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ROKITNO AS SHE LIVES IN OUR MEMORIES

[Page 161]

There was a “River” in Rokitno

Yakov Schwartz (Rehovot)

Translated by Ala Gamulka


The river was one of the most beloved and fun places in Rokitno. It was loved by all residents in general and by young people in particular. A river? It is difficult to give that name to the modest stream, which flowed at the outskirts of town. One cannot find it on a regular map, perhaps only on a topographic map. This stream caused us an inferiority complex in discussions with residents of other towns, since it did not even have a name. It is rumored that it was nicknamed “Rokitnenka” (Little Rokitno). This was never proven to be true.

In spite of all that, there are some pleasant and not so pleasant memories connected to this stream. Already at the beginning of spring, in late April and early May, groups of children and youths could be seen on their way to the river. There are many memories - walking, standing near the gated rail crossing, watching the train maneuvers, marching on the winding path for several hundred meters inside the rich vegetation just awakening after a long winter. Of course, it was necessary to be vigilant of the groups of young locals who used any opportunity to beat Jewish children, or at least to scare them. Indeed, once I was badly beaten by a group of infamous Goncherokes, when I wanted to walk alone towards the river. It was less dangerous to go in groups and we tried to go together and with the protection of those older than us.

It was not possible to go swimming in the spring. The water was still cold and the fears of the result of swimming in it were quite great. In spite of that, we used to take off our shoes and, at least, dip our feet in the cool water. We also splashed the women washing clothes nearby and disappeared followed by their angry shouts and curses. We walked barefoot to town relishing the feeling of the warm earth and fresh grass, just beginning to sprout, under our feet.

Once I “enjoyed” a spring dip, in my clothes, caused by Kostek “the pig” who approached me. I was standing at the edge of the river deep in thought and he picked me up and threw me into the river while his friends laughed in derision. I crossed the river swimming (luckily I knew how to swim) and I distanced myself from him dripping wet and extremely angry and ashamed.

We learned to swim not in school, not in sports clubs- which did not exist in our town- not through expert teachers and counselors. Each one taught his friends and the fact that the river was shallow was to our advantage. A turning point was the “flood” in Rokitno in the early 30's. The town itself was not really touched by the river, which overflowed and flooded many other areas. The current was too strong and we, the children, abandoned ourselves to its mercy and we were thus transported a great distance. When the water receded and the river shriveled, we discovered that we suddenly could swim. Soon we were able to swim with the older kids near the bridge. This was, practically, the only place where the water was deep - the equivalent of the height of a person.

The River In Rokitno

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In truth, it must be added that there were other swimming areas. They were smaller and further away and very few Jews would go there, e.g., behind the glass factory and in the village of Rokitno and behind Messiyeviche Street.

The area around the river also served as a place for nature hikes to study flora and fauna. Often natural science classes, led by our teacher Shmuel Volkon, would be held there. Another “bridge” with a pool of water underneath it was found in Osnitzek, a village some 5 kilometers away from our town. People from Rokitno, mostly youths, would go to this farther place in large, organized groups. On the way we tasted, actually ate, the black and red berries, which grew in plenty along the railroad tracks. This would make our long walk more pleasant.

Although it was small, the river, or stream, provided many unforgettable experiences to the younger generation of our town. It refreshed perspiring bodies on hot summer days. The river also served as a refrigerator. Huge ice blocks were cut out during the winter and kept under a blanket of sawdust for the hot summer days. The manufacturer of soda water provided ice with every container. On the High Holidays, it served for religious purposes. The Jews of the old town performed tashlich on its banks. The Jews of the new town used an abandoned quarry filled with water for that purpose.

Because of the distance we did not reach the river in the winter. We used ditches alongside the roads as skating rinks. The stream was small, but it gave us many pleasures. We will always remember it with fondness.

[Page 163]

The Jews of Rokitno

Haim Shteinman (Tel-Aviv)

Translated by Ala Gamulka


“For these things I weep; mine eye, mine
eye runneth down with water, because the
comforter is far from me”.
Lamentations 1:16

The Jews of Rokitno were a mixture of the serious nature of the first settlers and the light heartedness of the later ones. It can be said that they were Jews celebrating a minor holiday since the sacred and the secular were intermingled in them. They were like birch trees, which surrounded tens of villages in a green belt. The strength that enriches and keeps alive the roots underneath and the treetop above was well hidden. It was just like the white, soft petals of a flower, which have to be removed in order to reach the center.

The style of houses in town was not any different from the other towns. They were not built by great architects or artists with special plans, but by ordinary tradesmen who did everything by themselves. The town structure in Rokitno consisted of Pilsudsky Street (old town) with wooden stairs on its flanks. It continued to the Huta (glass factory). There were other wide, long streets (in the new town), but Pilsudsky Street was the main commercial area.

