by Rachel Feldger
Translated by Gal Amir
Edited by Lynne Tolman
|Note: The author of this article, Rachel Onie nee Feldger, immigrated to Palestine in 1937. She lost her family -- mother, sister, two brothers and their families, who were murdered by the Nazis in Shumsk in 1942. Rachel passed away in Afula, Israel, in 1984. This article was translated into English from the original Hebrew by her grandson, Gal Amir.)|
The towns in Volhynia were renowned for their vibrant Jewish social life, but our town Shumsk, so it seems to me, was outstanding in this respect. Its public life was Jewish-Zionist, since most of the population was Jewish. No other national group held any public activity.
Jewish social activities in the town were varied. There was a large Hechalutz branch, which prepared pioneers for their aliyah; there were the national funds for rebuilding a Jewish homeland --the Keren Kayemet and Keren Hayesod --contributions to which increased annually; there was a large Tarbut school, a Hebrew library which numbered most of the young people of the town among its readers, etc.
Much could be written about each of these, and this would be of major interest for research into the early stages of nation-building, but I will only write about the activities of our dramatic group. This group, of which I was a longtime member, was very dear to me, and its memory still reverberates within me.
I do not know exactly when the company was founded. I was among the youngest of its participants.
Its most prominent figure, one who will be forever remembered by anyone who participated in the group, was our director, (Mordechai) Mirmelsztejn, and his wife, Shaindel, of blessed memory. He and his wife volunteered to set up the group in their home and the meetings and rehearsals were held there.
The dramatic society had two objectives. The first was to develop the artistic and cultural interests of its participants and its audience. The second was to engage in activities which would strengthen our identification with Zionism. Artistically, we made efforts to present plays by well- known Yiddish playwrights, above all Sholom Aleichem, Goldfadden and Gordin. Zionist activity centered on donating the proceeds of the shows to the national funds and the Hechalutz, and to helping those of our friends who were making aliyah. The dramatic society had a third objective, incidental but of educational significance. It was to make us aware of our responsibility to our community. Part of our income went to charity for the needy -- matzot for Passover, firewood in the winter, etc.
It goes without saying that the activities of the drama group were based completely on voluntary collective efforts, with no personal financial rewards for anyone. And yet, some of the audience viewed us as mere comedians. Fortunately, most of the audience appreciated our work and were sympathetic to our cause.
We spared no time or effort. None of us ever missed a single rehearsal, in rain or snow, and we even contributed our own money for costumes, scenery, or musical scores in the cases where a show did not cover its expenses.
I remember Mirmelsztejn, standing among us during the rehearsal, guiding, encouraging, influencing, giving strength, like the great teacher he was. He wanted his pupils to succeed, and he was concerned with the nature of the group we were building, so he did not spare his anger when he felt that we had deviated from the spirit of the play or the goals of the dramatic society.
In the home of Sheindel and Mirmelsztejn we experienced a taste of freedom and deep friendship, and we loved meeting there.
Sometimes in my mind's eye, I see myself in their home, engulfed by its warmth, belonging to a large, ever growing group. To this day, I feel that I am connected to those who with me participated in those cultural evenings, and who are no longer with us now. Sometimes their images appear to me, and I remember them as they were. Here are Fania and Grisha Akerman, of blessed memory, Fania, our prima dona, and Grisha, the director who succeeded Mirmelsztejn. The beautiful Fania played every part like a professional actress, with talent, taste and charm. Grisha was the cheerful joker who made us laugh and be happy. My sister Batiah, of blessed memory, played the part of the Jewish Yachne  in many plays.
Chaim Klejnsztejn was the comedian, the company jester, who played Hotzmach in The Witch (by Colondia), and Ting Tang in Salome. Alongside them were the many less talented actors who were always prepared to allow the stars to shine and so ensure the success of the show.
Alongside the dramatic group there was a small string orchestra which accompanied the performances. Here too were beloved friends who gave of their musical talents for the success of the plays, and I recall those who were most prominent: my brothers, Moshe and Yaakov Feldger, of blessed memory; Meir Akerman, may he rest in peace, and Tartekovsky, of blessed memory. This modest orchestra was so devoted to its calling that it developed into the best of such musical ensembles. Even members of the arrogant Polish ruling class who held anything not Polish in contempt had no choice but to recognize their talent and invited them to play at their shows. This, of course, enhanced our pride in being Jews.
