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[Pages 82]

Avrohom Eliyahu Harkavy

Translated from Yiddish by O. Delatycki

Avrohom Eliyahu Harkavy, a famous Jewish man of letters and orientalist, died in Russia in March 1919 aged 84 years. He was born in 1835 in Novogrudok. Harkavy studied initially in the Volozyn yeshiva. Later he graduated from the Teacher's Institute in Vilno. In 1843 he enrolled at the University of St Petersburg and completed a master's course majoring in history. He continued his studies in Berlin and Paris. In 1876 he was appointed head of the oriental division in the St Petersburg library and held this position for the remainder of his life. He collaborated in many Jewish-Russian publications. He also wrote many papers, which made him famous in learned circles. In 1910 the scientific world celebrated Harkavy's 75 birthday by issuing a memorial book. The contributors were the world's best known scientists in Judaica and orientology. Attached to the book was a list of 399 works by Harkavy. Harkavy reviewed the entire literature of the middle ages, specifically of the Arabian era, the history of the Jews in the middle ages (with the emphasis on Jews in Slavonic and Balkan countries), Hebrew epigraphy etc. Harkavy continued to work during the last 10 years of his life. His death was a loss to both the Jewish community and the worldwide scientific community.

[Page 83]

An Eelui (Brilliant Scholar)
from Novogrudok

(In memory of Kalman Aaron Midler)

by Chaim Noy

Translated from Hebrew by Aviva Kamil

A narrow, tall dwelling, in the style of the houses in Hanseatic towns, stood in the “long market”, in the centre of Danzig. At the entrance a sign in English said: "Midler's Academy Of Languages". An occasional visitor climbed up the many stairs to the Academy on the top floor, where there was a small room adjoining a huge attic, from which all the roofs of the town could be seen. The room was stacked from floor to ceiling with books. The only member of staff was a Jew wearing a moustache, a pipe in his mouth, his one eye almost blind from too much reading. Shabbily dressed, he lived the life of an old bachelor, of thriftiness and neglect.

But anyone who climbed those steps to learn a language or to procure a translation never ascended in vain.

What languages did the lone man master? Almost any language you may name: all European and many Asian languages and even some useful African tongues; and, without a doubt, all the old Classical languages of the West and East.

When you entered his room you would see on his desk three printed items: a book for studying the Polish language, a volume of Sh"S (6 Sidrei Mishnah) and the latest edition of the German newspaper "Die Welt am Montag" in which its editor, von Gerlach, fought, between the two world wars, a desperate and hopeless one man battle for freedom, justice and peace.

If you wanted to learn a language, Reb Kalman Aaron took it lightly, teaching languages was for him just a matter of earning his livelihood (and a poor one at that), but if it was the Sh"S you wanted to discuss, or "The World on Monday", he would not let you go until he told you about his interpretation of a certain "Sugiyah" (Misnnaic problem) or about the pleadings of von Gerlach every Monday in his newspaper, about one latest atrocity or another that occurred in a forsaken corner of the world. And if you arrived at an opportune time he would read to you poems of his two beloved authors Yehudah Leib Gordon and his friend the German poet Nikolaus Linau, or play for you on his old gramophone music by the cantors Kvortin and Sirota. Kalman Aaron Midler concentrated his main interests on three things: studying the Talmud and Midrash according to the principles and wisdom of western Judaism, composing sermons in the style of east European Jewry and scrutinising the wars for justice, wherever they occurred in the world. And lucky were the few who were rewarded by listening to him articulating his concepts of Torah and morality! Such a mix of knowledge and acumen! A brilliant command of all the sources, a clear and exact scientific method, a Jewish way of learning with the knowledge of Asian and European cultures, clarity of mind with warmth, cleverness and naivety, courage and modesty. One could find all of these gifts , only in one person in a generation and he was that person.

And with all of these many interests he was not at all a recluse, he loved to mix with people, was joyful and sharp-tongued, overflowing with wisdom and jokes. " King Arthur's Court" (as the grain and produce stock exchange was called, which was the daily meeting place of the Jews of Danzig) was only a few steps from his apartment. (If only king Arthur knew who were his knights of later days!). All the affairs of the Jewish community of Danzig, a free city and a crossroad between east and west Europe, were discussed there, and Kalman Aaron Midler being a man of morals and arguments in the style of Y.L. Gordon, could not tolerate wrong doings, and did not keep quiet about it.

