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They Were So (cont.)

[Page 332]

Khaykl Katsev
(Khaykl Velvel the Butcher's)

Translated by Meir Bulman

Khaykl was blessed with traits that made him beloved by society. He was humble, pleasant towards all, calm, modest, soft spoken, well–reasoned, always speaking logically and with poise without sentimentality or arrogance.

Khaykl was my close neighbor–– our houses were right near each other. We walked to school together and played and spent afternoons together. We were bound to one another,

After graduating from grade school our paths split. I left town to study abroad and he went to work at his father's business.

Khaykl was devoted to Zionist activism, especially to HaShomer HaTzair.[1] He educated an entire generation based on principles of practical Zionism, with a socialist vision. His dream was to travel, to train, and then make Aliyah, but he was the youngest in his family and his worried parents did not allow him to leave home. Thus, he stayed in town, his heart filled with yearning and wishing for Aliyah.

Khaykl perished tragically at the Voronova ghetto with his parents, his brothers Yudke and Manke and his sisters Rachel and Nekhama. It was a horrific sight to witness, to see, all of them marching together to death. Eye witnesses stated that that family resisted the murderers angrily and persistently. Manke, who was known in town as a strongman who stood up to gentile–taunting Jews, hit the most intensively. During the banishment he attacked one of the German murderers who harmed his father, punching until falling prey to a bullet.

That is how a whole family was uprooted from its source of life.

A single family member remains, his son Yitzchak, who left town in the 20s.

 

Tranlsator's Footnote
  1. Zionist self–defense movement Return

[Page 333]

Liba bat Broyne[1] Levine

Translated by Meir Bulman

Liba was wonderfully beautiful, industrious, kind, gifted with a sensitive soul and an open minded understanding of her peers. She was an exceptional student at the Hebrew school and later in the Polish school, a great athlete who excelled in volleyball, her favorite sport.

After completing her studies at the Polish school, Liba traveled to Vilne, where she completed a yearlong course in bookkeeping, and was then employed in that field. Her temperamental soul found no peace in the small town. She desired with all her heart to reach her sister Khaya, who was among the first pioneers who arrived in Palestine in the course of the Second Aliyah. But she was not fortunate; WWII erupted and she remained in town.

As the Germans entered the town, Liba and her mother left Divenishok and relocated to Ivia, where her brother Yudel lived. Liba died with her family in the Ivia ghetto.

Her letters written in neat handwriting, filled with longing, wit, and wisdom, remain to this day with her sister Khaya. From time to time Khaya re–reads Liba's letters and her childhood days are reanimated; images of the family members, especially that of the beautiful Liba, appear in front of her eyes as if they were alive.

(Dictated by her sister Khaya Garvey)

 

Editor's Footnote
  1. Liba Levine, daughter of Broyne Return


Chaim Leyb Schneider

Translated by Meir Bulman

Chaim Leyb Schneider is the only remnant from a large family. His Grandfather Chaim Leyb (whom he was named for) had three sons; Kalmen – Chaim Leyb's father, Mordechai “the Rod” and Asher Schneider, who owned a large steel store in Leyb Dubin's house.

The entire family perished in the Holocaust. Chaim Leyb was saved by chance. He tried passing the border to Lithuania with a group of young men and was captured in Turgul, a small town beyond the border, and transferred to the Russians, who exiled him to Siberia for five years. After the war, he was released and moved to Poland, and form there to the United States. He established a family and is successful in his business.

[Page 333]

Moshe Blyakher
(Moshe “the Tinsmith”)

Translated by Meir Bulman

R' Moshe, or as he was known by the town residents, Moshe “the Tinsmith”, was a famous man in town, lively and original, a lover of Torah and respectful of rabbis.

He was a man of small stature, wearing a small yellow beard with white stripes which granted it a special shade. In that small body was nested an endless energy; he was always dynamic and busy either with the woes of providing or with public matters.

R' Moshe was a central figure within the burial society. He viewed the good deed of purifying the dead not just as a true mitzvah, but as a sanctified matter which he regarded with holiness and piety. R' Moshe was always the first to summon the other members of the burial society to fulfill the deed. On days of extreme cold and snow he was the first one out in the cemetery to dig the grave with his bare hands. R' Moshe supervised the burial ceremonies so they will be fulfilled carefully in accordance with religion, and respect for the dead was observed by him to a ‘T’.

R' Moshe was dynamic and very quick; in my memory he is constantly running, be it to the morning or evening prayers, or to raise funds for the needy, for a guest speaker, or just for a guest who came to town needing assistance. His mind was open to all. He would leave his work and sprint like deer to fulfill the wishes of his creator in prayer or in good deeds.

On Friday nights, he would remain as the last one in the synagogue and ensure that all the poor folks who came to town would be invited to the Sabbath meal. Those were days of poverty and trouble, and the town was flooded with poor folks seeking nourishment. On more than one occasion many poor people stayed in the synagogue without an invitation to the meal. R' Moshe would wait patiently and would invite to his home the ones who did not manage to match with a host.

R' Moshe worked hard to provide for his large family. Despite his difficult work he was always happy with his lot–– for that was the Lord's wish.

Between afternoon and evening prayers he would routinely participate in a class on Orakh Chaim,[1] and when the subject of the exile of the holy spirit was reached, R' Moshe would weep like an infant: “When will we have the fortune of complete redemption?” he would whisper.

To this day the image of Moshe, wrapped in his talit, running from store to store at the marketplace on Friday, urging merchants to close their shops. “My son, it is already Shabbat, the sun is setting.” He did that out of honesty and godly devotion, devotion which he would pass to those around him. No man disobeyed Moshe “the Tinsmith”, and after a few minutes the holy silence of the Sabbath enveloped the marketplace.

R' Moshe was pure of heart, honest, a man of morals, and a lover of wisdom–– always greeting his peers willfully and gleefully. He was smiling and kind–hearted, especially towards children. When we would visit his sons at his home he always greeted us with love and tenderness, his eyes lighted and projecting warmth and love.

That was R' Moshe's character, a rare figure in town, which shed its light on the town's lifestyle and left its mark on each and every one of us. We, the children, learned love for the People of Israel and the Torah from his pure–hearted personality.

R' Moshe Suffered with all the Jews of the Lida ghetto and died in a death camp with his daughter Leah and her husband Shayke, Meir Zalmen's son.

His son Eliahu, who became a glorious partisan in Bielski's militia, was sent by Bielski five times to the Lida ghetto and managed to rescue 253 people from the ghetto, saving them from the Nazi beast. He arrived in Israel before the War of Independence and actively participated in the war. He currently lives in Israel.

Among those rescued from the ghetto were his sister Sarah Hinde and her husband David Movshovitsh. They stayed in Bielski's camp all through the Holocaust and endured the harsh conditions and being chased by Germans. They spent their time sinking in swamps, bloated by starvation and thirst, but their will to live overcame; they came out alive on the other end and now reside with us in Israel.

 

Editor's Footnote
  1. literally ‘Way of Life’; refers to the first book of the Tur and Shulchan Aruch covering the laws of daily living. Return

[Page 335]

Tuvya Blekher

Translated by Meir Bulman

Tuvya was my brother Meir's classmate. He would often come over to our house to do homework with my brother, and thus I was able to closely observe his traits and personality.

I knew that his entire family traveled to Israel, but the British consulate refused to allow him to join them, claiming that he was older and needed his own certificate.

Tuvya was a naturally silent type and carried his suffering in silence. His wise, sad eyes reflected his burning pain and immense suffering. With burning dedication he devoted himself to schoolwork, and especially the Hebrew language, in the hope that one day his desire to join his family in Israel would be fulfilled. That was the wish which he constantly dreamed about. He was a studious pupil and would labor by his books for hours. Until his homework was completed he refused even a cup of tea offered by my mother.

He was kind hearted, humble, and ready to assist his fellow man – traits which his family excelled at.

He had a deeply rooted Zionist passion entrenched in Jewish tradition. He was among the few amidst the town's youth who did not once miss daily tefillin wrapping or morning and evening prayers.

Exits from the area were sealed Under Soviet occupation and Tuvya's pain and suffering became extremely pitiful. He tried crossing the border to Vilne, but was unfortunately captured. In a search conducted in his few belongings were found a pair of tefillin, which he never parted with, and the NKVD[1] officials who assumed they had obtained 'an important spy' put him under maximum security arrest. Only after tireless efforts by heads of the community was he released.

