Translation by Naomi Gal
Significant memories are kept in my heart from my stay in Rovno. Although I spent there only a few months, it was during a fateful time, when each day had its own value and weight. Those memories are intertwined in my literary work, since it was there, in Rovno, that I began writing the story Haim Grevitzer, published later.
In 1919-1920, I left Russia. The roads then were faulty and after wandering for a long time I arrived to Rovno with my relative Mr. Mendel Shneorson who a few years later immigrated to the Land of Israel and worked at the Hebrew University. From my first day I felt with deep pleasure the warmth of this Jewish city with its blessed establishments and institutions, synagogues and schools, cultural organizations, and most of all the vigorous and dynamic Zionist movement. While meeting representatives of different circles, I felt this confidence stemming from deeply rooted vitality you can't define or confine.
In the first days I made contact with Tarbut, the first Hebrew high school that amazed me with its significant achievements. All studies were conducted in Hebrew, a remarkable achievement in the Diaspora back then, and Hebrew culture was the living soul of the school. The level of the pedagogy, the methodology and the teachings, was very high. You can say without exaggerating that this was an exemplary school when it came to its pedagogy and national and spiritual influence. After a while I was invited to lecture at the school about the pedagogic psychology of modern education. The hall was full of teachers, parents and education administrators and other who craved knowledge. They all listened attentively with the kind of enthusiasm that is inspiring to a lecturer. By the audience's request I later gave a series of lectures.
I was deeply impressed by Mr. Laybish Harif, who was the head of Tarbut endeavors in Rovno, and was the director of the cultural desk of the Zionist lodge. Mr. Harif had a general and Hebrew education and was outspoken in his nationalistic views and his persistent campaign for the Hebrew culture. Clustered around him were the teachers of Tarbut and the other Hebrew schools. The Hebrew high school was not an isolated institute but an establishment that developed from a wide circle of Hebrew culture supporters. This circle had an growing influence among the Jews in Rovno and it emanated a spiritual ambiance full of enthusiasm that was very appealing. I had the opportunity to befriend different people from this large circle, and I would like to mention Doctor Shvidka and his wife, both of them young and vibrant. Dr. Shvidka was devoted to the renewal movement and to the Hebrew culture; a good-hearted man and well liked, who was one of the heads of the community and the chairman of the political Zionist committee. He kept an open house to all the activists, and different social parties were held there. The doctor could sing and used to delight his guests with his music. He had a great voice that surprised his listeners since it shook everything around him.
Many of the cultural activists in Russia, who were on their way to Poland and stayed for a while in Rovno, were so impressed by the Jewish cultural ambiance that they stayed there for a while. Amid them one should be particularly mentioned: the famous pedagogue Dr. David Levin, who while in Rovno was the head of the high school and influenced the Hebrew cultural life of the city and its surrounding. From Rovno he left for Warsaw and after two years immigrated to the Land of Israel, and he is, to this day, the president of the teachers federation in Israel.
On the Sabbath and during the High Holidays I used to pray in different synagogues and I found quite a few participants with deep-faith. During the holidays the synagogues were especially full of multitudes from diverse classes, all of them vivacious and folksy.
My mood was elevated by my lectures at the high school and the vigorous discussions afterwards, the visits to different classes and the consulting with some problematic students, the meetings and gatherings, parties and assemblies, and the general atmosphere of steadily growing cultural activity. In those days I felt the urge to write Haim Gravitzer, which I was thinking about while still in Russia. In a few months I was able to complete the first part of the story that was later published in four installments in Yiddish and in Hebrew. The first part was called: From the Chabad World and was written in Rovno, it is the most dramatic part since it describes a fateful clash between extremely spiritual Chabad characters.
Before I left Rovno for Warsaw my friends held a farewell party at Dr. Shewidka's house. Mr. Harif presided over the party and Dr. David Levin attended as well. Enthusiastic speeches were delivered about the current problems of the Hebrew culture. Between speeches Dr. Shewidka sang folk songs and delivered Hassidic tunes in his formidable voice. The speeches and the music merged in my soul with the vibrating characters in my new story. Since then I keep in my heart a deep gratitude to that Jewish Rovno, the lively and inspiring city, that developed strong cultural values and left in me, and everyone else who was lucky enough to know her, memories that will never fade.
Translation by Naomi Gal
When the axe fell upon Svhil's Jews in 1919 pogroms, most of the city Jews went to Rovno, among them my fourteen members' family. We were headed to nearby Koretz and then to Rovno. The Christian inhabitants, with whom we lived side-by-side for many years, threw stones at us while our wagons were leaving town. We felt as if we were escaping from murderers. Rovno appealed to us, because I had there an uncle (Mordechai Brilliant from my mother's side) and we knew that in a big city, amid thousands of Jews, we would feel safer. With no belongings, or any other property, after traveling perilous roads, we finally arrived to Rovno. The city was already under Polish military rule and armies outside the city made sure no one could get to Rovno. Every one was a suspect in their eyes, especially when arriving from the Russian border. I remember father bargaining with soldiers and paying them bribes when we entered the city. This is how we became Rovno's citizens.
1920. Rovno had recovered from the changes of the last two years; the refugees in town became citizens, looked for and found work. A stream of Jews from across the border arrived in the city and continued farther in Poland or to foreign countries. Political movements, especially the Zionist movement, were revived. Restored were institutions of aid, immigration, schools, and youth movements. New stores were opened, Jews coming and going, and the communication with Warsaw reestablished.
