Donated by Jay Snider
|I remember you my station
Little Rafalovka, the place of my birth
I spent my youth there
Joyfull days of and gray days.
Your magnificent landscape is imprinted on my memory
The dwelling place of simple devoted Jews
Laboring Jews they were, craftsmen, toiling
The Sabbath and the holidays brought purity and grace
The youth was wonderful and dreamy
The heart is burdened and burning
|Oh Rafalovka my dear town
Alas you have been detached from me forever
And my father's home, in its entirety stayed there without
Me knowing the bitter end of you all.
You my peaceful town
I hoped I would once come and visit them
I wanted us to remember how we said goodbye at the end of 1939
Who could have imagined
Oh my Rafalovka my quaint town
Hadassah Avtalion, née Schnieder-Sarid
I was born in Rafalovka in the winter of 1932, to my mother Dubil Grober, the daughter of Shlomo Yaakov and Batya Leah, and my father Yaakov Schnieder, son of Joseph and Leah.
In the summer of 1935, we immigrated to Eretz-Israel, therefore I barely have real concrete memories from Rafalovka.
I do remember a vague scene of a wooden house and a wooden fence and I as a little girl swinging on a wooden swing tied to the rafter of the roof of the terrace.
But I do have memories from my parents' stories.
As a small girl in Rehovot, I used to hear and devour the stories that my parents remembered on various occasions, especially when they met with friends. I didn't record these stories in an orderly manner, but grasped them as an enchanted, warm and sacred atmosphere of a town of positive and family-loving people.
It's sometime now since my parents have passed away, and I myself am a grandmother. Still, the thought of Rafalovka is a distant warm memory that moves me to tears.
I am pleased to speak with my aunts, Dubil's sisters, and hear more stories and memories about the town. When I read the name Rafalovka in some book, my heart twinges and I cry, I feel the warm and loving connection to that town that was and no longer exists - the spring of my existence, though I barely lived there.
Michael Gilboa (Grober)
What brought about the development of the Jewish settlement in Rafalovka?
The main reason was the construction of the railroad from Kiev through Brisk of Lithuania, Kovel and so on. This happened at the beginning of the 20th Century and it brought about the development of new central settlements along the long track. For instance, Sarny on the east became a district city, and Manevichi on the west became a resort city, and Rafalovka the Station became an important commercial center for wood and other products. It was easy to exchange the traditional means of transportation for a modern train. Instead of going long distances in buggies harnessed to horses in the cold winters and the hot summers, it was better to take the faster train that serves a few stations along the railroad. The old means of transportation were used only for short distances such as between the train station and the nearby towns and villages.
Jews who could understand what this meant, men of initiative from near and far, sensed this would mean a good source of income. They started swarming to the area. They worked hard and succeeded in drawing others who followed them. They created sources of livelihood for themselves, each according to his inclinations and means. As far as I know no one left or went back to where they came from. Moreover, a modern spirit was brought to the area by Russian and Polish wood dealers, drawn by the flourishing commerce. They spoke Russian, Polish and German. They read newspapers in Yiddish, especially the Haynt and the Moment.
From time to time the ha-Tzfira and later the ha-Am papers also got to town. People began dressing in European style and abandoned traditional Jewish clothes. This was the new era of card games that lasted the entire night, special cigars and the like. Jewish life in Rafalovka the Station could not be compared with life in the old towns in the area. The latter were still deeply traditional. In New Rafalovka things were much more secular and liberal. On the other hand, as the tradition of Israel demands, the town had a decent synagogue, a shohet, a mohel, and a cantor. A rabbi arrived after being invited. General education became very popular among the youth. They began studying Russian and Polish. People became interested in secular politics and supported various parties, mostly of Zionist nature. Some supported extreme socialist parties as well. Who still remembers Gibish? He stayed in Europe for a long time due to a protracted illness. He met the old emigrants from the Russian Revolution, and when he came back to his parents' home he vehemently preached for the extreme left. Gibish passed away before his time.
Later on a few people became inclined towards communism. And this new spirit, which was quite out of the ordinary, also attracted some of the Jewish residents of the area, especially the young ones, but also some middle-aged people. This new spirit seized the most progressive amongst our people, especially in central Russia and Poland. Both these factors material affluence and modern spirit - shaped the life style and character of Rafalovka the Station and made it a better place than the older towns and villages. Who knows what would have happened had the Tzar not restricted Jewish settlement. The strict edict issued by the Russian government allowed only businessmen to stay in this new heaven, whereas their families had to stay in the towns in the restricted area.
Obviously these edicts did not permit a healthy family life. There was real danger in leaving the merchandise and property on Saturdays and holidays, when the men joined their families and left their homes in Rafalovka locked and abandoned and accessible to the greedy local peasants. There was no choice but to circumvent this cruel law. Our people, brothers of Israel, couldn't accept this unbearably strict order and they took a well tested measure, the first advice of Yaakov our forefather before he met with his brother Esau: to gift, to prayer, and to war.
