a. The protectors of the town
by Zalman Shazar
Translated by Libby Raichman
Stolpce, town of my youth! I was not with you at the time of your great misfortune …and my ear did not comprehend the screams of your torture you who have been most dear to me, since the time of my youth. On that day, the 12th Tishrei 5703, when 1500 of your sons and daughters, the elderly and the children, were buried alive. Some of them were my friends from cheder, [traditional religious school], and others were my friends from the party. At that time, when they were thrown together with their wives and children into a kindred mass grave, that had been dug with their own hands …. on that black day my heart inside me was not broken by their cries and their curses! Only later, from a distance, my heart suffered together with them, that calamity of my people, and I could not grasp exactly, that their personal catastrophe was intertwined with the catastrophe of all my people. The extinguished echoes of the village reached over to us from afar but arrived too late; without words and without details, they were merely carried over to us on the waves of fraternal unrest, that ruled the heart ….
Stolpce, town of my childhood! Pride of the years of my youth! I can still not believe that you were led like sheep to the slaughter …. I knew your young heroes who were raised on the banks of the Niemen river and human beings who fought at the borders …. I still remember your brave butchers and wagondrivers, those who worked on the boats and the binders of the rafts … the pedlars, that used to cheat in their measurements with the drunken peasants, and the Yurezdik Jews they were all raised to do hard labour, and also the young boys from the market place who knew how to handle weapons …. How then did you all lose your courage?
Yes, your few partisans who came to the land of Israel through the seven halls of struggle [a legend that sinners pass through seven halls with a different punishment in each]from the Polar forests to the borders of Rumania and Italy, they are your witnesses that also this day of misfortune and wrath your spirit of courage did not end altogether. It is apparent that your enemy must have been very strong and very cruel if he took you prisoner in this way! I endured the pain of your annihilation from afar too late. I was however, a witness from the beginning, when your spirit of resistance and defence first flared up. I remember well when amongst your youthful lines, the strong, kindling word selfprotection descended, at a time when the organisation of selfdefence had hardly begun. I will impart that, which still lives like a bright memory in my heart.
The rationale for the need for defence, was older than the organisation. The residents of the town made a living from trade and labour. The town was surrounded by villages. Every Sunday when the market took place, was a day of tension. Every market day, close to the town inn and at the houses of Yonah the vintner and Mordechai Isaac the vintner, a type of crowd would gather that spread fear in the market place. Yonah and Mordechai Isaac were both observant, learned Jews who prepared raisinwine for Kiddush and Havdolah every Friday for the local community leaders, and every Sunday they sold brandy to the village peasants. And since the monopoly on liquor was transferred into government hands, the peasants would arrange themselves in the marketplace on a Sunday evening in long lines at the site of the government store. They spent the entire proceeds of the produce that they brought into the town, on liquor. With extraordinary enthusiasm they would throw the corks of the bottles into the air and pour one bottle of liquor after another into their mouths ……and that is where the danger always lurked. When Easter drew near or Christmas eve, the priest of the church duly managed to provoke the fantasies of the peasants. After the long procession that
Sitting from right: Yechiel Granatshtein, Kahanovicz, Henye Posesorsky, Eliezer Melamed, Tzvi Aginsky, Shlomo Aginsky, Eliezer Reiser of blessed memory, Yisroel Reiser of blessed memory
encircled the town and passed by the doors of the government store the incited peasants released their piety and their hatred on the government liquor …. a fear then fell on Jewish homes! At that time school boys reported that on such days, Ruvele, the wagon driver pushed an iron rod into the leg of his boot in preparation for any trouble that might occur …
Ruvele the wagon driver was the son of Maishke the wagon driver. Maishke himself, in his youth used to travel with his covered wagon as far as Smolensk and Nizshnovgorod when he transported the local merchants to fairs. I managed to get to know him in his later years. He took us every year, my mother with her children, to the old Polish doctor Malkevicz in the village of Malyove, a journey that took 5 hours from Stolpce. En route he kept reciting the psalms with a sweet voice and with wonderful intonation, until he had completed all the psalms by heart while sitting on the seat of the coach. Between one book and the next, he gave me a lecture on how to write a very flowery letter in Hebrew. His son Ruvele was the first of the protectors of the town. He never wanted to take any orders from any organisation. He laughed at his friends' offers to help and was sure that he alone could drive out all the enemies from the whole town. At first glance one would not have thought that he was strong and courageous. He was thin and not tall but he was fearless and all the villages echoed with his bravery. Once it was told that on his journey he was attacked by seven peasant farmers when he was all alone. He overcame them all and defeated all seven. Then he came running back to town with a knife stabbed into his stomach …without any organisations and without any specific selection, the townsfolk knew that Ruvele was their protector. They therefore forgave him all his idiosyncrasies those that had to do with religious observance and also those that had to do with his peculiar behaviour towards his own wife.
The second hero of the town was Shmuel Tunik. Outwardly he was the exact opposite of Ruvele. From the shoulder upwards he was taller than all the Jews and nonJews in the town. He was like a giant and a very handsome man. His blond thick moustache was pointed like a spear. He was the commander of the firefighters and when he strode at the head of the group with his copper helmet on his head and with his shining trumpet in his mouth, the earth trembled beneath him. I
cannot recall if he in fact, ever fought with a nonJew, but merely by his glance every drunken person trembled. When he wandered around the marketplace, it was guaranteed that no harm would come to any Jew in the town.
These two protectors were enough, as long as times were normal but the days of the first revolution approached and the BlackHundred [a reactionary league in Russia] organised themselves. The result was the slaughter at Kishinev and the pogroms at Hommel, and the clouds of gloom also descended on the surroundings of Stolpce. Since the 9th January 1905 the wave of incitement did not abate. The newspapers were full of articles about pogroms. Suspicious persons appeared in the town who bought nothing and sold nothing but they wandered around amongst the peasant farmers and incited them. The peasants came out of the church and their faces were fiery and ablaze. Ordinary local peasants reported that fiery speakers were coming into the villages and that they had even, already confirmed the day and the hour….
In the town there was already a secret Jewish workersmovement. The Bund had already existed for a few years and in that year the group called Po'alei Tzion[Workers of Zion] was also organised. The latter belonged to the Minsk order at that time. The thin, secret booklet, The Tzvi Family by Dovid Pinski, that was printed on tissue paper, circulated from hand to hand. In the house of M. Maharshak, leader of the local Zionists, the notebook Ha'zman [The Time] was read with feeling, and Bialik's Massa Nemirov [The Burden of Nemirov] was printed. At the great Zionist gathering the Russian teacher Z. A. Rabinovicz (the later theorist of Po'alei Tzion's Yitzchak Zar) described the chapter Troyanov. A group of youth from Tshudnov intervened to assist the Jews of Zhittomir who were in danger. On their way they passed the town of Troyanov but the Jews there, were afraid to give protection to the young people of Tshudnov and as a result seven of them were murdered on the way. So a ban was imposed on the Jews of Troyanov …. We, in youthful anger pronounced over them the old verse: (Hebrew) Awake Maroz, [a place in the Land of Israel] said the angel of G-d, wake your inhabitants as they did not come to the aid of G-d, to the aid of G-d in the brave ones …[Jud 5, 23] (you should curse Maroz said G-d's messenger, curse: all your inhabitants should be cursed because they did not come to the aid of the brave).
The idea developed in the minds of the Po'alei Tzion group that in Stolpce too, selfprotection needed to be organised. This decision was accepted at a sitting of the society this means, by the branchcommittee that consisted of five members. However, in order to buy implements, money was needed and for that the leaders of the community would have to be approached. It was decided to hold a meeting in the synagogue. The organisation of the meeting was assigned to our member Pinye Kushnir, the son of the wellknown kichel baker in the town, Slovve, the daughter of YashkeBerke the son of Henne, and a nephew of the Rabbi of Tsherikov. He was one of the first MizrachiRabbis that I heard speaking in the town in favour of Zionism. I was assigned to make the speech in the synagogue. I was still a boy and in total, only one month in the party. The fear that came over me then, before I went up to speak (it was my first political speech at a public gathering) did not lessen the fears that since then, always remained with me on the eve of every public address. The meeting took place in the old synagogue at night, after ma'ariv [evening prayers]. My friend Pinye went up to the reading desk, rapped on the table and announced that no one should dare leave the synagogue. The members placed a piece of wood under the handle of the door so that the door could not be opened.
