Bendery My Hometown
Avraham Hayat, Tel Giborim (Holon)
Translated by Ala Gamulka
When I begin writing my memoirs of Bendery, a heavy emotion dominates me. One does not feel like merely writing about my hometown as I remember it from childhood. It was a quiet, beautifully planned town with its long, wide and straight streets. The people I knew and the impressions I have from long ago are memorable. This feeling leads me to a time interwoven with unusual events. It brings me to a great perplexity- full of pain.
I am compelled to write about my town with lamentation. This feeling does not allow me to forget the impression made on me by Bendery in the period after WWII when I returned from Siberia.
The bloody flood which inundated the world did not miss Bendery and it was left completely destroyed. The Nazi murderers annihilated all those who did not leave town before the misfortune and stayed in their old home.
Many of us, former residents of Bendery, were fortunate to survive the bad times and to reach the State of Israel. Bendery still exists, rebuilt anew. It may even be more beautiful than before. However, it is rebuilt with cold, mute stones, bricks and sand, artistically put together. Nothing is mentioned about the people who were cut down by the Nazi murder machine.
Yizkor and Kaddish for My Town
In memory of our brothers and sisters who had lived on the banks of the Dniester, but were still annihilated even though they had lived in Bendery for generations, in ancient times and during the Turkish rule.
The town was a perpetual home.
The waters of the Dniester flowed quietly.
The gardens and orchards surrounded the town
A legend of life was woven with courage.
Now the houses are destroyed ...mounds of earth...ruins
A sound of wailing can be heard
The souls are screaming
They are searching for redress
Alas and alack to them.
Yizkor should be recited by all.
The vine and fruit orchards, Acacia, nut tree, the lilacs emitting a scent far and near.
All of you must recite Yizkor.
Even the Dniester River with its velvety whisper.
This is where once youths dreamt and hoped for better times.
Yizkor is for those dear ones who lived here and for future generations so they should know there once was a destructive fire lit by people who felt no remorse.
As time passes the letters on the headstones will be erased and the souls of the innocent hover in space looking for redress.
I want my words to preserve their memory for eternity. Those times should be remembered. The gruesome memories leave stains for always.
I must remind everyone about the murder of humans and the horror, the destruction of other places, the calamity, blood and the grief.
On Heroism Day all Shoah victims must be remembered. The destruction, upheaval and the innocent souls demand revenge.
I will light memorial candles. There should be light in paradise. With so much pain is interlaced the slow death of every part of the body.
I want my words to burn in memory of the saintly victims.
There should be shaking and demanding an accounting a penalty- no mercy to be shown to the murderers.
The victims should be remembered for many generations, never to be forgotten. The killers in the streets will always be despised.
This is for the innocent young, blameless children, the cherished, and the beautiful whose voices are still high.
This is for the destroyed elders, the sick and the weak, for those suffocated in gas chambers and for those tortured, for those hanged in pain and for those buried alive, for those strangled quietly and for all the dead in the snowy fields.
In the overview of the Shoah let my reminiscences become a silent Kaddish and Yizkor from my suffering heart and in memory of the innocent victims of Bendery.
Bendery was situated on the banks of the Dniester and this added to the importance of the town.
The gardens and orchards did not only beautify the town, but they also were an important source of income and subsistence. A delicious aroma was felt in the air at the beginning of spring when the gardens and the orchards were in bloom. It was the time when the air was pure and the dust had not yet settled in.
Fruit, including grapes, were not only distributed in all parts of the Tsarist Empire, but also were exported to other countries.
Local properties attracted many tourists. This was another source of income. Bendery drew visitors who came to bathe in the Dniester River during the fruit and grape seasons. There were also vacation resorts- Boriskova and Protogatlovka- where the air was pure and filled with the scent of fruit and nut trees as well as lilacs.
Bendery was also famous for mud in the winter and dust clouds in the summer.
As soon as fall set in rivers of mud flooded the streets and only the arrival of the first frost would relieve the residents from it. If the mud was not frozen enough the wagon wheels would sink in up to the axle. Then the driver would know the wagon could neither be moved forwards nor backwards and needed help to move on.