The repertoire of the dramatic society included outstanding plays by Jewish playwrights, such as Gordin's Mirele Efros, The Great Win by Sholom Aleichem, and others, and Goldfaden's operettas Bar Kochva, Salome, and The Witch, which were the audience's favorites.
In preparing material for the shows we were always concerned with presenting problems and the search for their solution, but in order to remain acceptable to a wide audience we were compelled to acquiesce to common taste. If we didn't present plays which were attractive, the audience would leave us. We, in the dramatic group, had developed a group spirit of our own, had many shared experiences, and were a unique force in our town, Shumsk. We had many shared experiences behind the scene, with all that these entail.
There was no dearth of humorous incidents and curiosities. We presented the last plays in the auditorium of the public school Shkola Pobshechna, but before that we performed in the Wilskier Braver, a wine hall that did not have enough light, but had enough space and also had birds which would defecate on the audience during the shows...
I remember during one show in the Shkola Pobshechna we all went on stage, in costume and makeup. The curtain went up, and the actors waited for the cue from the prompter -- but the prompter was not in his place! The audience sat quietly, waiting expectantly, but the fellow had disappeared ... Of course we had to lower the curtain. We stood there, not knowing what to do, when suddenly we saw the prompter, Zecharia Sztejnberg, may he rest in peace, standing in one of the corners of the stage, behind the scenes, praying Shemone Esre  with devotion. This made us laugh -- not according to the program, of course, and the audience stirred in surprise. But we forgave Zecharia, and the play was a success in spite of the late start. It was only then that we learned of the identity of our prompter. There was something in him that symbolized our activities: boundless dedication to the Jewish nation, employing all means possible -- both the ancient one of prayer and the so-called modern one of artistic expression -- each one loyally whispered, with equal fervor.
by Akiva Shprecher
Translated by Rachel Bar Yosef
Edited by Lynne Tolman
|Note: The translation of this article is in memory of Akiva Shprecher, who immigrated to Palestine from Shumsk in the late 1930s, lived in Haifa, and passed away in 1993; the translation is donated by his children Haim Shprecher and Miriam Adir.|
I write these words, which spring from my great love for my town, especially for the Shumsk Yizkor Book. My fondest wish is that this book will serve as a historic document, to which future generations will turn to read about the conditions in which we grew up, studied, developed. Our reality here in Israel today is nothing whatsoever like the conditions of that time and place. Herein lies the greatness as well as the weaknesses of our forebears.
Our town of Shumsk was surrounded by 24 villages, most of whose inhabitants were Pravoslavic Ukrainians, who made their living either farming or working in the nearby forests. A few thousand Jews lived in the center of the town; most of them were engaged in trade, with the exception of a few dozen heads of families who were laborers (tailors, cobblers, carpenters, glaziers, etc.).
Part of the town was hilly. At its southern edge ran the Vilya stream, which drove two large mills. Avraham Rajch's mill supplied Shumsk with electricity, lighting streets and houses. In this our town was different from the other towns in the area, which remained in darkness for many subsequent years .
Every week there was a traditional market, to which the farmers would bring grains, fruits, and vegetables. With their profits they would buy groceries, clothing, and shoes, and they would end up getting drunk and being arrested by the police.
The youth of Shumsk their education and future prospects
For many years, the people of Shumsk were content to study Jewish religious subjects in the Talmud Torah school in the synagogue study hall. As time passed, they started to teach their sons secular subjects and de-emphasized Torah and Gemarrah. There were two schools in the town, a state elementary school and the private Tarbut school, whose high tuition cost made it inaccessible for many children. This was a great pity.
