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[Page 92]

These I Will Remember…

By Itzhak Margalit

Translated by Selwyn Rose

A. The Enchantment of the Town

After many nights of wandering hither and thither the family arrived at Kovel. It seemed as though we had come out of the darkness and into the light.

I was enchanted by the railroad station, enthralled by it as if by the Almighty.

My father (Z”L) saw that I was impressed and said to me: “After the First World War the Germans sent engineers to build railroad stations in Russia. These stations were built to a uniform plan because they were intended to act as recognizable strategic signposts when next the German army invades Russia.”

And indeed, in the Second World War the German officers made straight for these iconic landmarks.

It was 2:00 o'clock in the morning. The town was wrapped in darkness. By chance there was a carriage with a fine–looking horse harnessed to it adorned with fine reins. The driver, a fat Jewish man, courteously offered his services. As the carriage proceeded along the cobble–stoned road the clickety–clack of the horses' hooves together with the wheels of the carriage noisily shattered the silence of the night.

 

The magnificent Kovel railroad station

 

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The town seemed peaceful, quiet – as if the hand of time had not touched it, as if the terrors of war had not yet arrived here. And indeed the town suffered less during the Holocaust than many other towns. There was a legend in the town that the Rabbi (May his memory be for a blessing), from Niesuchojeże (Nezkizh ) – blessed the town wishing that no hater of Israel will ever conquer it and never bring upon it sadness. And indeed the blessing of this pure righteous man endured.

We arrive at a bridge. The carriage stops and the wagon–master gives us a bit of a history lesson: “The town,” says he, “is not one but two: the new and the old.”

It is wrapped in a blanket of mystery and antiquity. I feel somewhat as if pages of history are unrolling before me. I am encircled by an atmosphere of an ancient, ancient town.

I was intoxicated by the enchantment of the town that appeared before my eyes as if it were a legend. The carriage arrived at the Dresden Hotel and we went in.

We assuaged our hunger and quenched our thirst. We had warm and pleasant beds and after so much wandering around I had the comforting feeling that at last we had reached a safe haven.

 

B. Rabbi Velvele's Dance

The evening darkens. The autumn winds are blowing and playing their music. The Jewish community hurries from three different directions Maciejow Street, Brest Street (Brest–Litowsker Street) and Apczyczena(?) Street, by way of the old cemetery.

Men, women and children congregated in the synagogue of Rabbi Velvele Twerski. When the congregation finished the evening prayer they commenced the ceremony of “Hakefot[1] Rabbi Velvele is invited to carry the Scroll. The old man takes the Scroll in his hands, covers his head with his prayer–shawl and shows his disciples just exactly what “Rejoicing of the Law” really means.

The old man starts dancing and continues with determination until he can no more. For more than an hour but Rabbi Velvele shows no sign of fatigue and no indication of tiring. He becomes bereft and naked of all earthly reality and corporeality, floating, as it were, on worlds far above. He is physically connected with nothing – but nothing – of the material world. He becomes transfigured into a spiritual abstract entity. He is entirely integrated into the Being of the Holy One Blessed be He. Rabbi Velvele is elevated in the eyes of his disciples to a being not of this world. Fear of the Almighty fills their hearts. Fear of the Rabbi shows on their faces. And Rabbi Velvele dances on and on until at last exhaustion conquers him. His disciples ask each other in amazement: “What can we say about Rabbi Velele's dance?”

As if “on the wings of eagles”[2] the story of the Rabbi's dance spreads speedily throughout the town. One's heart bursts into joyous song, the furrows of care on the faces of the Jews disappear, everyone is joyful; on every street there is only exultant joy and happiness. As evening turns into night wonderful music is heard. Everyone is singing and sweetness continues to flow from the dancing of Rabbi Velvele. The following day, “Simchat Torah”, the Rejoicing of the Giving of the Law, we wait near the stadium for Rabbi Shmuel Mendel (Z”L), (the father of Eli Mendel). Rabbi Shmuel was one of the faithful disciples of Rabbi Velvele, and leaves the synagogue of the Rabbi singing and dancing the length of Brest Street, coming to the stadium and crossing the fields to his home on Kolyava Street.

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We young Jewish lads were captivated by the singing and dancing of Rabbi Shmuel Mendel and joined in, together with him.

Rabbi Velvele! Rabbi Velvele! How could you have fallen into the clutches of the rogues and thugs? Your mouth has uttered majestic words of Torah and gladdened the heart with wonderful melodies – how did your mouth and words become as ashes!

 

C. The Heder of Rabbi Shaye of Trojanówka

Thus is the portrait of Rabbi Yehoshua of Trojanówka engraved upon my memory or, as we called him, “Shaye Trojanówka”: a tall Jew, white–bearded, resembling somewhat a sort of “Zaken Aharon[3] in the flesh, with watery eyes and spectacles perched upon his nose secured on one side by a cord looped around his ear. The skin of his fingers was cracked and a strong smell of snuff came emanating from them.

And what did the “Heder” look like? Simply a building tottering on the brink of collapse, its walls sunken into the ground with the windows level with the ground. And inside? Two frail benches, a table and a bed. In the adjoining room – the Rabbanit's bed, a closet and the kitchen. Rabbi Shaye Trojanówka didn't consider teaching simply a “spade to dig with”[4] in order to make a living but as a divine and heavenly elevated mission. The acquisition of Torah by the youth of Israel was his salary. His reputation was thereby established as an honest and fair teacher.

When we arrived from Russia the first concern of my father (Z”L) was to ensure I was not lacking in, or bereft of Torah – he sent me to Rabbi Shaye Trojanówka. However I didn't stay there for long. It was like this: a boy pinched me under the table. I reacted, stood up and slapped him. The Rabbi struck me on the hand with a stick. I snatched the stick from his hand and ran round the table, out through the window and home.

I refused to continue learning in the Heder of Rabbi Shaye Trojanówka. Strangely, in spite of the respect due to him, he swallowed his pride and came to my father trying to persuade him to return me to the Heder.

My father understood my feelings and declined to do so instead, because of his concern for my Torah studies, it was suggested that Rabbi Shaye Trojanówka will come to our house and teach me from 6 in the morning until 8 – the hour I must leave for school.

This episode demonstrates clearly the stature of Rabbi Shaye Trojanówka. He feared I would stray from the paths of Torah study and begin to follow unsatisfactory topics and cultures; he therefore had no concern for his rightful honor and self–respect and came daily to our home to teach me – and all this to ensure a Jewish lad didn't neglect Torah study.

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D. An episode in the life of Mr. Frankfurt (May G–d avenge his blood)

Mr. Frankfurt was an excellent mathematician but at the time of the founding of the gymnasium “Tarbut” he was not sufficiently fluent as a Hebrew speaker to be formally engaged. With that as a background there arose some linguistic “misunderstandings” and one of these I will now relate:

During the first days of the gymnasium, there was not sufficient revenue to employ a full–time secretary. Frankfurt took on a member of his department who had excellent handwriting, Levi Schwartz, and employed him as a secretary.

On one occasion, Schwartz presented Frankfurt with a letter he had prepared and began to leave. Frankfurt took the letter, looked through it and not understanding something called out to Schwartz, “Go away!” (instead of “Come here!”). Schwartz understood he was being dismissed and continued on his way back to his department while Frankfurt continued to shout, “Go away!” Scared into reaction, Schwartz began to run down the stairs with Frankfurt pursuing him; Schwartz runs and Frankfurt runs after him with his “Go away, I said!” Full of emotion, Mr. Frankfurt went into the teachers' room to tell them all of what had happened and said in his incorrect Hebrew: “He ran away and I ran after him.” When Frankfurt saw the smiles on the faces of the others, he realized his mistake and from that moment knew well the difference between “Come here,” and “Go away.”

