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[Page 99]

Why? Various Memories

by Zalman Feldman

Translated by Mathilda Mendelow, born Ginsberg

Skopishok the small Shtetl where I was born, was found in a distant backward corner of Lithuania, a land that was reigned by a despotic and dark regime. Apart from the two churches, a couple of two-toned wooden structures, the houses and shacks were small and dilapidated, not much better than the crude dwellings of the gentiles of the surrounding towns. The streets were naked and gray; muddy when it rained and dusty when it was dry, but in my wanderings in later years I seldom found a more beautiful and more colorful community than one that was my Shtetl.

On the west side of the Shtetl were two large lakes that seemed to reach to the horizon. Hazardous pine forests surrounded the Shtetl on the South-east. There were lakes with their beautiful water lilies and Irises. The glamorous sunsets reflected in the waters of the lakes in all sorts of colors and forms and walks in the woods were accompanied by the quiet rustling of the trees, the squirrels that jumped around in the branches and the pleasant smells of the pines and berries, black, blue and red. All this together left a deep impression as did the orchards full of apples, pears, plums nuts and cherries. But still, life in Skopishok was hard. I was too young then to understand why, but I felt that it was bound up with the tax collector, who ruled the Shtetl with an iron hand ("blackjack). My mother once told me that apart from the tax that he used to demand from the townís citizens one still had to give him something under the lap, otherwise, one dared not, so-to-say, even sneeze. "But why does one not drive him out?" I wanted to know. One canít do anything my mother declared, behind him stands the mighty tzar regime. In Skopishok, André was the regime.

There was such poverty there, corruption and a feeling of fearfulness within oneself that my father, an unassuming, withdrawn and unusually honest person realized that in this tyrannic land there could not be a future for his family. He left this land when I was still a young child to look for his fortune in a far-off land.

When I, the eldest of 4 had to go to cheder, my mother a beautiful and hearty personality took herself and family across to Rokishok – that was a change in comparison to Skopishok.

In certain ways Rokishok resembled my birth Shtetl. Rokishok was also surrounded by water and forests but still it was not my own Shtetl. In comparison to Skopishok lakes, Rokishok lakes looked like puddles and the water was not crystal clear. The Rokeshoker lakes were not adorned with water lilies or irises. The waters of the greatest lake section were stagnant and almost the whole year round were covered with foam. On its isolated island stood a dilapidated mill, also the forest was not so accessible and inviting, but in this the guilty ones were the count and his guards.

Rokishok apart from that had the oldest police with three policemen who ruled over the Shtetl like André over Skopishok and it also had, as an extra, the count on whose ground the Shtetl was standing. To him also belonged the lakes and the forest around the Shtetl. His palace stood at the furthest end of the middle division.

Almost no one ever saw the count or his castle. The vicious dogs and the more vicious guards saw to it that no one ever went there. Therefore, perhaps people spoke about the fabulous riches that were in the palace, rare antique furniture, golden plates and expensive decoration. But the opportunity to see the count arose soon after we arrived in the Shtetl. The Rokishoker inhabitants got to know that the count had married a highly aristocratic woman of noble birth, a princess was coming home with him!

The Rokishokers on whom the tax payments were heavy thought that if they arranged a warm welcome for their boss, their chief would become amenable to lighten their tax burden.

The day of his arrival was declared a holiday in the Shtetl. All in their best clothing came to greet the count and his wife, the princess. Expensive arrangements of flowers and plants were placed in many locations and at every gate the count was stopped and given bread and salt according to tradition. The city orchestra in beautiful uniforms marched in front of his cart and played certain military marches and the princess was given bouquets arranged of the most beautiful flowers that were found growing in the district.

It was an unforgettable day in the life of the Rokishokers and thereafter they spoke about it for a long time. They were sure that this would help them out of the heavy burden that they found themselves in, but their hopes were dashed and the princess showed herself to be more unfriendly than the count. She marked the Jews of the Shtetl as the dirt of the earth.

Two incidents from that time left a deep mark on my childhood and helped without a doubt to form lifeís outlook. I together with other children on a hot summersí day went to bathe in the shallow waters of the smallest section of the lake. We were not in the water for long when we were alerted that the countís guards were coming – we ran out of the water and ran fast across the field leaving our clothes at the lake. The guards caught other children and hit them. I missed their whip and ran naked and crying through the Shtetl to my mother, with only my hat, that I managed to grab, on my head. Several weeks later the countís guards caught my younger brother who was not yet 5 years old, and who was picking berries and beat him badly.

To my questions why we were handled like this, my mother found no better answer than to say that the forest and the lakes belonged to the count.

"Did the count plant the trees and fill the lakes with water?" I remember I asked my mother. "No my child," she answered "God did all that!" I did not leave it at that and asked, "Why did God then give such beautiful things to such a bad person?" My mother tried to soothe me saying "The lakes, the forests and the ground on which the Shtetl stands, the count probably inherited from his father or grandfather."

One night I dreamt that the count came to my mother and demanded the air that she and the children breathed. He complained that just as everything that is on the ground and under the ground belonged to him, so the air was also his; besides that, it was still horrible that he and the princess should breathe the same air as us, the people of lower standing.

The impression of the dream was so strong on my young mind, that for many years I walked about afraid that there might be a few people who would declare a monopoly on the air, as they did with the ground, the rivers, the lakes and everything that found itself under their control.

Another incident that came about several years later ingrained itself on my memory. One winterís day, when everything was lying under snow, Rakishok was alarmed, a rumor spread around that wild blood-thirsty peasants with choppers, long knives, hay forks and swords were descending on the Shtetl with intent to kill the Jews and to rob their homes. Knowledge of pogroms which came from elsewhere wherein hundreds of people had been eliminated became known a few weeks before in the Shtetl. Now these wild barbarians had come closer to us and we had, if possible, to save ourselves. It would not have helped to go to the government for help because it was known that not only did the pogroms happen with the knowledge of the government but it was also known that agents of the government took part in them. My grandfather who fortuitously was in the city wanted my mother and the children to go to friends near the station about 3 miles away. I have never forgotten what it was like to "schlep" 3 miles with my baby sister in my arms. To my question why the peasants came to kill us, my mother did not answer. All she said was "When you will get older you will understand the world better my child."

The pogrom wave in Rokishok is over but the perception of what the pogrom shenanigans have done in other cities I got from people, who themselves lived through them and from photos that appeared in newspapers and journals. Babies with chopped off heads, men with burned beards, eyes torn out, the sex organs mutilated; pictures of pregnant women, the fetuses torn out and the bellies filled with straw. Why did they do this! How could they do such things? Were the questions that filled my mind. Questions that did not allow rest, disturbed sleep; questions that demanded answers, but there was no answer.

Even my grandfather, a person, a patriarch with long white beard with a lot of wisdom and knowledge, did not have an answer. He used the old formula "It is Godís will, a punishment for our sins." And when I got him into a corner and demanded why God desired such wild barbarity and what sins the little children did, he could only say that no one could answer that "Truly no person understands Godís ways and intentions."


The years have passed with unusual hurry – years of storm and urgency of mighty battles and wars, of rivers of blood and oceans of tears. The temptations and experiences of a generation have packed themselves into a trunk (chest).

With the end of the second world war the curtain lifted over the lowest and most terrible picture of cold blooded murders in human history. Six Million Jews – men, women and children were eliminated with such cold blooded brutality that it shook even this generation which is used to brutality. In this so-to say world pogrom, not one community no matter how small, not one iota, not one came out free of the bloody Nazi hands as the masses of graves of Skopishok and Rokishok bear quiet witness.

Unwillingly the old question of "why" is torn from ones heart when the tragedy of Skopishok and Rokishok became known. But the question remains as incomplete as before. Continuously reminding me of my Grandfatherís answer – "No minds of humans understand Godís intentions and ways."


[Pages 103-105]

My Remembrances

by Zorach Gafanowitz

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

I traveled to Rakishok as a nine-year-old child. Previously we lived in Aizkraukle (Courland), where my father was a shochet (ritual slaughterer). Aizkraukle was a settlement of 30 Jewish families. A melamed (religious teacher) for the children was brought from Yakobstat or from Rakishok.

My father, of blessed memory, thought about sending me to study in Rakishok because we had family there: my aunt Pesa-Liba and my uncle Zelig, the son of Yisroel, of blessed memory.

I arrived with a wagon driver who was traveling to Rakishok for a market. I intended to live with my aunt Pesa-Liba, who was a very righteous woman. My uncle, Zelig Yisrael, spent the summer teaching (that is how it was in Rakishok-- in winter one would trade or make flax, and in summer, a teacher), so I lived and studied with him, and from this cheder (school) I remember episodes.

I remember how among the young boys in the chederim (schools), it was the fashion to hold wars: one cheder against another. Our cheder against Moishe Meshtsanski's cheder. Upon hearing that a new cheder boy had come from Aizkraukle, the students from Moishe Meshtsanski's cheder declared war against the young boys in Zelig Yisrael's cheder. I was very frightened because in Aizkraukle we were not accustomed to such things. However, with my luck, this “war” did not happen.

