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[Pages 261-266]

All My Melameds

by Pesach Lerner

Translated by Shulamit Berman

Editor's notes: Pesach Lerner was born in Shumsk in 1901 to Malka (Roichman) and Moshe Lerner. In this article he describes the cheder (elementary school) he attended from 1904 to 1914. In pages 305-307 of this yizkor book, Lerner writes about developments in Jewish education in Shumsk from 1914 on. He immigrated to Eretz Yisrael in 1921. He founded the Organization of Shumskers in Israel. For more biographical information, see the translator's notes on page 199 of this yizkor book: http://www.jewishgen.org/Yizkor/szumsk/szu185.html#Page199.

Torah study was not compulsory in our region. Not in Russia, Poland, or in Shumsk either. But for some reason it was a kind of law[1] for our parents, “a duty of the heart” to teach their sons Torah – Bible, Gemara, and Poskim (the scholars who codified halakha or Jewish law). This law transcended many others and they sacrificed their lives and those of their children to observe it. They observed it even if they had to deprive themselves of sustenance and their children of playtime.

When a boy reached the age of 3 there was rejoicing among parents in Shumsk. The day was celebrated with great happiness, as a birthday in itself, and also as the first day in the life of the little “yidele.” On this day he undertook the burden of obeying the mitzvot (commandments) and the study of the laws.

It could be said that the third birthday of a Shumsk child was the fateful day when he set sail to a world comprising duty and morality, mitzvot and certain suffering. From this day forth he would not be a child like other children, but a small candidate for the great and weighty task of bearing the yoke of the most perplexed of all nations, whose path, clearly laid out before him, is difficult and full of suffering and has one purpose only, that of maintaining our dissimilarity from all other nations. Sometimes it seemed to me that the third birthday of Shumsk children was more terrible than the 13th birthday, because on this day the tender years of these little ones were determined, and from this day forth their path would be the path of suffering that has been incurred for generations. The 13th birthday was no more than its result and its outcome.

 

 

On that awe-inspiring day family, relatives and friends were invited to celebrate the inauguration of “this little one” into the Jewish covenant of suffering. To symbolize it, lest he be tempted to think it was a regular celebration, his designated melamed (elementary school teacher) was also invited. An intuitive educator with no professional pedagogic training, he was charged with imparting to his pupil the earliest reading of the Torah with which his destiny was to be entwined forever.

Great was the rejoicing, a kind of “happy are we who have merited it.” But a veil of sadness muted the joy of the parents. For all those present it was an added holiday, a celebration, the good feeling of being neither a widower nor a lonely Jew, every generation with its additional Jews, every city with its families, each family with its children. But for the parents it evoked the natural biological sense that their tender progeny was being harshly confronted with life, having emerged from the womb, from the bosom of his parents, from nature, from a smile, he who is flesh of their flesh and blood of their blood. But commitment goes before sentiment. The book of Vayikra (Leviticus), which begins with the verse “Vayikra el Moshe” (and He called unto Moses), teaches us that we Jews, the Jews of Shumsk, are still committed to the “Priestly Torah,” unlike all the other nations … and so it concludes.

From now on the scenery changes, the world changes, background and environment change, everything known as Shumsk is merely incidental. We are commanded to be planted in a different, ancient earth, with different scenery and a different environment. “This is the priestly Torah” is not all that is taught here, but also a Torah of good deeds and respect and good behavior, first and last, the priestly law: a nation divided into Israelite, Levite, and Priest, each slotted into his own destiny and fortune. “Quiet, show respect!”

It is not easy. An ordinary teacher charged with instructing a child forgets who invented the letters, who wrote the book, and why he is teaching the material. He is a craftsman whose craft it is to impart the Book of Books to the child, and that is enough in itself.

Not so the melamed, with whom the child has been placed from the age of 3, who is commanded to remember and not forget that the essence of the child is learning and the learning is merely a means to know the Torah, and the purpose of learning the Torah is doing good deeds and respectful behavior. Not only that, but “Moses himself received … etc., etc.”[2]

All this was imposed upon my melameds, my dear ones, those deprived, unfortunate Jews among “Your people,” the ones who were supposed to “love it,” to teach Torah out of a sense of both duty and respect.

And they did.

Now, with the distance of time, they seem to have been giants of spiritual effort, knowing how to stretch the elements of this world and dive into a world that is all distance and future and days to come, commanded to take the soft hands of their tender, tremulous pupils and toughen them to prepare them for life, with all its torments.

And they did.

Their imprint remains on our souls to this day. We didn't learn much from them, but we learned the passion of commitment and existence through hardship from them more than from any other event or person in our lives. When I think of them, I remember them not only as downtrodden and defeated by life, but standing erect in the presence of their young charges. Here they were of immense importance, here they were fulfilling the commandments of maintaining the existence of an afflicted nation, and here they were in their own territory.

* * *

Reb Froike,[3] Reb Binyamin Reysher,[4] Reb Simcha,[5] Yankel – the son-in-law of Reb Binyamin Schochet, Reb Avraham Tsarbin[6] the shochet (ritual slaughterer), and last of all, Reb Herzl.[7]

They all taught me and I remember them all fondly.

Every name represents an age. The first 3-6, the second 6-7, the third … the fourth … and so with all of them, years, periods, and obligations.

It's hard to remember the details of the first years. I remember the third, Reb Simcha. I was a small boy[8] and he (Reb Simcha) was already getting on in years. He was pedantic, kindhearted, elderly, not very experienced, and he radiated warmth. Through him I became acquainted with the kantchik,[9] a rod tipped with two or three leather strips, a kind of whip that he fashioned himself. But it was only intended for deterrence. I don't remember him ever using it. Every year was a kind of reprimand that he was doomed to remain with the little ones against his will, making his living among children.

Sometimes I was rude to him and other times I pitied him, but I never regarded him as an adult among his peers. Only once a year, on Purim, did I see him act his age, as befits an elderly man. On that day he would pair up with Reb Zusia,[10] and the two would go out together, door to door, receiving and sending mishlochei manot (the mitzvah of giving and receiving food and drink that derives from the Book of Esther) to the poor of the town.

* * *

Very different and demanding of respect was the one who succeeded him, Reb Yaakov, son-in-law of Binyamin Schochet.

He was younger and closer in spirit to his students,[11] who loved and accepted him. Everyone liked him. In my memory he is serious and demanding, yet quiet and smiling. He understood us. He had the traits and creativity of the pedagogue – the artist who knows his students and adapts his approach to each one, generating an atmosphere of accord in the classroom, uniting us into one body directed at one endeavor.

He taught us reading and writing and rudimentary arithmetic. But his true greatness lay in his explanation of the weekly Torah portion. To me that was a literary creation in its own right. A great spirit wafted through our classroom when he journeyed to the far reaches of the Scripture and drew them near to us, as if they were essential, existing in the background of our real lives and experiences, and everything that had happened up to now and everything around us was nothing more than illusion, nonexistent.

* * *

Reb Avraham,[12] shochet (ritual slaughterer) and melamed, was a great scholar, very wise, and well-versed in the Talmud. It was a mystery to us why he wasn't head of a famous yeshiva. He was definitely well suited to the position, but things happen. Somebody may be suitable without attaining his goal. In time we learned that it was the connection to Shumsk that prevented many from leaving, from going to seek a different life and status in the wide world. He loved Shumsk. For its sake he gave up the chance of different opportunities and different worlds.

* * *

The last of my melameds was Reb Herzl.[13] He was very good-looking. Tall, erect, with the face of a noble from the storybooks. His beard was long and divided in two. He was a quiet, smiling man who believed that everything is good. Among another nations his life would have been a series of adventures and romances, heroic deeds for bravery's sake. He would have been a legend, the stuff of fable, a real hero. Here in Shumsk among his fellow Jews he was a melamed, curbing his passions and imposing on them the fate dictated by the circumstances, place, time, and nation of his birth.

