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[Pages 247-248]

The Great Fire

Dr. Menachem Levin (Jerusalem)

Dr. Menachem Levin
Dr. Menachem Levin

It was Shabbat, in the month of July in 1927. It was a hot day, after several weeks of hot, dry weather. The town was emptied of its Jews, who had gone out for their Sabbath walk on the surrounding roads, or walked family by family, loaded with hampers and baskets of food. At that time, there was a Beitar summer camp in the Jamiolki Forest west of the town, and on Shabbat afternoons large groups of children and youth would visit the camp in the forest, where they sang and danced.

That Shabbat, I also visited the camp, and towards evening all of us headed back towards town in song and merriment, a distance of three kilometers. When we came near the suburbs of the town, we saw a thin stream of smoke coming out of one of the windows of the tall and only flour mill in town. We were surprised to see the smoke, but we weren't worried. All around, there was idyllic silence; the sun slowly sank in the clear and cloudless sky. Even so, we walked faster, and as we came closer to the mill, the smoke became thicker and thicker. Suddenly, within the smoke, we saw a tongue of flame coming out of the window. Before we had time to understand what was happening, the fire had spread through the building and began to burst through many of the windows all at once.

A feeling of coming tragedy attacked all of us. The Jews began running in panic toward the mill building. Shouts of “Fire!”, “Burning!” split the air in the town. Fear filled everyone's heart.

All of the houses of the town, except for the church, were built of wood. Dim memories of prior fires began to appear. The flour mill stood at the southern edge of the market. South of it, across a large field, stood the church. On the north, the mill bordered a row of houses that constituted the western side of the market. Only a narrow street divided the burning mill from the long, southern border of the market, which continued as Mountain Street, where our house was located. The danger of great destruction threatened the Jews of Sokoly; the loss of income, the loss of shelter… .

The panic and shouting did not continue for a long time. Their place was quickly taken by feverish activity. One group of youths tried to extinguish the fire. But the fire department had not yet arrived; there were no water faucets or equipment… .

Another group of Jews, who lived in the block bordering the mill and whose houses were in immediate danger, as well as many of the homeowners and owners of the shops in the market, ran to their homes to pack their belongings and rescue as much as they could.

Still another group of Jews, who lived in the streets a bit farther away, helped the others to pack and carry their belongings. Somewhere, they found a few wheelbarrows and wagons, with which they brought the belongings to a gathering place, up to the Bialystok road.

Night fell, and the fire spread. The entire mill building quickly went up in flames, and the wind spread sparks in every direction. The houses neighboring the mill were ignited and a wall of flames protruded from the burning area. The heat in the marketplace was very great. Even the faces of the men were red and flaming. The tongues of fire jumped and capered like a dance troupe of devils, and the noise of collapsing [structures] accompanied the terrible sight with a nightmarish tune.

I was alone. My parents had traveled to Wysokie to visit my sister, who was ill in the hospital there. I joined the rescue activities, and together with other children, I helped to take Jewish property out of the shops in the market. I imagined that our house, which stood on Mountain Street behind the priest's pond, was protected. But suddenly I sensed that our neighbors also had begun to pack, and that wagons had appeared and began to transport their belongings. I felt that I must do something. But our house was locked. My grandmother, Leah Bialydworsky, and my uncle, Elimelech Abba and [aunt] Malka were busy packing, even though they lived farther away from the fire. I returned to our house's courtyard; a great panic attacked us. I looked at the wall of fire in the market with a feeling of helplessness, fear, and isolation.

The night went on and the sky became redder and redder. The spreading fire and sparks damaged the roofs. My weariness grew and I sat down to rest on a stone in our yard, discouraged and accepting the judgment, and I fell asleep… .

When I awoke, my parents were standing next to me. They had just arrived, together with the Wysokie fire department. My confidence returned to me, together with the hope that perhaps, in spite of everything, the entire town would not burn down.