As the Voronova ghetto was being dismantled, Tuvya escaped with my two brothers Meir and Tsvi to the woods in the Divenishok area, where their paths split. My brothers approached the forest ranger at the Poltva village and were executed by Polish militia; Tuvya roamed the woods for over a year and found his death in a dugout, along with the final remnants of our town folks. Polish militia attacked them during the frosty height of a winter storm.

Zvi Novoplanski, the glorious partisan from our town, describes their feelings at the time with admiration and excitement: after they had completed preparing their dugout for the winter and had exhaustedly laid down to rest, fractured words from the slumbering Tuvya reached their ears. In a dream he envisioned meeting his loved ones in Israel as he shouted his emotions gleefully: “Guys, we finally made it to Eretz Israel! Our hopes have been fulfilled! We are all here!” All the other inhabitants of the bunker woke up and gathered around Tuvya, listening to his excited words as their eyes grew teary.

A few months passed until Tuvya fell with his friends in a final battle for freedom and national integrity. His final words echo through the Stoki Forest and we are obligated to fulfill the wills of those who fell for our people. They did not achieve their goal to arrive and live with us, but their souls float among us, demanding vengeance.

By lighting a memorial candle in honor of Tuvya and his friends we fulfill their final wish.

 

Editor's Footnote
  1. the leading Soviet secret police organization from 1934 to 1946 Return

[Page 336]

Khonen Eyshishiski

Translated by Meir Bulman

My father was Tsvi, my grandfather was named Khonen and I am named after him. My mother's name was Gittel. She was Kalmen Ilituvitsh's daughter. I do not remember a thing about grandfather's personality. About grandmother father would say she was “a Kozak a froy”, meaning a woman of initiative and energy.

My maternal grandmother passed as WWI erupted, and grandfather traveled to Russia, to the town of Rostov–on–Don. There he spent the remainder of his days.

Prior to WWI, my father and uncles leased the Estate in Zemiuslva and Miastova near Kalvitze.[1] The mansion owners were contractually obligated to sell at a fixed rate the milk they produced, and father would prepare yellow cheeses–– Holland Cheeses as we called them at the time.

After WWI, we moved to the Giluzh village near Divenishok. There we owned a grocery store, and we leased the ranch, and were financially sufficient.

I had two sisters and a brother. My oldest sister, Miriam, married Chaim Kosivitski in Oshmene, who was enlisted in the Red Army during WWII and since then his whereabouts are unknown. My brother, Shimon, hid with a gentile named Zeslav Khruzy at the Gdini village, later relocated to the Vilne ghetto, and from that point his whereabouts are unknown.

My parents could not stay long in Giluzh, because the gentiles harassed them–– a gentile shot and wounded my father–– so my parents left Giluzh and moved to Divenishok. They lived there until they were commanded to move with the town residents to Voronova, where they perished. My young sister Fruma also perished there.

I hid in the woods and later in quarantine camps until the war ended. After the War, I left the blood–soaked land and arrived in Israel. I settled in Petah Tikva where I live to this day.

During WWII I served in the Polish military as a lieutenant with the Wanda Wasilevska field army.

 

Editor's Footnote
  1. These places have yet to be identified. Return

[Page 337]

Shimon Kartshmer

Translated by Meir Bulman

Shimon Kartshmer was born in Warsaw in 1903. He spent his childhood years with his grandfather in the town of Divenishok near Vilne. He loved the small wood houses and the simple, modest lives the Jewish residents led: the Sabbath and holidays, the Jews in their festive clothes, the moon blessing ceremony, the synagogue, market days on which the Jews would go out searching for bargains, the wedding canopy on four poles under the stars, the varied and at time strange figures: the mute water–delivery man, the coach drivers, musicians – all sparked his imagination and influenced him. The Jewish town that is no more remained was etched on Shimon Kartshmer's heart.

He drew inspiration from that town's wellspring time and time again and brought us his drawings from every place in which he lived and from every place of arrival.

He studied in Paris at École des Beaux–Arts and worked there for twenty years. During Nazi occupation, he was with the partisans in Nice.

After a number of years in Israel, he visited in the United States, after which he returned to Israel to settle in Safed–– where he found a new backdrop for his favorite folklore themes. He participated in many exhibitions in the United States, Canada, Paris, Mexico, Tel Aviv and more.


The Horvits Family Tree

Translated by Meir Bulman

Gedalye Chaim and Miriam Yocheved were born in Divenishok in 1849, and there they married. The family lived at the town center in the fine brick building they erected there, nicknamed the R' Gedalye Building. They were pleased by dwelling in their town and expected the family to expand in Divenishok. Seven children were born to them: Ida, Shaul (Saul), Yetta, Selye, Robert, Gertrude, and Esther. Their family life served as a wonderful example for the whole of Divenishok.

Gedalye Horvits became a respected man in Divenishok, Vilne, and the surrounding area. He was gabbai at the synagogue. Because he was known as an honest man, he was entrusted with maintaining the large forests. His reputation preceded him; he was “Gedalye the building owner”.

Ida was the first to leave Divenishok and emigrate to America. At first she resided in New York, and later moved to Scranton, PA, where she married Louis Levine, and thereafter resided in Pittston, PA.

Some years after, Shaul arrived in America. He had been a pharmacist, but after relocating to New York he established a men's clothing factory. He married Florence Cohenson, and they have three children.

Selye and Robert traveled to America together. Selye married Harry Cohen and relocated to Scranton. They have four children. Robert became established in a men's clothes factory, much like his brother Saul, and married Lilian Sheinok. They have two children.

Gertrude married Philip Mintz in Divenishok, where their two children were born. In 1921, Philip and Gertrude Mintz arrived in America so they can be near the family. They brought their two children, and along with them came Gedalye Chaim and Miriam Horvits. Philip and Gertrude Mintz then had a third child.

Esther married Reuven Engel in Divenishok, and they had five children. Esther stayed in Divenishok to guard the building, then nicknamed The Wall (moyer). Unfortunately, she, Reuven, and their family perished in the Holocaust.

All Horvits descendants – children and grandchildren – followed in the footsteps of their ancestors: religious, honest, loyal, generous, caring for their people, and proud of their Jewish heritage. They were active in many fields, Yeshivot and other religious institutions, devoting much of their energy and time in addition to giving financial support. Gedalye and Miriam Horvits' descendants follow indeed the path set by Gedalye and Miriam: Sabbath observers, active in synagogue and Yeshivot, etc. Their activism in the realm of charity is done on a local and national level, and is acknowledged and publicized in many Jewish newspapers. Their professions include experts and businessmen. Many of the great–grandchildren studied in Yeshivot, but most importantly, they continued to observe the Sabbath and are proud of their Jewish heritage. Their devotion to Jewish matters is a source of pride for their parents, and praise and gratitude from their grandparents. The next generation, great–grandchildren to Gertrude Mintz, are yet very young. We are certain that all descendants will be raised in accordance with tradition.

Gedalye and Miriam Horvits' family is the root of a family tree rich with Jewish tradition, a family proud of their Jewish heritage and glorious among the Jewish people.

The president of Divenhok–ites of the greater New York area is Frank Barnett, son of the now deceased Shmuel and Yetta Barnett, grandson to the now deceased Gedalye Chaim and Miriam Horvits. His devotion to the organization is admirable. After many of the founders were unable to continue their activity in the organization, many young folks among Divenishok alumni families took it upon themselves to continue its wonderful activities.

[Page 339]

Aharon Kaganovitsh

Translated by Meir Bulman

Tall, smiley, and kind–hearted: that was Aharon, or as he was nicknamed in town, Arke Elias. Since childhood he thirsted for Torah and education, but poverty prevented him from attaining a structured education. His biggest dream was to complete the Hebrew Seminary in Vilne and become a teacher, but the heavens did not smile upon him and he did not succeed in his mission. He attempted to teach in his town and was a bible teacher in the nearby town of Olshan.

Aharon was an avid Zionist, among the founders of the local HaShomer HaTzair chapter.[1] I remember that in the 30s when I studied at the Heberew Gymansium in Vilne, I met him on Tu B'Shvat at a ‘fruits of Israel’ bazaar that HaShomer HaTzair conducted. With much love and devotion, he tasted the fruit and wished me and himself that we would soon make Aliyah.

After the Soviets invaded Poland he relocated to Vilne, which had been given to the Lithuanians. We met on occasion. He was saddened by the situation and searched for a way to join his sisters in Israel, but to no avail. Thus, he found his death in Ponar with the Jews of Vilne.

