Translated by Rachel Zetland
Donated by Jay Snider
A. How it looked. How it looked.
Stantzia Rafalovka [Rafalovka the Station, i.e. New Rafalovka R.Z.] was not your typical Jewish town as described in Hebrew literature. It had no town square in its center, nor was it crowded with old dilapidated houses. It was founded at the beginning of the 20th century and built according to a master plan, so its streets were straight and wide and it spread over a vast area. The commercial center was built around a square across from the train station at the edge of town. It owed its existence to the station.
The Tzar's government built the station near the Kovel-Sarny railroad 80 kilometers from Kovel and 60 kilometers from Sarny, to capitalize on the pine woods covering dozens of square kilometers close to and far from the station. A sawmill was built for this purpose not far from the station.
Stantzia Rafalovka quickly became a focal point that attracted Jews from the nearby towns and villages looking for a livelihood or a business opportunity to better their economic state. New homes were built every year, especially in the twenties after the war between independent Poland and the Bolshevik regime in Russia. Hotels were built on the perimeter of the station plaza and in adjacent streets to lodge wood merchants and their clerks. New stores opened every year in almost every house.
Streets were not paved but each street had wooden sidewalks on both sides. Between the sidewalks, sand reigned in the summer and mud in the autumn and spring. Houses were one story high, built from thick long wooden merishes, with slanted roofs of tiles or tin. Most of the houses were large, 5-7 rooms each, designed to accommodate the large families abounding in Rafalovka. Trees fenced off the front yards, mostly fruit trees. The back of the house had a lot where many families grew vegetables, mainly potatoes. Surrounding Stantzia Rafalovka were pine and oak woods that bordered the houses on the edge of the town. Sandy dirt roads traversed the forests to the Ukrainian villages that surrounded Stantzia on all sides at a distance of 3-6 kilometers. The settlement had about 2500 residents, 80% Jewish and the rest Poles, mainly government clerks and sawmill workers, and a small number of Ukrainians and Russians.
B. The livelihood of the Jews of Stantzia Rafalovka
The Jews of 'Stancha' dealt mainly in commerce, crafts and wood. The town served as the commercial center for the ten surrounding villages. Peasants came to sell their produce and buy whatever they needed: fuel, matches, salt, salted fish, etc. The peasants were poor, their farms small and undeveloped; this was because of the sandy barren soil which led to subsistence farming. These farms were practically self-sufficient, making their own clothes from linen they cultivated and spinning and weaving in their homes. They made their shoes from raffia or rubber from tires. They crafted their own carts and sleighs and the wooden parts of their farming utensils.
But there were things they couldn't make themselves and couldn't do without, such as iron blades for plows, the teeth of barrows, sickles and scythes, and these they bought in the Jews' iron utensils shops. They bought luxury goods at the haberdashery shops of the Jews: mirrors and ribbons for girls; thread, needles and buttons for women. They bought vodka in the government monopoly shops operated by Jews.
Thursday was weekly market day. Jewish peddlers came from far and wide to display their goods on makeshift stands in the square at the edge of town. The square filled with the wagons of peasants who came in from the surrounding area to shop. Some grocers and peddlers made most of their living on that day.
Some Jews had no shop or permanent source of livelihood. These people had to walk to the Ukrainian villages to buy chickens, a ewe, or a calf to slaughter and sell their meat to their neighbors. This is how they made a small income.
A fourth or a third of the entire town's Jewry made their livelihood from trades. The peasants in our area did not know crafts and needed the service of the Jewish artisans. They came to the blacksmiths to repair their plows, scythes and sickles, to shoe their horses, to put iron rims on their wagon wheels and sleighs. The builders and carpenters would go out to the villages to build homes and stoves for the peasants. Tailors, shoemakers, metalworkers and house painters would usually do their work in the town.
An important segment of the Rafalovka Jews made their living from commerce in wood. Some were big merchants who bought forests or woods to fell. Some were specialists, brokers, who assessed the quality of the trees. Some oversaw the cutting of the trees and their transport to the sawmill or the station. The peasants of the region would bring the felled trees to the sawmill and, after they were sawed, the boards would be carried to the merchants' lots. I still remember the large rectangular towers of the merishim and the boards piled up crisscross in the lots along the railroad line and left there untill they were sent to their destination on the freight train.
Compared to other Jewish towns, the Jews of Stantzia Rafalovka were economically not bad off. Few were rich and few were wretchedly poor. A small minority lived in luxury. The large majority of grocers and tradesmen worked hard from dawn to dusk to provide for their families. Housewives rose early to bake bread and cook, take care of children, and work in the cowshed and garden, and at night they sewed and mended the family's clothes.
