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[Page 185]

The Town and its Residents

A. Till the First World War

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The Smorgon “Kibbutz”

by M. Ivenski

Translated by Yocheved Klausner


Smorgon was located between Vilna and Minsk. It was considered a small town in the district, but in truth it was livelier, if not even greater, than the district town Oshmien. It was easy to make a living in town – there were more than a few wealthy Jewish families. Although most of the residents were simple shopkeepers and workers, Smorgon was considered a rich town. There was enough “flour” and the Jewish residents sought to plant also “Torah” as much as possible.

The main source of livelihood in Smorgon was the leather manufacture. The owners as well as the workers were totally dedicated to their work; however, spiritual matters were not neglected and Torah study was always first. When the Volozhyn Yeshiva was closed in 1892, some of the Balebatim [well-to-do and respected leaders of the community, lit. “house owners”] brought a number of students and teachers to Smorgon, thereby establishing, amidst the “weekday” atmosphere of business, a kibbutz [group] of learners and worshippers, who were immersed in Torah study with body and soul.

Most of the members of this kibbutz (called “kloizniks”), were adult men ordained as rabbis. But the group included younger men as well, who had just left the yeshiva to begin their independent lives. There were no regular lessons at the kibbutz, but the kloizniks would study in pairs, learning from one another.

One of the kloizniks (1895) became later famous as the

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Yiddish writer A. Weiter. His real name was Aizik Meir Devenishki, and the kloizniks nicknamed him “the Bianiankener” after the name of his town of birth. Aizik Meir Devenishki was probably 15-16 years old at the time; he was one of the oldest of the younger group.

Considering the standards of the times, the kibbutz was doing well financially. The kloizniks did not have to “eat days.” They even received a weekly support that could amount to 2 Rubles and 50 Kopeks a week for those who had been ordained as rabbis. The others received 30 Kopeks a week, sometimes less. But nobody was hungry – the community would not let anyone fall. The money for the weekly payments was collected from various sources: at circumcision ceremonies, weddings, contract signing ceremonies, even at funerals. It was said that the community would collect money for that purpose “from the living and from the dead.” The collector, who was also the supervisor in the yeshiva and the beadle of the synagogue, was a short Jew, with a face that looked like yellow parchment. His name was Feitel. This Feitel would fast for days, sleep on a bench in the synagogue and be content with very little, as long as his kloizniks were taken care of. He was for them a father, albeit sometimes a very angry father.

Life in Smorgon was peaceful and comfortable. Businesses flourished, as did Torah study. However, this serene situation did not last long. Something happened in the shtetl that caused an uproar. It was kept secret for a long time, but in the end the secret came out. “Horrible things” became known, and the entire town was distressed.

In the outskirts of Smorgon lived a former activist named Ivan Frantzovitch Sinitzki, who was considered trouble by most of the balebatim in town. Sinitzki was a true Russian (although Polish by origin), a fine, respected gentile, who helped Jews whenever he could. However, he was one of those who intended “to turn the world upside down” – change things that were there “since creation.” He was part of the Russian intelligentsia and he devoted his life to “enlighten the masses.” Among the Jews of Smorgon he found fertile ground for his ideas. Most of his students and followers were Jewish adolescents – boys and girls.

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Sinitzki's influence was definitely felt in Smorgon. The sons and daughters of the best Jewish families would go to Sinitzki's house to listen to his lessons. Among them were the rabbi's daughter Liebe Ginsburg (who later became Mrs. Lyessin) and her sister Beile. The balebatim in town were furious, but kept silent: their own children were involved in this.

Sinitzki's influence reached even the Beit Midrash, the study-house where the kloizniks studied under Feitel's supervision. Sinitzki had two representatives there: young Nuchimovski and Shimshelevitz; they preached socialism – the great and important meaning of Labor.

The idea of socialism we could understand and accept; but we could not consent to the activity of assimilators – assimilators were treif, “impure.” We were nationalists.

