by Yosef Aricha
Translated by Amy Samin
1. In the Still of the Night
Sometimes in the still of the night, as I sit alone on the veranda, serene after the nuisances of the day and the tumult of the city, surrounded by the murmurings of the night and the sparkle of the stars, suddenly scenes from my youth appear before me. They burst forth in an ambush and compel me to commune with them in the silence, demanding my complete attention; for those who created them amidst the joys of life are no longer, they have been slain. The sights are merely isolated scenes, glimmers of lost souls in the heavens: they are drawn before my eyes filled with pleasant memories, saturated with the radiance of the past and the charm of youth. It was the time of adolescence, the springtime of life, engraved upon my heart and absorbed into my essence, a yearning for all that is good, and beautiful, and noble. And there was I, one of the youths of Kovel, sculpting my character, dreaming dreams and spinning daydreams, experiencing first love. It was the first soul-stirring experience, filled with longing and tenderness, pleasant and sweet, when disappointment chases sleep from the eye; all of the first misgivings on the brink of adolescence.
Only in the still of the night do they come, all of those dear characters who did not complete the circle of their lives because of the cruel fate that no one, not us nor our fathers, could have imagined in all of its terror. There is in that communion with those sights and characters a sort of kindling of a memorial candle, as a sign of remembrance, for we cannot forget. The sacred obligation is to share that collection of memories, even if only a few strands of the web of life that was burned beyond recognition, to hoard the scattered embers of the fire of life that once illuminated and warmed.
The city that long ago was once aflutter and bustling with life and movement rises and stands before my eyes. I walk those streets, wandering amongst the ruins, revisiting the once-dear places, encountering my young friends who were not granted salvation, the charming girls, the affluent households, the extended families, relatives, merchants, artisans, the well-educated and the common folk, all of the representatives of the various strata of society which together made up the people of the Diaspora of Poland. I see many of them going about their tasks, busy in their professions, in the stores and the workshops, in wealth and in poverty. I recall various events, in both humorous and unhappy circumstances, and characters who, each and every one of them, could be used as the subject of a fascinating story; but this time, only general things or a very few incidents flow from my pen to paper.
I was a lad of thirteen when I came, together with all of my family; refugees of the war in 1919, uprooted from the city of my birth, Olevsk in the Ukraine, seeking a haven in Kovel in the Volhynia. We had left behind us our abandoned property, childhood memories and a wonderful town
which we had left after the pogroms and to which we would never return. I knew that Kovel was only one stage in our passage; I had already made the conscious decision that the only path leading away from the bleeding land was immigration to Eretz Yisrael, an escape and the ultimate refuge. Kovel provided me with a place to prepare, and I was not distracted from that purpose; six years later I fulfilled my dream. Those six years of my youth were most invigorating, and they inspire my imagination as I pen these lines.
2. The River and the Bridge
Whenever I give a passing thought to Kovel, there appears before my imagination the inclined bridge above the river which divided the town into two main parts. First there was an old wooden bridge which rested on thick, tightly-fitted and interwoven wooden
|The concrete bridge above the Tura|
beams, beautiful but moldy and half-rotten; and later, a concrete bridge which was built by an enormous Russian engineer who, as well as he knew how to diligently supervise the pouring of the concrete work which I followed closely for it was new to me and of great interest was also diligent in gulping down liquor. I enjoyed listening to the ripe Russian and the wealth of curses he used, which definitely kept my attention and apparently also that of his workers, if one can judge by the pleasure they showed, with smirks and winks directed equally at the cursed and the curser. He was, however, an expert at building bridges and the one he built in Kovel was a fine one.
Always, when I would make the ascent to the city or as it was called, the sand dunes or on my return, I would stop in the middle of the bridge and lean against the railing, delaying my progress while I filled my gaze with the flowing water which carried in its current signs of distant places; the refuse of beaches and settlements, the isolated boat in the hands of either a fisherman or a pleasure sailor, a laundress busy with her washing, and far off, at the bend of the river, nude bathers diving into the river from a slightly steep beach, a place known for the occurrence of drownings every year yet which drew with a magical pull the best swimmers to try their strength in a fervor of swimming and diving, while the most daring of them would show off their skill by jumping from a tall tree on the other bank.
