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Chapters of memories and Experiences

 

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Memories of the Distant Past[1]

by Isser Kamintzky

Translated by Jerrold Landau

Many memories of my childhood in Ratno remain with me today, and I will try to put some of them in writing. I remember very well the Shtibel of the Stepan Hassidim, which was very large and had many windows on all sides. Along the length of the shtibel were ovens that were lit in the winter. Several young men who had completed their studies in the cheders would sit and study in the shtibel.

I remember very well the house in which the Stepan Rebbe stayed whenever he used to visit Ratno. On winter Sabbaths, the house would turn into the women's gallery in which our mothers would worship. Behind the house was the yard that separated the New Shtibel from the Old Shtibel of the Hassidim of Stepan. A flask of water stood there for washing the hands after attending to the call of nature. The jokers of the town would light candles on the small wooden planks on the eve of Simchat Torah and sing heartily “Kol Mevaser Mevaser Veomer”[2]. I did not know then nor do I know now the meaning and purpose of this joke. To us children, the Old Shtibel of the Hassidim of Stepan seemed as if it was shrouded in mystery. Many legends were told about the place where the bed, table and chair of the Reb Yitzchak, the Tzadik of Nischiz of blessed memory, stood. Our grandfathers and grandmothers would tell about the great works of wonder of this Tzadik, and also about the great dispute between the Nischiz dynasty and the court of the Rebbe of Trisk. During our youth, we were very curious to know what took place in the four ells[3] of this Shtibel. We would peek through the cracks in the broken shutters, or follow Reb Chaim, the shamash of both the Great Synagogue and the Stepan Shtibel. He was very diligent about maintaining the cleanliness of the two houses of worship for which he was responsible. He was among those who “delayed taking leave of the Sabbath and hastened entering it,” as is said in the Sabbath hymns. I recall that when gas lamps were installed in these two houses of worship, Reb Chaim would carefully climb the ladder and light the lamps with awe and trepidation. He enjoyed the sight of the Jews coming to the Welcoming of the Sabbath service attired in their Sabbath finery, with their finely groomed beards. He was especially happy when he succeeded in finding hosts for all of the guests that had come to town for the Sabbath.

Behold, with the eyes of my spirit I see Reb Ben-Tzion Steingarten of blessed memory as he walks with measured steps from his place at the eastern wall behind the bima. Several important people, enwrapped with their tallises, with the silver tallis adornment (atara) covering their heads stand next to him. He recites the “Yehi Ratzon” prayer on the Sabbath preceding the New Moon (Shabbat Mevorchim) with a trembling voice.

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Reb Ben-Tzion, the pleasant and scholarly Jew, had the constant rights[4] to lead the congregation in this Rosh Chodesh prayer. He recited the prayers with sweetness, and with such a melody that it seemed as if he intended to “forcibly” extract a good month for his Jewish brethren from the Holy One Blessed Be He. His prayer “A long life, a life of livelihood, a life of fear of Heaven and fear of sin”, was splendid in my ears. When he reached the words “and all those who faithfully occupy themselves with the needs of the community”, it was impossible not to feel that he was attempting to convince the Holy One Blessed Be He that his brethren of his people were all precious and proper Jews. When the Days of Awe approached with the prayers of Rosh Chodesh Elul, Reb Ben-Tzion would instill upon the worshippers the fear of the approaching Day of Judgment. The next day, a larger number of Jews attended the services. Even those who would customarily recite the Shacharit service privately preferred communal worship during Elul. The sounds of the shofar blasted forth from all of the Beis Midrashes, and we, the jokers of the town, would take the shofar into our hands when nobody was looking so we could try our skill at blowing. The special melodies of the prayers of the High Holy Days could be heard from the homes of the prayer leaders as well as the Beis Midrashes. The elderly and youths would recite their daily Psalms with extra devotion during the month of Elul. Even Mottel the deaf mute, who was always an enigma in my eyes, seemed to become more observant. This Mottel had a great knowledge of arithmetic, and at times, when we would ask, he would demonstrate his prowess at mental calculations. During Elul, Mottel would get angry if we would ask him something in the middle of the services. He would put a finger to his mouth as if to say, “it is forbidden to speak.”

The trepidation of the approaching Days of Awe was also felt in the cheder of Nechemia the teacher.

{Photo page 126: Group of members of Hechalutz in 1929. Sitting (from right to left): P. Honik, Sh. Itzikson (perished), B. Cohen (Argentina), Sh. Pogatch and G. Karsh (perished).
Standing: A. Droog (perished), A. Held (Israel), L. Baion (Mexico), M. Shapir, G. Shapira, R. Ponetz, Ch. Marsuk, and L. Aharonson (perished).}

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All of the students studied with extra meticulousness, and we worshiped with devotion. Reb Nechemia would tell us, “Remember that you young people can attain much more than we adults are able to attain through prayer from the depths of the heart.” It is no wonder then that during Elul, we would engage in soul searching and attempt to atone for the sins that we had transgressed...

Reb Avrahamche Telizon also taught in Reb Nechemia's cheder. He was a pleasant and precious Jew, who dressed splendidly. He would also give lessons (“Urok”) in the homes of the children. My father of blessed memory forged a special friendship with this teacher. He would bring him various gifts from his trips to Danzig: a pocket knife, a watch, a purse, etc. Later Reb Avrahamche, along with his friend Reb Yudel Konishter, founded the first school in the house of Reb Mendel Stoler. He was a teacher of Hebrew and Yiddish, while Yudel, who was nicknamed Yudel Malka's in the name of his mother, taught Russian. Yudel became known as an intelligent and erudite young man, who forged paths toward Haskala in the town and was a subscriber to the Hebrew “Hatzefira” newspaper. I remember well how our teachers would educate us toward the land of Israel, and the enthusiasm with which they taught us to sing the national hymn “Hatikva”[5]. Thus did the love of the homeland, the Hebrew Language and Zionism become instilled in our hearts already in our early youth. There is no doubt that as a result of this education, the majority of the youths of Ratno later joined the Zionist organizations.

The days of Selichot[6] are etched in my memory. We would arise at 3:00 a.m., when the entire town was still enveloped in sleep. Father would go in front, followed by the elder sons. Other Jews would come out from the various lanes, walking in the direction of the shtibels and the Beis Midrash. Some held a lantern in their hands, while others lit the way with a candle. When we arrived at the Shtibel, there were already several Jews there sitting next to the tables and lecterns. The main task of Selichot was of course filled by the cantor, who had prepared himself for this prayer beforehand. The Selichot lasted until the Shacharit service. Then we would make haste to the bathhouse to immerse ourselves prior to the onset of the festival. Reb Gedalia the bath attendant was in charge there. He would give the broom and pail of water to every important householder, and would run from the mikva to the oven in order to maintain the temperature of the water. There was great preparation and bustle in the bathhouse. The screams of the children reached the heavens... One child lost his underpants, while another was searching for his lost pants or coat in his friend's sack. New faces were seen on the streets of the town. These were the village Jews who lived an isolated life in their villages throughout the year and satisfied themselves with a bare minyan [prayer quorum] on Sabbaths. On the High Holy Days they would stream into the nearby town to celebrate the festival along with the other Jews. Such was the custom from days of yore, and they would generally stay with relatives and acquaintances. The village Jews would

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bring delicacies with them to town: fowl, eggs, dried fruit, and the like. The Jews of Ratno would welcome the villagers pleasantly. If any of them did not have a place to stay, they would accept the situation and sleep in the attic of the Beis Midrash. In town, they would joke a bit about these village Jews who were not knowledgeable in the customs of the festival and the various prayers. We, the children of the town, would dandy ourselves before them in our new clothes, shoes and hats.

I recall the home of my uncle Reb Avraham the shochet [ritual slaughterer], who would take on a new role prior to Yom Kippur, when all the Jews prepared their Kaparot and hastened to the house of the shochet with their chickens. My uncle would spend many hours sharpening his chalafs [slaughtering knives], so that no mishap should take place with the shechita, Heaven forbid. It was crowded all around as everyone shouted to the shochet, “Reb Avraham, please slaughter mine already.” My uncle conducted his holy task with great patience, as if the voices were not directed to him. He would carefully examine each bird, and then sharpen his knife very well again. Toward the evening, Reb Avraham would sit in his salon (“Stolowa”) with an open Gemara, completely immersed in the tractate, with a unique, sweet tune emanating from his mouth. He only stopped this melody for a moment when his wife Dova entered.

