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Dr. Meir Litvak,
Forerunner of the Enlightenment Movement in Russia

By H. Hoykhgelernter (New York)

English translation by Tina Lunson

A child of poor parents who with his own strength achieved a high level.–An example of a Jewish physician in one-time Russian Jewry.–Dr. Meir Litvak the warm Jew, community leader and man of many gifts.

In the so-called “reflecting wall” of Kremenets community leaders of, Dr. M. Litvak takes a special place of particular esteem. His impact on society was based on the idea of service to the people for its own sake, by raising the ordinary person's worth in his own mind.

He was almost unique in his time, which was affected by the winds of the Folksist movement, which blew in from the outside in the 80s.

It is no surprise that the spirit of trusteeship, greatness, ambition, and the race for power on the town councils was organically foreign to him. A liberal spirit accompanied his actions, with a perspective for raising up Jewish life.

That streak of character was rooted in him from childhood. What appealed to him was only one's own initiative, a person's own will to be able to “stand on one's own two feet”: that if the individual raises himself up, the whole community will rise as well.

 

A. His Path to Life

Even in childhood he perceived the taste of bitter life. Born to poor parents in whose home–consisting of one narrow little room, the dark, hunchbacked walls merging with his father's back as he bent over his needlework–he took in the suffocating gloom of poverty with his childish senses. That feeling apparently wove itself into an intuition to protect himself from such a fate as his father the tailor's, who labored so hard for a crumb of bread.

His childhood temperament developed into a will of resistance, by achieving what he really wanted.

That will became the power that roused his drive to self-reliance.

Even in boyhood, from cheder onward, he demonstrated that in all his occupations.

As was usual in those days, he was enrolled in a cheder when he was five years old (in 1869).

The child was apparently more affected by the singsong tune the teacher used to teach the alphabet than by the fear of the cat o' nine tails that hung on the wall.

In his elder years, Dr. Litvak spoke in a romantic reverie about what he had inherited for his own life from the cheder. The teacher's two bony fingers, which he used to hold the child's mouth while singing “What is this, what is this” for each letter, impressed him more than the sad, hopeless face of the helper who brought him from home to school every day.

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In his child's mind, a fantasy played out on his soul-strings that each letter was carried up to heaven and laid out in God's glorious presence, that you could present them there; this was because R' Elye said that each letter was carried from the child's mouth up above to heaven by an angel.

Little Meir had a “good head,” and he rose from term to term, going quickly through the Five Books of Moses and so on. When he was older, his parents introduced him to a new environment–the town's two-class state school. His mother, who bought him the new Russian alphabet book, had to bear her neighbors' cutting words that she was making her child into a “gentile.”

Here, too, he swallowed his studies with craving, excelling in mathematics, history, geography, and Russian language. After graduating from the Tsayt elementary school, he was to rise further toward the heaven of knowledge. He wanted to go to the Zhitomir gymnasium. But he worried about the fact that his poor parents could not manage to pay the tuition, plus support him in a strange city.

But the young man possessed a great treasure, strong willpower to make his way to his goal. He busied himself with lessons for his school friends who were behind in their studies. He sought the taste of happiness by earning for himself, which would bring him to his goal. He occupied himself with lessons for three whole years, saving groschen by groschen.

That trade was just a passing event for him on the way to his goal. Indeed, he did not lose those three years, but prepared himself for the gymnasium exams. He studied everything that was necessary for the gymnasium program, by himself, without a teacher. He wanted to achieve everything himself.

When he reached the exam year (1881), he experienced a shock. His mother, Chaye Feyge, the mother who had bought him that first book and taken him to his first school, died. The mother who used to promise the sheepish helper who brought him to cheder that he would, God forbid, not change the child's food, which she had prepared with such care. And Meir truly loved and treasured her. That tragedy, in that very moment of hope to enter the gymnasium, sent him into a deep depression. But the young man swallowed his sadness through his strong desire to study and prepare for the exams. Burying himself in his studies helped him surmount his deep sorrow.

When the young man was already on the threshold of his step into life, and was prepared for the exams in that same year, 1881, he got a hard blow to his morale: he was not accepted at the Zhitomir gymnasium–not because he lacked the required knowledge for the program; rather, he excelled in the exams, but as in “the bride is too beautiful,” there was a flaw. He was too young for such an advanced class. But the boy had a goal. He was not lost. He traveled to Ostrog and was accepted there, directly into the fourth school year. That improved his mood. He saw that he had not lost those three years. He had made up the time by entering the fourth class. In addition, he did not have to depend on his poor father Avraham Aba, who was now a widower. The sorrow of his orphanhood was soothed by the joy of achieving his goal.

Also, being in the gymnasium now, he busied himself giving private lessons for his material sustenance, so as not to put this burden on his father's shoulders.

After finishing gymnasium in about 1884, with a distinction of first grade (nagrada pervoistepeni), the now 20-year-old boy went to study jurisprudence. He wanted to enter the Kiev University of “Holy Vladimir,” which originated in Kremenets. (See the chapter on Kremenets.)

This time, the strong-willed Meir faced a very large test. This did not concern the material he would study or his father's help, but a test that for many youths of his generation wiped out the ongoing link with their parents and the entire Jewish people.

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The rector denied him acceptance into the university unless he converted.

Meir's stubborn character, which in his childhood saw in each Yiddish letter an angel that carried it off to heaven above, was repulsed by the disgusting proposition. He began to prepare for the medical faculty, right in the same “Holy Vladimir” university. And Avraham Aba the tailor's son was his father's child, who would carry it out. And sure enough, he achieved it.

With that strong, enduring energy, he reached his life goal, and at 27 years of age he returned to Kremenets as a doctor of medicine. He devoted the rest of his life to his hometown.

