by Esther Liss-Chaim
Translated by Ala Gamulka
Kalman Liss was born in Kovel in January 1901. He was the third child of his parents Yaacov and Rosia. They had four children. The father died young and the oldest brother, Zvi, had to earn a living and take care of the family. Zvi died of the Spanish flu and the mother remained alone with three children. She needed to have an income. This was a clever and energetic woman and together with her oldest daughter, Clara, she managed to educate her offspring. Clara, after her marriage to Halt, became well-known in Yiddish theatre circles in Kovel as a good singer.
Kalman studied at the famous Polish-Jewish high school of Klara Davidovna-Erlich. He was a diligent student and began writing poems at a young age. After some time, his works were published in the Yiddish press. Later he translated poetry to Yiddish from Russian and Polish. These were works by Pushkin, Lermontov, Mitzkewicz and others.
After he completed his high school studies, he wanted to pursue Agronomy and was accepted at the University of Grenoble. However, due to financial need he was unable to pursue his dream. He was forced to change direction and to study something that wold provide him with local employment. It would also allow him to become independent. He studied at the Teachers' Seminary in Vilna and was quite successful. For several years he taught in small towns, such as Kissilin, near Lutsk. He used his free time to write poetry. It was common to see him with paper and pencil. He wrote many poems during this period. He was a happy and friendly person, but he was absent-minded and was nicknamed The absent-minded professor.
Those close to him did not understand his literary activities. Only his mother felt it and, as he himself emphasised, she gave him advice and was his best critic. He always loved nature, freedom and children and these were often subjects of his creations. He did not remain long as a teacher in small towns because the job did not give him satisfaction. He entered advanced studies in Psychology and the education of Deaf-Mute children, in Warsaw. He did well on entrance exams.
In this institute, at that time directed by the well-known psychologist Dr. Grigorovska, he obtained an excellent education and soon was appointed as director of Tsentus- a Jewish institute for the education of mentally handicapped and deaf-mute children. It had been created by the Joint. He excelled at his position and was well-loved by his students. He married Sarah Rubinstein, of the famous Rubinstein-Hornstein family.
Sarah, too, was a professor. They lived in Otvotsk and had a son, Yaacov. When Sarah gave birth to her second son, she died. Soon the child, too, died. This terrible blow had a terrible influence on Kalman. He found comfort in creating literary works-poems and books intended for youth. He was well-received. He loved his home town of Kovel and Volyn and he mentioned them in many of his works.
In 1939, two months before the beginning of WWII. He was invited to London to attend a conference of Jewish poets. From there he was to continue to the United States. However, due to the precarious conditions, he felt he could not leave his job. He stayed and the first bomb that fell on Otvotsk hit the school. He was critically injured in his leg. Even after the leg healed, he was still in pain. During the German occupation he hid at he home of the janitor of the school. However, he was denounced to the Germans. He had tried to hide his son with some non-Jews, but he, too, was denounced. The child was killed by them. Kalman did not want to escape and abandon his students and he stayed until the last minute. He died a hero fulfilling his job. The murderers who had annihilated the Jews of Poland, killed a young, productive person who had contributed so much to Yiddish literature.
by Kalman Liss
Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund
I want to tell everyone
I do not want to be ashamed in front of anyone
To say something from my heart
All the old, dear names.
Of my Kovl - Volyner city
Lutsker Street of my birth,
Your low huts
Here as last night, I think last night
At the very beginning of the highway
|Do not ask where, not when, from where
Who needs to ask ditches?
Everyone knows, to the Torya [River]
Streams storm after the rain.
And the old beloved bridge
Alas, the Torya, dear Torya,
Your shores very soft
In the summer, in the extreme heat,
Who needs seats and who needs brooms
On Shabbosim [Sabbaths] and holidays…
|But let me run now
As you let them, your thoughts free -
I am a child again, and I am drawn
To the place of the carousel:
To the wooden church, the round one
Let the magician again draw
And the sand, the heaped
Do the bandora players still sing and narrate
And the lyre player, the grey one there,
I will tell everyone,
by Yohanan Twerski
Translated by Ala Gamulka
I first saw him, in Kovel, when I was a youth. (My grandfather, the Rabbi from Trisk, established his court there). I clearly recall his gait. A writer…the soul is nourished by blood, but it is the entire being of man as man and of a people as people. He was one of the first writers I met.
My first creations, he speaks about himself in the collection of his writings. In volume one, there were ordinary descriptions of my life. Later, I turned to other topics and more complicated situations.
In one of his first psychological stories he describes a young man whose hand was amputated in the hospital. It was only a month ago…he says in deep sorrow…that he and others were equal physically and now he is detached from everything. It seems to him that other human beings are distant from him and are strangers. No, it's not only his imagination. His fiancée's little brother, whom he loves, checks his empty sleeve constantly. uncle Meir, where is your hand?. His bride becomes quite hysterical. Is she ashamed or disgusted?
Yona Rosenfeld himself saw, in his lifetime, how man can harm another one.
In his autobiographical book All Alone, he describes various events from his youth.
He was no longer a child, but he had not grown as tall as others in his age group. This made him very sensitive. His brother sent him, as an apprentice , to an engraver. His boss made him do many unpaid tasks. The boy was a slave and he became jealous of a puppy. Everyone loved the puppy, especially the daughter of his boss. The boy was never called by his first name, but was always hey, you. At night the women of the household assembled in the kitchen. There was only a thin partition between the kitchen and the hallway where he slept. The women did what they wanted and did not lower their voices, in modesty. It was as if he were not even a male or a human being. On Shabbat and holidays he did not have clean and proper clothes. The lady of the house gave him her old shoes (male shoes were too big). When he met a young woman he felt that she would notice the women's shoes he wore. This really bothered him. In addition, he was to accompany the daughters to market and to carry the shopping bag. He could not have been more ashamed men are to do women's work!
The young man was excited and in his anger he poisoned the puppy. This is how the writer spent his youth. It was an atmosphere in which man is poisoned. It is like a snake that is crazed, but cannot bite his enemy.
Here, in Kovel, life was good for him. He had a small, white room. A girlfriend with a loving, gentle voice. Yona Rosenfeld had a better life than he had had in Warsaw and even, later, in New York.
Theresays one of his protagonists you meet geniuses everywhere. I said to myself even if you are wrong, like all your friends, even if you are truly a genius, you would be despondent if these worthless people think themselves to be smarter than you…what is the use of genius, if others think of themselves to be geniuses, but they really are not?
Rosenfeld's young wife brings tea. He turns to me, thrusting his forehead and bowing his shoulders.
So, you are a grandson of the Trisker? Did you notice? In the animal kingdom there are no insults. Animals attack each other and they intend to kill or defend. Man sets upon his fellow man in anger. His intention is to insult. This is how our ancestors did it. They demanded payment for insults. Your grandfather wishes to return evil back to goodness? What? It seems to me that not everything is owed just as it is not entitled.
In the summer of 1937 we moved to Brighton Beach in New York. From our windows we could see the ocean sparkling blue. The sand, early in the morning, would be shiny and cold. It became hot. People streamed in. They seemed to all look alike, sweaty and tired. Dozens of people were on the beach. There were Italian and Jewish women. Their bodies did not show that they spared themselves any food. Young men with suntanned faces and muscular bodies. Young women sporting sunglasses…. There was modesty and brashness, shame and fierceness. The good and the bad. The senses were wanting and satisfied. Some want to enjoy themselves and jump into turbulent surfs. Others play ball in the water. They shriek like babies and splash. A few only dip their toes and leave. People lie, almost dead in the heat, on colorful towels spread on the sand. Others turn their back to the sun as if they wished to be baked.
The beach looked like an altar to sun and water when we stood at the windows of our apartment. It was summer 1937 and Hitler's shadow was spreading and growing. Here there were no worries, only happy times.
Yes. Here it is easier to ignore world problems since they are only possibilities at this time. However, when those close to us are suffering, we need to pay attention. Happiness is limited, once wrote Rosenfeld. Great happiness can cause obstruction of the heart. A terrible catastrophe can bring a sharpening of ideas. Is it true that only great suffering is needed? That eventful summer Yona Rosenfeld suffered terribly. He was ill with cancer. He soon died. However, that summer he was still our neighbor. His apartment was in our complex, El Mirassol.
Whenever one enters the room of someone very ill, one feels that it is very cold there, in contrast to the heat outside. Rosenfeld used to sit at the edge of his wide bed. It seemed as if he were reclining.
Look! Guests! It is a holiday when guests come and when guests come it is a holiday. He looks straight into my eyes and says I am now a pile of bones! A weightless body.