There was a scarcity of apartments in Rovno. My father found work and we were sent to school. I studied in Shalom Aleichem, a nearby school, the language was Yiddish and Hebrew was a second language. When I finished school I took night classes and during the days learned at ORT crafts' school. I joined the ranks of the Young Hechalutz. My father died and we began thinking about immigration to Israel, but we had no means nor Alyia certificates. There was no choice but to immigrate one by one, after preparations and waiting in line. Shemuel, my oldest brother, who was a prominent activist in the federation planned to send mother first and later his family, but the Holocaust preceded his dream
I was lucky to be part of Hechalutz. Although the Poles in Rovno knew about it they did not consider it as an official organization. Suspecting youth movements, they used to harass Hechalutz in the city and in the villages around her. That is why we did not have a regular club and we used to convene in members' houses (at Rachel Shlifer, Gliklich, Huge, Greenblat, Gelfenboim, Kagan and others). Most of our meetings were at Kagan's house and I have endearing memories from this precious house on Krassna Street. Kagan's house turned out to be our club, where we conducted evening classes, held meetings and assembled a library. All preparations for a ball or a performance were done in that house. Many remember the all-Volhynia meeting the Hechalutz Youth held in 1928 in Rovno. Since we had no permit for the meeting we prepared festive food on the tables, just in case
Our members left for trainings and in due course were lucky enough to immigrate to Israel and join the builders of the country.
Translation by Naomi Gal
Most refugees who arrived in Rovno after World War I were destitute and needed help. Rovno alone could not assist and it was a disturbing situation.
In 1919, as a response to Rovno community's pleas, Shohan, an American Colonel who founded the Joint Center in town arrived to the Ukrainian area that was under Polish rule. The Joint Center contacted all the Jewish settlements in Volhynia and Podillia and reached as far as Kiev. Different aid establishments were founded with American support in money, food, materials, and clothes from public circles from all walks of life. The Joint established as well some schools, and children's and orphans shelters.
But this did not last. Under the Red Army's pressure the Polish conquerors began retreating, and this was done hastily and in a disorganized manner. In view of the situation Shohan saw no choice but to transfer the Joint Center from Rovno to Warsaw, Poland's capital. The preparations of transferring Shohan and his staff and all the Joint material began at once. The community's representatives convened at Shohan's office, discussed the situation and demanded that the Joint property and the cash-money in the center remain in town to aid the institutions and the needy population. Shohan insisted that the money should not be left in the city and that the Bolsheviks will take care of the existing establishments and would not neglect Rovno's establishments. The representatives stressed that the changing regimes could not be trusted, and that no one could guarantee that the Bolsheviks would agree to support Jewish establishments. There was no time for long arguments, and Shohan gave in. The Yiddish and the Zionist representatives received on the spot eight million rubles that were packed in four suitcases, two million in each, half for the Yiddishists and half for the Zionists. Four of the representatives were in charge of the money, keeping it and using it for the Joint assisted establishments. A few hours later Shohan left Rovno, and the next day the Bolsheviks entered town.
That same day they came to search the activist Giterman's apartment and found the suitcase with the two million rubles. The money was obviously taken and Giterman was arrested. The danger was that they would accuse him of being a bourgeoisie agent in town. All of his explanations and arguments were in vain. Only when the local revolutionary committee heard about it and intervened, was Giterman freed but was sent to the center of Russia. The others who were in charge of the suitcases with the money were frightened; they distributed the money among several people and kept it a secret. That way the money was saved from the rulers. Some of it was spent for supporting the establishments in a way that the Russian conquerors would not perceive. The rest was given back to the Joint that renewed its activities in the city when the Poles came back in 1920. But during that time the Russian money's value diminished considerably and the money that was left was almost worthless.
The memory of the 8 million rubles stayed in the city for a long time.
Translation by Naomi Gal
Dr. Anton Liebovitz Gurfinkel was one of the most renowned doctors in Rovno. He was an eye specialist that was well known beyond the city. A quiet and intelligent man, hes was not involved with any Jewish affairs, institutions or establishments. He was considered an assimilated Jew, who befriended non-Jews and was married to a non-Jewish wife. He made money from his many patients and lived in the shadow. The Jewish population respected him only as a doctor.
In 1920, when Rovno became Polish, Dr. Gurfinkel was already old and went on living his way of life. After two or three years, feeling the end nearing, he realized all of a sudden his situation and sent a messenger to the local rabbi to ask a few questions. But the rabbi did not want to make a decision on his own and brought the matter up with Hevrah Kaddisha. The decision was to respond positively, on the condition that he would divorce his wife and leave part of his estate to Rovno community for the public's benefits.
Dr. Gurfinkel was upset: how dare they interfere with his private life and demand that he leave part of his property to an estranged congregation? Dr. Gurfinkel consulted with one of his friends, a neighbor who was also an assimilated doctor and supposedly by his advice decided to get rid of the Jewish yoke and from worrying about his afterlife.
Old Dr. Gurfinkel rushed to the heads of the Lutheran Church and became an adherent. The new-convert felt better, but only for a short while. A few weeks later he fell ill, his last illness, and died before people found out about his conversion.
