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Translated by Jerrold Landau

[Page 70]

Map Key

1. Beis Midrash
2. The Shtibel of the Hassidim of Stolin-Karlin
3. The Shtibel of the Hassidim of Stepan
4. The Shtibel of the Hassidim of Trisk
5. The Shtibel of the Hassidim of Rizhin
6. The old cemetery
7. The new cemetery
8. The Tarbut School
9. The ruins of the Great Synagogue
10. Leibishe's Shtibel
11. The Workers' Union
12. Beis Midrash
13. The People's Bank
14. Church
15. Windmill
16. Church
17. Windmill
18. Windmill
19 Church
20. The Hide Workshop
21. The Polish cemetery
22. The bathhouse
23. The hospital
24. The Pravoslavic cemetery
25. Town hall
26 The steam station
27. Bridges
28. Small bridges

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    {Map of Ratno: Some street names are noted on the map. Many cannot be made out clearly due to the cramped script.
“Shul Gasse” is below 9.
“River” is noted in the two between the bridges
“Marshes” are noted in the areas
“Highway” is noted in the main road running along 15, 16, 23, 12, 25, 26
“Bath Street” is noted along 22
“Brisk” is noted at the top left exit from the map
“Zabolad” is noted at the bottom left exit from the map (probably a reference to the town now known as Zabolottja, which is indeed in that direction.)}


[Page 72]

The First Zionists

by Yudel Malkus

Translated by Jerrold Landau

 

Yudel Konishter

 

In the town both, the father and son, were known as meshugoim (crazies): the father – Wolf-Leib the Crazy, and the son – Shlomo-Michel the Crazy. If an outsider came to the city and asked about Wolf-Leib Cohen with out adding the description “meshuga” – it is doubtful people would realize to whom they were referring. This nickname stuck with both the father and the son.

The father, an elderly Jew with a small, grey beard and dreamy eyes, would often sit on the steps of his store in the center of the market, completely immersed in a book. At times, he would lift his eyes from the book and call to his son, “Shlomo Michel, come and see what the Holy Zohar[1] says about the Land of Israel.”

Like his father, the son was nearsighted. He was tall, heavy-boned, with a black beard scattered with grey hairs. He was always looking into “Hatzefira”, the Hebrew daily newspaper that had arrived directly from Warsaw to the maskil of the town, who derived a double measure of enjoyment from the feuilliton of Nachum Sokolow or the his weekly article “From Eve of Sabbath to Eve of Sabbath,” which to him was very sweet and tasty. Both of them, the father and the son, were expert in the small letters[2]. They knew how to study Gemara, and even set daily times for study. Both were enthusiastic Zionists by the end of the 19th century, when Zionism was still not widespread among the Jews. During those days, when Dr. Herzl used to travel around in order to convince the governments of that time to recognize the justice of the Zionist idea, our “crazies” followed after him, and did not miss even one iota of anything going on regarding that topic. Furthermore, when the Zionist Congresses started to convene, their enthusiasm for the Zionist ideal grew. They regarded Dr. Herzl as the Messiah the son of Joseph who would precede the Messiah the son of David[3]. They began to win Ratno Jews over to the Zionist idea. Since they were the only adults in Ratno who regarded themselves as Zionists in all aspects, they were known by the nickname “Meshugoim,” which stuck to them for the rest of their lives.

Ratno was a Hassidic city, whereas the father and son were Misnagdim[4]. Nevertheless, their stance as opponents of Hassidism was not particularly sharp, for there was a true danger in that during those days. However, they did not hold back from denigrating the Hassidim and Tzadikim in the ears of the few Maskilim that lived in the town.

When new winds began to blow in the area, winds of progress and Zionism, there was no stopping them, and they also arrived in Ratno. David Finkelstein, an intelligent young man, knowledgeable

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in Hebrew and a talented writer, came to town as a Hebrew teacher. He would send articles from Ratno to “Hamelitz” and “Hatzefira”. At times, these newspapers would also publish a story or article from him. He was one of the first to bring an omen of spring – the words of Zionism and love of Zion, to the Jewish youth. Also during his Bible and history lessons, he would succeed in weaving the ideas of the revival of the nation and its Land. A group of youths gathered around him, including Yehoshua Pogach, Zalman Burstein, Itzel Mates's (Itzel the Litvak as he was called in town), Avraham Telson, and others. This group would read new books and newspapers in Hebrew, hold discussions on current events, especially those connected with Zionism and the Land of Israel. The only thing they were lacking was a meeting place, for everyone considered them to be heretics and was concerned about their influence over the youth. They had no choice other than to choose the waiting room of the post office, which was almost outside the bounds of the city, on the road. This was their headquarters. They met in the post office several times a week, under the pretext that they were going to get the mail for their parents (at that time, there was no individual mail distribution in Ratno). Under this camouflage, they conducted their cultural activity among the youths of the town.

At a certain point, these youths decided to open a type of modern cheder in the town for the poor of the town. They took the teaching role in this school upon themselves for free, with no salary. Since nobody could be found who could rent them a room for this purpose, they went further afield and opened their cheder in the house of Sarah the smith on the road, with a small number of students from among the common folk. However, the zealots of the town did not sit around with folded arms. They cried out against these heretics who were liable to turn the youth of Ratno away from the straight path and lead them to a bad crowd. Things reached the point where they threatened the woman who owned the house that housed the cheder with excommunication. She was unable to withstand this danger, and she forbade the students from coming to her home for their lessons. Thereby, this first educational effort of the Zionist group failed.

However, this failure did not discourage them. They were taken by the Zionist idea, and determined to impart the Zionist consciousness to the youth of Ratno, and to lead them from darkness to great light. They decided to bring in a special, Kabbalistic preacher to lecture on matters of Zionism in the Beis Midrash on the Sabbath between Mincha and Maariv. The youth posted notices of this lecture with sufficient lead time, and there were many Jews in the Beis Midrash at the set time. As he was still standing at the lectern, dressed as a regular preacher, lecturing about Herzl, Nordau, and all the efforts to redeem the soil of the Land of Israel, etc., the zealots began to shout loudly, “Get out of here, you shegetz![5]” They were not satisfied until they picked him up and removed him forcibly from the Beis Midrash.

The Beis Midrash turned into a battlefield. The few Zionists among the worshippers, including the two aforementioned “meshugoim” and the youths who initiated this gathering, came to the aid of the lecturer and defended him and the ideas about which he had preached

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to them. However, they were the minority, whereas most of the crowd was among the zealots who believed that the Land of Israel would be redeemed only through “the Messiah riding on a donkey,” and to whom every Zionist idea was nonsense and an evil spirit.

However, the two “meshugoim” and the youths who supported them did not despair, and this failure did not break their spirit. They continued to win over people to the Zionist idea, and paved its way in our town. To them, Zionism was the content of their lives. Reb Yosef-Leib the elder always kept under his kapote booklets and pamphlets that proved that Dr. Herzl was none other than a messenger form on high, a form of the Messiah the son of Joseph; and, like Moses in his time, was sent by Divine providence to redeem the Jews from the present day “Egypt.” In his conversations with householders such as Reb Eizik the Shochet [ritual slaughterer], Shlomo-Yoel the Shochet, and others, he never missed an opportunity to demonstrate his proofs that Dr. Herzl “stands before the angels” to bring redemption to the nation. The son was like the father. He too did not refrain from action. He conducted his publicity among younger people, among the young adults, and was assisted primarily by the “Arguments,” “Hatzefira,” and the Haskalah literature. Slowly but surely, the ice melted. The seeds planted by these “crazies” sprouted. The justice of the Zionist idea paved its way. Among the charity plates placed in the synagogues on the eve of Yom Kippur, there was an additional plate for the Jewish National Fund, and the people took note of it. The redemption of the Land earned de jure recognition also in Ratno. New pamphlets were sent from the Jewish National Fund headquarters in Warsaw to register the names of those who donated at least 20 kopecks. A collection was taken up for the Jewish National Fund at every festive occasion, wedding, circumcision, or engagement party. After some time, a Zionist organization was set up in Ratno, and regular Zionist activity began to be conducted in Ratno.

Our “meshugoim,” the pioneers of Zionism in Ratno, were now literally proud of their craziness, and they bore their nickname with honor and pride. It is interesting that the elderly Reb Yosef Leib, who had a great deal of difficulty with his wife, foresaw the day of his death. Not only this, but he also knew from the outset that on the day of his death, she would also die, for her mission would be finished with his death, since she would not longer have anyone upon whom to pour out her wrath. This indeed took place in 1916, when Reb Yosef Leib died at the age of 90 exactly on the day that he foresaw, and his wife died that same evening.

Translator's Footnotes

  1. The primary work of the Kabbalah. Return
  2. Referring to the commentaries on the Talmud, printed in a smaller font. Return
  3. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messiah_ben_Joseph Return
  4. Opponents of Hassidism. Return
  5. “Shegetz” (literally “disgusting thing”) is a derogatory term used for a gentile. Return


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Political Parties and Organizations in our Shtetl

by Moshe Honik

Translated by Jerrold Landau

Our small shtetl of Ratno was situated on the main route between the two important Jewish centers of Kowel and Brisk. The Jewish population did not have any feelings of inferiority, for Ratno was also a type of center for the smaller towns and many villages in its area. The Jews in these small settlements would come to Ratno for material reasons (the fairs) as well as for spiritual reasons (on Sabbaths and festivals), just as the Jews of Ratno would go to Brisk and Kowel. In any case, for the 2,500 Jews who lived in Ratno (there is no exact statistic, but this is the accepted estimate) always had the sense of living in an important Jewish city. To a large degree, this was due to the fact that the Jews were concentrated on several streets, and wherever you went, you would see Jews.

