Translated by Eilat Gordin Levitan
Since the community censuses were lost during the First World War in the area of Vishnevo, and there is no exact date that we can give, as much as we can deduct from municipal papers from Vishnevo during World War I, I was born in July 10, 1895. Despite the fact that I was only there for six years of my childhood, this period of my life left an indelible mark on my character. My spirituality and personality were deeply affected by the traditions of Eastern European Jewish life.
The first six years of my life were spent at the house of my paternal grandparents. My parents left Russia to try their luck in Germany shortly after my birth. First my father studied at the universities in Konigsberg and Heidelberg, but when he realized he could not afford to finish his studies, his parents found him a home in Frankfurt on the Meine. This was the town where my mother brought me when I was six.
My impressions from my earlier childhood that had such a big influence on my personality were of the warmth of my grandparents' house and the cultural climate that was so special in the town of Vishnevo. My grandfather was the doctor of the town and the entire surrounding area. He had a farmer-like personality, very strong and natural in his habits, with a large amount of common sense. He was a real doer, not an idle dreamer. The villagers loved him with their entire soul. As for the people who became sick, he had a extraordinary ability to communicate with them.
He was very, very different from my maternal grandfather who was dayyan in Vilna, the most respected Jewish community in Russia. My maternal grandfather was a perfect example of the rabbinical tradition: all his days he only studied the Talmud and Talmudic literature while my grandmother, his wife, was managing a small store for their finances.
There are many anecdotes that people told in the family about him where we could learn of his personality. As the head of the dayyan in Vilna, my grandfather was amongst the leaders in the community, particularly since when the Gaon of Vilna died, the Jewish community there refused to have any more rabbis in Vilna as a gesture of respect for the greatness of the dead. So from then on, the head dayyan became rabbi-like in status, earning the most special place in the synagogue during holy days.
While the poor Jews, amongst them wandering Jews, beggars, etc. would come to the synagogue to take part in the prayers; my grandfather who could have gone to the best seat would join the poor so they would not feel themselves inferior.
Symbolic to his personality was the way he died: for many, many years, day after day he would sit in his narrow room with the door closed, studying; when finally it affected him and he became sick with pneumonia. The doctor suggested he should take a vacation in Crimea, but he refused to listen to him. Many days he was very stubborn about not going, explaining that the long voyage to Crimea, during which he would have to ride on a train for days, would take time from his Talmud studies. And what kind of life would he have if he were denied the studies of the Torah?
Finally he couldn't take the begging of his wife and other family members and he went on his way. When the train arrived in Crimea, they found my grandfather lifeless. We never knew whether he died when arrived there or during the travels.
I only met my maternal grandfather in the last years of his life when I stayed with him for a few weeks in Vilna on the way to Germany. In any case it is very clear to me that I inherited my intellectual core from him.
From my paternal grandfather's side, where I grew up and where I was educated in the first years of my life, I received other gifts that were no less important. My paternal grandfather was not an intellectual type but a very practical man. He had many children, most of them girls. The days when I was there they were not yet married, so they took a large part in my education. I was the only grandson who lived at the house and this fact stood in direct correlation to the amount of pampering that I received. All the memories that I have from those days have not even a hint of unpleasantness, and I believe that the tranquility and harmony of the first years of my life gave me the self-confidence that I was blessed with. That, more than any part of my personality, has aided me in my political activities later on.
Already in my early childhood there were signs of my mature personality. I clearly remember many tricks that I pulled that might have been an expression of my need to lead, and my need to organize and take charge of things. Those early deeds that I used my friends to help me carry out, many times today seem to me to not have been in the best taste. But I remember that then I used to make them a little less sharp since I would always take all responsibility on myself without a moment of hesitation, in all the things my friends and I would do. To be truthful, I must admit that in most cases it didn't take a lot of bravery or self-sacrifice, as the grandson of a person who was the only doctor in town and for many years was the head of the Jewish community there. Already I received special treatment.