 

Editor's Footnote
  1. Zionist self–defense movement Return


A Brief Biography of Aharon Bloch (Rest in Peace)

Translated by Meir Bulman

Aharon Bloch was born in the nearby town Ivia, and resided in our town after marrying Freide, Itshe Binyamin's daughter.

There were three hatters–furriers in town: Yosef Zhizhemski, Eliezer Schneider– known by his nickname “the governor”, and Aharon Bloch. It was a small town so the competition was tough and making a living was very difficult. Of the three, Aharon Bloch stood out as gifted with natural intelligence and a sharp and clear mind. He had a knack for leadership and a personal drive towards public works. He was a bright man, a great speaker who added folk wisdom and the wisdom of the sages, winning over the hearts of his listeners.

Aharon was a fair–tempered man with a great sense of humor and personal charm. At every gathering he stood out as chief speaker, his words flowed patiently and clearly, peppered with allegory and rhymes.

He busied himself with public maters his whole life. He loved and devoted himself to that with every fiber of his being. He tirelessly served the community until a cancerous illness overcame him at a young age.

After WWI and returning from German captivity he was an active member at Yakkofu[1] and oversaw cultural and charitable matters in town. He devoted his full attention to assisting the needy and the poor, and provided psychological and financial assistance to the many impoverished town residents.

Aharon Bloch was chairman of the Hebrew school board in the early 1920s . He rented the large bank house on Duvitsisker Street and hired excellent teachers, such as Ingulski, Engel, and the famed instructor Rabbi Leyb Arye, who taught the students Hebrew, Yiddish, Judasim, and Polish. Aharon is credited as the first to provide the town with a planned and orderly school with a stable curriculum.

Aharon filled many public positions; he was a member of the bank board, chairman of Linat HaZedek,[2] and more. His son Yakov told me that once someone had to be sent urgently to a severely ill patient and Aharon could not find a volunteer. He approached his son Dov and commanded him to fulfill that holy mission, which he refused. And so Aharon preached on the matter and slapped him for refusing the mitzvah mission.

The crown jewel of his public activities was organizing the Professional's Association in town (Hantverker Fareyn). He lovingly and devotedly served as chairman of the organization his whole life. That was an important role carrying much responsibility. He ensured the labor license certifications for the various professionals and ensured a fair distribution of taxes. He was in continuous contact with the officials in Oshmene concerning all matters concerning professionals in town. He served as a mouthpiece and supporter in times of trouble.

Though he was not a deeply religious man he was entrenched in the Jewish tradition. He would regularly visit the synagogue and led prayers on holidays and festivals.

Aharon was a passionate Jew and persuaded folks of the importance of a national awakening among the Diaspora. Later in life he was captivated by the ideas of socialist Zionism and educated his children according to those principles. I hold special nostalgic feelings towards this man due to the reform he enacted in the Hebrew school by adding a special hat with blue stripes on a white background. We wore the hats with pride and self–respect. The Hebrew flag waved atop each student's head. Since that time we never felt inferior compared to the university students who would come to town for vacations wearing colorful formal hats.

Aharon was beloved by town residents including its youth. I remember that once after visiting his home (there were many such visits because his son Yakov was my classmate) I exited mentally satisfied. I felt I had learned something from that man.

Aharon was not fortunate and did not serve the town's residents for long. He became ill with cancer while in a German prison, suffered for many years, and was overcome in 1933. The town's residents thereafter could no longer enjoy his personality and blessed activism. He died young and was succeeded by his widow Freida and five young children: Dov, Yakkov, Malka, Shaul, and Dube. His oldest son, Dov, reached the Soviet Union after many years of wandering and fell in battle during WWII. He was succeeded by his wife, and daughter. His second son Yakov resides with us in Israel, apparently having inherited his father's traits: he is devoted to social and Zionist activism. The other children perished with their mother at the Voronova ghetto.

We mourn for those lost and not forgotten.

 

Editor's Footnotes:
  1. an aid organization for Polish Jews Return
  2. literally ‘justly slumber’; an organization dedicated to visitation of the sick Return

[Page 341]

Shaye Kaplan

Translated by Meir Bulman

He was a Torah scholar, a personality of the old generation who was deeply rooted in Torah and the love of Israel. He owned a home with a store in the market place and was considered a town notable. The Rabbi encouraged him to participate in public matters. He was among the synagogue's activists.

Shaye was also considered to be among the educated folks in town, because he knew languages like Russian and Polish which few people in town knew. Thus, he was accepted as a teacher of religion at the Polish school (Pubshkhni).

He and Chaim Lubetski took turns teaching Mishna and Bible at the Old Synagogue, lessons that attracted a large audience.

His wife Tsipe–Leah was also an influential public activist, and along with Esther Gedalye's and Pesyeh Krizovski, was on the women's board representing the Ladies Auxilary. Their roles were to distribute funds sent from America to assist families in need.

His nephew Yitzach Segal was a partisan with Zelig Rogol in the Lipnishok woods. Since then his whereabouts are unknown.

His brother resides in the United States and contributed much to the Relief, and was among the first contributors in the establishment of the Gemach[1] in Israel.


The Barnett Family

Translated by Meir Bulman

The Barnetts are a family with many branches on the family tree, composed of five brothers who are active and devoted to the people of Divenishok and the Relief in New York. One of them, Albert, currently serves as chairman of the Relief in New York.

The brothers Barnett originate from Gedalye Horovitz. Their mother was Gedalye Horvits' daughter. Esther bat Gedalye was their maternal aunt. Moshe Mintz's brother married Gitte–Reikhel, Gedalye's daughter, and they too reside in the United States.

The Barnett family was very active in public matters, especially in matters relating to our town. They coordinate our memorial services, and because of the sorry state of affairs at the Relief as the elderly are passing away and the younger generation strays further off the path, the tradition-observing Barnetts still fill memorial evenings with content and interest.


Solomon Levine

Translated by Meir Bulman

Solomon Levine was a warm–hearted Jewish man, humble and affable. His father Rafael instilled in him the love for the Torah and the people of Israel at a young age. He devoted his life to the work of the Relief to help his brethren at his town of origin. He visited Divenishok with his daughter in the 30s, and was interested in all economic and cultural matters in town.

After he returned to the United States, he passionately devoted himself to providing urgent care to the town residents. He was also a devoted activist for Israel and visited Israel many times with activists of the Bund from the United States. He usually timed his visits to coincide with the memorial service for the martyrs of our town, so he could attend the memorial ceremony with the people of our town.

His father Rafael was an administrator and cantor at the Old Synagogue. He lived sparingly and sustained himself mostly with funds his son Solomon would send from the United States. His wife Freidel would sell frozen apples to the children during winter, which she called “wine.”

Solomon was succeeded by a son and a daughter, both married. The son is a doctor.


Editor's Footnotes:

  1. interest–free loan banking Return

[Page 342]

Meir Zalman Wiener

Translated by Meir Bulman

Meir Zalman Wiener was a popular figure in town: A tall Jewish man, adorned by a small white beard, full of energy and joie de vivre. He was a great Torah scholar, and had a thorough knowledge of the Talmud. His words were always peppered with wit and the sayings of our sages. He was considered one of the pillars among the attendees at the old synagogue. He also led prayers on high holidays. Those who prayed at the old synagogue regarded him with respect and admiration, and he served as gabbai [administrator] at that synagogue for many years. I remember that one time, as I attended the morning prayer, he tested my knowledge of Aramaic; he asked that I translate Yekum Purkan[1] to Yiddish. At the time, I found it a tough nut to crack, and I translated it partially– but for the most part he translated and explained it to me.

Life was not kind to him. All his life he had to travel to the villages to purchase stock and then travel to Vilne to sell his goods. That was a difficult and exhausting profession which strained all his energy. Despite that, he would make use of any free time he had to run to the synagogue to study a chapter of Talmud.

Meir Zalman was blessed with a large family. He had three boys and three girls. The oldest David, Fyvke second, and the third, Shayke, who married Leah, Moshe the Blacksmith's daughter. The oldest daughter, Rosa, traveled to her mother in America. The second daughter, Hindke, married Shlomo Kotler, and the youngest daughter, Ettke married Zydke. Zalman Meir was assisted by divine providence and passed before the war, but his family perished at the hands of the cursed Nazis.

 

Editor's Footnote
  1. Yekum Purkan is a two–paragraph Aramaic prayer supplicating first for the welfare and well–being of all the Torah leaders of the generation and then for the members of the congregation at large and those actually praying in the synagogue at that time. Return


Moshe Aaron Katz
(The Tinsmith) [and the road to Benakani]

Translated by Meir Bulman

Moshe Aaron was an interesting and very popular figure in town. Moshe Aaron and Shimon Leyb the tinsmiths had a contract with the Polish government to deliver mail from Benakani to town. Their contract was ongoing and they were favored by the authorities. During the Endecja[1] government, an attempt was made to take the contract away from them, but other authorities did not permit it.