This time, too, he was not destined to fully enjoy his accomplishment. Just as with his entry into the gymnasium and his mother's death, this time he accompanied his father to his burial.

He then tied his fate to his intended, Fanye Barats, daughter of the rich and aristocratic family of Shlome and Hinde Barats.

 

B. The Humanist and Reformer

Of the four doctors then in Kremenets, two Christian and two Jewish, Dr. Litvak acquired the best reputation among the people. And his elder colleague, Dr. Arye Landsberg, was born and lived all his years in Kremenets. His father, Chayim, was an Enlightenment regular and follower of Yitschak Ber Levinzon. Dr. Landsberg was well-to-do, a good-tempered, simple Jew, but withdrawn, more separate, even though a contributor to Zionist goals, but distant from community affairs by nature. Dr. Meir Litvak, who had risen on his own and achieved his goals, had a different path.

In his first steps into his life as a doctor, he already envisioned himself as a fighter for saving lives. It was his fate to encounter a plague. In 1890, the town was infested with a cholera epidemic. Despite all kinds of sanitary precautions out by the town administration, the town needed an entire bureau of doctors. The young Dr. Litvak fulfilled a bureau by himself. He wrangled with the plague with enormous energy and saved hundreds of lives.

 

Dr. Meir Litvak, as he appeared in old age

 

He was not seeking wealth in his medical practice; he was not immersed in the pursuit of material things. He did not need them for himself because most of the Jews only wanted him. He often served patients without charge. He appeared every day on the street on his way to visit patients in his own sketched-out order, and often a poor mother would suddenly pop out of a side street and grab his arm, begging him to look in on her sick child.

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His established schedule of visits could not resist Jewishness; his compensation in such cases was only the deed itself. And in cases of an established serious illness, he invited himself to come for free another time. He was truly the life-doctor for the ordinary people.

And not only Jews were drawn to him; Christians did not leave him alone either. Peasants came even from the surrounding villages and neighboring towns, and considered him their savior.

That essential mensch in him was not concerned even when, tired from his work in town, he had to drag himself to a village in a wagon to call on a patient.

In the priest's school for boys, they necessarily engaged the Jewish doctor and not the Christian one.

It is no surprise that during the Russo-Japanese War, when he was mobilized to the Far East, the whole town felt like orphans.

Besides his humanistic position in his medical profession, Dr. Litvak was also immersed in community matters. He was devoted to the Jewish education of poor children in the Talmud-Torah; he was involved with their entrance in the town school, according to their abilities; he saw to it that children without possessions could be enrolled in the seven-year trade school for free, in the gymnasium for girls.

As the only one among the Jewish community's leaders, he consistently put forward ideas on the principle of socially progressive character. Toward that goal, he came out with articles in the Russian newspaper published in the neighboring town of Rovno.

As an active-thinking Zionist, he would also publish political articles in the Russian organ Razsvet, which was published in Petersburg.

He worked very hard throughout his life to reform and improve working conditions in the medical profession. In a series of articles, he wrote about the dangerous exploitation of the doctor in a provincial town. Overload, he showed, can result in the poor treatment of sick people.

From his own bitter experience, which he himself had to sustain in being simply an abject slave from morning until late at night, he complained about the bitter situation of being a doctor in a provincial town. He wrote:

“Just when one sits down at a table to eat a meal, one does not get a bite into his mouth but someone tears him away to a patient. Or, when physically spent after a day of hard work he lies down to sleep, even then the bell rings to go visit an ill person. And even the middle of the night his time is not respected.”

His articles established the idea and the necessity of a doctors' conference in Volhynia in order to regulate that problem. He emphasized its importance, as every doctor must follow medical-scientific tasks and have the time and opportunity for research and the like; the doctor must not lag behind in his knowledge, as he carries responsibility for human lives.

And the potential patient should be kept under close observation. He stressed the bitter situation of the person, the invalid, who remains as if afloat on the water without any social caregiver. In his progressive thinking, he presaged, here and there, the value of socialized medicine. He roused public opinion for that idea.

He dared to speak his truth openly to the various community activists: “They who have the honor to stand at the head of our institutions, their deeds are not justified by what is expected of them. They lack consciousness of their duty to the people. Animosity, seeking honors, small-time ambitions–all undermine the foundations of our institutions.” This shows his marked inheritance from Yitschak Ber Levinzon.

This frankness hits hard at the essence of privileged community officials.

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This “coarse” talk of the delicate truth is not to their taste. In the arrogance of their princely line, they try to push it aside, discount it with an insulting epithet: “Abtsi the tailor's son.”

But Meir Avraham-Aba's son was not impressed. He drove further with his enlightenment work through the word of truth.

In his 1930 article about establishing a museum in the name of RYB”L for the 70th anniversary of his death, he wrote, among other things: “As RYB”L tried with his philosophical and community work to prevent our brothers from sinking into coarseness, through handwork and agriculture and general education so that they became even with other people and not encircle themselves with a Chinese wall against the civilized world.”

“Disregarding all the persecutions with which the ‘Kremenets heretics’ thwart their lives, Levinzon was victorious.”

This was the credo of Levinzon's faithful pupil in his struggle for the human in the Jew.

He had the merit to live to see the unification of RYB”L under the slogan “culture through work.”

The ORT society, which was founded just after World War I, established a training school for handwork in Levinzon's house through the efforts of his contemporary, Dr. Leon Bramson, founder of worldwide ORT.

Dr. Meir Litvak was very active in that school's management.

 

Dr. Meir Litvak at the worktable in his office

 

In 1913 he published a brochure in Russian, Notes from a Doctor, in which he expressed the abovementioned situation. Like a teacher, he described to the world in a very populist way how one should conduct oneself. He did not neglect to calm the minds of the simple people when the doctor's help was not available.

