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[Page 93]

In Thirst of Knowledge

 

Our Youth

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

How long are we young? What does it mean to be young? Youth? For the older people we were rascals. But even belonging to one generation, we were like several generations. I remember those older than me, namely: Pinya Kac, Manis Chajczik, Chaim Szpic, Zelik, Shmulik and Avraham Fajersztajn and others. I remember them when they still were very young, but I was younger. I remember my friends of the same age and I remember those younger than I. One generation and for me they were three generations.

– You, for example, belonged to the younger one [generation].
It was a healthy generation of young people that was proud, avid for knowledge. As different as they were in their ideas and conceptions of the world, in their communal sympathies they all were united in their passion to see a better world, more good fortune for their own people and they all were ready with their heart and soul to work for their cause with all of their strength.

Before we knew the alef-beis [Hebrew alphabet] of political Hebrew, the varied alef-beis, we knew about betting – on what? On swimming, on running, on jumping, on “hitting the ball.” Before we competed with our minds, we competed with our young muscles and brown bodies, singed by the winds. Making a bet signified, overcoming difficulties; that which would later make us able to go through the daily challenges of life, we received for free at first, but later we had to pay for this all of our years and even further with a much higher premium. We would admire the extraordinary strength of Tulya Gotman, who would

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place an iron bare under his arm and bend it like the leather straps of the phylacteries around his hand. However, when he and others had grown into adults, the question arose: where to use their strength? They were helpless as if discarded, unnecessary and finally, they had to seek a way out through emigration.

This youth was a seeker, an intelligent one, but he did not always have good fortune in going to Vilna, to the “Jerusalem of Lithuania,” to study in a well-known educational institution in that city. Our young people did not want to remain “a blind one, who taps in the dark,” so they had to gird their loins, as the saying goes, and finally their will. [They] “fastened on their own horseshoes” for their distant march. As if thirsty, our young people threw themselves on the book, on the source of knowledge, on a great friend who greets everyone who wants it…

A small shtetele [town], but its library possessed 500 Yiddish books. Not a lot, really, but at that time, it was not a small amount to us. In addition, the library had [members from] all political groups. Buying a book was not possible for us. The books in the library [were bought with] money collected, actually collected, from our moneyless young people. In all cases, I think, the most important books in the Yiddish language were found in it. As poor as we were in knowledge, our cultural work brought concrete results.

Cultural work, of course, also was connected with political activity. Everyone saw the purpose of his political “cluster.” I did mine. I know: we had a purpose when we distributed almost a hundred copies of the weekly newspaper, Undzer Weg [Our Road], 21 copies of the monthly journal, Literarishe Tribune [Literary Tribune], 10 copies of Literarishe Bleter [Literary Pages]; as well as Polish newspapers and literary monthly journals, such as: Miesięcznik [Monthly] and Lewar [Lewi Artyści Left Artists] and others. I do not know how many written periodicals were distributed by our [faction]. We very often

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would receive them by mail. I do know however that each day our shtetl distributed 35 copies of the Warsaw Moment, 11 Heynt [Today] and 10 copies of Folks-Zeitung [People's Newspaper], as well as the Wolyn Jewish weeklies. There also were Hebrew periodicals, but these did not have many readers among us. The distributors were communal [workers] and they carried out a competition among themselves: who were distributing more [copies].

We can risk saying that there was no Yiddish writer, no Polish one or Russian writer whose name was not known by our young people, even if they had not read their works. However, they knew the political sympathies of every writer and his place in literature.


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A Bit of an Actor in Every Life

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

One would rarely meet someone in their middle years or (naturally, very rarely) in old age who had found their way to the amateur [theater] groups. Here, there was someone like that who could not save himself from the amateurish illness and joined this realm, as if a profession. Usually, amateur acting was one of the cultural forms from which the young derived satisfaction, those who sensed in themselves an artistic spark and tried to satisfy that need.

In recent years I happened to meet people from our shtetl [town] in various nations. Age, as is known, made their peyes [side curls] grey and their personalities more serene. People lived through many experiences since the time of our youth in the shtetl [town] and yet during a conversation everyone remembered our dramatic group, just as if it truly was a thing of such artistic value that it is worth remembering. And yet how strange it is to remember. This certainly shows that a bit of an actor lives in every person and one senses it in early youth and then one tests this fact in a dramatic group somewhere. One may even come to the conclusion that if everyone were not a bit of an actor, then, in general, the world would not have theater.

Everyone had their own taste. And everyone remembered a different role, another [play] fragment; everyone retained sentiment for our dramatic attempts. They had seen true theater in the larger world

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with great artists and truly knew that in comparison with them we were not their equals. It is simply comical to remember. And yet – it is remembered. And it is remembered with warmth and the impressions from that time have not withered. Perhaps it is because theater is actually a dream, one that is realized on the stage.

Without a doubt, the Russian emigrant's theater that would come here very often had an influence on our dramatic group. It stood at a [high] artistic level and often had famous Russian actors, actually a chamber theater, with a regular location in Rovno [Rivne]. The “core” of their repertoire was Chekhov and they, the artists with their way of life, recalled Chekhov's personages mostly descended from the impoverished classes. The actors [recited] long monologues, outpourings of the heart.

Their literary leader was Mikhail Gal. I was a very good friend of his and I even received access behind the wings. I was most interested in their make-up, how they changed their faces so that they could not be recognized, modeling their character's thrifty traits. This acquaintanceship, in general, gave me much – not only in better understanding the problems of theater, but also that Mikhail led me to the threshold of Russian literature. From his conversations I developed such a desire to become acquainted with the creations of the Russian writers that I began to study Russian.

