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Minsk at the Turn of the Century

by David Zakai

Translated by Jerrold Landau

{Photo page 330: David Zakai during his youth}
David Zakai (Zochovitzki) was born in 1886. He made aliyah in 1909. He was a journalist and writer. He was one of the editors of “Kuntres” and “Davar”. He was the first secretary of the Federation of Labor [Histadrut Haovdim] at its founding. His books included”Ktzarot” [“Briefs”], “Nikra Baagada” [“Let us Read in the Legends”], and others. This chapter of memories was written specially for this book.
I was overcome by longings for my native town of Ostroshitski Gorodok [1], my parental home, our garden and the pond, the splendor of the town and forest that surrounds it. There was no small number of Fridays when I walked home by foot 21 kilometers from Minsk, where I was studying. I certainly knew poverty in the town; however I did not know the type of frightful poverty that I had seen in Minsk. I recall how women sat outside in the middle of the winter, enwrapped in rags and tattered cloths, with rags around their necks, and with pots of burning coals next to their dresses. They were selling pretzels for the price of one kopeck to the youths who arose early to go to cheder and yeshiva. Internal comforts were even lacking in the two-story stone house of my uncle, and the sanitary conditions in the courtyard were dismal. Poverty was one of the strongest impressions of my childhood and youth. There were many beggars on the streets; and the city was divided up into days. Each day brought its own group of beggars who made the rounds to doors. They were not given cash, but rather a note that was endorsed with the signature of some committee. Perhaps ten of these notes would equal one kopeck. I have read the book “Bemishkanot Oni” [“In the Dwellings of Poverty”] by Y. L. Peretz, and I realized that the poverty in Poland was no less than what I had seen in Minsk.

I recall “Der Alter Mark” in Minsk, the old market. It had many niches and compartments where haberdashery and scrap merchandise was stored, to be sold to the farmers who would come to the market on Sundays. I can still hear the shouts of the storekeepers, men and women, who were advertising their merchandise and calling the farmers to come. They would not only call them, but also grab them with their hands. I was a frequent witness to a struggle among merchants over a customer.

On Sabbath Eves, some time before candle lighting, Rabbi Yaakov Meir Grodzenski [2] would appear in the market. He was a man of wonderful character, and a rabbi who did not practice in the rabbinate. He lived a life of poverty. The wealthy people of Minsk would often ask him to serve as an intermediary for rabbinical court cases in monetary and other matters. He was also recognized by the governing authorities, and would intercede regarding many matters, not only with the lower ranking officials, but also with the governor. The custom of Rabbi Yaakov Meir on every Sabbath Eve was as follows: A short time before the beginning of the Sabbath, he would appear – yes, his entire image presented itself as an appearance – wearing a long, black, clean kapote [3], and a hat that was falling over his eyes as if he were hiding his eyes from seeing evil. He would call out “Yidn, Shabbes!” [“Jews, the Sabbath is approaching!”] Within a moment, the sound of the closing of doors and shutters could be heard, and the tumult of the market suddenly turned into silence. A short time later, the merchants were all washed up and clad in their Sabbath clothes, as they were entering the synagogues for the Welcoming of the Sabbath.

These Jews, merchants who earned their livelihood with great toil from early in the morning until late at night, entered the synagogues after the Sabbath meal and after a sweet, pleasant sleep in order to hear the sermon of the preacher or to study a chapter of “Ein Yaakov” [4]. Some of them would even study a chapter of Mishna.

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Minsk was well endowed with many schools, cheders and yeshivas. Youths from all of the large area around Minsk would come to study in these institutions. They would “eat days” [5], or their parents would send them their meager provisions by means of the wagon drivers. There was a Talmud Torah and school for impoverished students. I doubt if the illiteracy rate among the Jewish children in those days was even ten percent. The parents would pay the tuition fee for the cheders. The Talmud Torah was maintained by the community and the tuition was free. The tuition fee of the cheders was meager, but even this was a heavy burden given the poverty that reigned in the majority of the community. Nevertheless, the Jews regarded the payment of tuition as a primary responsibility, so that their sons would know how to pray and to recite “Kaddish” [6] after them. The were no bounds to the wishes of parents that their children should become scholars of Torah. They studied in darkened rooms and cottages in which the small windowpanes were covered with ice, and the sunlight barely reached inside. Since they did not earn enough to sustain their households from teaching, the Rebbes and teachers would occupy themselves with other work aside from teaching. Mendele, Shalom Aleichem, Sh. Ben-Zion, Yehuda Steinberg and others wrote about the “cheder” for generations to come. With all of the negativity, our relationship to the “cheder” requires investigation. Most of the students of the cheder knew how to pray, to recite Kaddish, and to recite Kiddush on the Sabbath. The relative illiteracy rates between Jewish and Russian children in our area are not even open for comparison.

