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The Jews of Ratno in the Last 70 years (cont.)

Clergy

The Jewish clergy formed their own group in town. These included the rabbis, shochtim (ritual slaughterers), shamashim, scribes and teachers.

As far back as my memory goes from the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, there were two rabbis in Ratno, a father and son, Reb Yankele and Reb Yosef Leibele. The first, who was a great scholar, a man of good traits, and a fearer of Heaven. Along with this, he was also expert in the realities of the world, especially in business matters. His son was also great in Torah, sharp, and an uprooter of mountains[2]. He was a pure, upright person, connected to this world with all the strands of his soul, and considered to be a great Tzadik and a worker of wonders. He died in 5663 (1903). The father and son were buried under the same canopy in the New Cemetery, near the entrance. When people visited the cemetery, they would turn first to the canopy, and leave petitionary notes with requests for health and livelihood.

After the passing of the rabbi, Rabbi Yosef Leibele, a dispute arose in town. Since they could not come to a resolution, two rabbis served in the city. One was sent to us from the Maggid of Trisk, Rabbi Yaakov Leibele of blessed memory. The second, Rabbi Shlomo-Tovia Friedlander of blessed memory was a Lithuanian Jew, who was invited to be the judge of the town. After some time, the Rabbi of Trisk left town and Rabbi Shlomo was left as the only rabbinical teacher. He served his town faithfully until the destruction.

Rabbi Shlomo Tovia was a renowned scholar, expert in rabbinical literature. Along with this, he was a wonderful preacher to his audience -- those who attended the large Beis Midrash. He would toss a plethora of adages and Talmudic discussions into the air, create friction between them, and use Maimonides and other commentators to reconcile them. At the end, he would reconcile all the questions and problems. He did not earn a set salary. Rather he lived from the fees he received for rendering decisions in Torah court cases, payments for the selling of the chometz, which the householders would give him generously, payments for conducting wedding ceremonies, and from the sale of yeast. Only in the year 1929 did the community allot an annual salary to him.

There were two shochtim (ritual slaughterers) in town, who divided up the shechita between themselves, with each having his own week. However, when a dispute broke out between the two rabbinical courts of the Maggid of Trisk and the Rebbe of Niskiz, each one sent out one of their own Hassidim to be a shochet in the town. The Rebbe of Niskiz sent out the renowned, G-d fearing scholar Reb Shlomo Yoel Cohen of blessed memory, who had a distinguished appearance and was a fine prayer leader. The Maggid of Trisk chose as his schochet a Hassid from Ratno himself, Reb Izak Geller, who was also an expert scholar, a good writer, and exacting in the performance of mitzvot. His son Reb Avraham took over the shechita duties already in his lifetime. He was a scholar like his father, and also a prayer leader. He took sick on Yom Kippur as he was leading the services, and died from his illness. This took place in 1893, when cholera was afflicting the town. His position was inherited by his brother Yehoshua of blessed memory. After his death, his son-in-law Reb Alter inherited the position, and was a shochet in Ratno until the Holocaust.

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From the side of the Rebbe of Niskiz, after the death of Reb Shlomo Yoel, his son Reb Avraham took over. He died a martyr's death on the eve of Rosh Hashanah 5680 (1920) by the Balachowicz murderers. After his death, his position transferred to his son Reb Mordechai Cohen who served in his position until the Holocaust. He perished at the hands of the Nazis along with his family.

The two shamashim of the town were upright and G-d fearing: Reb Moshe the Shamash and Chaim Topolowski. Their salary, despite being set by the community, was meager.

There were also two scribes. One was Aharachik Heller, the son of Reb Izak, who was also a prayer leader with a pleasant voice. The second was Reb Hilche, a Hassid of the Rebbe of Trisk. During the later years, Reb Avigdor Hornstein served as a scribe. He was born in Maciejów and married someone from Ratno.

There were approximately 15 teachers. The teachers of young children included Zelig the Straight, Zelig the Limper, Menachem the teacher and Reb Nechemia. The Talmud teachers included Reb Yitzchak Yisrael's (Cohen), Reb Eliezer of Lishnik, Reb Yaakov Prosman, Reb Nachman Hochstein, and others. The greatest of the teachers was Reb Nathan David the Lishniker of blessed memory.

 

On Krywa Street in the Autumn

 

Emigrants

Constraints on livelihood were great, and things were especially difficult during the summer months when the farmers would be immersed in their field work, and would not show their faces in the town. All trade ceased during those months. People did not earn a penny. Tradesmen sat idle, shop owners sat

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on the steps of the shops and yawned, waiting for a customer as if waiting for the Messiah. There was not one branch of commerce that was not affected significantly. Such days of crisis implanted thoughts of emigration overseas in the hearts of everyone. The tradesmen and small scale merchants were afflicted more than others, and it is no wonder that most of them took up the wanderer's staff and set out to seek their fortunes in the golden lands of America, Canada, England and especially the new destination of immigration -- Argentina.

The first immigrants to North America were Reb Shmaya Mordechai Libes who traveled back and forth six or seven times, Berl and Shmulik Konishter, the Knobel and Lurber families, Reb Velvel Heller, Berel Chanche's (Kohn) who was one of the pioneers of the Haskala in Ratno, and others. The first to immigrate to London were Shmuelik and Leiba Roitberg -- the brother of Rivka Tuker, Reb David Eilbaum, Yankel Osowski the son of Kalman the butcher, and Meir Leib Wideriec.

The husbands set out abroad first as pioneers going before the camp. There, from afar, despite the lack of knowledge of the language and the local customs, they nevertheless succeeded in finding work and sending some cash to their dear ones on a monthly basis. A new class was formed in the town, the “Amerikaniot”. This consisted of the wives of the immigrants. Even if their husbands had traveled to England or Argentina, the Jews of the town lumped them together with America. Every Monday and Thursday, the days of mail distribution in the local post office, the “Amerikaniot” stood on guard at the door of the post office, waiting for a letter from the husband, or perhaps a package with a red wax seal. They never tired of walking to the post office until the fortunate day would come when the ship tickets and money for the journey arrived.