I see the Sabbath afternoons in our town before my eyes. After the ample Sabbath meal, Jews would go out to stroll on the sidewalks. Men were going to drink cold soda water to help the kugel or the chulent, the main courses of the Sabbath meal, “go down in peace.” After that, they would observe the commandment of “sleeping on the Sabbath.” After their nap, the tea flasks prepared specially for the Sabbath would be removed from the stoves, and several glasses of tea would be enjoyed with or without spices. Then people would go once again to the Beis Midrash, to recite “Pirke Avot”[7], attend a lecture, or study “Ein Yaakov”[8]. This was also the time for visits of guests, and for the children to stroll on the streets. It goes without saying that on these walks, “rumors” would be spread about a certain boy who apparently loves a certain girl “over the ears,” or a certain girl who has her eye on a certain boy... On these Sabbath afternoons, the more serious youths would engage in debates on issues of the day or on books that they had read during the week. We would borrow the books from the library of Itzel Spilman, who was nicknamed Itzel Kli Zemer [the musician], since he played the violin at all of the Jewish weddings that took place in the town. More than one bride shed tears during the “seating” ceremony at the sound of his sad melodies. The image of this Itzel stood before my eyes when I later read Sholom Aleichem's “Stempenyu.” His was the only private library in town before the First World War, and one could also find there the various monthlies and weeklies to which Itzel subscribed.

Dust was raised in the city toward evening, when the gentile Winka brought back the

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{Photo page 129 top: In the Old City in the winter.}

{Photo page 129 bottom: Agricultural Hachsharah, in a manner of speaking, in front of the camera...}

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flocks from the meadows. The housewives would sit on the sidewalks next to the houses, examine each animal well, and express their opinions about the “Jewish animals.” The gentile Nesczia, who spoke Yiddish as if she were a proper Jewish woman, ran from one Jewish house to the next to milk the cows[9]. She had pieces of challa in her purse that were given to her by the women in honor of the Sabbath. I see myself entering some Shtibel for the Mincha service. The characteristic melancholy of the departure of the Sabbath was already felt in the Beis Midrash, as the extra soul exits and the weekdays, filled with their worries and tribulations, stand at the threshold. Several dozen Jews sit along the table, including Yehuda Meir Richter with his long neck, reciting the Aramic prayer “Askinu Seudasa.” The custom was that on each Sabbath late afternoon, people would take turns in bringing the challa, more precisely “Kviltz,” and salted fish for the Seuda Shelishit (third Sabbath meal). Each one of those at the meal received the “kezayit[10] that would be sufficient to recite the Hamozie blessing. The time came for the hymns, which poured out as the pinnacle of lofty, sweet tunes. They began with “Baruch Kel Elyon,” and moved on to “Yetzave Tzur Chasdo,” etc. Reb Moshe, the cantor, would often teach a new melody to the congregation that he himself had composed, and the enthusiasm overflowed. The Jews did not want to part from the holy Sabbath, and they would be ready to sit a long time and continue with these sweet melodies. However, Reb Chaim the shamash lit the candles next to the Holy Ark and someone began the Maariv (evening) service with the gloomy chant of “Vehu Rachum Yechaper Avon”[11]. This was a clear sign that the Sabbath had departed. Several shopkeepers hastened to leave the Shtibel so that they could open their stores, with the hope that some income would be realized to greet the upcoming week.

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{Photo page 131 top: Jews and Ukrainians at the Third of May Celebrations.}

{Photo page 131 bottom: A Wedding of the Honik family. The grandmother is in the center.}

Translator's Footnotes

  1. In the table of contents at the front of the book, this chapter is called “Memories of the Recent Past.” Return
  2. A refrain from one of the prayers of Hoshana Rabba, which occurs two days before Simchat Torah. The refrain means, “The voice of the herald heralds and proclaims,” a reference to the bearer of the tidings of the coming of the Messiah. Return
  3. An ell is an archaic unit of measure, often considered as an alternate form of a cubit. The expression 'four ells' generally refers to a restricted space, not just in area but also in mindset and outlook. Return
  4. The Hebrew term here is 'chazaka' which implies an established right to a specific ritual synagogue honor. Return
  5. Today the national anthem of Israel. Return
  6. The period of recitation of penitential prayers prior to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The elongated Selichot service described in the lines below, followed by immersion, is likely the Selichot of the eve of Rosh Hashanah. Return
  7. The mishnaic tractate “Chapters of the Fathers”, customarily studied during summer Sabbath afternoons. Return
  8. An anthology of the aggadaic (lore) sections of the Talmud. Return
  9. An act forbidden on the Sabbath to Jews. Return
  10. A halachic volume (of debatable size) that defines the required amount for any obligatory eating. It is the required amount for the matzo and maror on Passover eve, as well as the required amount of bread that would result in an obligation to recite the Grace after Meals. (There is a halachic error in this sentence, as the Hamotzie blessing can be recited on any amount of bread, whereas the Grace after Meals requires a “kezayit”.) Return
  11. “And He, being all merciful, forgives sins” -- the opening phrase of the weekday Maariv service. Return


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My First Attempt at Agriculture

by Simcha Lavie

Translated by Jerrold Landau

The built up portion of the town had already been located on the north branch of the Pripyat River for some time. We had a plot of land at the bend in the main road, which my father had received from his father-in-law as a dowry after he married my mother. This plot of land had been passed down for many generations as an inheritance within our family. At first, my father used it as a vegetable garden for the family that had grown with the passage of time. I recall that preparing the plot for planting was accompanied by worry and concern. We planted with worry and harvested with joy. Pavel Zhuk and his family dragged away the harvest. This Pavel Zhuk was a Ukrainian, not necessarily from the highest classes of his people. His name was often involved with acts of crime, and not without basis. When he did not stop pillaging the vegetables from our garden, my father girded himself with strength, entered his house, and spoke to him at length. This Ukrainian did not attempt to deny his acts, and told my father with a cunning smile, “You are an intelligent and learned Jew, and you see with your eyes that I am unable to suffice myself within the bounds of my plot of land. Come and let us make a business deal and remain friendly. You will transfer your plot, which is next to mine, into my name, and I will transfer a larger plot to you in the region of Ricz-Spunczyk on the way to the village of Ukuszy.” My father did not immediately reject the proposition. He deliberated, took advice from his friends, and finally decided to agree to the proposed business arrangement. Thus did my family begin to grow grain and potatoes. Several years later, when I grew up, I took upon myself the responsibility for cultivating this plot of land. I supervised the plowing and planting, but the wheat harvest was performed by Anatoly, one of the finest of the Ukrainians who lived in Ratno. We had an agreement with him that he would keep 2/3 of the harvest, and the owner of the plot would keep 1/3.

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From that time, I was the constant overseer of that plot of land, and thus my first relationship with “mother earth” was formed. My frequent visits to the plot of land were surprising to the farmers, who had trouble understanding why a young Jew would be involved in working the land, for they were accustomed to seeing Jews in their roles as merchants and shopkeepers. To the merit of Anatoly it should be noted that he did his best to respond to this “misunderstanding”, and even explained to the farmers who could not “comprehend” the situation that I was planning to travel to the Holy Land and earn my livelihood from working the land.

I myself derived great satisfaction from my closeness to the earth and working the land. I always remembered the enchanting stanzas of Bialik's poem “In the Field”:

“Tell me, mother earth, broad, full, and large

Why does your field not deliver a lowly and yearning soul also to me?”

I went out to our field, not as a stranger. I attempted to listen and understand in accordance with the words of the poet, “That which G-d is speaking from the stalks of standing grain, how slowly the wind is causing the bent stalks to rustle, what the Ziz-sadai[1] is secretly embroidering.” Even if my ideal of becoming a tiller of the land was not realized during those days -- I still recall those days in Ratno with satisfaction, when I was so close to nature and the work of the land, to the merit of Pavel Zhuk.

Translator's Footnote

  1. A mythical bird. Return


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The Terror of Fires

by Chaya Frusman

Translated by Jerrold Landau

Memories of recurring fires from my early childhood accompany me. Our street bordered on the alleys of the anti-Semitic Ukrainians, who schemed against their Jewish neighbors in various ways. Even members of the citizens' guard, who made the rounds at night with kerosene lanterns to protect the Jewish houses, did not succeed in protecting us from fires and arson. I recall that we children went to sleep without getting undressed, and prepared to exit the house in haste in the event of a fire. At times, we would go out half naked in the middle of the night. We were afraid to go to sleep, and nightmares afflicted us even after we fell asleep. I would often awaken at night screaming. It seemed to me that I heard voices saying, “David, David, get up, there is a fire!”