Minsk was influenced by the yeshivas and kloizes [small Hassidic prayer halls]. The sounds of Torah did not cease from them. There were bookstores, including the well-known bookstore of the Maskil-Laeitan family (the father of the family Reb Naftali Maskil-Laeitan, was one of the first Maskilim [7]). He adorned the book “Seder Hasdurot” [“Order of Orders”] that was written by Rabbi Yechiel Halperin, who had been a rabbi in Minsk.) That store, and the store of Reb Meir Halperin (the father-in-law of Michel Rabinovitch, who was later the owner of the “Darom” bookstore in Jerusalem) always served as meeting places for Maskilim and writers. Most of the books were of rabbinical literature; however the store of Reb Meir Halperin included Haskalah books as well. Holy books, Yiddish pamphlets, novels, and Hassidic storybooks were on the platforms for sale. I recall the Dreyfuslech”, that is pamphlets in Yiddish that appeared during the time of the Dreyfus Affair [8]. They were speedily snatched up by everyone. These were anonymous pamphlets. Their author is not known to me. People would wait impatiently in my hometown for the wagon driver to come from Minsk, and these pamphlets would be snatched up.

Minsk was also the cradle of the Haskalah. The library of Reb Ber Bampi was known and respected. After his death, the millionaire Friedlander purchased it and moved it to Petrograd [9]. It exists there to this day in the national library there.

As in all Jewish cities and towns, Minsk excelled in its many charitable institutions. These were certainly not of the form of modern social assistance, but they did bring great blessing. These including “Hachnasas Kallah” [charitable fund for poor brides], “Bikur Cholim” [institution for tending to the sick], “Tzdaka Gdola” [Great Charity], “Kimcha DePischa” [fund for providing Passover supplies for the poor], “Pokeach Ivrim” [seemingly a fund to assist the blind], “Linat Tzedek” [a hostel for the poor]. These names were not in Yiddish or in Russian, but in the Holy Tongue [Hebrew], a sign of an ancient tradition. I only remember one name in Yiddish: “Koshere Kessel”, a special fund that provided kosher food for soldiers in the Russian army. In each and every Jewish home, there were rows of charity boxes, including for “The Fund of Rabbi Meir Baal HaNes” [a fund for the indigent of the Land of Israel – named after Rabbi Meir of the Talmud], “Ahavat Yisrael” [Love of Israel], and many boxes for various yeshivas. Trustees would make the rounds on occasion to empty them. In addition to these, emissaries would come around to collect for the various yeshivas and charitable institutions. I recall how every Friday afternoon, Grandmother would pass by the rows of boxes on the wall and distribute charity to them. This was certainly not like in our day, not like the government assistance of our day – the government of Israel included – but this charity was one form of assistance

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that the assistance organizations of today do not know, which is: in those days, the nation fulfilled the commandment of social assistance and support with their own bodies, and not just by dropping coins into boxes. For example, with regard to visiting the sick: groups of men and women would go on a rotation system, and in accordance with the need, to visit and help the sick in their houses. There was a “Linat Tzedek” [society for providing lodging for wayfarers] and “Hachnasas Orchim” [society for providing hospitality for wayfarers] in Minsk (these were called “Hekdesh”). These were disreputable from a physical perspective, due to the crowding, uncleanliness, and neglect – but nevertheless they provided a place for wayfarers to sleep. Wayfarers also slept in houses. The uncle with whom I lived put up a guest every week, who was sent by the communal council.

There was a professional school in Minsk. It was founded and directed for many years by Mr. Yehuda Zeev Nofech (the father of Yitzchak Nofech, who was later a judge in Tel Aviv). It was supported with the funds from wealthy people in the city, and also through some government assistance. It graduated many hundreds of artisans – including carpenters and locksmiths. The school graduates received diplomas that enabled their owners to live outside the Pale of Settlement [10]. This was a pioneering enterprise, and Minsk took pride in it.

Nofech also established a Jewish public library, the only one in Minsk. It had, among other things, books in Hebrew, Yiddish, and Russian, as well as children's books. The library was a center for the spreading of culture. There is no native of Minsk who does not remember this library positively. One of its directors made aliyah to the Land (unfortunately, I have forgotten his name).

During my time, there were classes for the public in Russian, under license from the government, of course. The vast majority of the lecturers were Jewish. These were public lectures in Russian, accompanied, already in those days, with a type of enchantment, and much experience. One of the lecturers was Gregory Gershuny, the well-known social revolutionary (his brother was a nose and throat doctor in Minsk). He was a chemist. I did not miss even one of his lectures. He was a wonderful lecturer with a clear style, understandable by everybody. He accompanied his words with many demonstrations. I recall these demonstrations: he had two flasks in his hand with white liquid in each. He mixed the liquids and – wonder of wonders – they turned red! Any inclination that I have towards the sciences comes not only from my grandfather of blessed memory, who was as they say in the Talmud “someone occupied in these matters”, but also from the lectures of Gershuni. Nobody in Minsk knew that before us was a person who would later become famous as one of the heads of the social revolutionaries who utilized terror against the heads of the Czarist government. He was sentenced to death, but the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. He escaped the deportation by hiding in a container of cabbage, and arrived in the United States.

There were also classes and lectures for the public, and there were schools that operated on Sundays and Saturdays, whose students were workers and merchants.

