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[Page 50]

I Treated Divenishok
and its People With Fondness

Shlomo Levine

Translated by Meir Bulman

Our family came to Divenishok from the nearby village of Geranion, where we had lived for many years. After WWI, most of our family members emigrated to the United States, and my father remained in Geranion.

In 1920 Anti–Semitism in the region escalated, as evident by the murders of Jews. Among others, the Poles murdered my uncle, and he was buried as a martyr in Divenishok. Tsvi Novoplanski's maternal grandfather was also brutally murdered in Geranion. My uncle, who was visiting from the United States, demanded that we move to Divenishok, and thus we arrived at the town in 1921. My father purchased a large home in the center of the market place and we made our living from a café and from rent for lodging paid by people who came for market day.

My father got involved in all aspects of the village's public life. He was a member of the charity foundation board, was active in the synagogue board, a member of the school parents' committee, and generously supported the town's institutions.

My family consisted of my two sisters Paye and Khaya, and my older brother Gad. Paye married before we moved to Divenishok and resided in the Ivia area, where she perished along with her family. My brother Gad, along with his wife and two children, died in Geranion one day before liberation, savagely murdered by Poles. My parents and my sister Khaya were murdered in the Voronova ghetto.

When we arrived at Divenishok, I was seven years old, and was accepted to the Hebrew school at Abba the Shoemaker's house. The teachers I can recall are Engel, and the Hebrew studies instructor Leyb Arye. In 1928 under the influence of Rabbi Rudnik I traveled to the Radin Yeshiva. Khaykl Itskovitsh and Yeshayahu Moshe Katz traveled with me. I studied there for one year. I remember that all of us yeshiva pupils visited the Chofetz Chaim on Saturday nights to hear Torah lessons. We were all impressed by his humility and simple nature. He would tell us to write “year of redemption and salvation” as the header for each letter. Every year he awaited the Geulah[1] with complete confidence that salvation was right around the corner.

After that I transferred to the Rabbi Elchonen Wasserman Yeshiva in Baranovich, where I studied for a year before returning home.

I experienced an interesting event in Baranovich: Once, as I sat pondering a difficult Talmudic passage, two yeshiva guys held me down and shaved the front of my head in accordance with the Halachic commandment of a smooth surface providing no interference to the Tefilin.

After returning from yeshiva at age 15, I joined the HaShomer HaTsair youth group, and along with Yakov Bloch, Aharon Kaganovitsh, and Moshe Levin, we departed to a village near Vilnea where we learned agricultural skills.

After that I left HaShomer HaTsair with some friends and we established HeKhaluts HaTsair (The Young Pioneers). In 1932 I joined training with HeKhaluts in Lida and later in Grodne. A year later I received an immigration certificate and emigrated to Israel in July of 1933.

Right off the boat I joined the Tel Yosef Kibbutz in Jezreel Valley, and later the Ramat Rachel Kibbutz near Jerusalem. After that I married my wife Tova Leshchinski and established a home. Two children were born, the eldest daughter Khaya, and a son, Yehezkel, and I was privileged enough to see grandchildren too, praise God.

I always regarded the Divenishok alumnus in Israel with great fondness and did my best to befriend and assist them as much as possible. Many of our town people spent their first days in Israel with me until they managed to get on their feet.

The first gathering of the Divenishok reunion took place in my home on Bar Kochba Street in Tel Aviv in 1936, to mark the visit of my uncle Betzalel Levine from America. It was a good start, and as a greater stream of Divenishok folk began moving to Israel after the war, we began conducting the gatherings at Beit Ha'haluzot.


Footnote

  1. In Jewish theology, Geulah refers to the period of final redemption that will occur when the Messiah comes. Return


 

[Page 52]

I Bonded With Divenishok

Frume Kaplan

Translated by Meir Bulman

My parents lived and breathed the town's atmosphere as children. That is where they were born, where they received their traditional education, and where they got married.

My father's name was Yitzchak ben Note (Note the Miller's Son), and my mother's name was Esther. She was Yitzchak Leyb's daughter. They wed in 1909 and moved to Vilne, where my father began work building houses.

Even though I was born and raised in Vilne, I was bound to Divenishok with special cords of love. Every summer our family would travel to Divenishok to spend time off and get some rest. There, our kind grandfather Yitzchak Leyb's spacious house awaited us.

Spending summers in Divenishok was an unforgettable experience for me. In Vilne I had friends, but only a select few. Here, I had a chance to meet the entire village's youth population, since everyone knew one another. All were friendly, and despite any differences in political opinions, they were a cohesive, sociable unit, happy and cheerful. Spending summer vacations with them was very enjoyable. All the youth sought my company, because I was from the big city. Let it be known that the youth in town longed for the big city, and all they wanted was to bask in the glory of the great city. I harbored no feelings of superiority towards them, but I still found their approach to me charming.

I spent my vacations trekking in the area, which contained golden grain fields, and I particularly enjoyed the pine forest, where we inhaled its wonderful scent. My mother would bring food and we would all spend the day together, resting and napping on hammocks. The serenity and pastoral silence would project a good mood and relaxation.

We spent the evenings together in song and dance. The world was so good, so pleasant, that when vacations ended I did not want to leave the town.

I was especially proud of my grandfather Yitzchak Leyb. He was a tall Jewish man, adorned with a flowing white beard. He was well presented, handsome and cordial. He was respected by the youth and his pockets were always filled with candy that he gave out to the children, and he would pinch their cheeks with affection and happiness.

Parting ways with him when summer ended was difficult for me. Grandfather loved us and did all he could to make our stay pleasant and provide us with a home–like feeling. Grandfather was a man who loved conversation and companionship and I detected a sense of loneliness in him when we bid him farewell. “You're departing and I'm staying here all by my lonesome.” “Please stay a bit longer,” he would plead to my mother and me.

Indeed, summer vacations at my parents' birthplace was packed with adventure and pleasant feelings, and my heart was full of love for the town, even when I was in Vilne.

