By Malka Alper
(Original Language: Yiddish)
Even as a child, he stood out in handsomeness, wisdom and quick-wittedness. He was the darling of his teachers, beginning with his the teachers who taught him alphabet, through his Gemara teachers, and those who taught him secular studies.
His teachers and melamdim, who lived in Dereczin, would come to visit him on Holidays or during vacation periods, when he would come home. They had a great interest in talking with him, because he was always in that period of his life more developed, and knew more than most people his age: he was never satisfied only with the material he received from his teachers, he constantly searched for opportunities, through self-study, to slake his thirst for knowledge.
He was greatly attracted to philosophy, and used to devote the larger part of his scarce free time to pursue philosophical study, and that at a young age.
By being correct and tactful in his relationships with everyone, old and young alike, and with those not as gifted as he himself was made him beloved by all segments of the population.
He never confined himself within the narrow boundaries of his own knowledge base, wanting also that others should be knowledgeable, beginning with the establishment of Hovevei S'fat Ever, evening courses for [the study of] Hebrew, Tanach, and Jewish History, through the Tarbut School, and the Tze'irei Tzion Poalei Tzion [organizations].
He was skillful at stimulating the desire for ambition and self-development among his [own] sisters: he would lightly and good-naturedly banter about the role of women, and would bring examples from history, women who he held out as role models, which awoke in them the desire to struggle for gender equality, not to relent in this regard, and find means to learn and develop oneself, and thereby create a place for oneself in society.
He never compromised with himself, he did everything with full commitment, with his whole heart, and this showed itself especially in his role as a teacher and educator in the Tarbut Gymnasium in Pinsk, in the years 1922-1939, and from the year 1931 onwards as its director.
Until the hand of The Tormenter reached him in 1941, at the beginning of the occupation.
May his memory be blessed!
by Liza Katz-Bialosotsky
(Original Language: Hebrew)
The beginning was in a Heder, in the conventional tradition of a Heder, and as it happened in a tiny little darkened room, in the Hasidim-Shtibl, in the poorest quarter of the town. The remainder of the regular minyan that would come late on the Sabbath at the shtibl, after the morning prayers, would get there before we arrived carrying our book bags. They would typically be rushing to put away their own prayer books in the old armoires, and would leave, in order to make room for us.
We, the young little girls of our households, would rush to take the places around the big wide table and begin the study of our alphabet from the teacher of that time, Leib Abelovich.
We mastered reading skills rapidly, and began to understand the words and whole sentences. The more advanced among us moved on to study with Feivel Einstein, who was already a more advanced teacher, who taught us Tanach with commentaries, providing instruction in Hebrew (Ivrit Be'Ivrit).
Another year went by, and our parents became concerned and started to discuss: what to do with us, and how to give us an education and an exposure that was full of the spirit of these new times? Apparently the parents sensed that the day was not far off when their children would begin to seek places of learning that would be outside the boundaries of their parents' control, and far from our town. Many ideas were presented, but the sentiment of my father prevailed, supported by a group of the attending parents, that a Hebrew School be established for their children. It was David Alper, of blessed memory, who came to the support of these forward-thinking parents.
David, a man of broad perspective, and a proponent of the upcoming ideals of the time, was especially alert to the issues surrounding the education of the young generation, beginning from the earliest age through to maturity. He invested his entire energy in the establishment of a modern, secular school, able to provide instruction of knowledge, and to instill love of ones' people and homeland. He assumed the responsibility on his own shoulders to assume the position of principal of the school, and its founder, dealt with every detail, large and small, brought talented young teachers in, and joined in the establishment of the new curriculum at the pleasure of knowledgeable people of the area. Our teachers in those years were: Zvi Marmanski, Tieger, Sinai, and others. They brought education to a high level. The school on Dereczin was not open very long under the direction of David Alper before offers began to come in from all around the area.
Studies were conducted entirely in Hebrew. The preservation of the ancient language of our people was wrapped in a Zionist education that was given to us within the walls of the school, and all this thanks to David Alper and members of his family, who served as a wellspring of Hebrew-Secular education, and a cradle for the Zionist-Halutz movement in Dereczin. Even today, decades after all that has happened to us during the years of the war and the Holocaust, at every gathering or celebration, we bring to mind memories from those distant and precious years, when we sat rapt, on the student benches of the new school, full of light, Torah and faith, and our hearts exude love and gratitude to the Alpers, and especially to David. He, and members of his family rooted the love of our homeland in our young hearts, as well as the yearning to make aliyah, and the conviction to reestablish our people in its [ancient] homeland.
In those years, we learned to give homage to, and celebrate every national holiday and feast day. As an extension of our Jewish tradition, we celebrated the New Year of the Trees in our rustic town Tu B'Shevat. We would go out, with the blue and white flag leading the way, to the outskirts of the town as if we were going to plant trees and sow grain, with agricultural songs on our lips, the song of the flowering almond tree. We knew that a repast awaited us, consisting of fruits grown in the Holy Land, and all this aroused us, and filled our hearts with love for a new life in our [ancestral] land. And did we know how to celebrate Lag B'Omer!
And the end of the [school] year was also marked by celebrations, and presentations by the drama club that was established within the walls of the school. When we were called upon to participate in the celebration of national holidays of Poland, we were not embarrassed to appear before a large audience and to perform in the local language [sic: Polish] as well.
And it was in this manner that our education continued up to the time that David Alper went to Pinsk. The strong bonds that tied his students to their teacher and educator, and to his household and sisters, did not cease after this. At every holiday or
feast day, when he came to visit his parents, we would do everything we could to meet with him, and not only for just a few minutes. When he would return to his position in Pinsk, we would escort him, whether from near or far, with feelings of respect, and boundless affection.
With the passing of the years, his sisters also began to leave home, and made their way to the Holy Land. Thanks to them, their aged mother was able to reach the shores of our homeland, and to live there. What a pleasure it was for me to visit her, and find her bent over a newspaper or a Hebrew book, as she anticipated the arrival of her townsfolk, and began with memories of Dereczin and her beloved son, David.
Until the outbreak of the Second World War, we had continued to hope that we would yet see David among us, together with his wife, Shoshana, and their two children.
To our terrible sorrow, David delayed his timetable, and the hand of The Tormenter reached him, and robbed the family and the community of his students of the good fortune of the most unique reunion of our lives.
David was precious to each and every one of us, and his memory is as precious today in our hearts. To this day, I can see him in my imagination, in the fullness of his height and handsomeness, with his infectious smile, as he speaks to his pupils who ingest every word he utters, and their hearts quivering with love for their gifted, unforgettable teacher.
by David Rabinovich
(Original Language: Hebrew)
It is not possible to describe the community life, and the Halutz-Zionist movement, and the organization of the secular education in Dereczin, without underscoring the central role and leadership provided by the house on the market street, which bordered on the school building, in which the Alper family lived.
There was a wide wooden porch at the front of the pharmacy of the Alper family, and it was on the wooden steps of this porch that the Halutz-Zionist movement was born in our town, along with all of its offshoots.
