by Dr. Malka Israeli (née Blechman) / TelAviv
Translated by Sara Mages
The way of life in our city Telshe
The city of Telshe sprawled along the Market Street (Turgaus gatvė) and Great Street (Didžioji gatvė), and many streets and alleys. Telshe had many institutions of Torah and education and, first and foremost, the famous yeshiva to which students streamed from the Jewish Diaspora. Great respect was afforded to a person who studied at the Telshe Yeshiva. Yeshiva students, who studied in Telshe, dispersed throughout the Jewish world and served as rabbis, heads of yeshiva, public figures, etc.
This book contains special articles about the yeshiva and its leaders and there is no need to repeat them here.
Gymnasia Yavne the gymnasium where I studied for eight years, and even graduated, was considered the best in Lita. The city's rabbi, R' Yosef Leib Bloch, was among its founders. The teachers' seminar provided many teachers to the Yavne network of schools throughout Lita. The synagogues, and Batei HaMidrash (houses of study), were also places where Jews were strengthened by their adherence to the Torah and the commandments of Judaism in the city of Telshe and the surrounding areas.
The entire city was inhabited by Jews who engaged in trade and crafts, especially in the city center. The gentiles lived in the suburbs and at the edge of the city.
You could feel the Jewish way of life mainly on Sabbath eve, on the Sabbath, and on the holidays. Even on weekdays you could see Jews sitting in the shops with the Gemara (section of the Talmud),
|The school Yiddish Folk Shul in Telshe after the First World War|
or the Chumash (Pentateuch), open before them. In public, in their daily life, you could hear a conversation in the melody of the Gemara, and all negotiations were conducted in expressions taken from the Talmudic world, such as: Mai nafka minah (what is the conclusion from this?), negotiation, at the outset, in retrospect, proper guarding, Klal uPrat, what are we dealing with?, whoever confesses to an act involving a fine is exempt from the fine, Tashlumei Kefel (double payment), intentionally, accidentally, Kofer nefesh (ransom), two different species that were mixed, mixing the forbidden with the allowed, reasonable explanation, real estate, Canaanite slave, Halakhah leMoshe miSinai, Shnayim ochazim b'talit (two who claim to own the same thing), all mine, division, fit for testimony, unfit for testimony, in parts, possession is ninetenths of the law, which of the found items belong to him (the finder) and which ones must be announced?, shomer chinam, shomer sakhar, to return with identification, de'oraita, derabanan, Hillel and Shamai, both blood (effort) and money, exchange, Chillul HaShem, merchants of Lod, to have the upper hand, to be the looser, and other such expressions. It is said, that in a negotiation a Jew from Telshe told his friend: at the outset, it is not so difficult but, in retrospect, it's not quite easy.
On Sabbath eve everyone was busy, running around preparing for the Shabbat. With darkness, Sabbath candles were lit in every home and peace and holiness filled the city's void. The men went to the synagogue dressed in special Sabbath clothes, ready to welcome the Sabbath Queen. We saw the walk to, and the return from the synagogue. Of course, all the shops were closed on the Sabbath. On Sabbath morning the women went to take the cholent and the kugel they put in Ya'akov's baking oven. A special atmosphere was also felt on Motza'ei Shabbat: Havdalah (concluding the Shabbat), Melaveh Malkah (Escorting the [Sabbath] Queen), and religious songs for Motza'ei Shabbat.
On Hanukkah candles were lit on the windowsill in every house.
On Purim we watched the delivery of mishloach manot which were sent covered against the evil eye. At the yeshiva the joy was overflowing on this holiday. Special places were allocated for the women so they could experience the joy. Yeshiva students organized in groups of singing and dancing, dressed in costumes, staged plays, and walked from house to house to amuse the diners.
On Sukkot who didn't have a sukkah built in a room in the house or on the balcony? All they had to do was to pull the rope and lift the roof cover, hit with a hammer, put the sechach, hang the decorations and the sukkah was ready.
And on Passover we saw the delivery of the matzos. Each baked his matzah shmura, with flour that was well guarded and delivered in baskets to his home. We also saw the delivery of Mayim Shelano. 
The baking of matzah shmura was accompanied by singing, praise and thanksgiving, and the city's dignitaries and yeshiva students took part in it. A barrel full of borscht stood in every house. Some of the matzos were crushed into thin flakes and some sifted into matzah flour. We prepared nectar (honey water) for the four cups because wine was expensive and scarce.Simchat Torah in Telshe
He who has not seen Simchat Torah in Telshe, and in the Telshe Yeshiva, has never seen Simchat Torah in his life!Since this holiday is celebrated outside Israel for two days, the joy began on Shemini Atzeret and reached its peak on Simchat Torah. In the yeshiva a third of the hall was set aside for a women's section and the women took their seats early in the morning. The head of the yeshiva also served as the city's rabbi and, therefore, he had to participate in the celebrations and the hakafot in the Great Synagogue as the rabbi, and also in the yeshiva as head of the yeshiva. How did they settle this? First they held the hakafot in the Great Synagogue (Beit HaMidrash). The important proprietors in the city came to the rabbi's house and lead him, under a wedding canopy, with singing and dancing to the Great Synagogue. The yeshiva students also participated in this festive procession. To this day their mighty singing still resonates in my ears: [the prayer that begins ] Tzadik katamar yifrach k'erez ba'lvanon yisgeh. In the Beit HaMidrash the hakafot were held with joy and great singing, out of gaiety and happiness. At the end of the hakafot, the rabbi was led in an impressive procession, under the wedding canopy, to the yeshiva that was ready to welcome him. I am writing about the period of HaRav HaGa'on, R' Yosef Leib Bloch, who was the city's rabbi and head of the yeshiva, and HaRav HaGa'on, R' Chaim Rabinovitz, head of the yeshiva. With the completion of the hakafot the rabbis,
R' Yosef Bloch and R' Chaim Rabinovitz danced alone, arm in arm, as the yeshiva students were standing around them, and the two of them sang [the prayer that begins] Adon 'olam, 'asher malakh… and the yeshiva students accompanied their singing with their enthusiastic singing. It was a great and exciting sight that you never forget. I am excited, to the point of tears, when I remember this elevated occasion! The next day, on Simchat Torah, the same play was repeated: leading the rabbi to the Great Synagogue hakafot; leading him to the yeshiva hakafot and singing and dancing, and at the end drinking L'Chaim and eating the cakes and sweets that were brought earlier in addition to other varied foods. The joy lasted all day long in the yeshiva and all over the city. For a long time, after Sukkot and Simchat Torah, the songs continued to echo in my ears and filled my whole being and it was difficult for me to return to normal ordinary life.