Like in all Jewish towns, the economic center was the marketplace. The massive Jewish population was concentrated on the Synagogues Street, the Butcher Street, Holianka Street, Egypt Street, Krywa Street, the street that led to the main road, as well as in all the alleyways that spread out from those streets.

 

The Jewish Community

The central Jewish institution was the community structure, whose activities grew and became more widespread in the latter years. This was the supervisory institution of religious life (ritual slaughter, the rabbinate, the two cemeteries). It also was involved with helping the needy and in other social activities. All strata of the Jewish population were represented in the communal organization: Zionist, non-factional, religious, tradesmen, and merchants. The prestige of the community increased when it was given the opportunity, through a government law, to collect a special tax from the Jews. This raised its stature in the eyes of the Jewish population and enabled the community to pay the salaries of all the clergy: the rabbi, rabbinical judge, shochtim, etc. The minimal payment was five gold coins (zloty). The Jews of the surrounding villages were obligated to pay this tax, for they also made use of the services in Ratno. The communal council was required to present a monthly accounting of its activities to the Starosta (district leader) of Kowel.

Elections of the community took place once every two years, which included debates, election publicity, disputes between the various factions, etc. Each list augmented its publicity through speakers that were brought in from outside (Kowel, Warsaw), and the shtetl of Ratno rejoiced. Throughout the period of two months, the approaching elections served as the topic for deliberations

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and debates in every house. The factional urges that were generally under control during normal times would break forth in all their strength during election periods. After the elections, all the disputes were forgotten, and Jews from all streams and factions would sit at one table without schisms and shouting, as if the disputes and conflict had never existed. The concern for communal matters and for the social and cultural needs of the Jewish population united them once again. Indeed, it can be said that the communal administrators of Ratno excelled in their dedication and faithfulness to issues of public interest for which they were responsible, and demonstrated great responsibility in their tasks. On the eve of the Holocaust and during the Holocaust itself, these elected officials demonstrated that they were worthy of their positions, and their positions were worthy of them. They rose to great heights of selfless dedication and sanctification of the Divine Name, as many Holocaust survivors can testify.

During the final era, the following people stood at the helm of the community: Liber Karsh (president), D. A. Shapira. Ben-Zion Steingarten, A. Berg, M. Blatt, Y. Grabov, Asher Leker, A. Shedrowiski, A. Skop, and M. Y. Chayat. The technical secretary of the community was Eliezer Held, who lives today in Israel. A. Y. Ginzburg filled this role on the eve of the Holocaust.

Ratno also had a city council with a mayor who was almost always anti-Semitic. An additional proof of the anti-Semitism of the Polish government was that the mayor was always a Christian even though the majority of the population of Ratno was Jewish. Representatives of the Jewish population in the city council included Mendel Klein, who served as the vice mayor, Yisrael-Yitzchak Baion, and others. However, their influence and ability to act on behalf of the citizens who elected them were significantly restricted.

 

The People's Bank

From among the various communal institutions that were active in the shtetl, it is worthwhile to especially note the people's bank, which attained renown throughout the entire region. This bank stood at the right hand of the merchants, shopkeepers, tradesmen and ordinary Jews, and helped them during times of difficulty. This was the most important public institution in Ratno that succeeded in striking roots in the shtetl. It had inroads with all strata of the population. This achievement was, to a large degree, a result of the dynamic activity of the director Yitzchak Hirsch Held of blessed memory and his assistants Yitzchak Karsh of blessed memory and Yisrael Chayat, who lives today in Israel. During the final years before the Second World War, when the economic depression reached its peak, the bank was the sole support for the majority of the Jewish population. The main activists in the bank directorship of that era were Zecharia Honik, Moshe Ryder, Yaakov Kanfer, Yehoshua Bekerman, Yehuda Konishter, and Yaakov Chayat.

As in every Jewish shtetl, Ratno had a charitable fund that had been set up with the assistance of the JOINT. Its activities were focused primarily on the poorer members of the community, who were helped with loans from the fund, thereby enabling them to obtain the equipment necessary for their work (sewing machines, etc.) and to sustain their families. The following people stood at the help of this fund: M. Blatt, Y. Kanfer, W. Brener, M. Cherkes, M. Klein, A. Berg, Y. Grabov, and Y. Steingarten.

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{Photo page 77 top: Yitzchak-Hirsch Held.}

{Photo page 77 bottom: The directors of the People's Bank (1925).}

Many communal activists who were active in these institutions spent entire days volunteering fully on behalf of these institutions. In Ratno of those days, working for the community in a non-voluntary fashion was unheard of. Helping one's fellow was one of the most important commandments. We can see how far things went by an adage that was common among the community prior to Passover, when the communal workers conducted the Maos Chittin[1] campaign dedicated to providing Passover matzos for the poor of the city, “Give or take” - that is: there is no intermediate state. Either you give to the poor, or you receive from this campaign. It is worthwhile to note that these volunteer workers toiled very hard for their own livelihoods. They earned their own bread through the sweat of their brow. However, their first thought was to do good to one's fellowman, to act benevolently with Jews who were experiencing difficulties with their livelihood. Some of these campaign workers were continuing the traditions of their ancestors in setting up public banks, charitable funds, mutual assistance funds, etc.

The members of the older generation - our fathers and grandfathers, toiled greatly for their livelihood, and earned their bread with the sweat of their brow, as is stated in the ancient verse[2]. The tradesman in his workshop, the shopkeeper in his shop, and the peddler wandering around the villages were all in the same situation. They did not eat or sleep sufficiently. During the late afternoon, one could find dozens of Jews on the Street of the Synagogues going to attend a mincha and maariv service. This street was holy to the Jews from previous generations, and especially during the time that the Great Synagogue stood there. Everybody spoke about the beauty and praise of that synagogue, which eventually went up in flames. All of the shtibels and the city Beis Midrash that was not affiliated with any specific rebbe were also located on that street.

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The deep faith of the Jews in the Creator of the World and the eternity of the Jewish people was expressed on that street. All of the tragedies, disturbances and evil decrees that befell the Jews in that small shtetl were unable to tear the Jews away from that faith forged in fire and blood. I pondered this matter at times. Even after I cast off the faith, went out to a “bad crowd,” joined Hashomer Hatzair, and went on hachshara; I still valued and revered these Jews for the strength of their faith. It is no surprise that the stamp of the Street of the Synagogues was recognizable throughout the entire shtetl. Only after many years, when the youth in Ratno took their fate into their own hands and the ranks of the Zionist and pioneering movement captured their hearts - did the Jewish street free itself from the imprint of the Street of the Synagogues, and its stamp was not felt as much. The person who played the decisive role in this mater was undoubtedly the teacher from Pinsk, Noach Kotzker, who arrived in our shtetl and filled the role of a guide to the Jews by founding the Tarbut School, which turned into the spiritual center of the shtetl and educated the youth toward Zionism and pioneering.

***

{Photo page 78: The volunteer firefighters.}

I recall the public battle that was conducted in shtetl with respect to establishing this school. The Hassidim and Orthodox Jews regarded the establishment of Tarbut as a form of revolt against the rule of religion and their own hegemony. I especially recall those who put their efforts toward this task and did not retreat: Yehoshua (Shea) Bekerman, Yosef Zesak, Noach Kotzker, Yitzchak-Hirsch Held, Asher Leker (all of whom perished in the Holocaust), and Yudel Konishter who died in Argentina. Only now,

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with a retrospective view, it is perhaps possible to evaluate the important task that they filled at that time, as well as the many obstacles that stood in their path. What today seems natural and something that the times demanded was at that time an unrealizable objective. In the later years, people such as Bokser, Zagorski, Lewin, Roizen and Amalia Droog of blessed memory had great influence on the Tarbut School. The latter was the daughter of a Ratno family, who graduated the Teachers' Seminary in Vilna and later became a teacher in the Tarbut School.

The various youth movements were first set up in Ratno in the years 1924-1926. Without doubt, they were a result of the tireless efforts of the teacher Kotzker. As far as I remember, the first of them was Hanoar, founded by Leibel Avrech. Later, other movements arose: Hashomer Hatzair, Hechalutz, Freiheit, and Beitar.

Without doubt, the largest and most firmly based movement was Hashomer Hatzair, which conducted serious educational activities and had great influence upon the youth. It is fitting to note that, during those years, it was a nationalist scouting movement that had not yet crystallized ideologically. The majority of the youths in the shtetl passed through this movement, including those who later set up other movements.

