[Pages 291 - 293]
Translated by Gal Amir
Edited by Lynne Tolman
(Note: The author of this article, Rachel Onie nee Feldger, immigrated to Palestine in 1937. She lost her family -- mother, sister, two brothers and their families, who were murdered by the Nazis in Shumsk in 1942. Rachel passed away in Afula, Israel, in 1984. This article was translated into English from the original Hebrew by her grandson, Gal Amir.)
The towns in Volhynia were renowned for their vibrant Jewish social life, but our town Shumsk, so it seems to me, was outstanding in this respect. Its public life was Jewish-Zionist, since most of the population was Jewish. No other national group held any public activity.
Jewish social activities in the town were varied. There was a large Hechalutz branch, which prepared pioneers for their aliyah; there were the national funds for rebuilding a Jewish homeland --the Keren Kayemet and Keren Hayesod --contributions to which increased annually; there was a large Tarbut school, a Hebrew library which numbered most of the young people of the town among its readers, etc.
Much could be written about each of these, and this would be of major interest for research into the early stages of nation-building, but I will only write about the activities of our dramatic group. This group, of which I was a longtime member, was very dear to me, and its memory still reverberates within me.
I do not know exactly when the company was founded. I was among the youngest of its participants.
Its most prominent figure, one who will be forever remembered by anyone who participated in the group, was our director, (Mordechai) Mirmelsztejn, and his wife, Shaindel, of blessed memory. He and his wife volunteered to set up the group in their home and the meetings and rehearsals were held there.
The dramatic society had two objectives. The first was to develop the artistic and cultural interests of its participants and its audience. The second was to engage in activities which would strengthen our identification with Zionism. Artistically, we made efforts to present plays by well- known Yiddish playwrights, above all Sholom Aleichem, Goldfadden and Gordin. Zionist activity centered on donating the proceeds of the shows to the national funds and the Hechalutz, and to helping those of our friends who were making aliyah. The dramatic society had a third objective, incidental but of educational significance. It was to make us aware of our responsibility to our community. Part of our income went to charity for the needy -- matzot for Passover, firewood in the winter, etc.
It goes without saying that the activities of the drama group were based completely on voluntary collective efforts, with no personal financial rewards for anyone. And yet, some of the audience viewed us as mere comedians. Fortunately, most of the audience appreciated our work and were sympathetic to our cause.
We spared no time or effort. None of us ever missed a single rehearsal, in rain or snow, and we even contributed our own money for costumes, scenery, or musical scores in the cases where a show did not cover its expenses.
I remember Mirmelsztejn, standing among us during the rehearsal, guiding, encouraging, influencing, giving strength, like the great teacher he was. He wanted his pupils to succeed, and he was concerned with the nature of the group we were building, so he did not spare his anger when he felt that we had deviated from the spirit of the play or the goals of the dramatic society.
In the home of Sheindel and Mirmelsztejn we experienced a taste of freedom and deep friendship, and we loved meeting there.
Sometimes in my mind's eye, I see myself in their home, engulfed by its warmth, belonging to a large, ever growing group. To this day, I feel that I am connected to those who with me participated in those cultural evenings, and who are no longer with us now. Sometimes their images appear to me, and I remember them as they were. Here are Fania and Grisha Akerman, of blessed memory, Fania, our prima dona, and Grisha, the director who succeeded Mirmelsztejn. The beautiful Fania played every part like a professional actress, with talent, taste and charm. Grisha was the cheerful joker who made us laugh and be happy. My sister Batiah, of blessed memory, played the part of the Jewish Yachne  in many plays.
Chaim Klejnsztejn was the comedian, the company jester, who played Hotzmach in The Witch (by Colondia), and Ting Tang in Salome. Alongside them were the many less talented actors who were always prepared to allow the stars to shine and so ensure the success of the show.
Alongside the dramatic group there was a small string orchestra which accompanied the performances. Here too were beloved friends who gave of their musical talents for the success of the plays, and I recall those who were most prominent: my brothers, Moshe and Yaakov Feldger, of blessed memory; Meir Akerman, may he rest in peace, and Tartekovsky, of blessed memory. This modest orchestra was so devoted to its calling that it developed into the best of such musical ensembles. Even members of the arrogant Polish ruling class who held anything not Polish in contempt had no choice but to recognize their talent and invited them to play at their shows. This, of course, enhanced our pride in being Jews.
The repertoire of the dramatic society included outstanding plays by Jewish playwrights, such as Gordin's Mirele Efros, The Great Win by Sholom Aleichem, and others, and Goldfaden's operettas Bar Kochva, Salome, and The Witch, which were the audience's favorites.
In preparing material for the shows we were always concerned with presenting problems and the search for their solution, but in order to remain acceptable to a wide audience we were compelled to acquiesce to common taste. If we didn't present plays which were attractive, the audience would leave us. We, in the dramatic group, had developed a group spirit of our own, had many shared experiences, and were a unique force in our town, Shumsk. We had many shared experiences behind the scene, with all that these entail.
