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[Pages 1403-1412]

The Jewish Panevezhys
(Panevezys, Lithuania)

55°44' / 22°21'

By Dr. Yosef A. Heller

Translated by Mindle Crystel Gross

Translation edited by Dr. Sonia Kovitz

Ponevezh lies on the Nevyazhe River from which the town derives its name. The river divides the town in half. On the higher and somewhat hilly northern bank of the Nevyazhe lies the “farm.” This was the less populated part of town where there were very few businesses and only a small number of Jews. The main part of town was situated on the flat southern bank of the river with the marketplace at its center. From the marketplace, poor Courtyard Street (hoyfishe gas) sloped downhill to the east, leading past “Slobodke.” Slobodke was a paved area with little rundown wooden houses, where the poor proletariat portion of the Jewish population lived. [The poor Jewish section in Kovno and other Lithuanian towns was also called “Slobodke.”] During the cholera epidemic of the 1880s, the greatest number of deaths occured in Slobodke.

Next to Kovno, Ponevezh and Shavel were the two most important centers of Jewish life in Kovno District. In the early decades of the 20th century, Ponevezh had a population of approximately 12,000 to 14,000, more than half of whom were Jews. The residents of the main part of town were predominantly Jewish and the businesses were almost all in Jewish hands. On the Sabbath and Jewish holidays, therefore, all business life would cease. All the stores were closed and traffic on the streets slowed because a large number of the droshkis [Russian: horse-drawn carts] and wagons belonged to Jewish drivers. The non-Jewish portion of the population was comprised of Russian officials, officers, and soldiers. There was always a regiment of soldiers in Ponevezh, the majority of which were Poles or Polonized Lithuanians. There was a small but very energetic colony of German businessmen and farmers who prospered economically.

Photograph with caption: Shadever Avenue (main street in Ponevezh)

At that time, relations between the Jewish and non-Jewish populations were peaceful. The Polish nobility looked down their noses at the zhides [pejorative Slavic term for Jews], but as far as I can recall, did not exhibit any bitter hatred towards them. Even the Lithuanian peasants from the surrounding areas who made their purchases in Jewish shops and who sold their products on market days to Jewish customers, behaved for the most part good-naturedly, with no overt signs of hatred. In general, I had the impression during my childhood years that the Lithuanian peasants were quite genial and warmhearted.

The Jewish population mainly consisted of small tradesmen—for the most part poor or “semi-poor” shopkeepers and merchants and a few shop employees—and craftsmen (watchmakers, tailors and shoemakers, seamstresses and laundresses); a fair number of workers in factories and mills; porters, drivers, hearse-owners, and houseservants (housemaids); and still others in religious positions—rabbis, ritual slaughterers, synagogue caretakers, and so forth. Several old venerable families belonged to the middle-class as well as a few who had recently become quite wealthy, playing an important role in the business life of the town and in Jewish kehilla [community] life.

The small group of the so-called “intelligentsia”—doctors, lawyers, dentists, pharmacists, “public” teachers and private teachers of Russian—generally did not involve themselves in the life of the community. They were partly or entirely Russian-assimilated. Some of them kept their lives private with no interest in social or national affairs. Others were very interested in the general Russian freedom movement and still others in socialism in its various Russian forms. However, there were also those who were closer to the life of the Jewish people. Some sympathized with the bund [Yiddishist anti-Zionist socialist labor party] and others with Zionism, especially in its socialist variations (the united S.S.-Seymist [Polish parliament] Party and members of poalei tzion [Zionist socialist labor group]).

Social Activities

Like most Jewish towns and shtetlekh of eastern Europe, Ponevezh excelled in its volunteer tsedakah-khevres [charitable societies] and undertakings. Social aid for the poor and the weak, tsedakah [charity], was considered one of the biggest mitsvos [good deeds in accordance with G-d's commandments], a basic principle of yiddishkayt. In contrast to western European notions, the charity organizations were established not at the direction of the community leadership but rather were duty-driven by the conscience and good will of the individual. These diverse tsedakah-khevres were not centralized or connected. They were independent and free. In this lay their weakness as well as their strength, because even though the usefulness and productivity of the various khevres suffered to a certain extent from their individuality and freedom, nevertheless their charitable activities stemmed from a more personal, religious-ethical character. The forms that their charitable work took were also widely diverse and individual, distinctive for each community and each khevrah.

In Ponevezh, the khevrah bikur kholim [society for visiting the sick] maintained responsibility for the sick, supporting a hospital for the poor, and the khevrah linas hatsedek [general charity society]. In addition, Ponevezh had a khevrah kadisha [burial society]. Jewish women frequently devoted themselves to aiding the elderly and orphans. In the realm of economic assistance, the khevrah somekh noflim [society to “lift the fallen,” a phrase from the morning prayers], would give small merchants interest-free loans (gemilus kh'sodim) of up to 50 rubles and sometimes more in exceptional cases.

Later, a strong and very active cooperative movement developed between merchants and workers, which was supported by the “Y. K. P.” [Russian acronym for the Jewish Communist Party] in Petersburg.

Very characteristic of the social-religious spirit of the yiddishkayt of yesteryear were the tasks performed by the khevres hakhnasas orkhim and hakhnasas kalah [societies for extending hospitality and for aiding brides—these phrases, like bikur kholim, are from a Talmudic passage in the morning prayers]. The hospitality society provided room and board to the poor but “nice” [i.e. respectable] Jews who had fallen upon hard times and who found themselves in Ponevezh. The society for aiding brides outfitted and provided a small dowry for poor girls, mainly those who were orphans, so that they would not become farzesn [old maids].

