Translated by Sam Lichtenstein The wife of Yitzchak (Alter) Bacher was an unusually righteous woman. She was born in an area of farms and forests on the outskirts of Rokiskis, Lithuania. Despite the fact that during her early married life she lived in poor economic circumstances and various weather conditions, she went from house to house collecting donations for the poor families.
When she became widowed, she spent much of her time collecting donations for the purpose of helping poor brides with the necessities for their wedding preparations. In 1929 she immigrated to South Africa together with her five children to join her sons, Saul and Koppel. Her useful communal capability further directed her to collect donations with which she sent parcels to her birthplace and surrounding places for needy families.
I remember one early morning in Johannesburg a sudden knock on the door. Sarah Bacher brought two letters in hand. I directed her to a chair. She had just received two letters from Rokiskis, one from a young married woman wanting to join her husband in South Africa, the other from a young bride wanting to come to her future husband. Neither of them had money for travel expenses. I endeavored to persuade her that the weather was bad and that we should delay the trip for another day, but she was not prepared to accept it, demanding that we must obtain the money from some people.
We took a tramcar, which took us to the end stop. There we went by another tramcar to Kensington and traveled to the last stop. Suddenly a heavy rain came down. We then ran to a tree for shelter. The uphill climb left us breathless. When we reached the house of the Rokisker family, the lady of the house gave us a handsome donation for that purpose. From there we went to other homes, and none refused. On that day alone we collected 50 pounds. Within several days Chaya-Sarah-Ita Bacher collected 175 pounds, which she sent to Rokiskis to the interested persons, who quickly came to South Africa.
She had done all her work in South Africa devotedly. Many women are thankful for her efforts, which has enabled them to escape the Nazi persecution and to come to South Africa.
She has performed all her work alone, without any help from committees or societies, and with great dedication. No wonder her name is valued greatly by Rokishker Jews.
In the presence of her sons, daughters, sons-in-law, daughters-in-law and grandchildren she departed on the 28 September 1943.
He was not happy with the American way of life and longed for the religious way in his hometown.
When he saved up some dollars he returned home and opened a little shop in Radute on the outskirts of Rokiskis. At the time of the First World War Yitzchak settled in Rokiskis.
Unfortunately, in 1923 he died suddenly when he was in his forties. He was a good-hearted Yid, whose pleasure was to do good deeds and to help others in time of distress.
Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund Gite Rubin-Ferman, the sister of our fellow townsman, Shlomo Rubin, was raised in a communal atmosphere. While still in Rakishok she was an active worker in Lines haTzedek [organization that provided medical needs and nightly care for the sick poor], in Gemiles Khesed [interest free loans] and in other communal institutions.
With great love, she transplanted her communal work to her new home, America. Today, she occupies a very respected position in Jewish communal life in Philadelphia. She is the general secretary of the Federation of the Lithuanian Jews in Philadelphia. She is also active in the field of organizing summer colonies for the Jewish children. She organizes Hope, the children's camp, in Philadelphia every year.
The above mentioned Federation was founded in 1937 and her original activity was to send help to those suffering from need in the old home.
After the Second World War, the Federation extended its aid work, sending thousands of food and clothing packages to the survivors in the camps and in Israel.
Thanks to the initiative of Gite Rubin-Ferman the idea to build houses in Israel for the homeless Lithuanian immigrants developed at the Federation.
In October 1951, Gite Rubin-Ferman traveled to Israel with Mr. and Mrs. Shulman, active members of the Federation, and with Mr. and Mrs. Epstein, in order to bring the project to fruition. A contract was agreed to with the building company, Raska-Israel Corporation.
The work to build a Lithuanian colony called Shechunat Lita [the Lithuanian quarter or neighborhood] began on the 2nd of December 1951. The work went ahead with full force thanks to the energetic Gite Rubin-Ferman.
The Lithuania Federation of Philadelphia is a people's organization and consists of ordinary people. Gite Rubin-Ferman is a meritorious woman of the people who remains devoted to the ideals of communal work, which she absorbed in our hometown, Rakishok.
Translated by Rabbi Ezra Boyarsky On the map, Rakishok, a small town in Lithuania, was difficult to locate. However, in the rabbinical-yeshiva world, Rakishok was famous due to the fact that it was the birthplace of my father, Reb Zelig Rakishker, born 1879 to Michel and his wife Pere o.b.m, plain, ordinary but honest folks.