Those were the happy days of my youth and the experience remains in my heart to this day. My father worked as a trader in Vilne and in addition owned a “Lombard” (pawn shop). Our financial status was quite stable until the war.

I was the youngest daughter of the family. I arrived in Israel at the behest of Natan Kaplan, whom I married.

Aside from my parents, my older sister Gita who completed her agronomy studies, and my younger brother Herzel stayed at home. Lithuanian collaborators who received money from the Germans for every Jew they kidnapped, captured my brother in our yard and killed him on the spot. His innocent blood was scattered on the ground in front of our window, as my parents witnessed helplessly the horror of their only son, a 17–year–old handsome and distinguished boy, being brutally murdered. My mother perished in Stutthof concentration camp, and my father passed away in the same camp, two weeks before it was liberated. My sister Gita perished in Klooga, Estonia.


 

[Page 62]

Institutions and Organizations in Divenishok

Avraham Abir (Rudnik)

Translated by Meir Bulman

In my memoirs of a number of institutions and organizations in our town I would like to stress the positive and active involvement of my father, the great Rabbi Yosef Rudnik, may he rest in peace. He was not satisfied with activity in the religious field alone, but also acted to develop and expand most institutions in Divenishok.

 

The school

Most of Rabbi Rudnik's concern was for rearing future generations and educating the children. That is why he devoted energy and effort to establish a school for Jewish children. At the school there was a parental committee that was elected by a general assembly in the synagogue, usually on the Sabbath before the recitation of the Torah. The school administration was comprised of observant Orthodox Jews. The Rabbi brought an instructor from Vishneva to teach the upperclassmen Talmud and Mishnah. The instructor received a small salary and ate on a rotation with the students' parents.

At first the school took place in rented homes. Then my father decided to build a beautiful modern school building, so it could compete with the public school.

It was decided the school would be built in place of the old synagogue that had collapsed due to age, but a Halachic [Ed. Note: the halacha is the Jewish law] issue arose surrounding the demotion of a building from a synagogue to a school. My father solved that by selling the building to a different Jew to abrogate its holy status.

To raise the large sum necessary my father worked on Friday, the day following market day, along with the synagogue administrator Shmuel Kherson and Yeshayahu Kaplan. In a few hours a large sum in cash and commitments was raised. Especially active were Ben Tsion Schneider and Yeshayahu Kaplan, the Judaism teacher at the local Polish public school.

My father often conducted site visits at the new school to be assured the children were not cold or hungry, and to ensure their studies were progressing. Children spent more time at school than at home so a proper environment needed to be solidified, allowing them to study and thrive with ease.

Almost every Sabbath before the recitation of the Torah, the Rabbi lectured on the weekly portion and paralleled the concepts discussed with contemporary issues then in the public mind. In his talks he always highlighted his address specifically for his audience of Lithuanian Jews, the elite among Jewry. Our forefathers, he said, went as far as to pawn their candle sticks to pay tuition, and so we too must bear the burden of education so as to convey the values of Judaism to the younger generation.

His efforts bore fruit. The school was of top–shelf quality and excellent teachers taught there. Among them was Avraham Aloni, who had completed Dr. Cherno's Yeshiva in Vilne. He managed the school quite successfully. Afterwards he immigrated to Israel and married my sister Breyne. Today he is the principal of Tel Nordoy School in Tel Aviv.

It must be noted that in terms of financial and practical feasibility it was easier to send children to the Polish public school, where they would not have to pay tuition, in addition to acquiring skills in the then–important Polish language. The Rabbi stood on guard and ensured that no child quit the community. Poor children studied for free when they studied at the Hebrew school. Notably, my father succeeded in that mission.

 

Youth Groups

The town had some Zionist and non–Zionist youth organizations. The Rabbi maintained good relationships with them all and tried to influence them to not steer too far off the path of Jewish tradition. Due to a lack of facilities most of these youth's activities took place at the school. Once, the school committee decided to remove these young folks from the school campus. The youth greeted the committee members by standing at attention and singing the “HaShomer HaTsair” [Ed. Note: Zionist self–defense movement] anthem. The singing did not conclude until the committee had left the premises. Ben Tsion Schneider told the members, “let us not disturb them, they are reciting their ‘Kaddish’” [Ed. Note: a well known prayer]. The youth's scheme had succeeded and the old folks' anger subsided; they quit disturbing the youth ever since.

 

Bikur Holim[1]

There was no health maintenance organization in town, instead there was a Bikur Holim whose committee provided medical assistance to the poor when they could not afford a doctor. Bikur Holim also provided medical instruments for home health assistance. Of special note, they provided ice on summer days. For that purpose an ice storeroom was constructed in the synagogue yard. Small ice chunks were placed in the basement and water would be poured on to them, turning them into a single large block of ice which endured even during the hot summers. An ill person who needed ice received it from the basement. Some people also stored food items there so the heat would not spoil them.

Yosef Zhizhemski was the Bikur Holim administrator for many years. My father always encouraged him to stay on the job despite difficulties like a limited budget and instrument disappearance. After that, Yaakov Aliashkovitsh served as administrator. A group of young men volunteered their services to the Bikur Holim organization. They raised funds in the town every Friday. The income was not miniscule, but the main component in their activities was educational.

 

Linat Hatzedek[2] and Gemilut Hasadim[3]

A special organization, where young men volunteered, operated in the town. These men visited the severely ill to assist family members, especially in overnight stays with the sick. It was of great assistance to family members who were exhausted by caring for the sick.

The Rabbi established a charity bank in town that loaned money to local Jews. With the money received from the zero–interest charity bank, individuals bought merchandise from local farmers and sold it in Vilne. The Rabbi oversaw that the money was distributed fairly. Every person was eligible for a loan, with no formal limitations. His presence at the charity bank prevented squabbles, fights, and hostility, since people knew he would stand guard and verify that distribution had been just, equal, and free of discrimination.

