Translated by Ala Gamulka
by Prof. Yitzhak Fein (New York)
(A collection of memoirs)
Dedicated to the memory of my parents Meir and Mattie Fein, zl
Dudele, the Rabbi's son calls me Mr. Fein
Mr. Fein, Mr. Fein!
I, a child of ten, became Mr. This is what Dudele, the Rabbi's son called me. We knew each other well, Dudele and I. My late father prayed in the Rabbi's synagogue. He was a merchant, although not a very good one, and had a good seat there. This was quite an honor. The Rabbi sat at the eastern wall. Next to him was his inlaw, a wealthy man, a scholar and a Chabad follower Shepsil Berman and his three sons, Moshe, Leibel and Velvel. (All four, the father and three sons, died in Eretz Israel.) Shepsil's soninlaw, Berel Abelman, also sat there. He died tragically in Bendery. Others at the eastern wall were big merchants in town and important religious personnel. Of course, the Rabbi's son, Dudele also occupied one of the seats.
Who would have dreamed that in this town Jewish equality would rule? The social distance between the poorer areas and the main streets was as great as the economic divide. It was obvious in every facet of life and also in the synagogue. Nevertheless, Itzel Fein (that's me, the son of an ordinary merchant) played with Dudele, the Rabbi's son. After services, we would run around a bit in the yard. I was Itzel and he was Dudele and suddenly I was Mr. Fein.
Dudele took me to his room and slammed the door shut. I thought there would be some pranks. He presented me with a plan he was three years older than I. He said the time had come to organize a group that would be involved in reading Hebrew books.
I was already a Hebraist and I was studying with Avremel the Tutor. I learned Tanach and grammar. Other Hebraists also liked the plan. Dudele and I brought other youngsters into the group. There were several good friends, but I especially remember Srul (Israel) Vodovetz. There must be other members of this conspiracy living in Israel. I remember Israel probably because he was the most devoted member.
From Conspiracy and Constitution to a Library
Dudele remained a good friend for many years. When Dudele became the famous leader of Poalei Zion David Wertheim he used to go to South America where he would see Vodovetz. David never stopped describing how Israel greeted and received him. David was like a rabbi and Israel Vodovetz was his Gabbai. It is almost like Nahman was the Gabbai for many years to his father, Rabbi Shloimke Wertheim, zl.
A society must have a constitution. We wrote out many rules. I remember one: If you wish to jump out the window you must pay two kopeks.
The title Mr. Fein and the constitution were in Russian and this says much about the cultural life of the Jewish children of the middle class in Bendery. Actually, we called it Benderiruke to emphasize its famous mud. The grapes of Bendery, and its mud, were wellknown in the area.
In a town that had about 10,500 Jews, the children of the middle class spoke mainly Yiddish at home. Outside they used Russian and there were some who wanted to read books in Hebrew.
Why was it a conspiracy? What was the secret? What was the sin? Simply, we were afraid of Shepsil Berman who was influential in town in general and especially with his inlaw, the Rabbi. Shepsil was not merely observant, but he also was a fanatic Jew. He was ready to chase anyone who defiled the Torah ways. Reading books in the holy language was a sin.
Forbidden Books in the Women's Auxiliary
We were quite involved in the conspiracy. On the days when new books would arrive from Odessa (Nitzanim and Prahim) a holiday atmosphere would prevail. The most important task among the conspirators was to find a safe place for their books. Who would look for forbidden books in the Women's Auxiliary in the Rabbi's synagogue?
This became the first Jewish library in town. Later, other organizations, like Hazamir, organized Jewish libraries. When I think of the later years I remember specially Misha Fustan, Baruch Kaushansky (Agadati), David Pisterov and his brother and sister Zina a fine singer.
I do not know how it was with other people, but I can say that Dudele and I were forever affected by our organizing a Hebrew library in our childhood. We remained very close friends until David died in Havana, Cuba where he had gone on behalf of the Histadrut. David learned how to be a leader in our childhood organizing. He eventually immigrated to America where he continued his work with Poalei Zion (19301943). The Jewish community of America listened intently to his intelligent discourse.
As for myself, the children's library gave me the first incentive to go away to study at Herzliah (Tel Aviv). I went there immediately after my Bar Mitzvah.
Rabbi Shloimke Corresponds with Dr. Herzl
Did the Bendery Rabbi know about the secret library or did he pretend not to know? No one knows for sure. It seems to me that he knew and enjoyed quietly the fact that children were reading Hebrew books and speaking about Zionism. The topic was very close to his heart.
Rabbi Shimon Shlomo Wertheim, zl (Rabbi Shloimke a loving nickname) was the chief rabbi. He had succeeded his father who had held the position for fifty years Rabbi Itzikel. He was preceded by the genius Rabbi Aryeh Leib who had founded the Bendery dynasty in 1810. Shimon Shlomo, like his father and grandfather, considered himself to be a Hassidic Rabbi. He eventually gave up the position and stopped receiving notes of inquiry. He was a great scholar and together with another famous rabbi, Yehuda Leib Fishman (later called Rabbi I.L. Hacohen Maimon, zl) he published a Halacha journal called The Dove in 1907. The project did not succeed and the two friends traveled throughout the villages of Bessarabia teaching Gmara and Torah. When the Mizrahi movement was founded they were among its first members and leaders. In 1914 Rabbi Shloimke fulfilled his dream. He made Aliyah as an emissary of a substantial number of Bendery Jews. They also wanted to make Aliyah and wanted their Rabbi to be their leader there.
In preparation, he even corresponded with Dr. Herzl. Unfortunately, WWI broke out. Brokenhearted, the Rabbi left Eretz Israel and returned to Bendery after much travel and discomfort. His dream was fulfilled by some of his children. His two daughters Pearl, zl, a head nurse at Hadassah Hospital, and Hannah, zl, the wife of Moshe Berman, zl made Aliyah. They both died in Eretz Israel. Yenta died on 11 Shevat 1973. She was married to a famous writer, Yonatan, zl, and lived in Kibbutz Kabari. The Rabbi's two sons also died in Eretz Israel the famous rabbi and lecturer Yosef Wertheim and the Zionist leader and head of the Jewish Agency, Avraham Wertheim. To differentiate, many of the Rabbi's grandchildren and great grandchildren live in Israel.
After Rabbi Shloimke, his son Yosef was the chief rabbi. He was succeeded by his son Aaron (now in New York) and his soninlaw Rabbi Shimon Efrati. The latter lives in Israel and holds an important position among observant Jews.
They Come to Bendery
During WWI Bendery was known to be a place where one could escape from the war. The main reason was Rabbi Shimon Shlomo. He had great influence and was able to obtain white certificates which would allow men not to be drafted. Many important people came to Bendery, especially from the literary world. Many stayed in the Rabbi's house. I remember some of the writers Israel Rubin (I. Ravkai), Eliezer Steinman, zl, (famous as the mixedup shoes), the actor David Vardi (my classmate from Herzliah), Itzik Giterman (later became the director of the Joint in Poland and was murdered by the Nazis). There were others whose names I do not recall. They all sat all night drinking black coffee in order to lose weight. This way they would not have to serve in the army. The Rabbi's influence helped many writers, leaders and others, among them my father, to be exempt from army service.
From Down with Nikolai to Marx Speaks
The Revolution of 1917 began so beautifully. It was truly a great holiday. People, Jews and Christians alike kissed each other in the streets. The great mass demonstration at the Government offices was exalting. I do not know how it happened that I greeted the crowds from the balcony of these offices. I remember, to this day, my scream: Down with Nikolai, my tearing down the crown hanging on the wall and the cheering of the crowds.
My first teacher of Down with Nikolai was Yossel Shampansky, a clerk in my father's store. Yossel used to come daily to our house and repeat the phrase three times. He explained to me, in secret, what the words meant and how important they were.
That morning, at the government offices, I shouted these words with all my being. I believed implicitly that a new chapter in Jewish life in this country was beginning. I cannot explain how it happened that I became the spokesman at this mass meeting. I do not know why I earned this honor. There were more important revolutionaries in town. There was Leibel Sobel who always said: Marx Speaks. There was also the Bundist Oshan who worked in the pharmacy belonging to the eminent Zionist Hersh Kogan. There was a group perhaps Poalei Zion I am not certain. I remember Zeidel Sheynkar, Leibel Gurfinkel (now in New York), the Modern Hebrew teacher Haim Glass, zl, and David Prozhansky, zl (he stayed in Bendery and taught Hebrew and Yiddish). I was a young kid in comparison to them.
Meetings on the Steppe and in the Synagogue
I remember attending several meetings on the steppe. There we read and were delighted by selections from Peretz. I know now that Peretz was just an excuse. Just like our Hebrew reading club, this was really a conspiracy of Poalei Zion.
There is another episode from that time that I recall. Elections for the Bendery administration had come up. David Wertheim no longer Dudele, but this nickname remained with him the rest of his life among family and close friends represented Poalei Zion. He lobbied for the candidates of his party. He was one of the most distinguished people in our town and was also an outstanding speaker. One day he was chairing a meeting near the Old Shul, across the street from the Rabbi's house. The Rabbi could see his child and could hear his voice. It was a stormy day and the wind was howling. Suddenly, David became excited. He was in the middle of his speech when Nahman, the Gabbai, approached him and gave him something. David was bewildered when he heard Nahman say: Dudele, your father sent you this scarf. He is asking you to wear it so you will not, God forbid, catch a cold. David used to tell this story about the scarf his whole life. He would add: You must never forget to offer someone a scarf. We must learn this custom from our father, zl.