I was drawn to the bridge also in the winter, when the river was frozen and covered with a dusting of snow. The snow would be cleared to the banks on either side, to allow the skaters to show off their wondrous tricks. Among them was my younger brother, who would draw the eye like few others could, with his agility and flexibility as he passed by, flying like an arrow sent from a bow, his silver skates close to his shoes scratching the ice with his easy movements. Many people would crowd the bridge, amazed at the sight, the girls coveting him with their eyes.
The bridge and the river it was actually one of the smaller rivers, the Tura River. I never investigated its origins nor the twists and turns of its currents, where it strayed amongst the thick reeds on the far horizon, twisting like a brook with arms here and there, rivulets which formed an isolated island where trees grew sparsely, and joined together joining together in a wide spill on one side of the bridge. On the other side, the Tura gathered itself into one channel, deeper and more permanent, the water kissing the left bank on which were crowded the older, moldering houses of the city, the cramped lanes and yards, fenced and leveled, disordered, bustling with life and crowded with humanity. From the sawmill came the grating sounds of the saws, a never-ending whine, with the sounds of the sledgehammers and the bellows blended into the clamor. Sounds of life, and of labor; while on the other side of the river it seemed the city was significantly farther away, as if it had always reclined amongst the wide, grassy meadows, spreading into the distant horizon to the green iron bridge which bore the railroad tracks. Those widespread meadows were used for grazing cows and goats, for games, for youth movement gatherings, and especially for soccer matches.
Another arm of the river encircled the city with narrow, filthy channels that ran toward Trisk and Brisk, two long streets with one-story houses, some paltry and tumbledown, others new and substantial, well-kept, flooded with the scents of the gardens and fields
which gave them the appearance of a village; for here the big city had not yet taken over with its straight lines and crowded conditions. Also on this arm of the river were wooden bridges which lacked the tumult of life that could be found on the part of the river that went through the center of town.
3. On a Summer's Morning
Another happy coincidence that particularly raised the importance of that area in my eyes was that we lived for a number of years in the Stock family house on the banks of the river. In order to prevent the erosion of the land of the yard, which faced the river, wooden girders were thrust into the banks, a kind of shield against floodwaters, and also used as a pier for two or three boats which were bound together by chains. One of those boats was for our use, that is, for myself and my two brothers. On the other side of the river stood the large two-story walled house of old Varba, which housed first the Herzliya Hebrew school, then later the Hebrew gymnasia; the two institutions in which I received my education. On summer days I would walk to school over the bridge, while in the winter I would take an even shorter route; I would walk across the river on the ice.
Sometimes early on a summer's morning I would rise, and if on the same day the schedule included the subject of mathematics or algebra, something to which I was not partial, I would drop my knapsack into the boat, sit in the rear seat and, taking up the single oar would, with difficulty, paddle against the current, all the while straining my eyes to be sure no teacher was by any chance watching me, until I would disappear from view into the thicket of reeds upriver.
And there, far from the city, I would continue paddling, with great effort, against the current, more than a little tired from the effort of using only one oar, now paddling on one side, and then on the other, to a place where the beach curved slightly, and there I would tarry, giving myself a brief rest. There I would sense the rustling of the reeds, hear the twittering of the nearby birds, and my eyes would follow the colorful butterflies that glittered in the sunshine. After a short respite, I would continue my tour upriver, trying as hard as I could to make progress, taking pleasure in the knowledge that my reward would come upon my return down river, flowing easily with the current. Then, I would simply use the oar occasionally to steer, as the boat glided pleasurably and easily along on the water, and I would know why all the effort going up had been worthwhile.
Upon my return, there was little point in going to school even though the hour of mathematics class had passed. Instead, I would spend the remainder of the day lying supine in the field, my mind occupied with many thoughts. Two days later, however,
when the teacher called me to the board and my failure to solve the exercise was obvious to all of my classmates, the teacher would send me back to my seat, saying, It's no wonder! The time that you should have spent studying was instead wasted in boats on the river. He used the plural, boats, but to me the hours of pleasure spent in that single boat on a summer's morning are something I remember until today.