Everyone in town knew Moshe Aaron and needed his services. Anyone who wanted to travel to Vilne or Lida had to ride to the Benakani train station on Moshe Leyb's or Shimon Leyb's mail coach. The trip was a noteworthy experience in both summer and winter.

The coach would depart from town in the dead of night and reach Benakani at dawn. You suddenly find yourself between the open fields late at night. All is still and silent. The horse slowly strolls. Here we are in the Duvinke Forest. You are cloaked in darkness, as if you had suddenly slipped into an enchanting, frightening, and curious place. Once in a while a wild animal passes the dirt road in the blink of an eye.

We travel for hours deep into the forest and inhale the intoxicating scent of pine trees. That was a rare opportunity to experience an unforgettable night in a forest full of secrets, then to awaken and witness the waking universe as birds sing.

The trip during winter was equally impressive. Moshe Aaron would provide a large sheepskin to everyone. You would cloak yourself in it and your eye would behold a spotless white stretching to the horizon as the moon shone a pale light on the fields. The trees are wrapped in talitot[2], as if thanking the creator. Upon reaching the train, countless more experiences and impressions await. Only the whistle of the train would wake you from the enchanted dream.

The trip from Benakani to Divenishok was equally interesting, though it took place during the daytime. Moshe Aaron had many stories. He would entertain you on the road with stories and amusing jokes. He knew the art of storytelling and his passengers' personalities, and would fit the right story for each. Moshe Aaron would encourage his passengers to stretch themselves by running easily down a hill from the coach or sleigh. Your feet would sink in the snow as you would run, huffing and puffing to catch up to the horse.

Moshe Aaron had a unique approach to new people. Carefully and patiently he would begin examining the person's character, be he Jew or Pole. ‘What do you do and what brings you to town?’ He knew how to gain the trust of guests and strangers. To the Polish clerk he would recommend the best guesthouse, to the teacher he would seek an update on his subject of interest, and as a matter of course he would soon extract the reason for each visit. If the rider was an enforcer, or an alcohol related investigator (Aktzinik), he would immediately notify those concerned to beware and prepare.

The trip to Benakani was truly an unforgettable experience, especially for the youth and for indoor dwellers, for whom the meeting with the mystery–filled woods was unforgettable.

 

Editor's Footnotes:
  1. Alternate name for the Polish political party called National Democracy (Narodowa Demokracja, or ND). A primary goal of Endecja was the defense of Polish sovereignty against invading empires. Return
  2. Plural of tallit: prayer shawl. Return

[Page 344]

Harry Levine

Translated by Meir Bulman

Son of Yitzach Leyb Levine. He left town at a young age, but remained bonded with all his heart to the townspeople and was active in the Relief and Gemilut Hesed.[1] He co-founded that charitable organization and gave the initial $1500 for the Gemilut Hesed.

Harry Levine visited Israel on occasion and contributed much to the strengthening of the Gemilut Hesed.

 

Editor's Footnote
  1. a charitable fund or service for the needy Return


Dovid Chaim Lubetski

Translated by Meir Bulman

Dovid Chaim Lubetski was considered a town notable. His store was adjacent to the store owned by his brother–in–law Isser Kovenski. They both owned fabric stores–– among the largest in town. The two sisters, Meril and Chana would compete for customers on weekdays. On market days both stores were full of customers and they made a nice living.

Dovid Chaim was a wise and interesting Jewish man. Every conversation with him was accompanied by original philosophical concepts which he expressed often.

Dovid Chaim had a large family. His oldest daughter Khaya married in Navaredok, where she later perished. His son Velvel was an educated, affable young man. Velvl was a devoted Zionist, and served as fire department chief for a long while.

His brother Moshe studied at the school of law in Vilne. He was an avid Zionist, fully devoted to Revisionist Zionism. Moshe co–founded the Beitar[1] chapter and was a central figure in that chapter.

Dovid Chaim had another son, Yekutiel, who lived in the United States. He visited his parents before the war and the family was very happy.

Dovid Chaim was a Torah scholar. He taught a bible class between the afternoon and evening prayers. He once gave a lecture on Ecclesiastes and expressed skepticism towards the concept of the afterlife. That very much offended one of the listeners who approached Dovid Chaim and said, “I am a poor old man and a panhandler. I greatly suffered in life–– starved at times. My only hope in this life is that I would go on to the next world, and here you are denying me that hope–– so what else do I have in life?” His words greatly influenced Dovid Chaim and brought tears to his eyes.

 

Editor's Footnote
  1. Revisionist Zionist youth movement Return


Moshe Aaron Katz's Father and Family

Translated by Meir Bulman

Moshe Aaron was Kalmen Shepsel the shoemaker's son. Kalmen Shepsel stands before my eyes as if alive: a short, skinny man, with thick eyebrows covering his pupils. Every day I saw him in the New Synagogue sitting in his spot, praying with devotion, and then continuing his study of Mishnah. He was elderly and frail, and he did not interact with people being all absorbed by the spiritual dimension. My father's seat faced his seat so I was always able to observe him. His small body shrank from of old age from day to day. He prayed in a whisper filled with sadness and longing, and on the high holidays filled with tearful sorrow.

I do not know why, but Kalmen Shepsel lived and slept at the synagogue. At night he would take out his beddings from the bench–box, organize them on a bench and lay down. What brought him to that and why did he not live with his son Moshe Aaron? I have not figured it out. I remember he passed away at the synagogue and from there he was taken to be buried.

Moshe Aaron had many children, all talented and full of energy and life. The oldest son, Khamke married in Oshmene. His son Zalmen was a smart fellow; he brought the first bus to town with his partners. His third son, Berke, emigrated to the United States and then Canada. His son Meirke married Mariyashke. His daughter Radke married Yankele Shmuels. His daughter Sarah, who was Mordechai Kartshmer's wife, passed away in the United States. His Daughter Reyzl and her husband Chaim Caleb live in Canada. They have one son, named Yitzchak. Berel also has children, a boy – Chaim, and a girl – Miriam.

[Page 345]

Yankel Schneider (Yankel Leyzer's)

Translated by Meir Bulman

Yankel Leyzer's was a folksy, ordinary Jewish man. He made his living as a peddler, with difficulty, and would patrol the villages so that he can provide for his family. He was not a great Torah scholar, but he possessed a good and noble soul. He was always willing to aid his fellow man without considering the difficulty of the effort.

His son, Eliezer Schneider, who made Aliyah from Argentina at an old age and settled in Naharia, dictated these words prior to passing away:

“It happened on 1917 approximately, while the town was controlled by Germans. Making a living was quite difficult, and starvation stood at the doorstep of many families.

My father once sent my brother Shlomo Yitzchak to Shaul the Cobbler on Dovitshisker Street to repair shoes. Great poverty affected the cobbler's home and his children begged for bread. My brother returned and detailed the state of affairs in the cobbler's home with tears in his eyes. Father quickly dressed in his sheepskin and fur slippers, took a large, woven basket, covered it with a napkin and ran to the neighbors, collected food items and hurried with the full basket to the cobbler's house.

That is how our fathers were,” Eliezer concluded, “and so must we behave as well; help one another and live in friendship and harmony.”

At an old age, Yankel would tire himself with fundraising using a box of the Yeshivot Council, despite his advanced age. Rain or shine, summer and winter, he would do that work, which he considered a holy mission and a purpose in life.

That is how the ordinary people were in our town; men of effort and labor, lovers of Torah and of the People of Israel.

[Page 346]

Zusye Yankel Shkolnik

Translated by Meir Bulman

Tall, strong, adorned with a small beard and a black moustache, Zusye Yankel walked every morning to pray at the synagogue, cane in hand and tallit and tefillin under his arm. Rain, whirlwinds, or heavy snow would not deter him. His conscience towards the heavens would not be clean if he would not pray with a community in the synagogue.

After breakfast, Zusye Yankel is often invited to the rabbi's home. A few town notables are invited to discuss public matters. He is wise, energetic, and especially firm; he has a tough approach, and he knows to raise his voice when needed. That grants him the rabbi's esteem, because sometimes it is necessary to be tough and firm to protect the public's rights and funds.

Zusye Yankel is fully devoted with every fiber to the school, which also his children attend, yet he is also alert to all public issues, and plays an active role in loaning money from Gemilut Hesed,[1] a loyal and devoted member of the burial society and among its leaders.