I remember many people from that time, among them the Rabbi, Reb Asher, who was a person of stately appearance and Rabbi Reb Betzalel and the peculiar Bertzik the shochet (ritual slaughterer), who was a great scholar.

I remember that every Friday after noon the firefighters marched through the town and we young boys ran after the commander, Bera Laya's son Shneior, from Kamaier Street. They would march through the market with brass hats and come into a courtyard, where the commander would ingeniously climb onto the roof and begin sprinkling with a water hose. For we young boys this was a happy spectacle.

After this, Shabbos came quickly. There was the great and the middle-sized Beit Hamidresh (synagogue) where the Rakishoker aristocrats davened (prayed), such as Abraham Meller and others. The Hasidim davened in the small shtibl (small prayer house), as did my uncle Zelig.


After I studied for several terms in the Rakishoker cheder, I left Rakishok to go to my parents. When I was in Rakishok I was just 11 or 12 years old. I only came to Rakishok from Lubavitch for the second time for conscription by the Czar's army. [The author's meaning here is not entirely clear. -Trans. and Ed.] My uncle was already in Africa and my aunt of blessed memory and my sisters and brother also moved to Rakishok. We lived with Leiba Pakgrund in an apartment.

Rabbi Reb Asher no longer lived in Rakishok and his successor was his son-in-law Rabbi Reb Shmuel Levitan, who is now in America. He was a student from the Lubavitcher yeshiva. Rakishok was already divided into factions: Shmuel's side, and Beltzalel's side. Bobruisker' Hasidim, at the head of whom stood Reb Shlomoh Skopishker, and Lubavitcher Hasidim. Among the Bobruisker Hasidim were people with sharp minds, such as: Zalman Shamshim, Haim Elihu the Shamas (rabbi's assistant) and Reb Shlomoh Skopishker, who would preach about Hasidus all day Shabbos, in the small shtibl.

The Lubavitcher Hasidim concentrated around Rabbi Reb Shmuel. The closest intimates of Rabbi Reb Shmuel were Pesakh's son Arszik, (Ninzenburg), Mendl Milner (known as Mendl the Turk), Haim Moishe Gen, Yudl the shinglemaker, Mendel the shoemaker, Yisroel Leib Snieg, and Welvel's son Mendel.

Every Shabbos both Rabbis would study in the Beit Midrash: Reb Beltzalel at his table and Reb Shmuel at his table. The others who did not belong to the two factions, the so called neutral people, sat in the middle of the Beit Midrash on a bench and listened with one ear to the talk of Reb Beltzalel and with the other ear to Reb Shmuel's sermon.

Rabbi Reb Shmuel had a dependable minyon (ten men required for prayer) in his home. The gabai was Pesakh's son Arszik. At the late afternoon Shabbos meal, Lubavitch melodies would be sung so sweetly that they would be suffused into everyone's heart.


With the passage of time, relations between the various factions were greatly aggravated because of the matter of the Kazyaner Rabbinate. Each side wanted to appropriate for itself the Kazyaner Rabbinate that received an income from controlling the metrical books (vital record books) and from the sale of yeast. Rabbi Shmuel's side triumphed. He was led in a great parade in a circular procession with the Torah scrolls in the synagogue and all of his supporters celebrated the great victory. But with all of their disputes, they were all kind and dear Jews.

At the same time Rabbi Reb Shmuel founded a yeshiva in Rakishok. Among the yeshiva students were: Itze Gecel Tzindler, Yankl Wingrin, Moishke Shtern, Welvke Pakgrund, Ahrke Noach-Noachumowitz, Leibke Pawalitz, Gelcer, Shual Bacher, my brother Itze-Yankele, who is now is South Africa. This yeshiva existed until the First World War. Reb Shmuel the Rabbi and his family evacuated themselves to Russia. My family also left Rakishok and during the course of the First World War we lived in Tambower, Bawer gubernia (province), Russia.

In 1921, I, with my wife Matla and daughter Hana Sara, came back to Rakishok, passing through the quarantine in the neighboring town of Abel. I found Rakishok then in a different garb: with new merchants, stores and upstarts made rich by the war.

Coming then from Russia, I, too, began to trade. I produced synthetic honey and half the town began to be occupied with producing synthetic honey. Tailors laid down their scissors and irons and cooked honey. The competition was great.

There were no longer quarrels among the factions. Other winds began to blow. The war with its experiences had leveled the divisions. Only during voting would a struggle emerge and again there were factions: the Agudah and the Zionists. Reb Shmuel Aba Snieg was leader of Agudah and Yerachmeil Ruk was leader of the Zionists.

Reb Ber Zalkind then founded a large yeshiva in a beautiful building and the town provided for the yeshiva students. The head of the yeshiva was Reb Moishle.


In 1928 I arrived in South Africa. A few years later I brought my family, thanks to the material help of the Rakishoker landsleit organization that lent me money for this purpose, for which I am thankful to this day.

Everyone knows what became of all of the Jews in Rakishok. With the help of the Lithuanian peasants, everyone was annihilated, among them my family and also my sister Sara-Rashel, with her husband Yitzhak Hurwitz and their children.

In South Africa I also lived through a great loss: my oldest son, Pinkhas (Pinka) tragically perished in the last World War in El Alamein on the 12th of Av, 5702, 26th of July 1942, in a battle with the Nazi army.

His memory and the memory of my annihilated family and of all the ruthlessly annihilated Rakishoker Jews is for me unforgettable and holy.


[Pages 106-114]

A Yemenite in Shtetl
(Memories of a Rakishoker)

by Berl Sarver (Tel Aviv)

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

White, blue smoke from the chimneys meanders up to the cloudy, winter heaven. Houses stand as if huddled together. A white, downy snow is strewn on the sloped roofs and covers them as if with erev-Shabbos [eve of Shabbat] tablecloths. Young boys pursue each other with reddened faces and ears and barely notice the partly or completely worried faces of the aged Jewish men and women.

The frost cracks, sleighs travel hitched to skinny peasant horses, which spread the sound of lonely bells. On Monday, peasants come to the market, wrapped and rolled up in cloths, the children coming back from kheder [religious elementary school] with the earflaps of their hats pulled down. Their clear, small voices resonate through the long “New Street.”

Night falls: strange and yet full of promising stars that light up the sky; their shine distant, hazy; their glance barely a gesture to the distant Milky Way. And if one of them “falls down,” girls in love murmur, “Good luck!”

This was a curious winter: hungry wolves from the surrounding distant forests smelled Jewish foods in the fresh snow. Sometimes they desired a look – what kind of face does Rakishok have in winter – and they came near.

Yekl, the melamed [religious school teacher], said this himself. The other day he went out “for what is natural” near his house. He noticed that some kind of “a strange dog” was coming toward him from beyond the fence. Its look was “suspicious” - make up your mind; you are a dog, look, do what you need to do – and run away! But you are looking for so long, and, in addition, with a turned head – you are surely a wolf!

Later, when Reb Yekl quickly ran into the vestibule, he heard a long drawn out howl that bore into all of his limbs and ran through his soul – and then Reb Yekl was convinced that there was no doubt – it was a wolf! But he could not understand one thing – why did it look at him so long?

This is how Reb Yekl described it on Shabbos Noakh [the Sabbath on which the Torah portion entitled Noakh – Noah – is read] in the grynem minyon [green minyon – a minyon is 10 men needed for prayer]. Rakishok had three minyonim in addition to the misnagid [opponents of Hasidism] synagogue – the green, yellow and red. They stood in one row on the same street, and each color recalled a third of the flag introduced by the Lithuanian Republic.

Each minyon, as well as the misnagid synagogue, is a chapter in itself – and calls for perhaps an entire book – but in short we will say that the scholars prayed in the yellow minion, and therefore, Reb Yekl the melamed, who thought of himself as a scholar and was also thought to be a scholar by others, would come there.

* * *

For a long time there was nothing new in the shtetl. The world there carried on in the old way: Bertsik Zalkind's Talmud-Torah [religious school for poor boys], Reb Moshe Sidrer's yeshiva and the Hebrew public school stood on the same spot. It was said that in spring the recruits would not break any Jewish window panes because Dr. Soloveitchik achieved American recognition for Lithuania – de jure [literally “concerning the law” – in principle]. And now there would probably be no thumps in the People's Bank because it was being said that the means had been found to distribute to the smaller banks. Non-Jews would push the Jews out of the flax and seed trade, but would they succeed, the peasant heads? There was also time to think about hiring a shepherd to drive the cows to Radute. The winter was still severe. Meanwhile, red bilberries and cabbage were being placed in the barrels.

And once, on one bright winter day, the shtetl was stirred up by a sensation: a strange dark Jew, with burning dark eyes, a red hat on his small head, with peyes [side curls], twisted and long like little snakes – and with two large valises – got off in the shtetl at the train station. He had been brought by “Ezrial the beard” (he was called that in the shtetl because of his beautiful, long beard and he had once been envied for having the merit of bringing the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of blessed memory, to Rakishok).