A Torah Scroll is saved from Destruction
Sometime later the Romanians took over Bendery. The Jews dispersed. Some crossed the Dniester to Ukraine and others escaped to Kaushany, Kopinka and other Jewish settlements. I no longer remember where the majority of the refugees went. Everyone was afraid. They abandoned everything and did not know what would be. They did not know if they would ever return. Most of all, the Rabbi's family was worried. I was a regular in their home like a member of the family.
I actually became a member of the family when, in 1920, I married Haya, the Rabbi's daughter. (David was also married on the same day). The family worried mostly about Dudele because he insisted on staying to protect the synagogue and the house. Nothing helped no begging or threats. He stayed to guard the property. These were days of great fear.
I see the image as if it happened today: suddenly, on the road between Kaushany and Bendery a man appeared wearing an army coat and slippers on his feet. He was shouting from far away: I am here, I am here. This was David. He was carrying a small Torah scroll which always lay in a cabinet at my fatherinlaw's house. Everything is destroyed. The house is gone and a bomb fell into the synagogue. It is a miracle, a true miracle that the cabinet remained standing. I saved this holy object and I am bringing it to you, my dear father. We cried about the destruction of our town and we saw in this holy book a sign that not everything was lost.
It was so. In a few days, three spies went from Kaushany to Bendery. They were: David, Haike, David's sister and I, her future husband. The town looked like the city of the dead. The Romanian policeman whom we greeted with We do not speak Romanian screamed at us. He was insulted that we did not know the Romanian language. When we entered the house, there were two soldiers who arrested David. Our screams did not help. We sat frightened for some time. A day and a night went by. Suddenly, in the morning, David appeared. What happened? Two soldiers had dragged him to the station and he sat there all night.
The old Tallit Was Found
In the station, in addition to trains there were other issues in those somber days. There was a time when the Romanians added to the problems. They used to drown people in the Dniester. Finally, it was decided to send a representative to Kishinev to petition the higher authorities. Who should be sent? The most important person in town the Rabbi. The Rabbi packed his tallit and Tfilin in a small bag (according to family tradition the Baal Shem Tov, an ancestor of the Wertheims, had used this tallit). On the way, the train stopped and everyone returned to Bendery. When the Rabbi came home he realised that, by mistake, he had taken someone else's tallit bag. He had neither his tallit nor his Tfilin. It was like Tisha B'Av in the house. A few months passed.
One day a Romanian officer brought a tallit and Tfilin to one of his Jewish friends and told him how he had taken someone else's bag when he traveled to Kishinev. In it he found Jewish things. What happiness prevailed, not only in the Rabbi's house, but in the entire town! The old tallit was found. It had reappeared. Everyone believed it was a sign from up above.
The Bendery artist in 1961
Five years ago, Intourist informed me, in Odessa, that there was an epidemic in Bendery and that I would not be able to go there. There was a curious smile on the face of the person who informed me so I understood there was a story. I knew there was a way to forget about the epidemic. That is what happened. I paid for a taxi and here I was, fifty years later, in the town of my birth.
I did not recognize the town at all. I did find a few people, younger and older than me. I cannot yet speak about our conversations or mention their names.
I will speak about one such meeting. It was a bearded Jew who had been my friend and my teacher. I will describe briefly our lengthy conversation. He was surviving on his army pension. He added with happiness and in a dignified manner I have become an artist in my old age.
He saw the expression on my face and added with a crooked smile: You must understand, I am a teacher again. I teach Hebrew to two young boys. One is not allowed to do it according to the law, but we figured out a way.
When I asked how he did it he told me that if he were to be caught it would not be terrible because he is doing it for the sake of sanctity. As to the two youngsters, that would be a different story. They do not only learn Hebrew, but they also feel closer to their people and Israel and they are ready to sacrifice.
What does it mean that he became an artist? The old man told me that since there are no Jewish books in Bendery he draws the letters, the old Jewish letters, for his pupils. No matter what happens…
Bendery, Bendery, the town of true belief and great conspiracy!
by Leon (YehudaLeib) Garfield (New York)
(Autobiographical and Biographical notations)
Three Generations of a Jewish Family from Bendery
I am privileged to carry my greatgrandfather's name
My greatgrandfather, YehudaLeib Gurfel, was born in 1820. I am named after him. My father told me about his grandfather and I feel I know much about him. When I grew up I considered it to be a privilege to carry my greatgrandfather's name.
Our surname GURFEL is a Russian version of HORFEL. It means trading in hair and hides of cattle. It seems my greatgrandfather did that for a living. My father describes him as a strong man, very tall with a long beard and side curls similar to other Jews in his time. He did not only deal in commerce. Greatgrandfather Leib came from the Jewish colony of Galatshe, near Balta in Podolia not far from the left bank of the Dniester. In the Russian metrical books, we were entered not as petty merchants, but as colonists. This meant we worked in agriculture.
There is one story my father remembered which left a strong impression on me. When it was time to harvest, Grandfather Leib would line up ten workers in a row, one in each area designated by the length of a scythe. He put himself in the last back row. All the workers had to cut with the scythe at the same time so as not to harm the next person. My greatgrandfather used the idea of assembly line so many years ago.
Leib had two sons. Yosef, born in 1840, was my grandfather. His brother was GreatUncle Hersh. They both looked like their father stately and vigorous Jews from bygone days. My grandfather Yosef was married in the village. He and his wife Haya brought four sons and two daughters into the world. David, the first born, was my father. The others, according to chronological age were Yehiel, Yekhezkel, Hava, Pessia and Moshe, the youngest. Grandfather Yosef hired good tutors for his boys and they grew up knowledgeable in their religion. The girls were taught the necessities a Jewish daughter would need. He made a decent living in the village and the family did not miss anything. However, Grandfather Yosef did not want his children to remain in the village and he decided to move to a town in Bessarabia where other Jewish families were going. My father, the oldest, was the first to leave his family. He was thirteen years old when he came to Bendery.
My father's move to Bendery
David, the 13yearold boy, was not lost in the new town. Quickly he began to work in an iron business. He worked from six in the morning until eight in the evening. As was the custom, he lodged at the boss's house. After a hard day at work he still had to help the boss's wife with the housework. Grandfather Yosef had instilled in him lifewisdom and he never complained. He was quite observant and prayed in the morning and in the evening. On Shabbat and Holidays, he attended services in the Old Shul. He had a usual place there, next to Moshe Kanter.
Five years passed and David grew up. He worked in the same iron business and never missed a Shabbat or a holiday in Shul next to his friend, Moshe Kanter. The man was a hard worker like David. He worked in the mill belonging to a wealthy man by the name of Firshtenberg. Moishe's wife was known as Raize the Dish of Groats because she dealt in groats. She thus helped her husband in earning a living. They had five children four daughters and a son. The girls were Dvora, Rosie, Haike and Gitel and EfraimYitzhak was the boy. Sitting in Shul, Moshe began to look at young David as a potential soninlaw. He used to invite him on Shabbat and David came to know the household. The young and beautiful girls were very friendly. The lonely young man loved the atmosphere in their home.
It did not take long for an engagement to be announced. David, son of Yosef Halevy Gurfel, was to marry Dvora, daughter of Moshe Kanter. The groom was 18 years old and the bride was 16. For those times, Dvora was welleducated as she had been sent to a modern school. There she learned Jewish subjects as well as Russian, German and arithmetic. Dvora loved to read novels and to attend Jewish theater. She loved to sing Goldfagen's songs. She was also an observant Jewish girl.
After the wedding military service
My grandfather and the entire family came to the wedding. Grandfather, grandmother and their youngest son, Moshe, became residents of Bendery. Grandfather's other children had by then forsaken their birthplace of Galatshe. Uncle Yehiel settled in Tarutino (Antichiokrak in Yiddish), New Bessarabia. He opened an ironwares store with his dowry money. Tarutino was the center of several established German colonies. Uncle Yehiel dealt with them in business and over time he prospered. Uncle Yekhezkel moved to Kishinev and he dealt there in old ironware and other metals. He was known there as an intelligent man. He could easily calculate, without a pen in his hand, how many needle heads one would need to lay out in order to make a viorst (.6 of a mile). He had a good sense of humor and was satisfied with little. He had seven children and he used to say that he asked the Almighty to earn just one more ruble than he needed to educate them. Like their father, all my uncles were observant. Aunt Pessia also settled in Kishinev. Her husband dealt in tobacco grown in Bessarabia. There were some Jewish colonists who specialized in growing and drying tobacco. Aunt Hava married a Jew from a rural, nonJewish area Kutshergan in Kherson district. He later ran a grocery store. This is how Grandfather's family, descendants from a Jewish colonist in Podolia, scattered all over different parts of Bessarabia and neighboring Kherson Province.