The Old Way of Life

Jewish tradition still held strong sway over the life of the community, albeit the old ways had already lost their former exclusive role and the youth, for the most part, was swept up in and influenced by modern ideals.

In general, life in Ponevezh was authentically Jewish and deeply rooted in the faith of the people. There were approximately ten synagogues and houses of prayer in addition to the “minyanim” [small informal prayer groups; minyan refers to the ten Jewish males required for public prayer] and an assortment of shtiblekh [small Hasidic prayer houses]—and they were always full.

Distinctive character types of Jewish piety from the older generation were still living in my time. In the little house of prayer where my father had his “shtot” [“town,” i.e. it was his home-synagogue] I would see davening [praying] beside him the dayen [young rabbinic assistant], R'Moyshe Itsik, whom everyone respected highly. He was thin, of medium height, with a good-natured, long, serious face lit by warm, dark and honest eyes. He was a scholar, a person with a strong and childlike innocent faith. When I was a young boy of about 14-15, I studied gemora [part of the Talmud] with him for a short while. During the dark winter evenings I went to his small poor house, which was located somewhere in Courtyard Street, not far from Slobodke. He disliked pilpul [splitting hairs] in learning and always tried to find and explain the true literal meaning.

A somewhat naively pious Jew was R'Hertsl of the “big synagogue.” He was people- friendly and good-hearted and devoted with heart and soul to spreading yiddishkayt. R'Hertsl was not a great gemora scholar—his knowledge was more in the realm of aggadah [narrative and anecdotal parts of the Talmud], midrash [homiletic commentary on books of the Bible], and popular musar [ethical] literature.

R'Shlomo Ezra, from Glikele's shtibl, was a different type. He was an ascetic and a fanatic, a Jew from the 14th or 15th century, for whom today's world did not even exist. He and his wife lived in abject poverty. He was a great scholar, proficient and distinguished in sh”as [Hebrew abbreviation for shishah sedarim, the six orders of the Mishnah] and in poskim [halakhic decisions], extremely strict, with a sharp mind. He studied gemora with the “good boys” in Glikele's shtibl, where he spent almost the entire day in Torah and a large part of the night as well. He did not speak much and was fully absorbed in study. He despised “Jewish goyim” [Jews who lived like non-Jews] and apikoyrusim [Jewish “heretics”—apikoyrus is from “Epicurus”]. He did not even want to have anything to do with his only brother, the well-known Dr. Mer, and his family, because they did not keep a kosher kitchen.

R'Shlomo Ezra had few friends, one of whom was my rabbi, R' Bertsik, who was then still a young man in his twenties. He came to Ponevezh from his small birth shtetl, Roguva. After his marriage, things did not go well and he was forced to teach gemora [for a living]. He had an innate sense of wisdom and a clear head, and was a great masmed [extremely diligent person]: he thoroughly worked his way through many tractates of the Talmud hundreds of times.

In the years prior to WWI, R' Bertsik experienced an inner crisis. Like so many thousands of Jewish young people since the beginning of the haskalah [“enlightenment” movement aimed at spreading modern European culture among Jews], he too found the way to this movement and its literature. He studied German from Mendelsohn's Commentaries on the Bible. The critical methods, radical ideas, and historical revelations that he found in the world of German-Jewish knowledge opened vast new horizons for him and caused a quiet revolution in his spiritual life. Eventually he was successful in reclaiming the freedom of his soul. He survived the storm, emerged whole from the magic garden of worldly knowledge, and found a balance between his innate conservatism on the one hand, and his clear critical mind and the enthusiastic requirements of knowledge on the other.

The Ponevezher Rov

Ponevezh had a tradition as a place of Torah and occupied a position of honor in the rabbinical world. Residents told enthusiastic stories of a long-ago rabbi from Ponevezh, R'Moyshe Itskhak of Libau. They had a more recent memory of R'Eliyahu-Dovid Rabinovitz-Teomim [signifying he was one of twins], who left Ponevezh to become the head of the Mir Yeshiva and later a rabbi in Jerusalem.

During my time, there was a famous rabbi in Ponevezh, the gaon [sage] Itskhak Dobinovitz, known by the name of R'Itsele Ponevezher. He was the head of the Kovno Slobodke yeshiva, and was one of the best Talmudic authorities of our time. He possessed a truly outstanding genial personality, which made a strong impression on everyone. In addition to his superior proficiency, he also was sharply analytical and exhibited a creative and constructive logic. When I was a young man of about 20, I was astounded by his sharpness of mind and the deep intuition with which, in one of his droshes derekh agev [teachings “off the cuff,” as an aside], he handled questions of time and space, eternity and infinity. R'Itsele Ponevezher was truly more of a sage, scholar and head of a yeshiva than a rabbi and community leader.

Maskilim and Revolutionaries

During the 1850's, Ponevezh was one of the centers of the haskalah movement. At that time, the famous Hebrew poet Yehuda Leyb Gordon was a teacher of Hebrew in the public Jewish folkshul. This was a government school whose primary purpose was to give Jewish children the elements of a general education and more specifically, a Russian one. Gordon was the center of a circle of militant maskilim [adherents of the haskalah] who led a strong fight against the “dark fanaticism” of the rabbis, against the social backwardness of the Jews. In Ponevezh, Gordon married the daughter of a prominent businessman, Tankhum Aronshtam. It was here that he wrote his first long poems. Beautifully carved Hebrew phrases composed by Gordon can still be seen on headstones in the Jewish cemetery.

