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[Page 440]

Culture War in Volozhin

By Benyamin Shapir –Shishko (Karkoor)

Translated by M. Porat z”l

Edited by Judy Feinsilver Montel

My father Reb Mordkhe, son of Nisn Shishko was a Zion lover, and more over, he was God-Fearing and appreciating scholars. I was his only son, but despite of it he fulfilled in me the Sages proverb “the exile is Torah” and he sent me far in Kremenchoog (Ukraine) to learn Torah. During World War One were four yeshivas there: Knesset Isroel, Knesset Beys Itskhok (from Slobodka), The Lubavitsh Hassidim Yeshiva and the Yeshiva for youngsters “Torah Gates” in which I was student. The Yeshivah manager was R' Elazar Shishkin married to the sister of R' Yokhanan Roodkes from Volozhin. All the days he would spend wrapped in Taless and Tfilin not saying a regular word. The Yeshiva Head was R' Shlomo Heyman the erudite from Paritsh who married Yokhanan Roodkes daughter. The Yeshivah was soaked in the spirit of Volozhin.

In 1921 I was became friendly with Moyshe Zalman Lunts, outstanding objector of the Diaspora (Frydele di Rebetsin's son – see page 243). Influenced by him I became an active Zionist. Returning to Vilna I decided to abandon my religious studies and enrolled myself in the Vilna Tarbut (“culture” in Hebrew) seminar for teachers.

My decision distressed my father. He wrote me a heart-aching letter:

My life was despised, when I was acknowledged that you chose Tarbut, the institution which violates the holiness of Israel, as it is written in Bamidbar in the Pentateuch: “Tarbut (Culture) of the sinful”.

One learns from the above how far was the distance of opinions between the Torah appreciating, God fearing fathers and their children who objected to the Diaspora and decided to hasten the Messiah's arrival especially by the resuscitation of the Hebrew language and by going to live in Israel.

With the closure of the Yeshiva “Eyts Hayim” during the First World War the voice of the Torah was silenced in Volozhin. A crisis arose in children's education. Many of them abandoned even the Heyder tutorial. The Zionists took advantage of the situation and decided to open a Hebrew primary school based on the pure Hebrew language. The “Talmud-Torah” School was empty for many days, there were no lessons inside. The Volozhin Zionists “invaded” the building in 1925 and created within its walls the Hebrew Tarbut School.

The “Walls'-Watchmen” under Rabbi Yakov Shapiro's leadership woke up and began a holy war to obtain back the building in order to teach there Torah and in Yiddish, Mame-loshn (mother language) precisely, the language every Jew speaks and understands.

During the 1927-1928 school year a bitter culture war took place in Volozhin. The war hurt the Jewish Congregation severely from the moral and from the cultural points of view. Both parties fought self-sacrificingly for the right to possess the building.

The war was accompanied by hard words, fist-fighting and even by bloodshed, in a single word, blasphemy.

Finishing my studies in Vilna (1927), I followed my father's desire and went to teach at the religious school “Tahkmonee” in Zabludovo. After teaching one year at Tahkmonee I returned to Volozhin. Both parts of the town community saw me as a person who could make peace and unify the two opponent camps.

Most of the Volozhin home-owners in both camps were Zionists, among them also Reb Eli-Itshe Shvartsberg the religious school manager and its founders R' Isroel Lunin and R' Shloyme Hayim Broodno. The main struggle was on the teaching spirit and on its language. R' Yakov Shapiro implored to explain “Breyshiss Boro” in theYiddish mother-language. The Zionists insisted on not giving up the Hebrew.

A joint session was called, at which participated R' Yankev Shapiro, R' Isroel Lunin, R' Shloyme Hayim Broodno, R' Yakov Waysbord and R' Shmuel Rookhamkin – from the Religious part. From the “Seculars” participated Shaye Kaganovitsh, Yani Garber, Dovid Kantorovitsh, Dov Lavit and Isaak Perski. I served as a neutral arbiter.

It was agreed to bestow all rights of the building to the “Tarbut” school, all disciplines should be led in Hebrew unexceptionally, but students should say the Morning Prayer (Shakhriss) every day before learning begins.

Reconciliation took place in Volozhin. One single Hebrew school functioned in Volozhin. I was its manager for three years. Yaakov Lifsitz replaced me after I went to Palestine. The School existed and acted following the founders' agreement. The Hebrew learning ceased to function immediately after the Soviets entered Volozhin on September 1939. The new rulers introduced Yiddish teaching and thereafter it was changed to Belorussian. The School worked until its destruction by the Fascists.


[Page 443]

The Volozhin Kindergarten

By Miriam Levitan

Translated by M. Porat z”l

Edited by Judy Feinsilver Montel

The first (and also the last) Jewish kindergarten in Volozhin was founded in 1934. Mrs. Fania Kivilevitsh during her visit from Eretz Israel in her native shtetl influenced its inhabitants to establish a “Gan” (Garden in Hebrew) in Volozhin by telling them about the happy childhood of the Israel born children (Sabres) at kindergartens' in the Holy Land.

A committee was created. Ruvn Rosenberg and Berl Taft rented a two room apartment from Ruvn Rogovin on the Market Place. Rachel Shevakh was engaged as the Kindergarten teacher (Ganenet).

