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The Jews of Ratno in the Last 70 years (cont.)

Municipal and Social Institutions

A bank of commerce was founded in the city already in 1912. One of the founders, in whose house the bank was housed, was Berl Rajsky. The second was Moshe Eilbaum. The bank treasury was composed of shares that were sold to merchants, and from the grants and loans from the national bank. The bank was an important factor in commercial and trade life in the town, and came to the assistance of small-scale merchants. The bank ceased its activities during the war. Only in 1921, under Polish rule, was a new bank founded in Ratno. This time it was called the People's Bank. It was one of 300 cooperative banks centered in Warsaw, with branches throughout Congress Poland.

The first president of the bank was the important citizen Mottel Tiktiner. Later, Moshe Eilbaum served in that role. Yitzchak-Hirsch Held, a young Maskil and true lover of Zion, was appointed as the bank director, a position that he held until the Holocaust. The mathematician Yaakov-Chaim Markuza was the treasurer, and Itzel Karsh and Yisrael Chayat (who survived the Holocaust and arrived in the Land) were the secretaries. The merchants and tradesman, who were members of the bank and who each had to purchase a share of approximately 100 zloty, sent delegates to the committee. These representatives established the size of the loans, and stormy debates broke out among themselves regarding this matter. Here is the place to note the names of several of them: A. Berg, M. Blatt, Y. Kanfer, Abba Fuchs, Yisrael-Yaakov Chayat, M. Shuster, as well as the writer of these lines.

The civilian arm -- the town council -- began to operate in 1924-1925. The mayor was appointed by the government, but the rest of the members of the town council were elected by the Jewish, Ukrainian and Polish citizens; for despite the economic and political persecution, the right of democratic representation was retained in Poland. Since the Jews formed the majority of the population of the town, they were given the vice-mayorship and the right to elect five representatives to the town council. During that time, Mendel Klein served as the vice-mayor, and our representatives were Yisrael-Itzi Baion, Yitzchak Marsik, Yitzchak Grabov and Wolf Brener. Our elected representatives regarded their job as a national mission, and always demonstrated dedication, faithfulness and great skill in protecting the interests of the Jewish citizens of the town.

During the years 1936-1939, when the anti-Semitic agitation was at its peak, the rights of the Jews in Ratno were also restricted. The right of the vice-mayorship was removed from them, and the number of representatives were reduced from five to three. However, the Jews succeeded even then, albeit after a prolonged battle, to maintain representation in the house of representatives of the Kowel district, which numbered 32 members. Our representative, Yitzchak-Hirsch Held, was the only Jew in this house, but his voice was heard loudly, and his speeches in Polish left a great impression and were published in the “Koweler Shtime” and “Glos Kowla” (Voice of Kowel) newspapers.

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With the new developments that began in the lives of the Jews, unique Jewish problems came up in the realm of religion, society and livelihood, demanding novel solutions. For this purpose, a communal structure was founded in 1929. The communal leadership was elected for three years and composed of eight members and a president. Ben-Zion Steingarten was elected as president, and the members were Reb Yitzchak Cohen, Liber Karsh, Yitzchak Grabov, and others. The president of the second cadence was Liber Karsh.

The community was recognized by the government and even given the permission to be assisted by the police. Many of the members of the communal council were appointed as members of the Judenrat during the Holocaust period.

For the needs of the community, a special levy was imposed upon all the Jews of the town and its environs, including the town of Wierzba. The secretary of the community, Aharon-Yankel Ginzburg, would make the rounds to all the settlements in order to arrange their affairs and collect the levy.


Bottom row (from right to left): Reb Fuchs-Shapira (perished), Y. Chayat, P Yunevitz.
Second row: unidentified, Nota Roizkes (perished), P. Droog of blessed memory.
Top row: A. Y. Ginzburg (perished), P. Marin, L. Shapira.


The Revival of Culture and the Natural Movement in the Town

Despite the political, social and economic persecution, and despite the

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disparagement and the persecutions, of which the Jews were victims in all places in Poland, it was specifically at that time that the cultural and spiritual life began to flourish throughout the Jewish nation. The Jews felt as if within the stormy era of breaches, deep wells had suddenly been opened that flowed with bounty and overflowed the banks. Youthful, pleasant forces grew within the nation, causing a flow of new blood through the arteries of culture and spiritual creativity. Waves of innovation came to the town as well, and left their imprint on all areas of life.

The founding pillars of this renaissance were the schools. Even before the war, during the years 1912-1913, the cornerstone of modern education was laid in the town. The teachers would teach their children in the house of one of the students or the teachers. The students sat on benches around a large table and would listen to the teacher's class, which would last an hour or two. The class included the writing of business or personal letters, and Russian at the tip of a fork -- the Russian alphabet, writing of addresses, and the like. On Thursdays, the class was dedicated to arithmetic, focusing on the four operations.


