by Nehanah Gvirtzman (his daughter)
Translation by Shmuel Winograd
In Rakov there were unique people, as in the other towns. These people had gifts and characteristics that distinguished them from all other people. My father, R. Heikle Ovrezhansky zl, was among them. He came to the town after his second marriage to the daughter of R. Shmaya Rosenthal. Soon he became involved in the life of the town, and became ‘bone of its bones and flesh of its flesh’. What is more, because of his skills and unique knowledge, he became one of the leading residents of the town. He was a distinguished scholar who continued learning all his life -- from the dawn of his childhood to the day he died.
But his intellectual world was not confined to ‘the four walls’ of the Halacha [Jewish studies]. Thanks to his natural talents and the quickness of his mind, he acquired extensive knowledge in science, fluency in Russian, and an intimate knowledge of the Hebrew language and its literature.
He excelled as a man of action and was a skillful merchant, familiar with all the intricacies of commerce.
Father also had an additional occupation on the side. He inherited from his father-in-law, R. Shmaya Rosenthal -- the position of the official rabbi, appointed by the Czarist government. His responsibilities, in this capacity, included keeping the book of deaths and births, registering marriages and divorces, and granting various permits. He never received payment for this work. On the wall there was a small box for applicants to voluntarily contribute coins. My father's wisdom and his practical experience led him to be engaged in the public affairs of the community. He was a member of most of the committees which existed in Rakov in his days. These same attributes helped him to intercede with the authorities in private and public matters.
He was a delightful conversationalist, clever and sharp. I remember well many of his sayings, and his witty jokes which expressed his wisdom and his understanding of life. I'll share here two of his most famous sayings:
To be a goy… that's not a big deal… when he is born, people do not even celebrate his circumcision ceremony… and when the times comes he is going to study in the skolka, and if he so desires, he continues his studies. How far can he get? Under the best of circumstances he could reach the position of a governor, or a general… or even better still -- that of a government minister… a big deal!…
But a Jew…… when he is born, people celebrate his circumcision ceremony… when the time comes he goes to study in the Cheder, to the yeshiva… he studies in the beit ha'midrash [house of studies]… he sleeps on the floor… if he is lucky, he can become a ‘melamed’ [Cheder teacher]… a holy person…or even a rabbi… that is what it means to be a Jew, and that is a big deal… and if he sometimes cannot make a living, then there are always compassionate Jews around, and he can beg for charity…
When Eli, the coach owner told him: Crawl, Chaim into the wagon… My father didn't show any signs of being insulted. He simply answered:Thanks Reb Eli…
The following episode, which occurred during the war between Poland and the Bolsheviks, sheds special light on the character of Father zl. It was in the year 1920. During a period of just twenty-four hours, the town was captured several times, first by one side and thenby the other. The town was full of Polish soldiers, and tensions were high. One day some Polish soldiers came to our house and arrested my father. They took him to the post-office building, next to the Polish church, where they were holding many of the community's officers. After a lengthy interrogation, it became clear that they had been arrested because someone had informed on them, accusing them of being Bolshevik spies. Some Gentiles testified that they had seen them on the B'Reshit Saturday-night [the night after the B'Reshit Torah portion is read in the synagogue] leaving the synagogue and bowing in all directions. This raised suspicions that they were signaling to the enemy, pointing to where the Polish army was encamped… All entreaties to the local authorities and to the military commanders were in vain, and they were sent to the nearby town of Volma. After many efforts to attain release they were returned to the town, but remained, for a long time, under house arrest at the home of R. Pinchas Greenholtz. One morning military people came and
told the prisoners that some of them would be released and the rest would be held for further interrogations. My father zl was among those released. When my father heard that, he asked permission to speak in Russian, as he was not very fluent in Polish. When permission was granted, he used his oratory skills, and in elegant Russian told the Polish officials, the military commanders, and the whole crowd which had gathered, of the past relations between Poles and Jews— how the Jews had helped the Poles in their wars against the conquering Russians. Wasn't it ridiculous to accuse the Jews of spying for the Russians after all that they had suffered under their rule? In the end he declared that they would not accept a partial release: either all of them would be sent free, or all of them would be hanged, God forbid!
His speech made a great impression on all who heard it, and when he finished, the Polish commander approached him and said, I was convinced by your words, pan rabin [rabbi sir], you are all free.
All his life, my father was looking forward to the day when he would fulfill his long cherished dream -- to ‘ascend’ to Eretz Israel. But that dream was not fulfilled, and that day never came. He passed away on the second night of Passover 5699 . T.N.Ts.B.H. [may he rest in peace].
Translated by Shmuel Winograd
My family lived in Rakov for many generations. My father's name was Shmuel Yitze Berl Gedalya's. We had a sort of inn, but we received very little income, and life at home was difficult. I was the youngest, and I remember my father only as an old man. The burden of the work in the inn lay heavily upon the shoulders of my mother, who was much younger than my father. But like everyone in the town, our family accepted life as it was and did not expect much. And just like everybody else, our home knew many hardships and few joys. And thus did my parents raise their children, and were privileged to see their grandchildren. My father was lucky, and died of natural causes, before the hands of the Devil came down on the dwellings of Israel and turned them into ashes. Among the victims were my mother, my brother, my sister, and their families. There was only one single survivor in my family, like an ember spared from the flames. The survivor is my nephew, my sister's son Yitzik Katz, who lives today in Jerusalem.
