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[Page 105]

Natives of Smorgon Serving
as Rabbis in Other Communities

Translated by Jerrold Landau

Rabbi Shlomo the son of Rabbi Shimon

In the year 5542 (1782), we find the Smorgon native Rabbi Shimon, the son of the eminent rabbi and Hassid Rabbi Shimon, may the memory of the righteous be a blessing, roaming through various Jewish communities of Germany to collect funds for his journey to the Holy Land. In the interim, he spent some time in Altona and Hamburg. He published the book “Rules of Oaths and Laws of Business” of Rabbi Hai Gaon, which had been published more than 200 years previously, and “cannot be found presently.”

There is an approbation at the beginning of the book from the Gaon Rabbi Rafael HaCohen, the head of the rabbinical court of the two united communities. Many years earlier, Rabbi Rafael had served as the rabbi in the Lithuanian cities of Minsk, Pinsk, and Vilkomir[1]. In his approbation, he describes the author as “the wonderful scholar, the son of the Rabbi and Hassid from the community of Smorgon, Lithuania.”

We do not now whether he succeeded in making aliya to the Land of Israel or remained in Hamburg as one of the “Polish” scholars.

 

Rabbi Pesach the son of Rabbi Moshe HaCohen

Rabbi Pesach HaCohen was a principal student of the Gaon Rabbi Aryeh Leib Shapira, who appointed him as a Moreh Tzedek in his rabbinical court. Later, he served in that position during the period of the rabbinate of the Gaon Chaim Avraham of Smorgon.

He died in the year 5635 (1875) at the age of 84.

In his book of memoirs, Rabbi Tzvi Shimshi recalls being told in his youth that Rabbi Pesach HaCohen received five silver coins from his father, Reb Reuven Yisrael, as his redemption[2].

 

Rabbi Avraham Moshe Halperin

Rabbi Avraham Moshe was born in the year 5578 (1818) in Vosiliškis. He was a descendent of the rabbi, kabbalist

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Tzadik, and Hassid, Rabbi Moshe Ashkenazi from his father's side. He was a descendent of the Gaon Rabbi Yechiel Luria of Minsk, the author of the book “Sefer HaDorot.”

He spent more than 20 years in Smorgon immersed in Torah and Divine service. He married the daughter of Reb Moshe Nachum, an honorable man of the city. Rabbi Avraham Moshe served as a Moreh Tzedek without expectation of a salary, while his diligent wife managed a textile shop in the center of town. One of his daughters, Esther, married Reb Reuven Yisrael Shimshelevitch, the grandfather of Yitzchak Ben Zvi of blessed memory, the second president of Israel.

 

The Rabbi and Gaon Rabbi Moshe Danishevski

He was born in 5590 (1830) in Minsk. He died in 5670 (1910) in Slobodka, Kovno.

He served in the rabbinate of the city of Svir for 25 years, and for seven years in Altomorantz. He then became the honorable rabbi of Slobodka. In the year 5657 (1897), when the Yeshiva Knesset Beit Yitzchak was founded, Rabbi Moshe was appointed to its main leadership group.

In his book “Beer Moshe,” he offers words of blessing to his father-in-law: Zeev Wolf Vishniavski of Smorgon, “Where I stayed in his house, spending nights as days in the study of Torah for about ten years after my marriage.” He writes about his father-in-law, “A rabbi known for his Torah, righteousness, and great action for the sake of Torah.”

 

The Rabbi and Gaon Meir Feimer
(5594 – 5541 1834-1881)

Rabbi Meir Feimer was the son-in-law of the Gaon Rabbi Chaim Avraham Shapira. He was supported at the table of his father-in-law, the rabbi of Smorgon, for 12 years, as he studied Torah diligently. He left Smorgon in the year 5624 (1864) and was accepted as the rabbi of Slutsk to replace his father, who in his time was one of the primary students of the Gaon Rabbi Chaim when he founded the Yeshiva.

 

The Gaon Rabbi Rafael Shapira

He was born in Smorgon in the year 5597 (1837) to his father the Rabbi and Gaon Aryeh Leib Shapira, the rabbi of the city.

He studied with his father until the age of 15, and excelled in his sublime talents and wonderful diligence. He married the daughter of the Netzi'v (Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin), the head of the rabbinical court and Rosh Yeshiva of Volozhin. He assisted his father-in-law in editing his book “HaEmek Sheelah.”

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He began to deliver a class three times a week in that famous Yeshiva in the year 5625 (1865). He served in that position until the year 5641 (1881), when he was appointed as the rabbi of Novoaleksandrovsk. He gave his position in the Yeshiva to his son-in-law, the Gaon Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik, the son of the Gaon Rabbi Yosef Dov, the rabbi of Brisk.