Minsk succeeded at something that no other city in the area succeeded at: in 1902, with the permission of the Czarist government, a Zionist convention for all of Russia convened. This was the one and only such convention during the time of the Czar. The Bundists [11] spread a rumor that the permit was received with the help of Mania Vilbosheviz (Shohat) [12] who at the time was a follower of the head of the gendarmes Zubavov [13] (this is a well-known period in the life of Manya, and the issue is known). The Bundists quarreled with us Zionists and said: You are convening through the good offices of Plava (the inimical Interior Minister). At the time, I lived in the house of Avraham Aba Rubenchik, one of the heads of Poale Zion of Minsk (he immigrated to the United States after the failure of the 1905 revolution). That house was the center of all of the preparations of that faction for the convention. Since my handwriting was good and pearly, I received the honor of copying the “platform” for the ectograph. I either delved into or did not delve into the depth of the paragraphs, whether a large paragraph or a small paragraph. However, I received my payment in return for my working through an entire night – an entry to the convention. I had never received a better payment for my transcription work.

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My heart, and the hearts of my friends Shmuel (that is Dr. Shmuel Perlman of blessed memory), and Yehuda (that is Yehuda Huberman of blessed memory, a known activist of Poale Zion) were joyful in anticipation of the festival.

And the preparations for the convention! There was still no sign of “spring” – it was still before the war with Japan – and suddenly the summer was upon us. At the end of this blessed summer was the all-Russia Zionist convention. There was an all-Russia Zionist convention in the open, in front of everybody. Minsk witnessed the horn of Israel sprouting and arising from day to day. Every train brought delegates and guests. Every inn was occupied. How could the heart of the youth contain himself when all of his revered idols were coming to him from a heavenly chariot – here is Lilienblum and Shafir, here is Graetz, behold Yosef Chazanovitch, and here is – here is my god and I will revere him [14] Achad Haam. All of them, all of them. From the bookstore of Reb Meir Halperin it was possible to see them all “face to face”, the beloved writers, the delegates and the people of the congresses. Behold, here is Ushishkin and his entourage – Shimon Dubin and Yehuda Novakovski (he was the well-known Hayavski), and here is Yaakov Laschinsky, may he live, of whom was said that he spoke Hebrew. It goes without mentioning that the people of Minsk who were supervising the convention were there, the “relatives” of the groom's side – our delegate Shimshon Rosenbaum, Yehuda Nofech, Yitzchak Berger, Binison (they made aliyah to the Land and died there), the elder Sirkin who was a man of “the group of the thousand” and many others. There was the son-in-law of Reb Meir, the young man Reb Michel Rabinovitch, from whom it was possible to hear what was happening behind the veil [15], a “bit” of gossip, words of wit and jest. The story was told of a Polish landowner who entered a store to purchase wine, purchased what he purchased, and told the Jewish storeowner sarcastically, “Did you hear? They say that this week, the price of onion and garlic went up.” The Jew answered him impromptu, “Was it not from the time of the agricultural exhibition, when many Polish landowners and noblemen gathered in Minsk, that the price of wine and food rose?” Mapa, the in-law of Reb Meir, spread this story through the city. It took on wings, and Minsk was enveloped in pride.

Top hats (on weekdays!), Praaks [16], people with impressive beards (Zeev Jaabetz and Lilienblum, who was the one whom we heard reciting the Shehecheyanu [17] blessing) and also students in their robes – was it indeed the “Paris” hall and not the casino of Basel?

Our threefold bound hearts – my two friends and I – almost stopped when we heard him, Achad Haam, commence his speech in Russian. “I am but a guest, but an invited guest”. We who spoke Hebrew among ourselves (Daniel Persky later joined us) did not understand it: How was it and how could it be that the “cultural” icon himself, who personified the entire “cultural” battle, does not speak Hebrew himself? Silence pervaded, and the convention listened intently. It goes without saying that we regarded his speech as the high point of the convention.

This was certainly the great speech that fructified Zionist thought. However, after not too many years, eyes were opened to see that it was not his speech but rather that of Ushishkin on the topic of “organization” that opened up a new era of Zionism. It was interesting to hear the call to pioneering and to aliyah to the Land – “Bnei Akiva” [18], the youth, the students and workers should gird themselves, make aliyah, and work there for two years. The charge from our delegate, the lawyer Shimshon Rosenbaum that the Jewish National Fund [Keren Kayemet] (and we lovingly sold its first blue stamps) should immediately begin purchasing land – all of these statements brought new tidings… We were thirsty for deeds. We were jealous of the Bund that called its members for sacrifice, whereas nothing was demanded of us. Not too many years passed before the beckoning call of Yosef Witkin was heard from the Land of Israel, and the Second Aliyah commenced.

The new era of Zionism arrived. As always, external factors urged it on and strengthened it. Approximately a half year later, in Pesach of 5663 (1903) the pogroms of Kishinev took place, followed by the revolution of 1905.

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The results of the convention were as they were; however its prime importance was the “strange” fact that this large Zionist convention even occurred during the era that Zionism was forbidden in the country. Such an event had not taken place with Russian Jewry in the past, nor did it in the future. Indeed, not only Basel, Katowice and Biltmore [19], but also Minsk had a role in the annals of Zionism.

Our relations with Bund were as they were, but everything that the Bund people did flowed from a deep sense of Jewish peoplehood and a legitimate concern for the working person. They were the first to take positive action to organize the workers, to improve the conditions of their life, to educate them, and to strengthen them during time of difficulty.