The shtiebel of the kloyzTelshe was granted the right to have a famous yeshiva to which students streamed from the Jewish Diaspora. It was awarded the most beautiful synagogues, and the Beit HaMidrash was the most important. The second most important was the kloyz and next to the kloyz was the shtiebel where my father zl prayed. Important proprietors and Torah scholars, prayed in the shtiebel. They prayed in the shtiebel all year long and on the High Holy Days they prayed in the kloyz. I envision the worshipers in the east: Pops, Meir Shochat, David Shar, Moshe Leich, Choc, Citroen, Moti Levin, Chaikel, Ekov, R' Mose Fridman, Meir Sason, Apchuk, Leib Shochat, Binyamin Belchman, the attendant and many more. My father was also among the regular worshipers in the kloyz and I still see his shtot his permanent place. My father was the prayer leader in the shtiebel and had the right to lead the shaharit (morning) prayer in the kloyz on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. At times, he also prayed the musaf (additional) prayer. He had a pleasant voice and was accepted by the congregation.
The shtiebel was my father's second home. From four in the morning the shtiebel was full of Talmudic study and prayer. My father, R' Velvel Katsin and Haves, were the gabbaim and also the attendants: they heated the oven in the winter, cleaned the floor, etc. Every job in the shtiebel was considered sacred and dignified, and no work was considered despicable. The shtibel's key was in our hands. The Gabbaim entered our house, took the key and returned it after the prayer. I remember the completion ceremony after the completion of each tractate in the Gemara and Mishnah. Honey cakes (lekach) with brandy and other kinds of cookies were brought. The completion ceremony was held in great splendor. In particular there was great joy on Simchat Torah, which we celebrated with happiness and the joy of a mitzvah. My father was usually the cantor in the shtiebel, both on the Sabbath and on weekdays, and even now I can hear his pleasant voice.
How precious you have been to me, my lovely shtiebel! I write about you with great longing! The Shechinah (Divine Presence) was in you and in your worshipers. May your soul be bound in the bond of everlasting life.
Footnotes added by the Translator and editors of the English translation:
by Shoshana Holzberg (Shochat)
Translated by Sara Mages
All that I am about to tell in the framework of this article is not pretending to be an authentic historical source since I didn't sit in libraries, and didn't study historical documents in order to extract material from them for my article. What I will write here I drew and extracted from the treasure of memories that remained within me. And by nature, the memories are sometimes deficient and sometimes with some inaccuracies in an earlier or later matter etc. Therefore, it is quite possible that my article will also fall into one of these categories and I must apologize for this before the Minister of History.
|A class of Gymnasia Yavne in Telshe|
I am from Telshe, from the original Telshe in Lita. Thus I answer those who ask me where I am from. However, this is not really the case. The place where I first saw the light of the world is a small town called Yelok (Ylakiai). And if so, am I lying to those who ask me and mislead them with the wrong information? No, it's not a lie! For Yelok is the city of my physical homeland and Telshe was, and is still today, my spiritual homeland. In it I saw the light as a Jewish girl. In it our father R' Baruch Yefe zl, who already laid the foundations for the Jewish education of his daughters in Yelok, was able to continue to build the educational framework that he wished for, a matter that was impossible to do in Yelok. And this is how things turned out. Thanks to one of the hidden favors of God, a great fire broke out in Yelok and in forty minutes the entire town was consumed by fire. We were left homeless. Our father zl was forced to search for a new place to build the ruins of our home. And then our uncle R' Shmuel Schiff, owner of a respected home in Telshe, suggested that he should come to this city to open a store in partnership with him. Our father zl accepted the offer and moved together to Telshe
with his two older daughters; my older sister Gita, nine and a half (today Mrs. Muskat in Petach Tikva), and me, eight- year-old Shoshana. While my mother Sheina-Ester ztl and our two-year old brother, Moshe, remained in Yelok in order to recover what had survived there from our property, we settled in the room that R' Shmuel allocated to us in his hotel.
The Jewish school happened to be very close to our uncle's house. This school was a remnant of the German elementary school for Jews. It was founded by the Germans during the their occupation of Lita at the end of the First World War. After the Germans left, it continued to exist and was run by three young women from the city. They moved the school to another location. Instead of German, all the classes in all subjects were conducted in Yiddish. There was also a Hebrew teacher, Moshe Havass, a native of the city. The three teachers who ran the school were discovered to be devout members of the Bund movement. When the parents and other public figures in Telshe sensed that they were trying to influence the students they decided to save their children from their punishment and founded a new school that was run entirely in Hebrew. The teachers I remember from that school where we studied only a short time were: Mr. Shmuel Gordon, son of R' Eliezer Gordon ztl, the same Moshe Havass and in addition to them a teacher from the outside. That teacher taught us Hebrew and Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible), and it should be noted that he taught very well. I especially remember the lesson of the first chapter from the Book of Isaiah that he recited before us with emotion and drama. But something happened that ruined the whole thing When he spoke of the nature of prophecy he ruled that a prophet is a man of emotion, that and nothing else. This explanation lit up, for us girls of the upper class, a kind of red light. According to our understanding, the spirit of heresy leaped out of this explanation. When we told our parents about this, a scandal broke out in the city. The parents who wanted to prevent their daughters from absorbing negative views in their school decided to take them out of school immediately, the same school they were so happy to establish at that time. This is probably why the fate of the first Hebrew school in our city, which turned out to be secular due to the poor expression of that teacher, was not entirely unacceptable in the eyes of its principal. However, the problem of the girls' education was not solved by their removal from the school. It was necessary to think about creating an immediate alternative. And indeed, those interested in this did not sit idle and immediately began to consult about the establishment of a new school in which all its teachers would have a significant religious background, both in their world-view and their daily life. The driving force in conducting these consultations at the home of the city's rabbi was the young generation under the influence and inspiration of the rabbi R' Yosef Leib Bloch ztl himself. They were joined by parents whose daughters' religious education was at the top of their concerns. Among them was also our father, R' Baruch Yafe zl, former student of R' Yosef-Leib ztl at the great Yeshiva of Telshe.
One day our father, zl informed us that the decisive meeting was about to take place in the evening.
It was a clear and hot summer night. Our father zl went to the meeting and we, the two of us, my sister Gita and I sat in the house and waited anxiously for his return. We did not want to go to bed. We fought hard with the sleep that threatened to take us over, but we resisted it and remained awake even though the hours passed, one after the other and our father had not yet returned. It is not that the meeting lasted very long. Maybe it was not particularly difficult to establish a new school, but it was more difficult to sustain it for the long term without difficulties. The doubts and uncertainty were understandable, but at last our father came back with the message: tonight we founded a new school called Yavne the Hebrew school for girls. The name Yavne with all the historical baggage associated with it, determined and even promised the spirit and the educational approach of the new school. Our father zl continued to tell us something from the course of that historic meeting in which more difficult birth pains were expressed. Among others, he told us that a young woman named Gita Reizl Broida astonished all the participants in the meeting in the fervor with which she defended her views on the existential problems of the new creation. In the spirit of her boundless volunteering and willingness, she took on the work at the new school. And indeed, the same Mrs. Broida was the
teacher of drawing and handicrafts in our new school, subjects that she particularly excelled in. Thus, that night was the night of the birth of Yavne education in Lita, which was conceived and born in Telshe!!! And from there the message went to the many cities and towns of Lita. Among the other teachers who taught us at Yavne; school, I remember: Mr. Chaim Zalman Kron, a yeshiva student who was the Tanakh teacher (Hebrew in Hebrew!), Mr. Trachtenberg of Kovna who taught us Hebrew, German and mathematics, a gentile named Drobenko who taught us Lithuanian and Russian and Mr. Moshe Yafe, also a yeshiva student with a particularly beautiful voice, was the music teacher. The elementary school in Lita had four years of schooling and the most talented of its graduates moved to a high-school, a gymnasium with eight years of schooling.