 

Religious Activity

Diverse religious activities took place in town. Two synagogue buildings were built in one yard, called the “Shulhoyf” [Ed. Note: synagogue courtyard]. The synagogues were always busy. Many daily services took place for morning, noon, and evening prayers. On the Sabbath, nearly all the town residents visited the synagogue. The synagogue was used not only for prayers, but also functioned as the town's spiritual center. Many Torah teaching groups continuously convened there, dealing with such Torah subjects as Mishnah, Talmud, Psalms, and Chayei Adam [Ed. Note: A famous Halachic work by Rabbi Avraham Danzig (1748–1821). Chayei Adam deals with the laws of daily conduct, prayer, Shabbat, and holidays, the laws discussed in the Orach Chaim section of the Shulchan Aruch].

I remember once as I prayed the morning–prayer in one of the synagogue's corners, I heard my father's voice, weeping. I approached to see what happened and saw some town Jews gathered around a long table, and my father teaching Mishnah to his flock. He had reached the passage describing how our forefathers brought with glorious splendor the Bikkurim, the First Fruit, to the temple in Jerusalem. The described passage concludes “when they reached the Temple Mount even King Agrippa would take the basket…” [Ed. Note: King Agrippa refers to Herod Agrippa, King of Judea from 41 to 44 A.D., by many accounts considered to have been a friendlier monarch to the Jews of Judea]. Overwhelmed with yearning and exhilaration Father began to cry, and tears rolled down the elders' beards too. That image remains with me to this very day.

Between the noon and evening prayers my father taught Jewish law from the book Chayei Adam to a few groups. Following the evening prayers my father gave a Talmud lecture, joined by important local Torah scholars.

Due to his clear explanations and his magnetism, participants thoroughly enjoyed his teaching, and even talented youths enjoyed the classes. Among his school–aged pupils there were those who continued to post–secondary and higher education Torah studies. One of those pupils, Yeshayahu Moshe Katz, was one of the best students at the Radin Yeshiva. I fondly remember Yaakov Cohen, orphaned of both parents, who was among the most distinguished students in the Mir Yeshiva. On vacation days, he taught Ethics of Our Fathers at the old synagogue.

It should be noted, that despite the heavy financial burden the town folks diligently devoted time for Torah studies. The Synagogue had a large Torah library which was open to the public. After completing any study of a book, a festive Seudat Mitzva [Ed. Note: an obligatory and festive meal following the fulfillment of a mitzvah, or commandment] took place.

 

The Libraries and the… Leftists

The Synagogue had a large Torah library, but a new generation emerged in town that was interested in secular literature as well, mainly Yiddish literature. That is how a large library containing important Yiddish books was established. The library's dimensions were larger than would be expected for a town this size, due to generous contributions by “Relief” donations in America, where activists originally from Divenshok now resided; they maintained a special relationship and provided for its existence and expansion.

Local youths also devoted some of their time to maintain and organize the library. The life force behind these youths was Reuven Kartshmer, a pharmacy owner who read many books. He transferred his knowledge to the youth and awakened in them the desire to read and learn. But as time went by Kartshmer veered off the path of Jewish tradition, became a leftist and corrupted the youth with his opinions. Dozens among the youth became avid communists and were smitten with Soviet Russia. Several left town and sneaked across the border to Russia. Rumor told that they met a bitter fate there.

But all that did not curb the growth of the Leftist tidal wave. Heading this wave was Hirshl Krizovski, a son to a devout Jew. Hirshl was a zealot and so as expected he opposed the Rabbi and the community organizers around him.

The Rabbi and the other residents, who feared for the fate of their children, frowned upon these activities. The two rival camps waged a fierce war of ideas, which came to fruition especially in the education field. The Leftists wanted to appoint their own teachers at the school and desired to establish a pre–school where the teacher would conform to their views. But the Rabbi and his staff would not allow them to infiltrate those institutions. Ben Tsion Schneider, a kind–hearted Jew who cared for the children, found time for public interaction with and combat against the leftists.

Father was deeply wounded that talented, quality youth withdrew from their religious roots. He actively countered them and attracted the youth to Torah study.

The leftists took over the acclaimed library and filled it with anti–religious and anti–Zionist books; all efforts to transfer the library to the Zionist camp were unsuccessful. That's when the Zionist youth decided to establish a Hebrew library. Very active in this task were Gad Levine (Shlomo's brother), David Leybke Berkovitsh, among others. They approached the Rabbi to assist them with American donations. The leftist activists were well established in the United States, and father knew that every dollar allocated toward the new library would stir a controversy in both New York and Divenishok. They had funded a library, and what right does the Rabbi have in giving Relief funds to a new library?

After debates and deliberation it was decided that $15 would be devoted to the new library. It was established and was a resource in combating the leftists in town. And indeed, many among the Divenishok youth emigrated to Israel as pioneers.

 

Governmental Relations

My father maintained good relationship with the Christian leadership in town. Once, the postmaster, a Christian, told him: “Rabbi, you see? I must work on Sunday, which is my Sabbath!” so the rabbi replied, “The bulk of my work also takes place on the Sabbath. On the Sabbath I participate in public prayers, I give lectures, and I teach Torah to the community.” The Christian thought it was peculiar that adults attended Torah lessons as well.

In the days of Polish rule, an important guest visited town, and both the Christians and Jews festively greeted him: the archbishop from Vilne visited Divenishok. The welcoming ceremony took place on Vilne Street, near the synagogues. As the guest approached he was greeted with bread and salt. The Rabbi greeted him with the Priestly Blessing in Hebrew, “May the LORD bless you and guard you…” to which the archbishop responded in Hebrew as well, “Amen and Thank You.”