The children at the Tarbut school were taught Hebrew and general subjects, as well as receiving a Zionist education that involved preparation for physical labor and Hachsharot. Once a boy finished his elementary schooling, in most cases he would work to help support his parents and family. But since there were an average of four or five children in each family and there was not enough work to go around, thoughts of emigrating to America would enter people's heads (already in those days tens of thousands of Jews were bewitched by the thought of America). Later, beginning in the 1920s, some pioneering spirits started thinking in terms of settling in the Land of Israel. This was when our local branch of Hechalutz got organized, encouraging the young people to adopt real physical labor. The boys, including Lokaczer, Seforim, Shalom Rojchman, and others, worked in the timber warehouse, and all the Efros sons started learning carpentry. The parents were amazed by the phenomenon that our boys, with their own hands, were turning out work on a higher level of craftsmanship than the gentiles. The girls started to learn to weave reed baskets, under the guidance of a gentile master basketweaver, right in our own home. My sister Devora, Malka Klejnsztein, and Gittel Seforim later went to Hachsharot in Klosova and other places in Poland. To the best of my recollection, the first pioneers made aliyah during the riots of 1929, after taking their leave of the townspeople with a mixture of joy and sadness.
This was the generation of revolution and revolt, a generation that took a dim view of our town life, so deficient in terms of economic stability. They aspired to put the situation to rights by making a radical change and embracing a productive life of manual labor and the realization of the dream of establishing a Jewish state in the Land of Israel. Later, the town's branch of Betar and the Hachsharah Kibbutz were organized, based mostly on work in the sawmill in Malanyov (about 7 kilometers from Shumsk). This was backbreaking work, which involved, among other things, lifting and positioning the logs for sawing, and all manner of associated tasks. This work supported these boys, at the same time that it provided training in an occupation for those who were not thinking of leaving Poland. There were other boys who went to the ORT school in Kremenets to study. (ORT was a Bund influenced school system that sought to train Jewish youth for productive employment.) Jewish boys began unashamedly to turn their energies to physical labor, even if they were planning to spend the rest of their lives in Jewish Shumsk.
Social life and leisure
The young people would meet at their branch clubhouses, whether that be Hechalutz or Betar, and every Shabbat there would be a general meeting ending with a hike to Gorka, where there was a lovely pine forest. Some went farther afield, to the Malanyov forest, to gather berries. In the rainy season the young people would have to be content to entertain themselves in the clubhouse. The river would freeze over in winter, stretching as far as the village of Olyvus, which added an enormous amount of glassy-smooth territory to the town. Not only did this make it easier for the farmers to get to the town; the frozen river also enabled the more athletic young people to ice-skate, some with wooden blades and some with steel. In the evenings, they would gather with their sleds on the top of a hill and slide down, over and over.
Enlistment in the army
When a boy reached the age of 18, he reported to the municipal office for a routine examination of his papers, and at 21 he had to report to the recruitment office in the district city of Kremenets for a medical examination and assignment of his health status. A boy who was underweight would receive a deferment for one year, but if after three examinations he was still underweight and his health did not improve, he would receive a release from the army. To obtain this magical release, our boys would gather for months before they were due to report, spending hours upon hours eating seeds, in their desperate effort to lose weight and get out of serving in the alien army. There were extreme cases in which parents collaborated with their sons and baked them cakes made with castor oil for this purpose. Those who had already resigned themselves to serving in the Polish army used to run riot on the last evenings before their mobilization. A typical prank might be changing signs from cobbler to doctor or from doctor to carpenter, or using boards and snow sleds to erect tall barricades, and so on. I should point out that the gentiles considered it a source of great shame to evade army service, but Jewish youths would resist being called up for two reasons: fear of anti-Semitic abuse at the hands of their comrades in arms, or fear of eating meat that was not kosher or not ritually slaughtered, or a combination of the two.
There were the youth of Shumsk, and these were their concerns and activities.
Penina (Dorfman) Sharon of Kibbutz Afek in Israel, originally from Shumsk, explains in oral communication with the Shumsk Yizkor book translation project coordinator that the Shumsk branch of Hechalutz Hatzair (the Young Pioneers) -- which was a youth movement for children and teenagers -- had a special hachshara project for its young members. It involved working on tobacco plantations that were owned by two Polish Army officers who had been granted land in the area by the Polish government for their exemplary service in World War I. Return
by Pesach Lerner
Translated by Shulamit Berman
|Notes: Pesach Lerner was born in Shumsk in 1901 to Malka (Roichman) and Moshe Lerner. In pages 261-266 of this yizkor book, he describes the cheder (elementary school) he attended from 1904 to 1914. 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.|
A few years before the First World War the Czar legislated compulsory schooling and Shumsk gained a mixed school for boys and girls, Jews and gentiles.