The studies at the gymnasiums ended with matriculation exams and the road to the university was open to those who succeeded in them. In independent Lita (since 1918) there was only one university, in Kovna (Kaunas). In addition, there was also a college of engineering in Kovna which was considered the temporary capital of Lita after the region of Vilna was separated from it and woe to the one who forgot to add the word temporary to the capital. There was only one punishment for him: to fail him, since there is explicit evidence here that his patriotism is flawed. But now we will return to the matter at hand.
|Elementary school student planting trees on Lag Ba'Omer with the principal Mantchovski, the teacher Peschdamski (Shadmi) standing on the right and the teacher Kimchi on the left.|
While the Yavne school already existed, the studies were conducted peacefully and to the satisfaction of its creators. The question of what will happen next, when the girls finish school, already had begun to bother them. Where can they turn? Will it be possible to leave them alone so that they would, God forbid, fall again into the hands of secular education? If so, the goal was to improve the situation, but in the end it turned out to be useless. Therefore, a new breakthrough must be made toward religious high school education for girls! The idea is clear, but how does one accomplish it? In order to open a religious Hebrew high school for girls that the Lithuanian government would recognize, we needed academic teaching staff and for a religious high school it is essential that the academic teaching staff also be religious; not only traditional, but deeply rooted in the pursuit of faithful Judaism. Both in their world view and in their way of life there was still no such combination of religious and academic teachers in Lithuania. What to do, was it necessary to give up the idea? No, in Telshe we do not give up! We must support those who try to cleanse impurity. Help them!
And the help came from an unexpected source: from the German Jewry. It turned out that in Germany there was also this type of religious academic. Therefore, the members of the board of directors turned to them and to Telshe came a man named Dr. Harry Levi who certainly answered the above requirements. He was appointed principal of the gymnasium so that its opening was announced publicly.
And he was also approved by the Ministry of Education of the Lithuanian government. Together with the same Dr. Levy came his wife, who also had an academic education and was approved as a teacher for English and gymnastics. The principal took on the teaching of the German language and history. Unfortunately, I do not remember the teachers of scientific subjects, mathematics and natural sciences. The Hebrew teacher, who had just returned from Russia with his family, had a broad Hebrew education. Yes I remember, he also taught mathematics. Yeshiva students were the teachers of Judaic studies (in Lithuanian the yeshiva was called Talmud Mokykla Aukstoji). In other words, it was recognized as an academic institution. I already mentioned one of them, Mr. Karon who taught the Tanakh in the elementary school. The second was Spozhnikov, the Torah teacher and it seems to me that he was also the teacher of halakha (religious law). He was the son-in-law of the rabbi R' H. M. Katz.
The Hebrew religious gymnasium for girls, Yavne, was therefore an established fact.
I was not privileged to be present at the opening ceremony because I was seriously ill and bedridden for more than seven weeks, but news about the life of the young institution reached my sickbed. Until now there were only three classes with the option to open a fourth at the beginning of the next school year and so on, until the quota of eight classes (the number of classes in all the gymnasia) was filled. I was also told that I had a place in the third class.
The Hebrew teacher who I mentioned above was Mr. Shmuel Zuckerman and he was found to be a creative force in many areas. There was a need for a general history book to suit the school's spirit. He wrote chapters on the history of Greece and Rome in his calligraphic handwriting. The material was duplicated in a Spirograph and handed over to the girls in the form of proper booklets. The school wanted to hold a celebration (of Chanukah or Purim) and found it difficult to find suitable material. The same Mr. Zuckerman sat and composed beautiful plays in which the characters were only girls in order to prevent the girls from having to dress up as boys and men, thereby violating the prohibition in the Torah: (a man's attire shall not be on a woman).
These celebrations and festivities, which were mostly held in the hall of the only large cinema in Telshe, Dziugas, attracted a large audience, even from the classes who were not among the fans of the religious gymnasium. The performers received enthusiastic applause from the audience. With all this, we the gymnasium students always had to prove ourselves to the cynical and skeptic seculars who, for some reason, refused to recognize the new creation called the religious gymnasium. Out of envy of its success they accused it of all kinds of charges. What do they teach there? they asked and ruled for themselves, probably only to salt meat and light Shabbat candles! Indeed, we studied dinim (laws, judgments) on a high level. We studied the Torah and Rashi (medieval Torah commentary) and even a little Mishnah. But all this was given to us in addition to the governmental requirements for general studies and not at their expense. In fact the mockers also knew this, but it was hard for them to admit it. They were like that bad angel who is very angry and finds it hard to accept what he hears.
But there was no shortage of real trouble. At the end of the first school year Dr. Levi, the gymnasium's first principal, returned to Germany, and again the question arose: what will be the fate of the institution that started to function so well? Who would be its principal? The members of the board of directors, headed by Rabbi Mordecai Katz, were really at a loss. But ...with the salvation of God in the blink of an eye the salvation came from an entirely unexpected direction. That same year the rabbi's two sons, R' Avraham Yitzchak and R' Zalman returned from Russia where they lived as refugees during the First World War. They were married to the two daughters of the very wealthy man Mr. Dinis of Kharkiv. When they heard about the difficult problem of their brother-in-law and their younger brother they said: We have an excellent solution to your problem. They said that in Kharkiv they knew a very religious academic who had completed two faculties at the University of Kharkiv: the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics and the Faculty of Biology and was also appointed lecturer at the same university. The name of the Jew is Dr. Rafael-Yitzchak Holtzberg, who returned with them to Lita and for the time settled in Kovna.
They believed that the proposal to be the principal of a religious gymnasium for girls would appeal to him and he would accept it willingly. Needless to say, the members of the board of directors saw it as a miracle from heaven and immediately sent their proposal to the same Dr. Holtzberg. And indeed, what the brothers who had returned from Russia predicted, really happened. Dr. Holtzberg willingly accepted the position of principal of the gymnasium and the teaching of scientific subjects. But one of the conditions he presented before the members of the committee was that he would be allowed to teach his subjects in Yiddish, since he wasn't able to speak Hebrew. Having no choice, and without enthusiasm, they agreed to this difficult condition. They felt that they broke the principle that all general subjects would be conducted in Hebrew. It was a dilemma that could not be easily digested. Dr. Holtzberg released them from their embarrassment. He decided that it was not right that something so principled could not be preserved in the school because of him, and in the end the acquisition of the Hebrew language was not an insurmountable obstacle. He must mobilize all his energies to learn Hebrew, no matter what! And with all the willpower he took on the task of turning his decision into reality.