The fire continued to burn all that night. The news traveled from mouth to mouth, about houses that had been burnt down and our friends who had nothing left, about pumping water from the pond near our house. Only the next day, in the hours of the afternoon, did the fire begin to die. For an entire week, smoke came out of the western side of the marketplace, which had been burned entirely. After that, for many long months, the children burrowed among the ruins and the ashes.


[Pages 249-251]

My Childhood

Dr. Philip (Rafael Reuven) Goldstein (New York)

Dr. Philip Goldstein
Dr. Philip Goldstein

I was born in Sokoly on January 19, 1891, to my parents, Mordechai and Gitta [Tova] Risha. My father was a Gemara [Talmud] teacher.

When I was a year and a half old, my father immigrated to America, because he was unable to support his family of eight souls, including six children, by teaching in Sokoly. My father had no concept of trade, or of industry, and he did not have a profession. Naturally, it was difficult for him to arrange things for himself in the “Goldene Medina” [“Land of Gold”] because at most, he was able to employ himself only in giving private lessons in Hebrew and, at that time, there were not so many people interested in such a thing. Understandably, my mother was not satisfied for my father to be alone and isolated in a strange country, but she comforted herself with the hope that the Good L-rd would help and the whole family would be together in the near future.

When I was four years old, my mother sent me to the cheder to be taught religious studies. How she would pay the tuition, she herself didn't know. “G-d will help,” she thought; after all, she did not bear any responsibility for supporting, dressing, and providing for all the needs of her four daughters and two sons, especially after our father left our home in order to seek his luck and happiness in a new country.

In spite of everything, our mother arranged an oven for baking bread in our small house, and sold her products in various locations.

My first rebbe was Mordechai, the Shamash [Sexton] of the new Beit Midrash [Bible Study Hall]. He taught Bible with a special, pleasant melody. The students had to recite every verse with the same explanation and in the same melody as the rebbe had used when he read it to them. He was very strict, and his students were afraid of him. When I was seven years old, I already knew how to translate a chapter of Chumash [Five Books of Moses] and Rashi [Classical Biblical commentaries] and chapters of the Tanach [Torah, Prophets, and Writings] from Hebrew to Yiddish.

My oldest brother, who was six years older than I was, and who was known to the Rabbi of the town as a good and talented Gemara student, was sent to the famous Lomza Yeshiva, to a guaranteed place according to the custom of that time, for “daily meals,” in other words, he ate, free of charge, every day of the week, at the home of a different family. Every yeshiva student was also promised a place to sleep.

In the summer of 1900, the news reached me that all of our family would unite with our father in America. After many years of saving penny by penny, and by denying himself bread, my father had succeeded in accumulating the amount of money necessary to buy travel tickets in fourth class for seven people as well as for the other expenses involved in moving the entire family to America.

But also after receiving the tickets for traveling to America, the trip was not so easy for us. First of all, we had to contact a known agent in order to bring all the members of the family across the border between Poland and Prussia. Entrance visas to other countries and identity certificates were not yet distributed at that time to Jewish emigrants. We had to sneak across the border during a dark and misty night, through the forests and over winding roads, with the help of Polish and German agents. After a night of wandering, we arrived early in the morning at a small Prussian village. We conducted a prayer of thanksgiving to Almighty G-d that we had crossed the border safely.

Photos - Rav Shmuel Mordechai Goldstein; Gitta Risha Goldstein; The Cheder Of Mordechai, The Shamash

From the Prussian village, we traveled by train in the direction of Berlin-Hamburg. In Hamburg, we were handed over to the shipping company, who gave us temporary housing in a large building on the seashore. There, we had to wait seven days until our ship arrived. During those days, all of us slept on the floor among the bundles, because we had no beds or blankets.

Our mother was very religious, and she told us not to touch the food from the shipping company. She suspected that their food was not kosher. Similarly, she also forbade us to use their utensils on the ship, which were not kosher. Before we left Poland, our mother prepared as much kosher food as she was able to prepare. Of course, our mother had to divide the food, as much as possible, into limited, very small portions for our family of seven. She took the smallest part for herself.