Our parents knew how to cut costs and live frugally. We ate every last bit of bread and bought new clothes only when necessary. Not every one had steady income and then the belt was tightened even more. But I don't recall Jewish beggars, bums, swindlers or, God forbid, criminals in the town. I don't recall a single time a Jew was called to the police station to be interrogated, or a Jew had gone there to file a complaint against another Jew.
C. The Jewish Consciousness of the Townspeople
Rafalovka the Station was unique for religious tolerance. The town's Jews enjoyed religion and tradition but were not excessively strict with themselves or others. There were no devout or fanatic zealots. Not even the old people wore the kapota or black clothes. Men 40 years and older did grow a short beard and those 60 and older grew large beards, but without sidelocks. The young bearded rabbi, who was a pleasant affable man, did not intervene to change the local customs. Actually, the people of the town did not burden him with questions of kashrut and when they did turn to him he generally gave the more lenient judgement. However, all the townspeople, old and young, observed Sabbath and the Jewish holidays. Everyone came to the spacious synagogue that was built tall, to pray on Sabbath and holidays, in the evening and in the morning, and even the communists among the town Jews attended. Kashrut was observed in each and every house and the heads of families prayed three times a day on weekdays, usually at home. The fathers and the elders did not oblige children and youth to pray on weekdays. Moderation and consideration reigned between the generations, for the younger ones also respected their father's tradition. I don't recall disputes about religion in the town.
We all felt ourselves one hundred percent Jewish from the moment we were born until we grew old. We were born Jews, we spoke Yiddish, which we absorbed through our mother's milk. We lived a Jewish life in a foreign environment. The town Jews lived their social and spiritual lives within their social circle. It was not a closed circle for there were close economic ties with the surrounding non-Jews. We made our livelihood from them and they needed our services, but these were only economic ties. In a few cases these ties developed into a friendship between a Jew and a goy.
Three nationalities live side by side in the area of Volhynia, Ukrainians, Poles and Jews. The Ukrainians were the majority and had always lived in the area. The Poles were the governors, mainly clerks and workers, and the Jews were merchants and tradesmen.
The Jews did not feel inferior. On the contrary, they were economically and culturally superior to the Ukrainians and the Poles. The hatred between the Ukrainians and their Polish governors somewhat diminished the Ukrainians' hatred for the Jews and gave the Jews a relative sense of security. The Jews knew well they lived in a foreign country and were not wanted, but as long as they remained unharmed they saw no reason to fear for their future.
D. Zionist consciousness of the town's Jews
All Rafalovka Jews were Zionists, even the Hassids of the Rabbi from Stolin. There were no Agudath Israel and no anti-Zionist Bund, but there was a small group of 20-25 youngsters, mainly tradesmen, who were communists and active underground in the town and nearby villages.
The Jews of the town contributed to Keren Kayemet and Keren HaYesod, raised the Zionist shekel and participated in the elections for the Zionist Congress. They belonged to all the Zionist parties, not formally since they did not pay membership dues, but everyone voted according to his inclination.
The head propagandist of the Zionist idea and a devotee of Keren Kayemet was Shaul Katz, a pleasant, very active wood merchant who was a member of Al ha-Mishmar, Isaac Greenboim's party. His opponent was quiet Rosenfeld, a member of Et Livnot, what later became General Zionists Bet. The elders were pro-Mizrachi. The rich were mainly Jabotinsky followers. The family of Shlomo Yaakov Grober was known as the pioneering family. During the fourth aliyah in 1925-26, the town's first two halutzim immigrated to Eretz Israel: Hitzia Grober who went to kibbutz Givat Brenner and Naftali Murik who settled in moshav Hogla. For us kids they were the symbol of Zionist idealism to be emulated. We said to ourselves that when we grew up, we would also make aliyah to Eretz Israel.
In 1927 Berel Primer from Sarny founded the Ha-Shomer Ha-Zair branch in the town. In 1928 a group of 25 young men and women arrived in Rafalovka from kibbutz Habonim of Ha-Shomer Ha-Zair, mostly from Kovel and Ludmer, for hachshara. They worked as laborers in the sawmill and stayed in the area for two years. I remember how we, the children of the movement, Ha-Tnuah, went to the house where they were living to see with our own eyes what a hachshara kibbutz looked like. There were only three rooms with double beds from boards with straw mattresses and a tiny kitchen. This prosaic and far from charming sight did not diminish our desire to go for training and live on a kibbutz in Eretz Israel.