{Photo page 79: The WIZO women's organization (July 8, 1932).}

It is appropriate to elaborate on the historical role that Hashomer Hatzair filled in Ratno. Hundreds of youth in our shtetl passed through the melting pot and the educational endeavors of that movement. Anyone who wishes to see the praiseworthy fruit of that movement need only survey the list of Ratno natives scattered throughout Israel and the Diaspora, to see what types of roles the former Hashomer Hatzair members have filled and continue to fill. It is a fact that in every place, they form a vibrant and active kernel. This is no coincidence, but rather the fruit

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of the education that they received in their time. To a large degree, we can attribute this fruit to the merit of Moshe Droog, who lives today in Israel. The chapter was founded in the home of Moshe Goldstein (today in the United States). The first members, who were called “Kfirim” include: A. Chayat (today in the United States), Chaim Ides, Zelig Bander, Yisrael Honik (today in Argentina), Zelda Feintuch, Dvora and Chaya Grabov (today in Israel), and Yosef Steinberg (today in Canada). I own a photograph of the leadership of the Hashomer chapter in a later period, which includes: Zelda Feintuch (in Israel), Moshe Pogatsh of blessed memory, Henia Karsh, Moshe Konishter of blessed memory, M. Ch. Fuchs (in Argentina), Berel Honik of blessed memory, Baya Vernik of blessed memory, Zeev Grabov (in Israel), Chaya Prusman (in Israel), Golda Droog of blessed memory, Baya Vernik of blessed memory[3], Beila Leker of blessed memory, Eliahu Zesak (in Israel), and the writer of these lines.

Aside from Hechalutz Hatzair (Young Hechalutz) about which I will write specially in this article, there were other movements in the shtetl that did not last long and did not gather many youths into their ranks, but nevertheless filled an important role in the education of the Jewish youth. Among these was Freiheit, under the leadership of Yisrael Honik and D. Frigel. This organization was composed primarily of working youths, who also comprised the youth of the left leaning Poale Tzion. Brit Trumpeldor (Beitar) existed in Ratno and was founded by Meir Ryder of blessed memory. As time went on, when the Revisionists left the Zionist organization, great ferment began and Beitar caused a storm within the spirits of the Jewish youth. Meetings and demonstrations were frequently arranged. The ideological chasm between the camp of Working Land of Israel and the Revisionists deepened, and a battle broke out over the soul of each youth. The following were the most active members of the Revisionist camp in those days: Mogilenski, Zisa Marin, Eliezer Marin, Motel Ternblit, Velka Chayat (all of whom perished in the Holocaust), and others.

There were also members of the left leaning Poale Zion in our shtetl, but one can count them on the fingers of one hand. I recall two of them: Nota Roiskes and Levi Shapira. Nevertheless, the dearth of members did not hinder them from conducting recognizable activity, especially in the realm of Jewish culture. They would bring to the shtetl speakers such as Zerubavel, Yoel Mastbaum and others, and they spared no effort to increase the cultural activities in the shtetl. Later, the members of the left leaning Poale Zion found an arena for their activities in the ranks of the League for Working Land of Israel, which encompassed all of the Socialist Zionist groups as well as many supporters who did not belong to any party. This league conducted many activities during the time of the Zionist Congress, conducted a special campaign (KPE'Y), and even helped other youth movements from an economic perspective. Later, Haoved was founded with the help of the league, under the leadership of Blatt. Its ranks included tradesmen who were preparing to make aliya to the Land of Israel. I own a photograph of the committee of the league. The photograph includes: Yisrael Chayat, Riva Shapira, A. Y. Ginzburg, Yisrael Kanfer, Dvora Karsh, Mendel Blatt, A. Feintuch, Chava Ryder, Yitzchak-Hirsch Fuchs, Yisrael Bander, Moshe Konishter, Yona Stern, Nota Roiskes, Moshe Pogatsh, Eli-Yitzchak

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Reif, and the writer of these lines.

I will write a few lines about the General Zionists in Ratno, who mainly belonged to the Al Hamishmar radical group under the leadership of Yitzchak Greenbaum. The main activists in this part in the shtetl included Yosef Zesak and Yehoshua Bekerman of blessed memory.

These people neglected their own businesses and livelihoods, and spent nights and days involved in Zionist activity. Adult Jews with Zionist consciousness gathered around them, and devoted most of their energies to the Tarbut School in the shtetl. Many supporters, lovers of Zion and ordinary Zionists who did not want to belong to a specific party, but did want to express their appreciation of the Land of Israel and Zionism, were involved in these activities. Among the General Zionists, there were experienced and responsible communal activists who were greatly admired by the youth of Ratno. They put their best efforts in helping the Zionist youth. These include Y. H. Held, L. Grabov, Yaakov Liberman, and others.

During the final years before the war, the Mizrachi organization was also founded in our shtetl. Its spiritual leader was the dedicated Zionist Asher Leker of blessed memory. Their circle of members was quite restricted, but they had influence upon the religions circles who at first opposed the revival of Hebrew, and were only drawn close to Zionism through Mizrachi. As was told to me, the influence of Mizrachi grew before the Second World War, and the number of members increased significantly.

{Photo page 81: A rally in the yard of the shtetl hall in honor of May 3. (1936)}

From among the anti-Zionist organizations, which were a minority in the shtetl, it is appropriate to first note the Bund. The moving force behind the Bundist organization and its

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living spirit was Efraim Kotler of blessed memory. Despite the fact that he was handicapped, he gathered the working youth of the shtetl around him, and dedicated all of his time to the movement. Even his opponents appreciated his personal integrity. In that manner, he was a symbol. There is no doubt that he helped greatly in imparting education and meaning in life to many youths. Of course, the Bundist organization did not have great influence in the city, but its activists functioned to the best of their ability within their narrow circles, and served their party faithfully. During the final years before the war, Efraim Kotler began to show signs of drawing close to the Socialist Zionist circles.

The “Leftists” had more serious influence in Jewish Ratno. Youths from the intelligentsia circles belonged to that faction, such as: Leibel Baion (today in Mexico), A. Shapira (today in Cuba), Chona Tyktiner, and Niska Shapira, Chaim Grabov (today in Argentina) and others. The group bore the banner of Communist outlook, and those who were involved excelled in their idealism and great dedication to their party. This group also attempted to set up a school in Ratno according to their ideals, but the Polish authorities closed it down after some time. The circle of tradesmen was also under their influence. They were not shaken by the persecution of the Polish government and imprisonments. No small number of them were sentenced to extensive periods in jail. Those who succeeded in emigrating overseas are numbered among the “progressive circles,” as they call themselves in those countries.

A most important cross-factional institution that brought representatives of all the organizations and factions together was the Jewish National fund. Asher Leker of blessed memory, who served for many years as the chairman of the Jewish National Fund, dedicated a great deal of time and tireless efforts to his activities for the fund. Zalman Kamfer, the treasurer, was an example of a soldier who constantly stood on his guard. Both of them encouraged the youth toward activities for the benefit of the fund, and there was a constant competition between the various organizations for first place in bringing in income toward the Jewish National Fund.

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{Photo page 83 top: Activists of the League for the Working Land of Israel. Among them: Y. Chayat (of Israel), Moshe and Yisrael Honik (of Argentina), A. Y. Reif. The rest of them perished.}

{Photo page 83 bottom: In the shade of the thick tree in the Old Cemetery.}

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{Photo page 84: The first group of scouts .}


Translator's Footnotes

  1. Literally, “Money for wheat” - the pre-Passover charitable campaign to enable the poor to be able to provide for the needs of the holiday. Return
  2. Genesis 3:19. Return
  3. Mentioned twice in this list, likely in error. Return


The First Scouts

by Yaakov Rog

Translated by Jerrold Landau

When I came to the city of Luck in 1921, I was in the Great Synagogue on the Festival of Shavuot, and I heard speeches by various people about Keren Hayesod. The women were greatly influenced by the words of the speakers, and it was as if they removed their jewelry and gave it over to the fund. Suddenly, a group of scouts entered the synagogue. When I saw their fine parade, I decided that we should set up such an organization in Ratno. I began to work toward that objective when I returned to Ratno.

My plan seemed appropriate to my friend Noach Cohen, and the first group convened on the Sabbath after Shavuot. The group included Velvel Rajsky, Noach Cohen, Nota and Niska Shapira, Leibel Grabov, Asher-Leizer Kolodner, Leizer Rajsky, Yisrael Zesak, Leibel Blostein, Eliezer Held and me. We gathered on the road near the mill of Binyamin Kamfer and began to deliberate over our plan of action. Among other things, we decided to send one of our members, Zeev (Velvel) Rajsky, to Kowel to obtain information and guidance from the scouts there. We waited for him with baited breath. When he returned to Ratno, he shared with us the information that he had obtained in Kowel, and I recall that he said, among other things that the greeting of the scouts is: “Be prepared,” and the response to the greeting is, “always prepared.”

We began our activities and the signing up of boys and girls as members. The leadership was composed of the members: Velvel Rajsky, who was given the title of “minister of order,”

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Noach Cohen as secretary, Yaakov Rog as head of Group Aleph, and Asher Leizer Kolodner as head of Group Bet. Every Sabbath, we would arrange a parade near the windmill in the old city, and at times near the tannery. Since we did not have a permit, all of our activities were conducted clandestinely. As time went on, we founded a library and used our meager funds that we collected from the monthly membership dues to purchase books. We asked Mordechai Fuchs of Malrita, who was with us at that time, to prepare a list of books appropriate for purchase, and Leizer Rajsky traveled to Warsaw to purchase the books. Thus was the foundation laid for our large library. The adults, who had their own library, were jealous of our library and proposed to us that we unite the two libraries, but we did not agree to this proposal.

After some time, we began to perform theater. Our first play was the “Get” (Divorce) by Shalom Aleichem, a four scene performance. Our plays were performed in the Women's Gallery of the Beis Midrash, and the income from the two performances reached 70 dollars. This money enabled us to send one of our members to Argentina. Our other performances included “Samka the Clown,” “Broken Hearts,” and “The Loafer.”