The pride of this family, and the pride of the town was the only son of this family, David Alper. Educated at the Yeshiva of Szczuczyn, rooted in the Jewish Torah, David succeeded in absorbing and internalizing the best of the intellectual and literary works of the enlightened world. He was brimming and effusive with knowledge of Torah, science, literature and philosophy, and everything that he learned and absorbed, he knew how to communicate with great clarity to his audience. He would speak with grace, and the entire town would come to hear his words. In debates with anti-Zionists, he always held the upper hand, and I will not exaggerate if I aver that David stood head and shoulders above his supporters as well as opponents, his friends as well as his pupils. His acuity and depth of knowledge might occasionally falter, but of all his undertakings, what stood out most of all, was his initiative in the field of education of the younger generation, and his skill in the establishment of the frameworks and organization for the Zionist-Socialist youth, the Halutzim, the workers for Keren Kayemet LeYisrael, and for anyone prepared to contribute effort for the Zionist cause. His impact on the cultural community life was felt in every aspect of these undertakings in Dereczin, and to this day, it is possible to see among the many good sons and daughters of our town, the legacy of the marvelous teacher, David Alper.
David was raised in a Zionist home, and along with him were raised five sisters. Four of them are found here with us in Israel, and of these, three continue to
be employed in the field of education, and the fourth is a pediatrician.
Among the sisters, who were all committed to the Zionist ideal, it was Malka who especially excelled, who in those years was the head of the Zionist Halutzim at the right hand of her brother David in all his undertakings, in the establishment of the Tze'irei Zion (Zionist Youth), and the young peoples' auxiliary for this organization, the establishment of Bnot Zion (Daughters of Zion), that encompassed tens of young girls from town, in the establishment of the library, in the name of Y. Ch. Brenner, and all manner of other activities in town.
The Alper house served as the center of all Zionist activities in Dereczin. In the pharmacy, prescriptions were concocted, and inside the house and in front of it, the agendas for all the cultural-community-secular activities were concocted with David and his sisters. There practically was not an hour in the day or evening, when someone wasn't sitting at the Alpers discussing one thing or another that needed to be done, over a glass of tea. There were those who came just to unburden their hearts, while others wanted to obtain advice from David, or a point of view on one subject or another.
And when David left for Pinsk to assume the position of Head of the Jewish Gymnasium there, and to work in the Zionist movement, many of his neighbors and friends would wait with longing for a holiday or celebration, and would meet with him during that time when he would come home to visit at the home of his parents. I, also, will not forget my meeting with David Alper in the year 1932, when I returned from the Holy Land for a visit to Poland. We fell into each other's embrace, and had a long and very warm conversation. When we parted, David said to me: Nu? And now we will meet [again] in the Holy Land…
But David did not reach the homeland, because he dedicated his entire life and energy to his calling. And we were denied the privilege of seeing this greatest of Dereczin's sons among us, this outstanding personality, under whose aegis, a whole generation in our town was educated.
by Asher Shofet (Negbah)
(Original Language: Hebrew)
David Alper came as a teacher to the Gymnasium in Pinsk shortly after it had been founded. From the time of his arrival, he was accorded a senior standing among the organization of the teachers there, for many years, even prior to his becoming the principal in fact, he was the living spirit of the organization. The positions he held both internal and external, his role in cultural and Haskalah activities, in addition to the responsibilities for educational direction and teaching, transformed him into the central figure in the Gymnasium, and it became one of the greatest and best of the Tarbut Gymnasiums throughout Poland.
First and foremost, he proved himself as a teacher and educator. He was a great believer in conducting a class. I recall: the class is rapt with attention and holds its breath as the woven fabric of the lesson unfolds from the mouth of the teacher. He is imparting his thoughts to his audience standing, or in the middle of stepping lightly between table and chair. Hand gestures that clarify and explain, an intelligent and lively look over his ever-present eyeglasses, a black mustache which concealed a scar from his boyhood, adds a measure of affability to the appearance of his already pleasant face.
Of the many subjects which he taught at the
beginning of his work, among them mathematics and engineering, he moved subsequently to the exposition of Jewish learning and other subjects in the humanities, and in these he was unique.
By today's standards, I see his educational enthusiasm and attention to detail which he provided for the modern courses of study, as incredible. How he brought a question up in front of the class, whether large or small, how he guided the ideas and exchange among the students, transforming it into a riveting debate, how he held the scepter of conquest in his hand, with which to tame the subject matter, and the solution to the question residing in his mouth, regarding the sought after literary-social issue under discussion.
The main discipline which he earned in his classes, and in all his demands from pupils, was the discipline of respect for position. The sobriquet of teacher-friend did not apply to these relationships, but rather, great father, before whom his pupils stand with mixed awe and affection.
At his height during his appointment to the institution, David Alper was the principal catalyst and the one who freshened the lives of his students. When the time for the long vacation began, he would walk up and down the length of the auditorium of the Gymnasium, with his hands outstretched to the masses of students, he would look about him, quip a bit, and smile at the older classes, while gathering in rivers of their laughter that would come back to him from all directions, and outside talks with the collected parents, founders and authorities.
And even this in those years, when the occupations of guidance counselor and special services teacher were practically unknown, David Alper understood how to allocate both thought and effort to these needs. Not once, did a growing young boy find himself getting lost, and unable to keep focused on the rigors of his study, especially at the onset of puberty and it was at such a time that a youngster would find the way to the home of David Alper, where he would find an attentive ear, and good advice.
He would teach the young man how to organize his time, and to control his restlessness, by adhering to a set schedule of daily tasks and periodic recuperative activities, and found for him a classmate with whom he could jointly prepare his lessons; in follow-up meetings, the young man would sit across from him with bright smiling eyes, very strongly motivated by his return to the right line of endeavor.
We left the walls of the Gymnasium, and fresh new youngsters took our place in the rows of seats. The future of young Jews in Poland was decidedly uncertain, and the reaction to this was the development of a community and cultural focus, with an orientation to the Holy Land, whose gates the British had effectively locked up already.
David Alper faithfully guarded the relationship he had with those of his students who emigrated, and he was proud of them, and they would even write him letters from [such] great distances, and when they visited home, they would meet him, yet again, on the grounds of Jewish education in the city. In the meantime, he was appointed the principal of the Gymnasium, when his predecessor Abraham Mazer, of blessed memory, made aliyah to the Holy Land.
What transpired and was created in the Holy Land lived in every nook and cranny of his soul. He educated his only son in Hebrew, as if it were his mother tongue. His pupils in the Holy Land, who came to visit Pinsk, never forgot to visit with him.
His students became leaders and heads of most movements in Poland, and ideological differences were forgotten in his group. But, he himself, remained at his post to the end. This for him was like Mount Nebo, from which he was not destined to come to the land of his dreams, and the center of his yearnings.
by Naftali Ben-Dov (Dykhovsky)
(Original Language: Hebrew)
I heard these words from the mouth of one of the pupils of David Alper, of blessed memory. In reminiscing about this outstanding scion of our town, Moshe Koll, an officer of the Government of the State of Israel said: Men of accomplishment are not dead, so long as their memory has not vanished from the hearts of the members of their generation.
And I know, feeling this with my whole heart, and I am certain that many feel as I do, that it is impossible to forget David, his good-heartedness, the high level of his spirit, his nobility and devotion to the essential the preservation of our language, and the transmission of the heritage of our people, which he strove to preserve.
He was my classmate at the Yeshiva in Szczuczyn. I carry the memory of those days with me even now, his warmth and graciousness in me, as the memory of one who stood out from the rest, who will forever be remembered by those who knew him.
David, David, we will not forget you, because you live within us, in our memories, in our souls, with all that ties us to the distant past in our town, and the bright future in our Land.