In 1930 the He-Halutz branch was formally established in the town and dozens of youth began leaving the town for pioneer training in the Shahariah and Klesow kibbutzim. They later made aliyah. In 1932, a He-Halutz training kibbutz was established in the town with about 60 members. They too mostly worked in the sawmill. As members of the youth movement we developed close ties with the kibbutz and we held joint cultural activities.
In the mid-30s, during the peak of the fifth aliyah, entire families joined the youth in immigrating to Eretz Israel. They made aliyah as tourists for the Maccabee Olympics, or as visitors to the National Exhibition in Tel Aviv. Families of tradesmen also went through the immigration of the Oved in Poland.
E. Culture and Hebrew Education
The uniqueness of Rafalovka the Station is especially evident in its keen interest in giving advanced Hebrew education to its children. There was a Polish State school in the town that was open to all children of school age, regardless of ethnic origin or religion, but a very small number of Jewish kids learned there.
There were also two heders in town whose teachers taught reading and humash translated into Yiddish. These heders also had a small number of children.
Parents wanted to give their children a modern Hebrew education. As early as 1923 the first Hebrew teacher in Rafalovka, Kolodny of blessed memory, opened a study class where he taught bible, literature and arithmetic in the 'Hebrew in Hebrew' method. This was a kind of reform heder composed of 30 pupils.
I remember the young Zionists of the town: Isaac Brat, Yoske Dichter, Leah Murik and Sonia Grober. They founded a public library from contributions made by the town Jews, with hundreds of books in Hebrew and Yiddish, the best works in both languages. There were also Hebrew translations of famous writers, such as Tolstoy, Chekov, Thomas Mann, Jack London, Victor Hugo, Emile Zola, Jules Verne, and the like, thanks in particular to the Shteibel Publishers.
In 1925 teachers from among the townspeople established a six-class Hebrew school that grew to seven classes which was part of the Tarbut network of Hebrew Schools in Poland. Those teachers were Yaakov Schnieder (Yaakov Sarid) who later became the general director of the Ministry of Education in Israel, and Duba [Dubil] Schnieder-Grober. The school was located in a large spacious building and certified teachers taught there. They taught general subjects such as arithmetic, geography, history, and nature in Hebrew. A Jewish teacher who earned his certified from a Polish pedagogic institution taught Polish literature, geography and history in Polish. He was also the official school principal.
Founding a full-fledged school and maintaining it in a relatively small town like Rafalovka required great effort on the part of the teachers and parents. The Polish Ministry of Education did allow the building of Hebrew schools but they were considered private establishments. They did not subsidize them or accord them any financial support. Thus, maintaining the school was the work of the pupils' parents and was based on an expensive tuition.
The school could be maintained only if it was attended by almost all school-age children. This condition was fulfilled but the number of children was still small and never surpassed 200-250 pupils. Tuition was therefore heavy for most families. It required parents to be frugal or give up other essential expenses. From my parents' discussions I understood that during certain years the tuition represented a quarter or a third of my father's entire income.
A small comparison with other settlements will testify in our favor. There were two elementary Tarbut schools in the city of Kovel where there were 30,000 Jews. In the capital of the province, Sarny, there was one Tarbut school. Many towns in the area that had more Jews than Stantzia had no Hebrew school, mainly because of cost. We were fortunate to be blessed with wonderful dedicated teachers in our school. I remember in particular the founding teachers, Yaakov and Duba Schnieder-Sarid, Michael Gruber-Gilboa, Isaac Dichter, and the Polish teacher Hadassah who also taught German to seventh graders, the highest class, and Latin to a small group of kids so they could continue studying in the secondary school.
The school set a high standard, especially in the Hebrew subjects. Between 1927-1929, Iton Katon, a weekly paper for children, similar to the Polish weekly, Meli Feshgeland, which was edited by the pedagogue and writer Janusz Korczak appeared in Warsaw. The editor of Iton Katon was Y. Weingarten, Janusz Korczak's pupil. Iton Katon, like Meli Feshgeland, was made up entirely of children's compositions. The students of the Tarbut school in Rafalovka sent many articles to this much loved paper and our items were printed and received a place of honor in the paper, third or fourth after Warsaw, Vilna and Rovno.
I remember an event that deeply moved our teachers. A Polish school inspector from the Education Ministry made a sudden visit to the school to determine whether it was entitled to government recognition. Lack of such recognition meant the school would close. Our class of seventh graders was an outstanding class and the inspector came in for the fifth hour for a lesson in Hebrew literature. We were studying an article about authors and literature. The inspector asked us to discuss the Hebrew article in Polish. He was so impressed by the high level of the discussion that he granted the government recognition right after the lesson.