After a sea journey of 14 days, we arrived in the port of New York, in Castle Garden, which was known as the “island of tears.” Our father came to the port to receive us. We went through all of the wandering, the tribulations of travel, and the difficulties of quarantine, the customs office, unpleasant examinations of immigrants. It was on a hot summer day in July 1900, when we saw the Statue of Liberty for the first time, on an island in the Upper New York Bay. With unusual excitement, a happy cry burst from our mouths.

Our father rented a small apartment for us in Brownsville. This was our first home in our new country that we had longed for so much.


[Pages 252-256]

Sokoly Pioneers in the
Land of Israel before World War I

Natan Zehavi (Haifa)

Natan Zehavi
Natan Zehavi

The first group:

Shlomo, the son of Rav Binyamin Rabinowitz, was the first one who immigrated to Eretz Yisrael [the Land of Israel]. He was blessed with a talent for drawing, and was accepted as a student in the Bezalel Art School, which was under the leadership of Professor Boris Schatz. Over time, Shlomo became a teacher, and eventually served as the principal of the Bezalel School.

Shalom Olsha, the son of Eli Yankel Chaim, was the second immigrant from Sokoly. He was a yeshiva student and a Torah genius. In the Land of Israel, he left the yeshiva and went to work on the land, until he settled in one of the moshavim [collective settlement].

The second group:

Nachum Yachnes, Neta Zholty, Raizel Kolodzansky, Baruch Burstein, the son of Itze Piekuter. By the way, Itze Piekuter, a settler from the village of Piekowo, merited to have a settlement in Israel named for him – Ramat Yitzchak. That was the name of Itze Piekuter, of blessed memory.

Yachnes and Burstein were among the best workers of the land in “Yehuda.” The members of the moshavim, who were greatly assisted by Arab hands in working their lands, asked to employ Yachnes and Burstein for wages that were more than doubled. They set them at the head of 20 Arab workers in the furrows in order to speed up the rate of their labor and double its efficiency. Everyone was amazed at the strength of the two young men's labor.

Raizel Kolodzansky

At the time of World War I, Eretz Yisrael sighed under the heavy regime of Kamal Pasha and “Yehuda,” under the regime of the murderer Hassan Bek. Most of the workers, who were foreign subjects, were suspected of spying and were forced to wander from place to place in order to escape from the murderous hands of Hassan Bek.

Raizel, being a member of one of these groups, endangered her life more than once, showing bravery and initiative. She and her companions established Kibbutz Ayelet HaShachar. To our dismay, Raizel was obligated to leave the country, and she was a victim of the Holocaust. May her memory be blessed!

The fourth member of the group of immigrants was myself, Nate Zholti, today Natan Zehavi, the writer of these lines. What moved me, then, before the pioneer movement existed, to immigrate to Eretz Yisrael?

I remember myself as a small boy who had just begun to learn Tanach [acronym for Holy Scriptures]. I already dreamed about Eretz Yisrael. Idczki Mountain was drawn in my imagination as Har HaCarmel, and the Priest's Pool [in Shiloah] as the Jordan River. The love and longing for Eretz Yisrael boiled within my blood.

I remember one winter night, when I was a boy about five years old. Outside, a snowstorm raged. In the house, my mother sat next to the stove plucking feathers in the weak light of a lantern. I studied a Bible, when suddenly; I got up, pounded on the table with my hand, and announced, “When I grow up, I am going to travel to Eretz Yisrael!"

A needle that was lying on the table stabbed me. From the strength of the blow, it broke and injured my hand. Drops of blood dripped from the wound. This was my first covenant of blood with Eretz Yisrael.

After that, I grew older and learned in yeshivot. My feelings for the Land of my forefathers grew. Simply, it was difficult for me to control my spirits and maintain myself until I would fulfill my desire and emigrate to Eretz Yisrael.

I arrived in the Land sixty years ago. I traveled at a slow, dragging pace in the small Turkish train to Jerusalem. When I came nearer to the Holy City, my heart began to beat with excitement, like the heart of a young man going to meet with his love after years of yearning for her. I was drunk with expectation.