4. The Hebrew Gymnasia
At that time, a daring experiment was made to found a Hebrew gymnasia in Kovel, although there already were other Hebrew gymnasia in Poland. Asher Frankfort (may God avenge his blood), its energetic founder and director, did not hesitate in the face of difficulties and his courage was boundless. In spite of all the uncertainties he founded the gymnasia, assembled a team of enthusiastic teachers, gathered students from educated homes who spoke the language, and within a short period of time the gymnasia became an important source and supporter of culture in the public life of Kovel. Also in this city, all of the Jewish political parties were reflected as in a looking glass in all of their different tendencies, the nationalistic and those in opposition, with which Poland was blessed in abundance when it first regained its independence.
I was among the first students of the gymnasia. I don't know if my head was more preoccupied with soccer and sport in general than studies, but I do know that in this institution I came to understand my obligation to the values of the past, our language and literature, and I enjoyed the influence of a few excellent teachers, men of soul and vision, who planted within us a longing for our origins. Two of them I meet still today with great fondness; they are Z. Ariel and Dr. Yaacov Nataneli. The first well understood the spirit of a disorganized student like myself; he was a man graced with the understanding of a great pedagogue, who was not strict about every detail, and who could see into the hearts of his students. The second knew how to instill in me a fondness for Hebrew literature, its poetry, and the relationship of the values of beauty and esthetics. He praised my compositions highly and was very welcoming to me. My first writing was published in Mashtelah L'Sofrim Tzirim (Nursery for Young Writers), which A. Lovoshitzki referenced in the margins of the Kochav (Star), a monthly literature magazine for youth, which was published in Warsaw and Lódz. In those days in Kovel I dreamed of becoming a Hebrew-language writer, and my collected works included stories, essays and legends.
I have especially good memories of the teacher Joseph Avrekh (may God avenge his blood), a man of soul and fervor in his conversation and his lessons, a dear man who did not find salvation and go to the Holy Land. After his death, a legend grew surrounding his behavior, that of honorable steadfastness and bravery against the Nazis. While on the verge of death he hurled into the faces of those beasts everything he held in his heart, and with a prophet's rage predicted that they would not escape from punishment; he told them these things while filled with fear
as he awaited his execution.
He continued talking until a filthy hand shoved a gun in his face. I also remember well the music teacher Feinstein, (may God avenge his blood) thanks to whom we learned Hebrew music and songs. And there was a teacher of Polish and German who would come to teach us from Lvov, a very cultured and polite woman who experienced for the first time the renewal of Hebrew culture, which was foreign to her. Later, teachers Dr. Ben-Shem and Hazan came, each with his own expertise, fostering education and enlightenment; other teachers came, as well. Each one was diligent in his profession, though equipped with textbooks which lacked more than they provided, and were superficial and imprecise.
The gymnasia was crowded with students whose language was Hebrew, from Kovel and the surrounding area; the children of towns and villages, boys and girls who thronged to experience the flavor of the Hebrew ambiance. The gymnasia was a fortress for the proponents of Hebrew culture, who saw it as both a victory and an achievement. Receptions were held there in connection with the Jewish holidays and important dates in the genesis of national revival. Live performances were given in Hebrew, which demonstrated great ability, and created a unique atmosphere effervescent with the collaboration of teachers and students. They were a great source of pride for the adults, parents and community leaders, when they came to witness the wonder and excitement of the Hebrew revival which paved the way for an even more daring fulfillment in the near future, and brought together members of the national movement.
Later, after I had left Kovel and moved to Eretz Yisrael and had learned how the gymnasia had prospered, the principal Dr. Frankfort came as an emissary; we helped him construct a building especially for the gymnasia. I remember that when he held in his hands the journal Davar, wherein I had published an article of appreciation about the gentleman, his life's work and the purpose of his visit, his eyes sparkled with joy and his face wore a rosy blush. When he embraced me with great affection and patted my shoulders, he brought back old memories when he said, Do you remember when I used to shout 'Stop! Stop! Stop!'?
Of course I remembered. At the public receptions held at the gymnasia, gymnastics were part of the program. The receptions were held in the same auditorium that was used for gymnastics lessons and there were rings and a trapeze suspended from the ceiling. Without boasting, I can safely say that in this area of my studies I was indeed outstanding. When I performed my acrobatic feats on the trapeze and the rings, Dr. Frankfort would fear I was about to fall God forbid - from the equipment, tumble to the ground, and shatter my bones. He would jump up from his seat filled with trepidation, and shout with all of his strength, as he attempted to save me from calamity, Stop! Stop! Stop! He would return to his seat and relax only when he saw me standing once again on the stage, still alive and in one piece, pale from exertion and wearing an expression of victory on my face.