In the year 5646 (1886), Rabbi Rafael accepted the rabbinical pot in Bobruisk (in the Misnagdic community). In the year 5659 (1899), he was called to the honorable position of head of the rabbinical court and Rosh Yeshiva and principal of the Yeshiva of Volozhin, when it was reopened after having been closed by the government. He served in this holy position until the outbreak of the First World War. He escaped to Minsk, and died on the 23rd of Adar II, 5685 (1925).

He excelled in his trait of quietness. His book “Torat Rafael” was published by his sons, the rabbis: Rabbi Aryeh Leib Shapira, head of the rabbinical court of Bialystok; and Rabbi Yisrael Isser Shapira, a resident of Tel Aviv.

 

Rabbi Shabtai Mordechai Feinberg

Rabbi Shabtai was born in the year 5610 (1850). He was the son-in-law of Avraham Brodna of Smorgon.

Rabbi Shabtai worked in hide production in Smorgon. In truth, however, his wife Ethel ran the factory, while he dedicated his time in Smorgon to Torah. He learned in order to teach. After the Shacharit service, he would deliver a lesson in Gemara. In the afternoon he taught the Code of Jewish Law, section Yoreh Deah, in the Kibbutz of the Perushim. He gave a class in Orach Chaim between Mincha and Maariv.

He was appreciated and beloved by all the people of Smorgon.

Later, when he lost his fortune, he was accepted as the rabbi of Mikailiškia. He served in this position for 23 years.

He died in Berlin in 5669 (1909), and was burned in the Adas Yisrael Cemetery of the Orthodox community in the capital of Germany.

Rabbi Yehuda Leib Gordin eulogized him in Smorgon.

His books “Afikei Maginim” and “Meshivat Nefesh” were published posthumously by his son.

The famous poet Abraham Sutzkever[3] was his grandson, the son of his daughter.

 

The Rabbi and Gaon Rabbi Shlomo Mordechai Brodna

Rabbi Shlomo Mordechai was born in Smorgon in 5592 (1832). His father was Reb Eliahu Leib Brodna (5576-5653 1816-1893), an honorable merchant. His mother was the daughter of the renowned Rabbi Aryeh Leib HaLevi Friedberg.

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At the age of 12, he studied in the Yeshiva of Volozhin, which was headed by the Gaon Rabbi Yitzchak, the son of the Gaon Rabbi Chaim, the founder of the Yeshiva.

Rabbi Shlomo Mordechai lived in Smorgon. His wife worked in business and he sat in the tents of Torah. The scholars of the city were among those who attended his sharp classes.

He served as rabbi of the community of Radoshkovichi for about ten years. In the year 5648 (1888) he became the rabbi of Stowbtsy, and continued in that post for 14 years. He returned to his hometown of Smorgon in the year 5662 (1902). He did not receive any position there. He dedicated himself to the study of Torah. He died on the 20th of Tammuz 5669 (1909).

His book “Ohel Shem” was published posthumously.

The third president of Israel, Zalman Shazar, describes him in his memoirs. His grandson is Broli.

 

The rabbi and Gaon Rabbi Mordechai the son of Yoel Kopelovich

Rabbi Mordechai Kopelovich was the son-in-law of Rabbi Eliahu Brodna. He dwelled in the tents of Torah for many years in Smorgon. He studied especially with his brother-in-law, the brother of his wife, the Gaon Rabbi Shlomo Mordechai, as well as with Rabbi Shlomo Slosch, who was at that time supported at the table of his father-in-law Rabbi Avraham Moshe Halperin.

He was appointed as the rabbi of Krasni, Vilna District, in 5638 (1878). He served there for approximately 50 years. He died on 3rdShvat, 5685 (1925).

He was very diligent, and excelled with the sharpness of his mind. He was described by the greats of Lithuania as a rabbi, a Gaon, righteous, and upright.

 

Rabbi Moshe Aharon Rabinovitch, one of the founders of Hadera

Rabbi Moshe Aharon was born in Smorgon in the year 5598 (1838) to his father, the rabbi and Tzadik Rabbi Yaakov the son of Rabbi Moshe, the head of the rabbinical court of Krivi. He was from the family of the great Rabbi Yeshaya the Blind of the Gramir family, one of the great wise men of Torah and teaching in Vilna.