She spoke to her pupils Yiddish but the songs she taught were Hebrew. Rachel was a lovely blonde devoted to her pupils and to their wellbeing. She organized children shows at the Volozhin firemen's local near the shtetl water pond. Rachel did an excellent work preparing children for further learning in the Volozhin primary Tarbut School.

 

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The Volozhin Kindergarten - 1934

 

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Purim in the Kindergarten – 1935

Names I remember (Translator's note):
1-Rachel Shevakh, 2-Sonitshka Perlman (my sister), 3- Rivele Perski (Getsl's), 4-Feyguele Rapoport (Meyshl's),
5 - Esterke Kaminietski, 6- Iser Rapoport (the Dentist's), 7- Yoel Rosnberg (Ruven's)

Of all the lovely children two only escaped the Shtetl's fate: Sonitshka Perlman-2 and Feyguele Rapoport-4


[Page 445]

The Library

by Fruma Guzman (Yuzefovitz), Jerusalem

Translated by Naomi Gal

Every now and then Hershel Selzer, a man who knew his books, used to visit our house and he suggested that I join the volunteers working in the library. I said yes. He invited me to a meeting in which the following activists participated: 1) Hershel Selzer. 2) Sara Yuzefovitz (my sister). 3) Elka Kaganovitz. 4) Krushovsky. 5) Mariasia Potshnik. 6) Akiva Potshnik. 7) Noa Perskie. 8) Sonia Koslovsky. 9) Israel Rogovin.

These members gave their time and energy to the library, by founding it and raising money for it with performances. From the report given in that meeting it turned out that these volunteers managed

 

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The library committee in 1929

First row up (from right to left): 1) Sonia Koslovsky 2) Hershel Selzer 3) Marieasia Potshnik 4) Ze'ev Perskie
Second row: 1) Akiva Potshnik 2) Fruma Yuzefovitz 3) Elka Kaganovitz 4) Krushovsky

[Page 446]

a public library without public support, just from revenues made by performances they staged themselves and with personal contributions.

I saw here an ample opportunity for an interesting and helpful work. I got the task of finding a partner and go out with her to raise money, since they could not afford the rent. I went out with Hannah Weisbord. Our outing was considered a success. There was no home in Volozhin that did not respond generously, and with the money collected we paid the rent.

The library was on Smorgon Street in the house of “Haya de Cracower” (“Haya from Cracow City”). Books were loaned three times a week. Many youngsters came to borrow books because they liked this place very much. It served as a social meeting place, a place for conversations, and exchange of opinions about literature and art.

Soldiers too came to loan books, among them Poles who contributed some books. Subscribed to the library were some sons and daughters of poor and working–class people who wanted to get an education and this was the only place where they could acquire knowledge.

There was no permanent librarian in the library. Some members, among them a soldier from Lodz, bound the books. The library committee took upon itself charity roles as well. We assisted “the Justice League”. We used to spend the nights in the houses of old, lonely people. Before I made Aliyah some of them came to thank me for all the beneficial work I did for them. In this way we worked for others and not in order to be rewarded.


[Page 446]

Religious Education in the Thirties

By Menahem Mendel Potashnik (New York)

Translated by Naomi Gal

 

The Big Beit Hamidrash

The big Beit Hamidrash stood in the market, close to the yeshiva. “Liebe der Shamash” served as a shamash and Baal Koriah (He who reads the Torah). Rabbi Yaakov Shapira, who was the city's Rabbi and the head of the yeshiva, used to preach in the Beit Hamidrash twice a year – in “Shabbat Hagadol” and in “Shabbat Shuva”. His speeches were halachic and contained fables, he had great knowledge of Shas.

It is a sacred obligation for us to mention a few yeshiva students who contributed a lot to strengthening the religious life in the city. One of them was Rabbi Gaon Mordechai Levin. In the yeshiva he was called “Motel Trever” (after the name of his native city Trev). He spent most of his life in Volozhin. He was a great expert on Shas and psalms, but as wide as his knowledge was his modesty. He believed in what the sages said: “he who boasts is

[Page 447]

disabled”. He used to talk to children about Torah. He was well liked by the yeshiva people and the city's Jews.

We should remember one of the prominent youngsters – Rabbi Yaakov Stolarsky. They called him in the yeshiva “Yaakov Klazker”. He was famous as a great sage. His impeccable morals were well–known. He was close to Rabbi Haim Welkin. We need to mention also Rabbi Nathan Dickstein, a Volozhin native, he had great ethics and many good values.

There was a famous Schochet in Volozhin named Rabbi Yehuda Avraham Persky, who was doing this job since the time of the Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin). He prayed in the yeshiva and knew the names and accomplishments of all the yeshiva's dignitaries and heads. He told me that he had the privilege of seeing R' Izele, the son of Rabbi Haim from Volozhin.

He died during the thirties when he was over hundred years old. As an old man, when his eyes and hands weakened his son–in–law, R' Israel Heiteen served as Shochet.