Gal would often tell me about Yiddish theater and I always wondered from where a Russian had so much knowledge about Yiddish theater and Jewish actors. Incidentally, he knew all about the Moscow Hebrew Theater, Habima. The artists from the Russian ensemble would come to us in the shtetl for many years. After the war, I learned that Gal and his wife, a virtuous

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Russian woman, were burned in the crematoria ovens of Auschwitz. His son, Vavatshka, now lives in Israel. Today [the reason for] both his interest and his familiarity with Yiddish theater and with Jewish actors is clear.

I have no doubt that if we had been under the influence of Jewish troupes that we saw in the shtetl, our ambitions as amateurs would have been comparably smaller or simply insignificant. Thanks to the Russian troupe, we sampled better theater traditions. Here we had theatrical examples and we created the Jewish personage ourselves. If we had used the Jewish troupes as our model, we simply would have copied them and there would have been no independent creative element in the activities of our dramatic group.

For weeks, 20 young men and women would come to the hall for rehearsal daily, despite the fact that some of them already were exhausted enough after a day of heavy labor. We rehearsed until late [at night] although we had to get up very early.

We knew the play, as it is said, by heart, before we divided the roles. If anyone said that the play was “too difficult” for us, as one we would all cry out: “What? Are we worse than the amateurs in the larger cities?” Dividing the roles never was done easily. Of course, everyone wanted the “better” roles and gave sound arguments that they were more suitable for the role than everyone else… On the stage, every young man wanted to be a “good looking man” and every girl – “a beautiful woman.” We chased after the positive and did not want any negative roles. However, we learned what “good” is from the Russian actors and with the appropriate arguments we persuaded everyone of the truth of being appropriate for a role. Mainly, was the role correctly interpreted? During the shows we demonstrated that we had gotten it right and the roles had been distributed according to objective criteria.

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Our focus was: acting and prompting. The prompter in a box was needed necessary during a time of need, a calamity, a misfortune. Namely, if one suddenly forgot where we were and then the prompter had to help out, but in general, we appeared without [needing] him, as in the good theaters, where they worked on a play for many months… The talent-drive to act was, it appears, very significant when young people refused to spend the evenings with their partners and they sat and toiled until the middle of the night over a word, over a gesture, over a facial expression that did not come easily…

When we already were in bed, my sister Hinda would place the mirror in front of her and repeat the last rehearsal with great seriousness. She placed her hands together, stuck them out; she stood discouraged and looked at her drawbacks thoughtfully in the mirror. We then rehearsed [Leon] Kobrin's Yankl Boyle (or, as we all would call the play, Der Dorfs Yung [The Village Youth]). Hinda played the role of Natasha and continually repeated Natasha's words on the eve of her suicide, before she threw herself into the lake.

Rehearsing the role did not end with the rehearsal in the Peretz Society hall. Everyone rehearsed alone in his home; it can be said, secretly.

This play was very popular at that time. It was presented in Lutsk under the leadership of the very talented Leibshtik Lerner and had a good reception as well in another Volyn-Yiddish [the Yiddish used in the Yiddish theater] translation under the direction of Fayti Klajnbord. However, our Dorfs Yung was different. We knew very well about the lives of the Ukrainian peasants and of the fishermen, as well as the Jewish agricultural workers. So both the personages and the atmosphere came naturally to us; we lived each detail on the stage. We wanted to succeed at least once in Lutsk, but meanwhile we were satisfied with Trochenbrod.

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In addition to Kobrin's Yankl Boyle, Di Sreyfe [The Fire by Y.L. Peretz], Jacob Gordin's Khasye di Yesoyme [Khasia the Orphan], [Sholem] Ashe's Gut fun Nekome [God of Revenge] and a series of other plays were in our repertoire. Our group always tried to underline the social moments of the performed dramatic work and even added to the content itself because of ideological themes, naturally not asking for permission from the author, just listening to our own social conscience. We accented the “love among nations” in Dorfs Yung; we wanted to add to the large mountain of history that stood between Yankl and Natasha. In Khasye di Yesoyme we accented the class hatred in Jewish society.

Dozens of years have passed and scenes of our amateurs remain stuck in my memory; I dare to say, artistic activities. That is to say, I still have not forgotten Leibele Gotman in the role of the old fisherman, particularly in the scene of his passionate struggle of words with Yankl, whom he threatens with all the sufferings of gehenim [hell], of his desire for Natasha and changes from simple angry protest to the greatest softness and stillness in which the threat is mixed with entreaties, with a plea for mercy for his family on which he had brought shame. His words provoke Yankl to such a level that he loses his self-control and saves himself by running away. Later, Yankl is moved to tears when he complains so innocently to his beloved: “Natasha, why are you not Jewish?” With a few words, Leibe[le] was so moved that he truly forgot in which world he was. I understood when I was destined to have the same experience on the stage and entering the role with every part of my body, I grabbed my shirt with both of my hands and actually tore it into two pieces because I ceased to be “me” and in that moment became “he,” the person I was playing. After tearing my shirt, I frightened myself and first understood that I had lost control of myself.

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I had completely forgotten about this. However, once, sitting with several people from Kolki, drinking wine, as guests of Meir Czartarisker in Montreal, I suddenly noticed how the host looked to me, clearly began to smile, not looking away from me. Suddenly he stood up, placed his hand on my shoulder and asked:

– Why, Dovid, do you still tear off your shirt today?!
He remembered. And I immediately recalled that Meir Czartarisker was then still, without a doubt, a small boy. And yet, the scene remained in his memory.

The fact that such a Jew as Motl Lambaciner, who was not any kind of fool and also certainly was not just a contributor, was not a Jew who would allow himself to throw away money, would build a theater specially for us, shows there truly was something worthwhile in our group. I do not remember how many seats – 200 or 300 – but this was a considerable and beautiful building, with [stage] wings, with cloakrooms and in general was everything a theater should be. Russian and Ukrainian troupes also would perform in the theater. At the time, for reasons out of our control, we were forced to end our theater activities, he quickly realized that he should rebuild the theater into a post office and he combined several rooms in another house and created a theater hall. This was not the same. Previously, he had had a source of income from our dramatic group.