Typically, the town had water wells on every street. In winter they were covered with a thick layer of ice blocks. In summer, they were almost emptied. It then became necessary to haul pails of water from far away.

On the other side of the railroad tracks, among several buildings, the Polish Catholic church stood out. (The statue of Pilsudsky stood across from it.) The church bells cast fear with their loud peals, especially on Easter and Christmas Eves. Another building that stood out for its architecture was the railroad station. There were also two synagogues. The central one - the old synagogue - had people praying and learning Torah day and night and the new synagogue, which was only full on Shabbat and on holidays.

This, more or less, was the daily routine of any Rokitno Jew: at dawn, they took out the cows to join the communal herd. This task was the responsibility of the men and was done, usually, with the talit and tefillin under the arm. Immediately afterwards, they went to the synagogue and quickly did the morning prayers. They bowed, rocked on their feet for “kadosh” and, suddenly, here is “Aleinu”. “Shema Koleinu”, during Shmone Esre is an important prayer. One can always add personal requests for G-d's help in improving one's livelihood and having enough food for the children.

Pilsudsky Street

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In the meantime, the doors of the stores clattered as the iron bars were removed and the herring barrels were brought to the door. The merchandise was mainly intended for the peasants. Gas lanterns with glass containers hung on hooks and ropes, as well as shovels, rakes and pitchforks. Here is a sack of barley; there is a bunch of mushrooms pungent with the smell of the forest moisture. On the shelves there were bolts of cloth, toys, soap, penknives, wallets, colorful kerchiefs for the women, boot polish, sugar, salt, matches and colored thread. This was a store with everything in it.

There were very few stores with cloth for Jews. Special clothes made of Samut, velvet and Atlas for sacred objects and for wedding gowns were ordered separately. New clothes were bought every year before Rosh Hashana and Passover. The clothes were used as initials. Atlas stood for Ach Tov Leisrael Sela (It is good for Israel) and Samut stood for Sur Mera Veaseh Tov (Get away from evil deeds and do good ones).

In Rokitno there were Jewish tradesmen of all kinds. The liked to sing as they worked. One could hear wonderful melodies from the windows of their workrooms. They sang sacred songs, pioneering songs and even a revolutionary one.

The storekeepers followed an unwritten, but obligatory, code of ethics. The area had many villages with their own Jewish stores. They sold on credit and every store had a thick, oily ledger where entries were written, such as: “I gave Ivan on this day...” “I received from Ivan today...”. The peasants were habitual customers and the storekeepers would not accept a new customer unless they investigated why he had left a previous store.

The storekeepers were on friendly neighborly terms. In summer, they sat on tree stumps near the store and, when there was no action, they would chat and discuss world events and local problems: lawlessness, political conditions and taxes.
Sometimes they would discuss the cantor who visited recently, various funds and Eretz Israel. In winter, they would sit caged inside the store. The men wore wrinkled fur coats and the women warmed themselves near a potful of glowing embers, their hands covered in fingerless woolen gloves.

The noon meal was eaten quickly with a short catnap while still seated. Towards evening, there were more customers and the wife came to help her husband. The sunset reminded the shopkeeper of his obligations and he would take a short break from business to pray afternoon and evening prayers in the synagogue.

They came home late at night, frozen in winter and sweaty in summer. They looked in their credit ledgers and the tiny letters would put them to sleep after a hard day's work.

There were some Jews who made their living in the forests. They were inspectors of the cutting and subsequent transport of the lumber. They earned a good income, but no one envied them since they were away from family and community all week.
Aside from the fair in the village, eagerly awaited, there were also merchants who traveled to the fair in nearby Klesov. They suffered all night as they went in a horse-driven wagon and early in the morning they stopped at a self-made stall, emptied the wagon and wondered if they would be successful. They did not expect much and were satisfied with little.

Poniatovsky Street

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Their life was hard and their income sparse, but they subsidized the household, celebrated Shabbat and holidays with food and drink, donated towards the Rabbi's upkeep and, most important, saved enough to pay the teachers' salaries.

Learning followed a well-known pattern. At first, there was a teacher of basics who taught understanding of the Bible and then another teacher for Rashi and Gmara. The next step was a more advanced teacher to teach Tosafot (annotations to the Talmud). After the Tarbut school was founded in Rokitno, most parents enrolled their children there. Some continued in high school and yeshivas in the big cities while others continued in the Talmud Torah.

The worldview of these honest Jews was simplicity and innocence. During the week they were involved in everyday responsibilities while Shabbat and holidays were special times for the Jews. This is when they were able to devote themselves to G-d as if to make up for the weekday existence.

