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From Dolhinov to Buenos Aires
A Memoir

Meir–Aharon Ekman (Argentina)

Translated by Janie Respitz

Donated by Anita Frishman Gabbay

 

A Glance Back to My Hometown

Like every human being I long for my first life source, my hometown of Dolhinov, where I saw life's light for the first time.

 

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M.A Ekaman and his wife

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I was born on a winter day, the 29th of February 1910. It was before the First World War; the town was under the rule of the Russian Czar. Life was calm and peaceful. People were concerned with earning a living to ensure continued existence. Some had more and some had less but there were no very rich men in our town.

However, pedigree,

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was very important… I can boast about worthy, important pedigree…

My God–fearing father Reb Kapl Ekman, may he rest in peace – a respected, important Jew, a well learned scholar. His beautiful chanting melodies are still with me until today. He is in my memory from my earliest days – still in my cradle…enjoying listening to him…my revered ancestors on both sides – my father's side and my mother's side, the Sverdlin family from my mother's side and the Ekmans from my father's side. They were the most respected families in town. Avrom Lev (the poet) from Vilna – also a descendent from my aunt and uncle Sverdlin – married the daughter of Yakov Hesia's and became a gentle, beautiful couple. Also the fine Shreibman families of Moishe and Hirshl and also the Burovs and Glubakeh. I was proud to be connected with these families.

Still shining before my eyes are the beautiful personalities of Reb Mendl Sverdlin – a Jew, one of a kind, an exceptional man! I remember he would read from the Torah on the Bimah. And now my uncle Reb Eliyahu Ekman appears before me, face to face, with his clear, expressive features and delightful, beautiful voice. I see him standing at the pulpit praying in the traditional sweet melody. This is how they all remained in my memory; the Sverdlin branch from Vilna and the children of the Sverdlins in our town at the foreign universities hoping to become doctorates or other academic professions.

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Childhood in Town

Life continued at its ordinary tempo; I was already four years old. I began to go to my father at the prayer house – where Reb Zalman–Ber the ritual slaughterer would teach Gemarah to 15 Jews. It was a pleasure to listen to his melody, but I did not understand much of what was being said. What has remained in my memory from my childhood in my parent's home is my mother. A woman of valour – an energetic woman, a diligent worker at home and at work, very talented, understanding and smart. Who knows, had she lived under different circumstances she may have reached higher spheres? Father spent a lot of his time learning. Besides me at home there was my older brother Dov–Ber and my sister Shifra. Later my little brother Yosef arrived. He was born in our newly built house after the First World War. Our neighbours were: the pharmacist, the shoe leather cutter Ekman with a second room in the yard behind Sloimkeh Chayah Rishe's, Yakov Izak and others. I also remember the Jewish house maid – a mute girl who worked for us. It was interesting to see how my mother spoke to her without words and they understood each other. How? I don't know.

IN the summer of 1914 when I was four and a half the First World War was sprung upon us. War events spread to our region. Until today I remember the guns, canons and shooting between the Russians and Germans. We ran into the streets during bombings to hide from the falling bombs. We hid at Leybe Ekman's. A great miracle occurred. When we all left our house with my mother to hide from the bombs, a bomb fell at left a hole 3 metres deep and

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wide – but no one was harmed…the opposing aggression and the withdrawal of the troops from both sides did not stop; they were becoming stronger; the bombs were falling more and more. Our town was already burning. The people had to run away into the fields. I will never forget how all of us – lay in a wagon in the field with nothing to ear. We picked carrots in the field to ease our hunger.

This continued until the Russians retreated and the Germans took over our town. Life continues. Slowly, people began to return home. People began to smuggle and do some business just to live!…The Germans were polite to the Jews. I remember the common Yiddish – German conversations. The Germans spoke their language and the Jews responded in a Germanized Yiddish. Everyone understood and often with a smile and a laugh…This is how the next few years passed. Life returned more or less to normal. Jews always had to adapt to the ruling conditions. Even though our town was torn from the hinterland (many villages and towns were cut off from the Russian side) they managed to earn a living.