I remember one Saturday when I created a huge mess in the synagogue when I entered the synagogue riding my big St. Bernard dog. It was huge and very scary although truly he had a very good nature. But the people praying must have thought it to be a horrible, wild dog, which was coming to tear them apart. In the women's quarters above, a few women fainted and some of the men ran outside screaming. But all this pandemonium didn't make my dog change his stoic essence. He kept walking slowly and self-assuredly through the synagogue until we reached my grandfather's seat in the first row. However, even that deed, which was absolutely blasphemous and so shocking that people talked about it for many years, I survived without much punishment.
In town my reputation was of a boy who appeared older than his age. For some health reasons I missed many days of cheder studies, but this did not affect my education since I was very quick and clever. It was enough for me to have private lessons of an hour or two to catch up to my friends who studied eight to ten hours a day. So the basic Jewish education I received mostly from my grandfather and a few tutors, amongst them the rabbi of the town [ed: Rabbi Perlman Margolis]. This rabbi later on went to Eretz Israel, and when I had my bar mitzvah he sent me a letter from there where he described an episode from my days in the cheder of Vishnevo. This episode is descriptive not only of the way I thought but also it is a perfect example of Talmudic thinking. As my former teacher wrote in his letter, while he was discussing with the class the dream of Yakov where there was a passage saying that the angels of god (this was when I was 4) go up and down, I could not in my logic let myself accept such a sentence and I argued that the angels of God are in heaven so how can they go up before they go down? They must first go down and only then go up. The rabbi said that this question bothered him for years and he investigated this passage in all the different sources hoping to find reasonable answers since illogic has no place in the logical Torah.
Typical of religious people he could not accept the idea that it was just a phrase that people might say casually, without any real thought. Up and down. It was symbolic of a nation that for hundreds of years had been raised on the Talmudic analytical, logical basis in which no coincidences could occur.
Without getting into a deep psychological study, it's very clear for me today when I look back, that all the signs of my character were already taking roots in me in those days, and would become extremely important in helping me decide what paths to take. When I think of it, everything I achieved was done without cries or yells, but through careful persuasion instead. As a child, for example, I received special permission that let me stay with the older people until late night hours. For many months, later on, I would argue against what I saw as the punishment that I had to go early to my bed. I grew up with adults and I loved listening to their conversations at evening time, and I hated, as all children do, to go to sleep hours before the adults. All the scenes that I created at that point didn't change that rule, and at the end I realized that there was a more useful way to work this out. As a child who was traditionally educated, my duty was to do a kryatchma when I was going to bed. So I used this rule, saying that I would not pray this prayer before I felt a true need to sleep. This stubbornness brought my wished results, and from then on they let me stay until I was ready to say the prayer. This experience made it clear to me that what I couldn't do with fighting and stubbornness I achieved with a little bit of politics. This incident also made me richer with another bit of knowledge: religious thoughts cannot be forced upon you, and even more important, that prayer only has meaning if it is said with free will.
I was very lucky that my very first years, when the soul is still open to receive impressions from the environment, unlike other times in the life, passed in a house filled with pleasantness and warmth, surrounded by good natured and generous people. When I think today about my grandfather's house I cannot decide who had the best nature among all the family members. All of them, my grandfather, my grandmother, and my aunts who took care of me with serenity and devotion and never-ending pleasantness seemed to me to be true angels. I am very sure that the lack of suspicion and the need to help people, two character traits that were strong in me when I became an adult, were rooted in those first years. The feeling of confidence and safety that is so rooted in me might somehow be connected to the fact that my family then already thought that I would do great deeds in my life. They even asked the rabbi of the town to put special care in my education and development.
After I left my dear ones to join my parents in Germany I never saw them again. The First World War and the Revolution in Russia brought separation to many families. All my family members died before I could meet them again. Still, their memory is deeply rooted in my heart and my soul and I am very thankful for all that they gave me. Those dear people created the soil where I could take root and receive happiness and warmth and safety no matter what the future would bring. I am absolutely sure if my parents had taken me to Germany as soon as they had left I would lack this treasure that only life in a shtetl could bring. And once again I will emphasize that the spiritual climate of the Lithuanian shtetl Vishnevo was a very important element of establishing my character.