To add authority, two members were allotted the task of guarding the exits. Surrounded by my guards, I ascended the platform and commenced speaking. I began with a saying from our sages of blessed memory, and called to the youth to mobilise in selfprotection and asked the leaders of the community to provide money. As soon as I finished speaking, Pinye, who was standing next to me on the platform, started to call out the sums of money that were donated.
A week later we received a draft from the district committee in Minsk informing us that our branch must organise selfprotection in the surrounding towns. This mission was imposed upon Pinye and I. We then visited the nearby towns like: Shvierzne, Horodzei, Baranovicz, Mush and Lechovicz. For us this was the first propaganda tour in our lives. First we turned to the local Po'alei Tzion members whose meetings were always of a general nature and took place in the synagogue. The issue of selfprotection was nonpartisan. Wherever possible we requested that someone from the local movements, a Zionist or a Bundist, should speak together with us. Our journey soon came to the attention of the police and the community leaders were afraid to come into the synagogue. Even Pinye's threats and the piece of wood at the door did not always help ….There were some Jews that
summoned the courage and
jumped out of the window and fled, out of great fear of being in the illegal gathering, but afterwards when we went to those Jews in their houses they received us differently. I remember in particular, the substantial assistance we received from the Lechevicz Zionist, named Geller, the soninlaw of a local wealthy man, with a black Herzlbeard who had been a delegate to the Zionist congresses. He did not want to speak together with us from the pulpit, but went with us to the homes of the rich, spoke forcefully to the leaders of the community and received respectable sums of money from them. We gathered the youth separately in the women's synagogue. Pinye divided those who had registered into groups of ten and nominated a commander over each one.
When we returned to Stolpce, we met and embraced out of fear, so we decided to call a meeting in the old synagogue on the Great Sabbath, after the Rabbi's sermon. The leader of the local Bund my friend from cheder (religious school) and my competitor in the party Birzhe (exchange), my beloved Hirshel Neufeld (Hirshel the son of Shimke) promised to speak out with me. The chairperson of the gathering was the same Pinye. Then we had a surprise: when we had both finished speaking, my uncle, the trustee of the Chevrah Kaddishah, Reb Yoel Ginzburg went up to the pulpit. I was afraid that he would reproach us for daring to burst into the synagogue and moreover on the Great Sabbath! I thought that he would subvert our efforts but he surprised us with his words:
I am no preacher nor am I the son of a preacher. I have no dealings with the various parties, but this time the boys are right. It is a mitzvah [a command, a good deed] to help them, physically and with money because the situation is truly dire….
As soon as the Sabbath ended, the finest leaders in the town brought the money to my uncle on the balcony and on Sunday morning Pinye went to Minsk to bring the spitters (that's what they called the revolvers) …. At the second meeting that we held afterwards in the Chassidichouseofprayer late one night, our organisation already numbered a hundred registered and armed members.
At that time, on two occasions we made use of our organisational strength: the first time they alerted us to come and help at the nearby town of Shvierzne on the other side of the Niemen River. The town was smaller than ours, with exceptional orchards. The Jews of the town rented the orchards from the landowners. Then they used to travel out to the orchards and remain for a whole week to guard the trees and the fruit. Afterwards they sold the apples and pears at the surrounding markets. These were therefore not observant Jews. They grew up with nature, always mixed with gentile boys and as a result had to know how to defend themselves; but at that time the fear of pogroms fell on everyone and that fear shook even the bravest Jews. Early in the morning we received information that in Shvierzne it had begun …Friendly peasants came to Stolpce to tell us that their youth had set out for Shvierzne to rob and murder.
We gathered our selfprotection unit and set out to help the people of Shvierzne. It just happened to be the time when the snow melted and the waters of the Niemen rose. In normal times the distance to Shvierzne could be covered in 20 minutes but now that the Niemen overflowed its banks we had to take side roads and go through swampy rivers. The wagon in which we had implements such as, iron sticks with round, lead handles and iron bars that we dragged out from iron foundries, was too heavy and could not ride over the swamps. So we had to load our weapons on to ourselves and cross the swamps on foot. It took the Stolpce protectors six hours to reach Shvierzne. When we reached the town in the evening, tired and broken but ready to fight, we met with a dead town. The shops were boarded up. The streets silent and empty and in the houses not a living soul could be seen. We learned that the Jews, in fear of the approaching peasants, locked their homes and their shops and hid in the cellars. We actually had to go around from one cellar to another, led by Pinye our commander, to inform the Jews in hiding that the danger was over! The defenders had arrived! The Jews of Shvierzne looked at us as if we were angels from heaven, after being in the dark cellars the whole day, in fear of the robbers. I remember how the young Rabbi of the town, Reb Cheipe Katzenellenbogen (the older brother of my dear teacher Y.Sh.K) kissed Pinye on his forehead out of immense gratitude. The Shvierzne women brought out earthen milk jugs with sour milk and pickled cucumbers from the cellars so that we would have something with which to lift our hearts. Then we heard that the melting of the snow and the dangerous route, that did not frighten the protectors from Stolpce, put an end to the zeal of
the village perpetrators of the pogrom. In the middle of their journey they had regrets and returned home empty handed.
A few days later we heard that on the coming Sunday this would take place in Stolpce itself. This time we were ready. We knew that special instigators were coming in from afar. We saw gentile women that came into town with empty wagons and we knew that they were coming to rob and that they wanted to have the means to transport the stolen goods. Early in the morning our friends were already in the streets, armed with iron rods, lead bars and whips with round pieces of lead on the tips that they had ready in their pockets. The commanders of the tens, armed with revolvers, divided the market place amongst them. At noon when the masses left the white church at the edge of the market place, fired up and in a state of incitement, ready to storm the Jews, they defenders were given the sign. One of the suspected guests stood at the head of the camp and dragged the peasants from the wagons with him, to break into the shops. Then all at once, all the revolvers of the commanders of the groups of ten, thundered in their hands. The shots came from all sides of the market. Understandably, they shot into the air and no one was harmed. They managed however, to cast a fear over the camp of the attackers and confusion reigned. The horses went wild and the peasants began to scream as if they were being slaughtered. One wagon fell upon another. The nonJews managed with their last breath, to escape from the armed Jews, who were spread over the entire market and did not stop shooting. After just a few minutes passed, the whole market was emptied of the incited pogromists….
Yes, from 1905 to 1942 the world developed considerably. It advanced! Now there was no longer the same peasant and neither the same hatred. Also the instigators and the instigated have become different. Our isolation amongst the nations took a step forward, forward …. and our ability to defend ourselves? Did this strength of ours not keep up with the progress? My friends in the selfprotection units, have certainly grown older in the years between 1905 and 1942 but their time is also not altogether over! And in the meantime they also bore children …. and over time they also experienced the years of the revolution, the years of independent Poland, years of federation and years of world war once and again! It was told to me, that your children, Stolpce, excelled on many fronts! How come you were so powerless in the days of wrath and corruption? I cannot believe, Stolpce, pride of my youth, that you were led like sheep to the slaughter!
Allow me, my Stolpce, on the grave of your tortured souls, to erect a memorial for your former defenders.
by Zalman Shazar
Translated by Libby Raichman
a. The Cry of the Poor
It seems that I still remember when our resistance movement began to rise and how its first signs of growth, became evident in my childhood announcing at the same time, an impending social storm. The first sign, surprising and clear, marked the approach of a new direction in our lives. It expressed itself in the manner in which it was received in the house of prayer around the wobbly table alongside the warm oven the staggering story that the old TzionBer presented to everyone that gathered around him. An awfully simple story! about Isser the watercarrier who refused to be called up in the Great Synagogue to the rebuke, as it had been customary for many years … even before they commenced reading the Torah, he plainly and simply got up from his place and left the synagogue! Searching for him in all the hiding places in the synagogue courtyard did not help at all. He could not be found …
What did this mean? He just left!?
Yes … simply left … The astonishment that appeared in the eyes of the elderly, the anger felt by even the peaceful members of the congregation and in particular, the merriment that was concealed behind the moustaches of the young people … all clearly predicted an approaching storm.