He was ordained by the Gaon Rabbi Avraham Shmuel the author of the book “Amudei Eish” in Eišiškės. He also received ordination from the Gaon Rabbi Eizel Charif, the head of the rabbinical court of Slonim. He was appointed as rabbi of the town of Varakļāni, Vitebsk District. He stopped working in the rabbinate and came to Vilna, where he engaged in commerce and was successful. However, most of his interest was in Torah. He exchanged correspondence with questions and responsa in halachic matters with the greats of the generation.

Rabbi Moshe Aharon was an enthusiastic lover of Zion. When there was discussion about the founding of the Moshava of Hadera

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in Samaria, he registered as a member with full rights. He purchased a plot of land there, and invested his entire means in it. His vision was to settle in the Land of Israel as a farmer. However, his vision did not materialize, for he died suddenly in Vilna in the year 5657 (1897). He was eulogized by the Torah giants and heads of Chovevei Zion.

 

The Chofetz Chaim[4]

The Gaon and Tzadik Rabbi Yisrael Meir HaCohen [known popularly as the Chofetz Chaim] was in Smorgon in the year 5632 (1892).

One of the Chofetz Chaim's acquaintances, Rabbi Mordechai Bik of Eišiškės, lived in Smorgon.

The Chofetz Chaim was then busy preparing his book “Chofetz Chaim” for print. The book is based on the verse (Psalms 34: 14-15) “Who is the person who desires life, loves days to see good? Withhold your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit.” The book discusses at length “guarding the tongue” and emphasizes the seriousness of the sin of speaking bad about people, and spreading tales and slander.

The Chofetz Chaim, who lived in Radin, found the impetus to write a book on speech, with life and death under its control, from a dispute that broke out in that town against Rabbi Eliahu Margolis, who was a student of Rabbi Menashe of Ilya. In the heat of the anger, the disputants, of course, were not careful with their language, and the issued baseless accusations. The Chofetz Chaim kept back from the words of dispute and denigration that flew about without any sense of responsibility, and decided to write a book to warn against this severe sin.

The Chofetz Chaim came to Smorgon to complete his book and to give to the young man Mordechai Bik to copy over in clear script to make it easier for the typesetter.

The Chofetz Chaim came to Smorgon with his young son, Reb Aryeh Leib, and they were hosted in the home of Rabbi Chaim Ora's, the father-in-law of Reb Mordechai Bik, who was pious an upright in his deeds, and supervised the Gemilut Chesed [charitable fund] of the city.

The young man, Reb Mordechai, who was great in Torah and fear of heaven, was familiar with sickness. He died after a few years. The Gaon and Tzadik, the Chofetz Chaim, always remembered him with great grief.

 

Rabbi Shimon Mordechai the son of Yeshaya Dubinsky

From his mother's side, Rabbi Mordechai was a member of the family of the Gaon Rabbi Chaim, the founder of the Yeshiva of Volozhin. Born in that famous town Volozhin, he married a wife from Smorgon and lived there [in Smorgon] for many years. He would go to the two rabbis of the city: Rabbi Chaim Leib the Soœnicani and Rabbi Yehuda Leib Gordin. In Rabbi Gordin's book “Teshuvot Yehuda”, Torah novella of Rabbi Shimon Mordechai are included. Rabbi Shimon Mordechai was famous in the Torah world for his book Mashmoni (Vilna 5663 – 1903) in which he collects all the opinions of the early and latter sages on Tractate Eruvin, in the form of

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“An anthology of opinions on this difficult tractate, with their explanations and novella on every page, and including his own notes and novella.”

The Gaonim of the generation testify to the importance of that work with their approbations:

First, we should note the words of praise of the head of the rabbinical court of Smorgon, Rabbi Chaim Leib the Soœnicani, who notes that this book is a precious one of its genre. He also notes the sharpness of the author in Talmud and the early and latter rabbinical decisors. Along with this praise, the Rabbi of Smorgon also notes that this author had already been ordained by sages, Gaonim of the generation of past years, and “the halacha is taught as he states.”

Rabbi Rafael, the head of the rabbinical court and Rosh Yeshiva of Volozhin, who knew Rabbi Shimon already from the time when he was studying in that Yeshiva, writes about the author that “He enlightens the eyes of the studiers by gathering precious scattered lights in the commentators and responsa of the early and later rabbis. The notes and novella that the rabbi and Gaon added on his own demonstrate his sharpness and expertise in Talmud and rabbinic decisors, and are very pleasing in my eyes.”

Rabbi Yitzchak Blazer (formerly rabbi of Petersburg) writes in his approbation to this book that even though he refrains from giving approbations to new books, this one is different, since the author did a great thing in his work to define a path through this tractate, of which very few writers have written anything about. Now the reader will see the words of the early sages and latter sages anthologized together.