“Who saw the Turk?” women asked one another, tapping a chicken on Monday at the market, or two neighbors drawing a pail of water at the wells.

“Why do you think he is a Turk?” asked another one.

“Because he wears a red hat, he is a Turk?”

“So, what then is he? Perhaps a Jew?”

“Certainly, he is a Jew; he speaks Loshn Koydesh [holy tongue – the Hebrew language]!”

“It is said that he is one of the red Jews from the Hore-Khoysekh.”[1] “Why do you think that such a Jew would in fact come to Rakishok?”

“Who knows? Perhaps he was told that the Rakishokers are charitable people!”

“And with whom do I think this Jew – this Turk – lodges?”

“Certainly with Nusen the shoykhet [ritual slaughterer]!”

“Is that so? And the daughters certainly pamper him!”

“Is he then unmarried?”

“God forbid! Apparently, a “punished” Jew. But is it relevant to say?”

Hakhroses-orkhrim!” [Commandment to provide hospitality to a stranger, particularly on Shabbos]

So the shtetl had something to talk about – and the snow continued to fall on the horse and wagon, and on the red hat of the dark, little Jew, until he was swallowed in the half darkness of the apartment of Nusen the shoykhet.

* * *

On a soft sofa in a separate room sat Reb Yitzhak Khyun, a Jew from Eretz-Yisroel who had moved there from Yemen. And now he was in Rakishok.

He sat wrapped in a large shawl and his teeth chattered from the cold. A curious look came over him as to where he was in the world. He looked at the drapes, the portraits on the walls, the almost flaxen colored beard of his host, the short sleeves of his daughters, and the strange frost patterns on the window panes with his naïve, half-wild look. Curiously, he considered the new world into which he had fallen. He was a little afraid of it. The shoykhet and his family, a family of Jewish people in the far, flat area of Lithuania, a land of level-headed, stubborn Klumpes [Lithuanians] stood around him no less astonished.

Amazed, they looked at the thin Jew from Teymen [Yemen], and I think the shoykhet thought that the Yosifon [10th century book of Jewish history based on the works of Josephus] mentioned this land of the past.

“Six days a week the Sambatyon River[2] cooks and boils and throws giant stones up to heaven.”

“Sambatyon, Sambatyon, how long will you boil; and Jews, how long will you continue to rage?” “But Shabbos comes, it stops boiling and seething. A calm controls its cloudy ripples, and then it can be crossed on foot.”

Looking at Reb Yitzhak Khyun, this little story ran through Nusen the shoykhet's thoughts.

How many years had he lived in Duksht [Dûkðtas], Swiadashts [Svedasai] and Rakishok and in how many yeshivas had he lingered and in how many slaughterhouses had he trudged and had the honor of being a Jew from “those parts.” And now he had someone like this in his house? God's wonder!

Some kind of Jew, a trifle, who spoke only the holy language [Hebrew], even during the week![3] (Cold, cold, the Lord should take pity on him because here he was dying from the cold.) A hospitable smile spread from the lips of the owner of the house and he answered him equally with a [Hebrew] verse: “You will not die because you will live.” His daughters took pride in their father's Hebrew. And little by little, they entered a wider conversation. First of all, the guest announced that he was a “sufferer.” He was not accustomed to all of the foods that the Ashkenazim [western Jews] eat.

And he stated another plea: while he was still in this country where the frost was a mortal danger, here was a Jew, a Torah scholar. But who would preserve his health so that he could serve the Creator?

His pleas were listened to with respect and then a talkative bearded mouth opened and the person began to speak. What did he speak about and what did he not speak about?

– About the distant, very distant Land of Yemen, about Sana'a, Chaban and the Hatser Mavet [Court of the Dead, possible reference to a cemetery]. Yes, there is such a place in the world that is called the Hatser Mavet - that is, the “Court of the Dead.” There one is afflicted by heat and dust, with the salty earth and illnesses. And Jews also cry there.

He said, “Not in every place in Yemen are Jews poor and oppressed in the same number. There are places where the Ishmaelim [Arabs] take into consideration the skhus oves [accumulated merits of ancestors] of the Am hakhasav (the people of the writing or book, meaning the Torah), but there mainly is a bitter fate – and he stressed, very, very different from you in Lietuva [Lithuania in the Lithuanian language] – and more than you can imagine. Oh, the bitter exile of Yemen, when will we finally be redeemed from there? With you in Lietuva, I am equal with all men. Perhaps many injustices are done to you, but no one humiliates you – but with us in poor, unfortunate Yemen – Oh, my God - alas and alack – Jewish Yemenites are taken to be converted, heaven preserve us. We have to give respect to the Ishlmaelim; we have to yield the way, we may not ride on a beast because only the leaders can have the honor to ride on a horse or on a donkey, but not the impure Jews – the heretics (who deny the prophet Mohammed). Jews have to go on foot and on the pavement. Oh, how difficult and bitter is exile and the coming of Moshiekh [the redemption] is taking so long, so many generations! Why does God not want Moshiekh to come? We have had need of him for so long!”

He spoke this way with his throaty expression – people were barely able to understand him. Reb Nusen somehow understood him, and this was thanks to his long years of soaking in the Jewish books that were published in Loshn Koydesh.

“The Torah brings the distant closer,” the shoykhet thought. “The language is a bridge to understanding,” thought his well-educated daughters.

* * *

Reb Yitzhak Khyun sat in the shoykhet's house and asked kashes [questions]. The shoykhet would say of this with a joke that Sambatyon could not answer these kashes.

The women are an unlucky people. A Jew brings a part of Eretz-Yisroel with him to Rakishok, and not one Jewish woman, except for the shoykhet's daughters, has yet had the honor to see him. That is, there is no talk here of looking at someone who is a “good looking man,” but he is someone from Eretz-Yisroel and also from Yemen!

The men, for their part, took pleasure in him. That is, he was no great, eminent man, but (speaking among themselves) when could Rakishok expect learned men, distinguished scholars, except for such individuals? And he understood a bit of gemara.

The yungatshes [rascals] said that the Evrit [modern Hebrew] comes from him passably, spoken through the nose and not according to the correct grammar. (Then they began to see, after the first enchantment was over.)

The main critics were the youth from Tarbut [network of Hebrew language, secular schools] and the Yavne pro-gymnazie [religious Zionist school that prepared students to enter the gymnazie] and the students from the Beis Sefer [school] with Klumial's students occupied in the mastery of Hebrew. The HaShomer-HaTzair [Socialist-Zionist youth movement] were interested in the person. He was living evidence for what was happening in the life of the “land of Israel,” although they did not believe that all Jews there wore a beard and peyes.

Reb Nusen the shoykhet, Yekl the melamed, and others who were able to grab a conversation and study with him (after the frost fell, Reb Yitzhak Khyun began to go to the “yellow minyon” for prayer), supported him completely and took his side. “To what is this relevant?” they said to the yungatshes. “You mean then apparently that your Spanish is the right expression of the Holy Tongue? We can only say to you that you break your heads with your pasekh [Hebrew vowel signifying an “a” after a consonant] like those Jews who think that in German everything is with a pasekh, for example: Di Levana sheint [the moon shines] and di kala veynt [the bride cries], and so on, but in truth the Yemeni Jews speak the true Evrit because not every komets [Hebrew vowel sign signifying an “o” after a consonant] is a pasekh, and there is a komets gadal and a komets katan.”[4]

Thus declared Yekl the melamed, and the group of yungatshes winked at each other. “Right away he will want to tell stories about the wolf in Evrit with the Ashkenazi havore (pronunciation).”

Meanwhile the “scholars” occupied themselves with Reb Yitzhak round and round in a Torah discussion about matters of shmita [leaving the land fallow every seven years] in the Eretz Yisroel of the present. Why does Yemen not observe the Takanot haRem”a [religious rulings by Rabbi Moshe Isserles] in matters of shmita? And they found that all of his answers were sustained and connected with “mikama mekomot” [“from several places”] and with a considerable amount of ability.

His wonder ascended, and it is pertinent to say that Jews still study everywhere!

* * *

Christmas came closer. The pious gentiles began to prepare, one with a little pig, one with a gift to the priest. In addition, in the middle of town in the market square, on the left, the abratina (tea house); on the right, a variety of Jewish haberdashery and manufacturing shops. At the corner of this square, the Catholic Church with its sharp contours appeared in the clouds and broke into the blueness of the sky. The pointy cupola, arrogant to the wintry clouds, lifted its heroic copper ornaments - crosses formed in sharp-cornered Gothic style.

From the first night on, a month before Christmas, the dull drumming over the invisible sheet metal of the church was heard. Each drum pinched a weak heart; with each ring of the bell scores of echoes poured out, derived from metal, proudly swinging. Here they woke, and here again they were on the verge of being lulled to sleep as with a cradle. Sure of themselves, unctuous and calm, and immediately again alarming and threatening – the sounds of the bells over the bent, seemingly frightened Jewish roofs.

And it seems as if each ring of the giant, massive church clock mourns Jewish life in the land of the gentiles. The threatening ring still shakes a little; it wrestles still in the night with invisible strength, until it discharges vibrations and becomes silent. Will this threatening-sleepy ringing awake them again? Will it constantly bring shudders to Jewish hearts?

