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[Page 185]

The Town and its Residents

A. Till the First World War

 

[Page 234]

Whenever I speak about her…
(A chapter of memories)

by Regina Helman

Translated by Sara Mages

 

Not without excitement and longing I bring up my memories today on the sheet of paper before me…As in a play, the images of my childhood pass before me through a bright transparent mirror, and I hold them one by one.

Smorgon my hometown – my cradle stood in you, I took my first steps in you, in your streets I learned my first lesson in human relations, and bought wisdom in your “Heders” and “schools”.

My house in you was small, but the whole world resided in it. It was saturated with faith in God and love for the nation of Israel.

Untypical for girls, my father of blessed memory entered me to the “Heder” of Rabbi Gershon Yankel in Karka Street (Krever Gas). I was a small tender girl then. I was barely five years old.

Even now I can see in my dreams the long wooden benches adjacent to the tables. There were various strange engravings on them, birds and animals that the children's imagination carved, some with a small cheap knife, and some with a nail or a piece of glass. Next to this long table sat a congregation of babies, boys and girls, and learned prayers, the Chumash and the Bible. Next to the “class room” was a small room that served as the residence of the “Rabbi” and his “Polish woman”, dark and narrow was this room and its entire space was filled with two wide beds. The naughty among us played “hide and seek” under the beds of this gloomy room.

Attached to the Rabbi's house grew a tree that its bough almost covered the roof and sloped towards the fence. I remember that the teacher's goat was tied to this tree. The goat, “the only daughter”, was spoiled but kind hearted and overflowing with milk for the children of Rabbi Gershon Yankel. One day, the goat disappeared, and it was “Tisha B'Av” in the rabbi's house. The Rebbetzin clasped her hands, cried and shouted in a voice full of fear.

“The goat is lost and gone, Woe to me! our provider!” Needless to say, that we, the small children, participated in the great grief of the rabbi's wife.

My mother of blessed memory educated us in the spirit of tradition and religion. Every morning, when we got up, she placed us, the children, in a row and we repeated after her word by word: “Modeh Ani Lefanecha” [“I am grateful before You”], and at bedtime, when we climbed on our beds, she gave us a copper laver full of water and a bowl on its side to wash our hands and say: “Hamapil hevlei sheina” [the Bedtime Shema].

[Page 235]

Our mother insisted that also her daughters will pray “Shacharit”, “Mincha” and “Maariv” every day.

And what is remarkable in this? After all, our mother was the daughter of a rabbi, the granddaughter of “R' Yosile der Villner”, and also the uncles were teachers, judges and rabbis like R' Yodel der Zurferner, R' Zalman and others.

Every Friday, after “Kabalat Shabbat”, my father used to bring a poor guest to the house, and mother brought a needy “Yeshiva Bocher” [an unmarried Yeshiva student] every Tuesday.

My father was a scholar, a “reader”, a respectful man with a pleasant voice. His teaching was organized and in his spare time he taught us. How I loved to hear my father explaining the Bible. His explanations opened my eyes, and to this day I haven't forgotten the knowledge that I acquired from him in my childhood. On summer evenings and on the Sabbath he taught me “Pirkei Avot” and “Barchi Nafshi” in the winter.

The first planted words of wisdom and morals in my soul, and the second the love for poetry and the wonders of God. I grew up a little and started to study in the “Reformed Heder” [“Heder Metukan”] of the teacher Schinuk of blessed memory. He was an excellent teacher, a “grammarian”, an enthusiastic lover of Zion, and an advocate of the Hebrew literature. Parallel to my studies in the “Reformed Heder” I also studied in the Russian Elementary School.

Nevertheless, I preferred my Hebrew studies over the Russian studies. When I started to read Hebrew books on my own – I didn't let them go. I was shaken when I read “Ahavat Zion” [Love of Zion] and “Ashmat Shomron” [The Guilt of Samaria] by Abraham Mapu. For many days I wandered dreamily and my eyes rose longingly to Zion.

