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[Page 120]

The Town of Kobrin

by K. Faustovski

Every time I contemplate what encouraged me to take the author's pen in hand, I remember the fall, the rainy fall of the year 1915.

I was serving then in the medical unit in the western wing of the front. The army evacuated Brest and retreated to the swamps. The retreating army rushed wildly and abandoned weapons and equipment. The dark word “treason” rolled with the soldiers into the depth of the hinterland. It was not said anymore in whispers but came out in a scream from parched mouths.

Thousands of carriages with refugees moved slowly on side roads that were washed away by the rain. The town of Brest was burning. The military blew up the town's fortress. The sky behind our backs was filled with dark pink smoke. From the distance there was the thunder of cannons. The cannon units chased us and penetrated from the flanks. Near Brest our unit collected two refugee children who had lost their mother. They stood along the side of the road, clinging to one another, a small boy in a student's coat that was torn and a thin girl of about twelve. The boy cried and lowered his hat on his eyes to cover the tears. The girl clung with a force of two with her two hands to the boy's shoulders. We put them in the carriage and we covered them with worn out military coats. A thin rain was stinging and hitting us on our faces. There was a foul smell of cheap tobacco and iodine that came out of the coats.

In the evening, we arrived at the town of Kobrin. The earth, black like coal, became a thin mush under the heavy feet of the retreating army. Bent houses falling down with rotten roofs lay in the mud with mud above the entry ways. In the darkness of the evening there were screams and curses of the transport people. The streetlights were barely seen in the dark light. The wheels of the carriages became loose and screamed on their axles and the rain came hard from the roofs in muddy streams. We parked by an old synagogue. Only one person was there. He sat there in the darkness singing some prayers. We lit our lanterns and we saw an old Jew with sad eyes.

The orderlies dragged from the yard an iron jug. We made a fire in the center and we put on a kettle to boil water. The children sat quietly by the fire. The commander of the medical unit, Yablonski, a former Polish actor, entered the synagogue. As the bands on his bag scraped, he said, “My friends, untie the horses! To hell! I will not move from here until the morning light, even if the Germans themselves come into town. Our battalion has been pushed through town and if we go our bones will be ground to dust. Give some food to these kids.”

For a long time, he looked at the kids and the light from the bonfire shown in his bright eyes. He spoke to the girl in Polish and she answered in a low voice, her eyes looking downward.

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“When will this cursed world finally end?” Yablonski said suddenly, his pale and hardened face trembling. Yablonski loved to say his words in a pleasant voice, but with force. “When the war ends,” he continued. “We will go, my friends, to Peterburg and we will let go of the pretty bird for which so many children have died.” The orderlies remained quiet.

“The war! To one it is the mother, and to another the mother of Satan,” said then the soldier Artimenko. Then the old Jew got up, approached Yablonski, bowed and asked: “My dear sir, do you happen to know who of us will have any benefit from this disaster?” “Not me and not you, old man,” Yablonski answered. “And not these kids and not these people.” Sparks flew across the windows from the field kitchens by the synagogue. “Go to the pots,” said Yablonski. “Go all of you and get some soup.”

We went to the field kitchens. The boy went with us. The soldier Artimenko held him well in his hand. A crowd of hungry refugees pushed towards the pots. The words in their throats were parched from cursing. They tried to stop the crowd. They pushed away the veined and rough fingers of the men. They shoved the women in their chests and the women fell crying into the mud. The torches flickered and moved and as if they lit the eyes alone, glassy, bulging eyes of men who did not see in front of them any other thing but open pots and steam of hot soup that hovered above them.

“Don't stop!” someone said with bitter desperation. The crowd attacked the pots, dislodging the boy from the soldier. The boy fell and within one moment tens of heavy boots with nails were pushing him into the ground. He did not have a chance to utter a word. The men slurped the soup from their defective bowls and snatched their bowls from one another. The women pushed quickly into the mouths of babies, who were blue because of the cold, pieces of grey meat. I jumped toward the boy, but I was pushed back. My throat was choking with anger. I could not scream. I took out my revolver and I shot a few bullets into the air.

The crowd retreated. The boy was lying in the mud. A tear was still rolling off his dead and pale cheek. We brought the boy into the synagogue and put him on the coat. The girl saw him and stood up. She was trembling all over and her teeth were chattering. “Mother,” she said quietly and moved toward the door. “My mother!” the girl screamed and ran into the street. The caravans were thundering. “Mother!” the girl screamed by the windows. We stood appalled and stunned until Yablonski screamed, “Return her, quickly!” I ran into the street. I couldn't find her anywhere. I jumped on my horse and I ran into the carriages. I hit with my whip the sweaty horses of the caravans to make way.

