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[Page 3]

Know From Whence You Came


Our Vibrant Town

by Yisrael Yaakov Pogir


Yisrael Yaakov Pogir and his wife Chana [USA]


Our native town, the place where we enjoyed our childhood, where we saw the light of the world for the first time -- You remain etched in our memory, in your young minds, from the time we looked out at you from atop Har Hascharchoret (Dizzy Mountain).

Your houses spread from Keidain Street until the road, from the Vylia river until the hill of the cemetery. There was even a part of our town on the other side of the river. At first Velvel Frumer and later Shneur Sesitzky, the government appointed rabbi, operated the ferryboat with the long rope that linked the other side of the river to the town. The ferry boat floated back and forth, each time with different passengers.

Before my eyes stand your streets and alleyways, your synagogues and Beis Midrash, your Hassidic Shtibel -- and on the other hand, the Russian church and the Catholic church. The merchants of Jonava waited for the Christian holidays when the villagers would come to make their purchases.

I heard the ringing of their bells. On Sabbath eves before candle lighting, I heard the proclamation in a loud, melodious voice summoning the people to the synagogue. I saw your weddings and heard your musical instruments. I saw the bride and groom being led to the wedding canopy, with the faces of the parents beaming with joy.

I saw your funerals and heard your eulogies and chapters of Psalms. The lads of the Talmud Torah would call out “Righteousness walks before him” before the bier, and the sexton would clang his charity box and declare, “charity saves from death.” I saw your Simchat Torah filled with heartfelt joy, and I was wary of the fear of pogroms.

Jonava! I saw your youth preparing to protect the lives of the Jews and all their property. Eight youths waited in each of the eight synagogues, and not with empty hands. Therefore, the evil gentiles forgot the day that they had designated for the pogrom. Not one gentile was seen that day in the town. It was almost entirely Jewish:

The miller and the bakers, --- Shlomo the barber is giving a haircut
Even the tree cutters, --- and Leizer the chimney sweep,
The smiths and the carpenters, --- Bentza the deaf, the night guard
All are dear Jews, --- and Izak Segalovsky -- with one son and eleven daughters
The town is beautiful, with Jewish charm, everyone is a beautiful daughter of Zion.

Itzik Dembo the wood engraver and Itzik the tinsmith / who tread carefully upon the roofs / were the head of the firefighters / all of them together and others / were the group of shooters.

[Page 4]

Keidain Street

It was supposed to be called the Russian Street, for Russians lived in the houses sprinkled with gardens and fruit trees. Flowers with many colors decorated the lower houses. The house of the Pristov (police chief) stood out. There was also a girls' school in that house. No small number of Jewish girls also studied there, girls of age 14-15, from well-to-do homes, wearing black dresses with white aprons, well-combed, walking and speaking Russian. These were the charming girls of the community.

Whoever has not seen Keidain Street on summer Sabbaths has not seen an amazing sight in his life. The road was straight, long and unpaved -- which are three beneficial qualities for a stroll. In addition, there were cherry trees on both sides of the street. They were adorned with their white flowers in the warm spring, and when the cherries ripened, the branches turned green and were covered with red.

This road led to the water mill that ground the flour for the Sabbath challahs, and from there to the ascent to Har Hascharchoret.


Har Hascharchoret

The fields and forest cast their shadows. The air was clear, and the aroma of spruce and strawberries brought enjoyment to the hearts of the strollers. In the mountain, everyone found what they were looking for in terms of joy and beauty.

The bashful bride and groom / are wary of the evil eye / -- the bride is walking with her friends on that road / and the groom with his friends turned aside from nearby. / and when the groom, the bride / “suddenly” sees on the stroll / he takes her hand. / The friends -- following the groom and bride / all walk with joy and mirth. / the bashful boys and girls / run to avert the eyes of the women / and hasten their steps. / Next to Har Hashcharchoret the girl finds her beloved / and the boy returns full of hope. / And at evening when they return -- they are all happy with their lot.

The youth of Jonava was also idealistic, wanting to do something for their nation and for humanity. Har Hascharchoret was the place where the factions would meet. The spruce forest covered everything.

The teacher of the Talmud Torah, Yachnowitz, spoke at the meeting of the parties. Even though Shmuelke Brandwein, the son of the teacher, and Davidka who worked in the store of Chaim Levin the pharmacist, belonged to the S.S.[1] Youth, they were not removed from there. Guards stood on guard to watch if the police were approaching. At that time, there were six policemen and a supervisor in the town, who also did not succeed in stopping the distribution of illegal signs written in red ink.

