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[Page s 149-154]

There Was a Young Generation, There Was Substance

By Tsipe L. de Zaltsman (Buenos Aires)

English Translation by Mindle Gross and Murray Kaplan

Notes on Community Life

Kremenets! In speaking and writing about Kremenets, there is so much that you can spend days and months and not get weary of it. It is enough just to mention the name Kremenets, and the heart begins to beat tempestuously and the blood begins to boil. I feel such loving warmth, but at the same time I detect a cutting pain, a desire to cry out, tear the hair off my head, demand justice from the world. My fists clench, and tears well up in my eyes.

I have traveled much and seen beautiful cities, but not one can compare to my wonderful little town. Nowhere have I found such intimate warmth, no area has ever left such a deep feeling in my soul as Kremenets. The roots run too strong in my very essence for me to forget it.

I remind myself of one time I traveled from Dubno to Kremenets. Close to me in the bus sat a salesman from Dubno, a man in his forties. He was traveling to Kremenets on business. I was 17 at the time. En route, we spoke continuously of Kremenets, and I feel that I praised my city in very rich terms. As I talked about Kremenets, I became so enthused that I forgot that there sat a sober salesman who was certainly thinking only of business and for whom the Kremenets landscape’s beauty lies only in the left sole of his foot and means nothing at all to him. It means nothing at all to him whether Jewish youths are cultured or not, or whether they are active in the community or indifferent. When I finally caught on that this person was absolutely not enthused by my interests–on the contrary, an ironic smile appeared on his calm, stony face–I felt insulted. I simply couldn't understand how someone could be so uninterested, how someone could not feel taken by so much beauty.

Arriving at the Dubno station, I was again entranced and told this person that we were now arriving in the city. It was actually a market day, and the Dubno station was full of wagons belonging to gentiles, packed with bunches of onions, garlic, cackling geese and ducks, and bleating calves. My traveling companion, wishing to tease me, pointed out this not-so-poetic picture to me, in which Jews and gentiles argued over a customer, they bargained, they cursed each other, and women felt the hens for eggs as they argued over the price. Even in this I found only beauty; it did not appear prosaic to me. On the contrary, I found color, rhythm, and life in it, and I was even more insulted by this stranger who was not impressed by my little city. I felt then exactly how I feel now when I praise my daughter and see an ironic smile on someone else's face. So I purposely left the Jewish man and ran off willy-nilly, not carrying that it was late in the evening and not a time to be going home alone.

Kremenets! How much life, youthfulness, and beauty there was in it streets and on every corner, starting at Kravetski Street and extending to Sheroka Street, from the synagogue up to the Organization (that's what they used to call the Zionist Organization), and the societies, libraries, dramatic circles, and kibbutzim. How much life there was on Sheroka Street, where from 7:00 AM to 1:00 AM no one was tired from many long hours spent watching movies, from the Gwiazda Cinema to the ?wiatowid Cinema.

[Page 150]

I often wonder how we had the patience to stroll as they did that day on the Sheroka. It was absolutely on the day's agenda, to stroll on the Sheroka. But whoever followed the youthful groups and listened in on their conversations understood that they did not walk in vain. All cultural, political, and societal problems were settled while walking on the Sheroka. Youths walked in rows of four, six, eight, and ten comrades, Pioneers, guards, revisionists, socialists, communists, religious people, freethinkers. A mishmash of voices discussed important issues; they wrangled, discussed, hurried to meetings, went to conferences and lectures. The noise on Sheroka Street was like the noise in a beehive. So many problems demanded an answer–solving them took five or six hours, and no one noticed how the time flew by.

 

Committee of General Zionists

 

Seated, first row: Chayim Grinberg, Meir Goldring, Dr. Meir Litvak, Moshe Eydelman, Dr. Landesberg, Zeyde Perlmuter, Levitan. Standing: Getsi Klorfayn, Vayner, Krementshuski, Kutsher, Segal, Reshnivker and Eli Reznik.

