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[Page 99]

Chapter Four

Memories

 

[Page 101]

Memories of a Kheder-Yingl
[religious primary school boy]

by Aharon Koury

Translated by Mindle Crystel Gross

Edited by Toby Bird

The onset of spring was dear to every Jewish boy, most especially when we had been imprisoned the entire winter from early morning until into the night in a cramped room with half a score other children, with a strict rabbi, and with stale air which turned a boy's brain dull and lazy.

I was at that time a boy of about eight or nine, and springtime was sweet and dear. First of all, the door to the room remained open and fresh, clean, soft air came in. In the morning, my mother gave us a delicious dairy breakfast.

The ice from the frozen river melted and the broad, white area of huge distances disappeared between our houses. Once again, the water began to flow freely and a new world opened up before our eyes. Once more, we could roll up our pants, jump into the water, and fill a pail with water for our mother. At the edge could be seen tiny little fish in the thousands swimming back and forth. To this very day, I don't know of any other place where there are so many little fish as there were in the Svir River.

So therefore, it is no wonder that early in the morning I ran out of the house and breathed in the refreshing air.

The water in the river was like a beautiful, clear mirror. The sun shone from every side of the river with all her glory and beauty; the horizon was gorgeous.

[Page 102]

From the right side where the waves originated, one could hear quite clearly when a fisherman's line hit the water. The echo was loud and measured. Everything would seem to melt into one wonderful panorama.

I stood there, dreamily, mesmerized, at the edge of the river, until I heard my mother's shout:

Why are you standing there like a statue and dreaming?

Then I went back, not to the house, but to the garden. We had planted there potatoes, beets, carrots, beans, cucumbers and other greens. The garden caused my mother much aggravation and also much effort and work. My brother and I helped her cheerfully.

We were pleased that the winter had already gone and we could open the double windows which, for half the year, were locked, sealed and stuffed with cotton. Now we could feel in the kheder the aroma of all that was blooming in the garden, and we could study Torah with enthusiasm.

From then on, boyish years passed like this, and to this day, we cannot forget this. I imagine the mirror on the Svir River mesmerized me, and caused me more wonder than the most beautiful and wonderful symphony.


Toiling Jews

by Matityahu Bogdanov

Translated by Mindle Crystel Gross

Edited by Toby Bird

The synagogue had one door which was the entrance, but there were also three other doors – one on the left, to the north, which was the door to the small synagogue (kloyz), a second to the right, to the south, which led to the entrance to the women's synagogue

[Page 103]

A little distance from the second door, there was a third upon which was written: The trustees are here from 11 to 12. This indicated that this was the door behind which were collected various items that poor Jews brought in as collateral against the loans which they had taken from the gmilat hesed (Loan Society).

 


Velvl the Blacksmith, of blessed memory

 

As a young boy, I liked to peer in through the door of the society which carried the name of gmilat hesed. Rabbi Meyer Fayvishes (Zlatayavka), who was one of the trustees, would open the heavy lock, remove the iron bar, and when he opened the door, I, having pg. 104 hidden, would look at the household articles which lay there: wagon-wheels, a saddle with reins, brass candlesticks, samovars, clothing and many other items which Jews used to pawn when they needed a few rubles to pay a fine or to pay tuition or when someone needed something for the Sabbath.

The two doors which were opposite one another – the small synagogue door and the gmilas khesed door had a particular connection, because most clients of the gmilas khesed were those who prayed in the small synagogue. As I recall and as they remain in my memory, they were the small synagogue Jews. Those Jews, were honest, hard-working artisans, village merchants and so forth. There were not many scholars among them and therefore, they felt in the small synagogue, as if they were in their own homes. Here they lived their spiritual lives, each in his way. If one could read mishne – all the better – if not, they made do with a chapter of psalms, a portion of khumash.

However, they did have Arbin, a great scholar who loved the plain folk. He studied the portion of the week with them and a little bit of the stories of the Talmud. Their rabbi was Rabbi Yekhiel Mordekhay, the fur merchant.

Among these small synagogue Jews, there were those who had a weakness for the pulpit.

I remember the competition which went on between Bentsye the Shoemaker and Moshe-Leyb the Tailor for a Sabbath minkha service. Both virtually ran to the pulpit and whoever got there first was the one to pray there.

I remember that Moshe-Leyzer's minkha praying at the pulpit was so famous that his grandson, with whom I was in heder, we used to call by the name of a prayer, as a nickname.

Here in the small synagogue, the worshippers also had an opportunity to receive an aliya

(honor) sometimes which they would seldom receive in the large synagogue. Pg. 105 Among the small synagogue Jews, there were also some who sacrificed their lives for a mitzvah (good deed) such as visiting the sick, Talmud Torah or helping a poor bride. Yankl the Shoemaker would wake up at 3 a.m. during the winter, had already tucking the left arm of his coat into his belt, ready to lay tfillin (phylacteries), and this was how he would slowly make a few upper soles.. This man, Yankl, could spend entire nights at the bedside of someone who was sick so as to give the family members a chance to rest.