Very few details of his early childhood are known to us except that when he reached adolescence, his strong personality traits began to manifest themselves. He was gripped by an insatiable desire to study Torah, unusual for a boy his age, even in those times. Already as a bar mitzvah boy he showed signs of greatness, and his fame as an illuy--a child prodigy--was acknowledged with pride by the entire community.
The very next week, after he had a serious discussion with his father as to whether to continue on a Torah course or begin planning for a more pragmatic career, he left Rakishok for the world-renowned Slabodka Yeshiva. The distance in miles between Rakishok and Slabodka, a suburb of Kovno, is a relatively short one, but in matters of Jewish Weltanschaung, they were worlds apart. Rakishok was considered to be a fortress of the Lubavitch branch of the Hasidic movement in Lithuania. Hasidism, of which Lubavitch is an integral part, did not stress the pre-eminence of Torah study in its broader connotation, when it first formulated the basic principles upon which its ideology rests. Not that it put Torah study on the back burner, but rather it argued that proficiency in Talmud alone should not be the ultimate goal. Character building and developing a positive attitude toward oneís fellow men were equally important. Slabodka, on the other hand, being the recognized Torah center of Lithuania, championed Talmudic erudition as the highest achievement that a yeshiva student should strive to attain.
When the dean of the Slabodka Yeshiva, Rabbi Nata Hirsh Finkel, known as Der Alter, examined the newly arrived student from Rakishok, he was deeply impressed by his knowledge and acumen. As already mentioned, Rakishok was a bastion of the Chabad brand of Hasidism, and Der Alter couldnít help wondering why the young prodigy was drawn to Slabodka in preference to a Lubavitch institution more in line with his upbringing.
The Rakishoker yeshiva bocher got so engrossed in his studies that he seldom took time to visit his family in Rakishok. Another reason that kept my father in Slabodka was that the dean, Rabbi Finkel, found in him a staunch supporter for his pioneer work to introduce a new subject to the Lithuanian yeshivas--Musar. Musar is the 19th-20th century Jewish religious movement which stresses moral and ethical edification. Rabbi Finkelís motive in expanding the yeshiva curriculum to include Musar was to produce scholars not only equipped with extensive Talmudic knowledge but men also possessed of high moral fiber, for these students were to be the future community leaders either as rabbis or as learned laymen.
Ever since childhood, Zelig Rakishker was brought up in a Lubavitch atmosphere and imbibed its moral teachings, and therefore he was no stranger to Musar, which explains why he became one of the deanís most devoted followers in his endeavors to popularize the Musar movement.
At this time the mystery as to why Zelig chose Slabodka began to unravel. Now it became clear to Rabbi Finkel that what the Rakishker prodigy sought was a synthesis of Chabad and Slobodka.
Some of the other Rosh Hayeshivos (deans) opposed Rabbi Finkelís Musar idea, arguing that making Musar an integral part of the regular yeshiva program would interfere with the Talmudic studies which require much concentration, and would defeat the very purpose for which these higher Jewish educational institutions were founded. However, in spite of the strong opposition, in the course of time, this issue also won many proponents in the yeshiva community, resulting in the formation of two mutually contending camps. Gradually the dispute grew into a conflagration, with the main frontlines positioned in the Telz and Mire yeshivas. Rabbi Finkel felt that since he was basically the cause of the uproar, it was his moral duty to douse the fires of controversy and mediate a peaceful solution.
Now Der Alter was faced with the difficult task of selecting a qualified emissary whom he could entrust with executing this extremely important assignment. As you may have guessed, Der Alterís choice for this mission was none other than Zelig Rakishker. Reb Zelig spent several months in Ponevez and Mir respectively, and succeeded in calming the raging conflict. His fame as a Talmudic scholar extended far beyond the precincts of Slabodka. The Torah prestige that he personified with his charming personality played a major role in winning over the opponents. No wonder then that Rabbi Eliezer Shulowitz, known as Reb Lazer Lomzer, chose Zelig to be his son-in-law, and simultaneously appointed him to the position as Lomzer Rosh Hayeshiva.
At the outbreak of World War I, when my father and family were evacuated deeper into Russia, a large number of his students of the Lomza yeshiva went along and stayed with him in the town of Priluki near Poltava for the duration of the war. Here in Priluki, under the most adverse circumstances brought on by the war, my fatherís paternal devotion and concern for his students revealed the high quality of his character.
At the end of the war, many yeshiva students from Minsk, Kiev, Charkov, and other cities joined Zelig in his return to Lomza. This was not unexpected, for my fatherís students also felt warmly towards him, and regarded the yeshiva as their home. On the way back to Lomza, my father stopped for a short stay in his birthplace, Rakishok, and visited his brother Reb Pesach and family.