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I rode in side streets. I rode on wooden sidewalks. I called and I called again. I stopped soldiers and asked them if they had seen a girl in an old grey coat, but I did not receive an answer. In the houses, women yelled with piercing voices. Men were loading the carriages with their dull belongings. At the edge of town some huts were burning, and the images of the fire were dancing in the mud and made everything even more confused. Confusion of carriages, cannons, horses and wagons, the whole disgusting mess of a night retreat.

I returned to the synagogue. The girl was not there. The boy was lying on the coat, his pale cheek on the wet cloth as if he were asleep. The synagogue was empty. The fire died and only the old Jew sat near the child and whispered something. “Where are the soldiers?” I asked the old men. “By the pots,” the man answered and sighed. “Everybody wants a little hot soup.” He stopped for a moment.

kob122.jpg [36 KB] - Ratner Street
Ratner Street

“Sir,” he said suddenly, in a clear and soft voice. “I'm a cobbler. My name is Yosef Shifrin. I do not know how to express adequately my heart's feelings.” The shine of the flame shown without moving on the gusty windows of the synagogue. “Please listen,” he said, and touched the sleeve of my coat. “For you are a learned man and wise man.” I sat there and I thought I did not understand. “I am not learned but still I am not completely blind. Something seems clear to me and I have a question to you, sir.

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Who will avenge the blood of this young boy? Maybe you are sons of merciful people and you'll have mercy on those who gave you such a dear gift, this war. My God, when will people come together and with their hands build for themselves a real life?” The old man raised his hands, closed his eyes and as he was moving back and forth screamed with a piercing voice. “I cannot see who will avenge for us. Where is the man who will put seed in the ground for good bread for the hungry? Cursed be until the end of their days all those who are dirtying their hands of man with blood, who are taking away the bread of the poor. They should not have sons or grandsons and the heavens above their heads will become copper, the ground below them, iron”.

The man continued to scream with his hands raised. He was waving them. He made them into fists and his voice echoed in the empty synagogue. After an hour we left the town. We walked on roads covered with thin mud and I thought to myself that I and thousands of other people have hands that could write those hard words as the burning words of the old man, could write words that could destroy words – slavery, hunger, all the injustices of the old world. I thought to myself that I have hands that could fight and win a battle and see with my eyes, even if only the first days, a new life. When dawn will come, I thought in my heart, and the light of the morning, soft light, will shine and the first sound that will be heard by a man tired of a war of liberation will be the happy voice of a small child. (from the Russian of Shmuel Kaplan. “Bamaleh”)

During the First World War

by Moshe Flatstein

The summer of 1914 did not hint of any major events to come. The high school students who studied outside of Kobrin came from vacation. Many youth from the towns came to Kobrin for summer vacation.

By that time most of us tried to speak Russian among ourselves. The intelligentsia spoke Russian. The young emulated the older ones on national questions and fundraising affairs for Israel. The Zionist group was a small one.

The Mochevitz was peaceful and everything was very calm in Kobrin at that time. Suddenly there was a declaration of war and young men were immediately mobilized. A few days after the mobilization the unit left by foot for Brisk.

Life became routine. As the war worsened, so did antisemitism. The Jews were blamed for everything. The church ministers incited the Christians by claiming that the Jews were spies and that they transferred gold to Germany.

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Life for the Jews became dangerous. I won't deny that most of the youth did wait for the Germans to come. They wanted free access to colleges and universities, and hoped that the German occupation was going to be much easier on them. The fascist regime only enslaved them. The economic situation improved slightly. Many high school youth were excused from army duties since they were students.

The Brisk train station was the Russians' economic window to the West. This situation lasted for a year until Russia's failed assault on Prussia.

The assault brought an even better economic situation to Kobrin. Many refugees kept arriving from Poland. The young Jews volunteered to help feed and house them.

As I already mentioned, the train station in Kobrin was the last station from the Russian side that remained open to the citizens. Therefore, all the refugees sold their goods and rushed to take the train. Many Kobriners bought horses and buggies from the refugees who were fleeing to Pinsk and Moscow so that they would have the means to also flee as the war front approached Kobrin.

The roads were so busy that they had to build a bridge for the army. The Mochevitz River was low and there was a shortage of water. The people wanted to stay in Kobrin but rumor had it that the Cossacks were about to come, and the Cossacks were very vicious. Everybody was searching for a peaceful place to live between the two fighting parties. Warsaw fell and Lundberg was recaptured by the Austrians. The Brisk fortress fell without even a shot being fired.

