by Devora Frankel (Schitzky)
Translated by David Ziants
Reviewed by Andrew Blumberg
All my memories from Bielsk are connected with the school and the Hashomer Hatzair. The movement gave us a lot. We lived in it, it made up for everything that we were lacking, and we took [inspiration] from there - whether on the street or in school, and in all kinds of situations at home. We would come to the movement because there we would live our full life and make up from there what was taken away from our lives. Here is an episode, which is connected to the [local youth] movement.
After we completed our elementary school, we had no place to go, so we went to study in the gymnasium. By us, there was a Polish government gymnasium, but in this school very few Jews were accepted. I remember that in the government schools of Poland, they did not accept Jews at all. Ours was one of the few places that did accept a small number. That is why students would come to us from Bialystok, where they did not accept at Jews all any in their government gymnasium, so they could continue their studies.
One year, we, approximately twenty plus Jews, went to our exams. This was in the spring, at the end of the school year and the beginning of the next school year. All twenty two that were at the end of the school year of that year went for the exams and were allowed entry, but we had many troubles because they did not really like Jews, and especially it is out of the question that they did not like Hashomer Hatzair. And they did not agree that we should continue going there, because the students took part in all sorts of activities of Hashomer Hatzair and this, in their opinion, disturbed their progress in class.
In general, the school was a very difficult regime. From 7 o'clock it was forbidden for a student to be found on the street, and they were always forced to go around wearing the school uniform, including the hat that even had to be worn on the head. It happened more than once that we returned from the [youth movement] activities that finished at twelve o'clock and of course the hat was not always on the head and we bumped into teachers and our troubles became worse. It happened once that I bumped into a Polish teacher and he asked me where I had been, and I said that I was at the Uzchotzky family house, at Reizel's, and I did school homework. After a few minutes he continued on and met Reizel on the street, and [as a result] there was [more than] enough humiliation and anger that I had to suffer. In any case, we could not give up the youth movement, and not only did we take part in activities, but we were also educators, and we guided groups of children who were younger than us. We occasionally took the children outside the city, to the thickets and fields and more than once we had to run away from the teachers who saw us from afar. This was quite a small town. Our movement's ken [lit. nest the youth group meeting place] was in a building of a cultural school, and next to the cultural school there lived a music teacher from the gymnasium. We considered him a detective and felt he was spying on us.
At one of the activities, when we were in the ken, we felt that he was getting ready to go up to his house, or [maybe] he wandered around to spy on the area. It was already eleven or twelve o'clock and we had no way that we could leave the ken, so we went down to the bottom. On the ground floor of this school lived a friend from our movement, from the Shaw family and we had no choice, but to go down the stairs to them and to hide there. Reizeland I hid under the beds, and we sat there the whole night until dawn approached when Reuven Uzchitzki came with a closed carriage
Trumpeldor and the Hashomer Hatzair Union 1925
and took us out of there and brought us home. In every incident like this, we had troubles at home, because after these types of incidents our parents would be summoned to the school - to the headmaster of the school - and he was an antisemite. In this episode, our underground was discovered, and this time we had to decide which of the two we wanted to give up. In the end, we did not give up on the movement, but we did give up on the school. They expelled me from the school and I straight away travelled to Hachshara in Lomza, and from there to Grodna. Thus, I made aliya to Israel and I was one of the happy few from the Bielsk youth that came to Israel. Reizel continued studying another half year. For some reason, they did not kick her out from the institution, but she decided not to continue studying and she made aliya.
As is typical of many memoirs of this type, the original was written from the author's heart but might not always contain the best writing style of the language in which it is written. In some places, the translator adjusted the translation to conform to better English idiom, but in many places deliberately left the expression of words to be equivalent to the Hebrew original, and this can explain some of the awkwardness in part of the English.Translator's footnotes
by B. Carmon
Translated by Nancy Schoenburg
In our town of Bielsk there were three synagogues and some additional minyans.
Until the age of 13, I was influenced more by my grandfather than even my parents. My parents were not religious and kept only the Passover seder, Yom Kippur fast, and prayers of the High Holy Days. Every synagogue had a special character. The oldest shul was called Ichel's [איצ'לס] Beit Midrash. Why that name? A hundred years ago or more there was a rabbi by that name, and they called the synagogue by his name. It was a typical Jewish shul. But in the tradition of Karaites, it was built below ground level in a cellar so you had to go down some stairs to order to enter.
It was a small synagogue that had an unusually exquisite Holy Ark. I have visited many synagogues and have seen many holy arks, but I have never seen an aron kodesh [holy ark] as lovely as the one in Ichel's Beit Midrash. What was so especially beautiful was the unique way that all the musical instruments, known from Jewish tradition to have been in the Temple [in Jerusalem], were carved into a first-class work of art. Neither in the diaspora nor in Israel have I seen such beauty and splendor as this. If my memory is not deceiving me, these adornments were done in pure silver.
