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[Pages 205-206]

Social Cultural Life
and Education Institutions

The Modernized Cheder

by Moshe Katz

Translated by Ken Frieden

I was educated at yeshivas and, already in my early years, I absorbed the ideals of the Jewish Enlightenment. My life was permeated by the idea of national rebirth, by the Zionist ideal. Many of my friends and acquaintances were among the Enlightenment writers of the time. At the same time, I defended the principles of our faith and religion. I was both a believer and a follower of the Enlightenment.

For a few years after getting married I lived in Kurland (Courland), where I was a teacher (melamed) in a cheder. But I taught using a new approach and method, in the spirit of my national-religious views. I instructed grammar, Tanakh, Hebrew, and fragments of our Hebrew literature, following the system of teaching Hebrew in Hebrew.

Because of the law that Lithuanian inhabitants were not permitted to live in Kurland, my residence there was not legal. But one day the Czarist regime issued a harsh order that everyone who was from Lithuania had to leave Kurland within a couple hours. Then we, a few families, were forced to leave Kurland, and my family and I traveled to Rokiskis.

That was in 1912. On the basis of an initiative by a couple of wealthy men with Zionist leanings, I founded a modernized cheder. A few of the householders in Rokiskis viewed my accomplishment with suspicion. The work was not so easy, especially in a shtetl where the Enlightenment had not yet penetrated deeply.

In a back room, at the home of Treyne Zelbavitsh, I set up my modernized cheder. There were four school benches; four pupils sat on each bench. I taught them until six in the evening, using a modern method. The order of studies was: Hebrew, Tanakh, a page of Gemara, preparations for bar mitzvah, arithmetic, Yiddish, and a little Russian. The children made quick progress in their studies. If at the outset their parents had a hesitant attitude toward the modernized cheder, they later became strong supporters of it, on the basis of the children's successes.

The arrival of the First World War interrupted studies in the modernized cheder. Many of the Jews in Rokiskis were evacuated. Afterward the Germans opened an obligatory school, and there I taught the Hebrew studies.

After the war, Bertsik Zalkinds opened a Talmud-Torah (elementary school) in which I was the head rabbi. With the help of Peysekh Rokh and several other wealthy men, a hall was built for the Talmud-Torah. I then also taught Gemara to students in the Rokiskis Yeshiva. At the same time I was cantor and prayer-leader. I had a pretty voice and in leading prayers I was a success.

Nevertheless, I was drawn to my modernized cheder, and to this end I built a house of my own. But at the time there was already a large school in Rokiskis, and my income from the modernized cheder was not enough to make ends meet.

Because of this I had the thought of emigrating to South Africa. I knew that in Africa one should also know how to be a kosher butcher, and so I studied kosher slaughtering. During the month of Elul—during the Days of Awe—I learned that trade.

In 1928 I left Rokiskis and came to South Africa. My first position—as “Reverend”—was in Offerton. Over the past 17 years I have been in Braamfontein in the position of Rabbi, kosher slaughterer, cantor, and teacher.

I now have an honorable income and, no evil eye, a large family. But it is hard for me to forget the dear shtetl Rokiskis. In my memory, Rokiskis is associated with the years when I taught children in the modernized cheder. I remember everything vividly from that time, and also the dear and diligent pupils from that period in Rokiskis.


[Page 207]

The Russian Government School

by Asne Chiat

Translated by Rabbi Ezra Boyarsky

Admission to the Russian Government School was hard to come by, but a rich father and a dose of good luck helped. I was very jealous of the children who studied there. Every morning when I saw the Christian and the few Jewish children walking to the government school, I admit I was filled with envy.

One day I gathered enough courage and appealed to my father to make every effort possible to have me admitted to the Russian school. My father submitted an application at the school office and began looking for a “lobbyist” to intercede on my behalf.

The director of the shkola (school) was the town’s “pope” (priest). My father, my cousin Malka Davidowitz and I first went to the head teacher of the school. He was a fine Russian gentleman, but he advised us to see the “pope” first concerning the matter. My father did not hesitate for one moment, and the three of us went to see the priest-director. I recall that at the entrance, a domestic called the priest, and my father bowed and kissed his hand as was the custom. Upon his inquiring as to the purpose of our visit, my father replied that he hoped the priest would be magnanimous and grant us admission to the school. The director did not reject our request out of hand, but told us to go to the headmaster to be examined, at which time he too would be present.

We were taken to a classroom where the examination took place. The “pope” was not satisfied with the results of the entrance examination, and advised us that the head teacher would prepare us for another try. The teacher agreed to tutor us after school hours, and my father promised to pay him well for his efforts. We used to come to the school at three o’clock in the afternoon to receive instruction, and applied ourselves with zeal and diligence to our studies. The teacher also encouraged us and led us to believe that our prospects of being accepted at the school were good.

At the end of the month we were examined a second time by the assistant director. We were sure that we had passed with flying colors, and were confident that we would finally be accepted. But how bitterly disappointed we were when the priest-director informed us, in a dispassionate and matter-of-fact way that the quota for Jewish students had been filled, and that he therefore could not accept us to study at the shkola. I went home embittered, dejected, and depressed, and in my heart I harbored a deep hatred for the anti-Semitic Czarist regime.