They softened and disobeyed the law by making considerable payments to policemen and clerks, the Strarjnick, Oridanik, and the ispravnik, the various government representatives. As a result, women and children also joined the men, first in secret and then publicly, but this lasted for only a short period. It wasn't long before the payments had to be repeated, since those in charge wanted more money or because the government representatives district and the settlements were replaced. Sometimes Christian residents who also wanted to live in this place snitched on the Jews and new payments were required.
I was still young and didn't know how other families managed, but I remember the terrible nightmare and the unbearable fear we kept suppressed in our souls for years, and which spoiled our family life in those days.
We were always moving about, from here to there, constantly in fear of being caught breaking the law and living illegally. The punishment for such a crime was a very big fine, and worst of all - my father could be arrested.
Indeed it was a horrible period. I'd like to talk about a few sad memories to demonstrate our plight in those days.
It's the eve of Sabbath, mother is lighting the candles, father, the helper and I are praying in private. Because people feared their presence would become public knowledge, we didn't pray together. And here in the middle of singing the prayers of Shalom Alychem and Malachey Hasharet, when we sat down to eat the Sabbath feast my mother had prepared and put on the table, someone quietly knocks on the locked door. Everyone looks at the foreigner entering quietly, he comes to my father and whispers something to him. My father suddenly stops praying, goes to my mother and speaks to her quietly. We immediately understand this hint. Someone has come from the district, the helper tells me, meaning that the government has come to see that Jews are not spending Saturday here. My mother quickly wraps the chales, the fish and the meat in the tablecloth, we put on our winter coats because it's bitter cold outside, and a minute later we are ready to sneak out the back door to the nearby forest. There we had to go into the empty hut of the forest ranger that was always prepared to accommodate us until things calmed down. We could do that because we had given the appropriate sum of money to this generous man who was endangering himself.
Suddenly a problem that you couldn't solve and that you didn't expect came up. What to do with the Sabbath candles. Should you leave them lit? People peeking through the closed shutters would know we were there; a fire might break out. On the other hand, my parents weren't fanatically religious, but to put out the Sabbath candles, that they would never do, and they'd never think of asking the helper to do that either, until I intervened. I was then 11 years old, and I did it. I put out the candles. My parents looked to the side without saying a word and the serious problem was solved. I can only imagine what would have happened to my parents had the goyim found lit Sabbath candles. The devious bunch of kikes would be publicly exposed. And this would mean severe punishment, arrest, fines, etc. I saved the situation with a heavy heart indeed. We quickly got to the night refuge, and there we spent Shabbat, frozen like dogs, without a warm drink or meal.
When Shabbat was over, the matter was straightened out with the new law keepers, thanks to large sums of money. We returned home shamed, depressed and humiliated. It wasn't long before a similar event happened that shook and terrified us. It happened on Hanukah that year.
I didn't have any homework and came to stay with my father on a cold winter night. Father, the helper and I lay down to sleep on sacks full of flour, salt, sugar, and the like. We were in the storeroom covered with blankets and coats but couldn't fall asleep, we were frozen and shivering. The house itself was locked and an official wax seal sealed a string tied around the lock. The government representatives did this because they found my family in the 'forbidden' town. Inside there was a stove that could easily be lit with dry wood; we could warm up, heat water, prepare hot food and fall sleep. I thought about the cold and the hunger and the locked door, and about the retched government. But the situation was so troublesome to my father that he dared to do something about it. He lit a candle, went to the sealed door, quickly cut the wax threads and opened the lock with a key. A moment later it was open, we went into the home, closed the shutters, lit the stove, ate and drank, and said the prayer after meals. Our spirits were high, and father suggested we celebrate Hanukah and play with a top to amuse ourselves. We were very happy to be out of the cold and were in a good mood. Who would have thought that this would be the night the haters of Zion would decide to show up, not long after they had received their fat salary.
The smoke coming out of the chimney revealed our presence and suddenly the pack of killers arrived in their official uniforms, armed with guns and swords. We knew them well but they pretended as if they had never seen us. Behind them was the gmine elder holding a long sheet of paper written and prepared in advance. In his other hand he had a long pen, which he dipped from time to time in a small inkwell tied to his waist. We were all astonished, the law breakers and the law keepers, the Oridanik came to his senses quickly and signaled to the head of the gmine who read the accusations in an authoritative voice. When he finished reading, father was asked to sign.
My father had faithfully served the army of Nikolai the Second for 5 long years. He also participated in the intervention of the European powers against the Boxer Rebellion in China in 1900. He was not as afraid of the authorities as our Jewish neighbors were. This time he turned white as a sheet. He couldn't say a word when he signed the paper and the crime. At the end of the ceremony the king's witnesses, the Christian policemen and civilians who were invited in advance, signed the accusation. The man in charge pronounced a series of curses that I cannot repeat here together with the order to put my father in iron chains and take him by foot to the district prison in the distant city of Lutsk, accompanied by two policemen. The helper and I were classified as minors and had to return the next morning to our families.