Zusye Yankel was considered one of those rooted public figures who were attached to the Torah and a love of Israel. He considered public matters as issues of the utmost importance which require devotion of heart and mind.

Zusye Yankel had a large family. His oldest son, Antshel, married in Vishneva and perished there. His daughter Esther Rokhl married in Vilne and perished there with her family. His son, Tsvi, lives in the United States, was a happy young man, friendly, and popular among the youth in town. He knew how to play the violin beautifully, and was not absent from any cultural or social evet.

His youngest son, Gottleib, managed the Smolarnia at Geranion and cared for his father's business. He currently resides in Venezuela.

 

Editor's Footnote
  1. a charitable fund or service for the needy Return

[Page 347]

Eternal Light for the Souls of My Dearly Beloved

Translated by Meir Bulman

Radin was a small town in the Lida district, cloaked in trees and fauna like all towns in the Vilne area. A special beauty enveloped that town, not due to its scenery or natural beauty which it did not possess, but due to the holiness in which it was immersed: the holiness of the Chofetz Chaim, who lived there, penetrated the being of every Jew in town.

My paternal grandfather, Zalmen, was of those people, an innocent man, a lover of Torah who did not cease from studying until the day he died. He conducted himself simply and humbly, and instilled within his sons, Yosef, Shmuel, and Israel, a love for the Jewish tradition and People.

My grandmother Gittel was a skinny, short woman, but being a woman of valor she helped my father provide for the family, laboring in her vegetable garden and saving every penny to fund her children's education. She especially showed affection for her youngest child and only daughter, Alte. She was righteous and helped her fellow man in public and private.

My father studied in his youth at the Lomzhe Yeshiva, and later trained in forestry, eventually supervising the uprooting of pine trees and their transportation to the Benakani train station; from there they were sent to Germany and England to serve as telephone poles. In the course of his work he traveled to Geranion, near Divenishok. At the recommendation of friends he met my mother Blume and their fates were intertwined ever since. My father relocated to Divenishok with my mother's parents and established a family there.


My Mother's Family

Translated by Meir Bulman

The image of my maternal grandfather, Hershl (Tsvi), stands before me as a pleasant experience from those days. As a young man I would lead my old and blind grandfather to pray in the synagogue every Sabbath. He was a small–statured man, adorned by a small brown beard with white stripes woven through it, giving it a unique appearance. My grandfather was the only child of his father, Meir Berel, who spared no effort to provide his son with a religious education. Indeed, my grandfather studied at the Slabodke Yeshiva for many years and became a great Torah scholar and was ordained as a rabbi.

Luck did not smile down upon him and he had to struggle for existence, yet he was content with his lot and prayed daily, and studied Mishna. Because of his deep knowledge of the Talmud and Poskim, he was among those who stood out in the Talmud study group and on many occasions conducted fierce debates with the chief rabbi about different topics in the Talmud. He was quite generous and was happy to explain a Talmud chapter to all who asked.

My grandmother, Khaya–Basya was a gentle and kind hearted woman, who was alert to the needs of those in pain or poverty, and approached those in need with open arms. She helped provide for the family with much talent. She was pure–hearted and provided bedding on credit to town residents who would travel to America, thinking they would send the money when they arrived there. As for the most part those people forgot the town, so too they forgot their debt and my grandmother.

During WWII under German occupation, when famine struck, my grandmother walked to a nearby village to bring a bottle of warm, fresh milk for her eldest grandson. By chance, on her way back, the Germans caught her and violently assaulted her. As a result, she lost her ability to speak and passed away after being two weeks on the brink of death.

My mother was the youngest child in her family. She had two brothers–– Gottleib, and Avraham–Yitzchak, and two sisters – Toyveh and Esther. Her brother married in Russia, as did her sister Toyveh, and after the Soviet regime was established contact with them ended. Her sister Esther married Tsvi Liberson from Divinsk and travelled to America, where he served as rabbi and ritual–slaughterer in the town of Portsmouth to the day he died. He was succeeded by his only daughter, Frances (Freidel).

My father was a modest and pleasant man with a sensitive and gentle soul. He experienced illness and poverty and fiercely battled the stormy waves of his life. Despite that, he was strong–minded and always expressed kindness and wisdom. As a student at the Lomzhe Yeshiva he was always content with his life. He discarded material matters and considered a man's spiritual entity a primary force. He educated his children that spirit and projected onto them from his wise and kind personality.

Alongside his difficult struggle for being, he longed to see his children becoming Torah scholars. He was willing to limit his food to achieve that goal. Despite the financial difficulties, he sent me to study at the Hebrew Gymanaiusm in Vilne and then to the Chofetz Chaim Yeshiva in Radin. My father was not fortunate to see his children blossom, as he was cruelly murdered by the Germans at Lipufke, a suburb of Vilne. He was on his way to attempt the rescue of my brother Michael, who was jailed in the notorious Lokishki Prison in Vilne for the crime of Zionism.

My mother Blume was a beautiful woman, honest and modest, known to all as a woman of valor. Even at a young age she would assist my grandfather in preparing slaughtered cattle, dividing, and distributing to customers.

My mother helped a lot in providing for the family. Each year, she would rent a garden overflowing with apple and pear trees. I was always impressed by her wisdom, and courage to walk alone in remote properties, to patrol the garden and correctly estimate the expected yield. An error in predicting the yield could result in heavy financial loss after many months of hard back–breaking labor.

Tsvi Ahuvi told me about my mother's courage and intelligence, who once heard the following at Rabbi Movshovitz's home:

My mother once leased a garden from Count Milvski in Geranion. Once, while in a good mood, he asked my mother, “Say, is it true that the Jews use Christian blood on Passover?” Mother replied instinctively, “If that were true there would be Jewish informants who would notify the authorities.” Her honest response made such a deep impression on him, that it was etched deep in his mind, and at the first meeting with the rabbi he decided to share the story with him and to compliment Mother's wisdom.

Strong in mind and spirit, she did not surrender to her fate, and energetically, without tiring, industriously and persistently, she participated in the harsh struggle to sustain the family.

Having a gentle soul and a kind heart, she was always prepared to understand her fellow man and to listen to his heart. She happily and kindly greeted every guest who came to the Sabbath meal, projecting her kind–heartedness, and wishing well all the people–– that is how my mother was.

She humbly and pure–heartedly educated her children, she was absorbed in Jewish values, and she spared no effort to educate her children in that manner. But her fate was very bitter; as stated, her husband was murdered by the Germans on the second day of their occupation and became the town's first victim. Her son Michael was murdered by an angry mob at the Lokishki prison in Vilne. Her two sons Meir and Tsvi escaped from the Voronova ghetto and found their deaths at the hands of Poles who used to be our best friends. She herself had to suffer greatly, alone and abandoned, and her life was ended in the valley of death, along with all the martyrs from Divenishok, Voronova, and the surrounding area.

From the large family there remain only a few. From my family I alone remain, from my uncle Shmuel's family remained only his young son Michael, and from my uncle Israel's family remained two children who currently reside in the Soviet Union.

I raise my eyes to the heavens, with praise and thanks that against the odds I was fortunate to reach Israel and establish a family here. God has blessed me with a beautiful wife, Mina, and three children: the eldest Yosef, the second Tsvi, and the third, Asher, who proudly carry the memory of their family. With a heavy heart and much sadness we mourn for their loved ones who did not reach the promised land–– which was their desire all the days of their lives.

May their memory be blessed and their souls be bound in the bond of everlasting life!

–Binyamin Dubinski


[Page 349]

My grandfather
R' Yitzchak (Itshe) Binyamin Rudnik, (Of Blessed Memory)

by Yakov Blokh

Translated by Meir Bulman

My grandfather Itshe Binyamin originated in the town of Navaredok to the Kovneski family, men of labor and trade. In his youth, because of his status with the Russian military, he had to change his last name from Kovneski to Rudnik in order to be released from his duties, and he stayed with that name, even though all his brothers and the family were named Kovneski.

He chose blacksmithing as a profession, manufacturing agricultural tools, as well as copper and steel work–instruments. He remained in that profession and made a nice living for the remainder of his life.

I remember him as a tall man, projecting strength, and self–confidence, overflowing with wisdom and life lessons, with a sense of humor. He was familiar with Jews as well as peasants, and also with landowners for whom he conducted administrative business concerning livestock, fruits and vegetables, and grain.