The time came for my father to be conscripted. By then he already had two children Bassya, a little girl and Avraham, a little boy. He easily managed to get out of serving the Tsar. He devoted himself to running his iron shop and he also started to trade in old irons, metals and used rubber overshoes. These were articles that could be sold as raw material. My father also bought a house not far from Grandfather Moshe.
We were ten brothers…
Mother used to give birth with the punctuality of a clock every two and a half years. She finally stopped with the eleventh child. My sister Bassya remained the only daughter among ten brothers. The first three were named for the three patriarchs Avraham, Yitzhak and Israel. The fourth son died soon after childbirth. Then came Leyzer, Aaron, Leib, Haim, Pesach and Nehemiah. Haim died in his sixth year in an accident when he received a heavy blow on his head. Nehemiah continued his studies in Belgium after high school. There he became quite ill and mother went to save him. She did not spare any work or money, but the best doctors could do nothing against a dangerous illness. The despondent mother brought her child home to die in his birthplace of Bendery. The loss of two children was a hard blow for my mother, but she got over her losses due to her belief in God. She comforted herself by believing that a Jewish woman who had brought 11 children into the world would be assured a place in the Garden of Eden.
During my childhood Bendery was not a fanatical town. Jewish parents worried about the future of their children and the study of secular subjects was a priority for them. My parents belonged to the category of parents for whom the teaching of Jewish subjects to their children was most important. The boys and my sister, Bassya, received a traditional Jewish education. Bassya later married in Bendery. Her husband, MordechaiItzel Averbuch worked in a business dealing in construction timber. Their home was more modern, but still traditional like my parents.
I Learn Bookkeeping in addition to Tanach, Grammar and Mathematics
The tine I studied with Avremel Melamed stands out in my memory. His Heder was hardly different from others, but he was scholarly and a good teacher. His style of teaching was a mix of oldfashioned methods and worldliness. His students were mostly children of middleclass and welltodo families. In Avremel's Reformed Heder one studied the whole day. Aside from the regular students, at three o'clock students from the high school would come to study Jewish subjects. Avremel had assistants for some of the subjects like grammar, Modern Hebrew literature, mathematics, etc. He, as the principal, devoted himself to the teaching of Tanach and Gmara. Arithmetic included accounting, bookkeeping according to a new method and was taught by an old bookkeeper from Perlman's textile business.
In 1909 a young man from Poland came to Avremel's school. He was a Hebrew teacher named Haim Glass. He knew Hebrew quite well and was an intelligent person. Since he also knew bookkeeping, Avremel exploited him. He used to assign him work for many long and difficult hours. Avremel demanded from Glass that he teach me extra bookkeeping. Avremel decided that this teaching should take place outside of the assigned hours and forced him to come to my home between six and seven in the morning on his way to the school. He was not to be deterred by snow and rain and winter mud for which Bendery was famous. Glass taught me bookkeeping according to the Warsaw correspondence course Naditsh. It was wellknown in all Jewish shtetls. Thanks to this extra course student and teacher became close, good friends. We frequently chatted about political themes and Zionism.
We Children in the Yoke of Livelihood
When the children began to grow up they became father's helpers in his business. The oldest brother, Avraham, was taken to Tarutino by Uncle Yehiel to work in his shop. Avraham worked faithfully for his uncle, but it was not easy. He slept on the floor together with Uncle's other employees. In snow, cold and mud he used to ride along, every second week, to the market in Artsiz, a German colony about 13 miles from Tarutino. Avraham did not have a large salary from Uncle Yehiel. He worked for him for a few years until he was called up to serve in the army.
My brother Yitzhak helped out father until he, too, was conscripted.
My brother Israel was lucky because he was rejected by the army due to a small deformity. He became independent and opened an ironwares store in Tiraspol a town bigger than Bendery, on the other side of the Dniester.
It was my brother Leyzer's lot to become father's righthand man and his main helper.
Father, may he rest in peace, was a hard worker all his life. He was 13 years old when he came to Bendery. He had to go to market in Bubeov (Valantirovka) every second week. The road had many uphill and downhill sections as in the entire Dniester region. In the rainy season, he was mired in mud, and wintertime there was frost and snow. The wagon was loaded with ironware and it was difficult for the two harnessed horses to pull it. It was a trip of about 26.5 miles mostly in the dark of night. When going uphill the riders had to get off the wagon to make it easier for the horses. In the dark, Leyzer had to go in front to watch that the horses would not wander off the path and fall into a trench. When father and Leyzer were away at market, mother used to become the shopkeeper and I would make myself available to help her. My brother Aaron was already working in a timber business in Tshaderlunge. The other children were still small and attending Heder. Since Yitzhak was serving in the army, Leyzer and mother were father's only helpers.
My Mother a Woman of Valor and Mistress of the Home
Mother's work was directing the household chores, may she rest in peace. We were usually several brothers in one room. On Shabbat and holidays my brother Israel used to come from Tiraspol. At our Shabbat and holiday table there were always two Jewish soldiers who were serving in Bendery. It was a tradition in our family to befriend Jewish soldiers. Besides the soldiers, father would bring, from synagogue on Friday night, guests for Shabbat. Sometimes I was delayed in synagogue and I noticed a visitor who was left out by the leaders who were anxious to go home. I, as a small boy, would invite such a guest to our house. Thus, we always had two guests.
Sometimes there were visitors from far away relatives of good friends. They would stay in Bendery for a few days or even longer. In our house, there was always room for these guests and they were made welcome.
I never heard my mother complain that the housework was too hard for her. She used to start the preparation for Shabbat on Thursday afternoon. She would be kept busy almost the entire night with baking of Challot and bread. While she waited for the dough to rise she used to bake a heap of potato or pumpkin knishes, moon cookies for tea and many other things. When the dough had risen she would weave the first two Challot for the blessing. She decorated the smallest breadedloaves with little birds for the children.
On Fridays, during the day, she had little time to spare to make fish Dniester carp, pike or flounder. The fish was fresh and was brought by the fishermen on Thursday night directly from the river. We raised chickens in the yard and it was my job to bring it to the ritual slaughterer on Thursday. My mother also prepared kugels not only for the family, but also for the rabbi. Sometimes she also prepared for relatives on the occasion of a happy event. On Fridays, when we returned from the bathhouse, she would treat us with tzimmes. On Fridays, she would also feed poor people and provide them with a donation. She sent me around with full pots to Grandmother Reize and other poor relatives. The preparation for Shabbat would end with candle lighting in seven shining candlesticks. This would be the first time she would sit down at the beautifully set table and catch her breath. She would drink tea and wait happily for the crowd to return from services.
Mother would greet each person with Gut Shabbes and she looked at Father who was pacing and singing before he made Kiddush. After father, we, the sons and the guests would each make Kiddush, in turn. Mother's face shone with joy throughout the meal as if God's glory was resting on her. She was thus repaid for her hard work. She used to sing along with everyone as if part of a choir.
In his own way, father would contribute to the preparation for Shabbat. He would find out about someone who was down on his luck and who did not want to beg from others. Father would then go to the other shops to collect funds and add his own donation. He was then able to give a nice donation to a needy individual. I witnessed these transactions since childhood. Even if I knew who the needy person was, everything was done secretly.
As previously mentioned, when father was away on business mother would take over. In addition to preparing for Shabbat on Thursday afternoons, there was much more work in the house during the rest of the week. In a large family such as ours there was always something that needed repair or mending. She did this by staying up half the night. As she worked, other used to sing to herself modern songs connected with the land and Zion. I used to love to sit next to her and sing along with her.
I remember my first trip to a big city and it is connected to my mother. She had become tubercular and had to be taken to Odessa to the Jewish Hospital. When she began to feel a little better she begged father to bring one of the children when he came to visit. She missed them so much. My father took me to Odessa in winter time and I shivered from the cold in the unheated carriage. My trip was in vain because I was not allowed to see mother as I was still too small. I remember that on the way back, at the station in Odessa I was impressed by the electric lights that hung upside down. It was not possible to do it with our kerosene lamps in Bendery.
Grandfather's Family Sets Foot in America
In the meantime, grandfather's family set foot in America. Grandmother Haya died and grandfather remarried. We now had Grandmother Miriam. Grandfather's youngest son, Moshe moved to our house.
Moshe was an active boy. He was 13 when a family of our friends took him with them to America. In New York Moshe worked in a small restaurant on the East Side. To make a future for himself he saved his salary. After five years his boss went bankrupt. He was now called Max and he did not lose hope. He began to sell cold foods which he carried in a basket. Soon Max had a stand on N Street selling hot sausages and lemonade. Little by little, a food business emerged from this little stand. It was called Max BusyBee. Eventually, Max opened several such restaurants and he sold food items at low prices to many people. My uncle Max became famous even outside of New York. Several American writers mentioned him in their descriptions of immigrants living customs.
Old Age Creeps on Grandfather Yosef
My grandfather, Yosef, may he rest in peace, was a learned man and was called Old Reb Yossi. Every Shabbat, before Mincha, he would study a chapter of Mishna with a group of men in the Old Shul. On Shabbat and holidays, at Kiddush time in our home, he loved to give a lesson from Tanach or Gmara. He was blessed with good health due to his learning and teaching.