He taught the bar mitzvah lads and the finest boys – those he regarded as the best pupils.

After Herzl Melamed,[14] the law determining the education of children in Shumsk came to an end. After that you were either sent away to study Torah in one of the famous yeshivas, or Shumsk accepted you as one who measures up, an adult in every respect, educated as befits all requirements of Judaism and of the town.

 

 

Reb Herzl's house stood on the bank of the river in a wide plot of land. On one half he grew vegetables – corn, sunflowers, watermelons, onions and more – and the other half was an orchard with pears, plums, and apples.

Reb Herzl's philosophy of life was tied up with his plot of land: since he did not live by teaching alone, he was free to accept good and desirable students rather than the ones whose fathers exerted influence through inflated payments.

He was helped by Rebbetzin (wife) Sarah Hinde, who zealously protected the plot. But there is no protection from constant, internal corruption. From time to time we would break in and destroy whatever was in season, causing loss and damage.

Reb Herzl devoted his time to teaching, from 8 in the morning to 5 in the afternoon, with a break at midday, both for him and for us. We would leave home early when he would still be fast asleep. We were drawn to the river, to swimming, to playing on its verdant banks. We didn't always manage to tear ourselves away and get back in time to the heder. In summer we immersed ourselves in bathing and swimming and in winter we skated on the ice. This distressed Reb Herzel. How could we waste time set aside for Torah study on trivial matters? A Jew's years are fleeting but the sea of learning is vast and infinite.

He would arrive at the riverbank at a run to gather up his flock, chasing down every last one of us. The ends of his ancient, noble beard flapped like the long mustaches of the Cossacks on horseback on the banks of the river Don; the edges of his kapoteh (long coat worn by Jews of Eastern Europe) waved every which way like the robe of the prophet Elijah in his time.

We always beat him to it. By the time he entered the heder, sweaty and puffing, we were sitting at the table swaying over open Gemaras. This infuriated him. How could we turn our Torah study into trickery and deception? How?

Then he would yell at his wife in apparent bewilderment, shouting: “Come, let's become merchants. What's the big deal? Naftali Kanfer's father can be a merchant, Chaim Ashers and others can be merchants.” And he would proceed to recite the names of the fathers of all his students and compare himself to them, using the logical argument that if they can be merchants then why can't we, Sarah Hinde, become merchants and not have to suffer this outrageous neglect of Torah study.

When he was so angry it seemed that he was actually capable of doing it. He was capable of quitting teaching, of becoming a merchant, and that would bring to an end the fine days of Reb Herzl's heder. We were scared. We actually loved him very much, for his fine appearance, his vast learning, his gentle manner, and his dedication to our education. His love for us was as great as all the commandments in the Torah.

Finally his fury would abate. He would calm down and say: “Nu, who would it help? The people of Israel? The Jews of Shumsk? Their children would be abandoned, the name of Israel would be desecrated. No, no.”

The decision was made: He would continue. Suffer and continue.

This happened many times.

His love never left him, and he tried to impart it to us every possible way, in order to double and enhance our love for Jews:

“Know that all of Israel has a portion in the world to come,” he would intone in Pirkei Avot (The Ethics of the Fathers) on Shabbat after his nap. “Even Avraham Rajch! Yes, Even Avraham Rajch has a portion there.”
Which is to say that Avraham Rajch, the rich man who adopted gentile ways, with his shaven head and gluttony on Yom Kippur, Heaven forbid, was also a Jew and his portion was waiting along with everyone else.

From all my teachers … We learned that we are responsible for the Jewish people, and we learned love for the Jewish people.

For this they should be remembered.


Translator's Footnotes

  1. This thinking may have roots in a rabbinic ruling by Rabbi Yehoshua Gen Gamla of the isolated Jewish community of Gamla, in the Golan Heights, in 65 CE, the period of the Second Temple. Rabbi Gamla ruled it obligatory for every community to establish a local elementary school, and this has been accepted practice in Jewish communities everywhere ever since. Return
  2. This sentence from the classic text The Ethics of the Fathers concludes with words that imply that each generation is charged with learning the Torah and passing it on to the next generation and so this child is a part of this unbroken chain. Return
  3. Efraim Spector, also known as Froike or Frojka, beloved teacher of elementary-age children, died before World War II. He was married to Susia. They had four sons and three daughters, none of whom were married. Froike's daughter Preva was an outstanding seamstress. His son David served in the Red Army and died while a prisoner of war. All the others perished in Shumsk. Return
  4. Benjamin Reysher (the way it is spelled in documents from the Russian period) or Rejszer (the way it is spelled in records form the Polish period, between the world wars), a son of Azriel, was married to Chave, a daughter of David Shlomo Segal. According to vital records available in 2021, they had five children born from 1882 1894; all except the firstborn were born in Shumsk. Return
  5. Simcha Magid, the son of Gershon Magid and his wife Leah, a daughter of Elyakim, had two sons: Benjamin (who died "in the prime of his life") and Gershon Yitzchak, born June 23, 1886, in Shumsk. Return
  6. Tsarbin is a misspelling in the Shumsk Yizkor Book. The teacher was Avraham Chervits or Tservets. Return
  7. Herzl Leyderman Return
  8. Simcha Magid taught 8-year-olds. Return
  9. Kantchik means “tip” in Russian and Ukrainian. Return
  10. Zusia or Zushia or “Zus” Tschkovay, a son of Mordechai Beer Tschkovy, was married to Zelda Segal, a daughter of Moshe Segal. They had a son, Shaya, who was born on December 2, 1894, in Shumsk. The friendship of the teachers Simcha and Zushia is described in “Two Friends – One Father,” beginning on page 401 of this yizkor book. Return
  11. Reb Yaakov taught 9-year-olds. Return
  12. Avraham Chervits, son of Yaakov, came to Shumsk from Kunev. He taught pupils aged 10 and 11. He was married to Bas Sheva, a daughter of Moshe Duvid Valdman, a longtime resident of Shumsk. He was also a mohel, performing many circumcisions. The couple had two sons whose names appear in vital records in possession of the Kremenets District Research Group in 2021: Shlomo, born October 20, 1893, and Menachem Mendel, born August 22, 1897, whose brit mila (circumcision) was performed by Avraham, the father of the baby. Return
  13. Herzl Leyderman, who taught pupils 12 and older, was a son of Yitzschok Leyderman and was form the town of Bilgorye. He and his wife, Sore Hinde, a daughter of Avraham, had three daughters, all born in Shumsk: Sima, born January 9, 1886; Chane, born March 8, 1891, and Gitil, born November 23, 1892. Return
  14. In this usage Melamed is not a surname but rather is used to describe Herzl Leyderman's occupation, teacher. Return


[Pages 267-271]

Schools in Shumsk

by Chaim Livne (Yukelson)

Translated by Shulamit Berman

Notes: Chaim Avraham (Yukelson) Livne was born in 1913 to Rivka (Berezin) and Alter David Yukelson. Rivka died when Chaim was 4 years old. After the Communist Revolution of 1917 and the establishment of the Soviet Union, Chaim's father, sensing the emerging problems of the Communist regime, moved to Shumsk, a town near the Polish border. Alter, who was then married to Beile, a daughter of Yaakov Chazen, was a well known and beloved member of the Jewish community of Shumsk. After Chaim graduated from the Tarbut School in Shumsk he went to Kremenets to study at a vocational school. and there became active in Hashomer Hatzair, a Zionist youth movement. In 1933 he made aliyah. In 1937 he returned to Shumsk for three months to visit his ailing father (see pages 175-179 of this book), hoping to persuade his remaining family to come to Palestine, but unfortunately not succeeding. In 1938, with the other members of Kibbutz Messilot, he settled in the Bet Shaan Valley, where he lived until his death in 1991. Each year he made the long trip to Tel Aviv for the Shumsk memorial ceremony. The numerous articles which he wrote for this Yizkor Book attest to his skill as a writer and his love for Shumsk.