Whenever a family set out for abroad, the entire town would arrange a “living funeral” with a covered wagon that waited for them on the main street. Of course, there was also no shortage of envy by those who remained in the place.

 

The Great Synagogue

The pride and glory of Ratno was the Great Synagogue, whose fame spread to the entire region, even reaching big cities. The synagogue building, with its two wings, occupied an entire block and, with its four stories, towered above the other synagogues and shtibels in its vicinity, as a giant among dwarfs. There were many windows on the top story, and the tin roof was painted green. Everyone who stood before it, felt as if, he was standing before a miniature sanctuary. A long, wide staircase led from the synagogue court to the lane that had two small synagogues on its sides. Early prayer services took place there, and they were therefore nicknamed “Hashkamot” (Arising Early). The Hassidim of the Rebbe of Stobochow worshipped in the first, and the Hassidim of the Rebbe of Liubsiai in the second. Immediately after the main, arched, gate -- adorned with the call of Abraham our Father: “How awesome is this place!” with glittering letters -- was opened, the impressive view of artistic drawing and wooden engravings

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unfolded, astounding the viewer with their beauty. One would descend to the synagogue via a few steps that led to the bima in the center. Atop the bima was a huge chandelier with 386 stems in the shape of live flowers. Everything was wonderfully etched in wood. The chandelier was painted blue and white. On the Sabbath of the Torah portion of Behaalotecha[3], as well as on the yahrzeit of King David, which was the second day of Shavuot, all of its candles would be lit. The Holy Ark towered high at the eastern wall. It was completely decorated with various wonderful wooden etchings. One would ascend to the Holy Ark by stairs. Above it, literally to the ceiling, three crowns[4] were painted. There was the crown of Torah and the crown of kingship, both decorated with attractive designs. Above them was the crown of priesthood, with the two hands of Aaron the Priest spread out in the priestly blessing. The lovely elliptical ceiling was decked with wood and illustrated through its length and width with wonderful drawings of ancient musical instruments of those mentioned in Psalms[5]: “Praise him with the blast of the shofar, praise him with a drum and a harp, praise him with stringed instruments and the pipe. The constellation signs of the twelve months of the year were drawn below them. The walls were made of hard wood and painted white. On one side of the Holy Ark, the wild ox[6] with its large, beautiful horns was depicted, and on the other side, the leviathan with its two fins. Close to the bima, there were two large, square boxes filled with sand, in which they would place the large wax candles for Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. The seats of the worshippers were around the sand boxes. A bag of matzo was attached to the southern wall throughout the year. It was replaced every year before Passover, and served as the Eruv Chatzerot[7].

 

Boating on the Prypiat River

 

There were two women's galleries in the synagogue. The one above opened

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into the main space of the synagogue, and the second one, below, looked upon the men through long, narrow windows. Beneath the steps that were attached to the side of the synagogue and led to the Beis Midrash and women's gallery, there was the geniza. This was a collecting area for worn out holy objects and books, which were brought there by all the residents.

The cantor throughout the year in the synagogue was Reb Moshe Labusz. Throughout the year, he would lead the services on the Sabbath of the blessing of the new moon. On festivals, he would lead the Musaf service. On the High Holy Days, he would lead all the services, accompanied by a large choir. He knew how to read musical notes, and even composed several of his own melodies that the Hassidim sing to this day. His salary was three rubles a week, which he received from the proceeds of the sale of yeast, allotted by Reb Shmuel Marder who held the monopoly. Several hundred people worshipped in the synagogue on the High Holy Days, but on the cold winter days, they were forced to hire a minyan (prayer quorum) so as not to interrupt the tradition of communal prayer. This was because there was no heating oven in the synagogue due to the sanctity of the place, and it was very cold. On the festival of Shavuot, the bima would be decorated with many tree branches, so that it looked like a green grove.

All of the chupas (wedding canopies) were led to the synagogue with song, and to differentiate, so were the coffins of the deceased. The mourners would make a procession once or twice around the synagogue, and the service would end with the chanting of “Kel Male Rachamim.”

Prior to the First World War, at the conclusion of the day of Simchat Torah, when the community would be tarrying at the kiddush given by the gabbai in his home, and the concerns of livelihood began to gnaw at the hearts from the perspective of “What will we eat?” -- several youths who were still tipsy would gather near the synagogue, and Mottel Mates, Tratz's son-in-law would climb up a ladder that was leaning against the wall of synagogue, and declare cheap prices for all provisions such as potatoes, bread, cabbage, firewood, and animal food. The gathering, standing below, would answer each declaration such as “a kopek for a pod of potatoes” with an enthusiastic “Amen.” The synagogue was burnt when the Russian Army was retreating in 1915. The gabbai of the synagogue, Reb Yaakov-Leib Kemper, an upright, G-d fearing man whose “baruch hu ubaruch shemo[8] would ring out and fill the space of the synagogue, risked his life to save all 15 Torah scrolls from the fire.

 

The Great Beis Midrash

The Beis Midrash was a place of prayer for everyone. Even the Hassidim would worship there on weekdays, early in the morning and at Mincha time. The services would commence before daybreak, to the light of gas lanterns, and would end at noontime[9]. The prayer podium was not empty, even for a moment. When one Minyan would conclude “Aleinu”, the next minyan would commence with a loud and ringing “Hodu.” People were never missing, and it was always possible to wait for someone to enter at the last minute. If not, there were always people, old and young, studying at the long tables. At Mincha

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and Maariv, the Beis Midrash was full of Jews who came to hear the words of the preacher or the emissary from a Yeshiva -- for if such was in town, he would end up delivering a sermon at the Beis Midrash.