Like a lover who does recognize his beloved after her death this is what he fears. No one will recognize him after he dies. Rosenfeld was always tiny and he begrudged it. However, now he was even smaller. He was almost unrecognizable. Listening to him one feels that he wants, but does not want others to agree with him
In difficult times , he once wrote, people become childish. They require warmth.
No, Rosenfeld, what are you saying? You will recover!
A slight smile appeared on his face.
Sometimes, man does not lie, but he also does not tell the truth.
I sensed that when one enters a sick room in happiness, one does alleviate his pain. Is there more happiness possible as when a healthy person visits a dying one? I remind Rosenfeld of his work and his face changes.
Am I working? Of course! When one wishes to marry a woman, but doesn't, one gets boils on his face. This is what happens to talent that is stopped. A creator needs to create. Woe to the writer who does not produce. No, we must not divorce the pen. One must continue to work and to create. If not, one would express literary thoughts by deluding oneself. Don't be crazy…Have you noticed how much wisdom lies in our subconscious? With all our present knowledge and that of another thousand years, we will not reach its depth. Yes. I still work.
I remember that Rosenfeld's stories are archived by the editor of the Forwards. He is angry at Rosenfeld. For hours and hours one can hear the typewriter in Rosenfeld's room. Out of pride, not to anger anyone and perhaps as a last effort, he is involved in writing his new novel.
Yes. I work a lot. The doctor said my heart and lungs are healthy. I used to walk along the boardwalk twice a day. I even swam in the ocean. It is good to leave the noisy crowds. A quarter of a mile out, it is the sound of the waves that one hears , not the bouncing bell. It reminds you how great is the sea and how small is man. Don't go too far! Lately, I did not go far from shore, but I still went into the water on a daily basis. People wondered about me he is sick and he dips in the ocean? If most people did not wash their faces, they would say: look at the sick one he washes his face! You should know that I used to regularly swim in the ocean, summer and winter. Such a pleasure! The water cuts the body like a knife. One minute equals an hour in the summer…yes, my heart is healthy…but my back…from a difficult childhood. Maybe…question mark!
Is everything a question mark? A moment of silence. Through the window we hear broken sounds laughter, singing, shouts and declarations. The waves are splashing the pier. There is a beginning and a continuity.
Rosenfeld, what is the subject of your new novel?
His stare deepens, as if he were trying what is beyond his vision.
I always have difficulty choosing the subject he replies in his Volyn Yiddish.
It is more difficult than the actual writing. That I do easily from the inside. The topic comes mainly from meeting people. Truly, I remember events when I was less than three years old. However, you spend most of your life, at least your younger years, in a shop. I was in a small Godforsaken town up to my Bar Mitzvah. You see a few people living a gray life. Did you ever feel the damp emptiness emanating from kitchens of the poor because so little cooking happens there and also the lack of air. Your young days are filled with days that are all the same. Yes, when you experience this life, you cannot, I believe, go deeply into your subjects. At first I used to describe ordinary lives. Later, I went into more complicated subjects. Sometimes I could not even get out of them. In any case…since I do not have a great choice of characters, I must write about various situations that my characters encounter. Thus a character stops being just a character. Truthfully, there really is no such a situation. The middle of the pillow sinks under Rosenfeld's head and folds are created around him. What I mean , is that the character exists, but he remains the same as long as there is no change in his situation. We find even the biggest heroes in difficult situations and the wisest people without a solution.
Mrs. Rosenfeld, his delicate and tiny wife, approaches his bed, her face pale and babyish this is how he described her and wants to spread his blanket over him.
No, Hayale, I will do it myself . By myself. I must do what I can as long as I am able to do so. If people fuss over me, I will feel that I am really sick. What, the doctor? I don't like doctors. I remember one who had a drink with me and as soon as he said lechaim, the word became to death! What do the doctors know?
Does he really believe this or does he just want to believe in miracles? Perhaps who knows the doctors misdiagnosed? …He is unable to eat much, but he must have something every couple of hours it can be a glass of milk with biscuits or warm potatoes. This eases somewhat his deep pain. He shoves his bare feet into sandals and goes down.
He prepares his meal by himself. He sits on a chair in his sandals and blue and white pajamas. A pillow supports his back. He says to the women:
Please forgive me. A sick person is like a child. No one needs to be righteous with him.
The hot potatoes, full of starch, emit a steam.
This is a life saving food! …The potatoes remind him of distant days, his childhood in Volyn, in Kovel…a simple and eternal odor emanates from them. It is also the scent of mushrooms. He wipes his mouth with a napkin. And the smells of the ocean. It is a healing and rejuvenating smell. It is for eternity!
It is obvious: he is more broad minded. Does he feel something in his heart?
Do you know , a guest or a host that does not speak, is one of the worst things. A short recess sometimes I say to myself that man cannot be hard headed up to his death. How can one stand a person who has no sense of humor? Humor is the second thread in a gray cloth. An artist cannot be onesided. Take Chekhov, for example, of all the writers in the world actually I should not judge…I only know Russian literature…Out of all the Russian writers, Chekhov is the one closest to my heart. He is deep, humorous and tragic. That is, the lives of his tragic heroes reach the absurd, and the absurd becomes a tragedy. How wise he is! Dostoyevsky is more monotonous in his choice of subjects and heroes. I mean, their morbidity…Maupassant I read him in Russian most of his topics deal with relations between men and women. Most of his stories are just anecdotes. He looks into man's soul, but not too deeply. However, Chekhov…there is no topic in life that his sharp eye does not see! When we go deeper in life, we manage to sail away, at least from their outer veneer. As for our own writers, I was most taken by David Bergelson. He is talented and he is able to criticize life quite acutely in his writings.
Rosenfeld returns to his bed.
Do you know that all people know how to write and to tell a story. Everyone is interested in the lives of others. However, now, we are much tuned into ourselves and we don't see other people. Stupidest and cruelty are actually the same thing!
In the picture of Rosenfeld, painted by Manievitch, he now resembles Shalom Aleichem. A very complicated Shalom Aleichem.
The early morning hours are good in Brighton. The noise of the city is still far away. The sand, trampled on yesterday by hordes of people and filled with their garbage, now is plowed and is full of sea shells. As you walk on the beach, covered in a cape, perhaps it is still damp, your towel draped on your shoulders, you smile at strangers passing by. You smile, not just to be polite, but because you are happy and proud that you were among the first ones.
Loneliness is felt in Yona Rosenfeld's room. It is the loneliness that a dying person feels among thousands of people. He will have an operation shortly. He stretches on his bed.
In addition, he whispers, the pain does not go away. There is much sadness in this pain!
It is very hot now outside. The heat is like an anesthetic for the senses. However, this room, it seems, seems cooler. The telephone rings on the other side of the wall. A voice is heard saying hello. Rosenfeld lifts his head.
They want news.
Why do you say this, Rosenfeld? People are interested in your welfare.
No. They want news!…they want something spicier and sharper. Did you hear, when Dr. Koralnik died, one of his friends phoned us. An educated woman . Did you hear the news? And now…
In the doorway we see I.I.Singer, his bald head gray as a rock. His face clean shaven. How different are these two friends! One completely open and the other always hiding. Singer is a realist and likes the world as it exists. Of course, he also knows the power of mystery and pretense in the soul. (Somehow he does not get caught in it). This is why he wants to uproot any delusion from the beginning. Rosenfeld was more open , (he, too, like any person, guards his deepest, last secret). Singer, it seems, wants to be an observer, but he is overlooked. He is an honest and warm person, according to those close to him. His heart is open, but his mind doubts everything.
Nu, Yona? he sits down as a trusted friend.
The conversation immediately becomes an argument. For some reason I sometimes want to catch Singer's meaning. Perhaps I just want to show him that although I am young, I am not idle in front of this successful and famous writer. How our points of view differ almost about everything. Rosenfeld listens with alertness. He begins to speak.
Most of what he says seems to be in parentheses. You don't know what is more important. He suddenly smiles at his guests.
Look now. You are listening to my words in unnatural silence. It is if I am no longer here! he stops sometimes you are told about this one and that one and you don't know who he is. You imagine because it must be important. He is deathly ill.
Singer leaves. His car, parked outside the building, roars and joins the other cars. Rosenfeld whispers:
Do you know. I now see people in two groups the sick and the healthy. Compared to the two groups I find myself outside the circle. There are people who make me think about things I do not know are in my head. When they leave, I still don't know that I know what I don't know that I know.
When he is alert, Rosenfeld is very interesting.