We saw that his efforts bore fruit! We saw that he was overcoming his difficulties with the language and although he failed in the mistakes that made us laugh, he continued to teach us in Hebrew! Alongside the giggles at the mistakes, which were not uncommon, we learned to admire him because of the unquenchable willpower we discovered. Later, when closer relationship formed between us he told us how hard he had worked on his lessons. With the help of books and dictionaries he had acquired, he translated every lesson from Russian to Hebrew and memorized it so that he could present it to his students the following day. When he saw after all, that he had not escaped the mistakes we laughed at, he came to us one day with a heart-wrenching offer, kind of a trade. If you laugh at every linguistic error in my math lessons, you will get tired quickly. So let's make a deal: I will teach you math, physics, nature study and chemistry and you will teach me Hebrew! He really convinced us with this proposal and eliminated the stupid order of laughter. We took the job of being the teachers of Mr. Principal, that's how we addressed him, seriously, even with a certain amount of smugness. It is not easy to be the teachers of the teacher! We used to correct grammatical errors, suggest a different word here and there in place of the one that the teacher had chosen, or a more appropriate expression, and all this without a hint of arrogance.
|The building of Gymnasium Yavne; in Telshe|
We were delighted that our proposals had been accepted and happy to see that, indeed our student was doing well and that we had a part in his progress. In general, we learned to appreciate the
great abundance that he had the power to give us. For a certain time, Mr. Principal taught us both Torah and Rashi and the lessons were interesting and fascinating. I remember very well that from him we heard, for the first time, the name of R' Shimshon Rafael Hirsh and his unique way of interpreting the Torah. He also opened for us new windows in the field of Jewish studies. We discovered in him an abundant source of knowledge, not only in his subjects, but also in German and English literature (translated into German). And we thirstily drank his deep explanations in the evening readings he organized for us, first in his hotel room and later at his home after he brought his family to Telshe. And if anyone asks us girls of the fifth or sixth class of the Hebrew gymnasium, from where did we get the willingness to read and understand works such as Nathan the Wise by Lessing, The Sublime by Schiller, Macbeth and King Lear by Shakespeare (translated into German) I have to go back a bit in the history of our gymnasium.
The great yeshiva of Telshe, whose reputation also reached beyond the borders of Lita, started to attract many students from abroad: mainly Germany, but also England, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and even from the United States. Among the students who came to study in Telshe were many who had an academic education and even a doctorate, such as: Dr. Emanuel Shereshevsky and his brother Yakov from Königsberg (Kaliningrad), Ari Wohlgemuth from Berlin, Dr. Bohrer, Dr. Bloch and many more. These educated young men were precisely the people to whom it was possible to entrust in their hands, with no fear, the teaching of various subjects at the gymnasium. And so many of them became our teachers. And what did they teach? of course, mainly German. But not only German, also: history, geography and even Hebrew. For example, Dr. Emmanuel Shereshevsky (a physician by profession) taught us hygiene and also Hebrew. These teachers gave us a good command of the German language and when we finished our studies at the gymnasium we knew how to speak and write German freely, almost as our command of the Hebrew language.
In our last two years at the gymnasium there have been many changes among the faculty members. So for example, in these two years R' Yitzchak Shmulevitz (I do not know where he came from and how he arrived to Telshe) taught us Hebrew and Tanakh. He was a beloved Jew and a very devoted teacher. How far his spiritual attachment to the Hebrew language has come is evidenced by the fact that he established in Telshe, together with his wife Ela, daughter of R' Abtzik Schwarts, a Hebrew speaking home; meaning his children were educated in their home purely in Hebrew! It seems to me that in this respect it is possible to praise him as a pioneer.
There were also changes in the management of the gymnasium. In the summer of 1926, Mr. Principal who educated us from the fourth to the eighth grade could not congratulate us at the graduation ceremony of our class, the first graduating class of the first religious Hebrew gymnasium, because in that year he was in Eretz Yisrael. Indeed, he did not sever the contact with us even when he was far away. From Israel he sent us letters in which he tried to guide us, especially in regard to the matriculation exams that were so frightening. I especially remember a letter that we received just before the exams in which he warned us not to fail from immoral acts, out of a desire to succeed in the exams. The goal does not compensate for the damage caused by the way it is obtained. In this manner he took care of us also from a distance. The management of the school in the years 1925-1926, as well as the right to bless the graduates at the graduation ceremony was given to Dr. Yoel Zalzberg of Kovna, a physician by profession who taught us physics and history in the last year. The mathematics teacher, in place of Dr. Holtzberg was Mr. Shalom Shochat, a graduate of the Faculty of Physics and Mathematics of the University of Kovnam. And it is necessary to say to his credit that he carried out the heavy task entrusted to him with devotion and responsibility. All the girls of the first graduating class successfully passed the matriculation exams in mathematics and physics. The full success of the first class actually established the prestige of the gymnasium. Even those who did not spare ridicule and contempt for the value of the religious gymnasium lowered their voices and some even joined the fans.
Following the success in Telshe, a Hebrew gymnasium for girls, Yavne, was established in Kovna.
Later Rabbi Yosef Kahneman of Ponevezh also established such a gymnasium in his city, but without a doubt the first right is reserved for Telshe.
In Telshe there were also Bi-annual courses for teachers. The teachers' seminar, Yavne, was also transferred to Telshe from Kovna because it had little success there. While in Telshe under the management of Dr. Holtzberg, the keen interest of the yeshiva in this institution, accompanied the religious-educational success of the seminar that had grown immeasurably.
In 1929, when the gymnasium already managed to produce three graduating classes and a fourth was on the way, Dr. Holtzberg inaugurated his new creation, which he called The Annual Pedagogium for Teachers. He designated it for the graduates of our gymnasium. But he did not refrain from accepting the graduates of Tarbut gymnasia (secular girls), rather, only on the basis of the recommendation of a religious personality from their city who would testify that the religious behavior of these girls was flawless. As for their worldview, the principal relied on his rich and successful experience to help shape them in the desired direction during the year they would be entrusted in his hands. Thus, when they finished the pedagogium (college) to go to work in the field of education, they would be religious educators worthy of their name.
Thus, Telshe was the source of instructional forces for the institutions of Yavne educational network which, in the meantime developed and expanded. And its branches reached most of the cities and towns in Lita. All this, thanks to the openness and talent of the rabbi's family. Thanks to their desire to listen to the needs of the time and their willingness to seek and find a suitable response to these needs. And thanks to the fact that they were supported by a man like Dr. R. Y. HaLevi Holtzberg who had a broad education, both general and Jewish, excellent talents, initiative and inexhaustible energy. He placed all of them at the sole disposal of the religious educational enterprise. And when they all joined together, they turned Telshe from solely the locus of a district city in the map of Lita, into a shining conception in the life of Lithuanian Jewry. And its rays of light also reached beyond its borders.
by Avraham Barkai (Berkman) Haifa
Translated by Dr. Ida Selavan Schwarcz
My Telshe, the town where I was born, grew up, was educated, and from which I was uprooted; my parents and grandparents and ancestors lived there. I was tied to it by strong bonds.