In his approbation to this book, Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski also stresses the special importance “For there are very few commentaries on the tractates of Eruvin, Nidda, and Yevamot, and the words of the sages that are meager in this place are rich in other places – so he has done well by gathering them like bundles of grain to the barn. Anyone studying and interested will find connections to purity in this composition.

The famous rabbis -- Rabbi Chaim Meir Noach Levin, Magid Meisharim and Moreh Tzedek of Vilna; Rabbi Zalman Sender Kahana Shapira, head of the rabbinical court and Rosh Yeshiva of Maltz (and later Krinki) refers to the author as “my friend and relative,” as does the Gaon Rabbi Eliezer Rabinovitch, rabbi of Minsk. Rabbi Eliezer also notes that, in addition to the novel ideas of his own that the author elaborates, Rabbi Mordechai includes an anthology from the books of our early and latter rabbis. He brings into the composition anything relating to the decision of law. This is a great benefit for the students, who will find everything prepared for them, in fine, enlightening words.

In this composition, the author discusses halachic matters related to the repair of eruvs. He includes correspondence with the famous rabbis: Rabbi Eliezer Simcha Rabinovitch, head of the rabbinical court of Kalwaria; Rabbi Yaakov Rabinovitch of Ponovezh; Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Maskil Le'eitan of Chasloviche; and Rabbi Mordechai Kopelovitch of Krasni.

In writing this composition, which is like a “Shita Mekubetzet” [An anthology of opinions] on Tractate Eruvin, the

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author from Smorgon required a rich Torah library. He found this in the famous Strashon Library of Vilna, which he visited often, as well as in the praiseworthy Torah library of the Gaon Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski.

 

Rabbi Shimon the son of Michel Suchkover

He was born in Lebedovo (district of Vilna), and was educated in the Yeshiva of Volozhin. He also studied in the Yeshiva of the Perushim in Smorgon, and got married there. He was one of the excellent students of the Kibbutz in Vilna, under the supervision of protection of the Gaon Rabbi Chaim Ozer, in which there were many young men with great talents. At that time, he rounded out his education with languages and general sciences. He became an expert in Hebrew translation, and gained fame as a well-known grammarian. He wrote the booklet “Hanetiyot VeHashemot” under the name of Sh. Shimoni, and also published monthly articles on issues of Hebrew grammar in the “Hasafah” Hebrew.

He did not earn his livelihood from Torah. Rather, he earned his living in Smorgon as an accountant in enterprises and factories. He was a refugee in Ukraine during the First World War. He later returned to a Poland that was broken and shaken. He no longer found his place in Smorgon, which was destroyed at that time, so he settled in Vilna. Since he was a modest, discreet man by nature, Rabbi Shimon Suchkover earned a meager livelihood by giving Hebrew lessons or functioning as an accountant in various businesses. The Gaon Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski recalled the younger days, and was almost the only one who concerned himself with his economic existence. He died at the age of 51 in the year 5686 (1926) in Vilna. A brief article of appreciation for this great man in Torah and wisdom was published in the “Dos Vort” Orthodox weekly in Vilna.

 

The Gaon Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook

During the period that Rabbi Gershon Tanchum lived in Smorgon – in the year 5643 (1883), a lad from Griva (near Dvinsk – Daugavpils), Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen the son of Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Kook, established his place of study in that city. He became known as one who frequented the Beis Midrash of that town, and was known by the name of his hometown [“Lad from Griva”]. This wonderful youth aspired to spent time in the Torah centers of Lithuania – as a place to perfect his studies. Later, he studied in the Yeshiva of Volozhin. He favored Smorgon as a place to actualize his study, since that town had a Torah atmosphere for anyone who aspired to such, and many local youths set aside times to study Torah in their town. There were groups of isolated Perushim, and especially expert Torah scholars from other places who were supported by their fathers-in-law in Smorgon.

The “Lad from Griva” succeeded in raising his standing in Smorgon, where he spent an entire year immersed in Torah and Divine service. This period of study was through his friendly relations with the young scholar Rabbi

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Gershon Tanchum, the son-in-law of the Gaon, head of the local rabbinical court, Rabbi Chaim Avraham Shapira. The spirit of innovative Torah ideas began to pulsate in Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook in Smorgon, and he succeeded in writing an entire composition of his novella, “Kinyan Daled Amotav.”