Translator's notes:

  1. Hakefot” means literally ‘encircling’ and here refers to the ceremony of removing all the Torah scrolls from the Holy Ark and parading them round the synagogue (and sometimes out in the street) in a joyful manner, celebrating the festival of “the Giving of the Law”. By tradition the process continues until all the male members have carried one of the scrolls and participated. Return
  2. Taken from Exodus XIX; 4. Return
  3. “Zaken Aharon”. Novella and elucidations on the Torah by Rabbi Ahron Yosef Koretz of Zablotów, Galicia and New York. Printed in Krakow, 1930 Return
  4. A phrase taken from “Ethics of the Fathers” Chap. 4: 7 suggesting that using of Torah for earthly matters, such making a living, is profane. Return


In Memory of Our City, Kovel

By Hertzl Goldberg

Translated by Amy Samin

I close my eyes in order to bring forth memories of our beloved city, Kovel. Great is the distance from then until now, nearly thirty years have passed since we, the children of the Tarbut School, joined Hehalutz Hazair [a youth movement, literally Young Pioneer].

Many events occurred during those tempestuous times. Our city was erased from the face of the earth, and multitudes of our dear ones were destroyed Of all of our dreams and memories, only one remains, a pile of bones at the far edge of the city; there lies our cherished past.

We left behind in our city the years of our childhood and youth, the home of father and mother, grandfather and grandmother, uncles and aunts, grandchildren and great-grandchildren: the beloved, winding river, the slopes of the bridge, so pleasing to us all, the chapter of Hehalutz Hazair, Freiheit, the vibrant and rousing pioneering movement; years of work and tireless dedication by volunteers, young and old, on behalf of the movement and not in order to receive a reward.

I recall the Hebrew language, spoken freely, which was like a miracle to me,

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Tabenkin [Yitzhak Tabenkin, a Zionist activist] who visited Kovel. I remember the many Hebrew schools throughout the city. I recall Fabrichna Street, when the movement was just coming into being, and the first Klosova people returned with approval for immigration to the Land of Israel, who were the first swallows of the fifth aliyah [immigration of Jews to the Land of Israel]. In my mind's eye I can see the large, expansive auditorium on Lotzka Street, which was always filled with hundreds of youth from all stations of life, who strived to make aliyah. Those multitudes waited with bated breath for their opportunity to immigrate. And although the gates of the homeland were locked against us, no one gave up hope, and for many years they participated in preparation groups.

I also remember the summer colonies in the villages, in the bosom of nature surrounding the city, and the emissaries from the Holy Land who appeared there like angels from heaven, proclaiming their message day and night. There isn't enough paper to recount the way of life in our city in those days.

And all of that was destroyed in those tempestuous times. Our entire past, all of our loved ones, can be found in a hill of ash, on the edge of our far-off town. Great is our pain and our sorrow.


From the Recent and Distant Past

By Moshe Batar

Translated by Amy Samin

In 1924 we moved from our apartment in Kovel Vatoroy to Toshovsky Street. My father of blessed memory was a Trisk Hasid, and I was raised in the atmosphere of the Trisk synagogue.

The Trisk shtiebel was notable for a certain liberality. Strict attention was not paid to the saying of prayers; in the corridors, conversations were held on matters of global politics, Zionism and the Jewish people.

There we found Jews who understood our spirits, who joined us in a variety of pranks on the eve of Simchat Torah and other holidays.

Reuven Tzavik of blessed memory stands before me with his broad smile; he spoke the same language as the young people. He would give this one a pinch, and another he would honor with a slap on the back.

I remember Joseph Papa of blessed memory with his silken kapote, who on Sabbaths and holidays would read from the Torah with trills and special melodies while swaying to and fro.

And who does not recall Ephraim Rabiner of blessed memory? With his devotion to prayer that infused every fiber of his being, and who took note of every guest in the synagogue, approaching them during a break in the prayers, and arranging places for them to stay. Everyone listened to Reb Ephraim. Such respect and affection we had for that Jew, who spared no effort in arranging hospitality in the homes of the Jews for the many guests and soldiers who appeared in the city on the eve of holidays.

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And who does not remember the prayers of Shlomo Mendel of blessed memory during the Days of Awe? His “I'm a poor devil!” His conversations with the Master of the Universe. It was an experience you would never forget.

Within the walls of the Trisker shtiebel important Zionist activity was carried out. That activity was especially felt on the eve of Yom Kippur. Yoseph Tzavik and the son of Yoseph Papa organized the Zionist fundraising. All of the streams of Zionism were housed in that synagogue. Of particular note was one of the Jabotinsky Hasids, Yoseph Gelman, son of the ritual slaughterer Asher Gelman of blessed memory, who was proficient in the Talmud and equally knowledgeable of each and every article written by his rabbi, Jabotinsky.

I recall the lecture given by Mr. Itzhak Greenboim in Kovel on the subject of “Zionism and the Situation of the Jews in Poland.” Joseph Gelman of blessed memory interrupted and heckled him, “And what about Jabotinsky's statements in his article?” At the time, Jabotinsky had written an article in the daily press saying that England had misappropriated its role and was not fulfilling the Mandate, and that we must deliver the Mandate to the Polish government which was interested in Jewish migration.

Greenboim answered Gelman by saying that after a speech made by Trotsky at the time of the Revolution, many had been willing to walk through fire, but many had disagreed with the things he had said, and repudiated them. “And therefore young man, that which is sacred in your eyes is not sacred to me.”

When I become engrossed in the past and bring to mind how vigorous life was, with a youth that was gripped with and devoted to lofty ideals but in the end was lost, my heart is filled with sorrow. Alas for its loss.

From those days I can also recall a conversation I had with Rabbi Valula, may his righteous memory be blessed. What happened was this: with great sorrow we remember our dear parents, many of whom rent their clothing and sat shiva for their sons and daughters who underwent training and decided to make aliyah to the Holy Land. My own mother, God rest her soul, prostrated herself on the grave of my father of blessed memory, in order to convince me not to move to the Holy Land.

I knew that my mother believed in Rabbi Valula with every fiber of her being, so I said we should ask the rabbi for his advice, and whatever he suggested I would do.

We went to see the rabbi in the afternoon. Rabbi Valula sat on his wide chair, with his shtreimel on his head. The rabbi presented me with a variety of evidence in support of the promise the Holy One Blessed be He required of the people of Israel: do not speed the end[1]: “'Unless the Lord builds the house, they who build it labor in vain: unless the Lord keeps the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.' (Psalms 127:1) You, the pioneers, will not bring glory with the path you have chosen, because it does not come from God.”

The rabbi came at me with passages from Psalms, and I answered him with verses from Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” Not for nothing did I study at the yeshiva of Rabbi Yagodnik of blessed memory.

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In the end, I asked my mother to step out of the room for a moment, and when we were alone I said to the rabbi, “I didn't come here to listen to Halacha on if it is permitted to make aliyah to Eretz Yisrael. It is decided, and no passages, from the first to the last, can change it. But, holy rabbi, you must understand my spirit; if you do not agree, you are - God forbid - likely to lose a Jewish soul.” The rabbi gazed at me with astonished and embarrassed eyes. He called my mother into the room and gave his blessing to my aliyah to Eretz Yisrael.

Before I left, I went out for one last look at the city before leaving it forever. My heart trembled and shook within me. Here I had grown up and put down roots. It was difficult parting from those beloved Jews, the Jews of Kovel. But I was comforted in my heart that we would see one another again one day in Eretz Yisrael. I wandered down Toshovsky, Luchka, and Zorek Streets, glancing across the city park where we had woven so many dreams on moonlit nights.

The train began moving, extracting me by force like a tree pulled up from its roots. I didn't imagine, no Jew of Kovel could have imagined, that the sword of Damocles was suspended above their heads, that a bloodbath was about to wash over them and sweep everything away, and that the marvelous community of the Jews of Kovel was about to be cut down by an unbearable slaughter the likes of which our people had never before seen, even in the very darkest of times in our history.