And if a horse that belonged to one of the small synagogue Jews died, with kerchief in hand ,they went around to collect several rubl, going among among their own class, and the Jew who had lost his horse would be able to buy another horse in order to earn a living.

May my few sentences be as a monument for those Jews whom I have described herein, and to those among them who fell as victims of Hitlerism. May God take revenge for their shortened lives.


Memories of Svir

by Ben-Tzion Gold

Translated by Mindle Crystel Gross

Edited by Toby Bird

Our Svir citizens in Israel approached the landslayt in America asking them to submit in writing their memories for the book Our Little Town of Svir which was been compiled by our Dr. Chanoch Drutz-Sviruni, with help from Svir landslayt in Israel who submitted material, facts and stories.

At first, I removed myself from those who were able to contribute to the book. In order to write something, I must take into consideration that as soon as I imagine the town, the first thoughts I have are of my acquaintances who perished at the hands of the murderous Nazis either in Svir or in the concentration camps.

[Page 106]


Sore Rivke Fisher,
of blessed memory

 

I thought about this for a long time, and then I realized that my writing would be like the words on a headstone which do not need any preparation or agreement. Years later, when Svir will be no more than a name and someone from a later generation of Svir descendants will want to peer into this book, he will absorb from my words something which will help him to reach a better understanding of his ancestral town.

Lately, books have been published, memories of a number of cities and towns which, like Svir, were destroyed during WWII. One can see in all of them that the life was uniquely Jewish and had many genteel and learned Jews. I think that Svir was different from the other towns. The reputation that Svir was a learned town is truly correct, but maybe not to great scholarly depth or with a large number, but in comparison with those other towns, they were on a higher level. But in Svir, among the learned, there were fur merchants, butchers, bakers, tailors. Such a democratic collection was, at that time, unusual.

[Page 107]


Chanoch and Kayle Gelger with their daughters
&On the right Zisl and Malke Alperovitz

 

The decent learned atmosphere in Svir was tolerated by the opposing workers' groups and Zionists. Sometimes incidents did occur which were neither frequent nor serious. Certainly the bosses could not tolerate an agitator from a larger city coming to Svir, finding a captive audience in the synagogue and forcing everyone to listen to an agitation-speech of his party.

[Page 108]

The decent Jews tolerated other groups, but they most certainly did not think too much of them, not even of the Zionists who were ideologically not too different from the bosses. I remember that one time after morning services (shakhrit), there began a debate about Zionism. One, an elderly Jew, made a remark that Dr. Herzl, of blessed memory, has earned as great a place in heaven as Moses. Well, that was all he needed. The word heretic which they called him was not among the strongest used.

 


Lolye Zlatavyavka, of blessed memory,
selling newspapers during WWI

 

During the inter-war years, a remarkable change occurred in the education and development of the young generation. Lately, I had the opportunity to meet with people from Svir of the younger generation, and I was amazed at their worldliness and modern outlook at life. One must not take from this that the new generation is spiritually on a higher plane than the previous generation. We must only marvel at the differences which are almost unbelievable, that it happened in so short a time.

[Page 109]

We from Svir in America, are very thankful to our landslayt in Israel for their great devotion in gathering the material for the book. A separate thank-you is due he who compiled it all, our beloved landsman, Dr. Chanoch Drutz, without his great effort, the book would not have been realized, and there would not be a lasting memory of Svir. With the publication of the book, there remains with us from Svir the spiritual connection with the town of our birth. The book is even dearer to us because it is written in wonderful Yiddish, virtually in every word – holy, and evokes memories which will always remain within us.

With everyone's permission, I want to mention the names of my closest, whose graves I will never see: my grandfather and grandmother, R'Yitskhok-Yankev and Zlate Lifshitz; my parents, R'Borukh-Ber and Malke-Tsive Zlatayavka; my brothers Eliyohu and his wife, Yisroel (Lolye) and his daughters; my sisters Grunye and her daughter Zlate and Sonye and her family; my mother-in-law Sore Rivke Fisher; my brother-in-law Zisl and his family and my sister-in-law Kayle Gelgar and her family.


[Page 110]

Remembrances of Svir

by Joe Salav

Translated by Mindle Crystel Gross

Edited by Toby Bird

A town in the length, little streets,
A street with beautiful gardens,
A hospital, even a church,
A wooden bridge not far away,
Which would have fallen in a long time ago
Were it not for ropes.

A mountain which protects us from enemies
Upon which we used to climb
When we were children.
We used to play, galloping in the valleys
On the mountain – up and down.

