The man, his vision, his achievements
At the outbreak of World War I Boris Bernstein, as a Russian citizen, was exiled from Koenigsberg, which was close to the Russian-Lithuanian border, to the large city of Berlin. Here Boris got a job at one of the large banks, and in no time he was appointed Department Manager.
After a while, when the managers of the Kommertz Bank in Kovna heard about the Jewish boy called Boris Bernstein, who was so successful in the banking profession in Berlin, they invited him to come in 1922 and appointed him Manager of the Bank. The Kommertz Bank was the largest Lithuanian bank, and ranked second after the government bank.
The Jews of Yurburg were very proud of their townsman who occupied such a senior position as the manager of the largest bank in Kovna, at that time the central town of Lithuania and its capital between the two World Wars. Much was said at the time about Boris Bernstein's modesty and generosity and about how he supported many people through the bank and his personal contribution.
From personal experience I may say that the generous bank manager helped the Zionist-Pioneer youth movement, which had financial problems at the time, both by his personal contribution and through loans, although he was aware of the fact that they were unable to return their debts.
Furthering the Zionist undertaking took priority with him over narrow party considerations, and therefore he warmly supported any kind of Zionist enterprise. To us, the youth leaders of the time, Boris Bernstein was a great Zionist, warmhearted and concerned about the fate of the Jews and the building of Eretz Yisrael. For many years he was an active member of the Zionist Center in Lithuania and contributed considerably to furthering the cause of building Eretz Yisrael.
In the thirties I also came to know another aspect of Boris Bernstein, the public figure's character - the humane and moral aspect - Bernstein the man who loved children. At the large bank he worked hard to make progress and manage its business, but at the children's home the "Yiddish Kinder Hois" in Kovna he found food for his soul. He gave all his love to this "Kinder Hois" on the green mountain, 4 Gadraitshu street, where poor children, struck by fate, lived. He, Boris Bernstein, was like a father to them, a godfather. His heart went out to these miserable orphans and he was overwhelmed with joy when he was able to save a child from misery and distress.
Boris Bernstein's love affair with the "Kinder Hois" started already in the early years of its establishment, in the early twenties. At that time, after World War I, children, refugees and starving orphans were adopted by a public council set up to look after these unfortunate beings. Boris Bernstein joined the founding committee of this humanitarian institution for children called "Yiddish Kinder Hois". At the time the institution was housed at an old building in the old city of Kovna, close to the Jewish hospital. Dr. Siegfried Lehman, a well-known pedagogue from Germany, was appointed Director of the institution. Here the children were fed and clothed and received an education.
When the children grew up and the question of their future came up, the public council was divided in its opinion. Some were in favor of "Daikeit", i.e. absorbing the youngsters in the existing community, including learning the spoken Yiddish language and professional training in industry, services and office work. However, the Zionists on the public council, headed by Boris Bernstein, were of a different opinion; they said the youngsters should be trained to go to Eretz Yisrael, be taught Hebrew so as to make it easier for them to be accepted there at an educational institution. When the Zionists' stand was accepted, the public council contacted the Zionist leadership in Jerusalem, and a positive answer was soon received.
At the time there was a deserted educational institution for children near Lod; there were a number of dilapidated buildings there and vacant areas of land of the Jewish National Fund, on part of which the "Herzel Forest" was planted.
The Zionist leadership's proposal was accepted by the public council, and in 1927 most of the "Kinder Hois" graduates emigrated to Eretz Yisrael, headed by Dr. S. Lehman, and set up a new educational institution at the deserted spot, namely the Ben Shemen youth village, which still exists today. Boris Bernstein was very pleased with the fact that the youngsters of the "Kinder Hois" went to Eretz Yisrael and with the establishment of the youth village for agricultural education, and he was happy to be among the founders of the Ben Shemen youth village.
Since the Ben Shemen period and until the thirties, the "Kinder Hois" underwent many changes. In the thirties the "Kinder Hois" blossomed once again. At Boris Bernstein's initiative and with his efforts important changes occurred at the institution. The luxurious building was erected on the green mountain, living conditions were improved and the children received better care at the two sections of the home - one for toddlers and the other for kindergarten and school children. The undersigned was invited at the time to serve as the institution's pedagogic director. Boris Bernstein, Chairman of the public council, wanted a Zionist Israeli educator to take care of education. Nearly the entire staff of educators at the kindergarten and school was replaced, educators who had been trained at the "Tarbut" seminar were accepted for the educational task. Children of school age were sent to study at the "Tarbut" school on the green mountain. The "Kinder Hois" children learned Hebrew and Hebrew songs. The atmosphere at the institution changed, and it took on a Zionist outlook. When guest envoys arrived from Eretz Yisrael they taught Hebrew songs and told the children about life in Eretz Yisrael , about the towns, villages and kibbutzim.