Our teacher Schinuk had a large part in nurturing the Zionist dream among the children of Smorgon. He inspired us with his stories and lit a sacred fire in us for the love of our nation.

I remember a short essay that I wrote at that time under the influence and the teaching of our favorite teacher. The essay was about a way-of-a-dream, and this is its summery: One day the teacher Schinuk came and said to us: children we are going on a trip. The teacher took us and transferred us on eagles' wings to Eretz Yisrael. And here, our feet are standing at the gates to Jerusalem. We climb the mountains around her and descend into the valleys. In a valley, between fields and vineyards, Jewish farmers are reaping with joy, and the sounds of happiness and joy are being heard from all sides. Blue sky stretches over our heads. Jewish shepherds are sitting on the hills playing their flutes and their sheep are dancing in front of them. We come to a vineyard and our teacher picks a cluster of grapes and tells us: let's carry it with a “pole for two”- we carry the cluster of grapes and bring it to our brothers in the Diaspora.

I woke up and it was a dream. The teacher Schinuk of blessed memory checked the essay and praised the writer (it's me) publicly. He asked me to give him my essay so he could read it before the members of the “Zionist Federation”. I remember the phrase that the teacher wrote on the essay in addition to the grade:

[Page 236]

“Indeed, your feet will step on the land of Zion and your eyes will see the return of our people to their country.”

Not before long, the “Reformed Heder” of Schinuk of blessed memory received a “burst of power.” A young Jewish woman, a graduate of the Zionist School ''Yehudia'' in Vilna, who was qualified as a teacher, came to Smorgon, married our teacher Schinuk, and helped him with his revival work.

Maybe this teacher from ''Yehudia'' in Vilna was the cause of my deepen desire to be a teacher. That thought gave me no rest and I looked for ways to make it happen. My parents' financial status was strained, there were many children at home and my sisters came of age. O where will my help come from? My prayer and my secret tears were received in the heavens. Spirit and salvation came to me from a place that I've never expected.

In those days, Dr. Epstein of blessed memory lived in Smorgon. A precious Jew and an ardent Zionist. Though, he was a doctor for his people's illnesses, meaning, body illnesses, he didn't prevent himself from giving medicines for the illnesses of our people's spirit and soul. The city's Zionists gathered in his home for holiday parties or for reading parties from the nest Hebrew literature. And since I was gifted with a nice voice and read poems with the correct emotion, I was invited to one of these parties to read the poem “Igeret Ketana”[A brief letter] by Hayim Nahman Bialik. It seems that I succeeded in reading the poem, because soon after Dr. Epstein invited me and had a long conversation with me. He asked me about my aspirations, examined me carefully, and had made this decision.

The next day, Dr. Epstein came to my father, sat with him for a long time, and persuaded him to send me to a kindergarten teachers' school in Warsaw. My father didn't want to hear about Warsaw. Rumors spread: that “girls were abducted” in Warsaw in order to send them overseas… but my father accepted Dr. Epstein's offer to send me to ''Yehudia'' in Vilna. And thus I arrived to “Yerushalayim deLita”. The gates to the Torah and knowledge opened before me in this Jewish metropolis, and I lived the life of national and cultural revival of that generation. On holidays I returned to Smorgon. In one of these days - we presented in this city “Chana and her Seven Sons” with Moyshe Kulbak, who later became famous. Smorgon, my Divine city, accompanied me in all the many stations of my life, in all my long wanderings around the world, in the steppes of Russia and Siberia, and in the European countries. And now, when I check my way of my life, I find that a lot of the grace and beauty of my hometown, from the good and noble, are embedded in…[the remainder is missing]


[Page 261]

A testimony

by Pesach Taburiski

Translated by Sara Mages

 

I was born in Smorgon in 1903.

I studied at the Russian Elementary School which was located in Minsk Street. There were five classes in the school. The school's principal was Skott, and the teachers were Horowitz the author of the grammar book, Dubkis, and Filler. Mrs. Scott was the principal of an elementary school for girls

In 1911, at the age of eight, I entered the Elementary School's preparatory class. The school had about 250 students. Each student, who was accepted, had to be able to read and write Russian, be versed in the multiplication table and the four rules of mathematics.