Hevrah Kaddisha saw it as their duty to handle the dead and went to his house to take care of the funeral, but to their surprise encountered disdain from the non-Jewish wife who told them: Dr. Gurfinkel did not die like one of the Jids, he has another religion. He will be handled by his Lutheran Congregation. That is how it was revealed; the rumor spread around town and created a tumult. It happened on a Sunday and the stores were closed by Polish orders. The merchants and their assistants, the porters and the wagon-drivers were idling so they all came to see Dr. Gurfinkel's funeral, yesterday's convert, which was arranged by a priest and his chorus.
Despite the contempt, there were people who blamed the local rabbi for missing the opportunity he had when the diseased, who was well liked, turned to him. The tongues went on wagging for quite a while.
Translation by Naomi Gal
Yentel Manzone, one of the three Hochfeld daughters, was well known in Rovno and in many villages around the city. The big store for fabrics and textiles was famous in Volhynia, and she was the one who ordered the merchandise from the factories, depending on the seasons, and sold to wholesalers and individuals, to merchants and peddlers.
She was in charge of every single detail, not merely signing deeds, but giving her consent to every action. And of course she had to be aware of her word and of the scales so as not to err. And he, Mr. Meir Manzone, the erudite and pious Jew, was respected for himself but also for his Yentel being such a helpmate.
She used to buy rolls of fabrics from Zshirardov and Vorosov, bright white fabrics, to make bar mitzvah's shirts, when the sleeve is rolled up for the Teffilin.
Mr. Meir Manzone
|(page 334 in the Hebrew book)|
And fabrics for pillowcases and covers, sheets, tablecloths, all the things a nice Jewish girl needs in order to get married. Yentel ordered the best silk and velvet from the finest suppliers in the country. Jewish mothers in small villages were saving their pennies so that when the blessed time arrived, and their daughter was spoken for, they could pass all that gold into Yentel's hands.
Upon entering the store you'd see Mr. Meir, the storeowner, a tall, slim Jew with a small white beard. You'd say hello and he'd answer politely, and your eyes would be searching for her, Yentel Manzone. At first she'd listen to the matchmaking details, would find out who was the groom, which family he comes from and when will the wedding take place.
While talking she already knew what the mother needed for her daughter, the bride. What she suggested was suitable and she told frankly what would not become the bride; Yentel was not one to give a mother advice just because she wanted to make a sale. And while making choices and some fittings, a friendship was already formed and one could whisper and ask for credit and the response was not to worry, everything would be paid with God's help. He who gives one sons and daughters, will make sure there is enough to marry them off; one can get credit and pay in small installments.
And she sold her merchandise to all customers. Goyim came from the villages, workers, clerks, and foresters, they all came and bought fabrics, heavy cloths for work and for the children, black dresses for the housewives. But what made Yentel happy was the silk she sold for the rabbis' clothes, and most of all the white silk dresses and bridal veils.
Rovno's sons could tell you at length about the charity she showed to the poor and the unfortunate. Mr. Meir would bring ten guests home for Sabbath's dinner and she herself would make their beds. And when asked why does she bother she responded: I am not doing it for the guests, I am doing it for myself.
A wonderful example of a wife and woman of valor as written in the Book of Proverbs.
Translation by Naomi Gal
Rovno's Jews lived their lives in the city for many generations. In 1914, when World War One began and the front got closer to Rovno many Jews left the city and among them the Manzone's household. But even elsewhere Yentel went on performing her acts of charity and helped many, especially new mothers. Although she did not have much, she was still a woman of valor, aware of every Mitzvah, brought up her daughters traditionally and bestowed upon them valuable morals.
In 1918, when the Manzone family came back to Rovno the whole town rejoiced. The one who takes care of the sick and needy is back, they said. But after the war the way of life in Rovno was altered. New faces were seen in town, and there were changes in status and commerce. The revolution and the ensuing events created confusion and different values in several areas.
Yentel, exhausted by her travels far away from her home and city, began the endeavor of writing a Torah Book. It was a prolonged process and eventually she died before the book was completed. But her daughters did not forget and during the 30's her daughter Deborah Tanzman, who lived in Warsaw, completed the mission. In 1938 the Torah Book was brought to Rovno and the family members gave it to Rabbi Layboush's religious school. Two Life-trees decorated the Book; it was the daughters' gift to their parents.
Rovno newspapers wrote about this celebration:
On the night following the Sabbath a new Torah Book was ceremoniously donated to Rabbi Layboush's religious school. The Book is in memory of late Yentel and Meir Manzone. Yentel Manzone began the book while she was still alive and it was completed by one of the best scribes in Warsaw. A large crowd arrived to the celebration; the cantor Fishbien and his chorus sang prayers that evoked great enthusiasm. The crowd spoke highly about the good deeds, the contributions and donations of the Manzone family, who left behind them a good name and a good memory for blessed charity. Their daughter, Deborah Tanzman from Warsaw arrived for the celebration and in line with her parents' tradition completed the Torah Book. She also donated a considerable sum of money for charity before she left town.