My friends included one shoemaker, a native of my town and a dear friend, and one seamstress. They took me to their meetings. She was a girl from my town, the daughter of extremely poor people. They taught her how to read Yiddish and Russian, and imparted culture to her. This attracted the heart. At the time, there was large-scale manufacturing that was concentrated completely in the hands of Jewish workers. She worked with pigskin, which was exported out of the country for brush manufacturing. This work was backbreaking as well as dangerous (there was the risk of contracting trichinosis). I would visit the factories, and I saw that the work was done completely by hand. The first Bund organization was the “Bershter” (brushmakers). It lasted for a long time. Not long ago I was told that its members organized together in 1912 and purchased matza in a collective manner. When the Bolsheviks wished to confiscate the Great Synagogue and turn it over to a professional union, the “Bershter” and print-workers did not permit this. Perhaps this was the end of the first Bund union.

I did not know Esther Frumkin, who had served as the commissioner of culture for a long period, but her name was famous in Minsk. She should be remembered positively, for Yitzchak Berger and Michel Rabinovitch received their exit permits to the Land of Israel through her assistance.

During my youth, songs of Valt [20], that is Avraham Liesin, and the first songs of Avraham Reizin were popular in Minsk. These attracted the hearts of the youth. Some of them composed melodies.

Mental prowess was needed to stand up against the challenge of the Bund. I always appreciated the benefits that the Bund conferred upon the masses of the nation.

I was in Minsk in October 1995, during the large strikes including the nationwide railway strike. Some of my family lived there. I went to the train station, where a gathering in honor of the revolution took place on October 17th. The entire city gathered in the wide area. Red flags flew. Delegations of workers arrived. The Bund was represented under their flag, and the Zionists under their flag. The voices of the speakers, Jews and Russians, thundered from atop the stages. Suddenly we saw soldiers coming up on the cross bridge. We greeted them with stormy applause: the army was participating! Suddenly, the shots of hundreds of guns were heard. A girl standing next to me fell down, dripping with blood. I ran with the masses of people through a narrow road. Policemen came from the station, shooting at those who were fleeing. I saw people fall. I knew that Father had come from the village, and he was also here… I went through streets where not a soul was seen, and no vehicle was seen. Silence pervaded.

The number of wounded and dead only became known the following day. Minsk was certain that the district commander would be fired from his post. A delegation of Russians and Jews demanded his firing. He and many other district commanders throughout the breadth of Russia remained at their posts. The cruel oppression of the revolution began.

Self-defense was established in Minsk. I did not participate in this, as I was too young. I remember that on one market day (Sunday), gentile inciters began to pillage stores. The Jews and butchers went out

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against them with axes. Somehow, the defense was organized, headed by Avraham the son of Reb Michel Kaplan (the uncle of Eliezer Kaplan). The hooligans who acted under the protection of the police were repelled. Kaplan was captured, and sentenced to imprisonment and deportation to Siberia.

I recall the story of Manya (Shohat) Vilboshevitz. The head of the gendarmes Zubatov advised the government to support the workers' unions by improving their working conditions and wages, with the hope that if they became involved in the professional problems, the political battle would die down. Manya recognized this aim, and interceded with Zubatov. It seems that his personality attracted her. She gave herself over to efforts among the workers to support the path of Zubatov, that is to abandon the political battle. Many people joined up with her, but it did not turn into an actual movement. Finally, she caught on to the main motive of Zubatov – to turn away the hearts of the workers from the political battle, and the movement that she had started did not last long. The Bundists fought against her and treated her with derision for the rest of her life. She went along with B. Katznelson and Yosef Beretz on a Histadrut [Israel labor organization] mission to America. She was attacked strongly by the Bundists there.

In the summer of 1914, after I had been in the Land for five years (I was a teacher in Gedera and Beer-Tovia, at that time, the southernmost moshava settlement in the Land), Dr. Chaim Borgashov, the principal of the “Herzliya” high school, most of whose students were children of Zionists in Russia, advised me to accompany approximately one hundred students who were going to spend their vacation in Russia. My travel fare would be paid by the high school. This was a good “activity”!

We stopped over in Salonika along the way. The communal council organized a fine reception for us. I wore a jacket that I had from my wedding. Of course, there were speakers. We were received in Kushta [21] by the Sultan on the day that he held public audiences. There, we found out that Germany had declared war. Indeed, there were some of us there in Kushta who were eligible for the draft. They remained in Kushta out of fear that Russia might join the war.

{Photo page 335: Natives of Minsk who were students of the Herzliya High School, 1913 (Chaim Kugel, Alexander Eig, and others) along with Noach Tyumkin (lower center) who was visiting the Land from Minsk.}

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I would have returned to the Land of Israel were it not for the students who were with me, but I had to bring my “charges” to Odessa. We arrived in Odessa on August 14th, the day that Russia joined the war. Not as we expected, no person from the Chovevei Tzion committee came too greet us. Perplexity and confusion already pervaded. Train travel was disrupted, and it was impossible to obtain a train ticket. I turned to Menachem Ushishkin, and he sent somebody to purchase tickets for us. We paid twenty-five rubles for each ticket instead of two rubles. (Ushishkn gave the money himself – and the parents later reimbursed the Chovevei Zion [Lovers of Zion] committee.)

Prior to leaving the Land of Israel, my friends of “Hapoel Hatzair” [Young Workers] gave me shares of the movement to sell in Russia, as well as vouchers for Keren Kayemet stamps. I destroyed them all while on the train, out of fear that they would inspect me and accuse me of collecting money for outside of the country.