The glorious period of the Lomza yeshiva began with the end of World War I. When the displaced Jews returned to their homes and life normalized again, the quest for advanced Torah education increased rather than decreased as is usually the case in unsettled times. Hundreds of students from distant parts of Poland and Lithuania flocked to the Lomza yeshiva either to begin or to resume their studies disrupted by the war. Because of this increase in the student body, the main lecture hall of the yeshiva could not accommodate such a large number, and so the synagogue magnanimously opened its doors for the student overflow. Other communities reacted in like manner in similar situations. For the Lomza Jews who helped maintain the yeshiva, this was another occasion to demonstrate their high regard for the Rosh Hayeshiva who, in a manner of speaking, had put their city on the map.
In his later years, my fatherís father-in-law made aliya to Eretz Yisroel, and there founded a branch of the Lomza yeshiva in Petach Tikvah. My father followed, bringing with him fifty of his best students for the opening of the branch, and remained there to serve as its first Rosh Hayeshiva. But despite his boundless love for the land of Israel and his enthusiasm for the yishuv (the Jewish settlement), he was impelled to return to his students in Lomza.
In the thirties, when Poland experienced an economic depression, the yeshivaís finances were seriously affected. At this juncture, my father decided to go to South Africa for the purpose of collecting sufficient funds to keep the yeshiva functioning until the economy improved. He undertook the trip primarily because he felt that, as head of the yeshiva, it was his moral responsibility to do all in his power to safeguard the yeshivaís financial stability. By temperament, the task he undertook was out of character for him. Rabbi Cahanman, the world-renowned Rabbi of Ponevez, characterized him best when he said: The Lomza Rosh Hayeshiva lacks the ability to make money. His virtues stand in his way. Yet, according to my father, he accomplished far more than others in South Africa. Upon his return to Lomza he said: Thank God my trip was successful. I influenced one Jewish man to put on teffilin and another to keep his store closed on the Sabbath.... He won people over with his impeccable honesty and naivete. A Jewish man in Johannesburg told me that to this day I keep my store closed on Shabbos Shuva--the Sabbath between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur--in memory of your father."
A few years prior to the outbreak of World War II, his health began to fail. He ignored the doctors orders not to deliver any lectures or to continue bearing the heavy burden of the yeshiva. Eight months later he suffered a heart attack and became weaker by the day. When the Germans entered Lomza in September 1939, their first order of business was to cut off the beards of all jews. When they were done with this contemptible act on my father, he said to them, danke sehr"--thank you very much. I am certain that this was the only ironic thank you he ever uttered.
A few days later when Lomza was taken by the Russians, he had the opportunity to escape with his family to Lithuania where living conditions were still relatively normal, but he categorically refused to leave as long as a number of his students were unable to join him. No amount of pleading by his family and students were of any avail--he remained steadfast in his resolution to stay on as sole guardian of the now empty Torah citadel which the Russians converted into a tailor shop. They then hermetically sealed the Polish-Lithuanian border. Several months later, prior to the wholesale slaughter of Europeís Jewry at the hands of the eternally cursed Nazis, a group of his closest and most loyal students jeopardized their lives and brought their teacher and his family to Vilna.
Old and physically broken, he paid his final visit to Rakishok. The town of his birth, though now impoverished and on the brink of destruction, tendered her favorite son an enthusiastic welcome. His stay in Rakishok was a brief one, and he returned to Vilna to be with his students who died martyrsí deaths together with their teacher, and of whom it may be said: The beloved and dear in their lives were even in their death not parted. (Samuel II , Chapter 1, Verse 23).
Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund
He was tall and firmly built, with strong arms and hands with long fingers that would hang down like swinging branches of a water tree (weeping willow). His back was already a little bent from the many full pails of water that he would carry day after day for his customers. He never cheated his customers. The pails were always full to overflowing.
His eyes dark, quiet, dreamy mirrored the wells from which he would draw the water. His nose was as if carved, and his full lips, round, always with the moistness of desire. He had a short black beard, a little smaller than the beard of Jesus.
I remember how he would stand for hours without the slightest movement, just as the water in the well. It seemed as if he looked into his own world, which was hidden from us.
At times his rasping bass voice would thunder out of his long neck with its protruding Adam's apple, shaking his slender body and causing it to shudder.
Nusan Reitze's son, took each expression of friendship to his heart-felt soul and paid it back with the full warmth of his soul and heart and with his entire strength.