Much was written about life in the Jewish shtetl. Famous people immortalized the atmosphere and the way of life in Eastern European towns and I will not try here to do that. I only wanted to talk about life in Vishnevo from a personal point of view, only to see how life there affected my essence. It is a great mistake to think that the life of a Jew in the shtetl was life in a ghetto, or that the Jews in the shtetl showed themselves as humiliated and marginalized people. This observation might be true of the big town in Eastern Europe where the Jews were a minority amongst a hostile majority that oppressed and humiliated them. This was not the situation in the shtetl where the Jew lived in his own kingdom. And here, most of the population would mingle with Christians in the nearby villages, recognized that they had the right to feel superior.
Even from an economical point of view, their situation was not exactly well but it was still much better than that of most farmers in Czarist Russia. In usual days when there were no pogroms in the area, the Jew had a better spiritual and financial situation than the rest of the population. The Jew lived in his shtetl as if in the solitude of a splendid spring. The big non-Jew world was practically non-existent. Although he lacked political rights, they had very little importance in his eyes. He didn't care one iota if he was allowed to take part in the elections for the Duma or not. The problems faced by the Russian Empire didn't bother him at all. He lived entirely in his own world, a world that was part of a tradition going back thousands of years. What was special about his splendid past was a source of power and splendor. All the problems and troubles that the Jew cared about were to do with life in the shtetl, and into that he put most of his energies. Who is going to be appointed for gabai? Who is the first and who second to receive the aliyah for the Torah? These were the important issues where they fought for respect and ambition and the need to rule and to show off.
The Jew never questioned whether this way of living was right or wrong. He was blessed with a special gift of absolute certainty in the belief that this was how it should be. He knew very clearly the punishment for every bad deed, and the reward for every mitzvah. He knew what was expected from him in this world and the next one. The deeply rooted belief that the Garden of Eden was promised to him if he would not stray from the road, and the Gehennim if he did stray was an absolute, unquestionable belief. He didn't feel one iota of being lesser than. The opposite: he compensated himself for difficulties in life of the Diaspora by feeling that he was superior. Being part of the Chosen People was not just a phrase for him; it was an absolute truth that was clearly understood.
Deep intimacy was not only part of his relation with his own people, who were not only comrades in race and religion like one big family with all the typical fights that families have, he also felt the same intimacy with his Nation and his God. Even when he was a small child who studied about Moshe, a picture of him would appear to him as if he were an older, respected, if distant, uncle. When a Yeshiva student would deeply study the mishna of Rabbi Yudah or Rabbi Akiva, it wasn't just a historical study in an old tradition; it was as if he was conversing with an old, smarter family member who was sitting across from him. So from this essence, warmth and familiarity was created. Also, the same essence affected the extreme emotion during fights. When everything is intimate, everything very quickly passes through a more personal level. Differences of opinion were never settled in a logical way. They were always filled with emotional, personal baggage.
Since the fact that I was a Jewish boy in Vishnevo was a clear fact to me, other children, meaning non-Jews, were not to be found there. They were in the surrounding areas, some village boys, but how can a Jewish boy ever think, even in his wildest dreams, that he would want to be a son of a farmer? To be a Jew in those towns was as clear as to breathe, and eat, and pray. I remember during my first weeks when I arrived in Frankfurt I played ball in the streets. My ball hit the wheels of a bicycle rider and made him fall down, and he yelled at me, Jewish thug! I didn't feel at all insulted and answered him on the same level of disgust, Christian! I am sure the humiliation to be called Jew would clearly be felt by a Jewish German child in the same circumstance, but for me it was totally foreign and I couldn't understand why the adults kept repeating these stories very surprised by the incident. Today I know that the way I reacted was the expression of the unquestioning Jewish essence that was based on an experience and not on something that could be taught. So those are the values that were planted in me at the dawn of my childhood while I lived at the house of my grandfather in the Jewish shtetl.
All that is wrong with this life, the narrow-mindedness, the isolation, and petit-bourgeois values, were never an obstacle for me. I overcame the negative values with no difficulties when I came to the big world of Western Europe. I came to the Western world embedded with a deep awareness of complete Jewish existence that only life in the shtetl, in contrast to life in the big towns, could create. The whole of my later life, when I met many different cultures, forever was embedded in me the basic essence of never having an inferiority complex about being a Jew.