Oy! Those evening receptions At one of them, I had in my pocket a big bar of chocolate
which I had bought before-hand to give to a girl I thought pretty, but by the time I could rescue her from the circle of boys that surrounded her, and found in my heart the courage to walk with her outside, arm in arm, the chocolate bar in my pocket had turned into a warm puddle.
5. Youthful Mischief
The locations of our games and entertainments would vary from place to place, according to need and circumstances; we met frequently at the sports field, went swimming in the river, arranged bicycle races, attended the silent movies or entertainment houses, and we even gathered on the lane where the great synagogue was located. On holidays, or the eve of Simchat Torah, we would encounter one another there; young men and women would flirt outside, with much joking and frivolous behavior, then we would enter the synagogue and, for a scant hour, behave circumspectly.
The great synagogue was an enormous building, built at the front of burnt red bricks which darkened with the passage of time, with the façade looking out into the gloomy lane. It was quite solid, and covered with a design of protuberances and projections. At the corners pillars rose up from solid bases. In the upper windows there were large stars of David. Inside, it looked different; it was swathed in the brilliance of many radiant lamps, tinted and magnificent. I see the synagogue full of people, and its front courtyard teeming with humanity. Also before my eyes are the gatherings of the young men and their mischief. This night, there is to be a gathering of the people, with a speech by a famous man from Warsaw, the capital, who will discuss the elections of the Polish Sejm. He is a famous Zionist, a jealous protector of Hebrew language and culture. At the entrance are guards wearing the ribbons of the Maccabi movement, who refuse to allow us, the youth, to enter.
One young man, nimble and daring, began to plan an invasion of the synagogue. His group of friends was right behind him, ready for action. He led them around to the back of the synagogue, stopping by the faded old wooden fence. He peeked through the cracks at the door through which the worshippers would exit to the yard. He pointed to the upper portion of the door, where there was fixed a piece of glass, intended to bring in some light to the darkness inside. He turned to his friends:
First we need to shatter the glass, and then break in, he said.
But who will break the glass? wondered one of the youths, the one with the crossed eyes, while looking from side to side to see if anyone was listening to him.
Definitely not you! said Menachem, the leader of the group, mockingly. As he spoke, he bent down, picked up a stone and threw it at the opening in the door
with perfect aim.
We could hear the tinkling of the glass as it shattered into bits, and immediately afterwards the voice of Menachem:
Friends! Bend down and cover your heads. His friends obeyed him, throwing themselves face down onto the dry and dusty earth while holding their breaths, except for Menachem who kneeled down and peeked into the yard through the crack
What do you hear? asked someone.
Maybe they went out to ambush us?
Menachem listened very carefully, and then calmed his friends:
No. I think that those inside didn't even hear the glass break, because it's very noisy in there, and the door to the sanctuary is always kept closed. Very soon we'll begin to climb.
Just to be sure, he waited another few minutes. Once he was certain there was no danger, he was the first to jump up and with great agility threw himself over the fence. His friends were quick to follow. In the yard they found an old wooden plank, which they took and placed at an angle leading up to the small aperture in the door as a sort of ladder. The daring and nimble Menachem went first, clearing away the pieces of broken glass still clinging to the window frame and sticking his head through to peer around inside. All was darkness, compressed and unpleasant, filled with the musty smell of mildew. The young man listened very carefully for a moment, to assure himself that all was well, then quickly slid his legs down. He hung by his fingertips for a moment, clinging to the door above, let go and slid down straight into a barrel filled with the water that had been used by worshippers for the ritual washing of hands, which stood in front of the door.
This was a nasty shock for Menachem. He was submerged in the cold and murky water up to his thighs, but he kept quiet and didn't let a sound escape his lips, for an idea was already forming in his mind. He carefully climbed out of the barrel, looked up towards the opening and saw the face of one of his friends who was preparing to follow him. He quietly told him:
Come straight down, quickly
The youth slid swiftly down, straight into the barrel. He broke out in moist goose bumps, and prepared to let out a shout, but Menachem quickly covered his mouth with his hand, while whispering in his ear:
Don't yell, you fool! They'll all jump into the barrel
The two stood, wet and dripping and called to the third to follow them:
Come down, quickly!
