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[Page 429]

Yitzchak Berger

by Daniel Pesky

Translated by Jerrold Landau

Published in Hadoar, volume 25, issue 19, 5706, 1946.
{Photo page 429: Yitzchak Berger.}

On the day of the 13th of Tevet 5706 (December 16, 1946) the well-known Zionist leader, Yitzchak Berger, a native of Minsk, died in Tel Aviv at the age of 69.

The late man was of the finest of the activists and first spokesmen of the national movement prior to the First World War. However in my native city of Minsk, the capital of White Russia, he was considered as one of the “four great ones” who stood at the helm of the Zionist activity. These were Shimshon Rosenbaum, Dr. Chaim Chorgin, Yehuda Zeev Nofech and Yitzchak Berger. Berger was the youngest of them. He was a man of the people and a friend of the workers. His influence upon our nationalist youth was very great.

It is possible to say about him that he was wine the son of wine – in truth the son of fine parents. His father was a unique personality in those days: Reb Gershon Avraham, a wealthy Jew who owned a mansion on the Street of the Seventy (Zibetziger Gasse), which served as a well-known inn for merchants and prominent people who visited the city. Reb Gershon Avraham never served as a rabbi, despite the fact that he was known in his day as one of the greatest Torah scholars of the generation. His broad and deep knowledge was such that the community would send him to be an examiner for all the rabbis who wished to be appointed in the important synagogues. He himself spent his entire days with Torah and service. His business was conducted by his wife, a woman of valor of excellence, Chana Riva Berger, in whose name his guesthouse was called.

Reb Gershon Avraham knew to give his two sons Yehuda Leib and Yitzchak, and his two daughters Chaya and Ethel, both a general and Hebrew education in the religious nationalist spirit, of which there is no better. Teachers and enlightened rabbis were hired to come to the house to educate the children in the rich culture of ours and theirs. Already in their youth, they joined the ranks of the choicest of the Jewish intelligentsia and the heads of the Zionist revival movements in the city and the region.

The eldest, Yehuda Leib Berger, dedicated his energies in Pinsk, where he lived after his marriage, to the benefit of the Zionist idea, both practically and through oration, for he was talented from his youth in the use of language. He was particularly active with the Colonial Bank and the Keren Kayemet. He would tour cities and towns on their behalf. He worked for a certain time at the central committee of the Zionist organization of Russia. He settled with his family in the land of Israel a few years before the First World War. He went to Russia in 1913 to sell shares of “Geula”. He returned to Zion at the outbreak of the war, and died in 1917.

Yehuda Leib Berger was also very active in literary activities. In his day, in the years 5662-5663 (1912-1913), he stormed the worlds of rabbinics and Hebrew journalism. He published Hebrew schoolbooks in Vilna called “Mavo Lamikra” (Introduction to the Scriptures), which were books of the Chumash designed for young students. Even though the author concealed himself with the pseudonym (apparently, he must have felt that the activity is “dangerous”) Abramov, it still became apparent to the public that the “author of the scandal” was Yehuda Leib Berger, the son-in-law of a wealthy Jew of Pinsk. Then the fierce protests and threats of excommunication came from the rabbis and guardians of tradition: How can this be? A summarization of the Chumash and an “editing” of the torah of Moses?! The situation came to the point where the author and publisher were forced to burn all of the templates of the book Mavo Lamikra, and the storm abated.

During his short life, Yehuda Leib Berger succeeded in completing a significant literary-Torah work called “Maor Hayahadut” in four volumes – a treasury of the Oral Torah. The publication of this gigantic anthology had begun, but it was delayed in the middle due to the cessation of the newspaper on account of the war. A short time before his death, he prepared a detailed plan to publish nationalist books under the name “Am Hasefer” (The People of the Book), and had already arranged the financial means and literary forces. However, his death put an end to this endeavor. His son, the well-known lawyer in Tel Aviv, Herzl Ben-Ari was the founder and leader of “The Garrison of Protectors of the Language”, and excelled in his zealous battle for the Hebrew police force.

All of Reb Gershon Avraham's four children were disseminators of Torah who brought merit to the masses, rich in spirit and faithful idealists. It would be enough for me to tell you that the eldest sister, Chaya Berger, taught Chumash on Sabbath evenings to hundreds of workers, artisans and apprentices. Her influence upon her audience was deep. Paint the following picture for yourselves: fifty years ago, an honorable and lovely girl presented public classes in bible. This was literally a wonder. During my childhood, forty years ago, groups were founded in Minsk by the Hebrew teacher Sirotkin (the brother of the well-known author in his day, Avraham Abeli Sirotkin, whose literary pseudonym was Bar-Yatma) to teach Hebrew to girls (my sister Minka among them). The youngest in the family, Ethel Berger, followed the path of the eldest. She was so given over to Zionist activity and her broad efforts amongst the people that her energy was depleted. Her death at a young age left an impact.

Yitzchak Berger almost succeeded in reaching 70 years, and until his last day his life, talents, and knowledge was entirely given over (“netunim-netumim” – I will admit that this expression was known to me in my youth when I stood beside Yitzchak Berger and watched him prepare the text for the gravestone of his dear, refined sister Ethel, and he inscribed: “Her life was entirely given over 'netunim netunim'”. Its source is “for they are entirely given over to me” in Numbers 8, 16) to the nation and its renaissance. He made a pleasant impression in his appearance and his mannerisms. His tall stature and pleasant countenance made people pay attention wherever he went. He attracted a large audience who would run to hear his lectures.