I was already older; I was already 8 years old because it was now 1918. Poland became an independent state. Poland soon captured the entire region of Vilna and regions of White Russia close to Minsk. Even our town of Dolhinov was occupied by Polish military. They immediately began to persecute the Jews. Our town was occupied by General Haller's Poznan army – a very anti–Semitic military formation. There was

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anti–Jewish activity . One such activity damaged and injured my dear father and my dear mother. This is what happened: my father may he rest in peace was standing calmly beside our store watching he Poles ride by on horses with whips in their hands. One of them hit my father on the head. Blood was gushing. My father shouted for help. My mother came running. The same guy hit her with his whip. She too was bleeding.

I must also recount how they brutally attacked Leybe the tailor at the market. They cut his limbs. Can one forget such a wild inhumane act? Should I not tell about all the chicanery and attacks – big and small – that I witnessed? It was the night of Purim; I was standing in our store. Suddenly, a shot! Someone shot gunpowder from the Purim play. You could hear it from far away…soon a policeman came in. His name was Zuvirzhinsky (if I remember correctly). He took out his revolver and asked: “Who fired the shot?” He then hit me in the face with his gun and broke my tooth. I still have half a tooth until today. Knowing it was my brother Yosef who let out the shot, I had to remain silent. I could tell a lot more about Polish exploits and deeds. However I will be satisfied with the above mentioned events.

 

My Teachers

There was not a family in Dolhinov that did not worry about their children learning Torah and respect – in order to achieve something in live.

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Parents selflessly devoted themselves to their children's education. Children and youth on their part – as it was clear to me then and even more so today always looked for opportunities to learn and really studied diligently.

According to what my memory dictates, my first teacher was Izak Presman. I began to learn in their garden. He taught me the alphabet. I was four years old. Awhile later, a teacher lived in our house. I don't remember his name but he taught me bible and Hebrew. When I got a bit older I studied with the well–known Reb Idl. He was a great scholar with folksy humour, life knowledge and a loving smile on his bright face. Everyone loved him – children and adults. At first he had a small school in his house. Later – when the Tarbut School was founded in the mid–1920s it was understood that Reb Idl would teach at the school, and his pupils would now attend the new school. He was always progressive, neither old fashioned or fanatic. I loved him for his peaceful tone and ability to explain. It seems to me that Reb Idl was especially good to me, but until today I don't know why.

While a student at the Tarbut School we were given an assignment in Hebrew class to write an essay on a topic of our choice. I chose to write a piece in the style of Sholem Aleichem (I was still a small kid!). They spoke of it a lot. I continued my studies at the Tarbut School until the end. Then for a short time I went to a Polish school in order to improve my Polish. The language did not

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did not come easy to me. It remained foreign and cold…I no longer had any interest to study in the Polish school…I wanted something more; I wanted to be better prepared to “be among people” and be prepared for the coming years. And now new chapters and challenges.

 

Problems – General and Specific Personal Struggles and Political Leanings

In 1919 – barely 9 years old I experienced our first family tragedy. Our loving, God fearing father and my mother's beloved and dignified husband – Reb Kapl Ekman was no longer with us. He died in the Typhus epidemic which crept into our region and our town. This is when I faced my first life – crisis; I began to contemplate and ask: “Why do bad things happen to good people?…” Why and how is this justified? My father may he rest in peace was deeply religious and always ready to help those in need. Every Shabbat at least 3 –4 needy people were guests at our house, people from our town as well as those passing through. My mother, my beloved dignified mother, was a symbol of Jewish and human nobility, with the best human qualities! And none of this helped…our father was torn away from us forever!…For a while I could not find a compromise in my inner confrontation with the Almighty…

Understandably this was not my only conflict in life. I will probably talk more about this later. The fact is however that we the children and my mother wished for the presence of a man at our table to eat and perform rituals like making the blessing over the wine and the blessing after the meal…

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so it is my obligation here to mention the teacher Feldvorm from Warsaw – a short, nervous man who stayed at our house. He did not speak any Yiddish, only Polish and Hebrew. I have him to thank for the continuation of my learning. I learned from him worldly manners. One example of many stayed in my memory and I must share with you: one day we sat down at the table to eat and he asked me for a knife. I handed him the knife with the blade pointing at him. He taught me then that you pass a knife with the handle and not the blade…