Even in the streets close to the ocean the air is strange. The sun will soon set, earlier than usual. Will there be a storm? Dozens of people are using straws to drink from cool bottles. Their mouths are dry. Shoes of many people are strewn on the beach. Women are coming to the ocean and young fathers are pushing strollers. Young women wearing makeup and men with thick cigars. People are walking and others are driving, comfortable in their seats.
Rosenfeld faces the window. Tomorrow he will have his surgery. It is doubtful that it will save him. Still, when in difficult times, one clings to hope.
Do you know he says suddenly my stomach is full of stones and metal. When the sun sets, street lights are lit and you cannot see the darkness. You no longer feel the magic of summer nights nor its silence. On moonlit nights…it is so noisy you don't sense the moon! Maybe it's for the best. Night and silence. I think perhaps you will laugh that the two combine as one. As a result we have corruption. Look at human beings don't they all have a tendency to be sad? What is the purpose? We are still not accustomed to night and the power of darkness. Tell me, please, why does night always bring a worsening of a person's condition? Do you know, in my childhood,
On Friday nights, the candles burned almost to the end. Now, the darkness is so sweet. You can taste a thousand different flavors in the darkness. On weekdays, babies were afraid of the dark, but not now!
He suddenly feels that I am sucking on an unlit pipe (especially now, as in all times of stress, it is difficult to refrain from smoking, but one must not do so in a sick room.)
You are smoking an unlit pipe? how amusing! One person is showing off a thick cigar to show he is an important doctor; another to show he is a respected businessman! How shortsighted people are! Such nonsense…such mystery!
Rosenfeld bites his lower lip due to his pain. A moment of quiet. There are sounds and light in the doorway. Here it is semidarkness. Rosenfeld curls his mouth and, it seems, is speaking to a third person, on the side. His voice is very weak.
Do you know, it is a mistake to think that man needs a reason to kill himself. Everything depends on the person. One maybe he is predestined to do it would kill himself after a short time of suffering. Another will overcome all obstacles, even if they are difficult and lengthy. I am certain of one thing in the whole world there is no one who has never thought about it even once about suicide! Few people really do it. It is possible that even they want to change their minds at the last minute. They are in a magical circle both life and death are too difficult for them. One is worse than the other. I have thought much about death, maybe even more than others have. Most people travel on a river with perfect trust, without fear. But I…I never felt trust even in my lack of trust…By the way, do you know that the acme in love affairs borders on death? Exactly now…it is not a philosophical calm, but numbness. Terrible physical suffering can confuse you. Total withdrawal from life is no longer frightening…Do you know that perhaps one is more afraid of death when one sees the moment has come. But I am not dismayed.
The room is quiet. There is a shadow on the wall, nothing real.
I don't know what is the reason, but most people die at night. I will probably die at night. At the beginning of the day I feel so fresh, as if I am reborn!
Rosenfeld, you will be lucky and work many more years!
Yes, maybe… I don't want to die. The pains are quite unbearable. However, not wanting to live and wishing to die, are they not the same!
It is a bright morning. On the horizon one can see a large ship. On the beach there are awnings that resemble colorful mushrooms.
In Rosenfeld's house there are people who speak in low voices. Rosenfeld prepares himself to go to the hospital. Has he prepped his soul for his destiny?
It is time to go. He looks at the mirror on the wall.
Do you know he once said over the years a person changes his purpose, but,
still, there is something specific I used from birth to death. It is no wonder when compared to eternity, our life is quite short. There is not enough time to change everything!
He leaves the mirror and his Adam's apple moves up and down.
Should I go first or last?
He looks around him is he saying goodbye to his home? I knew: in Rosenfeld's eyes a mezuzah is not necessary, but perhaps he would have been happy to have one on his door frame.
He enters first into the elevator. The iron cage descends into the well with screeching of the cables.
His illness was postponed for a few years. I am now working on a second autobiography . He wrote to me. I should have written it first because I speak about myself during early childhood. It was a beautiful time. Near his end he turned back to the beginning. He never completed his book.
He died not at night, but at dawn. It seemed to him that he had been reborn.
by Yaacov Teitelkar
Translated by Amy Samin
A memorial tribute to the Hebrew teacher of the Tarbut Hebrew Gymnasia of Kovel
Yosef Avrekh was born in Kovel in 1892 to devout and pious parents. His father, Ben-Zion the shochet [ritual slaughterer], possessed an upright bearing and a majestic appearance, and was one of the most experienced and respected shochatim in the city, and his mother Pasil the shochetanit was the daughter of a pious and good family, purely righteous and self-denying, and who knew all the writings of the sages of blessed memory by heart, and prayed the deliberately whispered prayer three times a day just like a man. Even as a young child Yoske the shochet's son, displayed lofty talents and a deep longing for study and scientific knowledge. Sensitive, impulsive, and full of movement,
Yoske was a standout amongst his friends and classmates in the heder [small religious school] in the neighborhood of the city (Stat) - the place where there stood the cramped house squeezed in amongst the crowded wooden houses of the neighborhood - and he was the accepted leader of the group of boys, the conductor of games and amusements, and the instigator of youthful pranks. However, his thoughts were not only of games. While still a boy he was not satisfied with his studies in the heder, nor by the stories of children's literature, which to him were unsatisfying. He searched for external books, books that were substantive and would reveal to him the mysteries of the world before which he stood, wondering and silent, to know the meaning of the great vision of the bush that burned but was not consumed… he sought, and he found them. He took a risk and snuck them into the attic, where concealed from prying eyes he would devour them, completely engrossed with all of his being. Refined and purified after a disappearance of several days, he was discovered by his friends, who gathered
together in a group one night with the starry sky spread out over their heads and the pale moon looking down on them with the eyes of Yaacov our father, watching between the wide passageways and the far off distances. And in a mysterious whisper he revealed his hidden secret to them, after making them swear a sacred oath to keep the secret and never, G-d forbid, reveal it to anyone: Do you see those stars? They are not stars at all, they are worlds, just like our world… and that moon's eyes are not eyes. Those are wells in her soil - the soil of the moon… and the heavens - Shh! No one should hear… That is not the heavens, it is a cavity, an empty space of air.
Through reading a great many children's books, newspapers, and magazines for adults, Yoske acquired a vast knowledge of the Hebrew language, and he initiated the idea of resuscitating spoken Hebrew in the everyday life of society; and he implemented the idea in a consistently vigorous manner, showering his friends with spoken Hebrew wherever they went. With all of his soul and all of his might, he believed in the Zionist idea and the enchanting personality of Herzl captured his heart, and he prophesized while dreaming and while awake, and he included the subject at every opportunity in conversations with his friends.
In 1904, when the unfortunate news of Herzl's death was received, Yoske gathered his friends in the street and gave them a comprehensive speech about Herzl. At the end of his speech, he lifted his right hand and solemnly swore: if I forget Jerusalem, may my right hand lose its cunning… and that pledge came to be.
Yoske's mother Pasil the shochetanit, a housewife and owner of a shop in the marketplace of the city, an ink manufacturer, was constantly busy at home and in her shop - she often needed the assistance of Yoske. One day, she suggested to him that he go to the mill in the city where they ground grain into flour for sale. Yoske jumped at the idea, happy at the opportunity for a tour of the windmill with its mysterious, enormous wooden sails… With great curiosity and hurried inquisitiveness he left nothing untouched or undiscovered at the mill. He looked at the grindstones, at the upper stone and the lower, wondering about the rotation of the wheels and the straps wrapped around them, making their continuous way. He became enthusiastic about their movement and caressed them; he was caught up and suspended from them… The mill was stopped. Yoske came home from the hospital after about two weeks, with his right hand lost to him.
From then on, there was a fundamental apposition in his life. His parents began to think about practical matters. Yoske agreed to be sent to study for four years in a renowned yeshiva in Odessa in whose management a number of the great authors of the generation participated, including Mendele and Bialik. After four years Yoske returned home from Odessa a well-versed Torah scholar. After only a few days he went into teaching. He founded the first elementary school in Kovel and took
one of the most important positions in the cultural and spiritual life of the city in general, and of the Zionist movement in Kovel specifically. He stood at the forefront of the instigators for the Tarbut movement next to Asher Frankfurt, and became a Judaic studies teacher in the gymnasia, educating the young generation of dedicated pioneers about their people, Zionism and how to actualize their nationalist ideals - his lifelong dream since childhood - until the outbreak of the war.