Instead of studying, which was my first choice, I got a job as a store clerk, and my dream to obtain an education remained just that, an unfulfilled dream.


[Page 209]

The Lithuanian Gymnasium

by Ethel Aarons-Arsh

Translated by Rabbi Ezra Boyarsky

The first school that I attended was the German Zwangshul--the compulsory school--that was opened in Rakishok and lasted for the duration of the First World War. At first it was difficult for us children to learn German, but in time we got used to it.

Leibe Klingman, a tall, lean young man, was our German instructor. He was a good-natured person, and we respected him. Everybody in town admired his knowledge of the German language. Frequently he would also teach us Yiddish and Hebrew songs. The student body consisted exclusively of Jewish children, and therefore the German authorities engaged a special teacher for Jewish subjects. The town's Hebrew teacher, Moshe Katz, taught the Yiddish and Hebrew courses. When the Germans left Lithuania, the Zwangshul was closed.

After the war was over, we had to contend with a babel of languages. When the Germans left Rakishok, the Russians took their place, and along with them came the Rakishok Jews who had been evacuated to Russia. Most of the children of the evacuees spoke Russian, and some of the adults engaged in teaching Russian privately. They prepared Jewish children for the Russian Gymnasia in Ponevez.

The Russians' stay was short because before long the Lithuanian Republic was established. Soon after, Lithuanian schools were opened and we, the Jewish children, began to study Lithuanian--a third foreign language.

The Lithuanian gymnasia was housed in a building located on the corner of Market Place and Neyer Street. At first the Jews looked upon the Lithuanian schools and the gymnasia in particular with a great deal of skepticism. The Jews had their own reason for this attitude: they believed that there was a good chance the Russians might return and restore the former Russian school system. Therefore, Jewish parents made every effort to enroll their children in the Ponevez Russian gymnasia.

It was during this post-war era that a Hebrew progymnasia was opened, and a network of Tarbus schools was established in Lithuania. With the issuance of the Balfour Declaration in November 1917, the Zionist movement burgeoned, and Jewish Nationalism won many followers. This national awakening motivated the majority of Jewish parents to send their children to the Tarbus institutions, the focus of which were the Hebrew language and the Zionist-national ideology. The religious sector sent their children to Talmud Torahs and Chedorim. I and several of my friends who studied in the German Zwangshul, but whose parents lacked the financial means for tuition in the Russian Ponevez gymnasia, enrolled in the Lithuanian gymnasia.

In the early years, it was relatively easy to be admitted to the Lithuanian gymnasia. At that time, Lithuania did not have enough textbooks in the Lithuanian language, and therefore the instructors were forced to use Russian textbooks of which there was no shortage. The teacher who prepared me for the Lithuanian gymnasia was a non-Jewish Lithuanian woman.

For a time, many out-of-town students came to the Rakishok Lithuanian gymnasia which acquired a reputation as one of the best secondary schools in Lithuania. Its teaching staff was of a very high caliber. Some of them were brought in from outside the country.

As is known, during the honeymoon years there was hardly a trace of anti-Semitism in the fledgling Lithuanian republic. The non-Jewish teachers did not in any way discriminate against the Jewish students. On the contrary, they admired and respected them for their ability and diligence, as on average, they far outstripped their Christian classmates. The Jewish students were excused from writing on the Sabbath. Their Christian fellow students would provide them with the day's assignment and lecture notes. In many cases, their non-Jewish classmates would carry their textbooks for them on the Sabbath if they came from strictly observant homes. (Carrying any article in the public domain is forbidden on the Sabbath according to Jewish law). Also, no examinations were scheduled on the Sabbath.

It once happened that a newly appointed teacher did schedule an examination to take place on the Sabbath. The non-Jewish students staged a protest and stood solidly behind their Jewish comrades. On account of their show of solidarity and refusal to appear for the examination, the director had no choice and apologized publicly for the incident.

In the course of time it became more difficult for Jews to matriculate in the Lithuanian gymnasia. Firstly, the school administration stiffened the entrance requirements by demanding of the students a more thorough knowledge of the Lithuanian language. Secondly, Lithuanian chauvinism began to appear on the political horizon, and many non-Jewish teachers became members of clerically dominated chauvinistic organizations. The former friendly and mutually tolerant relationship between the Jewish and Christian students gradually deteriorated as a result of the winds of chauvinism that were sweeping through the new republic.

Notwithstanding the newly existing circumstances and unfriendly atmosphere, a considerable number of Jewish students managed to complete their gymnasia education and continued their studies in various universities in and outside of Lithuania. Many distinguished themselves by their active community service and leadership positions in Eretz Yisroel, in Lithuania, and in other lands of Jewish dispersion.


[Page 212]

From My School Years

by Tybeh Orlin-Kiel

Translated by Rae Meltzer

My mother, Riveh Kiel, settled in Rakishok at the time of the First World­ War, when the Germans occupied Lithuania. We lived with Sara-Lahn Reznikovits (may she rest in peace) in her house.