Translator's note:

  1. By making aliyah, the Jews would be hastening the arrival of the Messiah, since it is believed that the Messiah will come when all of the Jews have returned to Eretz Yisrael. Return


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The Kovel Forest
(A brief glimpse of the town)

by Yacov Teitelkar

Translated by Amy Samin

Dedicated to my saintly and pure daughter
Raizele, G-d rest her soul

Dense forest. Abundant shade. Fertile ground of establishment and settlement of generations. Flowing with life, the rooted life of Israel Saba. Drenched in golden sunshine and dewy with precious moonbeams, fruitful and thriving. Each and every tree with its juicy roots, fertile and saturated, on its splendors, its fronds, and its bustling tendrils. And worlds upon worlds emerged and struggled and yearned. And stars put on a show, shining and twinkling overhead… embroidering and swallowing eternity - the eternity of Israel will not lie…

Here is the giant oak. Spreading through the forest, and his dimension and height is Moshe Pearl. A Jewish man inside and out. He came from the town of Trisk Forest and made

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his world in the city of Kovel - a world of national action. A typical Jew in appearance and in the purity of his soul. Devoted to his people with all of his soul and might. A faithful and active Zionist. He was the head of the Zionist movement in Kovel. At the same time, he was involved in meeting the needs of the public with faith and a wellspring of energy that came in a constant outpouring from his heart. He was dedicated to creating a fund to revive the failed popular savings and loan in Kovel; he was its leader and it improved. He became the community leader of Kovel and its president. He worked in cooperation with the office of the Polish municipality, directing it to act in ways that would help his overlooked and disadvantaged brothers. An expert bookkeeper, he would find the extremes and extract from the complexity of the Polish magistrate, creating situations that benefitted Hebrew education and culture and by some miracle, fund them.

He devoted himself to Hebrew education in Kovel, and was involved in the local Tarbut chapter, serving as its leader. He was one of the leading figures in the construction of a marvelous building for the first Hebrew Gymnasia in Kovel, Tarbut-based and including all of the latest refinements, from bottom to top, and he did so with complete simplicity and love, sincere humility and great modesty. A strong man. When asked about his colleague, his impoverished brother, he would bend down towards his questioner like a reed and speak to him in the words of his people and answer with his soul and his gallant heart.

Here is the olive tree, the sprig and the giant. Giving its fruit and oil to all around it. Yossel Shochat, “Borjui”. A haberdashery merchant, and one of the powerful community elders in the city, he was well-respected and capable. A modest and humble man who studied in the yeshiva. A “yeshiva boy” who became one of the town's most successful merchants. There wasn't a single educational or charitable organization working on behalf of society in Kovel that did not receive direct aid from Yossel Shochat - the father of charity in the city. He had a gentle and pleasant appearance, and spoke in a quiet and measured tone. His laugh and his gaze were modest. He was pleasant to everyone and shrank from receiving honors. He was occupied with his business but there was never a day on which he set aside the bible, and there was never an occurrence on which you would not find him at home, hunched over the Gemara and swimming through the sea of the Talmud.

Here is the ancient date palm - old man Appelboim. He came from far away. A lawyer. All his life he kept his distance from Judaism and its institutions; in his old age he returned to his origins and devoted himself to the abandoned and dilapidated orphanage. With his own money he rebuilt the roof of the temporary orphanage, and from there he went on to find a permanent home for the orphans of Kovel, becoming the faithful and devoted grandfather in heart and soul. An exalted elder. He spoke and behaved ponderously and continued to visit the orphanage until the day of his death, concerned for their needs and caring for his pupils, fostering their joy in his old age.

In the city and in the garden of orphans there blossomed a sturdy birch -

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Rayzah - the soul of the orphanage who sacrificed herself for the sake of the orphans, giving them the most precious thing of all: a mother. A maiden from a wealthy family, she left her home and the family wealth and put all of her desires and priorities into the adoption of the orphans and their freedom from the status of orphan. She served as an exemplary savior to the orphans, to the amazement of all who came to the city of Kovel. She began her activities in the latter days of the First World War, after the bloody trip of Blech-Balkovitz, Petliora and their gang in the villages of Volhynia leaving behind them a harvest filled with bereavement and loss, and many widows and orphans among the Jewish residents, who were in need of sponsorship and aid from the big city of Kovel. Rayzah was not satisfied with social philanthropy, she saw herself and her personal mission as returning to the orphan that which he had lost, the warm atmosphere of family, maternal love and warmth… she worried over them as a mother would, she guided them and watched over them. She pondered and plotted day and night how she could improve their situation, how she could make their lives sweeter and more pleasant. She rented private apartments for them (before the orphanage was built by Appelboim) offering them the possibility of independent lives that did not depend on their fellow man. There were none among the people of means, whether those with a generous hand or those whose hand was closed tight, who did not know Rayzah and have enough of her … and Rayzah was not concerned for her honor and did not pay attention to personal insult, caring only that “her boys” had what they needed.

Modest, tall, with a slow, smug smile, she would sometimes voice her concern and her resentment to her intimate friends about the rigidity and stubbornness of the orphanage's board members, the Friends of Honor who looked only at the eyes of the orphans, but not at their hearts.

Here also is the “father” of the orphans of Kovel, Asher Erlich, partner in the work of Rayzah and her assistant, who sacrificed no less than she on behalf of the orphans, his students, friends and the well-spring of his life. The official secretary of the orphanage, he managed and guided them, restrained them, accompanied them and protected them wherever they went. He was a Communist in his outlook, and he worked in comfortable and easy partnership with the Zionists (most of them on the board of the orphanage). He kept himself separate from the wealth of political parties, and all of his educational work was not a teaching of fundamentals, but was first and foremost human-Jewish. Short of stature, steadfast and strong, his most noticeable feature was his level-headedness and his emotional equilibrium, his taking a stand and his lack of hesitation in everyday life and in not so normal life, all of which influenced his students/friends, the orphans.

And here is the glorious citrus, with his majestic appearance and noble spirit - the young rabbi of Kovel, Rabbi Nachum Misheli, a well-versed Torah scholar and educated as well. Educated in every way, the scent of progress emanated from him, noticeable from a distance. He was involved in health issues. He pronounced

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opinions and observations. An enthusiastic lecturer he could always be found at the municipal synagogue where the Torah content was intertwined by golden threads to nationalism and popular Zionism. He called out to and awakened the Jews of Kovel to awake and become acclimatized / integrated to the fundamentals of Judaism and its traditions, to remain strong in the face of persecution, boycott and economic distress caused by the conservative, anti-Semitic Polish government, and to place their hope and safety in the hands of the Creator.

And here is the willow, the tree that is planted by flowing water - the beadle of the house of study in the Sands (Zamdiker Beit Midrash) - Pinchas the Beadle and the mohel [ritual circumciser] in one. He was the accepted expert of the physicians, who ushered thousands of Jews into the covenant of our father Abraham, and the doctors of the city trusted him and asked for his advice. He was the beadle of the house of study and in fact was responsible for all of the sacred, religious and social work. A faithful shepherd and counselor to the people in every matter of religion and proper behavior, a mediator between them and the Master of the Universe - portly, weak and short of breath, he never knew fatigue. Involved in the commonplace, but his eyes and head were always in the clouds.

And here is the most populist, basic type - unique unto himself, the painter Yosman. A common man, a proletarian worker. There was not a single workers' society, organization or public institution in which he did not appear as a lecturer - warrior who spoke his piece and would not be silenced, his bell-like voice would explode in the ears even from a distance, demanding the proper rights of the workers. At the same time, he was also an excellent preacher, fittingly standing on the bima [dais] in the house of study before a large audience and between the mincha [afternoon] and maariv [evening] prayers and lecturing. He would illuminate all who listened on the Torah and good deeds, while integrating that with exhortations to awakening a sense of nationalism and a Zionist mission - a return to Zion, the redemption and rebuilding of the Land of Israel. And on the dark winter nights, he would sit before the open books of the Gemara and recite before the “world” a chapter of the Mishnah and Ayin Yaacov.

And here is the handsome tree, juicy and sweet-smelling, the quick-witted Jew, pleasant and comfortable, involved with all of the people of the city, the secretary of the Tarbut and the Jewish gymnasia - Yaacov Kopchick, whose face never showed sadness and who was always smiling and hospitable. And he generated smiles and a welcoming feeling in all who saw and heard his mirth and his witty and lush chorus, and his Jewish wisdom that was peppered with wit. There is no doubt that even during the action during which he and his brother were taken to be slaughtered, he smiled and acted the smart aleck in order to make his fellow victims smile, to make the bitterness of death a bit more pleasant and sweeter for himself and for others, with his peace of mind and his caustic and ridiculing jokes about their fate and death itself…

And here… here… thousands of blossoming trees in the city of Kovel, creating fruit and offering up their sweet scents, struck down by the angel of life, rooted, blossoming and growing, enjoying the brilliance of the sun and creating enjoyment in those around them, struck down in the depths of their roots, and sending their branches skywards.