Who was that strange man, and how did he arrive in Danzig? There was no one in the city that knew accurately his life story. My knowledge is fragmental too and is based on a small number of hints, which he gave me.

Kalman Aaron Midler was a man from Novogrudok, he was born in 1870 or thereabouts. In his childhood he was known as an "Eelui" (a brilliant student) and as a young man he was ordained as a Rabbi. And then the "Eelui" of Novogrudok went through the crisis of "Haskalah" (the Jewish enlightenment movement). "Bederech hayam, derech eretz Plishtim" (the journey by sea leads to the land of the Philistines) a road, which was familiar to the "Maskilim" (those belonging to the enlightenment movement) from Lithuania. His destination was the University City and the queen of wisdom of Judaism, Berlin. He went from Lithuania to Memel, from Memel to Koenigsberg, from Koenigsberg to Danzig and there he was stranded in the middle of his journey and stuck for the rest of his life. He found his livelihood wherever he could: as a preacher (Darshan) in the synagogue, as a porter at the sea port, a Bar Mitzvah teacher or a swimming instructor, a composer of epitaphs on tombstones or economics reporter for a Russian newspaper. Somehow he managed to accumulate books, learn languages and an understanding of different cultures (when he came to Germany he studied for a time in a German primary school, as a 20 years old amongst kids!). Somehow he managed to buy an apartment and open his Academy which had a single teacher, one who was equal to a collage of instructors.

But he did not find satisfaction in his work. The curse "Lemi ani amel" (for whom do I labour?), which troubled his idol Y.L.Gordon, tormented him too. No one wanted to hear about the integration of Judaism and "Haskalah". The world continued in its old ways, some assimilated and others became more pious, (Goyim on one side and crazy on the other - said Midler), or the world has found new ways, which Midler viewed with sympathy, but could not follow: Socialism and Zionism. Secular Jews saw him as one of the old generation and laughed at his naivety and the orthodox Jews saw him as an atheist, freethinker ("apikores") and made his life bitter. Here too he remained at the cross roads.

All his work, the Academy, teaching at school, the "Darshanut" (preaching) on Yom Kippur, contributed towards a very modest living. Conscious of the fact that he would not be able to support a family, he never married, lived thriftily and was sometimes hungry. From time to time he brought home some vegetables and mushrooms to eat with his bread. He died alone from a stomach ailment at the age of 60. His corpse was found in his apartment among the many books and articles that were never published.

Kalman Aaron Milder left this world before he could see the destruction of the European Jewry.

And what about his articles, notes, his life's work, a treasure to a researcher of Judaism?

My mother and my aunt kept all his writings and looked after them with great care. They took them when they escaped from the Germans. The writings of the "Eelui" from Novogrudok are where the bones of their guardians are buried, under the ruins of the Ghetto of Otwock.

[Page 84]

The big fire in Novogrudok

by Yaakov Gershovski

Translated from Yiddish by O. Delatycki

The two things that a man should fear most when he goes to sleep are, firstly, that he may be robbed while he is asleep and, secondly, that there may be a fire during the night. It would seem that the Jews of Novogrudok could sleep soundly. It was impossible for them to be robbed. The rich Jews, who had things worth stealing, lived in the centre of the town in the Market Square or in the nearby streets. Their houses were patrolled the whole night. The watchmen walked around the row of shops in the Market Square and in nearby streets and would thump their “kalakotkies” [a timber stick with a cut along its length, when the stick was thumped it would issue a penetrating sound]. The sound indicated that the watchmen were awake and doing their duty.