Our group did not always have a stage. The room that belonged to the gmina [municipality] rarely agreed to rent it to the Jews. The group looked for larger areas in stalls, in large outbuildings. However, we had to give them some kind of human appearance. We had to drag together boards, collect benches and seats. This was work that took weeks and we worked at it entire nights.

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I need to emphasize here: We endeavored that our presentations bring income. We needed to have money for our cultural work in the shtetl and for other areas of our activity in the shtetl and in the surrounding area.


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Literary Evenings

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

We had to have income from the performances [of the theater group], so we therefore sometimes made compromises with the taste of the audience; we conformed to it although we did not want to do so. However, we accepted no compromises at the literary evenings. Naturally, a smaller audience came to them but they were people who had some idea about literature and loved it. This audience listened well to the recitations, fragments from [literary] works. As far as the age of the public, it was mixed. There were also those who came who had no time to read and attended in order to take pleasure from an artistic word.

The memorial evening for Y.L. Peretz's 15th yohrzeit [anniversary of a death] is engraved forever on my mind. Peretz was our symbol, our guide, our inheritance, our pride and an essential part of our program. Our entire work was carried out in the Peretz Society. There was no partition behind which we hid; it was the essence of our human and Yiddish content. Therefore, organizing such a venture created great concern for us.

We had great ambitions, but intellectual opportunities were modest enough. We undertook to welcome the entire shtetl [town] to our premises for this evening; that it should be a great cultural event. Coincidence helped us. A guest from Vilna suddenly arrived in the shtetl, an esteemed pedagogue, Siama Kac. We invited him to give the lecture. But: what kind of Peretz will it be for you? The guest answered with a mysterious smile: “There is only one Peretz; there were not two.”

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The audience – toe to toe. All of the rooms were full. [There also was] a large group at the open windows, as at the windows of a rich house during a wedding. And it was the real Peretz: the rebel, the searcher, the restless one, the passionate one, the misnagid [opponent of Hasidism] who showed the high level of folksy Hasidism and Hasidic decadence, the realist who settled accounts with the “Shtreimlekh” [the Hasidim who wear the fur hat worn by married men in many Hasidic sects], the revolt by the grievous hearts who were called to fill the abyss between man and man.

The speaker spoke extensively, comprehensively including Peretz's creations. He knew what to say and how to say it; it was a true holiday!

In general, the program of the literary evening was well thought out from the start. There were no accidents. We stuck to one principle: earnest but not boring. The subject matter was comprehensive, but we did not take our eyes off the political purpose. We knew exactly what would interest the audience and exactly how to weave serious matters with humor; lightening the serious artillery or compensating with agile “singing” humoresque, parody, popular fiction.

When our comrade, Motl Walik, spoke of Sholem Aleichem's Menakhem-Mendl, we had the impression that Menakhem-Mendl himself had been invited to speak about his business. They no less than dissolved with pride, shaking their heads as if agreeing, adding: where had you seen a Jewish small merchant who was not a bit of a Menakhem-Mendl? Yet, this was Jewish hopelessness, Jews not knowing from where their income would come. I think everything was here: agility, sense, energy and it did not result in any income. From cold to hot and the opposite; defeat after defeat, but the courage was not lost, the confidence pulled out of one hardship to throw himself him into another and only to marvel at how inexhaustible the confidence was and with it the wild, nervous energy: someday the wheel must turn with a happy face toward him?! Why does luck smile

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every day for the Rothschilds, for the Brodskis, for the Visotskys, for the Marazows? Why should it not smile once on Menakhem-Mendl, who looked for such a smile his entire life? How many things did he do and into how many businesses did he put his effort?

A Jew sits in the room and sees a living Menakhem-Mendl before him and laughs at him and snickers to himself that he, too, cannot cure himself of his confidence, that it does not heal, but here is the only remedy that has remained for him.

Even those who had not read Sholem Aleichem's book had always known Menakhem-Mendl and there was laughter in the room, indeed, such laughter that heals although one's sides hurt from laughing.

And we held with another principle in putting together programs for the literary evenings. Not repeating ourselves. Just not repeating ourselves. We looked for material for the evenings in the press and in the weekly journals, without regard for their political direction. Here we took a novella, here an interesting article about a literary theme, a fresh feature article, a fragment from a new book, a new poem. We acquainted our audience with examples of the works of various Jewish poets: [H.] Leivik, [Moyshe] Kulbak, Abraham Reisen, Moshe Szulsztajn; the poets of “Yung Vilna” [Young Vilna], [Y.L.] Peretz and Peretz Markish, [Itzik] Fefer and [Arn] Kushnirov and more and more. And we did not avoid something humorous or the parodies of [Yosef] Tunkel. We searched, looked for and found, so that they would want to come again, not only out of habit, but because it was interesting and little by little everyone would be permeated with the conviction that friendship with a book was the best friendship in the best society.

Today, thinking about those evenings, I am sure that they were one of the most beautiful accomplishments, entertaining as well as profitable because they enriched our souls with many new experiences and with artistic and intellectual enjoyment.

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Without our literary evenings, perhaps dozens of people would never have known about a Tevye the milkman [Sholem Aleichem's most famous character], a Menakhem-Mendl, a Bontshe Shvayg [Bontshe the Silent], the personages of [Joseph] Opatoshu's In Polisher Velder [In the Polish Woods], of [David] Bergelson's Mirele (from Nokh Alemen [known in English as When All is Said and Done]); perhaps would not have heard about [H.] Leivick's Golem, about [Menakhem] Boraisha's Zavl Rimer, not know the name of Mani Leib, [A.] Gurshtein, [Leib] Kvitko and dozens and dozens of others.