Yosef Avrekh was a lofty person, refined, meticulous and noble. He was a deep person, with a profoundly realistic outlook on life, viewing the world from a lofty vantage point, influenced by prophetic justice. A dreamer with his eyes wide open… A philosopher whose chief philosophy and view was the problem of the people of the world, the eternal abuse of the people of Israel, the deprived, downtrodden and supplanted by the nations of the world. He recognized and valued life. He respected nature and its charms. He appreciated and noticed the supremacy and the splendor in its revelation and what was hidden inside. He longed to find solutions to its mystery in all particulars, the purposefulness of creation which he never ceased pondering. He loved life, and was involved in it with every fiber of his being. He was impressed and enthusiastic about the zephyr, the sounds of silence, the enchantment of the scenery and the refreshing green carpet of the fields outside of the city, where he would walk every morning, taking in the essence of the day. The texture of the pale blue of the Turia River, where he would swim at the crack of dawn and would express his feelings and thoughts in conversation and wax enthusiastic about the creation of the world and everything in it.
With the outbreak of the Soviet-German war, when Hitler announced his well-known declaration
Avrekh is sitting third from the left in the second row (from the top down).
In the third row, fifth from the right sits the poet H. N. Bialik of blessed memory.
to destroy all of the Jews of Europe, which announcement was broadcast on the radio, that same hour Yosef Avrekh ran around his room like a wounded lion, shouting: Who does this crazy, arrogant idiot think he is?! The world - abandoned, with no justice and no judge?! The world will allow him to destroy all the Jews of Europe?! It will never happen! He must fall, and he will fall!
In 1942 the Nazis crowded all of the Jews of Kovel into the field of the city in order to kill them in the village of Bachba, 6 kilometers from the city along the Brisk road, in graves that had already been dug. Who could have guessed and who would have said how deep and how fatal were the hellish torments of those about to be slaughtered, and who can describe the suffering of Yosef Avrekh, when he saw so clearly that: the world has been abandoned, that there is no justice and no judge! No one did anything to stop the murderous conspiracy against an entire people, of a magnitude and structure the likes of which had never before been seen in history! Or the volcanic tempest in his heart that burst its bounds and became a desperate cry of a plundered people in the light of day, for nothing. Weak and feeble, in everyday life, frightened and shaking before the violent rulers; this time Yosef Avrekh rose up from among the rows of thousands of Jews being led to massacre, with courage and mental strength beyond one's comprehension, and raising his voice and his only hand, intrepidly - as was told by eyewitnesses - approaching the murderous Germans, he filled their ears with his wrath, spitting bile and contempt in their faces and predicting their inevitable defeat on the crucial day soon to come!
His single remaining hand was instantly amputated by the sword of the murderer. He was shot where he stood. He fell in battle. Wallowing in his own blood, he gave out one last battle cry: The people of Israel live! Death and vengeance to the criminal Nazis! In his service to his people, in his dedication of all of his might in life, and in his demonstration of the existence of the people in the face of the enemy's sword, and being answered by the sword on his head as a rebuke, he died a hero's death, the self-sacrifice of a proud and brave-hearted Jew, a hero protecting the honor of his people.
May his soul be bound up in the bonds of everlasting life.
May his soul be bound up in the bonds of the sacred and pure heroes, and may his memory never be forgotten!
Translated by Amy Samin
The Massorah [notations regarding the exact traditional text of the bible] explain to us the origins of the name Gilad, the important region on the eastern side of the Jordan River, which was frequently a rock in the dispute between the Hebrew tribes on the eastern side of the Jordan and the Moabs and the Amons from the south, and the Arameans from the north. It comes from the words: Gal-Ed, in other words, the heap of stones will stand forever
between the children of Yaacov and the children of Lavan (Genesis 31:48); in other words, the pile of stones (and those scattered in abundance on the heap) must mark the eternal boundary between the Arameans (children of Lavan) and the Jewish tribes on the eastern side of the Jordan River. The writing thus emphasizes that what was done is a fact, because the eastern side of the Jordan was a permanent settlement of the tribes of the children of Israel and that other elders of the Israelites and of the Arameans already determined the borders.
The eastern side of the Jordan River - this was an ancient inheritance for the Israelites, the cradle of their cherished homeland, before they occupied the land of Canaan.
The song of Bil'am, who turned from one who curses to one who blesses; the marvelous song that says How goodly are thy tents, Yaacov and It is a people that shall dwell alone and not be reckoned among the nations (Exodus 23, 24) portions of the eastern side of the Jordan River and its background, the hatred, the powerlessness and fear of the Moabites before the tribes of Israel.
At the beginning of the book you will find the name of the eastern side of the Jordan: These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan etc. (Deuteronomy 1:1). Soon after, you find another mention: Beyond the Jordan, in the land of Moab, Moshe began to declare this Torah etc. (Deuteronomy 1:5).
The eastern side of the Jordan plays an important role in the influence of prophetic culture in the creation of poetry and the concept of the unity of faith, the people, and the land. It is clear to me that at the present moment, when evil peoples are calling for the destruction of our lives, not just as a group but as people, the annexation of the eastern side of the Jordan to the area of the homeland is an ideal, not the reality. But it is important for us that we do not, in our consciousness, diminish the value of the eastern side of the Jordan to the rest of the country, that we do not despair of it, and so - one day we will dwell there.
(From his articles: The Hebrew Irredenta and Reflection in the Tanakh Printed in Kovetz HaYovel in honor of the principal of the Gymnasia and the editor of the Tarbut magazine in Kovel, Mr. Asher Frankfort, on the occasion of his 50th birthday (1888 - 1938) and in honor of the 17th anniversary of the founding of the Gymnasia (1921 - 1938). The journal appeared in 1938, edited by Yosef Avrekh, may G-d avenge his blood).
by Yitzhak Ogen
Translated by Ala Gamulka
I first met Kalman Gutenboim in Vilna in the month of Elul, 1936. I had long wished to meet this man as there were many stories about his life within our family circle. He lived in Kovel and was married there to my aunt, my father's sister- the daughter of Rabbi Nitzberg, z l. The rabbi was known for his book Demeshek Eliezer. I recall a visit from my late grandfather in our house in Vilna. During one of his conversations with my father the name of Kalman Gutenboim came up.
|Kalman Gutenboim and his wife Ida, daughter of Rabbi Nitzberg
The elderly rabbi, a scholar who was famous for his few words- spoke with enthusiasm about his wonderful son-in-law (after several years of knowing him- they lived in the same apartment). He told us about Kalman's monkish way of life, his deep diligence as well as his outstanding character. The elderly rabbi spoke with enthusiasm and reverence. Some time later I read books written by Gutenboim- one about Schopenhauer (a deep and yet popular analysis). I also tried to read his book about Einstein's Theory of Relativity. These and his later books- The novels Strangers and Mystery- awakened my desire to meet the author, a member of our family. This only happened in 1936.
That summer I went to Vilna- after spending a few years in Eretz Israel- to visit my parents. Kalman Gutenboim had moved from Kovel to Vilna.
Our meeting was quite hearty. There was something in him that captured my heart. His exterior appearance was not particularly attractive. He was a tired man with some ailments. However, after a short conversation I realized that he was weary from the work he did day and night. He was constantly doing research and studying. He was an introvert and modest. I succeeded in obtaining his trust. The quiet man became a non-stop talker and I absorbed his words.
We strolled through the streets of Vilna- the poor streets in the Jewish section. They touched our hearts with their bareness. We sailed along to the suburbs, to the parks and Spire mountain. This is where Mikhel wrote his works and where Ma'ane wrote My soul's wish. In front of us, on one side, was the Vilila and on the other, the Vilika river. Here, in this distant and lonely place (the Christian residents only visited on special occasions while the Jews avoided attacks by bullies), we sat for hours and discussed philosophy. He found me to be receptive to his thoughts. Usually, he was on his own and did not find a listening ear. Truthfully, he was liked by the Jewish intelligentsia who wrote in Yiddish (he was publishing articles in Der Tag (the day), edited by Zalman Raizin. However, he was not a member of a specific group. Unlike most of the Yiddish writers, he was a Zionist. Secretly, his heart dreamed of Eretz Israel. He wanted to work there, but he was auto-didactic and there was no one who could recommend him. At that time, he was invited to give a series of lectures in Russia (his books about Schopenhauer and Einstein had reached Russia and had made an impression- or perhaps someone in the family had intervened ). However, he could not accept the Communists and he knew that he would not be able to give his opinions freely in Russia. He would not give up on freedom of thought. I still remember his ideas on materialism and Marxism. No, he was not a person who should lecture in Russia. In addition, the long trip was daunting. There was much work to be done and his head was full of plans. In one conversation he told me that he was writing his autobiography, about his original philosophy. He figured he needed ten more years to complete the task.