At evening, they began to return home. Each person saw their town from the heights of the mountain, with the roofs sparkling with the last rays of the sun / whether the houses were high or low / whether they were straight or leaning to a side / the sun rays lit them all up.

Keidain Street witnessed the parade of boys and girls / who accompanied the Sabbath / in their fine Sabbath clothes / and the people of Breizer Street would also look at them.

Happy is the eye who saw all this.

From Yiddish by Sh.[imon] N.[oy] [Gorfein]

[Page 5]

These are the Generations

Jonava -- a town in the district and region of Kovno. The population of the town was 813 in 1847. According to the census of 1897, its population was 4,993, including 3,975 Jews

Brokhod-Efron Encyclopedia of 1907

In the middle of the 18th century, Duke Koskowska took possession of the Skarol farms that belonged to Duke Skarolski. A town was founded not far away. Its name was later changed to Jonava after his son Jonas. In 1864, the population was 4,933, and in 1939 -- 5,400. The area of the town reached 528 hectares before the Second World War. Three percent of the buildings of the town were brick, and the rest were made of wood. Approximately 70% of the buildings were destroyed during the Second World War.

From the Lithuanian Encyclopedia, Vilna, Volume I, pages 693-694

Jonava was destroyed in the year 1750. Duchess Maria Koskowska, the owner of the Lyukani farm, set up a small house of worship next to the private family cemetery, not far from the Lipniak farm. Later, one of her sons decided to found a city on the right bank of the Neris (Vylia) River. The first residents were mainly fishermen, ferrymen, and craftsmen of various types, especially carpenters. The city was named after the Polish King and great Lithuanian Duke Jan Sobieski, who had won the war against the Turks.

The first Jews who congregated in Jonava in 1775 were Jews from the village of Skaroli on the other side of the Vylia, whose population had been 300 prior to this. The development of the city took place thanks to the paving of the long Peterburg-Warsaw-Berlin road, which passed through Jonava. The paving was completed in the year 1852. The development was also due to the building of the Libau-Romana railway, which was completed in 1873 and also passed through Jonava. Trade in grain and fruit increased. The merchants took advantage of the train and were able to send their merchandise in railway cars from the Jonava station directly to eastern Prussia.

In 1877, the Vylia River flooded the city and brought great damage. Jonava was destroyed twice by fires, in 1895 and 1904. On the eve of the festival of Shavuot 1915, the Czar and his security advisors issued an edict to expel all the Jews from the region of Kovno within a 24 hour period. The residents of Jonava passed through Žasliai and Vilna. Most traveled by train to Ukraine and central Russia. The latter returned to Jonava only in the years 1917-1921.

From amongst the Lithuanian residents of Jonava who dedicated themselves to social and cultural activity, we should mention in a positive fashion Dr. Reiles who translated the Iliad and the Odyssey into Lithuania. From amongst the Jonava personalities we should mention the poet Morris Winchevsky, and the artists Yeshayahu Kolbiansky and DavidCohen.

The region of Jonava was populated by Russian villages of the “Starovarit” sect. Because of them, the people of Jonava were nicknamed Burliaks. The relationship between the Jewish, Lithuanian and Polish communities were good enough, and there were never any disturbances. During the first years of Lithuanian rule, the Jews earned their livelihood in a sufficient manner, but in the latter period, due to government pressure on the sources of livelihood through providing support to competitors such as the Lithuanian cooperatives and banks -- their economic situation declined, except for isolated individuals. During the 1930s, there were tradesmen of the following types in Jonava: 30 tailors, 25 shoemakers, 3 watchmakers, 20 blacksmiths, 2 locksmiths, 5 engravers, 6 wooden door makers, 9 scribes, 5 sewers, 2 strap makers, 1 slipper maker, 3 rope makers, 3 builders, 5 dyers, 26 carpenters, 3 tuft joiners, 10 bakers, 3 sausage makers, 1 photographer, and 3 tinsmiths. Aside from this, there were butchers, porters, wagon drivers, and barge floaters. The tradesmen were organized into a trade union that had 140 members.