Culture

Between 1917 and 1920 our town was temporarily ruled by gangs that emerged from the dense forests around Shumsk, issuing orders, terrifying the inhabitants, shedding blood, and inflicting the horrors of hunger, oppression, and humiliation.

Those years left their nightmarish imprint for a very long time. Sometimes it seemed that the Jews would not have the strength to begin again here, in this place, because their dear ones had been slaughtered, their sisters tortured, and their property, for which they had toiled for many years, had been plundered and looted. And yet, wonderful to see, as soon as the “disturbances” died down and the region became calm once again, the Jews of Shumsk could be seen rebuilding their homes and their shattered community.

So, too, the first Hebrew school was built, during those days of world destruction.

I believe it was the initiative of Reb Sender Sforim,[1] a refugee who settled in Shumsk, the father of our teacher Rafael Sforim. He was a very special man. He conducted his home as if he were in Eretz Israel, with Hebrew as the dominant language. He himself was a “burning bush,” ablaze with the flame of Hebrew. He was consumed by the desire to spread Hebrew, the language of our forefathers.

 

 

In any event it was he who initiated the idea, and the school came into being.

At first only two classes were held, one in the large synagogue and the other in the home of the Szerman family on the hill.

I studied in the large synagogue. We could feel the atmosphere of the place. We were afraid to be there by ourselves because of the ghosts of the dead who always sought opportunities to haunt living human beings, especially tender children… Moreover, the building was not far from the mysterious iron gate barring the cave that reputedly crossed Shumsk from the synagogue to the Catholic church… This was indeed mysterious … The cave had branches. Most of the children knew about one branch, the one that ran beneath the home of Idel Zak (Idel der kalesnik), who sold wheels and barrels. This enigmatic cave further increased our fear.

In the course of time we overcame our fright and dared to sing and run around. I still remember a children's song we used to sing:

Yes I told you,
Not to climb the tree
No, no, no, I will not listen
No, no, no, I will not listen
Ha, ha, ha
Ha, ha, ha.
The words and the melody spoke to us… although in the entire neighborhood not a single tree could be found. Instead we clambered on the colorful iron fence that surrounded the large synagogue.

I remember the headmaster of the school but I can only recall two of the teachers, named Gurman and Groman. The first was dumpy, with a thick beard, short-tempered and irate. He taught Tanach (Bible) and Hebrew. The second was thin, quiet, and easy-going. He taught the other subjects. As far as I remember they both knew how to teach well, so it's no wonder they are etched in my memory, even though I was only in first grade. Neither Gurman nor Groman lived in Shumsk. They came from outside.

I remember an episode in the school. Any child who knew a correct answer was rewarded with a mark in the daybook. At the start of each lesson every child's name was called. Absentees were noted in the daybook – with a minus. At the end of the day the teacher took the daybook home.

It once happened that the teacher forgot the daybook in class, either during recess or at the end of the day. Only then did I dare peek inside, to count up the “excellents” of those who merited them and the “insufficients” of those whose transgressions had earned them. “Very bad” was also meted out for extremely bad behavior. It was clear that my classmates all peeked into the daybook and counted up the best marks, and there was an unspoken contest to see who could earn the most, to the anguish of those who didn't make the effort or were unable to achieve good marks. It was a cause of rivalry and quarrels among the children. Some even managed to change their marks – which was technically almost impossible. But to change a minus (absentee) to a plus was very easy. So at the end of the year not a single child had missed school even once – perfect attendance.

Classes were taught in Hebrew. One teacher used the Sephardic pronunciation, which we were hearing for the first time. The tables and benches were the property of the synagogue.

 

The school moves to the home of Brientza Roichman

The school in Brientza Roichman's house was more spacious. There were several large rooms, and an adjacent square with the grave of a Christian saint in the center, topped with a large cross and icons.[2] The square was covered with grass in summer and snow in winter – an ideal spot for playing games.

There were four grades in the school. Officially, as far as the authorities were concerned, anything less than four grades was not worth bothering about. Let the Jews get their education … But anything above that was not permitted. This was the burden that Jewish children had to bear. So what was the solution for Jews who lived by their wits? Due to their thirst for learning, the Jewish children, who were required to attend one grade each year, spent two years in each grade. Thus instead of four years they actually spent eight years in school. In fact the school had seven, nearly eight classes, and some students in the “fourth” grade were nearly full-grown. For some reason Shakespeare's tragedies and works by Ahad Ha'Am and Pinsker were taught in this class. Naturally the school was under the supervision of the Polish inspector, who appeared once a year on a day the teachers were notified of in advance. That day was most unusual, unlike any other day of the year … Towel, washbowl, water jug and soap – the floors were scrubbed and the school shone. Even the toilet was disinfected and whitewashed.

Some students were ordered to make themselves scarce and stay home, since their height, size, and muscles were not at all typical of fourth graders. So these kids enjoyed an unexpected vacation from school – and from the Polish inspector. Girls and boys attended the school together. Classes were taught in the afternoon as well, and on winter evenings the children learned by the light of paraffin lamps. Walking home in the dark of night in autumn and winter was an exercise in bravery, because they could be waylaid by gentile kids. But a solution was found for this as well. The school developed an ingenious torch-making industry to light the way at night: a rope dipped in paraffin was attached to a bottle. It was then ignited so it heated the bottom of the bottle. When cold water was splashed on it the glass bottom cracked and fell out, to be replaced with a piece of tin – the cover from a tin of shoe polish – which served as a base for the lit candle. A string tied to the neck of the bottle made an excellent handle – and behold! A perfect, ideal torch. By its light a crowd of jubilant children wended their way in a lighted procession through the empty streets of Shumsk – each child to their own home.

The school had a drama club that prepared plays for festivals. They performed on the stage of the brewery which was standing empty at the time. We called it the “bruver.” The play was preceded by the Shumsk wind instrument orchestra, who spent a long time playing marching tunes to attract the audience, who never turned up before ten at night after making sundry preparations in order to enjoy the play to the full. We kids would stand in groups, enjoying the impressive music, which greatly added to our enjoyment of the theatrical performance.

 


The Lizak school

 

When the school moved to larger quarters near the Catholic Church it began to flourish. There were more students and more teachers, and standards improved. Among the outstanding teacher were Israel Ackerman, who taught science, Zvi Rosenberg, who now lives here in Eretz Israel, and Mottil Segal, who taught Mishna and Gemara. Our teacher Rosenberg stood out among the teaching staff. His personality made a deep impression on us. He imbued us with nationalistic and humanistic values. He broadened our minds and expanded our horizons. Rosenberg taught literature and Tanach. Every lesson with him was an experience, because he analyzed each chapter in an interesting and original manner. He taught us how to approach artistic works with true understanding. The chapters of world literature we read in class were from Shakespeare, Goethe, Heine, Schiller and Lessing. He taught us to see the wide expanse of the world. This led to a strong desire to break free of the narrow confines of life in our town.

Rosenberg instilled in us the desire to make aliyah to Eretz Israel, to become rooted there through building and creating. It was from him that we first learned about Borochov,[3] Gordon[4] and others. We are eternally grateful to him.

Classes were only held in the daytime. We studied for seven hours each day, with an additional two hours per week for Mishna and Gemara.

The school had dramatic activities for festivals. We performed in front of our parents and an audience. The school served as a center of activities for all the town's residents and it was a source of pride for the Jews.

We organized Hebrew-speaking classes – and fluent Hebrew could be heard on the streets of Shumsk.

 

 

[Editor's note: This is a receipt, a “Certificate in Memory” for a donation to the library. The donor
gave money to have a name inscribed in the “Memorial Book” that was maintained in the library.]