When I was six and my parents became a little more established in Frankfurt, it was time to bring me there and to open me up to a wider range of education. My mother came to Vishnevo and together we left for the long road to Frankfurt. At first we took a wagon to Smorgon. There, for the first time in my life I saw a train. It was in evening time and the sight of the engine car with his huge lights approaching us left a big impression on me and through my later life I kept having dreams about approaching trains. But in my dreams it was never a fearful sight. I was always happy to see the approaching train that symbolized the big, wide world. I loved the lights and the way I responded to this first impression of the train is also typical of my later traits. A train that would have maybe made other kids fearful created a very positive and happy feeling for me. And ever since I remember myself I always tried with every core of my being to find something positive in everything I experience. The way a person experiences his life is so dependent on his personal understanding of it. The ability to look positively on situations that are unavoidable is a required condition for having a fruitful and happy life. It's not always possible for us to turn something negative to a totally positive experience, but I would like to emphasize that I put a large amount of energy towards thinking positively, and it was always like a candle to my feet that if I do not wish to be uncontrollably taken away with life, I must create my circumstances.
From Smorgon I arrived with my mother at Vilna, and very little memory I have from the spiritual center of the Jews of Lithuania. Distant images come to me of my maternal grandmother and grandfather, where we stayed for a few weeks. An image of my studious grandfather, an image filled with spirituality, a man who was sick looking, but despite that was extremely impressive. In contrast, his little woman, who was very practical, grounded, and energetic; my grandmother was the one who took care of all the family's financial needs. Although later on in my life on other visits I learned to love the architecture of Vilna, this visit left very little impression. The only physical thing I clearly remember was a jump rope that I received from one of our friends that I used for many hours while running through the parks in Vilna. The next station on our road was Warsaw, where I met the family of my uncle Shelkovitz, the brother of my father. He was a well-known publisher of Hebrew books and he was also a talented writer. These relatives, together with the Gordon family, who were related to my uncle, at whose head was a well-known writer and educator, were my only family members that I kept contact with through my entire life. They became my family and in many ways their sons who live today (1970) in Israel, fulfilled for me all that I lacked in being an only child.
In the spring of 1900, I arrived in Frankfurt to see a very different world that was very foreign to me. Still, being in a very different environment was not a big shock or very strange to me. I was always able to quickly get rooted in a new environment. In some ways I feel at home wherever I am. During my never-ending travels and with all my missions in different countries and continents, I was never ill affected either physically or psychologically. Once again I think that this ability is largely rooted in that basic self-confidence as a man and as a Jew that I already talked about. When a man feels assured about himself, it is very easy to accept different life conditions. Only when someone didn't root anywhere can he easily be uprooted when life conditions change. Whoever develops basic roots will carry them and can be replanted in new soil.
Most of the friends of my parents in Frankfurt came originally from Russia, which enabled me to immediately feel comfortable in the new environment. But fairly quickly I found out that past the house of my parents there was another world, a world of Jews who were very different from the ones I had known, and especially a world of non-Jews. But more than making me fearful, it made me very curious to get to know this world. I never felt what is called the fear of the Jew who experiences the superiority of the non-Jewish world. During my public life I met many kings and princes and ministers and generals, leaders of nations I stood in front of these leaders of huge nations as a representative of a small and weak nation. Although I was aware in each meeting of the gap between the powerful nations versus the weakness of the ones I represented, still I don't remember once in any meeting that I felt inferior to them whether it was Mussolini, the head of France, the Prime Minister of Britain, the American President, or the German Chancellor. I always recognized that they came from a much stronger position, but they were never superior, anyway not as representatives of their nations. I explained to myself the fact that changing the circumstances of life in those early days of my life didn't create any difficulties for me although I was a sensitive child, because I was so desirous of knowledge. I was surrounded by strange people, strange buildings a different way of life and all I wished for was to get to know them. Although my memories from the shtetl Vishnevo were never lost, and my happy life keeps coming back to me, I never felt as if I lost something. From the minute I arrived in Frankfurt I felt as if I was at home.
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