Sometimes he would meet another scholar and he would spend time discussing important points. He would then be late for the meal that his wife had prepared.
He loved to talk to me about Jewish tradition and he spoke of following a virtuous path. He would also test me on what I had learned in my studies. It is only much later that I appreciated all the life lessons he had instilled in me.
In spite of being an old man, grandfather did not stop working. He would pack old sheetmetal using a hammer to straighten it out and binding it with wire. He was a hard worker, but he was always respected by everyone in the community. He was given certain honors such as drawing the blood after a circumcision.
After Moshe went away to America, my mother would send me to my grandfather's house for the Seder so he would have someone who could ask the Four Questions. My reward for doing it was a new cap for the holidays.
I Go to America after my brother Leyzer's escape
My brother Avraham finished his military service and came back to help my father in the store. He married Uncle Yehiel's oldest daughter Heidye. Uncle Yehiel provided the young couple with an iron store in Arciz. Originally the store was only open on market days, but Avraham made it into a regular business. He quickly won the trust of the Germans, the customers in the colony, and he became prosperous.
Soon my brother Yitzhak returned from his military service. It was now my brother Leyzer's turn to be drafted. He was attached to a regiment of the Kishinev garrison. It was a great relief, naturally, for Leyzer to be so close to home. In the summer, his regiment was transferred to Bendery and he spent a lot of time at home with mother and father. In spite of this, he really had no liking for life in the barracks. He had barely completed two years of service when he decided to escape.
At Shavuot, he went away to Tiraspol with his Bendery bride. They put up a chuppa and he quickly went across the border with the help of an agent. He arrived in America a few weeks later.
In New York, Leyzer immediately had a job with Uncle Max. Six months after Leyzer left, Uncle Max sent out two ship tickets for Leyzer's young bride and one for me. I was already 18 by then and I was very active in Poalei Zion. Many of my comrades had already made Aliyah. My lot was to go to America. It must be said that before my brothers Avraham and Yitzhak had been conscripted, Uncle Max had sent them tickets. Mother did not want them to leave. By the time I left conditions in town had changed considerably.
My Activities in the SocialDemocratic Poalei Zion
I was still a bit of a newcomer when I joined the socialdemocratic movement Poalei Zion in New York. It had just been organized. The addition of the term socialdemocratic stressed the left leaning side of the new group as against the rightleaning point of view of the Central Committee of the party.
Row 2: Jewish soldier serving in Bendery, Member of Poalei Zion, Haim Kaushansky, David Prozhansky, Zeidel Sheynkar
In 1915, Ber Borochov came to America. He immediately joined the socialdemocratic Poalei Zion. His eagerness to join reflected a protest against the leadership of the party which had moved socialism into the background and had put Zionism up front.
Shortly after Ber Borochov's arrival a number of Poalei Zion leaders came to America from Eretz Israel. They had been deported from the land by the Turkish government when Turkey joined Germany during WWI. Ben Zvi, Ben Gurion, Alexander Chasin, Yaakov Zerubbabel and others came to our meetings. They would discuss with Borochov the politics of the party. At the time, I did not appreciate what a privilege it was for me to sit next to Ben Zvi, Ben Gurion and other builders of the modern State of Israel.
On May,1916, SocialDemocratic Poalei Zion marched together with other general workers in New York. Our marchers were, among others, Borochov and Kendzshersky, the theorist and founder of our party. Looking back now I feel fortunate that in my younger years I was able to work with great Jewish personalities and to breathe the air of their spirited activity. Later on, I was secretary of the organization.
In order to complete this section of the chapter I must add that after WWI and my serving as a delegate to Bessarabia, I was again elected as the secretary of the organization. There followed the 1920s when the Communist ideology invaded everywhere in general, and in America in particular. Our world organization had leftist leanings. Our group, led by Comrade Kendzshersky, did not budge from its ideology and any attempts by the left and the right to unite did not succeed.
The World Union of the Left Poalei Zion in Berlin sent Comrade Avraham Ravotsky to America. His mission was to lead us to a union of both sides. His task also was to shut out Kendzshersky from the party. Some members united with the left. Betzalel Sherman was chosen as the General Secretary of the United Labor Zionist Party and I became the Finance secretary.
Over the years, Poalei Zion sobered from its CommunistBolshevik trend and came to a rapprochement between all groups. I was drawn to other community interests. I have remained, to this day, a member of Poalei Zion.
Home to Bendery after my green years in America
I previously referred to my memories about the Social Democratic Poalei Zion, but now I must turn back to 1917.
I had, by then, spent a few green years in America. I went to Syracuse from New York City. I studied diligently and prepared myself to enter the Faculty of Medicine. My plans were destroyed by the general mobilization in the United States. I was an American soldier for close to two years. I spent 14 months in France with the army. Shortly after my discharge from the army, in May 1920, I became an emissary, as were many other young people in the postwar period. We were sent to our Old Country on a mission or on our own to help the victims of the war. I went to Bendery to see how I could help. By then, there were new rulers over Bessarabia the Romanians.
My father's custom of hospitality reached a high point with the outbreak of WWI. Bendery was a gathering place. It was a center for the Russian Army and there were many Jewish soldiers. My father realised that unless local residents took home some of these Jewish soldiers they would be lost without a proper Shabbat table. My father, together with other leading residents, built a free kitchen for Jewish soldiers. It was located in the Old Synagogue. On Friday nights and Shabbat after services each Jewish soldier was able to sit at a familiar table.
Father and the other hosts stood by the soldiers. They would only go home after the Jewish soldiers had eaten. Their wives and children waited patiently for them. The same routine was followed on holidays. During Passover, at the Seder, there was good Bessarabian wine, fresh fish from the Dniester and other delicacies.
Bendery during the War, Revolution, Pogroms and Occupation
The first few years of the war did not bring major changes in the lives of Bessarabian Jews in general and Bendery in particular. A number of young people ran away in order to avoid serving in the army as they did not want to risk their lives for the hated Russian regime.
There was even some prosperity in some circles. The Russian army was a buyer of everything. Father and my brothers Avraham and Yitzhak, became providers of different goods for the military. They were, of course, not the only ones to do so. Some welltodo businessmen moved to Odessa. My brothers bought up the largest iron business in Bendery from the Manus brothers. They ran two shops in different areas. During Kerensky's rule under the Russian Provisional Government, the Germans extended their front to Bendery. The Jewish population had nothing to complain about these Germans.
However, these good times did not last long. General chaos soon followed. The Romanian front fell and soldiers ran home in panic. In independent Ukraine, on the left side of the Dniester, there were pogroms and Jews were attacked. My brother Israel had a large iron business in Tiraspol and he felt the menace of the Petliurists. [Petliurists characterized the Jews as Bolshevik sympathizers and used this as a pretext to justify their destruction http://felshtin.org/bloodybacchanaliathepogromsofproskurovandfelshtin/]. Israel and his family came to Bendery where they waited for the Romanians to arrive. The Jews in Bendery were afraid. Shopkeepers began to close their stores and they ran to Tiraspol. Those who remained shut themselves in their homes under many locks. Father and the family remained in Bendery. Father and my brothers kept watch over their closed shop.
When the Romanians arrived in town my father and my brothers made themselves understood in Romanian. They were left alone. Romanian soldiers robbed unwatched property and there were some Jewish victims whom the Romanians had accused of being Bolsheviks. The town looked half dead.
Under Romanian rule, all of Bessarabia, including Bendery, was impoverished. The high income was no longer available because the natural customers were now on the left side of the DniesterKherson and Ukraine. There could not be any contact. The entire Bessarabian population, towns and villages, Moldovans and Jews, were left without any livelihood.
Refugees from Ukraine are warmly received in Bendery
On the other side of the Dniester the situation for the Jewish population, in particular, became harder and harder. Civil War broke out in Russia. In Ukraine, bandits raged and pogroms destroyed Jewish lives and property. Jews began, under these circumstances, to escape to Romania with the hope of reaching relatives in America.
The gathering place for refugees was Kishinev. Many also stopped in Bendery. The Jews of Bendery did everything to help out these refugees by sheltering them. The women organized a free kitchen in Itzel Goldfarb's wedding hall. Jewish housewives cooked and served. Each day another group of women was on duty in the hall. The kitchen was supervised by Rabbi Shloimke Wertheim's wife.
Just then I arrived in Bendery as a delegate as guests from America were called. Many former residents in America sent help to their relatives and other refugees from their home towns.
On the day when it was my mother's turn to cook and serve I had the opportunity to get to know more closely Jewish assistance at work. My mother was proud of the fact that the Rebbetzin would eat there when my mother, Dvora, worked in the kitchen. She was certain about the status of Kashrut on such a day.
I attended a meeting of the Bendery leaders in the town council where they discussed aid for refugees not only those who came to Bendery, but also the many who reached Kishinev. Jews truly helped their brethren at such times.
One day my mother was told that a soninlaw of her sister Gitel had come from Tiraspol and was arrested by the Romanian police. My parents were unable to sleep that night. The next day, my father managed to bring the young man home from prison.
Shortly afterward my brother Israel and his family came from Tiraspol. They escaped with the help of people called transporters, and they came straight to our house. They managed to avoid the police until they obtained proper papers.