I tremble when I remember the terrible end of my birthplace. My hair stands on end when I think of the destruction of Jewish Telshe.
I remember scenes of my childhood, before the First World War. I remember the big fire of 1906. I still remember the sighs of my father and the cries of my mother, may they rest in peace, when the fire broke out that burned up all the houses of the town. They survived the fire without anything. They and the other townspeople became paupers within one day. They were homeless and penniless. The fire broke out on a Sunday morning, in a horse's stable, from a cigarette smoked by the owner of the horse.
The straw in the stable caught fire and the flames spread quickly to the mostly wooden houses in the area. Within a few hours half the town had gone up in smoke. On Tuesday afternoon the second fire started. The cause: A large amount of coal someone had stored in one of the burned houses. This fire destroyed the other half of the houses in the town. Only a few houses remained, mostly those owned by gentiles. Years went by before the residents recovered and built new houses with the help of various organizations and donations from various places. During the time we were homeless, we lived for a while in a village at the home of an embittered farmer, and afterwards in the nearby small town of Luknik.
And here is an interesting anecdote from those days. On a Sabbath eve, during the opening prayers, in one of the houses being used as a synagogue, since all the synagogues had burned down, there was a confusion and running around in one of the nearby streets. Within a moment the street was full of people who came to see a great marvel; a horseless carriage. This was the first appearance of such a vehicle in Telshe. According to rumors, government officials came in it from Moscow to see the burnt town.
I see before my eyes the three synagogues that stood around the triangular spiritual center of the town. The Study House, the kloyz (a prayer room) and the synagogue the shul, a wooden building with a deep interior, as if to symbolize From the depths have I called to God. Very tall, the Holy Ark was unique, decorated artistically with cherubs and animals and, of course, the tablets of the covenant and more. The Ark reached the roof, which was a dome and the whole dome was decorated with various artistic pictures. One felt awe in this miniature Holy Temple. The shul was used only in the summertime because there were no stoves, since it was so spacious.
I remember how I was overcome with feelings when I went to the synagogue with my father, zl, on Yom Kippur, when I heard the voice of the prayer leader burst forth from his throat and from the depths of his heart in the prayers Hear our voices or Here am I the lowly one, and especially during the Ne'ila (closing) prayer in the quiet of the evening, with the prayer Open for us the gate at the time of the closing of the gate .
I shall always remember the awe and the lofty spirit that reigned during those moments within the congregation.
They would put up the poles of the canopies for weddings in the synagogue square. The bridegroom and the bride and their escorts would walk down the main street with the musicians and the crowd following them. A wedding was a general event for the whole town. By the way, this was a rare occasion to hear music, as there were no radios.
The main edifice of the town was the yeshiva, the spiritual center for the Jews of Lithuania, which was the pride and glory of the town. Thanks to the yeshiva, the town was famous world over. Jewish boys came there from near and far, not only from Lithuania but also from Poland, Russia, Ukraine, and more. There echos still in my ears, the voices of the hundreds of yeshiva boys, sitting at their desks from morning until late in the evening. The sweet melodies were well known in my house, which was near the yeshiva. As for the celebrations in the yeshiva, whoever had not seen the rejoicing on Purim or on Simchat Beit HaShoeva (Rejoicing of the Drawing of the Water) has never seen rejoicing in his life.
With a shiver of honor I remember the figure of the Rabbi of the city, the founder and director of the Yeshiva, the great scholar Rabbi Eliezer Gordon, ztsl (may the memory of the righteous be a blessing). He was esteemed by all and everyone treated him with awe. In 1910, when he was seventy years old, he traveled to London to collect money for the Yeshiva, which had been pauperized by the fire. He did not pay attention to his health or to the opposition of doctors to his journey and he travelled at the peril of his life to save the Yeshiva. He could not withstand the rigors of his journey and he died in London. The news of his sudden death shook up the entire city and deep mourning befell everyone. His books, which were published after his death are: The Responsa of Rabbi Eliezer and The Words of Rabbi Eliezer.
With respect and esteem I remember the refined and friendly figure of the Head of the Yeshiva, The great scholar Rabbi Chayim Rabinovitz, ztsl. How pleasant it was to see him teaching his class with excitement and enthusiasm, delivering his lesson with a new idea or argument. All his students and acquaintances loved and esteemed him. One of the outstanding students of Rabbi Chaim was my brother, Rabbi Ya'akov Moshe Abilov, may God avenge his blood. He would write down Rabbi Chaim's lectures, which were never written, and Rabbi Chaim himself would use his notes. Rabbi Ya'akov Moshe was afterwards one of the outstanding students of Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski of Vilna, and was ordained by him. Rabbi Chaim Ozer ordained only the most outstanding students in his judgement. Rabbi Ya'akov Moshe was considered a genius from youth, but he was modest and humble. He was a rabbi in Vorne (Varniai) and was murdered, together with the residents of Telshe and environs, in the horrible onslaught. May God avenge his blood.
After Rabbi Eliezer Gordon died, his son-in-law, Rabbi Yosef Leib Bloch, ztsl, was appointed Rabbi of the town and Head of the Yeshiva. In those days one of the students was Rabbi Kahaneman, ztsl, Head of the Ponevezh Yeshiva and afterwards the founder and director of the Yeshiva in B'nei Berak (in Israel). In the Yeshiva he was known as the Koler genius, for the name of the town of his origin, Kol.
My thoughts and memories pass to the twilight hours, between Mincha (afternoon prayer) and Ma'ariv (evening prayer). In the Study Hall during the week, there is a wonderful scene; Jews sit at the long tables and in every corner they enjoy the glory of the God's presence, whether in solitude or together with others, some studying the Gemara, and some a Mishna tractate, a portion of Ein Ya'akov or Chayei Adam or reading some verses of Tehilim (Psalms). Who are these Jews? The cobbler, the tailor, the wagoner or small shopkeeper. An hour ago they were working with the sweat of their brows to earn a piece of bread. All this is forgotten all their burdens and problems and they have come here to enjoy life. Sometimes they even benefit from a homily from a wandering magid (preacher) who happens to come to their town. My father, zl, was also among these, he would set aside time to study the Torah or a page of the Gemara; he usually had a study partner, Mr. Tuvia Ba'al Shem, may he be separated for life, his closest friend. Another good friend of my father's was R' Ya'akov Shoy, the owner of a store selling textiles.
I shall never forget the incident on a cold day, when I begged my father, who suffered from asthma, not to go to the Study Hall. And he answered me, But this is my pleasure!