From the Book of Lithuania by Dr. Mendel Sodarsky, published in 1951 in Yiddish in the United States. The writer was Pesach Janover. The details were collected through the archives of the Lithuanian priest Vytkonas.

[Page 6]

Foster Mother

by Shimon Noy (Gorfein) of Kibbutz Amir


Shimon Noy (Gorfein)


“... Only Keidain Street remains. All of the houses and factories were destroyed and covered with grass. There is not one Jew in Jonava. The Jews of Jonava were already murdered in 1941. They murdered them all one in one day in the Girialki Forest, on August 13, a day designated for disaster. Before they left the city, the Nazis opened the communal grave and burned the bodies day and night, so that there would be no remnant of their atrocities. Of all the Jewish residents of Jonava, only about ten remained.” (from a letter that was received around the time of the end of the war).
It was not a city and mother of Israel[2] -- rather it is a town and step mother. Furthermore, the community of Jonava is apparently not particularly ancient. The oldest gravestones in the cemetery are from about 100 years ago. It is not famous amongst the great ones, and did not give rise to famous people. Once a Jonava resident was asked if their town ever gave rise to great people. He answered, “No, only young children were born with us.” Indeed, there was once among them an artist and sculptor whose works were exhibited in the world capitals. One or two poets were born there. However, these were not the pride of the Jewish population of Jonava, which numbered ¾ of its residents.

Jonava was an anonymous town, immersed in toil. First and foremost there were its carpenters. Approximately 800 workers, a significant number of whom were Jews, worked in dozens of furniture factories. There was almost no young couple, even from afar, who did not come to town before their wedding to choose their furniture. Just as there was the alley of the carpenters, there was also the alley of the blacksmiths, which was filled with the echoes of the sledge hammers all day, hammering on the anvils, accompanied by the singing of the blacksmiths. And the butchers? Their fear was upon everybody. During the time of the draft, the draftees from the villages of the area would create disturbances on the main road when they were drunk. They would remove poles from fences or shelves from wagons, and dish out blows that their victims would remember for the rest of their lives. Above all were the wagon drivers of the town. Once, a certain rabbi who was visiting Jonava was asked for his opinion on its people. He responded,

[Page 7]

“G-d should save me from the exile and from the wagon drivers of Jonava...”
While they were still standing, chatting on the main road and exchanging words with the porters -- their voices could be heard from one end of the road to the other. Even when they modernized themselves and exchanged their wagons that were hitched to “eagles” (that could make the 30 kilometer trip to Kovno in 6 hours) with cars and buses, they still remained wagon drivers as they were. Now, nobody was afraid of them.

The many porters and tradesmen, and especially the water-men, who went down to the rivers and floated barges!

Indeed, there were many “common folk”, the “burliaks” as they were nicknamed by the residents of Jonava -- since the villages of the region were populated by farmers from Russia.

Once someone asked a Jonava native who had immigrated to America, had become involved in film making, and could only sign his name with difficulty -- which university he had completed. He responded, “What difference does it make? -- the University of Skaroli.” This is the name of a tiny village near the town. Indeed, the first Jews who had moved to Jonava at the end of the 18th century were from Skaroli, where there was a small community. However, take it easy! The Haskalah was not foreign to the townsfolk, especially to the younger people. The old and the new were intermixed, and the new had the upper hand.

Jonava -- a crossroads of railways and roads. International trains would transfer nearby. It was in the center of the areas of the three cities of Kovno, Keidain and Wilkomir. Cultural activities were carried out to no small degree through local talent, but were also helped by talent brought in from Kovno. From time to time, symposiums (before the concept was known) were conducted, as well as literary and communal debates on various topics with the participation of writers and communal activists from Kovno. There were three schools in Jonava -- Tarbut, Yavneh, and Culture League. The youth was for the most part Zionist, with all the organizations being represented. No small number belonged to the ranks of Hechalutz, went to Hachsharah, and awaited their aliya to the Land. The aliya came in trickles, however, and people managed somehow while they wearily waited for their permits and certificates. Certain exceptional individuals later reached the ranks of the Red Army and Lithuanian Division; they conquered, they came and saw -- woe to the eyes that saw! They quickly surveyed the scene, and moved onward with hardened heart, thirsty for revenge over what was perpetrated against their dear ones who remained behind in the large mass grave.