Also we, the children, who were not yet able to grasp the meaning of this rebellious act in all its depth, had a strong feeling that Isser the watercarrier's fleeing the synagogue, was not in vain. And the young people took Isser's side because the young people had already long been seized by the horror, when they heard how the reader Reb Elye, expresses this fearful language: cursed are you in your going out. … and cursed are you in your coming … may you be cursed in your goings and cursed in your comings, may you be cursed in the town and cursed in the field … G-d will strike you with consumption and fever, with inflammation and fever, with sword and with beating …
A fear and a shudder! Like pieces of hail that fall on a stormy night on rooftiles, so did the curses hammer down on our heads … and Isser the watercarrier would stand, writhing, trembling and humbly bent under the harshness of the beating, as if he were the sinful victim of the whole community … so it was good that at least once, he rebelled and cast off the yoke of all the sins of the community, from his thin shoulders!
There were two men like this who were constantly called up to the reading of the parshah (weekly section of the Pentateuch) of the revenge and both were watercarriers … One was Yedidyah, the rebukeJew from the small synagogue on Yurezdik street. The second was Isser who was always called up to the reading of the Torah, in the great synagogue to the section of the rebuke. Isser had two younger brothers. All three were watercarriers and lived in neighbourhoods near the river. I do not know what specific connection there was between the section of the rebuke and the occupation of watercarrying, or if there was ever such a law that demanded that this difficult Aliyah be given to a watercarrier in particular. It was however a fact, that both regular rebukeJews in the town had the same occupation and both came from the poorest and most unfortunate families.
Generally, watercarrying was one of the poorest and worst sources of income in the town and in truth, it was also a nonJewish vocation. The village gentiles would come into the town and draw river water in the casks that stood ready in the small vestibules and the entrances to the houses. In Stolpce, we too became accustomed to drinking water that was drawn by Fabian, the gentile who did work for Jewish people on the Sabbath. This tall gentile would come on Friday nights to Jewish homes and take the candlesticks from the tables and in return would receive a piece of white challah. On the eve of Passover, he was also an important person in the Rabbi's courthouse when leavened bread was sold. In times of stress, the women in the town also employed the help of Hafke, the washerwoman, who liked to get drunk every market day, openly swear and curse all the Jews and also kiss the village boys before everyone's eyes… But the residents of the town also saw to it that the most important leaders of the town would drink water that was drawn by Jews, who were themselves observant and in addition, longstanding residents.
In certain respects, the watercarriers were also regarded as part of the town's clergy, whom the community was obligated to employ but they therefore had to pay debts to the community. So for example, the town's weddings were sometimes held in the synagogue courtyard. The couple then went from the ceremony to their parents' homes escorted by the
retinue and the inlaws. The Klezmer orchestra preceded them and a crowd of boys and girls ran after them. Then a watercarrier walked towards them carrying buckets on a yoke and placed a full bucket in front of the bridal procession as a sign of good fortune. All the attending family members then threw copper coins into the bucket and the crowd that gathered around them, resounded with mazel tov [good luck] … And if a wealthy guest arrived in the town for the Sabbath and was given the honour of being called to the Torah, he promised a generous donation. Soon word went around that a wealthy man was in town. Then one also knew, that the next morning, when the guest was about to leave the town, a watercarrier would be standing next to his wagon with his hand stretched out confidently, and waiting to receive his due, in a manner no different from every important member of the clergy. So it became the custom from early times, that the eldest of both families of watercarriers, Yedidyah and Isser, should be called up each year to the Torah, and they should become public witnesses, when the reader speaks out the words of G-d's anger, from the pulpit …
Isser's family consisted of three brothers. All three lived near one another, close to the river. Avremel, Isser's younger brother was a hunchback and a dwarf. His low house was hidden amongst the surrounding houses in the courtyard, and was full of small children who wandered around almost naked on the floor because there were no beds in the house. I very much doubt if the servants from the wealthy homes ever lowered themselves and went inside. They only bent down to the small, low window that was hardly more than a few handspans from the ground, and peeped into the little window panes:
Avremel … tomorrow two from the well and one from the Niemen river…
That meant: two buckets of water to be brought from the well the next morning so that there would be water to do the laundry and to cook and one bucket of fresh water to be brought straight from the river to make tea…
And Tevele the third and youngest brother in the family was deaf and dumb from childhood. He was very small and had his own mute language. When we studied a Mishneh [a section of the Talmud} in cheder that told about one who was deaf, insane and a minor [therefore ineligible to testify] we immediately interpreted it as being like Tevele… He walked around all day with the yoke on his thin shoulders, going from the river to the wellestablished homes and back again. As he walked he mumbled a sort of strange tune and only the elderly in the town could understand its meaning. For many years Tevele was an old bachelor, until the righteous women in the town took pity on him and arranged a marriage for him with an aging orphan. Hinde the ball was fat, always giggling and lived in poor circumstances. After the wedding Avremel built a small booth next to his low house for his younger brother and settled the new couple there. This booth was even lower than Avremel's house and the door was much smaller so Tevele had to leave his yoke outside at night because it was too tall to fit inside.
The most normal and healthy of the three brothers was Isser. His wife actually had consumption and his children had all sorts of illnesses but he himself was tall and agile and a quiet man, introverted in his mental and physical self. The creases of his reclusive, emaciated face revealed a stubbornness and the angry inflexibility of a closed person. Isser was an embittered person and there was a bitterness in his rigid religious practice and in his strict observance of the commandments. I still see Isser today as if he were alive, as he stood leaning against the window sill of the eastern wall in the old synagogue, with a small tattered book of psalms in his thin hand as he said the psalms to himself. Actually it was the time when the congregation said the psalms together as a group but his psalms were different from the psalms that the whole congregation were saying. Perhaps he was only repeating the same chapters … but deep inside himself Isser did not approve of praying in unison, together with everyone. He did not participate with the congregation in saying psalms! He still had a score to settle with the congregation! And his quiet grievance goes back a long time, difficult and deep. So let them say the psalms separately from him, and in the meantime, he will also say his alone, amongst everyone … And his thin ascetic face is angry exactly as if he were quarrelling with everyone who was saying the same psalms as him, right next to him…
After the other incident, when Isser caused such a disturbance in the house of prayer, it was told that Reb Elye the reader, had long felt that because Isser wanted to rebel against the custom, he should make a point of calling him up to the rebuke. Already the previous year when Reb Elye read over Isser's head, the long list of curses and lashings, he suddenly heard how Isser mumbled under his breath quietly and sharply: On your head! On your head! That was supposed to mean that he cast off all the curses that were being read about him and that he was sending them away to others…
But this year, the policy of quiet protest did not satisfy him. He simply risked his entire source of income and left the synagogue, to the surprise of all the worshippers.
But this did not actually affect his livelihood, because in the meantime the star of Binyomin Leib, Isser's eldest son, began to shine in the Talmud Torah. The boy had developed the reputation of being one of the most intelligent students in the town. So Isser began to pin all his hopes on his talented and beloved son. He Binyomin Leib, would still oneday amaze everyone. He would prove to all the coarse, fat people, whom it was that G-d had blessed with a good mind and he would teach them all manners … They will all have to come and learn something from him and with the strength of his Torah knowledge, he would also lift his father from the dirt… He will still show the wealthy!
The more successful Binyomin Leib became in his studies, the more Isser's physical form straightened at the window in the eastern wall of the synagogue when he said psalms in the evening. Isser was no Chassid and he was not able to express his feelings by clicking his fingers or clapping his hands… only his small thin fist rose up in the air, automatically it seemed, to the beat of the psalms verses:
For the oppression of the poor … for the sighing of the needy … now I will arise … said the Lord
[psalm 12 verse 6]
And it was difficult to know whether he was just crying with a bitter heart, or whether he was threatening someone with his wrath or he was doing both together.
b. The redeemer of the Desecrated honour
It actually did not take long. Once Yashe, the teacher of the Talmud Torah, personally approached the corner of the eastern wall of the synagogue and asked the watercarrier if he would agree to send his son Binyomin Leib to study at the Talmud Torah in Mir with Reb Zshame. Reb Zshame's Talmud Torah was no ordinary school; it was a sort of passage to the great Mir yeshivah. Reb Zshame himself was widely acknowledged as a very good teacher and only the best students were accepted there. Only a small number of the best students from the small towns around Mir could be sent to Reb Zshame's table. This time Reb Yashe the teacher chose Binyomin Leib … Isser heard the joyful news and his clouded face lit up:
That is, if he agrees!? Of course he will consent! What a question!? He will pawn everything that he possesses; he will save his last morsel of bread from his mouth so that he can send Binyomin Leib to Reb Zshame's table, just as the slaughterer's son was sent! In fact, let the fine Jews in the town see, that the Torah had not been given exclusively to them …
From that time on, Isser began to save one Kopek after another so that his son would be able to go to Mir. And just as he laboured to accumulate money, so he made a great effort to do good deeds and to become more observant than before, to have a son, a scholar, one must be worthy … and in addition, the son should not be ashamed of his father when he became famous. On a Friday night when Reb Ahre wanted to provide accommodation for a visitor with a householder whose turn it was to host a guest, and the host happened not to be in the synagogue Isser offered to help Reb Ahre. He himself, escorted the visitor to the home of the host… and once, on a Thursday after the evening prayers, I went to the Great Synagogue to see the students sitting on nightwatch and studying and I noticed Isser shuffling quietly into the synagogue with his buckets of water. He placed the yoke in the anteroom and he walked around between the benches with a ladle of water from the river to give the students a fresh drink. In this way he also had the opportunity of hearing the students say the blessing over the water and he answered amen with closed eyes and deep in pious thoughts.