Among the men who came to the Study Hall I remember the wagoner, who earned his living bringing sand from outside the town in his broken down wagon. It was harnessed to a skinny horse who barely pulled the wagon, and the owner did not look much better. His face gave witness to the poverty and hunger that oppressed him.
This man found his relief in coming to the Study Hall, dressed in his ragged clothing, to enjoy a verse of Psalms or Chayei Adam.
At the outbreak of the First World War, in 1914, the Jews were exiled from the Province of Kovne (Kaunas) by the Russians, who suspected them of being spies (only Telshe and environs remained in the German area of occupation). I was also exiled deep into Russia, because I was outside the town at the time. I was separated from my parents and did not hear from them for five years. My years of wandering caused my parents and relatives much suffering. I can still remember my mother, zl, weeping at the disappearance of her son
After the war, in 1918, I returned to my home and town. Sadly I was at home only during holidays and vacations, because I worked as a teacher in other towns. But I got to know the town of Telshe restored, and to enjoy the new atmosphere of modernity and culture, the Hebrew gymnazia, the Girls' Teachers Seminary, and the schools, all of course, religious.
The parties then in Telshe were: Agudat Yisrael, Ze'irei Agudat Yisrael, Mizrahi, Ze'irei Zion, and also the Bund.
Of the charitable institutions one should mention the Bikkur Cholim (visiting the sick), Linat HaTzedek (hostel for the indigent) the Free Loan Society, and more.
All this has been cut off and destroyed. My heart, my heart [yearns] for you my town Telshe!
Editor's footnotes to the English translation:
|The main street in Telshe|
by Zev Noy (Noyik)
Donated by Davida Handler
Edited by Oshrit Livne
As the First World War was in progress, the Germans entered Lithuania. I was a young boy when the bitter picture of the Telshe (Telšiai) martyrs was etched in my mind to accompany me for the rest of my entire life.
There were two my father, Shabsse Noyk, and Leiba Leshem (Leiba Der Milner), may their memory be for a blessing who went out to Tresik (Tryškiai) to try to obtain some flour because of the hunger in our city. On the way back they were captured by a group of Cossacks who had broken through the front lines at Mažeikai, Akmenė, and Shavli (Šiauliai), in an area situated about eight kilometers from Telshe.
According to the testimony later given by some Lithuanians, these soldiers accused the two Jews of spying for the Germans, consequently killing them with live fire. My mother sent a messenger to look for them, or any trace of them... A week later their bodies were found strewn in the forest. On July 24, 1915 when the bodies were brought back, Telshe's entire community came out to receive
|The Yiddish school in the year 1920, amongst the students Beryl Cohen, Ya'akov Rabinovitz and Zev Noik|
our city's first victims. The day was black, bleak and gloomy as the bodies arrived at the Beit HaMidrash, the Bible and Talmud study room adjacent to the synagogue. I will always remember the first Kaddish that I said for my father, may his memory be for a blessing, which will linger in my memory FOREVER.
During the winter of 1918, our little shtetl was again shaken to the core by additional fallen victims as civil war erupted in Lithuania. The Kolchaks, who came from the Baltic aristocracy, accompanied and strengthened by various groups from Lithuania, fought the Bolsheviks who had arrived from Russia. The Bolsheviks controlled Telšiai for three consecutive weeks even as they were conducting battles with the Kolchaks between the cities of Plungė and Telšiai.
During the last battle the Bolsheviks were forced to retreat. While withdrawing, they captured nine Jews from the area. Among them were five people from Telshe. One by one, near Nevarėnai, these nine captives were executed shot by bullets. The last one to be shot was Velva Shaul, who absorbed the bullets in his left arm. He fell into the white snow, making his tormentors think that he had died. While the murderers went looking for local peasants to bury the dead, Velva, somehow regained consciousness, and in an extremely weakened state, began running while his blood was oozing out. He found shelter with a Lithuanian farmer.
When the killers came back, they discovered that one of the nine victims was missing. They followed the bloody footsteps that Velva had made in the snow, leading up to the farmer's home. The good farmer who had in the meantime dressed Velva's wounds and sent him toward Telshe, now directed the perpetrators in the opposite direction. When the murderers then returned, they mutilated the corpses. However, Velva our neighbor, succeeded in returning to Telshe.
A doctor from the main command, who was posted in our house, saved Velva's life by immediately treating his wounds. Although Velva was in shock for a long period of time, he himself related his story regarding the events just described to me and what had happened to the rest of the group. Upon his arrival, the Rabbi from Nevarėnai, may his name rest in peace, blessed Velva with T'chiat HaMetim, (the blessing of resurrection).
Regarding our family, my mother Bluma became a widow after the pogrom and was left with three little children to whom she devoted her life. My grandfather, grandmother and my uncle Nisan continued to care for us. The Second World War separated us from our mother who perished in the Shoah. My brother Nisan, a construction engineer, escaped from the Nazis to Russia in the nick of time. My sister Michal and I made it to Israel with the Zionist movement to live in a kibbutz.
|The funeral leader for the nine martyrs of Telshe after the First World War, with the Russians (soldiers) standing on the right.|
by Tzila (Varias) Weinstein
Translated by Sara Mages
I was born in Telshe to a religious family. We were seven children in the family - five brothers and two sisters. My sister Malka was the eldest, I was the sixth and my youngest brother Moshe was born after me. Today he lives in Los Angeles, in the United States. The rest that already had families with children perished in the Holocaust. My father Eliyahu Varias died at the prime of his life at the age of fifty-three as a result of an unsuccessful hernia surgery. I remember that at that time, before his death we had guests from abroad - my mother's sister Chana Rachel Singer and her husband Lipa from America and my father's niece, Dora-Malka Sasson and her three children from South Africa. At that time, my sister Malka got engaged to Zeidel Levin and a beautiful party was held for them. Everyone advised father to go through the surgery, that it was an easy surgery and there was no reason to suffer. And indeed, he listened to them and traveled to Memel where he was operated on. To our sorrow, the surgery wasn't successful and father died. I was a young girl then and the death of our father who was the main breadwinner was a hard blow for all of us. My two brothers, Yehoshua (Heshel) and Yitzchak (Eyzik) continued in father's trade. My sister Malka got married and left home. My brother Shimon worked as a sewing machine agent for Singer. My brother Aharon managed a bicycle repair shop and employed Jews and Lithuanians.
In order to facilitate the family's income, I was forced to stop my studies in the Yavne gymnasium and learn the trade of sewing. At the same time a Ger-Tzedek (convert to Judaism) arrived in Telshe and opened a shop for undergarments. I and Bluma Taitz (Berman), who now lives in Haifa, learned the sewing trade from him. A short time later we opened a workshop for sewing undergarments in my house in a nice room which faced a quiet street. We parted after two years. Bluma worked alone and I traveled to Kovna to study the sewing of bras and belts at ORT. The principal, Oleiski, arrived in Israel after the war and also dealt there with matters of ORT (I met him in Tel-Aviv and gave him a picture in which he was photographed with the girls who finished their studies with him). I returned home after I finished my studies and opened a workshop for undergarments, bras and belts. I also employed three girls. In this way each of us contributed to the livelihood of the family.