I can still clearly hear the insults and cursing poured down on the damned jids who broke the law of the kingdom and betrayed the Tzar and the holy Provaslav church. That is how the Russians called after us from their homes and yards. I can't describe my mother's mood when I brought her the terrible news of my father's arrest. Our relatives and friends who were experienced in such cases began to work on our behalf. They did what they did and seven days later father came back. He had been physically and spiritually beaten for being a traitor who dared harm the holy of holy of the government.
When I was young my father refused to tell me the raw truth of what had happened, so that the cruel reality would not affect my character and spirit. But I heard from my mother that my father had been put in a cell with a band of thieves who severely harassed him. The authorities gave him little bread and water, and he was released through desperate efforts, a large bribe, and bail until his hearing. Then they tried to postpone the sentence from time to time. My mother also hid this fact from me because she didn't want to involve me in the nasty business.
Despite all this the first settlers didn't despair. Someone had the idea that Rafalovka the Station should be officially recognized as a town like all other towns in the area and that the Jews should be allowed to settle there as they were elsewhere in the Pale. A detailed request to this effect was drawn up and sanctioned by the Ukrainian elders of the villages and the municipal authorities in the neighboring towns, all of whome were, no doubt, pure and holy Provoslavs. The entire Christian population requested to permit a regular settlement for Jews in Rafalovka the Station be permitted.
This memo was prepared and submitted, and greased with butter and honey. As always, after many efforts to get the district and region to agree, and after turning to the general governor in Kiev, the capital of the Ukraine, the issue was finally resolved. The reply was that the Jews of Rafalovka could live from time to time in New Rafalovka and conduct their business there until the highest state authorities decided upon the matter. This came sooner than most people expected. World War One broke out with all the misery it brought upon our people. When the Russian Revolution occurred on April 4th, 1917, our people were finally given full rights. People were hopeful and had the illusion that finally Jews will be free in Russia as well.
I would like to mention that the two people who brought the good news from the general governor were from our town, Mr. Shaul Katz of blessed memory, who reached Israel and spent his final years there, and my father Meir Grober.
I remember rejoicing on that Shabbat in the synagogue after official publication of the permit in Russian allowing a regular settlement. It was a profoundly moving experience. People praying embraced and kissed each other and wept tears of joy. The wine for the kiddush prepared in advance was flowing like water, and people were singing loudly, led by the senior and skilled cantor, Israel Bulba of blessed memory. People who didn't take part in this rejoicing never saw rejoicing in Rafalovka the Station.
This bliss didn't last long. We heard rumors about the expulsion of Jews in Lithuania and Poland carried out by the anti-Semitic military leader Nikolai Nikolevitch, the Tzar's uncle. He suspected the Jews were spying for the Germans. People were terrified of the Cossacks cruel and bloodthirsty who were retreating in panic and abusing the Jews. The nearing of the war, the fact that the border heated up for quite a while on the Styr River right near us, eight kilometers from Rafalovka the Station, made us sink again. One day, the Jews became refugees (byezhentsi). We left Rafalovka and abandoned our property, running away to the nearby towns of Olizarka, Zoludzk, Vladimirets, and Berezhnitsa.
I cannot tell what happened with the Jews between the two world wars. I'll go back to talking about the beginning of New Rafalovka.
The most important man in Rafalovka the Station was no doubt David Koifman of blessed memory. He was an exceptional Jew, impressive, polite, taller than anyone, and had a high forehead like that of a learned student.
He had a sharp eye and mingled with people. He was a pleasant conversationalist, had progressive views, and dressed in a European style. He was one of the first to speak of public matters and he especially charmed people with his grace, articulateness, and pleasant words. People were drawn to listen to his stories, suggestions and interesting memories from his youth days in Odessa where he absorbed the new spirit in the company of Ehad ha'Am, Mendele, Bialik, and other writers.
His spacious house hosted many wood merchants. The house was a center of culture for guests and progressive townspeople. Everyone was eager to catch a chat with him and exchange ideas about daily issues with others who came from afar. People also used to enjoy the fascinating memories of these homeowners. I was very young and didn't dare stick my nose into the parties of the high society. Especially with my parents leading a different lifestyle. My father had a wholesale grocery store, and our family would rarely go and visit the Koifmans, but on the few occasions we did meet, I got to know him and learned to admire him as a charming and appealing man both physically and spiritually. He was always knowledgeable about the town's and the world's problems.