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“Medicine,” he said to them, “is not far from being an angel-healer for all the calamities and misfortunes that lie in wait for people.” He warned his colleagues in the same way: “The doctor must continually gather more knowledge, learning, in order to heal the human organism; but besides that he must carry within himself a ‘divine point’: he must protect the ethic and morals of the doctors' profession.”

At every step of the way, he appealed to the essence of the mensch as a faithful humanist. Dr. Meir Litvak truly had the feeling “I dwell among my people.” His close ties to the Kremenets Jews were expressed very powerfully when he had to leave them against his own will. That happened during the Russo-Japanese War, when he was mobilized by government order and sent off to distant Siberia, near the front.

Even in the train on the way to the Far East, thoughts about his unknown fate tortured him: would he remain there forever like all the other victims? He would not even be able to have a Jewish burial or come back to his beloved home. It was then that his deep, intimate bond with his Kremenets Jews became clear to him.

In his notes, where he expressed his deep longing for his abandoned family, he also recalled the town's environment with sorrow. His childhood days came to mind, and his parents, from whom he had taken his leave on the eve of his departure.

“I was first out of cheder, then school. I knew all my Jews, knew each one's biography, their troubles and joys, had grown up with them physically and intellectually; will they now be without me and I–without them? And what if, heaven forbid, I am killed, will my grave even be among them?”

Thus is the people's mensch evident in him, the doctor, the humanist, reformer for good; the people's mensch who was faithful and devoted, heart and soul.

 

C. The Doctor, the Jew

This was mentioned before: he spent most of the childhood years in cheder, but even with his first step into learning the alphabet, he was not afraid of the cat o' nine-tails on the wall; he only wanted to raise the singing letters, the word, on angels' wings.

The deep impressions of his cheder studies apparently planted deep roots in his consciousness. He would go every Sabbath and holiday to the Great Synagogue, which in his eyes looked majestic, a temple of holiness, especially the Holy Ark, with its cherubs and various carvings of noble Jewish figures.

The holiness of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob set remarkably deep roots in his childish soul; even though he did not taste more than childhood knowledge, the God of mercy and compassion who protected the poor, beaten-down Jew was nevertheless very close to his heart and to his mind. He held to Him in times of trouble, he cursed Him even when he was witness to human death, there in the hospital in Khabarovsk:

“The Siberian trains are constantly bringing in victims from the slaughter fields in Manchuria like heaps of two-legged things. They rob his rest, his sleep at night. Under your own roof roils a great human tragedy that grows from day to day. As a doctor, I am accustomed to seeing the pains of death, but never has a fresh death twisted my heart as the throes of a soldier does. His last pitiable glance tears at my heart like a tremble in prayer, his last shouted moan rips my spirit. It is not just the death itself, but the lonely death of a soldier. No one will accompany him to the grave. I curse you, my Jewish God ….”

He also lamented to the Jewish God about the fate of his Jewish patients in his hometown, the God who must be the healing angel.

“Every day when I hear the sighs, see the tears around the patient, I ask myself: will there ever be an end to this? I curse my Jewish God for abandoning his people. In such moments, I run back home, look up the addresses of our so unfortunate ones, and go heal their wounds and wipe away a tear.”

The fate of Jews roused a protest in him when he was mobilized for military service.

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“I am a Jew, after all, and as such, how did I come to be in the society of Russian military doctors?”

 

Dr. Meir Litvak in his officer's uniform in the Japanese war

 

The Jew in him did not leave him, even when he was preoccupied with victims from the slaughter fields. He followed a Jewish calendar. One Passover eve in far-flung Siberia, yearning gnawed at him to be home, at the seder. His memory reminded him of the miracle of the escape from Egypt, of Moses splitting the Sea of Reeds. He sighed a complaint inside to his Jewish people about why He could not produce such a leader today to liberate the Jews and lead them back to their land, to the Land of Israel. He carried his Jewishness and his fate inside him until the end of his life. (See the end of his will and testament to his children.)

He expressed the same feeling later, when rumors of a revolt in Central Russia reached him in distant Siberia.

Only a month earlier, he had gone to Irkutsk on the eve of Yom Kippur, to the just-built synagogue there. He was pleased to express his pain in the Kol Nidre motif together with the Jews and weep out his homesickness. There he was carried back to his home in the Great Synagogue, where his boy self trilled out the monotone Kol Nidre melody for the coming Yom Kippur. The Yom Kippur to come, may it be good for us ….

But that revolution also rolled toward Siberia. The war had been over for a while. On October 11, 1905, he was again sitting in a train car that would bring him to his family, home, to his town's streets, where “every pebble, every corner, every blade of grass, every tree is baked into his heart.” As it brought him closer to central Russia, he became more uneasy. Rumors reached him about pogroms against Jews. The Jew with a military cloak adorned with the epaulets of a colonel's rank asked himself: “Has my home been robbed too, emptied out?” “Will my town, which has never known a pogrom, now be tried in this way?”

The full, heavy yoke of the Jewish historical burden tired him. The fate of the Jews wearied him, Jewish life that can be shredded between the wheels of its justly earned freedom, and he complained again to his Jewish God: “My God, are we destined to have the end of our liberation in a bloody pogrom?”

He learned about the pogroms in the summer of 1905, which had been organized by the czarist government. Such a pogrom took place in Zhitomir, where the self-defense group of Jewish workers fought the incited czarist hooligans for four hours. Zhitomir is not far from Kremenets.

Luckily, his unease about his Kremenets was for nothing. The town had prepared a big welcome for him, and Dr. Litvak was triumphantly conducted from the Kremenets train station to his home. All of Sheroka Street, which ran the length of the town, was besieged with friends and relatives.

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All eyes turned to him. Throngs were drawn there, to his house.