He did not have any friends and was lonely, but he felt a closeness to Tzimtzervises, the Shabbos goy (the non-Jew who does required work that a Jew cannot do on Shabbos or holidays), when Tzimtzervises would play his fiddle. After the playing, Nusan, Reitze's son, stood as if forged to the earth. However, suddenly, as if guilty, he would hurry on his way. It was not nice for him to befriend a thief and, in addition, a non-Jew!
It happened that Nusan also would sing in the house or on the street without rhyme or reason. When he had the desire to do so, he would call out his song in what was always a monotone.
The scoundrels approached him with care when they mockingly asked him to sing. Then, as if frozen, he would stand in one spot and, in the blink of an eye, he would look deep into his own world. For long moments he would move his feet heavily and clumsily, like a bear, as if absorbing air through them. In such cases, one had to beg for a long time and push Nusan until he woke up from his dreamy world. Then he would suddenly have an awakened smile on his face and spreading his feet, he would, automatically, earnestly cry out in his bass voice:
A bear stands on the streetThe singing resounded swiftly through the strained, swollen, long throat. This was a good game and joke for the friendly pranksters and even for the passersby.
with a ring in his nose;
thus goes the bear with the ring in his nose;
a foot here and a foot there;
carrying water is difficult.
Nusan, Reitze's son, came into our house often and was devoted to us. During the week he would bring a multitude of pails of water from the well behind the church, knowing that these full pails of water were good for brewing tea. And when he succeeded in bringing full pails, his face would be covered with perspiration. Quietly he would place the pails of water on the ground, and say with satisfaction: Well, Heika, two full pails of water brought from behind the church! A satisfied rattling laugh accompanied his words. He would receive for this a slice of bread with butter or juice. And every Thursday, he received a piece of meat with shmaltz (rendered chicken fat), which he would bring to his mother Reitze for Shabbos.
Nusan's mother, Reitze, was a short, squat woman, quiet and bashful. She would go around the houses gathering donations. It did not matter if the donation was a groshen or a note or a crust of bread, she would softly and calmly visit only the houses where her bashful wish of good morning might bring something.
Earning a livelihood was difficult and bitter for her son, the water carrier. During the winter when his income was larger, the days were bitter cold and his hands were frozen like the iron pails. During the summer there was competition for Nusan's livelihood. Parents would call their children, the brats who played in the dusty streets, and say, Meirke, Joske, bring a small pail of water from Shmuel the shoemaker's well!
However, the long summer days were deadly dangerous for Nusan, when we, a bunch of clowns from cheder (religious school), would meet him during our playtime carrying many pails full of water. It did not help that he wanted to avoid us. He would hurry by us with careful steps and with frightened eyes he would look after us, careful that his pails remained full. He would shake, when we small brats, attacked him and wanted to dirty his water by spitting into the pails. Although, by nature, he was unassuming and was thankful for the smallest sign of friendship, a small storm of rage would spurt from him at the smallest hint that we wanted to dirty his water.
With foam from his mouth and with the roar of a slaughtered ox, he would then rip out stones from the cobblestone pavement and throw them at us. But he would see to it that the stones did not hit us. Thus through shouting and roaring he threw a fear in us, until we took to our heels. When he chased us away, his lowered hands always were filled with stones and a wheezing smile would appear on his dusty lips. His eyes shone joyously with his great victory over his assailants and with joy that his pails of water remained clean.
This was a great sports contest for us, the sect of clowns. However, erev Shabbos (the eve of Shabbos) was care-filled for the woman who waited for water in order to brew the hot tea for Shabbos.
Nusan strongly esteemed Shabbos. Every Shabbos he would wash and would put on a clean suit of clothes made of inferior fabric that he had outgrown and, like the polished candlesticks, his face shone.
He had great respect for the village's teachers. He behaved with great humility and reverence toward the teachers. He knew all the educators and the extent of their learning. He had his own measurement specifications for evaluating each according to his own Nusanish notion: Reb Yehezkeil knows twelve parts of the Talmud, eight and a half of the Mishnah and three of the second part of the Shulkhan Arukh (the book of rules for living a pious Jewish life); Reb Nisen knows three part of the Talmud, seven of the Mishnah and half of the Tanya; but Reb Yisroel knows hundreds of parts of the Talmud, two hundred of the Mishnah with hundreds from the second part of the Shulkhan Arukh, much of Chai Odom and more from the Shlukhan Arukh and so on. The closets and shelves around the wall, fully packed with seforim (religious books), such as Nusan had not seen elsewhere, influenced his evaluation of Reb Dov Yisroel's learnedness. This was the measure according to which he would make evaluations.