An Eretz Israeli educational atmosphere was felt throughout the school. Pupils were brought up on Zionism, pioneering and immigrating to Eretz Israel. We learned not only the Poetry of Zion of Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Levi, Michal, Y. L. Gordon and Bialik, we also absorbed the spirit of these works.
We became acquainted with every settlement and kibbutz in Eretz Israel in our Hebrew and homeland classes. We knew more about what was happening in Eretz Israel than in Poland. As Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Levi said in Poetry of Zion, My heart is in the East and I am at the edge of the West.
The days of the Jewish community in Rafalovka the Station were numbered. It had just begun to grow, only to be cut down in its prime. In 1939 when the Soviets came into the Volhynia District, the Hebrew school was closed and emigration to Eretz Israel was stopped. In 1942, when the congregation was only 42 years old, the grim reaper descended.
By Joseph Brat
In memory of my parents, Shmuel-Yehuda and Haya Brat; my sisters Rachel and Rifka;
and my brother of blessed memory who perished in the Holocaust.
Translated by Rachel Zetland
Donated by Jay Snider
The great Polish poet from the previous century, Adam Mitskevitch, declares in the opening of his famous epopee, Phen Tadeusz: Lita, land of my birth, you are like health How valuable you are will learn only he who has lost you.
In the same way you, Rafalovka, where I spent my childhood and adolescence, only one who has lost you forever, like myself, knows how you deserve to be admired and cherished.
I once visited you in the summer of 1937 when I came to bid farewell to my family and many friends and relatives before immigrating to the United States. I hoped at the time to be able to come back and live there as before. Regretfully, the Second World War broke out. I served in the headquarters of General Eisenhower's troops on the European front and I was both close to and far from you at the same time. But the Holocaust put an end to my hopes.
Indeed, dear Rafalovka, you have been lost to us forever and now I would like to share a few of my childhood memories of Rafalovka that have remained with me.
B. The Hebrew Tarbut School in Rafalovka, our pride and glory *
* The history is based on my autobiography written in Rafalovka in 1935.
If you would wish to know where the hundreds of your young ones, Rafalovka, got their fine education, their rich culture, their vitality and national devotion in order to stand strong in their lives, you must go to the Hebrew Tarbut School.
This was a special school and was higher achieving and more successful than other Tarbut institutions in Poland. It not only endowed its pupils with a basic education, a fluent knowledge of Hebrew, and a deep understanding of Jewish studies, it also prepared and inspired them to be devoted Jews dedicated to their origins.
The secret of this school was its superb staff of teachers, going back to its first days.
During the 1925-26 school year a private illegal Hebrew school was founded in Rafalovka. Since it had no permit from the government, studies were held in secret. For a time we learned in the synagogue building because we didn't have the means to rent classrooms. The first teachers were Yaakov Schnieder (Sarid), Dubel Grober, and Mr. Kolodny. The teacher Dubel was very affectionate and loving to her pupils and helped each and every one of them. Kolodny was also loved by his pupils but he didn't always maintain discipline in his classes. Things were very different with teacher Yaakov; he was respected and admired by his pupils and their behavior was impeccable.
At the end of the first school year we heard a rumor that at the beginning of the next year, 1926-27, an official Hebrew elementary school would open under the auspices of the Tarbut organization. For this to happen we needed to complete our knowledge in the Polish subjects so the district inspector would issue our school a permit. A special teacher came to Rafalovka, A. Holtz, who was to be the first principal of the school.
In 1926 we had no summer vacation. During July and August we put in long hours learning the Polish subjects. Our work paid off and in September our school was granted a government permit. One bright warm morning a big Hebrew-Polish sign was hung over the new building: Tarbut Hebrew Elementary School in Rafalovka.
This was an important historical moment for you, Rafalovka. From now on we could openly study most subjects (math, nature, geography, history, etc.) in Hebrew.
We were all filled with a sense of national pride. We were the same as our Christian neighbors. We too had a school of our own, whose language of instruction was Hebrew. From that point on our Tarbut School flourished and developed. The number of pupils grew and the teaching staff expanded. Every teacher taught the subjects in which he was a specialist or towards which he was inclined. One taught Hebrew, Bible and Jewish history, another taught arithmetic, nature and geography, another Polish studies, etc.
Every class had a teacher/counselor who took care of the pupils' personal problems. The pupils were interested in their studies and cherished and liked the school. The classes were remarkably disciplined and studies progressed well. Our Hebrew school became our pride and glory.