Later this type of active anti-religious maskil apikoyrus [“enlightened heretic”] almost entirely disappeared. In his place arose a much more terrible anti-religious movement—bundism [Yiddishist anti-Zionist Socialist Labor Party], which spread throughout Ponevezh and the surrounding areas. The Jewish maskilim whom I knew were peaceful, conservative, genteel readers of hamelitz and hatzefirah [“The Morning Star” and “The Dawn”—daily Hebrew newspapers], old khovevei tzion [“Lovers of Zion,” an early Zionist group], and in part also adherents of the even newer Zionist movement.

In the years of transition from the 19th to the 20th century, I, together with my brother and another young man, studied Hebrew with Shmuel Yakov Yatzkan, who later became the founder and publisher of the daily Jewish newspaper haynt [“Today”] in Warsaw. Yatzkan played an important role in the development of the Zionist movement and in Hebrew culture in Ponevezh. He and my father encouraged a strong feeling of Zionism in the workers and young people. I believe that he organized the first Zionist group of children under the name of pirkhei tzion [“Flowers of Zion”].

Yatzkan was an autodidact and a “self-made man” [English in the original]. He was born in Vabolnik, a small town not far from Ponevezh. After his school years, he wandered around to various houses of study and gegesn teg [eating and sleeping in different homes each night]. He told us how, late at night, he and the other young men would roast potatoes over the hot tin covers of the ovens. Except for Yiddish and loshn koydesh [the “holy tongue,” i.e. Hebrew], he basically knew no other languages. However, he had a feeling and a sense for spiritual matters and easily oriented himself to the problems of social and political life. I believe that his aesthetic feelings were not highly developed. He had an unhappy relationship with music. I remember how he plodded for weeks, attempting to learn my father's nigun [melody] for haneros hal'lu [“We kindle these lights for Chanukah”] so that he could sing with us when we lit the Chanukah candles.

He was a talented teacher and developed sound educational principles. When he was still a youth of 18, he wrote a booklet, Henokh Leyner [Rav Gershon Henokh Leyner, the Radzyner Rebbe], about improving Jewish education.

Jewish doctors and other academicians inhabited a world of their own, with the majority of them speaking Russian at home, sending their children to Russian middle-schools (in Ponevezh, it was the real-shul) and were more or less freethinkers. They ate treyf [non-kosher food], and observed neither the Sabbath nor the Jewish holidays. Some of them did attend synagogue a couple of times a year, mainly Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This enabled them to justify their Jewishness. For the most part they were alienated from the folk masses.

But there were also exceptions. One of these exceptions was Dr. Hurvitz who worked for the bikur kholim [society for visiting the sick]. His behaviour was simple and without guile. He spoke Yiddish, loved and understood the ordinary Jew. His practice was primarily in Slobodke, where he was much loved. He came to the homes of the poor, conversed with the sick workers, shopkeepers, old women and children—as one of them. He was not religious in the strict sense of the word, but he followed the laws of kashrus. He observed the Sabbath and the holidays and attended services in the synagogue. He was an outstanding physician because of his exacting mind and warm heart full of sympathy.

Photograph with caption: Dr. Shakhna Mer (1863-1930)

Dr. Mer was a many-sided and rich personality who was well known over all of Lithuania as a great physician and an outstanding friend of the people. He was devoted with his entire soul to the ideal of learning and knowledge, and in addition, he was thoroughly imbued with the social-moral weltanschauung [German: world-view] of the progressive Russian intelligentsia. Thus he united within himself the character of a yeshiva bokher with a Russian narodnik [“populist” who propagandized socialism among the Russian peasants]. He had the ascetically strict consciousness of duty of the eternal lerner lishma [one who studies for its own sake] combined with the pure humanism and idealistic love of a freedom-fighter for the people. He viewed his medical calling as a holy scientific and moral offering of his life in service to the human spirit. He loved the Jewish people, but at the same time, was a cosmopolitan humanist who did not recognize any difference between people. He was held in high regard and loved both by Jews and non-Jews, the landowners, merchants, workers and peasants who came to him from the surrounding areas. He did not belong to any party, but was spiritually close to the socialism of the Russians and the Jews.

The Duma Deputy

The lawyer Naftal (Naftali) Markovitch Fridman was part of the Russified intelligentsia, and in 1907 was elected as a deputy from the Kovno District to the third Russian Duma [Parliament]. Prior to his election, he had been absolutely disinterested in Jewish affairs. He had little interaction with Jews and did not exhibit any active interest in general politics. He occupied a significant privileged position because he was the only Jew in the Ponevezh circle whom the Czarist government recognized as prisyazhnyi-privyereni [Russian], that is, a duly sworn-in lawyer. He was a quiet and thoughtful person who appreciated orderliness and comfort. His life flowed on an even keel. He and his family lived in a large house with a beautiful garden on the New Street. He had a wonderful practice—especially from the Lithuanian farmers because his speciality was land and inheritance settlements.

The revolution and most especially, his obligations as a deputy to the Duma, entirely changed his life. With the same conscientiousness he had exhibited previously in protecting the interests of the peasants against the rich, he now protected the interests of the Jewish people against the Russian “Black Hundreds” [gangs organized by the Czarist government to fight the revolutionary movement]. He began to study Yiddish and yiddishkayt, learned much about Jewish history and literature, the Russian-Jewish laws, and the Jewish question in other countries. He worked his way through the classical words of the fighters for Jewish equal rights and broadened his general, as well as Jewish, political knowledge. Due to his duties in Petersburg, he had to relinquish his practice, thereby losing thousands of rubles yearly and eventually, his entire personal capital. He felt the deep personal responsibility which history placed upon him.