I remember that my father and the Jewish village notables once went to greet the county governor. After a long wait it began drizzling. My father told the notables, “Apparently this gentile hasn't studied Torah and is not aware of the duty to not cause the public trouble, to which a public official must adhere to more than the common man”…

After my father passed, and while my brother Aharon Tayts served as chief town rabbi, a decorative, honorary entrance gate was erected near the synagogue. In those days anti–Semitism was increasing in Poland and the Polish teacher Kutilah commanded the “Steshlach” (a Polish military organization) to take down the Star of David atop the gate. The Jews objected and a large quarrel erupted. Kutilah, wearing a Polish military uniform, began waving his sword above the heads of Jews. Yekl the Blacksmith approached him, forcibly removed the sword from Kutilah's hand, and broke it in front of the astonished Jews and Poles. The gentiles recoiled and decided to erect their own honor gate at the town entrance, 200 meters ahead of the Jewish gate.

In the days of Polish control, Jews depended on the mercy of police officials, since every policeman could greatly harm Jewish income.

To damage the Jews, a law was introduced that Sunday is a day of rest and businesses open that day would be fined. The law was mainly aimed at the Jews, who did not open their shops on the Sabbath. The church was at the center of town. Every Sunday many of the local farmers arrived to pray in church and after services would go to Jewish businesses to shop. Naturally, any police officer could incriminate that Jew and issue a ticket, which would cost more than his daily earnings.

To avoid such events Father maintained a relationship with the police chief. Father would explain the situation to every new chief that arrived in town: If a Jew is issued a report he is denied his living and can't feed his family. A smack to the face would not be as harsh a punishment as a Sunday report. The Rabbi requested that the chief ignore the Sunday rules and allow Jews to conduct their business on Sundays. Usually things worked out just fine. Certainly no smacks were issued, and no tickets were issued either.

I remember when we sat around the table on Sabbath day once, Father was informed that the new chief of police had inspected the market place, and had slapped Lubetski for the lack of cleanliness in the establishment. Father smiled and said, “I told other chiefs in town that a ticket would be tougher on Jews than a smack to the face, and it worked. But already from my first conversation with this one, I realized he is not the brightest light in the harbor, and if I tell him he can slap–– he'll actually do it. What our Sages told us is true, ‘Sages, be careful with your words’. The situation could have been much worse…”

 

Support from America

All the town's institutions were supported by former Divenishok residents – the “Relief” from America. My father conducted a correspondence with the Relief, especially with Rabbi Chaim Yudl Horvits. Father would distribute the funds to the institutions and sent back a detailed report. Without assistance from the Relief the institutions would have faced a crisis.

Most of our town's members received assistance from relatives in America. Many times the Rabbi was the one coordinating these familial bonds. If the relationship between the family in town and the one overseas dwindled, the Rabbi wrote to them and explained how important it is to support one's relatives. My father's letter would usually make a strong impression and help would be received.

I recall an anecdote where an anti–religious Jewish man who opposed Father was in a crisis and could not make a living. The Rabbi was told that the man had relatives in America that could assist him, but the Divenishok family dared not ask the Rabbi to write overseas. When he heard this the Rabbi right away sent a letter to the man's relatives in New York and assistance was provided.


Footnotes

  1. Bikur Holim is literally the commandment which says to visit and aid the sick; societies going by that name have arisen to carry out this commandment Return
  2. Visitation of the Sick Return
  3. Interest–free charity loans Return


 

[Page 70]

Maccabi HaTzair

Natan Kaplan

Translated by Meir Bulman

Starting in the 20's, Avraham Kartshmer, Nakhum Movshovitsh, Moshe Stul, Moshe Lubetski, Avraham Kotler, myself, and many others were in Vilne. Among other activities we did sports and we were regular members at “Maccabi HaTzair” in Vilne [Ed Note: Maccabi HaTzair is Zionist youth organization emphasizing Jewish values together with athleticism and camping]. We learned Judo, swimming, wrestling, and soccer. When we returned home for vacation we set up a soccer field behind the Gmina County Building where we practiced. Naturally, establishing the field attracted the best of the youth in town and so we established a team.

To improve our skills we played local Polish teams, with whom we enjoyed great relationships. After we made some progress and reached a satisfactory skill level in soccer we connected with all the area towns, like Voronova, Vishneva, Lida, Ivia, Oshmene, Traby, Olshan, Lipnishok, and their soccer players responded to invitations to compete.

The games that took place in town were at the center of attention for local youth and attracted a large audience. After the game, young people stormed the field in song and dance, singing with the players in Yiddish. After that we would invite the rival team's players to one of the houses and spend time together singing and eating well–– as I accompanied the audience with a mandolin.

We were enthusiastically greeted in towns nearby. In Lida and Oshmene a fire department band accompanied the game, playing marches. It should be noted that the toughest games were with Lida, Ivia, and Oshmene, who had talented teams.

At Maccabi HaTzair in Vilne we learned swimming and during our vacation we practiced in the Gavya River that ran through the outskirts of town. During summer breaks some vacationers visited town, among them college students who joined us for swimming training.

In Israel I met a doctor who had studied medicine in Vilne, and as we spoke he became aware that I come from Divenishok. He hugged and kissed me with happiness, and when he noted my wonderment, he told me that the good days he spent in our company swimming and picnicking in the Divenishok woods were an experience he will never forget.

That was our town, then, one that excelled in its unique charm and was supportive and friendly to all who entered its gates, and the experience of visiting there is forever cherished in the hearts of many who enjoyed that experience.


 

[Page 72]

My Path to Betar
(Youth Society Named after Yosef Trumpeldor)

Meir Yosef Itzkovitsh

Translated by Meir Bulman

Youth Movements of All Shades

The Betar [Ed. Note: A right–wing leaning Zionist youth movement] branch of Divenishok was organized and established after there were already various youth groups operating in town, starting with VILBIG (“Vilner Yidishe Bildung Gezelshaft”) [Tr. Note: Vilne Jewish Educational Society], that was comprised of Yiddishists, Folkists [Ed. Note: a political party that sought Jewish national autonomy within the Diaspora]; many members of the communist party also found refuge from the Polish government in that organization. The VILBIG was anti–Zionist. Heading it was Hirshl Tzvi Krizovski, the town photographer. The driving ideological force was Yosef Levine )“Yosele Dem Mulers” [Ed. Note: Joseph the Bricklayer's Son]) who was fortunate enough to end his exile in Russia and come to the Land of Israel to witness the fruition of Zionism – the establishment of the Jewish state in the fatherland.