After a rooster crows, another answers him, and all flow into one boring chicken melody up to the dawning grey sky - another day announced by the crowing of a rooster over the still existing Jewish Rakishok.

* * *

The Shabbos night, for which Reb Yitzhak Khyun long waited, finally came. The Jew from Eretz-Yizroel would speak today before the “group.” At his right hand stood ready a pale and tall young man in the jacket of a gymnazie [secondary school] student. His feminine, carved mouth smiled at his friends around him. It was said that he often came to Nusen the shoykhet's house – probably to see one of his daughters.

This young man with a knowledge of Hebrew had to translate Khyun's sermons from Hebrew to Yiddish. Reb Khona Arsh was intoxicated with the possibility that the older Jew with a grey beard and peyes would give an entire sermon in the holy language. When, for example, a Zionist speaker came from the Keren-Kaymet [Jewish National Fund], he thought, the Agudanikes [members of Orthodox non-Zionist political party] would not even admit him. Contemptible tailors would shout: “Yiddish, Yiddish,” because Khona Arsh – it should be known that he was a liberal man, he made sure to wear a beautiful, always clean suit, his beard always trimmed – was a universal Zionist according to his beliefs. He always hated those called “extremists,” but instead took the middle way with people and with politics. But in relation to Evrit he was romantically disposed and a very terrible extremist, and it evidently was seen in the personal victory this Shabbos night at Khona's.

It cannot be said that the heart of the young gymnazie student did not beat like a dove in a cage without an eyenhore [evil eye], seeing before him a large “group” of people. But he tried not to show it, because from the “women's section” his mother looked out from one side, and not far away, the shoykhet's middle daughter. This young man found himself in the crossfire of two kinds of looks. His mother's eyes were velvety, calmly deep, and although a little sad, a luster of former joy sparkled in their pupils. And there a little further, the girl's blue-green eyes seemed kindly, and yet audacious and a little deriding.

Khyun wrapped himself in a wide Turkish talis and drew it over his red hat with the fringe. The “crowd” turned forward, like an effervescent sea of waves.

From the neighboring shtetl Abel [Obeliai], a few people came out of curiosity to look at the “Turkish” Jew. Gedalyah-Velve, the crazy one, came running with them. He invaded the “red synagogue” like a whirlwind. His black cherry-eyes smiled with that good natured, dull expression and yet very humanely. Thus he smiled with his eyes, and half hoarse, he spoke through his nose.

“A Jew like a Turk, a Turk like a Jew! He will speak, he will speak Hebrew! Evrit, a new language, Evrit and really a language – Loshn Koydesh, Lokshn [noodle] Koydesh. Ha, ha, ha! Where is the rabbi's tie? Why does he not wear a tie; it is not nice without a tie! You think I am crazy; I say to you that I am entirely not crazy, because a father proves successful in a son.”
The yungatshes rolled with laughter. The older people were angry and tried to send him out, but he was a stubborn Jew and did not allow it.

“Who will understand him?” he suddenly exclaimed. “Aha! Freydka, daughter of Nusen the shoykhet'. For a daughter is like a father.

“Sha, sha [quiet], get out of here you sheygets [non-Jewish boy]!” Reb Yekl screamed at him. But Nusen the shoykhet hinted that things should be calm. Little by little Gedalyah-Velve became quiet.

Khyun began: “Dear brothers, our brethren in Israel! From far, very far lands I came to you! As the verse states: 'And came the whirlwinds of the south,' the storm of exile also brought me here. This is the storm also of the oyses hazman (signs of the time). Our sages said: 'The son of David shall not come until money has vanished from the purse.' (Moshiach [descended from the “son of David”] will not come until the penny does not end up in the pocket [until poverty is widespread]). I see that with you, thank God, it is not such, and therefore,” he added with a smile, “you delay the redemption. But it is different with the Jews in Yemen. Their poverty is flagrant.” He spoke more about Jewish troubles around the world and mainly in Yemen. He ended with verses from the Tanakh [Bible] which pass on the word of the revival of Zion: “Just as we see now eye to eye that a new light begins to shine in our old-new fatherland, Jews are there colonizing little by little and building, but we must strengthen and help them.”

He himself had come because of haskhnoses-kale [community arrangements for marrying poor and orphaned girls] and he actually spoke about his daughter. But is the mitzvah smaller because of this? At the same time, he would honestly transfer [the money] and give a receipt for each amount that the kehile would give him for the poor people of the holy cities of the fatherland.

With a trembling, but clear voice, the 19-year-old gymnazie student translated his words and plunged himself in the dreams of Zion, and also added his [own words].

The audience listened with sympathy. Reb Khona Arsh listened very closely and was pleased. But there was trouble that in emphasizing the moments about Eretz-Yisroel, the gymnazie student forgot about Khyun's private matter – about haskhnoses-kale! He emphasized the point of tzadekah [charity] for Eretz-Yizroel.

Suddenly, something bizarre happened: Reb Yitzhak Khyun assumed such a tiger-like pose towards the gymnazie student (Itsek's son, Berke), that even Gedalyah-Velve, the crazy one, was afraid.

The “khokhem's” [usually translated as sage, but used ironically here] eyes were shining strangely wild, and there twinkled in them that strange fire of a desert man, or perhaps a wild peasant at the Monday market.

Nusen's daughter, Freydka, the middle daughter, became pale, and Itsik's daughter, Henya Eidl – the mother of the gymnazie student – wrung her hands. The audience was amazed. The gymnazie student himself blinked his eyes in surprise and, perhaps also fear, and instinctively took a step back.

Meanwhile, Reb Yitzhak Khyun burst out: “Why did you not say that the main income needs to go to haskhnoses-kale; why did you hide this thing from them?”[5] The people murmured in astonishment, in the manner in which a wind traveling over much greenery murmurs. Others called out: “Understand? Does he then understand Yiddish?” It is unnecessary to say that a bit of “exoticness” fell away immediately from the Eastern man, Reb Yitzhak Khyun, who seemed to understand Yiddish as “a nash brat” [a regular fellow], so that his Yemen Jewishness became a little paler and his body curled up to the size of an ordinary little Jew.

From a practical standpoint, the collection was not affected. On the contrary, a number of the group, and among them also Khona Arsh, heartily laughed at the entire incident.

How a young man forgets himself and thinks that he is the speaker! The student explained and immediately proceeded to talmatshen (to translate) the point about haskhones-kale, and the Yemenite's blinking eyes calmed a little. In his heart, Itsek's son, Berke, thought that perhaps he was a little confused because his mother and his bride had looked out at him from the women's section.

And then Reb Yitzhak Khyun again was permeated with warm talk of consolation for the Jewish people. Among others, he described for them the “night of the bells,” and how he survived them.

“May God have mercy,” he argued, “for indeed exile is here, too! This is how I spoke to myself in the thick darkness of my room with the 'sage' Nusen, hearing Esau's bell [the gentile's bell]. And this is what I asked: How long is your beauty in captivity and your magnificence [Israel's] in the hands of the enemy?[5] But Esau's bell desecrated my prayer.”

“Wake up, dear brothers, wake up! Your exile is actually easier. That is, they do not spit in your face and do not convert your children; they do not chase you from the sidewalk. But little brothers, if we have to consider everything as a favor, it is an exile here!”

“Therefore, Jews, stand up to help Eretz-Yisroel, the place of the Royal Palace. New rays [of light] shine out from there; our young people, may they be blessed, soak the land with their sweat and blood. Each piece of earth there is dear to them, as the godly poet, Reb Yehuda haLevi, wrote: 'The clods of your earth are sweeter to me than honey.' ”[5]

“And to my pious brothers, I say: do not think, dear ones, that this is, God forbid, hurrying the end of the exile before the time,[5] because the land is here, and its emptiness awaits all Jews who can and will come here, and also the Lithuania Jews whose Judaism is so strongly persevered among them. If you only want to!”

And a new light shone on them. There was a great delight.

* * *

The “community” listened, but not everyone agreed, and later they were not able to follow the message that spoke of the “rising sun of redemption.” Alas, not everyone was affected by this new spirit that the “Red Jew” had left behind in the shtetl. Alas, not everyone was saved from the desolate bloody days and lost lives.

But, listening to the preaching of the “Red Jew” and to similar preachers, many of their children left for there [Eretz-Yisroel], and are building anew the disrupted life of the past generation in the personality of their very worthy, strong and freedom loving children – native born Israelis, or Sabras. [Sabra (cactus) is the name given to native born Israelis in recognition of their tenaciousness in living in a desert climate, as does the cactus].