Fridman was a good jurist. His thoughts were healthy and logical—pure. His style of speech and writing was short and to the point, exact and clear. In general, he was not a sparkling speaker. His voice was not strong, his sentences did not evoke any flowery mental pictures, but his speeches in the Duma always made an impression because of their honesty and forthrightness.

Today this Jewish-Lithuanian world, only a small corner of which I have attempted to describe here, is entirely destroyed and the people of whom I spoke—they and their children are no more—for the most part viciously murdered. Let us wish and hope that the rich spiritual strength, which lived and was influential in that destroyed world, still remains among the living children and grandchildren spread throughout the world.

[Pages 1413-1415]

Panevezhys in 1906
(Panevezys, Lithuania)

By Alter Epstein

Translated by Bob Kurtzman

Translation edited by Dr. Sonia Kovitz

The news that Medem was coming to Ponovezh spread even before we, the [Bund] activists, had made the decision to bring him. [Vladimir Medem, pseudonym of M. Vinitski, 1879-1923, was a prominent leader of the Bund in Russia and Poland. The Bund was a Yiddishist, anti-Zionist socialist labor party founded in 1897 in Vilna that supported Jewish national rights.] Not only the Bundists but also others knew about his visit, and people discussed it among themselves, albeit secretly so that no enemy ear should pick it up.

On the delegates' assembly day [the delegates were to vote on which representative the Bund would send to the Russian Duma, or Parliament], we were waiting at the railway station. One of the local people was to meet Medem and take him to a private apartment where he would remain until the assembly. My job was to point out Medem to the comrade, so that he wouldn't make a mistake and turn to a stranger.

It was wintertime. Snow lay spread out and an odd calm lay over the town. Compared to Vilna, my permanent home where the commotion in the streets was always lively, I felt as if I had fallen into a tiny village. I could not believe that there would be a delegates' assembly and that among the speakers would be Medem with his fire, wisdom, and sharpness. It took a long time before the evening shadows appeared and the winter sun set under a blood red sky. I sat in the small dark room waiting for someone to take me to the assembly. While I waited, it seemed to me that some kind of holiday was about to arrive, and warmth poured through my heart. I felt the taste of an impending victory. It may have had something to do with the nearness of my shtetl just a few stations away from Ponovezh. The image of my parents hovered over my eyes. The atmosphere of my birthplace comforted me.

I felt a hand on my shoulder and opened my eyes; it was a comrade, “It's late, come on, people are gathering.” he said. The frosty air soon woke me, and we stepped over the squeaky snow through a side street, emerging at the marketplace where there was a row of shops. From one house a bright light was shining and illuminating the trampled snow.

We had a slip of paper from our delegates. The comrade remained waiting in the street for Medem, so as to quietly pass him the slip.

The hall was full with faces flushed by the warmth. My eyes wandered and I suddenly found myself looking directly at the guest, and I smiled at him.

The first speaker was Mr. Friedman, a local lawyer. In fact he would later be elected to the Duma in place of our Bundist candidate, R. Abramovitz, on whose behalf Medem came to speak. Friedman was a handsome man with an intelligent face, but his voice was weak and I could see that the public was not interested in him. They were impatient and waiting for whoever would come next.

Soon after Friedman a name was called and Medem stepped to the podium. At first no one knew who it was and then the gathering began to whisper, “That is Medem! That is Medem stepping up.”

Soon an ovation broke out, with shouting and applause by our group and our sympathizers. Right away the opposition also became excited since they didn't want to hand the assembly over to their foes, and someone yelled, “Jews, we want him to speak Yiddish, Yiddish, Yiddish!” Others interrupted them. The hall was filled with shouts and tumult. We looked around and felt awkward, as if we didn't belong. At that time Medem could not speak fluent Yiddish—only later did he learn the language. We were afraid the event would end up as a fiasco. Then we saw Medem raise his hand, his face shining with a wise smile. He asked everyone to be quiet a moment.

“I would like very much to speak in Yiddish since I belong to the bais-vov-nun-daled [B-U-N-D], but I cannot,” he said with a comic expression. In the hall loud laughter and applause broke out. A high ringing voice called, “In Russian, in Russian!”

The opposition was silent and Medem spoke in Russian. I don't remember what he said, but the way he said it remains in my memory. His talk was full of good humor, yet with images of poverty and oppression that appealed to “downtrodden” Jews and that they well understood. We sensed victory. We saw that their eyes were bright, their faces shining, and we were satisfied, for it's good to feel like the victor, to come out as the strong ones. Right then, at least, we were stronger than the supporters of Friedman.

Then a rabbinic Jew with dark burning eyes and a pitch-black beard stepped up. He spoke hoarsely, like a preacher. After Medem's voice and positive reception the man did not want to lose the crowd's attention. Suddenly we too leaned forward to hear what he was saying.

“…We don't want to be oil for the wheels, not even for the wheels of history. Jewish blood is holy and precious. For them, for the non-Jews, this means nothing, but for us Jews it means everything. We will not allow Jewish blood to be shed!” he shouted angrily with flaming eyes and pointing his finger at Medem.

A breath of hate permeated the hall. Fiery looks flew toward the side where Medem sat, and he looked pale. His eyes wandered everywhere and his impression of victory turned into an impression of defeat. We tried to reply that Medem never said that we need Jewish blood or that the blood shed by the Jewish people would be oil for the wheels of history, but no one wanted to hear us.