Translator's Footnotes

  1. Rafael Sforim later changed his surname to Sapir. He had come to Shumsk with his parents and siblings as refugees during World War I. Rafael was among the first people from Shumsk to immigrate to Palestine. Return
  2. This square was adjacent to the Pravoslav (Eastern Orthodox) church. Return
  3. Dov Ber Borochov (1881-1917) was a Marxist Zionist and one of the founders of the Labor Zionist movement. In 1905 hov joined, and soon became a leader of, the Poalei Zion (Workers of Zion) movement. Along with Nachman Syrkin, Borochov is considered a father of socialist Zionism. He also was a pioneer in the study of the Yiddish language. Return
  4. Aaron David Gordon (1856-1922) was a Labor Zionist thinker and the spiritual force behind practical Zionism and Labor Zionism. He founded the non-Marxist Zionist movement Hapoel Hatzair (The Young Worker). He emigrated from Russia to Palestine in 1904. Return


[Pages 272-275]

The “Tarbut” School and Culture in Shumsk

By Zvi Rosenberg (Segal)

Translated by Rachel Bar Yosef


Notes: The translation of this article is in the memory of Max Katz of Shumsk, donated by his daughters, Marlyn Katz Levenson and Irene Rimer)

“Tarbut” was a Jewish school network in Europe in which the language of instruction for many of the subjects was Hebrew. The meaning of the Hebrew word 'tarbut' is 'culture.'

I came to Shumsk via Kremenets. That is, actually I had been offered a job as a school principal in Kremenets, but for local, internal reasons, Jews from assimilated circles there went to the trouble of closing the Hebrew school, which is how I eventually found myself in Shumsk.

It's not that the administration of the Kremenets Jewish school didn't try to find a different position for me, but they didn't succeed. There I was in Kremenets with no job. In the meantime, the central office of the Tarbut School system managed to get a license to open a Tarbut School in Shumsk, but again there were complications.

The Tarbut School license was given only up to the seventh grade. Government orders were that the school should be under the supervision of a board of governors in Rovno. And, as was government policy, the principal was to be the teacher of Polish, who happened to be a single woman.

At about the same time the rabbi, Rabbi Yosele, published a handbill expressing his opposition to the establishment of the school, as he was instructed to do by Agudat Israel, the party to which he belonged at that time. It read, in their characteristic style, “Anyone who registers his children in 'Tarbut' is sending them into bad ways and handing his sons over to Moloch.[1] ...”

The handbill was devastating. Of the 120 children signed up, over fifty canceled. The future of the school was decided before it even opened.

The Zionists of Shumsk did not sit idly by. These were Jews of tradition, disciples of the same Rabbi Yosele. In fact, they were the ones who had brought him to Shumsk and made him their rabbi, so that an extreme and ultraconservative rabbi would not fill the position, and here their rabbi was such a disappointment. They felt cheated and betrayed.

All the town was up in arms together with them. But for some reason they didn't get the necessary assistance from the staff of the school. Apparently what was needed was someone from outside, someone with initiative, who would help them to get the matter moving.

One day a cart approached my house in Kremenets. Three Jews entered my home: A. Foch, P. Bat, and A. Jukelson, who introduced themselves as men of Shumsk, who had founded a school there. They needed an acting principal, they had heard that I was the man for them, and they wanted me to dress and get into their cart and leave with them right away.

I was hesitant. I asked them how it was that they needed a principal now, in the middle of the school year. What had happened? They didn't add many details. They said, “Come and see for yourself,” and they said no more.

I asked them to wait for me. I went to talk to Buzy Landsberg, a leading public figure in Kremenets who was very trustworthy. I asked him what he advised me to do. He answered, “Go with them. Talk with Motel Chazen there. If he guarantees notes to cover your salary, you can put your mind at rest.” He added, “To go to Shumsk is a mitzvah. It's a religious town, and their school is falling apart. As a man learned in Talmud, you are the man who can be a positive influence and can reassure those who care deeply about both the school and our tradition.”

I made it clear that when the Tarbut high school in Kremenets opened, I wanted to return to them, and the Kremenets people gave me their word.

I went with the men from Shumsk. We arrived in the evening. We went straight to Motel Chazen, and in that meeting they all promised me everything I wanted: an apartment, heat, light, and a good salary.

The next day, I called a meeting of the parents. I met the students. Finally, I met with the rabbi, and he liked me.

The first year was one of suffering for me and for the school. The government-appointed principal would arrive at least one hour late every day. Her class would wander around the classes that were in session and disrupt their learning, and when she did finally show up, she used to sit and write letters. She would give her students whole chapters to copy from the book, and would appoint a student to be monitor. With the cane that she handed him, she transferred her authority to him. Sometimes she would leave the school premises altogether, and the “monitor” would dirty the children with mud that was at the end of the cane.

At the end of the year I said, “Either she goes or I go.”

She was given compensation.

I went to Lvov and brought Munderer back with me.

The school developed nicely. I conceded to the Orthodox and wore a hat when I taught Bible. Before each holiday I lectured to the students on the laws and customs of the holiday. The children would go home knowing more about Judaism than their parents, all based on the sources and with the strictest attention to the details.

I frequently visited the rabbi's house, and we became friends.

Thus the Tarbut School developed, drew most of the children of Shumsk to it, and became an educational center with a nationalistic, ethical, progressive spirit.

I tried to nurture in the children respect for religion from an ethical, moral perspective, while at the same time providing them with national and socialist values. Frishman's “Tit'chadesh,” Ahad Ha'am's “Moshe,” and Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther became the children's spiritual heritage. Their horizons became broad and rich.

I felt immense satisfaction. My hard work was appreciated.

I worked in Shumsk for five years. I had to return to Zbrizh after my mother died in order to take care of my father's business matters. It was hard for me to leave Shumsk. First I sent my wife to Zbrizh, just in case somehow things might work themselves out without me. But in the end there was no choice, and I had to leave Shumsk.

* * *

Whenever I recall the town of Shumsk, I'm awash in memories that attest to the extent to which I had become an integral part of the life of Shumsk, with all my heart and soul. It's a pity that I can't write about everything, for it would take up too much of the reader's time. All the same, I do want to tell about some of the things that happened.

I was also a public figure there, taking part in public Zionist activity and taking part in decision-making. This public service caused complications for my teaching more than once, but it would have been unthinkable to sever the chain of the generations. I did the best I could to narrow the gap between my students and their parents, to foster progressive Zionist values among the adults. I became a bridge across the generation gap. But now and then, this offended the leaders of the town, who buttressed their position with outside forces.

* * *

When Yankel Akerman wanted to be elected president of the Shumsk community, I knew this would return the town to the norms of public behavior of the past. I was active in the opposition to his candidacy. He was not elected, and he sought revenge. What did he do? He went and informed on our school to the board of directors. They listened to him, and the school was on the verge of being closed.

What saved us was the fact that just at that time the Tarbut students and those of the Polish school were being tested jointly. The students of Munderer did better on their Polish history and geography tests than the students in the Polish school. It was a double success.

* * *

One time Motel Segal and Kopel Curif, wonderful public workers of Shumsk, invited me to join them in getting Avrohom Rajch to contribute to the Keren Hayesod.

Rajch's sharp wit and cynicism intimidated Segal and Curif. Motel lost his nerve, and only Kopel Curif joined me. We went in, and found Rajch battle-ready, “I know, I know. You're both naïve. Where are you going to put more Jews? Where will you take them from? Israel is not a country, and 'the House of Israel' is not a people.”

I answered him with the story about the heretic who taunted Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev, denying the immortality of the soul. The rabbi told the heretic, “Maybe you can't be so certain and there really is immortality of the soul. If so, what do you lose by not killing and not stealing?”

Rajch, the nonbeliever, was taken aback. He donated $24. I felt I had really done something.