And now -- now let us arise, overcome, and record the memory of your townsfolk in the past tense: They once were, they existed, and are no longer. For us, Jonava no longer exists. It was wiped out and will not arise again.

The atrocity took place in the pleasant grove, in the place to which we were attracted on the Sabbath walks of your youth. This was the place where the Hashomer Hatzair group organized its meetings, games and activities; the place where the “Genuzia” and “Syuniut” organized their parties on moonlit May evenings, and where mixed couples would dance to the sounds of the band of wind instruments. On that bitter and violent day of 1941, a Satanic dance was organized by human beings, and the evergreen trees witnessed hellish scenes and absorbed the bloodcurdling screams.

The gentiles did not stand aside. They did not wait for the arrival of the Nazis.

In this book, we hope to give expression to that which took place on those terrible days, as well as in the life that preceded it.

Translator's Footnotes

  1. S.S. Was a Zionist Socialist youth movement. Return
  2. A poetic biblical term for a major Jewish city. See Second Samuel 20:19. I would not have translated it literally, but a literal translation was needed in order to understand the title and following sentence Return

[Page 12]

A Town of Working People

by Yitzchak Ben David


Yitzchak Ben David


The Jewish settlement in Jonava grew with the paving of the Petersburg-Warsaw road that ran through the city. During those days, the stonecutting trade developed, and a stonecutters' synagogue was founded.

The city grew further on account of the decree of the Czarist ruler in 1882 which restricted the bounds of [Jewish] settlement by forbidding the settling in villages and purchase of land outside the bounds of the cities and towns. Hundreds of Jewish families were forced to leave the villages of the region, where they occupied themselves with the growing of fruit and vegetables, dairying and flour milling. People of the nearby villages moved to Jonava. The great fires and the expulsion on the eve of Shavuot 1915 reduced the number of residents. Many did not return and many immigrated to America and Africa[1]. On the eve of the Holocaust we estimate that there were approximately 4,000-4,500 Jews in Jonava.

The geographical conditions of the town and its district were favorable for economic development. There were communication arteries – a main road, railways upon which international trains traveled, the Vylia River, forests and other things. On account of this, the lumber industry developed. Before the Holocaust, there were four midsize sawmills whose annual output exceeded 50,000 cubic meters, the large “Oren” match factory, the Farkt Factory[2], three flour mills and two brick kilns. All of these were founded through the initiative of Jewish manufacturers. Thanks to this, furniture manufacturing also developed. There were approximately 15 large, mechanized, carpentry shops in Jonava, and many other average sized ones. Most of them were owned by Jews. This manufacturing provided almost all of the furniture of Lithuania.

During the barge season (May-November), hundreds of barges laden with all types of trees floated day and night. Some remained in Jonava and were dismantled for local manufacturing, and others continued their journey to Kovno, Jurburg (Jurbarkas) and Tilzit. A large proportion of the professional barge floaters were Jews of Jonava. These were courageous people who had a strong connection with the powerful forces of the rivers already from their youth. Great strength was needed


Blacksmiths in 1911
Moshe Ritz (Moshe Feiga Leah's), Yisrael Pogir, Tevka, Shlomo (of David-Elia the Karetnik)


in order to transport the barges through the sandbars and waterfalls, especially during the spring during the tide season. Some of them [the barge floaters] transported the barges for two weeks.

Some of those working in assembling and dismantling were Jews. Most of the wagon drivers were Jews. These were characters like Noach Pandra of Zalman Shneour[3]: muscular, solid and strong, who did their work easily and diligently, and earned their livelihood by the sweat of their brow.

The fishermen were bound to their light boats day and night in order to provide carp for the upcoming Sabbath. Jonava was also noted for light manufacturing that was concentrated in dozens of workshops where the owners worked with several employees. There were workshops for tailoring, smithies that manufactured wagons, sleds and all types of household and building utensils, sawmills, cobblers, harness makers, tinsmiths and brick kilns. There were also builders, plasterers, painters and watchmakers. All of these employed hundreds of Jewish workers and tradesmen. Grain warehouses were concentrated along the length of the Street of the Road. Dozens of Jews worked in this business, including large scale exporters. Three hotels served the passers by. There were male and female shopkeepers of all types – large and small – of iron implements, textiles, fancy goods, groceries, hides, and the like.