As to fire - the citizens felt that they were well protected from it and could sleep peacefully. Reb Itschok Elchonon, when he left Novogrudok, where he was a famed rabbi for some years, had blessed the town and expressed a wish that there should not be a fire in town. The blessing seemed to be effective. For more than 20 years, there were no fires in Novogrudok. The fire brigade, which was located in Beilin's house and consisted of 3 or 4 firemen, had nothing to do. Their only work was to guard a few prisoners who were held in the detention cell - a small room with iron bars in the same house as the fire brigade. The detention cell was not used for holding dangerous prisoners. The prisoners who were kept there committed minor thefts or were drunks who were held in the cell until they were sober. Having sobered up they would be released, but not before they drank a glass of vodka with their jailers, the firemen [this is called in russian “na pochmiel'e”, an alleged cure for a hangover]. Next to the fire station, under an overhang, stood a few empty drums on two wheels. Next to them were a few hand pumps with long hoses for pumping and spraying water. A small metal plate was affixed to each house with instructions of who should come out in case of a fire and what equipment they should bring. The instructions have become illegible over the years. As it turned out, the blessing of Reb Elchonon must have ceased to be effective. However, the fire, when it erupted in the early 1880's, had started in a non-Jewish area outside the town. A farmer lit his oven to bake bread. The day was hot and the straw roof burst into flame. Presently the rest of the timber house caught fire followed by the houses of neighbours. After ten houses were set alight, the fire had become violent and burned both Jewish and Christian homes. In the middle of the night there was a great panic. The watchmen started knocking on the blinds, waking everyone. The bells in the churches started ringing, the streets were full of scantily clad people of all ages. Young people hurried to the pumps, others started to fill the drums and fetch water. Women dragged their belongings: bundles of linen, bedding, jewellery, silver cutlery, candelabras etc. Old people were running to the synagogues to save the sacred articles such as silver goblets, crowns and other decorations of the Holy Scriptures (Sefer Toras). When the fire spread into the narrow, densely built up Jewish streets it moved with a renewed ferocity. At that stage more than half the town was on fire. But at that moment, the Power above us must have remembered Reb Elchonon's blessing. The sky opened up and rain gushed down, and flooded many homes, extinguishing the fires and saving the rest of the town. This was the end of the fire but hundreds of families remained homeless and without means to survive.

I would like to mention the admirable deed of my mother OBM. The fire burned on Thursday night until Friday morning. Our house did not burn down. First thing in the morning, as soon as the rain stopped, my mother put up long tables outdoors, borrowed a few samovars, bought as much bread, rolls, potatoes etc as she could and fed the victims of the fire for the rest of the day. As Friday night was approaching, mother secured the help of friendly Christian neighbours, who served tea to all comers for the entire Sabbath. Naturally, the Christians drank their cups of tea first to indicate that they made the tea for themselves and not for the observant Jews.

[Page 85]

The Jewish Souls
(from the Old Pinkas Navaradok)

by Dr. Eliezer Yerushalmi

Translated from Yiddish by O. Delatycki

It happened in the year 1863. The Polish uprising in the Novogrudok district was at its height. The Polish insurgents were concealed in the forests. Cossack troupes were surrounding the forests. The Jews were between a hammer and an anvil and suffered from both parties.

In those days there lived in Novogrudok a wealthy man, a money—lender, Reb Avrom Skleser. He was a G-d fearing scholar. Two daughters of his brother lived with him. He kept them under his strict supervision and did not take his eye off them. In those troubled times Reb Avrom seldom let them out of the house. Who knew what could happen in times like that to young Jewish women.

On a certain day, on a Sabbath after the Cholent was eaten, when Reb Avrom went to visit the grave stone of Sheine Bashke, the girls went out for a walk. Having walked around the market place, they were tempted to go on to the green Shloss (Castle) Street. From there it was but a step to the Castle mound with an outlook onto Mickiewicz St . The girls took courage and directed their steps to the Mickiewicz mound, close to the countryside. As they wandered, time had passed and they became distressed. The girls were afraid to walk back. Quite suddenly it got dark and they were frightened. Not knowing what to do, the girls hid in a shelter – and they did not leave it.

In the mean time Reb Avrom got up to go to Mincha. When he returned home to Shalashudes he discovered that the girls were not home. Naturally, he was perturbed. As it was Sabbath, he could do nothing and he returned to the synagogue. After Miriv the girls were still not home. Reb Avrom quickly recited the Havdole and went out to look for them. After he had enquired from all the relatives and friends and could not find them the whole town became alarmed. Everyone started searching everywhere. The girls had disappeared without a trace. Another search was organised in all parts of the town. No wonder, the missing were Jewish girls and the nieces of Reb Avrom. But all searchers came back disappointed. It was assumed that a tragedy had taken place and the town was in a state of panic.