Gradually, life under the Romanians stabilized. My brother Avraham bought for Israel a large iron business in Akkerman, and he did well. In Akkerman, Israel was active in local Jewish community organizations as was the tradition of our family. The economic situation in Bessarabia, in general, and in Bendery, in particular, improved with time. Life was more or less normal. My father became the head Gabbai in the Old Synagogue. My brother Yitzhak worked on the aidcommittee and in the Hevra Kaddisha. Aaron was active in the Zeirei Zion movement and mother and her daughtersinlaw were on various women's committees.
There were no major events in Bessarabia in the years between the wars.
I Return to America and My Brothers Remain
I returned to America in 1922, and a new chapter in my personal life began. I am not including it in this article which is entitled Three Generations of a Jewish Family from Bendery. I am including here the story of the members of my family who remained in the Old Country and who went through WWII and the Holocaust. One should not reduce my family's story to that of one individual, but my brother Avraham's fate is connected throughout Bessarabia. Avraham's stubbornness and perseverance are essentially characteristic of a Bessarabian Jew. I will speak about his survival and the fate of other members of the family.
As noted above, my brother Avraham settled in Arciz, one of the German colonies which existed in Bessarabia. He was known by the Germans as an honest merchant and he thrived. Avraham was also known in the Jewish community of Arciz for his generosity. When it came to charity or any general Jewish project Avraham always contributed a sum matching the total of the rest of the community. Whenever representatives from any Jewish organization came to town they always stayed in Avraham's house as befitted a wealthy Jew in the past. Avraham never missed an opportunity to finance a wedding for a poor girl. He paid all expenses including a dowry.
For the leftleaning members of the community Avraham represented the bourgeoisie the exploiter. However, the truth is that Avraham was a hard worker all his life. He worked hard to earn his wealth. In order to buy old ironware he had to go to the big cities. Arciz was far from the railroad, and he used to drag himself with a horse and buggy through the night to reach a small station. He would then transfer to a larger one to go to Odessa or Kishinev. Under the Romanians it became more difficult to reach Galatz, Braila, Iasi and Bucharest. The trips took their toll on his health. Avraham would begin his work day at 6 am and he would finish at 8 pm. He did not rest in between and did all the physical work by himself. He did not have machinery for cutting and had to prepare all the orders by hand. He worked hard to earn money. I describe this in order to show what the Bolsheviks concocted against him when they came to Bessarabia as the liberators from the Romanian yoke.
Take from the People and Give Back to the People
The Red Army entered Arciz and one of the leftist comrades in the village warned Avraham not to wait for them to requisition his business, but to seem to willingly give it to them. Avraham followed his advice. He was promised by the commissars that he would be repaid for everything. An inventory list was prepared and it seemed a done deal. However, time went by and not only did the revolutionary authorities not keep their word, but Avraham and his family were thrown out of the house and had to settle in a crowded apartment.
Avraham tried to prove to the representative of the authorities that everything he possessed had been obtained through hard work. Although he had been promised to be repaid he was told: Take from the People and Give Back to the People.
Shortly afterwards, the Nazis began the war with the Soviets and the Red Army evacuated Bessarabia. Avraham had been given notice a few days earlier that he and his family were to be evacuated. They were only permitted to bring with them the bare essentials.
Avraham's wife, Heida, died on the way. One of his sons was already in Eretz Israel. He was later mobilized into the British Brigade and even reached the rank of sergeant.
The Bolsheviks mobilized Avraham's two sons who were with him and he was left alone in Central Asia. There, far, far away, Avraham was starving. Eventually, his experience as a great merchant enabled him to obtain food.
In the town where Avraham was abandoned there were also our nieces, the daughters of our sister. She had died from hunger during the evacuation. Avraham tried to help them as much as he could. However, when he went out of town to look for a way to earn a living, the girls would go to his room and search it to try to find anything he left behind perhaps a crust of bread.
Avraham recorded his survival in a diary which I now have among my papers. In it are recorded the Soviet realities and the stealing among its army officers. They all stole from the State. Avraham, the foreigner, stood away from the shame and humiliation in order to at least gain a crust of bread.
Final Story of the Family
When it became clear that the war was ending, Avraham began a slow return to Bessarabia. He reached Czernowitz where his son Shmuel lived with his wife. A relative of his wife helped the three of them to smuggle themselves back to Romania. From Bucharest, Avraham was in touch with me and the other brothers in America. We, of course, provided them with funds and they reached Cyprus, hoping to go from there to Eretz Israel. The British did not allow them entry. The fact that Avraham's son and Shmuel's brother had served in the British Army was not enough for Bevin's [Ernest Bevin, British Foreign Secretary] underlings.
Soon the State of Israel was declared and Avraham, his son and daughterinlaw were among the first arrivals to the independent new country. They quickly settled in a kibbutz.
In 1951, I came to Israel as a delegate to a world conference of Bessarabian Jews. I visited Avraham and other members of our family. I had not seen them for nearly 30 years. This is how I heard about the abovementioned events.
My parents had the privilege of finding their eternal rest before the Red Army marched into Bendery. They would have suffered terribly otherwise. My brother Pesach came to America in 1921, after my visit to Bendery. My brothers Yitzhak and Aaron, together with their families, remained in Bendery. The Bolsheviks took everything away from them. They were thrown out of their homes and were only allotted one room per family. They were tormented cruelly and accused of being bourgeois and counterrevolutionaries. One bright day, Aaron was arrested and locked up in a fruit wagon at the station. Yitzhak had hidden in the house of Rabbi Efrati. When Yitzhak heard about his brother's arrest he told the rabbi: I cannot leave my brother all alone. He voluntarily appeared in front of the authorities. Both Yitzhak and Aaron were then sent to Siberia. They both died on their way to their deportation destination. Their families never heard anything about them.
The Communist authorities also arrested my brother Israel and held him for a long time in prison. He finally left there sick and a broken man. Later he worked for a time as an employee in an iron business in Czernowitz. He then took to his bed as an invalid. He died in 1967, and his wife Hannah followed him a year later. Their children live in the Soviet Union.
Two sistersinlaw, Yitzhak's Haike and Aaron's Haike live in Kishinev. I wrote to the latter, but she has not answered my letters. Fear of the Soviet censor probably was the reason. We have all aged by now and it may be too late to reconnect.
The fate of our family is similar to the general Jewish fate in the times of our worst disasters. However, the exterminators did not reach all of our people.
The greatgrandchildren of YehudaLeib Gurfel, whose sons established themselves in Jewish Bessarabia, are today dispersed over several continents and many cities. After all that has happened they remain an integral part of the triumph of Israel.
by Yitzhak Abramovitch (TighinaBendery)
About Rabbi Yosef Wertheim
The well of knowledge and of Torah
You are the ram's horn of amazing times
You plant in us the emotion
You have made me drunk
I saw the old leader
You have made us inebriated
by Rabbi Dr. Aaron Wertheim (New York)
It is not only the pen in the hand, but it is also the heart that shudders when one sits down at the table to recollect memories from this or that Jewish town or village that had undergone the Holocaust. It is even more difficult to write about it when the town is the birthplace of the author and his father, grandfather and greatgrandfather up to six generations.
Dear and wonderful Bendery Jews! This is the impression I received still in my childhood. This is when I began to listen to Torah lessons, stories and miracles told by my grandfather and greatgrandfather. This is the custom of Hassidim in rabbinic families. This is a story found in a manuscript written by my father, zl:
My grandfather's greatgrandfather, Rabbi AryehLeib, zl, (nicknamed the Bendery Tsaddik) was invited to become the Rabbi of Bendery in 1814. He was, at the time, a rabbi in a shtetl called Pustshan in Podolia. He traveled to Meziboz where his rabbi resided the famous Rabbi AvrahamJoshua Heshel. He was known for his book Lover of Israel. My ancestor asked the rabbi for advice. Rabbi Heshel told him to take the position of Bendery Rabbi. My grandfather asked him a question: Rabbi Heshel had been a rabbi in Iasi and then he moved to Meziboz. It is said that he did not like the Jews of Moldavia so why did he tell me to go to Bendery? (In those days, the whole of Bessarabia was a part of Moldavia.) Heshel replied: what I said was only about the Jews of Iasi region, but Bendery Jews are dear and wonderful.
Grandfather was only 44 years old, and he was the Rabbi of Bendery for 40 years. He died at the old age of 84 on 3 Tammuz 1854.
The old Tsaddik was admired not only in Bendery, but also in the entire area. He even had followers in Kishinev, Odessa and other towns. His followers gave him money, but he used to distribute much to charity. When he died, he left his properties in Kishinev to charity.
At the time of his fortieth anniversary of serving as a rabbi, the intellectual life in Bender was in bloom. This can be seen in the great difference between the two rabbinic contracts given by the town. The first was given in 1814 to the old Tsaddik Aryeh Leib and the second to his son, ShimonShloime in 1854. The first contract was short and in primitive form. There were thirty residents who signed, without their family names, only their and their fathers' names, e.g. Yitzhak son of Avraham, Reuven son of Yaakov, etc. They merely put an X since many of these thirty people could neither read nor write. However, the second contract, 40 years later in 1854, is wellwritten in excellent Hebrew. It was signed by 70 people who, almost all, wrote their full names. They already had family names by then. This shows the cultural growth the town had undergone in that interval.