About 15 years after the lad from Griva had already become famous publicly as the rabbi of Bauska, Latvia, we know that his younger brother Shaul Chuna Kook set his place of study in the new Yeshiva of the Perushim in Smorgon, because he wrote his brother a letter of encouragement for choosing that place to ascend in his Yeshiva studies. In his letter, he reminisces about the time when he spent studying Torah in that city, in the following words: “The city in which I found my first path, a city filled with sharp and expert sages and scribes, G-d fearing who are concerned with G-d's Name, whose friendship broadened me and caused me to perfect my talents with greater strength. Its name and memory are etched on the tablet of my heart in love from the early period of my youth” (From the book “Azkara” in his interesting article about Rabbi Y. L. Fishman Maimon. “The annals of the Gaon Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook.) We can also add that when the lad Avraham Yitzchak returned to his parents' home in Griva from Smorgon, and then moved to nearby Dvinsk to get to know the Gaon, head of the rabbinical court of that town, Rabbi Reuven HaLevi Levin, who himself was a native of Smorgon – they had the opportunity to discuss the town of Smorgon, its general makeup, its scholars and students. Along with this, he extended to him a greeting from the head of the rabbinical court of Smorgon, Rabbi Chaim Avraham, the childhood friend of that great Gaon.


Translator's Footnotes

  1. Lithuania here refers to the broader sense of the area, rather than the boundaries of the present-day country. Return
  2. Referring to the redemption of the first born (Pidyon HaBen), in which five silver coins must be given to a Cohen (a member of the priestly group) as a redemption for a first-born son. Return
  3. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abraham_Sutzkever Return
  4. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Israel_Meir_Kagan Return

 


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Abridged autobiography

by Tzvi Shimshi (Shimshelevich) (1862-1953) (5623 – 5714)
Father of the president
Yitzchak Ben-Zvi of blessed memory

From the book “Zichronot” (Memoirs) by Tzvi Shimshi, Jerusalem 5698 (1939),
and “Megilat Yuchsin” (Family Tree), Jerusalem

Translated by Jerrold Landau

 

I was born in the city of Smorgon, Vilna District, on 15 Kislev, 5623 (end of 1862 according to the secular year). My parents were young, about 18-19 years old, when I, their eldest child, was born. Our family grew in honor with sons-in-law who were great in Torah and wise of heart, such as Rabbi Eliahu Chaim Meisel, the rabbi of the community of Łףdź; Rabbi Elyakim Shlomo Shapira, the rabbi of the community of Grodno; and others. My mother's family was proud of its own pedigree, for my maternal grandfather, Avraham Moshe Heilprin, was a descendent of the author of “Seder Hadorot[1] and the Kabbalist Rabbi Moshe of Ibya, a friend of the G'ra [Gaon of Vilna], and a descendent of Rashi – whose genealogy can be traced to King David in accordance with the determinations in “Seder Hadorot.”

My father occupied the respectable office of postmaster in the town of Voronovo, on the main road from Grodno to Lida. My mother and father, carrying along with my young brother who was still nursing, moved to their new place of residence. I, three years old, was left with my paternal grandparents in Smorgon.

I did not know my parents until I was seven years old. I only heard about them incidentally without great content.

I recall from my childhood that I called her [seemingly the grandmother] Mother Rachel. Her husband, Avraham, the teacher of young children, taught me the aleph beit, and the teacher Zecharia taught me Bible.

My father came and took me to him when I was six years old.

When I arrived at my father's house, there was already a teacher ready for me to teach me Bible, as well as Chumash with Rashi's commentary.

My first impetus toward reading Hebrew secular books came from the war between France and Germany in 1870-1871. At the end of the war, I could easily read the news from the battlefields in the HaMagid weekly and could provide highlights to the “Perushim” – i.e. the lads from the nearby area studying in the Beis Midrash.

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After the war, I did not suffice myself with reading “HaMagid”, and I began to inspect my father's bookcases. I searched through the bottom dwellers on the lowest shelves, and found Sefer HaYashar[2] and Josephus. I read them, and my eyes lit up. Additionally in the lower shelf of the bookcase, I incidentally encountered “Ahavat Zion” and “Ashmat Shomron” by A. Mapu. The first lines of Ahavat Zion captivated my heart, and in my eyes [view], the words were like an addition to the Bible stories that I loved.

When I was still a nine-year-old child, I founded a group called “Tiferet Bachurim” to purchase specific holy books that were collected by the members[3]. The members gathered together every Friday. They brought to the Beis Midrash a Torah scroll, books of the prophets, Megillot, the Talmud, Tur, and Code of Jewish Law, and bound all the torn books that were on the bookshelves of the Beis Midrash. In that way, I became known as a communal activist who functioned in good faith, so nobody accused me later when I founded a library for books of Haskalah.