I remember it was Saturday when the front moved to our city. We were all ready with our meager belongings to cross the road and go, but we looked at each other and asked, “Shall we go? Where? Or should we stay?” The fear of the Cossacks made us decide to move, but we only got as far as Clashtora Street. There we were turned away since they were about to burn the bridge, not wanting us to leave. Most of the Kobrin Jews camped at night there, not knowing what to do. It was very crowded. At night we organized a militia for protection. During the night we heard some horrible screams from Jews far away, but they wouldn't allow us to move and we could not help those Jews. The next day we learned that the Cossacks had murdered eighteen Jews and that only because the Germans assaulted the town had the Cossacks run away. The town remained without a government until four o'clock in the afternoon on Sunday. At that time the first Germans entered and the Jews went to welcome them. The Russians still had enough time to burn the big bridge on the Mochevitz river, the bid market, some houses on Brisker and the train station.

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It didn't take long for disappointment to set in. The Jews felt immediately that they had made a mistake and that the “Messiah” was a false one. The Germans gave cholera shots to everybody since the cholera epidemic among the refugees was killing thirty to forty people a day. The young were told to clean up the city. There was no food to be had. I remember that year on Yom Kippor when in the midst of the fast it was announced to stop fasting because of the cholera and to go home and eat. Two things saved the people from starvation, the potatoes in the fields which miraculously did not freeze that winter because it was a mild one and the small plots of land that we were allowed to plant vegetables on.

We were cut off from the world without a newspaper and without postal services. We started getting used to the situation. We even got used to the military occupation and to the forced labor. Many of the youth enlisted to do army work and railroad work and those who knew how to write German tried to get a job in the city government. The German armies started schools in villages. Because of the shortage of teachers, the Jews were sent to teach there. Yosef Bertenboim was a unique person at that time in Kobrin. Although he was a laborer he was a self made man, a teacher and an inspiration to the youth in Kobrin.

Germans brought a Ukrainian school superintendent to Kobrin and they changed the curriculum. The required language became Ukrainian instead of Russian. That was a hint that the Germans planned to turn this region into a Ukrainian region. We started to accumulate weapons. We did not have money so we used to steal them from the Germans. Slowly, we accumulated quite a few weapons. We were so excited about the stealing of weapons that we forgot we also had to learn how to use them. Sooner or later we organized a civil defense group and the leader was Tennenbaum.

That winter a peace pact was signed between the Germans and the Ukrainians and our region was given to the Ukrainians. In the beginning of the school year of 1918, many Ukrainian prisoners of war, freed by the Germans and the Lithuanians, came to Kobrin. Slowly and gradually a Ukrainian army was built up and the region was given over to their administration. We were fearful of the Ukrainians, but they were fearful of us as well.

The Ukrainians defined themselves as social democrats and they were eager to know what our relationship to communist Russia was. Bertenboim used to answer them that we were just representatives of the local labor and we didn't deal with politics.

The Ukrainian administration lasted six weeks. I remember one night there was a big party and the Ukrainian orchestra was invited as well.

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Much alcohol was consumed that night. Ukrainians got drunk and little did they know that the Poles waited for this occasion to enter the town and take it over. And so ends a very interesting time of that period.

My Dear Town, How?

by Engineer Abraham Levits

Kobrin, the town where I spent my youth, how? Where are you, Pinsker Street? the small temple? the wooden houses?

I remember the Balfour Declaration, how we all sat and sang. It happened on Lag B'Omer. The Polish government representative happened to be a nice liberal at that time. I also remember the procession with the band. This made us extremely happy since it represented the awakening of our national feeling for our country. I remember everything, the happy life we had, the beautiful decent youth, and then the Nazi beasts uprooted and killed everyone and Kobrin was empty. A town that existed for a thousand Jewish years – now it's gone.

In 1914 I left for Israel, where I had always wanted to live. I went back to visit Kobrin on a winter day and I met Bertenboim. He impressed me with his knowledge which was entirely self-taught. I met with Bertenboim many times after that and we always had a very deep conversation. 1914 the First World War came down on the Jews in a very cruel way since they were the ones who suffered most. Many were expelled to Russia. Many were arrested.

Mrs. Shafit received willingly the help of the young. She was the head of the refugee committee and was instrumental in helping the refugees settle in Kobrin. A kitchen and a dining hall and children's dorms were set up for the refugees. In the year 1916 the citizens of Kobrin got used to the German occupation. Schools were opened. Russian and German were taught. A pre-gymnasium was opened to educate the young Jewish children on national subjects. Before the end of the German occupation the pre-gymnasium was closed due to a shortage of teachers. A school where Yiddish was the main language opened later. A whole generation was educated in that school but its Zionist work increased much later when the labor party, the “Poalai Zion,” supervised the school.

In 1921 there was an interesting event when the Poles entered after the Bolsheviks left. Three Jewish men were caught and they were about to be hung because they were suspected of being Bolshevik spies.

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They were from Antopol. The Jews assembled in Kobrin to find a way to spare them since we knew they were innocent. Rabbi Michael and a few others went to talk to the jail commandant. “If you are talking like this it means you too are Bolsheviks and I should hang you too.”