Along with the economic activities, with the passage of time, activities in the realm of culture, society and sport arose. In Jonava there were seven synagogues, groups for Talmud study and Psalms recital, a Talmud Torah and a Yeshiva. Later, a Tarbut school was founded, headed by the principal Shaul Keidanski. There was a Yavneh school and a Yiddish school of the Culture League. Youth groups also arose – Hechalutz Hatzair, Hashomer Hatzair, Gordonia, Beitar, the General Zionists, Young Zion – Hitachdut, Socialist Zionists, Culture League, Mizrachi, and the Revisionists. There were the Maccabee and Hapoel and Culture League sports organizations. There were dramatic groups, choirs and bands. Through the initiative of the community, a public bank, a hospital, a bathhouse with a modern section, and slaughterhouses were set up.

The Tarbut school used the “Hebrew in Hebrew”[4] teaching methodology. The teachers came from Hebrew seminaries in Kovno. The schools and youth organizations with their cultural and educational activities imprinted their stamp on the majority of the youth, who for the most part were Zionist. There were those who continued their studies in the Hebrew gymnasiums of Dr. Carlebach and Dr. Schwabbe in Kovno or the Hebrew gymnasium in Wilkomir [Ukmerge]. The Hebrew library was founded to provide spiritual sustenance. It was under the supervision of members of the Young Zion – Hitachdut.

On Sabbaths and festivals, presentations on various topics, symposia and literary and public discussions were organized. Between the two world wars, along with the stream of immigration to various continents, the number of immigrants to the Land, especially from among the youth, increased. They quickly became accustomed the life of the settlement in cities and kibbutzim. They paved roads, worked the land, built houses, and were active in defense. They composed the kernel of the group of survivors of Jonava, and they were joined after the war by those who survived the Holocaust, from the various concentration camps and from the vast expanses of Soviet Russia.

Translator's Footnotes

  1. South Africa. Return
  2. Farkt (Feh Alfph Resh Kuf Tet) seems to be some product. I am not familiar with this word. However, the name Prakt appears elsewhere in the book (see 12th unnumbered photo page following page 144, NYPL scan 230), so it is conceivable that this term may refer to the owner of the factory (although the presence of the 'of' ('le') preposition would make this interpretation grammatically awkward. Return
  3. Zalman Shneour is a Yiddish writer (see http://www.ithl.org.il/author_info.asp?id=251) and Noach Pandra would be one of his characters. Return
  4. Hebrew in Hebrew (Ivrit beIvrit) is a teaching methodology whereby the language of instruction of the Hebrew language is Hebrew (i.e. the vernacular is avoided in the classroom to the extent possible). Return

[Page 15]

My Yaneve

by Samuel Goldsmith [London]


Samuel Goldsmith


{Editor's note: This translation was produced by Samuel Goldsmith, the author of the original Hebrew article, and provided to me by his daughter Tessa. The book translator, Jerrold Landau, has performed some very superficial editing of Goldsmith's translation. Jerrold also notes that the translation is not 100% literal – there are some minor embellishments and changes, but none change the meaning of the article in any substantial fashion. They were left intact for the most part.}

Rome was built in Latium, on the left bank of the River Tiber, in the eighth century before the Christian Era. Yaneve was built in Lithuania, on the right bank of the River Viliya, in the eighteenth century of the Christian Era. The details are not quite clear. It seems nobody has ever bothered to investigate the origins of Yaneve in a scholarly manner. At any rate, I have never seen anything in writing relating to the history of Yaneve. Mind you, we did have in Yaneve a historian and folklorist by the name of Nathan Yanosevich, but he could not devote any time to research. He was the secretary of the Jewish Community Council (Kehilah) in Kovno, the capital city. He had some notes, and some early documents in his possession, but never came to writing his book.


The Non-Jewish Yaneve

There were, as a matter of history, two Yaneves: the Jewish one and the non-Jewish one. Those two never truly amalgamated. The non-Jewish Yaneve was faceless – half Lithuanian, half Polish, with a group of Russians dwelling over the hill. The Lithuanians tried hard to make of Yaneve a Lithuanian town, but they failed. The place had no high school. The symbol of Lithuanian nationalism in Yaneve at the time was the Roman Catholic cemetery. In it stood the monument to Dr. Juozas Ralys. He was a doctor of medicine but also a fine writer and one of the pioneers of Lithuanian culture in the new state. It was he who translated Homer into Lithuanian. Dr. Ralys served as the local doctor for many years. At the turn of the century, he was among the Lithuanian patriots who smuggled Lithuanian books into Czarist Russia from East Prussia. He used to hide those books in Jewish homes until it was safe to distribute them among the population. My father told me that he used to hide Ralys' smuggled-in books in my grandfather's warehouse. My father was not quite sure whether he had done it in order to please a friend or in order to give progressive neighbors a hand.[1]