Despite all that, the synagogue was the place of prayer for the poor and the artisans. The shul was located on a street where all the residents were Jewish - Orla Street. Not far from Bielsk was the town of Orla, to which that road led, and the street got its name from that town. Near the synagogue was a small brick building in which the Sabi Family worked as professional bakers. They had a great reputation in the city as professionals, Sabi and his son and daughter. They were even known by the name of their trade De-Bakers, especially the name of Saraleh De-Bakerkeh. After the death of her husband, she began a trade by her own hands, not by hired laborers and helpers. She did well with her work and became very well-known as a matzo baker. This was of course handwork. Her matzos became famous in the area and were called: de matzos fon Saraleh de bakerkeh.
The synagogue was mainly a place of prayers for artisans. In any event the more distinguished people would not go to pray there. There was no class warfare, no differences of yicchus [lineage], and everyone had a good feeling. Also, its outward appearance and limited area were evidence of that.
Another synagogue, which was called Yafeh Einayim (lit. beautiful eyes), was the shul for the elites, the grand figures of the city, and even its place and form indicated that. It stood on a high location in the center of a spacious garden with fruit trees and with benches for resting, and so forth. The windows of the building were wide, the ceiling of the hall was supported by pillars, but the holy ark was modern as in every other place. This was where the rabbi of the city, Rav Bendas, prayed. It was where the wealthy merchants, who would only go to pray on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, would purchase their seats for the High Holidays. Here there was ongoing class warfare, especially on Yom Kippur and almost every Yom Kippur. On that day there is, as you know, a very important Maftir
reading called Maftir Jonah and whoever purchases Maftir Jonah is himself very important and highly honored. The money collected for this acquisition is then used for various things in the synagogue but also for other matters such as Keren Kayemet, Linat Hazedek [described below] and more. The well-to-do of the town would always sit by the eastern wall which is closer to the rabbi. These were the wealthy merchants, landlords, and people like themselves. In the last row of benches sat those rich enough but not elite enough butchers, tailors and the like. And the battle was waged between the last row and the eastern wall as to who would deliver Maftir Jonah. From the eastern wall someone would proclaim his price for the maftir. Immediately the opposition answered from the butchers. For the most part, it would be the butcher, the successful butcher, whose shop was on Beit Midrash Street. When the golden prize would be declared at the eastern wall, he would raise it by half a gold coin. And at once they would jump up from the eastern wall and raise it again, and someone would follow suit, and so it would continue. The proclamations would sometimes continue for three-quarters of an hour to an hour. In most instances, they would give up and cease after they, even the wealthy elites, had no further strength for the competition.
It was like that year in and year out with the class warfare between the distinguished ones with their yicchus and those who, by way of their money, aspired to be in that position. This little war between the privileged of the eastern wall and those sitting in the last row of benches went on with another event for the opening of the holy ark for Neilah.
The Controversy Over Hatikvah
Another contest in the synagogue involved completely different characters. This struggle was over the singing of Hatikvah at the completion of services. One Jew, Kaplanski, was a hide trader by profession and a Zionist by outlook. A tough Jew with a strong, deep voice, he expressed his Zionism in fighting for the singing of Hatikvah after prayers on Simchat Torah. The devout religious and even more so the haredim, who were not Zionists, were of course against this idea. They said that this was a Hilul Hashem [a desecration of God's name]. And the fight was harsh. In most cases, Kaplanski won the argument. When the fight would not end, he would stop and then open up with his strong bass voice and belt out Hatikvah. He swept away his following of a substantial part of the worshippers and that ended the differences of opinion. That was Yafeh Einayim Synagogue.
After that, in the early 1930s or at the end of the 1920s, the ba'ala batim and the wealthy people started building a third synagogue called Shaarey Tzion [Gates of Zion]. It was a lovely, modern synagogue, and it stood on a tel on the road called Beit Midrash Street. There had been a synagogue building there at one time, but it burned down during World War I.
Next to this synagogue were all the Jewish institutions. First of all, there was the baad the bath house. Like all the other bath houses, this was on Beit Midrash Street, a center for arguments and politics, and all who were interested in that found what they wanted there. I remember that I would accompany my father there every Friday.
On a different side, also not far from the synagogue, was the Talmud Torah. In one of the rooms of the Talmud Torah was a rabbi named Yankel Dovid. Another rabbi was called Shmuel Leib or Layzer Leib and a third, who as I recall, also had a double name. Next to the Talmud Torah was a yeshiva. This yeshiva was named in memory of the author Chaim Grade. He studied there for a few years although he was from Vilna. In the yeshiva were many students who came from outside the city, and they had eating-days at the homes of local residents. We had a yeshiva boy come to us every Wednesday. I remember that on that day my mother would prepare some good, special dishes so he would enjoy it although my parents were not particularly religious. This tradition continued for many years, and every family had its own set eating-day with a yeshiva bachur [yeshiva youth]. The Talmud Torah had some classes running according to the progress of their studies.