Our Father's Way
by Khemda & Israel Artzi
(Original Language: Hebrew)
Our father, Rabbi Chaim Zvi Sinai, of blessed memory, was in his youth deeply immersed in the study of Torah, and far removed from the practical aspects of life. The one big event in the outside world that had the greatest influence on him, was the Dreyfus Affair. The trial laid bare before him the Jewish Question in all its depth, and he came to the unsurprising conclusion that the only solution to the dilemma of the Jewish people was the Zionist solution. From that time on, the Zionist ideal became the central focus of his life. He took an interest in all the proceedings of those first Zionist congresses. Understandably, his Zionism was an inseparable part of his religious world outlook. A complete Jew, according to his profound perception, was only one whose world was based on Torah and Mitzvot, in which residence in the Land of Israel was an integral part. He remained faithful to this outlook for his entire life: only that individual who personally performs the mitzvah of building the Homeland fulfills his destiny.
He was active with his entire heart and soul on behalf of Zionist organizations, and he raised the Zionist issue prominently in every possible instance before the community: In the streets of Lithuania, in Poltava in the Ukraine, and in Dereczin in Poland. These cities were way stations in his life after the First World War, which uprooted entire peoples from their places of origin. With the publication of the Balfour Declaration, he was transported on the waves of Zionist enthusiasm, and his oratory about the onset of the Final Redemption captured souls for the Zionist cause in each and every city. In Dereczin, he put in place a generation of students loyal to the Zionist cause, most of whom, because of his influence, made aliyah to the Holy Land.
His longing for Zion received tangible expression through his desire for the land. In 1912, through the Organization for Facilitating Settlement, he came into possession of a parcel of land in Kfar Uriah, and in 1926 he made aliyah together with his family and settled in the town along with eight other families. It is difficult to describe the difficult circumstances that these settlers had to contend with in a hostile land, surrounded by Arabs, isolated in the Judean hills, far from the centers of the Yishuv. He assumed the burdens of subjugating the land and building it with love, and lived his life together with his wife, Bluma זל, who was his helpmeet, and a role model of devotion and total dedication. She followed him (as she herself often expressed it) into the desert, an unsown land.
In 1929, this little dot was destroyed at the hand of the Arabs, and their lives were spared thanks to an Arab Mukhtar who befriended them, and guided them to his village and home in the dead of night, and from there to the settlement at Rehovot. He continued to fulfil his desire to build the land with his settling in Ramat HaSharon.
In his new home, he continued with his way of life to which he remained faithful for all of his days: Torah, Work, and Performing Good Deeds. His love of nature, raising living things, which he brought with him from his native town of [Kolonia-] Sinaiska were expressed in excerpts of his memories that he wrote in Ramat HaSharon:
…The fruit orchard, which turned white during the winter months, became a carpet of flowers…the trees, because of their clusters of blossoms, emitted a pleasant fragrance. The chestnut colored animal, with the red
alter around its neck and a bell hanging from it, sent a rushing ringing sound to me… everything about me is effervescent, exuding life and ecstasy.
From this it is possible to apprehend his love for the labor that he devoted to the development of his pleasant lands. This fundamental value he blended with yet another such value: love of the Land of Israel. He had three loves that formed a three-part strand of his life: love of his people, the land and the cultural heritage of Israel, in the middle of which was the faith of Israel. In Ramat HaSharon he taught the Tanach, and the Oral Tradition to many [students], and was the leader of the religious advisory board, a member of the local leadership council for many years, a founder of the local charity organization, and a member of many other organizations.
He was active up to the last half year of his life, until he became ill with the disease from which he did not recover. He withstood all the stormy tribulations of life, being a widower, and sustaining the loss of children. We saw him as strong in spirit, certain in his convictions, independent of the opinion of others, following his own chosen path, carrying his ensign within and without, and a guardian of the divine spark.
We will follow in the light of his steps for many, many days!
by Malka Alper
(Original Language: Hebrew)
Rabbi Chaim Zvi Sinai-Miller was a man who was exceptionally gifted, a figure that emanated the light of friendship, truth, the love of Torah, his people, to his fellow man, and to the land.
He was a man of deep and abiding faith, with no conflict between his faith and deeds, at one with himself and his God. A person whose signature was truth [itself], and anything else was not imaginable. A broad-hearted man, of expansive thought, with sensitivity to the opinions of the public.
During the time when we lived within the ambit of Rabbi Chaim Zvi זל, he was involved with education only for a limited number of years, but his persona served as an educating force in all his undertakings, in the light of his face, and the under the influence of his good heart.
That he was a Zionist from his early youth, was a matter of course, and even before the First World War, he obtained a parcel of land from Kfar Uriah for the purpose of coming to [The Holy] Land in order to settle there. The War not only denied him the fulfilment of this desire, it even uprooted him from his place of residence in Lithuania, and sent him into the vast reaches of Russia, where he tasted the taste of a double exile: as a war refugee, and as a Jew without civil rights.
He was not seduced by the calumny of the Russian Revolution, nor swayed by the limitless possibilities of America, from which his brothers and sisters called to him without a surcease. He preferred the life of a pioneer to all of these, in the Land of his Fathers, his heart's desire since the days of his youth.
It was my privilege to receive Rabbi Chaim Zvi and his family when they reached the port of Jaffa on Passover eve of 1926. How his face shone with happiness and good fortune: for his dream of youth had come to pass: he did not want to have the sailor carry him from the dinghy to dry land, as was the custom of the time, but desired rather to walk in the surf, in order to feel the seashore of his ancestral
homeland under his own feet. You will be carried upon shoulders, as is written in the Book of Isaiah, he shouted from the distance, as he was carried nevertheless, on the shoulders of a beefy sailor.
The life of a pioneer, for which he yearned, continued through all the years that he resided in the Holy Land, nearly thirty three years, beginning with Kfar Uriah in the hills of Judea, the events of the Sharon in 1929, leadership in Ramat-HaSharon, and through the difficulties and sacrifices associated with the work of creation and development of the land. In every tree that he grew, he saw the fruition of his caring, every house he saw built in the settlement gave him true joy, and every settlement that was put up on his land, was a major event to Rabbi Chaim, and he lived it with the total depth of his Jewish-Zionist soul. And it was in this fashion that he lived the building and the creation of his settlement with all his might, and above all these, the miracle of the establishment of the State of Israel in his land. Despite suffering and misfortune, loss of children and sorrow, he bore his pain with an unshakeable spirit, and elevated ideal, as one in the vanguard, who believes that this is the destiny of those living on this land.
He was a man of enlightenment, a man who could carry on an interesting conversation, radiating light and love in all his words to everyone with whom he came in contact.
During the time of his illness, neither a word nor a hint was heard from his lips concerning his condition. About two weeks before he passed away, I visited him once more, and he was weak, and it was evident that his days were numbered. But his mind was clear, and he took an interest in what was going on in our town, he asked if we had called the annual assembly in memory of the annihilated community, he wanted to know what the disposition was of the Dereczin Yizkor Book, and the welfare of those who were putting it together.
He fell like a great tree. He was interred in the earth of the Land of Israel, whose image he apprehended in his youth, and was privileged to see its establishment and early development.
by Kalman Abramovich
(Original Language: Hebrew)
There ware three things that served as a beacon to his path in his role as a teacher, and to these he gave his entire energy, thoughts, and a great part of his life: the inculcation of knowledge to his pupils, the transmission of the Hebrew language, and implanting a love of the ancestral homeland.
He focused all of these three pillars on one objective: abandonment of the Diaspora, and aliyah to the homeland. In the instruction of students in the subject that he taught, Tanach, literature, he explored the material in every facet, leaving no stone unturned, until he was convinced that his students had absorbed his words and explanations, and that the work of the lesson was not in vain.