I was very involved and accomplished a great deal in Shumsk, but all I really wanted to do here was to give a little bit of the praise due to the people of Shumsk and their children. This was a town that thirsted for goodness, for Torah and its commandments, and that was its greatness. Shumsk will not quickly be forgotten.[2]


Translator's Footnotes

  1. Moloch (Heb.): A Canaanite god to which children were ritually sacrificed. Return
  2. Keren Hayesod (Heb.): The central fundraising arm of the Zionist Movement, founded in 1920, with the purpose of establishing Jewish settlements and funding economic undertakings. Avrohom Rajch was the owner of the -electric power plant and a flour mill in Shumsk. Return


[Pages 276-280]

On “Hechalutz” in Shumsk and its Members

By Mr. Yosef Sapir

Translated by Rachel Bar Yosef

Notes: The translation of this article was donated by Marlyn Katz Levenson and Irene Rimer, in memory of their father, Max Katz, of Shumsk.

“Hechalutz” is a Hebrew word meaning “the pioneer.” It is the name of a worldwide movement, founded in Odessa in the first decade of the twentieth century, of young people who were preparing for pioneering immigration to Palestine and later the State of Israel and were planning to settle the land.

One of the most inspiring chapters in the life of the town was written by the Hechalutz movement. The ideals espoused by this movement—preparatory training for and immigration to Israel—were not foreign to the young people of Shumsk, since the overwhelming majority were graduates of the Tarbut School, and the young people's homes reinforced the ideals that the school nurtured.

Officially, the Hechalutz organization was founded in the town in 1924, continuing its activity uninterrupted until World War II.

From its very first day, the movement became the mainstay of the life of the youth in the town, overshadowing all other public and political activity. Any young person with any talent could not but contemplate with dismay the life he could expect to live, forever a guest at his parents' table, with no productive work or clear-cut direction before him, and sooner or later he found his way to Hechalutz.

From the early hours of the evening until late at night, the clubhouse was full of life. It was a place for young men and women to meet, a place to learn and grow in both general and political knowledge, a center for learning the Hebrew language, and a place to learn what was going on in Israel. It should be noted that in spite of the great distance, the young Jewish person “lived” Israel, with all its doubts and struggles, much more than he “lived” the small space of his immediate surroundings in the city of his birth. In general meetings, which would last late into the night, everything relating to the movement's problems in the Diaspora was illuminated and clarified, together with ways of implementing our ideals in Israel. Those meetings were also excellent training for each of us to appear in public, teaching us to stand in front of an audience and express our opinion publicly, confident in the knowledge that we would be listened to patiently and tolerantly.

A visit to our chapter by a member of the movement's secretariat or especially by an emissary from Israel would turn into a day of celebration for the members of the movement and through them for the whole town. The simplicity and innocence, the egalitarian atmosphere and the dedication to the general good—all these left their mark on every single member of the movement.

The general meetings, at which candidates for aliyah1 were approved, became veritable days of judgment, a sort of mini-Yom Kippur. Discussion of the people waiting their turn for aliyah was conducted with no flattery or bias, in keeping with the requirements of absolute fairness and integrity, openly rather than in any aura of secrecy. A decision could always be appealed, if a person felt there might be any deviation from the group's principles. Many members who were then in the movement remember those extraordinary meetings very clearly.

And no wonder! Those meetings could make all the difference to people totally dedicated to Israel long before they actually immigrated, whose fate would be decided by the assembly.

The rebellion against accepted norms and the insistence that long-cherished beliefs be re-examined found expression not only in idle debates and behind closed doors; they also had a powerful impact on daily reality.

There were a few fearless individuals who made the transition from theory to action, rolled up their sleeves, and did hard physical labor. At first this would be whatever work they happened to find, such as cutting down trees for a neighbor or acquaintance; later, the work would be more permanent, like felling trees in the surrounding forests.

Hechalutz jokers used to say that there were two types of work: black—that is, regular; and white—in the town's flour mills. For some reason, that work was mostly done at night. When the worker would leave work at daybreak, he would be covered from head to toe with white flour; thus, the work was named after its color.

The implements which had always been associated with “Ivan the gentile”2 and which would never have been found in any self-respecting Jewish home, tools such as a saw, axe, or file, were now suddenly in favor, used by Jewish youth training for aliyah. There were also those, admittedly few, who apprenticed themselves to non-Jewish craftsmen in metalwork, blacksmithing, and carpentry. We enjoyed seeing them returning home towards nightfall, after a backbreaking day of work, filthy and black with soot but incandescent with the glow of inner happiness. Heroic and impelled by their idealism, they were able to carry on under these difficult conditions with barely a minimum wage. Their working day was much longer than our inviolable eight hours, lasting from dark to dark. It should be noted that the craftsmen who were their employers were ignorant of any laws of minimum wages or reasonable working conditions, and they, the owners of the workshops themselves, also worked from sunrise till sunset.

Obviously, from the outset, these brave pioneers had to deal with incredulity coming from every quarter. There were those among the Jews of the town, sensitive and compassionate to a fault, who would not employ them: They truly couldn't conceive of so-and-so, the son of so-and-so who is a respected person in town, engaging in such demeaning work, the work of a gentile. Furthermore, how could the employer face the parents and the family when they had occasion to meet? It was indeed very discomfiting to employ a pioneer, since the latter looked down on his employer. Not only that—one couldn't ask a pioneer to work faster, or reprimand him.

The town loafers found the whole matter highly entertaining. In the morning they would gather around the workplace near an enormous pile of wood waiting to be hewn, taunting the pioneers and making bets that by the afternoon nothing would be left of the three hewers of the wood. “They'll scurry away like mice,” they would decree. They used to stand and measure the thickness of every single piece of timber, counting the knots in each one, and swearing that the hand of no Jew could ever get the better of those boards. This was a matter for the hand of Esau. It should be noted that these jokers invariably ended up having to eat their words. None of the pioneers gave up. In the evening, they would return home exhausted and then, by lamplight, they would prepare for the next day's work, sharpening their saws and axes. This became yet another vocation, as it were, one also foreign to our fathers. And when they finished that work, they went straight to the movement, to find the all-encompassing involvement that they craved.

The revolution brought about by this phenomenon of Jews working among non-Jews is inestimable. People declared that a “catastrophe” was now threatening the world, the world order was changing, and this could only signify the end of the world. And should a Christian woodcutter haggle with a Jewish employer without being able to reach a compromise, the gentile would say to the Jew offhandedly, “At that price your pioneers can do the work for you, not us!”

We acquired a reputation among the owners of the neighboring estates and forests for being good workers, and we seized upon every job that came our way. One Polish morning in spring, a group of us went out to work at the crack of dawn, saws in our hands and axes on our shoulders, and on the way we bumped into a battalion of Polish soldiers. Seeing us thus equipped amazed them, and we heard them say, “Look at this! People blame the Jews for being parasites who don't want to work, but it just isn't so.” We really, really enjoyed hearing such words from the mouths of those Jew-haters.

Very slowly, we won the confidence of the Christian farmers in the neighborhood, who began to employ us to work in their homes and fields, out of complete trust in our ability.

When the time for one's aliyah finally came, one's worries became concrete: to actually make aliyah, to expedite it. Some comrades who had undergone aliyah training were of scant means, or their parents wanted them to prevent their immigration. For them, paying for the trip was a problem.

There were those whose training lasted a number of years because the gates of aliyah were closed. When several of our pioneers were left without money to pay for the trip and without help from their families, the movement felt an obligation to solve the problem. They obligated each one of us to give one day a week's wages to a fund for Hechalutz. One whole day's labor, literally, with no monetary remuneration of any kind. Another decision was to automatically expel any comrade who shirked going out to work for three weeks without a good reason. In this way, two objectives were achieved: First, comrades who had not yet gone for their full preparatory training for aliyah were required to take the first steps to partial self-fulfillment; and second, the aliyah fund was enriched, and every Shumsk pioneer, wherever he was, knew he had his group's support. This way of doing things made waves in the area and word spread as far as the movement headquarters in the capital, Warsaw. There they highly approved of our action and publicized it widely. Nevertheless, in a general meeting they demanded that we compromise, claiming that this measure was draconian and one that the majority would not be able to abide by. We disagreed and continued doing things our way, thereby helping many comrades to make aliyah. They are with us here to this day.