The Jew in Dr. Litvak–as with many others in that time–brought him to romantic Zionism. He, however, was not impressed by political dealings, otherwise he would certainly have taken a place in the highest leadership position in the center of the general Zionist movement, because he possessed the gifts to be a leader: clarity of thought, particularity for the common folk, a way of speaking to the people, an elegant appearance, and the sympathetic expression of his face. But he was more interested in community needs of the, in day-to-day life, in the things that need to be done on the spot.

 

Huge crowds at Dr. Meir Litvak's funeral

 

He gained closer acquaintance with the works of Rabbi Itsik Ber Levinzon and his role in the reformation of Jewish life, from Dr. Tsinberg's works in Russian about Levinzon. He did not read Hebrew. Being led through the labyrinth of Levinzon's just fight against the “lawless world” of Jewish institutional managers who dominated Jewish life had the greatest influence on his own struggle against the community council arrangements for reforming Jewish life. Dr. Litvak, like I. B. Levinzon, hated that way of life, as already noted, and he carried out that struggle with dignity. That figures into his notes: “If there is such a person who carries an idea in himself, is inspired by it because it serves the interests of the people, he becomes ineffectual in the atmosphere of the honorifics, of scheming behaviors by those for whom the idea resonates not at all.”

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His favor for the common people was for that type of person who was, as the Kremenets folk expressed it, “a simple Jew.”

His religious Jewishness was also a benevolent, earthy kind. He saw in it his hopeful vision for the usefulness of the life of the people. The religion was his spirit and his philosophy of life. He wrote about himself: “In that synagogue–the Great Synagogue, as people called it–I saw the Torah for the first time; was captivated by choral singing for the first time, was taken to the study hall where the singing of the ‘Levites’ poured forth.” From then on, he always kissed the mezuzah when crossing the threshold of the synagogue. And when he left to take the exams at the state school, he kissed the mezuzah on his home.

“That was my habit at every opportunity that I came across, that had a special dignity to it.”

 

Dr. Meir Litvak's gravestone in the Kremenets [Jewish] cemetery

 

He was a truly colorful personality who grew out of the deepest depths of the human simplicity that was his home environment. One could recognize in the complete Dr. Litvak a true personification of the human environment that was the Kremenets Jews.

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He was not so strongly bound his community in vain. He was indeed that people's Jew of “I dwell among my people.”

Dr. Meir Litvak died on September 6, 1932. A real wailing of lament involved the entire population of Kremenets. All life in town stopped during the funeral. Everyone walked behind the casket, which was carried by hand to its grave. The pupils from the abovementioned Christian school were in attendance. His wish to die among the Jews of his community, to lie near his parents, was fulfilled.

But that was not the fate of his constant life companion, his wife Feyge (Fanye), and his daughter Klara and two grandchildren. Their fate was sealed along with the 14,000 Jewish lives that were gruesomely annihilated by the German vandals and their twin cannibals the Ukrainians, may their names be blotted out.

 

Dr. Meir Litvak's Will and Testament

I beg you, my children, do not forget your Jewishness, that is, that you are children of the great people who have a brilliant past and with God's help will have a brilliant future. As such, you should value our faith that is our religion and keep to our Jewish laws and customs. You should educate your children in the Jewish spirit, as I have educated you.

Your children should know that they are Jewish children, just as you knew from your parents' home. Your children should learn Hebrew, Jewish history, and, needless to say, Torah, the law of Moses.

I do not need to ask you to be honest and fair, because I do not doubt you in that. Only this do I ask–you should live in peace with all people, give charity, and support our holy land, the Land of Israel. My love for that land I turn over to you, and you must pass on that love to your children.

I ask God to lengthen your days and your years, that you may grow old in good health, be successful in all your ways, and may God give you honor and wealth. I end my missive with a blessing for you:

May God bless you and keep you. Amen.

Born 16 Iyar 5620 [8 May 1860] in Kremenets.

Will written the third day of Torah portion Bo, 9 Shevat 5684 [Tuesday, January 15, 1924].


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Yosef Avidar,
Pioneer from Kremenets

By P. L. (Buenos Aires)

English translation by Tina Lunson

Among other Jewish personalities produced by Kremenets, General Yosef Avidar–who was ambassador from the Jewish state to Argentina and whom our settlement had the opportunity to get to know personally–takes a prominent place. Yosef Avidar (née Rokhel) rose to his high position via a difficult path as a true pioneer and hero, which often transformed him into a legendary figure in the Haganah's underground work against the English Mandate powers. During the 1940s when he was in Israel, he wrote heroic pages into the history of the struggle of the settlement and later the state.

In Pinkas Kremenets, which the Kremenets community released in Israel, we find an interesting work by Dr. Duvid Lazar by the name “The Champion Yosef Avidar (Rokhel),” which reports interesting facts about the one whom we knew as ambassador from the Jewish state. From that characterization, we gain a full picture of Yosef Avidar's personality and deeds.

“His workroom in the main office of the Israeli Defense Forces,” begins the author of the article, “was one of severe modesty, without a sign of outward splendor, without decoration or wallpaper. It was according to the best tradition of the days of the Haganah in the underground: simple and lean; devoid of any desire to “make an impression”; to blind any curious eyes. In the office, as in field assignments, as in the front office: a field table, a military blanket, benches grouped together and–maps. And tension from the work, agility of thought, and dominance over nerves–that was the point.”

From that short introduction, one can obtain a full characterization of Yosef Avidar just as we knew him here: simplicity, precision, indifference to any outward glory or fame. And in his diplomatic mission and his relationships with our community, Yosef Avidar displayed those qualities of simplicity, substantiality, and common sense. In his dealings with people, there was always something like a mixture of simplicity and respect.

