grau-Kramer (Polish) Frenrich (school supervisor), Raya Pomeranz (Polish and German), Sara Blumfeld-Tzelvich (Hebrew and drawing), Mr. Weinberg (school principal)

A school called Talmud Torah was established for poor children. Once a year they received new suits of clothing for Passover, shoes and a little food. The teachers of the Talmud Torah were Lekach, the educator Mesalonim, Lushchik, and two named Sander.

The modern and organized schools were: a) the cheder founded by the enlightenment movement, Maskil el Dal, which was supported by the Mefitze Haskalah organization in Russia; b) the private school run by the educator Geller of blessed memory (one of the veteran teachers and an experienced writer for the Hebrew newspaper); c) the school for girls run by Dr. Shershbeski, and the very well-run school for girls of Slotzker, the first person in Kovel to introduce the method of teaching Hebrew in Hebrew and used for that purpose the textbooks of Krinsk: First Review, and Spoken Hebrew; and d) the school named for Weinberg.

There were two gymnasia, one for girls run by Dr. Firogov, may his name and memory be erased, and a municipal gymnasia for boys. In the girls' gymnasia the vast majority of the pupils were Jews. The ministry of public education in Russia cancelled, before the outbreak of World War I, all of the limitations on the education of Jewish girls in the high schools, but severely limited the education of Jewish boys, saying they could only make up 10% of each class.

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The second graduating class of the Russian gymnasia in 1921

In the first row, fourth from the right: the principal Mrs. Clara Davidovna-Erlich

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In the municipal gymnasia for boys it was understood that, because of the draconian restrictions, the number of Jewish boys in each class was miniscule, 3 to 4. Many of those who wanted to provide their sons with a high school education were persuaded to send them to other cities. In many of the houses of prayer and houses of study, individual Jews sat and studied Torah, and in the evenings and on weekdays were paid to teach the community Ein Yaacov, Chaye Adam, and the weekly Torah portion.

There was also a yeshiva in Kovel, which for some unknown reason never became well-known. In the side rooms next to the Leinat Tzedek house of prayer, there was a Hebrew library which was run by volunteers. That library would regularly receive almost every new Hebrew book that appeared in Warsaw. Textbooks of all kinds in foreign languages were provided by the bookstores of Ashkenazi and Mendel of blessed memory. At Ashkenazi's shop they would also stock textbooks in Hebrew and grammar. Gittlin's new bookstore in Kovel was the first to carry Hebrew dictionaries, literature, poetry, and research books. He was the first to disseminate in Kovel the small Hebrew Dictionary of Ben Yehuda, and Grazovsky-Kloizner's pocket dictionary, the writings of Smolanskin, Mapo, Yehuda Steinberg, and Bialik.

Yisrael-Moshe Bess of blessed memory distributed religious texts and ritual articles, but he had several official competitors with bookstores, and some not-so-official competitors (book peddlers who wandered to the houses of study and synagogues selling their wares).

In Kovel one would often meet authors, rabbis, or educated men who had come with detailed lists of book-lovers in their hands, and they would approach them and offer their books.

In 1913 the first weekly newspaper in the Russian language, called Chayei Kovel (Life in Kovel) appeared in Kovel. The editors and publishers were students from the city, guided by editors such as the student Levitzky and his friends.

Once, the principal of the Hebrew gymnasia for boys, Sositzki, found himself insulted in the feuilleton by the editor, in which the principal Sositzki was described as extremely difficult and strict, who terrorized everyone around him. The court accepted Sositzki's lawsuit and found the editor guilty of willfully causing insult and sentenced him to six months in jail. The editor appealed the sentence. The trial was quite costly and in the end the newspaper went out of business.

At about the same time the poet Zissa Weinfer left Kovel and wandered to the United States and Yosef-Haim Zagorodsky who was one of the regular writers for the newspaper Moment in Warsaw.

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In Kovel there appeared a significant number of almost every Yiddish newspaper published in Warsaw, as well as HaTzfirah, the Russian weekly newspaper Niva, and the business newspaper Yediot HaBursa (Stock Market News). Every week the Niva would publish installments of books by the great Russian writers such as Dostoyevsky, Pismesky, Gershin, Goncharov and others. The youth in particular would read these stories voraciously.