  1. The term “red Jews” has many meanings and often has an anti-Semitic connotation. It can refer to the Lost Tribes of Israel who were thought to live beyond the Hore-Khoyshekh – the legendary mountain of darkness.. Return
  2. The Sambatyon River is a legendary river of stones beyond which the 10 Lost Tribes of Israel are believed to have been exiled. Return
  3. Hebrew, the holy language, was usually reserved for the synagogue. The language used by most Jews in Lithuania in their daily lives was Yiddish. Return
  4. This paragraph is commenting about the different dialects or pronunciations of Yiddish and Hebrew. The komets gadolis transliterated as an “a” and the komets katanis transliterated as an “o.”. Return
  5. This question appears in Hebrew and is followed by the Yiddish translation in parenthesis. Return


[Page 115]

Reminiscences of a Socialist in Rakishok

by Buim Yidel Kreel

Translated by Lillian Dubb and Sadie Forman

Chasidic Rakishok

During the first Russian Revolution of 1902 to 1905, the Jewish masses in the little towns and shtetlach became inspired with revolutionary ideals. The bad economic conditions, and the tradition-bound lives of the Jews in Tsarist Russia, were among the reasons for this to happen. In Rakishok, revolutionary groups were active, some of whom were influenced by the Jewish workers parties from Dvinsk.

Dvinsk already had a big textile industry, such as the well-known factories of Natanson, Zaks, and Griliches. These factories employed hundreds of workers including workers from Rakishok. Rakishok also had small factories which employed a few thousand workers.

The call to freedom and struggle was answered by the workers in the small workshops as well. A barrier to the spread of revolutionary ideas was the Chasidic groups, who were hide-bound to their traditional way of life. It is well-known that Rakishok was a stronghold of Chasidim.

From North to South, we were surrounded by the spires of churches and cathedrals. In the East stood a beautiful Roman-Catholic cathedral with a spire hundreds of feet high, on the apex of which was a steel cross point which earthed lightning. On the West side, there was a Russian cathedral with many crosses.

The religious attitude to the revolutionaries was negative Ė they were antagonistic. At that time, it was viewed as a disgrace to be a tradesman. Religious study was the acceptable life. There was also a negative attitude to Zionist movements. The following example will illustrate this:

In Rakishok, there was a well-known Chasid called Zalman Yossel Rubens. He was a reader of the Torah and a respected person. He became a Zionist. The Chasidim were suspicious of him and no one spoke to him. He was barred from reading from the Torah, a formidable sanction. A short time later he died, and the Chasidim regarded his death as payment for his sin of Zionism.

The Chasidim were outraged when the brothers Mendel and Label Rabkin who were members of the Enlightened Movement opened a Hebrew school where modern secular Hebrew was taught.

Under the influence of the Russian revolution, a number of Zionist groups were formed by the children of Chasidim. They became friendly with the workers` groups in the town, and participated in their activities. The stormy years of the revolution broke down the hold of the Chasidim over the community and there was more interest in secular and cultural activities.

The so-called cream of the Chasid community, their intelligentsia became increasingly drawn into the socio-political world.

As a result, a number of different political groupings were formed, such as Zionists, Zionist-Socialists, Hapoael-Zion, Socialist Revolutionaries and the Bund. The Zionist-Socialist Party was founded by Matilda Mathieson, and by a socialist worker called Schwartzberg. Matilda Mathieson was the daughter of a Chasid who prayed in a Chasidic shtiebel. She would lecture on various ideologies in the Jewish section, such as Zionism, Socialism, Territorialism[1] and others. She also led discussion groups that developed from the lectures. These meetings were held in private houses, in special study houses and also in the surrounding woods.

From these study groups, nationalist and revolutionary parties emerged. When the discussions became heated they led to quarrels and the voice of the Beadle would rise above them and he would chase them from the venue shouting, “Get out of here; these are Holy places.”

The topics discussed at these gatherings were regarded with great seriousness. Apart from the philosophical, they also discussed concrete, practical matters such as how to achieve an eight-hour working day and how to organise strikes in order to achieve improved working conditions.

At these meetings, the agenda would have been set previously by the Central Committee members who had experience in various strategies of the struggle. These meetings were often held in secret because Tsarist agents were sent to spy on the meetings. Because of this nothing was written down and only general books were available. For example, there were books of poetry and prose by writers such as Dovid Edelshtam, Morris Rosenveld, Morris Venshevsky, Abraham Reisen, Sorah Reisen, Emile Zola and other classical writers, such as Mendele Kliatcha. These books were read and analysed from a socialist and revolutionary perspective.

At that time, revolutionary tracts were printed on wrapping paper and they would pass from hand-to-hand. On the thinnest cigarette papers were printed pleas, the history of revolutionary movements and Victor Chernov's “The Agrarian Question and Revolutionary Territorialism.” Afterwards, the members would get together and discuss the relevant problems printed on these illegal pamphlets.

Stormy Days

I recall an incident in those stormy days. A member of the Socialist Revolutionary Group, Shimke Dimant, became a spy. The Socialist Party discussed the problem of spies and following the policy of the Central Committee in Riga, they were ordered to eliminate Shimke. The lot fell to two people to carry out the job, one of whom was a tailor whose parents were Chasidim.

The deed was to take place in the Great Synagogue on the Sabbath while the congregation was at prayer. When the two revolutionaries approached him to charge him with betraying the Party for being a spy, he drew his knife to stab the tailor, son of the Chasid, but the tailor preempted the attack by firing his revolver and merely wounded Shimke. The turmoil and chaos in the Shul was tremendous and terrifying and the entire congregation turned their passionate anger on the accusers.

In no time, a posse of policemen arrived on the scene and forbade anyone to leave the shul. However the two revolutionaries escaped before the police arrived. They escaped through the priest's gate and fled to a small fenced-off wood near the shul which was close to the Rudomer Forest.

As they ran, one of them fell, but the tailor did not leave his comrade behind. Lifting him up, and with the revolver in one hand he stood poised to face the police. Fortunately, the one who fell got up and with all his strength he struggled on until they reached the Jewish village in Rudomer.

A poor Jewish woman recognised their danger and hid them in her attic, filled with new-mown hay. She then went away from the house, leaving her children playing peacefully in the garden. The police arrived and asked the children if they had seen two men running away. The eldest daughter kept her cool and told them that two people had run into the forest. The two men heard the police talking to the girl and decided that they would rather kill themselves than be caught by the police.

The police charged into the forest like wild dogs after them and by good fortune, they were saved from death.

Meanwhile, in Rakishok people were being arrested and sent to Siberia. Yoske's brother Arke and a plumber died in Siberia. Mika-Itcha Leibes and another two were freed in 1917 at the time of the February Revolution.

I was also wanted by the police at that time. My aunt hid me until I made my escape to Dvinsk.

A Yeshiva Bocher

Dvinsk was a town well-known to me. I had studied at a Yeshiva there. There were two Yeshivas in Dvinsk. One was known as Hurwitz's Yeshiva which consisted of three sections. Reb Simcha taught the beginners Matchilim. Reb Yachel Yehuda took the older students and Reb Yomtov worked with the rabbinic students.

The second Yeshiva was a Chasidic school - Wittenberg's Yeshiva, whose principal was Reb Yehoshe Arsch. In addition, my grandparents lived in Dvinsk and they were like my own beloved parents. My Zeida was a poor man. His livelihood was from his two cows and he made a living from the dairy products yielded by these two cows.

At first, I studied in the beginner's Yeshiva, with Yehuda and afterwards I moved up to Wittenberg's. The principal, Reb Arsch, was an extremely strict man and exacted great diligence from his students, but I had a zest for learning.

A Yiddish teacher, Soloviov, was recommended to me and we began to study Russian. He prepared me for entrance to the second level of the Russian secular school. I had a strong yearning to learn more of the outside world beyond the parochial, but without neglecting my Chasidic studies. In time, I had my own pupils among the workers. They would ask me to explain the difficult passages in the illegal booklets.

Soloviov advised me to leave the Yeshiva and to enter the Dvinsk Technikon where one could receive free meals. As a student at the technical college, I soon became a member of the Student Socialist Movement. I was appointed to the group responsible for improving the standard of the food in the kitchen. Soon the students were able to have their say in the running of the kitchen. I graduated from this “Three Classics School” with honours.

Dvinsk and The Bund

In Dvinsk, I became a member of the Bund. There were a number of professional organisations and worker's unions in Dvinsk at that time. I really wanted to share my knowledge of the process of government deriving from the Constitution and Parliament, the voting system and how the franchise was exercised.

My first practical experience in the field was to address an audience of two thousand who had to make a decision for all specialist building workers, such as the plumbers, painters, carpenters and bricklayers to unite into a large, single union. In a state of feverish anxiety, I prepared a draft document of how this should come about.

My appeal had an unexpected result. The proposal for the union was unanimously accepted. This event inspired me to further revolutionary activity. I helped to distribute a highly illegal pamphlet of revolutionary songs, “The Vow” by Sh. Anski and songs such as “The Salty Sea of Human Tears,” and “How long, how long will we still be slaves,” and others. These songs were sung with resounding echoes in Natanson's button factory. Passers-by would stop in their tracks to listen to the enthusiastic singing of the workers.

In the first days of Pesach in 1905, I took part in a conference of the Bund in Ponevezh. The sittings were stopped for afternoon and evening prayers. Twenty-five delegates attended and the subjects for discussion at the conference were how to conduct propaganda, how to distribute literature, how to organise strikes, and the organisation of workers' meetings.