When the month of Elul arrived, the face of the town changed. The shadow of the approaching Days of Awe loomed over everyone. These were days of sanctity and cleansing. During the ten days of repentance, there were some people who would read the whole Book of Psalms daily. They began the reading in the morning in the synagogue and continued in the store between customers. On the eve of Yom Kippur they were more pious. Some would stand all day during prayer and there were others who slept in the synagogue after Kol Nidrei. When they felt that they had succeeded in being written in the good book, they returned as if reborn. Then everything would begin again.

They were conscientious about receiving guests properly. No guest was left, G-d forbid, standing near the furnace in the synagogue after prayers ended. Honored guests, special emissaries, ordinary people and passers-by were invited as Shabbat guests into homes. This custom was steeped in a love for Israel and its people.

Those who were learned knew that it was written in the Zohar that the poor are the broken tools of G-d. On Shabbat and holidays, G-d comes to visit his broken tools and when he sees that no one is hosting them and that they are hungry and thirsty, he cries for them.

Although the Jews of Rokitno had dealings with non-Jews, they did not follow their customs. There was a division between them when it came to matters of faith and opinion. The locals fed calves for alien work and bowed to emptiness while we thanked and blessed our G-d for his creation. Faith sustained us and provided the source for educating the children for the continuity of the generations and for preventing the links from disintegrating. As Zionists, they encouraged the children when the children decided to go to a preparatory kibbutz and to make aliyah, since they hoped to follow them.

The Jews of Rokitno loved and sanctified life simply and innocently. The women, the mothers used the supplications of Sarah Bat Tovim and “The G-d of Abraham”, composed for Rabbi Shmuel from Kaminka, Ukraine.

This is how generations lived and died, until the brigades of destruction came and with fury uprooted the tree with its seedlings and roots.

Everything disappeared and was eradicated. Now, only unknown graves remain. The remnants of Rokitno and surroundings gather under different skies and sanctify the name and memory of all those who had died in the name of G-d.

[Page 168]

Memories, Impressions and Happenings

Yeshayahu Meiri (Meirson) (Ramat Gan)

Translated by Ala Gamulka

Rokitno At The Crossroads

At the beginning of the 20th century, when it was decided to build the railroad from Kovel to Kiev, Rokitno, a small forlorn village, stood at the crossroads. There had been some Jews there before. With the building of the railroad, a new modern town was built, called Ochotnikov. It was named after Ochotnikov, a senator and a confidante of the Tzar. (The name was changed to Rokitno after World War I when Poland became independent.)

The main source of income of the Jews of Ochotnikov was the railway station. Agents, middlemen, hotel owners, storekeepers and grain merchants appeared. There were forests around our town and they served as a basis for the lumber and sawmill industries. The tar factories also served as an important source of income. One of them was owned by my uncle, Rav Avraham Zelig Guchberg. My father, living in Bersetchka, was asked to come and manage the tar factory. He opened a large warehouse for grain and flour. When this trade was well established, our entire family moved from Bersetchka to Ochotnikov. This was in 1906. The village was just beginning to develop and there were less than 10 houses there. The Huta (glass factory) was producing well and promised the village a brilliant economic future. Thus, Ochotnikov began to grow and to develop at a dizzying pace.

Study Of Torah

When we arrived in Ochotnikov, there was neither day school nor Talmud Torah (supplementary school). There were no teachers. Some residents decided to invite a teacher to teach Torah in our village. The first teacher was Rav Yossel from Sloveshna who was excellent. After him came Leibl from Velednik. This teacher forced us to study in a loud voice and by the third day we were all hoarse. It is difficult to say that we really learned from this Rabbi but, to his credit, it must be said that he imbued in us the desire to learn Torah.

The next teacher was Rabbi Avraham, a knowledgeable man, well versed in worldly affairs. This Rabbi was the one who instilled in us the study of Torah and a deep understanding of Gmara and interpretations. He used the yeshiva method of study, mostly self-study. He gave us a class only once a week and on other days he assigned us a page of Gmara, which we had to learn by ourselves. He then tested us to see if we knew what we had learned. (In cheder language we called it “a leinen” - self study). We made progress in our studies and I was able to read a page of Gmara and to understand without difficulty. At my brother Zosia's bris, I read aloud the annotations “Ein Mesichim Beseudah” – (Do not talk during a meal) and Rabbi Shames gave a loving pinch.

The period of religious study only ended with Rabbi Avraham. Modern teachers came to Rokitno. Among them was Israel Tozman, who introduced the system of Hebrew in Hebrew. He also taught us secular subjects. This teacher was one of those who paved the way for the Hebrew school in Rokitno.