It brings to mind the Zionist Organization. At the age of 12, I became a Pioneer. My brothers and sisters had already been Pioneers [1] for many years. I was ordered to wait until I was 12, and finally I joined the group, which was led by my brother, Comrade Tsvi Tzenya. I was forbidden to call him by any other name. My brother, whose grey, steely eyes threw me into a panic, decided that, as for Comrade Zurchi–although she was his sister–he must be stricter with her than with all the others.

[Page 151]

When all the children were giggling or naughty and I was among them, he would address me first: “Comrade Zurchi, you may leave the meeting!” I was not required to answer him, “Comrade Zurchi,” I said,” I am not listening to you!” He had a habit of talking in his sleep, and in his sleep at night after a meeting, he would say, clearly and distinctly, “Comrade Zurchi, leave the meeting!” And I, who used to read late into the night, would yell back at him in his ear, “Comrade Zurchi, I am not listening to you!”

How much life there was in the Zionist Organization of Kremenets! It was filled with young, middle-aged and even elderly people. Every evening there were meetings, conferences, and lectures on different subjects, especially on Land of Israel issues, Zionism, the political economy, stories, and–most important–preparation for agricultural training in the Land of Israel. There were also physical workouts, a choir, and a drama circle. On the Sabbath and holidays, we would organize outings in the mountain forests, and late at night the comrades would gather wood, branches, and twigs and light a big fire. Around this bonfire in the middle of the forest, we made sure to accomplish important matters and then partook of some tasty humor.

I am reminded of our kibbutz: at first at Bornshteyn’s on Gorna Street and finally in the police building. I personally did not meet the kibbutz requirements, but I was there every evening and often spent whole days there. I was considered one of their members. Everyone knew me from the library, where, at no charge for my work, I would lend books for the benefit of the community. I was called “the private kibbutz person,” and every evening they served me a portion of black bread and coffee. I cannot remember when I have ever tasted a better meal than that black bread and coffee.

Here, standing before me, I see the kibbutz dining room with its long wooden tables, which that were always yellow from too much rubbing with sand. What didn't happen around the evening meal? Laughter, off-color jokes, making fun of the wealthy, practicing etiquette at the table, and generally having fun. Someone put water in a bottle, wrapped it in red paper, and fooled the comrades into passing it off as “the best bottle of wine.”

Ordinarily, this same dining room served as the meeting hall. I was always invited to attend the meetings, even those that were very confidential. They kept no secrets from me. And there were many problems in the kibbutz, new ones every day. The most important question was economics. Because of the serious economic events in Poland, the Kremenets kibbutz suffered greatly at a time when larger communities, for instance, the Lodz kibbutz, could be employed in textile factories and own their own workshops, such as those for tailoring, shoemaking, woodworking, and mechanics. Our kibbutz needed to find work as woodcutters, in shoveling snow, and also in doing housework. There was great competition for all this work, especially in the wintertime, when the farmers came into town looking for work. The lack of work from the larger industrial projects exacerbated the kibbutz’s economic situation. The work of the “straw boss,” whom we ironically called the “labor minister,” was therefore very difficult. How often after searching all day long did he present his findings in the evening: “Tomorrow we have work for only four comrades.” There were moments of desperation when we often spoke about disbanding the kibbutz, but the members were categorically against it; better to go hungry than to leave the kibbutz. Even more difficult was the job of the commissary manager, or the “minister of food.” He would actually have needed a minister’s head to prepare the “menu” with an empty larder, because they couldn’t get credit, and outside help was forbidden. No one was allowed to eat outside the kibbutz. If we were to starve, then we would, all together. Very often, the “minister of food” had to announce that tomorrow there would be no bread.

[Page 152]

At such moments, I would examine my friends’ faces, but I didn’t see the faintest expression of worry or fear. On the contrary, they began to wisecrack: since there’s no bread, we’ll just have to eat challah with butter. Why worry about bread as long as we have roast duck? Let the cooks prepare dumplings with cheese; we will eat them without bread. Another time there was no sugar for the coffee, so they found a lump of sugar somewhere and hung it from the ceiling. They went back to the kitchen and told the cook to serve coffee, which he did, and the joker told everybody to look up at the ceiling and … lick.