On the eve of each Sabbath and on religious holidays, Boris Bernstein would visit the institution, together with his wife Ella and his children, and they loved seeing the children shining clean and happy. It was the custom then at the "Kinder Hois" to hold a "Kabbalat Sabbath" party before dinner, with merry Hebrew songs and literature readings. Boris Bernstein drew great satisfaction from seeing the children so happy.
Much is to be said about the poetic pedagogic experience which took place among the children at the "Kinder Hois". Although Boris Bernstein was not involved in the daily educational events, his friendly fatherly attitude towards the children encouraged the educators in their task. Only a great and sensitive soul, such as Boris Bernstein's, is preoccupied with the fate of underprivileged children.
At the end of 1938 the pedagogic director of the "Kinder Hois" emigrated to Eretz Yisrael. Upon his arrival he immediately went to the Ben Shemen youth village, spent a few days there and talked to the old director of the village, Dr. Z. Lehman, and to the senior educators, Yeremiahu Shapira and Rachel Katrovsky, about bringing groups of children from the "Kinder Hois" to Ben Shemen. They were enchanted with the idea. However, unfortunately, it did not come about. The sky of Europe darkened in those days and the political situation of Eretz Yisrael became uncertain. The World War already appeared on the horizon . . . . Boris Bernstein was very sorry.
In the terrible Holocaust that befell the Jews of Europe, the Jewish children in Kovna were cruelly murdered, and among them the children from the "Kinder Hois" and their educators. Their place of burial is not known and nothing is left of them . . . but Boris Bernstein's wonderful deeds will not be forgotten and will never be erased from the Book of Life of the Jews of Lithuania.
Boris Bernstein himself and his family were already exiled to Siberia before the Holocaust, when the regime changed in Lithuania. In 1940 Lithuania was attached to the Soviet Union. The new rulers, Stalin's protegees, considered Zionism a reactionist anti-Soviet movement. Therefore most Zionist activists in Lithuania, among them Boris Bernstein, who was a member of the Zionist Center, were accused of undermining the Soviet regime. Boris Bernstein was exiled and imprisoned for 8 years in one of the most terrible camps in the Soviet Union. This camp was described in detail by the well-known Russian author Solzenytsin in his book "Archipelag Gulag".
Boris Bernstein spent 25 terrible years in distant, freezing Siberia, until he and his family were fortunate enough to immigrate to Israel. When he arrived, he was officially recognized as a "Prisoner of Zion" by the Zionist leadership and government institutions.
Boris Bernstein, the young boy, passed a long and winding road, filled with suffering, from the time he left his town of birth Yurburg until he arrived in the country of his dreams, for which his soul had yearned all those years.
Boris Bernstein spent his last years surrounded by family and friends at his home in Natanya, spent and tired, but as always full of confidence in the People of Israel and the well-being of the State - until he died.
May he rest in peace and may his soul be bound in the bond of life!
Dr. Zeev Bernstein, Boris Bernstein's son, was exiled, together with his parents, to Siberia at the start of World War II in 1941.
In his last years in Siberia he taught German philology at a Soviet university.
In 1972 Dr. Zeev Bernstein immigrated to Israel and joined the staff of the foreign language studies faculty at Tel Aviv University.
For his many research works and books, published in Israel and abroad, Dr. Zeev Bernstein received the title Associate Professor in 1990, the first such professorship in this field at Tel Aviv University.
Indeed, the son followed in the footsteps of the father . . .
Zionist and Man of the Book
Pinchas Shachnovitz's home was situated in the center of Yorburg, in a big stone building. He and his family lived on the top floor of the building, and on the first floor was his stationery and book store. This store was the center for Hebrew and Yiddish book lovers, and at that place sort of a committee was formed for the prominent Jewish citizens of Yorburg, who used to gather and discuss worldly subjects, especially news from Eretz-Yisrael (the Land of Israel) - and eventually of course discussions about the new book...
