Rabbi Yaakov Litman-Avtalion
Translated by Shira Hannah Fischer
|Rabbi Yaakov Litman-Avtalion zl|
Even if I live many more years I shall not forget the celebration of the Bikkurim [first fruits] ceremony in the year 5694 (1934). It was the first Bikkurim celebration in the schools in Poland. It started with a very impressive procession of hundreds of students, all carrying baskets of fruits decorated with flowers and flags. At the head of the procession were horse riders and following them were bicycle riders and the musical band. Behind them marched hundreds of young people from the youth groups in the towns nearby, every group carrying its flag. Masses joined them and marched to Goldberg Square, in one of the Kalisz suburbs.
The celebration took place on a spacious field. The ceremony included songs and dances. The income from the Bikkurim was designated for the Jewish National Fund (Keren Kayemet LeYisrael). Mr. Rosenthal, an eighty-year-old gentleman who had just returned from a visit in Eretz Yisrael, broke into tears of happiness, seeing such an authentic celebration even in the Diaspora. They said then, Anyone who did not see this joyful celebration has never seen a true Jewish celebration in the Diaspora, in all his life. [This quote paraphrases a Talmudic quote about the joy of the Sukkot celebration in Jerusalem].
The play Simchat Bet Hashoeva [rejoicing of the water libation ceremony, in the Temple of Jerusalem] that was prepared by the teachers and students and performed in the city theatre won a never-ending applause. The students proved that their level of knowledge of Hebrew was high. The artistic performance was praised by all.
In 5696 (1935-36), when the principal of the school went to Eretz Yisrael with his family, thousands of people accompanied him to the train station. The gentiles asked about the reason for this enthusiastic demonstration, and they were answered: This is the way we express our deep spiritual connection with the land of Israel!
Translated by Yocheved Klausner
It was common practice in Kolo: when a Jewish boy reached the age of six, he was sent to the Cheder [religious school for young children], where he generally learned until he became Bar Mitzvah, at age thirteen. For a girl it was different: the rule was whatever was possible that is, she was sent to learn at any place that was available. The biggest problem was tuition. Families blessed with children had to consider seriously how to save on expenses: tuition for three or four children was no small matter.
With the revival of Poland, the authorities established several elementary schools in town, where Polish and Jewish children studied together, without restrictions or discrimination. The families that could not afford to send the girls to the special School for Girls of the Chernozhil family found these government schools a great help. In the discussions among parents the excuse was often heard: in both schools Jewish subjects were not taught neither Hebrew nor Yiddish!
I remember well the Polish elementary school, where I studied from the age of seven. It was located in a small building near the Warsaw Bridge, not far from the German Evangelical Temple.
The school was in poor condition. Compulsory education was a law on paper only. The parents, Jewish or Gentile, who fulfilled the obligation to give their children a proper education were few. No wonder, then, that the number of pupils was very small: the Jews did not often send their girls to school, especially schools that belonged to the Goyim. The poles had schools in their own Polish neighborhoods.
I remember a conversation between my parents: After she finishes school we shall call the melamed [teacher of Jewish studies] and he will teach her a little to read the prayer book [sidur] and to write a Jewish letter. This was the spiritual heritage of a Jewish girl.
I had never imagined, at the time, what was awaiting me in that school, where I felt like a prisoner among goyim. Only two Jewish girls were in the first grade, and most of the teachers were Polish Christians.
Since the number of pupils was small, two or three grades occupied the same classroom. One teacher would be in charge, guiding the pupils like the conductor of an orchestra. While two grades were busy practicing writing, drawing etc., the other grade would listen to the teacher's lesson.
I was happy to have the opportunity to learn, but my happiness was marred by the frequent anti-Semitic remarks by my teacher, Ms. Kraschewska. The Jewish girls felt humiliated at every step. We suffered from the Polish pupils, who provoked us and we had no means of retaliation. We expected the teacher to protect us, but no help came, in spite of the poem we would always recite, with the beautiful line The same sun is shining on all the inhabitants of the earth I think by the poet Stanislav Yachowitz. Every day and every hour we felt that we are in exile.
The Jewish children made every effort to study diligently hoping to earn sympathy. Indeed we were among the best students.