Moving over to the depiction of Avidar's path of life and the role he played in the struggle for the settlement's security and the winning of independence for the state, the author says that Yosef Avidar got his daring and fearlessness from his hometown Kremenets, “where Jews were not afraid of the gentiles.” His curiosity about military matters, he explains, came from World War I, when Kremenets was literally in the middle of the front and General Brusilov's fight; it was carried out in a large offensive by the Russian Army, which had established its headquarters in the Rokhel family's courtyard.

Yosef Rokhel–he writes–the youngest of the Rokhel family's five children, was introduced to military life when he was a child of nine. A Russian staff sergeant for the czar's army lived in the courtyard, and to pass the time when he was not on military duty, he instructed the local children in military ways so as not to lose the habit. He taught them military rules and even how to handle weapons, and this “instruction” from childhood had an important influence on the boy.

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On the other side, the author notes, Yosef received a deeply national influence in his home, which was a traditional one. His father, a merchant in good standing, was a Talmud scholar and strictly upheld the traditions. His mother read Hebrew, and the school he attended was a Hebrew school. Yosef already knew Hebrew well as a boy, even with the Sephardic pronunciation.

 

General Yosef Avidar

 

Yosef Avidar immigrated to the Land of Israel in 1925, and a week after he arrived in the Land, he found a place in the ranks of the Haganah, where he soon played an important role as one of the leading members. In 1929, during the tragic Arab pogroms, he participated actively in the defense of the Jewish quarter in the old city of Jerusalem. Afterward, when the unrest was quieted, he continued the work of exercising the cadres of the Haganah. In one of those operations–which, naturally, took place in secret–he lost his right hand when a grenade he was holding exploded. Getting him to a hospital for treatment took place in dramatic circumstances because he had to be hidden so that the English secret service would not find out about the Haganah's activities. Yosef Avidar, the author relates, did not lose his calm for a minute in those tragic moments when his life was literally in danger.

Afterward, he went on with the work of the Haganah, ostensibly as a building site merchant, under different names, such as Yosef Biberman, Finkelshteyn, and other invented names. More than once he encountered danger from the English rulers, under suspicion as he did underground work, but he always came out whole and as a good, loyal “citizen.” In October 1946, when the prohibition against Jews buying land was at its sharpest pitch, he and other members of the building site took part in the founding of 11 new outposts in the Negev, which were literally put up overnight and presented to the Mandate authorities as an established fact.

When discussions began at the United Nations in 1947 on the question of dividing Palestine, it seemed almost certain that sooner or later they would have to fight with the Arabs, Yosef Avidar received the heavy assignment of providing the necessary “tools.” Many of the weapons bought just before the state was proclaimed passed through his hands. At a Passover seder in 1948, just before the state was proclaimed, Avidar-Rokhel was on a ship that was bringing the first 20-milimeter cannons for the armed forces of the rising state. Those weapons had to be unloaded in utmost secrecy, and Avidar said to the carriers who were unloading the cannons, “All the Jews right now are sitting at the order of the seder, and you are in order, too.” Avidar was also one of those concerned with food for Jerusalem when the city was under siege and the road to the city was cut off.

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Later Avidar was commandant of the northern front and had his headquarters in Nazareth. While he was in Nazareth, he became acquainted with Sholem Asch when he visited the Arab town of Galil. When he came out of the meeting with Avidar, Sholem Asch, full of enthusiasm, said, “The first time in my life I have merited seeing a true Jewish general.”

After his military duty in the Galilee, Avidar was transferred to the central headquarters and was sent on a military “goodwill” mission to Yugoslavia. After that, he completed a course in England for high-ranking officers and met English officers who had served in the Land of Israel and who longed for “old times.” When he finished the course in England, a higher-ranking English officer said this about him: “We will never forget that extraordinary personality.”

Later, Avidar moved over to the diplomatic service. He was Israeli ambassador to the Soviet Union, and then our settlement had the honor of having him here as the diplomatic representative from the Land of Israel. While he was here, he and his wife Yamima lived so closely with our community that when they had to leave, everyone was genuinely regretful. Their presence among us was truly a time of elevation and spiritual pleasure.

General Yosef Avidar was distinguished by the government of Argentina with a high medal of honor.

We Kremenetsers are proud of this distinguished son of our town, who did so much for the Jewish state and increased the honor and pride of his fellow townspeople.

We will take this opportunity to relate where his new family name comes from. Avidar is the abbreviation of “Avi Dine and Rama” the names of his two daughters–that is, “father of Dine and Rama.”

 

A group of Kremenetsers in the State of Israel with Attorney General [Yisrael] Hauzner

 

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Jacob Schaefer,
Kremenets Musician and Composer

By Dr. L. Zshitnitski (Buenos Aires)

English translation by Tina Lunson

I am not about to write a biography of the Kremenets original Jewish-folkist revolutionary composer Jacob Schaefer. We hardly know where he stemmed from. Only through two accidental meetings–once in Chicago and another time in New York–in intimate chats did he tell me that he had prepared to be a carpenter like his father, or even a ritual slaughterer if not simply a shoemaker, although as a child he had dreamed of becoming a great cantor among Jews. But a couple of circumstances affected him and changed his path in life: his father's wordless Hasidic melodies, which were always in his father's mouth even when he was standing at his workbench, and the Drohobycher cantor who was brought to Kremenets. As a child he joined a choir, but that would have meant little had the cantor not become interested in him, taught him solf√®ge, and in general mentored him. At that opportunity, Jacob Schaefer also told me that the first composition he had written was a new kedusha. He earned a few slaps from the Drohobycher for that kedusha. But strangely, the cantor often sang his kedusha, although he never revealed who the real author was.