The situation was bad for the Jews. Teachers and pupils alike conspired against them, causing a great deal of trouble, and nobody in town stood up for them. However, when it was decreed that Jewish children must attend school on the Sabbath, tempers flared. Everyone in Shumsk, young and old, focused solely on this problem. Nobody was willing to accept the situation.
After much lobbying a compromise was reached. The children would attend school on the Sabbath but would not be required to write.
Not everyone was satisfied with this compromise and parents began taking their children out of school.
Out of strength came forth sweetness:
Matisyahu Freider, an excellent teacher, took it upon himself to establish the first Jewish school in town, at a time when it was not permitted. This was therefore a clandestine operation fraught with difficulties, and the teachers faced danger on a daily basis. Classes were held in a tense atmosphere. The teachers were constantly on their guard. We loved our school. Our teachers were true academics with a vast wealth of knowledge. We acquired the rudiments of language and advanced rapidly in general subjects. Every lesson was an event, and the situation of the teachers became ours too. Together with them we feared that our underground school would be discovered.
And then it happened.
It was during a lesson with our beloved and esteemed teacher Yehiel Kanfer. We were all focused on a student who was demonstrating addition and subtraction on the board. Suddenly our teacher left his place and dived through the window like a gangster. We wasted no time leaping after him. Afterwards it transpired that our offense had been discovered and the regional inspector suddenly turned up at the scene of the crime.
The school was closed. We continued to study privately with our teachers. Once I conducted a survey and discovered something strange: The teachers who devoted themselves to teaching Hebrew did not go to Eretz Israel but emigrated to other countries, yet most of their students are in Eretz Israel.
Before the outbreak of World War I it was impossible to alter the situation with regard to education and there was no Jewish school.
In the first year of the war no attention was paid to education. There was general confusion among the Jews and all eyes were focused on the unrelenting war and economic concerns. But in the second year a new kind of life took hold that also allowed for education.
That was when Shlomo (Wallach) Ben-Yehuda, a seminar student from Eretz Israel, turned up in our town. He had been stuck in Russia and found himself in Shumsk. He was the first to introduce the method of teaching Hebrew in Hebrew, and he displayed exceptional teaching ability. However, he taught privately, so most of the youth were left without the learning establishment our parents had become accustomed to during the brief period of Matos Freider's school.
So they brought a qualified teacher with a state license to the general Jewish school: Mr. Meir Dikshtein.
Dikshtein, now deceased, was popular with everyone in Shumsk. His focus on teaching Talmud in school inspired trust and within a short time all the Jewish youngsters in Shumsk who were seeking an education began to visit him. His family adapted to the town as if they had been born there. Shumsk had acquired a new and respected family, whose many children were educated and talented.
Since he was a semi-official functionary, we were not aware of Dikshtein's public persona, but from the behavior of the kids who attended every Zionist activity including the drama group, it could be assumed that he had a Zionist background. When I was preparing to make aliyah to Eretz Israel his family asked me to convey their good wishes to Meir's father. It then became clear that Dikshtein's formal guise concealed Zionist leanings.
Upon my arrival in Eretz Israel I visited grandfather Dikshtein. I found an elderly, serene gentleman sitting with a Gemara open before him, preparing the lesson he taught on a voluntary basis at the local synagogue.
Then Matisyahu Freider was also seized with literary zeal. He took advantage of the reigning confusion and the waning fear of the authorities to reopen his Jewish school, where general subjects were also taught. All his teachers were from Shumsk and they were all excellent. They included Sonya Ackerman, who taught Russian, geography and math; Hirsch Mendel Geldi, who taught grammar and Tanach (Bible) -- and best of all, Yaakov Zilber, who was loved by all the students and whose lessons in grammar, Tanach and language were unforgettable.