The afternoon hours, after school, were really boring. Our parents were busy with the worries of making a living, and our older sisters were busy doing their homework.
Teacher Kraschewska had a very interesting method in education: when she wanted to show her Polish pupils what discipline meant, she would call on a Jewish girl to serve as her guinea pig, would call out show your hand! and her wooden ruler would hit the fingers with a hard blow. Tears and protest produced another blow.
One day I came home sad and agitated. Al my desire to study was gone. I must admit that Ms. Kraschewska was not a bad teacher she had opened my eyes to see things that I never knew existed, but how can I experience joy in learning when it is accompanied by suffering and humiliation? I did not dare ask my parents to transfer me to another school, I was aware of their financial situation they had to pay tuition for my older brother and sister.
Finally I managed to overcome my anger and frustration and I told my parents the entire story. They listened silently and I was hopeful. But after long moments passed, their verdict was:
We all are in exile [Galut] and the Jewish children must bear their share of suffering! From this day on you will not annoy your teacher and you will make yourself invisible, you will not say a word unless you are asked!
|The Government [public] Elementary School Pawshechne|
This did not seem very fair to me but I had no choice. I turned into a quiet mouse, wary of any unusual sound. Even when the teacher addressed a question to the entire class and I knew the answer, I did not open my mouth, for fear that the other pupils might get angry.
I avoided eating onion or garlic, because the children would laugh at the Jews who smell of garlic. I tried to ignore the cruelty of my neighbors in the classroom.
The situation became a little easier when we relocated to another building, not far from the railroad. There were 7 classrooms and the atmosphere was calmer. There were Jewish boys in the school as well, and sometimes they protected us, the girls. A cold war was going on between the Polish and the Jewish boys and threats were heard every day. Yet we tried to appease them: we helped them in their studies, we let them copy the answers from our notebooks and so on but to no avail.
At first we were allowed to stay home on Saturdays. Later we were exempt only from writing on the Sabbath but we had to go to school. We were also allowed to be absent from the Catholic Religion class and we had heated discussions among us how to use this free time in the best way. For several months we had during these hours a Jewish teacher, Mr. Goldberg, who taught us Jewish history, but he soon left.
The principal of the school, who was a kind man, tried to obtain from the Jewish community a scholarship for the talented Jewish students, which would enable them to continue their studies at the Teachers College and join the educational force. He even organized in his home a preparatory program for a small fee, but all plans and hopes were called off and abandoned.
Graduation from the elementary school meant only more confusion for the girls. What now? was the frequent question. We could learn a trade, but we would be admitted only to sewing, embroidery and millinery courses. Household help was not appealing we did not see a future in cooking and cleaning house.
Public and municipal institutions did not admit Jews. Only one in a thousand women could obtain a job at the Jewish institution The Merchants' Bank.
When we finished the seventh grade we were unoccupied, idle. We would spend mornings in our homes helping out with housework and in the afternoon we would go for a walk on the famous Juzjinski walkway. We would also spend time reading novels.
However, the Zionist movement and the economic condition soon changed the attitude and outlook of the adolescent girls. A new way was in sight: immigrate to any country that would be ready to accept you, first of all to Eretz Yisrael, even if it would mean to break the blockade and endanger our own lives.
Dear friend! These days, when the struggle for the revival of the Jewish culture and tradition is continuing in the entire Jewish world, we cannot remain indifferent here.
Moreover, lately we can feel intensely the weakening of the Jewish cultural ties and the increasing assimilation, especially among the younger generation.
We call, therefore, on the Jewish public to join the struggle and help in the effort to restore and re-establish the Jewish and general cultural endeavors.
We invite you to the first meeting that will take place in the hall of the Jewish Library, on Saturday 6 August at 3 p.m.
On the agenda: 1. Our cultural work; 2. Report by Naftali Weinig: Roads and Side-Roads of Modern literature.
The teachers in Koło, the first well from which our generation had studied the Torah and drank knowledge, let us not forget them! They have opened the windows for the majority of the young people to the knowledge of Yiddish and some of them have planted their good ways in the hearts of students.
That the Cheder was simple and poor was not the fault of the teachers. Their income was meager and the tuition was not paid on time. The atmosphere around them was not warm and the only pleasure in their lives was the pleasure in their studies they studied together with the Cheder boys.