The Shocking Murder In Ochotnikov

When we moved to the new town, we opened a grocery store and grain storage in our house. On one of the market days, the proceeds were great and there were a few hundred rubles in the cash box. Most of it would be handed to one of the suppliers leaving on the evening train for Ovrotesh. We heard banging on the door accompanied by terrible threatening words: “Give us the money or I will kill you.” My parents, unclear about self-defense, moved from the bedroom to the larger room, where my brother Yona and my sister Batya slept, to wake them up. They were concerned with the danger awaiting them and wanted to seek advice on how to defend themselves.

When my father opened the door to the larger room, the killer shot and hit the gas lantern that my father was holding in his hand. The bullet hit my father and he fell covered in blood. My mother began to cry and to scream for help. My sister Batya went out through the back door to call the neighbors. The killer, noticing that someone came out the back door, burst into the house and found Yona and my mother standing over the bed of my injured father. He shot my mother, the bullet hit her and he demanded from my brother all the money or else he would kill everyone. My brother asked my father to give the killer all he had. My injured father could not speak since he had lost consciousness due to the loss of blood.

Not waiting for an answer, the killer went over to my father, lifted his head and banged it on the wall. He took the purse from under the pillow and began to count the money in it. In the meantime, my sister returned with one of our neighbors, Ben Zion Geipman, a railway agent, a healthy and courageous man. Geipman entered the house in the dark and did not see that the killer was armed. He began to struggle with him, caught him by the throat and tried to throw him down. However, the killer did not lose his cool, shot Geipman twice and killed him.

The neighbors heard the shots and the screams and they immediately came to help. The killer became scared, shot a few times and fled from the house. Several months later, some of the money was found and the killer was arrested. He was sentenced to many years in prison. However, dear Mr. Geipman was no longer with us. I was only a child then, but I vividly remember the mourning that the small group of Jews in Ochotnikov felt when they heard that Ben Zion Geipman had been killed.

Everyone accompanied his body to the cemetery crying as if it had been their brother or son that had died. Geipman was loved by all those who knew him. All tore their clothing and mourned him.

A Heart-Wrenching Episode From World War I

One Friday in 1914, the beginning of World War I was announced in our town. The fear that gripped all the residents cannot be described. Immediately, it was announced that all young men were to be drafted. Rabbi Yossel Shames was still young and he, too, was to be drafted. He had served in the Russian army. He went to Kisorich, which served as a central place for all the draftees from the region. The Rabbi was then in mourning for his wife who had died less than 30 days earlier.

The Rabbi returned from Kisorich at sundown. He changed his clothes and rushed to the synagogue for Friday night services. He looked angry and somber. He began to pray mincha. When he reached the verse in “Ashrei”, “G-d is close to all those who call in Him earnestly”, he burst out crying and could not continue praying. All the congregants cried with him for a long time. The mourning was heavy.

However, the Rabbi's crying was heard in the heavens above and he was excused from the draft. He stayed with his congregation throughout the war and afterwards.

Father's House

My father's family was nurtured by the Trisker Court where Torah and commerce were intertwined. However, preference was given to Torah.

My father's attitude to Torah learning can be seen by the following event: When I was 11, I was studying with three other boys, under a Rabbi who was brought for a six-month period. He was paid a respectable amount and was also fed, clothed and shod.

One evening around Hanukkah, instead of studying the tractate of Pessachim, in addition to our weekly lesson in tractate of Shabbat, we played cards. My father came in and saw my transgression. He said nothing, but asked me to go over the Gmara lesson. I was well versed in Gmara and interpretations and I was able to repeat the lesson easily. When I finished, to my great surprise, my father slapped me twice. I asked: “Father, why are you doing this to me?” He replied: “The conclusion is that when you play cards, you are so knowledgeable in Gmara. If you did not play, you would know even more.”

My father's death was a shock to me. On the 23rd day of Adar 1933, he came home in the evening after helping my sister all day in her store. There was nothing wrong. He sat down with some neighbors and chatted with them. When they left he began reading The Kuzari, a book that he enjoyed. While he was reading he felt weak and went to bed where he died during the night. We found The Kuzari closed with his glasses inside as a bookmark.

My mother, may she rest in peace, left The Kuzari to me in her will and it is still in my library to this day.

The Library And The Struggle With The Bundists

There was a well-known family in Rokitno, the Polishuk family. Two of its sons were Bund leaders in Volyn. Their membership in the Bund was not merely ideological. They also fought hard against Zionism, Hebrew language, Hebrew school and any nationalistic spark.

In 1916-17, a movement opposing Bund arose in Rokitno. It was a strong group of “Zeirei Zion” who were educated in modern Hebrew literature and they were especially imbued with Mapu's love of Zion. They looked up to Zion and they began to prepare the younger generation for aliyah. They organized Hebrew classes, the Association of Speakers of Hebrew, information evenings and meetings with Zionist content. The town pharmacist, Noah Soltzman, belonged to “Zeirei Zion."