I don't know if I've managed to do justice to the Hechalutz movement in Shumsk, which was a shining beacon in our lives and in the life of our town. We few who remain recall those days with fond longing. That was a time when our private worlds and the shared world of our dreams—a world of renewal and idealism—were one. How painful and tragic a loss it was that all of that beauty, warmth, and purity was ruthlessly destroyed with the craven massacre of our people.


Translator's Footnotes

  1. Aliyah (Heb.): literally, ascent; used to refer to immigration to Israel from the Diaspora. Return
  2. A common expression, mildly condescending, for non-Jews who engaged in things that Jews generally did not engage in. Return


[Pages 281-288]

Shumsk – Thoughts and Feelings About Aliyah

by Yitzhak Geler

Translated by Shulamit Berman

Notes: Yitzhak Geler, born in 1921, was the eldest child of Chana Miriam (Gurwitz) and Chaim Geler. Yitzhak survived in the Soviet Union during World War II, reached Italy after the war and helped many Jews, including other Shumskers, get to Eretz Yisrael. Several letters that he wrote in the 1930s and 1940s are in the Letters section of this yizkor book, and he wrote the remembrance of Yisrael Sudman on pages 211-213. He died in 2001. More about the Geler family is in the translator's footnotes to “The Zionist Underground in Soviet Shumsk,” pages 117-122 in this yizkor book. Yitzhak Geler's brother Yaakov Geler wrote “Shumsk at Her End,” pages 66-79 in this book, and his father Chaim Geler wrote “How My Son and I Survived,” pages 365-368

 

 

Along with many young children of my age, my parents enrolled me in the cheder (school) of the beit midrash (study house) behind the great synagogue. In cheder the melamed (teacher of religious studies) taught us to recite the alef-bet in unison. He also taught us to pray: Modeh Ani, Kriyat Shema, and so on. Later we graduated to the Oliker Kloyz,1 where Baruch Zilber2 taught us Chumash and Rashi. My childhood in Shumsk was spent between the walls of the synagogue, where I first became aware of my Jewish heritage. Baruch Zilber was a gifted storyteller; I still remember the Bible stories he told us.

From the cheder we went on to the Tarbut school, which was held in the home of Brientza Roichman. The house was surrounded by a lovely garden with many fruit trees. In the evening, after preparing our lessons and playing hide-and-seek and war games in the alleys of the market, we would sneak into the garden with its abundance of fruit and pick as much as we could. Sometimes we were caught red-handed and the next day one of the teachers would punish us by making us stand in the corner or write the same sentence over and over countless times.

Some parents, who considered the Tarbut school in our town to be too progressive, sent their sons to the yeshiva in Korets.

On the other hand, some families, not hampered by issues of tradition, religion, or Judaism, sent their daughters to Povshachne, the Polish state school, where tuition was free.

The Tarbut school had a great influence on the youth of the town and their spiritual development. The Hebrew language struck deep roots in our hearts. We spoke it fluently both in school and outside. The teaching staff were excellent – they included Moni Mondrer, Yisrael Ackerman, [Tzvi] Rosenberg, [Rafael] Sforim, and Zilber. Later on, the Tarbut center in Warsaw sent Miss [Malka] Winokur, who married Naftali Kanfer and by so doing became a “Shumsk girl.” The school gave us an affinity for the sources of Hebrew culture and taught us to love the distant homeland and Zionist activity.

The Hehalutz movement in our town originated with graduates of the school. I remember the group of youngsters, imbued with the vision and vigor of youth and steeped in longing for Eretz Israel, who found an outlet for their yearning through working extensively for the Jewish National Fund and Keren Hayesod.3 They also established and expanded the public library of which the townspeople were so proud. Students at the school and elsewhere derived culture and spiritual nourishment from the Hebrew literature to be found in the library. When they came to exchange their books they would meet their friends and hold conversations in Hebrew, the language of the land being rebuilt.

 

 

I remember that when we were still young students at Tarbut we were bored in Shumsk and felt the lifestyle of its residents was alien to us. We were envious of the adults who had found meaning in Hehalutz. Those who are still with us today remember the Shabbat evenings, the holidays and festivals, the hikes, and parties that were held to commemorate various events. We had question-and-answer evenings that focused on reality and vision in Eretz Israel. Everyone could write whatever they wanted and place their notes in a special box. During the week and on Shabbat evening the questions would be read out and responded to by a team that changed from time to time but was usually made up of Hertzig Melman, Yosf Nejman,4 and Zeidel Zilber, together with an occasional shaliach (emissary) from Eretz Israel. The arguments would continue until late into the night and we would end by singing Vetechezaknah (the anthem of the Jewish youth movement) and dancing a boisterous hora.

The members of Hehalutz infused us with spirit and meaning. Relationships changed; traditional concepts, lifestyles and values were turned upside down. The tailor was now different from the merchant; our horizons widened; something new and glorious had been created in our town. We young people felt that we were responsible for this change – we were bringing awareness and joie de vivre into Jewish homes.

In the course of time many joined us. We became Hehalutz Hatzair.5 The question then arose: How should we organize the work together with the adults to achieve our goal, which was to attend hachshara6? It wasn't easy to cooperate with them and run things together. There was very little space for the different age groups. We thought it over and found a solution. We charged a monthly membership fee and rented a separate area in the home of Mikhel Katz. Aharon, Rachel7 and Mishke were also members of Hehalutz Hatzair, which made it easier for us to organize our snif (branch) and decorate it with attractive slogans and pictures of life in distant Eretz Israel, which was so close to our hearts and whose scenery enchanted us from afar.

We were affiliated with the Hehalutz Hatzair merkaz (center) in Warsaw. They sent us material for our cultural activities, reading materials, new songs and dances. Sometimes emissaries from Eretz Israel would come to visit – Pialkov, Moshe Zelitzki (now Carmel),8 and others. We organized summer camps in one of the villages, sleeping on hay in a barn and doing everything together, like a kibbutz, to emulate life in Eretz Israel as we enthusiastically imagined it.

In our snif we had a drama group. Manis Pudim, who apart from being a talented tailor was a gifted director and arranger, chose a few of us and for weeks he taught us how to act and trained us for performances. We put on a play about the life and death of Joseph Trumpeldor on 11th Adar to commemorate Tel Hai,9 along with sketches about life in Eretz Israel. The plays were performed in the Braver, the large hall in the distillery belonging to Chaim Wilskier. It was a profound experience to put on a play like this, both for us and for the townsfolk, who packed the hall to capacity.

Our parents weren't always so accepting. Some of them objected to the very fact that we belonged to a pioneering youth movement which went against our way of life and aimed to change our values. More than once we came home only to find the door locked because we had out past our curfew.

It was a battle between parents and children.

We were determined to move forward, leave town, go on hachshara and prepare to make aliyah10 to Eretz Israel. Our parents were opposed to every part of it. They wanted us to continue the family traditions, settle down to work alongside them, and raise families of our own.

The battle flared up in many places and it took many forms. Both parents and children suffered, and it was very painful for me to be caught between the opposing sides.

With the distance of time these generational conflicts have transformed into deep emotional experiences whose memory remains with me to this day.

They were profound expressions of our parents' eternal love and concern for their children, but they could not find a suitable language.