When I met with Medem afterwards in Kovno, I saw in his eyes something new, as if he had been immediately struck with pain that the Jewish masses in Ponovezh had not grasped his anguish over their desolate situation. In his eyes I could see discontent, resentment—that he was angry with me about the defeat. I therefore felt awkward in his presence. A voice within me said something unacceptable: “Wouldn't it be better if he worked among his own, the Russians?” but I chased away this thought about noble Jewish leaders of the working class, just as one would chase away a bothersome fly.

[Pages 1415-1418]

The Jewish Common Folk of Panevezhys

By M. Birman

Translated by Bob Kurtzman

Translation edited by Dr. Sonia Kovitz

The poverty-stricken Jewish common folk made up more than half of the Jewish population of Ponovezh up until the First World War, when many Lithuanian Jews were exiled. [Editorial note: the Czarist government deported many Jews eastward from the northwestern frontier, believing that Jews would betray Russia to the enemy.] The majority were artisans, tailors, shoemakers, carpenters, tanners, hatters, bolster makers, strap and belt makers, handkerchief makers, saddle makers, sheet metal workers, glaziers, rope makers, masons, painters, roofers, upholsterers, bookbinders, turners, brick layers and more. There were also numerous unskilled laborers such as porters, coachmen, street pavers, skinners in the butcher shops, water carriers, and ordinary poor people who would stand on the corners of the main thoroughfares waiting to be chosen to do strenuous menial work for a few kopecks. There were also a great many petty merchants of the marketplace, poor fruit sellers, bakers, and bean sellers who would go from house to house carrying their wares in a small basket. In addition there was as usual a large number of unemployed and ordinary folk who had no occupation at all and survived on occasional paupers' jobs such as guarding fruit orchards in the summer, baking matzoh for Passover, and so on.

All these people led arduous lives. They were barely able to subsist from hand to mouth, yet they struggled not to go on the dole. Despite their harsh lives the laboring Jewish common folk were very active in social causes, reacting to the injustices of the upper classes and seeking to raise their intellectual level and standard of living.

Many of the categories of working people mentioned above each had its own separate shul or kloiz: there was a small synagogue or study house for the teamsters, one for the shoemakers, for the carpenters, for the butchers, etc.

During the years of the first revolution, especially in 1905 and afterward, Jewish poverty was concentrated mainly in swampy Slobodka [Jewish section of Ponevezh] . Many active fighters emerged from the midst of these people. The Bund in Ponevezh, including the Small Bund, numbered close to 700 members. Also the Socialist Zionists (S.Z.) numbered a few hundred members. Both parties carried out a series of strikes and were very active in the revolutionary struggle against the Czarist regime. The organized workers in Ponovezh promoted an especially violent election in the Second Imperial Duma. The parties competed with each other and would bring outstanding party leaders to election rallies. For example: when the S.Z. brought Aron Tchenstokhover for Shabbos, the Bund brought Haim R. Abramowicz (from Rein) on the following Shabbos. Then the S.Z. brought Dr. Nachman Syrkin and the Bund brought [Baruch Charney] Vladeck. Then the S.Z. brought J. Danieli [Joseph Tchernikov]and Niger [Samuel Charney, brother of Baruch].

Especially fierce and lively was the organizing of self-defense in Ponovezh to deal with anticipated pogroms. The Czarist officials organized a “Union of the Russian People” who brought the hierarch [monastic priest] Iliodor, which aroused incitements of pogroms against the Jews. Luckily, mobilization for the Russo-Japanese War and military conscription quieted things down and there was little need for Jewish self-defense.

The failure of the Revolution of 1905, the subsequent oppressive reaction, and the tedium and despair of Jewish youth in the Pale of Settlement prompted in Ponovezh a great emigration to America and Africa. It is estimated that about 80 percent of the finest young men and women from Ponovezh Slobodka emigrated in the five or six year period after 1905. But all these learned and noble young people bequeathed to the masses a residue of self-awareness and courage regarding the rich landowners. Not once did the masses falter as they pursued their stubborn struggle. They did not yield and ultimately they achieved their goal. In 1907, for example, a wandering magid (rabbi-preacher) from the town of Mohilna (Minsk District) stopped in Ponovezh. The preacher, Rov Chaim Zubtzov, made a hit with the masses with his teachings and they decided to prevail upon the city leaders to give him a contract of appointment. The Ponovezh rabbi, the famous gaon (genius) Reb Itzele [Peterburger; Yitzhak Blaser] and the learned householders were opposed. The masses, the majority of the teamsters', shoemakers' and butchers' study houses, and all of the other societies and groups began to rebel, calling meetings and collecting signatures. They paid no attention to the opposition from the important scholars and wealthy people and indeed appointed the rabbi from Mohilna to the position of town preacher of Ponevezh. The local scholars persecuted this “Preacher of the Rebels.” They wouldn't invite him to speak on the occasion of the conclusion of the study of a tractate from the Talmud, they wouldn't allow him to give a eulogy upon the demise of a great scholar, and in general they would not permit him to attend any gathering of the town's elite. Every week he received his wages not from the cashbox like the other “holy ones,” but from the poor everyday pennies collected from poor artisans and unskilled workers.

Many of the youth who came from among the poor of former Ponovezh, from Slobodka, are now in New York and elsewhere in America. They own clothing factories and other industries and I have even met some of these people who now have large businesses on Fifth Avenue.