The poor people lived on Beit Midrash Street: the shoemakers, the tailors and so forth. And for all that, on this street of religious foundations there was the Bund with the greatest influence of all. At every time of tension between the Jews and gentiles there were non-Jews who were afraid to enter the street. The street had narrow alleyways, courtyards, and mazes. The only blacksmith in town was on that street. Non-Jews had to go there for their various needs. The gentile suburbs began just after that street.
Our town, unlike most towns in Poland, stood out because it had two rivers. One of them, the Lobcha River, was more like a stream. It passed through the center of the city and flowed into the Biala River. Apparently, the name of the city came from the name of the Biala River. Mostly White Russians lived in the Dubisch Quarter. They lived in great political tension. Some of them were White Russian nationalists, anti-Polish and anti-Semitic. Their leaders were the sons of the Russian priest; they were strong healthy men. The other part was Russian and Polish Communists. Their meeting place was on the shore of the river, and there they were joined by some Jewish girls recognized as Communists. During the summer months the riverbank was the place to be for vacationing and for bathing. Many young people congregated there.
This area was exceptionally beautiful with polished hills and ornamental trees and fruit trees. And in the center of all this the river.
The Jewish center of the city was also lovely although most of the houses were built of wood. Even so, their appearance was elegant and fine. The streets were nice as well. On the shore were huts immersed in gardens and greenery, a thing that was not seen at all on the Jewish streets. The prettiest garden in the Jewish section of the city was around the Yafeh Einayim Synagogue.
On that same Beit Midrash Street, there was an institute called House of the Orphans. The director of Beit HaTeumim [the orphanage house] was what is now called a House Mother. She was my Aunt Chasia Shenios [שניאות]. She was widowed from her first husband, and her two sons died in a typhus epidemic during the First World War. As an independent, energetic woman, she overcame her sorrow and found comfort in taking care of orphaned girls. In her work she had a strong connection to all of the Jewish charities in the city, to Linat Hazedek and the like. It is difficult for me to say with certainty whether the public institutions like Linat Hazedek and the orphanage, which were founded by the community, were run by it or not. One thing is clear above all else
was that all the people who worked at the foundations and other community work did not receive any remuneration. All their work was done as volunteers wishing to help others to not become overwhelmed by their difficulties. These people did their work out of love and their reward came from what they were giving to the institutions.
Linat Hazedek was an organization that gave support to those with serious illnesses, those who could not be left alone at night. In those days there was only one hospital in town. A non-Jew and members of Linat Hazedek would go and stay overnight with the sick and assist with the person's needs, such as giving medicine, giving them the pan and sometimes doing bankes - putting on cupping glasses.
In many towns in Poland, many heads of households were called by the name of their occupations or by their wife's name. Among those who gave aid to the sick was the father of Shmuelke Levine. They called him feldsher a paramedic. He treated wounds; he did bankes and blood letting. He was not called by his family name, rather Velvel Raitches [approximate spelling], from his wife's name Raitcha. You might not know who Velvel Levine was, but Raitches that's different.
Another custom that was widespread in our town, like all towns in Poland, was that almost all barbers were medics, laying on bankes and leeches, blood letting etc. I remember one of them, Maishkeh der Sherer (barber), who in addition to his main business, did massages.
Bielsk the Summer Residence of the Czar
Why do they call the city Bielsk-Podlaski? The meaning of Podlaski in Polish and Russian rendered in Hebrew means in English: from under the forests. Southwest of Bielsk is the beginning of the large and famous forest called Białowieża. The forest stretches out over hundreds and thousands of kilometers, and in the middle of it is the town of Białowieża. The name in Hebrew is the white hill. The name of the environs comes from White - Bialo.
In the forest was the summer residence of the Russian Czar, a very large mansion. The Czar and his family and friends would come there to hunt because the forest was full of many different animals. In the town of Białowieża there was also a museum of all these animals. The Białowieża Forest was so well-known as a place to hunt that in 1938, with the blossoming friendship between Poland and Germany, Goering came there for a hunting trip. He was invited by the Polish Government for appeasement.
A Herd of Cows and Sports
Something else in our town was the herd. Every householder in town had a cow. Every household made its milk products according to its own family's methods: butter, cream, cheese, and so forth. Early every morning you could hear the call of the non-Jewish shepherd, and every head of household would go outside to send his animals to pasture. The shepherd would get them all together and take them out until evening. And just as yeshiva boys would have eating-days, the opposite was true with the shepherd. He would go each day to eat at someone's house
in the evening when he returned from the field. They would put together a package of food for him after the meal so he would have something to eat the next day.