I remember it as if it were now:

The period after the World War broke out. The Seminary [Yeshiva] in Jerusalem is locked, and I, free for entire days, wander through the lanes of the Old City, ignoring the life-threatening dangers. I take the wrong path like a waking dreamer, and arrive at places where no Jewish foot has tread for generations. Thus, I came across the grave of J----, [whom millions of non-Jews revere].

Surprised and blinded, I passed before a line of artistic pictures in gold frames, in a few of which real diamonds were set. The pictures were lit by spotlights installed underground, that sent sheaves of light in magic colors. All around there was a deep silence. Without knowing where I was, I sank into a dream. Three Russian nuns standing around me woke me from my vision. They asked me, in the Russian language, if I was new in the country. In a whisper that I heard with difficulty, they explained everything that I saw. I followed the nuns into the cellars, and we arrived at the place where, apparently, Avraham Avinu [our forefather] bound his son Yitzchak. After a tour that lasted half an hour, I was asked who I am actually; am I a member of the Pravoslavi [Macedonian] religion, or Catholic? I answered, “Jew.” They vulgarly spit at me and went away from me.

One Shabbat, I wandered, for my enjoyment, near the Western Wall, and became mixed in with a group of Christian tourists from America. In their company, I visited holy places where Jews were forbidden to set foot, such as the Mosque of Omar, which stands on the location of our Holy Temple, where I saw in the basement the famous Even HaShtiya [Watering Stone]. This is a stone that projects from the rock where the Holy Temple stood. The altar was built on part of the stone and the blood of the sacrifices dripped into its depression, which is shaped like a pool.

I wanted to live and support myself from working the land and not from teaching or being a clerk. I had no inclination to locate myself in Yehuda, in Rechovot, in Rishon-le-Zion, or Petach Tikva, and not in Shomron, Zichron Yaakov, or Hadera. In the places I mention, it was relatively easier to live. But my heart was drawn to the wide, desolate, deserted areas of the far-away Galilee. In spite of the economic difficulties that would rest heavily upon me, I preferred what was, to me, the beautiful and the ideal. I then chose to build my future in Tel-Chai.

A Man from Sokoly Defending Tel-Chai

I wish to tell about the wonderful experience I had in defending Tel-Chai. I am sure that many others felt as I did, but unfortunately, they did not have the merit to tell about it, because part of the experience spreads beyond the curtain of life.

I became a member of Kibbutz Tel-Chai in 1919 [5679 on the Jewish calendar]. As far as I know myself, I have been granted more than a little bit of courage. I am not a fearful person, and I would volunteer for dangerous missions.

On a Sabbath night, our member Shneur Shaposhnik, of blessed memory, was killed, the first sacrifice in defense of Tel-Chai. He was a gentle, sensitive fellow and had a religious awareness. With the help of our member, Kalman Cohen, I brought Shneur home. I then went out to draw water from the brook that flowed near the house, under the unceasing shooting of the attackers.

The next day it was decided to organize reinforcements, of both men and weapons, for the defenders. For that purpose, we had to contact Kibbutz Ayelet HaShachar, which was under the protection of the British (we were under the protection of the French).

In Tel Chai, we had a total of eleven members, each of whom had a rifle. I took upon myself the initiative to organize [the reinforcements], and Kozlovsky, of blessed memory, the guard from Kfar Giladi, joined me.

We safely passed Chalsa (known today as Kiryat Shmona). At a distance of one kilometer from Chalsa, we heard shots, and the bullets whistled in our ears. We spurred our horses and arrived in Ayelet HaShachar at a gallop.

The next day, we returned to Tel Chai with a reinforcement of Y. Nachmani, Nachum Horwi[tz], Yigal Abramson, and Oz. We were dressed in the uniforms of the British police.

Near the entrance to Tel-Chai, shots were fired behind us. Yigal's horse was injured. A bullet injured Nachum Horwitz; thus, we arrived.