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Parents and their progeny, worlds and their longing for the future, suffering their burden and weaving the life story of an ancient nation, its traditions and experiences, its trials and its joys.

And here - the tender buds, the innocent boys and girls, delicate and honest, fair and beloved, refreshing, spring-like, full of youthful vigor. With the pleasant faces of the boys and girls, with the beauty of their bright eyes. With the end of their dream, their tender souls and their pure confidence in the world of the Holy One, Blessed be He… with the scent of their blossoms and the whisper of their shoots, in their joy and happiness, and the magic of their songs, the youthful songs and the lives rising up and sprouting within the shady forest of Kovel…

And all of those were wiped out, ripped out by their roots by a murderous hand, surrounded, mechanized and scheduled by a cruel criminal, wicked and satanic … for all eternity.


Kovel during the First World War

By Baruch Barrok

Translated by Selwyn Rose

It is summer 1914. The information about a general mobilization spreads like lightning.

War has been declared! In the streets groups of people met, stood around. Posters appeared on nearly every wall, that whoever held in their possession a red card was obliged to report within twenty–four hours to the town's military officer.

Unimaginable panic arose. The following day one could already see women with tear–stained faces accompanying their husbands and parents their sons, on what was to be for many of them their last journey.

Within a few days one saw in the town farm wagons arriving from the Front (the Front was about 50 kilometers from the town near Volodymyr (Ludmir)), with the first wounded. Their bandages were stained red and soaked with blood from their injuries – they were the first victims of the confrontation between the Russian and Austrian armies.

People congregated in the streets to look at the terrible sight. The women were wringing their hands and sobbing bitterly. But in time they became used to the sight of the spilled blood.

Day and night heavy forces hurried to the front – artillery, cavalry and infantry. Behind them came long convoys of wagons, all moving in the direction of Ludmir.

Shock and horror struck the Jewish community on hearing that Michael, the son of Rabbi Shaye of Kirshina was killed not far from Ludmir. He was the first victim sacrificed by the Jewish community. The cries of the family reached the heavens and split the skies. The victim became the topic of conversation of the worshippers in all the synagogues and Study–Houses of town.

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Many in town decided to leave; everyone who had relatives in the nearby towns and villages packed their belongings took their children and toddlers and left, some to Melnytsya (Melnitza) and some to Nesukhoyezhe (Nezkizh) and some to Kamen–Kashirskiy, to Stobykhivka and other places.

The safest place was considered to be Lubieszów (?) (Liubeshiv?), near Kamen–Kashirskiy.

The strategic “specialists” among us saw in their astrological signs that no danger would encompass the town so the rich people of town went there; but they were to be disappointed because after very short period the village, together with nearly all other “safe” places in the vicinity were obliterated and wiped off the map.

Life in town continued along normal paths. New banknotes appeared in town, shiny and sparkling just out of the mint. The large silver Ruble was almost never seen. To whatever the Jewish people turned their hand – they made money. The trade in salt, in matches and kerosene was very popular. Those engaged in that business prospered to the degree that in the Heder of my Rabbi all sorts of strange people appeared. Out of the hearing of the children he was called all sorts of nicknames from the world of commerce such as “dealer” “bargainer” “genie”, etc. In the Heder children whispered among themselves that the Cossacks hanged the Galician Rabbis by their long side–locks on trees and exiled many of them to Siberia.

Religious women appeared in town carrying wicker–work baskets of various shapes and sizes, passing from house to house collecting whatever they could: bread, underwear, foodstuff, clothing both warm and light – to fight the hunger among the convoys of soldiers camped at the railroad station.

From time to time a known face from Kovel appeared among the soldiers. Whoever left the hospital with “release papers” or a rehabilitation pass for a month or two, became part of the town.

The war entered Kovel stealthily and silently. Life continued on peacefully the Front was far from the town. Suddenly the Jewish population of Kovel was happy: “Przemyśl has been liberated!” Soldiers hugged and kissed each other in the street. But it was the “calm before the storm”. Only a few months later they started to evacuate the town. Many of the Christian residents had already left town and now the Jews were leaving – the rich and those who could do so among them.

In town the civil administration stayed on. A volunteer police–force was formed that was comprised only of Jews. At their head stood Dowzhinski (a Christian), the Fire–Chief with Gorberg(?) as his deputy.

The evening before the German entry into town Jews living on the edges of town evacuated their homes and concentrated in the center. This was because our Jewish “strategists” stated that the battles would take place at the approaches to the town and not reach the center. But one has to take into account an additional factor of greater importance: the houses in the suburbs had been empty for some time, evacuated by their Christian residents who had fled to the center of Russia. The Jewish people were concerned that the retreating Russian army and the Cossacks will run wild and loot whatever they can lay their hands on.

[Page 104]

Even so, Jews in the center of town were also apprehensive about living alone, each one in his own house and collected together in groups crammed into the same house. Every night they sat and discussed politics. The Jewish residents became divided into two opposing camps: pro–Russian on one side and pro–German on the other. The pro–Russians strategy stated that leaving town temporarily was the thing to do and that they would return quickly. And the proof was that the Russians were advancing towards Berlin.

In spite of these strategic considerations – the Germans entered Kovel. A representative of the pro–German party went to welcome them. He was met by a large, over–weight German and greeted him peaceably.

The German asked where he might get some bread, butter and eggs. The Jew stood there struck dumb not understanding German. The German then became very angry, attacked the unfortunate Jewish man, knocking him to the ground and with one blow knocking out three teeth. The pro–German lay there on the ground covered in blood while the pro–Russians looked on from their look–out place laughing.

Lying on his bed, covered in a plethora of dressings and bandages, he consoled himself with the thought that that one incident didn't speak generally of all Germans. Indeed that German was evil but the good ones will yet come. And indeed they did – in June 1941.

With the entry of the Germans and the Austrians the serene order of life in town became disturbed. All businesses were closed down and many of them didn't open again until the entry of the Poles on 24th December 1918.

As the Germans entered town, so Jewish trade came out into the open. There were a large number of sellers of bread and rolls and the Austrian soldiers fell upon them like locusts. Large store–houses together with the bakeries emptied out quickly and sales by the suppliers dried up, unable to cope with the large demand. The same occurred with the distributors of tobacco and cigarettes. The soldiers bought everything.

Nevertheless the “prosperity” in town didn't last long. The stocks of flour got used up. The flour–mill burnt down and a second one also broke down. Similar woes and breakdowns occurred with the tobacco and chocolate production. Moscow, Kiev and Bardichev, the suppliers of these items were over the other side of the Front. The sources of essential items and livelihood lessened.

An atmosphere of orphaned isolation enfolded the Jewish community. The town emptied of its politicians and there was no one to turn to in times of woe.

On the other hand contacts began with the conquering army. A period of requisitioning and confiscation began. Everything was taken: copper cooking utensils, mangles and even locks and door–handles, live–stock, horses, furniture, apartments and even the Study–Houses.

[Page 105]

 

The Committee of Public Hygiene and Sanitation

 

[Page 106]

Then came edicts concerning forced labor. People were stopped in the street, taken from their homes, brought down from the attics and brought up from cellars. All the people were taken for work: Austrians, Germans and Polish Legionnaires. These last were shot and killed immediately and two Jewish men: a wagon–driver the father of five small children – and a builder from Ludmir Street.

The town is divided into two areas. The old, historic town is in the hands of the Germans and the “Sands”[1] in the hands of the Austrians. Life in the “Sands” was a paradise compared to that in the “old town” where there were strict curfews from 9 in the evening until 6 in the morning. Whoever was caught on the streets during curfew hours was imprisoned for 10 days or fined 30 Marks. Whoever was found for a second time spent a month inside or a payment of 100 Marks and who yet again was caught was hanged by the hands and would stay so for at least an hour or more – all depending on the whim of the military commander Meyer.

With the stabilization of the regime the voluntary police force was disbanded and a permanent force was created in its place, comprised mainly from the civilian police–force. The police commander in the “Sands” was Rabainker(?) and his assistant Sh. Axelrod. Neither of them were residents of Kovel. The police commander in the old town was M. Danziger. There was also a Sanitary Commission and among the committee's responsibilities was the town cleanliness. At its head, if my memory is correct – Ruper(?).