Sports activities took place only in swimming and football. Outside the city there was a field called der lager. At the time the Poles had an army encampment situated there. The field was set up for basketball, football, etc. and in the 1930s the city had several Jewish football teams and some non-Jewish ones. Among the Jewish teams, as I recall, one was Maccabi and another one was put together by the Bund. It seems to me that before I left Bielsk, a Hapoel [workers sports organization] team was also organized.
A great deal of tension prevailed in the city when a game was taking place between a Jewish team and a Christian team. Tension was high on both sides. The fathers and mothers of the Jewish boys would then say that the completion of basketball games would bring disaster on the town. Why? Because if the Jewish team wins, it always brings about anti-Semitism. These mixed games resulted in fighting afterward off the field and sometimes even during the game itself. Another team that was in Bielsk was Kraft, the power under the patronage of the Workers Parties of Eretz Yisroel. One time the games of Kraft were against a Christian team. It got my cousin to participate in the game. Kicking like that had him laying in bed for weeks afterward. To a certain extent it was a Kiddush HaShem. The parents always asked: Why do you have all this? It makes trouble for the Jews. It strengthens anti-Semitism. But the youth did not care and would not give in. Serious riots were not caused by the kicking during the games but by the strong feelings on both sides. That's the way it was. The fields brought together almost all the youth from all sides who separated into two camps.
On the issue of sports, I must add something else about Shomer Hatzair. They also had basketball groups, and the Tarbut School had a basketball court set up with two poles and nets. The young people would often play there. Also gym classes took place as required although there was no one specifically trained for that. But one of the youth group leaders also taught sports.
Many issues occupied Bielsk, and at the center of all of them was man and his needs. In the beginning it is man and his Creator. After that it is man and his health and existence, and in the end the Jewish man and his future. If I were asked what was unique about Bielsk, I would answer - man and his needs as the public needs to see him.
by Baruch Glend
Translated by Nancy Schoenburg
I came to Bielsk from my birthplace, the village of Kenitza, in 1922 and lived there until 1932. This period of ten years was vibrant, and the impressions of them registered and have remained with me until today.
Bielsk was a composite of all different classes of people. There were artisans, laborers, merchants small businessmen and larger ones and for all practical purposes Bielsk had an independent Jewish life and also from the point of view of its business economy. It did not go according to the usual opinion that a Jewish town lives at the expense of the gentiles and makes their living from trade alone. There were shoemakers, tailors and bakers as well as Jews engaged in agriculture as planters. Of course, there were also merchants. I do not know their percentages and what was bigger than what. However, they were from all groups and overall Bielsk was a woefully poor town. Indeed, it did have some exceptions to the rule, those whose standings were higher in terms of possessions. But for the most part they were poor Jews, and this was reflected as well in the level of training and education.
Most of the young people were not able to get secondary school training and education and had to make do with elementary school. The Tarbut School did not include all courses needed for continuing education, since this was connected to the large expense of sending the children outside of Bielsk to a Polish gymnasium. Not many were able to afford those expenses; for them studying out of town was simply impossible. Against the background of this reality for the Jews, a parallel idea of standing in public life developed. I recall that Bielsk had almost all of the parties and movements. The way I saw it, Shomer Hatzair had the most lively section of all, was the most exciting, and was the largest. Nevertheless, there were all kinds: Bund, Poale Tzion, Hechalutz Hatzair, Hechalutz and the Communists. And there were also the religious groups. I myself - and this was characteristic of a section of the youth of Bielsk - went through school in a mixture of different structures. It began with religious education and ended with secular or non-religious studies and through all the crises that every Jewish boy experiences along the way. I started school at cheder, where there were many pupils. If I am not mistaken, it had five or six classes. Each class had its own melamed [teacher] with at least 30 children. I went on to the Talmud Torah, which was a religious cheder, and all of the studies were on religious subjects. I also learned a little Hebrew and grammar. The teacher was Moshe Bar-David. In the highest-level grade the melamed had had a broader education. I do not remember his name.
At this cheder you would study for half a year and then pass to a higher class. The semester was called a z'man [a term]. A term went from Pesach [Passover] to Rosh Hashanah [the Jewish New Year] and from Succot [also Sukkot] to Pesach. Thus, it was possible to do all of Talmud Torah in two or two-and-a-half years. After Talmud Torah some would go on to yeshiva [school of Talmudic learning]. There was a yeshiva in Bielsk, an Orthodox yeshiva called Dardaki Yeshiva. Many of my friends studied at this yeshiva although most of them were from outside of Bielsk. Their subsistence was tied to a system whereby they went to different local homes for eating-days, tag in Yiddish. Everyone had a set house for each eating-day or tag during the week, so that they could study at the yeshiva.