My wife once told me that he was once asked where he'll get nedunia for his seven daughters, he only had daughters. To that he answered Just wait, they'll be knocking on my door demanding another daughter, and that was the case. All the daughters were pleasant looking and agreeable, and all married good fellows for love and not for money.
He was helped by two of his sons-in-law.
Shaul Katz, the son of the rabbi of Kolki from the Volhynia district, came to us. He served as an unofficial maradeatra [a local rabbinical authority]. He was a man of learning who, in his youth, filled his belly with gemara, poskim and tosefta. He would read ha-Tzfira, and Yiddish and Russian papers. He was pleasant and polite to little ones like us. He always gave us a pat on the shoulder, a light cuff on the chin, and even a pull of the nose in a kindly tease. His wife Nacha was a gentle and noble-spirited woman. She even expressed her opposition to these gestures, lest we be even the slightest offended by them. But we were truly happy for the hearty interest he showed in us, and we were happy to have a small talk with him. He was a scholar (talmid haham), and we saw him as our teacher of Zionism. He urged us to be active in raising money for the Funds. When a fight broke out between the Zionist parties, he supported the radical group (Al ha-Mishmar) established by Isaac Greenboim, which was close to the working Eretz-Israel. It was no surprise that after he immigrated to Brazil where his two daughters lived after his wife died, he couldn't rest until he came to Israel. First he lived in Holon, and at the end of his life he lived in Haifa.
The second popular son-in-law of Mr. David Koifman was Michael Weissman of blessed memory. He married Sosil, Koifman's prettiest daughter, who's good taste earned her the affection of both men and women. We little ones were embarrassed when she looked at us. Mr. Weissman always opposed his brother in-law Shaul Katz when arguing. He couldn't compete with him on religious matters, but he could in secular ones.
This was a wise man and all he needed to do was look at someone in order to understand who he was and what his weaknesses were. He would make a wisecrack to someone he knew or didn't know, and this would sometimes penetrate one's soul. We young ones were wary of coming near him lest he hand us an insulting remark. But everyone knew that his remarks and jokes were not mean-spirited. He had a heart of gold and always helped everyone. He would say things only for the beauty of the words (rather than meaning), and they originated in his extreme brightness. He was one of the first people who left and immigrated to Eretz-Israel. He settled in Givatayim where he lived until he died. I was privileged to eulogize him at his graveside. His descendents - Bentsion, Joseph, Gedalyau and Isaac - are people of labor and agriculture. They are decent earners, toiling to bring bread home. Who will take soil off grandfather and father so that they can enjoy the sight of their grandchildren and great grandchildren, the real builders of this country.
A prominent figure in Rafalovka the Station was Mr. Israel Bulba of blessed memory. He was a bit above average in height, puffy, and thick bearded. His black beard was always well combed and folded backwards under his chin. He wore a long black kapota on all days of the week, not only on Saturdays, and he wore an old style hat. In short, his entire appearance said, I'm a Hassid from the devoted Stolin Hassid's, this is my way of life, and this is my belief, and I will not budge a bit towards the new fashion of those becoming enlightened seculars. He walked among us as the pure embodiment of Hassidism. The light of this movement had begun to grow dim, especially among the city youth, but in the provinces it was still burning strong. Israel Bulba of blessed memory symbolized the pure and original Hassid.
Israel Bulba was always in a good mood and was an optimist. He was always singing some Hassidic tune. He was quiet mannered, and he treated everyone, old and young, with respect. He was always first amongst the people of Israel everywhere. On the High holidays, and especially on Yom Kippur, when he went in front of the ark he was the one to begin the Kol Nidre, and until the end of the neila, he expressed his faith and ability as a cantor. Sometimes he would pray softly, sometimes in a loud voice. All the holy congregation, and especially the women, were pleased to see his shining face. We young ones talked a lot about his strength, which he demonstrated when standing at the bima for an entire day. Admirers could barely get him to agree to hand over his place and let someone else pray shachrit or minha, so he could rest a bit in preparation for musaf and neila. He usually rejected such offers. This was his domain and he was not going to give it to others. He alone will deliver our prayers up to heaven, and his throat never went dry. He was the epitomy of dignity and magnificence.
He reached his peak on Simhat Torah, when his Hassidic personality was allowed to fully express its charm, and hypnotise us all. It drew wven those who opposed religion and kept away from him on all other days of the year. Even the young ones, the adolescents who had tasted something of secularism and enlightenment, didn't have the strength to leave the pack of followers that went after him from house to house and received the wonderful holiday foods, and recited the kiddush. We were especially drawn to singing in public and dancing in the street under the sky in high spirits and ecstasy. We all felt released from our individual plights, and were all in ecstasy. Sometimes this went beyond good taste and became a crude and wild carnival.