Most of all, he loved to hear the scholarly students praising his Binyomin Leib whose fame was truly continuing to grow. The boy was very knowledgeable in the Bible and could translate the most difficult verses from the book of Job or Ezekiel. He used to astonish us all with the plain meanings as well as the scholastic interpretations of the texts. Although he was bigger than the boys in our class (we were nine and tenyear old's and he was already about 15) he liked to come to us at our Cheder between minchah (afternoon prayers) and ma'ariv (evening prayers) and amaze us with his questions and answers. We knew that he would grow up to be a preacher! … We felt that he was ashamed of his family and we decided amongst ourselves not to mention them in his presence not Avremel and not Tevele who were his blood uncles and they themselves, when they met him in the street, did not approach him and he did not approach them. But Isser was the secret link. Binyomin Leib understood very well the responsibility that his father imposed upon him: with the strength of his Torah scholarship, he would remove the mark of shame from his family; and take revenge on the boys in the street, by becoming superior
to them and by being equal to the best children in the town. Binyomin Leib devoted himself with all his heart to this mission.
His first lectures, as I remember them, had no social or spiritual content. They were just a web of questions and answers. Their entire social significance was related to the fact that he, Bimyomin Leib, the son of Isser the watercarrier the nephew of Avremel the dwarf and Tevele the simple deafmute, could deliver such lectures and that they, the children from the best families, listened, enjoyed and praised him highly … I remember the discourse that he delivered on the night of the eve of Purim, after the reading of the Megillah, when we walked from the synagogue into the courtyard with the Rabbi:
What is the explanation of the verse and Haman told Zeresh his wife the glory of his riches and the multitude of his children? [from the book of Esther] Well, revealing the extent of his wealth to his wife is understandable. Sometimes one's own wife does not know how rich her husband is and he needs to tell her but why does he have to tell her that he has many children? Did Zeresh his wife not know how many children she has? But and here Binyomin Leib began to explain in the melody of an old experienced preacher the multitude [rov] of his children, does not refer to the number of his children but to their greatness. In this case rov means strong as it does in the Torah [Exodus 1, verse 7] where referring to the children of Israel in Egypt, it is written they increased abundantly and became mighty. This explanation found favour with the children, and I, the youngest of them all, even assisted him with the preacher's melody:
Binyomin Leib, I have strong support for your explanation. In the psalms we say; a psalm of David when he fled from Absalom his son. Lord, how my troubles have increased, many are they that rise up against me … The question then is: so were David's enemies so numerous? But we know that he fled only from Absalom and his group of friends so why did he lament that his enemies had increased and those that rebelled against him were many? This proves that many can also mean few, just stronger than him, not necessarily more.
Binyomin Leib praised my support for him and I was very happy with his compliments, yet the Rabbi it seemed, did not pay attention to the two of us. The next day however, after the reading of the megillah, when the congregation gathered closely around the table, the Rabbi related our innovative interpretation and credited us for it… I remember to this day how Isser's face lit up when he stood at the window of the synagogue, with his elbow resting on the ledge and with his thumb between his teeth he was all ears and all joy, reaching out to the praise of his Binyomin Leib, his son and his redeemer.
And something of a warm, good feeling began to develop between me and Isser. From that time on, whenever he glanced at me, the sombre look on his face disappeared. Once I was even privileged to see a clearer expression of this soft tenderness towards me. In our house, in the winter cupboard a jar of red raspberry jam was stored. In the summer when my mother went away, she prepared the jam for the poor who took ill, in case they needed it for medicinal purposes. She used to apportion the sweet jam into small glasses and sent it to a child who was sick and needed to sweat or to a sick person who was suffering with their lungs and coughed badly. As soon as there was a problem they came to my mother to ask for the sweetred delicacy that healed the heart. They called it refreshment [labung]. (And when I later studied the text of the prophet Jeremiah and came to the verse: is there no balm in Gilad; is there no physician there? Why then is the health of the daughter of my people not recovered? [Jer. Chapter 8 verse 22]. I translated the difficult word balm as labung and then everything became clear and understandable… )
Once Binyomin Leib's mother took ill and Velvl the doctor abandoned all hope for her. As my mother knew how well I communicated with Binyomin Leib, she sent me there with a glass of raspberry jam. I then saw at close quarters, the poverty in her wretched image. Generally, Isser did not want anyone's favours and he was not happy when his poverty was exposed to strange eyes, but because of my friendship with Binyomin Leib he received me amicably, and with much fondness escorted me home.
Then Zionism arrived and broke this thread of affection. He, Isser, was strongly attached to the stern Talmud Torah teacher who was Binyomin Leib's mentor but the teacher was one of the Rabbi's Cossacks who had a fanatical hatred for Zionism and Zionists. On the other hand, my friends and I, were members of the organisation Zion and its ideals and were strongly devoted to the Zionist association. The Zionist organisation once decided to establish a Hebrew library and we, the Zionist children, went around from house to house, collecting books. Afterwards we took the book shelves into the new house of Yashke the joiner, with great fanfare. We prepared ourselves with much enthusiasm for our Channukah evening, through which we hoped to strengthen and broaden the Hebrew library that was meant to be a fortress of Zionism in the town; but the Rabbi declared a ban on the Channukah evening. We got up one beautiful morning after that and found our bookshelves lying
in the middle of the street … and the Hebrew books, our most prized possessions, were lying scattered in all directions.
It was said that the Talmud Torah teacher and Shual the bath keeper convinced the Rabbi to declare a ban and ensure the library was cleared out … and those that knew, reported that Isser also took part in this crime … and there were others who testified that Binyomin Leib, Isser's son and Yashe's student, also lent a hand.
At any rate, the relationship between Isser the watercarrier and the young people who were close to the Rabbi, became stronger from year to year. When it came to the sidrah Tavo, when the rebuke is read, voices were heard in the synagogue saying that they should stop drawing Isser's blood and stop expecting him to be called up to this particular portion. They continued until Elyeh the slaughterer, the reader in the synagogue, did something about it: he called himself up to this terrible parashah … It seemed like a miracle and for a long time people did not stop talking about it … And after the High Holy days Yashe the teacher informed everyone that he had arranged for Binyomin Leib to study at Reb Zshame's Talmud Torah in Mir … And Isser the watercarrier packed his bag and sent his eldest son away with the proud hope that he would succeed in the place where he would study Torah, and there, with the strength of his scholarship, light up his world and free his family from the burden of shame that they suffered in their affliction, their poverty and their helplessness.
c. The Society for Justice
Binyomin Leib studied in the Torahtown of Mir for four semesters. Then, when he returned home, he did not recognise his town and the town hardly recognised him. During the two years that he was away, the first Russian revolution had begun to take root, and the development of parties, Zionist and antiZionist, began in our town too. The organisation Sons of Zion decided to keep the Hebrew teacher Alter Yosselevicz and we, the youth of Tzion Usfata [Zion and her ideals], tried to find students for him amongst the brightest boys. Alter established an organisation for the women Daughters of Zion and he would read lectures or literary chapters from the newspaper The Jew for the women and girls every Friday night. On Saturday evenings he organised gatherings in one of the smaller prayer houses, over which the Rabbi had no power and there they held lectures on the Tanach [Bible]. At these gatherings he honoured the important, enlightened members of the town by allowing them to interpret sections of the Bible for the towns leaders and scholars. They explained the chapters of consolation from the book of Isaiah, or the chapters of destruction from the book of Lamentations according to the grammar, and with actual cantillations.