From the yeshiva, I passed to the Tarbut School and studied there for a few years. That basically
is an example of the range of education in Bielsk. Most of the young people in Bielsk belonged to something, either a youth movement or being given a religious education. I do not remember anyone wandering around lacking some kind of affiliation to a community movement. Everyone was in some kind of organization that had its stock of ideas on problems and designs for public actions. I recall when they would arrange in Bielsk
gatherings publicizing their cause with a main speaker. If it was a speaker on behalf of the Bund or a symposium in the name of Tarbut, the people would stream in en masse. The hall was always full. The community came to listen. I think that a parent, an adult in Bielsk, felt pulled into this stream which the young people in their household connected to. The youth once again began to feel agitated standing at the crossroad of their lives. On one hand their roots were here in Bielsk, the birthplace of their parents and perhaps even their parents' parents as well. On the other hand, young people knew that their future was not here. This situation of reality caused a situation of the soul. It meant having to motivate oneself to make a personal decision as to what direction to take at this time of their lives.
Youth clubhouses were places of lively exchanges of ideas and excitement. The clubhouse of Hashomer Hatzair, for example, was open each evening, and every evening they had some type of activity. The young generation also filled an important role in the life of the town. When we would go out to hike on Lag b'Omer or on other occasions, we would go out to the forest and cross the road in our neat uniforms, organized in rows. Then the town would perk up at our appearance and follow us with a look of surprise, going beyond its grey existence.
In Bielsk the feeling of anti-Semitism as a satanic wind hovered over the face of their lives. I do not
remember organized movements of anti-Semitism in Bielsk. But I relive the feeling of it until today, the anti-Semitism that was hanging over life in Bielsk, despite there not being many non-Jews there. Bielsk was situated between gentile villages. Jews also lived in the villages, but not many. Bielsk itself had a large majority of Jewish residents. Despite that, the air of anti-Semitism was felt in the town. I recall how on every walk to school I was accompanied by fear of an encounter with the scoundrels. When I had to walk to the Tarbut School, which in my time was located on Litvisheh Street, I had to walk through it with a hellish amount of fear. Many times I had to rush through between the scoundrels who were just waiting for us so they could beat us up with heavy blows. Every time a fracas broke out among us, the beatings and the fear were no small thing. Motos Kaplanski earned great success among us. He was our number one hero. He had muscles and shoulders that would save us from fear. We went out against them several times, but we were seized by fear. I also remember disturbances between adults; although not severe, there were some at the time they were drafting people into the army. When they were gathering people together from the villages in Bielsk to enlist, they were drinking and becoming drunk and going wild, then there was fear in the evening of being found in the street. This was the anti-Semitism that was not organized. However, there was anti-Semitism of a different kind, anti-Semitism that was intended for us to feel in our movement. First of all, that was from the side of the police. I have a memory of an investigation that the police was putting together against our activities. More than once we were holding activities out in the field. We would go to the field in a special manner, knowing that the police were following us and comparing us to the ways of the underground. The movement then was in fact legal and illegal. We wanted to be under the protection of the Scouts (Tzofim). There was a movement of Scouts in Poland, and we tried to make it like we were a Jewish branch of Scouts in Bielsk. On one side it was desirable and legal since the Zionist Histadrut [workers organization] was willing to give us a certain amount of protection and to intervene on our behalf. On the other side we were trying to be connected to the Scouts of Poland in Bielsk. In any event, it seems to me that for a certain period of time we were underground. We had to be hidden and we would do our activities at the field with the police following us, looking for some fault so they could close the clubhouses which were so central to our lives.
I mentioned the fact that there is intentional anti-Semitism and unintentional anti-Semitism. Not to throw out a generality, but in order to point it out since education was given based on the economy of the Jews of the town. This was the attitude of the parents toward the actions of the children in regard to anti-Semitism. It can be said that it brought together the hearts of one generation to the next and led to a spirit of volunteering among the parents, not according to their age and not by the ideas of their generation but volunteering in matters that had to do with the youth alone.
When I ask myself how the issue arose that previous generations would support us and help us with different things which were connected to money. An example that stands out was the Tarbut School orchestra, meaning the acquisition of the equipment, which cost a lot of money, and finding a budget to hire a teacher. How could such a thing be done? Who donated the funds? This could only be answered by people older than we were, someone like Reuven Uzhitzki who had a hand in organizing this activity. But if not for that, it would not have been a matter of success.
by Sara Ginzburg
Translated by Nancy Schoenburg
What I found in Bielsk was a disappointment to me. First of all, this was not a school, just two classes for small children. When the children got a little older, they were sent to a different school. Over time no other class was added for the entire time there were two classes and no budget. The parents did not find it pressing to send the children to a Hebrew school. Only those with a sentiment for the Zionist movement sent theirs. And only a handful of people thought about Zion; they did not do much for Zionism. This was in 1922-3. I do not remember the public figures, but among them was a woman, Germiza, and also Golomov and Shtern. These people carried the burden. Because they had no budget, we ourselves had to worry about that also. Even supervision from Tarbut was very weak. Once a year an inspector would come but there was not much to see. We ourselves had to create a lot of things. The guidance that was given to us was insignificant not like today where a department of education shows you what has to be taught. Thus, each teacher was a creator.