 

Reb Yechiel Wilkomirski

 

On Sabbath mornings, people would come there to recite Psalms. The town shamash would pass by the houses before dawn, knock on the shutters with his hammer, and wake up the Jews with his enthusiastic melody, “Arise, wake up to the service of the Creator!” In addition to all of his duties in the Beis Midrash itself, the shamash would also summon the people to services on Sabbath eves. He would stand at one side of the market square, and then at the other side, and declare in a loud voice: “Shabbes!” He also supervised the shopkeepers to ensure that they closed their shops. At times, when the barber was running late, he would grab the scissors and razor after the entrance of the Sabbath. The following week, he would summon the rabbi himself, who would come with his cane in his hand and order him to shut the barbershop on time. The duties of the shamash also included overseeing the Sabbath eruv [7] that extended the entire length of the town between the two long streets, Krywa and Slescza, until the main road. Every Friday afternoon, the shamash would walk the length of the street and examine the pillars that supported the wires of the eruv, to ensure that a wire was not torn or a pillar had not fallen. He would repair anything that needed to be repaired, so that the Jews could carry their selichot[10] and siddurs to the synagogue.

On occasion, when the eruv was broken during the Sabbath by one of the gentiles[11], the shamash would immediately spread the word. The Jews in their houses who did not have little children would then go to the synagogue wearing their tallises. When a Jew was informed that the eruv was broken while he was en route to the synagogue, he would stop in his place and wait for a young child to pass by, who would then carry his tallis to the synagogue.

Reb Moshe and his heir Reb Chaim were dedicated shamashim with their hearts and souls to their Beis Midrash. Jews such as them cannot be found in our day. Reb Moshe would wear a red patch over one eye day and night, but his diligence was not impaired by that. When someone from a larger town or an important person would come to worship in the synagogue on a Monday or Thursday, he would ensure that he be given several long verses in the Torah[12]. After the services, he would approach him, offer him a pinch of tobacco, and exchange a few words with him about the weather. This was a type of “small opening” for the man to understand that he should give him some sort of donation.

The Beis Midrash maintained itself from the donations that were raised from the worshippers on the eve of Yom Kippur and from the donations that were gathered in the plates. However, when these donations were insufficient for lighting the oven on the very cold days, the shamash would ascend the bima after the reading of the Torah on the Sabbath, and order the worshippers to leave their tallises in the Beis Midrash in order to redeem them for significant sums of money on Sunday morning.

 

The Shtibel of Niskiz (later of Stepan)

During the early days of the town, the Rebbe of Niskiz ruled over it without bounds.

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Next to the Droog home (the roof is covered with wooden shingles)

 

A small bridge over the Prypiat

 

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Nobody attempted to do any small or large act without his explicit permission. After some years, the dispute between the two courts of Niskiz and Trisk grew, and the situation reached the point where each rebbe sent his own shochtim and butchers, and each side refrained from eating of meat slaughtered by the other side. After the passing of the Rebbe of Niskiz without leaving behind a son, the court passed to his nephew Reb Meir-Chaimke. Since he lived in the town of Stepan, the Hassidim were called Hassidim of Stepan from that time.

The Hassidim of Stepan were a variegated community of poor and rich, scholars and simple folk. They were “cold” Hassidim for several reasons. First of all, the Hassidim remembered the Rebbe and Tzadik of Niskiz with his many signs, as the Hassidim and men of good deeds testified about him. Second, Reb Meir-Chaim never said any words of Torah at the table, unlike the custom. It is no wonder, therefore, that four Hassidim sinned by speaking bad words about the Rebbe. When this became known, they were expelled from the community of Hassidim. However one of them, Reb Yaakov-Shmuel Rider, who was the gabbai and prayer leader in the shtibel, regretted his action and returned to his post. This was not before he repented and came before the Rebbe to the light of lit candles in stocking feet, and was chastised strongly. The three others did not repent. Each of them received their punishment during their lifetimes, as is told in town.

 

The Shtibel of Trisk

Almost all of the teachers, shochtim and scribes of the town were Hassidim of Trisk. They were known for their style of prayer, which was enthusiastic, and full of petitions, emotions, and gestures, and would penetrate the depths of the hearts. The elder Rebbe, Reb Yaakov-Leibele, was himself a wonderful prayer leader. He would conduct the table celebrations as customary in the Shtibel of Trisk, and would expound Torah at the third Sabbath meal (Shalosh Seudot).

Thus did things continue in peace and calm until the dispute broke out between the two courts. The story was as follows: The two courts married into each other, as a good omen. Reb Moshele, the son of the Rebbe of Trisk, married Chava, the sister of the Rebbe of Stolin. However, Chava, a beautiful woman who stemmed from the court of her brother that was “democratic” and alert to the goings on of the world, was not satisfied with the court of the Rebbe of Trisk. Before long, she returned to the house of her brother. Naturally, they began to speak about a divorce. The judges entered into discussions, and they would certainly have reached an agreement. However, while the negotiations were still in progress, the Hassidim of the two courts became involved, and a great tumult broke out. The Hassidim of Trisk in particular raised a great outcry, for it was not for naught that they were known as hot Hassidim. It is no wonder, therefore, that the dispute grew and the entire town was in ferment -- relatives rose up against their kin, and children against their parents -- to the point where fist fights broke out. One positive thing was found among the Hassidim of Trisk, for they were involved with each other both physically and spiritually, and if one of them fell down, Heaven forbid, they would stand by his side with all their might.

 

The Shtibel of Stolin (Karlin)

The Shtibel of Stolin was close to the Beis Midrash.

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The wealthy people of the town worshipped there, including the Shapira, Avrech, Olitzky, Leker families, and those like them. Their mode of prayer was more traditional. Just like their mode of prayer, they were also conservative, and they thought strongly against every new thought and movement. Once one of the Hassidim, a genius and sharp scholar, the son-in-law of Yisrael-Zusia Janowitz heard the poem of Y. Cohen who eulogized Herzl in Hatzefira with the words “Dr. Herzl died, is there a G-d in the Land?!” He then spoke out against Herzl with an outpouring of sharp wrath. G-d performed a great mercy for them by providing them a Hassid, a precious Jew with a refined soul named Leker, who literally sanctified the name of Heaven by proclaiming his faith in Zionism in public. After some time, he was even chosen to be the delegate of the Jewish National Fund in the town.

The Rebbe of Stolin did not speak Torah at the table, as was the custom of the Admorim. When he would come to the town on rare occasion, he would tell his Hassidim about his travels to Switzerland and the Alps, about the landscapes that he saw and other physical things. The Hassidim interpreted everything in a mystical manner, and saw deep devotions in his words.