In his youth, Jacob Schaefer joined the Bund, and socialism became an integral part of him; nevertheless, his composing dream would never have become a reality if he had not immigrated to the United States. True, success did not come easily in the United States; he had to struggle a lot before he received any recognition, but it opened a world of great opportunity to study music, penetrate its secrets, and get acquainted with the work of the great world composers until his musical creativity literally burst forth like a storm. And although Jacob Schaefer was cut off from life too soon, he left behind a treasure of musical creations for the Jewish world, which only await a researcher to find their place in the treasury of Jewish music.

During his lifetime, Schaefer was often rebuked for his leftist leanings, but those who hold this against him do him a great injustice. Jacob Schaefer needed an environment where music was cultivated, and in the United States he found that only in the leftist Workers' Circles. Schaefer needed that environment exactly as that environment needed him, and we have that reciprocity to thank for his creativity and for the fact that his truly great musical talent was not wasted. And in general, if one acquaints oneself with Jacob Schaefer's musical work and analyzes it in its essence, one finds a national-Jewish spark in them, where the folk quality becomes transformed into a revolutionary one. And possibly, in hindsight, Schaefer was correct that the folk quality comes from the poor, and poverty is always revolutionary. Jacob Schaefer did not pursue that idea in his musical creations, but an accurate comprehension of his work convinces one that his musical creations–in large part in the form of oratorios–belong to the entire Jewish people.

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Jacob Schaefer also wrote individual scores for the poems of Morris Rozenfeld, Y. Slonim, Y. A. Rantsh, A. Reyzen, Sh. Frug. A. Liessin, Mani-Leyb [Halpern? Transl.], M. Broderzon, Perets Hirshbeyn, Morris Winchevsky, Perets Markish, Duvid Edelshtat, and others, but his principal musically creative powers and qualities are found in his oratorios, approximately 12 works for choir and orchestra. It is clear that in all the oratorios one feels the strong influence of the oratorio classics, in particular Handel. But the stimulus and form, like the style of his particular works, are Yiddish. Thus Avraham Liessin's poem “Martyr's Blood” influenced Jacob Schaefer to compose his first oratorio under the same name, “Martyr's Blood.” A. Liessin's poetry was stimulated by World War I, and Jacob Schaefer tried to harmonize the music with the words of the poet. Jacob Schaefer tried using the orchestra to create pictures of darkness, into which a protest intrudes. The heavy wind instruments begin–everything should be grey, dark–a darkness that spreads over earth and sky–it rumbles and it murmurs; then the violins come in among them with their uneasy lyric voice as though they were crying out in the pain and sorrow of those chased and persecuted creatures. Here the thinker will say something, he feels as if he is the next martyr–the composer falls on an ingenious idea and introduces the harp; and its voice creates the effect of tears falling.

The oratorio distinguishes itself with its lyrical melodies, the orchestra and choir going together, and finally, as in “Prelude,” it begins in the choir with the first basses until it draws in the entire choir–the sopranos, altos, and tenors–and it unites in a dialogue; the choir asks in words, and the orchestra answers with sound; everything in the world gives rise to the persecuted martyr.

That is how the picture of despair grows. Everything becomes dark, as if the whole world is falling into an abyss, but soon a beam of light tears through, breaks through the darkness; the composer sets forth a tenor solo in a warm melody that awakes belief and hope, and the voice assures him that all of nature has promised to protect him for all time, as the earth will not swallow him up. In that manner, the oratorio shifts from the sorrowfully tragic to joy and hope, and through flexible, majestic music Jacob Schaefer communicates the picture of an ascendant hope, like seeing a bright multihued presence, and literally prophetically woven into the words of A. Liessin's poetry: “they will come to Him from every side with praise and songs of thanks.”

Although one can sense certain compositional difficulties in the oratorio, or possibly because of them, in general this is the first time in Jewish music that a composer has applied the style of an oratorio; and in hindsight, Jacob Schaefer must be a revolutionary innovator in Jewish music.

In the abovementioned oratorio, we find the tones of Jewish prayer, into which the sounds of Ukrainian melodies are interwoven. This is certainly an effect from the place where Jacob Schaefer was born–Kremenets, where he often heard the sounds of Ukrainian folksongs, which did literally sprout from nature. Frequently the landscape of a place has an effect too, and Kremenets lies deep among the Kremenets hills. The surrounding panorama consists of hills that seem like walls and give the impression here and there of being laid out in crooked, snow-capped lines. Not far from Kremenets lie the ruins of an old historic palace, one built in the eighth or ninth century. The palace belonged to Queen Bona Sforza, who was the wife of the Polish King Zigmunt I. The Kremenets youths loved to go walking near the palace, because the place had such a wonderfully beautiful landscape.

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Certainly the young Jacob Schaefer was a frequent visitor to that area, and possibly that was etched in his memory. One senses that in the oratorio “Martyr's Blood,” but one senses something else in the same oratorio. Kremenets possessed a large mass of laboring Jews of various artisan trades, and if the Kremenets landscape developed a love of nature and her beauty in him, so was he strongly affected by the simplicity and honesty of the hardworking surroundings before him and his youth in his hometown, Kremenets.

We will not analyze all of Jacob Schaefer's oratorios. Besides the one mentioned, Jacob Schaefer composed the following oratorios: Beyn hashamoshes [twilight], Kirkhen gloken [church bells], Tsvelf [twelve], Tsvey brider [two brothers], Moshiach ben Yosef [Messiah son of Joseph], Oktiaber [October], Ken eytsikn shpan [no single length], Trupn geyen, Geviter [stormy weather], Der shturem-feygl [the storm bird], and Birobidzhan. Of those, we will present only Kirchen gloken, Birobidzhan, and in particular the oratorio Moshiach ben Yosef, which we consider the climax of Jacob Schaefer's musical creativity.