Somehow, I reached Minsk. My family was very happy to see me, of course. They did not realize that I was not a short-term guest. Everyone was sure that the war would not last long.

Turkey joined the war, and communication with the Land of Israel was cut off. Nevertheless, my wife Rachel and my eldest son who was three years old, arrived suddenly in Minsk at Purim. She was exiled to Egypt along with the other exiles who were foreign citizens. Friends of hers, including B. Katznelson, advised her not to remain in the Land, but rather to travel to Alexandria, and from there to somehow make her way to Minsk. I did not remain for long in Minsk, and I had no toleration for all of the changes that had taken place there. I attempted to get closer to the Black Sea. We lived for five years in Crimean city of Feodosiya [22]. There, I worked as principal in a girl's school. Most of the approximately 1,000 students were refugees from Lithuania. I remained in contact with the students of Herzliya throughout the war, and they always asked me: “When will we return?”

At the beginning of the war, numerous bands of Jewish refugees passed through Minsk. They had been expelled from the village regions by the regional army chief. At that time, I was witness to wondrous displays of love for one's fellow Jew and brotherly assistance in a time of difficulty. Daily, they would come to the train station to greet the passers-through and provide them with food and clothing. The community had to take care of families whose heads had been drafted, and those who were already widows and orphans. Committees were established, and volunteers from all strata of society girded themselves for the task.

I remember that on one cold winter day, German airplanes flew over Minsk. I hid in the snow along with many others. This was my final encounter with Minsk. I wandered southwards to the Black Sea, to Feodosiya.

I went to the Great Synagogue while I was in Minsk. A Jew with a splendid countenance, a large head of white hair, exuding honor, stood behind the Bima next to the door. People passed by him but did not approach him. This was Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik, the head of the Volozhin Yeshiva. He was most certainly a refugee himself, who had come to Minsk to take care of refugee issues. His image is etched in my heart.

In those days, Rabbi Eliezer Rabinovitch, the son-in-law of the “Great One” of Minsk, occupied the rabbinical seat of Minsk. I used to go to his house. I studied Gemara in cheder along with his eldest son. I witnessed the goings-on in his house. It was always full of people, day and night, without any restriction on hours. His house was also a guesthouse for visiting rabbis. I certainly do not expect that the rabbis of our day should live in the conditions that they lived in former times, during my youth; but I do expect that their houses should be open to all in need, as they were then. Everybody could come to the house of the rabbi as if they were going to their own house.

During those days I was involved with a bad issue. It was thus. I went to one of my friends in Minsk. Two tall Jews wearing long kapotes entered and told me: “We have brought a letter for the daughter of the

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owner of the house. Please, youngster, give her the letter.” I took the letter, called her, and gave it to her. When the Jews saw that she had taken the letter, they quickly left. Suddenly the woman broke out in screams: “Oy!” This was a Get [23]. I had delivered tragedy to the family. We ran to the rabbi, but I was unfit as a witness on account of my age, despite the fact that it was already after my Bar Mitzvah.

I will erect a monument for a sublime person, Reb Meir Halperin, the owner of the well-known bookstore in Minsk. He had been a teacher to the older boys in Minsk, but in my day he was the owner of the bookstore. His son-in-law Reb Michel Rabinovitch ran the store. He was tall, thin, and bearded. He did not face the customers. He always wrote while standing. He was occupied with the preparation of a concordance to the Talmud, similar to that of Rabbi Kosovski. I do not know what became of his diligent work. However, he did leave a blessed work after him – “The Book of Notrikon” [24], a book that explains the abbreviations in Jewish literature. There were other works of this nature before him, but this was the first one that was complete. This was a reference book that was needed by many. His introduction to the book included research on the history of abbreviations. It described the reasons for their use, and the errors introduced in printing regarding abbreviations that causes misunderstandings of the Talmud and other books.

I will never forget the good deeds of that old man toward me. I asked him for a certain book, “Kochvei Yitzchak” from the era of the Haskalah. He told me, “My son, this is not fitting for you”. Later he sent me his Book of Abbreviations with an inscription as follows: “And if there is nothing new in the book, we are the Hebrews, for we can only take out the old in favor of the new through the decree of the King [25]. Therefore, all will say that this is new, for it is eternal. From someone who loves you and appreciates you from the spring of your childhood, the author.” His image remains with me for my entire life. His store was a meeting place for the masses. This was primarily through the merit of his son-in-law Reb Michel. Sometimes, even the old man took part in the debates that never ceased in that store.

I would meet the writer Yknh”z [26] (Yeshaya Nisan HaKohen Goldberg) in that store. He was tall with a blond beard and intelligent eyes. I still remember him from my hometown. Yknh”z was a “corrector”. He would be called upon to make corrections in Torah scrolls that were written by people of the city.

I also knew Reb Kalman Reizin, the father of Avraham and Sara Reizin.

Reb Yosef Berl, the Iyo”v from Minsk, one of the writers during the era of the Haskalah, was my Hebrew teacher for a period of time. He was very old. His elderly wife was shriveled. They lived in the suburb of the poor, on the way to the Road of the Tatars. I wrote compositions and he compiled them. He prophesied that I would be a writer and a “linguist”. His corrections to my compositions were a blessing to me. My father, who had an exemplary Hebrew style, was proud that I merited in having Berl as a teacher.