The day that Tel-Chai fell, I was the last one to speak with Yosef Trumpeldor. We went down from the famous hill, where Devora Drachler, Sara Chizik, Benyamin Munter, and Kanevsky remained. Trumpeldor remained in the yard and ordered me to prepare the group of members for an order to open fire. Five minutes after we opened fire, I was told that Trumpeldor had been injured. I ran to take care of him. While I stood next to him, a bullet struck me in the chest on the left side. I did not feel any pain, but my body trembled and my condition was serious.

The three events that I mentioned show that I do not lack courage, but I will not profess to determine that I remained alive because of it. My courage only urged me not to deter from carrying out initiatives that were dangerous. I must thank Providence that my fate was determined as it was.

Again, I wish to describe an unforgettable, soul-shaking experience that can serve as research into what happens in a man's soul at the time of a difficult, life-threatening crisis.

A Talmudic saying declares: “Even if a sharp sword is resting on a man's neck, he should not regard himself as being precluded from Heavenly mercy.” As for me, this was not just a rhetorical phrase; that is exactly how things were. A sharp sword was actually resting on my neck!

And this is what happened: Five kilometers from Tel-Chai, eastward towards Mount Hermon, a moshav by the name of Chamra was established by the P.I.C.A. [Palestine Jewish Colonization Association, founded by Baron Edmond de Rothschild]. Thirteen men and women went up to the place to do the groundwork. They built two wooden shacks, an oven for baking, and an alcove [to serve] as a chicken coop. We, from Tel-Chai, maintained an on-going contact with the people of Chamra, until one day the connection was completely cut off. We waited, greatly worried, for two days, to hear the fate of Chamra. On Shabbat morning, Belchovsky and I, members of Tel-Chai, along with Eisenstadt, a member of Moshav Kfar Yechezkel, volunteered to go out to Moshav Chamra to clarify the reason for their silence and, if necessary, to defend them. Considering the armed gangs roaming the area, we decided not to take any weapons with us, lest they steal it from us, and to avoid, as much as possible, meeting them face to face so as not to become embroiled in a dispute in which they were likely to kill us. I advised my companions to dress in everyday clothing, so as not to call the attention of the robbers to our Shabbat clothing, which would awaken their desire to strip us. In spite of our worries, we safely arrived at Chamra. To our amazement, we did not find a living soul in the place. The tables stood, set for the Shabbat meal, and there was no one around. It appeared that the members had fled in panic at the time of the meal. We had just managed to hide the utensils in the alcove, and a group of about 30-armed Bedouin ran toward the shed, forming a rear line. A wooden shed certainly was not able to provide us cover from shooting, and we were forced to go outside. They signaled to us to raise our hands, and running wildly, they attacked us. They stole the boots off of Eisenstadt's feet. From me, they only took a belt. They found the food utensils and took the best of them before they went away. Only two Bedouin remained, an older man and a young one. The older man threw a coat up onto the roof of the shed and threatened me with his rifle to climb up and bring down the coat. I evaded him and succeeded in entering the shed. The Bedouin left me alone and aimed his rifle at Belchovsky.

Photo - Natan Zehavi At Tel-Chai

Suddenly, I was again eye-to-eye with the younger Bedouin. The weapon in his hand was stretched out toward my neck, threatening to kill me. Unable to control myself in that fraction of a second, I turned my head and exposed my throat to slaughter even more.

I met the Bedouin's excited glance. His eyes were blazing; his black curls twined above his face. He exposed his white teeth and growled like a wild animal.

My healthy, awake senses were silenced and I stopped seeing my surroundings, even the Bedouin who was threatening me. I did not see and I did not hear. It is unbelievable, that at that exact moment there passed through my head thoughts of my parents and family in Poland; my past, noisy with innumerable events. Suddenly, I saw before my eyes my Rebbe, the brilliant Shimon Shkop, the light of humility shining from his face, sitting and explaining the matter of “There is no prohibition that applies to a prohibition.”

Like a film, my good deeds, and my bad deeds, passed before my eyes. A repetitive voice rang in my ears, saying “Inti Muslim!” as if I had sprouted wings, and I felt what I had forgotten returning to me. I shouted, “It is a sin to kill an unarmed man!"