He built a number of buildings on Oshmene Street; a large residential building, and a smithy, where he employed his sons and other workers. He established a large family, comprised of two sons and seven daughters. He was widowed at a young age (my grandmother Sarah Malkeh passed away at the birth of her son Elimelech) and left him with five children. He married a second time, and with his wife Rivkah of house Kartshmer had four daughters (one of whom is Henye Hararri, residing in Israel.)

It should be noted, that my step–grandmother, Rivkah Zmel had a gentle soul. She cared for and nurtured the young orphan as a mother, with much love and devotion.

My grandfather's home was open to many, and his reputation preceded him as a wonderful host. In times of trouble, such as WWI, he shared with his neighbors as though they were his children. His family knew no poverty during his lifetime. He also excelled at matan b'seter[1].

Being a brave and a strong man, he stood up to the loathers of Israel more than once.

He was among the administrators and a member at the Old Synagogue. In the twilight of his days he was devoted to Shulkhan Arukh[2] and the study of Torah.

He passed away in 1928 after a brief illness. I still remember the large funeral the community organized for him.

May this essay serve as a memorial to my grandfather–– ‘Of Blessed Memory’.

 

Translator's Footnotes
  1. Anonymous charity Return
  2. literally, ‘Set Table’; a highly influential book of everyday Jewish law Return


[Page 350]

The ‘Tel-Hainik’: M[eir] Y[osef] Itskovitsh

by Chaim Lazar

Translated by Meir Bulman

After the bloody events which have just occurred before our very eyes, which we have felt in our bones, and after losing all that was dear: family, friends, the Jewish masses executed by thousands of methods, it is very difficult to return to the image of God overnight, to adorn the dear crown of freedom and to shout to the world, and yourself, that you are liberated. The toughest thing is to forget! Memory is perhaps the most valued asset secured by this freedom. It is a gift from fate to those remaining and their only consolation for the suffering of the era of horror. Memory is the dynamic motivating force which calls and obligates action, the Memory which accompanied us across borders and winding roads throughout the blood-soaked European Continent. From the cold and grey north to the sunny south, from the distant Ural Mountains to the Alps with snow covered peaks, through deserts, forests, rivers, checkpoints, soldiers, and guards from dozens of nations and languages, through permanent fenced camps and temporary halfway camps, with all their merciful caregivers which the “enlightened and progressive” world has generously given us.

* * *

In those days during the winter of 1945, Lublin was the central city in Poland. Those remaining flocked to it, survivors from the camps, from the hiding places. Partisans emerged from the forests, Jewish fighters who raised the flag of resistance and went to fight the German enemy for the nation's honor and avenge the bloodshed of our nation.

Lublin had three public houses to accommodate the refugees which were supposedly maintained by the Jewish Council. One was named “Bet Peretz”, the second on Lovratovska Street, and the third on Nerutovitshe Street. While in one house the conditions were somewhat acceptable, as there were youths living there and it was maintained by HaBrikha, conditions in the other two were unbearable. The rooms were crowded at full capacity and beyond.

The people were laid across the cold floors, under them some hay which smelled like mold. It was very crowded. In every available spot, the corners, the hallways, and the corridors there were living corpses which had recently left the death camps, starving, disease-ridden, and wearing rags. The small portion of soup they were being given was not enough to nourish them. The cold howling wind which flowed in through bare windows and doors penetrated the bones. All yearned for their wounds to heal-- to no avail.

Is that the liberation and freedom which we had dreamed and prayed for? Is there a difference between the crowded wooden huts in the concentration camps and the persistent stench standing in the air from all the horrifying dirt filling the house, rising from puss-filled wounds and from the living corpses decaying in this cursed and wretched place?

Lublin, previously was a Jewish town- a town rich with tradition, the town where Maharshal[1], Maharam[2], ha-Chozeh[3], and other great rabbis had once lived, the town which honorably hosted the sessions of the Council of Four Lands.[4]

At the end of 1944 the Germans still controlled and oppressed Warsaw. The liberated region was already under the control of the new Polish government. Most of the survivors who reached Lublin crowded the narrow alleys and walked between its ancient walls. It was as if they had come to resurrect the Lublin Jews who perished, and the souls of the town's rabbinic geniuses, whose influence was far-reaching among the Jewish Diaspora. These Jews were not concerned with ideology at that time; they wanted to travel to Israel. They wanted to vote with their feet, to get up and leave, leave the blood-soaked land, the mass graves in which their relatives and Jewish masses were buried, to leave those who were destroyed in that cursed land.

At that time, in a situation few of those remaining traveled through Europe, I met in Lublin the Partisan, the “Tel-Hainik,” Meir Yosef Itzkovitz and his Partisan wife Esther.

At that time, being a man of Beitar[5] in Poland was a risk to freedom and life. The Beitar people were like “conversos.”[6] Only a few knew who was a Beitar person, their past and group affiliation. Under the Communist national regime in Poland, it was only permitted to be a Zionist of the Left, ideologically compatible with the regime, which began to show its influence in all facets of life. Being a member of Beitar was not mentioned, as it could lead to jailing, interrogation, torture, and exile. Despite the many dangers, this man of Beitar suddenly appears – a “Tel-Hainik” in public, without signs of fear or anguish. And indeed, why now, after Liberation, being a free man should he fear publicly expressing his opinions, if while being in the woods with the Partisan battalions, where the Communists ruled, he had not hesitated and was not deterred from walking among the Jewish and Gentile Partisans, and their Russian commanders, with the greeting of ‘Tel-Hai’ on his lips-- a customary greeting between friends in his youth?

Shortly thereafter, I became aware of the biographic details of this “strange” Beitar-Partisan, who had crossed my path in those days of renewal and revival for the survivors of the terrible Holocaust.

Meir Yosef's origin is in Divenishok, Oshmene District, Vilne metropolitan area. He was a son of a respectable lineage, fifth in his family. Meir's father, Nathan, was a respected, God-fearing Torah-observing man who faithfully served the public and who was widely respected and admired by them. He was an active in the Jewish and charitable organizations in his town and known as a warm-hearted, generous Jew who supported every needy person – be it in secretive charity or in his contributions to public matters. Meir's father was a member of the parents' council at the Hebrew school, the administration of the local bank, the Gemilut Hesed[7] societies, the bridal assistance society, the Passover food bank, and the rest of the institutions, which were ample in the Jewish town. During most of the years between the World Wars, he was a member of the Polish city council representing the Jewish residents, by which he earned also the respect of Gentiles for his contributions to benefit of the whole population.

Meir was raised in a traditional Jewish home and his young soul absorbed all that is good, beautiful, and honest, as it was entrenched in his home. That national-spiritual heritage is what guided him in his life's journey with all its trials and tribulations – the sign of our time. That heritage is what guarded him from veering off the path of Judaism so he would not fall, so he could stand tall in the face of every wind and storm which washed away everything in its path.

R' Nathan ensured that his children receive a national-traditional education, based on both enlightenment and Torah. After completing their studies at the Hebrew school, he sent his children to the Hebrew Gymnasium in Vilne, except for one of his sons, Yehezkel, who since childhood was attached to Torah and mitzvot and was sent to learn at the Yeshiva in Baranovich and later to the Yeshiva Chaffetz Chaim in Radin.

When Meir was a student in middle school, word reached their town of the establishment of the “Language Guardians Brigade” as a result of the “culture war” then in style. He decided to establish a branch of the Brigade in town with his friends. They published a copy of a Hebrew newspaper and vowed to conduct their friendship by communicating exclusively in Hebrew. Meir's love of the Hebrew language also guided him through his life.

When he completed primary school he was sent to Vilne to study at The Epstein Hebrew Gymnasium. In Vilne, a large Torah town, a town of wise men and writers and Torah, the Jerusalem of Lithuania, Meir absorbed the beauty and depth of pure Judaism. His character was composed there. There he matured and became a proud Jewish young man, uncompromising, aware of his nation's eternal values: the renewal of the ancient spirit of bravery of the conquerors of Canaan.

It was no wonder, then, that when news came of the riots in the Land, he left HaShomer HaTzair[8], of which he was a member according to the present fashion, and joined the ranks of Beitar, the Hebrew youth movement, which had begun spreading and taking hold of the youth across Poland.

When he returned home for summer vacation he would gather his friends around, and with Ze'ev Lubtzki, a local resident and law student, established the local Beitar chapter. Meir was chosen as the chapter's first commander, and his blessed activism made its mark in a short while.