One clear day I traveled to the resort town of Tirkshli to visit my cousins Chaya and Masha Yipschitz (both are now in Israel). After I spent a few days with them at the summer camp I returned home and found that my workroom, with its furniture and sewing machine, was moved to a small side room.
My mother Pasha, who was very sensitive to the sufferings of others and always helped everyone who was in mental and material distress, above and beyond her ability, housed Aharon Kopel in the large front room. He had tuberculosis and his house was flooded because of the heavy rains that fell at that time. She nursed him with great devotion and took care of all his needs. To my question of why she does it, she told me that it was very important for her to help others. I burst into tears and ran to my aunt, Rivka Yipschitz. I told her that my mother is exceeding all bounds with her mitzvot and charitable acts Aharon Kopel stayed with us for several weeks until his situation improved. Such was my mother, may she rest in peace.
When my brother Moshe reached the age of military conscription he made every effort not to serve in the Lithuanian Army.
He traveled to Kovna, managed to get an emmigration certificate and immigrated to Israel in 1933. I read his letters with happiness and waited for them impatiently; I envied him. Apparently I also longed to immigrate to Israel.
At the beginning of 1935 I had the opportunity to travel as a tourist to the second Maccabiah Games. I registered for this trip and turned to my aunt Rachel Singer in the United States with a request to help me with travel expenses.
of a friend from Telshe to Israel (9 August 1926)
Standing second from the right: Sara Haytin, fourth Kopel, Shishi Yakob
Lying down: Leibovitch and Kopel
In the middle: Moshe Varias
In addition, it was also necessary to deposit sixty Pounds Sterling (a lot of of money in those days) - a guarantee that I'll return to Lita after the Maccabiah. Otherwise, the money would be confiscated. I received the requested help and arrived in Israel in 1935. My family opposed the trip and I promised to return within three months. Fortunately, I didn't keep my promise and in this way I remained alive.
When I signed up for the trip to the Maccabiah I was very happy and waited impatiently for my departure. Meanwhile, I continued with my work. I remember that a short time before my immigration a Lithuanian came and brought me fabric for the sewing of undergarments. On the wall at the entrance, he saw a newspaper holder, the wonderful handiwork of my sister Malka and on it was embroidered a caption in German Zeitung Halter. The Lithuanian said: You Jews always love to use foreign languages. Don't you have a culture and a language of your own? To that I answered, when your ancestors were still savages and lived in caves my ancestors already gave the Bible to the world. Very soon I'll be traveling to our homeland and speak in our language. He laughed and said: don't be so proud of your country, one day the Arabs might destroy you all. When my mother zl heard his words, she came out of the kitchen and said to him: How dare you talk like that in a Jew's home! When we enter your house it's necessary to bend over to avoid being hit in the head because you use your entire salary for bingeing and indulgence, and later you roll drunk in the ditches instead of using the money for education and for improving the quality of your life. He didn't answer and left as he came. This man was a teacher at the Lithuanian gymnasium. I refused to take the work from him.
Life in Israel at that time was difficult and the daily struggle for survival wasn't easy. The absorption tools that we have today didn't exist then. There was a shortage of work in the country, but I didn't give up and accepted all the difficulties with understanding and love.
In the letters that I received from home I was asked to return and Reizele Yafeh (today Shoshana Holtzberg) brought me money that they sent with her. One day my brother, who lived in Tel-Aviv,
came to Jerusalem where I lived at that time and brought a letter to me from America. He asked me if I was willing to travel to our relatives the Singer family, because they sent me an affidavit and urged me to come to them. I answered my brother that I didn't come to Israel in order to immigrate to America and that I hope the situation in the country would change for the better so I'll be able to settle here. I added: if you want, take advantage of this affidavit and travel in my place. And indeed, as you can see - my hope came true. I settled, as stated above and raised a family here that I'm happy and proud of.
My brother traveled in my place to the United States and today he lives in Los Angeles.
by Malka Klein Sirot
Translated by Sara Mages
The slayer slew, the blossom burst, and it was sunny weatherAmong the holy communities which were obliterated from the face of the earth when the Nazi soldiers, may their names be blotted out, invaded my homeland Lita, was also my hometown Telshe. The slayer slew, and it was sunny weather The German oppressor, together with Lithuanian collaborators, attacked and shed the blood of the members of my holy community. The supreme angels didn't fear and the foundations of the world weren't shaken - the city was obliterated with its people, children and infants. In great terror and anguish, in seven different deaths it was destroyed and no longer exists.
(The City of Slaughter - H.N. Bialik)
My Telshe was a city immersed in mitzvot and religious education. A Jewish city, steeped in modest attributes and ancient Jewish ethics, no longer exists. Woe to the eyes that saw its loss. In Telshe, where we grew up, matured and were educated in such a pastoral atmosphere, we understood and absorbed the essence of Judaism which was imbued with mitzvot and good deeds. A city that won the right to establish generations of Torah scholars: On one side the scholars and on the other the workers, who were busy with the burden of making a living but always found the time to read the Gemara and the Mishnayot. God's work and manual labor lived together. Where can you find it, this beautiful integration of rooted laborers who have found refuge and satisfaction in matters of Heaven after a tiring day of hard labor?!
Telshe, its name is known far and wide. Telshe, it's a rich concept and a wonderful way of life. A city that bustled with energetic Jewish life, a city where the Sabbath had greater value than a weekday. They came to her from afar to hear the sound of the Torah and sit before the righteous and the devotees and learn from them.
In the summer of 1941 the oppressor came and cut off the heads of my holy townspeople. Among them my modest mother Henya Klein, my father Yehudah Leib, my unforgettable brothers Efraim, Tzvi and Yehosua zl, who stood next to my mother on her last journey.
My mother, you were the symbol of a devoted Jewish mother. From sunrise to sunset you helped to carry the burden of livelihood and invested your best efforts so that nothing would be lacking in your home. A true Ashet Chayil (Woman of Valor) My good father, a scholar and a man of good morals, was full of faith and basic Jewish consciousness, always willing to help others with a smile and abundant of kindness.
We will bear their memory forever.
May the legend of Telshe continue from generation to generation!
by Walpert Gershon
Translated by Sara Mages
My hometown Telshe… the Žemaičių (ancestral) home is about ninety kilometers from the German border and one hundred kilometers from the city of Memel. The city sits on the shore of Lake Mastis and in the lake is a small island. A small part of the lake is surrounded by a forest and at the edge of the forest, in a few houses, lived the Jews. This place was called Dirksteliai.
About five thousand Jews lived in the city of Telshe. There was a Yeshiva in the city and its founder was Eliezer Gordon. This Yeshiva was famous throughout the Diaspora.