* * *

Once, several days after a literary evening, we, a small group of friends, found ourselves near the tailors' synagogue. The synagogue distinguished itself among the poor strip of small houses with its size. Many people were in the street, among the group, some in talisim [prayer shawls], as if they, men who spent their time in the synagogue, had come out for a second, tailors, furriers, other artisans. Suddenly we were surrounded by the worshippers and one of them, Alter-Leib the tailor, with the nickname “Old Pine,” asked:

– Just answer, Comrade Jokers, where does the enchanted tailor live?

So, really, an echo of our last literary evening! The worshippers had been persuaded that the story had happened to one of the tailors from the shtetlekh [towns] around us. How can we give them an address when we ourselves do not know him? Perhaps Sholem Aleichem knew, but did not give it because Zladeyevka looks like an invented name and, perhaps not, who can know? But someone from our group leaned against the wall and began to explain to the Jews that Zladeyevka was located somewhere not far from Mazepevka, which is not far from Chaplakova and very near Kazedayevka between Yampela and Strits near the road that runs through Pisherchvost and Yagoda, through Petrovitz to Yehupitz.

The man's name was Shimeon-Elya and he was called “Shema Koleinu [“Hear our voice” – from the weekday Amidah – the Standing Prayer – and a Yom Kippur prayer] because while praying in the synagogue he had a habit – he would tremble, shout, cry to the heavens. The man was a simple tailor.

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And here we interceded to help our comrade and began to explain what sort of a tailor this was. Not someone from the large periodicals, but a specialist in placing a patch on a patch. All of the holes that fell into his hands would be darned so that the best eyes could not find the hole. And, when he remodeled a garment, a pair of pants, a jacket, everyone thought that it had been bought from a shop. He made a beautiful kapote [long, black coat worn by orthodox Jewish men] out of a long, worn-out loose robe, from the kapote he then made a few underpants and later from them he could stitch together an undershirt and if something else was needed, something else, too…

Shimeon-Elya – we further explained – had another fault: he could not live well with rich men. He threw himself, sneaked in, interfered in all community matters. He would always defend the grievances of the poor. He would openly give his opinion about all of the community workers in the shtetl and he would always overwhelm them and he would say about the shoykhet [ritual slaughterer], the rabbis that they were in the hands of the powerful [residents of the town]. He would shout that these were the blood-suckers, one gang, a band of thieves…

This Shimeon-Elya Shema Koleinu had a wife. She was named Tsipa-Bayla-Rayza. She was just the opposite of what he was. Tall, broad, in one word – a Jewish woman, a Cossack. And because her neighbor, Nekhama-Brukha had a goat, Tsipa-Bayla-Rayza demanded of her husband that he leave everything and go to Kazadajevka to buy a goat.

In short, thus did we, a group of jokers, begin to tell the group of Jewish worshippers the history of Shimeon-Elya, the goat, and the tavern-keeper and the mix-up, and the Din-Torah [legal matter before a religious court] and the Jews gasped and grabbed their stomachs with laughter and could not stop laughing at all; they calmed themselves for a while and again started laughing. We actually were afraid that, God forbid, something would happen to the Jews because of the laughter. They laughed, laughed and one of us said to them:

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– Laugh Jews, laugh, follow the advice from Sholem Aleichem who taught: “Laughter is healthy, doctors tell us to laugh.”
This laughter also was an echo of our literary evenings. We tried to have writers who were familiar to the people in every house with us and we succeeded more than a little in this respect.


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Literary Trials

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

The literary trials need to be considered as a separate cultural chapter. We attracted [attendees] through communications with interested groups in the surrounding shtetlekh [towns]. We let it be known that on a particular Friday night a literary trial would take place at the Peretz Society in Kolki. The trials were not comparable to other cultural undertakings and, therefore, had more success. There were judges, prosecutors, defenders and, naturally – how could there not be? – witnesses. The accused was a literary hero.

We discussed and argued, just as if the hero were not a literary fiction, but in reality – a “hero” who needed to be placed “against the wall” or freed, or finding “moderating circumstances” for a lighter sentence.

I remember the trial of Sholem Asch's literary personage, “Motke Ganev” [Motke the thief].

I remember: Aba Sztajman was the defender in this “trial” and Chaim Batlin was the accuser. Not only young people came, but also people of middle age and older. An audience even was assembled outside at the open windows.

Naturally, at such an event, it was not only the theme that played a large role, but also the most important participants. Aba Sztajman had a “reputation.” He was the son of a blacksmith in Rozhyshche, a small shtetl in Volhynia, a young man without higher and even without a middle school education, who worked with a large hammer with his father in the smithy until he was 18. Meanwhile, between, so to

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say, hammer and anvil, he grabbed and absorbed well a considerable amount of knowledge. After wiping off his sweat and the soot [on his body], in general, he hastened to grab a book with more desire than [using] a hammer. At night he sat up over books: physics, mathematics, Polish grammar, but the love in his heart was his inclination to literature. The Polish language, which he learned with rare fluency, was to be his gateway to Gan-Eden [heaven] – to education. His dream was to open an office to write requests [to officials for those who did not know the Polish language or the law]. For this, one had to study [the law]. First of all, he had to be proficient in the legal rights about land because his future clients would consist of peasants.

Sztajman achieved what he wanted – he passed exams and actually, opened an office here in our shtetl [town].

His Yiddish also was without reproach, as was his Polish. Yet they tried to take away his authorization because, ostensibly, his Polish was a little clumsy. “Clumsy” because they wanted to take over his office and his clientele for the son of the police commandant from a nearby shtetl. However, Sztajman won and with his beautiful Polish, against the policeman's son because [the son] was shown to be barely able [to read and write] in his mother-tongue.