I am reminded of one of his explanations of a poem by Shaul Tchernyikhovsky, ‘Ani MaAmin’ concerning the young generation to be raised in the homeland: For one eye and the next will see the light. This, too, was the teacher's belief, that the world will be transformed into light, people would become pure in mind and deed, the love of man for his neighbor would rule throughout the world, and when this becomes the way of mankind, there will be a light in the world that will be seen from one eye to the next, that is to say, that as an eye gets close to light, it is no longer sensitive to it, but accepts it as the norm.
He sought to lead his students in this direction. I am, again, reminded of our study of the poem by [Chaim Nachman] Bialik, ‘El HaTzippor.’ What longing and love he instilled in us during the study of this poem, and we knew these were his dreams and aspirations as well: who shall give me the
appendage, and I will wing my way to the land of the almond tree and date palm…
All this was not in vain. Thanks to Miller-Sinai the Teacher, who educated us to a love of our ancestral homeland, a portion of his students made aliyah to the homeland, from those who did not delay because of the times. Because of this, they were saved from the Holocaust. His students made the move at a time when they achieved fluency with the Hebrew language. The teacher continued his dream of life in Israel through his connection to the land itself.
And it was in this fashion that he continued in the study of Torah and its explication in the synagogue.
He was active in all manner of organizations, for the common good in his place of residence Ramat HaSharon.
May his memory be for a blessing!
by Gustav Sharon (Johannesburg)
(Original Language: Hebrew)
My thoughts return to that night, thirty-three years ago, on which I first reached the place that was then called Palestine, and I met, for the first time, my aunt and uncle and the rest of the family. To this day, I remember the powerful and deep impression made on me by my uncle, in his role as the trusted leader of the old settlement, the Zionist, the Fulfiller, the True Builder of Zion, who guarded his faith in the face of disappointment, misfortune and even tragedy. I was struck by his good-hearted character, his patience, the good, capable Jew. When I returned to South Africa, I published a short article about him in the local Jewish press.
I knew that he took a fatherly interest in me, and he once told me that he kept every letter I ever sent him. I have a sad feeling about the fact that my exchange of letters with him over the years became less frequent, which I attribute to the difficulty I had in expressing my thoughts in Hebrew, and that writing in English to him struck me as being somewhat bizarre.
With his passing, a chapter is finished, but it is closed in only one respect. I am hopeful that my memories of him will always be with me the memories of a man possessed of impeccable conduct, a faithful Jew of the old school, who took part in the brilliant attainments of the people. A man whom I was proud and happy to call ‘uncle.’
A Difficult Childhood, A Hard Life
by Jacob Rabinovich
(Original Language: Hebrew)
I remember Chaim yet from the days of the German Schule. It was already apparent then how different he was from the rest of us, and the degree to which he transcended us in ability. At an early age, he began to read serious books in Hebrew and in Russian: he also drew and sculpted, and played the violin. He learned music from his neighbors, the musicians.
He had a difficult childhood. In 1922, I was in his company in Vilna, and after he left Poland, in the period 1924-1933, he would occasionally drop us a letter from Russia. I recall that in his last letter to us, he asked for a picture of the Great Synagogue in town. He summarized his life's story and sent it in 1934 from Leningrad to his friend, the writer Avraham Kariv.
I was born in 1905 in the city of Slonim in the Grodno Province. Before I even learned to say ‘father-mother,’ my parents were driven from their home. They traveled into the larger world. He to the interior of Russia, she to Austria. I was taken into his home in Dereczin by my paternal grandfather (a town close to the city of my birth). He made his living by his pail and axe. Apart from drawing water and hewing wood, during the fall, he also acted as a watchman for fruit and vegetable gardens. He was an early riser during weekdays. In the middle of reciting his morning prayers, accompanied by the clang of his pails, he would tread out into the early morning darkness. He would recite his evening prayers in the house. He would take [the ritually required] three steps back, start the Amidah prayers yet again, in order to discharge the obligation of also reciting the Mincha prayer. On the Sabbath and Holidays, he loved to pass in front of the Ark. Between the Mincha and Maariv services he enjoyed looking into the Midrash. On Saturday nights, after the Havdalah service, people would come over and spend a quick hour in front of our well lit window: Reb Shlomo and his grandson are singing Zemirot. My grandmother was a good, wise woman. I never heard her complain about her lot in life. And our lives were not particularly easy either. My grandfather, nevertheless, continued carrying his difficult burden until darkness. As is well known, the burden of much work accompanies a deficiency of blessings in life. They scrimped on food in order to assure that payment to my teachers was made on time. I studied in the best of the Heders in town. The core of the studies was the Tanach, which the teacher knew how to impart effectively to his students.
by Chaim Lansky
Zelva is famous for its fairs,
Slonim for its rolls with mohn seeds.
You will take pride yet, my far flung town,
In my songs which will make me renown
Because I suffered and sang,
At rare intervals, my father would turn up for a few days, and leave behind for us and our neighbors enough material for several months worth of conversation: the son of Reb Shlomo the Water Carrier rode on a machine that had two wheels! And the kids at school envied me for having such a father…
During the first days of the War, I saw my mother for the first time. Where did she come from? She stayed a day, and then traveled on. Where did she go? Another issue for the townsfolk to take up.
I composed my first song [poem?] at the age of 12. It grew on well-worked ground they are the
teasing rhymes I used to compose for use on my friends.
For my subsequent compositions, I found a sympathetic ear in my teacher at the German Schule, Sima Rubinovsky. She knew a little Hebrew. Once, she invited me to her residence. I came to visit her with my notebook … and after reading her my new poem, she gave me a little box full of candies. My first reward was a sweet one!
This teacher of mine arranged for me to have access to the home of the city leader (the intent is to refer to Sholom Mansky JR), where there was a rich library in three languages Hebrew, Yiddish and Russian. All may spare time was given over to be spent with books. But the world of books did not deter me from the world of diversion. Among the kids on my street, I was always the leader, and first in all sport activities. It was in this manner that my childhood years were spent.
I lost both my grandparents in 1921. I found refuge with my aunt. My uncle took it upon himself to teach me his trade shoemaking. I wasn't particularly good at the work. They gave up on me I wasn't going to succeed. I travel to Vilna, and I am accepted as a student at the Teachers Seminary. Its Headmaster is Joshua Gutman. I neglect my studies. The good will of the Headmaster enables me to remain in the institution. I publish my first collection of works, Leket, around which all the literary forces of the school rally. Two printings go out of 300 pieces.
Spring 1923 My first love, my first plagiarism (the author will forgive my lifting of several of his songs). I attempt suicide. It is not a pretty experience. I send my songs to Yaakov Cohen. His reply: your songs are immature, study, practice a lot and observe nature. Then, in three years time, send me samples of your song writing.
I get a letter from my father in Baku, and he invites me to come visit him. I return to my town, and work for several months in the forest, and save up money for the expenses of the journey.
On Rosh Hashana of 5684 (the year 1924), I sneak across the [Russian] border. I am apprehended on Soviet territory. I am kept in quarantine for two months in the area of Borisov. I am sent to Samra, and given a card: This citizen is a Soviet subject with all attendant privileges, but is denied permission to leave this city for two years. I flee. In Tsaritsyn I change my name. At the end of February 1924 I reach Baku. A total disappointment my father has finished burying his second wife, and was marrying his third.