A city scene: Litovska Street
(Page 335 in the Hebrew text)
Translation by Naomi Gal
Rovno's streets were narrow, especially her alleys that served as passages from one street to another. There was no planning or order. The houses stood crowded; most of them falling apart, and looking like ruins. If a new house was built in an alley it was a big novelty, an unusual phenomena. Remembered are the times when there were no pavements (and there was no place for them) and roads were not paved (till the Poles came and renovated the city and took care of some of the alleys). A deep, dense mud covered the alleys, and puddles of water gathered and did not dry even during the dry summer months. Passersby used to search for people or animal's footprints so that they wouldn't sink in the mud while crossing the street. The alleys' inhabitants were careless when it came to cleanliness and used to throw their garbage next to their houses. The whole place stunk. The city's administration did not care about the alleys and they remained neglected.
Those alleys were chosen by wagon-drivers and water-carriers as a place to park their wagons, and most of them lived there. Many of them inherited apartments in these alleys, or paid little rent, so that with time the people who lived there were the poorest, and people adapted to this way of life.
A few alleys next to Shkolna, Krassna, Caucasus and America Streets were conspicuous for their extreme dirt and congestion. The situation was not as bad in the Manijeni and Tomarovsky alleys, on the sides of Devorezka and Shpitalna, and even more so in Kaniejeski, Zolotyvski, Potchtovi, Litovski and other alleys.
Part of Shkolna Street (the end of the public bath building)
(Page 336 in the Hebrew text)
The congestion of population in Rovno was worse in these alleys, whole families lived in one room, the facilities were rudimentary and in some it was dark even during daytime. The houses' walls were common and the stairs to the second floor open for rain and wind. At night the alleys were empty and all traffic stopped from sunset till daylight.
It remained that way till the end of World War One. From then on the city progressed and the alleys began to see some light. Some of the roads were paved and urban arrangements made: street lamps, signs with the alleys' names, house numbers etc.
The situation in the city's streets was different: two storey houses stood there, planned and organized like in big capitals. Shossejna Street, the main street, crossed the length of the town, from the prison to the brick incinerator behind the army barracks. Its name was later changed to Third of May Street. By the end of the nineteenth century roads were paved in most streets and pavements were installed for the passerby's convenience. The only thing lacking was sewage disposal, but even in this area there were some initiatives during the Polish rule 1920-1939.
Shkolna Street 1925
(Page 337 in the Hebrew text)
One of the oldest streets in the city was Shkolna Street. Why was it named Shkolna? Because of the synagogues that were built there when the Jewish Community settled in town. And indeed in this street stood most of the city's synagogues. Touring this street left a special impression. It was parallel to Shossejna Street in the part between the two bridges, facing the swamp. Two hundred years ago that was where the lake met the swamp and the two streams from both sides of the Ostia River created the lake.
On Shkolna Street the houses were crowded the way they were in the alleys, and the space between the houses was pitiful. The street inhabitants were overcrowded and no wonder the odors were unpleasant In the cellars of these houses lived poor families and in the flats themselves were the workshops of most tailors, cobblers, hatters, furriers, and more). There were hardly any yards, and the street served as a common yard for most houses, and if there were a yard in one of the houses, it was tiny. After the big fire that burned most of the houses on the street, new houses were built on Shkolna Street, which made it look nicer, but it was not a dramatic change.
Since Shkolna Street was first built only Jews lived there and all the tenants and landlords were Jewish. There were no stores or businesses on the street, but there were many workshops. Some charity establishments stood there as well. In 1908 Kopilnik was the first to build a modern house on this street. With the improvements the municipality implemented, Shkolna Street had its day, too. In the new buildings that were erected public institutions were lodged. At the head of the street stood the Russian high school and nearby some offices. The closeness to the main street made it popular despite its disadvantages. Once the road was fixed and the pavements cemented, it changed from a Jewish Ghetto street to a proper street.
Krassna Street looked similar, a smaller and dirtier street. It was even more crowded then Shkolna Street and the lack of sanitation was frightfully bad. Alleys led from it to all sides. Here, too, there were only Jews and some synagogues. In the twenty years before the Holocaust some improvements were made in this corner and it looked much better.
In those Jewish streets and alleys of Rovno, and in similar streets and alleys, generations grew up, were active and weaved a Diaspora way of life. There lay a whole Jewish experience of past-lives, and a real expression of Jewish joy, worry and sadness. The cultural and national revival came a bit late to those corners and its inhabitants, but the stream of renewal swept them, too, and awoke in them yearnings for a new life.
The Jewish players called klezmers
are a special world, a world apart
that is worth glimpsing
( Shalom Aleichem in his foreword to Stempenyu)
Translation by Naomi Gal
Fifty to sixty years ago, Rovno, like other Jewish towns, had an orchestra that was known all around and was no lesser than the orchestras of Berdichev, Zaslav and others. These players lived in streets inhabited by Jews: Krassna and Shkolna, and were like one big family, inter-married, took care of each other and even had a common language they used during weddings and in the presence of strangers.
The music playing in Rovno was passed from father to son and from one generation to another. The famous ones during the aforementioned time was Moshe Kle-zemer, a pious Jew, a handsome man with a long beard. He played second violin, while Zindel, his son, renowned as an excellent violinist, played first violin. Yossel was another first violist that came to fame; Berale was a trumpet player; Moshe Bar played clarinet; Herz flutes and Issac-Meir, his brother was a violinist as well. With those players were others who played percussions. There was also an old joker, Mr. Menahem-Mendel, the famous comedian. He was old, but still up and about. He used to perform in every wedding disguised as a peasant from Pullitz swamps, wearing a fivefold hat, and dressed in an open peasant shirt, and on his feet sandals from tree bark. He used to tell juicy Ukrainian tales and make the public laugh along.