He also jumped straight into the barrel. They slapped their hands over his mouth, while comforting him with the same whispered words, then calling to the fourth:
Come down, quickly!
Just like that, my dears whispered the jubilant Menachem, straight into the barrel, whoops!
You villains! Why didn't you tell me? said one youth.
Menachem laughed, Why didn't we tell him?...Do you think that this lovely dunking was waiting only for us?
But how will I go home? asked the one who complained.
How? mocked Menachem. On foot.
The rest burst into laughter, which only added to the youth's wrath.
You're mocking me, you thief!
What did you say?
The youth was silent.
What did you say?
I said what I said.
Oh, yeah? I'll show you ! and Menachem raised his hand and slapped the youth on the cheek.
You hit me? he shouted, angry and insulted. He jumped onto Menachem, fists flying. One of the youths quickly tried to separate the two combatants; but Menachem, secure in his strength, called out to him in the heat of battle:
Let me go, and I'll teach him the story of Balak!
The two youths grappled in the darkness; locked together in combat they rolled around on the floor, the heavy sounds of punches and the ringing of slaps filling the room. After only a few minutes, Menachem sat astride the other, pounding on him in a rage. He only released him when the youth's howls and wails became so irritating and strident that they seemed likely to summon people to discover their source. Menachem got up off him and threw himself to the door, where he shot back the bolt and burst outside, accompanied by his friends, inflamed, sweaty and satisfied. He had proved his prowess in fighting.
You really taught him a lesson! said one of the youths.
I could take on three more like him!
Suddenly, Menachem turned to one of the others and said,
Tell me, is the scratch on my face quite large? He stopped next to a light so the one he questioned could get a good look.
The youth looked, took hold of Menachem's chin and tilted his face up.
A fair-sized scratch. All the way across the cheek.
That pig! complained Menachem. He scratches with his nails just like a girl!
The scratch worried him quite a bit and spoiled his mood. Clothes would dry out, but the scratch what of that? It couldn't be wiped from the face It was a shameful mark of disgrace engraved upon his face by his rival, and his mother would demand to know the meaning of it. His friend tried to calm him:
No matter, in another two or three days the scratch will be gone completely.
Yes, but how can I go home?
How? teased one of his friends, paying him back. On foot!
6. A Fair Division
Near our home on the river was the house of Kaploshnick. Even now I don't know if that was a nickname or his real name. Unlike his name, Kaploshnick (hat maker) sold rather than made hats. He had a fine house, and a tidy shop with a picture window, quite splendid. He had two sons, and since he was a widower, his sons kept house for him while he ran the business by himself; behaving honorably toward the women and treating everyone with respect.
His two sons rarely left the house, keeping busy with whatever it was that they did there. Their father was not a tall man, yet was still taller than they. He was known for his conversation and his occupation, his measured gait and his polite manners, which inspired respect. He was a smooth sort of elderly man, with his head of snowy white hair and his meticulous manner of dressing. In the winter he wore clothing from a fine quality black woven cloth; and in summer, a lightweight white cloth. He wore glossy patent leather shoes upon his feet. His tie was always impeccably arranged, and his collar shiny; in his entirety he was an example of cleanliness, precision and neatness. He was known as a well-organized, polite man, who always spoke pleasantly, yet he had a commanding presence; he had a strong personality and imposed his will on others. He was far from being an idle old man; not in his own eyes, nor in the eyes of the ladies.
One day he set the whole town talking about something he had done, something that was difficult to understand but yet was accepted with good spirit and enjoyment, as a sort of pleasurable joke. On a trip to Warsaw he met there M.G., also of Kovel, and who also operated a shop that sold hats. The two businessmen from Kovel went together to purchase a large quantity of bonnets in a variety of styles. In order to save on shipping costs, the two decided to have all of the hats sent together in one crate to Kaploshnick's address. When he returned from the city and received the package, Kaploshnick told his friend to come and pick up his half of the hats.