Do you remember the river where the children used to swim?
Do you remember the gardens where flowers bloomed?
Do you remember the lake where the children used to bathe?
Did not keep all this on

We did not keep our clothes on
We used to spray ourselves
And afterwards make the spray
Go all over, and we laughed joyously.

My landslayt, do you remember
When we left kheder
At night, with lanterns, with shouts and song,
And from the broad, deep swamp,
We would barely make it home.

[Page 111]

Do you remember the synagogue, do you remember the small synagogue?
Do you remember our kheder in the little old house
Where we all studied from morning until late at night?
And not one of us became a rabbi.

Now, who knows what became
Of our once-upon-a-time town where we were born.
The few landslayt who remained there
Were murdered by Hitler, annihilated.

 


My Birthplace

Shoshana Drapkin

Translated by Sara Mages

I know about Svir less than all the Svir people, and I remember the early days as through a fog, because I was five years old when we moved from the place where we lived.

I only remember that when we left Svir they sat me and my brother of blessed memory inside a cupboard on a pile of pillows, either from lack of space or from fear of rain. In this manner we traveled about forty kilometers to the city of Smorgon, and returned to Svir a few years later, in 1922. The neighbors, who shared their home with us, received us very well and prepared a room for me. The rest of the family lived with my aunt. I had the feeling that I fell from heaven to earth.

That very evening I met almost all the town's youth. At first, these “well-to-do loafers” left a very bad impression on me. Ignorant, I thought in my heart, and indeed, none of them had a profession and none of them worked. All of them still lived with their parents. But soon I realized that in the library, which was quite rich, there was not an unread book. Over time they started to laugh at my Yiddish which was mixed with Russian words. This prompted me to read all the books in Yiddish.

[Page 112]


Shabtai Hazan and his wife of blessed memory

 

My influence on them was valuable and in the course of time, the house that served as a center for the idle youth, emptied out. There were four sisters in this house but only two of them stood out: the youngest, a smart developed girl, tended to Zionism, and the second, an older one, was a typical “Bund” member. This house served as a youth center for thinkers, and every conversation led to a heated debate. But slowly they moved to a more productive work and a “Halutz” chapter was founded. Also the “Tzeirei Zion” council was very active: they had frequent lectures and social dances. We published the booklet “Our lives”, and almost everyone participated. In 1924, two and a half months after the establishment of “HeHalutz”, I traveled with another council member to Israel. We were the first to immigrate.

[Page 113]

At first, there was a strong connection with the town and we aroused great interest. Young women also joined the “Halutz” movement, prior to that I was the only female member. The youth awakened to intellectual life and left to study at the universities. Some started to immigrate to Israel, but of course, the majority, like anywhere in the Diaspora, remained and was caught by the wicked oppressor.

May their memory be blessed, we will remember them forever.


From the days of my childhood

Arye Gur-Arye (Pekel)

Translated by Sara Mages

After all, who is not familiar with the “Svirer Mountain?” Except for its pedigree, which originated in the days of Napoleon, it was well known in the whole area. Don't you remember the famous “blessing” “may you become swollen like the Svirer Mountain?”
And who enjoyed the “Svirer Mountain?”- the Jews and the Gentiles alike.

The Lake. The lake, known as the “Svirer pond,” falls to the “Reke” whose water does not freeze in the summer and in the winter. This lake played an important role in Svir's economic life. The Svirer fishermen were famous in the region, and Jews and non Jews reached Greater Vilna with their fish. The fish, especially the “Yazge”, called “the Svirer Yazge,” were famous in the area. It is a small fish, from which the women of Svir learned to prepare delicacies.

Around the mountain and on the lakeshore huts and houses stood. Among them wooden houses and brick houses, covered with tiles or with straw. A road, paved with big stones, crossed between the houses. In our time there were no sidewalks on both sides of the street – this was Svir.

There was not one street in Svir. There were a number of streets: The Fishermen's Street, Eli Natans Street, and Yudah Velvele's Lane with its great slope. There was also the Beit Hamidrash Street (the synagogue courtyard). All of them stretched in the direction of the lake. There was another street, which was called “The Slobode Street”. The Starovery [old believers] lived there.

[Page 114]

They were muscular men with oversize beards. Their “Tserkva” [church] stood at the end of the street. There were also streets that led to the mountain, among them was Avremale the chimney cleaner's Street.

There were two squares in Svir. They stood desolated all the days of the week. Sometimes, we practiced soccer there (there was a soccer field next to the Christian cemetery). But on Thursday, market day, the squares were full of people. One served as a ”horse market” and the second as a “grain market”.

On the slope, by the lakeshore, proudly stood the building of the Beit Hamidrash, it was taller than the huts around it. Next to it was the public bathhouse on one side and the poorhouse on the other side.