Three years flew by; I was to become Bar Mitzvah. As customary with an orphan, one became Bar Mitzvah at twelve, not thirteen. It took place in the study house. I recited my portion with passion. When I finished everyone applauded and women threw candies and nuts down from the women's section. Immediately after, I was consumed with the worry of preparing myself economically for the future. But I still a mischievous child. I, together with other boys my age, played, squabbled and fought one another. I fought with Avrom (Klorin) Klorman, who chased me with a stick to beat me. It was a Sunday and the stores were closed and we had guests at home, Asher Kapelopvitch and his wife Shifra and others. Seeing me chased by a stick my mother became angry: What shall I do with him? What will become of him? He is a big boy and I don't know how to prepare him for life. She turned to her guests for advice. “Do you know what, Auntie Khana?” – Asher Kapelovitch asked. “Tomorrow, with God's help I am going to Vilna. I'll take him with me and I'll go to Vigdor Svedlin for advice”.

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My mother agreed immediately and I too was pleased; what boy would not want to go and especially on such serious business? The next day we left for Vilna and met with uncle Vigdor – who I respected and loved very much. He was a serious, smart and cunning man of middle age who earned honour and respect. He was a successful lumber merchant, an appraiser of trees in the forest. He was a personality – educated and skilled in life's matters and problems. His question to me: what trade would I like to learn, a gold dealer or a mechanical – technical job? I quickly answered with hesitation – I wanted to be a mechanic, a technician, because in Dolhinov I had already started as an electrician installing lights. I can't say I was already talented in this work. Uncle Vigdor Sverdlin enrolled me in the ORT Technical School on Pogulank Street in Vilna.

 

The Vilna Chapter

It was not easy to be accepted to the ORT Technical School. I wanted to enter the Mechanical department but it was problematic as there was not enough space in the workshops. We also have to remember that boys came from poor families from all of Poland to train in work that would help support their families. My uncle Vigdor did all he could to get me in including talking to the director and to the engineer Gokner. Luckily, the engineer liked me and got me into the machine department with another technician and I started to work.

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I immediately started to study and work; the teacher work– instructor was pedantic and serious. He demanded a lot from his students. I tried to do everything properly. My first job was to hammer out a metallurgic square –it took a month, but it came out perfectly. Other jobs went quicker and complete. I even made a revolver which I kept in Dolhinov at Uncle Eliyahu Elman's house, in the stall next to the Khadash's stall. I wrapped it in a thick material and protected it from rusting. Who knows perhaps one day I'll have to use it. I poured myself into my studies with great passion. At the same time I did not tear myself away from all that I left behind at home. I never lost interest in what was happening there. A few times a week I would go to “Hotel Anglia” on Vilna Street – hoping to meet someone from Dolhinov, or receive a letter from my mother or my brother Berl; perhaps a package of “good things” or some butter or cheese or something to snack on…or catch a conversation with someone from our town…hearing some news was so interesting, intimate and pleasant. My sister Shifra was still studying at the Polish school; my older brother Berl was working in the business – helping mother. Yosef, my youngest brother was still at the Tarbut School. There were no other schools in town. We had to study in Vilna. I was always happy when I met Eliyahu Gitlson. He had been in Vilna for a few years and was studying diligently at the university. We hadn't seen him in town for a long time.

Throughout my first year of study in Vilna I lived with my aunt and uncle Vigdor and Rokhl Sverdlin. They lived near the Vilna Mountains. I was busy at school until the evening, and then I would return to their house. During the first year I hardly ever went home. I spent my free time reading. I joined the

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Strashun Library and borrowed many books. I also wrote to Leybl Furman in Hebrew. We were both members in Ha'Shomer Ha'Shachar, an earlier organization before Betar. We were very involved in the Zionist movement and in the Jewish National Fund. Our friendship continued. During my second year – my studying demanded more time – I moved to a residence on Zavalna Street, much closer to the technical ORT School. I was able to dedicate myself to theory and practical work. Every Saturday I would go to the Choir Synagogue on Zavalna St. to listen to the cantor and the choir – I loved it very much and it has remained with me until today.