Skott taught the Bible which was translated into Russian. We also prayed in Russian. We started the morning with a prayer for the king.

I studied four years in the school. The studies continued without interruption even during the war which broke out in 1914.

The big recruitment day came. The recruits, meaning, the reserves up to age 45, were transported to Oshmene [Ashmyany]. Their number reached tens of thousands.

During the first year of the First World War, convoys of Jewish refugees from Kovno, Jonava, Kurlandia [Courland] and also from cities in Poland arrived to Smorgon's station.

Immediately, our city organized a “War refugee aid committee.”

We welcomed the refugees in the train station. We brought them food. Smorgon's notable women worked in an improvised kitchen. Samovars were brought and tea was boiled. We watered and fed the poor people who fled from the German's sword, or deported from their place of residency according to the decree of the commander-in-chief of the Russian Army, Nikolay Nikolayevich, the Jews' enemy. We received the refugees who wanted to remain in our city with open arms. Some of them stayed with us for a whole year.

The Germans entered the city and captured it on the eve of Rosh Hashanah. They robbed the grocery stores and the wine stores. They handed out chocolate to the city's children to earn their trust.

The Jews treated them with open sympathy. Not out of love for Wilhelm [Kaiser Wilhelm II], but out of hatred for Czar Nikolay II, the Czar who was hostile towards the Jews. Under his orders, his wicked people, who pretended to be nationalists, carried out pogroms against the Jews in the cities of the Pale Settlement.

The conquerors didn't harm the civilians.

One fine day we heard shots from the Firibeiz? side, meaning, across the Viliya River.

[Page 262]

The Russians built a new bridge over the river, because the Germans demolished the old bridge and also blew up the railway line. The battle was fought almost within the city limits, buildings were ignited and fires broke out.

The Russian infantry seized the city and took it from the Germans. Cossacks' troops arrived after the infantry.

After a few days, an order arrived from Nikolay Nikolayevich to burn the whole city and expel all of its Jewish residents.

Those who refused to obey, about forty people, gathered in the Koidenav Shtiebel. The Cossacks burnt the house on them.

The Cossacks stormed the few dozens men and women who hid in Kovrsky's liquor workshop. They tortured the women and set the distillery on fire.

All of us, who were expelled from the city, walked towards Minsk. We arrived, some in a cart and some by foot, to Maladzyechna. From there we traveled by train to Minsk. In Minsk they put us in the synagogue. We were welcomed by the workers of the Red Cross and the members of the “Refugee Aid Committee.” Only a few refugees from Smorgon remained in Mink. The majority of the refugees traveled to various cities: Bogorodsk, Krakow and Poltova. Some traveled farther and reached Siberia. Some immigrated to the United States through Harbin [China] and Japan.

When we were expelled we didn't have the time to take food, clothing or underwear with us, we left with nothing. A few refugees bundled a little food in a tablecloth and the women took Sabbath candles.

We had a big oven in our house and the neighbors used to keep their Sabbath meals in it. Our uncle lived in the Bears Street. He was a busy factory owner and didn't know what was happening in the city. As usual he came to our house on Saturday to attend the Shabbat meal with the family. He entered, and to his astonishment he saw the Cossacks sitting around the table eating Jewish food, fish, meat and cholent, that they took out of the oven. They showered him with blows and he fled for his life

After the feast, they took kerosene from our storeroom, poured it on the Jews' houses and set them on fire. - - -

In 1920, some began to return to Smorgon. These were the forerunners… meaning, the families who lived in Minsk and their return journey wasn't long. Most of Smorgon's residents returned in 1921-1922. Some of those who returned stopped on the way and lived temporarily in Vilna, and some came straight to Smorgon. They settled in the cellars of the surviving buildings. A few busied themselves in building new houses to replace those that were burnt. For building material they used the wooden beams that they removed from the trenches which remained intact. They were built two, three, or even four stories below ground.

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