The members of “Zeirei Zion” saw in the founding of a library, a means of increasing Zionist education. In those days, as it did in every village, the library served as a cultural center and as a hot house for the growth and nurturing of the Zionist dream. When the Zionist-nationalist direction of the library was decided, a hard struggle ensued with the Bundists. This was not only a struggle between two ideologies, but also between young and older. The Polishuks were, by then, over thirty years old, while the members of “Zeirei Zion” were younger. Youthful ardor was the determining factor. The library was taken away from under the influence of the Bund and was now run by the Zionist youth. They showed great enthusiasm and endless devotion to the collection of books. To obtain a realistic description of the scope of the library, I must point out that all the books were contained in a small kitchen cupboard. It had been donated to us by one of the housewives. We kept a vigil on this cupboard 24 hours a day. The Zionist youths were afraid that the Bundists would attack it and remove the books.

The Zionist inspired library was a drawing card for other cultural institutions in town. We, the Zionists, had our own corner for meetings and discussions of our plans as well as for attracting new members and the dissemination of the Hebrew language among the youngsters.

The number of volumes in the library was small. Every book acquired was known immediately by everyone. There was a long waiting list for each book. The thirst for Hebrew books was very deep and they were perceived as holy matter. Besides the books, we had subscriptions to “Hazman," “Hatzfira” and “Haolam”. They contributed greatly to the development of Hebrew-Zionist awareness among the youngsters of Rokitno.

The First Refugees In Rokitno In 1914

When World War I broke out, the stream of refugees from Poland, which had been conquered by the Germans, grew. A group was organized in Rokitno to look after these refugees. When they passed through our town on the train, they were offered financial assistance and food.

One day a few refugee families arrived in Rokitno to stay. Among them was a Jewish family, nicknamed “The Poles”. After we found them lodging in Betzalel Kokel's house, we looked after their absorption. It was a family with many children, dressed in the traditional clothes of Polish Jews and following its customs.

All the young people in Rokitno saw it as their sacred duty to help in the absorption of this family and in accustoming them to everyday life. Actually, after some time, the head of the family opened a grocery store. We helped him by translating for the locals who did not understand his Polish. We looked after the education of the children.

We did not stop our work until we saw that his economic situation was settled.

[Page 172]

The Rabbi from Stolin and His Followers in Rokitno

Shlomo Zandweis (Tel Aviv)

Translated by Ala Gamulka


Unfortunately, I can only write about the Karlin-Stolin Hasidim and their court. It is not possible for me to write about other Hasidic dynasties in Rokitno. These would be the Hasidim of the Brezne dynasty, from the court of our master and teacher, Rabbi Shmuelke and his son, our master and teacher, Rabbi Itzikel Pechnik, z”zl, our masters and teachers from the court of Rabbi Haimke Toibman from Brezne and his sons, our masters and teachers, Rabbi Aharale and Rabbi Gedalche, z”zl. I know they used to come to Rokitno to visit their flock. I also know that there were followers of the Trisker master and teacher in Rokitno. It is not only because I am a follower of Stolin that I want to speak only of them. G-d forbid! They were all holy and righteous (may their merits protect them). However, it is not possible for me to write about them because I do not know enough about them and their flock. I was not fortunate enough to be inspired by them, as I did not spend any time with them. I was educated in the house of my father and teacher, Rabbi Zadok. He was one of the pillars of the Stolin-Karlin Hasidim. He was a follower of our master and teacher, Rabbi Israel Perlov and was nicknamed the “nurturer” from Stolin by his followers and in the Hasidic movement. (1)

Although there were many followers in Rokitno, I do not recall that the Rabbi from Stolin came for visits for Shabbat or even during the week. Rabbi Israelke had many places to visit: Kiev, Zhitomir, Avrotch, Lutsk, Warsaw, etc. He could not have had time to visit small villages.

Since the Rabbi would visit the nearby villages of Olevsk and Sarny, the Hasidim from Rokitno and its surroundings went there to bask in his glory, to celebrate with our friends and to listen to the singing and praying. It was a great mitzvah for the Hasidim from Rokitno to go on this visit. The sayings of Rabbi Shlomo from Karlin, a pupil of Rabbi Aharon the Great, were etched in their hearts. He said: “The forests and fields which are traveled on the way to visiting the pious help in balancing the scale.”

I recall that Rabbi Israelke sometimes stopped for a day or two in nearby villages and would be housed with his famous followers. In Blezhov, he stayed with R. Shalom Blizhovsky and his sons R. Itzie and R. Asher. In Brezov, he stayed with R. Herschel Berezovsky, in Sahov with David Zunder and his son-in-law, R. Menachem-Zalman Briskman, z”zl.