I want to share the story of a characteristic episode when my father fought a band of Polish soldiers and miraculously escaped, all in the course of defending the honor of the Jews:
It was during the war between the Poles and the Bolsheviks in 1921. That morning, like every other morning in his lifetime, my father could be found standing in his home, wrapped in his prayer shawl and phylacteries, praying. Suddenly, a gang of Polish soldiers burst into the house, attacked him, and tried to cut off his beard. My father, then seventy-years-old, fought them off and succeeded in wrestling a rifle out of the hands of one of his attackers.
They could not come any closer. Instead of fighting to regain control of the gun, they turned and fled. A few minutes later, the soldiers returned with an officer. Again they attacked my father and beat him mercilessly, accusing him of attacking them and robbing them of the rifle.
This is a capital offense, you Jew! the officer shouted. Come with us!
According to the officer's orders, the soldiers took my father and led him to the Christian cemetery, threatening to execute him there.
And then, a miracle happened. A Gentile passed them on the road, one who knew my father well. Riding along with him in the wagon was a Polish general. When this Gentile saw my father being led by the Polish soldiers, he stopped his horse and begged for my father's life: He is the best Jew that I know! He has never harmed anybody in his life! Have mercy on him and order his release! These words of the Gentile, along with a small bribe, did the trick, and the general ordered them to release my father and send him home.
Translated by Shmuel Winograd
My father had two brothers. Both of my uncles were famous musicians in their time. My uncle Yidl Lifshitz, whom I am named after, was a famous violinist and conductor in the orchestra of the regiment of Nikoliev in the city of Kiev.
My second uncle was Yosef Lifshitz. He was a master in an every musical instrument. This uncle won an award of excellence from St. Petersburg's conservatory for a popular melody he composed. By the way, for generations we believed that he composed the popular Yiddish song for his brother Yidl:
Yidl miten fidel,
Elyakin miten Bass
Translated by Shmuel Winograd
My dearest Yitzhak! I know well what you lived for, and the reason for your unusual death… No, it was not an unusual death, but a sacrifice you offered on the altar of the Yishuv [the Jewish community in Palestine]. Our people, our language, and our land -- these were the three altars to which you offered your strength, your energy, and your material goods while you were alive, and to which you offered your life with your death.
I know how much labor you put into founding the Zionist Organization in your hometown Rakov--how many days you had to take off from your business, how much effort, both physical and financial, you devoted to sustain it, manage it, and resurrect it after the Russian Revolution [in 1905]. It was you, my dear Yitzhak, who set up the collection boxes on Yom Kippur Eve to raise money for the settlements in Eretz Israel, and devoted time and energy to raising money for the Jewish National Fund throughout the rest of the year. It was you who founded the library in our town, and walked from door to door soliciting subscriptions for the Hebrew newspapers and books. You would leave your store whenever we received a memorandum from the Central Committee or held a Zionist meeting, even though that meant a great loss to your business. And you ‘ascended’ to Eretz Israel!
How difficult it was for you! And it was not just to fulfill your own spiritual longing for Eretz Israel that you labored so much; you also labored to be a role-model to others. And in spite of all the hardships of your first days here you did not leave Eretz Israel, so as not to discourage others. And when you were financially settled in Eretz Israel, your joy was for the community at-large -- for the fact that another Jew was settled here -- rather than for your personal success; for you would have been just as glad had a stranger been settled so. And even after the theft, which took place in your home a week before your death,
you postponed the installation of new locks and bolts for a trip to Gaza, a trip for the sake of the community. And it was this postponement which contributed to your death.
Yes, you lived for the Yishuv [the Jewish community in Palestine], and for the sake of the Yishuv you died. May the soil in which you, dear brother, are buried taste sweet.
May the Comforter of Zion [a reference to God] comfort all who mourn for you, including me among them.
With a bleeding heart,
Sh. Y. Re'uveni (Rehovot)
Translated by Shmuel Winograd
In the last post, which arrived Monday noon, we received the following article from our correspondent in Jaffa:
On Saturday morning, all of Jaffa was shaken by the horrible murder which took place the previous night in the Yemenite Quarter of Machaneh Yoseph. Around three o'clock in the morning, thieves entered the courtyard of the baker Yitzhak Katz to steal sacks of flour which were stored in the shed. The thieves entered through the back gate, and started to break the door of the shed to steal the many sacks of flour which lay there. When the baker, asleep in his new house next to the yard, heard the noise, he got up and opened the door to see what was happening. As soon as he stuck his head out of the house, he was shot by the thieves and fell down, mortally wounded. The thieves were not scared, but continued their ‘work’: they loaded the sacks of flour onto the baker's donkey, which was tethered to the shed. Then they loaded more sacks onto the wagon they had brought for that purpose, and fled. This happened, as we said, at three o'clock in the morning. Some Jews who were walking nearby heard the shots and rushed to Mr. Katz's house, but found him already dead by the door. The police were notified immediately, and a doctor was called, but nothing could be done to revive him.