The oratorio Kirkhen gloken is tied to Avraham Reyzen's poem of the same name. Jacob Schaefer was inspired by the words and by the melody. Avraham Reyzen wrote the poem in 1901. But who knew that the melody to the song was composed by a poor weaver in Lodz, Hersh Leyb (family name Bredian)? Avraham Reyzen's song was published in the first issue of the organ of the Lodz “Book Committee,” whose general character was revolutionary. Also, in his youth in Kremenets, Jacob Schaefer was a Bundist and probably sang Avraham Reyzen's song Kirchen gloken at some time and may have been inspired to create the oratorio Kirchen gloken.

In that oratorio, the orchestra begins with sparse bell ringing. Such a style existed in the church–initially the smaller bells begin, thin, slow, as though not wanting to frighten the chickens, but in a while all the bells are awakened, accompanied by the bass bell as if shaking his metallic, long-haired beard. But Jacob Schaefer has symbolized the church bells a little differently: it is an old iron bell that whines; a croaking warning over the centuries, except that the ring is sinister, a shadowy phantasm. But now the heavy brass bells quickly take over. They set swaying and become apprehensively loud–the sound literally gets angry. Fear spreads from the anger and throws a fearful tension over it.

Eventually, all the bells have changed to a wild clanging, as if someone were about to be beheaded, and into that wild clanging, introduced by the wind and percussion instruments of the orchestra, the choir tears in with its answer:

Ach, why are you ringing, church bells!
Listen now: have you terrified
our poor world enough with your wild tones!

But the wild clanging will not stop. The rampage of iron and brass goes on; it fills the entire atmosphere with strangeness; and the music creates the image in which one can see huge, many-legged spiders that creep in from all sides; it is disturbing, frightening. But the composer knows that everything must and will have an end; as the power of the human consists of faith and trust, so the composer interrupts the angry tones with light tones, brought in by a piano. Here Jacob Schaefer's creative trait can be noted. In the oratorio “Martyr's Blood,” he uses the harp for a similar goal, while in Kirkhen gloken he uses the piano, which begins playing the first phrase of Kol Nidre and then follows with a dramatic, arduous voice.

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The voice cuts into the terror-drumming of blind iron and deaf brass–it is a solo for a tenor; the voice will prevail through mercy; it begs the church bells to put an end to their ugly work; people don't want to hear it; then the voice becomes stronger, more positive; the voice comes in with accusations, about “on the high gallows that you have erected”; the voice even stronger, more sure, becomes punishing, until it tears down the veil and throws open the face of all the church monsters and their terrible intentions, such as “you want the world to be lulled with a sad death lullaby and covered with a cloak by a Jesuit.” Soon after that come variations by the choir. Some variations express sarcasm, mockery. There is a pause, a momentary quiet, which speaks without dramatic tension. One hears clear tones carried in from a distance; the tones get closer and closer; bells should carry illuminating news, the bells burst into song, and their tones embrace with warmth; and one has the impression that these are bells made of fine gold, melted down from a piece of spring sunshine, as in Avraham Reyzen's poem: “I have made a new bell to awaken dead slaves, not in a church; I hang it high in the air! Not to frighten, but to rouse the world; in all corners it rings out boldly, calls out happily: Stand up to life!”

In that fashion, Avraham Reyzen's lyric song, elevated to a dramatic epic poem and an ordinary melody by Hersh-Leybish's, was transformed into an oratorio, and a remarkable one: to the end, the oratorio is rich in effective operatic elements.

Jacob Schaefer felt the music directly and carried it organically within himself. He sought its redemption in the same, but also he, Jacob Schaefer, took it seriously and with great responsibility. Jacob Schaefer came to the United States in 1910 and settled in Chicago. And it made him happy. He started out there as a carpenter, where he accidently met Y. Kerish. Y. Kerish sang in a synagogue choir. Then it happened that at the last minute the cantor lost the second baritone. The cantor felt despondent, and at that opportunity Y. Kerish stepped in with the proposal that he take in Jacob Schaefer. Y. Kerish also managed the honorarium, which was $100, but when the cantor observed how easily and without difficulty Jacob Schaefer took on the cantorial compositions, he added another $20. The $120 from singing sealed Jacob Schaefer's further journey. Jacob Schaefer quickly acquired his own piano; Jacob Schaefer dreamed of becoming a great pianist, and although his dream was never realized, he did not neglect his further piano education and exercises, and in time piano teaching became one of his chief means of livelihood; in 1918-1919 he had success in New York as a piano teacher.

Jacob Schaefer went through two periods in his musical creativity–the period when he was a conductor of cantorial choirs, and the period when he composed his oratorios. In 1911, he was conductor at a wealthy synagogue in Chicago. The cantor of the synagogue, Soloveichik, was very pleased with his conductor and choir, and both the conductor and the choir became very popular in Chicago. At the same time, Jacob Schaefer devoted a lot of time to learning harmony and continuing with his piano studies, and he wrote and studied new compositions with his choir. Very dynamic by character, he busied himself with creating and organizing the first workers' choir in Chicago. He wrote more compositions. One evening, in relation to the anniversary of the death of the Hebrew poet Y. L. Gordon, he was asked to conduct the choir in a German composition, but he refused. For that occasion, he performed two of his own compositions: Sh. Frug's “On Gordon's Death” and his “Prayer.” The compositions were so well received that enthusiasm for it knew no bounds. People asked him who the composer was. At first, he did not want to say, and only when he was really pressed did he–a very shy person–tell them that the himself was the creator. From that moment on, he was famous among the Jewish community in Chicago.

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Not too many years after his success with the choir, Jacob Schaefer devoted himself exclusively to music studies. He created literary compositions for cantors, although he himself was a free thinker.

Jacob Schaefer worked as a conductor with various cantors, and for such famous cantors as Tolchin, Greenberg, Rakhlin, and Shein. But he had a special relationship with the Chicago cantor Soloveichik, from whom Jacob Schaefer learned a lot about composition.