As often happens with bright people, his conversation flowed easily. His words were simple, but deep. It is only after several years that I appreciated the beauty of its contents. He was comfortable in the world of human thought. His torch lit the way in the darkness. A circle of light hung on him and led him forward. I stood inside his circle and it seems to me that I see the man as he was lit up. I saw that he never wavered in his origins and roots. Man's suffering was his outlet- before and after his ideas. This lonely man, away from the crowd, was a wonder in my eyes.
In those days he told me about his contacts with the great thinkers of our generation. I saw his aloofness in a different light. He could read and write in Russian, English, French and German and he had friendly relations with many scholars. In connection with his book on Einstein, he corresponded with him. He also was in touch with Michelson, the famous physicist and others. I cannot forgive myself for the sin I committed. I encouraged him to give me the letters he received, or at least some of them so I could bring them to Hebrew University. It would be Dr. Shvedron who would receive them. The shadow of the Satan from Germany was felt in Poland. Gutenboim agreed and we had decided that I would come to his house to choose the letters. I was busy with all kinds of happenings in Vilna, my home city and I was easily impressed. I postponed my visit to him. When I came to say good-bye to Kalman Gutenboim, a hasty parting, it was agreed that he would send me the letters. Although I felt the importance of these letters, I did not expect him to take time away from his work to send them to me. My heart is heavy and full of sorrow. Everything was lost and nothing remained.
Writings of Kalman Gutenboim: (Bibliography)
In honor of the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Birth
of Mr. Asher Frankfort, may God avenge his blood
by Yosef Avrech
Translated by Amy Samin
As a student of the school established by Mefitzei Hahaskalah in Russia in the first decade of the twentieth century, who intended to assimilate at the time when many were fleeing from the heder and the yeshiva to Skalah and enlightenment, it was difficult to imagine
|Principal of the Hebrew Gymnasia,
Mr. Asher Frankfort,
may God avenge his blood
that the young man, Frankfort, a Skalah protégé, would serve up - along with the Tanakh and the Hebrew language - various delicacies from Karilov, Pushkin, Larmontov and others, going against the stream and making an inverse flight from the Maskil El Dal school to the yeshivas in Kovel and Brisk. And about two years later, to the Russian school in Kovel and later to the trade school and to the small gymnasia in Brisk. Afterward he graduated from the institute for commercial science in Kiev, in order to later establish a Hebrew gymnasia and become the guardian of its physical and spiritual development.
And when Frankfort left, crowned with the degree of bachelor of commercial science and economics, the World War was in progress. He tried to make use of his education obtained in the institute and did commercial clerical work. He was made a senior clerk in a large contracting office in the field of bridge and road construction.
Later, he also worked in commerce. In spite of that, he did not neglect the most important kind of public work of that time. He became a member of the aid committee for Jews impacted by the war. Later he joined the aid committee for the victims of the Ukrainian pogroms during the time of the Russian Revolution.
The entrance of the Poles into Kiev made it possible for him to return to the city of his birth as a repatriate, not just in its simplest meaning, but a spiritual repatriate to Hebrew culture in his former homeland. Soon after his return, he began his efforts to establish the Hebrew gymnasia.
He made a daring leap, causing amazement in the eyes of his acquaintances and friends. The alrightniks among them were astounded: respectable, profitable businessmen had been assembled, was Frankfort planning to open a religious school for girls? Even more, they were amazed by his lobbying efforts among the curators and ministers: a gymnasia where the language of instruction was to be Hebrew? It was indeed a wondrous riddle, whose solution would be extremely difficult.
And where would they find textbooks in the various subjects written in the Hebrew language? How can a language that has been frozen and lifeless for hundreds of years serve for all of the concepts and expressions of these times? How strange! People suggested that he open a gymnasia where the language of instruction would be Polish. But he, Frankfort, answered them with the words that Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakai said to Vespasian: Give me Yavneh and its sages.
And in the offices of the curators and the ministers, they were amazed. But the great miracle of the rebirth of Poland, which had been lively and filled the being of every Pole - served as a backdrop for he who explained to them the vision the revival of our culture, and that vision its place in the hearts of those who could make a difference. The idea of the culture was put into practice, giving it flesh and blood, like in Rovna, Bialystok and Vilna, so the gymnasia in Kovel was founded.
Of all of the awful problems the principal had to solve, the worst of all was
the question of the sources of income for the institution. The accepted assumption was that an educational institution with the idealistic goal of changing values must rely on the means of the Tarbut company and be supported by them and by other public funds. Frankfort, however, solved the problem in an entirely different manner. The gymnasia was funded by tuition fees paid by the parents.
However, occasionally it had legal and moral support and, occasionally, also material help from the center. But the institution did not depend on the expectation of help from the center, if he had it would soon have the same destiny as Frishman, and would go bankrupt and perish.
Kovel was not a well-to-do city, not by its population and not by its finances, and there were more high school level educational institutions than were warranted. The paradox of Frankfort's activities was that the institution which logically should have depended on outside help, had a life of its own and paid taxes to the center.
The vitality of Tarbut institutions served as a typical sign of their right to exist, and the solid ground upon which the idea of Tarbut was based. But along with that it served to prove the administrative strength and talent of the gymnasia's founder and principal.
The days of crisis came, which even now have not completely passed, and poverty also came knocking on the doors of the institution. The faces of the teachers and their families bore witness to those lean years. But in spite of everything they were steadfast.
Thus he carried on, continuing his work up until the new Olympian leap - the construction of the building. First the building: the authorities would not allow the institution to carry on in its old building, which it was feared might collapse. On the other hand, it would be difficult to find another location in which the rent would not consume all of the operating income. Therefore, a new building must be constructed.
And if you say: the institution doesn't have enough money to clear its debts and the rent from previous years, how would it be possible to think about such a thing as constructing a new building? Some would say, that is why we must build, since the institution does not have the funds to pay large amounts in rent year after year.
It would seem that the answer is both paradoxical and lacking in logic: an enchanted circle without any opening. And here you discover the greatness of the man we are honoring. That idea, which garnered him supporters in the meetings of the go-getters of Tarbut, and with the community leader M. Pearl, to whom it seemed a nice hallucination lacking any basis in reality, took on an actual shape under the initiative of Frankfort.
What hidden strength bubbled and flowed within him. Vigor overflowed his banks like a lava flow from a volcano, spreading out and inflaming everything in its path. Thus
his strength ignited a tremendous bonfire of achievement and creativity. All of the members of the group of excellent businessmen were amazed at the shrewd combinations and transactions of the man we are honoring: purchasing and clearing the land, and making a down payment for the hauling of the building materials. They were enchanted by his marvelous ingenuity, like an eagle's flight, the tremendous initiative of seven miles in one step of A. Frankfort.
The derisive smiles and laughter in the mustaches disappeared. Where was the paradox? Everything was so real, so logical and sensible. The businessmen were electrified, and girded their strength for the gathering of subscriptions and contributions (financial, materials, and building blocks) for the building project.
And the results - the grand laying of the cornerstone before a large audience, and all mouths that had been filled with claims that his boasts of a tremendous initiative were unrealistic, and who had said that it would be worthwhile to see how and when the building would actually be completed, were suddenly empty. One of the official guests at the occasion said this: Now, this premise: Frankfort now stands at a miniature matriculation exam. He will take the full examination when construction is complete. In other words: There is still a long way to go. And hand to hand, back to back, and above all the taskmaster - the honoree - with his piercing glance, demanding work and effort from the members like a taskmaster. When people started to relax their will and or become impatient, his raspy voice would echo secretly in the heart and the brain: Get up and work! Get up and do!
Only through ruses, juggling, and infusions - that is to say, of money - from the jugs to the well, I mean the budget of the institution, its salaries, the salaries of its personnel, loans, deferred payments, did the construction work continue and the walls rise up, tile by tile, and after the affair of the bricks, the affair of the beams and the joists, and after that the affair of the tin. It was expected of the Tarbut building. And only the eyes of the honoree, blazing with a sickly glow, and his focused face and his heart weakening inside of him, his eyes rolled slightly with the irrational element in his vigor, which was inexhaustible, from the painful affront to our culture, the great culture of an anguished nation which has no shelter; this culture, which was not inherited from the sacrifices and did not win light in a windfall, but which was carved from its heart and its pain.
And the honoree dredged up strength from his personal pain and sorrow, if you do not do something big, the fruit of his work which he loved so well would be for nothing. The same personal insult, the same danger of disappointment that spurred on his initiative also spurred the act of construction until all was complete, and through to its decoration. The building was erected. Frankfort sat for the full matriculation exam and passed it.