Before I came, there was a ganenet [a teacher of young children] named Suan. In Bielsk they started Hebrew education, davka [of all things] in gan [kindergarten], and this kindergarten developed into a class. I came in place of one teacher whose name was Veinshtein. He later became a member of Tel-Yosef. He was a teacher before me. He had to make aliyah to The Land [of Israel] and his position became open.
For something like that to happen, it was pioneering from the very first step.
After that, a Hebrew school was opened, and Bielsk would be blessed by it. From among the townspeople, they found a few who saw in a sense the value in reviving the language and culture of their forefathers. They devoted their time and energy to establishing the institution.
Had there not been a small group of people interested in raising up a little culture in Bielsk, nothing at all would have developed. In fact, the Yiddish movement was strong. They had people who were idealists. There was a school, and they were also workers in the youth organizations.
My husband and I had a family connection with Yiddish activists because those who organized the Yiddish school were members of the Katz Family, and they were relatives of ours. However, we were unable to make cultural and work connections with them. We were two rival camps with nothing at all in common with each other. They were not interested in us, nor we in them. We were careful not to set any meetings with them over all these years.
It was also understood that our task was not limited to the span of our duties as schoolteachers and not just to the specific hours of teaching. We would meet with the students during the afternoon hours as well, despite the school in Bielsk being a morning school.
Officially the children arrived at eight o'clock and returned home at one o'clock. However, as mentioned above, we would meet again in the afternoon. They would come home with me, and we would read and play together. Because I was a stranger in this city and had some free time, I devoted it to them. Their parents were very nice and kept in touch continually. They were very happy that the children were occupied in the afternoon. It was also a benefit for the children to be busy during the afternoon hours with cultural and pleasant activities. The parents took part
actively in the festivities and parties that we arranged. They would also come to participate in their preparation and the betterment of their outcomes. In any case, I had no connection with the Yiddish school and had no interest in it.
Gradually, the number of pupils grew but classes were not added. There were approximately 50 children in the two classes, boys and girls. What is worth pointing out is that most of those children who went to the Hebrew school were those who made aliyah to The Land [of Israel]. That is the one outstanding satisfaction that I have when I am reminded that perhaps with their aliyah, in a small way I helped to save some of them from the horrors of the Holocaust, and they merited to help in the establishment of Israel.
In the first classes of grades two and three, there was teaching material. But when they added grades, we had to create so-called study books by ourselves. The teachers added most of the material as they saw fit. No one checked the material or the amount or the choice of materials. I did not have any supervision at all. There was no requirement as to what we used.
In the large cities there were Hebrew gymnasia [secondary schools], and they had teachers with a broad educational background. However, in the Tarbut elementary schools and in Bielsk in general, most of the teachers were self-taught. Many of them were like those students who studied in yeshivas. They were very knowledgeable but only in Judaic subjects.
In these elementary schools, they did not learn a vocation. The goal was to learn the language. Nevertheless, there was great spirit in this work. We were occupied here with the creation of a nation, being drawn to the homeland, to independence, and the unification of the nation in its land. It was Hebrew, not just acquiring the language but also changing the way of thinking, and this was not easy. The children came from homes of diaspora people, of Yiddish speakers and Russian speakers. Afterwards in the period of the recovery of Poland, they also spoke Polish. The parents did not even know these foreign languages. However, because these were languages which would be helpful in earning a living, they wanted to make it easier for the children to learn the mother tongues of the ruling people. Then in passing to an independent life, it would be easier to manage. They were really interested in having the children learn foreign languages or more correctly the language of the state. They encouraged the children to speak Russian and after that Polish. However, when a child would enter a classroom and would not master even one word and had no concept of a dead language, he was thrown into a very difficult educational reality. The Yiddishists made claims against us that we were taking the children into a utopian world, confusing them and distancing them from the realities of life. They said we were mixing up their minds with foreign words which they would never use and would not live with. They also said that by doing that we were impeding their development. Every meeting that I had with a Yiddish teacher and that was rare it would agitate me so much that I would suffer greatly afterward, and I tried to avoid meeting with them. From an emotional point of view, I opposed them, but from a rational-didactic perspective I could see that there was a great deal of correctness in their words. It was not so simple. If a child was taught a Hebrew sentence and then he went home or into the street, he could immediately forget what he had learned, and then it could indeed seem like you are making it difficult for the child to develop. In first grade a small child learns and has a strong memory. He takes in our instruction. That is to say that a young child and his special qualities helped us in our difficult work. As it was said in ancient times: the messiah will come forth from schoolchildren.