On the lakeshore, not far from Beit Hamidrash, fenced on all sides, was a lonely small house with patched windows. This house was a world in itself. And in this house, in a dungeon, was “R'Burech's Heder”.

I was seven when my father, may he rest in peace, brought me to this house. It was the day after “Shabbat Bereishit” [The Shabbat after Simchat Torah]. The wintry weather brought darkness to the house. My father introduced me to R'Baruch. Before me stood a strong man, with broad shoulders and a trimmed beard. He held a “pointer” in his right hand. He wore a hat and a sweater without a coat. I looked at the house. It was a small room, four by four. There were tables next the three walls, and children sat around them and studied aloud.

After a few questions of “getting acquainted”, such as: Where are you from boy? What is your name? What did you learn? Who was your rabbi? and so on – he pointed to a space between two boys, and with that I was added to the class.

I studied ten “periods” with R'Baruch, and graduated when I turned twelve. I must thank this man. He was the first to teach grammar from Mordechai Bezalel Schneider's book. He wrote the rules and we copied them. I still remember the melody and the rules of “the little lines and the little dots…” or the various Hebrew conjugations. I still remember the slaps that I received from his strong hand when I did not pronounce the words correctly. Although I was angry then and I also cried, I now know that he was the one who planted the love in my heart for beautiful Hebrew and correct pronunciation.

[Page 115]

No wonder that his students led the war for a Hebrew “Tarbut” School in Svir. And no wonder that his students were the first to immigrate to Israel.

The Beit Hamidrash was a large wooden building with a “women's gallery” upstairs and a “vestibule” downstairs. The Bimah stood in the middle and a table covered with a colorful tablecloth stood on it. The Shamash pounded on this table and announced “Ya'ale Veyavo” [“rise and come” – a prayer recited on the first day of the Jewish month and on holidays] and “Tal Umatar” [the prayer for rain]. Various preachers and speakers spoke from this Bimah about current affairs.

Here, I heard R'Yossi of blessed memory, the iron and hardware dealer, praying “Kabbalat Shabbat” [the receiving of the Shabbat]. With his enthusiasm he put out the lit candles on the “amud” [the cantor's stand]. Here I also heard the prayer of R'Feitel. His prayer was different from the prayer of R'Yossi. R'Yossi was shouting, demanding and protesting the injustice that was inflicted on God's nation. R'Feitel was not like that. He stood by the cantor's stand, his Tallit dropping over his narrow shoulders, and with his quite clear voice he asked and begged. The congregation saw clearly that his prayer was rising to the heavens and was received before the Creator. He always prayed quietly, and his serenity penetrated the heart. Only once I heard him raising his voice, it was during the prayer “Hineni Heani Mima'as” [Here I stand before thee]. The old man pleaded before his Creator that his prayer be accepted, “whose beard is fully grown, whose voice is sweet,” and whispered “Yehi Ratzon” [may it be your will]. It was quiet in the synagogue. The congregation was poised for his special “Yitgaddal veyitkaddash” [May His great name be exalted and sanctified]. And here, the old man stood erect like a lion, and shouted “May you denounce the Satan, that he not impede me”. This was his only shout during the prayer, but all of us saw, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the “Angel of Death” covered its face with its wing and left. The old man defeated the prosecutor. Satan could not withstand the prayer of R'Feitel.

There were Jews in Svir who gathered in the synagogue every evening, “between Mincha and Maariv”, and studied together around a table. They had a special table. There was another table in the synagogue where Jews, who couldn't “study on their own,” sat. Here sat a Jew and read to them: “Halachot” [Jewish laws], “Chayei Adam” [the Life of Man] and “Ein Yaakov”. Around him sat the laborers, who came after a hard day of work, to hear “a sacred word”.

[Page 116]

I was thirteen when I left Svir and went to study in Greater Vilna. Since then, I rarely visited Svir. Over time, the town developed and youth federations were established - “HeHalutz” and “HaOved”. Many immigrated to Israel and participated in the building of the country. Former residents of Svir are among those who fell in the War of Independence. Some emigrated overseas, and the rest? the rest? – where are you the Yossis and the Feitels, where do you study “Gemara” and “Ein Yaakov”? Where are you the “Psalms readers” with R'Bentze the shoemaker in the lead? Where are you the members of “HeHalutz”, “HaOved”, and the rest of the federations who lost their chance to go to Eretz Israel? Nobody knows where you are buried, and a memorial was not erected on your graves. May these words be a remote cornerstone to the memorial that will be built by those who cherish your names, so future generations will know that there was a Jewish community in the town of Svir, Poland.

The mountain is standing, the river is flowing and continues to provide its fish, but the Jews, our beloved Jews – are gone.

May their souls be bound in the bond of everlasting life.

 

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