When there was an abundance of weddings in town the orchestra had to be split into smaller ones, each with its own first violinist. In such cases Zindel, Meir and Yossel, performed as violists and conductors, and the wages were equally distributed among all the members. Rovno Klezmers were invited to the surrounding villages, which insisted on including Zindel. Those who had little money used to invite a well-known orchestra from Tuchin, but Rovno's orchestra was the leading one. And indeed it had its own advantages.
I remember weddings that took place at my grandfather's house in Alexandria. He preferred Zindel and his orchestra. He used to kiss and hug him when he came from Rovno and deeply respected him. The Rovno Klezmers performance created a splash in the village, and people who were not part of the wedding stood outside my grandfather's windows and listened. During the ceremony the guests listened to the sad tune that made them tear up, while Zindel, the conductor, stood there, his eyes closed, his head tilted to one side, holding his violin and passing his bow on the strings fervently. The violin wept, hummed, cooed and instilled sadness in the hearts, and it sounded as if Zindel was pouring his heart to God. After the wedding ceremony Zindel played happy tunes that penetrated the sky and provoked excitement and merriment. His violin was in tune with the other instruments making you dance and rejoice.
The Rovno's Klezmers were famous and every now and then were invited to the Goyim balls around town and were greatly appreciated. In one of these balls at a feudal lord house, Zindel stood and very excitedly played one of his beautiful tunes, all of a sudden he fell, his violin, a loyal friend that accompanied him all his life, dropped from his hand and his music was forever interrupted
Translation by Naomi Gal
The big porters was a group of around fifty members, united and organized (unlike many others in the same profession that used to roam the markets and the alleys and lift a baggage or unload goods); their livelihood came from unloading or uploading big wagons. They served mainly the city's wholesalers, the big commerce. They were a solid support for the workers' union but were not part of any political movement. They were not Zionists, but were considered good, simple, folksy Jews, and were deeply shaken when they heard about pogroms in the Land of Israel.
You could find them every day at the commercial center of town, especially during fairs, when the market was full of Ukrainian peasants from nearby villages. More than once, after bargaining with the city's merchants and its peddlers, the peasants in their drunkenness attempted to end market-day with attack the Jews. The porters were the unofficial police that curbed the Goyim and calmed their furor. Most of the time a real law and order police officer was nowhere to be found, and the porters, single-handedly prevented bloodshed.
The Polish police were lenient with them since they freed them from worries and from the contemptuous job of protecting Jewish peddlers and storeowners. Sometimes the porters protected Jewish pickpockets who were, too, a commercial sector on market-day, and more than once served as an excuse for Ukrainian peasants' outburst after being victims to their professional skillfulness. The police used to close their eyes to the pranks of these pickpockets on market days and fairs, because most of the time they were partners and bribes were paid ahead of time.
One summer evening the working-class Rovno, united in different professional unions, was preparing for celebrating the day of the founding of the Workers' International Union in Amsterdam. They were getting ready for an authorized parade and a big public rally of Jewish, Polish and Ukrainian workers, befitting the occasion. Everything was almost ready and the executive committee of the workers' unions convened for final arrangements when a rumor fast as lightning spread in town. Polish students from the extreme right attacked the Workers' Union; they began beating the committee members, tearing and trampling the flags that were ready for next day's celebrations. One of the committee's members jumped out of the window (two stories high) and called the big porters who were resting after a workday next to Rosencrantz's pharmacy. All of them, without exception, by foot or by car, rushed to their brothers' rescue. After a few moments they reached the club, surrounded it, and surprised the students at the peak of their frenzy. When the police arrived at long last, all they had to do was collect a few students with broken ribs, hands and legs, who were thrown out the windows by the porters; the rest of the rioters ran for their lives.
The parade next day took place with no further interruptions although there were reports that the students intended to blow up the parade and the rally. This is how that evening the big porters served the workers' unions and became the talk of town.
In July 1929, when the newspapers ran the first reports on the bloody clash between Jews and Arabs in the Land of Israel, and reported about dead and injured Jews, a delegation of the big porters came to the Land of Israel office in Rovno and declared: We are not Zionists, but we are Jews! Give us at once certificates so that we can go help our brothers and show the Arabs our force. Obviously it did not happen because there was a very long line for the few certificates the office had after a long stretch of time with no certificates, while the economy in the Land of Israel was in dire straits. Hundreds of pioneers who prepared for years in the many Kibbutzim in Poland waited for their certificates. It is interesting to note how when Jews are in trouble, be it Jews from left-wing workers' unions, or Jews in the Land of Israel, these porters were all ready to help. Their simplicity, and their almost childish innocence were touching.
And here are some vignettes from the daily lives of these porters:
As I mentioned before, the porters used to assemble every morning next to one of the big commerce businesses and wait for an announcement about the arrival of commercial-wagon that needed unloading or an invitation to upload merchandise to be sent to nearby villages. But there were many hours of idling and to avoid boredom they organized a nip, and in a quite original way used to sit in half a circle on the pavement, without paying attention to the fact that they were occupying half of the pavement, which was narrow to begin with. They used to argue about prayers' texts, especially Sabbath and holidays' liturgies, although they ignored the meaning.