I remember once on Simhat Torah Mr. Bulba was half drunk. He went around town with his admirers who were even more drunk. They visited every home and family and brought the happiness of the holiday to them. Walking along, he would clap his hands, and throw his arms here and there in a whirling dance that developed out of nowhere. Everyone was singign the song 'vethar libeno le'avdecha beemet' was sung by everyone with growing enthusiasm. Suddenly what do I see, the rabbi's pupils are holding the horns of a cow that happened to pass by on the street. They're carrying it excitedly and forcefully to the rabbi's house so he can bless it with fertility and progeny. That's how the madmen explained what they were doing to the bystanders not yet caught up in the frenzy. The rabbi himself was clapping his hands, enjoying the wonderful presence of his group, and he himself was being led back to his home. Near his house his wife appeared running as fast as she could. She was a short thin woman with a heart of gold. When she understood what was happening, she spoke her mind: Israel what have you done? Have you gone completely mad? Without waiting for an answer she pushed him with her two weak arms into the house.
The third family that stands out is the Meniuks. The father Isaac Meir Meniuk of blessed memory came from Zoludzk. He was an Old World Jew and did not deviate from traditional life. He had a long wide beard that was gray and silver. His eyes protruded and expressed sharpness and good heartedness. I could not understand his decision to leave a flourishing business in Zoludzk, I wondered why he did it. In Rafalovka the Station he was the owner a wholesale grocery store for things like white and rye flour, and hard and soft sugar, pickled products, millet, kasha, and more. He imported and exported entire cars of merchandise on a daily base. How did he get to that? His older son Nathaniel, Sanya in Yiddish, and his oldest and capable daughter helped him, but in fact he was the sole worker who would bring and carry, buy and sell. I asked myself when I grew up how this wondrous Jew had such managerial skills? To take care of hundreds of merchants and shop owners from all over with such competence, how could he do all this calmly, clearly, and soberly. He would run around for entire days without ordering people around, convincing his clients with his logic and frankness. How did such a phenomenon develop in our area? He had no general or business education, he didn't manage his books in a modern way, and he developed this business on his own, which made him famous across the entire region. Indeed, he was a great man. He did all this under the cruel conditions of the harassment of the Russian regime. He didn't sit around doing nothing, and he wasn't vain and he laid a solid foundation not only for himself and his family, but also for the development and advancement of Rafalovka the Station. His two sons Nathaniel and Yehuda were blessed with the same skills as their father. They were entrepreneurs with vision, had a brilliant mind and acted with decency with their clients and other people. I was fortunate enough to know Isaac Meir Meniuk, because for a few years my father, Mr. Meir Grober of blessed memory, became Isaac Meir Meniuk's partner.
His personality and his family always charmed me. When the partnership broke up for reasons I don't exactly know, my father opened a wholesale business and became his competitor. Another enterprise like my father's wholesale business was established in the meantime by someone from the Gildengoren family. The competition became mixed with jealousy and a strong desire to make the other fail. An attempt was made to mediate between the three, but it failed and things stayed that way.
I was young and I couldn't accept the friendship turning into jealousy and hatred. I respected and appreciated the father and his sons, but God intervened as he usually does in an unsuspecting and surprising manner. After the two rivals passed away the fitting revenge came about. My brother Abraham Grober, who was younger than me, married Tova, Nathaniel Meniuk's eldest daughter. My sister Leah Grober married Bentsion Meniuk, the son. He was a talented fellow and excelled in particular in mathematics. He studied at The Technion in Haifa but he missed home so much that he returned to Rafalovka, married my youngest sister Leah and I am sure they would have both immigrated to Eretz Israel had the extermination not occurred. By the way, I was told that my in-law Bentsion was able to join a partisan unit and excelled in operations against the Nazi enemy. But one day before the Russian liberation, he was shot in the back by his Ukrainian co-partisans who were jealous that he was about to receive a decoration for his distinguished activities in the partisanka.
My heart bleeds for Bentsion.
I see the Berezniak family who came to us from the nearby village of Politsy. This was a family of peasant Jews who lived in nature for generations. They were strong and courageous, and spoke Russian and read Russian literature more than Jewish literature. Despite this, they were uncompromisingly devoted to the traditional way of life and they kept the customs of Israel to safeguard them against temptation. I remember the head of this noble family, Rabbi Mottel (Mordehai Berezniak of blessed memory) with his white patriarchal beard, full of kindness to people near and far, and tending to the congregation's needs. I remember when at the end of the first world war he charged me and my friend Yaakov Schnieder, later on Sarid, of blessed memory, to go out on a cold winter day with a horse-drawn cart to the district city Sarny. We were to pick up a package of food products that came from the American Joint in order to disperse it among the residents of the area, who depended upon it. I remember how he instructed us and told us how to keep safe in the forests and during the nights. How glad he was when we returned safe after successfully accomplishing what he told us to do. The three of us distributed what we had brought in an equitable manner, giving it in particular to families with many children. I looked in his face, he was truly pleased about doing this good deed, for having been able to provide some food for the hungry children of Israel.