Minsk had many modern cheders. In some of them Hebrew was taught in Hebrew [27]. Menachem Itzkovitz and Chaim Tnezer were among the first pioneers, and both of them made aliyah to the Land.

I knew the Hebrew teacher and writer Reb Chaim David Rozenstein, the father of Avraham and Shlomo Even-Shoshan and Tzvi Rozenstein. He predated Bialik-Ravnitzky in his collected works. He published the book Beis Midrash”, an anthology of the legends of the sages. His work was not like that of Yisrael Binyamin Liebner who rewrote the legends. Rather, he transcribed them in their original language, as Bialik-Ravnitzky did after him. He also interpreted them. He published a Siddur called “Shira Chadasha” [New Song] with his own explanations, as well as an anthology of Mishna, Braitah [28] and other such items called “Mishna Brura” [29]. All of his writings were properly proof-read.

At the end of his days, during the time of the Bolsheviks, he sent articles full of content to “Davar” regarding the situation on the Jews in Russia (he signed them: Reb Chidka). His children sent him a visa. However, he died at the time he received it.


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The First Zionist Organization in Minsk

by Zalman Shazar

Translated by Jerrold Landau

Zalman Shazar (Shneur Zalman Rubashov) was born in 1899 in the town of Mir in the region of Minsk. He visited the Land in 1911 and in 1921, and settled there permanently in 1924. He was a writer, poet and researcher. He was one of the prominent personalities of the workers' movement, one of the first of Poale Zion, and one of the founders of the workers' movement and the Mapai [30]. He served as the first Minister of Education and Culture of the government of Israel.

He was the third President of Israel from 1963-1973. Zalman Shazar participated in the actualization of the book of Minsk and in the forging of its character. He wrote this article especially for this book, after he concerned himself with its content and its preparation for printing.

I am not a native of Minsk, but rather a native of the region of Minsk. Both my native town of Mir and my childhood town of Stowbtsy (Stolbtsy) are in the Minsk region. Minsk served as my metropolis until I grew up and went out into the wide world. Our family had a special connection to Minsk, since the wealthy man of the family, my uncle Reb Shmuel Shlomo Horwitz who owned a large forest in Atalez which all of our family members enjoyed, some more and some less, moved from Mir immediately after the great fire when I was three years old, and set up his home in Minsk – he, his only son the Zionist Reb Michael Shimi Horwitz, and his two sons-in-law who married his daughters, Reb Yehoshua Mordechai Rosenblum and Reb Kalman Tultchinsky.

Michael Shimi Horwitz was, as far as I recall, the first Zionist in the family. His personality was the archetype of all the Zionists in our family. Uncle Reb Shmuel Shlomo Horwitz merited having Torah and greatness together, whereas his only son Michael merited having Zionism and greatness together. The Zionist organization of Minsk, which he headed, was known in the city during my childhood as “The First Zionist Organization” of Minsk. I do not know if it was called thus because it preceded other Zionist organizations in the city, or because of its great importance. It seems to be that the other well-known Zionists in the city, such as Reb Y. Z. Nofech, the father of the first justice of the peace of Tel Aviv Yitzchak Nofech, and the head of a trade school in Minsk; and the accountant and tea agent Reb Y. D. Beininson whom the poet Avraham Liessin mentioned in his memoirs – were remnants of the Chovevei Zion of Minsk who joined national Zionism with the appearance of Dr. Herzl. However the vast majority of the members of this “First” organization were reared in national Zionism. Most of them were organized by Dr. Y. Buchmil and his wife, who were sent by Herzl himself to Russia to establish a Zionist movement and to invite delegates to the first Zionist Congress in Basle.

The head and chief of this first organization was the lawyer Shimshon Rosenbaum, who later took part in the establishment of the independent State of Lithuania after the First World War. It is said that he established the borders of this state in accordance with the accent of “Gut Shabbas” of the Jews of the towns of Lithuania [31]. A town where the Jews pronounced it as “Gut Sabbas” with the letter “Sin” was recognized as a Lithuanian town, whereas if the Jews pronounced it with the “Shin”, it was a sign that this town was “Reisin” [32]

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or “Zamot”, outside of the bounds of this new state. He later became the minister of Jewish affairs of that state, for which he fought for its establishment among the nations. His final repose is in Tel Aviv. He was considered to be very intelligent, and one of the most famous members of the intelligentsia of Russia. He knew about Hebrew jurisprudence and was honored by all who knew him.

His partner in this group was the famous dentist Chaim Churgin. He was the mover of all matters of the organization, practical and spiritual. He forsook his own affairs for Zionism, and arrived in the Land at the end of his days destitute.

Preceding them and more rooted in Zionism than both of them were the Berger brothers, Reb Y. L. Berger the author of the first “Stories of the Bible”, and Reb Yitzhak Berger (father of my friend Dr. Herzl Berger, one of the editors of “Davar”). Both of them were sons of the great scholar Reb Gershon Avraham Berger. Their fiery words were heard from the podiums of the study halls in all towns of the region.

Later, the two Brotzkus brothers, Juli Davidovitch and Boris Davidovitch, became quite well known. One, the agronomist, was an expert in matters of Jewish agriculture, and the other one in legal matters. Both were members of this first organization.