The local bishop, Juozas Vaitokunas, was a fascist, a member of the party that had ruled Lithuania between 1926 and until the end in 1940. He was not a pious man at all, and ignored even the Lithuanian Bishops, representatives of the Pope. Some of the Poles in the town tried to pander to the new masters. All in all, gentile Yaneve was a place without Lithuanian tradition, without genuine Lithuanian culture, without a religious leader, and without a civic leader of stature.


The Jewish Yaneve[2]

The Jews of Yaneve were of a totally different breed. The survivors, and there are very few, still bear the stamp of Jewish Yaneve upon their personalities. This despite all the water that has flowed under the bridges of the Viliya since then.

A significant part of the Jews of Yaneve drew their livelihood from the river and the dense forests in the district. The trees used to be cut, rolled into the river, tied together into rafts with special ropes, and navigated downstream to Germany. For the Viliya flows into the Nieman, which flows into the Baltic Sea on the German side[3]. There were several specialties in this trade: the merchants, the navigators, and the middlemen. Some of this timber used to be bought by local Jewish furniture makers. Yaneve was – and still is – a world center of the furniture industry. Many other Jews made a living in subsidiary trades. There were leather merchants, smiths – gold and black -, cobblers, tailors, and grain dealers. My father was a leather merchant. The people of the timber trade needed sound boots. Thus, he was well-off, importing leather and selling it to local cobblers. The bustling trade gave Jewish Yaneve a prosperous aspect. There were some poor Jews, of course, but it was not a “Shtetl” as described by American Jewish novelists. Nobody opened up a shop and hoped that the Almighty will send him customers. The Jews in Yaneve knew what they wanted to do, and the craftsmen were well trained. The furniture made in Yaneve used to be sold all over the world.

Best of all I remember the expert navigators, who took the rafts down to the Baltic Sea. They were not unlike British seamen or Norwegian fishermen. It is the influence of long hours on the river or at sea. They used to eat and drink on the rafts. To be a good navigator, you had to have physical strength, agility, powers of observation and endless patience.


Jews Who Hail from Yaneve

It is true to say that Yaneve was never a center of Jewish learning. Some Lithuanian towns, Volozhin, Telzh, Lyda, Slobodka near Kovno (I refer to “Classical Lithuania”) used to be famous as places of Jewish learning. And then there was Vilna. Yaneve claimed no such fame. There were one or two great Talmudic scholars in the place, but they had come from other places and brought their learning with them. There was no Yeshiva in Yaneve. Nor was there a Jewish high school. All Jewish Yaneve had was a Hebrew primary school and a Yiddish school of rather low standing. The rabbis came from outside and so did the teachers. The children of Yaneve usually continued their education in larger towns.

It would be difficult to name a world-famous Jew who hailed from Yaneve. Here and there a scholar; here and there a painter. Neither of them very well known. But the Jews of Yaneve as a group made a profound impact upon Jewish life in the Diaspora. They were profound, devoted to Eretz Israel, stubborn fighters for Jewish rights. Every Jew within this group was a man and a brother. I cannot recall a really bad Jewish character in the town. I still like to say, “We men of Yaneve…”[4]

As to Jewish institutions, I must issue a caveat at this point: I am writing all this from memory. I have no documents with me. It is a personal picture, though my memory is not bad…


The Library

As far as I was concerned, the most important Jewish institution in Yaneve – and there were only five thousand Jews in the place – was the Jewish Library. It was called “The Hebrew Library” but it also stocked Yiddish books and was thus a bilingual institution. There was never a rivalry between Hebrew and Yiddish in Yaneve, not even at the time of the tremendous battles between the Zionists and the Bundists. Everybody knew both languages. In fact, only those who knew Hebrew well also knew Yiddish well. The others knew neither properly…

The Hebrew Library of Yaneve was established in the last years of the Enlightenment (Haskalah) era in Jewish history (c. 1880). It contained only secular books. Religious tracts and books were to be found in the synagogues. Each of them had a large collection of Seforim, and they were available to all comers. In the days before radio and television were heard of, the library made life tolerable. But, of course, it also had a decisive civilizing effect. Generations of Yaneve Jews, who had no chance to acquire secular knowledge, looked on the library as their “alma mater.” It was not an orderly and planned education, but it was an education. There was a very small fee for the use of the books, and the poor paid nothing. The librarians, some of them great experts, were all volunteers. They not only handed out the books; they also advised “clients” what to read. The library belonged to the Jewish Community, of course.