(From the Jubilee File of the Fiftieth Anniversary of the birth of Asher Frankfort of blessed memory and in honor of the 17th Anniversary of the establishment of the gymnasia.)
by Yaacov Kobrinsky
Translated by Ala Gamulka
There was no one else in Kovel like Yaacov Borak. He was a member of many committees. During the period between the two wars he was on the following committees: Tarbut, Taz, Ort, the orphanage, Gmilut Hasadim Fund, etc. He also belonged to the local branch of the General Zionists. Yaacov was a member of so many institutions not because he looked for honors, but because he was a man of the people. He had a deep understanding of the complicated labyrinth of our public and political lives.
It was complicated not due to ideology, but for practical reasons- makeup of the institutions, their financial arrangements, relations between the institutions, character of the leaders and secrets from the inside. All these issues were clear to him. He was usually elected to the budgetary committees and also to those committees that granted inner funds. The latter were often forgotten by our brethren.
It was customary for him, and no one else, to publish the weekly Voice of Kovel.
The publication kept going for over 10 years. The Voice of Kovel served the Jewish community of Kovel very well. Yaacov Borak aspired to give the weekly publication a clear local tone. Every edition contained not more than one article of general interest. There were also recaps of news of the week. The rest was given over to interests of Kovel and vicinity, municipal issues, the community and the various institutions, youth organizations. There were also reports about accidents and robberies. Occasionally, works by local authors and poets were included (Kalman Liss, Moshe Weinstein, Olitzky and others).
He managed to draw the attention of writers from among the local Jewish intelligentsia. They provided literary material, without being paid. Of course, being a stubborn man, he exacted from every person respect for the publication. I recall that a visiting troupe came to present some plays in Kovel. The impresario wanted to change the accepted custom and refused to give Borak a press pass.
I don't need your review- claimed the latter. Borak simply replied: I am not coming to the play to write a review, but I still must be in the theatre. Otherwise, the public in attendance will boo every performance. If one of your actors will fall off the stage and break an elbow- I, as a journalist, must write about it in the local weekly publication or to inform the Warsaw newspaper. (Yaacov Borak was also a reporter for Moment)
Yaacov Borak did not ally the Voice of Kovel with any political party- officially or financially. However, because it was so independent, the publication spoke for the Zionist organization. It announced all its many activities. He never wavered from the Zionist and national route. At times, this attitude caused serious financial losses. At one time, people representing the B.B.O.R (a group of non- affiliated people who cooperated with the government- followers of Pilsudski), offered Borak some compensation for providing them space in the publication. He refused and used a diplomatic excuse to do so.
In the last years before WWII, when the Jewish community had an inkling that a terrible event was to come, the Voice of Kovel pushed Aliyah. The publication remained true to its purpose up to the day the war broke out. Our public life then was silenced.
He was unable to get out in time and he was murdered by the killers together with our saintly brethren.
by S. Bama
Translated by Amy Samin
In the dim mists of time the prominent and upright figure of the editor of the Kovel Voice comes to life: his gaunt face, his bespectacled eyes, and his pointed nose gave him an ascetic appearance: his somewhat fragmented speech, his coarse, deep, cutting voice seemingly fashioned to convince you with its internal logic. His long legs bore him, a busy public figure, to every public gathering. As a faithful Zionist, he preferred national interest to inter-factional conspiracies. He didn't take anyone into account, and he criticized those who deserved it with his honed and witty pen.
* * *
A public figure: indeed he showed up everywhere he was expected to be, and everywhere he was not. He succeeded in gathering around himself a faithful group of workers who were altruistically devoted with all their hearts and souls to the newspaper. His agents could be found at all public activities, both general and Jewish. With his long sharp nose he sniffed out and found the right people for the city council or the starostwo (eldership) on the one hand, and the community council on the other.
* * *
He brought the very best of the intelligentsia of the city to the newspaper and still wasn't satisfied. He was in contact with well-known authors, and got their permission to reprint in his paper the best writings of the journalists from the general-Jewish papers, and every week he provided the city's residents with articles of both passing and enduring content.
* * *
He was an autodidact, but he was able to adopt modern ways of expression. More than once people were amazed at the phenomenon of a man of broad scope who was indeed active in the province, was involved in general political and public-Jewish life, and who remarked on every public event worthy of acknowledgement, both large and small.
* * *
His writing was simple and to the point, he knew every hidden wrinkle of the spoken language, and wove it into his written words. His written expressions were logical, detailed,
comprehensive and convincing. It did not lack an iota of modernism on the one hand, and on the other was based on the popular and juicy gleichvertel (witticism). His articles achieved his goal: to stroke or caress those who deserved it, and to strike or injure those who deserved it.
* * *
The Kovel Voice had a general character, but everyone knew that it was a Zionist newspaper. Among the provincial newspapers in the region, it was the most notable and had the highest level of writing and journalists. And more than once it was quoted by the general-Jewish newspaper in Warsaw, the capital. And when political competitors appeared - such as the Bund - and wanted to muddy the city of Kovel's Zionist character, the Kovel Voice rose up with a fighting spirit and national pride, and in the end was victorious.
* * *
Well then, Mr. S.B., someone said to me, following my participation in the big memorial service for Herzl that was held in the Great Synagogue. Perhaps you could honor our newspaper with the fruits of your pen? You couldn't refuse the pleasant tone of Ben-Avinoam - such was his accepted nickname - and in the next Friday edition there appeared an article entitled Bein ha-Metzarim (Between the Straits), which was given pride of place.
* * *
It is the Friday before you make aliyah (immigrate) to Eretz Yisrael. The printing machine is spewing out the newspaper's last galley proofs. The fresh-inked letters dirty the hands of the editor as he fixes his glance on the greetings for the immigrant. Tears roll down his cheeks and fall onto the soft, fibrous paper of the newspaper. Send your list from there and I will be comforted by it, he says, and from his mouth escape words with many meanings: Who knows when I will have the opportunity to make aliyah to Eretz Yisrael? He always gave the lists from Eretz Yisrael a place at the top of the paper, though he never did have the chance to go there himself.
* * *
When you go to Eretz Yisrael and stand on Mt. Scopus in the journalism department of the Hebrew University, and page through the annuals of the Kovel Voice which are in the archives there, you are able to stand at a geographical distance and see the value of the newspaper and the position that it had in Jewish-general life. And if Jewish Kovel will continue to live on in the Jewish consciousness, the Kovel Voice and its editor will have played no small part in that.
by Yaacov Teitelkar
Translated by Ala Gamulka
The story of the Jewish Drama Group in Kovel
During the Russian rule, up to WWI, it was absolutely forbidden to perform on stage in Yiddish in Kovel. Occasionally, troupes came from Warsaw, Vilna and other places. They, too, tried to get around the regulations by pretending to perform in German. Truthfully, most of the plays performed in those days were written in Deutcherisch Hebrew script with Germanic sounds and Yiddish words.
These plays were attended mostly by the wealthier people and the RussianJewish intelligentsia. The masses were less interested in them.
The development of Yiddish theater in Kovel began at the start of WWI, when it was conquered by the Germans. The Jews had reasonable freedom in conducting public cultural programs in their language. One of the main reasons for the growth of the Jewish Drama Group in Kovel was the special economic situation in which the residents found themselves. At the time the town was filled with Jewish refugees from nearby villages. The war had reached them and the widows and orphans required immediate assistance. The residents of Kovel undertook this help so the needy people would not succumb to their dire situation. This is when the Peoples' Kitchen was founded by the town leaders. They were headed by the wellknown, generous wife of Dr. Feinstein. She worked tirelessly for the good of the poor materially and spiritually.
The usual sources of collecting funds among the population were insufficient. Those in charge had to find other sources of income. Therefore, in 1917, before and after the Balfour Declaration, the first signs of Zionist seeds emerged in Kovel. Thus, among the members of the intelligentsia that were followers of Mrs. Feinstein, the idea was born to form a Jewish Drama group. It would perform in pure Yiddish, with high performance standards, but it would also provide an income to be used for the needy refugees in Kovel.
|The Jewish Drama Group of Kovel
10th Anniversary 19171927
The founders of the Jewish Drama Group were: the talented director Vannin, Moshe Pugatch, and chairman Moshe Kogan. They were theater lovers and were quite talented. Moshe Pugatch came from among the Zionist youth and Kogan was a product of the popularnationalists of Kovel. They both brought experience and specific theatrical points of view which they had acquired in their travels in America. This was where Jewish literature and theater were blooming in those days. They both had the same purpose to develop theatrical taste among the people. The selections they chose were from the best European and Jewish repertoire as well as plays by Gordon and Goldfaden. They presented plays three or four times a year, but they were very serious and dedicated.