Chaim Batlin was a complete contrast to the calm, restrained and elegant Aba Sztajman. [He had] a small, drawn-out face, pointed nose and large teeth, a clenched fist and burning, dark eyes behind his large, round glasses. He talked with strong gestures, just as if the words would had not from his mouth, but from his fingers. He had worn out his pants on many yeshiva [religious secondary school] benches. His attire was like Avrom Reysen's Mai Kamishme Len [May I Mean That]:

“And the long, torn boots and the great mud in the streets,
Winter will soon come and there is no warm kaftan.”
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Finally, he found it abhorrent to feel ashamed in unfamiliar places; he turned sharply and began his secular studies and it was a source of pride for him in having a sign on his residence: “Office for writing petitions [to the government].” There was great competition, but there was enough work for all – the peasants found themselves in a permanent reciprocal war and were involved in lawsuits over every little bit of land.

So the two auto-didacts appeared against each other during the literary trials. It is said: the man is the style. Two different men – two different styles – in reacting, in speaking, in arguing. One – calm, the other – nervous.

Sztajman loved to make use of foreign words in his appearances and to immediately translate them. In addition, he would cite stories and Greek mythology.

Chaim Batlin made use of Hebraisms, cited Tanakh [The Five Books of Moses plus the Writings and Prophets], the Talmud and, coming across something that was not accessible for the audience, he immediately would undertake a translation and interpretation. In addition he gushed with witticisms and jokes, and his khalef [knife used for ritual slaughtering of animals] “slaughtered.” Woe to he who had the misfortune to be the subject of his talk.

So when the audience announcement of a literary debate carried both names, it would truly become a gathering, like a real battle in the street.

The chairman opened the trial, declared who the accused was, described the procedure that would be observed at the trial and, as was the way, the accuser had the first word.

Batlin [the accuser/prosecutor] spoke sharply. He started using his tongue and both of his hands. First of all, he analyzed the deeds of Motke Ganev [the hero of Sholem Asch's novel, Motke Ganev – Motke the Thief]. He described them with an ascending quiver [of his voice], began to look for the causes for his [Motke's] character and conduct and discerned an atavistic vein; he already was a thief in his mother's belly and he arrival in the world in an outrage. He screamed wildly and

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spit out the small rag with the sweet water; he only wanted his mother's breast, but his rejected and tormented mother did not have much milk in her thin breast, not as much as the outrageous one demanded. He particularly did not want to be left alone. As a nursing child he was not satisfied with what life gave him; he showed traits of one who was truly subjugated. His entire road, the long one, was parasitic and exploitive; his life – an exploitive one, [taking] from another's labor. He carried that which he was in his blood [and there] were biological-criminal types and Motke Ganev was one such example.

Batlin went into a further excursion on criminology, cited authorities, showed the physical crippling, the lack of human norms among criminals, spoke about their language, provided examples from literature, in general, and from the beautiful literature, in particular, spoke about the philosophy of crime, citing Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. First, one dares to take another's property, then when it is connected to it [the property], the other one's life. Literary names were strewn, literary examples, mainly Dickens. He even called Sigmund Freud as a witness; he pelted us with citations from various sources and, finally, he spoke about the social danger of theft and the social harm of a type like Motke Ganev. He placed him outside the community; he carried out a moral execution of him. He ranted and demanded and his arguments sounded indisputable, which could not be overturned.

A prosecutor, a real one, truly a murderous one, may God protect and save the Jews. He did not leave a limb for Motke. And when after a half hour of storms, he sat down on his stool and took out a colored cloth to wipe with zeal his sweating face, he looked at the audience in the room with his dark, fiery eyes, searching for the impression he left on their faces.

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Then the defender stood up. Calm, modest and, yet, too elegant for someone in our shtetl [town]. He moved his hand over his hair, which kept becoming more sparse; he took in those around him with mild eyes and with his smile melted the dark cloud that had gathered from the words and the facts when the prosecutor had spoken. Everyone began to feel as if they were suspected of being a little bit of a thief. Now, everyone wanted to save Motke from the gallows.

The defender spoke quietly. He also used literary examples, showed proficiency in philosophy, but he also took the role of a good angel who looks to the crime for the reasons and not to the criminal. No one is born a prosecutor and no one is born a lawyer, nor a judge and not a criminal. Everyone is born as something that is molded and shaped by life, by the social environment and by the social conditions. If the theory of the tabula rosa can be disputed in a certain sense, the theory about it is that the person can be molded, first of all, by his parents, a fatalistic attitude and, in addition, a terrible one. If a person is born with that which determines his life until the end because of the inherited traits of his character, then all efforts are superfluous that are made to form a human existence in the communal-spiritual framework. We forget every day on which we are in the world that we are not only the creator of our fate, but also a product [of it]. A product of what? – A product of the social evolution, of the closest and most distant environment, of human relations and many, many other components that affect the development of an individual. Certainly there are present individuals with criminal tendencies, but crimes, in short, are a product of social [conditions]. Need, human loneliness and isolation – they are the factors that produce the criminal and the crimes…

[Page 116]

Naturally, when one comes not from an inheritance of traits, but from an inheritance of money, factories and banks, one does not become a pickpocket like Motke. They steal in wholesale from the accounts of thousand of people who work for them; they control exchanges and they steal from the accounts of those who save, who have skimped to have something for a dark day. These criminals are not punished by any laws. The opposite, these criminals are those who judge those who steal bread for hungry stomachs. Robbery is a temporary means to save oneself from a death from hunger. The accuser had forgotten this, being entirely permeated by the full rigor of the law and forgetting completely the mercy, that often a man stands entirely lost in regard to his fate, which he did not create. We, Jews, have many proverbs, both about justice and about money and about theft.

