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[Pages 60-65]

Our Home Town

by Re'uven Viener (written by Rabbi Shmuel Mordechai Garlin)

Translated by Shmuel Winograd



Rakov was not a big town. It was situated in the woods, and surrounded by fruit trees. The river Svishloshz was flowing at its periphery; that river, whose beginning is in Olshinki, and which continued all the way to the Brezina. On both sides of the river, wide wheat fields, meadows, and forests stretched as far as the eye could see.

The town had some three thousands residents, two thousands of them Jewish. The houses were made of wood, and as Rakov had not suffered from a devastating fire for a long time they were old and dilapidated. In the center of town, a row of shops, and the market was held there twice a week: on Mondays and on Fridays. Its streets: Vilna Street on the West and Minsk Street on the East, and on their sides small streets and lanes, which were inhabited, mostly, by Christians, and by a few Jews. On the outskirts of town there were isolated Jewish houses.

The neighboring towns: Horodok, Ivanitz, the famous Volozhin, Vishniva, and more, each town and its unique character. These towns survived for hundreds of years in the Lands of Byelorussia and Lithuania, and developed their way of life; the way of life of a Jewish town, where Jewish culture evolved and was preserved, until they were destroyed by the wicked hand.

The two large cities: Vilna to the West, some 140 kilometers from Rakov, and Minsk to the East, 35 kilometers away, were, until the First World War, the metropolitan centers of these smaller towns. From there they brought in the goods, and there they sent their products; there did the 'maskilim' [seekers of general education] go to get their “heavenly” [elementary] education, and later to the Gymnasium [high-school]. The situation changed after Rakov became a border town [after World War I] a mere half a kilometer from the border, and Minsk on the other side of the border. Vilna remained the only central city of the region, and all commerce revolved around her. There did the shopkeepers and businessmen go, and there were the young sent to obtain their education; there, too, went those young people who aspired to go out to the “big world”.

The only mode of transportation was the wagon, as the railroad bypassed the towns, disregarding their transportation needs, and that of the nearby villages.

The teamsters were a special breed, shaped by the constant journeying on those unpaved, and often impassable, roads.

The teamster and the butcher were two of a kind. They were the “am ha'aretz” [common, ignorant folks] of the town. But they were, also, the ones who protected it in time of danger from rioters, or just from unruly drunken goys. They knew how to unsheathe the butcher's knife, and how to raise the shaft of the wagon and smash the heads of those who wanted to 'play a little' in the town.

Add to them the tailors, the cobblers, the carpenters, the iron-smiths, the bakers, and other sorts of artisans, and you get a large group of breadwinners who made their living by the toil of their hands, and were the healthy economic basis, even though the poorer one, of the town.


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The Drama Group 1926


And there was a second strata: the owners of the small and large factories. Before the First World War they were, mostly, the “mechanikers”, who produced the thrashing machines and the wheat sifting machines, whose fame reached far. But during the years 1923 - 1933, these factories almost disappeared, and only a few remained: two mills in Bukarka and Slovodka, and some factories which produced pottery cooking wares, and flower pots for nurseries. There were, also, a few tanneries which produced leather for coats and shoes. The large sawmill in Michlova was famous, and its products, boards of wood, were exported to faraway places.

By the way, Rakov also had a resident 'hach'shara halutzit' [a place of readying pioneers for settlement in Eretz Israel], and in the Twenties it had some 30 halutzim [pioneers], from all over Poland, working there. It is interesting to note that Mr. Rivin, the owner of the sawmill, was himself a member of Bilu [a pre-Herzl Zionist movement], and had intended to migrate to Eretz Israel with his comrades, only that he was delayed “for a little while”.This “little while” stretched for tens of years, until he and his enterprise were destroyed.

We should mention another enterprise, heavy industry, in Rakov, under the ownership of the Pupkin family: the production of coal [from wood], turpentine, and tar in the Pogolenka Forest. This enterprise, whose products were mostly for export, was functioning well until the outbreak of the Second World War.