The old Tsaddik, AryehLeib, zl, conducted himself in the manner of the old Hassidic leaders. They did not write books nor did they give speeches. He taught Judaism to his followers by his good deeds. His motto was I keep my words in my heart Psalms 119.
His son, Shimon, was a rabbi in Huntshest, Bessarabia before his father's death. He was brought to Bendery to take over his father's position. He was only the rabbi of Bendery for eight years and died in Kishinev on 20 Adar 1862. The Kishinev community honored him and put up a tent over his grave. Years later, it was still obvious how great and important he was to them.
Rabbi ShimonShlomo conducted himself like all the Hassidic rabbis of the new generation. They gave lectures every Shabbat and holiday and the followers would later write down everything that had been said. This is how an entire book is left with his speeches. It is a manuscript called Or Hashemesh (Light of the Sun).
When Rabbi ShimonShloime died, his son, Rabbi Yitzhak known in Bendery as Rabbi Itzikel was only sixteen years old. Until he turned twenty, a committee took care of the rabbinate. It consisted of several judges and important residents. He then took over the position and he became beloved and wellknown in the area. He had many followers in Kishinev, Odessa, Akkerman and other towns.
Rabbi Itzikel built a big, beautiful synagogue in his yard. The construction was financed by a modern Mikveh and the bathhouse on Tregeyevsky Street. For some time, the bathhouse was called The Rabbi's Bathhouse.
Rabbi Itzikel, zl, wrote his own Torah scrolls which he used on Shabbat. He also wrote other books interpretations of Psalms, Book of Esther, Passover Hagadah, etc. I have seven of his manuscripts in my possession.
Grandfather Itzikel died on 3 Sivan 1913 one year before WWI broke out. His son, also called Rabbi ShimonShlomo after his grandfather, was known in Bendery by the nickname Rabbi Shloimke. He did not wish to be a Hassidic rabbi and he was simply a rabbi. He was a scholar and corresponded with the greatest rabbinic personalities of his generation. They all recognized his scholarship and greatness. He was an intelligent, modern man. Immediately after the Kishinev pogrom of 1905, a group of Jews from Bessarabia organized themselves for Aliyah in the colonies of Eretz Israel. Rabbi ShimonShlomo went to Paris to meet Baron Rothschild and to receive his support for this group. Unfortunately, at that time, the Turkish government issued an order not to allow the sale of land in Eretz Israel to Jews. The Baron was unable to help. He did give them land in Anatolia (Turkey). However, grandfather did not wish to have Jews settle in another country.
In May 1914, several months before the outbreak of WWI, Rabbi ShimonShlomo went to Eretz Israel as a tourist. He hoped to find a way to settle there. On the ship, he met a group of wealthy Polish Jews from Lodz. They liked him and they founded a group called We Will Make Aliyah (the wellknown slogan from the Torah which Caleb Ben Yefuneh and Yehoshua Bin Nun used against the spies). The group intended to build an industrial town in Eretz Israel and Rabbi ShimonShlomo would become their spiritual leader. They sent him to Paris to speak to Baron Rothschild to obtain his interest and support. Unfortunately, the day grandfather arrived in Paris the war broke out and the entire plan failed. Grandfather had great difficulty finding his way home from Paris through Eretz Israel. He arrived in time for Hanukah, travelling with a horse and buggy with other people through snowcovered Balkan rivers, through Bulgaria, Romania and home to Russia. Turkey closed the Dardanelles and it was impossible to travel by ship or by train.
In spite of all these difficulties that he underwent during his journey, his love for Eretz Israel was even stronger and bigger. He instilled this love in his children and his friends. He always hoped to fulfill his dream after the war and to settle in the Holy Land. However, there was a terrible decimation of the Jews of Ukraine at the end of WWI. The Haidamaks, Petliurists and the Bolsheviks committed these crimes. He also suffered a personal loss when his son AryehLeib and his grandson were killed by smugglers who were supposed to transport them across the Dniester from the Russian side. All of this made him very ill and he died at the age of 60 on 18 Shevat 1925.
The economic situation in Bendery at the time was dire. Under the Romanians the Jewish population was impoverished. The community's income was mainly from the tax on kosher meat. These funds were used to pay salaries to the rabbis, judges and ritual slaughterers and to take care of the hospital, Old People's Home and the Talmud Torah. However, when there is less income one does not eat so much meat and does not have poultry slaughtered. There was not enough money to even pay rent. The Bendery community could not afford to invite my father, Rabbi Yosef, zl, to take over his father's position. At the time, my father held an important rabbinic seat in Hrobishov, Poland. He had an excellent reputation in rabbinic circles. He had a large family to look after and the Bendery community could not afford to pay him the necessary salary. The community accepted my father's proposal and offered my grandfather's rabbinic seat to me, the author of this article. I was the oldest grandson and his student.
Grandfather, Rabbi ShimonShlomo, died on a Tuesday evening, and that same time the community's important people prepared a rabbinic contract. They agreed to hire me as the town rabbi. The burial took place on Friday morning and by then 600 town residents had signed the contract offered by the community. The contract was leatherbound and the president, Mr. Alexandrov, brought it to me officially when the Shloshim (Thirty Days) were commemorated.
On Friday morning, in the old cemetery, my grandfather was buried under the tent of his greatgrandfather, the old Tsaddik. His inlaw, Shabtai Berman was an important leader in the community, a generous Jew, a Lubavitch Hassid and a scholar. The path to the grave where the sainted rabbi was buried was covered in black, and Berman, in a tearful voice, said: Mazel Tov, my inlaw. We have elected your grandson as our rabbi to fill your shoes. I was only 22 years old then, and the situation scared me the responsibility was great. This is how I became the rabbi of Bendery. My fate, however, was not to remain in Bendery and even the contract for life offered to me by the community did not stop me from going to America when I had the opportunity to do so.
The short tenure I served as rabbi in Bendery evokes two episodes. As was well known, it was not customary in Bendery and other such towns to eulogize every person who died. It was only in special circumstances that the rabbis had to eulogize. The first such eulogy that I made as the Rabbi of Bendery occurred when there was a fire in the Soborno Square shops. A young Jew a fire brigade volunteer was killed. He had helped to put out the fire and to save the neighboring stores and houses. The whole town came to the funeral and the ceremony took place in the New Synagogue. The date was 15 Av, a day that is considered a semiholiday. On that day, the Tachanun (prayer of supplication) is not said. This was a day when in the Temple preparations were made for the lumber used in the burning of sacrifices. However, at the funeral, everyone cried uncontrollably when I mentioned the meaning of this date in the past. For us in Bendery, it was not a holiday because we brought to burial a victim of the fire.
The second episode happened before Pesach. Bessarabia was experiencing a terrible drought which brought much hunger to our blessed land. It was feared there would not be enough flour for the baking of Matzoth. Prices were high and poor people could not afford to buy matzoth for the entire holiday. The rabbis allowed Passover corn meal to be eaten. We koshered a mill, painted the ears of corn and prepared special flour for Pesach according to the rules.
Immediately after Pesach, I had the opportunity to go to America. I had organized an appeal on behalf of the hospital and Old People's Home, and I hoped to receive donations from our former residents and other sources. However, not everything dreamed in Europe can be realised in America. My compatriots in New York received me warmly, but they were unable to give me as much as I thought.
Eight years after I left Bendery, the economic and social situations of many Jewish communities in Poland worsened due to antiSemitic laws of the government. My father, Rabbi Yosef, zl, decided to leave his post in Hrobishov and to return to Bendery. He arrived in the spring of 1935. I was visiting Bendery at the time and it was the last opportunity to see my parents in my hometown.
My father was the rabbi in Bendery for only five years. When WWII broke out in September 1939, Bendery became part of the Soviet Union since Romania gave up its territory. It was dangerous for my father to fall into the hands of the Communists due to his political activities in his previous post in Poland. He had to flee Bendery. He obtained, with great difficulty, a certificate from the British in Palestine, and he arrived in Eretz Israel on Pesach 1940.
I wish to quote from a manuscript he wrote about Bendery it is now in my possession: Bendery was a town famous for its charity, where the poor were always in all generations helped.
My father spent his last years in Jerusalem and he earned an excellent reputation among rabbis and Yeshivas. He was always given great honor and he was chosen as one of the official rabbis in the Jerusalem Religious Court.
The previously quoted description of Bendery charity was written by my late father before he died of heart ailments on 23 Adar II 1946. It is true proof that, for the past 130 years, seven generations of our Wertheim family all felt the same way about Bendery. Dear and Wonderful Bendery Jews!
by I.L. Yonatan (Tel Aviv)
Translated by Ala Gamulka
The Jewish community of Bessarabia was absorbed in a peaceful existence, like one before a storm. The Zionist movement had its best successes.
What do Zionist activities in those days mean? They involved collecting funds for Jewish National Fund, distributing shekels,leading a campaign to have representatives in the communities, promoting the Hebrew language among the youth, establishing Hebrew schools and kindergartens and running conferences. The branches were busy with many activities.