Firstly, I want to remind you of what our most experienced people say, “Gold is the best soap – it removes the biggest spots.” Of whom is it said, “He can remove the last shirt from a body” – about a thief or about a rich man, a money-lender or a usurer? God protects; I do not protect any thief. Theft is an ugly thing. But do not condemn the thief who steals bread and do not consider the great man who steals a world [of things] a tzadek [righteous man]. Have consideration. Also remember that need creates thieves, just as it creates prostitution. Remember that the worst thing is not necessarily becoming a thief. At times, it is those who do not want to die ashamedly in a ditch, but with strength dare to take the most basic [things] that the community has taken from them or refused to give [to them]. Theft is a personal answer to robbery by the wealthy. We will not protect theft, but we can protect a thief in concrete ways. Remember the clever folk-saying: “Not everyone at whom a dog barks is a thief.” And not everyone who is a thief wants to be one. If one wants to think of this problem in a moral aspect, they would need to be able to answer the question: “Do you let small children die of hunger

[Page 117]

or do you steal for them and thus save their lives?” Who could try to answer this question in an easy frame of mind? In addition, he would need to answer other questions: what is the worse crime, theft or committing a murder? You see, one must find the tangible answer. There are countries where there are no thefts, countries where there is thought of the minimum [amount of money] needed to live. I think the great majority of thieves are victims of society and the society needs to be judged because it is inhumane and measures everything according to the purse. It is said about rich men: “The rich man has his commonsense and purse. Therefore, the thief steals the purse and has entirely no desire for the commonsense of the rich man.”

Just as it earlier appeared that Batlin's arguments were unassailable and could not be refuted, when Sztajman spoke, those assembled really saw with their own eyes how all of the proofs of the previous speaker were erased one after the other and their sympathy moved to the defender.

It was a very interesting struggle and he [the defender] thanked the young people who had crammed into the premises of the Peretz Society.

My friend, do you remember this evening – one of the evenings with which the young people in our shtetl were gifted in these premises, which gave us things to think about, which enriched our knowledge and sharpened our eagerness for knowledge?

Such evenings were simultaneously political, ideological battles. They mobilized the ideas of the listener and prepared the soil for new groups of Jewish comrades. Such evenings would be “the theme of the day” in the shtetl for many days. After such an evening, the book of an author who was its theme was borrowed from the library for months. Do we need a better way of propagating Yiddish literature?

*

[Page 118]

Standing from the right: 1. Yosl Chajczik, 2. A. Zilberberg, 3. Zishia Chajczik, 4. Meir Czartarisker, 5. Meir Cipes, 6. Tani Fajersztajn
Sitting from the right: Meir Ejzenberg, 2. Berish Egber, 3. Sholem Garbacz, 4. Meir Beker, 5. Leibush Kacan, 6. (unknown), 7. Yosl Klajman
Sitting on the floor: 1. Rajzl Simces, 2. Shlomo Druker


[Page 119]

Kestl Ovntn[1]

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

Perhaps you could ask, my friend, for what purpose do I talk of such things? Why? I ask myself: why? I think it is because these memory fragments about cultural work in our shtetl [town] carry the imprint of an annihilated generation that was torn out by its roots. And that which they did during their lives and their work will not be carried on by their children and grandchildren, as it was before the destruction [the Holocaust]. We want to show how greedy for knowledge our shtetl was; how they tried to make their lives spiritually interesting.

So take our kestl ovntn: a wooden box hung at our [Y. L.] Peretz Society and anyone could throw in a note with a theme or a question in which he was interested that would be answered or discussed or dealt with in other ways because kestl ovntn were actually discussion evenings.

One could place a note in the box but not take one out. A lock hung on the box.

The box was opened once a month – actually during a kestl ovnt. Every note was shaken out onto the table and whoever wanted to could answer after reading a question. In this manner, we wanted to learn the Torah on one foot.[2] From these kinds of questions, we saw the interests of our membership. And they were very broad. Mostly people actually answered their own question. The notes were thrown in without a signature; they were eager, often for an entire month, to answer it and in such a manner, show everyone assembled their erudition in a flash.

[Page 120]

There were cases – how could there not be? – when several people knew what kind of questions were present in the box and prepared in advance. This surely was a benefit to everyone – instead of nonsense, the pertinent answer and information would be received and a solid discussion developed as well. To the surprise of the questioner who had himself prepared an answer, others who knew the question had prepared better than the questioner himself. Thus, the other one [the questioner] was overwhelmed by his know-it-all comrade.

There also would be questions that no one knew how to answer. A political opponent, for example, threw a trick question into the box, which put us in an uncomfortable position. However, the other one [the political opponent] inadvertently had disclosed this and we learned of this. We then sent a special representative to Lutsk (15 kilometers by train and 50 with a horse and wagon), and there an answer was prepared with a comrade, as a result of which the questioner remained as if spanked and did not make one sound.

It is worth mentioning at this point that coming to our meeting place signified a discrediting of oneself in the eyes of the police, who never took their eyes off us. Therefore, in general, the cowards and our opponents avoided any contact with us.

We were young and as young people, we were rash. We thought that we could achieve everything with one blow; we would find a solution to all of the evil in the world, just like cutting out an abscess and building a brand new world that would shine like the sun. However, later, life taught us a harsh lesson, often mixed up the paths, tangled the fates. The same one who laid a trap for us with the “trick” question and

[Page 121]

forced us to go hundreds of kilometers back and forth to receive a suitable answer fell at the front of the famous Kursk battle.

The young man came to us in Kolki from Rovno with his father. His father was a carpenter and Ayzyk Szpringer was his helper. Because of unemployment, they would spend the entire week with the peasants in the villages involved in carpentry and woodworking and return to the shtetl [town – Kolki] only on Shabbos [Sabbath] and Sunday. Ayzyk was a “red,” but a different kind of red than we. We would hope to free the entire world and he, his “own bunch.” In short as we would say, he was Borochovist [follower of Ber Borochov, a Marxist Zionist]. His “position” also had to be the answer: the only way for the Jewish young was that shown by Borochov. After our consultation in Lutsk, we were armed with citations and with information, and showed in black and white that “Borochovism” was a utopia and drew the masses away from the direct struggle on the earth. Today, our answer would surely appear very primitive, but then it rang in our ears as the highest level of “erudition,” of total knowledge, of the only truth in which we were completely convinced, as a believing Jew in the coming of Moshiekh [the redeemer].