I recall when the Prilucki family moved to Eretz Israel. They were our neighbors. They left Shumsk in a wagon piled high with their belongings as they made their way to the next town, escorted on foot by many people, adults and youngsters, who had come to say goodbye. Some of them were happy, hoping to see them again soon, while others were saddened by the knowledge that they were parting forever and would never meet again.

 

* * *

Between June and August 1937 Mosik Yukelson11 and Pinchas Peltz arrived in Shumsk from Eretz Israel to visit their families. Many people congregated in their homes to get news of children who had recently made aliyah. Tears flowed, both from their parents and from those who were still yearning for Eretz Israel, so near and yet so far. We longed to fulfill the dream, to continue what the adults had done; every sign from over there tugged at our hearts. Our tears expressed our excitement.

* * *

Two kibbutzim were organized in town, one by Hehalutz and the other by the Betar movement. They both imbued the town with the pioneering spirit of Eretz Israel. The townsfolk didn't really understand why their sons and daughters had left their parents' warm, comfortable homes to toil, chop wood and haul water by day and then sing and dance all night, their faces alight with joy as if they had conquered the world. They were astonished and didn't understand, but in the meantime, they began to take an interest in the Land of Israel and hachshara, to wonder what happiness and contentment really mean, and what was motivating their children.

We youngsters who attended the Tarbut school were members of the Hechalutz (Pioneer) youth movement and we visited the kibbutz. We joined in the singing and were swept up in dancing a lively hora, an experience that was entirely ours. For us these kibbutzim were the realization of all our dreams.

We were now running a wide range of educational activities aimed at personal fulfillment, and as time passed we decided, at our own initiative, to endorse the first group of our own age to supplement the older members in the hachshara kibbutzim.

In 1937 it finally happened – it was our turn to go to the hachshara kibbutzim in Lutsk and Klosova. The group included my cousin Mordechai Geler and Pnina Dorfman, who were later transferred to the merkaz in Warsaw. They helped us obtain our parents' consent to follow in their footsteps and form a group that included Zelda Zilber, Shoshana Mitelman, Sima Perlmutter, Dov Gluzman, Shoshana Dorfman,12 and myself. We did our hachshara on a farm in Grochov, near Warsaw, and Lodz kibbutz, where our group lived and worked. We also continued to study at seminars, either in the Warsaw merkaz or in cultural classes offered by the kibbutz. Our lives changed beyond recognition. Even before moving to Eretz Israel we could see the difference between a life of work and creativity and life in our town.

We spent many months in the youth hachshara kibbutzim, but when World War II broke out we were forced to leave the farm in Grochov. The farm was almost completely ruined by Nazi shelling. They killed the cows and destroyed the crops. Meanwhile Warsaw was besieged. The Germans prevented access to the city, and bitter battles raged in the streets.

That night we packed up the essentials, including some food for the journey, and left in groups, traveling at night along roads winding like pillars of smoke that left behind devastation and ruin. During the day we snatched some sleep in the forests. We tried to distance ourselves from the bombing and shelling, moving toward freedom, toward Volhynia, on our way to our town, Shumsk.

Somehow the news of our arrival reached a nearby village and a group of people, adults and children, were waiting for us. The brothers Mottil and Moshe13 were with me. They had both been on hachshara in Warsaw. Later other Shumsk people also returned. They had been with the defeated Polish army that was scattered by the Germans, and each of them made his own way home.

There was great confusion in the town. People were trying to guess what the future would hold.

Not long afterward we were informed that the Russian army was poised to enter the town. Suddenly one day a red flag could be seen fluttering atop the Catholic church, placed there by the local communist youth.

That afternoon horsemen stormed into Shumsk and, with a fanfare of trumpets, announced the arrival of the Red Army. That same day armored cars and tanks began to stream into the center of the town and the main thoroughfares.

For some reason the shops emptied as the army arrived. Essential goods vanished. It was hard to find food. People were worried. They began to hoard food and clothing, buying up sacks of flour, filling their cellars with potatoes and gathering firewood for winter. The cold struck deep into hearts and souls.

The Russian regime became entrenched. New directives were issued; the Zionist institutions were no more; the library we were so proud of was closed, sealed, and moved into storage. The Jewish National Fund and Keren Hayesod, as well as all community activities, were silent. On the other hand, courses were available for studying Stalinist law and a Komsomol youth group was established under the leadership of the politruk (officer responsible for political education) and his aides.

There was no more independent status, middle class or merchant class. Instead we had work cooperatives and artels.14

The Tarbut school was shut, only to open later with an entirely different syllabus – it was no longer a Jewish school. Classes were held in the old police station opposite Ingerleib's house, and comrades [Ze'ev] Berg, [Asher] Katschuretz and Miriam Offengendler15 were added to the teaching staff. The teaching method was changed – different values were taught, in line with Russian tradition and the distant motherland.

During that time, while our entire world was destroyed and our youthful dreams had vanished, when depression, grief and despair gnawed at our souls, a special emissary arrived from the merkaz with a message: There was actually a way for us to approach the gates of hope – there was even a chance to make aliyah. The way was fraught with danger, difficult and unsafe. But it had to be done now. I tried my luck. It didn't work and I returned home. My parents refused to let me go on such a difficult journey. When I realized I would never persuade them I told them I was actually going away to study, to attend a school that had opened in Lvov. I did indeed set out one cold wintry day in the right direction, with the hope of attaining my goal.

In Lvov I met Dinaleh Shteinman, may her memory be for a blessing,16 who had gone there to continue her studies. I told her of my plans, of my aim of reaching a safe place whence I could continue my journey. I asked her to notify my parents and family of what happened in the event that I didn't succeed, because they would worry about me.

I didn't have any luck. I suffered many hardships and unimaginable difficulties.

During World War II I endured five difficult years, years in which I struggled against my bitter fate and that of my family and my people. Years of terrible hunger, fear, and dread of what the next day would bring. A lonely, despairing battle for survival, far from home and family.

It was hard to endure the horror of my hellish life among the cold, dark mountains without even the faintest ray of hope. Were it not for the spark of faith that had been instilled by my parents, teachers, and comrades in the movement, who insisted that one must never despair under any circumstances, one must go on living and struggling, who knows whether I would have been able to bear these hardships. Thanks to them I believed that all was not lost, that somewhere there was a mother and a homeland waiting for her sons to rebuild her.

Without all this – would I have been able to withstand all the suffering that was inflicted on my body and my soul?

On July 1, 1941, the Nazis captured our town Shumsk and ruled with bestial cruelty until the beginning of 1944. I was not there at the time. At the end of February 1944 Vatutin's Red Army forces17 freed Shumsk from the Nazi yoke.

It was then that we arrived. During the dark, cold nights we youngsters, a group of escapees, made our way through a world that had been destroyed. We arrived in Shumsk – but the Jewish, Zionist town filled with bustling life and active youth was no more. Everything was in ruins. Nothing remained, neither monument nor gravestone. It was as if our town had never existed. An empty shell. A wasteland, destruction, ruins and devastation.

It was hard to see our Shumsk like this. That same evening we continued on to Kovel, where we hoped to meet the friends with whom we had once dreamed of making aliyah. We had studied with them at the Warsaw seminar, trained together at hachshara, and lived together at Grochov and when we parted, we swore we would meet after the war and continue what we had begun. But Kovel, too, was in ruins, with no Jews and no comrades. Gentile neighbors told us that our friends had been forced into the synagogue with other Jews and then taken to labor camps, to an unknown destination. Inside the great synagogue we found a sign scrawled in blood on the wall, the blood of our comrades who were going to die and entreated us, their friends, not to forget them, to avenge their blood.

In Kovel we heard that a provisional Polish government had been established in Lublin. Warsaw was still in Nazi hands but a center for refugees had been set up in Lublin for them to seek any relatives who remained alive, who may have fled into the forests to fight with the partisans or somehow survived the murderous concentration camps.