Next morning Reb Avrom went to see the Russian spravnik and the Polish marshal. Reb Avrom was known to all the officials of the town. But he could not find out anything. Next the Orthodox Priests were approached. They made inquiries in all their Churches and monasteries. They got no results.

The Jews gathered at Rabbi Yitzchak Helhonon. They sat with him days and nights. Reb Avrom brought all the money he possessed, 70,000 roubles, to the Rabbi and said: 'Rabbi, I will give all the money I have to save my nieces. What will I say to my brother when we meet in the better world and he will ask about his family'. He started to cry and with him cried the whole community.

Money was given for charity. Bribes were given to all the policemen and their superiors, to all church officials. A rumour was spread that the girls were hidden in a church or monastery. But how can one know if this was true, since there was no one to ask.

It seemed as if there was an agreement among the Poles not to disclose anything to the Jews. It was assumed that the girls were not in town anymore, but were taken elsewhere. Where? How could one find out? Reb Avrom gave the marshal of Novogrudok, the representative of all the landowners of the district, some money. The marshal promised to do his best. He gave Reb Avrom a letter he had written to the Minsk marshal and said that the marshal in Minsk knew where the girls were and he would help.

Reb Avrom sent couriers to Minsk and told them to hurry and contact the marshal of the gubernia and give him the letter. The Minsk marshal sent a letter with the couriers to the marshal in Novogrudok, but Reb Avrom was told nothing.

Reb Avrom went to Minsk and was given another letter. He said to the marshal 'Give me a clear answer, where should I turn to and no more letters. The letter was thick, filled with paper, why was there so much to write?' But you could not ask that of an important person. Reb Avrom returned to Novogrudok and brought the letter to the Rabbi.

The Rabbi called an assembly and sought advice from the community on how to handle the letter. They sat the whole night and expressed different opinions. Some said that the letter must be passed on to the recipient as it was. Others maintained that the letter should be opened to establish what was in it.

After many arguments, they decided to open the letter. The letter from the Minsk marshal, who was the head of the uprising in the whole gubernia, contained a plan with instructions of how to conduct the Polish uprising. It was addressed to the marshal of Novogrudok, who was in charge of the Novogrudok uprising. There was not a word in it about the Jewish girls.

It was decided that the girls must by saved by using force. Reb Avrom rented speedy horses, usually used by the nobility and state couriers and took off to Petersburg to speak to a minister. It is a long story to tell how Reb Avrom got to a minister. A Jew was not allowed to enter the capital. But Reb Avrom went there regardless.

He waited for the time when the minister would return home and he went into his palace. The doorman stopped him, beat him up and took him away. Reb Avrom started to shout. The minister heard it and came out. That gave Reb Avrom an opportunity to say to the minister that he had something important to tell him. The minister received him and Reb Avrom passed on to him the letter of the Minsk marshal.

What happened to the marshals is not part of this story. It was told that the Minsk marshal escaped, but the Novogrudok marshal was apprehended. The minister ordered the Catholic Church to release the girls. They were found in the Sluck monastery, where they were being prepared for conversion.

All could have been well, but the girls did not want to return. They were ashamed to return to the Jewish community. The older one maintained that the uncle would punish them, nobody would talk to them and they would not find a husband. There was talk that one of the sisters ate non-kosher food.

It was impossible to force them to return. They were both old enough to decide for themselves. The Poles were also aroused and they swore that they would not release the girls. It had become a matter of pride to convince the girls to convert. Two landlords offered to marry them. One of them was the Graf of Wsielub, Arik and the other the landowner of Novoelnya, Jundzl. The girls were both good looking. The weddings were to coincide with their conversion.

But the Jewish community had not given up. Rabbi Yitzchak Helhonon sent out match makers to find for them suitable suitors. Both were splendid scholars and maskils (members of the Haskala (knowledge) movement). One of them came from Danzig.

The girls agreed to return. On the eve of Succoth they were brought back from Sluck. The whole town including the Rabbi came out to welcome them. The famous klesmer Oser with his band provided the music and they were taken to their wedding ceremony. Rabbi Yitzchak issued a cheirim, prohibiting mention of the incident.

But the scribe of the Jewish community had entered the story into the Pinkas.

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