Pinchas Shachnovitz, an intelligent man and impressive looking, was in the center of the discussions; he talked slowly and in a relaxed way, as if divinely inspired. And at that "shrine of the book" one could also look at a Zionist Yiddish newspaper as well as books written by Hebrew writers, and natives of Lithuania. Pinchas Shachnovitz, who came from a family of writers (see page 231 of the Yurburg Memorial Book for an article on Pinchas's brother Zelig Sachnovitz), was also interested in the Hebrew revived literature which was different in its style and contents from the Enlightment literature, which he felt close to in his youth.
At that time, during the 1920s, when we met Pinchas Shachnovitz, he was already well known as a writer. And as we found out in "Hamelitz" (the first Hebrew periodical of the Enlightment and the "Hovevei Zion [Lovers of Zion] " in Odessa Russia 1860-1904), he was a fast correspondent who sent his writings for publishing on Lithuanian Jews, including Yorburg. His Hebrew was a bit flowery and his style was that of the period. During the editing of the Memorial Book we read a few of the articles sent by Pinchas Shachnovitz to "Hamelitz", which were mostly up-to-date. From the articles it seems that in his youth he was a trustworthy correspondent involved in the life and happening of the Jewish community in Yurburg and Lithuania in general.
During our studies in high school we knew Pinchas Shachnovitz to be a modest man, one of the prominent Jewish citizens of Yorburg, a public person sensitive to people's pains, always ready to assist and help to solve problems. As a Zionist, according to his views, his main interest was Eretz-Yisrael, its development, problems and needs. He was involved in every Zionist enterprise, which could contribute to the developement and construction of Israel.
Pinchas Shachnovitz did his utmost for the Hebrew High School which needed encouragement and financial assistance, as it was difficult to keep up such an institution in a relatively small town like Yurburg. Nevertheless the Jewish Zionist community took upon themselves this heavy burden, with the understanding of the importance and value of this national-cultural institution for the Jews of Yorburg. The high school was kind of a mini-university, which contributed to the entire Jewish population, and was the pride of the Jews of Yurburg. Pinchas Shachnovitz was also interested in the activities of the Zionist youth. While his daughter, Frieda, as a member and a counselor in the Jewish Scouting movement - Hashomer Hatzair (literally: Young Watchmen), he learned to know this movment and identified with its pioneering goals. Frieda went through all the stages of the pioneer training leading to her immigration to Eretz-Yisrael, to which her father gave his consent, encouragement and praise. [ a photo of Frieda and her father Pinchas Shachnovitz appears on page 254 of the Memorial Book]. And indeed, one day Frieda immigrates to Eretz Yisrael and joins the nucleus of Hashomer Hatzair movement of Lithuania, which is the nucleus of the kibbutz (group) founding Mishmar Zvulun, later becoming Kfar Massarik. Frieda adjusted very well to the kibbitz, marrying her friend David and adopting a very symbolic last name - Zvuluni. When their son was born he was named Ilan, Ilan Zvuluni, grandson of Pinchas Shachnovitz of Yurburg. Pinchas Shachnovitz who followed his daughter's life in the kibbutz was extremely happy. He was very pleased to receive letters from his daughter and had great satisfaction on hearing any news and developments of the kibbutz. But the happiness did not last for a long time. One morning the skies of Yorburg were covered with the darkest clouds. Hitler invaded Yurburg, which was located 9 km (5 miles) from the German border. And within three months, in the summer of 1941, the entire Jewish community was completely destroyed. People who read the article "The Old Synagogue Tells" by Pinchas Shachnovitz may learn that as soon as Hitler came to power, Pinchas Shachnovitz had the feeling that this would be the end of the Yurburg Jewish community, even before it happened...and with this feeling he joined the departed.
Added Note: The following is based upon a telephone conversation betweeen Charles (Chaim) Tabakin and Joel Alpert and was not part of the original book:
Charles Tabakin (husband of Pinchas's grand-daughter Feiga) related on May 6, 1995, that he and Feiga were married in the Kovno Ghetto during the war. She was also called Fanny. During an action in the ghetto she was taken and sent by train to the Stutthoff concentration camp near Danzig. Charles found out from her mother, who survived the war, that Feiga did survive until the liberation of the camp but died a few days later. Charles was in Dachau for ten months, and was very sick at liberation; he was taken to a hospital by a doctor from Kovno. Charles also related that he was an officer in the Lithuanian army and saved Pinchas Shachnovitz (Feiga's gransfather) from an action by the Nazis and he later died a "normal death" in the ghetto (taken by Joel Alpert to mean that a "normal death" means that he was not murdered outright).