Avraham Telson, one of the
first teachers and Maskilim


During those years, a young professional teacher named L. Wahl, arrived in Ratno from Liubsiai, Lithuania. He rented a well-lit room, prepared tables for the students and even hung a board on the wall. According to all opinions, his school was the first of the Hebrew schools. He had few students, but this was a certain beginning. A year later, a true school teaching Hebrew, Yiddish, and Russian opened in the town. The teachers were Avramche Telson, the writer of these lines, and the student Nina Gwirtzman.

In 1916, Noach Kotzker came to us from Minsk. He was an excellent teacher in Hebrew language and literature, and a gifted orator. With him, a new era in teaching and cultural activity began.

After the world war, still during the time of Ukrainian rule, the school of the Hassidim of Trisk that that was housed in the Shtibel moved to its own large house on Holijanka Street. Kotzler would lecture before audiences in that house on Sabbaths and festivals with enthusiastic orations demonstrating wide knowledge on many topics. As a result of his activities, Zionist activities increased, and the idea of the Jewish National Fund penetrated to almost every home. During that era, after the Balfour Declaration, a representative of the Jewish National Fund arrived from Warsaw and called a meeting for the establishment of Keren Hayesod. Even the sworn opponents of Zionism such as Reb Ben-Zion Steingarten, David-Aharon Shapira, Yaakov Pressman and Liber Karsh came to this meeting. Of course, the Zionists were the first to sign on. The meeting took place in the house of Mrs. Doba Cohen.

When the Beis Midrash was rebuilt atop its ruins, the school moved to the balcony of the house. Its number of students grew, and the number of teachers grew to four: Kotzker, Wiskovsky, Hertzman and Cohen. The Poles disrupted the work of the school and almost succeeded in closing it definitively. Only through great efforts, did some of the youths of the region receive a permit to open an integral school named Tarbut, which taught in both Hebrew and Polish. The Tarbut School opened in 1926, and, at the end, had approximately 200 students in seven grades. The teachers Kotzker, Bokser, and Zagorski

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taught Hebrew, and the principal Riva taught Polish. Eliezer Held served as the secretary of the school, who through her great dedication gave a great deal for the development of the institution.


Among the piles of straw and hay


The Library and Youth Organizations

The library of Shpilman burnt down during the terrifying days of the first year of the war. After the war, a small library for the students was opened. During the 1920s, Noach Cohen, Yaakov Rog and Velvel Rajsky founded the scouting organization in the town. In addition to the ordinary national sporting activities, the scouts began to found their own library. The scouts went from house to house, collecting donations of books from the householders. They also organized various activities, such as the sale of flowers at the fairs, and the like. Eliezer Rajsky, who used to travel to Warsaw for business purposes, would bring several bundles of Yiddish and Hebrew books. Thus, the foundations of the central library was laid with the assistance of many donors. The library was housed in the house of Yaakov Avrech on Krywa Street. The teachers of the town lectured there about various topics to the young readers. After some time, the students' library joined the central library, and the number of readers grew. The library activists, Shlomo Avrech and Berl Ides, carpenters by profession, obtained boards from various householders and built shelves for the books, and tables and desks for the readers who came to read the books. After some time, the library grew, and Avrech's house was too small to hold it. The library moved to a large room in the house of Eliezer Fuchs on Holijanka Street, not far from the bridge. Debates, discussions and lectures took place there, and were even brought in from the large cities.

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A drama club, which performed several interesting performances, existed under the auspices of the library.

During the late 1920s, meeting places for youth already existed under the auspices of the various parties. The youth would gather together in these places during the evenings to listen to lectures and presentations and to participate in debates. The town literally bustled like a hive. At times, debates between the different groups were organized, reaching at times to the point of fist fights. The battle for hegemony between the Beitar and Shomer groups was especially interesting. These two organizations battled with all their might for the soul of the youth. The uniforms, wooden swords and impressive military gait of the Beitar people attracted the hearts of the youth, and their anthem, “With the might of the arm and weapons, we will liberate the homeland!,” was on all lips. To the dismay of the Beitar men, the girls turned their backs on them. Their hearts were not attracted by the military ceremonies, and they preferred Hashomer. Therefore, the Shomer attracted the majority and the best of the youth.

I recall the scandal that broke out in the town during the several-day excursion to the areas around the town that organized by Hashomer. The parents, especially the parents of the girls, opposed this and protested against Hashomer and its counselors. Can it really be, they complained, that the girls will spend days and nights together with the boys without adult supervision? A battle between parents and children broke out in every house. Finally, the children won, and they went out on the excursion despite the ban.

The Hashomer youth were especially active during the elections for the Zionist congress, but they were unable to vote due to their age. However, they did everything to ensure that their parents would purchase shekels[16] and vote in accordance to the political leanings of the children.