To this day, although many years have passed, Rakishok is still beloved and dear to me. I remember Rakishok in various periods, during the German occupation and the First World War, and also the German compulsory school where I was a student.

The Germans opened compulsory schools. The school for Jewish children had three classes, all held in one room. The school teacher, Leon Klingman, was a kind, mild. and good person. However, he was unable to maintain discipline in the classroom. He was particularly inept in disciplining the boys. I remember that he had a stick with which he hit the boys, but once the students stole his stick and flung it in the nearby stream.

Fear and dread came over us when the German school inspector came to the class. It happened that a student from the third class committed a transgression and he received lashes. If the punished student did not want to return to school, he was brought back to school by the police. Although this German school inspector was very severe and strict and hit the girls in the compulsory school for Gentile children, we Jewish girls never received a slap from him. They gave us milk in the compulsory German school. Often the milk was burned and spoiled, but we absolutely had to drink it any way. There was also a school doctor who supervised our health and gave us injections against typhus, which was widespread at that time.

The Germans put great importance on the sanitation of the shtetl, and when the typhus epidemic was spreading quickly, they shaved off the beards of certain Jews. I remember that Bereh-Leah's went about with a red hand­kerchief tied around his face because the Germans cut off his beard, and without a beard he was ashamed to be seen.

Once the Crown Prince arrived in Rakishok, and the shtetl made a great, festive welcome! Beautiful gates were built and decked with flowers. The Christian leader met the Crown Prince with bread and salt by the church. To make a “distinction between the sacred and profane” (Lehavdl), our Rabbi, (Blessed Be His Name) met the Crown Prince by the Red Beth Hamigdash (small synagogue). All of us school children participated in the parade for the Crown Prince. We were all dressed in white pinafores (aprons) and my sister Zinah presented the Guest with a crown of flowers.

The Germans of that time already exhibited their brutal actions and deeds. They were also cruel to the French prisoners-of-war, who found themselves in Rakishok. The French prisoners slept in the barracks at night and during the day they were forced to do very hard labor. Behind our dwelling was a large garden where the French prisoners dug the sand which was necessary for use in building tracks for the small train that ran from the shtetl to the train station. The French prisoners suffered terribly from hunger, and we children would steal bread to give to them. We had to be extremely careful, because if the Germans noticed that we were giving them bread, the Germans would cruelly punish the French prisoners. There were some good German guards who looked the other way while we were giving the French prisoners food.

The French were in Rakishok for a whole year. I remember one murderous event when the German guard shot a French prisoner just because he did not pull the wheelbarrow with sand fast enough. I heard a story that once a French prisoner chased a frog hoping to catch and eat it to still his hunger pains. For that he was instantly killed by a German soldier.

The “Tarbus” School

After the Germans evacuated Rakishok, cheders were organized in the community. The Bolsheviks came and later the Lithuanians. It was at that time that the Tarbus­ School was founded. In the beginning there were three classes. Two teachers named Goldapt and Yudelevitz from Kovno were engaged. Chanah Yackobson was also a teacher in the school.

Many Jewish students from the German Compulsory School became students in the Tarbus­ School, including myself. All of us diligently attacked our studies, just like people who have been very thirsty and suddenly get water. Our interest was captured by the beauty and enchantment of the stories in the Hebrew reader, the gymnasium exercise books, and especially the Hebrew songs. The first Hebrew song that our teacher Yudelevitz taught us was H.N. Bialik's “Al-Hatsfur". Children's concerts were often organized and performed. The first “Spectacular” performed by the children was held in the “Arbatina."

Our school had a garden where many varieties of plants and flowers grew. We schoolchildren tended the garden, even during school vacations. We loved the school and the teachers in the school. The teachers Yudelevitz and Goldapt left Rakishok, and it was extremely difficult to find replacements for them. Rakishok looked diligently for replacements, but it was very hard to find teachers as good as Yudelevitz and Goldapt. After a time, Hoftsovitsh was engaged as a teacher. He was a weird, queer, and strange person, who used to speak more Russian than Yiddish. In both summer and winter he went around in a large, grey, warm coat. He did not know much Hebrew and he could not discipline the students. Initially he came to Rakishok alone and later he brought his wife. It became apparent that she was a Christian woman.

The parents and the Board of Directors of the School began to discuss measures for getting rid of this teacher. After very long negotiations, he was given 300 “Lit” and he left. In his place came the sorrowful and famous Kaspi, who always left a blot behind. When the teacher Hoftsovitsh bade us farewell, he told the Board members in anger: “You got rid of me for just 300 Lit, but you will not get rid of this gentleman Kaspi for any amount of money.” His words in this regard proved to be correct.