The youth of the town used to delight in
Second row standing: Yosef Renzon, Hinde Tsertses, Avrom Lis
Third row: unknown, Shayne Machtei, Hinde Narotzky, Yosef Machtei
these evenings. The result was that the Rabbi's Cossacks declared a fiery war against Alter and his gatherings. The talk in the large synagogue was that in these Tanach [Bible] lectures they spread heresy and made fun of the commentators. Those close to the Rabbi decided to throw themselves into the battle and not allow the youth to attend the lectures. Suddenly there appeared a new antagonist to Alter's Tanach evenings. Amongst the workers and apprentices, a strange rumour began to spread, that Alter is embittering their classconsciousness and that in his lectures he is spreading the poison of chauvinistic clericalism. If at first these rumours were not taken seriously, there were however, sufficient winds to give them wings. On one of the long winter nights, when Alter returned home to his lonely room after visiting his Zionist friend, the pharmacist, Maharshak, he was attacked from behind by two strong peasants. One threw a sack over Alter's head and the second, began to beat him with a stick. Confused, Alter began to ask with his last strength:
And he received an answer that was short, but explained everything
For the Tanach …
For a long time afterwards we could not find out who organised this wild attack on our beloved teacher. Were they the fanatics of the Rabbi's circle? Or perhaps they were the early Bundists who had begun taking their first measured, conspiratorial steps, and that their battle with Alter was the first action that informed us of their existence? Were they in fact the first? No, in the town there were those who preceded them too. Even before them there was the wonderful teacher who taught the children of the pitchmaker who had furnaces in the nearby forest. That was the young fiery Chassid from Slonim, a great scholar who studied in a Yeshivah but later changed. He became inflamed with heresy, a spirit of defiance and revolutionary anger. With the same enthusiasm that he once sang Lord, I long for the pleasantness of the Sabbath, he now sang with all his strength and all his soul:
I bring weapons
For the weak
To liberate workslaves
And I will set them free
And when he cried out the word free, sparks flew from his mouth. He called himself an anarchist and attached no importance to the organisation of the students. Before he managed to capture the hearts of the local enlightened persons, the ship transported him to the other side of the ocean…
And in the town, before the Bundists, there was also Michael Rubin. He was a child from a wealthy family. When he returned to the town after serving in the military, he had a stiff moustache and spoke fluent Russian. His face was similar to that of Gorki's and the educated girls who were involved with the town's Russian library, began to gather around him. He was a social revolutionary and sought a path to the gentile rail workers that were considering a strike. It did not take long before Michael Rubin was arrested…
The young Jewish workers, tailor's apprentices, shoemakers, metal workers, carpenters and those who worked at the river banks exactly like the seamstresses and wig makers, all heard the news of the socialist movement and they, as well as those in the surrounding towns, all waited with bated breath for the arrival of a trustworthy leader that would organise them and lead them …
That was the time when Binyomin Leib, Isser the watercarrier's son returned to us from Mir. Did he disobey orders and was he expelled? Did he leave of his own free will? Whatever the case, he came back completely converted. He was not seen again in the synagogue and his black tunic confirmed the fact that he had changed altogether. Those who knew all the secrets, reported that the police did not let him out of their sight. At the same time, Boris, a final year student at the Trade School, returned from the capital city of the province. He was the son of the wealthiest man in the town. People said that in the capital city he was involved in a strike organised by the students. He regarded himself as a general social democrat but under the influence of his older cousin (Boris Kletzkin, who later became a famous Jewish publisher in Vilna), he also allowed himself to preach the social democratic doctrine amongst the Jewish workers, in Yiddish. He was very careful that his incitement was devoid of Jewish elements and free of national exaggerations, which every good socialist must avoid, wherever it exists.
As soon as the waves of Zionism arose in the town, a time of discussions began. One Sabbath, a famous Bundist speaker was sent to us from the provincial capital, to conduct an open discussion with the teacher Alter Yosselevicz that took place in the women's synagogue of the great synagogue. After conducting the public battle, the guest speaker assigned to Binyomin Leib and Boris, the task of organising a Bundist group in the town. The enlightened girls from the Russian library, the trade apprentices and young workers attached themselves to this group. This was how the Bund organisation was set up in the town.
From then on Binyomin Leib no longer lived in his father's house. He rented a small room at the other end of the town, around which all sorts of secrets surfaced. In that year the whole face of the town changed beyond recognition. Suddenly many strikes broke out: at Chayke the dressmaker, at Yashke the carpenter, at the Odessa shoemaker and at Gershon the metal worker … At one place three workers went on strike and at a second four. Even before one strike ended, a second began. No one quite knew who was lighting the fire, but everyone saw that it was burning all around.
And many secretly knew: that this was the work of Binyomin Leib. After the strikes came the task of settling disputes between contractors who were in competition, between discordant shop keepers, between quarrelling heirs and between husbands and wives … They already knew: … The Society for Justice will judge … and when it delivers a judgement one may not oppose it! And from mouth to ear it was told about a rebel who would not implement the judgement of the Society for Justice so in the middle of the night he was attacked and it was a miracle from heaven that he survived … So a fear of the Society for Justice fell upon the whole town.
There were those who looked for a way into the heart of Isser the watercarrier. They hoped that he would influence his eldest son and be able to restrain him. Isser listened and derived pleasure from the fact that these fine Jews were turning to him for such a favour but he maintained his composure and distanced himself from everything and everyone … And the Bundist Exchange that means the Priest's Lane close to the white church truly resounded with the noise of the youth. Workers who had already been on strike came, and other workers who were ready to strike. Those who were conscious of their cause came prepared to incite others and recruits came who sought to be incited… Rich daughters came who were preparing for examinations with the externteachers and a Yeshivah student who dreamt of becoming an assistant pharmacist in a pharmacy … The female dentist came, who wanted to settle in the town, and the girl schoolstudent from Babroisk who gave lessons here. Every evening the butcher's pretty daughters came too, escorted by their admirers and they did not stop singing the songs of Edelshtat and Reisin … And in the darkness of the lane, behind the church, the eye could discern the shining hat of the wealthy wood merchant's son, Boris, and the black shirt of Binyomin Leib. Together, these two directed the youthful reverie in the Bundist Exchange.
That same summer, a wandering student arrived for a few weeks' holiday, half in secret and half as a guest. He was a friend of my sister who came from the amongst the groups that had emigrated to Switzerland and Paris. He was one of the secret Bundist leaders and he was called Solomon. He had a good voice and fine manners. This intelligent Bundist was thin, with blue eyes and a blond moustache. He brought a precious gift into our house: a great treasure of Yiddish folk songs, some of which we had never heard before. Every evening, his warm soft voice could be heard in the woods and with this talent he captured many hearts. Boys and girls were drawn to him from our town and from the surrounding areas in many different ways and with all sorts of pretexts, both for his singing and afterwards for the hot coals that he poured on the heads of the petit bourgeois socialists by that he meant all kinds of Poalei Tzion followers who had begun to spread their quiet nets over the surrounding towns … and my hand and my heart too, belonged to this widening net…
On one of those days, our guest Solomon, was late in returning from his midday walk and together with him, my sisters were also late. My concerned mother therefore sent me to find them in the forest and bring them home to eat. I searched for them on the main paths of the forest and afterwards to the shady corners where my sisters used to sit with their girlfriends and other friends,
under the nut trees, until, from a distance, I heard Solomon's sweet, warm voice from the other side of the hill. I followed the voice and discovered in the thick of the small forest, a large gathering of boys and girls. These were young people who had come here on holiday or were guests from the neighbouring towns and my sisters were among them. Solomon was standing, leaning on a tree, giving a talk to the group who were scattered amongst the bushes and near him, on a sawnoff trunk, sat the chairman of the meeting: my friend and opponent, Binyomin Leib, the son of Isser the watercarrier.
d. One Proclamation Against Another
Since that time, I never came face to face with Binyomin Leib again. In that year our party differences grew between us like a mountain. This same mountain also divided the youth of the town into two. However, just as the acute anger suddenly dissipated in the split between the two groups of Chassidim and also from the rift caused by the older disputes between the Chassidim and the Mitnagdim [the opponents of Chassidism] so, now too, the newer conflict between the Zionists and the Rabbi's group, lost its lustre.