I recall an episode connected with one of the policemen from those days. He was called Dodier. Dodier's “elevated” rank was so “exalted” that even his porter's–like shoulders were ashamed of him. Until the Germans and Austrians arrived he was like the dirt beneath the feet of the fire–men. Now his hour had come; he was “elevated” to the rank of policeman and he was mobilized into the police force with the power to abduct Jews for forced labor.

It happened one day as he was walking on the street he saw one of the officers of the Great Synagogue, Brish Rabinrazon – a Jewish man about fifty years of age. Dodier approached him. With all his many “accomplishments” he was “favored” with yet one more: he stammered. Brish Rabinrazon asked him: “Dodier, at my age I'm going to sweep the streets?” in reply to Dodier's demand. In his stuttering way Dodier replied, “I r–r–r–run t–t–t–to the s–s–s–street?” meaning: “What! You want me to go and sweep the streets?”

In time there were changes and even improvements in the working arrangements. Two Works Committees were formed one in the old town and one in the “Sands”. All males between the ages of 18–55 were obliged to register and present themselves to a medical board for evaluation. Whoever received grade ‘A’ was fit for all types of hard physical labor, grade ‘B’ for light work and ‘C’ was considered unfit and discharged. Men who received grade ‘AA’ were in addition forbidden to leave town. The committees were in touch with the military commander in town and supplied the workers in alphabetical order. Thus it worked out that everyone was called about once every 5–6 weeks. Of course it all depended on the numbers of workers required at any time by the commander. It was also possible to pay “ransom” and those who could afford to do so sent a willing replacement for money.

[Page 107]

In the autumn of 1915 the situation was more or less normal. The less fortunate, poor people managed to acquire a little food that they collected from the fields and gardens that had been abandoned by their owners. They collected potatoes, cabbage, beets and other vegetables and other produce. By something of a miracle, the windmill on Brisk Street did its share and worked energetically on the grain brought by the poor people to be ground. The same thing happened in the “Sands”. There, the grain was milled by the small mills of Shimon Zokner and Stolier because the flour–mill of Berl Amernic had been commandeered by the army.

The mayor in those days was Mr. Mendel Kosovsky (Z”L) who was one of the founders of the Zionist organization in town and one of the most–liked among the leading citizens. It was his blessed intervention that caused the shops to be reopened where the sale of all sorts of foodstuffs was by food vouchers. Nevertheless although the portions were small and insufficient hunger was kept at bay and no one died of the hunger. The Jews of Kovel revived and everyone began to think of ways and means of finding sustenance for himself. Many coffee bars opened in town. Wherever one turned one saw large signs reading “Kiddush Levana[2]”: “Coffee bar”. In the windows was written “Tea with rum”, beer, muffins, etc. Later on kiosks appeared full of good things like pocket–knives, post–cards, mirrors and haberdashery. All the goods carried some kind of patriotic message, for example; when taking a mirror in the hand four “heads” were drawn on the glass. In the center a portrait of Wilhelm II, to the right Franz–Josef, to the left, the Turkish Sultan and even the Bulgarian King was represented. On the knife–blades was etched “God – Punish England!” The haberdashery items were brought by the Jewish traders of Kovel from Lvov and even Vienna. At first the goods were brought by wagon and afterwards by train.

In order to transport the goods from afar by wagon, a few traders formed “partnerships” and co–operated with each other and thus all the good that came into town were concentrated in the hands of six or seven “members” like Avraham–Yankel Gzebmacher, and the “company” of Moshe Notie and the Frishbergs.” In the “Sands” the “Company” of Daf(?)–Mirski and Goshko and the Company of Suzanna and Reznik. Every “Company” was composed of perhaps 8–10 “members”.

During the initial period the companies were illegal and unauthorized. The journey by wagon was long, hard and exhausting lasting some weeks. When the railroad came into use the journey became significantly easier but it became necessary to obtain special permits and that depended on the mood of the town's commander and not everyone was lucky.

[Page 108]

Spring 1916. The town was in turmoil. Whispers here and there said that the Austrians are leaving Kovel. It was the evening before the festival of Shavuot and Brusilov pierced the Front to the south west, recaptured Lutsk and was closing in on Kovel. And indeed the Austrian army was beginning to evacuate the town. But suddenly the German army transferred forces from other Fronts, obstructing the Russian advance and even forcing the Russian army back as far as the River Stokhid, just about 30 kilometers from Kovel. The Germans stabilized their Front there until the end of 1918 until the revolution in Germany put an end to the conquests of Wilhelm's Germany.

The “secure and safe places” to which many of the Jewish people fled were virtually wiped of the face of the earth following the bloody wars that raged there and in the surroundings. Thus was the fate also of Melnytsya (Melnitza), Stobykhivka Manevychi (Manevych), Tschartorisk(?) and all the towns on the banks of the Stokhid. The people left behind them all that they had and returned to town in the clothes they stood in and bereft of all belongings.

It was clear from the outset that the returnees would not increase the food supplies in town. People were seen wandering the streets with inflated stomachs. The sad situation forced the city notables, at their head Doctor Feinstein and Mendel Kosovsky (Z”L), to open soup–kitchens and distribute meals to the needy. But notwithstanding their concerned attention the population was stricken with hunger.

Epidemics began to spread throughout the town – typhus killed many. Not a day passed without a victim being claimed. The Red Cross wagons had no rest or respite.

After the sick were removed the sanitary police arrived immediately with a large steam–driven appliance steaming all the articles in the house and thoroughly cleansing the house itself, marking the house on the outside with the letter “F” (free of lice), encircled the house with barbed wire and hung a notice saying: “Caution – Typhoid fever!”

Later an order was given that everyone's identity–card must carry an additional ‘disinfected’ certificate.

At the end of the Succoth festival in 1916 a number of wagons, accompanied by police suddenly arrived at the home for the homeless and the police began to evacuate all the residents. Terrible cries of distress from the unfortunate people filled the air but nobody heeded them. They were loaded on to the wagons and transported to the railroad station and exiled to the depths of Poland – Kielce, Radom and other places. Many of them never made it back to Kovel.

The horrible sight returned for us again to witness in January 1917. The cold winter was intense – but “orders are orders!” The people must be sent: little children and old men, bare–foot, hungry and abandoned – the lottery fell upon everyone. Who the initiator of this “Aktzia” I know not to this day. In general 1917 was the hardest year for the Jews of Kovel.

[Page 109]

In the months of February–March 1918, when we were at the last reserves of our strength a miracle occurred as if a magic wand had been waved. The information spread that a peace delegation headed by Trotsky had arrived at Brest–Litowsk. And then the treaty flew away with the embittered response of Trotsky: “No peace, no war.”

The situation changed. With the speed of lightning, the news spread in town that Moshe Danziger had obtained a travel document allowing him to cross the border. It was “the first swallow of spring” that arrived in town from far away Russia.

After a while the streets filled with convoys of horses, both young and old, horses of residents and horses belonging to the military, with their long flowing tails and manes. It was heart–warming. Although it was a strange warmth, as if of mourning, so close to the heart. The town was perfumed from the scent of the Ukrainian fertile fields. It was silent information that a new era, a new reality is in the offing – a life of physical health, a life of sustenance, a life of peace and serenity. The summer brought an end to the ripped–apart families; the fathers returned to their families, the parents to their children and the children to their parents.

And indeed – just days before Passover – the first “summer ‘swallow’” from the far reaches – one of the Enoch family members returned to town; I forget his name.

With his coming the town clearly felt the war was over. As summer progressed all the Jewish folk who had fled the town, returned, as well as to the surrounding area with its towns and villages, where they had sought refuge during the war

Very slowly the town recovered, the wounds healed over and again life resumed its course.

Translator's notes:

  1. A quote from JewishGen's “Kehila Links”: “The River Turija flowed through the town. Kovel was divided into three quarters. On one side of the river there was the Old Town, called Zand [in Yiddish], or Sand, as it had been built on sandy ground.” Return
  2. The prayer recited for the New Moon each month, presumably used here simply as a trade–name by the shop. Return


Memories of the Bund in Our City

by Yehuda Miller

Translated by Ala Gamulka

A. The first plant nursery of Jewish socialism in Kovel

In 1902, my older brother Issar returned from Odessa. He came together with his friend “Leibel the Brisker”. My brother was a Hebrew teacher and Leibel taught Russian.