In the morning, a police detective and an official of the Russian Consulate arrived at the scene to investigate the crime.
Later, policemen were sent there to look for the murderers. Near the house they found a tarbush [a red headdress] and a belt belonging to an Arab teamster by the name of Ibrahim, who used to carry goods from the city [Jaffa] to the Jewish stores in the Neveh Shalom quarter and to Tel Aviv. In addition, they found the tracks of his wagon's wheels which led to his house. In the house they found flour on the floor, and some sacks imprinted with numbers which matched the numbers on the sacks in Katz's house. The police tried to capture the Arab,
but his neighbors did not let them; only after police reinforcements were called in did they succeed in taking him into custody and subsequently to jail. Two other Arab suspects were jailed later.
The murdered man was known throughout Jaffa, and was well-liked. He finished building his new house in the Yemenite Quarter only a short while before, and that night was the first - and the last - night he slept there.
The deceased was a young man, about 35 years old.
Some of the members of the Ancient Maccabees Club, friends of the deceased, served as the ‘honor guards’ in the home of the murdered man.
And it should be mentioned that this neighborhood, where many Yemenites and other Jews live, does not have even one watchman. The neighborhood did have a watchman, but he resigned because he had not been paid properly. It is now the responsibility of the heads of that community to arrange for permanent protection since that place lacks security. We also want to note that one of the murderers is an Arab teamster who made his living by dealing only with Jews. He had worked for
the murder victim for a long time even as many of the newly arrived Jews went hungry, walking the streets of Jaffa in search of work. The Jews themselves support the murderers and thieves who come later to take their property and their lives.
This horrible murder touched the hearts of everyone in the city and caused a great stir. Everyone hopes that the murderers' crime will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
The funeral for the murdered baker, Yitzhak Katz zl, took place on Saturday night, the eve of Sunday the sixth of Sivan [the Festival of Shvu'ot]. A large crowd of the residents of Jaffa came to pay their last respects, and all the members of the Ancient Maccabees Club walked behind the coffin. In the cemetery, he was eulogized by Mr. Friedman, the head of the Ancient Maccabees Club, who praised the deceased's great devotion to Zionist ideals, and spoke as well of the hardship faced by the baker on the way to establishing his business on financially secure footing. Mr. Friedman told how, only a few days earlier, the deceased had returned from Gaza, where he was helping to develop a Jewish community, and how happy he was on his return, thinking that he would be able to attract more Jews to Gaza and strengthen the Jewish community there. And suddenly he was felled by murderers. Mr. Friedman ended his eulogy by saying that the name of Yitzhak Katz would always be numbered among the martyrs who were killed at the altar of the Yishuv in Eretz Israel. The large crowd dispersed after the eulogy, mournful and with heavy hearts.
R. Shmuel Yitzhak Re'uveni (Rubintchik) zl
Translated by Shmuel Winograd
It is impossible to speak of the educational and Zionist activities in Rakov in the beginning of the twentieth century without mentioning R. Shmuel Yitsche, my first rabbi and teacher. He was one of those figures who left an imprint on our town and shaped its spiritual life.
R. Shmuel Yitsche was born in Brezin on the eighteenth of Elul 5637 (1877), and was a student at the Mir yeshiva. After his marriage to Mashke, née Ginburg, may she live long, he settled in Rakov, and immediately became involved in the Zionist activities there. He worked alongside my uncle, the saintly R. Yitzhak Isaac Katz, who was murdered by Arabs in Tel Aviv in the summer of 1914. These two figures, R. Shmuel Yitsche and R. Yitzhak Isaac, were at the very center of Zionist activity in the town.
In addition to his fruitful Zionist activities, R. Shmuel Yitsche ‘assumed the seat of honor’ [was one of the leaders] in the educational arena of Rakov. The educational institution which he founded in our town was of a special character, unique to those days. This institution, called the progressive heder, gathered within its walls boys and girls who learned the Hebrew language in Hebrew instead of through Yiddish translation as was customary then. Another great innovation to the curriculum which R. Shmuel Yitsche introduced was the instruction of languages, grammar, the Bible, and secular subjects alongside the Talmud. Today, we can state categorically that this educational institution was revolutionary, both in its method of teaching and in its curriculum. Another aspect of this progressive heder was the Zionist atmosphere which permeated it. The students spoke Hebrew, sang the new songs of Eretz Israel, put on shows in Hebrew for the festivals. Only distance in space and time separated it from a regular school in Israel.
He ‘ascended’ to Eretz Israel in 1911 and settled in Rehovot, where he was engaged in teaching. A few years later, he moved to Tel Aviv, and taught at the Tahkemoni school until the day of his death in 1937, when he was only fifty years old. His many students living in Israel remember him with love and with admiration.
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