In the summer when the driver tried to speed up he created a cloud of dust and nothing could be seen through it. However, in spite of this one would pretend the problem did not exist.
In Bendery, as in other towns in the area, there were philanthropic institutions: Help for the Sick, Clothing for the Poor and a Jewish hospital with a Seniors Residence attached. These institutions depended entirely on donations from the community. There was no government funding. Often there were evenings, balls to generate funds and the income was used by the institutions and to help needy people. All this help was not enough as the need was great and the efforts made were not sufficient. Clothing for the Poor also provided winter garments and boots for the students in the Talmud Torah.
There was also Assistance for Poor Brides organized by the dedicated volunteer Moshe Sverdik and Welcoming Guests run by Hirsh Tulchiner. A very important and separate philanthropic enterprise in those days was the kitchen in the Old Shul. It was run by volunteers- men, women, boys and girls. We must remember them with great respect. It was a beautiful volunteer effort for Shabbat and the Holidays. Large pots were placed in the courtyard of the synagogue to cook delicious food for the needy, especially Jewish soldiers stationed in the Bendery military barracks. During WWI there were a considerable number of Jewish soldiers in town. Wonderful meals were prepared and served on beautifully set tables. All the work was done by volunteers who were not looking for any special recognition. They were simply dedicated to the task. As a youngster I took an active part in this kitchen.
Cultural and Educational institutions
In Bendery there were five cinemas, the Balanov summer theatre, the auditorium- a specially large hall for lectures and theatre presentations, the municipal Pushkin library (Russian), a Jewish library with a considerable number of books in Russian, Yiddish and Hebrew and a small city museum.
There were several well-known schools: three high schools for girls- Public, Grassimenko's and Boyko's. There also three municipal schools for girls- the red uniforms, the green uniforms and the black uniforms, a public boys' school, a science high school and many elementary schools.
Jewish education consisted of Heders run by teachers and private Russian-language schools. There were Zigberman's, Reinoman's, the Russian Talmud Torah (Tiomkin) and a teachers' seminary. The Jewish Culture League ran evening classes. Its active members were Sobel, Leib Gurfeld, and Prozhansky. Postelnik was one of several private Hebrew tutors.
Obviously, these schools did not satisfy, even in those days, the liberal Jewish circles. They understood that Jewish children could not receive a good secular education in the Russian schools. Only a few students were even admitted to the Russian schools. There was a need to change the situation as circumstances demanded. It was difficult to find the correct way.
The leadership of the community was the Committee, as it was called. It consisted of wealthy people with a small-town mentality. Cultural life was limited. It seemed that a good push from the outside was needed in order to enliven and activate. There was a need for Jewish schools which would satisfy those who wanted both Jewish and secular studies. This would become a center for Jewish activity which would bind national, Jewish and religious cultures. It would not include the Heders which should have been removed from the educational network
I must mention the advanced Heder of Yaakov Lewinsky, zl, where I studied after I finished the strictly religious studies with Mordehai Alexander, zl. I first learned grammar with the dear old man, Mordehai. I remember him with great thanks and fondness. I will never forget the time I spent with him. He lived across the street from Rabbi Moshele, zl, near the newly established Jewish middle school.
In those days, I had a deep desire to attend the Jewish middle school. However, the Shulchan Aruch I received from Rabbi Mordehai as a prize for my scholarship influenced me greatly. I used to wake up early in the morning for prayers, to grieve for the destruction of the Temple, to run before dawn on snowy dark streets for Shabbat services, and to recite Psalms. I recall the eve and the day of the New Moon. It seems like a dream that old Mordehai would greet me. I wanted to know the secrets of the universe before having read Jules Verne. Life was pleasant and easy then. The deep belief in God's wondrous creation made a great impression on me. I could not even imagine the horrors of the Shoah were possible. After studying a page of Gmara I had the desire to learn more. I must mention with great thanks the dear, honest, intelligent Moshele Sverdlik. He was a scholar who taught me Mishna. When he came to the Land of Israel, and now called Moshe Sever, he did research and published three volumes on the Sayings of the Sages of the Blessed. It was a great work which required much effort and knowledge of Talmud.