Near the Vilbig was “Di Bin” (The Bee), comprised of communist youth. It was named “Bee” for the collective living style of bee colonies. The organizer and educator was Yisroelke Munem (Yisrael Kherson), the sworn heretic, who now lives in Philadelphia, US, and has turned enthusiastic Zionist.

Aside from these anti–Zionist organizations, there was HeKhalutz [Ed. Note: literally 'the pioneer'; a Zionist youth movement], whose members were also devoted Socialists, but unlike the anti–Zionists, their goal was a return to Zion and enact socialism in Israel. Along with HeKhalutz, there was HeKhalutz HaTsair, which was aimed at younger youths [Ed. Note: the boy–scout and girl–scout branch of HeKhalutz]…

Above all was the HaShomer HaTzair branch [Ed. Note: a Zionist self–defense movement], which was the most active, and whose members included a majority of the town's youth. The active members were Yankele (Yaakov) Bloch, Fayvke (Shraga) Blyakher, Shloymke (Shlomo) Levine (who lives with us in Israel) and Aharke (Aharon) Kaganovitsh (who was not fortunate enough to arrive in Israel; his place of rest is unknown).

I was among the youngest members of HaShomer HaTzair. I was party to all the social mixers and meetups with the branches of nearby towns. I remember an interesting event at a meeting in Zhizhimi Villlage, near Lipnishok. In the village forest, we met up with the Voronova chapter of HaShomer HaTzair. They lit a bonfire on Friday night. My friend Tevye Blyakher, הי”ד (Tr. Note: hashém yikóm damó; used after the name of someone killed because he was Jewish, as a prayer to God that He avenge the death], an observant, god–fearing young man, approached me and remarked, “Look! They are violating the Sabbath by lighting a fire!” and so we decided not to drink the coffee around the fire.

 

At the Hebrew Gymnasium in Vilne

In 1931, my father decided to send me to continue my education in Vilne. I was accepted to the Dr. Epstein Hebrew Gymnasium [Tr. Note: a gymnasium is a college preparatory school].

There was a rich boy from Vilne in my class by the name of Leybke Bloch. He targeted me for some unknown reason, and taunted me with the nickname “Provintser Khazer” (provincial pig). At recess he would chase me down the long hallway as he mocked me. He thoroughly angered me, yet I hesitated to respond. One day, during the lunch break, when he bothered me to the extreme, and in the presence of other students repeated his Provintser Khazer insult, I could not hold back. My patience had expired and I raised my right hand and punched him square in the face. His nose bled and his face was covered in blood. That raised a commotion and the school doctor, Dr. Bizheski, was summoned, and I was honorably led to the class instructor Steinberg. I poured my heart out to him and told him of all the hardships and persecution. The instructor said, “That's how a person defending his honor reacts” – and to everyone's surprise dismissed me without punishment.

The biggest surprise was that my assailant, injured by me, started greeting me when we crossed paths. The rest of my classmates followed suit and began treating me respectfully. Overnight my state had changed from being harassed, battered, and humiliated: I proceeded to walk with my head held high and the foreign surroundings slowly but surely treated me differently. I began seeing many things I had not been previously aware of, and began to understand things I hadn't thought of before. The thought of the revolution that had happened because of the punch stayed with me and did not leave me. I began to ponder the phenomena in individual life and its impact on the broader group.

The time was not encouraging to Jews. Anti–Semetism had spread and at the Vilne University Christian students rioted and denied entrance to their Jewish schoolmates. Young Jewish men who worked at the slaughterhouse, “Shtarke Yingalakh” (Strong Youngsters) organized, wore student hats, and mixed in with the Jewish students. To sum up, thanks to their intervention many injured anti–Semites were sent to the hospital, and one of them died. We, the students at the Hebrew Gymnasium, collected a whole heap of coal stones on the rooftop, ready to greet the Polish protestors. This bold response from the Jewish youngsters left a strong impression on me and I began to wonder if my path at HaShomer HaTzair was the right one to take.

Meanwhile in British Mandated Palestine, Jewish leaders announced a “restraint” policy [Ed. Note: the Havlagah policy, supported by David Ben–Gurion among others, was premised on the principle of self–defense and abstention from seeking revenge against innocent Palestinian civilians]. I had a hard time understanding the policy. I asked myself, “How will we look and what will we achieve if we are not wise enough to respond? Will restraint lead us to establish the Jewish State?” and my answer was, “No!”

Another thing influenced my future political path. In one of the Hebrew classes we learned about the poet David Frishman, and the instructor read us one of Frishman's poems [Ed. Note: David Frishman 1865–1922 was an important poet, author, journalist, and translator in the European diaspora]. If I am not mistaken, it goes something like this:

The Silver Said: all is mine!
The Iron Responded: all is mine!
The Silver Said: I will buy all!
The Iron Responded: I will take all!

I thought a lot about those lines, and realized how right they were. I reached the conclusion that my place was among the ranks of Betar, and with some other classmates I joined the Betar chapter in Vilne.

 

How the Divenishok Chapter of Betar was established

On the floor above the Betar chapter resided the Revisionist student union, HaShmonai [Ed. Note: literally the Hasmoneans, named after the Dynasty that ruled Judea between c.140 and 116 BCE; Revisionist Zionism, usually accredited to Ze'ev Zhabotinsky and Joseph Trumpeldor, called for a 'revision' of Ben–Gurion's and Weizman's practical Zionism]. One evening, I met a fellow town member, the law student Moshe Lubetski, Dovid Khaim Lubetski's son. We decided to devote our summer break to establishing the Divenishok chapter of Betar.