Meir's leadership abilities were well developed. He felt he had found his calling. He left the Gymnasium and began learning at the Tsherne Teaching Seminary in Vilne, and in 1936 he received a teaching certification. Over the next year, Meir served as a teacher in Amdur, near Grodne. The chairman of the school board was a pharmacist who was one of Ze'ev Jabotinski's enthusiastic followers. He insisted the teacher hired would have Zionist views. Who else but Meir Yosef would fit that role?

A year later he taught Torah to Jewish children in Horodok, near Molodetchno by the Russian border. As 1939 approached, Meir, born in 1917, would soon have to report for duty with the Polish military. His father and relatives encouraged him to obtain proper documentation to release him from duty for health reasons, but Meir declared that he is in good health and wished to serve in the military. He must have hidden his true intention for enlisting. As a man of Beitar, he would heed the call and prepare for the battle to free the homeland and establish a Jewish state. Therefore this would be a good opportunity to obtain military know-how.

That decision was destined to be useful and produced many future benefits, perhaps even saving his life. WWII erupted. The 85th Sniper Brigade of Vilne, stationed at New Vileyka near Vilne, was sent to the front. They managed to reach Piotrokov near Lodzh, but all the same the Polish military was defeated and sustained heavy losses. The Polish military began disintegrating and many escaped to the rear. Meir arrived in Varshe. In Zhetl, new brigades were composed of the remnants of the defeated military. His brigade was stationed to guard the capital Warsaw. The siege on the city tightened. The guardians manage to hold on for a few days, but could not withstand the bombardment and immense pressure from Hitler's army. The city surrendered and Meir was captured by the Germans. He was held with the rest of the prisoners at a school building near the train station. Typhus broke out in the camp, taking many lives. They were transferred from place to place and eventually moved towards Brisk-Litovsk, where a prisoner exchange took place between the Russians and Germans. The Soviets promised that they would soon be released and could return home, but in the meantime would be performing various jobs while being housed in freight cars. A Polish man told Meir that this transport is destined to be sent to the depths of Russia. An escape plan formed in Meir's mind and within a short while he succeeded. He eventually found out that his group had been transported to Katyn, where, as is well known, the Russians murdered all the POWs, many Jews among them.[9]

Meir reached his hometown, now under Soviet control. He consulted with Beitar friends from his town and towns nearby, Oshmene and Voronova, and they decided to cross the border to Vilne illegally. A border patrol agent captured Meir, but he was already experienced, and once more he evaded his captor, escaped custody, and reached Vilne. Meir found himself a refugee among many other refugees who had reached that town from all over Poland.

Vilne was then under Lithuanian control and a free regime was still in place. Meir was among the few, perhaps the only one, who received a work permit from the Lithuanian Education Ministry and served as a teacher at the Hebrew school in Olkenik, Professor Klozner's town of origin. Prof. Klozner's wooden shack still stood there. There was also Napoleon's gift to the old synagogue, an ancient ornamental curtain etched in gold, complimenting the beautiful decorative carvings on the wooden ark. A lively small Jewish community was still in place, maintaining a standard routine.

Meir did not confine himself to studying Torah. He communicated with the men of Beitar in Vilne. He visited Vilne frequently and was involved with events taking place within the refugee community.

The calm period of Lithuanian control also reached its end. The Soviets occupied Lithuania. Beitar went underground. At the home of Meir's friend Leybeh Katz they secretly listened to radio broadcasts from abroad. One day they heard the bitter news of the death of Beitar leader Ze'ev Jabotinsky. Their world darkened. Who would they look to now?

With his friend Ehrlikh, a Beitar member and refugee from Lodzh, he rode a bike towards Vilne. Meir brought the bitter news to the attention of Ysroel Epstein. Ysroel took out from his pocket a picture of the Beitar leader and said, “No, it is not true. Ze'ev Jabotinsky did not die, he will live forever.”

Within a few weeks, even that time would seem ideal compared to what was about to take place. In the summer of 1941 Hitler's forces invaded the Soviet Union. Within a few days German troops occupied Lithuania and White Russia. Meir left Olkenik and made his way towards his hometown, passing through the evergreen forest of Rudniki. Local villagers followed him, robbed him of his few belongings including the clothes he was wearing, and wanted to murder him. Nearly naked, he managed to evade them and reached his home – just as the German occupation began and the German military and local Gentiles began their rioting. They did everything in their power to prove to the Jews that they could anything to them: torment them, dishonor them, break into their homes, steal, and murder, and especially when a Jew dared to protect his family, his honor, and his belongings. Jews were kidnapped for work. They were assaulted and humiliated, tortured, and starved – their lives became worthless.

Some alumni of the youth movements, among them Meir as one of the primary speakers, consulted one another, held discussions, and searched for ways to ease the situation, to protect their honor, to stand up to those wishing to end their lives. Deliberation, and ties to the underground, yielded results: in 1942, Meir and his friends traveled into the woods and connected with Partisan groups which later became the acclaimed “Bielski Brigade.”

Then began a time of guts and glory, with many battles-- a relentless war of vengeance waged upon the German enemy. Meir Yosef, with his military expertise, became one of the stand-out fighters.

For a long time, they operated around the towns of Navaredok and Lida, trying to liberate Jews from the ghettos and to gather Jews who had escaped the slaughter. They maintained contact with the towns and prepared a place of refuge for survivors.

Meir Yosef and his friend Yakov Strodvorski breached the Lida ghetto and rescued a group of 30 Jews.

Later he was designated to serve as a messenger between the Bieslki Brigade and the neighboring Baltiets Brigade and later was permanently placed within that group, based on active combat.

As the days went by everyone became acquainted with the Tel Hai-nik Meir Yosef Itzkovitz. When he appears before a commander, even a general, Meir greets him with “tel hai,” the Beitar greeting, and parts ways with “tel hai,” all in the territory of the Red partisans.

Meir Yosef in his role as messenger met many Jewish youths, whom he would gather together in the evenings and on the sabbath to tell them of the Promised Land. He gave classes on Jewish History and geography and instilled them with Zionism. He recounted the recent past and fostered dreams of the future in front of them.

And that was how Meir Yosef upheld the oath of Beitar, “Whether in light or in darkness/ Always remember the crown …For silence is filth/ Worthless is blood and soul /For the sake of the hidden glory.” He revolted “Through all obstacles and enemies.”[10] He influenced hundreds of youths in the camp with his faith and ideas and served as a role model.

* * *

As the snow melted at the end of the winter of 1945, when the spring sun began to illuminate the world-- for spring had reached even those remaining after the horrific destruction-- I met Yosef Meir Itskovitsh, the loyal Beitar member, the proud Jew, the fearless fighter flowing with ideas, energy, and a deep willingness to continue rescue operations and to take a place in the genesis of the nation's renewal. I felt that with young men like him miracles could be achieved and we have not parted ways since. We went on to pave the road for escape, the road leading to Zion.

There he was with the survivors of the sword, of the fire, those singed by the gas chambers, hungry and thirsty, wearing rags, who wandered on crooked paths, climbed snow covered mountains, survived the frost, descended hot and dry valleys, snuck across borders, and reached Italy so they could ascend to the mountaintop, to their one and only destination, their homeland of Israel. And who guided them, who offered them warm words of encouragement? The Jewish Partisans whose appearance was like a breath of fresh air. The Partisans were the only facet of the survivors inner spirit that was not destroyed, the Partisans were the energizing force supporting the ideology, because of their need to continue their past activities [into the present]- be it vengeance plots against the Germans or organizing the lives of the survivors of the camps. The Partisans were fortunate to be stationed as the first guard, scouts watching out for the People of Israel on their meandering path. The Jewish Partisans understood the importance of their new destiny. They educated the public, strengthened the people, mended them as if in a furnace, instilled passion within them. They knew that this was the road leading to Zion, and so they worked night and day and devoted themselves completely to sustaining the existence of those remaining, maintaining their physical and spiritual needs, and training them for the coming war to establish the State of Israel.

When we reached Treviso, Italy, a large camp administered by the Hebrew Brigade Divisions was located beneath the Alps. That spot, breathtakingly beautiful, quickly became a reception center for hundreds and thousand of refugees who were brought there by soldiers of the Brigade, or reached it via the usual escape routes. The arrivals were greeted with an abundance of brotherly love so rare they had not encountered anything like it since they were uprooted from their families. Sometimes the unjustified impression was made that the Brigade soldiers were trying to redeem themselves of their heavy burden of guilt from not having come to their brothers' aid in their time of need since they had not been with them as they suffered, and that they had not shared the suffering. Sometimes it seemed that the Brigade soldiers were unable to look one in the eye without pangs of conscience that fate had placed them on the other side of the bottomless blood pit.