The Rebbe loved song deeply, and he would sing hymns like no-one else. He even set up a band in his courtyard. He himself and his family members were the chief musicians. The renown of Itzel Shpilman's band reached his ears. Reb Avigdor especially amazed him, who had reached the age of 100 and still played upon his small bass. He was not satisfied until he invited him to his court. Reb Avigdor received him with the honor of an angel. As they were sitting at the table filled with all good things, Reb Avigdor told him that he had purchased the bass from a Russian soldier about 70 years previously. Out of the goodness of his heart, he gave the bass as a present to the Rebbe. The bass was eventually sent to be repaired in Warsaw, and to their great surprise they evaluated it there at a high price.

 

The Shtibel of Rizhin

The name of these Hassidim came from the city of Rizhin in Austria, whose name was later changed to Sadigor, where the Rebbe lived. The Hassidim of Rizhin were small in number -- approximately only a minyan of Jews in total. Their shtilbel was at the side, separate from all the rest of the shtibels, across the “Nile”, which was nothing other than a pond of water during the rainy days. This pond was called the “Nile” on account of the nearby road, which was called Egypt Street (Rechov Mitzraim). On Simchat Torah, when the pond was at its largest, the children would float boards in it, with lit candles atop.

The Hassidim of Rizhin always remind me of two dear Jews and dedicated Hassidim. One of them, Reb Aharon-Shmuel the elder, was a fine Jew, whose milk-white beard flowed down below his collar. He had a pipe in his mouth that he did not extinguish throughout the day. He sat in the puffs of smoke of his pipe, as if he had no interest in this world and its vanities. When he would tell about the Tzadikim and their wonders, the listeners would feel that he was floating in the supernal worlds, ascending above the heavens, and seeing 1/60th of the Garden of Eden. Just as he would tell stories with enthusiasm -- such was his way with his studies --

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The Tashlich service at the Prypiat

 

Fall scenery

 

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Liber Karsh, a communal leader

 

to the point where he divested himself of his physicality.

The second was Reb Yisrael-Lipa. He was a merchant, occupied all his days with issues of livelihood, however the Hassidic flame burnt in his heart without darkness. From time to time, he would travel to the Rebbe and return as if he was reborn, refreshed and with the flame of his faith burning in full strength. Immediately upon his return, he would tell everyone with great wonder about the miracles and wonders that he saw there.

 

The Shtibel of Liubsiai

The Hassidim of Liubsiai and Stobychow were all tradesmen, tailors, shoemakers, and the like. At first they would worship in two early morning minyans (hashkamot) in the lane of the Great Synagogue. After some time, the tailors, whose livelihood was apparently readily available, built their own shtibel beside the Shtibel of Rizhin. In the early years, the tradesmen did not have their own rabbi or shtibel. They would come to any Rebbe that happened to be in town -- the Rebbe of Trisk and the Rebbe of Rizhin. They would offer a donation and bring notes with requests for health, livelihood and children. As time went on, it became clear that the patricians treated them as lower class, and denied them all honors in the synagogue such as aliyos and hakafot on Simchat Torah. The day was not far off when they understood the full meaning of the words of our sages, “Make for yourself a rabbi.” They set up their own minyan and were able to be like all other people. They had their own Torah readers and prayer leaders, such as Reb Avraham Tuker the tailor and Reb Yitzchak Hirsch the carpenter who led services with pleasant, enthusiastic voices. On Sabbaths and festivals, the tradesmen would wear their tall, wide brimmed hats, put on their wide belts, and looked no different from the patricians. The tradesmen were generally pleasant, and truly G-d fearing Jews. For example, Chaim the shoemaker looked like a Rebbe, who went out into the streets of the town with his splendid garb and full, black beard. Who merited to receive the first greeting of the Rebbe of Liubsiai after Havdala on Saturday night -- if none other than Chaim-Yidl the tailor? He was an upright and proper Jew, who raised fine sons: Yechiel, Avraham, Gezi, and especially Itzi Tuker the hero, who fell along with Trumpeldor in the defense of Tel Hai[13]. The “American” shoemaker, Reb Yehuda-Leib Sandiok, should also be remembered positively. He was meticulous in his observance of commandments, and upright in his manner, who was careful throughout his life to not take an extra coin for his work.

 

The Beis Midrash on the Main Street

Jews who lived there, on the main street or on Kowel Road, worshipped in the Beis Midrash of the Main Street. This Beis Midrash stood on a hill, and was full of light. There was a mikva next to it, so that the people would not need to walk all the way to the mikva of the town. The gabbai, who was also the teacher, was Reb Yisrael Marantz.

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Various Hassidic Groups and Societies

Ratno was a completely Hassidic town The people looked up to the Tzadikim and believed that they had the power to change the works of creation, in accordance with the adage “A Tzadik decrees and G-d fulfills.” A constant flame of faith in G-d and the Rebbe burnt in their hearts. The Beis Midrashes and Shtibels were filled with worshippers and learners all the hours of the day. Elders, youth, and even children sat at the long tables in front of their open Gemaras and other holy books. All of them accompanied their studies with the same sweet melody in unison. Anyone looking upon them would have the feeling that their feet were standing in the house of the foundation of the souls of the nation. Even Jews who were busy and occupied with the concerns of a livelihood shook off the mundane dust and entered -- some for a short period of time and others for a longer period -- to unify themselves with a page of Gemara or with a book of morality, to ascend to the higher worlds.

Life in the town flowed peacefully, even though at times, the flames of dispute were kindled between the Hassidic courts and other Hassidic groups. There was also no shortage of words of controversy regarding prayer modes. Every dispute was for the sake of Heaven.

As in every Jewish settlement, there were also independent organizations to take care of social and religious matters, called “Chaburot” (Groups).

Chevrat Shas (The Talmud Study Society) distributed the Gemaras in its ownership to its members, and at the end of the year, when they had concluded the Talmud study sessions, it arranged a celebratory feast for its members, with meat, fish and liquor on the menu. This meal took place in the Trisk Shtibel or the Stepan Shtibel. That day was a festive day in the town. Even the simple Jews, who were not expert in the small letters, paid their membership fees and participated in the meal and the joy, sang Hassidic songs, and listened to the words of Torah, and stories of the Tzadikim and their wondrous deeds. The elderly Menashe, a short, thin Jew, was responsible for the bookcase full of holy books that stood in the corner of the Beis Midrash, as well as on the old ledger book of the organization that had been guarded from the time of the founding of the group.