Pinchas Shachnovitz and his daughter Frieda
Teacher, educator and principal
Eliezer Liepziger -Teacher and Principal of the Hebrew Gymnasia
Eliezer completed his studies in the gymnasium. He studied law at the University of Kovno, and he earned a law degree. During this period the rights from the Jewish lawyers were curtailed, with acquiesence of the Lithuanian government. Eliezer choose to abandon his career in the law profession, and hence he came to serve as a teacher in the gymnasium of Yurburg.
He served first as a teacher and later as principal, and then much later, he was appointed with much honor to serve as the principal of the most important Hebrew gymnasium of Lithuania. Eliezer planned to emigrate to Israel but this dream was not realized because he died during the Holocaust.
Eliezer was a committed Zionist with all his heart. In our gymnasium in Yurburg they consolidated with the teachers the education of the gymnasium, that they teach. The students respected and honored him a lot. He was one of the teachers who, even today, is remember as a great person in the gymnasium. During the school hours he was very demanding and expected a lot from his students in the school; but if he met them somewhere outside of school, he treated them as friends. He would invite us to go by boat to Mitova or to the park. That was something that we can never forget. There we had the special opportunity to converse between the classes about different topics, as friends with friends.
It was known that Eliezer was very active and involved in every Zionist event and activity in the city. He was especially involved or active in Harai Letzion (Zionist movement). There was a great need for Hebrew books, and he was aware of that. Eliezer was very involved in doing something about that situation, it was a goal that he addressed with much fervor. Together with other business he created the idea of investing on a Hebrew library. Together they erected a library full of Hebrew books. His goal was achieved.
In spite of the fact that he was much older than me, I was eager to be not only his student, but also his friend, his partner in all the Zionist activities in the city. From him I learned a lot and I remember him with much admiration.
[Pages 258 - 261]
When the Germans were thrown out of Lithuania, and Lithuania became independent, this school remained, and the merger of an expanded general education with ultra-orthodox Judaism was a kind of innovation.
Dr. Carlebach and a couple of German Jewish teachers, some of them outstanding, others less so, remained at the school. Eliezer and I arrived at this school from little towns that were at a distance from each other, Yurburg in the south of Lithuania, Eliezer's town of birth, and I from Kopishok, in the north. We both started in the sixth grade, and soon found each other. We were very much alike. Small, "touched" by the Zionist idea, inclined to public activity. The competition between two boys in the same class did not affect our friendship. Eliezer was more diligent than I. He showed artistic talent, mainly in drawing, and was very sharp-witted in mathematics. Those were stormy days in the life of the Jewish community in Lithuania. After the Balfour Declaration the Lithuanian Jews as it were received cultural autonomy, and the youngsters had sparks of hope of realizing their dream to go to Zion via pioneer training, towards aliyah in an uncertain future. In those days ideological differences of opinion started to appear which divided the Zionist movement into different streams; the war of languages in Jewish education, Hebrew or Yiddish, and social unrest which also penetrated the Zionist camp, mainly because of the influence of pioneering, status-conscious Israel. A host of ideas and beliefs, hopes and illusions, endless discussions in a new version, unknown till then by east European Jews, penetrated our school, and our class, although it was not the highest grade, turned into the center of unrest, and Leizeke Leipziger spearheaded this agitation.
With "Yekkish" (German Jewish) innocence the authorities who had just discarded the epaulettes of the German officer's coat, and their friends, believed that it would be possible to continue the orthodox-anti-Zionist educational line in Lithuania in the German language. They soon found out how wrong they were. A number of Zionist teachers, who returned to Lithuania from Russia after the war, introduced a new spirit at school. On the face of it, nothing had changed. The chief language taught was German, the program was in the spirit of the German high school, strict discipline, including physical punishment for "rebelling" students, and a strict ban on Zionist activity within the school which in reality meant a ban on the Zionist hymn "Hatikva." It was our class that turned into the black sheep, and became the source of "all evil." Our group started to look for opportunities to break through the wall of opposition to all Zionist activities.
Eliezer stood out as a sharp-tongued speaker, and he had a strong influence on his friends at the boys' gymnasium and its equivalent, the girls gymnasium.