We rented our first premises in the home of Yaakov Avrech. When we moved from there, Niska Shapira wanted to give us several pictures, and he ordered a set of portraits of Nachum Sokolov, Chaim Weizmann, and Bialik. When the pictures arrived, David Aharon Shapira took the picture of Bialik and tore it. We were then forced to stick the picture together from the torn pieces. A picture of Dr. Herzl was added to our headquarters, and various newspapers were also ordered.

Our activities were varied: we collected money for the Jewish National Fund, donated money to plant trees in the Land of Israel, sold flowers at various fairs that took place in the shtetl, etc. We also participated in political activities prior to elections to the Polish Sejm, and we conducted publicity for National List Number 16.

There was no foundation for a secure future in Ratno. The situation in Poland became more serious. We could not travel to the Land of Israel at that time, so we decided to prepare for immigration to Argentina. One of our members was first to travel, and then others followed. Four people rented a common room, and we prepared ourselves for immigration and for the absorption of new members.


[Page 86]

The First Buds
(Sections of memories)

by L. Baion

Translated by Jerrold Landau

Tomorrow was still covered in a cloud and the future was not secure at all. Battles still took place in the vicinity between the Ukrainian nationalists, the Red Army and volunteers of the Polish Army over rule of our district. For several weeks, there was no reliable government in the shtetl. There was an atmosphere of wantonness, and everyone did as they pleased. Gangs of Ukrainians roamed around the forests and the villages of the region, attacking passers-by, killing and pillaging. Wagons carrying dead Jews from the villages appeared daily in the shtetl. No ray of light was on the horizon, and the footsteps of redemption were delayed in coming.

It was specifically during those cold, serious days that the dawn of social and ideological awakening began among the younger generation. Evening meetings in the dark Beis Midrash where people analyzed various problems were not sufficient. The need for the youth to have their own place was felt, as well as the need for social-organizational activities. A hall for social gatherings was opened up for the first time in the shtetl. A house stood at the edge of Holianka Street that had served as the civic prison. It is symbolic that specifically that house turned into a meeting place for the youths. It was renovated, a small stage was built inside atop which a blue and white flag fluttered.

I recall one of the first meetings dedicated to defining the ideology of the group. We, 12 and 13-year-old youths, were then scouts from the side. The chief speaker was Noach Kotzker, the teacher of the shtetl. His words centered on the Zionist ideal, the vision of the prophets, Dr. Herzl, and the Balfour Declaration. He called upon the youth of the shtetl to gather around the blue and white flag of Zionism and to struggle for the realization of the dream of a Hebrew State. Some of those gathered came from the “wide world,” and were imbued with class consciousness and ideas of social revolution and a class war. They attempted to oppose the idea of Zionism blended with Socialism. They were also stubborn in expressing their outlook, and it was clear that they were more sensitive than they were able to express. It was finally agreed that the new organization, Bnei Zion, would also include the Socialist idea in its program.

The activities of the Bnei Zion group included weekly meetings with lectures on various social and Zionist topics, recreation evenings, and literary evenings. A list of topics was also issued so that the members of the organization, who were people of understanding, would be able to prepare and hear the words of introduction. It quickly became clear that nobody aside from the teacher Kotzker would be able to carry out this task. The purpose of appearing before the community was to restrain people from

[Page 87]

going on the stage and stating their words, thereby imposing fear on the community.

Going to the Bnei Zion hall had a festive aspect to it. The festivity was especially felt during the literary celebrations, for which the members of the dramatic club of Bnei Zion prepared for a long time. Thanks to the activities of this group, specific artistic talents were revealed among the youth, which earned communal recognition. We will mention only a few of them here: M. Merkazi, Maya Shapira, Chaya Itzikson, Hershel Shapira, and others. Activists were trained in the arena of social activities of Bnei Zion, who later ran various institutions in the shtetl such as the public kitchen, the Jewish National fund, the school, and other institutions.

When the desire to take part in sporting activities, scouting, hiking, and sailing was aroused among the older youths, the Hatzofeh organization was set up in the pattern of a similar organization in nearby Kowel. This was a nationalist organization by nature. It celebrated all the national holidays with parades in the streets, it conducted activities for the Jewish National Fund, but it did not conduct cultural activities worthy of the name.

{Photo page 87: The “Tarbut” School at its inception. Among the students: Moshe Gutman of blessed memory, Aryeh Avrech of blessed memory, Moshe Stern, Moshe Droog, Ruth Greenstein, Pnina Droog of blessed memory, Pesl Miryo of blessed memory, Sara Papir-Goldman, Sara Ginzburg-Schwartz, Mordechai Gefen}

When the activities of the older youths weakened and they entered into the yoke of family life and the struggle for existence - a new cadre of youth who had passed through all the nightmares and frights of the First World War ascended the stage of communal activity in the shtetl. They began to act with great momentum, raised heads, and natural optimism, as if they were making up for what was lacking in the preceding years. The first objective was a civic library. This was during the time of flourishing book publishers such as “Shtibel” (in Hebrew), “Kultur League׆ (in Yiddish), and the publication of other books

[Page 88]

that flooded the marketplace with a great bounty of books, and aroused a great thirst among the local youth for reading. What did they not do then to quench this thirst? They saved their last coins, presented literary critiques and held celebrations, organized flower days, etc. in order to bring the best of literature to the library. The first meetings of this youth group were held in the home of Nachum and Velvel Rajsky. Many youths went there to play chess or checkers, and especially to exchange books. Every new monthly shipment of books was received with literal trembling and awe. When the youths discovered that the exchange of books lacking hard covers caused damage to the books, many learned the bookbinding of craft, and bound the books with their own hands. Our member Leibel Blostein especially excelled in this work.

The influence of the Hebrew and Yiddish books on these youths was beyond estimation. Their eyes were opened to see what they had not previously seen, to become familiar with issues and problems that had been far from them. They would debate out loud on the intentions of various authors, and tell each other about the content of new books or articles and essays that were published in “Hatekufa”, “Miklat”, “Chaliastra”, “Ringen”, “Bicher Velt”, “Literarishe Bleter” and various other publications. They would also read these publications during parties.

I will mention positively here our good, heartwarming friend Binyamin Ponach, who in the evening served as a resource for youths who were experiencing difficulty in reading. He would tell them the content of various books, such as “Ba'aish Ubacherev” (With Fire and Sword) by Sienkiewicz that was published in Hebrew translation at that time by Shtibel publishers. He lovingly fulfilled this role that he had taken upon himself. At that time, there was nobody to direct the youths in reading and to show them what comes first and what comes last in reading. However, after some time, several of them excelled and served as librarians and guides for their friends in reading. I recall that when the library obtained the first works of Peretz Markish, Melech Ravitsh, Uri Tzvi Grynberg and others who were pioneers of futurism in poetry and literature. In the same manner that earlier youths would sit over a page of Gemara, delving into the commentaries of Rashi, Tosafos, and others; young people would sit together and attempt to uncover the various expressions in these works, so that they could understand the personalities of the authors. Some of them learned entire works by heart, and some took bets as to how much of a certain work they knew by heart.

During the years 1924 and 1925, a group of about 30 youths sprouted from this group and founded Hechalutz. Thus began the physical and spiritual preparation for aliya to the Land of Israel. However, this path of Hechalutz appeared overly revolutionary for the more conservative of the youths, who were not ready for this revolution that included leaving the home, traveling to a Hachshara kibbutz, proletariatization, etc. There were also those who regarded the Hechalutz movement as a nationalist movement that contradicting Socialism, world revolution, and human emancipation. However, there is no doubt that the Hechalutz organization was the most significant factor

[Page 89]

in developing noticeable communal and cultural activity in the shtetl. In the Hechalutz hall, there were clubs that were involved with the study of the doctrines of Borochov, A. D. Gordon, and classical Socialism. Lectures on various topics were frequently arranged, with debates and discussions continuing until late at night. The members of the central and district leadership who visited us gave very positive reports on the Ratno chapter after their visits.

In 1926, the first three members of Hechalutz in Ratno went on hachshara: Shlomo Pogatsh, Yitzchak Kozak and the writer of these lines. When we returned to the shtetl after a year of hachshara, we strengthened the chapter significantly, and encouraged other members of Hechalutz to follow in their footsteps. At that time, and with the influence of the first pioneers, many members ended their lives of boredom and idleness, and went out to work in the paving of roads, quarrying of stones, and other jobs; changing their petite bourgeois attitudes toward manual labor.