They were often short of bread, but they had culture to their satisfaction. The comrades made long speeches, especially on the Land of Israel, Zionism, and social issues. They conducted discussions. Their eyes burned, the air was dense and full of enthusiasm, and they forgot their hunger. The discussion flared up, they became weary, and someone was heard to call out “Enough of this chatter already” or “You may leave the cathedral,” etc. At that time, someone was heard to sing out “Long live Bistritski and his hora.” It seemed as though the comrades had been waiting for this. They all rose from their seats, arms and shoulders intertwined; the circle grew bigger, and they went off into a hora until dawn. How much energy, how much of life they put into this hora. They danced so long, until some of them began to drop out.

After such a dance, the comrades became dead tired and stretched out, some on the tables, some on the benches, and some on the floor. But with that, things had not yet ended. Suddenly the sound of a violin was heard. That was Yoske, whom they called “Yoskeh the Musician.” As soon as they heard the first strains of a melody, they all grew still, and the violin played on and cried out. Yoske’s playing brought out a longing for land, freedom, a home, love, and maybe even a satisfying meal in them. And when he saw the sadness in their eyes, he exited from this plaintive melody and began to play something lively, a polka, a kozatska, and then Rivke, a beautiful girl, began to dance, full of the energy of her 20 years. Others immediately joined in her dance.

In the kibbutz, when someone became seriously ill and there was no money, it was customary for the whole kibbutz to fast for a whole day, and with the savings of that day, they would call a good doctor and buy the necessary medicines. Common ailments they would treat with Borova water, which was useful for headaches, stomachaches, toothaches, and as they joked, even for pregnancy.

One is reminded of several comical types in the kibbutz. Arye “the Warsawer” would constantly talk with a speech impediment and carried a thick dictionary under his arm … and a French grammar book. As soon as someone saw him look into the dictionary, they would immediately order him to take out the garbage or milk the cow, which refused to give milk.

There was also a little tailor, a fellow of small stature with a bald head. He was a very serious person who did not understand jokes. So a young fellow approached him and asked him if he could sew a pair of pants for him. “Good,” answered the little tailor. “Bring me the material, and I’ll make you a pair of pants.” The young fellow immediately gathered four hats and brought them to the tailor. Seeing this material, the tailor exploded, “From hats you want to make pants?” … And everyone burst out laughing.

I am reminded of an episode with a cow. We had a few good months, and the kibbutz decided to purchase a cow so that we would have milk for the sick among us. We put together the money, and we ordered Zelig the butcher to drive to Mlinov to purchase a cow. A couple of days later, Zelig returned on foot with the cow, but the cow refused to give milk. She ate very well, but she did not give milk. When the comrades protested to Zelig the butcher, he began to examine the cow and determined that the cow was pregnant and that in about a month she would start giving milk. They waited for two years. No calf was produced, and no milk was given…

[Page 153]

Understandably, Zelig the butcher had a lot to explain. Every day he was ordered to produce a calf or milk.

I heard from a comrade running in the street that this was no ordinary cow. In answer to my question about where he was running, he said, “I’m running to a veterinarian. The cow has learned to fly. ” Not understanding what that meant, I went to the kibbutz. Here I learned that the cow had been on the other side of the highway, had fallen under Yosel Galperin's mill, and had been killed.

The Sabbath celebrations held at the kibbutz were beautiful and rich in content. There were many guests. Dr. Landsberg was a frequent visitor. The manager of “Tarbut,” Zaytshik, Goldring, and others came. Every Saturday there was a talk on a different subject, followed by a question-and-answer period that would stretch well into the night. Having read a good book, some comrades would discuss it with the guests. It was very interesting, a true Sabbath celebration.