I remember two episodes from this period, which deserve, no doubt, to be inscribed in the history of the Lithuanian Jews who are no longer. A very ordinary event, such as
a slap in the face received by one of my classmates from the Latin teacher incited the miracle of the revolt. Eliezer headed the rebels. We managed to convince our classmates not to enter the classroom. We gathered in a room of a Jewish soup kitchen on Mapu street (the Kovna municipality named a street after the Hebrew author Avraham Mapu, who had written "Love of Zion" and "Samaria's Guilt," the first Hebrew Zionist novels, he was a native of Kovna), where I lived with the manager of this Jewish soup kitchen, and after enthusiastic speeches of encouragement Eliezer wrote a memorandum to the school's management in his beautiful handwriting, specifying the conditions of our return to class. One of the conditions was the right to speak Hebrew at school and sing Zionist songs, in particular "Hatikva." On Eliezer's advise, we signed in a large circle, in order to confuse management so it would not know who headed the revolt. . .
We did not go to school for about ten days, without informing the parents of the local pupils. Each morning we would gather at the appointed time at a place we had fixed in advance (usually the abandoned women's sections at one of Kovna's many synagogues), where we received lessons from students who excelled in their study subjects. I, who was not very good at mathematics, learned a lot from my friend Eliezer's teachings, he restored my self-confidence regarding this complicated subject, in the days of the revolt. Whether by co-incidence or not, a few weeks after the revolt, Dr. Carlebach left Kovna, and after his departure another atmosphere reigned at the gymnasium. Those were the glorious days of Eliezer as a recognized, influential and energetic leader, primus inter pares. I would also like to mention him in connection with the young leadership unrest in the wonderful event of the conference of students representatives of the Hebrew Gymnasia in Mariampol. This was when the blossoming Hebrew education in Lithuania with its 16-17 Hebrew Gymnasia recognized by the Lithuanian government and hundreds of Hebrew state elementary schools was at its peak. The illustrious Zionist leadership of which but a few managed to go to Israel, originated from these Gymnasia. In 1922 the best students at these schools decided to convene a students' conference at Mariampol. As main speaker we invited Dr. Yacov Rabinzon, the principal of the Hebrew Gymnasium in Virblan, an outstanding educator, clever and well-versed in international law, who became one of the greatest legal authorities in the U.S.A.; he also researched the international Holocaust. In those days, as mentioned before, there was another young educator who was very interested in the Zionist youth initiative and had an impact on the conference.
At our school it was Eliezer who encouraged us to take part in this conference, and he was very active in all the days of the conference during Hanukah 1922.
In countless hours of discussio with close friends we planned our future - law studies seemed the right way to serve the Jewish people, for the Lithuanian authorities started to oppress it and take away its rights. During the years at the university our friendship continued. Eliezer was a very successful student and was popular among friends and the Hebrew Zionist circle. As was the custom in Lithuania in those days, we did not reside at the place of Torah - the University in Kovna, but went to teach at the Jewish gymnasia which were looking for young and enthusiastic teachers. Thus our ways parted. Eliezer married Fanya Kretchmer, my former pupil, the granddaughter of Rabbi Katzenellenboigen, the Rabbi of the Jewish community in Petrograd.
Eliezer continued to teach/manage, while I ceased my teaching for a couple of years and worked as an attorney for a while.
In those days Eliezer was asked to manage the Hebrew Gymnasium, first in Yurburg, and then in Ponivaz, and did a wonderful job there with his talent, energy, enthusiasm and persistency to fulfill the task imposed on him. However, the glory of Hebrew education in Lithuania was dimmed when the government started to oppress the Jewish minority and restrict its civil rights.
In the meantime, I went to Israel. In the first years of my aliyah Eliezer inquired about the possibility to come on aliyah and settle in Israel. I immediately answered him in an optimistic letter, almost imaginative, and I hoped to see him and his family come to Israel. He was unlucky. His feeling of obligation towards the circle of Jews he so faithfully and successfully served, made him postpone his aliyah for a number of years, for he wanted to look after the educational project he was managing, see to it that it was not harmed. In the days of the Holocaust the life of one of the most outstanding young leaders of the Jews in Lithuanian exile was lost.
Eliezer was handsome and had a handsome soul, had done numerous good deeds and promised to do many more. . . . his life was cut off in the middle . . . !
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