Friction begins to set in among the family members and relationships begin to deteriorate. I leave the house. I survive by giving Hebrew lessons, and on a monthly stipend from the Yiddish Club for my poems and songs that are publicly read twice a week. At the end of 1925, I travel to Moscow, from there - to Leningrad. I work for Amal.
In 1929 I marry. In 1932 I receive a letter from the Holy Land. In it, it is written: My dear brother, do not be dismayed that I call you ‘brother.’ I have good reason for this we are the children of one mother… I saw in the ‘Weekly’ a poem called ‘Polonz’ signed by you. I went to the publisher, and they gave me your address. It was in this fashion that my sister, the daughter of my mother, found her outcast brother. I discovered that my mother was in Kovno. I wrote to her once or twice, but did not receive any reply. The contact between my father and myself was completely broken off. Today, he works as a chief engineer at some establishment. I am no longer of any interest to him. I am employed as a second level employee in the ‘Elektrofribur’ factory, and I earn 120 rubles a month…
This is where Chaim Lansky ended his description of his life's story.
by Malka Alper
(Original Language: Hebrew)
It was a small wooden house with wooden shingles, leaning on its side, on a hillock at the edge of town. Behind it, and to the right was a parcel of land that was a vegetable garden, extending to the other side of the river that flowed by the edge of town. Opposite the house was the community bath house which used to go up in flames every few years. The reason God only knows. And the sight which was revealed through the windows on the south and west sides of the house were entirely different: a bubbly river, and on its second side, green meadows in the summer, in which the Christian citizens of the town, who were farmers, pastured their domestic animals: horses, cows and pigs.
A wide wooden door, dusty with age, having a wooden doorstep higher than the outside, and twice as high as the inside, bringing you into an entry-foyer of the house, an unusual type of entrance that served as a sort of foyer. From there, into the interior of the house, which was sort of divided into two parts: two small furnished rooms sparkling with cleanliness, whose furniture took up the entire space of the rooms, on its small windows, white shutters with floral designs. This was the first half encountered on entering, and then a sort of kitchen that took up about half the house. In which the baking oven as in the rest of the town, divided the kitchen in two: in front, a form of dining room, on which the mouth of the oven faced, and behind it a roomlet with a combination wooden bench and bed, with a window facing to the west.
In this house, which looked so seedy on the outside, but sparkled with cleanliness within, lived the grandparents of Chaim Lansky, Reb Shlomo the Water Carrier, his wife, and daughter, Bashka, who had reached adulthood. It was in this house that I first saw Chaimkeh, as his relatives called him, and even us children, when he was introduced to my older brother זל, and to me by his father, who would become our Russian and French teacher. Chaim's father, Mordechai Yankel, came to his town of birth in order to engage in teaching, and to support himself and his son, until according to his own words he would be in a position to continue his education: he was certified as a general teacher.
There was no Russian language school in town in those days, only a rural school established by the church, in which the Christian children of the town and surrounding area received three years of instruction. The balebatim were therefore very pleased with the arrival of a teacher in town. There were, nonetheless, heders in town at several levels, beginning with elementary subjects, and ending with an ‘advanced class’ in which Tanach was studied, Aggadah with Yiddish commentaries, an introduction to the Russian language, Russian calligraphy and writing, and even arithmetic in Russian. Chaim's father was the teacher of the highest level class, and was received with great favor as a teacher.
In the summer, my brother זל, and I would go to his house for instruction, and during the winter, he would come to our house. In the year and a half that he spent in town, we were his pupils.
As it came to reach our ears, the ears of the children from the conversations of our parents, Mordechai Yankel, Chaim's father separated from his wife. The child, (on top of the furniture) came under the father's control, and here they were, in the house of his parents, in the town of his birth, that also was my hometown.
A dark and shrunken little boy of about five years of age, short in stature, with shining eyes in which the sadness of the entire world seemed collected, looked out from a pale face, when I first saw him in their home (and I was then not much older than he), when his father was first introduced to us in Russian before our first lesson.
The young boy stood respectfully before his father, perhaps even with a touch of fear, and on trembling legs, timidly approached us, and with a lack of confidence, extended his hand. The relationship of the father to his son was neither warm nor cold, and
it is possible to say that he turned him over to the members of his family to deal with him. And those members of his household related to him in a very warm and exceptionally loving way. He used to call his aunt, Bashka, and his grandmother, Mameh, just like his father and aunt did. They spoke Yiddish to him, and his father Russian.
And his zaydeh, his grandfather, Reb Shlomo the Water Carrier, used to make the rounds of the town every day, carrying his yoke and pails on his shoulders, and was an honest, observant Jew, respected by all the town's residents: Rebbe Shlomo, they would call him, when they encountered him. The water that he provided to all the houses, he drew from a well that flowed not far from his home near the river, this was water for tea, sweet enough for drinking even without being boiled. He would go down to the well, which was at the base of the hillock, with his pails empty, and would trudge back uphill with his pails full. It was Reb Shlomo's custom to hum sections of the prayers to himself as he walked, or to recite excerpts from the Psalms. In the winter, when it was possible to hear the crunch of the white mantle of snow beneath the feet of walkers, it was possible to hear the crunch of his feet at the third watch of the day, whose sound reached our ears even through double-glazed windows as he walked by our house. I remember an exchange between my brother זל, and my late father, at which time my brother told of having been on his way early in the morning one day to the first minyan, and meeting Reb Shlomo quietly whispering verses of the Psalms to himself, and asking of him:
Reb Shlomo, how many times is it now? (the intent being to ask how many times had the old man managed to go through the entire text of the Psalms) And the answer of the old man was : the third time! The old man was not a man of many words, taciturn by nature, doing a tough job in order to earn a respectable living from which he could support his family.
It was not only once that I would find Chaim standing on the threshold of the foyer, greeting his grandfather who would be passing by across from their house, burdened with his pail yoke, smiling at him with his sad little smile, which he would form by slightly bending his lips, and with his sad lidded eyes, as they were.
The relationship of Chaim's father, Mordechai Yankel, to his mother was an interesting one: she had an attitude of respect toward him, and he showed her both love and attentiveness. Here he was, standing outside, the axe in his hand, chopping wood to prepare them for use an oven fuel. He cut the wood, and stacked it in a pile, washed his hands and face, entered the house, and the table was set for him: a small dish of pickled beets on its leaves, half of a salted fish from the crock, broiled on the hot coals, a cask of baked goods, a round loaf of black bread on the table, and the man, a product of the Haskalah, in accordance with the ideas of the time, would seat himself at the table side, eat with relish, and say to his pupils to my brother זל, and myself who were waiting for their lesson, in Russian with the lilting accent that earned him the nickname Raven Here I have worked and toiled some, as soon as I have satisfied my appetite, then we shall engage in scholarship.
I did not see this scene only once.
And Chaim spent his time within the confines of his house, and nothing seemed able to warm his heart enough to bring a smile to his lips; not his grandmother's tousling his hair, when he would rub up against her and hold on to her wide apron which was tied around her narrow hips, following in her footsteps in the living room, or the entrance, going with her into the vegetable garden, which she would begin to prepare in the spring for the planting of vegetables for use in the house, with the idea of selling off the excess. At the direction of my mother, I would come to his grandfather in the summertime for purposes of purchasing from the harvest crop of vegetables (we would study with Mordechai Yankel in the afternoon, because my brother זל, would study Talmud in the morning with a special teacher, that had been hired by my late father in partnership with a number of other balebatim), and I would see Chaimkeh tagging along in her footsteps in the rows of the vegetable garden. I don't remember a single instance where they criticized or rebuked the young boy.