R. Israelke died on the second day of Rosh Hashana in 1922 and was buried in Frankfurt-am-Mein. His son, R. Moshele, was crowned our master and teacher in Stolin. Most of the Hasidim of Rokitno remained loyal to R. Moshele, but some followed his brother, R. Melachlke, who was crowned master and teacher in Karlin.

Thus, only R. Moshele visited Rokitno and he stayed for seven days. These were days of holidays and celebration and uplifting of the spirits. The celebrations attracted not only the Stolin Hasidim, but also almost all the Jews from town and its surroundings. They came from near and far to listen to the Rabbi's wisdom, to receive his blessing, to consult with him on matters of income and matchmaking. They also presented him with “redemption” money, as was the custom in the courts of the masters and teachers.

The hosts, Hasidim of Rokitno, were very busy. Among them were R. Mendl Kercher, R. Aharon Levin, R. Herschel Shteinman, the brothers Yehoshua and Leibl Gitelman, may they be spared for life, and others. They served the visiting Hasidim who came from the surrounding areas, provided the food, drinks and lodgings. Particularly, they kept a vigilant eye on the Rabbi and did not budge from him. They encircled him, so it was difficult to approach him. After the Rabbi left the synagogue, or when he went back to his room in the inn, the Hasidim began to sing and dance with enthusiasm. They often danced on chairs and on tables.

The Rabbi would take part in their dancing only rarely and only on Saturday night during the Melave Malka. On weekdays, he danced on Tuesday evenings, a day or two before he left Rokitno. The Hasidim would then have a good-bye party. They sang and danced, nearly till dawn. The enthusiastic prayers and the dances warmed all hearts. They even danced in the streets, especially on Shabbat after services. After the big kiddush in the synagogue, the Hasidim went for kiddush in the homes of residents and friends. They started at the home of R. Aharon Levin and the shohet and bodek R. Yoel Schwartzberg, who both lived near the synagogue. They went to the town Rabbi, Rabbi Aharon Shames and from there to R. Leivik Rutman and the shohet and bodek R. Issachar Trigun. Then they went to the brothers Leibl and Yehoshua Gitelman and R. Mendl Kercher and ended up at the home of Baruch-Yoel Felhandler. They went from house to house, like on Simchat Torah. It was not only the Hasidim who felt the Rabbi's presence in Rokitno, but also the whole population, young and old. Even the non-Jews said to one another: “The Rabbi from Stolin came.”

The preparations in Rokitno for the visit of the Rabbi and his followers began several weeks earlier, as soon as the Shabbat date was determined by the Rabbi. The followers from the area would come for the length of the visit. Extensive plans were made. Where should the Rabbi stay? (Usually he stayed at R. Moshe-Hirsch Linn's) Whom will the Rabbi visit? Who will lead the services, read the Torah, serve, sing, etc. Money was also collected for expenses.

Invitations were sent to followers in Sarny, Dombrovitz, Sahov, Tomoshgorod, Klesov, etc. The invitations were signed, in the name of all Rokitno Jews, by R. Hever Boktzer. R. Hever, the shohet, was close to 80, but he was full of energy and humor. He wrote the invitations in verse and metaphor. He had a saying and a metaphor for everything and everyone loved and admired him.

R. Hever nicknamed R. Moshe Hirsch Linn as “Rabbi Bar Tanura” (2), (tanur = stove) since he was, by trade, a plasterer and a builder of stoves. When he saw a Hasid called R. Yehoshua in the synagogue wearing a new hat, he paraphrased a verse from Anim Zemirot. “Yehoshua, instead of Yeshua (redemption) wore a hat...”

The Hasid, R. Israel Fishbein from Sloveshnia, was once arrested by the authorities. He was accused of maintaining a relationship with his relatives in Poland and was imprisoned in Rovno. All of his friends worried about his fate and when the news came of his release, they ran to R. Hever to tell him. R. Hever was sick in bed, covered in his talit, wearing his tefillin and praying shaharit. He mumbled his prayers quietly, but when he reached “Shmone Esre,” he said out loud: “Blessed are you, G-d, the Redeemer of Israel.”

R. Hever served as a shohet in his previous town of residence. However, when he aged, he settled in Rokitno. He stopped working and lived with his children. He was the prayer leader in Rokitno in the old synagogue and assisted at weddings. He was the master of ceremonies at circumcisions. When the Rabbi, R. Moshele, visited Rokitno, he sang his songs: on Friday night -- “Peace and Happiness” and at Shabbat lunch – “Blessed is G-d in Heaven.”