We decide to invite town residents to a community gathering on a Sabbath day in the grand synagogue during the hours between noon and evening prayers. Once we received permission from the Rabbi and the synagogue administrator we prepared posters and hung them in the entrance to the old and new synagogues and the school building. The keynote speaker was Moshe Lubetski, and I followed. A few friends joined us, among them Myshke Solts, Arke (Aharon) Seldukhe, Gotlib–Shkolnik and some others:, the Levine brothers from the Danoyke village, and Feygele Kaplan (now in Canada), who had transferred from the ranks of HaShomer HaTzair. The next day we met in one of the rooms at the Hebrew school for the establishment meeting. We established the chapter's command structure with me serving as the first commander. Moshe Lubetski prepared a request to the district executive in Oshmene for a youth group operating license – for the Joseph Trumpeldor Youth Organization –Betar. The purposes of the organization were stated in the organization's objectives: National education, military preparation for Aliyah [Ed. Note: literally flying up; term used to describe emigration to and settlement in Israel], and the founding of a Hebrew state on both banks of the Jordan river. The request was signed by three of the town's distinguished gentleman, Avraham Noakh the ritual–slaughterer who was an avid National Zioinist, Natan Itskovitsh, and Ben Tsion Schneider. Letters were sent to Betar command in Warsaw requesting informational literature. When we received the first delivery we were quite happy. It included the HaMedinah (The State) Hebrew newspaper, (that was published by Betar in Riga, Latvia, birthplace of Betar), and the weekly Yiddish publication De Velt (The World), edited by Uri Zvi Greenberg. His weekly columns “Fun Vokh Tsu Vokh” (From Week to Week) were electrifying. The shipment also included booklets, newsletters, and communication forms. We consumed the material as if quenching our thirst.

Updated and encouraged, we approached the town's youth in order to befriend them. In face to face debates and conversations we convinced many youths, and we attained more than 20 members. That did not satisfy us and so we requested help from the Voronova chapter of Betar, and their talented commander Aharon Kalmenovitsh, whose speeches in the simple and understandable mother lounge attracted a large crowd. Aharon appeared several times at large gatherings, and after every appearance chapter memberships increased.

In the summer of 1932 the first meetup with the Vornova and Divenshok chapters of Betar took place in the Dovinski Forest, everyone wearing the Betar uniform. The joint formation was festive and remarkable. After that we gathered around the campfire and sang Betar and Israeli songs, and afterwards a joint conversation took place in which all attending participated. Questions were asked and opinions exchanged. After the conversation, the official ceremony concluded and each member attempted to get acquainted with someone from the other chapter. Pairs sat by their tents into the late hours of the night.

 

Without a Roof over our Heads

Most of the Zionist youth organizations convened in the Hebrew school building. When Betar was established and organized we too demanded to convene there. This led to arguments and quarrels which sometimes even led to physical altercations. To maintain the peace in town the parents committee decided to ban future club meetings at the school, thus we remained without a roof over our heads.

During the summer, that problem was easily solved because gatherings and formations took place outdoors in the great forest surrounding town. We routinely met on a wonderful, large, grassy square that nature had created deep within the woods. But as the Fall arrived and Winter approached, we had to rent space in a private apartment, but did not have money. The cash shortage always trailed us. Most of us were poor, and even the “rich” folks in town had limited cash on hand. Occasionally, the ritual–slaughterer Avraham Noakh Shlomovitsh (an avid Zionist of the Abba Ahimeir school of thought [Ed. Note: Ahimeir founded the Maximalist faction within the Zionist Revisionist Movement]) provided financial support. We purchased a space in Aryeh Olkanitski's house, a vacant apartment on Subotniki Street. The small room hosted the command center and in the remaining two rooms were the chapter's classrooms. The walls were decorated with pictures of Benjamin Ze'ev Herzl, Betar head Ze'ev Jabotinsky, Joseph Trumpeldor in the battalion uniform, and an additional illustration of Trumpeldor's fall in Tel Hai. The illustration was a gift from a Betar member in Ivia. Above the pictures were slogans such as "Two Banks has the Jordan –This is ours and, that is as well”, “In blood and fire Judea fell – And in blood and fire Judea will rise again”, and "It does not matter, it is good to die for our country."

 

Various and Expanded Activities

Each evening meetings took place devoted to educational activity. Each meeting began with standing in formation in full uniform. Following that, information from headquarters or regional command was read, current events were discussed, Israel studies and conversation, and debate on the settlement of the Land of Israel. A special emphasis was placed on organizational maneuvers, exercise, and bodybuilding.

On Saturdays chapter drills took place involving all units within the chapter. We were supplied with various periodicals including newspapers, pamphlets, and above all – Jabotinsky's weekly column in the Warsaw publication Haynt [Ed. Note: a Yiddish daily newspaper published in Warsaw from 1906 until 1939], and later in the Der Moment newspaper [Ed. Note: a dailyYiddish newspaper published in Warsaw from 1910 until 1939], which we would read out loud, explain and comment on, followed by a lively discussion of the issues raised in the article.

On Fridays, a pair of Betar members patrolled the town from end to end, fundraising for the Tel Hai Fund, holding blue copper boxes with the charity's logo on the side. The boxes were triangular, distinguished from the squares of Keren Kayemet [Ed. Note: Jewish National Fund] box. Occasionally we distributed Zionist Revisionist literature to homes in the town.