I remember his eldest son Hershel Berezniak, a handsome and impressive man. He used to help out people who had to fight for their rights as citizens, and to do so would speak his good Russian. Many times he was able to foil people with bad intentions.
I remember his second son Moshe Berezniak, who stood his ground and was decent and if needed was not afraid to use his fists to protect a Jew. Where are the rest of the children of Mordehai Berezniak? Most of them died in the Holocaust, the rest are alive, but where, in Israel or the Diaspora?
I have no more strength to go on portraying other families from my memory, although all are equally important. I have a kind of mystical feeling that those I didn't mention are looking at me with angry accusing eyes. Why didn't you mention us? I can see the Rosenfelds, the Grobers, the families of the white David and the black David.
Zuliar my dear friend where are you? My Lord I can't stand before their holy and just rage, I bid you farewell my brothers and sisters with a heavy feeling of guilt. Why was I privileged enough to stay alive?
I would go back and forth between the town of Rafalovka and Rafalovka the Station during my teenage years. When I first began studying, I did it in the traditional way. Later on when my family settled in Rafalovka the Station, I had what is called a modern education. I was part of a homogenous select group, and after this modern education fell apart (as I will later on recount), I went back to Rafalovka the Town. In the end I enjoyed both traditional and modern education systems.
I will never forget my first day of studying. I was about three years old and I remember this as a mixture of overwhelming anxiety and marvel.
I remember my mother takes me to heder, clean and combed, prepared for the experience I was anticipating.
The door opened and we entered a long narrow room with long tables crisscrossed with knife marks, and next to the tables were wooden benches that had no backs or arms. Toddlers were gathered around screaming and shouting, moving their fingers along alphabet books with weird drawings letters, punctuation marks and words.
The rabbi ran back and forth around the room, excitedly singing the letters of the alphabet. I looked at the short rabbi, his face was pale and he had long side-locks, his hands and legs were somewhat crooked. My mother told me later that he was sick and had arthritis. He would wave a split leather strap with one hand and with the other he would check whether the pupils were pointing at the right letter. I couldn't help but notice how the rabbi slaps one of the kids with the strap right on his hand, singing to him while he does so.
I was terrified, I wanted to leave immediately no matter what. I grabbed my mother's dress and dragged us by force towards the door, shouting Mama, let's go away, I don't want to stay here. But suddenly something magical happened and I forgot my bad feelings. A rain of candies and small cakes began floating down in the room and the band of children, seeing this, jumped up from their places and grabbed the loot. There were kids on the tables, on the benches, on the floor, their hands and legs spread out, furiously rushing to get to the candy first. The rabbi, who sensed my confusion, took advantage of this once in a lifetime event and came up to me and gave me a sympathetic punch in the face and mocked me: This is our angel of salvation, Michael the minister of Israel, whose name is like your name, who threw this candy from the sky to greet you on your first day in the heder. I don't remember if it was the rabbi's soft tone of voice that put me at ease, or whether it was the magical candy sent by the angel Michael who shared my name that enchanted me, or perhaps it was the wonderful sight of the kids who were grabbing, a kind of ceremony to make the bitter pill sweeter for novices like us. I was simply bought by this. In any event I let go of my mother's dress and calmed down. I was completely enchanted and surprised, I was full of interest. This sensation was split between horror and party, and this feeling accompanied me throughout the days of heder. I think I'm still caught in the whirlpool of contradictions between the good and the bad of this peculiar education.
We managed to catch on to reading after three years. I am envious of the Israeli-born children who are able to start reading after four or five months. This is probably because of the different system.
I spent three whole years in heder until I could overcome the obstacles and move on to the next phase, the Ivri, which meant joining the letters and syllables to read texts like the sidur and the prayers.
My father Meir Grober spent seven years in Canada, my grandfather of blessed memory, David dar Litvak, David the Lithuanian, was entrusted with my education. By the way, the nickname David dar Litvak is derogatory, and relates to him being born in the Lithuanian Pinsk.
My grandfather decided to replace the melamed, since I was prepared to study Torah and Russian.
Eliezer Murik was my second melamed. His sons and daughters who built their home here were privileged enough to bring him to Israel at the end of his life. He was clean and neat and was considered a learned-man of the Torah, who was never corrupted, which was a great honor in those days. He was pleasant with his students and knew how to listen to everyone, even the youngest of his pupils, without a strap and without rebuking. In short, he was a natural pedagogue. It's a pity that he wasn't more knowledgeable because then he would have really been considered an excellent teacher. He taught me Torah and first prophets with the interpretation of Rashi, he taught me calligraphy, and dictation, and he also taught us some algebra, although he wasn't very effective with this subject.