 

The “Kloizel”

In Willena Street stood a Beit Hamidrash that was called the “Kloizel”. One of the first Gabbai in the Kloizel was Rabbi Menahem Yoel Potashnik who was well respected by the congregation since he was active in all the public establishments. He was a linen merchant. Before he left for his business in the close–by village he used to pray in the first “Minyan”. When he came back from the village, he used to enter the “Kloizel” to study the daily Torah Page with the “Shas Company”. The lesson's Maggid was Rabbi Mordechai Levin. On Friday nights he used to explain the Week's Portion. Rabbi Yaakov Kaganovitz (“Yaakov Divenishker” is in the United States) used to teach a Talmud page.

After the murder of Rabbi Menahem Yoel Potashnik the Gabbais in the “Kloizel” were R' Israel Lonin and R' Yosef Tabahovitz. Rabbi Lonin was represented in all the city's establishments – the community's council, the bank, “Hamizrahi” etc. Rabbi Yosef Tabahovitz served as permanent Gabbai in the “Yeshiva Council”.

As a Shamash in the “Kloizel” served R' Moshe Levitt. When we were children, our deepest wish was to get a “prophet” we could dance with in Simchat Torah in the Beit Hamidrash. On the seventh day of Succoth, when the Shamash fell asleep after lunch – we used to linger for hours around his house, waiting for him to wake up so that we could go with him to the “Kloizel” and get a “prophet”.

After his death Rabbi Avraham David, who was also the melamed, was appointed as Shamash. He was very strict about “Washing Hands” Mitzva. He used to walk in the street and encourage everybody to say the blessing “He who created”.

As a Baal Kore of the “Kloizel,” was “Moshe Shlomo the Melamed” (Wolkovitz). There was a “Tihillim” (psalms) Group and before the Shabbat ended, they used to read psalm 119, which begins with the words “blessed are the undefiled in the way”. They read this psalm with a beautiful melody.

The night of Hoshana Raba was a sleepless night in the “Kloizel”. They read “Psalms” from beginning to end. Rabbi Haim Zirolnik (“Haim the Taylor”) brought everyday a basket with apples and gave right, left and center fragrant, delicious apples.

[Page 448]

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The members of “The best of youngsters” in the farewell party
to Rabbi Shimon Langbard before he made Aliya in 1935

On top (on the book shelf) from right to left: 1) Yitzhak Haikeen 2) Nissan Haikeen 3) Baruch Gelman
First row: (from top to bottom) 1) Elimelek Bloch 2) Yeshiva student 3) the son of “Eli the locksmith” 4) Binyamin Bak–Shesanski 5) Israel Gelman 6) Yodel Shimkeen 7) Hershel Kagan 8) Liebe Konimovitz
Second row: 1) Zalman Shapira 2) Bayle Shapira 3) The Rebbetzin Schoene Risha Shapira 4) Pessia Shapira 5) Rebbetzin Hannah Langbard 6) Rabbi Shimon Landbard 7) A yeshiva student 8) Mendl Potanshnik 9) Itzhak Moshe Shapira, Germans' son–in–law
(On the photo) For our teacher and the Rabbi Gaon Shimon Langbard – Have a Safe Trip

 

“Tiferet Bahurim”
(“The glorious youngsters” society)

There was in Volozhin an association of “Tiferet Bahurim” whose meeting place was in the big Beit Midrash. There were about thirty members. The organizers were Rabbi Shimon Landbard (the son–in–law of rabbi Yaakov Shapira), Rabbi Aaron Shmidman (“Aaron Pinsker” the association's head) and the writer of these notes.

On Saturday nights, during the winter, public meetings were held in the big Beit Midrash and they were concentrated to the Weekly Portion. The speakers were among the yeshiva students. One of the excellent ones was Rabbi Yaakov Kaganovitz.

In 1935 “Tiferet Bahurim” entered its own Torah scroll. This association had its own “Minyan” that prayed on Shabbats and Holydays. They also gave parties of the “Three Feasts” accompanied by singing and Torah Words. The association had its own library as well. As permanent rabbis served Rabbi Aaron Schmidman, R' Eli Itzhak Schwartzberg, lawyer Lapidot and Rabbi Yaakov Stolarsky (“Yaakov Klatzker”).

Most of the members were laborers and wholesale merchants. The secretary was the writer of these notes. In 1935, when Rabbi Aaron Schmidman married a woman from the Shishko family in Borisovska (Bakshet) and left the city – I was chosen as the chairman of the association. I served in this capacity until the break of World War Two.

Next to “Tiferet Bahurim” there was a branch of Poalai Agudath Israel whose main office was in Lodz. Two of their members – Yitzhak Perski and Elimelech the Hazan – left for training, Persky made Aliyah while Elimelech perished in Volozhin.

“Tiferet Bahurim” also elected the committee of Keren Hayishuv (The Yishuv Fund) whose members were Rabbi Yosef Tabakovitz, the writer of these notes, Rabbi Avraham Yaffe, Rabbi Haim Bergman and R' Hirsh Schneider. This committee was one of the most active among the villages that were on the border of White Russia.

The members of the association were subscribed to the daily newspaper of the “Agudah” that was published in Warsaw. The number of subscribers was thirty.