Today we cannot be **offended** by any of their ways the parents wanted it this way. They were against any innovation, they were afraid of the smallest wind (change), fearing that it would tear the children away from the Torah.
The teachers in the Cheders were divided into ***step***. The transfer from one teacher to the other was considered advancing a grade.
The first grade, the very beginnning was the most challenging for the teachers.
The ones mentioned in the list to follow, are not, G-d forbid, in order to diminish the honor of certain teachers but ways by which to remember them. The nickname was sometimes as popular as the name.
The teachers who taught the basics:
Yadke studied with boys and girls of the fourth and fifth grades to read in the Siddur. Many girls had also learnt from him how to write a letter in Yiddish.
Rac Shmuel Itzik Rotbard (Voteria Malamed) - Alef Bet and to read
Anshel Fadamski (Anshell Bik) - Alef Bet, reading and Siddur and the beginning of Chumash.
Rav Feivish Ber (Fairie the Hunchback) to read in the Sidur and the beginning of Chumash.
The teachers who taught Rashi and the Chumash
Rav Avraham Yehuda Rotbart, Rav Yisroel Goldman (Warshaver teacher), Hanoch (the deaf Hanoch), Efraim (Efraim Zummerschvantz), Yaakov Zalman Maladek (taught by singing.)
Chumash, Rashi and Gemorra
Rav. Hirsh-Leib; Kasriel Saladovsky (his specialty Tanach and grammar), Rav Yaakov Akiva Hirschbein his speciality Mishna and Gemorra, Rav. Tuvia Wilferd, Shimon Wolf Arker *** *** Ozer Zarndorf Cheder Metukan (the repaired room) Goldberg Cheder Metukan (repaired room) he taught Hebrew in Hebrew; Sheika.
Gemorra and Biblical excerpts
Rav Meir Zaltzman (look at the list of Yehoshua Manoch); Rav Yisroel Weiss, Efraim Shlumper; R. Yaakov Aaron Engel-Sofer; Nata Himel HaCohen.
The latter have made a name for themselves as scholars, prepared students for their Bar Mitzvah, taught them to give speeches and to become immersed in their studies.
Some of them have also studied with the owners of the houses in the evening or on Saturday afternoon.
The Purim plays Ahashverosh, The sale of Joseph and similar plays have been staged in our town by the Yeshiva boys and the house owners. The revenue went to different charitable organizations.
The start of the drama circle and the amateur plays is connected with the anme Haim Ber Babiatzky. That was in the first years of the 20th Century. Babiatzky had organized a group of theater lovers and started an amateur circle, which staged mainly historical operettas (musicals.) like Bar Kochba, David in the Desert, The Pillage of Jerusalem, etc.
Every performance was at that time a holiday in the shtetl. Nobody refused to support and help with whatever they could. The props were brought from all parts of the town. A velvet served as a king's toga. An ottoman covered in gold paper the throne. It is apparent that the suppliers of those items had a free admission to the play.
The second stage of the drama circles started with the establishment of two drama circles. The first one was called The Aristocrats and the second The Democrats. In the first one the main actors were Levkovsky, Reslech, Hela Cohen and the director Leib Barshastovsky; the main actors for the second were Yaakov Zaid (with the wig), Michael Shimshon Brookshtein, Malka Levkovitch and Shmuel Leib First. The director David Itzik Levkovitch.
Both drama circles were preparing as it sometimes happens with big theaters in town, the tragedy Medea both the same play. The inhabitants of the town had then separated into two groups the first group supported the first circle and the second the second. The people had really quarreled as to who would perform the piece better. In the end it happened that for both performances both halls were full, the execution wonderful. As it was said, in Koło everybody loves the theater and the cantorial music.
The director David Itzik Levkovitch (Itzik Matis) deserves to be praised. David Itzik was an ordinary man. His main income was (made) in going to different fairs and selling clothes. In spite of his difficult way of earning a living he did not miss rehearsals. In the summer heat, in the fall rains, in the winter frost, he appeared punctually among the ***first***. Tired from the fair, concerned with the problems such as where the money would come from to pay the outstanding bills nothing could stop him.
During the rehearsals he becames one with his eye and ear; he listens with all his senses to each sentence spoken by the amateurs, he watches every gesture and improves it, gives directions with enthusiasm and just good cheer he performs his director's work.