I remember when I came to my parents' home, after they had settled in Rafalovka the Station, they were sorely disappointed to see how far behind I was in the multiplication tables because I had an excellent grasp on adding and subtracting. My father looked for the reason for my failure and decided that the teacher taught the students this high mathematics in a mechanical manner, without the corresponding explanations. After my father showed me this and gave me a few exercises, I began excelling in the multiplication tables and division, and the problem was solved.
I have the best, the most positive memory of the excellent teacher, rabbi Hershel, whose heder could be considered reformed. There we used literary-cultural textbooks that had entire chapters on geography and general history. I especially remember the book on Hebrew grammar. Between minha and maariv he used to tell us about the new world as he had come to know it from the Hebrew paper ha-Tzfira which he would sometimes borrow from Mr. Shtienberg of blessed memory.
I can safely say that this excellent teacher who taught us Bible, gemara, grammar, and a little general education gave us the foundation of our Hebrew culture. He did all of this with his students, who were a select group of the most talented and studious pupils from Rafalovka the Town.
In short, when I come to summarize the education we got in the town of Rafalovka, during the first decade of the 20th Century, I can say that the heder gave the talented and studious pupils a satisfactory traditional Jewish education. But as for general education, the language of the state and the European secular way of life, teaching was far behind. We were far behind other places, and especially cities, where Hebrew and general education swept the best Hebrew youth, for better and worse.
Close to my bar mitzva I bade farewell to my education in Rafalovka the Town because my parents decided that I had had enough traditional holy studies and that I should now acquire a general education, especially in Russian. This was so I could speak the language of the state and converse with the Jewish intelligentsia, a language that promised the opportunity to advance in the liberal professions. My parents went along with the rising tide of secularization. My father did say from time to time that when I grow up he would want to send me to Gymnasia Herzlia in Jaffa that had just opened. He yearned for both Jewish and general education, but this dream was never realized because of the difficulties encountered during the world war. We had to run away to neighboring towns and we became refugees. After speaking to some of the progressive parents mentioned earlier many people adhered to the ideal of a secular, humanistic and general education.
A select group of pupils gathered, a modern teacher was invited and given a high salary and he began teaching us general education in Russian. But it soon became clear that this modern teacher, who was shaved and dressed in an elegant suit and spoke the language of the state very well, was also a drunk and smelled like one. It was difficult to study in such a half-drunk atmosphere. His voice was sometimes not clear. Discipline became loose and I myself was served with a slap on the face. After I recovered from this slap I gathered my books and ran away. My parents tried to convince me to go back to school because they had already paid a high fee, in addition to other reasons. But their attempts to convince me failed until the teacher himself came to appease me and we made up to our mutual satisfaction. I returned to class. The modern teacher did curtail his drinking during class hours but he became arrogant and would mete out severe punishments to students. For instance, one student who used to come by foot from the nearby village and was routinely late because of the long arduous way through the snow and rain, was punished and made to kneel on the floor covered with grains of salt. He knelt like that all day until the end of the day when the teacher was kind enough to get him back on his feet. He was full of blood from his many sores. The boy lay sick in bed for many weeks. This educational system was becoming too much. The parents were also shocked and they sent the teacher away, to our great satisfaction.
The class was interrupted and I returned to Old Rafalovka to study at my grandfather's house, where, like my classmates who had no relatives in the towns, I did nothing for some time and stopped studying. I thought modern education had gone bankrupt but life continued. Each one of this group found a way to develop in the new spirit.
Somehow we each got a better knowledge of Russian and then Polish. My friend Yaakov Sarid (Schnieder) and his wife Dubal (formally Grober) of blessed memory established and taught at the Tarbut School in the town for the first three years of its existence. Two years following their service, my wife Miriam (Izekson Merdoshkovitz) and I replaced them. Afterwards came other teachers I didn't know.
The value of the school can not really be described. It was decisive in shaping the character of the local youth. Students came from near and far. It also influenced people in spreading Zionism. It made the Zionist vision everyone's vision, with a few exceptions. The Keren Kayemet le-Israel Fund was full because of the school. Teachers gave Zionist speeches, the youth began joining hachshara in preparation for the kibbutz and immigration, and pioneer Zionist projects such as gathering work tools for the working Eretz Israel flourished. A Hebrew Polish library was built near the school for teenagers and adults.
Before the establishment of the Tarbut School there were a few attempts to hold study groups:
The Tarbut Schools were successful in promoting Hebrew education in eastern Poland and eastern Europe between the two world wars. This happened despite the opponents of the Hebrew Zionist ideology such as Shlomey Emuney Israel [anti-zionist ultra-orthodox religious groups, R. Z.], the Bund, the Yiddishites, and the like.