The passion of the split, between the two secret exchanges that grew up overnight in the back streets of the town, now became stronger and immersed itself with all its force into a new war. A battle began between the Bundist Exchange led by Binyomin Leib in Church street and the new Po'alei Tzion Exchange that fortified itself in Minsk Street. The new exchange was led by my friend and inspiration, Pinye, the son of SlovveBerke (daughter of Henne) the wellknown baker in the town.
Pinye was two years older than me and two years younger than Binyomin Leib. He worked in his father's bakery and was therefore regarded as a genuine proletarian. He also had followers amongst the worker's apprentices and the intelligent sector of the labourers of the town. He had already managed to learn Hebrew from Alter and his uncle, his father's brother was Rav Koks, the Rabbi in Tsherikov who was one of the first Mizrachi Rabbis and preachers. When his uncle came to our town, he stirred the hearts with his clever and poignant speeches for which he was remembered long after he left. Pinye actually brought together the young workers who knew Hebrew and were not drawn to the Bund. He set up the first secret society of Po'alei Tzion in Stolpce. From Abba Rubentshik's circle in Minsk, he was provided with the first literature, that was necessary to establish a branch. Then Pinye began to challenge Po'alei Tzion speakers from Minsk and Koydanov to participate in public debates with Bundist opponents and so a battle for the souls of the town's youth was ignited. Pinye stood at the head of one army and Binyomin Leib at the head of the other and I was with Pinye. As life began to bustle at our exchange and Pinye started attracting more and more youth I was assigned the task of agitating them. The organisation Shoafat Tziona [those who longed for Zion] was founded by Alter for the young girls of the town, in preparation for the society Bnot Tzion [Daughters of Zion]. It gradually became transformed to provide a basis for the new branch of Po'alei Tzion. A secret postbox was placed in the home of the chairwoman, Shaynke Shapiro. There the girls of Shoafot Tziona could post notes with questions that they found confusing. The notes were written on paper with squares that were torn out of school writing books that were used for Arithmetic. Every day the diligent and charming Shaynke removed the notes from the box and brought them to me. I read them, classified them and prepared my answers. I used to present my answers in great detail at the Friday night gatherings, when I delivered a lecture to the girls of Shoafot Tziona.
And if we came across a note filled with strange words and strong antiZionist comments, Shaynke would add: Aha, this must be a note from someone who has been listening to the inciting speeches of Binyomin Leib! I would then stop, detailing my answers to such words and shooting my arrows much further, knowing, that what was said would reach my chief opponent who hides behind this enquirer. On Friday nights I was also allotted the task of reading to the girls, chapters from Po Pavodu (that is what the Russian brochure was called that the Minsk Po'alei Tzion distributed anonymously about the Bundists entry into the Russian Social Democratic Party). The theme of the brochure was a critical analysis of the Bundist stand in the JewishNational question and a polemic accusation against the Bund for not recognising the specifics of the Jewish problem in the diaspora. Over this issue there were mountains of lectures and we knew that in our town too,
there were differences of opinion even amongst the members of the Bund itself. There was the soft faction who were prepared to forego even the least mention of the Jewishnational problem during their discussions with the Russian Social Democrats but there was also the hard faction that expected them to place more emphasis on Jewish independence. We also knew that Boris and the female teacher from Bobroisk belonged to the soft faction and that Binyomin Leib belonged to the hard faction. Pinye was hopeful that we would benefit from the internal disputes of the Bund. But very soon the soft gained the upper hand and Binyomi Leib had to surrender. The unity of the Bund Binyomin Leib claimed is more important than anything else. He accepted the decree, not only because he was defeated but also because he still wanted to avoid various issues about the Bundist exchange. One could say that due to his earlier Hebrew education, he was against Boris and that it reminded him of having previously been a Yeshivah student. He also wanted to continue to influence his opponents within his party and protect them against assimilation. For all these reasons he began to rant about Zionism and Po'alei Zionism with even more bitterness and the hatred ignited both sides.
At that time something happened, somewhere far into Tsarist Russia: Political prisoners were severely punished in a certain jail or a governor of a province was murdered in an attempted assassination whatever the case, something happened and the Bund in our town felt that it must get involved. He took action and accomplished a great deal: he issued a proclamation in the name of the Bundist group in our town, in a very political Yiddish. According to expressions like capitalistic vampire and the lawless military and the approaching day of judgement one could immediately recognise Binyomin Leib's style because of the announcements accompanied by the word nieder [down with] that appeared so many times in the proclamation: down with bourgeois nationalism … down with petit bourgeois socialism … down with chauvinistic clericalism … down with Zionism.
And each of his down with separately, hailed down upon our heads, just like each curse and lashing of the rebuke hammered down on to the head of Isser his father, when Reb Elye read out the explanations of the curses.
When the 1st of May was approaching, Pinye decided that this year, the branch of Po'alei Tzion must issue its own public proclamation that would answer the Bundist proclamation and that it should also have theoretical content. It would, in addition, have to include the basic principles of our program, socialistic, revolutionary and current Zionistic matters… Late at night Pinye took me out behind the town on the way to the Siniover wood, and there in the wood, two more people were waiting for us: Elyakim the barber who was the treasurer of the branch and Liza Harkavy, the gymnast, an intelligent girl who came to us last summer from Slutzk and whose ideas were the most developed in the group. Pinye placed before her the new hectograph that he had just brought from Minsk, specifically for the proclamation and lit up the area with a large lantern. This was actually the lantern that Slovve, Pinye's mother used when she went out each night to deliver her containers with her wares, to sell and now by its light Liza was transcribing the words from my mouth, for the proclamation… This was the first proclamation that I composed…
Then on the 1st of May, my heart beat so strongly when I passed by the synagogue courtyard and saw groups of young people standing close together with some of them reading over each other's shoulders, swallowing the forbidden words, that were written with blue ink on light paper … I had to gather all my emotional strength so that noone would be able to tell from my facial expression, from whose mouth these turbulent words emanated…
e. The Individual's sorrow
But the person whose image stood before my eyes throughout the time that I dictated the proclamation was never to read it … Two days before the 1st of May the smallpox epidemic settled on our town, and he Binyomin Leib, the leader of the local Bund, was one of its first victims. All efforts by the doctor to heal him, did not help. It did not take a full seven days, and Binyomin Leib died On that day, it was as if, for me personally, the air of conspiracy disappeared. All the members of the Bund in the town, together with all his friends, male and female, followers and sympathisers all of them made their way to the secret house of their young leader whose life was cut off so early. For the first time in the history of our town, the streets saw the dead body of a Jew that was not wrapped in a prayer shawl, but in a red flag … The body was not followed by the beadles of the Chevrah Kaddishah [Burial Society] with charity boxes in their hands nor by Talmud Torah children with verses from the psalms on their lips, but by a group of boys with bare heads and girls with uncovered hair.
They marched in a line, carrying red flags and singing revolutionary songs. Just then the beautiful Devorah, the daughter of Leizshe the butcher, stepped forward and began to sing in a tearful voice:
A bullet hit you, my beloved
A bullet from the enemy, the dog,
I am taking you out of the fire
And I heal you by kissing your wound.
Everyone escorting the body, answered in a loud voice, over the whole street that was devoid of any strangers:
I am taking you out of the fire
And I heal you by kissing your wound …
Only one person, Isser the watercarrier, the father of the deceased walked separately, a lonely figure, amongst the marching demonstrators. He seemed like a stranger among the group of singers, at what was a funeral and not a funeral, as if they were not bringing his son to his eternal resting place his Binyomin Leib, his firstborn and the last of all his hopes. In all the pain of his mourning there was also the indignity of his loneliness. He had never felt so disgraced during all his years that were filled with sorrow and shame. He had just been favoured and all the greatness that he dreamed about for Binyomin Leib actually happened … the mark of degradation had already been completely removed from Binyomin Leib … The finest youth in the town have just come to pay honour to his Binyomin Leib! But why Lord of the universe? Why did it happen in this way? Why did he, Isser, not see another Jew like him at the funeral? And why did they not allow him to say the Kaddish [mourner's prayer] at the graveside of his only son? And why did it not occur to someone that El mallei rachamim [G-d full of mercy] should be recited?