I remember one summer day from those days, in the afternoon. The skies darkened, and heavy, low
clouds covered the horizon, the air became heavy with electricity and was suffocating. The approaching sound of thunder could be heard in the distance. We arrived for our lesson. The teacher is urging us to go to the entrance way, and to observe the storm breaking out around us.
The teacher held his son's hand and mine, because I was younger than my brother (I had followed him only reluctantly, because I was frightened), and the four of us came closer to the threshold, which was very high on the inside, because the floor of the foyer was significantly lower than the street level. As we stood, a bolt of lightning flashed that blinded us, followed immediately by a deafening crash of thunder, and it seemed like the very foundations of the world were coming apart. This so frightened us children that we screamed, just as the teacher burst into a laugh from deep inside of him. Chaimkeh was especially frightened. His father grabbed him, and carried him in his arms into the kitchen, and stood him on a bench, and began to soothe and calm him down. The young boy stood stone-like, frozen with fear. The father then took down his violin, which hung on the wall, and in turning to us, he said: I love to pour out my soul through music from time to time. And he began to pluck at the violin strings that began to emit different enlivening melodies. I will not forget the smile that appeared on Chaimkeh's pale lips. It didn't spread to the rest of his face, however, that same smile that in normal circumstances would be confined to his lips, and his eyes the sorrow of the world was in them.
In wintertime, the teacher would come to our house for our lesson, and in the spare time after his lesson with us, if, in fact it was his last of the day, it was his custom to tarry a while and carry on a conversation with my late father, read a Russian newspaper, engage in a wide variety of diversions, or puzzles that were at hand. He would take them apart, and try to put them back together without much success. My ambition he would say is to study mechanical engineering…
His father left Dereczin, and Chaim remained in the household of his grandparents. Other teachers came to our town, and the memories of Mordechai Yankel, nicknamed The Raven faded. Years went by, and the First World War broke out. The [Czarist] Russian Army retreated, and we found ourselves under the control of the Germans. It is the fall of 1915. Despite the elation of being rid of the terror of the Cossacks, and the warm reception accorded by the town to the Good Germans, the town was concerned about its future fate: work disappeared, stores stood empty, and farmers were forbidden to leave the confinement of their villages. The ruling authority is tracking the harvest and the output of the town.
Many of the farmers in the vicinity, who had transportation vehicles fled to the east either before, or on the heels of the retreating army, and those that remained behind, do not have the means to reach town. Winter begins to make itself felt, and arrives. Fields full of potatoes, but abandoned by their owners abound in the vicinity. The Jews of the town spread out into the fields to dig up these potatoes, in order to stock supplies for the winter, while there are still good days of light. Among those who went out into the fields were Chaimkeh and his aunt, Bashka. At that time he was barely ten years old. Even the old man, Reb Shlomo, went out into the fields a number of times. But the pressure from his daughter and grandson grew great on him to stay home, and that they would look after this matter of supply. And several times a day, Chaimkeh would appear, returning from the fields, carrying on his young back, the sack with its valuable provisions, even though its weight was more than could be managed by a youngster of his age. And so, day after day, until the rains came, the young boy was so occupied.
The [military] regime announced a labor draft for the purpose of repairing roads and highways. The wage bread, coffee to drink, and a number of pastries. Among those who presented themselves daily, in the marketplace at the center of town across from our house, were Bashka and Chaimkeh. His head was bound up with old kerchiefs to protect him from the cold. On his feet he wore ill-fitting shoes, not of his size, from which a variety of rags stuck out, to provide him protection from the cold, and to fill up the empty spaces between the shoe and his foot.
At the beginning of the year 1916, the authority opened a school for 14-16 year-olds, in which
attendance was compulsory, and the study of German was required. The Headmaster a German officer who immediately introduced Prussian discipline. The authority provided the textbooks. The teachers, who were local residents, had to fulfil their tasks under stingy conditions. Jewish studies were only permitted to the students and their teachers in the afternoon hours.
For every misstep on the part of a student punishment. Among those who attend school is also Chaim. Pale, shrunken and with the appearance of a child who hasn't eaten properly, he would come every day to school. He was a clever student, but for some reason did not find favor with the Headmaster, who continuously found fault with him (about which the teachers from our community would discuss). Was it because he was not outgoing enough, or because he was not as quick to seek diversion like the rest of the kids the ire of the Headmaster cascaded over him more than any other of the children and he took it silently.
The school remained in existence for the entire period of the occupation. At the beginning of the year 1918, when the severity of the occupation eased slightly, the civilian authority permitted a revival of some aspects of town life: the opening of the library, organization of evening classes for the study of Tanach and Jewish history, to call together Zionist meetings, and to establish youth groups, and things of that sort.
During one of these days, Chaim's aunt Bashka came to our house, and turned to me with these words:
I have come to ask for you to teach Chaimkeh Hebrew. His father, Mordechai Yankel taught you Russian, and I ask you to do this thing, teach him Hebrew, because his heart is in it. We do not have the means to hire a teacher for this. When Chaimkeh grows up, and will become an adult, he will find a way to repay you in kind.
I did not hesitate. I began immediately to teach him language and literature, and his speed was a marvel to behold. Like an open pit, he swallowed everything that he heard. Every book that was put in his hand, he consumed in short order. How he obtained his facility with Hebrew before he came to me I am uncertain. I assume that he occasionally attended a Heder, and his strong desire for knowledge was that which propelled him ahead.
Taciturn, inner-directed, soft-spoken, almost to the point of inaudibility, occasionally bantering, the same smile that I recall from his youth, except that it was tinged with sarcasm.
The young man amazed all of us with his unique feel for the Hebrew language. He wrote with such focused precision, as to surround the reader. I became filled with respect for his sentence construction, for finding the right word for the right place, and for the maturity of his thought processes. It was not only once that I kept his work at my hand for days at a time, in order to show it to those who were older than I, so that they could appreciate his use of the language. And all of us were amazed by him. As was customary of all budding teachers, (and I was yet quite far from being a fully qualified teacher) the temptation is aroused to edit the text. But I immediately felt that his was superior to mine, because there was no way to alter or change even one syllable of what he wrote. And when I praised him it was as if it made no impression on him, not even an eyelid fluttered.
The years 1918-19 were stormy years for us, in our area in general, and in our town in particular: Zionist organizations, and in counterpoint, the Bund and its organization. A youth movement was established. I do not recollect Chaim [participating] in these. Town meetings took place with sharp discussions in the Batei Midrash concerning control over the funds being made available by the Joint that became available in those days with Jewish support, the Zionists or the Bund?
Both adults and young people of all ages took part in these discussions, either as participants or listeners, but I do not recall seeing Chaim at any of these.
I left home in the fall of 1919. I would come home
for vacation from school during the summertime. It was told in town that Chaim's father was studying at a university in Russia. And what of Chaim himself? This will undoubtedly be related by those who met him in his travels and wanderings outside of Dereczin in those days.
If my memory serves me properly, the last time I saw him in person was in 1923, it was during my vacation from school, I was at the home of my parents, and my brother זל, was also with me. On one of those days, Chaim came to us to take his farewell from us, especially my brother, with whom he was wont to speak with more freely than with me. He seemed to be the same Chaim that I recalled from my earlier memories in his youth, when we would meet.