When I was 12 years old, I began to study Russian reading and writing from a language teacher, but I did not take interest in this language until 1876, when the Russian-Turkish War broke out in the spring, and the appetite for news from the front gave me the impetus to read with care the government newspaper “Hamevaser HaVilnai.”

From the age of 15 to 18, I wavered between Torah and Haskalah. During those days, I merited to see the first fruits of my pen, my unripe writing, published in the newspapers “Ruski Yevrei” (the Russian Jew), and “Halevanon”.

When I turned 18, my father concerned himself with the future in saving me from army duty when my turn would come two years later. My brother was only two years younger than me, whereas the law only freed the older son from army duty in the event that his brother was four years younger. My father sent a notice to the army courts stating that a mistake was made with my age, and that in reality, I was already 20 years old.

I left my both parents home and the town at the age of 19, full of dreams and hopes for a bright future. My first stop was the city of Minsk. I found a good teacher and became a student of the eighth grade of the gymnasium. I dedicated myself diligently to my gymnasium studies. There was a large number of Jewish externs [students] in Minsk. The directors of the gymnasium and the examining teachers related to the students in a way that they would have no chance in passing the examinations. Therefore, they turned toward the cities of the south where the examinations were easier. That idea also inspired me to leave Minsk after a year of living there. I moved to Poltava, where I continued to study and prepare for the examinations.

The group of youths in Poltava responded to the call of Bilu: “House of Jacob arise and let us go!” Of them, only four took the leap of Nachshon and made aliya: Shalit, Cohen, Swerdlow, and his sister.

The rest of the members of the circle were obligated to help locally their brethren who were making aliya until they got set up

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in the Land, and then they too would make aliya. These were the first active members of Chovevei Zion. Their first activity was to send a delegate to the Katowice convention, where they banded together. All of the Chovevei Zion members got together and formed a single center.

At first, the aliya of the Bnei Zion group of Poltava took on the form of a charitable organization, with trustees who took upon themselves the task of collecting donations from like-minded people for the purposes of settling into the Land of Israel. I was accepted as a member of the Bnei Zion group by paying six silver rubles a year.

{Photo page 115: Tzvi Shimshi, the father of President Yitzchak Ben Zvi of blessed memory.}

Already that winter, in the year 5644 (1884), I entered the confidence of the committee and became an assistant to the secretary. After some time, when he left the town, I took his place as secretary of the Bnei Zion organization of Poltava for many years.

We issued raffle tickets. The price of each ticket was three and a quarter rubles. We were unsure of how to distribute them, for sending them by mail was dangerous. The members approached me and asked me to travel with the tickets to distribute them among the organizations in the cities throughout the country.

I went to Odessa. This was the time of the formation of the Bnei Moshe organization. We discussed the raffle. I went to Smorgon, where there were individual members of Chovevei Zion. While I was there, I gathered together approximately 30 people. They formed an organization, and they took half a series of tickets.

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In the summer of 5649 (1889), I traveled to Vilna on a mission from the committee to bless Reb Sh. Y. Fein on his 70th birthday, and Reb K. Shulman on reaching his literary jubilee.

Around that time, Reb Yehoshua Barzilai-Eisenstat came to our town to attract members to the Bnei Moshe organization. After that, we both traveled to Kharkov, where we set up a chapter of Bnei Moshe there as well. Also set up in our town were a Hebrew library, a modern cheder, and a girls' school for handicrafts and for the study of Hebrew. The committee set up a plan whereby four wealthy people from our town who knew each other would band together to purchase a plot of land and found a Moshava within five or six years. When everything was set up, the settlers would come to their plots. The committee and the members in charge of the purchase selected me and one of the shareholders, Mr. Dribin, to travel to the Land of Israel and purchase the land. We were given 4,000 silver rubles for the down payment on the purchase. The rest would be sent as we requested it.

I left Poltava on the day of Lag B'Omer, May 15 5651 (1891). I arrived in Nikolayev the next day at 8:00. I waited for about an hour on the deck of the Argonbat ship, travelling to Odessa. I turned over the money that was in my hands for the purchase of the lands to Dr. Pinsker in the presence of M. L. Lilenbaum, in exchange for a check to the active committee in Jaffa.