 

“Beit Yaakov” The Religious School for girls

Volozhin had a religious school for girls “Beit Yaakov” headed by a teacher who graduated from a teacher seminar in Krakow. The school was founded in 1935 by a group of young people. To the inauguration party was invited one of the greatest rabbis in our area, Rabbi Yitzhak Weinstein, the rabbi of Vishnyva (he is in Israel) who was very helpful in establishing this school. Hayne Gerber, the daughter of the Rabbi from Horoduk was invited too, as was R' Eli Ben–Zion Gerber (Hayne Kosovsky lives now in the United–States). Back then she was very active in religious education in Volozhin and its surroundings.

[Page 450]

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The students of “Etz Haim” Yeshiva on the occasion of Mr. Yaakov Shmidman's Aliyah 1933

Standing (from right to left): 1) Nathan Dicknstein 2) David Mayvia 3) Josef Schlosberg 4) Zevi Schnyder 5) Mordechai Levine (Motel Terver) 6) Haim Levin
Sitting: 1) Yaakov Stolresky 2) Yaakov Shmidman 3) Haim Hillel Ben–Sasson
Sitting on the floor: 1) Michael Lefkowitz 2) Yona Ben–Sasson
(On the photo) “On the day you make aliya to out Holy Land
Blessed you are.
The students of Etz Haim Yeshiva in Volozhin”

[Page 451]

She gave a fascinating lecture, rich in content in the house of the fire–department. The hall was full to capacity. Her speech was peppered with quotes of the sages and she charmed the audience. Her speech was the toast of the town since a yeshiva–woman was something you very rarely saw back then in Volozhin.

“Beit Yaakov” was located in the house of R' Mordechai Shishko in “Kromer Gas”.

 

The Yeshiva Schools' Council

There was a “Yeshivas' Council” in Volozhin (the center was in Vilna, under the direction of Rabbi Haim Ozer Grodznsky). Its goal was to ask the landlords in each village to contribute 18 Zloty a year, to support yeshiva students who were studying in Vilna's yeshivas. The “Yeshiva's Council” in our city included Rabbi Yosef Tabhovitz, Rabbi Israel Lonin, Rabbi Yaakov Shmuel Rohamkin and Rabbi Mordechai Shishko. As Gabbai and permanent treasurer served Rabbi Yosef Tabhovitz. He used to raise money and pass it on to Vilna.

 

The “Daily Page”.

They used to keep the habit of a “Daily Page” in Volozhin, meaning they learned every day a different page of the Talmud. Many were interested and there was a large number of participants. The lesson's Maggid was rabbi Shimon Langbrad – now the head of the Volozhin Yeshiva in Bnei–Brak.


Polish Schools in Volozhin

By Miriam Levitan (Rosnberg) and Pnina Hayit (Potashnik)

Translated by M. Porat z”l

Edited by Judy Feinsilver Montel

The Povshekhna - Primary School

The Povshekhna School contained some 400 students in 7 classes. One third of them were Jewish. At the beginning it functioned inside a building on Vilna Street. The municipality council constructed a new large stone building with a gymnasium and a physics laboratory on a spacious plot.

The first manager was Tishkovski and after him Mr. Trechinski, Poles both of them.

Polish was the official School language. Rabbi Ele-Itskhok Shvartsberg (nicknamed- Reb Eliche Dverelkes) taught the Jewish students Religion Classes (the Bible).

We remember the wonderful excursions organized by the School to the Berezina borders ten kilometers from town. We passed the day singing, playing ball and swimming in the pure Berezina water.

The learning level was high. The teachers were excellent. Particularly good was the arithmetic teacher, Pan Gloukhovski. In Poland the five grades system was used: 5-very good, 4-good, 3-sufficient, 2-insufficient, and 1-flunked. The highest grade Glukhovski gave his students was 4 minus, because for 5, he would say, knows only the God Almighty, the teacher's knowledge might be 4, so the best student could be graduated by 4 minus maximum.

The second manager was Mr. Trechinski, who became the Volozhin mayor.

At the beginning a liberal attitude prevailed, but in the late thirties the Polish authorities attitude to the Jewish students became more and more hostile.

 

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The Polish Povshekhna primary School in Volozhin
The building remains as built until now

 

The commercial High School

After graduating the primary School it was possible to continue learning inside Volozhin. The Commerce High School was created in 1934. It contained 4 classes and functioned after noon inside the Povshekhna School Building.

Professor Zhookovski from Vilna, Physician by profession served as its manager. He was liberal with a positive attitude towards Jewish students. Our sole Jewish teacher was Rachel Kivilevitsh (Melzer). She graduated a Russian high school and the Hebrew Seminar for teachers.

There were 40 students in the commercial High school, 8 among them were Jews. Their names are listed as follows: Etia Berman, Tsvia Lunin, Pnina Potashnik, Miryam Rosnberg, Rivka Rogovin, Hirsh Tsart , Rafael (Fole) and Mina Shriro.

The Jewish students were not oppressed. We never heard the word “Zhid”. The liberal Professor even nominated a Jewish girl as “Starostina” (Students leader) to make it clear that Jews and Christians are equal.

The learning level was satisfactory. The students were employed in banks and government institutions to reinforce their professional knowledge.

Our School was closed after two years of existence due to financial problems. Some of the students continued their studies in Lida and Vilna.