Kaspi had a very pale face, with white hands and two piercing eyes which looked deeply into your soul. His hair was always disheveled. He was a troubled, anxious, and restless person, and this made us fear and mistrust him. He was our chorus director. If any one made the slightest mistake while singing, he might slap that student very hard. I remember one incident when a student said to Kaspi, “You dog, you,” and ran out of class and never came back. Kaspi assembled all the students and asked them what kind of punishment should be meted out to this student. All the students remained absolutely silent because of their fear and dread of Kaspi. Finally one older student spoke up and said: ''The one who calls the teacher 'dog' is a bigger dog than the teacher.” Kaspi became enraged. He tied the student up and put him in a basket as punishment for his “chutzpadik” answer.

Kaspi brought a teacher from Kovno named Glambatzki, who now lives in Israel. In the beginning all of us mistrusted him, but little by little, as we got to know him, he became beloved by all the students. He used to tell us the history of the Jewish people, sing songs with us and tell us stories. To each of us he was more like an older brother than an official teacher.

The Hashomer Ha'tzair

In those school years, the youth of the shtetl became active, and often lecturers would come from Kovno to our shtetl to talk about Eretz Israel. A popular person in the shtetl was Moishe Vesterman (honored be his name). He was a bookkeeper and perished in the Kovno ghetto. He sang beautifully. He recruited members for a new organization called “Hashomer Ha'tzair" [the Young Guardians]. Our teacher Glambatzki was also active in this organization. At first they would not let us young people join the organization, but after persistent pleading, we were finally permitted to join. Uniforms were made for us and we became active members of “Hashomer Ha'tzair."

The Rakishoker “Hashomer Ha'tzair” was well organized and disciplined. At our gatherings, called “kibbutzim,” we were exposed to various literary works and the ideal of devotion to Eretz Israel. Often we would get together outdoors on the boulevard for gymnastic exercises. We also organized outings in nearby fields and forests, where we sang Zionist songs, or we heard readings of literary works and published articles from the Zionist organization.

Rakishok had a strong Zionist organization. I remember when the writer L. Yaffeh was coming to Rakishok, the whole shtetl prepared feverishly for his arrival. Pesach Ruch obtained a carriage with two horses from the Count, and everyone in the shtetl, from the smallest to the tallest, went to greet L. Yaffeh. At the station L. Yaffeh was greeted with cheers and ovations. The parade from the train was led by the Count's carriage, with L. Yaffeh at the head. Then came the Maccabi, marching in straight rows. They were followed by the Hasomer Ha'tzair. The streets were overflowing with people. There were also Gentile people in the crowd. The Gentiles said in Lithuanian: “The Yiddish Kaiser has come!"

Our water-carrier, Urshuleh, was standing in the crowd and crying. When she was asked why she was crying, she would answer: “How can I not cry? The Yiddish Kaiser will take all the Jews away with him. I won't have any customers for my water, and I will die of hunger!"

That evening we had a huge banquet in the new Talmud Torah building. The entire shtetl was invited to this event and a large sum of money was raised for “Keren-Hesud."

After L. Yaffee's visit, the first “Keren-Kimes-Pushkes” (the blue and white little cans which were used to collect funds for building Israel) were distributed in Rakishok. We of the Hashomer-Ha'tzair would empty the pushkes and turn in the money to the adults.

Rakishok had a beautiful youth group and the shtetl was the cultural center for the entire region. From Kovno, Zionist speakers often came to Rakishok. Among them I remember A. Freedman, who is now the Israeli Consul in Czechoslovakia, and also Dr. Berger, who later became the director of the Hebrew Gymnasium in Shoval [Shavli?], a shtetl near Rakishok.

But good times don't last long! The sky over Rakishok clouded over and darkened. The teacher Glambatzki received an order from the government to leave Lithuania within 24 hours! (There was a strong suspicion that Kaspi reported him to the government.) We students and the young people cried and were mournful because we were losing such a good teacher and a bright, capable community activist. Glambatzki left for Kovno. He was permitted to live in Rakishok for only one year.

The beloved shtetl became too confining for me; the air became heavy and oppressive. In the face of the reactionary Lithuanian government, the youth began to leave Rakishok and Lithuania forever. After Glambatzki left Rakishok, the work of Hashomer was led without the former fervent enthusiasm. I left for Kovno to study. I waited impatiently for school vacation, because I was very homesick for Rakishok.

To this day, Rakishok has remained holy and precious, and all the landsleit, wherever they find themselves, are beloved and dear to me. The happiest day in my life will be when I can see my former home, which is the source of my beautiful childhood dreams. Who knew so intimately the big forest and the cornfields, the little fast-running river, as we children did? We used to tease the butcher Epshtein Brune's, where we took water for boiling our Sabbath tea, and the priest's orchard from which we were chased by the watchman.

Many, many years have gone by. Nevertheless, I remember every detail--every particular. Who could have foreseen that the same earth that was so carefree in our childhood would be soaked with the blood of our brothers and sisters--our friends from the beloved Rakishok Jewish community? From time to time I leaf through my memories and the photographs of my Rakishok album. From every page of my album, I feel a great sadness, a powerful black terror about our immense tragedy and catastrophe. It seems to me that all the photographs in my album are crying and moaning because that which was will never, never be again.