Strictly speaking, it was not so logical to take children into some strange world of the distant past with all these stories about the creation of the world, priests, sacrifices, angels, prophets. How could we? In any event, we could once again thank the dear children. They greatly loved the biblical stories and were very excited about them. This was in place of other books with tales of demons and spirits. We told them biblical stories and in this way we won the hearts of the children. It enthused them. Already in the first school year we started with biblical stories. A book by Bialik was a great help in our work because it shortened the Bible stories. It also simplified the language and made the text shorter. It limited it to only those topics that can be easily visualized. We also dramatized it through games and plays.
I was a member of HeChalutz [the Pioneer Movement] in our town at a time when there were not yet any [people moving to the Land of Israel to become] pioneers. However, the subject of raising the banner was materializing. I had intended to join [the Zionist youth movement] Tzierei Tzion and that continued in Bielsk. I immediately got into the movement with them. The Zionist movement did not have many members in Bielsk, but there was a portion of the youth - not an insignificant part - which dreamt of making aliyah to The Land [of Israel], and they did every activity of pioneers. In addition to that, I was improving in terms of my teaching and ideas, such that my work was more for educating a future nation than educating for an existing life, and that was interesting. Three of us were Hebrew-speaking teachers, and hearing Hebrew in the city made an impression. When I would walk from my private lessons in the darkness of night, it was like a voice was heard in Ramah. I would hear Hebrew speakers. Lazar and Letsky would walk down the street, debating loudly in beautiful Hebrew. Together we only spoke Hebrew, and we were heard in the city. It was a strange thing then, but it in fact increased the interest in our activity. Those who had a little connection to the Zionist movement or the values of the pioneer, supported us even if they did not have children in our school. They showed their support on various occasions, and it was very nice to hear.
It seems to me that I did not encounter any religious people at all. I was very busy. I had many private lessons and did not have enough hours in the day to pay attention to everything that was happening to people in Bielsk. The parents would invite me to their homes and would come to visit me. I had a full life in Bielsk. The children would not even give me rest on Shabbat. They would request a trip. We would go out with them to the field or to the forests. Most of the children came from free [liberal] homes. I do not recall whether any of the children went to the synagogue. The religious question totally did not interest me. We sang songs of Zion, and we played games connected to the traditions. We connected them to Zion. Our songs were of the type relating to being brothers in the land of our forefathers, to the faraway land which of Zion on the shores of the Jordan.
We spoke in the name of Zion; we wanted to make the children into Zionists. We spoke about Eretz Yisrael [the Land of Israel], about aliyah, and about creating a nation. We read A.D. Gordon about a productive life. We made it clear to them that it was not possible for children in the diaspora to change their environment. We said that all of this could only be done through work. Here we were hurting the soul of the Bundists, since the Yiddish schools largely took in children of the workers, children of laborers, children of the toilers and were administered by activists of the Bundists. The chasm separating the Hebrew School and the Yiddish School was wide because our school also
took in children from well-to-do homes and from the middle-class, while children of the workers went to their schools. An additional difference to that of class was the ideological difference. And there was real class hatred. Although the result was that we were educating for labor, and we produced classes of laborers, while they were being educated for the Yiddish life which is all based upon shopkeeping, commerce, and diaspora Judaism.
The school board barely paid us a salary and not properly. The tuition was sufficiently small since they wanted to attract parents who were not well-to-do. Thus, we sometimes had to take on the burden of creating budgets for expenditures and salaries. Sometimes we would arrange parties, celebrations and fundraising drives, and we saved the school. More than once, we gave up months of wages. And many times, they did not pay our wages. We did not even react to this.
Sometimes there were teachers who wanted to strike regarding a delay of the salary or not paying a monthly salary at all. But we could not do that. We knew that the school would be destroyed. We convinced ourselves that we did not have the right to demand an improvement in the conditions. It was an era when girls were not at all engaged in income-producing work. In Bielsk everyone envied me: what are you saying - that a girl is earning money and is living on her own and does not need assistance from her parents? The private lessons helped me a great deal to manage, and they helped me a little from home with clothing and shoes. The total of what I earned was not sufficient for me to live on, to purchase books and pay rent for an apartment.
After all this, one can point out that in Bielsk they more or less tried to pay. And their efforts on behalf of Hebrew education were efforts that not many can match.