I recall one night, when I jumped outside and saw light as if the middle of the day -- light from the large tongues of fire ascending to the heavens along with rising pillars of smoke. People screamed and wept, and ran hastily to the well and river to fetch water. We children were also involved with extinguishing the fire. We ran with pails full of water, and when we reached the place of the fire, we would give the pails to

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older people. Our house burned down that night, and we were left without a roof over our heads. We sat on the bundle of belongings that we succeeded in salvaging and wept. Do not forget that all of the houses of the city were made of wood, and one spark would be sufficient to cause the fire to spread. I saw one woman lamenting over her burnt dough-trough since she would have nothing in which to prepare her dough for the baking of the Sabbath challas. We sat next to the embers and burnt houses until morning, guarding our remaining household objects lest they be pillaged by the gentiles. Jews gathered around us in the morning, offering assistance. All of those afflicted by the fire spread out among neighbors. My family and I lived in the house of my father's wagon driver. We lived there until we rebuilt our house.

Many years have passed since then, but even now, every time that I see a fire or hear the word “fire” -- I remember that night when our house went up in flames along with many other houses.


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How do you Teach?

by Berel Kahan

Translated by Jerrold Landau

One of the most important melamdim [teachers of young children] who had his own cheder in town, was Menachem the Melamed. I recall him as a man in his early fifties, tall and thin, with a very straight gait. White hairs could already be found in his black beard, and his yarmulke under his hat was full of sweat.

Menachem the Melamed lived close to the Pripyat River that cut our town in two. There were three rooms in his house: a large room, a bedroom, and a small kitchen with an oven for cooking and baking bread. In the large room that served as the study room, a long table stood with two long benches next to it for his 10 - 12 students. A footstool stood at the head of the table that served as the seat of the melamed himself. Aside from this furniture, there was a chest of drawers, a closet and a bookshelf in the room.

Menachem's wife, or, as she was called, the rebbetzin, was a very young woman of approximately 30 years old. She was his second wife. She always had a year or two- year-old baby in her arms. The wicker cradle in the room belonged to that baby.

Menachem was known in town as a good teacher of Chumash and Rashi, but not everyone wished to send their children to his cheder, for he was known as someone who was prone to anger and who did not spare the strap from his students. He would whip them on their buttocks, and he would even tie them with chains. On the other hand, on “Nitl” night[1] when it was the custom to refrain from teaching, Menachem would entertain his students. He would teach them to play dominoes and make good plays in the game. He would derive a great deal of pleasure when he realized that we caught on.

During the days of Chanuka, we would bring two or three kopecks for preparing latkes. During the evenings, the Rebbetzin would fry very tasty latkes for us. We would eat the latkes, play dreidel and cards, and we would all wish that these festive days would continue on and not be followed by the regular grey days of studies and whippings by our teacher.

After we already knew the trop[2] and the Torah portions, Menachem would begin to teach us Chumash and Rashi, and then the Early Prophets. Every two students shared one bible. The teaching methodology was that the Rebbe would read outline, and we would repeat after him “Vayedaber-Hot Geret, Adoshem-Got, El Moshe, Tzu Moshen, Leemor-Azoi tzu zugn”, etc.[3] Friday was designated for tests. Every one of the students had to recite two verses from the first section of the weekly Torah portion, in turn. I recall that on one of those Fridays, when Matas, one of the students who was the son of Nisi the Shoemaker, did not know the explanation of a certain word in the weekly Torah portion,

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Menachem slapped him soundly on his cheeks, and the boy burst out in bitter crying. “You will cry more,” shouted Menachem, “You are a veritable gentile, and I need to hit you more. Lie down immediately!”

Menachem's way of doing things was that if a child was to be whipped, he would have to pull down his underwear with his own hands, lie on the bench, and, without saying anything, present his back for the whip of the melamed. However, this Matas felt that the Rebbe was too stringent this time, and that slapping him on the cheeks was a sufficient punishment for not knowing the explanation of a certain word, therefore he decided to not present his back for the beatings, not pull down his underwear, and not lie on the bench in accordance with the Rebbe's command. He remained sitting on the bench and did not move from his place. This rebellion set the Rebbe off. He attacked the student and tried to force him to lie down so that he would be able to whip him. However, the student began to kick the Rebbe with his feet, and hit him on his heart and his face. The Rebbe gave in. This was the first and perhaps the only time that his verdict was not carried out…

It seems to me that the primary skill of our Rebbe was in teaching the first section of every Torah portion, as well as in the first chapters in the Book of Joshua. That far, and no more. If we had finished studying the Book of Joshua and the term had not ended, for some reason, he would begin to teach us the Book of Daniel. He would manage somehow with the Hebrew portion of that book, but when he reached the Aramaic chapters, it would be like the “wagon began to grate,” as if the wheels were broken…

This Rebbe's methodology in teaching Yiddish writing was very interesting. Before I began to study with Menachem, I had learned writing from the teacher Zelig the Hunched, as we would call him on account of his way of walking. Zelig's methodology was straightforward: We would purchase a piece of paper for a small coin and bring it to the Rebbe. He would fold it into four sections, and draw straight lines on it. These would be the writing lines, and it was forbidden to go outside them. The Rebbe would write the entire aleph beit on the first line in pen or a duck quill dipped in ink. On the rest of the lines, we would have to write the entire aleph beit with our own hand in accordance with the Rebbe's writing style. After we already knew how to write all the letters, we had an additional exercise - to write the aleph beit backwards, starting from the last letter and in groups: Tashrak, Tzafes, Nimlach, Yatchaz, Vehadgba

When I began to study with Menachem, I already knew how to form words from the letters. I remember that I would often write the sentence that is commonly written in the cover of books, in this form: “This book belongs. To whom does it belong? To he who bought it. Who bought it? He who paid. Who paid?” Etc. Etc.

With Menachem, we began with a veritable steel pen. Once a month, Menachem would prepare a form of a letter for writing (“Firgris”), and we would copy it throughout the month. I recall the text:

Baruch Hashem, Day… In our community”

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“To the honor of the sage and leader, Mr. …”

First I wish to inform you that I am feeling well and living in peace. May G-d let me hear the same from you, Amen Selah. Second, I wish to inform you that I am sending fifty oxen with the person bearing this letter, and the Blessed G-d will help, and everything should be with blessing and success. Amen. From me, the undersigned.”

Menachem would change the form of his letter each month. He would exchange the oxen for grain or boards, and instead of Warsaw, he would send them to Danzig or Leipzig…

It is worthwhile to note that Menachem the teacher became well-known in Ratno for his methodology of teaching writing, and his exercises. Other teachers did not involve themselves at all with teaching writing, perhaps because they themselves did not know how to write…

 

Teachers and Writers

Jewish education was not only in the hands of the melamdim. As time went on, other educators who were called morim (teachers) or sofrim (writers or scribes) arrived on the scene. I will mention a few of them here. The first is Hershel Shachne's. Before he arrived here, he tried his luck in the United States. Apparently, he did not succeed there. He was known as a great scholar, for he was one of the few in town who was able to write a letter of request (“Frashenia”) to the district judge. This Hershel would teach us Yiddish, Russian, and also a bit of English, so that we would be able to write the address of a letter to the United States when necessary. He lived in the home of his father Shachne, who was known as Shache the Doctor, in a tiny room that was designated for the entire family. The larger room in this house served as the teaching room. I only studied Russian with him. He had one textbook that he had purchased from a Russian peddler during one of the fairs. I recall that, aside from the Russian alphabet, this book had a story for children called “Golden Fish.” Teaching did not provide enough income for Hershel to support his family, so his wife knitted socks. She was born in Brisk, from where she had brought a sewing machine, the first of its type in Ratno. Since she was always busy with the machine, Hershel had to fill in for her in various household tasks, especially in caring for the children. Since the couple had many children, one could often see and hear Hershel busy with his children in the small room, while his students were sitting and reading the story of the golden fish in Russian out loud in the large room. Hershel would correct the mistakes while he was caring for one of his babies… The meager tuition fee (60 kopecks per month for two hours of lessons a day) was not enough to keep Hershel in teaching. Hershel did not last long in Ratno. He returned to the United States, where he was employed in preparing Jewish children for their Bar Mitzvahs.

 

The Teachers David Finkelstein and Avraham Telison

After Passover in 1899, a young Jew named David Finkelstein came to Ratno from the town of Liwona.