[Page 220]

The Beth Sefer and Progymnasium

by Abraham Josselowitz

Translated by Rabbi Ezra Boyarsky

Among the several educational institutions in Rakishok that played an important role in shaping the cultural character of the youth were the Tarbus Public School and the Progymnasium. Both institutions were recognized by the Lithuanian government which also supplied them with laboratory equipment and musical instruments. Both schools shared the same building and classroom facilities.

The syllabus was pitched at a very high level, with Hebrew as the medium of instruction. Evidence of the success enjoyed by both schools was their large enrollment and excellent academic results. As indicated above, both schools wielded an enormous influence on the students by implanting in them a strong love for the Hebrew language and the Jewish national holidays: Hanukah, Chamisha Asar, Beshevat, and Lag Ba Omer (33rd day in the counting of the Omer). This type of Jewish education produced an entire generation of Jewish nationalists.

Quite frequently the student body would arrange concerts which attracted large audiences and received enthusiastic accolades for their performances. The faculty was very active in the social and cultural spheres, and participated in all the projects sponsored by the Keren Hayesod, Keren Kayemes Leyisroel (Jewish National Fund), Maccabi Club, Bet Hayesomim (Orphanage) and Vaad Hatarbus--the Tarbus Committee.

In time, adult evening courses were organized for the study of modern Hebrew, natural science, and a host of other courses of an academic nature. The science courses included laboratory experiments.

The teaching staff of all these institutions often delivered public lectures and endeavored to interest the parents in various sports activities. Due to their initiative, a parents' association was organized which arranged football matches with the teaching staff. Some of the teachers excelled as gymnasts.

During my time, the teaching staff of the Tarbus Bet Sefer consisted of the following: Y. Kaspi, Principal, A. Yoselowitz, and D. Sudarsky. In the Progymnasia, the following served on the faculty: Y. Zamet, Principal, Y. Kaspi, D. Sudarsky, A. Yoselowitz, Mr. and Mrs. Greenberg, and F. Greenstein. Besides them, two non-Jewish teachers also taught in these schools, one for Lithuanian and the other arts and crafts.

I end this account with a painful feeling of nostalgia for those happy days of my youth, and for my never-to-be-forgotten birthplace, Rakishok.


[Page 222]

The Activity of the Kultur-Lige

Sarah Spevak

Translated by Rabbi Ezra Boyarsky (deceased)

The “Kultur-Lige” which was founded in 1919 occupied a prominent position in Rakishok. The young working class, the tailors, shoemakers, carpenters, and other artisans derived great joy from the establishment of the Kultur-Liege. Many of them had just returned from the larger Russian cities where intensive political and socio-cultural activity was part of the Russian landscape. The Russian Revolution instilled in them a new social awareness. It enriched their thinking and ignited their quest for freedom and culture.

After World War I, Rakishok was, roughly speaking, divided into two socio-economic classes: the upper-middle class and the working class, and there was very little social contact between the two. The returned workers found life in Rakishok extremely monotonous and boring. The town had no library, and social life was almost non-existent. For this reason, there was much enthusiasm when Meyer Nahum Katz, a pale-looking young man, issued a call to the workers and to all who had a desire to expand their knowledge, to meet at his home.

On a Sabbath afternoon, with great anticipation, we gathered in Meyer Katz' attic home. Everyone's attention was focused on the pale young man who surveyed the assemblage in uncanny silence. Gradually his paleness assumed a rosy color, and he began addressing us. “Comrades and Friends..." From the very beginning, we sensed an affinity with this young man. He continued, saying that a few weeks before, a Jewish organization called the “Kultur-Lige” had been established in Kovno, and that it was our duty to establish a branch in Rakishok. This organization's task should be to disseminate knowledge among the Jewish workers who, due to the economic hardship of their parents, had been deprived of a broader education.

We listened to his lecture with undivided attention, and in response to his question as to who among us participated in any political or cultural activities, half the group raised their hands. I was among them. A committee was chosen which immediately went to work. It rented a spacious house which served a dual purpose: to house a Yiddish Folkshul and to have a suitable place for meetings.

Key committees were appointed to get the Lige's activities going. A special Library Committee was formed to collect Yiddish books from local donors. The committee also ordered books from the Lige's headquarters in Kovno. The opening of the library was a great event, and soon after the Yiddish Folkshul was established, as well as evening courses for adults. Meyer Nahum Katz became the director of the school and chairman of the parent organization--the Kultur-Lige. He worked for the cause with love and devotion, and received full cooperation from the two idealistic teachers, Ida Dectar and Mr. Shapiro.

The student enrollment of the Yiddish school consisted largely of the poorest economic strata in town. The children applied themselves to their studies with exceptional diligence, and this was reflected in the children's concerts and stage performances that the school arranged.

I vividly recall one balmy sunny erev Shavuos (Shavuot eve) when the children went on an outing to the nearby forest. The boys and girls marched jubilantly, with radiant faces, through Kamayer Street under the watchful eyes of their teachers. Throughout the march, the townspeople came out of their houses and listened enraptured to the chilren's sweet resounding voices as they sang special songs in honor of the Shavuos holiday. Such outings were frequently arranged for the students of the Yiddish school.