Bielsk was an interesting and meaningful episode in my life. For two years in Bielsk, I taught Hebrew to children, and these children grew up to be people dreaming of a more substantive world. About a meaningful life, about fulfilling it with aliyah. Is there greater satisfaction in education than this?
by L. Ginzburg
Translated by Nancy Schoenburg
After my father's death, I moved with my mother to Bielsk. I had studied in a yeshiva, and I also knew Hebrew. It happened that there was a shortage of teachers at the time, and I was intending either to continue my studies to be a teacher or to go to Eretz Yisrael [Land of Israel]. I was looking for something to do, and it happened by chance that in April of 1922, one of the teachers left after Pesach. (From the prior ones only two remained, Veinshtein to the end of the school year in place of Moshe Epshtein. He was one of the first Hebrew teachers. And Appleboim, the Polish teacher.) They approached me and asked if in the meantime I would be a teacher at the school. I took up the offer.
The school was not yet organized. It was a Hebrew school, not yet affiliated with the Tarbut network. Only afterwards did they move it into Tarbut. Appleboim and Melmedovitz were the Zionists who stood as the source of light for the school. Ferber was not there yet, nor was Stopnitsky or Gremizeh.
In August or in July the three-month period ended. Then I was approached by the Tsisha School and asked if I would teach there, but only Hebrew. I accepted it right away. Perhaps they intended to disrupt the Hebrew School. But for me it was just teaching Hebrew. Here or there: it did not matter to me. I started working. The Zionists were afraid that it would do some harm to the position of the Hebrew School and asked that I return to their school. At that time there were three classes, and two other teachers were being hired, Slochovsky and Radzilovsky. Both Slochovsky, who was a student from Vienna and not a teacher by profession, and Radzilovsky, who had been in Eretz Yisrael and spoke with a Sephardic pronunciation, were accepted as teachers. Veinshtein also stayed on. The year passed. A large part of the student body had grown and gone on to study at the Tarbut gymnasia in Bialystok. The rest of the students, who were about 13 years old, went to study at various other schools. The three classes were advanced, not the first ones. Public figures [school leaders] decided to attach the school to the Tarbut network, and the government agreed on the condition that the teachers would take professional pedagogical training and receive certificates. They would have a period of time in which to complete it since it would be a period of transition. Classes were established in Warsaw for completing teachers' courses. They had to study for four years, each year to be tested in a different subject. After four years, if they received their teaching certificates, they would be able to remain as teachers at the school. In the meantime, they would be given a temporary license. Nevertheless, most of them scattered, not wanting to commit themselves to continuing studies and to cancel out of the school completely. That they did not want to do. Then the public figures decided to begin from aleph and not just from first grade but from kindergarten. Thus kindergarten was established there in the year 1923, administered by Pfeffer. That year I left and went to teach at a different place. After a year, when they authorized and prepared the pupils for first grade and they then had two classes, they invited Sara to teach. And I also returned. This was in 1924. I do not recall whether they kept the kindergarten, but from the kindergarten children who had started there, they arranged two classes for the school. We both stayed there and taught that year. When that year ended, we made aliyah [immigrated] to Eretz Yisrael [Israel].
When a teacher would be walking out on a street in Bielsk, he was treated with special respect, and he was fully appreciated. He was not looked upon as an idler; he was very well received. Occasionally they would arrange recreation times for the teachers and students. On Tu b'Shevat, Chanukah, Lag b'Omer, these were appropriate holidays for us to celebrate here.
Parents in Bielsk knew the secret of a personal connection. They tried to draw close to the teachers who were from outside the town, and they would invite them to their homes.
I knew Bielsk from my previous visits, but this time something happened and Bielsk was different. It was the year 1921 when my father passed away, and in the Spring of 1922 I came to Bielsk with my mother and began working at the school. It was a completely different Bielsk from the one I had known in my childhood. The look of the entire town had changed. As with the outer appearance, so it was with the social structure. A large part of the town and its buildings had gone up in flames, and a large number of the Jewish residents dispersed and did not return to Bielsk. Afterwards they began to build houses closer to the train station, and the town changed in appearance.
A large change took place also in education. Thanks to a law on mandatory education that was passed in Poland in 1919, many different types of schools were formed. The cheder, which had been the most widely accepted form of education for Orthodox Jews, crumbled. Besides the government schools, schools formed by various parties arose, each with their particular ideology. Thus arose the Tarbut School inspired by Zionist ideology and accordingly the language of instruction was Hebrew. Eretz Yisrael stood at the center of their education activities.
When I arrived in Bielsk there was a high-level Yiddish school. They had eight classes and over 200 students. The school was all in one building, which had been constructed and intended to be a school. Also, it was located in the center of town. Perhaps a state school had been there previously.
The budget for the Yiddishist school was more than basic. They received a donation from Tzisha. Since this was after The War and every community in America had Farband, they would receive a donation from the Farband. The government also gave although a very poor contribution.
In any event, this was our work at the Hebrew School, like holy work that has a vision and a passion for creation. As such it related to us in Bielsk because it was also inclined to a vision of aliyah [to Eretz Yisrael] and its realization. What a pity that it was wiped out before the realization of aliyah.
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