I'm going to my father, I'm going to him even though passage is illegal. My father is in Baku, in the Caucasus, working as an engineer. Perhaps I too, will succeed in getting an education there. It is said that there are tremendous opportunities for those willing to learn.
He related that he planned to hit the road, unencumbered, and sneak across the border, but that he would take along the violin that his father had left behind, along with a change of underwear.
He left, and we eventually got word that he had been stopped at the border by the Russians, was being detained until his father could be located, who would then take him to his home.
I made aliyah to the Holy Land in 1925. I didn't hear about him until the early 1930's at the time that I had returned for a visit to the home of my parents. It was at that time that his aunt told us that she had received a letter from him in which he happily related to her that he is writing songs, and publishing them, and that he is sending two copies of his collection, one inscribed to her, and one for our family. He said to her in the letter that he understood the material would be difficult for her to understand, and that she should turn to a member of our family to translate and explain it to her.
Up to September 1933, on the day that I left Dereczin, the volumes had not yet arrived.
On my return to the Holy Land, in the year 1939, a collection of his songs was published in Davar.
And her, in front of this large collection of rhythmic songs a dedication to me from this member of my town, and my student from the other side of the Lithuanian River!
by Joshua Gilboa
(Original Language: Yiddish)
In the prominent constellation of Hebrew writers, the writer, Chaim Lansky, occupies an unchallenged place.
In the second half of the year 5698 (1942), news reached the Holy Land that Lansky had been arrested in Leningrad, and sentenced to a concentration camp for five years. But even during the time of his detention, the writer's creative muse was not stilled. His song burst through prison walls, and flew across borders, making its way from Siberia to the Holy Land. This writer had the opportunity recently to meet with someone who had been arrested in Leningrad at the same time as Lansky. He related that Lansky had ‘served’ the five-year sentence, and was subsequently released. When war broke out between the Nazis and the Russians in 1941, Lansky volunteered to serve in the Russian Army, but he was excused from service because of his frail health. The subsequent fate of this writer is
unknown to us.
Today, in Israel, there are a few people who in his day in Russia, were in close contact with Lansky. From their stories, memories and impressions, it is possible to construct a portrait of the writer and his personal life, and this portrait harmonizes with his writing. This was a man of exceptional sensitivity, great feelings and very talented. He could play the mandolin and the flute, as well as composing musical pieces. Physically, he was chronically weak, and lived in a state of perpetual deprivation and need. A friend of his from the years in Leningrad told of him that he never changed out of the clothes that he came in from Lithuania, but almost every day he managed to squeeze in another book into his writer's cramped quarters. Lansky worked in a metallurgical factory in Leningrad. The heavy work exacted a toll from his energies, but he specialized in the work and became a skilled craftsman. He became sick, however, with tuberculosis, and because of this was excused from military service. Later, he fell in love, married, and became the father of a son.
Something of the writer's life story, up to the period of his life in Leningrad, is known to us from an autobiographical letter written by Lansky to the Jewish writer and critic, Avraham Krivaruchka (Kariv):
He was born in 1905 in Slonim, in the Grodno Province. Chaim's parents became divorced before the young boy could speak. The child was taken in by his grandfather, Reb Shlomo a hewer of wood, drawer of water and vegetable gardener in Dereczin. Chaim wrote his first song at the age of twelve, and at that time he was already possessed with a craving to read. During the First World War, the area in which he lived was occupied by the Germans, and it was at this time that he mastered the German language, and in later years, he was much taken by the poetry of Heine. In 1921, his grandfather passed away, and Chaim attempted to learn shoemaking from his uncle, but is not successful. In 1923 he attempted suicide out of great depression. On Rosh Hashana 5684 (1924), after receiving a letter from his father in Baku, he stole across the Soviet border. He was detained, but obtained release in short order. In Baku, he supported himself by giving Hebrew lectures from royalties for his songs, and by storytelling in the Yiddish language.
Lansky was perpetually drawn to the places and experiences of his childhood throughout his entire life. His poem, Litteh, is a lovesong to those faraway times and places. His verses in Litteh are simple and full of pathos. Important tales are told with grace, alongside mundane day-to-day activities, warmly, as if describing a legend.
The poem, Litteh makes clear to us, that the persona of Chaim Lansky's grandfather was the personification of the Jewish masculine ideal, because he saw in him the embodiment of physical strength in synthesis with spiritual gentleness. He took great pride in his grandfather, He didn't have any outstanding business, but he built up strong muscles in the hand on which he laid his tefillin; who else could compare to him as a leader of the daily prayers, and who else but he could swim and course through the water with his eight-year-old grandson? With epic tranquility, the poet braids one line and then another, and weaves his song about Kabbalat Shabbat, Sabbath candle-lighting, Sabbath delicacies, and Zemirot. But this epic description cannot suppress the poet's unrest. The stanzas fill the reader with peace, but simultaneously awaken turbulent emotions. A rich play of colors, artful expressions, and elegant tonalities weave themselves together. The poem ends with Messianic longings, and a certainty of a day of redemption and the Redeemer will come to Zion.
Despite the difficult experiences that the writer endured, his work is suffused with optimism. His joy of life was not diminished even during the travail-laden years he spent under arrest and in exile. On the contrary: Bitterness exposed me [to the world] with its sharp, full aura. The North of the World attracted him, which even in its primitive harshness, evoked images of the time of Genesis in his mind. The writer was able to create pearls out of the maudlin and sad waters of his own life. He sated his eyes with real life nature vistas; even in the land of his fated exile, he listened attentively to the swish of fish in the rivers, to the song of birds, and the whispering of the branches in the trees. In Marinsk Siberia, in 1935, the poet asks himself the tragic question: shall he hang up his
violin on a northern tree branch? For what is the purpose of playing a Hebrew melody in this alien wasteland? But the poet answers himself: no; even though he does not know what is in store for him in the land of Siberia in the enchantment of its snows he will not stop singing so long as he hears the sound of music from above…
Just as we are inspired by Lansky's patience in the land of his oppression, we are equally inspired by his stubborn allegiance to the Hebrew language, in the hostile climate in which it was. Poetic talent and love of the Hebrew language were part and parcel of his very being. What Lansky has bequeathed to Hebrew literature is a sufficient testament to what our people have lost because of the excision of Russian Jewry from its corporate body politic.
by David Rabinovich
(Original Language: Hebrew)
A number of years before his demise in the wilds of Siberia, his name became publicized in the land as a gifted songwriter, one of those few who sing their songs in Hebrew, in the land of the Soviets, through which our ancient and regenerating language was graced and edified.
Who would have foretold then, many years ago in our town, that this young dreamer who wandered its streets, would become one of the outstanding poets of our generation?
I did not know his father and mother, but even Chaim could recollect them only with difficulty. His father left for Moscow when he was about three or four years old, and from that time on, Chaim grew up in the home of his grandfather, Reb Shlomo the Water Carrier. His grandfather was a simple and straightforward man, who knew the Psalms by heart, and as he made his rounds, with the water pail yoke on his back, his lips never ceased uttering verses from the Psalms. Chaim was raised in the home of this observant Jewish man from early childhood on. The house was small, seemingly about to fall down, covered by a straw roof, hidden among the other dwellings by the bathhouse, adjacent to the well (die krenitseh).