In Lublin I found friends from the old merkaz Hehalutz. They helped me, providing everything I needed so I could continue on my journey through different countries until I could illegally enter Eretz Israel. I managed to reach Italy, where I met soldiers of the Jewish Brigade, among them some of my friends and comrades. I was recruited by the Diaspora Center and spent two years working at merkaz Hehalutz. While in Italy I managed to contact many Shumskers who were in Europe on their way to the shores of Italy, where it was possible to board a ship of illegal immigrants and make aliyah. I corresponded with friends in Eretz Israel, Shumskers in the kibbutz movement, and others.

It's interesting – after all my wanderings in this great world in an effort to get away from Shumsk, I was again being thrust towards her ruined remains. Pesach Lerner wrote to me about the organization that had been established by people from Volhynia in general and Shumsk in particular. This information encouraged me and filled me with joy and hope for better days to come. To be with Shumskers once again would ease my heart.

Through the department for reuniting relatives I learned that my father and my brother had survived and were now in Russia.18 My brother [Yaakov Geler] managed to leave Russia and join me in Italy. After he had recuperated for a few months I asked him to help me make aliyah. The Diaspora Center and other relevant bodies arranged the necessary papers, giving me the opportunity to leave as a soldier on home leave with a group of Brigade soldiers. The voyage lasted a week. The sea was placid. My mood was uplifted, and my heart filled with boundless happiness when I saw the shores of the homeland from afar, as the city of Haifa came closer.

We stood on deck, our eyes flooded with tears. It wasn't a dream; we had arrived in Eretz Israel, our homeland. We had merited a life of freedom, but our hearts ached for all the others, for my mother, brothers and sisters, friends, children, old people and infants, the innocent people of my Shumsk whose lives were cut short, who were annihilated by the foul and the bloodthirsty, may their names and memory be blotted out.

 

 

Translator's Footnotes
  1. The Oliker Kloyz was a small synagogue in Shumsk. Return
  2. Baruch Zilber, a son of Yisrael and Bracha Zilber, was born in 1900 in Vishnevets. He married Bebe Offengendler. Baruch, Bebe, their children Zeiel, Zelda, and Mordechai, and their children's spouses, all perished in the Holocaust in Shumsk. Return
  3. Keren Hayesod: fundraising arm of the Zionist movement Return
  4. Yosef Nejman, a son of Bela (Shmukler) and Zecharya Nejman, was born in 1923 in Shumsk. He and his extended family perished in Shumsk. Return
  5. Hehalutz Hatzair: the Young Pioneers, a branch of a worldwide youth movement, founded in Odessa in the first decade of the 20th century, that prepared young people for pioneering immigration to Palestine and later Israel, to settle the land Return
  6. Hachshara: a training farm for those preparing to emigrate to Palestine Return
  7. Aharon and Rachel were children of Reuven and Mirel/Miriam Katz. Aharon, Rachel, and their mother perished in the Holocaust in Shumsk. Yeshayahu, another son of Reuven and Mirel, survived the war; his name is mistakenly listed on page 461 of this yizkor book as one of “The Martyrs of Shumsk,” those who died in the Holocaust. Return
  8. Moshe Carmel (1911-2003) was born in Minsk (then in Poland) and moved to Palestine at age 13. He was active in Hehalutz Hatzair and was sent to Europe as a shaliach (emissary) before World War II. He was a high-ranking soldier during Israel's 1948 war of independence and became a politician, serving in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, from 1955 to 1977. He was Israel's minister of transportation for eight years. Return
  9. Joseph Vladimirovich Trumpeldor (1880-1920) was an early Zionist activist who died defending the settlement of Tel Hai in northern Galilee and became a Zionist national hero. Return
  10. Aliyah: (Hebrew) Literally, ascent. The term is used for the immigration of Jews from the diaspora to the promised land, Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel). “Making Aliyah” by moving to Israel is a basic tenet of Zionism. Return
  11. Mosik was a nickname for Chaim Avraham Yukelson, later known as Chaim Livne (1913-1991). He made aliyah in 1933. More about him is in the introductory note at szu261.html#Page267. Return
  12. All these friends perished in the Holocaust. Return
  13. The brothers Mordechai “Mottil” Geler and Moshe Geler were cousins of the author, Yitzhak Geler. Return
  14. Artels in the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union were semiformal cooperative associations for various craft, artisan, and light industrial enterprises under collective ownership. Return
  15. Asher Katschuretz and Miriam Offengendler perished in the Holocaust. Return
  16. Dina Shteinman survived World War II, hiding with her sister Ruth (Shteinman) Halperin, as Ruth wrote in pages 29-48 of this yizkor book, szu029.html. After the war Dina developed cancer and went to the United States for treatment but died. Return
  17. Nikolai Fyodorovich Vatutin (1901-1944) was a Soviet military commander during World War II, responsible for many Red Army operations in Ukraine as commander of the Southwestern Front. Return
  18. See “How My Son and I Survived” by Chaim Geler, beginning on page 365 of this yizkor book, szu343.html#Page365. Chaim Geler was finally allowed to leave the Soviet Union in May 1965 and moved to Israel, according to his son Yitzhak Geler's chapter on Yisrael Sudman on pages 211-213 of this yizkor book, szu185.html#f211-2r Return


[Pages 289-290]

The Lubomirki Group

by Sender Sforim

Translated by Shulamit Berman

Note: Sender Sforim and his wife and children came to Shumsk as refugees during World War I. Sender's son Rafael changed his surname to Sapir.

It was the summer of 1925. I was going on foot from our town, Shumsk, to the city of Dubno, the administrative center (a distance of some 50 kilometers). My route took me along thick forest trails and past remote villages, because, lacking identification papers and in an effort to save money, I could not travel the usual way. I had heard that in the heart of the forest, between Shumsk and Dubno, some members of the Shumsk Histadrut Hehalutz1 had established a hachshara (training) kibbutz at a sawmill in the woods.

I decided to make a slight detour in order to visit them. The scenery was enchanting, and I was charmed by the warmth and friendliness of the people I met. From then on, every time I passed that way I would spend a day working with them and joining in their evening discussions. I would sleep over and continue on my way in the morning.

I have very fond memories of the days I spent with them, working by day, singing by night, dancing and debating.

Every conversation began with “when I get to Eretz Israel.” They were living the life of Eretz Israel even though they were not there yet. They were not really familiar with the teachings of Karl Marx. They were very worried about the examination they would have to take to be eligible for a ‘sertifikaat’. What if they didn't know the differences between a small group and a large group? And what is Kapai?2

Nevertheless their instincts were sound – they sensed that the earth was burning beneath their feet and they yearned to live in Eretz Israel and help rebuild it.

 

 

And they made it! Most of them made aliyah.3 They acclimatized and involved themselves in every aspect of work and every kind of farming. Even during the lean years when there was no work, none of them thought of the “rich uncle in America,” and none of them left. A few didn't make it, through no fault of their own. The gates to Eretz Israel were sealed shut. There were all kinds of “white books” [British Mandate restrictions] but as far as they were concerned, they were the blackest of black books. They didn't manage to make aliyah and they perished during the Holocaust.

May their memory be a blessing.


Translator's Footnotes

  1. Histadrut Hechalutz was a federation of youth groups (Hechalutz in Hebrew means youth pioneers) that prepared young people for immigration to Palestine/Israel to settle the land, teaching them farming and Hebrew language and culture. Return
  2. Kapai or Kupat Poalei Eretz Israel, known in English as the Palestine Workers' Fund, was a conduit for aid from the international Poalei Zion movement to Palestine, beginning in 1909. Kapai funded the creation of a number of worker cooperatives until it was taken over by Histadrut in 1923. Return
  3. Aliyah: (Hebrew) Literally, ascent. The term is used for the immigration of Jews from the diaspora to the promised land, the Land of Israel. “Making Aliyah” by moving to Israel is a basic tenet of Zionism. Return

 

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