{Photo page 89: In the Old City.}

A serious crisis affected Zionism and the pioneering movement during the years 1927 and 1928. The Mandate restricted aliya to the land, and the members that were authorized for aliya sat in their homes without anything to do as they awaited their certificates. The pioneering movement weakened. The Jewish youth could not relate calmly to what was taking place around them, to the increasing anti-Semitism, to the oppression of the national minorities in Poland, and to the strong hand raised by the government against the progressive movements. The economic situation also worsened at that time, due to the taxes that worked against the

[Page 90]

poorer classes and the workers. In the wake of all this, many of the younger generation came to the conclusion that the ideals of Zionism and pioneering were also a form of escape from the front and of evading the problems that were afflicting the masses of the Jewish people. “Let us turn toward the work of the present!”, “Let us turn toward the shtetl, toward the working fathers and their worries!” - These were the mottoes that were heard from the maturing youth. The intelligentsia in the shtetl turned its hearts toward the working youth, and attempted to direct their paths of lives and educate them. There was also a change in attitude toward the Yiddish language and the potential held within it. In the wake of this, a chapter of O.Y.Sh. (Organization of Jewish Schools) was founded in Ratno, as well as an analogous cultural club that organized lectures, discussions, and debates on the issues of culture and literature. This cultural activity eased the melancholy in which they youths found themselves, scattered the heavy clouds, and slightly assuaged the pressure and tribulations of the Jews under the semi-Fascist Polish government of that time. The activists of the Yiddishist movement girded themselves for a heavy task - the establishment of a Yiddishist school in the spirit of their ideological principles. They succeeded in reaching this goal that they had taken upon themselves, but the school only lasted for four months, for the Polish government closed it with the pretext that the building was not appropriate for a school.

The local government authorities began to “take interest” in the activities of the progressive circles. They followed after O. Y.Sh. and its members, and did not hold back from engaging outside provocateurs and local agents to spy on the circles that appeared to them as leftists. As a result of these espionage activities, almost all of the members of the workers movement were arrested. This was in the autumn of 1929, when mass imprisonments took place in the cities and towns of Pulsia Wolhyn, and dozens of members of the youth circles of Ratno were arrested and hauled to Kowel. They were tortured and interrogated through many brutal methods. There was no concrete evidence against most of the prisoners, and they were forced to free them after several days of imprisonment. Only two of the prisoners, Chona Tyktiner and Aharon Shapira, remained in prison and were later sentenced to five years of imprisonment.

From that time, the youth circles began to disband. The pursuing and slander discouraged many youths from continuing their activities. Some of them got married, remained in the shtetl or traveled to other places, and entered the yoke of livelihood. Others reached the point of complete despair over everything that was taking place in Poland, and immigrated to the United States, Argentina, and other places. A new guard entered into social activities in the shtetl. They too faced many problems that had no easy solution with the realities of those days. The years 1922-1936 were years of spiritual activity, ideological battles and aspirations for a better and more beautiful life.


[Page 86-alt]

Letter to a Friend

by A.Y. Ginzburg

Translated by Jerrold Landau

Aharon Yankel Ginzburg of Ratno Writes to his Friend L. Baion in Mexico about his Ideological Struggles

Ratno, July 5, 1937.

It was a summer Sabbath eve. I was busy with my work and other matters all day. You recall that I always had many jobs and few blessings. And you see, just as there was a form of competition between my various jobs (a painter, a secretary of the community, and a secretary of Y.Sh.A), there is also some sort of conflict in my spiritual life. I am a Yiddishist, and I simultaneously love the Hebrew language. The Land of Israel is close to my heart, but I also love Birobidzhan. I like the Communist idea, but I still remain a nationalist idealist. I have searched for a bridge that could bridge these various poles, and it seems that I have found it. I have read your letter, and before that, I read your articles in various newspapers in Mexico, and several things surprise me. First of all, I see that you participate in nationalist Zionist publications. Second, you are already writing in a different spirit, almost in the national spirit - far from the class war and closer to the people of Israel. Third, your articles are printed alongside greetings and announcements of Bar Mitzvas, circumcisions, and other

[Page 87-alt]

Jewish happy occasions.

I do not imagine that you are not true to what you are writing and publishing. I attempted to resolve the various contradictions in that, while you were still stuck in the confines of Jewish life along with masses of Jews, you felt choked in that life and wanted to spread your wings and anchor yourself in other realms; but now, when you have gone out to the wide, strange world (Mexico), you have choice: to assimilate along with everyone or to return to our roots. This is all through the principle of responsibility toward the upcoming generation whom you, as a teacher, must educate.

Therefore Leibel, we must stand on guard, and protect the existence of the nation. Whoever wishes to be responsible for the maintenance of the Jews as a people must give preference to the national problem over the social problem, at least until we reach the level that other nations have reached. It was specifically from the Soviet Union that I have learned that we must restrain somewhat the rhythm of our “revolution.” Whereas this was the path that led to national and social liberation for the Russian people, for us the path of revolution is liable to lead to disappearance… I cannot come to terms with the command to wander tens of thousand of kilometers to the banks of the Amur River in order to clear the Taigas there - something that Ivan himself did not do[1] - to wipe out with one stroke of the hand our history from “In the beginning G-d created,” and to begin our existence from the year of the great revolution of 1917.

On the other hand, if we do not go to Birobidzhan, a second great danger awaits us - to assimilate and disappear from the stage of nations. What would we attain? We would help establish a beautiful world for others, and we would commit national suicide ourselves. This is indeed the situation. The Russian revolution is liable to cause 3.5 million Jews to disappear, not from great tribulations, but rather from too much comfort, so to speak. Woe to us for such good fortune!

And with respect to the Land of Israel. It is true that this is a small land that cannot absorb many Jews, but it can become the force that assists the existence of Jews in the Diaspora. Therefore, we must nurture and study the

[Page 88-alt]

Hebrew Language, not only because this is our living language, but also because this language added a great deal of charm to our Yiddish Language. If we are truly interested in the existence of the Yiddish Language, it is our duty to also nurture Hebrew.

My conclusions are as follows: Our nation is forging a way to the family of nations. The solution is not assimilation, nor is it Socialism. It is forbidden for us to commit national suicide. Just as we overcame the dangers in the time of lack of culture, we will also spiritually overcome the dangers lurking in the times of culture and flourishing civilization.

Enough of these matters. I wish to add something of my own: I await the possibility of emigration, but in the meantime, all of the lands are sealed. Aside from my work hours, the days generally pass in idleness. The evenings are spent in discussions with friends. My friend Levi Shapira is about to leave today for his new home in the State of Cuba. Where will my home be?

Indeed, in the last few weeks, various events took place in the city of your brother. (This is referring to the pogrom against the Jews of Brisk). The conclusions from all this are clear: With regard to the outside, in relation to the outside world, we are all Jews - -the rich, the poor, the middle class, the workers - the dangers await us all.

With warm regards,

Aharon Yankel


Translator's Footnote

  1. The Amur is a river in Birobidzhan, the Russian area in the Far East, bordering China, designated as a Jewish national republic within the Soviet Union. The use of the name “Ivan” here is meant to symbolize a typical Russian. Return


[Page 91]

The New Era in Ratno

by Simcha Lavie

Translated by Jerrold Landau

At the end of First World War, when the refugees who had fled to other places and the young people who had fought in the battles began to return, new winds began to blow in the shtetl. There were those who hoped that the new Polish government would fulfill its obligations toward equal rights for all citizens without discrimination between religion and nation, as was formulated in the international agreements. However, this rosy dream began to fade very quickly. The various decrees of the Polish government proved that this was nothing other than a pipe dream. The turn for the worse of the situation of the Jews was noticeable in all areas. This fact increased the social ferment and the inroads of various parties whose mottoes also began to penetrate little Ratno.

Changes in the way of life began to be clearly noticeable. These were not drastic changes, but were changes nevertheless. In addition to the youths who returned from the battlefields, youths from larger cities arrived in Ratno after they married Ratno girls. These people also were a factor in the change of values, which was expressed in modes of dress, hiding the tzitzis, secular books that took the place of holy books, social gatherings, etc. There is no doubt that these changes worried the Orthodox communal administrators, who regarded them as a form of revolt against the accepted modes of behavior and was liable to weaken their decisive hegemony in the Jewish community. This was further exacerbated when the Zionist activities began to increase in the shtetl. The establishment of the Tarbut School was apparently one of the signs foretelling the beginning of the new era, and it is no surprise that the efforts of various householders to establish this modern school was a thorn not only in the eyes of the cheder teachers who were afraid that their livelihoods would dwindle, but also in the eyes of the members of the various shtibels who were particular about exacting religious education for their sons and daughters. The shtetl, or more precisely the Jewish community of the shtetl, was divided into two camps. One camp consisted of those who preserved the embers of the old traditions in its full essence for the education of the children, way of life, etc. The second camp was composed of the more liberal or progressive folk who began to circulate around the doors of the parents in order to register the children for the Tarbut School. The latter group included Moshe Eilbaum, Yehoshua Bekerman, Leibel Grabov, Mottel Ginzburg, Amalia Droog, Yitzchak-Hirsch Held, Berl Held, Avraham Hochman, Yisrael Weinstock, Yosef Zesak, Baruch Tanis, Asher Leker, Berka Mogilensky, Asher Perlmutter, Noach Kotzker, and others.

[Page 92]

At around that time, Bundist and Communist groups also began to operate in the shtetl. These activities were very restricted, and were assisted primarily through “injections” from the headquarters of these parties. However, one could not ignore them. The Bund directed its activities primarily toward the circles of the tradesmen, whereas the Communists directed their publicity primarily toward the circles of the workers. Despite the ideological opposition between the Bund and the Communists regarding all things related to the actual problems of Poland, they had a common front with respect to anything relating to Zionism. The common denominator was the hatred of Zion.