I was never a real citizen of Yaneve after the age of twelve. I went to high school in Kovno, and only spent my holidays in Yaneve. After high school, I went to university – again in Kovno. Nevertheless, I made good use of the library during the long vacations. I still harbor a sense of gratitude to this institution. Yiddish literature was not taught at my Hebrew school. I learned it from the library in Yaneve…

Let me tell you a story here. A few weeks ago, British Television screened “Daniel Deronda” by George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans). The hero of this novel by an Englishwoman – she was not Jewish – is a Sephardi Jew. The authoress uses her hero as a mouthpiece for a powerful plea for decent relations between man and man. She even qualifies as an early Anglo-Zionist. It is necessary to remember that she lived between 1819 and 1880, and her Zionism preceded the Balfour Declaration by forty-one years. As soon as the first pictures of the Eliot play appeared on the screen, I remembered the story in all its details, and Daniel seemed an old friend, who prays in the Sephardi synagogue… I even knew the monologues. Where did I come across “Daniel Deronda”? In the library of Yaneve. I read it for the first time in Hebrew. I don't remember who the translator was, but I remember the binding – black cloth with a brown leather back. When I told an English friend about this total recall, he could not get over the miracle of George Eliot in Yaneve in the Twenties…. George Eliot was not the only famous author in our local library. She was one of a series which also included Dickens, Shaw, Zangwill, Jerome K Jerome, and Mark Twain.

We all know of Sholem Aleichem, Bialik and their likes. But I also discovered in our local library such obscure Hebrew authors as Mordechai David Bransteter, Eliyahu Meidanek, Reuven Asher Broides, Menachem Mendl Dolitzki, Adam Hacohen Levinson, Micha Yossef Levinson, Moshe Leib Lilienbaum, and Peretz Smolenskin. Who knows what would have happened to my literary education without our local library?...

The longing for Zion also drew upon the books available at this library. Yaneve was no forsaken place. It had the river, a railroad and a highway. But our window to the world was our library.



The Yaneve branch of “Maccabi” was no great shakes as a sporting center. Yaneve never played “Hacoah” of Vienna, to be sure. We never produced world champions in athletics, swimming or cycling. But this was unimportant. We had enough fresh air and wide, open spaces for exercise.

But “Maccabi” gave us three other important treasures. A) An appreciation of sport and a knowledge of its various branches. Until this day I meet in various parts of the globe former members of “Maccabi,” and they all love sport and are very knowledgeable about it. And do not treat such knowledge lightly. Experts in sports are as good as any other experts – at least in the West. Even ordinary people are expected to understand at least some of the games that are being played nowadays, otherwise they are “poor fish,” second-rate people … Society will sooner forgive those who are ignorant of, say, opera than those who are ignorant of football…

B) In “Maccabi” we learned to have a straight back, metaphorically as well as physically, the secret of fair play, and Jewish pride. C) “Maccabi” did away with boredom. The club was a social meeting place, and not only a place for physical exercise. The use of free time was a new discipline, and we learned it in “Maccabi,” long before it was introduced into the curriculum of high schools.


The Stage

There is no generation without its clowns, according to our sages. Most people like to dress up and play on stage. It gives them a chance to escape from the part which life has forced upon them. We had such people in Yaneve, and some of them were gifted actors and actresses. I knew myself two generations of amateur actors in Yaneve, and I heard from my elders about actors of previous generations. I remember Elchanan Katzenberg, an actor and producer of great talent. He was also a humorist of some stature. He would have gone very far in different circumstances. In Yaneve, he was the head of the local troupe.

Over the years, I saw in Yaneve plays by Sholem Aleichem, David Pinski, Zvi Hirshkan, Shalom Ash, but above all by Jacob Gordin. I know Gordin to the present day thanks to those Yaneve productions… Some years ago, I saw Ida Kaminska in the title role of “Mirele Efros” by Gordin. I suddenly discovered that I knew the dialogue by heart…[5] I told Ida I had seen the play before – in Yaneve. She knew exactly what I was talking about.