The roles were presented artistically and were wellrehearsed. Every performance, beautifully directed by Pugatch, was a highlight in the life of the population of Kovel. The plays were received enthusiastically and respectfully. It seemed that the seeds of the Jewish Drama Group were sown on the fertile soil of the talented youths of Kovel. Soon, there was a full staff of outstanding theatrical forces around the Group.
The traditional Jewish attitude to theater as a Purim Play and the actors as Comedians with a bad reputation, changed. The eternal struggle between fathers and sons about modernity also subsided. During the first years of its existence, the Jewish Drama Group served as a bridge between the audiences of Kovel and the various visiting troupes (The Vilners from Warsaw and Vilna, Turkov's Vict group). The latter appeared often in the best Jewish dramatic productions. When they arrived in Kovel, they would immediately contact the Jewish Drama Group and perform in their theater. Thus, they received advice, help and technical support and contact with the theatergoing population of Kovel. The top goal of the Jewish Drama Group was to foster artistic theatrical tastes in the masses. They concentrated on all parts of the population in town. The RussianJewish intelligentsia had been nurtured within Russian culture and was usually distant from Jewish language and culture and looked at it as broken jargon. The intelligentsia was given the opportunity to have classical literature recognized. Many of its members joined as actors and others enjoyed the performances. The audience was the beneficiary. There were plays by Borokhin, Brandes, Madam Kivok and others. The plain folks were represented by the chairman Kogan, a beloved comedian, Khalat, Grempler, Rosen and others.
The nationalZionists were founder of the group Moshe Pugatch, Shevka Frishberg, Haya Liss, Aaron Melamed and his sister Yocheved, Hannah Kopelberg, Shalom Klonitsky and others. Even the religious leaders who were against their offspring participating in theater gave in and joined the modern trend. Their representatives were: the Friedman brothers, Teacher Naimark, Segal, etc.
This is how the Jewish Drama Group became an important, allparty, neutral vehicle. It drew many young people, as well as lovers of popular theater and culture. Every section ignored its particular points of view for the good of the others. This is how the Jewish Drama Group became beloved by all residents of Kovel.
However, in time, there were new influences in the economic life of the Jews in the new Poland. They also touched the daily life of the Jews. The Polish government had a strict AntiSemitic policy and thus the Jews of Kovel suffered economically. There was poverty and great need. It was necessary to develop more practical ways and to cut down on culture. There were also other reasons. Some people married and became involved in their family and business. Others left for far away places and there were those who did not approve of the change in values. Members left the group and were replaced by new ones who did not see things in the same way. Pugatch left and was replaced by a local actor who had settled in Kovel Torren. He was an accomplished performer who directed as well. However, he did not continue the custom of having the audience get used to the art. He was more interested in adapting the plays to the spectators. There were very few left of the original group and there was a decline.
Torren tried to draw to the group new members from working youths and simply theater lovers. He appealed to the surrounding villages with great success. The secretary, Khalat, knew how to approach community leaders for donations and together they were able to keep the group going until the last days before the Holocaust.
The need for Habimah and its genesis
If the Jewish drama group in Kovel was born due to economic need, i.e. in order to serve as an additional source of social assistance, then the HabimahStudio of Sh. Klonitsky was a unique Hebrew cultural phenomenon.
It was in the second half of the thirties that the Hebrew cultural movement in Kovel was in full bloom. The two elementary schools and the Tarbut Hebrew high school were thriving and growing. The pioneering movements (Hashomer Hatzair, Hechalutz Hatzair, Union of Working Eretz Israel) expanded and together they created a base and a strong background for more cultural activities. There was an opportunity for the Hebrew language to permeate socialcultural life in Kovel. However, these activities were limited to the educational institutions and the centers of the movements. Their influence was not evident outside their walls. Thus, the main purpose of Tarbut was not visible: the renewal and mastery of the Hebrew language in the Diaspora and the preparation for life in the homeland.
There were many among the teachers and Tarbut leaders in Kovel who recognized, understood and appreciated the value of theatre in the dissemination of language and culture, especially Hebrew language. Up to then the language was considered to be purely that of the book. However, the teacher, Shalom Klonitsky was the only one who dared to present this proposal: to deepen the knowledge of the language in cultural Hebrew life by forming a public Hebrew theatre stage available to all. Sh. Klonitsky was a member of Tarbut, a veteran Zionist and a talented actor. He belonged to the Jewish Drama group and had esthetic and artistic theatrical viewpoints. He had learned this through experience and by reading theatrical literature. He had intuition and original inspiration. It was natural that to the main purpose cultural growth there was also added a secondary one. It was to create a Hebrew stage that was artistic and would satisfy, in an esthetic fashion, all those seeking culture and art. This idea was germinating in Sh. K. for many years and he was prepared to dedicate all his strength and pride to achieving it.
As is usually the case with all new ideas and dreams, there are many who look at them, but few who are willing to make an effort to achieve them. It is important to emphasize that Sh. K. did not find listening ears among the leaders and committee members of Tarbut.
They listened with understanding and recognition, but they were unable to offer their help with technical and material items needed. They even admitted to this on their own… They had many excuses such as financial deficit and pushed him away. They told him to come back. The vice mayor, Moshe Perl, (who was not yet the chairman of Tarbut), was the only one to do his utmost for the good of Habimah. He arranged for official permission from the administration.
Overcoming difficulties and the first trial
Sh. K. was not one to be stopped by the difficulties and barriers on the way. He did not retire to his corner. Sh. K. decided to found Habimah on his own, no matter what.
Sh. K. found actors among the youth, graduates of the Hebrew high school, the pioneering young people and teachers. These people were inexperienced amateurs and thus, Sh. K. chose literary classic Yiddish fragments, mostly from Peretz. He edited them and adjusted them according to the abilities of his actors. The first performance was entitled Decree from Heaven. At the last moment, Tarbut removed its sponsorship and Sh. K. was forced to cancel the already printed announcements. He had to find other ways to accomplish his plan. It was on Erev Pessach of 1928 which was close to the twelfth yahrzeit of the death of Peretz. Sh. K. decided to use the opportunity and call his presentation A Peretz Evening. It was easy to receive a permit from the authorities. Sh. K. then was obliged to change the content of the presentation. He included the accepted characters of Peretz: the prophet, pharisaic, etc. They were given special treatment and individual attention by the actors. Sh. K. himself was a generous social leader as a member of the educational committee of the Orphanage, he obtained a permit in its name. The Tarbut committee had revoked its sponsorship by being indifferent and narrowminded.
Preparations were made and new publicity was done. Invitations were sent. On 8.4.28, second day of Hol HaMoed Pessach, there was a horde of unexpected guests. The hall of Talmud Torah, 3 Listopdova Street, was completely full.
Sh. K. intended, with this first presentation, to show an original Jewish way that he wanted to give Habimah. It was different from other amateur groups. He wanted an innovation.
Truth be told that with this excellent, talented presentation which integrated movement, music and lighting effects, Sh. K. totally surprised the audience. They, in turn, applauded and showed their appreciation. The trial was successful and the victory was complete.
Sh. K. was flush with success and encouragement and he decided to enlarge the Habimah Studio. For its premier production Masada was chosen. Many of those among the Tarbut leaders who were previously hesitant or indifferent, changed their negative attitude to the dream of the Habimah in Hebrew. New forces joined the effort. Sh. K.'s new right hand was the talented young artist A. Reiner. He, too, had the dream of Hebrew art and theatre that were to be part of the cultural life in town. He found an opportunity to devote himself to this dream and to find undiscovered talents. In addition, the music teacher Feinstein and the pianist Luba Avrech also joined the Habimah Studio. They contributed from a musical point of view. The talented dancer, graduate of the orphanage, Sarka Tchizshik (Harpia) brought the wonders of original artistic dance movements.