Also the children's newspapers HaShachar [The Dawn] and Ben HaShachar [Son of the Dawn] of Krinsky, and the weekly children's newspaper of the boys from the Bilubavitch yeshiva, HaAch, [Brother] had subscribers in large numbers in Kovel. There were also a few subscribers to the children's weekly HaChaver [The Friend] which appeared in Riga and was published by the teacher Mansovitch.

There were also Zionist youth groups in Kovel that would gather occasionally for debates on Zionism or to listen to a visiting lecturer. They would meet in private homes, mostly on side streets outside the city. There was also in Kovel an organization for boys of bar mitzvah age. They made a rule that they must speak amongst themselves only in Hebrew, and they made up games in Hebrew, such as a word game with two letters, and riddles.

The Jews of Kovel always excelled at generosity and a willingness to give and to contribute to all in need. After the death of Professor Mendelstem of blessed memory in Kiev in 1912, there began a heated dispute in the newspaper between the initiators of the idea to found a Hebrew university in his name in Jerusalem, between Dr. Hindes and Dr. Bendarsky, and their fierce opponent Hillel Tzeitlin, may God avenge his blood, Kovel responded by organizing a dispute between the Zionists on the same subject, and one hundred rubles (a princely sum in those days) were collected on the spot for the university fund.


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Kovel

By Moshe Fishman

Translated by Amy Samin

From a distance of thirty years' time you come to my mind, sometimes clearly, other times blurred and foggy, but always accompanied by a pleasant sensation, as if one has touched something beautiful and dear.

When in 1922 I was asked by the Tarbut representative from Kovel to take on the management of the Herzliya Elementary School I was hesitant to accept the proposal. Kovel is a regional city in the province of Volyn (Volhynia), of which I had heard that it had plenty of flour, but no Torah; and I, a student of Lithuania who preferred the spiritual to the physical, didn't believe that in Kovel

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I would find any kind of meaningful cultural activity. After I accepted the position and came to Kovel, I wondered whether my work at the school would bring me any satisfaction. However, after I had been in the city a little while, I was quickly convinced that religion isn't everything. In that small town I discovered a settlement of Jews, lively and vivacious, with a vigorous nationalist modern culture of broad scope. I did not check to see if people were studying the Mishna or Ayn-Yaacov, learning Torah together in the synagogues between mincha and ma'ariv. Nor did I check whether there were ten idlers sitting in the synagogue studying Torah. But it gladdened my heart in the mornings to see the wonderful sight of the children and grown youths and toddlers, all thronging to the Tarbut schools: the Hebrew gymnasia, the Herzliya elementary school, and the kindergartens.

In the evenings one can hear voices singing, the tumult of arguments as the young people left the youth clubs. Next to the Zionist club there was always movement: people entering and leaving, all the while continuing their discussions on nationalist subjects. The language of Hebrew was frequently heard in the mouths of the youth as they went on their way to the schools or the clubs.

 

The students of the Herzliya School with Their Teachers

The teachers sitting in the third row, from right to left: Zev Tzernitchki (today Lieutenant Colonel Tzur), Dr. Abba Shafroch-Poysner, unknown, the principal Mr. Moshe Fishman, unknown, Haim Hochberg, Shimon Feinstein.

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The Herzliya School made a place for itself among all of the other institutions. The name itself says it all, and together with its students it had a special spirit of happiness and national pride. The school was founded about fifteen years after the death of the great visionary, and his spirit still sweeps through the Jewish community and fills the heart with hope and faith. In addition, that period of time in Poland was particularly stormy. The Jewish minority was waging a persistent war for its rights as citizens and as a people, under the brave leadership of Yitzhak Greenboim, the representative to the Polish Sejm. The Jewish people of Poland held their heads high and made plain their desire for a substantial change in their lives.

Then the Hechalutz movement was created, and many groups of young people, men and women, joined in many cities and towns, and they prepared themselves for life in Eretz Yisrael. They set their hands to all sorts of physical work, and also studied Hebrew and gathered knowledge about Eretz Yisrael.

The Jews were proud of their nationalist organizations and their expansion to other cities. I knew personally the group of people who were in charge of the all of the cultural and Zionist activity. Their involvement in those matters was complete and total. The first of the group was Yitzhak Gitlis, may his blood be avenged. The cultural work was sacred to him, and he was involved in it even while at work in his shop. I remember fondly his wife Sarah, who never stood in the way of his public service.