R. Baruch Kolker, Haim Glass with their students
The religious education- later also partly in the Beit Midrash came to good use for me when I used to visit my friends, the children of Shmuel Abba Sudit, Froyke, zl, and Hannah. Shmuel Abba was a scholar who loved to discuss controversies in the Talmud. However, life intervened and slowly secular studies in the Jewish middle school began to influence me. I became a student in the school.
The Middle School
The existing educational facilities- Heders and others- did not satisfy the needs of the community. In 1912 a change occurred in the situation a middle school was established under the direction of the amazing teacher Gregori Yakovlevitch Schwartzman (Zvi Ben Yaakov Schwartzman, zl). His arrival in Bendery and the opening of the middle school aroused the backward thinking town. The Jewish population was in dreamland everyone followed his own path.
We must mention the liberal-minded group of people lovers of Zion who immediately began to help Gregori Yakovlevitch Schwartzman, zl. They were Velvel Weisser, Israel Blank, Moshe Haham, Zvi Holdonka, Hersh Kogan, Alexandrov, Prozhansky, Derbarmdliker and others. The Jewish community immediately understood that middle school paved the way for Jewish children to reach university and obtain a higher education. Gregori Yakovlevitch did not easily succeed during the difficult Tsarist anti-Semitic regime and later the Romanian occupation of Bessarabia. He also had to contend with the darker elements within the Jewish community. Only thanks to his determination and dedication was he able to overcome the difficulties the powers-that-be imposed. This had to do with Jewish education in general and the middle school in particular.
The former students of the middle school have spread all over the world. They have gone on to earn academic titles- doctors, engineers, attorneys and other important professions. They would agree with me that they obtained a higher education thanks to Schwartzman. I take this opportunity to appeal to all the former students now in Israel who may not have shown the appropriate attention and thanks to him when he first arrived in the country. I will forever be grateful to him, the highly regarded Zvi Ben Yaakov Schwartzman, zl. If anyone must be remembered with fondness and respect it is our beloved Gregori Yakovlevitch who gave the youngsters a push towards higher education.
In order to raise funds for the needy teachers, the high school used to hold cultural evenings. I was actively involved in the organization of these evenings. There were theatrical productions, musical concerts and poetry readings. These evenings were well attended. I remember the presentations, the songs, recitations and the choirs. I must mention Senya Tzehovel who had a big part in these events. When he came to Israel he became a well-known performer in the Ohel Theatre.
I want to include several teachers: Isaac Borisovitch Reznikov who distinguished himself with his knowledge and intelligence, Solomon Isaacovitch and Samuel Yakovlevitch Gorin-a philologer who was well-versed in the Russian language and literature as well as Latin, Motl Yosifovitch Shaikovitch- a wonderful mathematician.
A totally different story was the establishment of the Hazamir choir. It had great influence on the youth from a national point of view.
In Bendery there were many synagogues- some with permanent cantors and choirs such as the New Shul and the Sadigura. The New Shul was inaugurated by Mendel Kreposter who was actively involved in its construction. I saw the key to the Shul hanging in a box on his living room wall and adorned with a beautiful blue ribbon. I was good friends with Isaac Kreposter and I spent time in his house.
There were synagogues with cantors assisted by members who sang with them. Some famous cantors came out of these choirs. Arale Gelfand, zl, worked in London. He had originally conducted one of these choirs in which I was the soloist. Cantor Yosef Schwartzman, zl, performed in America and there were others.
Cantors who came to settle in Bendery were Cantor Gorman who had a strong tenor voice and led services in the New Shul, assisted by a choir- I was a soloist there too, Cantor Haikel and others. Even Leibel Glantz, zl, came to perform. We knew him from his Zionist activities in Kishinev.
In our home music was prevalent. We were six boys and we all had good voices. My father, Shlomo Hayat, zl, - referred to as Shloime-Velvel Litvak's (my grandfather came from Lithuania)- was a musician and prayed in the New Shul until his sudden death.
The singing on Friday nights and during the Passover Seders was outstanding and drew the attention of the neighbours who used to stand by the window to listen.