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In town, they said that he had to leave his hometown because he did not have good relations with his grandfather, who was the rabbinical judge of the town. He was divorced, and he brought with him his tallis and tefillin, but not one piece of clothing worthy of the name. He lived with the Frishberg family as well as in the home of Getzel Konishter. Instead of paying rent, he taught their two daughters. Two members of the intelligentsia of the town, Yehoshua Pogach and Zalman Burstein, felt it necessary to order a suit for him from Eliahu-Pesia the tailor, who also served as the jester at weddings. I do not know what David Finkelstein did for a living in his hometown, but in Ratno he set up a four grade school scattered in different places: one class with the Gemara teacher Yaakov Prossman, a second in the home of Berl Vernik, a third, only for girls, in the home of Reizel Kuperberg, and a fourth, also for girls, in the home of Asher Shapira. The tuition fee in those days was one ruble per month. There were two hours of lessons per day. This was a reasonably high rate in comparison with the tuition fees receive by other melamdim. David Finkelstein taught us Hebrew and Yiddish. His teaching style was literal translation. He used the textbook of M. M. Dolitzki during his Hebrew lessons. He made us transcribe a chapter of the book, and then corrected our mistakes. Once a week, he taught us the Book of Proverbs, and I also recall that he taught us the Book of Ben Sirah[4]. I also recall that he once wrote out for us a large Hebrew article in the religious nationalist spirit. He read us the article and we wrote it in our notebooks as he was reading. One of the students of the class showed the article to the Lithuanian teacher in our town, who enjoyed the juicy expressions and noted that he had never before seen anything in that style. There were rumors in town that he taught the Song of Songs in the style of the heretics - that is: in accordance with the literal content as a romance between a young man and woman, and not in accordance with the commentary of Rashi, who interpreted it as love between the Holy One Blessed Be He and the community of Israel. This resulted in him losing his rights to teach girls in the home of Asher Shapira. Sometimes, he would read us an article from the Hamelitz newspaper, to which he was the only subscriber in Ratno. (Aside from Hamelitz, two copies of Hatzefira would be sent to Ratno. One was for a group of young people who read it together, and the second was for Yitzchak Marsik, the son-in-law of Chona Tyktiner, who had a fine Hebrew library in his home). I do not remember for how long David Finkelstein remained in our town, but I do know that he was finally forced to leave the town because he was in dire straits, literally to the point of hunger. I myself was a witness to the fact that my friend Getzel, the son of Chaim-Yudel, brought him a package of food without anyone seeing in the evening. My heart was literally pained at the dire straits of our teacher. I do not know where David Finkelstein went after Ratno, but he once came to visit the town, and I went to see him. I saw an edition of Hamelitz on the table in the room where he was staying, and the address on the wrapper said, “The Correspondent David Finkelstein.”

[Page 136]

{Photocopies page 136: Pages from “Hamelitz” with an article about Ratno by Y. Finkelstein.[5]}

Translator's Footnotes

  1. Christmas Eve, or possibly the eve of the Eastern Christmas, when, by Jewish tradition, one is not supposed to study Torah. Return
  2. The cantillation notes of the scriptures. Return
  3. Each word or phrase of the verse was read in Hebrew and then translated into Yiddish. This verse is “And G-d spoke to Moses saying.” Return
  4. A book of the Apocrypha. Return
  5. The photocopies are of poor quality, especially on the right side. The top right article is only the last part of a longer article, apparently, and was written by David Finkelstein. The lower right article is under a headline called “Telegrams”, dated Saturday, August 19 (13 Elul). Top left is the bottom portion of an article written by Ch. Shakhabenson. The lower left article is written by David Finkelstein, and states that it is from Ratno. It discusses the visit of the “holy grandson” (evidently a Hassidic leader) to our town. The right side of this article is partially obscured. The text of the top right article and the lower left article appears on the side articles of page 134 and 135. Return


[Page 132-alt]

With the Stain of Poverty

by Berel Kahan

Translated by Jerrold Landau

Just like many other small, remote towns in Poland, our town was also very poor from an economic perspective. It had no factories or industrial enterprises, and it was also far from the railway station. In my time, Ratno had no bank or loan fund that could provide economic assistance to small scale merchants or forestry dealers. Therefore, it was natural that the town was enveloped in poverty and hardship, and there was almost no difference between the poor and the rich.

The forestry traders floated lumber to Germany via the Pripyat River. The cattle merchants would pass through the villages in the region, purchase the cattle from the farmers, and export them to the capital city of Warsaw. This was the occupation of Itzikl, the cattle drover. He would gather the cattle together to take them to Brisk, and from there on to Warsaw.

Approximately half of the livelihood of the town came from the village population. The many shopkeepers in the town were primarily dependent on this source of livelihood. During the fair days, the farmers from the village would stream to Ratno to sell their produce. With the money they received, they purchased all of their needs for their farms and households in the village. On the other hand, the livelihoods of the Jewish tradesmen were dependent on the city population.

The condition of life of the farmers was very primitive, and they got by on very little. On the other hand, the standard of living of the Jews in the town was significantly higher than that of the villagers. The Jews depended on the carpenter to fix their table or bed, the tinsmith, the watchmaker, the bookbinder, etc. Indeed, there were tradesmen in town who were needed by both the city Jew and the village gentile, such as the shoemakers, tailors, furriers, blacksmiths, hat makers, etc. Even they did not earn any more than “water for porridge,” as we used to say, and a single worry always pressed at them: how to obtain the provisions for the Sabbath?

[Page 133-alt]

I recall many episodes that highlight the great poverty in the town. I will relate one of them that relates to me personally. My father was employed in a lumber business. He spent all the days of the week in the forests, and only returned to town on Fridays. He returned to the forests early Sunday morning. Despite his backbreaking work, his income was barely sufficient to sustain the family. I was the only son of my parents, and I often walked through the alleyways of the town with torn pants. One day, when I was innocently walking in the direction of the market, I passed by Shapira's textile shop. By chance, Shapira's son, who assisted his father, was sanding next to the door of their store. He noticed me and my torn pants, and called out, “Child, go tell your mother that I have a piece of cloth in my store that can be bought cheaply, and then she can sew new pants for you”…

I recall that these words made me feel embarrassed, despite the fact that I was then a young child. I did not tell anything to Mother, for I knew that she did not have money to buy me new pants. However, from that time, I made efforts to avoid going by Shapira's store…

Berl Kahn (Chanche's)


[Page 134-alt]

Articles from “Hamelitz” Newspaper

by David Finkelstein

Translated by Jerrold Landau

“Hamelitz” edition 37, 1901

Ratno (Wolhyn District) - It has not even been a month since one “Holy Grandson” left our town after spending a few weeks here, rescuing many “channels.” Already another Rebbe with six gabbaim [assistants] has come to our city and opened up his treasury consisting of many different types. The residents of our city who believe in everything that may bring a benefit without detracting from any good and effective thing in general, and who place their opinions with the nationalist idea in specific - believe that such a Rebbe is righteous in all his ways, and has the strength and ability to bestow influence upon their heads from his bountiful “treasury.” Therefore, all the residents of our town stream to him, and he gives to them everything they ask for. He gives to them, and they give to him… There are many in our city who claim that they see the wonders with their own eyes while he is residing here. I myself will not contradict his wonders in public: for throughout the entire time that the Rebbe did not come, our city was quiet and peaceful without any movement of life. However, from the day that the Rebbe appeared, the city became like a seething pot. People would speak in the gateways about the greatness of his honor and splendor of his holiness. Coins would clang from hand to hand… In short, there was bustle and movement in all directions.

[Page 135-alt]

“Hamelitz” edition 177. August 8, 1899.

Ratno (Wolhyn District). There are two evils in this city, aside from the fact that it has no spiritual physician who would set his heart to improve the spiritual status that has fallen greatly, and found an orderly charitable methodology, since all charitable endeavors here are disorderly; there is also no school for poor children, who grow up without Torah and without worldly knowledge, for their parents cannot afford to educate them in the ways of Torah and commandments, and they wander through the streets every day. There is one more evil that affects every individual: that is, the lack of a physician. This is felt strongly, but there is nobody who makes any effort to rectify this lack. There is no railway line here, and the city is approximately eight miles from the Brest Litovsk railway station[1]. If a person gets sick, and the relatives of the sick person cannot afford to bring in a physician from far-off Brest, these unfortunate souls have no means to fend off the evil. It is wondrous that despite the fact that the face of the Rebbe appears here three times a year, and they have money for him, but they cannot afford a physician.

David Finkelstein

Translator's Footnote

  1. (From the editor): As the crow flies, the distance between Ratno and Brest Litovsk is approximately 80 kilometers, not eight miles as the text suggests. Return


[Page 137]

Teachers and Educators at Tarbut

by Zeev Grabov

Translated by Jerrold Landau

{Photo page 137 top: The directors of the “Tarbut” School. From right to left: Noach Kotzker, Mrs. Katz, M. Gamarnik (all perished), and the secretary A. Held (Israel).}

{Photo page 137 bottom: Amalia Droog of blessed memory, one of the founders of Hashomer Hatzair.}

The foundations of the Tarbut School in Ratno were laid at the end of 1926. However, it is worthwhile to note that even before that, some attempts were made to found a more modern school alongside the old-fashioned cheders that had not progressed with the spirit of the times. These attempts, however, were not crowned with success. Some said that a certain event that shook up the Jewish residents of the town was the factor that moved them to establish Tarbut. They were referring to the time when the teachers of the Polish public school took also the Jewish students to the Polish cemetery to have them participate in the planting of trees around it. Whether or not this was the case, the conditions for the establishment of the school had already existed for some time. What was missing was the primary moving force and the living spirit, but this problem was solved with the arrival of the teacher Kotzker to Ratno.