All the productions were in Yiddish, for some reason. It was the local custom to have the plays in Yiddish. Nobody had to convince his friends that he knew Hebrew… That was taken for granted.


The Synagogues

There were seven synagogues in Yaneve. In other words, a synagogue for every seven hundred souls, more or less. This was a high proportion of synagogues, since women attended services only on the Sabbath and High Holidays, and there was no problem of travel on the Sabbath. All synagogues were within walking distance from any spot. The Jews of Yaneve were not pious Jews who worshipped frequently. The high proportion of synagogues merely testified to the social strata in the place.

There was a “Choral” synagogue, a kind of representative house of prayer. It was a very handsome building which belonged to the community as a whole. But only sophisticated people prayed in it. Opposite the “Choral” synagogue was the “Great Beth Medrash.” The “Choral” was a red brick building; the “Beth Medrash” was painted white. The “Beth Medrash” was not only a house of prayer, but also a house of study.

Then we had “The Old Shul,” patronized by shopkeepers and skilled craftsmen. The poor prayed in the synagogue known as “The Shul of the Wandering Salesmen.” The name is self-explanatory. An interesting institution was the smallest of them all: “The Shul of the Stone Masons.” It was a small, square structure, spotlessly clean and beautifully appointed. It always smelled of polished oak. It was patronized by wealthy merchants and landowners (among them my great-uncle), bakers and blacksmiths, for some reason. They all got on very well, despite the disparity.

There was also a tiny Hassidic house of prayer which a few of the Lubavitch Hassidim – we had some - had built for themselves. But they never behaved like “Galitzianer” Hassidim. They used their spare time to study the Torah rather than indulge in endless devotions.

I left the “New Synagogue” for the end of the story. It was the one my father patronized. It was relatively new, and differed from the rest in that it stood in isolation outside the town, where the fields opened up. Its neighbors were non-Jews… On both sides grew tall pine trees. There were no outside ornaments on this one. It must have been an attempt to avoid the jealousy of the gentiles. But it was very beautiful inside. On its west wall, there were twelve painted symbols of the twelve tribes. It was the work of a gifted painter who did not sign his name. I wish he did. Reuven was symbolized by a fast stream (his temper). Simon had a sword as his symbol. You had there the donkey of Issachar, the wolf of Benjamin, etc. The lion of Judah was the pride of this permanent “exhibition.” I remember best the snake of Dan, because it faced our seat at the east wall. It was yellowish, with the face of a gangster in a Western – vile, ruthless, and ready to bite innocent people for no reason at all…

Our synagogue was a very democratic institution. Among its worshippers were the local rabbi, the local recluse, and the “millionaires,” the navigators of the rafts, horsemen and inn-keepers. I never prayed too much, but I was connected with this particular house of prayer through my father, who was Chairman of the Board (Warden). In fact, I liked all the seven synagogues, especially on weekdays, when they were empty…

Translator's Footnotes

  1. The following sentence was provided in Goldsmith's translation, and is not in the original Hebrew: I assume he was motivated by both these considerations. Return
  2. In the original Hebrew, this section is entitled “Bread from Trees”. The author significantly reworked this entire section in his translation, adding in many details including a note on his own father's livelihood. I left this intact. Return
  3. The German province of East Prussia bordered on Lithuania prior to the Second World War. That area is now part of Russia. Return
  4. In the original Hebrew this reads as follows: “If I had to describe the typical Jew of Yaneve, I would say that he was a brother and a man, according to the English adage. This is a great level. It is not for naught that one can hear on occasion in Tel Aviv, London, Johannesburg, and New York: “as it was in Yaneve”. The words are understood only by Yanevers. Return
  5. In the Hebrew, this reads as follows: I told Ida that I had once seen the endearing actress Miriam Nachumovitch on stage, and this left a greater impression upon me than Ida herself in that role... I recall Yitzchak Burstein in “Grine Felder” (Green Fields) of Pinski; Aryeh Raging in the role of Uriel the Demon in Gordin's “God, Man and the Devil”; and Hinda Levitz in the leading role in Gordin's “The Slaughter”. These were actors and actresses of stature. Return

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