[Photograph with caption: Funeral of Duma Deputy Naftali Friedman, Ponovezh 1921. The picture was provided by Meir Kaplan from Israel.]

[Pages 1419-1424]

Ponevezh After the First World War”*

By Zelig Bak

Translated by Bob Kurtzman

Translation edited by Dr. Sonia Kovitz

*Excerpted by Bak from his article “A Tombstone for a Shtetl” in Tzukunft , Yizkor issue (August 1943).

Towns and shtetlakh in Lita – Kovno, Shavel, Ponevezh, Kupishok and Utian... resemble each other like close sisters. You arrive in a shtetl as a Shabbes guest and recognize everything – every alley corner is familiar and all the Jews are like family.

Market Place and Pharmacy

In Ponevezh everything revolved around the market place. The economy of the Jews of Ponevezh was based on the two weekly market days. Men and women shopkeepers spent a sleepless night on the eve of market day, noticing in the stillness if the weather was good and if the peasants were pulling their carts across the cobblestones bringing their goods. At dawn there would be a groan from a poorly greased wheel, a mix of strange voices, and the whinny of a horse. And if in the midst of the unceasing tumult you heard a manly non-Jewish hearty laugh, a loud guffaw, you knew the peasants had brought their goods from the village to sell. Then they'll have an extra penny to spend and there will be some income. But if in the summer there was a torrential downpour at night, or if in the winter a thaw, then market sales would be down and most of the shopkeepers would run to the Folksbank [People's Bank] and ask the management for help arranging payments on time – the poor man's IOU.

The town pharmacy was on one of the corners of the Ponevezh market place. Peasant men in boots and peasant women in kerchiefs sat for hours on market day afternoon like mute mummies, not uttering a word, waiting for medicine for the ailing ones left at home, ointment for ills that wouldn't go away, balm for bad eyes.

The pharmacist was an assimilated Jew. Shtetl Jews came to the conclusion after lengthy debates in the kloiz, long after evening services, that since he had a bit of connection with medical knowledge he was permitted to be an apikoirus [heretic]. Therefore nobody got annoyed with him either for going in public all year round without a hat, even in winter, or for his clean-shaven face and bald head.

Batei-medroshim and Kloizn
[Houses of Study and Small Synagogues]

Directly across from the pharmacy in Ponevezh, a narrow alley descended steeply past Jewish warehouses chock full of all kinds of goods and led to the center of the kloizn and batei-medroshim . There you were never late for davenen [reciting prayers] since you could almost always find a minyan [quorum of ten men required for communal prayer], if not in one kloiz than in another. The large brick bes-medresh with the sun clock on the southern wall was there; also the shamesishe [shul caretakers'] kloiz with the khevra-kadisha [burial society]; the small wooden bes-medresh ; and the kalt [“cold”] summertime shul with its three roofs, one above the other, where “the dead daven ”, as the kheder children used to say. This shul , if it still exists, must be more than 200 years old. The large, heavy menorah has hung from the high ceiling for 160 years. The Holy Ark was an unusual hand carving of tablets and lions, the work of an unknown folk artist.

In addition there was Glickele's kloiz built with tzedakah funds given by the pious woman, Mrs. Glickele of blessed memory. There was a coachmen's kloiz, a hasidic kloiz, and still more hasidic shtiblekh [small prayer houses] and private minyanim, such as the Abelskys' kloiz and the Romms' kloiz . (Relatives of the Romms [the publishing and printing family] now live in Brooklyn, New York.) As if all that weren't enough, around 1929 the hasidim built another one, a fine bes-medresh – of solid stone.

The Town “Plump”

Some of the streets in Ponevezh had Jewish names. One of them was called in Lithuanian Rabbine Herzeliya Gotvela [Rabbi Herzel's Street] – Reb Herzl's Gesl , near the “cold” shul . It was not named after Dr. [Theodore] Herzl, as many thought. Reb Herzl was a Ponevezh Jew who for many years was engaged in helping the needy. He was loved by everyone and highly esteemed for his virtue and good heart.

In the very middle of the shulhoyf [ shul courtyard], amidst the batei-medroshim and kloizn described above, there was a city “plump” (water pump). Ponevezh was famous for its pure and delicious water. Water from the “plump” was carried in large wooden barrels throughout practically the entire town and sold by the bucket.

The “plump” was located at the very beginning of Reb Herzl's Gesl . In Ponevezh they used to tell this story of Reb Herzl's will: he wrote in his will that since wells had been dug during his lifetime in many places, but no good water was found, they should dig at this very spot (now the “plump”). He designated a sum of money for this purpose. Reb Herzl's request was carried out and sure enough, they found crystal clear water there – truly waters of life.


Rabbi Kahaneman, the Ponevezh rabbi, one of the leaders of the Lithuanian Agudas-Yisroel , was known not only in Lithuania but throughout most of the Jewish world for his learning. Twice he traveled to South Africa, where there are many Lithuanian Jews, and also several times to America. In both countries he collected money to support the Ponevezh Yeshiva and its institutions. Although Rabbi Kahaneman was not a hasid, his sermons had inner fire and enthusiasm that reminded one of a hasidic rabbi.

Another rabbi in Ponevezh was angry at the community. He maintained al-pi khazaka [by order of precedence or former rights ], whether for good reason or not, that he deserved the Ponevezh rabbinical seat. Rabbi Kahaneman had encroached upon his rights. This rabbi virtually isolated himself from the community. On Ramigoler Street he held a kind of private minyan and conducted a “passive boycott.” In town, people said that he and his family suffered from hunger, but he would neither seek a rabbinic post elsewhere nor leave Ponevezh.