A tall, intelligent young man, one of the stewards, walked up and down and around the hall, and emphasised that we were not to write anything down. We were to remember the resolutions and the decisions made at the conference and to memorize them carefully so that we could report the conference accurately to our members in the Ponevezh region.

On the third day of the Pesach week, the delegates went home peacefully. They were inspired and felt energised to commit themselves to achieving the aims of the Conference and to further their ideals.

My desire to study was intense. I traveled to Vilna, but was unable to enrol at the Teachers' Seminar because I was from the Kovno Guberniya (province) and not a local from Vilna. Disappointed, I left Vilna and returned to Riga.

In Riga, I found an open cultural umbrella organisation called Carmel. This was a progressive body under whose roof were a variety of groups and people. There were Latvians, Lithuanians, Estonians, Germans of every political left-wing colour, such as Social Democrats and Bundists. Carmel was a central meeting place for all committed activists.

Later, a Federation of the different parties, called the Soviet developed. I was co-opted on the Soviet as an assistant secretary. Drs. Scheinfeld and Hirschfeld were very active members of the Soviet (Not long ago, before I started writing these memories, I was grief-stricken to hear that Dr. Scheinfeld and his whole family were killed by the Latvian - Hitler regime).

In the Soviet, I had the opportunity to meet interesting Socialist theorists. I also had a group of students to whom I gave classes and explained the democratic developments in our Jewish history, such as the Sanhedrin, that gathered together traditional regulations uniting Jews who were scattered over the four corners of the earth. We also discussed the Karl Marx Manifesto. I taught my students that religion in the first period of its development, as presented in the religious texts, was progressive and democratic.

From that time of my teaching, I remember the Bundist, Abraham Chofetz, a student from the Kiev Polytechnic. He was a strongly committed comrade of the Party. Despite his tubercular pallor, he gave the last ounce of his strength to the Party. His learned lectures and theoretical analyses were a treasure house of knowledge and culture.

Unlike Chofetz, a school friend, Julius, who doubted our sincerity, turned himself over to the secret police and blackened the names of about ten members of the Bund, including mine. One of my friends, Auerbach and I were taken to a police cell and then transported to the Riga prison, where we met our eight other comrades who had been arrested. After questioning, we were released.

Earlier, I was taken for questioning to the “Centralka.” They tortured us badly. Terrible screams, groans and cries could be heard from every cell. We remained in the Riga “Centralka” and were prosecuted. We attempted to send coded messages to the other political prisoners. For six months, we were kept in the prison. People from the Socialist Party brought us food - we had butter, cheese, cigarettes and even chocolates. No private visitors were allowed to see us apart from family members.

Exile to the Volog District in Siberia Begins

One day, I was visited by a woman who said she told the police that she was my fiancťe. She told me that the verdict of the case was that we were sentenced to the Vologda District for three years. She comforted me with the assurance that the Party would do everything they could for us. And so it was.

The morning came when we were told to get ready for the journey. We marched all the way to the station under police escort and in the train we were guarded by armed soldiers. From Riga, they sent us to Petersburg. In the Petersburg jail, we were locked up with a few criminals. We were then sent to Vologda. The Vologda jail, a wooden two-storied building looked more like a shul than a prison. There was one room with large windows and strong metal grilles. On one wall was a poster with instructions for the gaolers and on the opposite wall, names of those who had been there before us. We also added our names to the list.

From Vologda we were taken to Viatke. On the station at Viatke we noticed a huge van, guarded by police and soldiers with swords held in their hands. Sitting in the van were a woman and a man dressed in expensive furs. We discovered that they were the famous revolutionaries, Tcheidza and his wife. He had been released and she was taking him home.

The Viatke jail was in a long dark, dirty cellar with mice and bugs. Political and criminal prisoners were put together in the same cells. After a period we were taken in convoy on a wagon drawn by four or six horses. The guards had guns and every few minutes we heard them loading their guns. We did about 40 versts[2] a day. We rested in villages along the way, in places which had been prearranged by our gaolers. There was one room for the soldiers and a long, fenced-off back room with iron bars and barbed wire was for us, the prisoners. We slept on straw on the floor. At every rest place a new convoy took over.

About 100 miles from Viatke our treatment improved. They allowed us to walk because we had become stiff from the long hours of sitting. The convoy leader began to speak to us. When we got to Yarensk the soldiers allowed us to buy food from the peasants - yellow cheese, butter and herring. There was no bread, except for a type of village cake called yarushnikas.

Winter, With a Guitar

Winter came. We arrived at Ust-Saisiyalsk prison where we were much more comfortable. Although the prison room was not large, it was heated and the guard was friendly. For small change, he brought us food - warm prison soup.

In the middle of the room, stood a long table and we could sit there. Two new comrades, a man and a woman joined us. He was a Russian from Moscow, an artist. A warder brought him a guitar and we spent a jolly evening. He imitated a man who had drunk too much vodka.

We all laughed and the warders standing by the large kerosene lamps were also amused.

From Ust-Saisiyalsk we travelled to Ust-Kulas which had a climate that covered the land in frost all year round.

This was our destination. Here we received money from the Bund in Riga. We needed the money for warm clothes. And, we met other Bundists from Vilna Ė Yezierski, and Machlin who was a friendly man. Machlin's logical lectures on world problems and literature were scientific and erudite.

Machlin, Auerbach and Leibchik

Machlin was a tall broad-shouldered chap with a beard, and his looks reminded me of the well-known Zionist Dr. Chaim Weitzman. The comrades in his cell and the Christian neighbours, nicknamed Machlin “Your Holiness.”

In that far-away place, we had a library and received illegal pamphlets. Machlin used to read us matters of interest. I also remember, Comrade Alexander, who was an interesting person. He was a Russian from Moscow where he was secretary of a cooperative. He was an expert in different social problems. He formed a group that studied the history of English industry. I shared a room with Leibchik Popliak, a comrade from Riga. My friend comrade Auerbach was with me all the time.

Chaver Auerbach was released before me. His parents requested that he be freed. Chaver Leibchik received information from the Party telling him to escape. Leibchik disappeared one night, thanks to a woman who ran Kuzbazier's business that exported butter, oil, fish, sardines, furs, and dairy products, and a small river-craft for the use of the customers. The business owner's son had arranged for Leibchik to escape on the boat with a passport saying that he was a customer. So he got away.

Once the police arrived and knocked on my door, but I did not open up. They forced an entry and I was then sent to East Saisiyalsk because they suspected that I was spreading socialist propaganda and illegal literature.

In East Saisiyalsk, I met another deported family. One of them was comrade Kramer, a student in the medical faculty. He was a most interesting person. To this day, I can recall his intelligent face in all its particulars.

Later, I was sent back to East Kulas, and given new quarters. I shared a living area with a family, Prokopievich. All my free time, I spent with my friend Machlin. We bought a small boat in partnership and in the mornings we would go down the river Kulas which had a very narrow entry. It stretched out and became very wide while at the same time the current became stronger and stronger. One day, when Machlin and I reached the middle of the river, the boat almost overturned.

During this time of my exile, we received a sum of 8 roubles from the state every month. We also got a basic allowance for our winter clothing. In addition, I received money from the Riga organisation and friendly letters from Lena Popliak.

Amnesty

After 18 months were up, I was notified that because of the 300-year celebrations of the Romanov dynasty, we had been granted amnesty.

The police guarded us until we reached Vologda, and there we were released. With happy hearts and train tickets in our pockets, we traveled to our separate homes.

Pesach time in Rakishok. The melting snow, with its accompanying mud, lay heavy on our hearts, only the anticipation of Pesach lightened our spirits. On the threshold, we were met with tears of joy at our homecoming by our families.

After Pesach and the Amnesty celebrations, the old system reared its ugly head once more. Freedom's short spell in Rakishok District was short-lived. I received letters from other friends in East Kulas. Many of those released comrades who had not been able to get home so quickly, were rearrested.

A Short Time After My Release, I Married

In a little village, Zabeshik, a few versts from my shtetl, I met my wife, Malke Levine. I was resting there after my ordeal in exile. A few weeks passed and my father arrived early on a Sunday. He was pale and frightened. With trembling lips he told me “My child you must leave here immediately. You cannot return to our shtetl. The police are looking for you. They turned our house upside-down trying to find you. They questioned me and your mother as to your whereabouts. When they didn't find anything they went to look for you in the Chasidic shtibel. They surrounded the minion and called out our family name. I managed to get out, but they told me that they were looking for Bunim Yidel and not Yankel Baruch." After this news, by the next morning I was already in Tavrik.

It was December, 1912. I crossed the border into Germany. From there, I traveled to sunny South Africa and arrived in Cape Town. My wife and baby son came many months later.

South African Soil and Politics

I arrived on African soil having endured 18 months in Tsarist jails. From the small jail in Riga, I had journeyed to the furthest reaches of the Vologda region. Viatka, Valanda, Yorensk, East Saisiyalsk and East Kulas. It seemed that South Africa was a land of political freedom, a paradise, compared with despotic Russia. I was overjoyed to be in South Africa.