WIZO (Women's International Zionist Organization) also set up a headquarters and did a great deal to encourage the activities of its members. The first president was the prominent woman Gitel Karsh. Tzvi Kotzker was the secretary and Rachel Eilbaum was the treasurer. The menders of rank were Breindel Gasko, Merida Perlmutter, Suska Zizok, Sheindel Zisok, Rachel Held, and Gitel Konishter. The WIZO organization did a great deal on behalf of the efforts of the Zionist organization and provided important support, including financial, to the Tarbut School. Rozman, Kotzker and Lewin, teachers of the Tarbut School, gave speeches on the role of WIZO. Meetings took place every Sabbath in the large, well-lit hall of the Tarbut School. The activities of the organization were many, and everyone who came into contact with these dear women sensed the strong pulse of nationalism as well as warm humanity that beat within them. Many of the Zionist youth went out to Hachshara camps. Fine parties were organized for the youth who set out for the Land of Israel. They were sent off with copious blessings.

The description of life in the town would not be complete if we did not mention the small group of youth who separated from the Zionist organizations. These youths, who went astray in ideological complexity, finally joined the extreme left which opposed the unique existence of the Jewish nation and claimed that the Communist revolution would bring a full solution to the Jewish problem. This group also opened a school that served its ideology;

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however, due to the Zionist winds that were dominant in Ratno, as well as the opposition of the government, it did not last long.


The Eve of the World War and Destruction of the Town

During the last years, rapid development took place in the town. A new road was paved through the marshes, through which the residents would trample during the autumn and the spring. An important citizen, Mottel Klein, bought in a very powerful electric dynamo that provided electricity for the entire town. Many of the householders lit up their houses with electric light. The town itself installed several electric lamps on the streets.

However, the economic situation in the town became more precarious, and the number of people requiring assistance continually grew. Various agencies were involved with the salvation activities. The People's Bank did a great deal to continue the economic activities. Many donations were distributed amongst the residents, and the charitable fund distributed interest free loans to the poor. However, these conditions not only pervaded in Ratno. The situation of the Jews throughout all of Poland deteriorated rapidly. The government tightened the pressure and aggravated the means of pressure. The Polish hooligans showed their true face in Przytyk, Czestochowa, Brisk, and many other places. The Jews felt as if the earth was burning under their feet.

Tidings of Job also arrived from the world at large, and the news of the agreement that was signed between Russia and Germany literally froze the blood. The Jews saw the thickening clouds and their historical sense told them that they would be the scapegoat.


A “mizrach” poster


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Reb Fishel Held

One of the interesting personalities was Rev Fishel Held, or as they used to call him, Fishel Sara-Leah's. He was a scholar who was gifted with a phenomenal memory, like the walking encyclopedia of Ratno. During the Czarist era, he served as an assistant to the local government appointed rabbi, whose seat was in Kowel. Birth certificates, marriage certificates and death certificates were all in Reb Fishel's domain. He was expert in everything that took place in Ratno during the eras, and anyone who needed any information about yahrzeits, birthdays, or the like knew that there was an authoritative address for such -- Reb Fishel. He was a lean, weak man, hunchbacked with a small gray beard and dreamy eyes. He wore a long Hassidic kapote and a Hassidic hat. He was expert in all the laws during the Czarist rule. After Ratno transferred to the Poles, he purchased a Polish-Russian dictionary and easily became accustomed to the new regime with its rules. In the book on Ratno that was published in Argentina, Y. Konishter wrote that he was an enthusiastic Trisker Hassid; but his son, Eliezer, claims that he was not a Hassid at all, but rather that he revered Reb Yitzchak Ber Levinson (known by the acronym Riba”l), one of the leaders of Haskala literature, quoted him at every opportunity, and even had his picture displayed in an honorable place in his home.


Fishel Held and his family


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He related to his official role with full seriousness, and was stringent with the law. However, along with this, he was a sentimental type, who had mercy on every human being. The crying of a baby would bring him to emotionalism. He would verbally attack those youths who did not hesitate to physically maim certain of their limbs in order to get out of army service. When the First World War broke out and many Jews of the town awaited the arrival of the Germans as if literally the Messiah, Reb Fishel was the only Jew in town who hoped for a Russian victory. He fulfilled that which is said, “One should pray for the welfare of the government.” During all the debates that took place in the town marketplace of the shtibel, he strongly defended the Russian stance and claimed that the Jews were in for tribulations from the Germans.

His house was open wide to people who came to take counsel with him on various matters, in particular to those who needed to write requests to the official authorities. One could hear various stories from Reb Fishel about the history of Ratno, and he even wrote a booklet in Hebrew on this topic, which was translated into Yiddish by one of the youths of the town, Ginzburg. (Some sections of that booklet are published in this book.) On Tisha Beav, when the residents of Ratno would visit the old cemetery in accordance with custom, Reb Fishel would go at the head and tell stories about the deceased. His words aroused great interest among the youth, who thereby made some sort of connection with the past of their town.

He had three sons, Berl, Yitzchak Hirsch and Eliezer. The first two perished along with him during the Holocaust. The third, may he live long, made aliya to the Land of Israel as a pioneer (chalutz) of the General Zionists at the beginning of the 1930s. His son Berl continued the work of his father, also wrote requests to the court, and had a command of the Polish and Russian languages.


A Polish Independence Day celebration


Translator's Footnote

  1. The token of membership in the Zionist Movement. Return

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