I also remember the remaining activists, the pharmacists Finkelstein and Goldstein, and others who were enthusiastic and devoted to the cultural work in their hearts and souls. There were also great founders who sent their sons to the Hebrew schools and did not pursue the lure of the Polish gymnasia. When the Hebrew educational institutions would host celebrations in the city, those people considered themselves the guests of honor. The educational institutions were not just the glory and splendor of the city of Kovel and the decisive force in its spiritual character; they were also greenhouses for raising the builders of the homeland in Eretz Yisrael.


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Memories of a Hebrew Teacher in Kovel
in memory of Benny Mahmadi Zev, God rest his soul

By Yaacov Kobrinski

Translated by Amy Samin

 

A.

Preparation for the Start of a New Academic Year

Quite a lot of preparation went on in the Jewish schools of Kovel prior to the start of a new academic year. Two elementary schools, a preschool, a full gymnasia; altogether 23 – 24 classes with 850 – 900 pupils. This was the affiliation with the Tarbut movement in the city. Aside from that, there was the library and the night school. Every institution at that time was chock full of problems. Not like the government schools, which had programs, a division of labor among the teachers, textbooks, etc., readymade data from the authorities…The Hebrew teachers were left with ample room for initiative and independent decision–making. We devoted many meetings to clarifying fundamental questions about Jewish education, to intense soul searching, and to criticizing our mistakes. Oh, how we debated our special difficulties, such as: imposing the Hebrew language, the relationship between the school and the various youth movements, Hebrew–language textbooks, inculcating an atmosphere of Eretz Yisrael.

In addition to this, the directors and secretaries were immersed in financial matters and tired disputes with parents over the tuition. There were multiple needs, and sometimes we would demand, aside from the clearing of previous debts, also additional funds, just like the Rebbe of Drežnik, at the time when many parents were asking for a discount. The severe cases would go before the full committee of Tarbut and first and foremost, its dear chairman, Moshe Pearl, may his memory be blessed, who was a masterful persuader and whose influence was great in all circles of the Jewish population.

The parents were not tempted by the possibility of educating their sons in Polish public schools without tuition fees, preferring to continue bearing the burden of the payments; just “don't make the boys into goyim.”

Praises to the Jews of Kovel, may their memories be blessed, who were weighted down by financial difficulties, impoverished due to the discriminatory policies of the Polish government, and who despite everything carried on their backs the entire network of schools with no help from the municipal budget or the government. They saved even unto the slice of bread from their mouths and quite simply proved their loyalty to the values of the eternal People!

Meanwhile, the children began bringing home the products of their school: new songs in Hebrew, folktales, bible stories, news from the Land of Israel, and at that time

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there was held the first project of the Jewish National Fund: the delivery of Rosh Hashanah greetings, and the parents saw the fruits of their labors and their hearts swelled.

 

B.

The Chanukah Reception at the School

The traditional celebration of Chanukah was the biggest party of the Hebrew School.

Almost immediately after Sukkot we went into action, devoting weeks to searching for material and processing it, to multiple rehearsals, and to technical preparations. On the evening, children and their parents gathered in the school building. All of the furniture was moved into one room at the end of the building, and the rest of the rooms were completely emptied and used as dressing rooms for the participants in the show. Children and adults, far more than the capacity of the small auditorium, pushed their way inside. But everyone happily accepted the crowded conditions. The holiday atmosphere, enhanced by the special clothing of the children, was reflected abundantly in their faces and shone brightly from their eyes. Everyone was busy and the pride was enormous. Nothing need be said about those who participated in the show and in the choir –they appeared on the stage! But there was plenty of work for others: some were busy helping the younger actors get dressed, others were used as ushers in the auditorium – they were in charge of putting JNF stickers onto the clothing of the guests and solicited them to place a donation in the Blue Box; and then there were those who had the most enviable job – pulling the ropes to raise and lower the curtain.

And the curtain rose… The candle lighting was accompanied by the choir. The conductor – who was the veteran singing teacher Shimon Feinstein, may his blood be avenged, who played a big part in developing the musical talent of his pupils. After the religious tunes (These Lights, Maoz Tzur) they performed some new songs which had been composed in Eretz Yisrael. The curtain went up again, and on the stage were the toddlers of the group – the preparatory students. Exclamations were heard from all sides at the sight of the beautiful costumes (mostly, of course, from paper) and the scenery – the handiwork of their teacher Pnina Goldsblatt z”l. They presented a children's tale, staged with songs and dances, and including such personages as dwarves, birds, flowers, the moon, snow, a forest. This adorable performance received wild applause.