Chevrat Tehillim (The Psalms Recital Society) was founded by the householders Reb David the shoemaker and Reb Berl Feintuch the furrier.

The Chevra Kadisha (Burial Society) concerned itself with the preparation of the deceased for burial and the funeral procession to the cemetery. The gabbai of the organization was Reb David Greenstein. Affiliated to this organization was Bikur Cholim (Society for the tending to the sick), which would send its members to visit poor and isolated ill people, to remain with them for the night, and to tend to all of their needs.

The Chonen Dal (Mercy to the Poor Society) was not an organized society. Its members, who were students of the Beis Midrash, concerned themselves with poor Jews who happened to be in the city -- and when were there not such in the city? They would arrange lodging for them with householders who wished to perform a good deed. There were two householders in the town who never rejected a poor person from their tables: Reb David Greenstein, a prominent householder who owned a store for the sale of furs, and who was also the gabbai of the Great Synagogue; and Reb Liber Karsh, a cattle salesman who was a Hassid of the Rebbe of Trisk, a proper Jew and a scholar, who later served as the president of the community of Ratno.

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The women concerned themselves with the poor of the town. Malka of Ratno especially excelled in this area. Every Friday afternoon, she would go from door to door, wearing an apron, to collect bread, meat and fish for her poor people. On weekdays, the women would go around to the householders with a red kerchief in their hands. The Jews responded and donated, each according to the generosity of his heart.

There were also people who concerned themselves with books. This was the Tikun Seforim (Book Repair Society), whose members, attendees of the Beis Midrash, would canvass the householders for the needs of book purchase and the repair of old books.

* * *

The Jews of Ratno were not involved with the outside world. They worked and earned their livelihood with difficulty. They accepted everything with love, and thanked the Master of the World three times a day for the life that He had given them. If they required a marriage match for an older daughter, a child, or health for a sick person, they would travel to the Rebbe or bring a donation to him when he would visit the town. There was no physician or pharmacy in the town. Their places were filled by the medics Shachna and Fishel, whose remedy for all ailments was a bitter powder wrapped in paper, and cups of air. At times, they would also bloodlet. If a wealthy Jew brought a physician from Kowel or Brisk, all of the sick people who could stand on their feet would gather near his house so they could be examined and medication could be prescribed. Only at the beginning of the 20th century was a physician brought for the regional hospital. This was Dr. Lichochovsky and his wife, the midwife. Later, a female Jewish physician, Dr. Krasnopolsky, came to that hospital. During that period, a Christian medic, Doricza, also operated in the city. He was a unique man, the son of farmers who learned his trade during his army service. He would treat poor people for free and give them various items from his small estate. After some years, a pharmacy was also opened in town. The pharmacist was a Pole named Kowelski, who lived in the home of Avraham-Eliezer Rozman on Krywa Street. Civilization slowly marched forward and arrived in Ratno, which was located in the midst of the forests and ponds, far from the happenings of the wide world.

 

Yehoshua Pogatch, one of the first Maskilim
in Ratno, next to his father D. Pogatch

 

Cheders in Town

The custom was that the teacher of young children would teach their children in his home -- a one-room house that served for all his needs: the room in which the baby's cradle stood, and babies sometimes cry and sometimes sleep; his wife would be busy with household chores, peeling potatoes or plucking feathers, and placing the food into the oven; next to the only window stood the table around which the students sat on hard benches, with the teacher at the head.

There were two teachers of young children during my time, Reb Mottel the Long and Reb Itzi-Zalman. The students were indeed “students of the house of the Rebbe”, for every three-year-old child during that era took part in the studies. Since the children were little, the teacher utilized helpers whose task was to bring them to the cheder and back, sometimes even by carrying them on their shoulders, especially during the cold and snowy winter evenings. They also helped the teacher in the task of

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teaching.

Reb Itzi-Zalman was a natural teacher. His soft, pleasant character, his patience and his pedagogic talent endeared him to the parents and students. When a three-year-old child was brought to him, afraid and tense, Reb Itzi would caress and embrace him, seat him on his lap, and ask him his name and his parents' names. When the child calmed down, he showed him the framed Aleph Beit board and pointed to the Aleph with a wooden pointer designed for that purpose -- a pole with two points. As he would do this, candies would begin to fall into the child's lap from the top of the board. The child would be happy, and the Rebbe would explain that the candies were a gift from the good angel. He was promised an abundance of candies if he would be diligent in his studies.

During the winter, the students were in the cheder until the evening. During the summer, however, they were dismissed in the afternoon, but not before they recited the Mincha service. In the cheder of Zelik the Limper, they studied prayer and chumash. He was an exacting person who was prone to anger. The strap did not leave his hand as a reminder of punishment, even though he never actually used it other than to hit the table when his anger overcame him. I remember during the days of the summer, when I sat in the stifling cheder with another ten children, who were just as tired and bored as I was. We repeated our Torah verses with Yiddish translation to the Rebbe, to the buzzing of flies. Other teachers such as Reb Zelik the Upright, to differentiate him from Zelik the Limper, who was also the second prayer leader in the Great Synagogue; Reb Nachum, and Reb Yisrael the Teacher, each according to his character and custom, disseminated Torah to the children of Ratno. The students called Reb Yisrael the “swan” on account of his long neck. On Thursdays, the examination day of the cheder students, each child who failed the test would be put in a corner with a broom in his hand. His friends would wish him Mazal Tov on their way home. He also taught them the craft of writing, at first with a piece of coal on a white board. Later, after they mastered the craft, he had them copy business letters, with a large, curly B”H[14] at the top.

Once a year, when we reached the Torah portion of Tetzaveh, that deals with the clothing of the High Priest, our serious teacher would soften and perform some tricks. He would cut a breastplate, priestly vest and head plate, fill all of the squares of the breastplate with the signs of the twelve tribes, wear the head plate on his head and the breastplate and vest on his chest, in order to appear to us as the High Priest.