The Folkshul and the Lige's other cultural activities enjoyed much popularity, and both ventures made great progress in a relatively short time. As a result of the rapid growth and development of the school, the two famous educators, Helena Chatzkeles and Mr. Abramson, came to Rakishok to evaluate the educational achievements of the institution. They did not have enough words of praise for the director, the teachers, and for the children's accomplishments.

Under the leadership and initiative of Shlomo Rubin, now a long time resident of South Africa, a dramatic club was formed which met on Friday evenings and at which literary and artistic programs were presented. This club also proved an enormous success. The audiences consisted, by and large, of young working class people, and of some of the more worldly individuals who had begun to show an interest in our work. More evening classes were added upon request, and these were usually followed by a public lecture or some appropriate entertainment.

In 1923, just when the Kultur-Lige was in full bloom, the Lithuanian government closed it down. Only the Folkshul was allowed to continue. In 1928, the school was also shut down, not by the government, but because of inadequate funds and the inability to obtain competent teachers. Nevertheless, the social, cultural, and political work continued. The idealism that had fueled the fire in the hearts of the Kultur-Lige workers was not extinguished. The progressive members of the working class continued their political work despite hostile and adverse conditions.


[Page 225]

Concerning the Culture League and its Activities

by Michal and Shlomo Feldman

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

The Culture League in Rakishok comprised an important chapter in the history of the cultural-communal work in Rakishok. Thanks to the initiative of Meir Nachum Katz and Berta Abramovitz, the Culture League was created in 1919. The founding committee members were the following: Meir Nakhum Katz (chairman), Sura Spivak, Berta Abramovitz, Ida Dektor, Leah Madur, Ester Ogins, Shlomo Shimeonovitz, Yankl Maron, Beinish Kres and Feibush Sinior.

The central organization of the Culture League was in Kovna. Sura Tsarfas was very active in the central organization and came especially to Rakishok to help with the work there, giving methodical instructions.

The following activities were noted in the program of the Culture League – to open a public school with instruction in Yiddish, evening courses for adults and to found a library; to create a dramatic section and a literary circle; the creation of a sports organization and a sports circle for young people that was given the name, Wanderfoygl [migratory bird].

First, a Jewish public school was opened in a house on Jurdojke. It was divided into five grades with 75 students. The teachers at various times were: Ingl, Shapiro, Hitlshtein, Lap, Chiene Mordekhailevitz, Reznik and Ida Dektor. The first school director was Meir Nakhum Katz; the second was Ida Dektor.

The school children were from the poorest strata in Rakishok. In addition to secular subjects, they were taught Yiddish and Jewish history.

The school was a member of the Kovno school headquarters, which was headed by Helena Khatzkeles, Engineer Abramson and the above-mentioned Mrs. Tsarfas.

The school budget was covered by activities, flower days, and taxation. A small subsidy would be received from time to time from the school administration.

The attitude towards the Jewish school on the part of the Zionist-Hebraist element was distant, not satisfactory and the Hebrew teachers showed a negative attitude to the Jewish public school. There were also difficulties created in receiving the school subsidy. The Rabbi, Reb Betzalel, once demanded that the teachers from the Jewish school take exams as to whether they knew a page of gemara [Talmudic rabbinic commentaries on the oral law]. Such a demand made it difficult for the Jewish school to receive a state subsidy.

Yet, with the greatest efforts, the school existed until 1928, even after the closing of the Culture League.

During the same time period that the Jewish public school existed, evening courses for adults were held regarding Yiddish, Jewish history, and political economy. A cycle of lectures about the French Revolution was also held.

The teachers at the Jewish public school also taught the evening courses and lectured on various subjects.

During the period when the Culture League was legal, a library of 1,800 books also existed on its premises. It received a great number of books from People's Relief in America. The library was located on the premises of the Jewish public school. A subscriber needed to give a security deposit of five lit [lita – Lithuanian currency] and pay one lit a month.

When the Culture League was closed, the police confiscated all of the books from the library, transferred them to the “jurisdiction” of the Jewish kehile [organized Jewish community].

There was a literary circle at the Culture League and a good dramatic section. During the literary evenings, works of writers were discussed and evening classes organized.

The teachers from the public school and also Sh. Rubin and Leah Sadur led the drama section. For a time there was a talented artist who came to the shtetl from Kovno. I do not remember his family name because he was always called by the “mysterious” name, “Shmerele.” He was a gifted man who also gave interesting lectures and could dramatize various literary works well in a condensed manner. He staged Tevye der Milkhiker [Tevye the Milkman] very successfully, presenting Tevye's doubts about God in an outstanding manner.

The motto for the Culture League's dramatic section was “We want and will be.” The section performed the following plays: Der Dorf Yingl [The Village Youth] of L. [Leon] Kobrin; Der Mishpukhe [The Family] of H.D. [Hersh Dovid] Nomberg, Sholem Aleichem's Tevye der Milkhiker, Tsezeyt un Tseshpreyt [Scattered Far and Wide], and others.