The older Bedouin heard my words and he ordered the young one to leave me alone. What a miracle: both Bedouins went away.

I came out of the shed dripping with sweat, breathing the fresh air with difficulty. Little by little, my physical and mental balance returned.

To this day, I wonder who put the cry that saved me, “Inti Muslim!” into my mouth, and how did so many events of many years of my life pass through my head in the wink of an eye?

After a few minutes, an armed unit passed through, headed by the officer Sharifi and the Amir Machmoud Paor, our friend. I told them what had happened to us in a critical tone, and asked them to accompany us to Tel-Chai. At that moment, we heard a round of shots and we saw hundreds of Bedouin sliding down the hill from Tel-Chai. “The Jews are shooting,” said the officer. At that time, in Tel-Chai they used a “shooting machine.” At the order to fire, thirty rifles shot simultaneously.

The officer advised us not to go to Tel-Chai, but to go in the shadow of Mount Hermon, because the Bedouin were likely to kill us [if we met them] on their way. We went as instructed, and succeeded in reaching Metulla. Saturday night, a farmer from Metulla took us to Kfar Giladi, where the members told us that they saw with their binoculars how we had been trapped in the hands of the Bedouin and they worried that our captors would force us to march in front of them, so that they would be able to attack the village from behind us. The members had called for a discussion and they decided to wait and not open fire so as not to endanger us, maybe we would succeed in fleeing from the Bedouin. We accepted their explanation with understanding.


[Pages 257-260]

Academics and Yeshiva Students

Yisrael Leib Elgrod (London)

Yisrael Leib Elgrod
Yisrael Leib Elgrod

One summer, I came home from the Yeshiva for the Yomim Noraim [High Holydays]. Rav Shmuel Leib, the shochet [ritual slaughterer], came to me to hear how his son Reuven, who learned with me at that time in the Yeshiva, was doing. Rav Shmuel Leib said he was disappointed by the fact that his son had not also come home for the Holydays.

“Whatever was he thinking?!”

The shochet was arguing that if, years ago, his opinions had been the same as they were today – he would not be spending time learning Gemara, but rather would choose to complete his learning in the gymnasia [high school] and the university, for the purpose of earning a doctorate.

But here, for example, in Sokoly, there is a doctor. True, he earns 40 rubles a week [a relatively good salary], but does he live a Jewish life? He is an absolute goy!

And again, Rav Shmuel Leib questioned me about the reason why his son was absent from Sokoly and his family on the High Holydays!

I answered the shochet that his son was very logical and apparently he had a good reason for his decision not to come.

I wish to emphasize that at that time I did not come from the Radom Yeshiva, where every newspaper or book was regarded as “impure” and injurious. There, they sat and learned Gemara and books of ethics such as Mesillat Yesharim [The Path of the Just] and Chovot Halevavot [Duties of the Heart] day and night. Nevertheless, the Radom Yeshiva did influence me and it formed my behavior.

When I awoke, I took care to observe the commandment of washing one's hands, I prayed the Shmona Esrei prayer with special devotion, and I took care not to be tripped up, Heaven forbid, by something forbidden, such as gossip.

I also did not come home at that time from the Bransk Yeshiva. There, it is true that reading a newspaper was not regarded as a crime, but reading secular books or atheistic educational books, was regarded as sinful.

By the way, I wish to comment that the head of the Bransk Yeshiva, the brilliant Rabbi and Torah scholar, Rav Shimon Shkop, of saintly and blessed memory, was a man with a broad and generous heart.

One winter, my brother-in-law, Chaim Zeev Olsha, passed away. I then went home from the Bransk Yeshiva and became ill with typhoid. Rabbi Shimon, of blessed memory, found out and he immediately called upon all of the Yeshiva students to pray and read chapters of the Psalms for my recovery. After the Pesach holiday, I recovered and returned to Bransk. The Rabbi was so happy to see me, as if he were my faithful and devoted father.