Shimshelewitz, who was also a “Hebraist,” recommended a Hebrew book, “The Enlightened Carpenter.” This was a small book, part of a series of Hebrew books published by Ben Avigdor under the general name of “One-Groshen-Books.” This book described a Torah student, a genius from Volozhyn, who left his studies and became a carpenter, an “enlightened carpenter,” whose idea and goal was “to be useful to humanity.” Shimshelewitz told me that this was a true story. He knew the young genius who became the hero of the book: his name was Avraham Walt. Shimshelewitz also revealed the secret: this Walt had been in Smorgon a while ago and had a long argument with Sinitzki. Walt was indeed a genius – he said – a socialist, a poet, but he had not yet left Judaism. He was a fiery nationalist… he was a genial person, a great personality…

“The Enlightened Carpenter” caused controversy and indignation, in particular among the kloizniks…

The book set forth among Jews the idea of “work” as a socialist concept. This idea was later adopted and promoted by A. D. Gordon, as the “Religion of Work” [Dat Ha'avoda].

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I was greatly impressed by Shimshelewitz's words…

Even before I met Walt personally, I felt the effect of his ideas. Shimshelewitz would bring us pages of poems written by that mysterious person, who had become the hero of a tale. The poems passed from hand to hand; they were full of Jewish suffering and pain, and willingness to sacrifice his life for Jews.

But Shimshelewitz brought to the kloizniks not only national poems by Walt; he brought also revolutionary poems…. this was actually his main goal. The poems had a significant effect; they greatly inspired some of the younger kloizniks.

The revolutionary poems were known not only among the kloizniks. Craftsmen and other workers were aware of them as well, and in 1896 circles of Jewish workers began to organize. Most organizers came from Vilna; among them was a friend of Walt (Lyessin), Shmuel Levine (Dr. Shmuel Levine, who died in New York about 30 years ago). Levine worked among the kloizniks as well and he talked with admiration about one of them, a genius, who became a great poet and socialist. He meant his friend Walt.

By that time, strikes began in town. This was already too much for the Balebatim – they were furious. At the same time, a preacher came then to our town, Simcha Cohen, who was a singer as well as a speaker. He would “sing” his sermons in a threatening voice that penetrated the souls of his listeners. In his sermons he asked the fathers not to spare their sons, but to do everything in their power to annihilate the “idol worship” [socialism] from their midst. The effect of the sermons was great: it caused trouble in many families, where sons and daughters of rich Jews helped enlighten poor laborers, show them how they have been exploited and organized strikes against their own fathers.

Even among the kloizniks in the Yeshiva incidents began to happen. Feitel the supervisor caught one of the students, Botwinik (from Rakov) reading from a book that he kept on top of his open Gemara [Talmud volume]. Actually the book was an entirely

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“innocent” book: it was a grammar book of the Russian language by Kirpitchnikov. But a rumor began, that the Rakover was one of Sinitzki's men. The result of Kirpitchnikov's grammar book incident was sad indeed. One of the Smorgon Jews, the rich man Baruch Nathan, slapped the Rakover and drove him out of the Bet Midrash.

The fact that a kloiznik was beaten upset the entire kibbutz in the Bet Midrash. Older pious people were angry at Nathan, who dared to raise a hand on a teacher. The Rakover was a friend of mine, we lived in the same neighborhood; and although I did not always agree with him and we had many arguments about his friendship with the assimilates, I suffered the consequences of the well-known saying “woe to the wicked, woe to his neighbor”…. Smorgon had become too crowded for me. Many of my acquaintances had moved to Minsk.


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Whenever I speak about her…
(A chapter of memories)

by Regina Helman

Translated by Sara Mages


Not without excitement and longing I bring up my memories today on the sheet of paper before me…As in a play, the images of my childhood pass before me through a bright transparent mirror, and I hold them one by one.