And when he was asked: Well, Nusan, how much does the Rabbi Reb Shmuel know? After earnest thought, with an earnest smile, he would say: The Rabbi Reb Shmuel must know more Gemara (commentaries on the Mishnah).
He also had levels thought out for the wives of the educators according to their piety. For example, he would say: Yehezkeil's wife Sara knows ten parts of the Tsene Urene (Yiddish book of Bible stories for women) and ten Yiddish prayers. But to the other women for whom he had a special respect, he would add that they also know a fourth or half of the Khumish (the prayer book).
When he sensed that one of the educators showed a sympathetic feeling toward him, he would shuffle toward him, with his long feet, with restrained steps and with a servile humility he would pat his back and tell the teacher his evaluation of his good education. Thus he would conduct himself with the wives and, giving them a pat, with great respect he measured the level of their knowledge. Thus he wheezed a smile, swallowing it in his Adam's apple and long throat.
Nusan, Reitze's son, was an honest and quiet person. His heart drew him to a homey quietness and calmness, where people are kind. He would find his redress in a sad singing sanctity in the synagogue at twilight.
It was murmured in town that in the evening he befriends the crazy Bethsheba. Bethsheba, with her pack, made her home in the women's section of the synagogue, on the other side of the railing in the synagogue. In her young years, it was said, she gave birth to a child each year and she would beat the baby to death, near the priest's little river, in the same clear transparent water where we children would splash in damp pants in the river.
Elya would go around with a string around his waist over his dirty gartl (belt worn during prayer). His chest was stuffed day and night with rags, the opposite of Nusen.
The name Tzimtzervizes was, in truth, a nickname. I believe scarcely any of us knew his actual name. The nickname was given to him because he was constantly squeaking on his fiddle. Young boys and girls would run after him and yell Tzimtzervizes! Tzimtzervizes! They actually meant to say, Squeak, fiddle, squeak, squeak, fiddle!
Tzimtzervizes spoke Yiddish. His Yiddish was better than the peasant language spoken by the Jews. For weeks and months he would drag around the town without any work. He knew all of the Jews, and from them, cunningly he would receive food in order to still his hunger. He would receive his holiday meals on market day at the market, always at the corner of the monopol (concession with exclusive right to sell an item such as salt or vodka), among the gathered peasants, where the concession's customers would jump around like fireworks.
He was a thief and would have to be led away from the entrance way. It was difficult to get along with him. His peasant blood would draw him to his village and, during the summer, his soul would long for green grass, for birds and for summer nights, and in winter days he longed for a little dance and a flirtation with a full-bosomed village shiksa (gentile woman). He would then be lost, where nature itself sings and where the melody is spun from the silence of the night.
On Friday nights, it was necessary to run to faraway neighbors to catch the Shabbos goy from the next street and, indeed, that cost a double portion of challah (braided egg bread traditionally served on Shabbos).
Tzimtzervizes would go through the streets in town familiarly with hopping steps, and on his face, with the small pointed eyes and pointed nose, a smile always shone. His face paled at the sight of the scoundrels and he patted his fiddle that rested against his chest, under a homemade cloak. He said in Yiddish that, he loved his fiddle more, for example, than the priest.
He knew all of the Jews in the town, calling them by their first names: Pinya, Haimke, Panye Berkish and so forth.
If, while marching across the shtetl, he met someone who greeted him with a smile of familiarity, he would tenderly take out his fiddle from his chest and scratch out peasant dances and sad, longing gypsy melodies. And very often the melodies suited the mood of the listener.
When finished playing, he shoved his fiddle back against his chest and, with his pointed laughing face, he marched back to the center of the shtetl to the pump at the marketplace.
Peasants traveled there together and they met others who stopped at the pump to give water to their horses. People went by the pump to the neighboring booths to buy small batches of bagels, and if this passerby was a familiar face, he would beg and receive a nice portion of the sweet bagels.
But if it was empty around the pump, he would hop across the marketplace to the street corner near Shmienern's wall, where the petty bourgeois council was. Peasants from neighboring villages would stop by the street corner in order to visit the petty bourgeois and discuss their military conscription and other matters.
Or sometimes one could meet at the corner Hilel Mesztzansker, one of the town intelligencia and a bit of a clown, too. Hilel would let himself be fooled out of a kopek for a little fun.
The rich man Iser's tavern stood along the road, where one could buy a glass of liquor or a half bottle of beer for a few kopeks. The environment of tavern noise, mixed with the sharp smell of liquor, strongly affected Tzimtzerevizes' fiddle, and with heart and soul it played its best.
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