From time to time there were wall journals, and there were interesting historical and literary mock trials. I remember the trial of Spinoza. The prosecutor, the advocate and the witnesses were all students, some of whom live in Israel today. During the years there was an attempt to open a Hebrew club with a reading hall of Hebrew journalism from Poland and Eretz Israel. Sonya Grober will probably testify to this because she was the first to attend the club. Berl Smoliar volunteered to run the place. Unfortunately, it shut down for financial reasons. The school was the soul of the town and was much admired by residents. It is no doubt that thanks to the school, the survivors were able to integrate into Israeli society with relative ease.
Among our students were Bart Joseph, a Hebrew school principal in the United States; Bril Isaac, an educator and teacher and a school principal in Haifa; Gadish (formally Grober) Joseph, the mayor of Acre and formerly the assistant to the mayor of Jerusalem; Rachel Gilboa (Grober), a lecturer in the teachers' seminar, and a teachers' consoler; and Aryeh Pinchuck, chairman of the Aawyers Association in Tel Aviv.
At the end of this chapter I would like to emphasize again that, thanks to the Hebrew education in the Tarbut School in Rafalovka the Station, we were able to put our forgotten town in eastern Poland (western Ukraine of today) on a considerably high national and pedagogical level, and for that we are proud.
Rifka Oyra née Grober
Before WWI Rafalovka was no more than a train station, in a vast forested country. Two or three times a day, trains would stop at the station carrying people, wood and cattle. The livelihood of the small towns in the area was based on wood and cattle. A few families lived near the station. Some of them didn't even live there on a regular basis. And some were Jewish.
At the end of WWI we no longer felt secure and could no longer be na.ve as we were before the war, and here's a tale that will demonstrate this.
On the eve of the war, my father went to Russia to close a big cattle deal that earned him a large sum of money.
He set out for Zoludzk with the bundle of money. At one of the stations on the way, people said the war had broken out. Father, who was afraid to lose his money, preferred not to carry it around with him, and rushed to one of the Russian banks to deposit it for safekeeping. Father received a kind of checkbook in exchange for the big bundle of bills so that he could draw his money at the end of the war. The checkbook was brought home for safekeeping. In the event that our home would be exposed to the horrors of the war, it was sown to a belt that my big sister wore, and she carried this treasure throughout the entire war.
The war ended, the government changed, but the book was still tied to my sister's waist because we couldn't have conceived that because of the war the connection between the money waiting for its owners in the Russian safe, and the checkbook representing its value in the Polish territory would become severed.
Under Polish Rule
The Polish government and the new population brought about a decisive change in the town's character. Many families left the nearby towns and settled in Rafalovka. Each built his home according to his ability. Each home had a small adjacent lot where fruit trees and a vegetable garden were planted.
The lumber business was renewed and Jews from Warsaw and Lvov came to do business with the Jews. Sawmills were opened in the town and they provided work for the whole population. Boardinghouses also opened and enabled people to earn a living. The encounter between the Jewish population and the Polish population in Rafalovka and the area was tense and people still remember the fear.
The Problem of Education
Most Jewish families had many children. The Polish law said that the children must be sent to a Polish school.
The parents had to pay a fine for each kid they didn't send to school. Because the Jews didn't want to send the children to Polish schools, many families organized and established a private Hebrew school and brought Jewish teachers from the big cities. In order for this project to continue undisturbed, the richer Jews bribed the Polish school principal. Later on they got a permit for the Hebrew Tarbut School.
Zionism in Eretz Israel
The Jewish population was quite liberal. Each family practiced Judaism at home. On Saturdays and holidays they would meet at synagogue. Most Jews defined themselves as Zionists, and supported the left or the right parties and voted in the elections for the Zionist Congress.
In 1924 a branch of the Halutz movement opened in our town. Some of the youth went out on training exercises, especially to places where one could work in sawmills. Afterwards they got certificates and emigrated to Eretz Israel.
Leaving home meant excitement. Each time a group of boys and girls set out, the whole town gathered at the train station, and you could sense the pain and the hope.
I remember a special feeling from the day our first sister (not the oldest) set out from the train station to Eretz Israel. I should say that amongst those leaving the town, some went to America, Argentina and Canada. The youth wanted to leave Poland and as quickly as possible.
We were 11 kids. My mother and father also came from large families but most of them perished in the Holocaust.
Isaac Meir and Zlata Meniuk, my mother's parents, reached Rafalovka before WWI with their 8 children. This family was one of the first 5 families to settle in [New] Rafalovka. My mother Batya married Shlomo Yaakov Grober (my father). The Meniuk family was very rich. They had storerooms for food, clothing and other products.
We are 9 children from our family who immigrated to Eretz Israel. Haya immigrated first in 1925, then myself and Sonke248 in the illegal immigration in 1932.
During the next five years, 6 more brothers and sisters immigrated. Duba, my sister who immigrated during those years, came with her husband Yaakov Sarid (Schnieder) and her daughter Haddasah. They had established the school in Rafalovka mentioned earlier. Our parents, our brother Moshe, sister Hindel, her three children and husband Yehosha did not make it.
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