Smorgon my hometown – my cradle stood in you, I took my first steps in you, in your streets I learned my first lesson in human relations, and bought wisdom in your “Heders” and “schools”.

My house in you was small, but the whole world resided in it. It was saturated with faith in God and love for the nation of Israel.

Untypical for girls, my father of blessed memory entered me to the “Heder” of Rabbi Gershon Yankel in Karka Street (Krever Gas). I was a small tender girl then. I was barely five years old.

Even now I can see in my dreams the long wooden benches adjacent to the tables. There were various strange engravings on them, birds and animals that the children's imagination carved, some with a small cheap knife, and some with a nail or a piece of glass. Next to this long table sat a congregation of babies, boys and girls, and learned prayers, the Chumash and the Bible. Next to the “class room” was a small room that served as the residence of the “Rabbi” and his “Polish woman”, dark and narrow was this room and its entire space was filled with two wide beds. The naughty among us played “hide and seek” under the beds of this gloomy room.

Attached to the Rabbi's house grew a tree that its bough almost covered the roof and sloped towards the fence. I remember that the teacher's goat was tied to this tree. The goat, “the only daughter”, was spoiled but kind hearted and overflowing with milk for the children of Rabbi Gershon Yankel. One day, the goat disappeared, and it was “Tisha B'Av” in the rabbi's house. The Rebbetzin clasped her hands, cried and shouted in a voice full of fear.

“The goat is lost and gone, Woe to me! our provider!” Needless to say, that we, the small children, participated in the great grief of the rabbi's wife.

My mother of blessed memory educated us in the spirit of tradition and religion. Every morning, when we got up, she placed us, the children, in a row and we repeated after her word by word: “Modeh Ani Lefanecha” [“I am grateful before You”], and at bedtime, when we climbed on our beds, she gave us a copper laver full of water and a bowl on its side to wash our hands and say: “Hamapil hevlei sheina” [the Bedtime Shema].

[Page 235]

Our mother insisted that also her daughters will pray “Shacharit”, “Mincha” and “Maariv” every day.

And what is remarkable in this? After all, our mother was the daughter of a rabbi, the granddaughter of “R' Yosile der Villner”, and also the uncles were teachers, judges and rabbis like R' Yodel der Zurferner, R' Zalman and others.

Every Friday, after “Kabalat Shabbat”, my father used to bring a poor guest to the house, and mother brought a needy “Yeshiva Bocher” [an unmarried Yeshiva student] every Tuesday.

My father was a scholar, a “reader”, a respectful man with a pleasant voice. His teaching was organized and in his spare time he taught us. How I loved to hear my father explaining the Bible. His explanations opened my eyes, and to this day I haven't forgotten the knowledge that I acquired from him in my childhood. On summer evenings and on the Sabbath he taught me “Pirkei Avot” and “Barchi Nafshi” in the winter.

The first planted words of wisdom and morals in my soul, and the second the love for poetry and the wonders of God. I grew up a little and started to study in the “Reformed Heder” [“Heder Metukan”] of the teacher Schinuk of blessed memory. He was an excellent teacher, a “grammarian”, an enthusiastic lover of Zion, and an advocate of the Hebrew literature. Parallel to my studies in the “Reformed Heder” I also studied in the Russian Elementary School.

Nevertheless, I preferred my Hebrew studies over the Russian studies. When I started to read Hebrew books on my own – I didn't let them go. I was shaken when I read “Ahavat Zion” [Love of Zion] and “Ashmat Shomron” [The Guilt of Samaria] by Abraham Mapu. For many days I wandered dreamily and my eyes rose longingly to Zion.

Our teacher Schinuk had a large part in nurturing the Zionist dream among the children of Smorgon. He inspired us with his stories and lit a sacred fire in us for the love of our nation.