The school year passed very quickly; I barely had time to look around and I was graduating. At the end of my last year I asked the director, Engineer Gokner, if I could spend another year in the machine department to improve my skills and get more practical experience. He said no as there were others waiting for my place. He assured me I was ready for the profession. Wishing me well and success in my work he gave me my graduation certificate which I achieved with good grades. Proudly looking toward the future I happily departed. This was the end of my Vilna chapter.

 

Dolhinov and my Personal Weekly Portion “Leave!”

Not having the means to remain in Vilna and not yet having the proper perspective of my career I returned temporarily to Dolhinov. The truth is, I found few changes in my hometown,

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neither financial or cultural. The fact was: the situation did not allow for change. The framework was restricted: the town lived from one market day to the next; there were no large businesses or industry, just small business and handwork on a large scale.

The Jewish population grew; children were growing up and did not see a future for themselves. The youth dreamed of leaving for Eretz Yisrael. But Eretz Yisrael was far and closed. Entry was not possible due to lack of certificates – for which one waited for years…other young people who were not strong Zionists wanted to leave for other places in the world, dreaming of new horizons. This too was not successful. The immigration quota to the United States was strict. Those doors were practically locked as well. Other lands were also not willing to receive mass immigrations. Here and there small groups were allowed in. Day by day and year by year immigration became more difficult; the youth of our town did not know what to do. The youth had to be active, if not economically, then socially or culturally. A football (soccer) club Maccabi was founded. At the beginning of 1927 an orchestra was founded in a section of the fire department, horns only, led by the doctor, also Niamkeh Reir and other businessmen – Christians and Jews. People were active in nature. I myself would “never miss a party…”I played football, played in the orchestra;

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I was active in “Ha' Shomer Ha' Shachar”. And more than once helped out friends when Christian boys or drunk soldiers would attack. I would help restore order.

Our football team was only able to play in summer due to the snow and ice in the winter. We also had no place to play in the summer. There was no sports field – we would play on a military field near the barracks or near the church.

 

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Football Championship June 1, 1928

 

Once when we were playing on the military field a garrison commander came out yelling and cursing – “Jews should die of Cholera!…” We felt very hurt; we wrote a letter to the well–known deputy of the Sejm (parliament) Dr. Yakov Vigodsky, may his death be avenged! He answered our letter and promised to intervene in the conflict. I don't remember the end result of his intervention against this anti–Semitic

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act, which was not the only one…there were often “surprises” that excited us and made us feel “big”…our football team Maccabi was invited to play a match against the military team in Budslov. We happily accepted the invitation to play on their field. This was a big honour for us: we were 16 and 17 year old “rascals” playing against strong, healthy, tall Christian military guys. A small thing?! Of course we were beaten 3 – 1, but we did not loose our honour…our rivals and hosts organized a joyful feast after the game in our honour with food and drink at their expense. Everyone behaved well and went home late. Later we played against a brigade from Krivitch and defeated them. We all arrived sober; they were all drunk before the game…

 

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The Fire Brigade Orchestra
In the middle, Dr. Saduvsky

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Besides this, from time to time we played against a local Christian football team.

As I mentioned above I also participated in the orchestra and played well in the ensemble. It is important to state that 15 days after we organized we had to perform at the May 3rd Constitution celebrations playing marches and Polish national songs and melodies. Our conductor was a Jew from Vilna – I don't remember his name. He was very talented. He taught us how to play dance music, musical accompaniments to plays and classical music. There was also a drama club in our town that performed plays such as “Yankl the Blacksmith”, “Khasia the Orphan Girl”, Peretz Hirshbein's “Green Fields” and others. The performances were successful (of course based on the conditions). Truth be told, it was a happy time in our small town; theatre pieces; dance evenings as well as dancing in the streets on summer evenings; walking among the trees and other such outings for our youth.

However all these cultural activities were not enough and even to a certain extent misleading. It was clear that none of this represented a base for a future. The need to move away became even clearer. Everyone was looking for a place and away to emigrate. I also began to search for myself my own “Leave!”.