There is no doubt that the locals, especially the committee that was established for this purpose (Reb Asher Leker, Yeshaya Bekerman, Yehuda Konishter, Yosef Zesak, Leibel Grabov, Yitzchak Hirsch Held, Berl and Eliezer Held, Yaakov Liberman, Moshe Eilbaum, and Gittel Karsh) played a major role in the establishment of this important educational institution. However, we must not ignore the assistance from outside that was given by the Zionist activist Moshe Perl of Kovel, who greatly assisted with the obtaining of the government permit; the supervisor of the Tarbut schools of Wolhyn, Shmuel Rozenhak; and the Tarbut headquarters in Warsaw.

Pairs of volunteers who went from home to home carried out the task of registering the students, and more than 100 students were registered in the first phase. This

[Page 138]

was an impressive accomplishment, and the school year opened with that number of students and a teaching staff that included, aside from the principal Kotzker, also the teachers Bokser and Klonitzky who had come from outside of Ratno, and the Ratno teacher Nechemia Hochstein (“The sweet toothed”). They taught the following subjects: Kotzker – Hebrew; Bokser – arithmetic and geography; Klonitzky – the early grades and kindergarten. At the beginning of its existence, the school was located in the home of Hodel Kamiler, but the local activists concerned themselves with a more fitting location, which was in the residence of Azriel and Chaya Shlitan on the Synagogue Street. The new premises were also not ideal for a school, but the rooms in the new premises were more spacious, filled with light and air. They engaged the Polish language teacher Lirenfeld to replace the teacher Klonitzky who had left. The daughter of Trebichinsky of Ratno taught Polish in the lower grades. When the great fire broke out in 1929, the Tarbut School went up in flames – and it went back to its first premises in the home of Hodel on Holinka Street. When they finished the building of the home of Bracha Shlomo-Michel's in the center of the city, the school moved to that home. It was given three large rooms, a secretary, a waiting room, and a large playground. There was a change in teaching staff, which now included the principal Noach Kotzker, the teacher Gavriel Zagorsky, and the teacher Klara Ryba. This took place in the 1929-1930 school year. The number of students reached 200. Zagorsky introduced new teaching methodologies, and his Bible classes enthralled the students, for he knew how to bring the chapters of the Bible to life in a dramatic fashion. Even the teacher Ryba who taught us Polish succeeded in endearing Polish poetry and literature to us, which to this point had been like a closed book to us.

{Photo page 138: Students of the “Tarbut” School with the teachers Kotzker, Klonitzky and Bokser.}

[Page 139]

We must attribute the two plays “Jephtah's Daughter” and “The Snatchers” to the teacher Zagorsky. These were performed by the students of the school, and brought a great deal of satisfaction for the Tarbut activists, the students, and indeed the entire Jewish population. Everyone was sorry that this teacher had to leave Ratno in the following school year (1930). He went to complete his studies in the Rabbinical Seminary of Frankfurt am Main in Germany. He then studied medicine in Switzerland, made aliya to Israel, and worked as a gynecologist. Several teachers who came from outside to take his place did not acclimatize to Ratno and left after a very short period of teaching. At the end of the 1930-1931 school year, the teacher Klara Ryba also left her work in the school. Fifty years later, her former students met her in Israel. She was very happy at this meeting, just as she was happy to participate in various events organized by the organization of Ratno natives in Israel.

At the beginning of the 1931-1932 school year, the Tarbut headquarters sent us two excellent teachers. One of them, Elchanan Levin, taught Hebrew and mathematics. The second, Boris Rozen, a teacher for all subjects taught in Polish, had previously completed his studies at the Stefan Batory University in Vilna. From that time, the Polish ministry of education stopped persecuting the Tarbut School, which it had done previously because the level of its students in Polish had been below the minimum requirements according to its estimation. It also waived its demand that the principal of the Polish school also be the principal of Tarbut. The two aforementioned teachers succeeded in advancing their students in the subjects that they taught. At times, contests took place between the students of the upper grades of Tarbut and those of the Polish school with respect to their knowledge of Polish literature. The students of Tarbut always had the upper hand. Without a doubt, this was due to the teacher Rozen, who excelled in his didactic teaching style, and succeeded in raising the level of interest of the students in the subject material. “Pan

{Photo page 139: The 5691/2 (1931/2) school year.}

[Page 140]

Tadeusz” of Mickiewicz, “With Fire and Sword” of Sienkiewicz, the poems of Slowacki and others became a source of interest for the students thanks to his methodologies. The teacher Rozen also developed the physical education curriculum, and gymnastic exercises became an honorable part of every school celebration. He was a Beitar follower by his outlook and political leanings, and also tried to influence the students to leave Hashomer Hatzair and Hechalutz Hatzair and transfer to the ranks of Beitar. However, he did not have any success in that realm. The students remained faithful to those movements, which had hegemonic status in Jewish Ratno.

These two teachers left Ratno at the end of the 1933-1934 school year. New faces again appeared in the school: Shlomo Karlin, a graduate of the Tarbut teachers' seminary of Vilna; and Amalia Droog, who was a native of Ratno. At first, she did not want to serve as a teacher in her native town, but after much urging and after she married the teacher Gamarnik of Kovel, she accepted the job of teaching in the school. The teacher Karlin organized a mandolin band in the school, and settled in the town after he married Golda Droog, a Ratno native.

During the final years, the school struggled for its existence. The paltry support and tuition fees were insufficient to ensure that the salary of the teachers be paid on time. The teachers who regarded teaching not only as a job, but rather as a mission, did not have it in them to arrange strikes, like today, and became accustomed to their bitter fate. During the later years, two Ratno natives joined the teaching staff -- Binyamin Pogatz and Yenta Teitelbaum – after they graduated from the Tarbut teachers' seminary of Vilna. Noach Kotzker continued to serve as principal. I am not mentioning his praise specifically, for I know that many already have praised him, and whoever adds, detracts.

By Zeev Grabov

{Photo page 140: The committee and the teachers of the “Tarbut” School in Ratno, July 3, 1932. First row, sitting from right to left: Y. Hochman, B. Held, Y. Zesak, Y. Bekerman, Y Steingarten, N. Klein.
Second row, standing from right to left: A. Held, L. Grabov, the teachers Levin, Kotzker, Rozen, unidentified, Y. Karsh, M. Droog, Sh. Perlmutter, and A. Y. Held.}


[Page 141]

Noach Kotzker – Teacher and Educator

by Noah Cohen

Translated by Jerrold Landau

One of the interesting characters for close to thirty years, plowing in the furrows of Jewish education in Ratno, was without doubt the teacher Kotzker, who was honored and beloved by the Jewish youth. If the Jewish youth of Ratno, of whatever party affiliation, earned a good name throughout the Jewish Diaspora in any realm of activity, this was thanks to a large degree to the education of Kotzker and the values that he instilled.

Kotzker was a native of Pinsk, and was a graduate of the famous courses for teachers in Grodno. He was a friend of the renowned pedagogue M. A. Beigel and of Tzemach, one of the founders of Habima. When the First World War broke out and the Germans conquered the city areas, Kotzker wandered to the village of Zabulote and served as a teacher of the children of the few Jews who lived in that village, which also had a small railway station. Of course, this work did not satisfy Kotzker's spirit, for it restricted his horizons and he saw no satisfaction from it. He began to take interest in the nearby region, and thereby arrived in Ratno, which was 20 kilometers away from the village of Zabulote. One of the residents of Zabulote, Chaim, assisted him in this by informing Yudel Konishter, a teacher and educator in Ratno, about Kotzker, and his talents and abilities. Konishter conferred with Eliahu Janowicz, who served as the mayor at that point, who in turn conferred with the German commander, who agreed to bring Kotzker to Ratno and open a school that would dedicate an appropriate amount of time to the German Language. He also agreed to provide a certain amount of support from the German authorities.

One clear morning during the summer of 1916, a wagon stopped at the home of my father Reb Avraham the Shochet on Holinka Street. Reb Chaim Zabuloter and Noach Kotzker got off the wagon. A day or two after he had arrived in Ratno, after he had become acquainted with the difficult economic situation in the city, Noach Kotzker offered himself to me and my sister Rachel of blessed memory as a free teacher. After some time, he succeeded in setting up a Jewish school with the support given to him by Janowicz.

The Jewish educational situation in Ratno at that time was particularly poor. The Jewish-Hebrew-Russian school under the leadership of Avraham Telzon and Yudel Konishter was no longer in existence at that time. Only a few cheders remained in town. There were a few teachers, including Itzel the melamed who was known as a good Gemara teacher, who had left teaching and turned to business. The difficult economic conditions directed the thoughts of the parents away from problems of education. Many of them were satisfied if their children would know a portion of Chumash, provided that they would be able to assist their parents with their livelihood. The appearance of Kotzker under such conditions was literally a salvation, and an obstacle to the increasing ignorance.