The kestl-ovntn for us then were a sort of an original university, a place of spiritual enrichment.


Translator's notes:
  1. kestl ovntn – basket evenings – were evenings where speakers and writers presented their ideas to help teach people who lacked an education. Return
  2. The phrase “learn the Torah on one foot” comes from a story about the sage Hillel. A gentile came to Hillel and said he would convert to Judaism if Hillel could teach him the Torah while standing on one foot. Hillel responded: “That which is hateful to you do not do to another; that is the entire Torah, and the rest is commentary. Go study.” Return


[Page 122]

Our Mothers

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

 

kol122.jpg

My mother Gitl Kac

 

[Page 123]

Our dearest one in the world is a mother, but children are even dearer to a mother. Therefore, they describe [their children] as being like “an eye in one's head.” I cannot sing a Hallelujah to our mothers. Only because I cannot sing.

Our mothers have earned the most beautiful songs – however, there are no singers in the world who could reach the level where their words and sounds would be adequate to express that which we feel for our mothers in our hearts. No matter what we say, it will sound banal, childish; everything already has been said better. Our first memories are about her, our mother. We heard the prettiest voice at our cradles, the gentlest touch was from her hands and the greatest hurt was the tears in her eyes. We saw the sun in her smile. However, we remember her face because of her difficult life, like the sun behind the clouds and when her tears were tears of joy and her smile illuminated her face, there was the beauty of the sun and rain.

Our mothers. Our mothers – they stood behind us like fortresses, quietly and stoically experiencing our own difficult way, were sick together with us, went through class after class with us. Our marks were her marks; our joy, her joy. [Figuratively] she went with us to jail, was tortured and dragged in chains with us.

[Page 124]

Hers – our mother's – requests were so modest! Her dream – to raise her children as decent, honest people – “with a trade in their hand” – so that, God forbid, they would not have to receive help from a stranger.

And when the children grew up and a loaf of bread was not enough, they began to leave the nest and fly like birds to distant lands and they, the mothers, stood with broken hearts, with fear in their hearts for the unknown fate of their children and tried not to show us the great pain in their souls while saying goodbye, just as earlier when they hid from us their desperate faces as they listened to the trials in court that were carried on against us and they received our sentences calmly so as not to worry us. A trifle – her children are going to Argentina – maternal hearts would tremble – to Brazil, to Canada! These places must be at the end of the world. Previously, she, the mother, had never even heard of such names, of such countries, where her children would be left in God's care. Her mood was heavy, her eyes were rinsed by tears, grief echoed in her heart, just like the ocean waves on boulders and she held up, the weak mother, she held up, she held up. Did she have a choice? She must hold up…

And then came the great misfortune for all Jewish mothers and all Jewish children. It is better not to remember this. In the end we are not made of iron: the war, the ghetto, the camps, the mass graves, the gas chambers, which suffocated the mothers' throats, Jewish mothers, like giant murderous hands.

Not only entire books, but entire libraries can be written and all of them would not be capable of telling of the misfortune. The greatest miracle of all miracles is that which happened to those who survived.

[Page 125]

How does one survive; how does one live with the fact that they were destined to survive? And yet we return to this, we return, although good fortune would be forgetfulness. But I will record one scene, one shout by a mother, one shout from the hell-lament during the war.

Tsivya, Grina Kac's daughter, told me how she said goodbye to her mother. Life was difficult for Grina, but she never complained. She became a widow with two small children while still young. She did everything to make her great dream come true that her children would be destined to live a better life than she had.

*

When the war broke out, she and her children were in an evacuation train in Tarnow. I think that all of the survivors were on the train. The only fear was of the German airplanes. No one knew when the train would start to move from the station. A Jewish officer from Kolki asked the mother to leave the wagon and watch his pack for a second. She did him the favor. And suddenly, without a signal, the train started to move and immediately began speeding. The children, Tsivya and Chava, saw their mother on the ground with outstretched hands with large, open, frightened eyes. In a moment, a moment – a thief had taken her children from her, children to whom she had given her entire life.

The eyes of a mother – this remained in the hearts of the children and the astonished fear of the children in the train speeding by [remained] in the heart of the mother, with her own shout, in a voice she herself did not recognize. This remained in her mind forever. The mother met her death in the Kolki ghetto.

* *
*

[Page 126]

What Tsivya told me remains an eternal picture for me; it is engraved in my memory for eternity.

If I were an artist, if I were a sculptor, if I could make a monument of stone
Of women with large, open, crying eyes, but without tears,
With an open mouth from which comes a frightening shout,
A shout without a voice and without words,
With hands stretched out to good fortune,
Which runs from her.
A memorial to our mothers!
For the slaughtered Jewish mothers!

*

[Page 127]

Lines of History

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

 

Dear Friend!

There was a Kolki and in the shtetl [town], Jews. Not a trace remains of this community; not one Jewish family lives there where we had our start. And we want to know: when was the beginning? We know about the end.

I searched in archives, looked for sources. There were not many. However, out of all that I gathered, it is possible to say something about the beginning of our shtetl.

There already was a settlement on this spot in the 14th century. There is a legend. It is true that it is different, depending on the source – different in Russian, different in Polish and different in Ukrainian; this is understandable. However, the origin is almost the same. According to the legend, a community existed here “on the other side of the water” – surrounded on all sides with thick forests and swamps. The legend says that a downpour with thunder and lightning started in the middle of the night. Suddenly the earth split and swallowed the houses and their residents, sheep and cattle and no sign of the church even remained. Only those who by chance were not home survived. When they returned, they were struck by a deadly fear because human cries and the pealing of bells came from the earth the entire night. However, they again tried to place roots in the earth and they began to build again.