 

The Volozhin Gymnasia - High School

Mr Trechinski the former Povshekhna School manager and now the town mayor initiated the establishment of a Polish High School in Volozhin. He created a committee to lead this project. Amongst its members were also representatives of the Jewish community, one of them my father, Yosef Perlman. Financed by the town inhabitants and sustained by the district authorities a stone building was erected at the former cattle market on the western Volozhinka border.

The Gymnasia opened its doors on September 1, 1938. It was the first and also the last year of its functioning as a Polish School. It contained two parallel, first course classes with a complete staff of teachers and one hundred students, among them just eight Jews in a town with a 50% Jewish population.

Before reception the applicants passed a rigorous examination in Arithmetic, in Polish language, History and Geography. Poland was strictly preserving the Numerus-clausus numbers in its anti-Semitic attitude.

The Jewish students from Tarbut were: Vulke Brudno (Ptsholke), Eyzer Finger, Monie Perlman (the author), Sonia (Boonies) Perski, and Etele (Ruvn's) Rogovin. The Jewish students from Povshekhna were: Berl (der Tzigayner) Tsart, Moyshele Halpern and Arele Tsart.

There were few, if any, relations between Jews and gentile students, despite the common language, i.e. Polish we had to speak during the whole learning day.

But we were proud of our new School. The building was beautiful outside and inside. The classes were large and spacious. We were seated two and no more students at a table. Not to compare with our poor small and poky Tarbut School. We had to wear blue well-ironed uniforms, a jacket, a hat and long slacks.

The teachers were highly professional; most of them liberal, they did not show anti Semite feelings. Except the Polish language teacher Mr. Protasevitsh who was a Catholic College graduated. He did not omit any occasion to tell a dirty story about a well-known minority. (I was told that during the Fascist occupation Professor Protasievitsh was ardently collaborating with the SS solving the Volozhin Jews final solution).

The school was directed by Doctor Konopnitski, a short very intelligent man, nephew of the famous Polish poetess Mary Konopnitska. He taught us Mathematics and Geography. We were glad to participate at his lessons; an important part of which he used to tell very interesting stories from around the world, not neglecting politics. After the Soviets occupied Volozhin our director -“Dirtio” (so nicknamed by affection) continued his teaching and educating methods. Once he compared the German dictatorship to an inverted pyramid, supported by military bayonets. He claimed that the pyramid should fall when during war the bayonets are turned as requested against the enemy. The Police understood the allusion. A day later Mr. Konopnitski was arrested and sent to the Communist Concentration Camps whence he never returned.

Mrs. Kopylova a big and strong woman was our director's life partner. As doctor of natural sciences she taught us Botany and Zoology. After the director's arrest she was “resettled” in Siberia. I had the opportunity to work with her there at hay harvest in a collective farm. Mrs. Kopylova was really a very good, strong and efficient worker. She proved practically her botanic knowledge.

Our teachers were called “professors”. Except the French language teacher, she was called “Ma Soeur” – “My Sister” in French. As a Catholic nun she wore white monastery garments. “Ma Soeur” was a sympathetic lady teaching French grammar and French popular songs. I remember them till now.

The majority of the gymnasia students learned German as second language in the morning hours. Our group to learn French was a small minority once a week at afternoon. Also learning French was the Volozhin “Starosta's”- (District governor) daughter. We were jealous looking as the “Starostianka” the highest Volozhin official's daughter would be conducted home after School in an elegant carriage harnessed to a pair of beautiful horses.

We learned hard, the Tarbut graduated children in a foreign environment. But we became accustomed and finally defended ourselves honorably during the lessons and the recreations. We participated in the School excursions by foot and on bicycles to the Berezina and to the Count Tishkievitsh summer palace in Biala, 20 km. from Volozhin placed within a fenced for deer and gazelle natural Park reserve inside the big Nalibok Forest.

For the first time in our life we participated also at a true dancing party that was organized by the School before Christmas.

The hard learning and the pleasant time passing stopped suddenly with the outbreak of the war on September 1st, 1939.

The doors were widely reopened three months later when the Polish gymnasia was converted to a Russian High School. It became filled with Jewish youth, thirsty for education, which they had been deprived of during the Polish Numerus Clausus regime.

During the 20 month Soviet period the School flourished. Higher classes were added. Many Jewish teachers, refugees from the territories occupied by the Nazis Polish were employed. The Russian High School functioned until the outbreak of the German – Soviet war on June 22, 1941.

 

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The Gymnasia High-School In Volozhin-taken September 1998

 

The building remains intact until now. Nowadays it serves as a professional Belarus agriculture school on the Naberezhna Street in Volozhin.

1938/1939 graduates from Volozhin Tarbut School last class students
and from the Volozhin Polish Gymnasia first year Jewish Students

First Name Last Name Nickname
Arele Tsart  
Avromtshe   Der Guiber
Bentshe Finger  
Bentsike Finger  
Berl Tsart Der Tzigayner
Eyzer Finger  
Feygl Berman  
Frumke Goloventhitz  
Frumke Alperovitsh  
Golde Rubinshteyn  
Hayim Lungen Lungen-Leber
Hayke Rudnitski Di Kadelikhes
Itke    
Itskhok Perski Nehame-Leythes
Leybl Berkovitsh  
Meyshele Halpern  
Reyzl Vaysbord  
Sonie Perski Boonies
Sorke   Di Mazepe
Voolke Brudno Ptsholke
Yosele Altman Kurtser Freitig

All of them murdered at the age of 17-18 by the German Nazis and their European associates

God Almighty, avenge our young schoolmates' innocent blood!