How great was the sanctity of the city. The shops were closed on the Sabbath and sacred silence reigned in the city. From early morning everyone rushed to the prayers in the synagogues. Nobody harmed the holiness of the Sabbath. At noon all the sidewalks were filled with people. Nobody smoked on the Sabbath and sacred tranquility prevailed in the city. Everyone kept the sanctity of the holidays. How great was the morality of the Jewish population in Telshe, and how great was the sanctity of family life. Husbands treated their wives with respect, love prevailed in each Jewish family and children treated their parents with great respect.
The city had a Jewish hospital and a Jewish National Bank. People worked with great dedication in the public institutions for the benefit of all!
How awful and bitter to think that all this has already passed and no longer exists…
We no longer have the city of Telshe which was emptied of Jews. All the Jews of Telshe were murdered, with a prayer on their lips, by the Nazi murderers. May the memory of our holy brothers and sisters who perished be for a blessing. How great is the sorrow and the feeling that none of them remained in our city Telshe. Their holy souls will be in the Garden of Eden.
by Eliyahu Rudnitski
Translated by Sara Mages
It seems it was only yesterday, to such an extent it was engraved in my memory: Telshe on the Sabbath at dusk. A light breeze is blowing from the big lake in the valley. The sun dips in the lake, wrinkled waves pass through the calm water and above flocks and flocks of birds. The houses, the tall church on top of the high hill everything reflects upsidedown in the water. From afar, the singing of Soviet companies, [in Russian] Ach, Vintkovka, sounds in the silence of the evening. They sing on this side and a new song of another company is already rising from the other side The Marshal is with us, he'll lead us to battle. The sound of the two melodies echo in the calm evening and ease into the heart.
Somewhere in the big world blood is being shed, but here in Telshe, everything is still quiet. There's movement in the streets. Jews and Lithuanians are strolling on the wide sidewalks. Today is the Sabbath, the time is sunset and the holiday spirit is in everything. Lita is under Soviet rule for a year. During that time there have been enormous changes in the residents' way of life, but they stand in force on Saturday and Sunday on the Sabbath.
Soldiers of the Red Army are now camping in the building of the famous Telshe Yeshiva, and also in the seminary for priests. However, the Beit HaMidrash and the church are still open both are filled with worshipers on the Sabbath and on [religious] holidays.
Young men and women are marching in the streets with arrogance as if they're saying: Now is our hour! Everyone members of the Komsosmol in their ties, workers from the factories, officers and soldiers are talking, laughing, pushing, whistling and singing. Now, the electric lamps are lit in the streets and myriads of stars appear in the sky. There's great congestion at the entrance to the only movie theatre in the city. Not everyone will be allowed to enter. A Soviet film plays here, but it's only shown to the soldiers of the Red Army, to the officers, members of the Communist party, and the Komsosmol. Two tanks pass the street with noise, and immediately it's quiet again.
There's no desire to return to the room. I pass by the Yeshiva. An electric lamp is lit at the entrance. The inscription, in the holy language, is still fixed at the entrance: This house will be a house of prayer for you. A Red soldier stands on guard and a rifle in his hand. Military personnel strumming on balalaikas appear through the open windows. For years prodigies found shelter in the shadows of these walls. At night through these windows came the bleak and enthusiastic melody of Yeshiva students swaying on the Gemara to the light of a candle… New times, new songs!
Russians, Kalmyks, Tatars, Uzbeks and Tajikim, blond and also black, tall and short, are sitting in the Yeshiva's rooms. The beds are covered with blankets and arranged in two rows. Juicy Russian language echoes in the quiet narrow alley. The Yeshiva is surrounded by a red brick wall, but neither did it stand against the tide of time. Telshe, which lies on the German border, was until the revolution, a fortress for Lithuanian Clericalism. Old Russian masterpieces, worn journals, a joy for a collector, are still available at the public library, but nobody in Telshe has read them for the past twenty five years.
The government of [Antans] Smetona and the Lithuanian clergy gradually pushed everything that was related to Russia, especially the Russian language. It was difficult for the cheerful soldiers of the Red Army, who never stopped smiling, to talk to the local people. Both sides suffered a lot, especially the youth. The Russian song in its heartiness, pleasant melody and sweetness, formed the first bridge. Young Lithuanian cadets, Jewish boys and girls, were the first to sing popular Soviet songs in broken Russian.
Close to the Yeshiva are Jewish houses. Teenagers sit on the steps and listen to the music of the balalaikas. Now, the music stops and the soft tenor of a Red soldier bursts into a song: If tomorrow the war, if tomorrow to fight, today you must be ready. Immediately the voices of his friends joined him, the song overflowed and was carried softly to the Heavens.
I returned to my room late at night. My neighbors, two Russian officers and their wives, were getting ready to go to a party at the Lithuanian High School. The sound of the military band that played there reached us. The neighbors invited me to go with them, but I had no desire to go. I was still affected by the summer evening and the songs that I'd just heard. I was overcome by longings near and far for those who remained in Vilna. They attacked and didn't let go.
I lay down. Who would've thought then that the words of the song If tomorrow the war, if tomorrow to fight would become a reality immediately on the following day at the dawn of 22 June, 1941.
by Helen KaplanHiller, the United States
Translated by Sara Mages
In 1927 when I was ten years old, my mother decided to return to her birthplace in Telshe after 14 years in the United States. She longed to see her parents one more time. We arrived at Telshe on Friday evening. The entire Jewish community came to the train to welcome the American guests. It was a very long road (for my small feet) to the home of my mother's elderly parents. I was amazed to see the huge crowed of strangers who surrounded us. After this long walk the people and the rest of the friends left the house. My first glance fell on the natural wooden floors without carpets. A simple electric wire with a single light bulb hung in the dining room in the middle of the ceiling, above a fairly simple table and chairs. This whole scene, with the rest of the simple furniture, reminded me of the stories that I once read in geography books about the first pioneers in the United States. The only art object in the house was the picture of Theodor Herzl. What interested me most was the stove in the kitchen,
which also warmed the rest of the bedrooms and was the only source for heating the entire house.
My uncle, Yitzchak, explained to me that he really enjoyed sleeping on top of this stove on cold winter nights. When mother asked grandmother for milk for us, she brought a pitcher of milk that was
still warm from the last milking. Mother looked at the pitcher and decided to transfer the milk through a clean towel for fear of unwanted things on the surface of the pitcher, and also for lack of sterilization that we were used to. Despite all of that, the taste of the milk was very strange. None of us was willing to drink it on the first night. However, over time we got used to the strange taste. A greater surprise was waiting for my sister and me when mother took us for a walk outside to see the structures of the entire farm before we went to sleep. Nobody had prepared us for such a sight.
Despite all the surprises, I returned happily to the soft bed which had a strange mattress. Later, I found out that it was stuffed with simple straw.
All discomfort didn't prevent us from enjoying the long trip by train, and also the rest of the surprises and lovely reception that we got on our first night in Telshe.
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