I sat next to Chaim on the bench at school. It was only years later that we came to realize how different he was from all the other children about him. He was quiet, and a dreamer, preoccupied with his own thoughts. He was largely withdrawn and sad among us, the children without concerns, who lived under the aegis of their parents, and Chaim didn't have his parents. At that time, we did not understand his feelings, and there was not one among us who would offer him encouragement. Like many of the kids, he earned a nickname from his friends, Chaim the Raven, (die Voroneh). In his solitude, he sought a home and refuge, coming to our house and sometimes spending days at a time, coming after school, and staying for lunch and dinner.
I recall his interest in the violin. He never studied music formally, but he had a good ear, and he was drawn to violin playing, and especially loved to listen to the sad pieces, and the Nesaneh Tokef prayer of the Cantor on the High Holydays. In view of the fact that he lived next door to the klezmorim (musicians) in town, he would come to them in his free time, and listen to their practice on the violin. From time to time, he would ask permission of Archik the Violinist to play on his violin. And he was able to play without knowledge of notes or the details of music composition. To this day, I can recall how he would start to play the Hatikvah, and segue into other light songs, and other folk songs. For a long time, he dreamed of owning his own violin, but when it became clear that he would not satisfy this desire any time soon, he decided to construct one with his own hands. He would sit in our house in the afternoon hours, and carve the
pieces of his violin. When he finished his work, he had a sort of primitive instrument that produced very interesting melodies from its body, but it is difficult to describe Chaim's sense of satisfaction in those days.
He did not excel in his studies, and was particularly not enamored with the study of arithmetic, but he forged ahead in Hebrew literature, and wrote poems without showing them to anyone to obtain an opinion about them. His most loyal friend was my brother, Jacob, and it was from him that I heard of his longing for his father, to whom he was attracted from his earliest days, until he grew up in his grandfather's house. He spoke to us about his father out of envy for those of us who had a mother and father at hand. He dreamed endlessly of the ways he might get to his father who was so far away.
In 1922, he left Dereczin, and went to Vilna where he was accepted as a student in the Hebrew Teachers Seminary. He had no money with which to support himself, and often times went hungry. I ran into him under these circumstances in Vilna, in 1923. He told me how he earned a few pennies, hiring himself out as The Tenth Man for a minyan, on the outskirts of the city of Vilna. During this depressing and painful encounter, I heard from him that he had fallen in love with a young seminary student, a beautiful young lady from Slonim, who was vivacious, and surrounded by many admirers.
Chaim did not have the nerve to open his heart to her. In those days, he wrote many love poems, and secretly dedicated them to the love of his heart.
His rebellious life, loneliness in the big city, and his unrequited love all these taxed his strength and deteriorated his health. For a long time he made himself miserable, and suffered accordingly, until he came to terms with his disappointments in love, and realized that this was one more letdown added to the many letdowns in his life. After a while, I returned home, where I received a letter from him, in which he communicated his decision to cross the Russian-Polish border in order to reach his father.
Afterwards, it became known to us, that on a dark night, he stealthily crossed the border near Stolupczy under a hail of bullets, and that in the end, he managed to reach his father, to whom he was drawn since early childhood.
And again, he was confronted with bitter disappointment. The meeting between father and son was not at all encouraging. Even with his father, he found no emotional peace as he had dreamt and hoped. His bitter destiny hounded him even there. He worked at hard factory jobs, and in his spare time wrote poetry in Hebrew. He succeeded in getting in touch with (Chaim Nachman) Bialik, and transmitted a number of his poems to the Holy Land, and it was only then that he was revealed to be the gifted poet that he was. During the years of Stalin's Reign of Terror, he was exiled to Siberia, and died alone in one of the slave labor camps, my friend the Hebrew poet in Soviet exile, Chaim Lansky.
by Abraham Kariv
(Original Language: Yiddish)
Where does the Elegance Come From?
The three-sided thread, grass-green on one side, snow-white on the other, and blood-red in the center, is woven through Lansky's poetry through the three principal forces in his life (until he disappeared from view): Lithuania Leningrad Siberia. They were like three aspects of his poetry, centers of the melody in his heart, each different from the other the tune of a sad, intense prayer, the tune of a bitter, frustrated circumstance, and the tune of a quiet, resignation and acceptance of one's fate.
The first center, from whose source his heart and song never ceased to drink sustenance, was his distant and far-flung hometown, from which he drew his warmest memories, and to which he poured out his love through the intensity of his poetry, his compassion and his longing. Many poets and writers, men of thought and action, turned their backs on the Jewish shtetl in the last years of its existence, but Chaim Lansky, the scion of such a town, from which he had wandered such a great distance, always remembered it, and thought of it with love and warmth, with affection and a prayer in his heart. From that time on, in the most distant of locations, his shteleleh played on the most delicate of his heartstrings. In the lines of his poetry that he writes about his home, a tear seems to tremble in every line, a tear of longing, compassion and love. The most intense of his emotions stream forth in his poetry when he is describing each and every nook and cranny of his town, and every single individual who did him a good turn during his formative years there.
A double-entendre cries out from the lines:
The last pail is filled from the stream,
The last bird has flown from the garden;
The house, sunken and in despair, becomes visible,
And who has gone, will no longer return.
The wanderer will not return now, he has no place to come back to. The stream has run dry, and the house stands desolate, the nest has been destroyed, and those friends and brothers who have survived have been scattered to the four corners of the world by angry winds. Yet in those days, even before the bitter end of his hometown, Lansky sent to this writer his poem, The Dying Town, and added a few words: This is my Kaddish for my dying town, perhaps you will answer Amen after the Kaddish. About fifteen years before the destruction of his hometown, its loyal son sent a sort of Kaddish [to me] from Leningrad to Moscow.
Several years afterward, he also set a poetic gravestone on that town which was so dear to him that is his poem, Litteh.
The poem is a voyage back into the past, to those years that have permanently disappeared, and that no experience can replace in the innermost reaches of his soul. With playful phrases and verse, the wandering poet celebrates the occasion of his return visit to the neighborhood of his youth, to the modest little house where he was raised from childhood on. Lansky never had a home with his parents from his earliest years, and this forlorn child was raised at his grandfather's knee, who extracted a hard living from his axe and water pail; potatoes Lansky relates, were a royal delicacy. And to so difficult an upbringing the poem pulls the reader, and refers to it as my morning-gilded childhood!
We can understand how he paints his grandfather in rich colors, as we read the poem, Litteh. The old grandfather is merely a hewer of wood and a drawer of water in the small town, carrying his load from the
dark of morning to the dark of night, and in harvest time, is a night watchman in the gardens but he is replete with a heartfelt joy of life, and steeped in the old tradition, a wonderful harmony fills out his entire person. His grandfather has keen senses, is deeply tied to nature, the dew of humor spurts out of him, he is beloved by all, and loves them in return, and fully tastes the fabric of his life. He is a caring Jew, in whom every fiber prays and sings a Jew who is at once a member of the common poor, and the people's aristocracy.
From him, his grandson inherited many emotional qualities that were not diluted even by his many long years in unfamiliar places. Reflections of the Sabbath sanctity of the ‘old home’ followed him during the weekdays, and from city to city in his travels; memories of those days made the burden of his bitter days and nights in cold exile easier to bear, lighter, and warmer.
It appears that poverty alone cannot ruin everything around it. Poverty can also be majestic. Here, from an impoverished ‘kingdom,’ with its pitiful crown on his head, Chaim Lansky wandered out into the unfamiliar world, and yet zealously guarded in his heart a fiery love for his poor-but-rich childhood. He never once denied his ‘family tree,’ and sang the song of a grandchild of a water carrier.
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