They argued about spelling, each one having a different opinion, and no one gave up. Someone would then suggest they bet on a bottle of brandy and of course they all agreed. They used to stop a respectable-looking Jew who passed by and ask for his opinion. Both spellings were right,-- meaning the two sides lost the bet and each one of them had to bring at once a bottle of brandy. Everybody clapped and the merriment was great. Passersby would linger a moment wondering about the cheerfulness, shrug their shoulders, and walk on.
One day the porters were arguing about another liturgy and the right spelling; again a bet was made. This time it was a Jew on his way back from the synagogue, his prayer book was with him, so he showed them the way it was written and, of course, more bottles of brandy were bought and the party went on.
There were a few among the porters who saw themselves as better than the others, and the most noticeable was Liebel Spojnik, whose nickname was Liebel Boratch, the hero, because of the following story. A long time before this happened he was considered the prime of all the big porters because he was stout and muscled and more then once tried his luck and strength in a public display, and was successful. But one of his performances became the talk of town, since he protected the Jewish honor.
In one of the athletes' shows in Silneka Park the famous Matouchenko was standing on stage. For weeks he wrestled with great athletes all over the country and no one was able to defeat him. Now he addressed the public boasting conceitedly and asking if anybody would dare wrestle with him and maybe even win. Liebel Spojnik, who was in the audience, rubbed his hands and told his friends: I am afraid I can't defeat him, I have no experience. His friends began encouraging him, saying he had no one to fear and that he had nothing to lose. And even if you lose, it no big deal, you saw that 'black mask' was almost defeated, and, on the other hand, if you win you will be famous in the whole country! How important it is for a simple Jewish porter to compete with the champion of wrestlers? Liebel got up, turned to the podium and said: I will try. He was invited to come up on the stage, the public, mostly Jews, were astonished. Wearing an undershirt and long pants Leibel stood on the stage. Matouchenko swiftly approached him and with one finger tore Liebel's undershirt, saying: you don't wear undershirt for wrestling and demanded that Liebel take off his shoes. Liebel was embarrassed and blushed but recuperated at once and furiously attacked the internationally legendary wrestler. For a moment it seemed as if he was going to devour him. But he realized at once that physical strength is not enough: the wrestler, who at first was on the defense, went on to attack. Clumsy Liebel began twitching between his arms like a fish in a net. Matouchenko lifted him over his shoulder and threw him on the mattress with all his might. Liebel who must have heard something about the bridge managed to get to that position, and there was no moving him from the bridge. They wrestled for a few moments with no results, and an intermission was declared. The audience demanded that the wrestling continue, but the organizers who probably feared surprises, ruled that as a volunteer who was never before in a ring, Liebel could consider a draw as victory. Matouchenko, breathing heavily nodded his consent to the ruling, his friends had to carry him away and Liebel became a hero.
This performance was seen as a successful protection of Jewish Honor and in time Liebel was nicknamed Boratch. Not too long afterwards Zicha Brightbert, a man known for his strength, arrived in Rovno. He was renown for sticking nails into wooden boards with his bare hands and by tearing chains and bending iron rods with his hands and tooth. Liebel began gathering his friends and tried to imitate Brightbert. Surprise, surprise: the nail went through one thick wooden board and then through two, exactly like Brightbert's. One of Liebel friends suggested that he perform in nearby villages, and Liebel took the advice, found an impresario and went on his way. He didn't fail when it came to physical force but when it came to wages he was disappointed. Back then people in the villages did not waste money on this kind of show. Liebal went back to Rovno, returned to the market with porter's girdle and said: Nothing beats schlepping crates and sacks and winning bread with your sweat. That was the end of the adventure.
There were many tough guys among the porters but not all of them exposed their strength the way Liebel did. There is a story about a porter who saw some people trying unsuccessfully to lift a heavy load. He suggested he would lift it but only if they would put it on his shoulder. After enlisting a few passersby the load was put on his shoulder. He began taking easy steps bent as a bow, arrived to the destination and carefully put the load down. When he came back someone observed that the soles of his shoes were torn. The shoes he was wearing were narrow Sabbath's shoes; the porter smiled and said: So, no wonder, 'Sabbath Shoes' are not used to an everyday load.
This is how the big porters were. How they lived, behaved and died during the Holocaust I don't know. Maybe some of them survived. I just found out that Hershel the Langer (the tall one), one of them, works in Haifa's port; he is second generation to Rovno's porters, but I haven't met him yet. I am certain that every Nazi who came to contact with one of Rovno's porters will remember well the Jew-Boys like Liebel and his friends.
It is hard to imagine that they were led like sheep to slaughter. When they died they probably sanctified the name of Israel in their unique way.
Translation by Naomi Gal
In many Jewish towns and villages there were craftsmen who were devoted to different community services and were very active in areas in which they could be useful. Most of the time they did not do it for a benefit but for the Mitzvah and a sense of obligation to themselves and others. Some worked with Hevrah Kaddishah, others collected money and supported the poor or the sick. There were those who found comfort doing good deeds instead of studying Torah. You found them in Rovno, too, especially amid the builders, tailors and shoemakers.
We will henceforth talk about two such Rovno shoemakers, both endearing men whose special qualities were outstanding.