Then it was the turn of the students of the upper classes to present performances with nationalist content and real suspense. One skit brought to the stage the outbreak of the rebellion of the Maccabees in Kfar Modi'in, and the second was set in biblical times and told the story of Elijah the Prophet, with emphasis on two exciting moments: his rebuke of the villainous act of the Jezreelite Naboth (“you have killed and also taken possession?!”), and his dispute with the priests of Baal. The great power of such performances was

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that they illustrated the chain of the generations and our struggle for existence in a comprehensive and convincing way.

And in conclusion, a staging of the story by Sholem Aleichem, “Chanukah Money”, which provided several pupils with a good sense of humor – who were also the known “pranksters” – with the opportunity to show off their talents in a constructive manner. Then the singing of “Hatikva” and the ceremony was concluded. The crowd began to leave without haste. The parents parted from the teachers with a friendly handshake and expressions of thanks and recognition.

Indeed, it was universally agreed that it had been worthwhile to invest such a great effort, because an event such as this was the highlight of the educational work.

 

C.

The Gymnasia Building Named after H.N. Bialik

Whenever we would walk along the street past the Polish schools, a sigh would inadvertently break loose from our hearts. They had wonderful, spacious buildings, while our schools were housed in the worst possible conditions. For the Herzliya School, a house was purchased from its owner, although on the two floors there was very little space, small rooms with no corridor – a total area of 280 square meters for 350 pupils!

The school named after Dr. Klomel was located in a rented house, old and ramshackle, on the verge of collapsing. In the apartment of the Gymnasia there were only two classrooms that were more or less suitable, without even the most elementary conditions for laboratories, no hygienic arrangements, not even a yard of any kind.

Until the principal of the Gymnasia, Asher Frankel may his blood be avenged, who was born in Kovel and was one of the most senior of the teachers and Tarbut activists, took it upon himself – or more correctly, threw himself into the vortex – to make it his goal to establish an improved home for the Gymnasia.

It was a daring idea; there were those who said “crazy”. The main problem was “where can the money be found?” – there was no answer but one: the principal of the Gymnasia and the members of the Tarbut board set out with the “red kerchief” and began collecting donations – and not the customary donations of a few gold coins, but fifty and upwards.

It was necessary to use every possible means: personal influence, taking advantage of various connections, harassing stubborn refusers with dozens of visits, saying words of solicitation and sometimes also difficult things, fighting and even gaining haters – and over the course of a year

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they collected seventy thousand gold coins, a fantastical sum for the Jews of Kovel, among whom there were no wealthy folk.

Aside from collecting donations, there was a lot of work to be done directly related to the construction of the building, which rested entirely on the shoulders of Principal Frankfurt: purchasing a plot of land, drafting a blueprint of the building, and gaining approval from the municipality and from the Board of Governors – and it was precisely there that the focus was on minutiae, with the intention of putting up obstacles to the progress of the project. Then there was overseeing the construction of the building, purchasing the building materials, partially with promissory notes, and then worrying about repaying the notes, in order to once again be eligible for credit…

Only once they had reached the end of construction and the interior finishing work was it discovered that there was not a penny left, and there was nowhere else to go for more money, and so, in 1934 Mr. Frankfurt decided to visit Eretz Yisrael and the immigrants from Kovel there and try to change the natural order of the world: instead of delivering donations from the Diaspora to the Land of Israel, to move them this time in the opposite direction. The idea was initiated, and Mr. Frankfort brought back more than twenty thousand gold pieces, and a short time later the beautiful building stood proudly on its hill.

Although only about 50% of the plan was constructed, there was plenty of space for six classrooms and the most important auxiliary rooms, a large physics and chemistry laboratory, a magnificent auditorium, wide, light–drenched corridors, and in addition a playground worthy of the name. A pleasant feeling encompassed me every time I visited this place, and I enjoyed the integration of “the beauty of Japheth in the tents of Shem”.

But it lasted only two years. I remember: in 1940 I came there for a meeting of Soviet teachers; at that time it was a Ukrainian high school. I was curious to see the plaque honoring those who had a part in the construction of the building, and I looked for it in the familiar place near the entrance. I didn't find it. It was gone.

 

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