The next strata was of those who were engaged in commerce, the shopkeepers, the tavern owners, and a few clerks in institutions of the community. This was the weakest link in the economic life of the town, subject to economic fluctuations. They were hard up, and many of them actually suffered hunger, and needed the support of their relatives in America or that of the Rakov Association in America. The two organizations of “Gmilat Hessed” [for giving interest-free loans] and “Linat HaTzedek” [for giving shelter and clothing] also came to their help.

There were also Jews who were engaged in agriculture. Some of them owned their land, and others leased land from the owners of nearby estates and from rich farmers, and started their own farms.

Unlike the other towns in the area, Rakov was a mixed town, of Jews and Christians. The Jews resided in the center of town, and the Christians in the periphery, in the outer lanes. Most of the Christians owned small farms, and cultivated vegetable gardens. From these lanes the Jews in town got their apples, the fragrant pears, the plums, and the cherries. Some of the Christians were artisans: cobblers, tailors, carpenters, government clerks, and tradesmen; the latter had shops in the center of town, and eventually became strong competitors of the Jewish shop-owners, and encroached on some of the areas which had been Jewish for generations.



Rabbis, Preachers, and Cantors

Two Rabbis. We will not dwell here on the reasons why the rabbinical throne of Rakov was split into two, we will only note the fact that in the Twenties Rakov still had two rabbis: Rabbi Polk z”l, and Rabbi Kalmanovitz. Around 1928, they both left the town and were succeeded, after some time, by Rabbi Helprin. He was a young man, good looking, knowledgeable in the Talmud, and famoliar with the general [non-Jewish] subjects; he treated people amiably, and succeeded in reuniting the split community. He had a strong influence on many aspects of the life of the community. He was active in many areas, supported the “Tarbut” school, the only school in town, and was in contact with the Rakovians in America asking them to help establish a religious school.

Rabbi Helprin served as the rabbi in Rakov until the Nazis came. He was taken by the Germans to a labor camp, and was killed there together with the rest of the people in the camp. T.N.Ts.B.H [May his soul be bundled in the bundle of eternal life – May he rest in peace].



Farfel the Preacher

He was a learned man, good hearted, and well liked by the town people. For many years he used to preach every Sabbath, and expound on current events to the congregation in the synagogue. As the light in the synagogue was getting dimmer on the Sabbath between Minchah [the afternoon prayer] and Ma'ariv [the evening prayer], he would stand next to the ark, and deliver his homilies with that special intonation in his voice. And his words, those comforting words, mixed with stories and lore of old, were like a balm to his listeners. On the weekdays, he used to teach the Mishnah to the congregation. He was sociable, involved in public affairs, and his home was open to all. He would travel, from time to time, to preach in other towns and villages in Poland, and his sermons were famous and always well-liked. Years later, he moved to Oshmina. There he continued to preach to the end of his days. T.N.Ts.B.H.



Education in Rakov

I was a student in the heder of Rakov, and spent my youth between its walls. Here I got my Jewish education, here was my heart implanted with the love of our people and its past; here was I taught the longing for Zion, which was manifested, years later, when a branch of HaHalutz [a Zionist youth movement] was opened in town. And just like me, so did tens of boys, my friends, attend the heder and received their basic education there.


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After the heder, those who wanted to continue their education had the opportunity to enter the gates of the yeshiva, which was established in Rakov in those days under the supervision of Rabbi Kalmanovitz. This 'little yeshiva' also attracted the youth from nearby towns, and even from afar, and as was the custom with yeshiva students, from time immemorial, they would have their “eating days” [assigned to eat at different houses on different days] with the ba'alei batim [well-to-do] in town. The “righteous women” of the town took care of that. They also arranged sleeping places for them, and all their other needs. And when one passed near the Old Beit HaMidrash [house of study] on those long Tevet [December-January] nights, or when one got up early in the morning to go to pray, those sweet voices would be heard; the voices of the 'diligent', bent over the pages of the Gmara, dealing with the “aba'yot deAbayey veRabba [disputations between the Talmud sages Abayey and Rabba]. And at those times one would recall the words of the Poet [Byalik, in his poem 'HaMatmid” – the diligent]: “There still are those towns… and when you walk alone at night…”

The yeshiva existed in Rakov until 1929. When Rabbi Kalmanovitz left town, and the financial sources dwindled, the yeshiva was shut down.