I soon became interested in the political climate of South Africa, and particularly the Socialist movement. My brother Lazar, who lived in Cape Town, welcomed me with great hospitality. Thanks to him, I met my Socialist friends, Joe Pick, Goldblatt and others. It turned out, Goldblatt had lived in the same neighbourhood in Dvinsk as my grandparents and he immediately recognised me.

At that time there was a Social Democratic Federation in Cape Town whose members were for the most part English. Their premises were in Shortmarket Street not far from where I worked in my uncle's business. The hall was very light and airy and could hold 100 people. Meetings were held there often and all political subjects were discussed. I remember the following people who were on the Committee of this organisation: the Chairman McManus, Harrison, Connolly, Stewart, Driberg, Lemmon and others. There were a few Jewish members in the organisation. Aside from Pick and Goldblatt there was Walt, Baskin, Jacobson, Schumann, the three Gamsu sisters and myself.

The lectures and discussions were held in English and comrade Pick would translate for me into Yiddish. There was a good and friendly atmosphere at the meeting. The other members were very interested in me, and I was able to participate in the discussions in Yiddish which was translated into English.

Yiddish Section of the Social Democratic Federation

A short time later a few of us, including Pick, Schumann, Goldblatt and I decided to organise a Yiddish section of the Federation. Pick, an energetic initiator with ambitions to rise in the organisation, called a meeting of the Yiddish members. A Yiddish section was formed and a committee of eight was appointed. I was also elected on to the committee. Pick was elected Chairman and Walt Secretary.

There were twenty members in the Yiddish Section including Turok, Slom and Rudovsky. Slom later emigrated to America to study medicine. I remember that the first cycle of lectures was held in Yiddish and the subject was the Russian Revolutionary Movement. These lectures attracted about 50 people each time they were held. After each lecture there were lively and interesting discussions. I spoke about democracy and mentioned that the Sanhedrin was based on democratic principles. The Yiddish Section grew from strength to strength. Many interesting meetings were held. Comrade Slom lectured on scientific matters as well as party dynamics. Comrade Pick spoke about Trades Unions and comrade Davidoff talked about politics. My brother Lazar discussed literature and I spoke about political economy and the growth of the working class movements.

There was a great need for Yiddish books. Most of the comrades who were invited were too poor to import Yiddish books. The committee itself was too limited and too impoverished to buy books. Nevertheless we managed to collect some books from friends who lent them to us. These were books by Morris Vinshevsky, Avrom Reizin, Dovid Edelschtadt, Sholom Aleichem, Mendele as well as Y. L. Peretz, Perets, Stolensky, etc. These books also led to many discussions. A great attraction was the ad-hoc debates and all were encouraged to participate in the discussion. These evenings were full-houses.

Thirst for Knowledge

I had a great thirst for knowledge that I had inherited from my father. I remember once when he had spoken to me, trembling. “I myself took you to Rabbi Yachiel Yehuda's Yeshiva. After that you passed into the Wittenberg's Chasidic Yeshiva. How much sweat and tears did this cost me. I am now going to the head of the Lubavitch, and if you don't come with me and enter this Yeshiva, I will cut you off so that you will never receive anything from me - no shoes or clothes - you will have to fend for yourself in your goyisha world.”

Even though these words had come from another world-view, they still encouraged me to enrich my soul with ever more education. Coming to South Africa reawakened in me a need to be educated. I had a great desire to pursue scholarship. My comrades referred me to an elderly professor, Palmer, who was at Cape Town University. I studied with him with great enthusiasm for 5 months. I read the works of Aaron Hill, Before Adam, Jack London as well as Uncle Tom's Cabin, William Morris' poetry, Ruskin's political economics and Karl Marx's Das Kapital.

I was soon able to participate at the Social Democratic Federation meetings in English, and was also able to write short reports. But because of material needs I had to drag myself away from my studies with the professor. When I brought my wife and child out of the old country, I had to work much more to make a home for them.

In spite of my limitations, I made the time to read and to participate in the activities of the Federation that had developed into an intense cultural-political centre. All our meetings were well attended. New members, for example Fox, Joffe, and the Bayer brothers, enrolled. Some of the Jewish members reverted to the original section as they felt that we had become too left and one of them, Stewart, exposed his anti-semitism. It's true that he was chosen from the Federation but we no longer trusted him. This was the main reason for the Yiddish section to move to other premises in Plein Street

International Socialist League (ISL)

In mid-1915 I met the well-known Socialist, S.P. Bunting, who was the editor of The International a journal published by the International Socialist League (ISL), of which I was a member. He gave me the opportunity to write a number of articles. This encouraged me to write for the South African Worker, where one of my articles was published. I continued to write for the Yiddish section as well.

At one of the Yiddish Section meetings, we decided to open up a Yiddish Sunday school for children. The more progressive members of the Jewish community wanted such a school for their children and this became the first secular Jewish school in South Africa. The teachers at that school were Berman, Pick, Davidov and, at the beginning, I also taught there.

Davidov and Berman organised a choir at the school and they often held concerts when the children performed. I particularly remember a young girl, Rosa Rudovsky, who sang a song by Rosenveld so beautifully.

Johannesburg

After wandering around various towns in South Africa, we finally made the family home in Johannesburg, where I became an active member of the International Socialist League and the Jewish Workers' Club.

At that time, Sylvia Pankhurst, the suffragette who (unlike her mother and sister) fought in the War-on-War League against the First World War, edited 'The Workers' Dreadnought' in England. The newspaper focused on the struggle of the working class in Britain and elsewhere and was eagerly awaited and read by us regularly.

I always remained firm to the ideals of socialism and, to this day, I am committed to these ideals with all my heart and soul.


  1. Territorialism was the term describing Jews in Europe and Russia who were debating the idea of having a single Jewish territory, not necessarily in Israel, but very possible in Russia after the revolution. The example of Birobijan established later in the USSR was regarded as a Jewish territory. Return
  2. One Verst is approximately three-quarters of one mile. Return


[Page 131]

Fragments of My Past

by Ralph Arsh (Yerachmiel Aarons-Arsh)

Translated by Mathilda Mendelow, born Ginsberg

I inhaled the Zionist redemption ideal when I was still in my parents' home. My father truly knew whole works of Yiddish and Hebrew literature by heart. He was a grammarian and had a great knowledge of the Bible. He studied Holy writings together with a group in synagogue. He was the leader of all the most religious congregations – first in Sviadests and then in Rakishok. To him, his first duty was love of Zion and love of Israel. That was the most important essential in his life.

My mother was an intelligent woman. Her greatest pleasure was to read books. I grew up in an atmosphere of enlightenment and love of our nation. Yiddish and Hebrew journals and newspapers used to arrive in our home. When I was only two years old, I used to look at the photos in the books and newspapers and I knew the names of the writers.

The childhood years planted within me an energy and desire to be independent in my path. Still, long before there were preparatory agricultural centers for training in Lithuania I obtained a training in agriculture from a peasant whose name was Poepelis. He lived in a village whose name was Trumpantze, at the Lithuanian border. A lake divided the border from the Latvian wilderness. The town's inhabitants were mixed, about half were Russian peasants and half Lithuanian peasants and a few Polish families. Although, at first the work of the peasant was difficult for me and the living style strange, I wanted to reach my goal to learn how to plough, plant and reap.

More than once I used to long for books and journals and especially for more Jews. I was also bored during the autumn days and nights when it rained continuously and the mud was more than knee deep. When I learned all about farming and knew all about country life, I wrote to the Pioneering Center in Kovno telling them that I wanted to go to Israel as an immigrant. The Pioneering Center answered me that I was too young and that I should wait.

A new spirit entered within me. As a stop gap, I left for Palatage where the first Lithuanian Kibbutz was situated, since I did not work and I could do the agricultural work well. The head of the kibbutz was Zisle – I later met him at the Spring of Cheyrud.

Because I became ill at the Kibbutz, I left for home in Rakishok. For a few weeks I walked around the Rakishok streets without a goal and empty handed. Often I used to go to the Zionist offices and I started reading Jewish books.

As I did not get a positive answer from the Pioneering Center, I wanted to work for a prince who called himself Kazlov, but my father got me a job in Kovno at a German firm where I worked for a year and a half. My older brother Melech was also in Kovno at the time. He was in his last semester of the teachers' qualification. My Aunt Mira (may she rest in peace) was also studying medicine in Kovno at that time.

Although I worked hard at this German firm, I still had time to study Hebrew and to read books. At the same time I did not stop obstinately and stubbornly demanding a certificate from the Pioneering Center. Even though I was already 17 years old and considered from all sides to be ready as an immigrant to Palestine, the Center did not hasten to answer my numerous requests. But one day someone told me a secret that if I was prepared to cover the expenses of the journey for a comrade they would give me a certificate.

It was not easy for me to put such a proposition to my father, but still I wrote a letter about this to my parents. I was greatly amazed when I received a letter from my father that he was prepared to give me the expenses of the journey for a second comrade so that I should be able to go.