[Page 128]

A great fire broke out and consumed everything, along with large areas of the surrounding forest. Then the survivors moved to the other side of the water and began to build there. Given that sticks of burned trees jutted out everywhere, the new settlement was called “Kolki” – sticks.[1]

When did the first Jewish residents arrive? There are no direct sources available. However, it is mentioned that during the first half of the 15th century, the Lithuanian Grand Duke Witold [Vytautas the Great] gave trade rights to the Jews in Lutsk and they carried out trade with their “brothers in faith” in Kolki. During the same approximate time, the area was known as a great center for the trade and production of honey. Both Jews and non-Jews were occupied with this. Barrels were needed for honey and Jewish barrel-makers made such barrels (Barrel making was a Jewish trade in all of Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine). Barrels were large, medium and small. The large barrels of honey would be sent farther to the large cities: Lutsk, Ludmir and Kremenice. The medium and small would be sent across the entire country, up to the Baltic.

It means that Jews lived in Kolki and were involved with honey and barrel making, but there are no numbers available. From 1570 when Kolki belonged to the Grand Duke Sanguszko, who also had his castle here, it was populated, as the area was populated, by people of the Catholic, Pravoslavna [Russian Orthodox] and Jewish faiths. It also is known that in 1589 payments and taxes flowed into the treasury of the landowner for various rights, for example, to make use of the landowner's roads, for liquid assets, for the right to be a fisherman, miller, butcher, arendar [lessee] – a sum of 80 florens and three groshn. Fifty percent of this sum flowed in from Jews. Thus, it must be mentioned that the peasants, as the landowner's serfs, did not pay taxes. There also were a series of other sources from which it can be seen that Jews were already deeply established inhabitants.

[Page 129]

There is information from [Bohdan] Chmielnicki's time. In 1648 Lutsk was surrounded by Chmielnicki's Cossacks under the leadership of Hetman Haladka and when they took the city, they carried out a terrible massacre among the Jews. In the beginning of 1649, three regiments were sent to Kolki to do the same thing. The Cossacks drove the Jews who had hidden in the woods before their slaughter, as well as the Jews from the surrounding villages, in the direction of Kolki. The Kolki Jews learned of this and decided to save the Torah scrolls. Three wagons carrying three Torahs and various religious books left for the woods accompanied by a group of Jews, in hopes of hiding. However, the Cossacks were told and they [the Jews] were caught. The Cossacks wrapped their victims in the Torah parchment and burned them alive. Then they [the Cossacks] undertook the task of murdering the Jews in the shtetl and burning their houses, after stealing their possessions.

Such facts also are written: there were swamps then at this place where the Styr is divided into two riverbeds. According to the order of the Hetman, the Jews were driven from the shtetl to the swamps and they were murdered there. He ordered a dam to be built against flooding for a distance of two to three kilometers using the dead bodies. A thin layer of dirt was thrown over the dam of flesh and thus arose the dams between Kolki and Raznicz (when we spent time on the dams and sang songs sitting under the willows near the river we did not know that this earth was a part of our own skin and blood… However, it could be that those who carried out the slaughter of the Jews during the Second World War actually did know).

Hundreds of Jewish communities were erased by the Cossacks and yet Jewish life again sprouted on the ground, moistened with their blood. In 1664, when a Catholic church was built here

[Page 130]

by the administrator of the Polish royal crown, Samuel Leszczynski, Ukrainian petty bourgeois and Jews who paid taxes lived in Kolki. The community had various owners during various times: Radziwill, Leszczynski and Kaczuchowski.

During the first half of the 17th century the “Great Highway” that led deep into Poland through Kremenice, Ludmir, Lutsk, to Dubno and Minsk and further, to Russia, went through not far from Kolki. At that time large yearly markets took place in Kolki during the day for Saint Piotr [Peter] in the month of June. Such a market lasted for two weeks and was a center of commercial exchange between Poland, Lithuania and Russia. In addition to others, there was a great trade in salt here. Hundreds of wagons of “mineral salts” were drawn from the steppes of Ukraine and over the roads of Moldova. These markets took place in Kolki until the first quarter of the 19th century.

There are documents from which can be seen that 829 Jews lived in Kolki in 1870 and a larger number of Jews in the surrounding villages.[2] Kolki had three houses of prayer, a beer brewery and a whiskey factory, 40 shops, 45 artisan workshops. From information from about 10 years later it can be seen that the shtetl already numbered 540 houses, three houses of prayer and a large synagogue, apparently the same synagogue that many of us still remember, which was burned at the beginning of the First World War. It was in the style of the old synagogues in Lithuania. There were then 4,360 residents. At the beginning of the 20th century – [there were] 4,500 residents, and of them, 60 were percent Jews.

[Page 131]

There also is no doubt that in almost the entire 18th century trade in dried mushrooms, dried berries and nuts was concentrated in Kolki. The goods would be sent across all of Europe.

In the first decade of our century [the 20th century] the shtetl numbered 673 houses. Two mills, a sawmill, and 99 shops and a large number of artisan workshops, in which not more than three people were working, functioned in 1913. There also was an apothecary, a post office and a half middle school.

In September 1915 a great battle with the Germans took place at the Styr [River] and the shtetl burned, actually only the Jewish quarter. The Jews ran to the surrounding cities and only returned after the [First World] War.

And one more number: in 1941 there were more than 3,000 Jews in Kolki.


Footnotes:
  1. The Ukrainian word for stick is kluchka, in Russian it is klyushka. [Translator] Return
  2. According to the Yevreyskaya Encyklopedia [Encyclopedia Judaica – published in St. Petersburg in 1908] there were 1,593 Jews in 1847. In 1897 there were 4,394 residents, of that number, 2,587 Jews. [Original footnote] Return

*

 

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