We watched, in astonishment, the soft and gentle treatment of the survivors by the soldiers. With much caution they unloaded them from the cars as if they were gentle and expensive glassware. Such happiness was reflected in the soldier's eyes when a Holocaust survivor smiled at him. We thought, “If such love and devotion exist, it was worth it to pass through hell to then have the good fortune to reaching such elevation.” And indeed those were moments of great rising and genesis, a period of renewal rising from the ruins, a period which passed with the clearing of the ruins and the rebuilding. A special excitement was reserved by the Brigade soldiers for when they met the Jewish Partisans, their brothers in arms. The reputation of the Partisans, the Jewish avengers, had reached them long ago. They long knew that there had been young men and women in the Diaspora towns who had risked their lives to save the nation's honor, who had climbed the barricades in the burning ghettos to rebel, to resist, to fight and avenge, that there were young men and women who had breached the tall and well-guarded ghetto walls, found their way to the woods, and fought against the German destroyer who murdered swiftly, against his regime, his military, his police, and laws. There were Jews from many places who had escaped the slaughter of their communities and they too reached the forests and joined the ranks of the fighters. Stories had reached the Brigade men of the wondrous, immense bravery of the Jewish Partisans, who struck their nation's enemies and instilled fear, but they had yet to meet those Partisans and heard from them about their actions. And there they stood before them, wearing crowns of glory, their minds made up to continue their fight and to overcome obstacles, to achieve the dream – the raising of the people from its ruins and the establishment of a state which would gather all the survivors and the Jewish masses from their countries of exile.

As opposed to the short restful time in Treviso, the harsh reality existed in the refugee camps that were established across Italy in Bologna, Mestre, Padua, Cinecittà, and Modena near Rome, and in the Bari area of southern Italy. In most of the camps conditions were poor with scarce nutrition, an unvaried diet with no fat or sugar. Especially poor were conditions for the weak and the ill. Especially harsh conditions were found in Modena, which is where Meir Itskovitsh arrived. It was a halfway camp for refugees of various nations making their way to their homes and homelands, and therefore all arrangements were temporary. What was fitting for other nationals was tough on the Holocaust survivors. In the camp designed for 2500 people, there were 5000, among them approximately 4000 Jews. Conditions were harsh, [including] a lack of mattresses with most folks on the cold stone floors. Nutrition was starvation portions for malnourished people. The camp was at the center of town in a large building which formerly served as a military academy. The building had been partially destroyed by shelling during the war, the windows were broken, and despite that, there was no air to breath at night because of the overcrowding. Hundreds slept in the yard without mattresses and blankets. Representatives of the Jewish Council pressured representatives of the British Red Cross, who administered the camp, and requested improvement. But camp officials rejected their pleas with various excuses. Firstly, they did not recognize the Council as representing the refugees as it was not based on the Jews' countries of origin. Secondly, they did not recognize the Jews as a nation but rather a religious class, and thirdly, “What did the refugees want from them? There are Jews in the camp who have two pairs of pants or an extra shirt, they should share amongst themselves.” The only agreement by officials of the Red Cross was an addition of a cup of milk for children below the age of 14. Food portions were very small: for breakfast some white liquid made from milk powder without bread or any other food item, for lunch soup and a roll, repeated for dinner. The distribution of this pitiful food was also conducted in unfathomable conditions. At first there was only one distribution spot and people stood in line for hours on end to get their portion. The dining hall had a capacity of only 300 and people had to eat hastily so the others could take their places. Most of the refugees were still wearing the clothes they had worn in the death camps or the ghettos or the woods. There were no laundry services. Medical assistance was almost nonexistent. Sometimes ill people slept on the floor and there was only one doctor and one nurse.

That's how the “honey moon” for the survivors transpired. Despite all that, the Partisans and Beitar members did not despair. Meir Yosef was among the first camp leaders to turn the horde of abandoned survivors into an organized Zionist national force. With much passion and energy he began organizing life at the camp to ease the stay, and was among the first to gather the few [remaining] members of Beitar to reestablish an organized Beitar movement. That is how Itskovitsh became a Beitar leader in Italy for the next two years. He was among the organizers of Beitar gatherings in Florence and Milan, and later among the organizers of the first Beitar conference, which was also the first Beitar conference in Europe post-WWII and took place in Castel Gandolfo, the Pope's summer residence near Rome, in January 1946. In that conference, Itskovitsh was appointed culture and education commander, an especially difficult role in the absence of explanatory literature or guidebooks. Itskovitsh was also among the founders of the HaMa'apil and LaNitzahon newspapers which Beitar published in Florence, the first papers published by the survivors in Italy, made possible thanks to the immense devotion of the activists, among them Meir Yosef. Leaders of other Zionist movements who had more financial and technical resources did not mange to do what the small group of Beitar in Italy managed to do at that time. The literature prepared by Meir Yosef reached all Beitar units in Italy and beyond. Beitar in Italy had 2000 members. Meir Yosef was also active in maintaining close contact with members, Italian Jews for many generations, among them Beitar commissioner Leona Carpi,[11] Esq. in Milan, Mr. Tedeschi in Florence, Mr. Bassani in Rome, and many others. Close cooperation and contact developed amidst the survivors from the movement and Italian Jewry.

The story of Meir Yosef Itskovitsh is the story of an extremely eventful period, full of tribulations, in the history of our nation, and one which left a deep impression on our future. It was a time of holocaust and rebuilding, the loss of a third of our nation, and then the achievement of the dream of establishing the State. Itskovitsh's part [in this history] is immense. He and his friends, those Jewish youngsters with a deep Jewish consciousness, men of vision and bravery ready to sacrifice, fight, and struggle, that helped us through the most terrible of times, and paved the road to Israel's independence with their blood. Since those days and to this day he symbolizes the persistence and the deepening of the idea of revival, its dissemination and achievement. As a teacher, guide, and fighter, he serves as an example to his generation and the generations to come.

 

Editor's Footnotes
  1. Solomon Luria (“MaHaRSHaL”; d. 1573), author of “Ḥiddushe Maharshal” (Cracow, 1581), from “Hiddushim (or Novellae)” by Solomon Schechter, Max Schloessinger, in Jewish Encylopedia, New York: Funk & Wagnalls Co., 1906; http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/7682-hiddushim, last accessed 5 Dec 2017. Return
  2. Meďr Lublin (“MaHaRaM”; d. 1616), author of ” Ḥiddushe Maharam Lublin” (Sulzbach, 1686), from “Hiddushim (or Novellae)” by Solomon Schechter, Max Schloessinger, in Jewish Encylopedia, New York: Funk & Wagnalls Co., 1906; http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/7682-hiddushim, last accessed 5 Dec 2017. Return
  3. Jacob Isaac Horowitz, known as “The Seer of Lublin”, ha-Chozeh MiLublin; (c. 1745 - August 15, 1815) was a Hasidic rabbi from Poland, from “Yaakov Yitzchak of Lublin”, (2017, March 12), In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia; https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Yaakov_Yitzchak_of_Lublin&oldid=769966121, last accessed 5 Dec 2017. Return
  4. The central body of Jewish autonomy in Poland for nearly two centuries—from the middle of the sixteenth to that of the eighteenth… The four lands that sent their representatives to the council were Great Poland (with its capital, Posen), Little Poland (Cracow), Polish or Red Russia (Podolia, and Galicia with its capital, Lemberg), and Volhynia (capital, Ostrog or Kremenetz). Lithuania seemed to have its regular or extraordinary representative in the Polish-Jewish Council until 1623, but in that year it established its own central organization which acted independently, from “Council of Four Lands" by Herman Rosenthal, S. M. Dubnow, in Jewish Encylopedia, New York: Funk & Wagnalls Co., 1906; http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/4705-council-of-four-lands, last accessed 5 Dec 2017. Return
  5. A revisionist Zionist youth movement Return
  6. Conversos were Jews forced to convert to Christianity in the Spanish Empire. The members of Beitar in Poland at that time had to hide their true identities in much the same way. Return
  7. A charitable fund or service for the needy Return
  8. Zionist self-defense movement Return
  9. Note: Reference is to the Katyn Massacres, a series of mass executions of Polish nationals carried out by the Soviet secret police, see Katyn massacre. (2017, December 2). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 22:00, December 6, 2017, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Katyn_massacre&oldid=813216771 Return
  10. The lyrics here are from Shir Betar, the Beitar Song. Return
  11. The surname in the original name is spelled: kuf-reysh-peh-yud. Return

 

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