And when the procession reached the courtyard of the synagogue, and continued past as if G-d forbid, there was no synagogue there at all, or equally, as if the deceased had never had any connection with this holy place the extent of Isser's suffering was exhausted, his ankles stopped moving … In silence he slunk between the lines of strangers in the funeral procession and with his last strength he staggered into the empty synagogue. He leaned his two elbows on the window sill of his eastern wall and burst into tears.
It was the first time that Isser the watercarrier, was seen sobbing aloud right in the middle of the synagogue…
by Zalman Shazar
Translated by Libby Raichman
Did our town have a regard for beauty? Can I recall an appreciation of art in my youth? Did they also know what love is? Well, if I succeed in telling something about Viera Yakovlevna then I would already have answers to all these questions; and perhaps even more than this. I would have told about the aura of festivity, full of splendour and sunshine that surged all around her since the day that she appeared in our town, until the day that she vanished.
Viera Yakovlevna was the most beautiful of all the women that I knew in my youth all the adults in the town, by their own admissions, said that they too had never known someone as beautiful as her; as great as her beauty was, so bright was her intellect; and together with this was the charm of her singing and more than all these three was her grace her, her carriage and her manner.
She was the wife of the new doctor that was brought to the town. The people of the town suffered a great deal from doctors who were foreign and distant, until the younger generation took it upon themselves and brought the new doctor into the town and an authentic Jew Moisei Abramovicz. The townsfolk remembered him from his student years when he used to come from Charkov in the summer to visit his uncle a wellknown doctor in a neighbouring town and together with his uncle, he used to come and visit us.
Many years later the town spoke about his kindness, his great intellect, his attachment to Judaism, his many talents and how he studied in poverty. Sometime later his uncle, who had supported him, told a story about him; even before this sincere young man had completed his studies at the university, he fell in love with a Jewish actress who took part in the Russian opera in Charkov. He saw her in the role of Carmen. She left her stage career for him, married him even though he was still a poor student and began wandering with him to the towns where he studied.
When the town's Jews could no longer bear the torment of the assimilated and gentilelike doctors, they heard that this pleasant student had completed his studies and also his internship in the hospitals and was looking for a town where he could settle and practise. So the community decided to invite him to us. He was promised 300 roubles a year, besides his fee from the patients and they rented a beautiful home for him in the centre of the town. One lovely summer morning filled with light and sunshine, Avromke the wagon driver appeared in his covered wagon alongside this house. The women of the Ladies Committee had already prepared and decorated the new house. Moisie Abramovicz jumped out of the coach. He managed to grow a trimmed beard and a blond moustache and he helped a tall woman to step out of the coach. She lifted the small veil that fell charmingly over her broadbrimmed colourful hat and began to look around the new town, to which she had just been brought. Then she quickly took the hands of her two welldressed children who chattered happily in Russian and together with them and their governess disappeared into the house.
She was called Viera Yakovlevna and although the name sounded new and outlandish, it quickly became known among all levels of society. She soon became the joy of all the connoisseurs in the town and brought a strange festive atmosphere into very ordinary lives. They swiftly excused her resonant Russian that filled the street. They overlooked her style of dress that was not entirely in keeping with the accepted modest manner of dress in the town. They even goodnaturedly joked about her limited knowledge of Jewish matters and of course, they did not complain about the fact that she was friendly with the Russian officials of the town. They forgave all her whimsical ways and even took pleasure from them and they were drawn to her, each one according to their individual style, status, age and standing.
The doctor himself was a friend and the support of every sick person in the town but she was the dream and the song for all those who gathered around her. Her songs were mainly strange and Russian. There was no piano yet in the town to accompany her singing but in the evening when her friends came to her home for tea, her voice rang out from the windows, reaching higher and higher. Then all the doors in the whole street opened and whoever had a feeling heart could not tear themselves away from their porch. Among the Jewish concepts that she learned quickly and that she truly, instantly deepened and enriched was the Chassidic melody. Did she also have a hidden inherent predisposition? Or was it because every beautiful spirit, is drawn to it instinctively? Even the most traditional Jews in the town, found in the new Chassidic melody that she sang, the best expression of their own feelings and they were carried away.
I remember one of her first visits with her husband to our house. It was a Sabbath. My father himself helped her to take off her coat and took the trouble to hang it on a hook. In the entrance to the house, in front of the small mirror, she quickly adjusted her closefitting enchanting waistcoat and I, the child, had the honour of taking her hat and veil from her hand. Her grateful smile together with the light movement of her head and I was flustered and enraptured with great pleasure. For my father's sake she agreed to sing a Chassidic melody that she knew. With closed eyes and with true Jewish devotion, she leaned on the table she sang and clicked her fingers as if she were a Chassid from birth. And the tune itself was so strongly yearning, calling, and full of promise that the soul melted away. Many years later we sang this melody at the Sabbath table and we called it the doctor's wife's tune.
I remember how I once heard the melody from a Molostoik Yeshivahstudent who ate with us on the Sabbath he artfully adapted the tune to words from the psalms: my heart thirsts for you and flesh longs for you …. 1 was astonished by this, how this reclusive yeshivahstudent so wonderfully understood how to interweave this tune with the holy verses. They fitted in so well, as if they were originally created to match the one precious melody of Viera Yakovlevna … I remember too, one Sabbath, full of snow and frost, when I stood outside for many hours and froze from the cold. Here I looked out at an intersection between the market and Post Street, waiting for the moment when the doctor's wife would pass by on her way to the pharmacist's house, to play cards so that I would be able to raise my hat to her and say: Hello!
And I still remember: Michael Shimi Hurvicz, the
the father of Zalman Shazar
delegate to the Zionist Congress who came to our town. It was after the Zionist gathering in Minsk. The level of activities of the Zionists in our town began to increase extensively. Michael Shimi, in addition, was beloved by our family and accepted by everyone in the town. He was a great speaker and had just returned from the important conference, full of inspiration and information. I was given the task of inviting prominent local Zionists to my uncle's house according to a given list. They all gathered there. Michael Shimi sat at the head of the table, smartly dressed and his beautiful black beard divided into two parts, like the beard of Nordau and from his mouth poured pearls. How charming the man's speech was! How sharp his debate! How vivid his descriptions and how powerful his ability to convince and how cutting his evidence! He should have been kissed for it. He spoke about the Colonial Bank, about Herzl's projects in Constantinople, about the Arabs in Israel who now also believe that the Jews will return to Zion. He himself heard that when the Arabs underwrite a contract of sale amongst themselves, they note that the contract is valid until the time when the Jews will return to their land. He told outlandish things about assimilated students in Germany who have again come closer to Judaism and they are duelling for Jewish honour. Then what did he not say? About the congress and its splendour; about Herzl and his glory … and in the middle of his lecture he wove in an anecdote about his wonderful meeting with Marco Baruch in Basle; he threw in a poetic verse from Frug and a sharp word from the nonorthodox Rabbi from Odessa, Doctor Avinovietzki … he shot arrows of criticism in the side of a radical assimilationist in Minsk, whom I did not know and sharply attacked the antiZionist orthodox whom I knew very well who were close by. We were all just listening and overcome with uplifting pleasure.
When I say all of us by that I mean: the pharmacist, Maharshak the leader of the town's Zionists, the anonymous correspondent for the newspaper Ha'melitz [The Advocate]; my uncle Hirshl, the official chairman of the Zionist federation; my father who had just registered as a member of the Zionist organisation; the Hebrew teacher Alter Yosselevicz the leader of the organisation Bnot Tzion [Daughters of Zion]; the rich man's soninlaw, Lusterman, who subscribed to the German illustrated journal Ost un Vest [East and West]; Nachan the leader of the youth; active worker Pinye Kushnir; Ahre, Elye the slaughterer's son and also Reb Chaim Itshe the teacher, who regarded himself as one of the oldest Lovers of Zion. Also in attendance besides them, were young people and women, all the most beautiful and elite of the whole Zionist family in the town.
Suddenly I looked around and saw: Michael Shimi Hurvicz kept looking in the far corner at the edge of the table, where he was drawn to the intense look of the doctor's wife Viera Yakovlevna … She sat as if smitten, her triangular enchanting face, leaning on her open hand. She was all eyes and ears and charmingly understanding, and thirstily swallowed his every word. Then I understood the source of Michael's charm in this lecture, whom he was now impressing and for whom his profusion was intended, and before everyone's eyes.