[Page 110]

My brother Issar had socialist leanings and belonged to the “Bund”. His purpose in coming to town was to plant the idea of socialism in Kovel. He rented a three-room apartment and opened in it a Hebrew school. Externally, it was a Hebrew school where Hebrew and Russian were taught. However, at night, the school became a clubhouse- a meeting place for Jewish socialist youth in Kovel. The beginning of the Bund came with the opening of the school in 1904. The seed of socialism was sown in the earth of Kovel.

In the evenings and the nights there were many discussions of problems of the Jewish, socialist world. The Bund in Kovel was fortunate to have many important visitors such as Vladimir Madam and Litvak. Madam lectured in Russian on the topic “Mensheviks and Bolshevism”. After the lecture there were stormy debates until early in the morning.

 

Isaac Miller, Z” l,
founder of the Bund in Kovel

 

There were also debates between the Bund and Socialist Zionists. I remember the bitter argument about this topic in 1907 in the house of Kharon. The Bund was represented by one of its greats, called “David” and Shloimke Kharon was the Socialist Zionist's.

The Kharon house stood near the flour mill belonging to Aramernik. About 100 people attended. The debate was harsh- till death do us part. “David” had great rhetorical skills and overcame Shloimke. Shloimke's face was heated, but when he calmed down he was able to tell his rival: You beat me, but you did not change the world view of the social Zionists. In the annals of Jewish history can be found the final sentence of the Bund, but the Zionist ideal will survive forever. We have no place in the Diaspora. We must return to our homeland and to fight there for socialism in our own land.

[Page 111]

Among the first to join the Bund I remember Yehiel, son of Itche-Meir, the sexton of the old house synagogue in town, the son of Rabbi Goldschmidt, Ben-Zion Kendal, Shmulik the carpenter, Shike, the cantor's son, Nutta the painter and Moshe Sheifelt (his father was called Sheifelt and owned a coffee shop in a basement on Ludmir street).

At a later time, many working youth joined the Bund. The university students Adela Gurberg and Mania Rudman showed interest in the Bund movement. Yuliya Licht and Boria Appelbaum participated in Bund activities.

 

B. The Union of Jewish Workers and the First Strike

Mendel Moher Seforim said: “Artisans were debased among the Jews just as were the Jews among the nations (“In Those Days, Ch. 12). Truly, the Jewish worker was looked down upon and had to labor from dawn to midnight.

At the dawn of the twentieth century the following factories could be found:

  1. Textile plants belonging to Avraham Tzupefein and Moshe-Shlomo Dundik and his brother
  2. Flour mills of Armernik and Goldberg
  3. Brewery of Shkolnik
  4. Brick factories of Efrati, Segal and Bakhover
  5. Tannery of Yosef-Nute Goldstein
  6. Kartoflik- women's tailor
  7. Khayat - men's tailor
  8. Isaac-Leib - building contractor
  9. Wineries, among them one owned by Moshe Gurberg
  10. Furniture factory of Shimon Kirzhner
There were also, in town, painting contractors who worked for the government, 2-3 carpentries and a sawmill.

In small plants there were 2-3 workers who toiled for little pay until midnight. The salary barely covered their needs.

In 1905 large homes were being built in town. In Kovel there were no professional builders and they had to be brought from Brest-Litovsk.

[Page 112]

These builders were Jewish and they taught us how to build. There were also houses built without plaster and there, Russian laborers were the experts.

In those days I began to learn the building profession and I belonged to a union. I felt, on my body, what it meant to be a laborer. Working conditions were almost unbearable. We worked 12 hours a day, from 6 am to 6 pm. We began to think about improving our working conditions and we realised our only solution was a strike. We gathered all the Russian laborers and we spoke to them. We demanded the lowering of the day to 9 hours. The employers refused to even listen to us. One fine day a general strike was announced- in all sections of the construction industry. After a long and hard struggle, the employers gave in to our demands and we began to work 9 hours a day.

The strike made a great impression in our town. Those who worked 2 to 3 people in a plant woke up and demanded their rights. We began to gather them and in a short time we had 400 workers. They were organized according to their specialties: locksmiths, carpenters, construction workers, plasterers and painters.

We rented an apartment on Yuridika street. We placed a coffee shop in front, but we gathered the workers twice a week. In addition to union business we also organized a large educational campaign.

I must admit a historical fact. Before the Bund came to town, not one Jewish worker had ever read a newspaper or a secular book. A few read “Hamelitz”, but the majority had no idea of a newspaper. Our first educational session consisted of bringing newspapers to town. Propaganda material arrived from Geneva to Berdichev. Kovel was then part of the Berdichev region. From there the material was sent to Rovno and from Rovno to Kovel.

In addition to written material there was also an oral education. From time to time lecturers and leaders came to Kovel from Zhitomir and Berdichev. During their visits they would smuggle in newspapers, leaflets and books.

 

C. Self-Defence Organization

During the Russo-Japanese war Kovel served as a transit station and we were afraid that the reservists who passed through on their way to the front would attack us. We were prepared for what was coming and we organized our self defence. There were members of the Bund and the Socialist Zionists in the command group.

Many of the wealthier residents fled the town. Among them was Hillel Goldberg, the owner of the flour mill. The self-defence group took over his house. The house stood in the center of town. Since serious pogroms were expected in Kovel there were additional defencemen from Brest-Litovsk, Berdichev, Rovno and Lutsk that joined us.

[Page 113]

We collected money and we bought weapons. We had some revolvers from earlier days. We divided the town into several zones and each sector had experienced defence people. I served as a link and brought reports to the central command in the Goldberg house.

We were tense for six weeks and expected the worst, but to our delight nothing happened. The weapons remained and we wondered where to place them.

At that time there was a rabbi in Kovel sent by Rabbi Brik. His secretary was Moshe Segal, my friend. We managed to hide the weapons in the rabbi's cellar. The Rabbi had no knowledge of this. One day Moshe Segal came to tell me that the weapons had to be removed because government inspectors were due to check the Rabbi's cellar.

At the time construction was started on armories in Gorky. Our friends from Brest Litovsk were employed there. We put the weapons in packages- 10 revolvers per package- and we hid them temporarily in Gorky.

We searched for a permanent hiding place. The owner of the forest in Ziliny, Moshe Weintraub, was a member of the Bund in spite of his wealth. We spoke to him and he allowed us to hide the weapons in a space in the forest.

 

D. The year 1905 in town

The events in town in 1905 caused my arrest and also that of other members of the Bund. These events had to do with demonstrations that we had planned after the Gafon parade which had ended in the loss of life among the workers.

The Bloody Ninth of January created waves of demonstrations in the socialist world. In Russian towns there were parades and protest meetings against the cruel rule of the Tsar. The Bund in Kovel decided also to organize a demonstration. The committee included the university student Grisha from central Bund. We stayed up an entire night and prepared a detailed programme for the parade. All workers in town knew about the coming demonstration. In the morning we went outside and found a great upheaval in town. There were dozens of soldiers in the streets. I told Grisha to give me his Browning and I began to run home through the fields in order to hide it together with propaganda material he carried.

On the way I had to pass by homes of non-Jews. They knew what was going on and of my involvement. They caught me and brought me to the soldiers. I was arrested in the yard of the sawmill. The clerk Shia Epels was there and saw me being arrested.

[Page 114]

The soldier who had arrested me was riding a horse and he tied me to him with a belt. He brought me to the main road and handed me over to two guards. They took me to the chief of police who was residing in Perlmutter's house.

More prisoners were brought in. Among them were the son of Yosef Neta Goldstein, Perlmutter's son, Yosef the carpenter and Schwartzblat. Comrade Lindenbaum from Lubomil was also with us. There were seven of us in jail. In the evening we were moved to the prison. On the second day of our arrest our friends were able to contact us and to bring us food. Comrades Hinda Kirshner, Sonia Goldstein and Batya Goren bribed the assistant to the director of the prison and he allowed them to bring us party literature. He also gave us news of the world.