Reb Natan was the greatest and most praiseworthy of the teachers. He taught Talmud and commentaries to only three or four students. When he was pleased with the answer of one of his students, he would knock his head with his middle finger. Every student who experienced this felt as if he had been touched by the king's scepter. Every morning, one of his students would come one hour early to the house of the rebbe, set up the urn and spread a few pieces from the heap of sugar in order to sweeten the tea. For this, the student merited to drink a glass of tea with his rebbe and recite the Shacharit service in his presence.

There were also several “cheders” for girls in the town, where they learned how to recite the prayers from

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the Siddur (prayer book), as well as the craft of writing. One of the teachers in these “cheders” was Reb Moshe David, who was known by his nickname “Shema Koleinu”. He was a straightforward man, quiet as a stone. Perhaps it was for this reason that he was admired by the girls. Completely different from this was Reb Yehoshua-Zalman, who loved mirth and speaking. He served as the live post office of the town. Since he did not teach in his own cheder, but rather gave lessons to girls in their own homes, he would spread every piece of news and rumor from house to house. He had another quality -- he loved to sing and dance. He would enter the homes of his students singing the songs of the times, and dancing with all his might.

 

The Beginnings of Independent Organization in the Town

In Ratno, the mayor was elected at a citizens gathering that took place in the Beis Midrash. Representatives of the local government also came to the meeting, and they kept their hats on out of respect for the sanctity of the place. The elections were public, and the candidate won or lost through shouts of “agree”, or “disagree”, which were heard from the throats of several drunks who were hired for this purpose from the outset. Nevertheless, there was already a hint to progressiveness in this.

The civic government issued passports and collected the state taxes as well as the special community taxes, such as the tax for kosher meat and Sabbath candles. The rights to kosher slaughter, called “taksa” were issued by lease. Reb Yisrael Bergel was the lessee of the “taksa” for many years. More than once, they would confiscate the bedding or other household implements of a poor Jew who was not able to pay his taxes. Anyone who had a complaint or a request would come to Reb Fishel Held, who served as the secretary of Jewish affairs in the local government. The local government also employed a Jewish policeman. Among his other tasks, the policeman had to bring the tax requisitions and summon those who were delinquent in payment to the government offices. Leizer the Policeman, a tall man who never let his thick stick from his hands, imposed his fear upon all the children of the town. After he died, his place was taken by Feivel, who had pleasant mannerisms, spoke Yiddish spiced with Russian, and rolled his R's like the Russians -- habits that he picked up during his long years in the Russian army. He was one of those who was snatched to the army in his childhood. He withstood all of the physical and spiritual difficulties, was freed after 25 years, and returned to his hometown.

Reb Shmuel Toler, a tall, fat Jew, was elected to the office of mayor several times. At the beginning of the 20th century, Reb Shmuel Marder was elected to this position. In return for his efforts, he was given the yeast monopoly.

 

The Russian Revolution of 1905 and the Spread of Enlightenment and Nationalism

After the defeat of Russia in the war with Japan, all types of underground Socialist activity proliferated. Large strikes in the manufacturing and communication sectors broke out, and acts of terror increased. The demand for freedom of expression forced the Czar to submit to the demands of parts of the community to convene a “Duma”, and it seemed that the Messianic era had arrived -- but not for long. The reactionism increased, a great deal of blood was spilled throughout the breadths of Russia, persecutions and imprisonment

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became a daily occurrence, and even reached Brisk. We found out about the disturbances in Brisk from the refugees, former Ratno residents, who came to us from there in order to find a temporary refuge. The few members of the Bund who convened meetings in secret places and conducted publicity for their ideas suddenly disappeared from town. The eccentric teacher of girls, Yehoshua-Zalman, went from house to house with his large boots and Hassidic kapote, clapping his hands, dancing and singing, “Funia (Russia) Funia the Thief”, or “Only today he was a shoemaker and see, today he is already a minister!”

Changes also took place in town. The pioneers who went before the camp were several enthusiastic, intelligent youths such as Yehoshua Pogatch, Zalman Burstein, Avrahamcha Telson, Idel Matis, and especially David Finkelstein who was a great expert in the Hebrew language, and published literary articles and stories in Hatzefira and Hamelitz. Two honorable Jews, a father and son who were crazy about the idea, joined these youths -- Reb Wolf-Leib Kahn and his son Shlomo-Michel. They subscribed to Hebrew newspapers as well as to the Der Freint (The Friend) newspaper that was published at that time in Peterburg. They began to teach Hebrew to the boys and girls, and to preach the love of Zion. During those days, news of the Bilu members who revolted against the way of life of the Diaspora and made aliya to the Land of Israel reached the town.

The youths began to found a modern cheder in the town. They brought in a Zionist preacher who explained the problems of the Jewish nation within the community. However, all of these attempts met the opposition of the extremist Hassidim, headed by the Hassidim of Stolin, who closed the modern cheder and expelled the lecturer in disgrace.

However, the historical processes did not stop. The times were crazy. The revolution of 1905 was immersed in the blood of Jews. Revolutionaries and their supporters from all strata of the population were imprisoned and sent to exile by the thousands. Young Jews who dedicated themselves with heart and soul to the ideas of the revolution fell into disappointment and despair. Some of them even became involved with nihilistic philosophy. There were also those who returned to their original source -- to Judaism and to the dream of Zionist redemption. Some of these youths reached Ratno and stirred up the town. I will mention here some of the most prominent of them: the Extern Zaslavsky, an eccentric youth, happy and good hearted, whose full beard and disheveled appearance won over converts to vegetarianism; Levin from Brisk whose tongue did not rest even for a moment, and who was an expert chess player; Perlstein from Grodno, who was an expert in the mysteries of the Hebrew Language; Avramcha Telso, who was a superb teacher of literature and the Hebrew Language. Several female gymnasium students, who had interrupted their studies on account of the pressures of the times, joined them: Roza Gurewich, Milrad and Roza Blak of Brisk, Fania Zilberstein, and Mania Aharonson.