For some reason, the fellow did not come. Two days later, Kaploshnick again told him to come, but still he didn't respond. After a few more days, Kaploshnick sent one of his sons to M.G. with yet another message to come and take his hats; this time there was also a warning, for Kaploshnick's patience was at an end. He waited after that announcement was delivered, but worse luck the man still did not come. This infuriated Kaploshnick, who saw it as an insult to his honor. He did not send any further messages, but he invited two of his Jewish neighbors to come to his shop, and told them:
Do you see this crate? There are hats and bonnets inside that my friend, the merchant M.G. and I purchased together, each paying for his portion. The merchandise belongs half to him and half to me. I have invited him three times to come and pick up his portion, but he has not come. You will be my witnesses, because I am going to divide up all of this merchandise into two equal lots while you watch. I will not give preference to myself, nor will I short-change his portion.
And so, in the presence of the two witnesses, the old man grasped hold of a pair of scissors and sat down with restraint on a chair close to the crate, which he opened and from which he removed one of one style of hat, and another from a different style. With great care and gravity, he cut each hat in two. One piece he laid down on his right, for himself, and the other on his left side for the merchant who did not come. When he had finished his work, he called for a porter and sent the half on the left to its owner. The town was agog!
He was seen two days later, walking outside near his shop, elegantly dressed as was his wont, a serious expression of deep thought engraved upon his face. He approached people and greeted them without a single sign of levity. Clearly, he did not see his actions as amusing or a joke, for someone who believes in order and discipline expects others to treat him as he treats them.
7. The Scouts Organization
A particular source of pride was the Scouts organization founded by Baden-Powell. At its head stood Lucia Hodorov (now ship's captain Eliezer Hadrav) who, even as a young man, showed great talent for action and a fine skill for organization. He used to give enthusiastic and inspiring speeches in formal Russian. My friends and I wrote him a letter, because we thought that it wasn't right for the head of a Jewish organization such as that to give speeches in Russian. We considered it an insult to our national feeling. Lucia accepted our assertion. At his next public appearance, he spoke in Yiddish, and a short while later he succeeded in learning Hebrew and began making speeches in that language. From the beginning it was an exceptional educational organization run in the spirit of Baden-Powell; later, national nuances with an orientation towards developing our values was added.
It is to Lucia Hodorov's credit that the youth of Kovel were bound together in a unified group. His counselors imparted to the youth the genesis of self-knowledge and a recognition of the uniqueness of our national values.
Hodorov organized parties for the youth which included singing, acting, reciting and gymnastics (in which my younger brother Yoelik and I would climb to the top of a living pyramid), trips on Lag B'Omer, formations, and field trips we presented an impressive appearance. And for us, it meant the first meetings with girls, going walking on moonlit nights, and romance, the flavor of which will always remain in our memories. It is appropriate to also mention the movement Hashomer Hatzair, which was a competitor to the Scouts organization. This rivalry frequently set the town abuzz with many ideological arguments over differences in purpose and character. There were cases of defection from one group to the other, and more than once parents were forced to intervene when the fiery discussions moved beyond their narrow focus and became issues involving the public and its leaders. In other words, among the youth there was quite a bit of agitation.
I remember the pride with which we would anticipate the parade of the firefighters of Kovel. Leading the company, following the sounds of its orchestra, the Jewish captain Brandes would march or ride upon his horse, wearing a shiny copper hat and with a pistol strapped to his thigh. A proper company of men, wearing copper hats and equipped with firefighting tools, marched after him in an orderly and regimented fashion. Bringing up the rear were wagons equipped with water barrels and the red fire extinguishing equipment. The firefighting unit was an entirely Jewish organization, all volunteers, who were amazingly skilled in putting out the fires, both real and fabricated, which broke out in Kovel almost every day.
The firefighters proved to be a talented, extremely disciplined organization, nearly military in its fine, well-organized performances of duty. The public appreciated their fine appearance during parades and holidays, which caused the Christians of the city to view the Jews with more respect. The sounds of the orchestra's music raised our spirits and we reveled in every display of Jewish bravery, and in every hint of order and discipline customary in a civilized nation. We took those things to be glimmers of freedom and a felt desire to show others that these were not merely simple firefighters, but sons of a minority that, if left undisturbed in their organizations, could create institutions no less marvelous than those of their neighbors, brave in spirit and strong in body.