With great difficulty, after I almost had given up, I received a passport for travel abroad. I then arranged my Turkish visa easily and boarded the Austrian ship Midviza on 9 Sivan, travelling to Kushta (Constantinople). I and my travel mate from Poltava were lodged in third class. There were approximately 100 travelers there, all Jews heading toward the Land of Israel. In Kushta, we transferred to the Austrian ship Sturna, that set sail eastward. Our ship passed through the Dardanelles on 12 Sivan, and reached Izmir on 14 Sivan. The ship arrived in Beirut on 19 Sivan, and reached Haifa at 2:00 a.m. The boat set sail from Haifa at 4:00 a.m. The city of Jaffa could be seen in the horizon at 10:00 a.m.

I finally succeeded in making aliya and coming to the Land of Israel. I toured the land. When I returned to Jaffa from my tour, I found a letter from the committee of the organization in Poltava, stating that the article of Ahad Ha'am “Truth from the Land of Israel” melted the hearts of those who wanted to settle there, and they retracted their desire to purchase land. Therefore, I was to extricate ourselves from the purchase and return home[4].

I succeeded in visiting the Land of Israel again in the year 5665 (1905), 14 years after my first visit. I was in Haifa on the 10th of July. It had advanced significantly since the time I left it in the year 5651 (1891). I returned to Jaffa on July 14. I returned to my home in Poltava at the end of the month of August.

The world movement spread out primarily among the middle-class circles . There was no activity among the working ranks. That task was filled by Poalei Zion, headed by the young Zionists, members of the committee Borochov and Y. Ben-Zvi.

Poalei Zion walked hand in hand [agreed] with the committee on issues of Zionism as well as on many

[Page 117]

other questions. The joint work was especially noticeable during the times of the disturbances following the “honeymoon” of October 1905. News that the police were inciting the masses against the Jews, and helping the hooligans beat and pillage the Jews, arrived from places near and far. Then the members of the committee spoke with Poalei Zion about organizing a properly armed Jewish self-defense in our town, so we would be able to protect ourselves and not be like lambs to the slaughter. It is in fact thanks to the organized self-defense, our city avoided pogroms with their terrible disgraceful consequences.

The transgressions of the self-defense were elusive to the police, and they were unable to forgive their failure. They began to search for the defenders. The shadow of suspicion fell upon me. On June 28 (July 11)[5] 1906, a squad of police surrounded my house. The search lasted for approximately eight hours. The results were that they found guns, bullets, and other types of weapons in my son's room. In the coat of my eldest son, which he left behind when leaving the house, they found documents proving that he stood at the head of the Poalei Zion organization. They immediately informed my wife and I that we were under arrest. They hauled us to jail at midnight, and gave us over to the chief jailer. After they searched my clothing and checked my pockets in his office, they took me to an isolated cell and locked me in.

The writ of accusation was finally received in the fall of 1907. The four of us – I, my wife, my son, and my daughter – stood trial in January 1908 before a group of judges in the Kharkov district.

The trial lasted for two days. The verdict was issued to exonerate my wife and daughter and free them immediately, but to permanently deport me and my son to Siberia and have all rights stripped. From the court, we were immediately sent back to jail.

My only comfort was that my wife decided to travel with me, to help and to arrange things as a free woman in all matters that were forbidden to me as someone who was stripped of his rights.

In the morning of June 23 (July 10), they brought me to the clothing warehouse and ordered me to strip to put on prison clothes. I was given over to a squad of soldiers to take care of me. They handcuffed me, led me to the train, and seated me in a car full of prisoners, most of whom were bound at their hands and legs, as was the law for those sentenced to hard labor. They also brought my son to the car.

The journey of torment began. Tula, Samara, Krasnoyarsk, Irkutsk.

My wife arrived with a permit from the minister of the Poltava District to join the caravan of prisoners and to accompany me in my place of exile. According to an edict from the minister of justice, the Jewish exiles were allotted a place in the Preobrazensk District. In accordance with the edict, my name had already been listed in the list of deportees, and it was impossible to change. What was the situation in the place? It was 1,500 kilometers north of Irkutsk. Rumor had it that one eats little and sleeps a great deal there, but one does not rely on rumors. The Jews of Irkutsk who knew the place said that the region is a place of business and livelihood related to the plentiful animal hunting. The valuable furs were exported to the world market for a high price.

[Page 118]

The journey continued: My son and I traveled from Irkutsk to Aleksandrovsk by wagon. We left Aleksandrovsk on August 7. My wife joined me after an absence of two years[6]. We arrived in Zhigalovo on the Lena River. In Zhigalovo, we set out on large barges. We spent five days on our boat until a steamship met us and took us on board quickly. Those with families were permitted to transfer their seats from the barges to the halls of the ship.