From all classmates two only had escaped the Shtetl's fate: Etele Rogovin and Monie Perlman (the translator), both of them now living in Tel-Aviv.


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Theatrical Life in Volozhin

 

a.

“The Sale of Yossef” show

by Reuven Rogovin

Translated by M. Porat z”l

Edited by Judy Feinsilver Montel

And the Volozhin-City rejoiced. Everyone was talking about “The Sale of Yeysef” which would be shown by the Volozhin Amateur band with Avrom Berkovitsh as director. Although, for the time being not a sign could be seen of the important event, but some whispering might be heard.

But when the water pump was evacuated from the firemen's building every one knew for sure that the show accessories were installed and that the firemen's local was prepared for the cultural event.

Then the curious asked: Who would be the actors to form the band? Very few, the nearest only were told secretly: Shimon's role would be Yankev Hayim the butcher's son, Yehuda's role – Yudl Sore Leyes and Yoysef's – Motke Gdaliye Zisl's. All those names were reasonably accepted. But the public was astonished to hear that the main role would be played by Meyer Peshe Yente's, a man over fifty years old, chronically ill with asthma, who never stops coughing and moves heavily. This one and no other had been assigned to perform the role of Pharaoh.

There are times to lengthen and times to make it short. I'll tell the story straight. On a bright morning Hayim Branke's (Narushevitsh) was seen putting signs all over the shtetl. The signs announced in Yiddish that in this and this day, and at this and this time the “Sale of Yossef” show, directed by Avrom Berkovitsh will take place in the Volozhin firemen's local. Evidently all tickets were immediately bought. All the Shtetl's who's who were present at the gala show. The local was festively decorated, a stage with a curtain were installed. The spectators were dressed in festive clothes. The audience was stunned when the curtain rose up. A true miracle. Hard to believe that it was the creation of Avrom Berkovitsh's hands. Look at the first scene: On the stage center a true bonfire was set. The fire burnt. Yossef's brothers warming up around it are singing “Flame rise up, Rise up flame”. On the horizon Shimon and Levy appear, armed with long knives well shaped from tiles. Their blood is boiling, ready to kill and to exterminate the Shkhem people who contaminated Dina, their sister. The scene is reaching its culmination point when Meyer Peshe Yentes enters the stage. Wonders and miracles! When I saw Meyer, who changed his figure into Pharaoh, I could not restrain myself and I called loudly: “Bravo Berkovitsh! Well done!”

It was said by our sages: Even if the wisest men from around the world gathered it would not be in their power to turn white a crow's wing. But it was done by Avrom Berkovitsh. He changed the laws of nature. I could not believe the sight my eyes have seen. From Meyer's bosom appeared the figure of Pharaoh, a real representative of the Raamses dynasty. The crown on his head was a real crown. Although suffering chronic asthma, incessantly coughing and moving heavily – he remained Meyer, Peshe Yente's son. But with Avrom Berkovitsh's make up he became the mighty ruler…


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b.

Plays that I Recall

by Fruma Twebner (Kivilevitch) of Tel Aviv

Translated by Jerrold Landau

The “Sale of Joseph” play that was described by Reuven Rogovin belongs to an earlier period. I remember the play that was performed during the 1920s, more precisely in the year 5684 (1924).

First of all, several words about the operetta “The Sale of Joseph.” It was a popular operetta that appeared in several versions. Amateur troupes already performed it during the 17th century.

From the study bench, I was taken toward honor in “Haneim Zemirot” in this operetta. I performed the role of Joseph, the son of old age of Jacob our forefather. In the Powszechny [Universal or Public] school in which I studied, I participated in various plays of “Zimrat.” Apparently, “Kol Hazamir” reached Moshe Weisbord, the producer of the operetta, and he invited me to star in it. Moshe Weisbord also played the role of Jacob our forefather.

Yitzchak Berman performed the role of Judah. We approached our work with awe and love. The rehearsals took place in the home of Aharon (Ahrke) Tzart, the father of the physician Avraham Tzart. Tzart's daughters and sons were theater lovers. Tzart's son participated in the play in the role of one of the sons of Jacob our forefather. The rehearsals were very difficult and tiring, and lasted until late at night. After several months, we found ourselves ready to perform before the wider community.

I think that this is something that should be told over to our children – the difficulties that a young actor of Zimrat met within the family circle. My mother had a dim view on theater. In her opinion, it was disgraceful for a girl from a good family to be involved in this “idolatry.” She was concerned that I would fall into a bad crowd. However, in order to calm her suspicions, she requested that the content of the operetta be read before her, so that she could verify that there was no foul language or other matters that may violate modesty.

Tzvi Rogovin acceded to my mother's request, and read the operetta to her. My mother found that it was a kosher story, the words of which do not violate Tzena Urena[1]. It passed her censorship. However, she was not calmed even with this. She requested that Tzvi trouble himself to come to take me to the rehearsals and bring me back home. Tzvi took all this responsibility upon himself. Only with this condition did my mother allow me to participate in the rehearsals.