I see that my memories are running one after another. Now I see “my” library, the library at the Zionist Organization. I call it “my library” because I devoted a good part of my youth to it: an entire decade. For four years I was Yisrael Biberman's assistant, or as he called me, “his right hand,” and for six years, I managed the library independently. How many wonderful days and nights I spent in the library! How much happiness over every newly acquired book! The library had 8,000 books and more than 1,000 readers when I took it over. We had books in four languages: Yiddish, Hebrew, Russian, and Polish.

When Yisrael Biberman was ready to move to Israel, he called a meeting of the committee to transfer the management. Among the assistants at the library at that time were the “kumushkes,” a name we called the Feldman sisters and their friends. They worked for me in the library for many years. I required that the “kumushkes” be notified that the management of the library would be transferred to me, and he did just that. Perhaps it was immodest of me, but I must tell you that, in all honesty, I had the backing of most people, and Biberman turned over the “golden keys” to me.

I threw myself into the work with all the energy of my 17 years. After familiarizing myself with the book fund, I found that the library was in a very precarious situation. There were no more than 4,000 books and 220 readers. There was no order in the cupboards, many volumes were scattered, etc. In two weeks, I brought some semblance of order to the cupboards, gave books to the bookbinder, and wrote new catalogs. Then I called a committee meeting and presented a plan to strengthen the library’s work, raise money to buy new books, and act to attract new readers. My initiative was immediately accepted. The first fundraiser brought in a sizable sum. We sent out pairs of people to the wealthier Zionists for a onetime commitment. We held a Purim ball with varied attractions. The ball brought in a couple of thousand zlotys. We actually purchased more than 200 new books. To attract young people, we needed to buy more Polish books. The library began to grow, and we needed to increase the size of the location. Those were, I do believe, the most wonderful days of my life. The number of readers increased from 220 to more than 1,000, and when I transferred management of the library (after my wedding, when I left Kremenets), we owned 8,000 books by the best and most modern authors.

I am reminded of many comical moments at the library. Yisrael Biberman, an old bachelor and an older nerd, was very careful about his health. When we changed our locale and I first came to work, we had to bring order to the bookshelves. I saw Biberman arriving in a pair of high galoshes, with a piece of wood under his arm. It was really a fine summer day, beautiful weather, sunny, bright, dry, and Biberman was in galoshes.

[Page 154]

When I looked at him questioningly, he told me that he thought there was mold in the floor, so he would wear the galoshes and lay the piece of wood under his workstation. And by the way, he asked me not to tell anybody about it. However, I really wanted his galoshes to be seen, so I searched for a way and found it. When there were about 100 people in the library, it buzzed like in a beanstalk. So I waited a moment for Biberman to get up from on his chair, and as soon as he did, I quietly removed the chair from behind him. When he went to sit down again, he didn’t notice that the chair was gone, and he lowered himself. As he fell to the floor, his long legs went up in the air. All the people around him noticed his galoshes and broke out in a storm of laughter. He never forgave me for the fact that, on account of me, he was seen wearing galoshes on a fine summer day. The hurt that he suffered was unbearable. He usually brought a bottle of milk to work with him. One day, I attached a child's nipple to the bottle, and when he was very busy, I brought in the bottle and placed it on his table, where he was surrounded by people reading. The effect of this on the people around him is not difficult to imagine.

I used to open the library with such happiness; every new book brought me such satisfaction. After four hours of work, I was often left fatigued but happy. The evening had a purpose, it had repercussions, it left a mark. It was the satisfaction of activity, the satisfaction of doing good for the people. When it came time to bid farewell to the library, tears welled up in my eyes. I felt that I was leaving something in which I had a proprietary interest, something dear to me.

More and more memories of Kremenets, so dear to my heart, come to mind; memories that shall never be erased.

 

A group of youths from Youth Guard in Kremenets

 


Translation Editor's Notes

  1. The Pioneer movement (in Hebrew, Hechaluts) was aimed at training Jews and bringing them to Israel. Return

 

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