Of the old Hasidim in Rokitno, I recall vividly one named R. Yehoshua Wolfin. He was nicknamed Yehoshua from Hrapuna by other Hasidim. This Jew was full of stories about our master and teacher Rabbi Israelke, z”zl.

R. Yehoshua earned his living by owning a millstone and a store. However, his wife and children were the workers while he served the Rabbi in his court. He would go to Stolin and often spent Shabbat and holidays there. When the Rabbi went to visit villages and towns scattered throughout the marshland of Pinsk, R. Yehoshua would accompany him. He sat next to the Rabbi in a cart or in a sled and served him, even though the Rabbi had a sexton and a gabbai with him. For him, it was a great mitzvah to serve a scholar. He listened to every word uttered by the Rabbi and remembered everything verbatim, even though he did not write it down.

Everything was stored in his memory bank and he talked of everything he saw and heard with trepidation. All the Hasidim surrounded him and listened, cupping their ears with their hands to hear better. They would shake their heads and, with a sigh of wonder, said: “His merit will defend us and the rest of our people.”

R. Yehoshua traveled with Rabbi Israelke for about 40 years, summer and winter. When he became older, he sat in Rokitno with his grandchildren, great-grandchildren and all the Hasidim and told them about the wonderful miracles that happened on the way. He was certain that it was due to his following the Rabbi that he was never sick and that he lived to a ripe old age.

The shohet and bodek, R. Issachar Trigun, was different from the jolly and sharp R. Hever. He was always serious and his face was somber. It was obvious that he was a deep thinker and that he weighed every word before he uttered it. He often sang the song of R. Aharon from Karlin – “How I desire the beauty of Shabbat” (3). Even when he stood far and the words were not heard, one could tell, by looking at his face, which stanza he was singing.

He sang the first stanza:

“How I desire the beauty of Shabbat,
The Shabbat which is special because of you,
Spread the beauty of your being on your people
Who follow you
Sanctify them with the Shabbat of your Torah
Open your gates to them.”

He clapped his hands while he was singing happily. However, when he reached the third stanza, he would sigh and raise his eyes skyward:

“Have mercy on your holy people
Quench the thirst of your followers
With a river from Eden
Crown your people with glory.
Your people who exalt you with Shabbat
For six days they inherit the legacy of Jacob.”

In a mournful voice he would beseech G-d and he would repeat again: “Dear G-d, Have mercy on your holy people.” It was as if he felt, in his gentle soul, that terrible events would be happening to the holy people.

The same happened after Friday night dinner, when they returned from synagogue to the Rabbi's lodgings. There the Rabbi would rest a little and read sacred texts.
When the Rabbi went to his Hasidim, R. Issachar would sing mournfully the song: “Protect the Fathers with your words.” Full of yearning, he would repeat: “Oy, Protector of the Fathers with his words. Rejuvenator of the dead with his speech...We pass in front of him with fear and we thank him.” He was full of love of Shabbat. The spirit of R. Issachar would rise upwards sweetly. “Shabbat is pleasant to the soul. The seventh day pleases the spirit.”

The Hasidim of Rokitno were joyful and full of life. The Great R. Aharon said: “Sadness is not a sin, but the hardness of the heart caused by it is a greater sin.”

The Hasidim were famous for their pleasant tunes. The Rabbi, R. Israelke, had musical talent. When the Rokitno Hasidim traveled to Olevsk and Sarny to listen to his tunes, they immersed themselves in a world of song and happiness, Torah and wisdom. They would divest themselves of everyday problems and became aristocrats. The Hasidim tell us that R. Israelke and his sons washed their hands in ritual before they performed on Shabbat evening. This meant they prepared themselves to do the holy work of the Levites in the Temple.

The Hasidim of Rokitno believed in Zionism. Love of Zion and Zionism were instilled in them by Rabbi Moshele who had visited Eretz Israel twice. (The first time was in the fall of 1933, when he returned from a visit to his father's grave in Frankfurt. The second time was in 1938.) He had strong impressions of the country. He searched and found the positive in the rebuilding of the country and he was happy with every innovation, creation and addition.

It is difficult to describe and to believe that all that is gone. The Jewish population of Rokitno was so full of life and energy. Those dear good Jews, charitable and hospitable were all slaughtered. The Rabbi? The shepherd followed his loyal herd. “The beloved in lifetime are not separated in death.” May their memory be cherished.

  1. My father was so described by the Hasidim of Stolin-Karlin and his portrait appears in the collection “Or Zarua”. These are articles and writings about the masters and teacher of the Hasidic movement of Karlin-Stolin.
  2. This is a pun. Rabbi Ovadia, son of Avraham Yera from Bartenura, was a Rabbi and an interpreter of Mishna who lived in the 15th century in Italy and died in Jerusalem in approximately 1500.
  3. The Great R. Aharon composed “Song for Shabbat.” In this song, he sings from his heart of the sanctity of Shabbat. The song is divided into 4 parts and the acronyms of the first three words of all 4 parts hint of Existence, Aharon, Soul. The Hasidim of Karlin sang it every Shabbat with a special tune.