Mr. Nachum the shoemaker
Mr. Nachum was a humble and faithful man; modest and righteous who lived all his life on Shkolna Street, beside the Shtolberg family, with whom he was on good neighboring terms. The family members and other neighbors who knew him well spoke highly about his righteousness and devotion to the needy, especially when it came to helping Jewish prisoners. He volunteered to be the wake-up caller to psalms reading, and before dawn roamed the streets calling: Holy people of Israel, rise, rise to worship the Lord. His clear voice resonated with the traditional tune that woke up the sleepers. Every child recognized the trilled voice of Nachum the shoemaker and Nachum saw it as an honor and a Mitzvah. It was, for him, a holy mission that only one can perform, and he was the one. Hence heaven gave him this Mitzvah to fulfill.
Another Mitzvah that Nachum chose: helping Jewish prisoners. After World War One many Jews from Russia came back via Rovno, but the Polish authorities regarded them as illegal, suspected them as communists and arrested hundreds of them. The aid committee for refugees in Rovno helped them, but they needed welfare, support and food. There were other Jews, beside them, who were in prison, sentenced for months and years, and the committee was unable to help them all. Nachum took this upon himself in addition to his wake-up calls. He made sure prisoners got Kosher food, especially on Sabbath and holidays, organizing Minyan for prayers on Sabbath and holidays. That way Nachum facilitated the work of the aid committee and alleviated some of its concerns. His big wide eyes and large beard made him look like a Cohen and his extremely gentle manner endeared him to people who gave him gifts and donations for the prisoners. Even non-Jews who knew him, policemen and prison guards, respected him. The Seder that Nachum used to conduct in prison with Rabbi Levi Ides was famous. Nachum was a caring father to the imprisoned brothers and he was happy with everything he managed to do or get them, and distributed among them with dignity and justice. It is important to note that Nachum's livelihood was impaired; he did not take care of himself and sometimes neglected his work, so that he could get what the prisoners and refugees needed.
The sons of Rovno remember this modest public activist who dedicated himself to fulfilling a most important Mitzvah that is related to taking care of others.
Hanan the shoemaker
Like Nachum, Hanan the shoemaker took upon himself to help prisoners. Hanan lived on Soborna Street. He was a special man: pious, good-hearted and always of sunny disposition, a folksy man, one of the very best. He used to sit on a stool next to his workbench and reflect about his creator and the duty of one man to another. No high-airs for him, there are no rich shoemakers; he settled for what he got for his work and lived in poverty. His apartment faced the Torah school and that's where you could meet him on his way to prayer, returning mended shoes, or trudging on missions for prisoners. Hanan had a rule: when a Jewish prisoner was in jail everybody had to take care of him, feed him, provide the basic needs the authorities failed to provide, and do everything possible to free him from prison. A man who committed an offense is still a man, he has to be forgiven and he will mend his ways. Hanan was adamant in his demand from men who walk free in God's world, since he believed in the rightness and the importance of the Mitzvah he was performing. No one ever turned him down; some gave a lot and others less. That is how he got the reputation of the patron of the prisoners and destitute.
During the High Holidays, Hanan used to conduct public prayers in prison and used to read from the Torah. The prisoners, who enjoyed what Hanan got for them, admired the man who was so good to them, who never missed on his holy endeavor and visited them in wind, rain and snow with his bags full of goodies.
Over the years the prison guards recognized Hanan, knew his honesty and devotion to the prisoners and more than once per his demand were more lenient with the prisoners. Hanan used to walk in and out of prison as a regular, distributing the food, conducting a Minyan and more. Obviously he gave some gifts to the guards as well.
There were righteous women in Rovno, who while performing acts of charity and benevolence, did not deprive the Jewish prisoners and used to provide Hanan with the donations they collected for the needy.
Hanan stayed on his mission for around fifteen years, performing the Mitzvah of helping prisoners in the name of his generous fellow-townsmen till his very last days.
Translation by Naomi Gal
Even by the beginning of the 20th century the citizens of Rovno did not have running water. They used to draw the water from a nearby well or get it from water- carriers who carried buckets on their shoulders, as was the custom in the villages. Running water came much later and even then, only in the houses of the very rich. The water-carriers used to go every day and provide the vital liquid for a fee. It goes without saying that there was no wasting of water back then.
And then came a change. The city's authorities decided to do what was done in other cities: supply water for the citizens from artisan wells. A water institute was installed in the city's center, between the Wolja and the old city (next to the railroad). The institution's name was Vodokachka water drawer. But it did not solve the water supply problem, because they did not think of installing pipes and using them to bring water to the homes, and since the previous small wells were neglected and the only source for water was the institute, there was no choice but to transfer the water in barrels and deliver them to the near and far houses. The water-carriers installed big barrels on horse-drawing wagons and began distributing water for a fee to everyone in town everyday. The municipality taxed a small sum for every barrel that was filled by the water-carriers. In due course they were all numbered and registered as workmen and even got special licenses. Every water-carrier had his own houses to which he delivered water every day and no one trespassed his friend's territory; solidarity was established among the workers of this field and they made sure no strangers could invade their domain.
Remembered are the following water-carriers: Mr. Lybe, Yakkov, Issac and others who were water-carriers for dozens of years, some of them landlords who bequeathed their profession to their sons. Dozens of families in Rovno made their living from water-carrying till in the 1920's of the 20th century, when the Polish rulers began building modern houses with running water. But the large majority of Rovno homes, which had no modern installations, still depended on the regular water-carriers, till the Nazi came and brought destruction to the city.