The “sin” of owning secret literature was punishable by exile to Siberia. In those days it was an enticing location because many important Socialist leaders had been sent there. Some members were keen on being sent to Siberia for that reason. It was a badge of honor.

I recall an interesting episode from my stay in prison. In those days there was, in Kovel, a government doctor of Tatar extraction. He was one of the Righteous among the nations. When he heard about our arrests he came to our cell wearing a long black coat. Inside he had sweets for us. “I am your secret friend”- he would tell us. In order to comfort us he would announce that the Tsar's days were numbered.

I began to prepare myself for the interrogation and I decided to admit that I belonged to the Bund- let whatever will be will be. After three months a high-ranking police officer came from Kiev and he and the prosecutor, an officer from the prison, began the interrogation. Their arrival was known in town and many people came to the entrance of the prison to wait for the results of the interrogation.

I was first to be questioned. The first question was asking me if I was a member of the movement. I decided to give a positive answer. When the prosecutor asked me the name of the movement I replied- Construction workers movement. This reply surprised the prosecutor. He whispered to the officer: ”Whom did you arrest? He does not even know what the movement Is.” I enjoyed this doubt and the prosecutor ordered my release until the trial. Lindenbaum was confused in his answers, was found guilty and was sentenced to a prison term of a year and a half. Prison conditions were dire and when he was released he was sick with tuberculosis. I never saw him again.


[Page 115]

Folklore

Translated by Amy Samin

A Time to Laugh
(Ecclesiastes 3: 4)

Eyal – El

One of the elderly teachers would say to his wife on Friday: “Sarah, my wife, give me a biscuit “mit shmeerachatz” (with spread).” He was afraid to say the word “eyal” (oil) because the word sounded like “El” (Elohim, one of the names of God).

(told by Yechezkel Goldberg)

 

Tzom – Tzum

Rabbi Avraham Szoferfin of blessed memory was one of the wealthy men of the city, but he also possessed a pleasant voice, and he would pray before the Holy Ark during the musaf prayers, obviously not in order to receive a reward. When he prayed during the Days of Awe and reached the prayer “Teshuvah, tefilah and tezdakah” which meant Teshuvah (repentance) – tzom (fast); tefilah (prayer) – kol (voice); tzedakah (charity or righteousness) – mammon (money), the worshippers would instruct: “don't read tzom, but tzumkolmammon.” In other words, it is not enough that the leader of the prayers must have a pleasant voice, he must also be rich.

(told by Yechezkel Goldberg)

 

The Funny Story of Rabbi Yechiel Vagsholl, may God avenge his blood

On the eve of the Sabbath Rabbi Yechiel Vagsholl, may God avenge his blood, would say, “Now, I am happy with my portions; it is forbidden to hold and count money and I am as the rich men.” When the Sabbath was over, he would say, “Woe is me. Now it is permitted to hold and count money…”

(told by Yechezkel Goldberg)

 

The Right Answer

Rabbi Yechiel Vagsholl, may God avenge his blood, was in competition with the Holy One, blessed be He – he would make matches. He would come to visit us on Simchat Torah and the second holiday of Passover. He once told us this anecdote: a young man was matched to a young lady from Lusk.

[Page 116]

It was agreed that the bridegroom and the bride would meet halfway, in other words, in Rozyszcze. The man we're speaking of, who had never before seen the young lady, approached her. His first question was, “How are you?” The young lady understood right away with whom she was dealing and put him in his place: “I spent my money for nothing.”

(told by A. Lowny)

 

Three Hundred and Ten Immersions

When Berele, the son-in-law of Eidel of Matsiov, would go to the mikveh, he would immerse himself a great many times. Once, they asked him, “Berele, why do you immerse yourself so many times?” He replied, “I immerse myself three hundred and ten times for the three hundred and ten worlds. With each immersion, I repair a world.”

(told by Yechezkel Goldberg)

 

The Story of Leib the Gravedigger

My father of blessed memory told me this story: According to Jewish law, it is forbidden to leave an open grave. Once, someone of the Efrat family died. Leib the gravedigger was ordered to dig a grave. Leib dug the grave, but the funeral party accompanying the dead was delayed. What did Leib do? He climbed into the grave, stretched out, and waited for the dead.

Late at night the funeral party arrived at the cemetery. They shouted: “Leib! Leib!” There was no answer. The group approached the place where the grave should be, and as they drew near the open grave, Leib climbed out of it, giving up his place to the dead.

(told by Monya Galperin)

 

Rabbi – Not a Year

In the tractate Irobin it is written: “The rabbi didn't review – Rabbi Hyeh [from the word chayim, “life”], how does he know?” Rabbi Hyeh was the student of Judah Hanasi. If the rabbi does not review the halacha (law), how will his student learn? Based on that saying, a play on words was created: A rabbi would come once a year to our city, to visit his disciples. One time, the rabbi came in the middle of the year. One of his disciples was surprised, and said, “Rabbi – not a year,” in other words, it hasn't been a year since the last visit. The rabbi answered, “What, Rabbi Hyeh? If I don't come twice a year, how will I live?”

(told by Yechezkel Goldberg)

[Page 117]

“Love your neighbor as yourself”

“Don't seek revenge nor hold a grudge against your own people.” “Love your neighbor as yourself.” How is it possible to love your enemy? To not hold a grudge nor seek revenge against him? Think of yourself as one part of a body, or part of a greater whole. Can one part of the body take revenge against another?

(told by Haim Avrekh z”l)

 

Question and Answer

How is it possible that a small boy can control one hundred bulls; that they all listen to him? The answer: Because each of the bulls thinks that the other ninety-nine bulls and the boy are chasing him.

(told by Pinchas Winfeld (Hotchles) z”l)

 

The Interpretation Died

A rabbi is teaching his pupil from the Chumash: “And Sarah died in Kiryat Arba.” He read and explained, “Vetamat (died) – Iz geshterbin.” Sarah – Sarah… He stands and asks, “Who is dead?” The student: “Vetamat is dead.” The rabbi hits him. “Goy! The interpretation of 'vetamat' is 'dead'!” The pupil cries, then repeats obediently, “The interpretation is dead.”

(told by Zusia Kanter of blessed memory)

 

The Equine Cantors

Some Jews with Zionist leanings prayed in the House of Study named for Projenski. They were suspected of short-changing in the planting and were told to find another place to pray. Not far away was the barn of Moshe Dondik, who had two horses. They built a division inside the barn, and there they established the synagogue of the Zionists. The manager was Mr. Goldstein, may God avenge his blood, from Hadrogoria.

On the even of Kol Nidre as the cantor was praying, the horses began to neigh, drowning out the voice of the cantor.

The worshippers shouted, “Moshe Dondik, what is this?” Moshe Dondik said to them, “Why are you shouting? Considering the miniscule rent you're paying me, you want I should bring Sirota [Gershon Sirota, known as the Jewish Caruso] to sing? For that rent, the horses are good enough cantors for you.”

(told by Rabbi Shmuel-Yosef Werbe)

[Page 118]

The Clean-Handed Tailor

There was in our town a ladies' tailor, Itchi Previn. They tell the story that, before his death he instructed his family to put his worktable, at which he had toiled for 60 years, into his grave with him. When the Messiah came and the dead arose, the table would testify before the King of Kings that he had never kept for himself the scraps; that is, he had never taken the leftover pieces of fabric that remained after sewing the clothing, without the owner's knowledge.

(told by Baruch Bork)

 

Response to a Pest

Yaacov Kuptshik, may God avenge his blood, was quick-witted and bright. Once, a large group of students walked with him in the direction of the school. A spiteful fellow passed by and said to him, “Kuptshik, you have lived to see your own well-attended funeral.”

“On the contrary,” replied Kuptshik, “we're arranging yours.”

(told by A. Lowny)

 

Kuptshik Yearns for a Jewish State

Once, during prayers, Kuptshik said, “I long to see a Jewish state.” When he saw that the worshippers did not react with enthusiasm to his words, he smiled and said, “If we put a minyan (ten men) into the synagogue, and make a lot of noise, go outside and see how much noise there could be in a place where a few million Jews gathered together.”