Rabbi Michael replied, “why don't you hang all the Jews. We're all Bolsheviks.” The commandant started screaming but he still spared all of their lives. He appreciated the rabbi's brave attitude.

1922 – the Polish gymnasium student by the name of Mintz came and asked me for help to start the Shomer Hatzair movement. I did help to start the movement and it thrived. But one can say that the splendid youth in Kobrin belonged to the Shomer Hatzair.

192 6 – I came from abroad were I was studying electrical engineering. I had many plans. Among them was to live in Israel. I was asked to run the Tarbut (cultural) gymnasium. There were many disagreements among leaders of the community regarding the best schools. Alkon, the excellent teacher, was appointed to be one of the faculty. There was a conflict about teaching Yiddish. In the final decision we decided to teach Yiddish. In the year 1926 until 1930, Tarbut was the center of inspiration for the youth. Most of the beloved leaders were killed by the Germans later.

I remember a very lively cultural life in Kobrin, but everything disappeared. Only remnants remain which reside in the U.S. and Israel and they will carry on proudly the memory of Zionist Kobrin with its outstanding leaders who molded the youth to go and live in Israel regardless of whether it was in the cities, Kibbutz, etc.

A Stranger and a Citizen

by Zalman Lifshitz

I was a stranger and a citizen in Kobrin from 1915, with the expulsion of the citizens in Brisk until 1921, the year of my aliyah to Israel. Kobrin is very dear to me since I grew up there. I had many dear friends there. I would like to remember everything that happened in order to lament those that I loved so and who are no longer with us.

My favorite youth group was the LRF although I belonged to the Youth Zionist. The LRF started in 1916. The main character was Rogosnitzky. We used to get together on Saturdays and he lectured on Hebrew literature and Yiddish. New horizons were opened to me. The group was non-political, but the third class in “Tushia” Academy, called “tarbut” in Kobrin.

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kob128.jpg [28 KB] - Third class in "Tushia" Academy
In second row, in the middle,
A. Levitas of blessed memory and Noach Alkin of blessed memory

Lectures were appreciated and in many cases led to wonderful discussions and also sometimes friction between members. Later I belonged to the Zionist club. We also did fund raising for the Zionist movement. But still the youth was ready for a change so they started a Youth Zionist Group.

Those days we first received news about the Russian Revolution. The Revolution made us curious, but we were not very enthusiastic about it since we hardly had any class differences among us in Kobrin.

I remember that we used to smuggle Russian prisoners to the border without the knowledge of the Germans. We used to save them. There was a big discussion about why we were doing this. There were few communists left in the city. Later many of them were arrested and tortured in the jails of Brisk and Bialystock.

They started a grammar school and many proudly remember today in Israel their teachers Bortnofsky and Holtzman. Many will remember Chaim Chomotinsky and the songs and opera he composed. He also had a wonderful choir. A drama club was started for all ages. Hebrew lessons started in the evenings.

The young Zionist club was closed for a few months when the Germans left and the Poles came in.

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The evening Hebrew classes continued. Blessed they be, our wonderful teachers Noah Arkon, Yaffe. Only once the Polish administration closed those evening classes for a few days. They were re-opened only after A. Levits convinced them to open them. But things became worse due to a shortage of qualified teachers with the exception of the very interesting lectures of Mrs. Halperin, on Israeli history.

There was a re-awakening of our national feelings but there were also sad days like the slaughtering in Pinsk and the Pogrom in Lemburg. And then again the shining and outstanding event happened of the Balfour Declaration.

It was announced on the holiday of Lag B'Omer. Young and old cried with elation. The band and the procession led us to the picnic in the forest and then already a group organized itself for aliyah to Israel.

Many left. Some went to America as well since they couldn't go to Israel. We did not have any pioneering experience. Israel Ben Chaim (Goldstein) took care of the leasing of the land in Israel for agricultural purposes. But there was not enough money to conclude the transaction. Still our people went to Israel. They dried up the swamps of Nahalal, planted tobacco in the Galil and started the village of Kfar Yeoshua.

kob129.jpg [25 KB] - Pioneers from Kobrin on their way to Palestine, in Vienna, in 1921
Pioneers from Kobrin on their way to Palestine,
in Vienna, 1921

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Among the first group were twenty-five people to go to Israel. They left secretly. It was in the midst of government changes. The short rule of the administration of the Bolsheviks was an interesting one. The youth were impressed by the democratic spirit and lack of rank among the Bolsheviks. The propaganda started immediately and Kobrin was now called the Red Kobrin. The youth was asked to mobilize from the age of eighteen and up. It did not materialize since the Bolsheviks soon left. The first letters from the pioneers arrived from Israel. They were not very clear, but they summed up the situation this way: “The country is beautiful but barren and in desperate need of working hands.” The second group left on May 3, 1921. This time everybody came out to say good-bye with repeated wishes of, “See you soon”.

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