Zionist personalities visited, from time to time, larger cities such as Kishinev, Akkerman, Bendery and Beltz. They used to come for an evening, make speeches and then attend a banquet. They would come and then leave.
In the center of all Zionist daily activities stood the Hebrew teachers in the cities and the small towns. They were the leading spirits at Hebrew classes and in private tutoring. They would distribute the shekels and collect the blue and white boxes. They also provided bowls for collections for Jewish National Fund in the synagogue on the eve of Yom Kippur, at times of remembering departed members of the family, and at weddings.
I will light a memorial candle for one of these people as a symbol of all the others.
Bendery was covered, for many months of the year, with black mud. It was not only a problem for those on foot, but also for the wagons bringing guests from the train station.
The old teacher, Baruch Holodenko, seems to have grown within the Bendery vista. He wore a black hat and his feet dragged blobs of mud. This went on from morning to night.
Here is a description of a day of work for Baruch Holodenko: early in the morning he organizes pairs of collectors for Jewish National Fund at weddings planned for the evening. This is followed by two tutoring lessons (his income) and then consultations with Zionist activists Hirsh Kogan in the Pharmacy Depot. Then again, tutoring sessions for two hours and more running around.
All day, Baruch drags himself on the streets wearing his long, mudspattered coat. He is sneezing and coughing and shivers from the cold.
In addition to his Zionist technical help, he also gives lectures. On Hanukah, he speaks of the Hasmoneans, on Purim about gatherings, and on Succoth about the quote Go and collect from your fields.
His home reeks of poverty, but his wife is very understanding and encourages his good deeds for the benefit of others and following his ideals.
This is how Baruch Holodenko lived in the atmosphere of Eretz Israel in his town of Bendery, steeped in mud in the winter and inhaling the dust in summer. He educated a generation who loved Zion, Hebrew, pioneering. He died in the Jewish Hospital in Bendery.
We honor his memory.
I spoke earlier about the Pharmacy Depot which was a meeting place for Zionist leaders. Hirsh Kogan was the owner of the depot. He was tall, skinny and had a pointed brown beard and clever eyes. He had a sharp tongue and during ideological discussions he was able, with his words and smart phrases, to get to the point.
On a daily basis, between noon and two in the afternoon, his clean, neat store became a Zionist club for local activists and old friends. Their friendships became even stronger because of their Zionist ideals.
The Pharmacy Depot served, for many years, as the home of Zionist activities and heated discussions. If a stranger happened to come into Hirsh Kogan's store he would think that only Zionism mattered and earning a living was not so important.
Bendery did not stand out from other towns and villages in Bessarabia. Everywhere there were such territories where there were discussions about a Return to Zion. There was a renaissance of the Jewish people.
by Hanania Volovetz (Tel Aviv)
I leaf through my memories of our town and its activities and I recall the community institutions. These institutions did their utmost to help the needy. I was an active member of the Ezrat Ani'im (Help for the Poor), and I remember many facts. It is especially important to discuss 19281929 called the Year of Hunger. The whole of Bessarabia was affected, especially Bendery.
It is well known that Bessarabia was always a productive part of Russia. As long as it belonged to Russia, hunger was not felt in Bessarabia. Its rich fields provided food for the rest of Russiawheat, wine, fruit, wool. It is no wonder that Bessarabia was called the rye chamber of Russia.
All this was true until the Romanians took over in 1918. A new regime controlled Bessarabia. It was now isolated from Russia. It was as if a knife was used to sever the earning power of the Jews. A second reason was that the Romanians tried with all their might to take away commerce from the Jews. There was a terrible destruction in Jewish life. Many merchants became impoverished. Many town leaders who had always donated to good causes now were in need themselves. There was unbelievable need in that year.
That year the younger people threw out the older leaders and brought in a new regime in the institutions. The younger generation elected new leaders. Alexandrov , zl, was the leader and he chose me and my friend Zalman, son of Haim, Kaushansky to look after the needs of the poor. We began by helping in secret even wood for heating, matzoth and wine for Pesach. Others in the management were Shmulevitch, Pisterov, Anutov, Schmaltz, Yankel Kutchuk, I.Kh. Levitt, and others whose names I cannot remember. I ask for their forgiveness.
We were very busy that year. We had to look hard to find the former merchants who now were in need so we could bring them, secretly, what they needed in their homes. We did not want them to be shamed. We supplied poor Jewish children with warm clothing, a pair of shoes, some hot soup, a bit of meat and bread. There were also soup kitchens for poor families so they would have a hot meal.
Mrs. S. Kishinevsky, the wife of David, son of Rabbi Asher Kishinevsky, was particularly active in this institution. However, as the saying goes A little bit does not satisfy the lion.
A terrible, cruel time was felt during that year. I believe that anyone who lived through those troubling days will never forget them.
In contrast to the morose picture just described, it must be said that our young wage earners did not sit idly.
In addition to the Ezrat Ani'im institution I was chosen together with Yasha Lederman as secretary of the Jewish community.
The Jewish institutions did not cease to pulsate with activities until the Holocaust came upon us. The Germans together with the Romanians, may their names be wiped off the earth, murdered our precious Jewish members of the community. These were dear, fine people in our Jewish, upstanding town.
by I.Manik (Lederman) zl (Bat Yam)
This was only one block of one of the main streets in Bendery.
Why was it called the TEACHERS STREET? No one knows. It is possible that it was due to the numerous Heders found there. It was as busy as a beehive.
The Teachers Street was not part of the wealthy area of town. In that area, one could find rich people who were semiassimilated doctors, intelligentsia and good providers. On Teachers Street there were ordinary people, even poor ones. However, from the point of view of traditional Judaism the street stood out as special in the town. In this small area was concentrated the majority of the religious and social life of the Bendery.
In addition to the many Heders there were also four synagogues: Rabbi Itzikel's shul, the New Shul, the Tailors' Shul and the Coopers' Shul. Next to Itzikel's Shul there was a wedding hall. On holidays and even on Shabbat, the hall was used for prayers.
The majority of the religious personnel lived on Teachers Street. They were prayer leaders, ritual slaughterers (including Pinhas Dayan), the Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Itzikel and later his son Rabbi Shloimkele. Even the comical package carrier was there always pulling his own thin beard.
Rabbi Itzikel's Shul and the New Shul were connected to the Old Shul and the Sogeger (Sadigura?) Shul in the next block. These synagogues, and also the Butchers' Shul, were the five large synagogues in town. Except for the New Shul they were all couched in mystery and folklore. This fact played on the imagination of the children. To this day I remember the painting in Rabbi Itzikel's Shul: A figure peered from under a tree in the wilderness… The New Shul the largest was magnificent. It could have stood in a bigger town than Bendery. It was unique due to its architecture, its greengolden lattice which surrounded the high semicircular windows, its four eagles with outstretched wings in the corner of the high dome. From their beaks hanging on a thin wire were crystal chandeliers. In the middle was a large bird encased in amber wreaths. It indicated the holy place. Everything was painted pure white the walls, the ceiling, the Holy Ark with its golden decorations.
When Shabbat came, not to mention a Holiday, the street became full of people the men going to pray dressed in special clothing together with their wives who were similarly adorned. They were on their way to synagogue. They were accompanied by their children who carried the fathers' tallit bags.
When the Torah was read, those considered more free used to stand outside the synagogue discussing politics: daily events, smart remarks and jokes.
Where are they now, these lovable, dear and warmhearted people? Everything was destroyed. The synagogues remained desolate and orphaned. They stand forlorn a remnant of the Destruction.
The story goes that when the synagogue was built a golden key was used to unlock the door at the dedication.
This key we will guard for eternity.
by I.Manik (Lederman) zl (Bat Yam)
I.Manik (Lederman), zl
At the end of the town lived a whole horde
Poor people, in the courtyard of old Diarde's pay.
There was a Jew a strong man, already in his nineties. His face
Reminded us of the Vilna Gaon, but they were not related
He was far removed from scholarship and aristocracy…
For years, in town, he would carry out
He was dressed in Shabbat clothes, holy outfits
Suddenly, a knock on the window, in secret,
His old age, his energy
by Leon (YehudaLeib) Garfield (New York)
I believe my memories are useful in their common interests. I must not forget to discuss the story of our movement in Bendery in the years 19091914.
The teacher Haim Glass, as it turned out later, found himself in Bendery as a political emissary from Bessarabia. A short time after his arrival, a second young man appeared in Bendery with a similar background David Prozhansky. It was evident that he had greater revolutionary ties than Glass. However, he was more steeped in Judaism and in Hebrew and Yiddish literature. Prozhansky began to give private lectures and became wellknown as one of the best Hebrew teachers in town. He did not have to complain about lack of income.