Yitzchak Berger had the ability to organize popular activities such as conventions, gatherings, unions, etc. He had a great role in the “Minsk Convention” of 5662 (1912) – the first large scale legal convention of delegates of all the Zionists of Czarist Russia. By his nature he was strong-hearted and fearless. He had to endure many “hell fires” until he obtained all of the necessary government permits. He knew how to speak to them with an upright posture and nationalist self-confidence. Later, several clandestine, illegal Zionist meetings took place in Minsk. Yitzchak Berger organized them and conducted them. More than once, he was arrested by the Czarist police, and he almost came to trouble. However, he was able to extricate himself from the trouble each time, for his personality and sweet tongue always inspired awe and honor.

{Photo page 431: Yitzchak Berger, his wife Miriam, and their son Mordechai.}

Berger went out to the people already from the beginning of his Zionist path. He was a populist and democrat by nature, and he became involved with the issues and the tribulations. He was not afraid to uproot the dwelling places of the “dark forces” – that is the fortress of the Bund, and he wreaked havoc upon it. With his power of speech, and with the breadth of his knowledge, he won the hearts of the masses on account of his refinement and pleasantness, even those who did not share his way of thinking. Berger founded the Poale Zion chapter in the Minsk style – that was a populist, non-Socialist style, in the form of the “Young Zion” that was to come later. The first Poale Zion organization came into the world in my native city (among its leaders were the late writer A. Litwin, Rubenchik who worked in the JIAS in New York until his death, Lapidus, and others) – a few years before the Socialist Poale Zion organization was founded by D. Borochov and Yitzchak Ben-Zvi in Poltava, Ukraine.

It is possible to state, that Yitzchak Berger was an institution himself in Minsk. His home, that is the guest house of his mother Chana Riva, served as a center for any Zionist and national activist who came from the cities of the field to Minsk. He was constantly occupied and busy with matters of the general and the particular, for he was diligent and full of energy by his nature. He assisted any guest who was of our group, and was a helpful counselor to the youth in particular. By his nature, he was not of the “official captains”, but rather a brother and friend to everyone, old and young, scholar and ordinary person.

I spoke to Yitzchak Berger face to face in meetings and celebrations of the Sfateinu Hebrew organization, which was headed by the Hebrew writer A. Ch. Rachlin, the son of the wealthy man and the friend of Shaul Chernikovsky and Yosef Klozner in the Heidelberg college (A. Ch. Rachlin participated in the establishing of “Hador” of David Frischman, in “Friend”, and in others. I saw him in Minsk in 1929. He was about to publish a book in Russian, “What is Esthetics?”) One Sabbath day, after the meal, I was walking in the Civic Garden as was my custom – and Yitzchak Berger met me. I saw that many nodded to him, and he tipped his hat to them out of politeness to both men and women who recognized him. I looked at him with wonder: Was he not one of the “idols of the youth”. What could you say if he himself approached me, extended me a warm hand, held my shoulders and invited me to join him on his Sabbath stroll. He walked with me for about an hour as if I was his equal. He chatted to me in Hebrew, told me news about the movement, and also about his private thoughts and deeds. At first my knees were quaking, but then I girded myself in strength and answered his questions. From then, this became a usual thing. We would meet and stroll together every Sabbath toward evening. I did not realize then that everyone was looking at me from top to bottom, since I merited chatting with him. Thus did we become very close, despite the fact that I was a grasshopper compared to him, an anonymous youth in comparison to such a renowned man (in my childhood imagination, great Zionists such as Berger, Rosenbaum, Nofech, Chorgin and other such people cut from a sublime branch of people were beyond the realm of the natural…).

Yitzchak Berger was one of the revered and simultaneously beloved Jewish leaders in Minsk and White Russia. During the time of Krinsky's rule in Russia, and the intermediate governments during the war and after it, Berger was elected as the president of the national council in White Russia, and also head of the Jewish community of Minsk. He succeeded whenever he preached in public, conducted meetings or drafted plans. For the man had a sharp mind, a clear brain, and an uncanny intellect.

During the time of the German and Polish occupations, Berger conducted lofty activity on behalf of the Jewish refugees who arrived in Minsk by the thousands. It is simply impossible to describe the magnitude of his dedication in all matters of assistance to our brethren who were downtrodden and suffering. He was appointed to direct the distribution at a time when want was great in the city. Nevertheless, Berger filled the task placed upon him faithfully. He supported the masses of these forlorn souls through all sorts of means and devices, both permitted and forbidden. He came in the way of danger more than once, for in addition to this, he took a strong stance against the occupiers. His custom from always was to raise the banner of Judaism aloft with an outstretched arm, both toward the inside and toward the outside.

He moved after the First World War, and became a wandering Zionist until he settled in the Land of Israel. He was a representative of the Keren HaYesod in Poland, Bessarabia and Lithuania. He led Zionist activities in Romania for many years, and played a prime role there as well – until he once again realized that same eternal energy that was his lot in Minsk. Once again he became enthusiastic, energetic and thirsty for activity. Similarly, his spirit and natural optimism returned to as it was.

He made aliya to the Land of Israel in 1934. After that, he returned to the cities of Europe several times as a representative of the Keren HaYesod. I saw the following idols of my youth” once again in the Land of Israel: Shimshon Rosenbaum, Yehoshua Dov Beininson (of the elders of Chovevei Zion and of the founders of Gedera), Dr. Chaim Chorgin, Michel Rabinovitch and others. The judge Yitzchak Nofech (the splendid son of Yehuda Zeev Nofech, the “chef's spoon” of all of Minsk) died in Tel Aviv a few months before I made aliya to the Land. I was only able to grasp the hand of my teacher and rebbe, Rabbi Sh. Y. Glicksberg, who was coronated in Minsk with two honorary titles: “The Yellow Householder”, and “The Historian”.

I had hoped that when I would soon return to the Land of Israel, I would merit to once again see the face of the giant man of my youth, Yitzchak Berger, and to chat with him once again after a silence of forty years. Alas, he did not wait for me…

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