I remember a short essay that I wrote at that time under the influence and the teaching of our favorite teacher. The essay was about a way-of-a-dream, and this is its summery: One day the teacher Schinuk came and said to us: children we are going on a trip. The teacher took us and transferred us on eagles' wings to Eretz Yisrael. And here, our feet are standing at the gates to Jerusalem. We climb the mountains around her and descend into the valleys. In a valley, between fields and vineyards, Jewish farmers are reaping with joy, and the sounds of happiness and joy are being heard from all sides. Blue sky stretches over our heads. Jewish shepherds are sitting on the hills playing their flutes and their sheep are dancing in front of them. We come to a vineyard and our teacher picks a cluster of grapes and tells us: let's carry it with a “pole for two”- we carry the cluster of grapes and bring it to our brothers in the Diaspora.

I woke up and it was a dream. The teacher Schinuk of blessed memory checked the essay and praised the writer (it's me) publicly. He asked me to give him my essay so he could read it before the members of the “Zionist Federation”. I remember the phrase that the teacher wrote on the essay in addition to the grade:

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“Indeed, your feet will step on the land of Zion and your eyes will see the return of our people to their country.”

Not before long, the “Reformed Heder” of Schinuk of blessed memory received a “burst of power.” A young Jewish woman, a graduate of the Zionist School ''Yehudia'' in Vilna, who was qualified as a teacher, came to Smorgon, married our teacher Schinuk, and helped him with his revival work.

Maybe this teacher from ''Yehudia'' in Vilna was the cause of my deepen desire to be a teacher. That thought gave me no rest and I looked for ways to make it happen. My parents' financial status was strained, there were many children at home and my sisters came of age. O where will my help come from? My prayer and my secret tears were received in the heavens. Spirit and salvation came to me from a place that I've never expected.

In those days, Dr. Epstein of blessed memory lived in Smorgon. A precious Jew and an ardent Zionist. Though, he was a doctor for his people's illnesses, meaning, body illnesses, he didn't prevent himself from giving medicines for the illnesses of our people's spirit and soul. The city's Zionists gathered in his home for holiday parties or for reading parties from the nest Hebrew literature. And since I was gifted with a nice voice and read poems with the correct emotion, I was invited to one of these parties to read the poem “Igeret Ketana”[A brief letter] by Hayim Nahman Bialik. It seems that I succeeded in reading the poem, because soon after Dr. Epstein invited me and had a long conversation with me. He asked me about my aspirations, examined me carefully, and had made this decision.

The next day, Dr. Epstein came to my father, sat with him for a long time, and persuaded him to send me to a kindergarten teachers' school in Warsaw. My father didn't want to hear about Warsaw. Rumors spread: that “girls were abducted” in Warsaw in order to send them overseas… but my father accepted Dr. Epstein's offer to send me to ''Yehudia'' in Vilna. And thus I arrived to “Yerushalayim deLita”. The gates to the Torah and knowledge opened before me in this Jewish metropolis, and I lived the life of national and cultural revival of that generation. On holidays I returned to Smorgon. In one of these days - we presented in this city “Chana and her Seven Sons” with Moyshe Kulbak, who later became famous. Smorgon, my Divine city, accompanied me in all the many stations of my life, in all my long wanderings around the world, in the steppes of Russia and Siberia, and in the European countries. And now, when I check my way of my life, I find that a lot of the grace and beauty of my hometown, from the good and noble, are embedded in…[the remainder is missing]

[Page 261]

A testimony

by Pesach Taburiski

Translated by Sara Mages


I was born in Smorgon in 1903.

I studied at the Russian Elementary School which was located in Minsk Street. There were five classes in the school. The school's principal was Skott, and the teachers were Horowitz the author of the grammar book, Dubkis, and Filler. Mrs. Scott was the principal of an elementary school for girls

In 1911, at the age of eight, I entered the Elementary School's preparatory class. The school had about 250 students. Each student, who was accepted, had to be able to read and write Russian, be versed in the multiplication table and the four rules of mathematics.