It can be said that this era, until 1927, was characterized by an increasing controversy between the Zionists and non-Zionists. The youth movements were still absent from this battle or controversy. The dispute was primarily between the adults. As time went on, separate lists for the civic elections of the Zionists and non-Zionists arose, and the division left is mark on all areas of communal life. The library was divided into two, and a separate Yiddishist library was set up. A Yiddishist school was founded. It was weaker than the Tarbut School, but it was supported by the Bundists and the circles close to them. People were certainly talking in the shtibels about the controversy and the opposition between the different camps, but it seems to me that the majority of the Jewish community did not stick its head into the thick of it, and stood at the side. The economic situation grew more serious and the Jews felt that their salvation would not come from the factions that were fighting among themselves. Many began to search for various means to immigrate overseas. Some arrived in the State of Colorado in the United States, and were followed by relatives and friends who heard about the land of gold. Others went to Argentina and Canada. The disappointment in the new Polish regime apparently penetrated the community, and anyone who could escape did so.

A noticeable change took place in 1927. The pioneering movement gained recognizable momentum in Poland, and our shtetl was also taken over by that movement.

{Photo page 92: Mendel and Gittel Klein, Yitzchak-Hirsch and Riva Fuchs, Dvora Choker, Feiga and Shachna Steinberg, Maya Steingarten, Pearl and Yitzchak Shapira.}

The one to come first was without doubt the Hashomer Hatzair movement, which forged a path to many youths who began to see their way in life

[Page 93]

as tied to this movement. Our friend Moshe Droog, who joined this movement while he was studying in Kowel, was the person who laid the foundation of the Hashomer Hatzair chapter in Ratno. Almost all of the students of the Tarbut School of all ages and classes, quickly found their way to this chapter. The central activists of the chapter included Chaim Ides, Chaya Droog, Dvora and Chaya Grabov, Yehudit Sandiuk, Zelda Feintuch, and others.

At almost the same time, a group of members organized themselves in the shtetl and set up Hechalutz Hatzair. This organization primarily catered to the working youth, including tradesmen and others, for whom the ideological path of Hashomer Hatzair was not acceptable. The prominent members of this group included Charna Greenstein, Maya Weinstock, Batya Chayat, Avraham Grabov, Mordechai Yanover, Shmuel Goldman, Yisrael Honik, and the writer of these lines. This group was helped by the leadership of Aryeh Avrech, who was already among the central motivators of the Hechalutz movement, and visited the various chapters from the Hechalutz headquarters. It is worthwhile to note that despite the difference in ideology and educational methodology between these movements, both functioned with the idea of honorable mutual coexistence. The competition between them was based on constructive foundations: in activities for the Zionist funds, in common events, activities of Hechalutz, and the like.

At the beginning of 1929, the first group of Ratno natives went out to hachshara. At the end of that year, in the midst of the disturbances of 5689 in the Land of Israel, our member, Mordechai Gefen, was authorized for aliya, and he set out on aliya. From that time, the path to actualization and aliya was open to many youths of Ratno - each person in the context of his movement. Many Ratno natives made aliya in this manner. The following are the names of the first ten people to make aliya, in the order of their aliya: Mordechai Gefen, Moshe Stern, Shmuel Marder, Isser Kwashnyk, Moshe Gutman, Simcha Lavie, Moshe Droog, Shmuel and Sara Goldman[1], Eliahu Feintuch, Ch. Givoni…

{Photo page 93: A group of activists. Bottom: Amalia Droog, Sheina Itzikson, Feicha Honik. Sitting A. Ginzburg, Pogatsh, Esther Eilbaum, Chaim Steinberg, Sara Yunevitz. Standing: M. Eilbaum, B. Cohen, A. Held, Ch. Rider, Shapir.}


Translator's Footnote

  1. Sara's maiden name is Papir. Return


[Page 91-alt]

On the Borders

by Aryeh Avrech

Translated by Jerrold Landau

Our mothers hardened their hearts to their sons and said: If you have a grocery store, you will ensure your livelihood. You were not created for greatness, and you must not set out overseas. Your house stands here at the coast, where your cradle was located, and where you will find comfort for your souls. A foolish spirit has entered into you. You speak of high and lofty things. Better than that would be for you to bear the yoke, live as a family with a mother of children, just as your father and I raised and nurtured you. You will be merchants. Do no disparage the small things. Earn coin after coin, and see a purpose in life. Climb the ladder higher and higher and merit to conduct business with the large cities of the country and amass a fortune. Your name will become known. - No dear mother! I cannot remain in your house - for it is destroyed. Idleness is consuming me like a moth and boredom is like mildew to me. There, outside, movement is beginning, calling toward life, work, and creativity.

The hidden gate is opened before us from there. It is like the gate of the Garden of Eden has opened before us, and a new light, the light of life, is sown for us. Let us arise, brothers and sisters, and go light the eternal candle in our home, which is the kibbutz.

Mother, you light the candles on Sabbath eves. We also light the candles on the eve of our great Sabbath, the eve of our aliya to the Land. We will prepare ourselves in great holiness to greet the queen that is waiting by the gate. We will wait with a trembling soul for the great moment when the voice will be heard, “And the children have returned to their borders!”[1].

Dear mother, will you prevent us from returning to the motherland? Will you prevent us from greeting the great Sabbath that comes at the end of the six days of work and creation? Will you withhold life from us?

The day will yet come when you too, Mother, will be called to join us and dwell in security in our home.

5689 (1929) (Lehavot, booklet 2)


Translator's Footnote

  1. Jeremiah 31:16. Return


[Page 94]

The Era of Ideological Excitement

by L. Baion

Translated by Jerrold Landau

 

Young Chalutz (Hechalutz Hatzair) in Ratno, Passover 5688

 

Even though Ratno was dependent on larger cities from an economic perspective, this was not the case from a social and cultural perspective. The larger cities were not dependent on Ratno, and apparently Ratno was not dependent on them. Jewish life in the town was forged through the generations, and had set patterns and norms. The way of life was based on tradition and religion, and there were no factors that deviated from that path. Sabbaths and festivals, weddings and circumcisions, Bar Mitzvah and Shalom Zachar celebrations and the like were based on the traditions of many years, and they formed the transcendental connection of Jewish settlements.

The town had its own clergy: a rabbi, rabbinical judge, scribe, teachers of children, beadles, teachers, etc. who forged the spiritual life, and never felt any need for any trusteeship or assistance from the Jewish communities of the large cities. Even honorable matters such as the writing of a Torah scroll, the acceptance of a new rabbi, the choosing of a gabbai and the like never deviated from the narrow confines of the small Jewish community. The Hassidic movement did not function in this manner. The movement forged connections and relationships between Jews in various cities, including Ratno. All of the Hassidic shtibels that were centered on the Street of the Synagogue (Shul Gasse) developed and nurtured social activities and mutual connections on the way to or from the court of the Rebbe, and through various meetings with the Rebbe himself. This led to economic and business connections that strengthened throughout time. This way of life continued until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.

The world order was shaken up in the wake of the world war, and

[Page 95]

cracks began to form in the set Jewish way of life. New winds began to blow in the world, which reached the narrow alleyways of tiny Ratno. The war sowed destruction around. There were frequent changes of regime which brought destruction and ruin in their wake. It was primarily the Jews that suffered. The retreating and advancing armies first took out all their wrath upon the Jews. Each side accused them with spying for the opposing side, and the Jews paid the full price for every defeat and every victory, even if they had no connection to either.

 

Hechalutz in Ratno Sept. 27, 1930

 

The Beginnings of Political Organization

At the end of the war, signs of small changes in the way of life began to show. The most significant was that the connection between Ratno and the regional city of Kowel was strengthened. The Zionist movement began to organize, the Hatzofeh scouting organization arose, dramatic clubs were founded, and various groups for social activity for orphans and other social needs were formed. In all such activities, there was influence as well as direct assistance from external institutions, the center in Warsaw, and the large neighboring city of Kowel. At around that time, the Jewish public bank was set up, which offered assistance to the merchants, tradesmen, and small-scale merchants. Various political movements sprouted and rose, including the General Zionists, Poale Zion, Young Zion, Hitachdut, Bund, and the Communists. All of these movements developed cultural activities. The debate between those faithful to the Hebrew Language and the Yiddishists was particularly felt in the town. Each side maintained its own school. At that time,

[Page 96]

the tradesmen's union, the professional union and the civic library were also established. Emissaries and speakers came from Kowel to lecture or organize party activities. The motion was bi-directional, however, since delegates from Ratno also went to the various conventions and gatherings.

I wish to rescue from oblivion several episodes related to the beginning of the pioneering movement in our town.

The years 1924-1926 were the golden era of this movement. Chapters of Hechalutz sprouted up throughout Wolhyn in an almost spontaneous manner, gathering in thousands of youths who had reached the decision that they must move over to a more productive life and bind their fate to the kibbutz movement of the Land of Israel. At that time, hachshara also developed - that is, dozens of places in Wolhyn in which the chalutzim [Zionist pioneers] would have to prove their level of fitness for physical labor, their readiness for personal actualization, and their ability to accustom themselves to a collective life. In the hachsharah points in the city, the members worked at road construction, wood chopping, various building efforts, and any other job that came up. Their salary went to the kibbutz kitty.