[Page 142]

Among his first steps was arranging mixed classes with boys and girls. This step was revolutionary with respect to the concepts of those days, and there were people who opposed it. However, with the passage of time, this ensured that among the girls of Ratno, there would be some who were conversant in Bible and even Mishna no less than the boys.

Since most of the houses in the town were set on fire by the Russians as they were retreating from the town, and there was no building appropriate for housing the school, the Shtibel of the Hassidim of Trisk served as a temporary premise for the new school. The Jews of Ratno quickly realized the benefits of this new educational institution and the new principal. This was the beginning of a new path in Jewish education, the likes of which was not known in the town to that point. The classes of the teacher Kotzker were very different than those of the teachers who “ground through” the chapter of Chumash and Bible with their students in a rote fashion, repeating word for word after the teacher. It was impossible for the students to not sense the new winds that were blowing. The educational attainments were recognized immediately, and the students connected to their teacher with bonds of love and appreciation. Kotzker also arranged various performances and celebrations for the students, which provided a good opportunity for the parents to appreciate the achievements of their children, as they watched them successfully filling their roles on the stage under the guidance and direction of the new teacher.

The teacher Kotzker was the first in town to tie education with day to day life. Thanks to him, the anniversary of the death of Dr. Herzl, 20th of Tammuz, was recognized publicly for the first time with an assembly. Other events connected to Zionism and the Land of Israel were similarly recognized. Noach Kotzker became the moving force behind public and Zionist activities in our town. He began to give presentations on Bible and other topics. Things reached the point where

{Photo page 142: A class of the “Tarbut” School with the teachers Rozen, Lewin, Kotzker, and the secretary A. Held.}

[Page 143]

the first public assembly hall was established in Kamiler's house, leading to the establishment of various Zionist youth movements at a later stage. Kotzker possessed a great deal of knowledge, and was also a talented orator. It is no surprise that many Jews flocked to all of his lectures. In those days during the time of the German occupation, when the Jews found themselves in dire straits, and the sole cultural institution that had existed, the public library, also went up in flames, Kotzker's lectures were the only spiritual treasure in the town. They encouraged the youth in the struggle for a better future, and instilled faith in such a future. When the private houses became too small to accommodate everyone who would come to the lectures, Kotzker advised that a multi-room location be rented which would serve as the center of all cultural activities in the town. Indeed, opposite the house of Privrov at the edge of Holinka Street, there was a house that was suitable for this purpose. This house, which belonged to Hershel Kamiler, a wealthy resident of Ratno, served as a prison before the war. With the help of several friends, Kotzker turned this place into a community center, similar to those that existed in larger cities in the region during that era. The day of the dedication of the community center was a holiday in the town. Young and old streamed to Holinka Street, although there were some zealots who regarded this innovation with an unpleasant eye. Kotzker was of course the host of the celebration, for he spent his days and nights ensuring that everything would be arranged appropriately, and that the townsfolk would support this new spiritual center.

In praise of Kotzker, we should note that he never attempted to take the stage for himself. On the contrary, he attempted to educate and prepare his students for public performances, especially the older ones, and to include them in every communal event that he initiated and planned.

It is no exaggeration to say that a new era of social life in Jewish Ratno commenced with the opening of the community center, especially for the Jewish youth. During the years 1918-1919, dozens of performances and cultural events took place in the community center, which turned into a veritable cultural center.

The many activities that took place in the community center were thorns in the eyes of the gentile neighbors. It was possible to sense their evil glances, as they were unable to come to terms with a radiant community center. They were unable to cause any damage, however, since a guard of young Jews was set up to prevent any difficulty. Nothing bad occurred as long as the Ukrainians were in power. This was not the case after the Polish conquest, and the tidings of Job of the slaughter perpetrated by the Poles in Pinsk on the 5th of Nissan 5680 (1920) arrived, where they attacked the Jewish community center under the pretext of “arresting spies” and took 35 of the finest Jewish activists to be killed. The heart prophesied bad tidings, and one day the news spread in town that Kotzker had been imprisoned. Later arriving information indicated that the Poles demanded that he, as the chairman of the Jewish meeting place, turn over the illegal weapons in the possession of the meeting place to them. When he refused to comply with their request, they ordered that he be given 25 lashes on his naked body – a form of punishment that was in vogue with the Poles at that time. This event left its mark upon the Jewish community.

[Page 144]

Around that time, Kotzker got married to Ginzburg, and thereby became a Ratno resident. Under his leadership, the school flourished and developed, and the number of students progressively grew. At that time, the school was housed in a story built for it above the Beis Midrash. The name of Kotzker as a prominent educator and good organizer spread to the largest cities in Wolhyn. The educational activists in Kovel even succeeded in bringing Kotzker to them for a period of time, but his connections with Ratno and its Jewish youth were apparently sufficiently strong, and he returned to the town. In 1926, the school joined the Tarbut network of Hebrew schools of Poland.

The golden age of that educational institution began at that time, for it gained renown in the near and distant regions as an institution with an excellent teaching staff and a choice principal. The students of Tarbut in Ratno left their impressions in their roles as members of youth movement delegates to the regional conventions and summer camps of the various organizations. This too was apparently a result of the education at Kotzker' school. It is fitting to note another fact: most of the graduates gravitated to the left camp of the workers' movement. It seems that Kotzker, being a Socialist himself, succeeded in instilling in his students the values of the workers' movement, social justice, and love of one's fellowman.

Around the time of the Second World War, when the economic situation in the town became more serious and the school suffered from a significant deficit, Kotzker began to think about leaving Ratno and emigrating. In a letter to Yehuda Konishter and his wife in Argentina dated March 5, 1935, he writes among other things: “Ratno is declining significantly from day to day, and all of its residents are jealous of those fortunate people who have left or can still leave – as I do in my dreams!” That is to say, he too was dreaming about this. He was unable to obtain a certificate for aliya to the Land of Israel due to his advanced age, so he prepared to travel to Argentina. However, it was difficult to obtain a permit. He remained in Ratno, and went on his final journey to Mount Prochod along with hundreds of his students

{Photo page 144: The summer Moshava of the Tarbut School in Ratno, Vydranitsa, July 25, 1932.}

[Page 145]

{Photo page 145 top: The Kamiler House -- the headquarters of the activities of the youth movements.}

{Photo page 145 bottom: Young Zionists in the town. Top row right to left: A. Marsik (perished), M. Gutman (Israel), D. Fuchs (Argentina), G Weinstock (perished), M. Stern (Israel), Y. Shapira (killed in the Soviet army), B. Eilbaum, Sh. Cohen (Argentina), A. Avrech (died).
Second row: M. Kamper (died in Canada) M. Gefen (Israel), Ch. Ginzburg (perished), M. Droog, Sh. Ginzburg (United States), P. Vernik (Israel), M. Grabov (Argentina), M. Rider (killed in an accident in Ratno).
Bottom (kneeling): Y. Karsh, R. Kaminer (perished), D. Marin (Israel).}

[Page 146]

{Photocopy page 146: Letter from the directors of “Tarbut” to Y. Konishter in Argentina
September 26, 1937.}


[Page 141]

The Battle over the Library

by Yisrael Honik

Translated by Jerrold Landau

I wish to dredge up from the abyss of forgetfulness an event from the time when we belonged to the youth movements, which today would perhaps seem ridiculous or meaningless, but in those days was treated by us with excessive seriousness.