This same David Itzik can be found on a Saturday afternoon in the school where he listens to every workd of Rav Haim-Iosef Nesek or Rav Berish Saladovsky and others who simply study with everybody Haggadah and The Life of Man.
Once I was present at the final rehearsal, the evening before the performance of Medea. His young daughter Malka speaks a part of a phrase and she does not pronounce the sentence as suggested. It seems to him that she did not say it with enough heart. David Itzik jumps up top her and slaps her on her face because of his nervous state. ***So he behaves himself because of the theater.***
A great push was given to the drama circle by professional actors, which had led it for some time. A wonderful actor from the Vilna troup, Yaakov Weislitz, had spent a long period of time in Koło and attracted the best people to the drama circle and taught them. His first performance was The Village Boy. In the play the following participated: Yehuda and Sarah Barkovsky, Frankovsky, Michael Shimshon Brookstein, Nitshinsky, Hanoch Hirshbein, the Reichenstein sisters, Sahatchovsky, Rauff and others. The impression was tremendous. The play was performed ten times and it was also performed in the surrounding villages. Weislitz had developed among the amateurs love for the arts and a better theater.
The actor Aizikovitch who came from America to visit his relatives had stayed for along time in Koło and under his tutelage the following (plays) were staged; Othello, Shylock, The Black Hand. and others. The biggest success was The Black Hand, it was peformed in the surrounding villages Dabie, Sompolno, Izshvitze, Klodowa etc.
Stable drama circles have established themselves with the Poalei Zion (leftists) and the Bund. The former was themore intense and that was thanks to the entrepreneurial spirit of the leader Yehuda Barkovsky. A short time after its first showing in the Warsaw Yiddish Theater the play was performed in our town. In this respect nobody could be compared to him. Among the plays which have impressed the audience with its freshness were The Dybbuk, For God's Sanctity, The Dobos,, The Seven Hanged Men, etc. The drama circle of the Bund under the tutelage of H. Hirschbein had perfored Two Hundred Thousand, The Robbers, Uriel Akosta, (a short report was given before the play) and also historical operettas (musicals.)
From time to time the drama circles would unite and with the combined efforts would undertake a gikudat celebration. From among the combined performances (were) Shabbatai Zvi, The Hero in Chains, and others.
An effort was made by the Jews to establish a private drama circle which had only financial aims. The initiators of this business were D.A. Levkovitch, Yaakov Zeid, the sisters Reichenshtein and Shmuel Leib First. Because they did not have a good base, this drama circle did not last very long. They staged historical operettas and the dramas by Yaakov Gordin. The audience which had already experienced the better theater did not show a much of an interest in the new drama circle.
From among the wandering starts the half-amateurs and half-professional, the Krook couple deserve a special mention. They stayed in town for an extended period of time and the beginning was with lots of ***luster***. They staged light pieces which attract the public such as Zipke Fire, Kantshe in America and moving melodramas. The theater audiences were looking for something else and (because) they could not change the repertoire and as a result they performed in half empty halls.
The best theater troupe in the country came to perform in Koło in Yiddish and Polish. The town breathed with its love for the theater. And the performances of A.S. Marevsky, Zigmund Turkav, Yanosh Turkav, Ida Kaminska stirred a great interest. On the day of the performance it was already impossible to buy a ticket because they had already previously been soldout. The same (occurred) on the recital evening of Rachel Holtzer and other stars.
The young people loved the theater. When they came together it lead to many conversations. They would discuss and recall the scenes from the plays. A master of that was Nite Benjamin (Natke Spivak.) He let his voice ring in the middle of the street so people had gathered together to admire it was black (crowded) with people, people were really in awe of his singing.
When ***your people Shar and Itzig*** would come together on a Saturday afternoon around a beer mug they entertained themselves by singing cantorial pieces; The King' The K'dusha, The Preparation for Shabbath, etc. The most prominent specialists were: Mendel Stern (Mendel Sines), Haim Kamielnik (Haim Charnes), Gabriel Markovitch (Kakashke), Shmuel Madalinsky (Shumuel the Devil) and others.
The sincere Jews, the simple people, are no more. They were tragically killed by the Nazis.
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