I had a strong alto voice. I was considered among the best (in Bendery and outside of it) and I had quite a following. My solos of Vemi Shenotnim Ner L'Maor, Nahon Kisa'aha Maoz, Umipnei Hataeinu Galinu M'Artzeinu and others were famous and everyone would join in. I had great success at a concert in the Blogodorny Sovornye in Kishinev. Tkatch, zl, the famous cantor from Budapest, arranged and participated in the concert. Kishinev had many experts and music aficionados. After the concert I was accepted in the choir of the famous cantor Kilimnik, zl, in the synagogue on Sinopinovsky Street. I was able to read notes easily. I was taught how to read music by our neighbour, Cantor Goldstein, zl. I also began to study the piano with Haim Shchanovsky, zl, a renowned teacher. He was known in Bendery as the son of Tuvia Shchanovsky or as he was better known- Tuvia the Cantor. In spite of all the efforts and opportunities, love of music and cantorial chanting, I was not interested in cantorial singing as a career. I felt that the praying public would never reach the heights of the Prayer Leader as he expressed his pleadings. I thought most of those praying felt it was their duty to pray and not a higher calling.
I remember when Leibel Glantz, zl, led the Selihot services in the New Shul and the audience was moved. The leader of the Labour Zionist movement in Bendery, Hersh Kogan, zl, asked him the following question: Leibel, tell me, when you prayed did you have the feeling that you reached heaven and G-d is responding? Did you reach a point where you forgot and were transported to a higher plane? I think he replied, as I had felt, that the Prayer Leader is transported from reality, but the public is, on the contrary, far from that feeling. Most of them do not even understand the meaning of the prayers.
The establishment of the Hazamir choir did not produce the expected results. As I previously related, there were many singers and lovers of music. The choir needed a push. It came from the Bendersky brothers, zl. One of them had studied in the Science High School. The choir was conducted by the well-known Pini Pertziuk, zl. Members of the choir were male and female students and professional singers, famous bass singer Volodya Krasiltchik, tenors from the school choirs and I. Volodya taught music in the Schwartzman High School at one time. The purpose of the choir was to establish a Jewish national atmosphere by presenting evenings of Yiddish and Hebrew songs, recitations, and plays. These evenings were well-organized and well-run. The songs by Warshavsky, zl, headed the program. One of the members of Hazamir became the famous soprano Zina Pistrova. These evenings felt comfortable in a warm atmosphere. Although many years have passed, I still remember well the singing of Zina Pistrova together with Misha Pustan, zl.
During the Revolution the writer of these lines organized a small orchestra under the auspices of the Society for Jewish Folk Music. However, with the occupation of Bessarabia by Romania everything fell by the wayside.
There was, in Bendery, an amateur theatre group headed by Yoske Gold. Others who participated were Harushtch, Kaniverlatzky, and Alec Stein.
All the memoirs I discussed took place before 1924. This is when I married Havale Rabinovitch from Kagul (Southern Bessarabia). It was a love affair which developed when Havale used to spend her summers at her sister Zillah Kreposters's place (wife of Volodya Kreposter). They lived on Komandonsky Street at the end of Aleksandrovsk. Havale was a medical student in Iasi. My friends at the time were: Hamo Shtratman, Isaac Kreposter, Pini Schrybman, Moysey Shtiperlman (drowned in the Dniester), Shura Geisser, Clara Finkelstein and others. It was a group of happy young people.
In 1924, after the wedding, I moved to Kagul. Actually, I had left home in 1921 when I was invited to teach in the Torutino Hebrew High School. I taught secular subjects in Hebrew. I spent a year there and then I did my military duty in Romon at the officers' school. I completed my military service in 1923 and then I worked as an assistant bookkeeper for Shmuel Kleiner, zl, until my wedding in 1924.
When I came to Kagul I threw myself wholeheartedly into Zionist activities until 1940. At that time Bessarabia was returned to Russia, now the Soviet Union. A new chapter began, one of a hard life, suffering, sorrows and constant moving.