On Ramigoler Street there was a small Karaite community of more than a hundred souls. They were mostly craftsmen and gardeners. They had a bes-medresh which they called a “ kenasa ” [from knesset ]. On summer evenings they used to sit on the porches of their homes, mostly the women and children, and talk loudly and resonantly in their Karaite language, which sounded strange to our ears. The Karaite shabbes was quite different from our traditional shabbes , just as our shabbes is different from the gentile Sabbath on Sunday. In their isolation the Karaites created a sort of exile within exile. They married among their own, the few remaining Karaites scattered through Lithuania. Until 1928 there was not a single case of a “mixed marriage” among the Karaites. They degenerated both physically and spiritually. As time passed it became more and more difficult to maintain Karaite practices among the youth. The nearest Karaite cemetery was in Naishtadt, 15 versts from Ponevezh.

Yiddish Writers

In the middle of the 19th century the famous Hebrew poet, Yehuda Leib Gordon, lived in Ponevezh. He taught in a Russian public school, but the small-town atmosphere of Ponevezh suffocated him. In the eyes of the enlightened Gordon, Ponevezh was then deeply mired in darkness and reaction. The great Hebrew master of language made a sharp pun on Ponevezh [pronounced “Ponovez” in Litvak style], which he wittily translated as po-nevez : “Here one will be disgraced” [future passive of the verb from root bet-zayin-hay ].

The enlightened socialist author Dovid Apotheker (1911-1955) used to mention that he was born in Ponevezh. He left there when he was ten. His writing career developed in Vilkomir, Czernovitz, Philadelphia, and New York. A book of collected poems and a volume of humorous writings were published from his work.

Rafael Abramovitch, veteran of the Bund and the Russian social democrats, spent his youth in Ponevezh and graduated from the Ponevezh Realshule . The Ponevezh Bundists always said with pride that the young revolutionary Abramovitch came to maturity in their town. Many years after World War I, the well known Yiddish researcher Z. Kalmanovitch was very active in Ponevezh. This great Yiddish expert taught Hebrew literature in the Hebrew Gymnaziya [high school]. The writer Uriah Katzenellenbogen lived in Ponevezh for over five years. There he edited the anthology Lita . The Yiddish poet Dovid Fram also lived in Ponevezh. His father was a robust Jew; even when he was more than sixty years old, you could see his former youthful strength. The poet's mother, on the other hand, was frail, barely able to stand. Both parents toiled very hard to give their children the finest and best of everything.


In Ponevezh there were Jewish doctors, teachers and others with diplomas who mixed with the common people – these were true folk-intellectuals.

First to be counted in thisgroup was Dr. Eisenbud, a practicing physician who was also a teacher in the Hebrew gymnaziya . Next, Dr. Barak was one of several young doctors involved in public affairs. Pesakh Shimshelevitch, who completed his degree at the Vilna Teachers' Institute and studied in Switzerland, was also very close to the Jewish masses in Ponevezh. He was a teacher in the Folkshul , principal of the Mittelshul , and the dedicated secretary of OZE [“Society for the Protection of Jews” founded in Russia in 1912]. Today in Philadelphia Shimshelevitch, now under the name of Simon, is a well-known Yiddish pedagogue. Understandably I mention here only a few of those whom I knew very well.

Organizations and Institutions

All the political and social currents of Jewish life had a provincial echo in Ponevezh, just as they did in the other Lithuanian-Jewish towns and shtetlakh . There you found the general Zionists and Tzeirei Tzion [Young Judea], Hekhalutz [The Pioneer] and Hashomer Hatzair [The Young Guard], members of Aguda [“connected” ones] and Mizrakhi [“eastern” ones], Maccabee, and a separate sports organization of radical Jewish workers. There were also OZE, ORT, educational societies, a Jewish folksbank and offices for gemilus-khesodim [loans without interest], libraries, craftsmens' union, orphanage, hospital, old age home, Keren Kayemes [National Fund] and Keren Hayesod [Foundation Fund]. Later there was even the start of a Lithuanian-Jewish g ymnaziya , that is, a Jewish high school with Lithuanian as the language of instruction in a newly conceived attempt at assimilation with the Lithuanians. In short, Ponevezh had a complete Jewish life in all its forms. All organizations, or almost all, had their Flower Day when people went about in pairs to sell paper flowers to aid local institutions. Every organization collected monthly membership dues and irregular payments for various stock shares – with fair results. Jews who “plowed with their noses” to eke out a living still did their part, even from their small incomes, to pay for all the institutions that survived despite constant deficits.

All the social and political movements provided schools in which the language of instruction was Yiddish or Hebrew. The Ponevezh Hebrew gymnaziya [high school] was coeducational; students came there from all the nearby and even distant Jewish villages – from Subotsch, Ponadel, Rogova, Aniksht; from Rokishok, Radviloshok, and other – shok 's; and from Remigola, Eiragola and other – gola 's.

Our Shtetl, Everybody's Shtetl

Essentially the Jewish shtetl was everywhere the same, both in Lithuania and in Poland. Here was a well-established, traditional way of life, founded many generations ago and inseparable from dirt roads and villages all around, and the fields and forests. Here Jewish life pulsed with all its ups and downs, and with constant yearnings in young eyes and hearts for whatever was finer, better, and farther away. So, even though Ponevezh had the Yasnagur Forest and the Neviazhe River, Jewish young men and women would travel in the summer to a “first class” beach. In this way each shtetl had its own special place In veldl baym taykhl [popular folk song, “In the Grove by the Stream”], where people brought their love affairs and romances, dreams and longings. The young folk would go in groups to the shtetl train stations in the late evening to see if someone was waiting, or whether somebody had an escort. They went for no special reason, just to meet the train and to see off their own longings...