Arrests took place during the closure of the Culture League. Arrested were: Meir Yakov Katz, Ida Dektor, Henya Abramovitz, Beinish Kres, Portnoy and Sura Spivak.

In March-April of 1924, Ida Dektor was freed on bail and came to Rakishok. Before she left Rakishok, she wanted to leave behind a group that would revive the work of the Culture League and even carry it on illegally. She entrusted this work to Chaim Elia Abramovitz.

Chaim Elia Abramovitz took over this responsible work and drew together another few active comrades to help. The activity was carried out illegally. Moshe Birger of Ponevezh [Panevezys], who helped carry on the work, also often came to Rakishok. Comrades from Rakishok met secretly with Ponevezher activists from the leftist movement and also with Christian comrades.

Secret party cells were created to carry on political activities. Such illegal cells were organized in Ponedel [Pandëlys], Sevenishok [Suvainiskis] and in many villages.

Soloman German, Hirshl Abramovitz and Aba Leib Davidovitz founded the society Libhober fun Wisn [Lovers of Knowledge], and received the confiscated books from the kehile. A sports organization with a soccer section, a ping-pong section, and so on, was active before the society was founded. Within a short time, interesting cultural-communal activity developed again. A journal produced by hectography [gelatin duplication] was also published with the name, Kultur un Wisn [Culture and Knowledge] and there was often a wall newspaper.

With the growth of [reactionary feelings], the sports organization and also the library were closed. All books were sealed in boxes and sent to Kovno to the address of Helena Khatzkeles.

The illegal political activity, however, did not end, despite the regime's persecutions. Widespread political work was carried out in secret. Several active comrades, such as Dovid-Itske Dunai, Shlomoke Shimeonovitz and others, were arrested for this illegal activity. Active comrades remained who did further work with great self-sacrifice until the Second World War.


[Page 229]

The Jewish Part in the Left Movement

O. Nochumovitz

Translated by Rabbi Ezra Boyarsky

The Jewish masses in Rakishok and environs who sympathized or actively participated in the Leftist Movement clustered around the Culture League which was synonymous with revolutionary and progressive activities. This was also the case in larger and smaller towns throughout Lithuania. Most progressive elements in the Jewish communities found an ideological comparability with the Culture League.

The Culture League in Rakishok was founded in 1919, and carried on a varied program of activities until 1923. The Lithuanian government detected the radicalism of the League, and as a result, it was closed down, its library confiscated, and a number of its most active members were arrested. Still, radicals of the town regrouped and on May 1, 1924, distributed proclamations in Yiddish and Lithuanian, and issued a call to the populace to rise up against the reactionary forces.

Both Jews and Lithuanians alike were greatly surprised at what the Rakishok activists dared to do. Nobody could imagine that while their own leaders were still in jail, the rank and file would carry on the political and revolutionary work. Many of the former members of the Culture League who had become inactive because of the arrests, now resumed their active participation. Not only that, but the League gained new members who became extremely active in our progressive leftist movement.

"Mohr” was organized illegally. The task of this organization was to help those who were serving time as political prisoners. The library was started to function again, and in 1924 when the October Revolution (May 1st) was celebrated, circulars and illegal literature were distributed not only among the Rakishok Jews and those in the vicinity, but among the farms and villages, thereby creating closer contact with the radical elements of the Lithuanian rural population.

Besides the political activities, there was an unusually strong striving to resume the former social and cultural activities, and since the Culture League was outlawed, we organized a sports club which functioned as such, but which also continued the interrupted social and cultural functions of the Culture League. The newly created sports club was allowed to exist under the same legal provisions as did the sports organizations in Kovno and elsewhere. In Rakishok the club rented a large facility adjacent to a big field which the club used as a training ground for a variety of sports events. It also arranged concerts, lectures, a “living newspaper,” and produced a number of plays. The newly acquired facility became the second home for the entire leftist movement.

Later on a society was founded called the “Lovers of Knowledge.” Included in the steering committee of the new organization were representatives who championed the importance of Yiddish as a language, its literature, etc. They were known as “Yiddishisten.” Other members of the committee were people who were cleared by the government before they could serve as officers in any capacity. At this time the library was allowed to reopen, and the confiscated books were returned.

It was during the Grinus government that the newly established society and sports club experienced a period of growth. At that time, the club moved to more spacious quarters and acquired a lot of athletic and calisthenics equipment. Many football matches were local and outside teams took place in Rakishok and in neighboring towns. Rakishok's poorer elements were especially proud of the sports club, and through their participation in the various club activities, their self-esteem was raised.

The blossoming of the club lasted until the political upheaval that occurred when the Smetana government came to power. Smetana closed the sports organization, and the club's activities, including the social and cultural events, were now conducted illegally. Arrests were frequent. Among those who were arrested was Gitel Gordon who spent a few years in prison. When she was released, she became even more active in the leftist, radical movement. She was joined by Ida Weiner.