 

Elka Papir on Hachshara in Kosow (1935)

 

One of the largest hachshara kibbutzim in Wolhyn was in Klesowa [Klesov], not far from the city of Sarny, where the members worked primarily in rock quarrying. Aharon Werba of Kowel, one of the leaders of Hechalutz in Wolhyn, would visit the chapters, help organize the work, choose the members who were to go to hachshara, and organization various events in the cities of Wolhyn for the benefit of hachshara and aliya. He interrupted his studies in the Diaspora due to economic reasons, but did not want to continue in the petite bourgeois lifestyle of his parents. Therefore, he immersed himself, with his full enthusiasm and energy, into the activities of Hechalutz, which he regarded as his primary objective. He arrived in Ratno as an emissary of Hechalutz,

[Page 97]

in order to strengthen our activities, to lecture, and to solicit for some campaign of Hechalutz. He impressed us greatly with his interesting lectures and his personality. It was immediately recognizable that this youth was blessed with talents. Indeed, the days that he dwelled in our town were like festival days to our youth.

I also went out to hachshara in Klesowa, and remained there for 11 months. My connections with several members in Kowel were strengthened - especially my connection with Yisrael Wachsman. These connections finally led to a specific ideological crisis. We both were troubled, and we both had doubts about the path of the movement. We both regarded the idea of the kibbutz as promoting social isolation and distance from the social struggle. We decided to view the kibbutz as a specific group enclosed in the bounds of the collective, and not involving itself in the general struggles that break out within the group. Many questions began to go through our minds: Does this not smack of egoism toward the chosen group? What is our role in the struggle against enslavement and toward salvation that was being conducted by Socialists throughout the entire world? Are we able or permitted to remain neutral in that struggle? We infected other members in Klesowa with our concerns and our doubts, and the debates regarding these matters were very vibrant, ending with our victory. In a general meeting of all the members who were certified for aliya, a decision was made to accept our ideological principles. The following is the text of the decision: “The kibbutz must be a small-scale social laboratory, which must prepare the spiritual leaders of the collective to take their appropriate place at the time of the social revolution, and to direct the world economy.” This was more or less the version that was accepted with the most votes. From then on, the doubts and concerns deepened. New reasons arose in addition to the aforementioned reasons: the chalutz and kibbutz movement separate themselves from the world Socialist movement, do not identify with the workers striking for an increase in salary and better working conditions, and at times become strikebreakers by acting as scabs in workplaces that are in the midst of a strike. An additional complaint was that the chalutz movement directs its revolutionary fervor only toward the Land of Israel, and thereby distances parents from their children, instills a lack of faith in the youth toward their parents and their way of live, disparages Jewish culture and the language of the masses of the Jews by negating the Diaspora, etc. etc. We began to sense the need for a certain ideological sanitization that would bridge the gap between us and the masses of Jews in the Diaspora and their culture. The motto was: to return to the masses, to strengthen their class and situation, and to forge a strong permanent connection with their language and culture. The members who were attracted by these ideas gave up on aliya to the Land of Israel, and, from that point, invested all of their energy in completely different activities: setting up Jewish schools and libraries, bringing culture to the masses, promoting enlightenment, conducting lectures, founding Yiddish newspapers, and other such activities. I recall that Peretz Markish[1], Yaakov Zerubavel[2] and others were among the lecturers brought to Ratno and Kowel.

(From the “Pinkas Kowel” book.)


Translator's Footnotes

  1. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peretz_Markish Return
  2. A Labor Zionist leader (1886-1967). Return


[Page 94-alt]

Hechalutz Hatzair [The Young Pioneer]

by Shmuel Goldman

Translated by Jerrold Landau

We were young. The realm of our lives was narrow, and the desire to organize began to foment in our hearts. The feeling of “young pioneers” began to enchant us like a legend. Our knowledge of the various issues of the movement was cloudy and unclear. The opportunities for organization were also meager. Idle, without work experience and financial means, but with energy and zeal, we continued without interruption with the idea to which we aspired, but did not exist. Day by day, we gathered in the fields and engaged in discussions. We knew one thing: our actions would succeed if we learned how to raise our restricted group to a high level with diligent effort.

The cultural work relating to pioneering issues was successful. Slowly but surely,

[Page 95-alt]

we became a significant factor. Our knowledge broadened, and new members were added. One of our primary goals was to infiltrate the ranks of the populist working youth. We worked with the challenge of a meager location (a narrow room without sufficient light or room to sit). Nevertheless, our numbers grew with time, and approached 30 members. “Bituyim,” our publication, of which five issues had already been released, helped significantly in gaining members. In particular, our influence increased in the Polish school, which most of the children of meager means attended.

The chapter grew and various questions floated about. We sent two members to the convention of directors in Beresteczko. The convention had a positive effect on the work of our members. They learned about the problems of the movement and better connected to its values. When they returned to the organization, they dedicated themselves to the work with their full energy. It was particularly difficult to organize the youths of the movement. We were lacking the appropriate mindset for this. It was only after frequent requests from their side that we organized them into a regiment called Tz'Yzyk. Today this group has 25 members, most of them students of the Tarbut School. They are dedicated to the organization, are concerned with it, are active in the Jewish National Fund, etc. There are two groups in this regiment: Dror

[Page 96-alt]

and Amal. A member of the Bachurot section directed the group. The regiment committee is composed of directors of the groups and members chosen by the entire regiment. Through joint effort with Hashomer Hatzair, Hechalutz was organized into a group that numbers 60 members today. Our comrades are active in it and concerned for it. A female member of our chapter participated in the convention of leaders in Zelena (near Kowel) during the summer. Two others participated in the Hechalutz seminar in Warsaw. Today the chapter has 80 members who are organized into three different strata: Bachurot, Neorim, and Tzeirim. Each stratum has its own unique plan of activities.

Hechalutz Hatzair, issue 7, 1931


[Page 97-alt]

To Escape from the Valley of the Shadow of Death

by Batya Chayat

Translated by Jerrold Landau

It was a summer day. I sat alone at that time next to my house, while the wings of imagination bore me far away from the world of reality. I saw wonderful and amazing visions. Images passed before my eyes. I try now to remember, but I cannot bring them back to life. Yes, I do recall something. -- -- -- It was a summer morning. The sun had risen to make its path in the bright blue skies, and I was in the expanse of the fields. Everything around me was pleasant. The drops of dew winked in the heavy light from the grass, and the pleasant aroma that wafted up to my nose made me completely drunk. Mountains covered with grey could be seen in the horizon through the clear air. The thick grey and the peaks reached the heavens. -- -- --

Everything alive within me roared, and I was pinched. I woke up, but the echo of vague things arose within me. Wake up, leave the wasteland, flee, save your soul from the valley of the shadow of death, lest destruction overtake you.

I became sober, but my spirit did not quiet.

From the booklet “Bituyim” (Expressions), a publication of Young Hechalutz in Ratno. 10 Tevet, 5689 (1929).


[Page 98]

Six that were Designated

by Avraham Grabov[1]

Translated by Jerrold Landau

We were six with innocent childhood whims. When the glances of the eyes could interpret the matter - the face blushed… We, two girls and four boys, gathered together in the sand dunes, near the coniferous trees. Friendship flowed from their words, and the truth was clarified: From today, we are members of Hechalutz Hatzair. When we returned to the city, the six of us had different faces. The field served as the place for the discussions. We were sustained by the newspapers of previous days. We spoke about connections with the headquarters, about “ourselves” and “them,” about difficulties. It was still too early to speak about attracting the youths, even though we had the desire to impart our ideas to others. We had already received several letters from the headquarters, which imparted hope to us. We also read an article in Hechalutz Hatzair about such matters.

The town was in ferment, and the work of the secretary was beyond compare. The duty was accepted with love. There was internal organization, heartfelt love, and mutual responsibility.

We rented a room before the end of the summer. The windows were broken, and it did not even have a bench or a table - just four unplastered walls. We were careful to pay the monthly rent. Everything was in order.

If the candles burnt out, a member would run home, a distance of a kilometer or more, without anyone asking him to do so. He would return with a red face, breathing heavily, with a candle in his hand. The group sat on the floor. One person held the candle and a second one read. After deliberations, they would disperse with fear of the next day. From time to time, everyone would be enthusiastic over new programs. Doubts would be intermixed with dedication and worry.

With the passage of time, the small group took on an entirely different form. The self-interest grew. The childhood caprices gave way to conflict, and there was a desire to expose the bad in other people. There were conversations that were not for a positive reason.

From within the ranks sprouted the individual, the one who bore the load: it could not go on like this. He saw the need for changes, and would not abandon it. At night, during long evenings, in the morning, masses of demanding children stood before his eyes.

Months passed, half years went by and the youths grew up. Intelligence exuded from their eyes.

Traditional notions, concepts from the parents that had been collected in the minds of the youths, fell away in heaps within one evening.

The youths knew about freedom of thought and democracy, and became skilful

[Page 99]

at critical inquiry. The bounty of life beckoned to them, and they came to the group willingly to take hold, to take hold. He, the member of the ranks from that time, was like an overflowing well that gave of its bounty. He snatched a glance of pity upon himself at every appropriate moment. Before him were dusty souls, eyes thick with beauty, demanding and complaining.

… And the town - its Sabbaths continued on like the slumber of a cat. The light in the houses gave evidence of people sitting by the table playing cards. An extended yawn. In his heart - desires, aspirations, and pining for the expanses.

5681 (1921) - Hechalutz Hatzair, booklet 7.