I saw and I was confused, I forgave and I understood very well. …
Soon after this the RussianJapanese war broke out. Viera Yakovlevna's husband, Doctor Moisei Abramovicz was mobilised. The most important people in the town gathered in the large courtyard of a wealthy resident to be photographed with him on his departure, as an eternal remembrance. This photograph of all the elite in the town, with Moisie Abramovicz and Viera Yakovlevna in the middle, actually remained as the only
collective memory of the destroyed home. Even today one can find this photograph in the homes of our townsfolk who have been dispersed in distant lands. Viera Yakovlevna remained alone in the town as a living, sorrowful widow, more beautiful than ever, but she kept her charm at a distance, locked into her lonely rooms. She captured the fantasies of many, while she herself was absorbed in her distant world. Later there was talk of a Russian officer, an old acquaintance of hers from Charkov, who came to our town, lived in the hotel at the railway station and visited her. Afterwards he committed suicide and people said that he did that because of her. Nobody was surprised but there was little talk about it.
In those days of the Japanese war, before the first revolution in Russia, the first worker's parties sprang up in our town and a conflict arose between the different sides. The main battle began between us and the Bund. The battle ground concerned the library. When the fighting became very intense the library was split into two. The Russian books went to them and the Hebrew books remained ours. At the head of the Russian library, stood my older sister. They received assistance from the Russian teacher, the student, and the yearlong extern, or the female student from Bobroisk. Alongside the main workers of the Hebrew library was the Hebrew teacher and I helped him. However, we did not possess our own student. When the feud became more intense and the time came to establish the party Po'alei Tzion, we brought a Russian teacher of our own. He was a brilliant extern, theoretician and a magnificent speaker who became the person who deals with matters of the law in Zionist Socialism. Even before he settled with us, he was already familiar with the whole movement and he wrote complex articles about the static and dynamic reality in the Jewish situation, about the static and dynamic in the Jewish proletariat that he printed in the first Zionist monthly journal, Yevreiskaya Zshizn [Jewish Life] that was published in Petersburg.
This teacher and orator, with his black forelock of hair and beautiful manners, was also a relative of the town's wealthiest man that is why we were able to bring him to us. He paved the way for us to approach the homes of the rich and the radical intelligentsia. He even managed to penetrate the locked house of Viera Yakovlevna. He was a great idealist and a fine example of a man of integrity. His extreme vegetarianism went so far, that he would not allow us to hang flycatching paper in our premises because of the prohibition of cruelty to animals. He was wellversed in the work of Michailovsky and fought against Marx. He was a beloved orator and an expert in Russian poetry and belleslettres. Although he was born in Smorgon, he mastered all the nuances of the Russian language as if he was born to it. Both in private and in public lectures he spoke Russian and he knew no Hebrew. Idleson the editor of Yevreyiskaya Zshizn, encouraged him from a distance and he himself, thought of competing with Jabotinsky whose star had then begun to rise. During the day he lectured to the externs and in the evenings he lectured us on theories of the young party, or wrote his articles and dissertations. His remaining free time he spent in the home of Viera Yakovlevna or on walks far into the surrounding forests.
He then established for us the Po'alei Tzion group and also gave the group its greatest gift: the assistance of Viera Yakovlevna. Her first task on our behalf was dedicated to the library. For this purpose, she organised a theatre performance in Yiddish. She chose Goldfaden's Shulamit. The rehearsals lasted the entire winter and with their novelty and beauty, won the hearts of all the youth who were close to us, who were fortunate to be in the rehearsal hall or nearby. No one was allowed into the premises during the rehearsals. This is what Viera Yakovlevna demanded. She chose the actors from amongst our members and sympathisers. She herself, played the role of Shulamit. To this day I remember the superb anger of the beautiful Shulamit, that was wrapped in longing and sorrow for the friend of her youth, who left her …. and she therefore drove away from herself, one by one, those that came and asked for her wounded heart:
be gone, be gone, be gone, be gone, be gooone!
This artistic undertaking then drew us out of our narrow corner as the youth who concentrated around us, longed for beauty. This was however, only a prelude to the great unexpected help that she brought to us with her talent and grace during the great decision of that time … This happened during the days of Shavuot. Our party organised a secret meeting in the small Zadvorye
forest, behind the town. Patrols were set up over the entire length of the forest that were supposed to point the way to the participants. Then for the first time we organised a simulated discussion in the forest so that our members involved in the party struggle would know what to answer our opposition who were increasing in number, from day to day. The instigator of this trial was the teacher. He gave me the role of a Bundist speaker and he took the role of the respondent. I gathered the strongest, antiZionist arguments from material I found in my house, from my sister, from her friends, teacher and visitors and from what I read in Bundist literature. From all these sources I built a theoretical structure. How great was then my victory, when the clever teacher, in cultured language, destroyed this structure, one issue at a time so that nothing became of it. My whole tower fell apart like a soapbubble.
Encouraged by the correctness of our path and sure of the truth of our mission, we decided to leave together in our first demonstration and the whole town would see us, in all our strength! So we started to stride with our flag before us and with hearts full of song but when we approached the small bridge over the canal, the patrols gave us the bad news that on the other side of the small forest, our Bundist opponents were also demonstrating and they were also approaching the town. There were many more of them than us because they had the workers with them, the children from wealthy homes and the best intelligentsia. In comparison we were only a small handful and in addition mostly the youth. We were afraid that we would not earn any respect from our first public appearance. Apparently they found out about our plan and therefore purposely organised a counterdemonstration at the same time, as they wanted to destroy the festivities and demonstrate to everyone, how laughably weak we were ….
There was no longer any way of avoiding this defeat. We were in the midst of marching and we could already hear from a distance, the echo of our opponent's footsteps and their resounding song. Our efforts were in vain: our disgrace was certain … suddenly Viera Yakovlevna stepped out of the line, grabbed the flag from the young member's hands and
with her powerful and clear voice that reached into people's hearts she began to sing The Oath and we sang with her. When the two groups of demonstrators came close from opposite sides, her voice became stronger than the opponents, and as they passed by, she began her song again, she in the lead and we after her and the whole town ran behind us, over the entire length of the street all the way to our meeting room. They then said in our party: the scales weighed down in our favour … we were the conquerors.
When the war ended Moisei Abramovicz returned. He took Viera Yakovlevna and the two children who had grown up and were loved by all their Mother's admirers and took them far away; to Chita in Siberia. By doing this he removed from our town the joy of her beauty and the radiance of her youth.
It can only be expressed in this way: removed … but it was not exactly like that: her radiance, when one remembers her, lives on in the hearts of all her admirers, and in the image of every beautiful woman that they might be destined to meet in their lives. They will never cease to search for a trace of that ray of light that shone down from Viera Yakovlevna, in the spring of their youth.
… Forty years later I met an elderly Zionist industrialist in the Land of Israel who came from that distant Chita. The desire arose in me to ask him about Viera Yakovlevna and as soon as my question passed my lips his face lit up and suddenly in his aging eyes, I saw that brightness that shone upon us then, in those years when the morning of our youth had just begun to dawn.
Standing from right: Dov ben Yerucham, Nechama Borsuk, Chanah Yeichl, Azriel Tunik, Moshe Esterkin, Yechezkiel ben Moshe, Moshe Borsuk, Getzl Reiser, Malka ben Moshe, Edna ben Moshe, Shmuel Leib Aginsky, Fanye Machtei, Dr. Yisroel Machtei, his wife, Pesye ben Yerucham, Yosef ben Moshe, Nechama Reiser, Tzvi ben Moshe, Yosef Machtei
2nd row: Avrom Rubinshtein, Yehoshua Vinerach, Velvl Tunik, Lippa Dorski, Freidke Yosselevicz, AvromMoshe and Manye Danzig, Heishe Epshtein, Rochl Sorotzkin, Rozze Shulkin, Mrs. Vinover, Yitzchak Bruchanski
3rd row: Abba Berkovicz, Avrom Tunik, Ettl Rubinshtein, Rivkah Kantarovicz, Chaya Sheindl Kumok. Chayenke Sagalovicz, Avrom Mirski, Dinak Soratzkin, Tuchman, Alter Yosselevicz, Shimon Kitayevicz, unknown, unknown, Natan Vizover, Sonye From
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