 

Flag Dedication

With the purchase of our fixed dwelling we began to prepare for the flag–dedication festivities. To complete this task we recruited some non–Betar reinforcements. The flag was 120x100 centimeters, in two colors: one side in silk white, and the other blue. On the white side there was a figure of a lion and on the other the Betar logo, a Menorah with the words “Betar in Poland” above it and “Divenishok Chapter” underneath. My sister Bilkhe was asked to embroider the lion. Feygele Kaplan and her sisters (also Beitar membrs) embroidered the Menorah. My father prepared the lion, which was composed of brown fabric, and sewed according to my sketch on the fabric. A properly sized wooden pole was ordered from Yankele the carpenter. We prepared a list of homeowners willing to host Betar members from nearby towns. Once the flag was ready we sent invitations to all Betar chapters in the region for the Saturday night ceremony.

Despite the bitter cold of the 1933 winter many envoys from all the nearby towns joined. Divenishok was festive and crowded. The first to show up were Betar members from the small nearby town of Baksht, who arrived Friday so they would not violate the Sabbath. The delegation included a wind–instrument band. Imagine in a small town back in those days, an entire marching band all wearing Betar uniforms, with a blue and white flag ahead of the parade, followed by the Betar flag. Our happiness knew no limits. The Jewish town residents were beside themselves, and even the gentiles were astonished and watched respectfully. The parade passed through town and members formed into neat straight lines. It was a spectacular and unforgotten sight. Following the parade, a bazaar took place, with all proceeds directed to the Tel Hai Fund and the establishment of Metzudat Ze'ev building in Tel Aviv [Ed. Note: this building, also known as Beit Jabotinsky, houses the Jabotinsky Museum and the headquarters of the modern Likud Party].. I remember we had a special promotional placard bearing the future building's model.

We held special seminar events with out–of–town guest speakers on Lag BaOmer, 29 Tamuz, and 11 Adar. The town residents, even those opposed to Betar, attended the events. When Betar leader Ze'ev Jabotinsky visited Vilne, many went to witness his speeches, much like the Hasids listen to their Rebbe. Along with Betar member Arye (Leybke) Botwinick from Eshishuk ???? (Tr. Note: hashém yikóm damó; used after the name of someone killed because he was Jewish, as a prayer to God that He avenge the death], I had the good fortune to meet Jabotnisky at the Bristol Hotel. I presented him with a flower bouquet on behalf of the Dr. Cherno Teaching Seminary in Vilne.

On holidays the Betar facilities were decorated in holiday themes and appropriate slogans. The conversations during the Passover days were devoted to the Exodus – from slaves to liberation, and on Hannukah we discussed the Hasmonean uprising – war of the few against the many. We drew encouragement and faith from the distant past, looking towards the future.

One of our primary obstacles was purchasing the Betar uniforms. The uniform was made up of a brown khaki shirt, with golden metallic buttons bearing the Betar Menorah logo. The fabric necessary was not available in town and had to be specially ordered. What vendor would invest his own money into this unpopular fabric?

But THE vendor was found, none other than Hinde Sareh, Ben Tsion's wife and Shmuel Sharon's mother (who now lives with us in Israel). This woman with valor was the “foreign minister” in Ben Tsion's large business, and she brought the first fabric roll. The vendor Shalom Garviye followed and took the risk of purchasing Betar's shiny golden buttons.

Once the shirts were sewn we approached Aharon Bloche the hat maker to sew the Betar caps. It was not a simple task and only Aharon's hands of gold succeeded.

 

The Split Came to Divenishok Too

Adorned in uniforms, with pride and honor we walked the town streets with our heads held high and our hearts full of glee and hope–– but then a crisis struck. A split occurred between Betar leader Jabotinsky and his right hand man Meir Grossman. Grossman withdrew from the Revisionist movement and established the Brit HaKa'naim, (The Zealots' Covenant) youth group, as a competitor to Betar. And then Michael Soldukhe, who was Aharon's (the town's Betar commander) brother, established the Zealots' Covenant chapter–– but less than a dozen became members. Michael emigrated with his brother to the United States then fought and was wounded in the Korea War, receiving many valor awards. He passed away unexpectedly in 1975.

 

In the Area Villages

When the number of members topped 40 we set out to “conquer” the Jewish youth in the nearby villages. The “stranded” Jews, aside from observing Torah commandments, were not connected to the events unfolding in the Jewish world and had not even heard at all of the Jewish settlement in Palestine.

The Levine family lived in the Danoyke village, and their son Chaim (the town's windmill administrator) and his brothers Yosef and Chanan joined Betar. Near our town, on the way to Benakani, was Konvalishki with 14 Jewish families who lived amongst the gentiles. One Saturday I walked there with two other Betar members. When we got there we gathered about ten participants in the small synagogue's women's section and I lectured about Betar and its role. They absorbed our talk and that was not surprising. They were so distant from all that was happening in the outside Jewish world. Our appearance there brought a ray of light to the small, Gentile–dominated town. We were asked to teach the Betar anthem and songs of the Promised Land. We established a local Betar chapter which had 8 members. After refreshments including Challah and the famous Yudelevitsh lemonade, we kindly departed.

An additional attempt to establish a Betar chapter in Lipnishok was unsuccessful. In the grass field between house and barn a large crown gathered on a Saturday and we were happy, but it turned out those were HaShomer HaTzair loyalists. When our speaker Aharon Kalmenovitsh attempted to talk he was interrupted by heckling and whistling. I approached the ruckus raisers, mostly former friends I had met at HaShomer HaTzair, in an attempt to calm them, but I failed. My friend Naftali Kartshmer (a close friend to this day, living in Israel), and simply told me, “Meir Yoshke, a Betar will never ever be established here!”, and unfortunately, he was right.

 

The WWII days

While Betar members were busy dreaming up their plans to migrate to the land of Israel, dark clouds gathered and the earth was darkened. The war erupted and Poland was occupied. The Soviet–Nazi alliance split the spoil. Our town was transferred to Soviet hands. A government crackdown began on Zionist youth groups, especially Betar. Many were summoned before the NKVD [Ed. Note: leading Soviet secret police organization from 1934 to 1946] and were interrogated entire nights. The interrogator would take a photo of Jabotinsky out of his drawer and inquire, “Do you know who this is? Who was he?” and would repeat the question louder, accompanied by juicy Russian swear. “This is the biggest fascist Jew, correct?”