After the Shavuot holiday, the Rav spoke with me and told me to travel to the Malesze Forest to recuperate. The Rav showed such a fatherly relationship not only to me. He loved all of the yeshiva students and all of us loved him unreservedly.

Secular and Educational Books

It was forbidden for the yeshiva students to read educational books, and even so, there was a group of young men who had books in their possession, such as Astray on the Paths of Life and Burial of a Donkey by [Peretz] Smolenskin; Love of Zion and Hypocrite by [Avraham] Mapu, and others, which were read in secret.

In the city of Mielec (from which Rav Shimon, of saintly and blessed memory, came to Bransk), there once already existed a group of yeshiva students who wished to establish a yeshiva called Yavne, where they would learn in the spirit of the Enlightenment.

A delegation to the “Mizrachi” convention in Lida was even sent from there, in order to suggest the establishment of the yeshiva to the convention.

Nine of our students quietly made a connection with the brilliant rabbi, Rav Yitzchak Reines, of saintly and blessed memory, who was the founder of the Lida Yeshiva, where both Torah and secular education were taught. The Rabbi received us nicely in Lida and tested us in Talmudic debates. We had a second visit with the head of the Yeshiva, Rabbi Palachek, of saintly and blessed memory, who was known by the nickname of “the genius from Majecice.”

Photo - Group of Students

(“This is a picture of us for the future to come, every one of us will live in his own way, and then these faces will testify to us all of the desires and hopes of our youth and for our freedom.” The signatures of the entire group appear under the above statement.)

The prominent educator, Pinchas Shifman, was our Hebrew language teacher. We also had an excellent teacher of the Russian language. We learned diligently, and by turns, each one of us read a problem and we debated the subjects we learned. We also decided to speak Hebrew to each other, and we became known for this in the Lida Yeshiva.

The management, with Rabbi Reines at their head, was proud of us. Of course, we also were content to absorb Torah and worldly education. It gave us great satisfaction to freely use books such as The Parting of the Ways by Achad Ha'Am, Paradoxes by Max Nordau, and the Russian books of Tolstoy, Dostoevski, and Turgenev. Such a situation was not to be thought of in the Radom or Bransk yeshivot. Here, it is worth pointing out that none of us desired the “mantle of the Rabbis [Rabbinical ordination];” quite simply, we loved to learn.

Photo - Historic Meeting after 50 Years

It is now easy to understand the background of Rav Shmuel Leib's worry over his son, during our conversation that day when I arrived to spend the Holyday vacation in Sokoly. Following that conversation, the teacher, Avraham Yankel Kenigsberg also came into our house, and in a piercing argument regretted the ways of the Lida Yeshiva, blurting out with a sigh, “Oy, Lida … Lida!”

Avraham Yankel told me that his sister's son Tzemach, who regarded himself as a member of our family, wrote to him from the Radom Yeshiva that I was the only one in the Yeshiva who had not yet strayed from the straight path…in comparison with the rest of the students…may the L-rd have pity upon us…” Tzemach asked him to fulfill the commandment of “a life in danger” and influence my parents to prevent me from returning to the Lida Yeshiva.

The next day, I went to pray in the new Beit Midrash, where my parents prayed. I approached the bookcase, and Rav Hertzel Gutman approached me to ask about his son Yosef and his grandson Shmuel Ginzberg, who also learned in the Lida Yeshiva. After him, Rav Pesach Brill, Rav Zelig Kolodzansky, Rav Aryeh Leib and others came up to me and a conversation developed about the Lida Yeshiva, its attributes and its defects.

Briefly, the defects and faults were all expressed in deriding the Yeshiva, and even Rav Hertzl, who was known to be intelligent and wise, and far from religious fanaticism, also negatively criticized the exaggerated, open freedom given there to the yeshiva students. My former friend, Itcze Meir Lakover, did not like the fact that most of them learned Hebrew in the yeshiva, which had no actual use, and in comparison, they abandoned the language of the country – Russian. I answered him that both of those languages were equally respected in the Yeshiva, even though, on a material level, in daily life there was an advantage to knowing Russian, and in any case, it is forbidden to us to abandon our own historic Hebrew language. There is not yet a state and a government for its use, but the language has accompanied our vivacious Jewish life throughout all the generations. Our Torah, the Bible, the words of our prophets and wise men, are all written in our holy language – Hebrew – which connects all of our brothers, the children of Israel, in every land of the Diaspora.