Translator's Footnote

  1. The style of this article is awkward, and was difficult to translate. There was a mixture of first person and third person - and I changed it to first person for clarity. Return


[Page 98-alt]

by Shmulik Goldman[1]

Translated by Jerrold Landau

The pioneering movement was the central point of my life. I differentiate between two periods of my life: the first period was before I came to pioneering, and the second period was when I was within the pioneering organization and movement. Very few impressions remain with me from the first period, but I do remember the following: My father was fleeing and a Polish Hallerczyk was chasing after him, a man chasing after a man: a man fleeing and hiding from another man. A second moment was during the pogroms when they were murdering Jews. A feeling of revenge was awakened within me, and this came to fruition during my day to day activities.

I got to know Hechalutz for the first time through my work in digging trenches in the field. I enjoyed this, and thoughts about the kibbutz began with desires for pioneering “harmony.” I was among the organizers of Hechalutz Hatzair (before this, I was a member of Hashomer Hatzair) in my Shtetl. After I joined the chapter and began to work, the feeling of revenge passed. I understood the immorality of this. There were teachers in the Polish school who insulted the honor of the nation. There were altercations between us, and I was removed from the school more than once. I transferred to a Hebrew school. I did not find myself properly there either. They did not educate in the pioneering spirit.

[Page 99-alt]

I said that a Hebrew school of this nature had no rights of existence. At home, they did not permit me to work in the chapter.

I wished to actualize. I was 16-years-old, not yet fit for physical labor, but my will was strong. I was certain that the kibbutz would accept me. How could they not accept me when I wished to actualize? I escaped to the moshava. I met other young pioneers. Klesowa became my objective. Many legends floated around about it. There was a story of a group of members who stubbornly tied their fate to the place until the gates of the Land would open. It was told about a march on foot to Warsaw, to the Office of the Land of Israel, in order to demand the opening of the gates of the Land.

I struggled with “connections.” I befriended everyone. This angered my parents. As time went on, they also got used to this reality in the house, but they did not yet get accustomed to the idea of hachshara. We worked at chopping trees. After work, we did not go home, but rather to the hall. We danced a great deal until we fell to the ground in exhaustion. This was a moment of enthusiasm. We already began to feel this in the chapter. I was very dedicated to the chapter. I always dreamed about agricultural work.

When I returned from the moshava, I began to work in the district. I thought: I must not remain in the chapter, I must actualize. I was the first one of our Hechalutz Hatzair chapter to go on hachshara, and this was without authorization. The separation was very difficult. I had a feeling of regret, but I overcame it and restrained myself.

From Klesowa I went to the pioneering seminary. I wished to obtain a scientific grounding (even now, I want to learn very much). The conversations on “friendship” left a strong impression on me. “To love a person even if he is bad.” The farewell party at the seminary, the words of Tabenkin and Grinbaum, were words filled with flames. I got sick and traveled home. Even at home I took no interest in the business of my father. I could not tolerate myself for living under the support of my father, so I traveled to a kibbutz. The natural setting in Neman influenced me greatly and established my relationship to nature.

(From a discussion about my path to the movement, and my way in it.) At the conference of directors in Lachowice, 5691 - 1931.


Translator's Footnote

  1. Untitled in the text. In the table of contents listed as “My Path to the Movement.” Return


[Page 100]

Mornings in my Town

by Avraham Grabov

Translated by Jerrold Landau

As I was walking in the marketplace, rays of sunlight sparkled in my eyes.
A cool wind caressed me, and various feelings went through my insides.
I saw the shops before me.
The shops, upon which the merchandise was arrayed on the shelves: lies and falsehood!
They are still closed tight. They also seek rest and fragments of dreams.
There is no movement. Only silence sings and rings.
And I am standing here as if in a circle, it is dancing around me, it is closing me in,
To where? Where should you go? Stand here!…
My heart wonders, and my hands spread asking questions:
Should I indeed remain here, and not go out to the field at sunrise?

{Photo page 100: The Second World Seminar of Hechalutz Hatzair in Grochow (1931). At the rightmost edge of the top row: Avraham Grabov of blessed memory. At the left most edge of the third row: Shmuel Goldman.}


[Page 100-alt]

Moments

by Avraham Grabov

Translated by Jerrold Landau

He[1] derived a special type of enjoyment in my home as he sat next to the oven having sad thoughts, unintentionally making a line with the finger on the dew-covered window panes with everything that comes to mind: his name, and the names of the family members. After all this - words in the vernacular lacking any meaning, that entered the system during the school parties from long ago, wrote themselves.

[Page 101-alt]

He would stand and look, think and ponder, weave his own and borrowed threads, about the complexities of life and the riddles of the universe. Atop this - was the clock with its deathly ticking, as the death of a person. These were indeed unpleasant moments, frightening as the sparks of madness that removed all self-control from a person and left him open to blind fate, where anything could happen. However, they also had a unique charm, some sort of comfort for the soul and satisfaction: who are the human insects, crawling in such an absurd manner to earn their bread - can you understand it? Enjoyment sprouts up in the depths of agony. And when he would go out to stroll - he would bear upon himself a burden of thoughts that cast dust throughout all the cells of his brain, about the difficulties of life and personal preparations, about internal calm and certainty in the face of death. He would continue to go, kneading the mud with his shoes, as the rays of sunlight beat down upon him, penetrating him - without sensing the tears on his eyes.

Why did the tears come? Perhaps over the 15 years of his young life? It was not that. Strange hidden forces pulled him in both directions, with him in the middle.

Many attempted to interpret these goals. Dreams fluttered by: perhaps to abandon this “nonsense” and come to the status of Father, who sits every Saturday night surrounded by merchants like the spider from which many threads spread out.

No! No! Not this, not this. A life of understanding and human feeling.

Hints beckon. The heart is pulled after “great men.” Wholeheartedly, he swallowed biographies of poets, writers and people of renown. Books of memoirs, and learning parables from them, were pleasant to him. A feeling of a mission welled up inside of him. How? In what way? To where? It was not clear.

5693 (1933) Hechalutz Hatzair, booklet 15.


Translator's Footnote

  1. As in other articles by this author, the story mixes the first and third persons. Return


[Page 101]

by Shmulik Goldman[1]

Translated by Jerrold Landau

“How pale is your face! How strange is your gaze. Are you ill?”
My gaze is strange and my face is pale when I look upon you who are immersed in the Diaspora.
I am not ill. It is only you who are ill!
My gaze is strange as I peer into the depths of your conscience and see:
It is empty of anything new, it is full of old withered stuff!
You have only one concern - to fill your stomachs.
The fleshpots, the onions and garlic, will always stand before your eyes.
You are the generation of the desert, you will not feel the desolation;
Dead corpses do not want to know and understand the transition to life!
Your feeling has dimmed. Your flesh will be ploughed over and your skin will be flayed.
Then the old refrain will emanate from your mouths:
“We are sanctifying the Divine Name!”
-- You know that G-d commanded you to be killed over a commandment,
But to attempt to build over the destruction and to change your situation -
This too will not enter your spirit!

(Bituyim [Expressions] booklet, Ratno.)

{Photo page 101: The Cyzyk Group in Ratno. September 27, 1930


Translator's Footnote

  1. This poem is untitled Return


[Page 102]

I Will Not Allow!

By Shmulik Goldman[1]

Translated by Jerrold Landau

It seems that Mother and Father tried to plant gall and wormwood in me,
The weeds that grow on a desolate field.
And intend to bind me in chains,
Also the redeeming hands for the abandoned soul.
I will not allow -
You believe!
And what if my back is not used to being bent under a heavy load?
It will become accustomed!
And what if my feet are not used to walking on scorching stones?
They will get used to it!
And I will not allow Mother and Father to bind me in chains.

(Published in the Massada publication in Kowel, 5689 - 1929)

{Photo page 102: Sara Ginzburg, Ruth Greenstein and Shmuel Goldman of Ratno on Hachsharah in Klosow.}


Translator's Footnote

  1. This poem is untitled Return


[Page 102-alt]

Spring on the Roads

by Shaul Greenstein

Translated by Jerrold Landau

The fields and meadows clear out. Paths overflow between the colorful carpets. Trails intersect in the blue horizon, and a pleasant silence whispers a secret all around. Wayfarers go along the way in wagons and on foot, and many Jews go to the fair in the nearby city. They go in grey groups, one like the next. The same groans, the same conversations, the same sunken eyes and faces wrinkled with tribulations. Footpaths lead to the different chapters. Lone people go through the paths in the fields alongside the spring sun. It is like a colorful kerchief spread out before the fields. The wind plays with my coat. I walk with a joyous heart and sense the pulse of spring in my veins. Jewish towns. Lowly houses, poverty and lack. Worries of livelihood darken the faces “like the underside of a pot.” There is sadness, sadness. Even in the spring. Only in the chapter, in the meeting hall, is there a bright, encouraging corner. The eyes sparkle and the hearts are bound together and alert: what will we do on hachshara? What is with the movement? What is the news from the Land? More than once when I came to the chapter that I had been attending for several months, I see: the context widened, the membership grew, it strengthened. You are filled with an internal joy when you witness the joy of a gardener watching the growth of his saplings, woven with strands of love.

There is a faithful splendor to our pioneering movement. It is spring. A pleasant, bountiful spring. Far off, the thunder roars, but the heart swells with joy. What type of deep faith and encouraging hope fill you as you see the trees budding, the fields growing with pleasant greenery, and the young pioneers who are growing up and making aliya to the towns of Israel.

Booklet 3-4, Hechalutz Hatzair, 1939.

 

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