(An episode from a Zionist lecturer's experience)
Translation by Naomi Gal
As a son of Galicia, which was on Volhynia's border, I knew some of its cities, and one of them was Rovno, the vibrant, famous town. During World War One I served in the Austrian army; on my way to the eastern-front I passed Rovno and stayed there for a while. That is how I got to know the city's Jews up close and personal. I saw their poverty and sufferings under the Tsar's regime and his armies in the war region, I realized their materialistic and spiritual state and I learned to appreciate and respect them.
When the war was over, Rovno, according to the peace treaty, became a border town under the Polish Rule. New political, national and economical problems, concerning minorities that became Polish citizens arose and needed to be solved. The adaptation of the inhabitants in general and the Jews in particular to the new regime and the restrictions was not easy. The Jewish representatives, I was one of them, fought for their interests, defending them and disputing their case, but we were not always successful in this complex task. My party, the Labor party of the Young Workers and Zion's Youth was against the Ugoda (the compromise reached between the Jews and Gravsky's government). We were summoned to Poland's cities to explain the situation and talk about the Jewish representatives' actions. We were invited to Rovno, and since I knew some of its Zionist activists from previous meetings, I accepted the invitation.
When I arrived to Rovno I found a vivacious and thriving city, very different from the provincial town I experienced in 1915. The number of the inhabitants, Jews and non-Jews had increased considerably. I realized that the capital of Polish Volhynia was not Luczek, but Rovno, although from administrative point of view Luczek was the main city. Dozens of youngsters from Galicia, with Polish and Hebrew education, served as teachers in Rovno's Tarbut net. The economical endeavors of the Zionists were thriving, the cultural institutions blossomed, the achievements of the national funds increased every year, the number of members in the Zionist parties was greater than ever, as the competition between them grew, youth movements from all trends were active, preparing a generation of pioneers for the Land of Israel, local press was developing, social and educational institutions were founded, amid them ORT, Uza, Aid for Orphans and others. Corporations of workshops were active, unions of workers and clerks, organizations of workmen, merchants, landlords and others all were alive and active and made the city's heart beat.
The day I arrived at Rovno I was taken to some of the Jewish establishments and met many activists from different parties. I was impressed by the Zionist activity and I realized they were not exaggerating when they spoke about the importance of social and Zionist Rovno. That same evening a large meeting of all the Jewish circles was held at the big cinema house. The presidency of the meeting included representatives from all the Zionist parties and national institutions. My lecture was about the political and national operations of the Jews in the Polish administration. After my lecture we were supposed to have a discussion, but before I could end, the chairman passed me a note about a big fire that erupted in the commercial part of the city and asked what should be done. I opted to go on talking hoping that they would control the fire. After ten minutes I got a second note that said: The stores are burning, the fire is spreading. Many of the stores and workshops owners are in the audience, please decide if we can continue the meeting.
I then stopped and apologized, promising the audience to go on in a second meeting. The listeners heard about the fire and began dispersing.
When I met Rovno's activists later they said that the story in town was: Dr. Heller spoke with such fire that he enflamed the whole city
Translation by Naomi Gal
There are events in one's life that can never be erased and they stay engraved deep in memory. I was born in the tiny village Bialozorka in Volhynia, spent my childhood in Rafalowka and then found myself in bustling Rovno. In my village I walked the fields, spent days in creeks, listened to birds chirping and enjoyed nature in a simple and easy-going way of life Jews and non-Jews shared alike.
The busy city was different. The beauty of nature was no longer here but I found other matters that occupied my mind and nourished my eyes. A new world opened to me in big Rovno, the county town that was the center.
In the evenings we used to walk in groups and weave dreams about our fathers' land, about redemption, renewal and changes. We went to the branch of the National Guard in Rafalowka, our village. I was lucky enough to be one of the heads of this branch, and when we were invited to send representatives to a National Guard convention to be held in Rovno during Passover mid-holidays, I and another member were elected to attend the meeting.
Since we had no money for traveling we decided to walk to Rovno, a backpack with food on our backs. We mounted hills and descended valleys, crossed creeks, meadows, and villages on the way, and after two days of strenuous walk we reached Rovno.
Rovno was very special for us, 14 years old boys who never saw a city, everything was new and thrilling. Long streets, high buildings, stores full of goods, attractive window-shops, billboards, people rushing, synagogues, institutions, Jews aplenty and others I hardly knew, Zionists implementing the return to Zion, and Zionist youth busy with sports, education, speaking Hebrew and intending to go and build the Land of Israel. Our head was dizzy from the cars (we had only horses) and the noise in general. We were not used to it.
For a few days we walked around intoxicated by the city, we attended meetings and excursions. The city greatly influenced us and the convention provided food for thought and prepared us for activities in our village. That is how I came to know Rovno.
Three years later I was elected to be the secretary and the organizer of the cultural activities of Zionist Hechalutz in Volhynia. The headquarters were in Rovno and I lived there for over a year. I was attracted to other Zionist organization, as well, and I came to know closely Rovno Jews and its excellent activists. The whole of Rovno seemed Zionist to me its youth was conquered by Zionism, many participated in special preparations and eventually immigrated to the Land of Israel.
Rovno the big city, Rovno the Jewish and Zionist town, was there anything left from what it was before the axe came down?
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