In those days, it was customary that if one or a group of activists of a certain youth movement had a dispute with the other members of the movement, they would not only leave the movement, but would also immediately join a different movement or perhaps establish a new movement in order to anger the opposing side, and also so that they would have a place to discharge their youthful energy. In general, Ratno had no shortage of movements and organizations for the local youth. There were also ephemeral organizations that arose and disappeared quickly. However, the Hashomer Hatzair movement maintained its stand at all times and under all conditions. In this manner, it was perhaps different from other youth organizations. However, one day after a dispute that was not of an ideological-conceptual character, a serious group of Hashomer Hatzair members decided to separate from the movement. At that time, I was part of that group. Since we were unable to remain

[Page 142-alt]

without an organization, Heaven forbid, we decided to reestablish Hechalutz Hatzair that had existed in the past and had disbanded. I recall that the headquarters of the original Hechalutz Hatzair had been on Holianka Street in the home of Leizer Dibczner, near the bridge. Its leaders at that time were L. Avrech (who died in an accident in Israel), L. Ginzburg (currently in the United States) and Shlomo Cohen. These members had developed intensive activity in the chapter. During the time of their activity, Mottle Weinstock, Moshe Stern and others had made aliya to the Land of Israel. When the chapter disbanded for various reasons, its library of several hundred important Hebrew books remained orphaned. Therefore, the members of Hashomer Hatzair jumped upon the find and took possession of the books. I was the librarian, and I am able to assert that Hashomer Hatzair supervised the library well, but after I left the chapter with a group of members, they fired me from my task of librarian. This pained us, and since we began to reestablish Hechalutz Hatzair, we searched for means and ways to “conquer” the leadership of the library, for we felt ourselves fitting for this, given that the library had been established by Hechalutz Hatzair and I had served as the librarian for a long period. We raised the issue in a semi-conspirational meeting and hatched a plan to conquer the library from Hashomer Hatzair. We saw no reason to conduct negotiations on this matter, given that we were aware of the stubborn attitude of Hashomer Hatzair with respect to the library. Three members were given the responsibility for taking the necessary steps to return the prestige and the books to us: Maya Weinstock, Avraham Grabov of blessed memories, and the writer of these lines. The plan was straightforward: to enter the room by force in which the bookcases stand, to remove several hundred books, to hide them in a secret place, and then to send a notice of such to the Tarbut committee and the school principal Noach Kotzker, who was held in wide esteem, about our actions so that they would negotiate with us and arrange for our participation in the leadership of the library. The day that was set for this effort was the eve of Yom Kippur. It seemed to us that this

[Page 143-alt]

time frame was appropriate from a strategic perspective, for the hall would be closed and everyone would be busy in their houses with kapores[1] and other preparations for the holy day.

On the set evening, we went to Chamilar house, where the meeting place was located, with sacks and crowbars to open the door of the hall and the doors of the bookcases. The people in the house did not suspect anything when they heard the banging, for they were sure that the members of Hashomer Hatzair had come as they did every evening for activities in the chapter. We conducted our work calmly, removed the most important books (including the new books that had been obtained) as well as the library catalog, packed them very well into the sacks that we had brought, and snuck away secretly through the darkened Holianka Street until we reached the house of Eliezer the stableman, who was a Stoliner Hassid. We went through the gentile alleyways until we reached our warehouse. We had to cross several fences, calm the dogs that attacked us, and overcome other obstacles. Next to our warehouse there was a small house filled with cloth and rags. We hid our cultural treasure there. We had reason to suspect that my brother Berl of blessed memory, who was faithful to Hashomer Hatzair, would certainly search that house. Therefore, we hid the books very well so that nobody could find them. Maya brought the catalog and other important papers to the home of Gittel Karsh of blessed memory and hid them in the oven. The next day, we convened an urgent meeting of our members. We informed them that we carried out our mission, and we sent a letter to Kotzker, as was agreed. The news of the theft of the books spread through the entire shtetl, and things were in ferment. The shtetl was like a seething pot. Members of Hashomer Hatzair went around and searched for the books. My brother Berl ran to the warehouse and surrounded it, but did not succeed in finding the hidden items. The teacher Kotzker convened a special meeting after he received our notice, and made efforts to arrange matters. After deliberations that lasted for several hours it was decided: a) to set two positions in the library leadership for representatives of Hechalutz Hatzair; b) that those who perpetrated the theft will not serve as members of the leadership. We gave our agreement to this decision

[Page 144-alt]

and signed the agreement along with representatives from all sides. Our group designated Shmuel Goldman (today in Israel) and Batya Chayat of blessed memory as our delegates to the leadership of the library.

Translator's Footnote

  1. A symbolic ceremony of expiation of sins carried out on the eve of Yom Kippur with a chicken or rooster. See http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/407513/jewish/Kapparot-The-Chicken-Thing.htm Return


[Page 147]

Thou Shalt not Make Graven Images

(About the character of Reb Shlomo-Aharon Olitzky)

by Leib Olitzky

Translated by Jerrold Landau

Reb Shlomo-Aharon was a descendent of Reb Aharon of Karlin. This fact alone was sufficient to place him among the finest of the Hassidim of Karlin even beyond Ratno. However, aside from this, he also had fine personal traits, for he was an educated Jew, very pious, spending day and night with Torah and Divine service. All of the Jews of the town, not only the Hassidim of Karlin, treated him with honor and respect as if was the rabbi of the city, a veritable rabbi. Many asked him to take upon himself the rabbinate of the city, for why was he looking afar when the town itself was such a fitting place for the crown of the rabbinate. However, Reb Shlomo-Aharon was a modest and discrete man, and he told those who urged him:

“Who am I and what am I that I should put my head toward the crown of the rabbinate and become pastor of a holy community such as Ratno? I am wary of the level of responsibility that such a role would impose.”

He was not involved at all in the burden of livelihood, despite the fact that the family was blessed with six children and it was no easy matter to feed such a family. He relied upon his wife to take care of the household affairs and members of the household.

His wife was a simple woman; a village native with a healthy and straightforward intellect. She was strong, and a veritable woman of valor, as is said, “A helpmate for him.”[1] With her straightforward intellect, she realized immediately that the prayers and Torah study of her husband would not feed their children. Therefore, she hitched herself fully to the burden of livelihood, and talked well of both herself and Shlomo-Aharon, saying, “He occupies himself with sublime matters and everyone honors him, with crumbs coming to me too, and after 120 years, he will rise to a fine portion of the Garden of Eden on account of his prayers and studies - and this too is for the good…” She, Fruma, had a store in which one could find everything from “a thread to a shoelace,”[2] including colorful textiles from the farmers who would come to Ratno, dyes, meat on a spit, eggs, pig hair, various leather products, dried mushrooms, dried fruit and the like, and all types of haberdashery. Merchants from Brisk or Kowel who would come to Ratno would come to Fruma's store and not leave empty handed. She was more than busy throughout the six workdays in running the store and the household. She bore the burden as best she could. Only on the Sabbath did she rest a bit from this great burden, breathe a bit, and prepare herself for the great burden that awaited her during the coming week. It is unclear if Reb Shlomo-Aharon himself understood how she managed with the double task

[Page 148]

of housewife and shopkeeper. She never even attempted to involve her husband in her mundane affairs and her shop. However, on rare occasions, in order to fulfill her obligation toward the community and the family, she would ask for his advice in some matter or another.

Reb Shlomo-Aharon did not withhold his advice from her, which was one and the same in all cases: “Fruma, do according to what you feel is right, and the good G-d will send his good angel before you…” This was the division of labor between them. She involved herself with the affairs of this world and materialism, and he concerned himself with spirituality and matters of the World To Come.

Years passed. The children grew up and the worries increased. Fruma's health declined. She ignored her problems, saying, “Who has time for such things?” However, when her illness worsened, she was forced to leave her work in the store and take to her sick bed. Nevertheless, she never stopped worrying about the store that she abandoned and the well-being of the children. She worried particularly about her Shlomo-Aharon, while he himself awaited the mercies of G-d and would utter incessantly: “Master of the Universe, do not place such a serious test before me, for who am I and what am I without her…”

{Photo page 148: Reb Shlomo-Aharon Olitzky.}

She was granted a reprieve for some time, whether due to his prayers or her own strength, and she returned to direct the household and the shop. However, it was not long before Fruma's health took a turn for the worse. They summoned

[Page 149]

the oldest son Nachman from Trisk, and Reb Shlomo-Aharon sat with his three sons while they recited chapters of Psalms incessantly with devotion and feeling. At times the eyes of the sick woman would open, and she would look at the children and their father immersed in the recitation of Psalms and say, “You are reciting Psalms for the elevation of my soul? After my death, I permit you to support the gate of the cemetery with my body, but as long as I am alive, I beg you: save me, take me to the best doctors.” Then Shlomo-Aharon straightened up, lifted his eyes heavenward and said, “One must fulfill the will of a seriously ill person!”

The two oldest sons Nachman and Shlomo-Simcha set out for Kiev with their mother in order to solicit the advice of the doctors, but they returned from Kiev without her; with a bit of red sand from her grave in their shoes.

After the Shiva [seven day mourning period], all matters of the household and the shop were conducted by the daughters and the youngest son Asherke. Shlomo-Aharon continued to study Torah as was his custom, but the absence of his wife was felt at every footstep. The home was like a ship that lost it captain.

Shlomo-Aharon never thought about remarrying, for he could not forget Fruma of blessed memory. Even though he did not speak much about her, one could see that he never stopped thinking about her. Only on Sabbath eves when he returned from the synagogue and began the prayer “A woman of valor who can find” did the children feel, through his tune and words, that the soul of their mother was floating around the Sabbath candles, and Father's sad melody was sung in her memory.