From amongst the young manufacturers, I recall Solomonov, who was also one of those who graced the first organization.

It would seem that also the Kaplan brothers, Avraham and Meir, of the veterans of the Zionists of Minsk, belonged to this group, as well as our friend Michel Rabinovitch who was a writer of “Hamelitz” in Minsk. I do not know whether the best known Hebrew teachers in the city, Tz. Ch. the son of Y. F. H. – is he not the teacher Podomski the Sharshavi – and others – also belonged to this first group. The youngest of the group, who later was numbered among the first group, was the orator Alexander Goldstein. He was like a “child” in this circle of veterans, but on account of his speaking abilities, and on account of the fact that with his speeches he followed in the path of Vladimir Jabotinsky whose sun was beginning to rise in the skies of Russian Zionism, he also was able to be included in this first organization at the end of its days.

The primary stage of the ascension of this organization was in the days of the Minsk convention (1902), and the height of the influence of this organization was, apparently, between the time of the Minsk convention (1902) and the Helsingfors (Helsinki) convention (1906). The loop of connection for me, the child from Stolbtsy, and the group who participated in the first convention in Minsk was the only son of my old uncle, Michael Shimi Horwitz, who was a representative to the first Zionist congresses in Basle, the pride of my childhood years and the splendor of the entire family at that time.

Michael Shimi Horwitz was also a native of Mir. He was a resident of Minsk from the time of the fire in Mir. He was the only son of his parents, and an intellectual man in all his ways. From his childhood, he excelled in his studies. He, like all of our family members, did not study in the famous Yeshiva of Mir, but rather had his own teacher, Rabbi Basnovsk, who remained his teacher even after he married and set up his own home in Minsk. He was supported at the table of my uncle, and studied along with the scholars of the Shoavei Mayim Synagogue.

Michael Shimi was a Hebrew expert, and the owner of a large Hebrew library, one of the best that I knew in my youth. He was an enthusiastic and inspiring orator, bearing the image of a genial man in all of his ways. His black beard was divided into two, similar to the beard of Max Nordau [33], which added to his handsomeness. I do not know what others thought of him, but during the time of my childhood and early adulthood, I saw him as an exemplary person. During the summertime, he would travel with his mother Aunt

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Shifra, the daughter of my uncle Reb Zalman Ginsberg of Mir, to healing spas outside of the country, on account of his weak back and his tendency to pulmonary illnesses. After his wedding, he would travel there with his very beautiful wife, Fania Izrailovna the daughter of Reb Yisrael Berlin of Brisk. During my childhood, his two daughters, who were my friends of my age, would accompany them to Miran [34] and Krantz, or in years that they would not travel, to their forest of Atalez. From his youth, he was a scholar and a Zionist Maskil. He spoke Hebrew and German, and was a wonderful orator.

{Photo page 343 right: Michael Shimi Horwitz.}

{Photo page 343 left: Michael Shimi Horwitz and his daughters Jenny (the wife of Kurt Blumenfeld) and Esther (the wife of Moshe Zamora).}

When the time of the First Zionist Congress came, he was with his mother in Miran. The matter became known to the Zionists of the first organization of Minsk. They sent him a mandate and he traveled to Basle as their delegate, obviously at his own expense. There, he saw Herzl, and from then, he connected with him and revered him with heart and soul. For the entire year between the First and Second Congress, he would travel to the towns of the region and lecture about his impressions of the First Zionist Congress; about his admiration for Herzl, Nordau and Marko Bruck; and about the wonder of wonders that was revealed to him during the proceedings of the Congress. I was a child, and I did not understand the full meaning of all of his words, but the charm of his admiration already stuck to me. When he would walk with us on Sabbath eves in the Atalez forest, dressed with the same frock that he wore in front of Herzl, it was as if I saw a reflection of a reflection of the luster of Herzl upon myself, upon myself for all the days of my life.

Those years were the years when songs called “Songs of the Nation” were collected. They were gathered and published by Sh. Ginsburg and Mark. The best of the intelligentsia of the Zionists were thus occupied with great enthusiasm and warmth – and Michael Shimi excelled. This was the time before the battle between Hebrew and Yiddish. The official organ of Zionism was still published in Yiddish. The beloved poet of the generation before me, who expressed the pinings of his soul, was Elyakum Zunser. Our family knew him personally, for he served as the jester at the wedding of my parents, as well at the wedding of my Uncle Zvi who served as the chairman of the Zionist organization of Stolbtsy. The echoes of his songs were raised up with boundless enthusiasm during the entire period of my youth, until Frug came along and took his place with his Zionist songs in Russian and Yiddish.

I recall very well the song that Michael learned from Reuvele the wagon driver when he traveled from Stolbtsy to Atalez. He would sing it enthusiastically, with the full mime of a comic actor.

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From Wednesday day until Friday night [35]
My little wife made the kugel for me.
A Jew has a little wife. He has trouble from her.
A Jew has a little wife; she is good for nothing…
More than my enjoyment of Michael's song, I would join in with the complaint of his lovely wife who hated this coarse song, and saw it an expression of the illegitimate complaints of every husband against his wife, and his endless tyranny.

We would then heartily sing the following song:

In the middle of the road stands a tree
It stands bent.
A Jew travels to the Land of Israel
With weeping eyes.