We should recall that the participants were not professional actors, but rather amateurs. Moshe Weisbord did everything in his power. He worked over the material, and a refined product emerged from his hands. He inducted us to the inner chambers of the art of acting, and his words were absorbed in our blood.

[Page 457]

vol457.jpg
Fruma Kivilevitch in the role of Joseph In the play “The Sale of Joseph”

 

If my memory is reliable, the operetta “The Sale of Joseph” was performed by the Young Zion Chapter in our city. The play took place in the army barracks hall, which was comfortable and fitting for theatrical performances. (In time it became a movie theater.)

It is not in my power to describe how the Jews of Volozhin felt about the upcoming performance. The city took on a festive appearance. The ambience was unusual. They prepared for this event as if for something that no eye had ever seen and no ear had ever heard. Those curious will especially want to know how a girl filled the role of a boy – the son of Jacob's old age. The play turned into a topic of conversation for everybody. There was no house in Volozhin in which the Sale of Joseph was not discussed.

The Tzofim came to the play with floral wreaths, chocolate, and candies. The first performance took place with unusual success. The audience was ecstatic, and a stream of flowers, chocolate, and candies began to pour onto the stage. The audience was especially astonished by the song of “Joseph.” The Tzofim left the hall in high spirits, with singing and praise for the performance. “Fortunate is the eye that merited this.” The songs of the operetta became popular songs that were sung in the homes and on the streets for a long time.

The success of the play reached the broader community of Volozhin. They approached Tzeirei Tzion with a request to put on an additional performance. The elders of the city, the notables of Volozhin, came to the second performance. Important householders, heads of Tarbut, and heads of the Zionist movement came. They sat in the front row.

[Page 458]

An event took place during this performance that is etched in my memory to this day. When the brothers cast Joseph (i.e., me) into the pit, I sang “from the depths” the following song:

O, how great is the anger of my brothers!
I felt that my bones were going to split.
O, how heavy is the mist here, it is unbearable.
Scorpions and snakes, many in the cracks.
I curse you, snakes, in the name of G-d,
Who created heaven and earth.
You should hold in your venom,
I am a grandson of Abraham of old.

I had just finished the song, and then the sound of bitter weeping was heard in the hall. In particular, the voice of Reb Yehoshua Gurwitz reached me. He was weeping over the bitter fate of Joseph. I was very touched by the resonance of the role that I was playing with the honorable audience.

The second performance in which I participated was Dos Pintele Yid (The Quintessence of Jewishness). A girl from Zabrzhezh also participated in this performance. I performed the role of the child Yisraelke. The Sale of Joseph play spread my name as a “star,” therefore the audience awaited the play with great interest. Avraham Berkowitz, the sign artist, explicitly noted my participation. Even though I heard my praises, I nevertheless practiced over and over again for the play, for the fear of the community was upon me. This play was also accepted by the audience with great enthusiasm.

In the year 5685 (1925), the amateur troupe performed a play about life in the Land. The play was performed under the auspices of the Hechalutz chapter, and took place in the Gmine hall. The producer was “Kochav Noded” [Wandering Star], an itinerant actress who lived in Volozhin for a certain time. The name of the play was “The Red Rose.” Its content was taken from the life of the Shomrim [guards] in the Land of Israel. The play portrays the Shomer going out to guard, whereas his wife was busy preparing for her birthday party. One of the guests brought her a wreath of red roses. When she saw the wreath, a great fear fell upon her. She said that she saw signs of blood in the roses. Then, her husband suddenly entered, wounded all over and bleeding. He then died. Musia Rogovin played the role of the wife. The role of the Shomer husband was played by Chaim Binia Kahanowitz. The role of the presenter of the floral wreath was played by Fania Kivilevitch.

With time, the Tarbut School began to develop the theatrical arts among its students. Within its walls, an amateur troupe was set up, which performed “Shlomoke Charlatan” in the year 5689 (1929). The income was dedicated to the benefit of the school as well as the Jewish National Fund. This performance was produced by an itinerant actor named Azach. This performance was also very successful.

[Page 459]

We performed many plays (including Hamechashefa [The Witch]). I cannot recall them all due to the passage of time. The Volozhin community loved theater. Every new play that was performed aroused great interest, and brought light and joy to the Jews of Volozhin.

{Photo page 459: The actors who participated in the play “Shlomoke Charlatan.” The photo was taken on 27 Adar II, 5689 (April 8, 1929). First row, top to bottom, right to left: a) Yaakov Berkowitz b) teacher c) Rivka Polak d) the teacher Derechinski e) Yisrael Berkowitz f) the teacher Afrimzon g) Dora Eidelman h) Simcha Perski. Second row: a) Musia Rogovin b) Sonia Perski c) the guest actor Azach d) Yona Shapira e) Cheina Goldschmid f) Shabtai Baksht. Third row: a) Dov Lawit b) Mina Perski c) Efraim Rogovin d) Shlomo Brener.}

 

Translator's footnote:
  1. A traditional book on commentary and lore on the Torah, designed especially for women. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tz%27enah_Ur%27enah Return


[Page 460]

The Maccabee Basketball Team

Translated by Jerrold Landau

The students of the Tarbut School were initiators of the basketball team in our city. They were jealous of the gentile youth, who practiced and played basketball games in the yard of the buildings of Count Tyszkiewicz, and later on the field of the residence of the government officials. We decided to measure up to them. At times, we won and they were defeated, and at other times, it was the opposite.