10. Sports Organizations
There were also sports organizations, whose soccer teams made a name for them in the area. The commissioner of the Maccabi team borrowed me from Kadima as a goalie because I had a reputation for being an excellent goal keeper in spite of my youth.
I took part
in all of the important competitions that took place between various towns against teams made up of citizens or soldiers in the army, which came to play in our city, and I traveled with the Maccabi team to Luts'k, Rivne, Brest, Ludmir, Lublin and other towns. These soccer competitions always turned into events in the city, drawing many spectators, and if it should happen that the two teams represented two peoples, such as Jews or Poles, there was often a great deal of expectation and apprehension over the results. Just as a loss would spoil the mood of the supporters of one team, a victory would raise the spirits of the winners. Often the military orchestra from the army base at Gorky would play. The atmosphere was usually celebratory, and the well-to-do people of the city would be amongst the spectators. Although there was no lack of incidents between the players, or outbursts of anti-Semitism from the proud Polish players when a loss would cause them to lose control of themselves, usually the competitions were carried out in a sportsmanlike atmosphere and the officiating was, more often than not, objective. We established ties of friendship with the players from the other Jewish teams, and it should be pointed out that there were many excellent athletes who could have been part of national teams. From time to time the ranks of our team would thin out, because many players left Kovel; some moved to the Holy Land, others emigrated to Argentina or other places. I myself moved to Eretz Yisrael in 1925, the year I reached my peak as a soccer player. In the farewell parties given in my honor by my friends and the sports organizations, I received, among other things, three silver tokens engraved with the figure of an athlete standing in a goal, of varying designs. In my wanderings those tokens were lost, but the memory of them is engraved upon my heart, and if I close my eyes for a moment, I see the soccer field and my young friends (as they were then!) running on it, healthy and refreshed, abundantly joyful and full of life.
A significant portion of the youth of Kovel was educated in the gymnasia that was part of the heritage of the Russian government, under the direction of Klara Davidovna, an educated and energetic woman. With the transfer of government to the Poles, the curriculum of the gymnasia was transferred to a Polish system of study. She understood that in keeping with the times, it was in her interest to support the national Jewish spirit that existed in Kovel. She dedicated hours to the study of the Hebrew language, Hebrew literature, and Jewish history. During the receptions she organized, one could hear coming from the stage Hebrew songs and scenes from national theater productions. The students of that gymnasia had a sports organization by the name Legia. Some of the youth who participated were assimilated Jews who, over the course of time, were caught up in the current of nationalism, and a few of them moved to Eretz Yisrael. There was also a sports organization for nationalist youth, which was called Bar Kochba, as well as one from the Hebrew gymnasia, which was called Kadima.
Whenever I think about Kadima and my friends from that time, my heart swells with feeling. A few of the members of Kadima moved to Eretz Yisrael; a clear and understandable result after much advanced planning. The desire to fulfill that aspiration was always with us, first and last. Among the first to go were Uri Alpert, the first president of Kadima, and myself, also a former president of Kadima. I went with my older brother Moshe. After us came Shlomo Cantor, Yitzhak Finkelstein, the Vikus brothers, Flanzman, Erlich and Meir Segal zl, and others. Those who hesitated and did not go to Eretz Yisrael, for one reason or another, perished.
Kadima was a national organization in the fullest sense of the word. Its rules were written in Hebrew, and even on the playing field it was possible to hear Hebrew coming from the mouths of its members. This did not prevent the members of Kadima from joining other organizations such as the Scouts or Hashomer Hatzair. A few joined the Hechalutz (Pioneer) organization and went to work in the training quarries in Klosova. Only after training at the kibbutz (collective settlement) in Klosova could members, according to a set order, receive permission to move to Eretz Yisrael. My older brother and I were able to jump to the head of the line thanks to an immigration license we were sent by one of the farmers in Rehovot. This farmer had pleasant memories of my father, whom he had known when, in 1914, he moved to Eretz Yisrael and was housed in the home of the farmer's father in Rehovot.