G-d, my G-d, my G-d
Let us recite the Mincha service
If we would travel to the Land of Israel,
It would be a great joy…

With regard to the dispute between Michael Shimi and the Rabbi of Stolbtsy regarding the 100 rubles that litigating merchants deposited for the settlement of the Land of Israel, and that the rabbi tried to find a way to send not to Chovevei Zion as had been planned, but rather to the charity of Rabbi Meir Baal Haness, I already related somewhere else (“Morning Stars”), and do not need to repeat it [36].

Whether and when the first Zionist organization of Minsk was officially disbanded – I do not know. But later, when the permanent offshoot of the Zionist executive in Russia came onto the scene and established regions, and we were all certain that Minsk would become a region unto itself and that Shimshon Rosenbaum would certainly be chosen as head of the region – the power of Minsk was diminished. We, the members of organizations in towns in the region of Minsk, did not become affiliated with nearby Minsk but rather with far-off Vitebsk. There were those who said that this it was on account of the honor of Dr. Bruck who was a dentist in Vitebsk, the son-in-law of the philanthropic Zionist Paley and the brother-in-law of Ushiskin and Jacobson, that the decision was made in his favor. There were those who stated that if the first Zionist organization of Minsk were still in its strength, the power of Minsk in Russian Zionism would not have been diminished.

Nisan 5734 - 1974, Poriah Hospital [37]



Translator's Footnotes:
1 A town 12.7 kilometers NNE of Minsk, according to JewishGen's Shtetlseeker. Return
2As per Jonina Duker, the coordinator of this project and his great-granddaughter, the family name was Gorodinsky. The Grodzenski spelling comes from the name being transliterated into Polish. Return
3A kapote is a long Hassidic or rabbinic cloak. Return
4An anthology of the story-like material (Aggadah) of the Talmud, first published 1516 by Jacob ben Solomon Ibn Habib. Return
5This refers to the custom of yeshiva students from out-of-town taking their meals at various households on a rotation basis. Return
6Mourner's Kaddish is the prayer recited by a child after the death of a parent. Return
7A maskil (plural maskilim) is an adherent of Haskalah. The Haskalah is the Hebrew term for the Enlightenment movement and ideology which began within Jewish society in the 1770s. Return
8Referring to Alfred Dreyfus, who was the victim of a judicial libel in France during the 1890s. Return
9Later Leningrad, and currently St. Petersburg. Return
10The Pale of Settlement refers to that part of Western Russia where unlimited Jewish residency was permitted. Only Jews with certain required professions were allowed to settle outside the Pale. Return
11Bund was an extreme secular, anti-Zionist organization. Return
12For information on her, see http://www.tau.ac.il/humanities/zionism/israel3abs.html. Return
13For information on Sergei Zubatov, see http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/LRUSzubatov.htm. Return
14A quotation from the Song of the Sea. Return
15i.e. behind closed doors. Return
16I am not sure of the meaning of this word. Return
17Shehecheyanu is a blessing of thanksgiving recited on Jewish holidays, as well as other occasions of joy. Return
18Bnei Akiva is the religious Zionist youth movement. Return
19The first Zionist Congress took place in Basel in 1897. A pre-Zionist Jewish National Conference took place in Katowice Poland (then Kattowitz Germany) in 1884. The Biltmore Conference took place in May, 1942 in the Biltmore Hotel in New York (see http://www.wzo.org.il/home/movement/biltmore.htm). Return
20I am not sure of the meaning of this word (v v a l t). It is not spelled as “world” (which would be: v v e l t). It may mean “waltz”, although that is spelled (v v a l s). Return
21I could not identify this city. It is obviously an Ottoman city. Return
22Spelled in the text as Teodosiya. Return
23A bill of divorce. A Jewish divorce is effected by a husband giving or delivering a Get document to his wife. Return
24Notrikon is “abbreviations”. Return
25i.e. G-d. Return
26Well-known people are often known by acronyms of their names. Return
27The teaching style “Ivrit beIvrit” (Hebrew in Hebrew) is a form of Hebrew immersion, where the Hebrew language is the language of teaching for instruction in the language itself. Return
28Braita is a rabbinical saying from the Mishnaic period, which did not get included in the Mishna itself. The Talmud often quotes Braitas. The language of a Braita tends to be more confused than that of the Mishna. Return
29The title Mishna Brura here is not equivalent with the famous commentary on the Orach Chayim section of the Shulchan Aruch by the Chofetz Chaim. Return
30The Israel Labor Party. Return
31It is well-known that Lithuanian Jews pronounce the 'sh' sound as 's'. Return
32Reisin is a term for Byelorussia. Return
33An early Zionist leader. Return
34Probably Marienbad. Return
35Obviously, the rhyme of this song and the next is lost in the English translation from the Yiddish. Return
36There are many innuendoes here. I assume that as a compromise agreement between two merchants involved in a dispute, the rabbi suggested a donation to charity. Rabbi Meir Baal Haness is an Israeli charity that would have existed at the time, and still exists, that supports the religious community of the Land of Israel, and would not have been affiliated with Zionism. The rabbi was evidently using this situation to show his antipathy to formal Zionism. Return
37This would have been a few months before Zalman Shazar died on October 5, 1974 one day before his 85th birthday. Return

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