The second presentation was the then actual poem Masada by Yitzhak Lamdan. However, in order to write a complete script, Sh. K. needed special preparation. The young actors were inexperienced on stage and required special attention individually and as a cast. The material in Masada had to be rewritten as a play in the spirit of Habimah. It was essential to have appropriate, moveable scenery for every act. Hassidic tunes were integrated into songs and music from Eretz Israel. Choreography was created. Every detail had to be done cooperatively to have an artistic, excellent presentation. This task, undertaken by Sh. K. himself, took a long time. It was only at the end of 1930 that the play was presented. Everything was ready. Only approval of Tarbut was missing. Again, Sh. K. turned to the Tarbut committee and again he was met with apathy and hesitation lack of funds and vision. Again, Sh. K. needed the help of the Orphanage. He was given the necessary technical help, a place for rehearsals and its talented graduates to participate.
|Epilogue from Masada by Lamdan
On 20.3.31, the theatre hall of KinoMeisky (Express) was not only completely filled, but a new phenomenon could be seen. Hundreds of people who were unable to obtain tickets pushed the front doors of the theatre to such an extent that the Polish police was called upon to restore order… There were also representatives of the Polish intelligentsia (invited by Moshe Perl) and members of the city authorities. The presentation was quite successful and left a deep impression on the varied and large audience. There was a review by a critic in the local paper. He was a member of the Yiddish intelligentsia distant from Hebrew culture and was considered to be antiZionist.
Here are the words published in the Voice of Kovel (EmetStanlik): In other nations, those who live normal political and cultural lives, this play would be a great holiday. It would be an energetic holiday and an artistic achievement. We saw, in front of us, a fortress of culture, knowledge and culture. We saw Masada! In this play was felt, quite prominently, the theatrical importance of beloved, enthusiastic and heroic Masada. This is a real fortress in the cultural life in our midst!
Here is an opinion, in the same edition, by a representative of the Hebrew teachers and a member of Tarbut I. Kobrinsky:
The play by the amateur group Habimah was an encouraging phenomenon in our poor cultural life. This exceptional presentation was a triumph of stubbornness of one person Shalom Klonitsky. For many years, he had the dream of establishing an artistic Hebrew theatre. Over the years, those near and far, clipped his wings. However, his hopes were stronger than the doubters! On the evening of the performance of Masada, his dream was fulfilled. Immediately, at the start of the play, it was obvious that it was prepared with great understanding and talent. The sets were artistic and were most suitable to the content. It can be said that such scenery is not seen in other amateur productions. We cannot stop ourselves from commenting here on the hidden talent the young artist Reiner. A great part of the success of the play belongs to him. The audience thoroughly enjoyed themselves. The core of every dramatic presentation integration of various artistic ventures as one whole entity was perfectly executed. The acting, dancing (Harpia), music (excellent, by L. Avrech), the scenery!. The audience applauded shouting Wonderful! Excellent!. Hurray Klonitsky! The Habimah party was a true Hebrew celebration!
The people of Kovel begged for additional performances and Masada was presented again a month later, on 5.4.31, during Hol HaMoed Pessach. There were some technical innovations and this performance was even more successful than the first one.
Development of HabimahStudio and its continuation
After the presentation of Masada, Habimah studio became a permanent fixture. Top leaders of Tarbut, mainly Moshe Perl, began to seek a permit from the authorities. There was sound financial backing and the studio was a legal, independent entity within Tarbut. A permit was finally obtained, with the help of the wellknown community leader, editor of News of Kovel Yaakov Borak. It became a separate group.
The name Habimah was chosen by Sh. K. to ease the request from the authorities. In those days, the Polish government was suspicious of any cultural amateur groups. They thought it was a screen for revolutionary ideas. However, the name Habimah was wellknown to the authorities as a Hebrew theatre. The word Studio was added to differentiate it from the original Habimah in Eretz Israel.
Soon Habimah became famous in the area and in nearby towns.
|Sara Tchizshik (Harpia) in the role of the bereaved in Anthemia by Andreyev
There were requests from Rovno, Lutsk and Ludomir for the group to perform in their towns. However, this did not take place. Habimah Studio could not undertake the financial responsibility for such ventures. The Tarbut center in Rovno did not appreciate the value of this cultural presentation by Habimah and it did not help them to achieve this trip.
After Masada, Habimah studio prepared a third play Anthemia by Leonid Andreyev. As in previous plays and for other technical reasons such as: slowness of the translation by the author I. P. Tsitronel from Ludomir, it took a long time, over a year, between Masada and Anthemia.
The presentation of Anthemia on 18.5.32 at the Kino Meisky, was very successful. There were 40 members of the cast. The dream of Hebrew theater in Kovel was achieved. Habimah Studio became entrenched as part of the Hebrew cultural life in Kovel and surrounding areas. Every performance became a celebration in town. Habimah studio allowed itself to perform not only on Sabbath nights, but on week days as well. These presentations, too, became celebrations.
Habimah Studio was blooming and growing. Plans were being made for a fourth play - Shabtai Zvi and perhaps others. However, the reality of living in the diaspora temporary and uncertain changed these plans. The theater hall became a fallen Succah of David… The pioneering youth had been the mainstay of the theater group. Now they were all planning to make Aliyah and were preparing themselves.
Klonitsky himself received a certificate for Aliyah in 1934. Most of the pioneers made Aliyah and Klonitsky joined them. When Sh. K. left the shining existence of Habimah in the cultural life of Kovel disappeared. No one undertook to continue the effort.
by S. Kalonimus
Translated by Ala Gamulka
The Habimah Studio in Kovel, in its short 3 years, managed to draw a crowd of admirers that was interested and followed with love and friendship its blooming and growth.
The attitude of the leaders of Tarbut changed completely after Masada and Anthemia were presented. At first, these leaders had the attitude of let the children play. There was criticism, demands and requests, but they were all done upon reflection and for the good of the studio. Everyone had his own opinion. Now, after the summer holidays, as I am going back to work, I wish to analyse these demands and to understand the purpose and ways of Habimah.
Firstly, we must note that the studio is nationalisticHebrew. Let us not fool ourselves in thinking that the studio only presents plays for the dissemination of the language itself. In the plays there is propaganda for the language, but that is not its only goal.
The mission of Habimah is to show the Hebrew crowd nationalistic artistry. There are plays which reflect the life of the Jewish nation in different eras. The life of individuals and that of the community are shown with all their ups and downs, hopes and yearnings. It is essential to throw a light on the differences between young and old generations and to touch upon all the problems in our world. It is to be done in an artistictheatrical method.
There is no rule telling us that we must look for material for our repertoire only in the original Hebrew, as some would demand. Not everything written in Hebrew can be performed on stage, even if written by a Jew. For example, the play Shabtai Zvi, by Zholovsky, was superior to anything written by our own authors. He, the Pole, was able to remove the mystic curtain engulfing this tragic hero. He discovered for us the highs and lows of his soul. This material is perfect for a play, especially in Hebrew! There are many dramas written in Hebrew or Yiddish which deal with proper Jewish heroes, but they are only an imitation.
There are wellknown dramas of I. Gordon who wished to bring the beauty of Japhet in the tents of Shem. It was a poor imitation because it was against artistic laws. Art is international, but the form was national. Difficulties common to many peoples are shown in a different way within every nation. This is why we must have only these plays that are close to our hearts and that discuss problems of our world. This is why the Hebrew studio must present plays which deal with universal issues, even if they come from the outside.
For example, a nonJew will look at the Jewish Shylock in a different way than a would a Jew. The difference is great and it has value for us. It is possible to use material from other languages as long as the issues are meaningful for us. A good example is Anthemia by Andreyev. It is a Russian work that was written when the folk was persecuted by the Tsar. It is a cry against the heavy load that the enslaved Russian people are carrying. In spite of the fact that the main protagonist in this drama is a Jew called David, it is the deep sorrow of the people that is emphasised. The Habimah Studio, when it presented Anthemia, used the material to show the pain and suffering of the Jews in the Diaspora with David as our Job.
It also shows the minimal value of man in front of the forces of nature.
In general, the studio must follow the teaching of Rabbi Meir: I found a pomegranate which I ate, but I threw away its peel. When it comes to the way the play is presented on stage by Habimah, symbolically and mystically, there is no rule. Even if the play was mystic and symbolic, it does not mean that Habimah is only to put on such plays.
The directors of Habimah considers the human content and the condition it is in at present. Material conditions are not always convenient.
Those who think that the goal of Habimah is to amuse those who are bored at home and that the repertoire must be funny comedies, songs and dances are mistaken.
Habimah is an artistic venture and its goal is to elevate the audience and not to bring it down. The size of the audience is not important, but its quality is. If there are any complaints. There should only be from Habimah to the Hebrew intelligentsia, the teachers and principals who sit without lifting a finger. Their indifference is a sin and a crime. Help us create the right atmosphere and then Habimah will become an important cultural artistic entity that is highly valued in our town.
It is acceptable to criticize a seedling that is trying to grow, but there must be a willingness to collaborate.
(From the yearbook of the Union of Jewish Academicians in Kovel, September 1932, year 2, no. 2)
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