These youths, some of them enthusiastic people of action and others endearing eccentrics, shook up the life in the town. They penetrated the homes of the important householders and taught their students Hebrew and Russian. Circles were formed in which the youth of Ratno would gather for discussions, clarifications and parties. They were even so daring as to appear before the Great Synagogue with boxes of the Jewish National Fund,

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at weddings and circumcisions. Once people became accustomed to seeing them, they donated to these boxes as well.

 

Reb Meir-Shmuel Marder,
the veteran Jewish “Starosta”

 

Two pharmacists who settled in the town were an important boost to the maskilim of the town. The first was Orimland, a young maskil who opened a pharmacy in the house of Velvel Gleizer. The second, Balstichki, opened a pharmacy in the house of Yehoshua Chayat. Balstichki did not belong at all to the Zionist camp when he came to us. He was a Hassid who was involved in Russian culture. He spoke a literary, rich Yiddish. However, he became an enthusiastic Zionist due to the influence of his surroundings. The dentist Goldina, who came from Vilna and married Balstichki, joined them; as did the pharmacist Mogeleinski, who purchased Orimland's pharmacy. The youths of Ratno would gather in these houses, which became centers of serious life of the spirit.

The town also had a sufficiently ample library. The founder of the library was Avraham Ides, a youth of the intelligentsia, who was later murdered by the Poles. During those days, the Shtibel publication began, which assisted the library with easier conditions. Avraham Ides was among the first who ordered published books for his own use. However, with the passage of time, he began to lend his books to everyone who asked, which laid the foundation of the library. The thirst for reading among the youth was unquenchable. They were no longer satisfied with the Hatzefira and Hamelitz newspapers that were disseminated in town. After some years, he sold the library to Itzel Shpilman, who had a store that sold writing implements and textbooks. Shpilman added on and purchased books for his store in Hebrew and Russian, until it became a library fitting of its name. Booksellers would visit even before the founding of the library, as well as after. They would bring holy books for sale, spreading them out on a side table in the large Beis Midrash: Siddurs, chumashes, Psalm books, Machzors (Holiday prayer books), Kinot (Tisha Beav prayer books), and the like. Among the holy books, hidden from the eyes of the zealots, would also be “impure books” -- story books and novels in Yiddish -- which had many purchasers. Girls and even married women purchased them in order to read them on Sabbaths and festivals, and to walk with their imaginations in the enchanted castles of princes and princesses. Even those who frequented the Beis Midrash demanded such books, hiding them under their Gemara and reading them stealthily. Even Moshe-David, the teacher of girls, purchased them and lent them to his students.

 

Years of Economic Depression, Emigration, and the First World War

The disturbances throughout Russia, the anti-Semitic incitement and pogroms, the economic situation that was becoming progressively more serious, and finally the Beilis case, befouled the atmosphere. An immense wave of emigration overtook Russian Jewry. Thousands of families left the vale of killing and set out for the lands of the west, for the United States and Canada. Echoes of these events also reached us, and many of the best of the Jews of our town packed their few belongings and set out on their journey. The number of residents declined, and with their departure, the economic and spiritual activities in the town were affected.

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Then the war which nobody anticipated came. An Austrian duke was murdered in Sarajevo -- and there was war.

War was declared on the Sabbath of Tisha Beav, 1914. Draft signs were posted throughout town, and for the first time in the annals of the town, the Jews were required by government edict to open their stores on the Sabbath. Another edict commanded the Jews to give over all of their copper utensils to the government. Women wept bitterly when they were forced to part from their utensils that were passed down from mother to daughter.

After a few months, after many victims had fallen in the battlefield, an edict was issued to dig pits and erect wire fences.

In the meantime, the Russians poured out their anger over their defeat on the Jews. Wilkomirski and Shimon Shindelmacher were deported to Pinsk as a sort of pledge. Reb Chaim the teacher was snatched in the middle of the street and sent to somewhere in Russia. Only after the war did his family hear from a rabbi in Tashkent, who made it clear to them that their father had died there, alone and in complete want. Nevertheless, these persecutions were only like a mosquito bite in comparison to the tribulations that were awaiting the town with the retreat of the Russians.

 

The town marketplace

 

When the Russians retreated, the farmers of the eastern areas set out along with their families and livestock, including geese, cattle and pigs. The sounds of the cackling, mooing and snorting filled the fearful town. As this living stream passed through Ratno, the Russian Army set the town on fire from all four sides. The flames quickly engulfed all of the houses of the Jews. People sought refuge for as long as they could. They did not go far off like the farmers, but rather set up camps in the meadows outside the city. There they lay down sorrowfully, weeping over their lives and their bitter lot. Through the weeping, lamenting, pain and anguish, they dozed off until they were awakened to the sound of terrible screaming. When they calmed down somewhat, it became clear that the German soldiers who had arrived in the interim had attempted to rape women during their sleep, and even confiscated the wagons

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and horses. Thus, in the darkness of the night, the German saviors turned into thieves and rapists. The disappointment was great and bitter.

 

During the Time of the German Occupation

In the morning, the Jews returned to the burnt town and shuddered at the sight of terrible destruction. Flames still popped out here and there from the heaps of cinders, and several chimneys sticking out of the ruined houses silently testified to the disaster. The refugees were housed in several houses that remained, with several families in each house. The crowding was great, but the fear of the coming day was even greater. This was on Friday, and the next day, the German “guests” already came and requested with great politeness, with the guns and bayonets cocked in a ready position, that they take their axes and spades and go out to work in fixing the bridges that the Russians destroyed during their retreat.

In general, there was no shortage of work with the Germans: today bridges; the next day, paths and roads. Work materials such as bricks and mortar were found everywhere. There was a great deal of work on the railway line from Ratno to Kamin-Kashirsk. This railway line was laid in haste. The base of earth was not prepared properly, and the ties were shaky. The Jews were therefore called from time to time to fill earth beneath the ties. “Fill! Fill!” shouted the Germans. They were urged on further with a stick over their backs.