One of the last cantors with whom Jacob Schaefer worked, wrote a long song of praise for Jacob Schaefer as the musician, conductor and composer. That cantor was Chayim-Leyb Lipner, who in his memoirs emphasized that Jacob Schaefer possessed such originality in his treatment of an old composition that it emerged as a completely new thing, much more powerful and colorful than he had ever heard it before. And in the same spirit, Chayim-Leyb Lipner spoke about Jacob Schaefer the composer. Jacob Schaefer had once remarked to him that they had been singing the same kedusha for too long and he proposed to write another kedusha; Chayim Leyb Lipner was afraid of such an experiment, but he was quite surprised when Jacob Schaefer brought the composition; it was a masterful work, with a solo for the cantor himself that brought out his voice in its best and most successful tones. The result was a great surprise for everyone and as Chayim-Leyb Lipner expressed it, the composition “is a pearl in Jewish liturgical music.” Some people noted it, saying that in comparing the tenor solo in the oratorio “Martyr's Blood” that there was a good similarity between the two.

So that one should not be too hair-splitting in analyzing the musical works of Jacob Schaefer during the second period of his creative life, let us reason that his first period, which we may call the liturgical period, put a stamp on his whole creative process. Jacob Schaefer brought out an originality, and he was not free from it even in such an oratorio as Birobidzhan.

Perets Markish's poem Es geyt tayge, tsu dir itst yung vern a folk [It goes without saying, to you who have become a young people] was the foundation of Jacob Schaefer's oratorio Birobidzhan. But it would not be heretical or an exaggeration to say that Jewish national sensibility played a large role in impelling Jacob Schaefer to its creation. If one substituted the word “south” for the word tayge, the oratorio would be considered a result of the composer's national sensitivity. And also the oratorio's style is different–the composition is closer to that of a symphony. The oratorio is divided into four “tempos.” The first part presents the main theme–a Genesis-like feeling of an expansive place. The composer uses adagio here, woven on an impressionistic canvas, and the impressionism of the musical work is enhanced by the choir, which ends with a slow tempo. The composer also uses musical effects for visuals, creating flexible contours when the choir sings out the tropes about “although for a moment he sees the hills, the rising ones like bonfires–he will not want to go back and will not want to chase further.”

The second part of the same first tempo goes in a minor tempo; a stillness that becomes suddenly interrupted, overturning itself into the introductory theme.

The composer marks the second part andante sostenuto, where it maintains a slow compass, goes over to an elegiac sound, and ends with depictions like “now proceeds folk with hammers in their hands, falling in love with the sunrise.”

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The third part of the oratorio is in allegro; everything goes in a playful tone and then moves to a more earnest melodiousness, marked by plastic imagery, and at the close comes the fourth part, which takes on an andante¬¨ form–one senses a clear and certain ideal; the melody here is an accented one, very well wrought. And as is Jacob Schaefer's particular manner, the oratorio ends with a soprano solo.

This oratorio shows Jacob Schaefer in the form of a modernist, but what is curious is that it also has a classical form, and that is possible due to Jacob Schaefer's weaving of two elements into the oratorio: a Biblical element and a folksy element bound together by various rhythmic combinations.

Indeed, this is what Jacob Schaefer's sensitivity consists of, which is expressed even more boldly in the oratorio Moshiach ben Yosef. How did Jacob Schaefer come to the theme for that oratorio? Whatever reasons one searches for, one remains clear: this is Jacob Schaefer's national sensitivity, which lived in him and also dominated his musical intuition. A child of the Jewish masses, the legend of the Messiah was rooted in him, no less than Jacob Schaefer intended to liberate the legend from its mystic elements and give it more of a revolutionary expression. The choir sings the short lines of the main melodies with barely audible tones, and after that, as the sopranos sing in an excited mood and the entire choir sings in prayerful petition, the orchestra rolls out a fast tempo, and the choir follows it. The orchestra seems to posit several questions; both the orchestra and the choir play and sing to the rhythm of a ballad that narrates–as the grandfather says to the grandson–what will happen in the world until the Messiah comes.

The entire oratorio Moshiach ben Yosef is a game of various tones, and among them, at the end of the oratorio Jacob Schaefer introduces a children's choir that sings with intention: “He will still come, he will still come, he will still come”; and the orchestra closes with a synthesis of all the melodies. And one can safely assume that the oratorio Moshiach ben Yosef is Jacob Schaefer's ani maamin [I do believe], which came to him from the years of his youth and from his literary times. He also took the form and style of his oratorios from Jewish prayer, and as we should not analyze all of his oratorios without exception, the liturgical element is not missing in any of them. Jacob Schaefer himself related that his father, standing at his carpentry workbench, used to routinely sing Hasidic melodies, and those melodies–according to atavism–also lie etched in the son's unconsciousness, in his intuition, and awakened in him when he was in the process of musical creativity.

When Jacob Schaefer was a child, he went around with the thought of “bringing Messiah through singing.” Jacob Schaefer was taken from this world too early. Born in Kremenets in 1888, he died in New York in 1936 and did not live to be a witness to the Yiddish renaissance. If Jacob Schaefer had had that good fortune. he would certainly have greeted it with an oratorio, and the national sensitivity that marked him even such an oratorio as Oktiaber would have directed him to do so. But certain Jewish circles became committed to an injustice against Jacob Schaefer–they did not take to him and did not consider him a popular artist, but saw him through a political lens. Yet without a doubt there, will come a time when people seriously study and analyze Jacob Schaefer's musical creations and give them the respect and redress they have earned, because all of his works belong to the treasury of the Jewish people and the common peoples' music, and it is therefore traditionally Jewish and Yiddish.

 

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