C. Yaakov - a divinely gifted teacher
During the school years 1925-1926 and 1926-27, when I was a fourth and fifth grade pupil, Yaakov Schnieder (Sarid) was our Jewish Studies teacher. He taught us the Hebrew language, Bible and Jewish history. He was a divinely gifted teacher. He knew how to make us enjoy studying the Hebrew language and literature. He had a real talent for explaining. When we learned a poem by Bialik, for instance, the poet's experience became our own. The teacher's clear and musical voice would enchant us. When he read a verse of a poem the classroom would become quiet. We listened attentively to every sound he uttered. He cultivated in us a deep love of the Hebrew language and its rich literature. I was especially drawn to our great poets and writers, and already at this young age learned a great deal about the poetry of Haim Nahman Bialik and Shaul Tzchernichovsky, whom I liked and began quoting.
My teacher Yaakov took an interest in my classroom work and strove to nurture in me a talent for writing. Under his influence I began writing poems and articles.
We were grateful to our teacher Yaakov, who awakened in us the desire to take up the writer's pen. In addition, he worked to develop our public debating skills. When we studied about a certain personality in Jewish history who had noteworthy negative and positive aspects, he would appoint a prosecutor and a defender and have us perform a classroom debate.
Joseph Flavius was an interesting subject for us. Was he a national hero or a man who betrayed his people and crossed over to the Romans? It was a lively stimulating debate. Based on this case our teacher Yaakov decided to hold a public debate in the school and invite the townspeople. The debate took place after much preparation. I remember I was Joseph Flavius' defender. There were more than a hundred people at the debate and it became an important cultural event in Rafalovka. Teacher Yaakov was proud of his students who had shown that they were well versed in this chapter of the history of our People: the war between the Jews and the Romans.
D. Teacher Michael - an excellent educator
Our Tarbut School had unbelievable luck. A new Jewish Studies teacher, Michael Grober (Gilboa), arrived for the year 1928-1929. Michael Grober was a fine educator who gave his students profound knowledge in our literature. The classes in Hebrew literature and grammar were interesting and enjoyable.
Like teacher Yaakov, our teacher Michael also organized a public trial in our school. This time the subject was Those who excommunicated Spinoza. I defended Spinoza, who was ostracized by the rabbis of Amsterdam. This literary trial made an immense impression on the large audience. Each of us who had an important part in the trial received a prize from Shaul Katz, the writings of David Frishman.
Michael's influence did not stop at the classroom door. He tried to develop in us a desire and taste for public service and organized a student committee that took on different tasks. I was appointed to run our school library. The local Zionist Party activists, headed by Shaul Katz of blessed memory, donated money to purchase books for the library.
Fifty years have gone by since I left you Rafalovka.
This is a long time and forgetting such a distant past could have been easy, but it is not. Everything about you, Rafalovka, gave me a strong foundation in my life and
comforted my soul. I always valued and cherished the fine education I received in your Tarbut School thanks to its superb teachers. The knowledge I acquired in the school prepared me to continue studying at the Tarbut Secondary School in Kovel, at the Vilna Tarbut Teachers Seminary, from which I graduated in 1935, and at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem where I completed my studies with distinction.
When I went on for a doctorate at New York University in 1952, the basic knowledge I acquired in your Tarbut School, Rafalovka, came to my aid.
Indeed, I inherited from you, Rafalovka, a spiritual stock and wealth of knowledge that enriched me throughout my life, in every place I may have been. In you Rafalovka I take great pride.
Ziskin Haim Brat
Translated by Rachel Zetland
Donated by Jay Snider
In 1939, when WWII broke out and the Germans occupied Poland Rafalovka was included in the area that was handed over to Russians and annexed to the Soviet Union. The authorities immediately opened a Ukrainian-Russian school. Teaching Hebrew was forbidden. However, the Russians permitted the Jews to have Jewish schools with Yiddish as the teaching language. That was the law in Russia at the time, although there were very few such schools in Russia. The teachers of our school directed by Mr. Shnerer of blessed memory, seized this opportunity and decided to found a school where the teaching language would be Yiddish. They wanted children to continue to have a Jewish education and continue going to a school, which, albeit not a Hebrew school, would at least enable the perpetuation of a Jewish ember.
I must say that our connection to Hebrew continued. Although Hebrew teaching was strictly forbidden some of the teachers formed Hebrew circles. They risked being imprisoned for holding such private lessons. But who bothered with that? Many of the children continued to have a large number of Hebrew lessons in order to preserve the ties with the language. Teachers, who continued to teach in the now-Yiddish school, officially taught on behalf of the authorities but they were motivated by the desire to preserve the yiddishkeit in every possible way. All the town's children continued to study in this school. They entered the state Ukrainian-Russian school only towards the final year, but this did not go on for long. It continued until the German invasion in 1941.
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