When the Soviets took over I was not in town as I had been mobilized into the Romanian army. I never returned to Kagul since I would have lost my freedom. I remained in Bendery. When I was discharged from the Romanian army I discovered that all those who had been active in Zionist and other social circles were arrested and sent to Siberia and other Northern sites. Almost all of them perished. May they be remembered among the living. I do not wish to mention any names since I may omit someone. Destiny would have it that even I did not miss out on Siberia. However, my circumstances were a little easier.
In 1941, WWII broke out. People began to be on the move, my family and I among them. The war put a halt to the oppressive Soviet regime since confusion reigned. Residents were torn away from their homes and families were separated during their flight into the depths of Russia so as not to fall into the hands of the Germans. My family and I reached Northern Caucasus where I was mobilized by the Soviet army and sent to the front in Rostov. I then went to Stalingrad where I was a commander under the Red Flag. I distinguished myself with my troop and was to receive a two-week furlough and other rewards. How could I travel and where was my family? I had lost touch with them. A lucky event helped me. I entered the mail room on the Volga River and, to my great happiness; there was a postcard from my family. One can imagine my delight when I unexpectedly connected with my family. The postcard brought back the memory of my mother saying good-bye to me when I left. To this day I cannot forget her tears. How true is the saying: There is only one mother in the world.
I will not describe my roaming until I reached Stalingrad as it would occupy too much time and space. I will only mention that I was fortunate to remain alive. On the way to Stalingrad I had to disembark many times to avoid bombings by the German Air Force.
When I reached Stalingrad I discovered a new problem. How does one bury the dead? My troop, which originally had numbered eighty men- some were Jews- was down to a third. The survivors were evacuated, most likely to Siberia. I realized I was lucky to have been on furlough and Siberia did not miss me. I also understood that it was not necessary to delve too deeply into the reasons.
After the big battle in Stalingrad a strange event happened. Many Jews, Ukrainians, Russians, White Russians and others were assembled on a freight train and dispatched to Siberia. Why? One was not permitted to question. After much suffering we arrived in Siberia where we settled into a town of wooden barracks. Army discipline prevailed and we were ordered to work on repairing the secondary railroad of the Trans-Siberian railway. However, there were gaps along the line where even the primary railroad was absent. It was important to repair these lines since they were essential during the war in general and on the eve of the Japanese front in particular.
After four years I was discharged. By the way, in Siberia, I found out why I had been sent there. It was actually accidental. There had been a theft of butter and potatoes and someone wanted to accuse me. The political officer had said to me: Potatoes with butter is tasty, but adding Zionism to the mixture is even tastier. I was quite surprised because I was one of those considered to be honest. The colonel told me: The prosecution is speaking nonsense. You are not like that. You are an honest, fine man. Do not fear. Nothing will happen to you. Although I was ordered to put you in prison until you admit to the crime.
Thank G-d it was only a scare. It turned out that the authorities changed their mind about me and nothing happened to me.
After my liberation from Siberia I made an error which could have cost me a great deal. This is what happened:
I returned to Bendery from Siberia and this was a mistake. I have already described the physical state of the town. The authorities again began to pick on me. They brought up my Zionist and Jewish activities and my candidature for parliament as a Jewish representative. To this they added the term saboteur. Interrogations and accusations followed. I knew that I was unwanted and since I was still free I had to leave. How? Help came from a good friend, Z. Sh., zl. He advised me to travel to Riga, the capital of Latvia. It was difficult to obtain new papers, but if one could find a job in the vineyard it was easier. I found work as a bookkeeper, rented a room and received permission to become a resident of Riga. I then brought my family.
All the suffering I had undergone made me very ill. I spent some time in hospital and Thank G-d, I survived and recuperated. My Havale and my dear mother, zl, suffered with me. My mother made a deal with G-d to give me her remaining years.
I must repeat that my mother was not only one in a million, but she was also the best. May her memory be counted among those living.
Finally, I wish to say the following:
Bendery, Bendery: You exist and will always exist. Look around you, your residents are missing. The innocents have disappeared forever.
Orchards, gardens, acacia trees and other living plants: You will blossom in the spring and bitter tears will drip as the innocent victims who once lived there are remembered.
River Dniester: Take our dripping tears and send them to the seas and oceans. Let them be victorious and be the eternal gravestone for our innocents who were destroyed!
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