Yaakov Schneider, the last Betar commander, gathered the Betar flag, the photos and informational literature, and hid them at home for brighter days to come. His mother discovered the “treasure” and informed her husband, who commanded Yaakov to destroy the materials. But Yaakov could not bring himself to obey the command, and to his assistance came his Brother, 15 year old Shmuel, who packed his bike with the materials and distributed it to passers–by along and across town.

Someone passed along the information of his counter–revolutionary acts to the NKVD, and Shmuel was summoned for interrogation. In the stairway he encountered a former Betar member who had becpme an informant. Shmuel shot him a look of disdain as he passed by. The interrogation lasted two hours and he was then released. They were likely convinced that the young boy had acted in good faith and was not accountable for his actions.

The evidence against Betar members piled up and they faced a known destination: Siberia. They were saved by a rumor that I had died in combat while fighting against the Germans with the Polish military. Their way out was to put the blame on me. I was the one that had misled them, who had tricked them–– I, being an expert in persuasion and rhetoric, had blinded them and had led them astray, etc. etc.

What the Soviet “liberators” could not destroy was destroyed by the German invaders.

I often tell myself, “If those Zionist youths were alive today, if they were here with us in Israel, we would not feel so alone, we would not be so constantly heavy hearted. We miss them.”

May these words be a monument in memory of all Zionist youth movements – the loyal, honest, gentle, innocent town residents, serene lovers of God and mankind, who dreamed day and night of Zion, who prayed: “may our eyes witness the Lord's return to Zion”.

May these words be an everlasting shrine to those who were not fortunate enough to make their dreams come true and who fell on foreign soil.

May their souls be bound up in the bond of everlasting life.


 

[Page 85]

The Hebrew School in Divenishok

Shmuel Dubkin

Translated by Meir Bulman

“‘Touch not my anointed’ referring to school children”
–Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbath

I had the good fortune to convey Torah and knowledge in various towns in the Vilne area, and to educate children in the National Hebrew spirit for love of the Torah, for the People of Israel, and for the Land of Israel.

As I attempt to shake off the dust from that time, an era steeped in the dust of the past, my mind's eye witness all those towns, their Hebrew schools and their students which I instructed and educated. Allegedly, all towns in Eastern Europe were similar in their external build and their spiritual and financial build, but, every town had its own unique character.

Among those towns where I served as teacher, Divenishok, in the Vilne region, especially stands out. Many impressions and experiences from my work at the Hebrew school remain in my memory to this day.

I arrived in Divenishok in 1930. Ahead of my arrival there was an interesting meeting in Vilne with the town rabbi, Rabbi Yosef Rudnik, may he rest in peace. His firm character and noble personality left a strong impression on me. As I discussed the school and local conditions, he asked if I could guide young people. “What kind of young people?” I asked. “Zionist pioneering youth: HaShomer HaTzair and HaKhalutz, especially HaShomer Hatzair,” he responded.

I was embarrassed by his answer. What business does an Orthodox rabbi have with HaShomer HaTzair? The Rabbi, who sensed my discomfort, said with his unique humor and in a fatherly tone, “You must be wondering why a Rabbi is concerned about HaShomer? Well, you should know that our Shomer is unlike any other Shomer. In our town, HaShomer HaTzair members come to the synagogue for the three daily prayers”.

In town I stayed in the home of the Kosher slaughterer Avraham Noakh (may God avenge his blood). His family members greeted me kindly and warm feeling of residing among my own people surrounded me.

My impression of the school was also very positive. A spacious, beautiful building, filled with light, large classrooms, with windows wide open, overlooking the green fields. The building was at the center of the Shulhoyf [Ed. Note: the Synagogue's courtyard] – the town's spiritual center. The school was blessed with a devoted teaching staff and heading them was Mr. Avraham Aloni, the school principal (now principal of Tel Nordoy in Tel Aviv), his wife Bruria (rest in peace), and Yeshayahu Kramer (now living in Haifa), and I joined that staff. We all did our best to promote this educational institution to top–tier educational quality.

An important part of our work was the school plays that brought a festive and happy feeling to the students and their parents.

The school was not just a place of learning for the children, but also a cherished spot, filled with light and joy of life, where many could forget the day–to–day troubles of their parents at home.

I must positively mention the school committee, headed by town chief rabbi Yosef Rudnik: Ben Tzion Schneider, Mintz Kaplan, Natan Itszkovitsh, Avraham Krivitski, Avrahm Noakh and more, who were involved in much activity for the school and Hebrew education in town.

For my entire time at work I was active in the Pioneering Zionist organization HaShomer HaTzair, a majority of which was composed of school alumni, which was an active, lively place, where I found vast ground for cultural activity and spiritual guidance. During the school day the building was full of children's cheer, and in the evening, the building was reignited and taken over by HaShomer members who came to conduct various educational tasks, and waves of Hebrew song and Hora dance were heard into the late hours of the night. Here within the school walls great intellectual experiences and a longing for Israel were developed.

An important part of the educational work at HaShomer were the field trips to the surrounding natural grounds. The town was surrounded by enchanting pine forests, frequently visited. Meetups with Pioneering Zionist groups from the nearby towns were conducted, leading to an awakening in those towns. Standing out in my memories are two such gatherings that left a strong impression on us, one in nearby Traby, and the other in Oshmene for the Keren Kayemet conference.

I shake as I remember that Nazi forces of destruction defiled and destroyed such a dear and holy community as Divenishok. The heart aches – a pure community is no more, and its song of life was interrupted.

In the words of R. Weintraub:

“The wind of the abyss will silently weep

For annihilation, destruction, and desolation

Will roil and rage, for the blood holocaust

Will never be forgiven, forever and eternity”

May this collection of memories serve as living letters on the written tombstone in memory of the Divenishok community.

 

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