We arrived in Kirensk – the chief city in a region with the same name. Preobrazensk, my destination, was in that region. The area of this region was similar to Germany and France combined, although there were very few populated areas scattered on the banks of rivers: a few here and a few there.

After a journey of eight days by wagon and twelve days by ship from Kirensk, we arrived in Chechyusk, from where started the sole road to the Preobrazensk Region, designated as the residence of the Jews. 135 Jews and five gentiles were given over to the commander of the region and transferred to our place of exile. The elder of the region in Chechyusk informed us that we were free to sail on the river and house ourselves wherever we liked until they would find sufficient horses to transport us to the edge of the Preobrazensk Region. From there, they would take us further on, until we reach the office of the command of that region.

My wife remained in Chechyusk until I returned. My son and I joined the final caravan, departing from the command office to go to Zbolok, the first village in the Tunguska River valley that surrounds the Preobrazensk Region. My son remained to live temporarily in Nepa. From Nepa, I and two others traveled by vehicle to Preobrazensk. When we arrived there at noon, we met with three of the exiles, who took us to the registration office so we can register our arrival in the book. The religious official, the elder of the region, the secretary, the police official, a public-school teacher, and the medic gathered in the office to greet us. All of them drank in our honor to the point of drunkenness, and we became good friends.

I decided to settle in the village of Moga and open a store there. A Jewish shopkeeper had lived there previously and succeeded in his business. He had died two years previously, and his widow liquidated the business and returned to her homeland of Poland.

The relationship between me and the farmers was very good. With some of them--the more progressive ones--I even became friends.

In 1913, at the conclusion of 300 years of Romanov rule, a Czarist edict was issued, proclaiming that the Czar had mercy upon all those who were sentenced to perpetual exile, and set the term of exile to ten years. The district officials had the right to change the status of those who had already completed five years of their term to the level of farmer, if they were fitting for this. Based on this, the registration office exonerated me without me knowing, and then officially informed me that they had registered me in the book of farmers. Thereby, I obtained rights to a parcel of the public land of the village.

[Page 119]

In the official document that I received, I was designated as a farmer in the Region of Preobrazensk, District of Irkutsk.

In the wake of the world war, all of Russia was in ferment [turmoil], and even the quiet, remote [town of] Tunguska was shaken up. I waited impatiently for the end of my exile in 1918. The day of my liberation came early due to the revolution of March 1917.

At the end of that year, I completed my accounts with my customers and liquidated my entire business. I left Tunguska at the beginning of 1918 with the hope of making aliya to the Land of the Patriarchs, to which my soul longed from the day that I began to have my own opinions. However, I encountered many obstacles and detours during my wanderings as I was returning from exile, for now the country was ruled by red, white, and green wild beasts[7] who desired blood and reward from oppression, and played with the lives of people.

The Lena River opened on the eve of Rosh Chodesh Sivan 5682 (1922). My wife, my daughter, and I set out to Kirensk on the first steamship. We celebrated the Festival of Shavuot in the village of Zhigalovo.

Very slowly, we made our journey on transport wagons in a caravan. After an eight-day journey, we arrived in Irkutsk on June 26. From there, we traveled by a train that wound through the interior of Russia. We crossed the Ural Mountains on July 16, and entered Europe, which I had left 14 years previously and did not believe that I would see again. We arrived in Moscow on July 23. We left Moscow on 13 Tishrei 5683 (1922), and passed through Latvia, Lithuania, Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia, and Italy. We finally arrived at our desired destination, the holy city of Jerusalem, on 17 Cheshvan 5683 (the end of 1922.

My son Aharon escaped from Siberia in 1909 and made aliya to the Land of Israel in the year 5670 (1910).

*[8]

He lived in the Land for 30 years. He merited to witness with his own eyes the establishment of the State of Israel, the burden of his soul for all his days.

The author died at an old age in Jerusalem on the eve of 26 Cheshvan 5714. He was about 91 years old when he died in 1953.


Translator's Footnotes

  1. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seder_HaDoroth Return
  2. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sefer_haYashar_(midrash) Return
  3. The implication seems to be that used books were collected by members perhaps as a way of recycling them. Return
  4. “Melted their hearts”—e.g. got scared. The phrase likely borrowed from the same term used in the Torah for what the report of the spies did to the Israelites. Return
  5. Appears to be a Julian-Gregorian translation of dates. Return
  6. The wife most likely got stranded in one of the towns during part of the journey and eventually rejoined two years later. Return
  7. The colors likely represent a number of factions: the czarist flag was red and blue. Return
  8. What follows is apparently the editor's note. Return

 

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