(told by A. Lowny)

 

V'yichlu is Dead

I heard the following anecdote from my brother Yaacov, may God avenge his blood: Once there was a young man who had trouble reciting the Kiddush (blessing over the wine). Whenever he tried to bless the wine, the words were garbled in his mouth.

His father figured out a stratagem to solve the problem: he decided to give all of the “goyim” his son had befriended nicknames from the Kiddush. One was called “V'yichlu”, another “Hashamayim” and so on. Sure enough, the stratagem worked and soon he had memorized all the words of the Kiddush.

The one day the goy with the nickname V'yichlu died. On the eve of the next Sabbath, the son rose to bless the wine, saying, “Hashamayim v'ha'aretz v'kol tzavam.” And where is “V'yichlu?” asked the father. “V'yichlu is dead,” replied the son.

(told by A. Lowny)

[Page 119]

How do the Dead Live?

Mr. Frankfort said once to Kuptshik, may God avenge his blood: “Do you know something, Kuptshik? We, the teachers, are the only ones who are forbidden to strike, as it is written: 'You may not take a child from the house of his teacher, even to build the Holy Temple.'”

Kuptshik smiled and said in a pleasant voice, “A father and son went for a walk, and they reached the cemetery. The son asked his father, 'Father, how do the dead live?' The father was confused by the question and answered, 'The dead, my dear son, make their living from the tombstones upon their backs.' The son asked, 'How is it possible to make a living from a tombstone?' 'Aza panim heven zie taka'a' the father answered.

Frankfort understood the thinly-veiled hint, smiled, and did not say a word.

(told by A. Lowny)

 

Peretz, the Water Carrier

Peretz was ill-fated (it shouldn't happen to us): he was missing something in his head. He made his living bringing water to the homes of the Jews in the Zand. He was well-known by reputation in the Jewish community and the goyish community.

When the time came for him to serve in the army, Peretzele went and reported in, to fulfill his duty as a citizen. The doctors knew who this new “recruit” was. The chief doctor approached him, patted him on the shoulder and told him, “You, Peretzele, will make a fine soldier.” Peretzele saluted him just like a proper soldier should and replied, “No, I won't, Doctor – I'm crazy!”

(told by David Blitt)

 

Hilniu

“Hil” was a happy Jew, a pauper, who had the nickname “Hilniu the Crazy.” But he was a seer. He could tell on which day the holiday of Passover would fall, on which day Shavuot, all of the Jewish holidays. When people met him on the street and asked him, “Hilniu, on which day five years from now will the holiday of Sukkot fall?” he would answer on the spot, and there was no cause to doubt his response.

When a brit [brit milah, ritual circumcision] was arranged, the respected women of Kovel would come to him and would prepare refreshments for the guests at the public expense.

When he was asked once, “What do you do, Hilniu?” he replied, “Hil does a brit and the public pays.”

(told by David Blitt)

[Page 120]

Rabbi Ozer Shadchan's Theory of Relativity

Who says that only Kalman Guttenboim understood Einstein's Theory of Relativity? When Guttenboim was still in diapers, Rabbi Ozer was already giving lectures on the subject. One story goes like this: Once Rabbi Ozer went to a young man of Kovel and said to him, “Yankel, I have for you a lovely and demure bride, really beautiful.”

The two of them went to the young lady's house. The young man looked at his intended and saw that she was far from beauty and close to ugly. When the young lady went to the kitchen to prepare refreshments for her guests, Yankel asked the matchmaker, “Rabbi Ozer, this is your beauty?” Rabbi Ozer replied, “Everything in the world is relative. Compared to my wife, this bride is extremely beautiful.”

(told by David Blitt)

 

Another Story About Rabbi Ozer

Rabbi Ozer never saw much success. The bridegrooms he tried to match were stubborn. Once he suggested a match to one of the young men. Rabbi Ozer was sure that this time the match would be successful.

The next day, Rabbi Ozer encountered the young man and asked him, “Nu? How did it go?” The young man understood subtlety, and replied, “I went to see the young lady, and I did like the story of Esau, as it is told in parashat Toldot [a portion from the Torah] 'and he did eat and drink, and rose up, and went his way…'”

(told by David Blitt)

 

Going Out to Welcome Borochov

Once there were days of inflation in the Hehalutz movement. Young ladies who came of age and did not have a bridegroom decided to join Hehalutz and move to Eretz Yisrael.

Obviously, their interest in the matters of the work movement was very slight, as the following story illustrates: every academic year, we had a tradition of honoring the memory of Borochov. On the Friday afternoon, I saw a group of girls heading towards the train station. “What's the hurry?” I asked. Surprised that I did not know, they answered me, “We are going to welcome Borochov…”

(told by Arieh Rabiner)

 

Kosher Beer for Passover

This is the tale of a Jew from a village who, two weeks before Passover, came to see a respected rabbi in the town to ask for his approval of a beer that was kosher for Passover. The Jew explained to the rabbi that he alone prepared the beer, and he did not

[Page 121]

trust any mother's son in matters of kashrut for Passover. He had purchased all new equipment, casks, barrels and so on; he watched closely over the barley, with the utmost of care, just like matzah shmurah.

The rabbi explained to him that there was no possible way to make beer kosher for Passover, for any barley that soaked in water for more than 18 minutes began to be leavened.

The Jew was unconvinced and said, “Really? If I tell the rabbi that everything is brand new and watched over with the utmost care, with no room for doubt, as a matter of fact, the rabbi should come and see for himself and explain how this could be hametz [not kosher for Passover]?”

And so the argument went on with no end in sight, until the beer maker got an idea, and said, “If the honorable rabbi will show me a clear ruling that my beer is hametz, I will accept it.”

The rabbi stood before the Jewish beer maker, opened the siddur [prayer book], and read to him, “…who has sanctified us with His commandments and decreed beer [in reality, 'bi'ur' or 'the removal of'] hametz.” And when the Jew saw the law specified in the holy prayer book, he conceded the argument.

(told by Rabbi Dr. Michael Grayver)

 

A Story about Moshke the Porter

This is a story about Moshke the porter of blessed memory, who was famous for his quick-wittedness and his devotion to all Jews. One day, a merchant who was well-known in the city approached him in the marketplace, and proposed that he deliver a small crate of merchandise in his wagon. It was the kind of merchandise that there was a need to whisper about it in front of others; saccharine, which required the supervision of the tax officials and the secret police. Moshke and the merchant agreed that he would wait for him outside the city on the road leading to Brisk.

The merchant went to the appointed place, and Moshke prepared to travel with the cart-load of merchandise. After only a few moments, there appeared a detective and some policemen. They stopped Moshke and his wagon and took them to the commander of the police in that quarter. They began to interrogate Moshke about the owner of the forbidden merchandise, and he played innocent: “How on earth would I know?”

After a few hours, the regional commander of the police himself began to interrogate the prisoner: “How can this be? A man gave you merchandise and you don't know who he is or what he is?” “Mr. Police Commander, sir,” answered Moshke patiently, “does it seem reasonable to you that when a traveler comes to me, I should demand that he identify himself and show me his passport? Mr. Commander! Your policemen, you should pardon my saying, did not behave wisely here. They should have listened secretly to learn more of this matter; I would have told them to stand to the side, close by me, so that I could point out the merchant to them. However, they – those geniuses – didn't do that. They caught and arrested me. Obviously much will be made of this in the city. And who, but a gullible person, would behave that way?”

[Page 122]

The regional commander of the police burst out laughing, called to his subordinates, and pointed to Moshke, saying, “This simple Jew has more sense in his little finger than all of you put together, you blockheads.” He then turned to Moshke and said, “I see that you are very quick-witted. I will give you back your crate and you will travel in your wagon back to your place in the market and wait there until the owner of the merchandise appears.”

Moshke agreed to this proposal and returned in his wagon to his place in the market, followed at some distance by the policemen. Delighted with his jest, Moshke climbed up on his wagon and taking up the reins waved them in the air, calling out in a loud voice for a long hour, “Hey! Jewish reb, owner of this merchandise! Come and journey with me!” All those sitting and standing about in the market roared with laughter, as they saw Moshke winking broadly to the detectives, who were trying to hide.

(told by Rabbi Dr. Michael Grayver)

[Page 123]

Character from Folklore: The chimney sweep of Kovel
and his dog, for once, standing at attention

 

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