I was 17 years old. The idea of leaving this terrain did not leave my mind. Like the other young people I wanted to leave. Fortuitously I learned that Khone the tinsmith's son–in–law, Hershl Rier, that lived in his father–in–law's house, left to his brother in Argentina. At the same time I heard of two boys from Krivitch were arranging papers to go to Argentina. “This entered my nostrils”. I thought:

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If Jews are going to Argentina – why not me? Why should I remain impoverished, why shouldn't I go? I was young and healthy with a good occupation!…I had nothing to fear! What did I have to loose? I decided to go. Said and done!

A commotion at home. My mother, brothers and only sister, plus close relatives are jumping out of their skin. They don't want be to go…they are not enthusiastic…my mother offered me 100 dollars not to go…there were things to do at home…but I was stubborn and made up my mind. I was preparing to leave. On the day of my departure the orchestra came to my house and played all day until I took the bus to the train station in Budslov. People cried and held their hearts and drank a bit of whisky…until the hour of my departure…My uncle Hillel Sverdlin accompanied me to Budslov. There I boarded the train and off I went! To Vilna. From there I travelled to Warsaw, then through Yugoslavia until Trieste. In Trieste we boarded the ship Martha Washington that sailed the Adriatic until the big, wide Atlantic Ocean. This is how my life's odyssey progressed with its “miracles at sea…”which are worth writing about separately. The Atlantic was stormy; waves washed the ships' decks, our ship swayed the 1500 passengers until we vomited…I don't know how I was so bold and courageous to bear the trip's difficulties. I was a boy of 17, without language and completely naïve, alone in the world, without inkling about foreign continents and its people…

This is how we sailed for weeks between the sky and stormy waters – all 1500 passengers were neglected and helpless…finally we

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arrived on Argentinian soil in October 1928. I arrived at the first stop of my life's odyssey. The adventures continued until today, 54 years after my first trip. Today I travel to Yugoslavia, Italy and Switzerland on business. But now with my life partner Soreleh – also on vacations. Now I don't know: is today's trip incidental or fate? I, Meir Aharon, son of Reb Kapl, detached and removed from my large extended family, am once again doing the trip across Europe, when there – in my first hometown – everything has been destroyed. All that remains are futile, fruitless memories and longings that take away my last breath!

I always carried longings in my heart. A few months after I arrived in Argentina I wrote my dear mother that I wanted to return home!…her reply – like replies from other relatives was to control my longing…things were bad at home; anti–Semitic events were taking place on a daily basis. The Polish government was getting stronger and I remained homesick but got used to it…

Of course I could write and describe much more about my life. Of course it is interesting how I made deals; went from one workplace to another…how I became a factory owner. Also interesting is the chapter about Soreleh – my dear better half, my beloved wife! How I taught her and we how built a beautiful life – the crowning chapter of “Odysseus and Penelope!” All those pages did not make it into this story. Not on the columns of this memorial book.

To close my Dolhinov chapter it is a holy obligation

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to express my soul – manifest to my hometown – because all that I possess in me comes from there. I have memories from my earliest years. As the poet Shaul Tchernekhovsky said: a person is just a reflection of his birthplace and childhood landscape. This is so true! Everything that remains in my heart is thanks to my hometown. From there emerges my love of Israel and our frequent visits there. We went to Israel 27 times and we hope to go again.

To all of you from Dolhinov who are now in Israel! All of you who were saved from fire – all the scorched cinders and all the lonely, detached limbs, which you rebuilt and continue to unite a family of Dolhinovers in Israel. You all have a great, rare privilege. You deserve special congratulations! From the deepest depths of my heart I admire you. You have remained the sizzling and constant ferment of our generation's long sources and roots. You eternalize our dearest and our entire past! By means of a monument, memorial book and who knows what else?

Listen to my words and my appeal to you and to all the descendants of Dolhinov and to the whole world: in the name of God let us never forget and always remember and eternalize our past! Let us listen, feel and receive like they – from our beloved fields and forests, from the graves – carry today in the air the voices of the memorial prayer! – A memorial for Dolhinov!

An integral part of the world was infested by blood and fire. Only memories remain, nothing more!

 

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