In 1925 I went to Israel. At that time an excursion was organized to the opening of Jerusalem University and a group of pioneers came along with us. We went by train through Berlin and Belgium to Marseilles. At the boat we met two young people from Poland who wanted to emigrate, but they had no certificates and no tickets for passage. We pioneers found a way so that they would be able to come along. They came aboard carrying our luggage and we emptied two large baskets in which they hid until the documents were checked. Thereafter they walked around the boat free as birds! Each time they checked the documents we hid them in the baskets.

The ship was an old one, built to carry goods and cattle feed. The air was choking. There were two double-storied bunks in fourth class. People were ill and those from the upper bunks used to vomit on to the heads of those who slept in the lower bunks. The food was bad. We were fed potatoes and at each meal we received only one sardine.

In the third class the food and the quarters were better. We arrived in Alexandria and several passengers disembarked and continued the journey by train to Eretz Israel. The rest of us continued by boat to Beirut. There I together with the two illegal passengers from Poland got off the ship to explore the city. They did not return to the boat and when we arrived in Jaffa they were already waiting for us!

We arrived on shore in small boats. My joy was immensely great standing on Israeli soil. We passed through the port and were immediately transferred to the immigration center which looked like barracks where I felt very unhappy. The representatives of the transition association came to receive the new comrades and on the third day I joined a company going to Petach Tikva. There in the Kibbutz I felt at home. I was able to work the land. I knew how to plough, sow and use the scythe. I also knew how to deal with cattle and horses. In other words I was a useful pioneer. In the Spring of 1925 our group settled on our own piece of ground known as the Third Hill. When I was in Israel in 1950 they celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Kibbutz. As I looked out I could not believe that human hands could do so much.

In the beginning our Kibbutz was in a terrible condition. The Petach Tikva superiors did not want to establish Jewish Workers. They hired workers at three piasters a day. Our daily wage at that time was 15 piasters. Overall they looked upon us with open hate and our way of living was strange and not understandable to them. The colonists did not like the fact that girls and boys were together in the Kibbutz. The area folks looked upon us askance and believed us to be heretics. Because of their antagonistic and bad behavior we took on contract labor and we earned only 4.3 piasters per day!

The Kibbutz had 200 souls and there was work only for a few tens of people. The rest were busy with household and farm administration. I remember how we were hungry. For many weeks we lived on watery soup which had a little oil in it. Bread was frugal. Still, in spite of the bad position we were in, we danced the Hora, sang a lot and we had lectures and discussions. The greatest personalities in the settlement came to us to give us lectures. Ben Gurion used to visit our Kibbutz, as did Chaim Arlozov, Z. Ruvashov, Professor Chaim Weitzman, Nachum Salkalov and many others. I also remember the visit of Rubin Breinen while he was still a Zionist enthusiast.

Tel Aviv was fourteen kilometers from Petach Tikva and we used to walk to Tel Aviv on Shabbat. I often visited the immigration center there. In Tel Aviv I met with Rakishoker pioneers and my friends Aaron (Nachamowitz) and Nachum Louis Kopelowitz.

Today, I particularly remember two experiences from my visits to Tel Aviv. Arriving on Shabbat in Tel Aviv, I was very hungry. I thought when I arrived in the immigration center they would think that I was a new immigrant and they would give me food. I sat down at the table. They immediately realized I was not a new immigrant and they told me to leave the table at once.

The second episode also occurred in Tel Aviv on a Shabbat. I was walking on Alenavi Street and smoked a cigarette. A Jew with a fine beard met me saying "Son, what have you got against me?" For the moment I did not understand his meaning, I did not know what he wanted of me and I said to him "Uncle, you have a complaint, but you don't know me!" He answered me in saying, "I really do mean you. If you slapped my face it would not hurt me as much as it hurts me to see a Jewish boy with a cigarette in his mouth on Saturday afternoon in Tel Aviv." This was the last time I smoked openly on a Shabbat in the streets of Tel Aviv.

Since there was not much work in the Kibbutz four friends and I went through the land from Dan to Ber Sheba. When we returned to the Kibbutz I heard that they were going to drain the swamps at Migdal. A group of Lithuanian Jews had settled near the town of Saba which is 12 kilometers by road from Petach Tikva. The Keren Kayemeth demanded that each Kibbutz should send several workers. I joined the group that had to dry out the swamps at Migdal. The work was difficult. We had to dig in mountains up to the Yarkon River. We stood in swamps up to our belts. The heat was terrible – the chamsin (hot desert wind) used to draw the marrow from ones bones. Often we drank the filthy water from the swamps because of thirst and treated unripe watermelon as dessert.

After three months work I became ill with malaria . I did not want to give up and went to work with a high fever although no one forced me to do so. I developed dysentery from eating unripe watermelons and was sent to the hospital in a terrible condition where I wrestled with death. After I left the hospital I was weak and the Kibbutz gave me light work – to guard a field at night against jackals. They built a booth on four stakes and gave me a tin with which I had to frighten the jackals. I again had a malaria attack and when a friend brought me food I was lying down with a high fever and the whole field of watermelons had been eaten up!

My friend Noah Nachomowitz wrote a letter to my father that I was ill with malaria. My father sent fifteen pounds. The doctors advised me to leave the land. The hospital also helped with expenses and in Spring 1927 I left the land on a French boat.

I went through a lot of misery until I arrived in Kovno. I delivered a letter from the hospital to the Pioneer Center. The letter stated that because of a severe illness I left the land. I borrowed money from an acquaintance for a ticket home. At that time my father had many business divisions. The iron business went well so he started the wood trade, a credit bank and he built the first iron factory in Rakishok. It was easy for me to get a position in one of my father's businesses, but I hoped that as soon as my health improved I would return to the land of Israel.

The Pioneer Center in Kovno sent me to Memel as an instructor. I worked in Memel for the whole summer until the middle of the Christian holiday on the eve of New Year. After I returned from Memel I decided to complete my studies. My teacher, David Sudafski gave me private lessons and within about four months I was examined in Rakishok, and passed a full course of the pre-college requirements in Hebrew with a good grade. In Rakishok I was a member of Maccabi. It did not take long before I took over the managing of the library which I enriched with tens of books.

In 1927 I met my wife and after military service I got married on Lag Baomer in 1929 in Sviadoshz. My parents, my grandfather Joshua and my wife's parents, my grandfather Moshe Jacob and grandmother Beila Ethel and close friends were guests at the wedding.

The chuppah ceremony took place at the home of my grandfather Moshe Jacob (the Cohen) Farber (may he rest in peace). Shortly after the wedding around Shavuoth we left for South Africa. My wife's brother sent us the necessary documents and seventy pounds to leave the country. Although my urge to go to the land of Israel was great, I feared that possibly I would have another bout of malaria and so I agreed to go to South Africa. My father was against my leaving because he wanted me to join his business since he already felt his age.

On arriving in South Africa I was greatly disappointed. My brother-in-law Ephraim Swartsberg was earning ten pounds a month and the rest of the friends of my wife's family showed little interest in our position.

With the help of my wife's friends I opened a small business. The first six to seven years were difficult. My wife and I worked from early morning till late at night so that there no time to spend with cultural and soulful activities. My only reading was the "Forward – The American Jewish Voice" from Kovno and the local Jewish Press.

Time does not stand still and goes its way in anguish and happiness. The arrival of the second World War weighed heavily on me. I was then the father of three children. My wife understood my broken mood and my thoughts, but she spoke very little to me about it, being unwilling to touch the wound in my heart.

One fine day, walking in the street, I saw a line of people standing at the city hall waiting to sign on for war. I could not restrain myself and also stood in line. I arrived inside and signed on to go to war of my own free will. After signing on they gave me military clothing. When I arrived home my wife was shocked by my deed, but I explained that if we lost the war they would in any case eliminate us Jews. It was therefore better to die fighting. If Hitler lost, our children would be able to freely live their lives in the world and they would be proud of my deed.

A few days later I left for the military camp. I was in the war for six years. My only desire was to see Germany destroyed and to live to avenge the spilt blood. As frightful as war was in the desert, I had the opportunity to be in Israel often and to help the Jewish Brigade that was near our depot. On Rosh Hashanah 1945 I returned home in peace. Letters arrived from my brothers who wrote about the gruesome killings of the Jews in Rakishok and Lithuania and in Europe. In spite of there being an act to help the remnant refugee community, I found a need to help the leftover living Jews of Rakishok and the surrounding area. At the beginning of 1946 I helped to establish the Rakishok Aid Society. In certain places packets were sent out to countrymen and financial aid was sent to Israel for new immigrants.

But the deep sorrow after the Holocaust of the Jews in Europe does not let me rest and I experienced the deep need for a monument for Rakishok and its neighboring shtetlach in the form of a Yizkor Book. I spoke about this plan to my friends Abraham Oralowitz (may he rest is peace) and to Shlomo Rubin and Aaron Nachomowitz. They also agreed with my idea to immortalize our old homes in a Yizkor Book of Rakishok and its Environs. May this Yizkor Book of Rakishok and its Environs truly be an immortal monument for our present and future generations.

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