Thus did years pass. The three daughters married, as did the youngest son. The house emptied and the bustle ceased. Now, Reb Shlomo-Aharon could sit in his house without any disturbances. The household and the shop were now run by Shmuel Simcha and his wise and well-bred wife Chavale of the Shapira family. They took it upon themselves to care for the comfort and well-being of Father. Indeed, Chavale worried about him and related to him as a faithful and dedicated daughter.

Everything went on as usual until the First World War broke out. When the Russian Army retreated from the town, the Cossacks burnt down many houses, including the house of Shlomo-Aharon. Nobody had time to rescue even the bedding. Shlomo-Aharon, his son, his daughter-in-law and grandson were forced to move to the home of another Jew and to live in cramped conditions. His energy dwindled, his senses of hearing and sight declined, but his splendid appearance remained as in days of yore.

One winter Sabbath morning, as Shlomo-Aharon was walking to the shtibel of the Hassidim of Stolin, shuffling along in his usual manner every Sabbath, wearing his Sabbath kapote and his tallis upon his shoulders with its silver adornment, wearing his streimel upon his head all the way to his neck, with only his long curly peyos showing out from the sides, his eyes closed and teary from the blinding light of the sun and snow - the city police chief

[Page 150]

of the German occupation army came to him. It seemed that the captain was astonished at the splendid appearance and demeanor of the elderly Jew, to the extent that he cleared the way for him as if to give him appropriate honor. The next day, a Jewish policeman with two armed gendarmes came to Shlomo-Aharon's house with a command for him to appear before the civic police chief dressed exactly as he was dressed on the Sabbath morning when they crossed paths.

All the members of the household were surprised. Only the devil knows what this German was plotting? Some people recommended trying to bribe the chief, but Shlomo-Aharon said, “The law of the Land is the law.” In the middle of a weekday, he donned his Sabbath clothes and walked upright to the office of the German police chief, accompanied by the Jewish policeman and the German gendarmes.

News of the summoning of Shlomo-Aharon to the police chief spread throughout the town and inflamed all the spirits. Who knows what awaited the holy community of Ratno from this strange summons? Many Jews, including Shlomo-Aharon's two sons hastened to the house of the Rabbi to ask for advice. Some advised that a delegation of the Jewish community, headed by the rabbi himself, set out to appear before the police chief. Of course, even the Jewish mayor Yeshaya Shapira was summoned, and was prepared to go to the police headquarters. The rabbi calmed his flock by saying that no evil will befall Shlomo-Aharon, for the police officer asked that this holy man with whom he had crossed paths the previous day appear before him; Shlomo-Aharon is indeed a holy man, and with the help of Heaven, the German will not harm him. The entire town was in ferment, and who knows how far things would have gone had not Reb Shaya Shapira returned quickly from the police headquarters and calmed everyone down by stating that Reb Shlomo-Aharon was summoned by the German for one purpose only: to be photographed. Apparently, the police chief had sensed the extent of the patriarchal image of this holy Jew and decided to photograph this unique character, whether for his private album or whether for other purposes.

The tension in Ratno abated with these words. Some people laughed and others wept, but all of them were surprised that this German chief wished to perpetuate the image of this sublime, honored Jew. However the “protagonist” himself, Shlomo-Aharon, left the police headquarters in mourning. He was sorrowful over the photographing of his image, for there is a taint of “do not make for yourself a graven image” in this, as is written in the Torah[3].

About a week later, the granddaughter of Shlomo-Aharon came from Rudka with a copy of the photograph in her hands. He had requested it from the city police chief and had received it. Shlomo-Aharon acceded to the request of his beloved granddaughter, and agreed to hold the photograph in his hands and take a glance of it. However, he did this as if he was compelled to do so, and as if he was holding an abominable object in his hands. Was this a small matter? It is an image! After he cast an astonished look at his picture,

[Page 151]

he was overtaken by shuddering. The photograph appeared to him like a sort of solar eclipse, and his eyes in the photograph appeared to him like the eyes of a bird in the hands of the shochet [ritual slaughterer] just before he cut it with a knife. He mumbled to his granddaughter “Miredelke, quickly bring me a pitcher of water so that I can wash my hands and place me upon my bed. This German has slaughtered me.” …

That year, Reb Shlomo-Aharon returned his soul to his creator while he was lying on his bed in the home of his son Reb Shmuel-Simcha.

(Translated from Yiddish by Simcha Lavie, the grandson of Reb Shlomo-Aharon, the son of his daughter Chasia of blessed memory.)

Translator's Footnotes

  1. Genesis 2:20. Return
  2. Genesis 14:23 Return
  3. The second of the Ten Commandments. To this day, some Hassidic Jews frown upon photographing a human face. Return


[Page 149]

Tidbits

by Zeev Grabov

Translated by Jerrold Landau

Itche-Mordechai the shoemaker was paralyzed in half his body. When they would bring him shoes to fix, his wife would utter, “Why are you bringing him shoes to fix. Do you not know that he has two left hands?” If they would tell her, “In any case, he has eight children,” she would retort, “If they would make children with hands - I would have remained a virgin to this day.”

*

Sheina-Beila prepared dough for the Sabbath challos, and as was her custom, she always put it into bed beside her husband so that it would rise appropriately. She got up at dawn and lit the oven, approached the bread to take a handful of dough as per the law of tithes, but was not in any way able to break off a piece of the dough. She began to curse, as was her custom, and her husband lay in bed full of laughter. “Let your soul be ground up,” she said to him, “What is this laughter about?” The dough did not rise, and what will be with the challos for the Sabbath. Her husband responded, “Sheina-Beila, you are touching my hernia and trying to take a piece of it. The dough has risen appropriately”.

*

[Page 150-alt]

Gedalia Schneider the shoemaker was a unique character in the town. He used to dress in the latest fashion that arrived in Ratno, and he tried to look and sound very intelligent and spiced his words with words from the Haftara[1]. When he went out in the morning, the teacher Kotzker, who was known as a man of culture and someone who was current in social and political affairs, appeared. Gedalia said to him, “Good morning Mr. Kotzker! What is new, Mr. Kotzker? Perhaps you can pay me a check of five zloty? Many think honorable Mr. Kotzker, and much peace upon you.”

After such a conversation, he boasted to everyone, “I had a very interesting conversation with the teacher Kotzker regarding very important matters.”

*

Berele Sara Leah's[2] had been a widower for many years. Whenever he saw two women conversing, he would set his path so that he would pass between them and lightly touch them. When people noted his custom of directing his path between women, he would respond, “What can I do? One must not forgo even small pleasures during these difficult times…”

*

After many years of bachelorhood, Inyuman[3] the water drawer had finally succeeded in marrying a woman from Kowel. When he was asked about how he was succeeding in his affairs, he responded, “Great success. I will always only get married to women from Kowel…” Incidentally, this Inyuman was among the 30 Jews selected by the Germans to stand by a pit to be shot. As the Germans were busy preparing for the murder, he was heard to mutter, “What am I doing here? I have not yet had a chance to give my horse a drink.” As he muttered, he left the line and disappeared without anyone noticing. Thus was he saved, and he survived until the final aktion.

*

Yancha, one of the twins, accompanied his wife to her eternal rest. He was lamenting over her

[Page 151-alt]

grave and saying, “She appeared, without the evil eye, so good and lovely during the latter period, and now, may we be protected, she is being brought to burial”…

*

Beni, the son of Hershel Benddek the porter and the drummer in Avraham-Yankel the musician's band, used to say, “All night long the moon goes around and around my house, but when it reaches my window, the sun is already shining at full strength…”

Translator's Footnotes

  1. The section from the Prophets read after the Torah reading on Sabbaths, festivals and fast days. Return
  2. This type of nickname means “Berlele the son of Sara Leah.” Return
  3. Likely a nickname for Binyamin (Binyuman). Return


About the Town

by Chaim Hazaz

Translated by Jerrold Landau

“… In any manner that you judge the Diaspora and a Jewish town, perforce you will measure the great values therein, such as: fear of Heaven, study of Torah, love of one's fellow Jew, longing for the Land of Israel, faith in the redemption and the coming of the Messiah, and many other such things. Translate these values into the language of modern man and compare them to the values of Today. A Jewish person in the Diaspora, in a Jewish town, would be found by a book for the entire day. Every man, including an ordinary person, was involved with Mishna, Midrash, Ein Yaakov, and Psalms. It goes without saying that this was the same case with a scholar, whose mouth never desisted from Torah day and night, and who was not seeking any reward. A person who is interested in the book, whose entire scope of interest is with the book, is of course a sublime person. How much more so is an entire nation. Therefore, we have been nicknamed: The People of the Book.

It is no wonder that a Jewish town was filled with great spiritual powers. Great rabbis, heads and leaders of the people would come forth from the town. The first Maskilim, various types of Socialists who dedicated themselves to the redemption and freedom, and all sorts of dreamers and visionaries of the redemption of Israel sprung forth from the town.”

 

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