Right up to the outbreak of the Second World War, the members of the former Culture League and the sports organization carried on the political work undercover despite the danger involved. I will now mention some of the more active members of the movement: Hayam Elie Abramovitz was an employee in a store and a former yeshiva student. He was an excellent lecturer and possessed a strong character. he organized a union of business employees in Rakishok after the Smetana regime came to power. Due to the political persecutions, he and his wife Chaye-Rive escaped to the Soviet Union.

Yankel Himelshein was a teacher in the Yiddish Folk School and an outstanding lecturer. He was chosen as a representative of the Yiddish Workers' Caucus to the Yiddish National Convention in Lithuania. After he was arrested in Kovno, he was released on bail. He then returned to Rakishok resuming his active role in the movement. He and his wife also escaped to the Soviet Union.

Boruch Lekach was one of the most active and inspiring workers for the sports organization. He served as co-editor of the Passover humorous paper. At present he resides in the Soviet Union.

Moseh Amdur was quite a character. He was by nature a very quiet and unassuming person. He hardly ever spoke to anyone. Still, strange as it may seem, he was one of the most fervent activists of the Rakishker leftist movement. His job involved delivering goods from wholesalers to the markets in the surrounding towns. This gave him an excellent opportunity to make contact with people who were on the same political wavelength. Among the wares in his delivery car he would hide illegal literature which he distributed in the villages on the way to and from Rakishok. When the police got wind of his “underground” activities, they staked him out, raided his warehouse barn, and found a large quantity of illegal circulars and brochures. Fortunately, he was not home at the time. When he was notified, he immediately took off. The Smetana police announced a reward of 1,000 Lit. for his head. Moshe Amdur escaped to the Soviet Union, but a short while later, he returned to Lithuania in order to resume his political propaganda.

He was again arrested by the Lithuanian secret police, but he categorically denied that he was Moshe Amdur. The police brought him to Rakishok for identification, but both his father and his young sister disclaimed any relationship to him. The father said that this was not his son, and the sister said that this was not her brother. He was sentenced to a long prison term, but the Smetana regime, in reviewing his case, concluded that since Moshe Amdur was a key revolutionary activist, they would exchange him for a Lithuanian prisoner held by the Soviet Union.

Moshe's father was the “official” grave digger in Rakishok. For a long period of time he hid illegal literature and also our library in the cemetery. Despite the fact that this was fraught with danger, he took that chance, and what's more, he refused any remuneration, even though he was extremely poor.


[Page 234]

The Culture League in Rakishok and in Utian

by Moshe Krain

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

We publish a report by Moshe Krain about the “Culture League” in Rakishok and in Utian that was printed under the pseudonym “Mohican” in Undzer Weg [Our Way] of November 1921, published by the Poalei-Zion [Marxist Zionist] Party in Johannesburg

Moshe Krain was an active cultural worker in Johannesburg. He visited Lithuania in 1921. He died in 1933

* * *

And now I want to point to the work that was carried out by the Culture League in two small shtetlekh [towns], Rakishok and Utian. This will illustrate the cultural position of the Jewish workers, because only they can be members of the Culture League.”

First Rakishok:

The budget of the Rakishok Culture League is 30,000 marks (almost the budget of our literary union) and consists of 40 members. A public school exists at the Culture League at which 90 children study. There is a kindergarten and a school kitchen located at the school. Last year, during the winter, evening courses functioned with 67 attendees. The Culture League possesses a library of 200 books and 85 subscribers and also a dramatic section that carried out many performances. A choir exists in the section. The Culture League also publishes a hectographic [gelatin duplication] journal, Kultur un Wisn [Culture and Learning]

Utian

Yankl der Shmid [Yankl the Blacksmith], Di Nevole [The Infamy], Der Shtumer [The Silent One], Got fun Nekomeh [God of Vengence], and Der Pushte Kretchme [The Empty Inn]

Now several general figures: 1,651 children and teaching personnel of 52 in the 15 schools (the writer probably means in all of Lithuania). In addition, there exists one (1) Folks-University, two kindergartens and two orphanages. The number of members in the courses for adults is 713, teachers – 44. Only four (4) schools are subsidized by the local kehile [organized Jewish community]. Subjects: three (3) languages: Yiddish, Lithuanian, Hebrew. In the older classes: geography, history, natural sciences, mathematics, handwork. In the courses for adults there is also the teaching of political economy, literature and cultural history

“Mohican”

* * *

Note regarding photo of Memorial to Jonas Basanavicius.

At the large marketplace in Rakishok, where all of the businesses were concentrated, stands this memorial that records Lithuanian independence. The liberation of the Lithuanian people is portrayed by a statue on one side of the memorial and on the other side is the bust of Doctor Jonas Basanavicius, the veteran of Lithuanian culture who lived during the years 1851-1927.

When the Lithuanian Seim President in 1923 forbid the Jewish Seim deputies to give speeches in the Seim in Yiddish and when the Lithuanian Fascists smeared Yiddish signs with tar, and the police in many shtetlekh [towns] forbid the public to use the Yiddish language, Dr. Jonas Basanavicius sent a protest letter to the Yidishe Shtime [Yiddish Voice], dated the 12th of August, 1924, where he sharply condemned the scandalous deeds of the Lithuanian Fascists.

 

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