From time to time, the Germans would hunt the Jews. Once, on a Sabbath toward evening, a rumor passed through town that the Germans were about to enlist Jews for work in the railway station in Malorita. People began to run through the town as Jews sought hiding places, some in attics, some in cellars, and even some in the tanning building across the river. The Germans chased after them with their weapons, running and shouting “Stop! The thunder should strike you! Stop!” Of course, Jews were taken out from their hiding places and brought to the railway station, where they were forced to load wooden ties on the transport wagons. They did not receive payment or food for their work. The Jews sat in groups after their work and cooked a soup on stoves of twigs. Some of them had never held a pot in their hands before, but they had to eat after the hard work -- especially those who were never engaged in manual labor before.

Another time, the Germans decreed a cleanup action, and dragged the Jews to the bathhouse. The fear of typhus came over them, and they suspected that all the Jews were contaminated. The Jews regarded this as an edict and did whatever they could to get out of it.

However, the necessities of living were stronger than anything, and already several astute and clever Jews, who obtained travel permits and crossed the border to Austria, shuffled about and brought merchandise to the town. The rumor that there was a possibility of crossing the border began to spread, and the number of Jews who received papers from the commanders increased. The Germans did not refuse strongly, especially since there was a reward for their work, for the bribes were effective with them -- fox furs, eggs, butter. They did not reject any gift. The mayor, Eliahu Janowich, even arranged the affairs by giving the commander set percentages

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of his profits. It seems that all of the Jews in the town tried their hands at the smuggling business. Even the teachers and craftsmen worked in barter and exchange. They did business in horses, cattle and sheep. Some even traveled afar and reached Rostov on the Don, bringing full wagon loads of tobacco and other merchandise. Others came from near and far, and the town was astir.

When the war finished, it became clear that not all of the Jews of Ratno had become accustomed to the conditions of war. Many families who did not have the talents of the smugglers literally starved for bread. The Joint[15] was literally a saving angel for them.

Wagons loaded with sacks of flour and other foodstuff such as oil, sugar, preserved milk and the like, and later also various articles of clothing appeared in the town under the auspices of the Joint. The Joint opened up a kitchen for the needy in the Beis Midrash. At its entrance, one could see destitute Jews standing with their dishes in their hands. The noble, dedicated woman Beila Itzikson concerned herself and took care of the kitchen. The assistance and salvation effort was conducted by Reb Ben-Zion Steingarten, and was assisted by Israel Weinstock, Mottel Ginzburg, Yosef Zisik, Pesach Steinberg, Noach Cohen, Yitzchak Kozak and Leizer Rajsky. Later, they were joined by Binyamin Kamfer, Yitzchak-Hirsch Rog, Reb Yaakov Mendelson and Yoska Bayon.

The Jews who immigrated to America before the war also hastened to help their relatives by means of various delegates. Yaakov Plotzker was such a delegate. He came from America to fetch his son, who remained in the town. He brought with him 6,000 dollars to distribute among the residents of the town by a list that was in his hand. I, who is recording these things, was chosen as a “trustee” for this distribution, but Reb Yaakov Plotzker was unable to come to town because of the battles between the Poles and the Bolsheviks that were taking place at that time in the region, and was held up in Brisk. The situation was salvaged by two woman who volunteered to travel to him. These were my sister, Eltzi-Feiga, and Plata-Leah the tailor. They took the child with them, and when they returned, they brought the monetary donations to the town.

When the battles abated, many orphans were transferred to America and Canada, where they were adopted by wealthy Jewish families. Several orphans set out to those places from Ratno as well. However, many of them remained in the town. A great deal of activity was conducted on their behalf. The committee for the orphans in the district of Kowel, headed by Dr. Czernowicz and Mrs. Reitza Lewin, opened a school for them in the home of Wilkomirski, where Noach Cohen taught. An orphanage was set up not far from the town. Members of the committee in Ratno included Moshe Reicher, Mendel Blatt, Yankel Liberman, Yitzchak-Hirsch Held, and Leibel Baion.

After the Russian Revolution, the government passed to the Social Democratic Party headed by Kransky. This was an era of rebirth in the world, but along with this was also an era of chaos and confusion regarding borders and boundaries. Ratno and its area was captured by bands of Ukrainians headed by Hetman Skoropodsky. His soldiers did not actually enter the town itself, but the atmosphere was full of fear, and everyone felt fear on the horizon.

In the town, a group of youth organized themselves for self-defense. They gathered on Holijanka Street in the field next to Chamiliar's house,

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and practiced with weapons. After some time, when the government changed and the danger of pogroms increased, the youths went out on guard duty and did their best to protect lives and property.

During that era of blurring of borders between governments, illegal smuggling and business once again spread in town. The Jews hauled any type of merchandise that came to their hands, and gathered heaps of Ukrainian Karbovanets (units of currency), which turned into valueless pieces of colored paper after Pilsudski, at the head of his army, beat the Ukrainians soundly.

 

A Jew holding up a cup of wine over a dead gentile
Translator's note, this is a reference to the Passover Seder -- In every generation and generation, they arise against us to destroy us, but the Holy One Blessed Be He saves us from their hands

 


Translator's Footnotes

  1. A term for a person who delves very deeply into Torah. Return
  2. The Torah portion of Behaalotecha begins with the injunction of the building of the menora in the temple. Return
  3. Pirke Avot (Tractate of the Fathers) 4:17. Return
  4. Psalm 150. Return
  5. Mystical animals of the future eschatological era. Return
  6. A Jewish legal device that converts an open area into a private domain, thereby permitting carrying on the Sabbath. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eruv. Return
  7. A prayer response. Return
  8. This implies that the morning service was repeated over and over again at different times for different groups of worshippersz. Return
  9. The term 'selichot' here seems out of place, as it refers to the special prayer books used for the penitential prayers starting a week before Rosh Hashanah and running every weekday morning until the eve of Yom Kippur. They are not used on the Sabbath. I suspect that this is an error here, and the author meant to say 'tallises'. Return
  10. The term used here is 'shkotzim', which is a derogatory term for gentiles. Return
  11. I.e. He would be given the choicest aliya to the Torah. Return
  12. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Trumpeldor. Return
  13. The acronym for “Blessed is G-d”, often placed atop correspondence. Return
  14. The Joint Distribution Committee.
    See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Jewish_Joint_Distribution_Committee. Return

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