We were able to gauge the quality of advanced Hebrew education in Shumsk when we emigrated to Eretz Israel and discovered our spoken Hebrew was rich and our cargo of knowledge was considerable. You couldn't tell that we had learned with misgivings, at intervals, with disruptions, in secret. Many of us felt our early education was the foundation and chief factor in the fulfillment of our aliyah.
|This image has no caption in the original Shumsk Yizkor Book. It is a receipt from the Keren Kayemet (Jewish National Fund) for a contribution made in Shumsk on the 30th of the month of Heshvan. The year is not stated. The amount is 32 guilders and 20. The receipt contains the name Sudman and possibly the words Hoshana Rabbah, which is the next-to-last day of Sukkot, when people give charity. Yisroel Sudman built a shul, so perhaps this receipt is for money contributed by the people who prayed there on Hoshana Rabbah.|
|Notes: Mordechai Gilon, born Mordechai Freider, immigrated to Palestine in 1934 and Hebraicized his surname to Gilon. Mordechai was one of many children born in Shumsk to Etya and Yisrael Leib Freider. Shalom Freider, who wrote Our Rabbi, Reb Yossele Ė and Sports on page 221 of this book, was a brother of Mordechai. Other members of the family chose different surnames in Israel. Mordechai was named for his grandfather, Rabbi Mordechai Freider of Kosogorka. Mordechai Gilon died in 1987.|
The idea of establishing a kindergarten at a time when people were unwilling to entertain any thought of secular progress, and to teach small children, was daring, and it involved personal risk.
I donít know how I, the writer of these lines, dared to do so without public support and without even a helpful atmosphere.
The year was 1924. I had returned from my studies in Rovno and Sarna and submitted my idea to the Zionist bodies in town but I was turned down. They raised many doubts about the feasibility of such a venture.
The truth is that the Shumsk financiers were right. The difficulties of aliyah and their efforts to support it used up all their resources. They were also concerned with the reaction of the ruling religious sector, who would view it as heresy, and in order to save the little ones they would intensify the townís opposition to all Zionist activities. It could also be assumed that the teachers, their cronies, and their croniesí cronies would regard it as robbing them of their livelihood.
Nobody would dare deprive Jews of their income.
I set out on an unpaved path. Alone, solitary, in a hostile environment and with no real hope of bringing my project to fruition or even a suitable place to function. A kindergarten without children.
I launched a private effort and managed to persuade several mothers, but many had strange questions for me: Will this ensure a paying profession? Will there be a belfer to carry the children on his shoulders? And many more such klotzkashes (foolish questions) for which I had no satisfactory answers.
Armed with the promise of this small number of children I began seeking a place for my poor establishment.
Such a place could not be found in our town. And if such a place could be found, it was not available to me, for fear of excommunication and penalties and the like.
The only one who shared in my efforts was Yossil Basils. He had just added a salon and he gave me the use of the new spacious room in his house.
The room had no floor; the ground was plastered with clay. It was dusty. The walls were pitted with holes. Until now it had been a roosting place for ducks, who were still around, even during classes. I was given to understand that my landlords had the right to go through my classroom whenever they pleased.
When I agreed to this condition I was not aware that the landlord was usually accompanied by curious neighbors with plenty of free time, as well as traders who came from the fair on market days.
I accepted all these initial torments and continued with my project for a while.
The parents of my students were extremely satisfied and showered me with blessings. The little ones found themselves in a shining garden of childhood, free of the burden of early Judaism and the yoke of mitzvot here, in their age of freedom. They learned to write and draw. They expressed their feelings in many ways, and it seemed to me that I would continue. The parents would change their concepts of education and I would be able to attain my goals.
Regrettably, my parents were the first who were put off. They caused my efforts to fail when they saw that their children were not studying Torah and there was no chance of them boasting of how they could quote Rashiís commentary. They were alarmed by such nonconformity and at the first opportunity they pulled their children out.
The kindergarten in Shumsk did not last. I was tired and disappointed. When I think back, I only do so in order to remind myself and others of our daring, when we tried to achieve what we did, to some extent, in order to promote Zionism among the people of our town.
Itís a shame they didnít let us.
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