A group was also formed in Sokoly of young people who spoke Hebrew. Meetings were held either in the town or in the forest. A number of nice girls also participated in the group, such as Malka Leah Lakover, Alte Okune, Breina Ginzberg. All of the members of the group spoke only Hebrew to each other. New winds began to blow in the town, and many of its residents envied us.

One fine day I left Sokoly, accompanied by the members of my family and friends. I went out to the large, world-famous city – Paris, where my parents lived at that time. I was totally filled with feeling “Be a Jew and a man, in your tent and when you go out.”

In the train car, I wrote a Russian song about longings for the town of my birth, Sokoly. These longings cannot be uprooted from my heart…and who could have thought that our dear town would be destroyed in such a cruel and tragic way…I always feel the sorrow and pain, and more than once, I have wanted to express the words of the Lamenter: “Your disaster is as large as the sea; who will heal you?”

Photo - Yisrael Elgrod as a Lida Yeshiva Student


[Pages 261-262]

Memoirs of a Teacher

Avraham Wasserman (Tel Aviv)

Avraham Wasserman
Avraham Wasserman

In 1921, the government of Poland decided to bring about the assimilation of its country's Jews. For this purpose, it established “shabasovka” schools for Jewish children, the language of instruction being Polish, with lessons for two hours a week in Jewish religion. The Sabbath day was free of lessons.

I was sent to Sokoly as a teacher on March 2, 1928. Immediately, the first week I was there, I decided to do the opposite of what the regime expected of me. My wish was to turn the Polish government school, as far as possible, into a Jewish national school.

For this purpose, I spoke with two Jewish teachers who worked with me: Tzasha Morstein and Celina Kozovna. I had a close relationship with the youth from the nationalistic groups in Sokoly, the outstanding among them being Alter and Yona Ginsberg and Shmuel Borowitz.

We organized lectures on nationalistic and cultural subjects in the Yiddish language. I helped to organize two groups in Sokoly: Hashomer Haleumi and Beitar. We brought almost all of the pupils of the school into the framework of these groups, so much so that they even came to school in their organization's uniforms.

I worked in Sokoly until December 31, 1929, a total of 20 months. After that period, I was transferred to work in Warsaw. All my comrades and I remained warm and faithful friends.

Eulogies for a Few of My Friends

Dear and beloved sons of Sokoly! I came to you a stranger, and you received me like a member of the family. I found in you devoted family members, close to my heart, participants in my opinions and ideals. May my friends be remembered favorably, first: Yona Ginsberg, Yona Zilberstein, and Yaakov Chentkovsky. They had different opinions, but all three of them were nationalistic Jewish figures, faithful and honest.

Yona Ginsberg, a faithful and devoted friend, who had a noble and good soul.

Yona Zilberstein, a member of Beitar, of a hot and boiling temperament, devoted to the purpose of his life – strengthening of the Revisionist movement. For the sake of the ideal, he became a sacrifice in Soviet Russia. He did not merit a Jewish burial. He left a monument in the memories of his friends and students.

Comrade Yaakov Chentkovsky! Our acquaintanceship was short, and I do not know what happened to you and where you disappeared. I say Kaddish in your memory!

Photo - Hashomer Haleumi in Sokoly, 1930

I remember the sharp, unusual brain of Palek Goldstein. Fate brought him to a small town, but he deserved to stand at the head of a large community, appropriate to his blessed talents. He was arrested by the Soviets because of his Zionistic activities, and, as was the fate of most of the martyrs, he was not brought to Jewish burial.

Finally, may the members of the Fleer and Lapchinsky families be remembered for good, Jews who labored every day of the year.

May G-d avenge their blood!

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