We sent greetings to the wide world – Eretz Yisroel, Africa, and America. Later new lands were added to Jewish geography: Chile, Cuba, Mexico, and Brazil. There were people who prepared themselves for Eretz Yisroel and some who chose other lands. And those who were fortunate and left in time...

Left in time – while all who remained in the Jewish shtetlakh , the fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers, relatives, friends, neighbors, acquaintances were murdered by the Nazis and their Lithuanian accomplices.

[Pages 1425-1426]

A Visit To Ponevezh In 1938

By Meir Kimel

Translated by Bob Kurtzman

Translation edited by Dr. Sonia Kovitz

When I left Ponevezh, a quiet but spiritually rich life had developed there at the beginning of this century. There were two yeshivas, small in comparison to the yeshivas in Slobodka and Telz. In the old beis-medresh [house of study or synagogue] and in Glikele's kloiz [small house of study or synagogue] young boys studied, preparing themselves to attend the big yeshivas in Lithuania.

In Glikele's kloiz, the head of the yeshiva then was Rabbi Shlomo Ezra, an ailing, unpredictable but profound scholar. His brother was Dr. Mehr who brought fame to Ponevezh. In independent Lithuania Dr. Mehr was the true “City Father” of Ponevezh, beloved by both Jews and non-Jews.

The famous gaon Rabbi Itzele Rabinovitch also bestowed great honor there.

From the Ponevezh households and leading personalities from that era we must mention Tzemakh Broida and his wife Brakha, a good hearted and extraordinary charity donor, the Subatzkes and Tadeses, Rubensteins and and Kissens. And who remembers the many other names of the maskilim [adherents of the haskalah [Jewish enlightenment] and the lomdim ? [scholars]

In those days there lived in Ponevezh Shmuel Yaakov Yotzkan who gave free lectures in Hebrew and history for a group of yeshiva boys, among them the writer of these lines.

Twelve months before the outbreak of World War II I visited my birthplace, Ponevezh.

The three largest towns in Lithuania after Kovno—Shavel, Vilkomir and Ponevezh— appear on the map like a segol [Hebrew vowel whose written symbol is three dots forming a triangle].

Each town had about the same number of Jews prior to World War I. My birth place was the most conservative place with more Torah and frumkeit [piety]. Shavel had a more worldly character, being so close to Germany, and even the Yiddish accent there was similar to German. In Shavel a shin was a shin [sh] and a samekh was a samekh [s]. But in Ponevezh one would hear a Jewish woman saying [in a “litvak” accent that replaces shin with samekh ] that she had bought fiss and fleiss for Sabbes or a Jewish man saying sir hasirim aser l'Slomo [shir hashirim asher l'Shlomo —Solomon's Song of Songs] before the Friday evening service.

After a thirty-year absence, Iagain visited my birthplace [in 1938]. My father, of blessed memory, a Jew, scholar and tzadik [righteous man], had hardly changed. Naturally my three sisters and their families had changed, but the city of Ponevezh itself had taken on a new appearance in my eyes—with its busy and wide streets, automobiles and busses, attractive modern buildings, movies and theaters. It was no longer the Ponevezh of my childhood.

[Photograph with caption: Rabbi Joseph Sh.Kahaneman, the Ponevezher Rav, last rabbi from Ponevezh, now in Israel.]

Also Jewish life in Ponevezh had changed. There were the same synagogues and study halls which had become a little older, but it was flavored with something new. Already there was the new larger yeshiva of Rabbi Kahaneman with all modern installations and the striking structures of the two Hebrew gymnasia, Tarbut and Yavne.

[Photograph with caption: Purim play presented by yeshiva students of the Ponevezh Yeshiva “Ohel Yitzchak”, 1925.]

In the photograph are: Tzvi Flaxman, later rabbi in Abel; Chaim Shlomo Girshevitz, later rabbi in Aniksht; Rabbi Abraham Yitzchak Kanalovitch; Rabbi Yosef and Daniel Mehr; the prodigy brothers from Trashkun—Rabbis Yaakov and Dov Glazer; Rabbi Zalman Lissan. Dressed as Mordekhai is Rabbi Eliezer Meskin, and next to him sits Rabbi Shabtai ha-Levi Katz (as Queen Esther). The latter two are now in New York. Some from the picture are now in Africa. The rest were martyrs in the Holocaust.

I was filled with enthusiasm bymy meeting with a group of students from the Tarbut Gymnasium. Their rich Hebrew with the Sephardi accent gave me the feeling that I was in Eretz Yisrael.

I also met some of the teachers in the Tarbut Gymnasium: Director-Dr. Leiptzike, Dr. Feld, Sarski, Silanski, Feigenzon, Levit and others.

Partcularly exciting for me was visiting the kibbutz agricultural training camp in Ponevezh, the outstanding Hebrew library there, their collective living together, their insistence on speaking Hebrew. This for me was a soul-stirring experience. Once I addressed the group and told them of the intention in America to follow their example, though I doubt that in America we will reach their level of idealism and readiness to sacrifice.

Five weeks in my birth place Ponevezh—what an experience! What a joy it was to see a newborn Jewish world, deeply rooted in the Jewish past and with a burning faith in a more fortunate future.

Where did this all come about, where?

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