[Page 177]

The Rabbi Comes to Town

Bat Sheva Fishman (Shohet) (Tel Aviv)

Translated by Ala Gamulka

The visit of the Rabbi in our town was an unforgettable experience. The ordinary face of the town was transformed. What uplifting of the spirits! An atmosphere of sanctity prevailed everywhere. I particularly remember the days the Rabbi spent in our house because he usually stayed in the home of R. Yeshayahu Gendelman.

The Rabbi, Rav Gedaltche from Brezne, was a relative of ours on my father's side. (My father, Haim-Yudel, came from Brezne from a family of rabbis, shohets and arbitrators.) Many weeks before the Rabbi's arrival, the Hasidim gathered in the evenings in our home. They discussed and debated how to receive the Rabbi and worked out every detail of his weeklong visit to our town. Sarah, my mother, worked hard to prepare for the event. The preparations were similar to those for Passover. The house was cleaned and shined and made fit to receive the Rabbi and his entourage.

The long-awaited Thursday came. It was the day the Rabbi was expected. All the Hasidim, headed by R. Aharon Shames, went to the railway station to receive him. Lucky was he who was greeted by the Rabbi as soon as he arrived. They all made their way to the house led by the Rabbi and those close to him, and followed by the Hasidim.

Friday night and Shabbat were spent in the old synagogue since it was the only appropriate location large enough to accommodate all the Hasidim. All heads of households left their homes for this Shabbat to sit at the “Rabbi's table.”

On the next day, our house was full of visitors from dawn till late at night. The Rabbi sat in his room and received visitors with “notes.” Each visitor would open his heart and tell all to the Rabbi as a blessing or intervention was requested.

Everyone who came out of the Rabbi's room felt as if a heavy load had been lifted from his heart. He encouraged everyone since it was obvious that the Rabbi's prayer would be received above.

We, the children, ignored school and homework and reading of books. These matters were forgotten during the Rabbi's visit. An unforgettable experience seized us – the sanctity of the Rabbi. Although we were warned, we still crept into the house through the back door. We stood on the kitchen threshold or in a hidden corner and followed, open-mouthed, all that was happening. We absorbed everything our young minds were capable of absorbing.        

At lunchtime, the Rabbi sat at the head of the table and gave a sermon to the Hasidim seated around him. They were all listening intently and drinking in every word that came out of his mouth. The Rabbi seemed to be eating. He touched and tasted a morsel and passed it to others who attacked it and fought for it. Anyone lucky enough to taste something is the happiest person around.

Slowly, the Hasidim shed their stiffness and got up from the table. Arm on shoulder, their eyes closed, their faces inspired, they form a circle and with amazing enthusiasm, they begin to dance a long Hasidic dance. Everything is then forgotten. They leave the physical world and are transported higher up beyond the every day gray existence. Who knows, maybe this is where the secret of our forefathers is hidden – how they managed to overcome their difficulties.


[Page 178]

The Choosing of a Rabbi in Rokitno

Aharon Lifshitz (Ramat Gan)

Translated by Ala Gamulka


R. Shraga Feivish Levin served as a Rabbi and shohet in the village of Rokitno. When the town began to develop and the number of Jews increased, a second Rabbi was needed and was sought.

In our town, there was a merchant named Aharon Yosef Shames. Although he was a businessman, he was a learned Jew and was certified to teach in the yeshiva of Rabbi Yoel Shurin (the “genius from Poltava”) in Zvhil. The “genius” thought highly of his student. He, therefore, came to Rokitno, gathered the Jews and suggested that Rabbi Shames would be the most appropriate person to serve as Rabbi.

However, the wishes of the “genius” were not enough. The choosing of a Rabbi necessitated the stamp of approval of important citizens. Their opinion counted. They asked my father to be the first to sign. However, since he was a follower of R. Shraga Feivish, he refused to sign.

The “genius” spent several days in town and did almost nothing. A small percentage of the population did sign. When he saw that nothing was happening, he gathered some Jews, friends of my father's, in our home. They tried to persuade him to sign. However, my father did not budge because he highly respected R. Shraga Feivish.

The “genius” lost his patience, arose from his chair, banged on the table and told my father: “I order you, in the name of our holy Torah, to sign!” My father respected learned men, especially this “genius” who had great authority in the Torah world. He changed his mind and signed. The others followed quickly. Rabbi Aharon Yosef Shames began to serve as a Rabbi in our town.        


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