That was the education of the boys, but the education of the girls was quite different. Here there was no heder or the inhibition of 'tradition', and the path was clear: the Government School. Thus it was under the Russians, and thus it was under the Polish authorities. Upon graduating from elementary-school, the daughters of the well-to-do families were sent to Vilna, to continue their education in the high-school. They learned Hebrew with private tutors.



The “Tarbut” School

The first school of “Tarbut” [a general education school, under the auspices of the organization “Tarbut” – culture] opened in Rakov in 1919, but in 1922 the Polish authorities issued an edict that Jewish children must study in the Government Schools. A two years struggle ensued, and only in 1924 it was crowned with success, and permission was given to reopen the “Tarbut” school, whose language of instruction was Hebrew. With the passage of time, it reached a high educational level, with hundreds of students in the years just before the Second World War.



The Zionist Youth Movements

The school had a great impact on the youth in the town and on its spiritual-national development. The Hebrew language became familiar, even deeply rooted, and the ties to the sources of the Hebrew culture became part and parcel of the life of the young generation of the town. Consequently, the Zionist activities received a big boost. It was they, the graduates of this school, who founded the branch of “HaShomer HaTsa'ir” [a left-leaning Zionist youth movement], with about 100 members, and it was they who, some time later, founded a branch of “Beitar” [a right-leaning Zionist youth movement] whose membership numbered about 40. The “Histadrut HaHalutz” [The Pioneers Organization] was established in Rakov in 1924, and sent its members to the “hach'sharah” [training for settlement in Eretz Israel]. Groups and individuals, even families 'ascended' [migrated] to Eretz Israel during that period, and the stream of migrants continued until the outbreak of the Second World War – at times a mighty stream, and at other times a very thin one. The restrictions on immigration, imposed by the British Mandatory government in Palestine, caused many to despair, and migrate to other countries: Brazil, Argentina, and North America. But, those with a strong Zionist consciousness and with an enduring will, succeeded somehow to get to the Land of Israel and participate in its rebuilding. Today, the Rakov family in Israel numbers some 400 people.


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This was the letter that R. Israel Helprin, the last rabbi of Rakov, sent to Mr. William Rosenthal after the building of the religious school in Rakov was completed:

“To the chairman of the Committee to Aid Rakov, our distinguished friend, the famous philanthropist, R. Rosenthal, may his light shine.

Today I am a man of good tidings. The construction of the building is completed – only the stoves are lacking. We are preparing the dedication ceremony, hoping that these [troubled] times would permit us to celebrate. Your honor will be thanked during these joyful celebrations, as being one of the first donors, and your name will be forever remembered and blessed by the students who will study in the school.

The stone which, at first, was rejected by the masons became the cornerstone. [an allusion to Psalms 118; 22] No building in the area can match the splendor of this one.

The stoves cost more than a thousand pieces of gold, in addition to the large debt which I owe to the shopkeepers and craftsman of Rakov. We were mistaken in our reckoning. They [the stoves] cost twice as much as we thought at first.

I sent an exact account to R. Moshe Berman.

So, brethren and friends, hurry up with your aid. Do not let us collapse under the heavy burden, help us. The good God will repay you for your deeds, and may the Master of All double your wages.

I am also sending you my best wishes for the new year, may it be a year of good life, peace and tranquility, and great success in all your doings.

Your eternal friend – Israel Helprin 9 of Elul 5699 [August 24, 1939]”




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Building the Religious School



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