Skott taught the Bible which was translated into Russian. We also prayed in Russian. We started the morning with a prayer for the king.

I studied four years in the school. The studies continued without interruption even during the war which broke out in 1914.

The big recruitment day came. The recruits, meaning, the reserves up to age 45, were transported to Oshmene [Ashmyany]. Their number reached tens of thousands.

During the first year of the First World War, convoys of Jewish refugees from Kovno, Jonava, Kurlandia [Courland] and also from cities in Poland arrived to Smorgon's station.

Immediately, our city organized a “War refugee aid committee.”

We welcomed the refugees in the train station. We brought them food. Smorgon's notable women worked in an improvised kitchen. Samovars were brought and tea was boiled. We watered and fed the poor people who fled from the German's sword, or deported from their place of residency according to the decree of the commander-in-chief of the Russian Army, Nikolay Nikolayevich, the Jews' enemy. We received the refugees who wanted to remain in our city with open arms. Some of them stayed with us for a whole year.

The Germans entered the city and captured it on the eve of Rosh Hashanah. They robbed the grocery stores and the wine stores. They handed out chocolate to the city's children to earn their trust.

The Jews treated them with open sympathy. Not out of love for Wilhelm [Kaiser Wilhelm II], but out of hatred for Czar Nikolay II, the Czar who was hostile towards the Jews. Under his orders, his wicked people, who pretended to be nationalists, carried out pogroms against the Jews in the cities of the Pale Settlement.

The conquerors didn't harm the civilians.

One fine day we heard shots from the Firibeiz? side, meaning, across the Viliya River.

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The Russians built a new bridge over the river, because the Germans demolished the old bridge and also blew up the railway line. The battle was fought almost within the city limits, buildings were ignited and fires broke out.

The Russian infantry seized the city and took it from the Germans. Cossacks' troops arrived after the infantry.

After a few days, an order arrived from Nikolay Nikolayevich to burn the whole city and expel all of its Jewish residents.

Those who refused to obey, about forty people, gathered in the Koidenav Shtiebel. The Cossacks burnt the house on them.

The Cossacks stormed the few dozens men and women who hid in Kovrsky's liquor workshop. They tortured the women and set the distillery on fire.

All of us, who were expelled from the city, walked towards Minsk. We arrived, some in a cart and some by foot, to Maladzyechna. From there we traveled by train to Minsk. In Minsk they put us in the synagogue. We were welcomed by the workers of the Red Cross and the members of the “Refugee Aid Committee.” Only a few refugees from Smorgon remained in Mink. The majority of the refugees traveled to various cities: Bogorodsk, Krakow and Poltova. Some traveled farther and reached Siberia. Some immigrated to the United States through Harbin [China] and Japan.

When we were expelled we didn't have the time to take food, clothing or underwear with us, we left with nothing. A few refugees bundled a little food in a tablecloth and the women took Sabbath candles.

We had a big oven in our house and the neighbors used to keep their Sabbath meals in it. Our uncle lived in the Bears Street. He was a busy factory owner and didn't know what was happening in the city. As usual he came to our house on Saturday to attend the Shabbat meal with the family. He entered, and to his astonishment he saw the Cossacks sitting around the table eating Jewish food, fish, meat and cholent, that they took out of the oven. They showered him with blows and he fled for his life

After the feast, they took kerosene from our storeroom, poured it on the Jews' houses and set them on fire. - - -

In 1920, some began to return to Smorgon. These were the forerunners… meaning, the families who lived in Minsk and their return journey wasn't long. Most of Smorgon's residents returned in 1921-1922. Some of those who returned stopped on the way and lived temporarily in Vilna, and some came straight to Smorgon. They settled in the cellars of the surviving buildings. A few busied themselves in building new houses to replace those that were burnt. For building material they used the wooden beams that they removed from the trenches which remained intact. They were built two, three, or even four stories below ground.

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