These two teachers, Glass and Prozhansky, had deep influence on the young Jews of Bendery of the time. They were both dedicated to awakening the national spirit of the Bendery Jewish youth. It did not take long for a Poalei Zion [Workers of Zion] group to be formed (around 1909). At first/ it was an open club that met on Shabbat afternoons in a member's home. Some people played chess and others discussed local issues. Eventually, new members joined and an executive committee was formed to plan lectures. There were not many lecturers from Bendery. We exploited David Wertheim's older brother (David was then still too young). Prozhansky was our instructor in Jewish literature. He also explained many JewishNationalistic issues as well as the platforms of the various Jewish parties then active in the Jewish community. Our group was not dogmatic. We often heard speakers from other Zionist parties. We held interesting discussions with them. A young Haim Greenberg would come, from time to time, from Kishinev. It was always a great event.
Every holiday, especially at Hanukkah, we would have a party with many young participants from our town. It was a party filled with camaraderie, food, singing and a wonderful atmosphere. In this way, we showed the youth of Bendery the beliefs of Poalei Zion.
Slowly we made contact with our Zionist Poalei Zion comrades in Eretz Israel. We also collected money for the Palestinian Workers' Fund. The general Zionists in Bendery had their own gathering place and even their special leader Baruch Holodenko. He was a wonderful speaker. The majority of the craftsmen in town identified themselves with the general Zionists. They were also involved with the Lovers of Hebrew section. Many good Hebrew lecturers were imported by them. Their lectures were also attended by our members. I recall some of the bestknown Zionists of the time were Hersh Kogan, Dr. Sh. Bendersky, Israel Blank, Fustan and others. Some local youths also considered themselves to be territorialists. Their leader was a Russian teacher. He and his wife were like our modern Hippies. He had long hair, sideburns and a beard. Our jokesters nicknamed him My Beard. The couple was also vegetarians.
In addition, he was also my Russian teacher! Territorialism left me cold, but he made me into a vegetarian. In those days, this was part of the idealism. There were also debates arranged between their group and the Zionists about territorialism. They were not successful.
Yosef Trumpeldor traveling back to Eretz Israel in 1913
Yosef Trumpeldor (19); Next to him: Shlomo Levkovitch(Lavi) from Ein Harod
We, the Poalei Zion group, continued with our mission. Typical of those times was the fact that our main fundraising event for the proletarian P.A.P was the traditional eve of Yom Kippur bowl in the synagogues, when Jews gave donations for all purposes, especially for Eretz Israel. We also collected funds at weddings, when the guests were already seated around tables. We (including me) would stand on a chair and appeal to those gathered to donate for the Palestinian Workers' Fund. An incident from 1911 well illustrates our dedication to the cause: on the eve of the Zionist Congress of that year we received a letter from our comrades in Eretz Israel asking us to dedicate our votes (for a shekel) for one of their members (I no longer remember his name). This member was a crusader for the kibbutzim movement. However, Haim Greenberg ran against him, and he was a beloved person. After a heated debate, it was decided that we would all vote for the delegate from Eretz Israel.
We were authentic adherents of Poalei Zion and we participated in secular events. At one time the mother of modern Jewish theatre, EstherRachel Kaminsky, was performing in Odessa. We heard that she was bringing her troupe to Bendery. We knew that whatever income we would have from her performance would be donated to Jewish theatre. We prepared a wonderful reception for this great Jewish artist. At the Bendery premiere, Prozhansky greeted EstherRachel from the stage. He presented her with an album full of dedications. He also demonstrated our deep thanks for her performance.
At that time, we undertook the initiative to found in Bendery a Jewish library. The existing library was outofdate and rundown. Definitely modern Jewish literature and translations into Yiddish of world classics were lacking. We established a new system, and we obtained several hundred necessary volumes. I was appointed the manager of the new library located in our home. The first reader in the new library was David Wertheim.
In the winter of 19111912, Bendery was fortunate to have a local RussianJewish newspaper. It was in the format of a Penny newspaper. The editor, an intelligent young man, did not come from Bendery. It happened that I met him on the train on his way to Bendery. I was traveling from Odessa where I had been sent by my parents to cure me from my idleness. The young man told me about his plans to publish a newspaper in Bendery. Of course, I informed him about our group, and he kept it in mind. The editor of this young newspaper was interested in making connections with the Jewish community. He asked me to help organize a masked ball with proceeds going to the Odessa Committee. Our group discussed the issue and decided that we would support the event as long as income would be divided between the Odessa Committee and the Palestine Workers Fund. There was an agreement. The editor obtained the necessary permits and the newspaper generously advertised the ball. The Volunteer Fire Brigade had always sponsored an annual masked ball and the Jews attended with the rest of the citizens. It turned out that the two masked balls were scheduled for the same evening. The Volunteer Fire Brigade asked us to postpone our ball. However, our tickets were almost sold out by then. In the ensuing argument, we felt the prejudice since it was the time of the Beilis blood libel trial in Kiev [1913 Menachem Mendel Beilis]. We did not change the date. Our ball achieved an artistic and a financial success.
During those days also took place the wedding of our friend, Haim Glass. The bride was an intelligent working girl from Odessa. I was a very close friend of Haim Glass. He would even show me the letters he and his fiancée exchanged. The young couple later became famous among us for their hospitality. Haike, Glass' wife, always received us warmly. Our colleagues always felt at home in the Glass house. Baruch Agadati (Rabinovitch) was already known as an excellent impresario, and he was a constant visitor in their home. He always entertained us. Other visitors to that house were: Rafael Shufman (lives now in Kfar Yekhezkel), Zina Rabinovitch (she became a writer), Liova Bortnik, Zeidel Shenker, Miss Lifshitz (her father was a famous teacher and one of the founder of the Zamir as well as the bookkeeper of the Little Bank), Prozhansky, me, students from the upper classes of the Science High School and female students from the gymnasia. Among our members were also representatives of businesses in town as well as university students who came to Bendery from larger cities. Moni Fustan once stopped me on the street and showed interest in our group. We became quite friendly. Even then he dreamed of a different world. He was not an active member of our group.
The striving to make Aliyah (to go to Palestine) affected Bendery, too.
Starting in the fall of 1912 a group of young men and women left Bendery. They had to take a freight ship in Odessa. It travelled between Odessa and Jaffa. I, together with other friends, went to take leave of them. We spent several days in Odessa. To this day, I remember those days with happiness. I truly liked Odessa. I stood with Rafael Shufman in front of the bookstore, Bialik and Roznitsky. Haim Nahman Bialik stood at the entrance and was reading Haolam (The World). We were impressed with how quickly Bialik turned the pages of the journal. We also did not miss the opportunity to attend Shabbat services in the Zionist synagogue, Yavne. There, hundreds of young people stood near writers, especially Bialik. They listened raptly to their speeches. On Friday night, we went to the Broder synagogue where saw a different kind of people. For us it was a novelty.
by Leon (YehudaLeib) Garfield (New York)
In Bendery, I found only a few members of our original Poalei Zion group. In 1920 they organized, with the help of some Communist Jews, a branch of the Cultural League. It was then the main organization for Jewish culture in the new Great Rumania (the old Bessarabia and Bukovina). In those days, the Communist influence was not too small in the Cultural League in the country. Prozhansky, Zeidel Sheynkar, Leibel Sobol, and a few others of my friends joined the Cultural League. We began to offer Yiddish evening classes for young people from poorer families. They never had even an elementary education. In addition to Yiddish, we also offered Hebrew, arithmetic and, of course, Rumanian. The latter was to obey the authorities.
In the summer of 1921, there was an allRomania conference of the Cultural League in Czernowitz. I was elected as a delegate to this conference of Jewish culture. In Czernowitz, I encountered a wellorganized group of leftleaning Poalei Zion. It consisted mainly of Jewish intellectuals from Czernowitz. They were people from free professions still from Austrian times. I met the Jewish writers Yaakov Sternberg from Bessarabia, Eliezer Steinberg, Shlomo Bikel and Moshe Altman (my roommate). I had good conversations with the latter. Altman was even then a staunch follower of Lenin's beliefs. He thought Communism was the solution to the Jewish question. His tragic life shows how involved the Jewish intelligentsia were in the Russian October. In the 1950s, he was able to leave Siberia and come to Israel. He was a broken man.
The atmosphere in the Czernowitz conference was, in general, proSoviet. In the reports given, enthusiasm was felt for delegates from the other side of the Dniester. Many delegates considered themselves as Bundists. When it was my turn to give a report from Bendery, I demonstrated that we did not have any Bundists. I spoke about our cultural classes, our work among the youth. I told them that our young people are imbued with Jewish national and social ideals. I had the impression that not all the delegates were thrilled with the Communist ideas.
In general, the conference was interesting and informative. It was really a cultural meeting.
Except for a few wellthought out reports, many writers simply presented their work. After Altman and Sternberg read their reports, there were reminiscences by Eliezer Steinberg and Dr. Shlomo Bikel. Among other decisions in the conference there was a resolution. Sternberg made a proposal for a theatre group that would visit all towns and villages of the three Romanian provinces. There was also a plan for a music section that would emphasize Jewish folk songs. It was also decided, with a distinct majority, that when it came to spelling in Yiddish, we would continue to use Hebrew letters, as was our tradition. I voted for this resolution and, as a result, I felt the animosity of the Communist members in our Cultural League. Still, it did not stop them from attending my goingaway party before I left for America. This occurred soon after I returned from the conference in Czernowitz. A warm speech was addressed to me, presented by the members of the Cultural League of Bendery.
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