There was no dearth of humorous incidents and curiosities. We presented the last plays in the auditorium of the public school Shkola Pobshechna, but before that we performed in the Wilskier Braver, a wine hall that did not have enough light, but had enough space and also had birds which would defecate on the audience during the shows...
I remember during one show in the Shkola Pobshechna we all went on stage, in costume and makeup. The curtain went up, and the actors waited for the cue from the prompter -- but the prompter was not in his place! The audience sat quietly, waiting expectantly, but the fellow had disappeared ... Of course we had to lower the curtain. We stood there, not knowing what to do, when suddenly we saw the prompter, Zecharia Sztejnberg, may he rest in peace, standing in one of the corners of the stage, behind the scenes, praying Shemone Esre  with devotion. This made us laugh -- not according to the program, of course, and the audience stirred in surprise. But we forgave Zecharia, and the play was a success in spite of the late start. It was only then that we learned of the identity of our prompter. There was something in him that symbolized our activities: boundless dedication to the Jewish nation, employing all means possible -- both the ancient one of prayer and the so-called modern one of artistic expression -- each one loyally whispered, with equal fervor.
[Pages 294 - 296]
Translated by Rachel Bar Yosef
Edited by Lynne Tolman
(The translation of this article is in memory of Akiva Shprecher, who immigrated to Palestine from Shumsk in the late 1930s, lived in Haifa, and passed away in 1993; the translation is donated by his children Haim Shprecher and Miriam Adir.)
I write these words, which spring from my great love for my town, especially for the Shumsk Yizkor Book. My fondest wish is that this book will serve as a historic document, to which future generations will turn to read about the conditions in which we grew up, studied, developed. Our reality here in Israel today is nothing whatsoever like the conditions of that time and place. Herein lies the greatness as well as the weaknesses of our forebears.
Our town of Shumsk was surrounded by 24 villages, most of whose inhabitants were Pravoslavic Ukrainians, who made their living either farming or working in the nearby forests. A few thousand Jews lived in the center of the town; most of them were engaged in trade, with the exception of a few dozen heads of families who were laborers (tailors, cobblers, carpenters, glaziers, etc.).
Part of the town was hilly. At its southern edge ran the Vilya stream, which drove two large mills. Avraham Rajch's mill supplied Shumsk with electricity, lighting streets and houses. In this our town was different from the other towns in the area, which remained in darkness for many subsequent years .
Every week there was a traditional market, to which the farmers would bring grains, fruits, and vegetables. With their profits they would buy groceries, clothing, and shoes, and they would end up getting drunk and being arrested by the police.
The children at the Tarbut school were taught Hebrew and general subjects, as well as receiving a Zionist education that involved preparation for physical labor and Hachsharot. Once a boy finished his elementary schooling, in most cases he would work to help support his parents and family. But since there were an average of four or five children in each family and there was not enough work to go around, thoughts of emigrating to America would enter people's heads (already in those days tens of thousands of Jews were bewitched by the thought of America). Later, beginning in the 1920s, some pioneering spirits started thinking in terms of settling in the Land of Israel. This was when our local branch of Hechalutz got organized, encouraging the young people to adopt real physical labor. The boys, including Lokaczer, Seforim, Shalom Rojchman, and others, worked in the timber warehouse, and all the Efros sons started learning carpentry. The parents were amazed by the phenomenon that our boys, with their own hands, were turning out work on a higher level of craftsmanship than the gentiles. The girls started to learn to weave reed baskets, under the guidance of a gentile master basketweaver, right in our own home. My sister Devora, Malka Klejnsztein, and Gittel Seforim later went to Hachsharot in Klosova and other places in Poland. To the best of my recollection, the first pioneers made aliyah during the riots of 1929, after taking their leave of the townspeople with a mixture of joy and sadness.
This was the generation of revolution and revolt, a generation that took a dim view of our town life, so deficient in terms of economic stability. They aspired to put the situation to rights by making a radical change and embracing a productive life of manual labor and the realization of the dream of establishing a Jewish state in the Land of Israel. Later, the town's branch of Betar and the Hachsharah Kibbutz were organized, based mostly on work in the sawmill in Malanyov (about 7 kilometers from Shumsk). This was backbreaking work, which involved, among other things, lifting and positioning the logs for sawing, and all manner of associated tasks. This work supported these boys, at the same time that it provided training in an occupation for those who were not thinking of leaving Poland. There were other boys who went to the ORT school in Kremenets to study. (ORT was a Bund influenced school system that sought to train Jewish youth for productive employment.) Jewish boys began unashamedly to turn their energies to physical labor, even if they were planning to spend the rest of their lives in Jewish Shumsk.
There were the youth of Shumsk, and these were their concerns and activities.
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