The matter of moving to Eretz Yisrael occupied most of the time of the young members of Kadima. I had arguments with some of the members who, for some reason, delayed completing the required training. In my heart I believed that if they did not immigrate soon, it was doubtful they would do so later on. Even now, my heart aches for two of them, those who were my very best friends. One of them was Yaacov Segal, smart and handsome; he was my best friend, the person I could share secrets with and talk to about anything; the other was Baruch Toib, who was level-headed, knowledgeable, and pleasant company. Even though he and I once courted the same girl, there existed between us true friendship and understanding. I know that they were both active in cultural and public life, for they were possessed of special qualities and wonderful personalities. But when the time came to immigrate they missed their opportunity.
12. The Muscovite Shoemaker
We called him the Muscovite shoemaker because he always used to tell us stories about the city of Moscow. He was tall, bony and strong, with a face like a young man, with his dreams written there. He lived in a basement in the lane near our house, and we often had disputes with him over the newspapers, weeklies, and magazines that we would always buy before the Sabbath, and which he would steal from us. It turned out that he read incessantly, and was always thirsty for anything he could lay hands on to read that was written in Yiddish, which was his only language.
|Standing, from right to left: Yitzhak Finkelstein, Benyamin Mekaveh, Feivel Erlich, Meir Segal, Shlomo Cantor, Shmuel Vikus, Ben-Zion Soinyuch, Levenberg, Benyamin Kaminski.
Seated, from right to left: Shbedyuk, Avraham Waldman, Avraham Flanzman, author Yosef Aricha (president of Kadima), Baruch Toib, Yoelik Dolgin (Aricha), Sioma.
Seated on the ground, from right to left: Izik Zafran, Yaacov Becker, Shmuel Goz.
I used to visit him frequently, mainly because my shoes were constantly in need of repair and I would exploit them, with patch upon patch, repairs to the heels and soles, until they were tattered beyond repair. I was a regular visitor of the Muscovite shoemaker, because he didn't keep his word, and I would have to urge him on. I will admit, I found him fascinating. First of all, he sang, and beautifully, while he worked. He frequently sang folk songs by Avraham Reizel and others. They were songs that touched the heart, about young seamstresses shriveled by poverty, about the difficult days of workers, the simple people and the bitter-hearted, and about revolutionaries who had been sent to Siberia.
Mostly, the songs were about Moscow and Siberia. Those were the subjects that he would most often discuss. He told me of the walls of the Kremlin, of the huge bell and the tremendous cannon, which were truly king-sized; of the revolutionaries working underground, and the assassins of tyrannical kings and governors. He described magnificent adventures as if he himself had planned and performed them. He also spoke of his own imprisonment, how he stood trial and was sent to the wilderness of Siberia, and how under the influence of Gershoni, who escaped his prison in a barrel of cabbage, he too was able to escape and return to Kovel. He would speak of these things with a natural charm, filled with a great many details and dramatic incidents. His wife was a tender, delicate blond who I always saw sitting in the corner, her pregnancy near full term, smiling a gentle smile and nodding her head while she listened, as if to stories created in the imagination of one of her children. Later, the meaning behind her mysterious smile became clear to me; I learned that the shoemaker had never been to Moscow, had never been arrested and had certainly never been to Siberia. In fact, he had never left the confines of Kovel. All of his stories were the fruits of his imagination and his extensive reading of newspapers, which provided him with abundant material. In spite of that, his character was not damaged in my eyes, for I knew him to be a man who, living in poverty in his narrow basement, could create for himself a world full of experiences in order to escape his humdrum life. He was able to fill the lack in his life with his rich imagination, which took flight to Moscow and the wilderness of Siberia.
13. Not Completely Finished
I have committed to paper only a tiny portion of my collection of memories, some scenes and character sketches. Due to a lack of time I did not write more, and what I have written was done in haste. There are still many things in my heart of which I have not spoken, and my eyes still wander the streets and lanes of Kovel as I recall the dealings I had with those who I encountered on my way, and through a veil of fog (or tears ) I see the dear and beloved, whose flame
of life was cruelly extinguished by the Satan of our generation.
The stories that survived of what occurred among those imprisoned in the synagogue, the words they wrote in blood on the walls before setting off on their final journey to a mass grave outside of town, sentence us to return and rekindle their memories. May these few pages be as memorial candles.
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Updated 17 Feb 2012 by LA