The idea behind the need to found a basketball team earned a positive attitude from all the Zionist parties and youth groups – Beitar, Hashomer Hatzair, the General Zionists, and Revisionists. The group was non-partisan, and its intentions were purely altruistic – a healthy soul in a healthy body.

 

vol460.jpg
The Maccabee Basketball Team

Standing (right to left): a) Efraim Rogovin b) Yisrael Berkowitz c) Yaakov Berkowitz d) Shabtai Baksht e) Shlomo Meltzer f) Aryeh Kaplan g) Reuven Rogovin
Second row: a) Dov Lawit b) Shmuel Rogovin c) Yisrael Perski
Sitting on the ground: a) Hillel Sharira b) Aryeh Leib Perski c) Yosef Szwarcberg

 

The captain of the team was Efraim Rogovin, who was an expert basketball player. He displayed effective initiative in this, and he trained the basketball players to be obedient and brave.

[Page 461]

The writer of these lines was chosen as the honorary captain. Efraim conducted practice for the team three times a week, and saw success in his efforts.

We should note that even though the group earned moral support from the entire secular community in our city, it did not receive any material support. From that perspective, our team was supported on nothing. Therefore, every basketballer had to provide his own uniform, which consisted of a shirt and short pants with blue stripes – patterned after the blue and white national flag. We kept the uniforms with the brothers Yaakov and Yisrael Berkowitz. When the shoes were torn, “Shimon the Dzhik” fixed them for free.

The team quickly gained renown throughout the entire region – Vishnyeva, Ivyanets, Baksht, Zabrezye, and Trab. It was invited to play in those places. The team was received enthusiastically by the Jews of those places, and the visits became a holiday in their lives. The atmosphere during the game was sublime. Travel to the nearby towns was not that expensive. They hired a wagon, and seated half of the basketball players on it. After travelling a few kilometers, they would switch, and the other half would go onto the wagon. Thus, after having “gotten on and off” they arrived in their place happy and glad. An extra, “Little Peretz” (Peretz Rogovin) always accompanied us on this trip. He was a fanatical basketball player, and never missed any basketball game.

Without doubt, the central “historic” event of the team, which ended in a particularly painful manner, was the competitive game with the chosen ones of the border guard that was stationed in Volozhin. As is known, a brigade of approximately one thousand soldiers was stationed there. It was not difficult to find basketballer players, even particularly good ones.

Efraim Rogovin met the captain of the army basketball team by chance. He recommended that Efraim arrange a getting-to-know-you game between his team and our team, which would take place on the army sports field (Wojskowy Plac Sportowy). On the spot, they agreed on the date of the game.

Avraham Berkowitz made use of his artistic talents and drew official announcements, which were posted in all areas of the city. On them, written in large letters, it stated that on such-and-such a day and such-and-such a time, , the Maccabee team would compete with the chosen ones of the border guard brigade. Tickets at such-and-such a price could be purchased upon entering the sports field.

Members of the team prepared for this competition as if for the Day of Judgment. They felt that they would require Divine assistance in order to defeat the chosen ones of the border guard. Therefore, thy approached Motel Traber, a Yeshiva lad, and asked him to choose verses from the Book of Psalms that might be able to tear up the decree of defeat.

Even though Motel Traber had never seen the form of a basketball in his entire life, he regarded this as a form of obligatory battle, “to wreak revenge upon the gentiles.” Therefore, he approached this matter with full seriousness. After diligent study of the books of Psalms he selected the following verses:

[Page 462]

Who maketh my feet like hinds', and setteth me upon my high places.

Thou hast enlarged my steps under me, and my feet have not slipped.

I have pursued mine enemies, and overtaken them; neither did I turn back till they were consumed.

I have smitten them through, so that they are not able to rise; they are fallen under my feet.

(Psalms 18: verses 34, 37, 38, 39)[1]

On Sunday morning, before the beginning of the game, the basketball players recited these verses with devotion and intention during the Shacharit prayers. Some did so in the synagogue in Aroptzu, others in the synagogue in the marketplace, and still others in the Kloiz on Vilna Street.

The beginning of the game was nice. The band played the Polish national anthem and Hatikvah. However, what took place after that on the field, we did not even see in our nightmares. We immediately met an inimical attitude. Our team let through several goals at the beginning of the game. There were many anti-Semitic riffraff and lowlifes in the crowd watching the game. Inflamed by this dizzying victory, they broke out in hateful shouts “Zydzi do Palestyny!” (Jews, go to Palestine). When the number of goals that we suffered reached seventeen, and the anti-Semitic shouts increased, an angry shout suddenly pierced the air: “Makabiusze zejsc z Placut!” (Maccabees, get off the field) The basketball players immediately began to leave the field, accompanied by anti-Semitic taunts.

The basketball team existed for a brief period. After several of the members of the team made aliya to the Land, and others were drafted to the Polish army, it weakened, and “its soul departed.”

 

Translator's footnote:
  1. The translation of these four verses is from Mechon Mamre: https://mechon-mamre.org/p/pt/pt2618.htm Return

 

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