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[Page 183]

Kobrin in the Eyes of a Native of Chomsk

by A. Ch. Zaritzki

We, the sons of a small town in the Diaspora, knew and appreciated well the small portion of secular cultural instruments that we had.

We used to say: Ten measures of institutions of enlightenment came down to the world. Nine took the city and one the small towns. In the city: public schools, high schools, vocational schools. In the small towns there was one measure of enlightenment, the small Cheders and the Talmud Torah. Ten measures of theaters, movies and concerts came down to the world. The city took nine and the small towns one. Plays like the “Selling of Joseph,” the “Sacrifice of Isaac” were presented, directed and decorated by Moshe Meir the shoemaker. Ten measures of lecturers and instructors came down to the world. The nine best and most reformed among them were taken by the city. We in the small towns received one measure of lecturers during elections to the congress, to the house of representatives in the capital city.

That is the reason why a person of a small town needed to exert extra special effort and energy if he wanted to reach the level of a resident of the city who was lucky to receive, the face of the divine presence quite easily. It is clear that in such a situation many talents of people from various professions would be wasted. Not a few of the teachers from the province could have developed to an important pedagogic force if they received an orderly pedagogic education and not a few of the craftsmen atrophied because of not receiving systematic professional education.

A Story of “Matrika” – A Birth Certificate

The year was 1922. The kingdom of Poland, that had recently come to be, spread its protective wings also over our district and apprised us of all the requirements that the residents of the state owed their country. One of the main requirements, of course, was to join the army. As far as the age of joining the army, when is a man required to join the army? When he becomes 20? Some say 21, everything according to the custom of the country, and then started the back and forth with the authorities. How do you arrive at the exact age? When we lived during the regular times the birth certificates testified to the age, but during those days when the events of the war destroyed most of the towns of Israel including the institutions and their documents, we seemed like babies that had not yet received their birth certificates. The authorities decided to draft people according to an estimate of their age given by a special committee.

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There were also cases when they decided to take those who should otherwise not have been drafted and let go those who should have been drafted.

Meanwhile a rumor spread that in Kobrin, which had formerly been the district city, there were registration books of our town and they were in the possession of R' Michael, the judge. So a few of the households started to investigate it and when I heard about it I came to them and I proposed to them that I was not required to be drafted as of yet, so why didn't they give me the expenses for the road and I would go to Kobrin and find out? When I came to R' Michael I learned from his secretary R' A.I. Goldshmidt that the rumor was true and all the birth certificates of our town were kept in a closed closet in the great Synagogue. From that day on, youngsters of our town went to Kobrin at times.

Because of those birth certificates I came in touch with a Hebrew teacher in the public school, Plotnik, a man from Pinsk. He convinced me to remain in that city to make my living teaching the children of Israel Hebrew and to learn about the great world. I decided to stay in Kobrin.

The street that was selected to live in was called the Alley of Egypt. We rented an apartment from a witch doctor who was named after his village of origin, “Leizer the Irmitsher,” a man with white hair and a silver thin beard, an expert at whispering all the plagues of Egypt. From time to time the peasants from the surrounding area would come to him, his worshipers and his believers, to ask of him some remedy. They would bring in exchange products from their village. It was especially busy in his house during the fairs, then he would have a great “practica” (practice) and the floor of the dark hall would serve as a waiting room for those who came to see him.

Our house was located close to the Brisker Synagogue. According to the carpenter in my town that Synagogue served in 1905 for a place for the committee of Jews who revolted against the kingdom of Nicholas II and that person from my town, the carpenter, was one of them. Before long I became acquainted with the youth of my age, most of whom where dressed in those days in grey coats with glittering buttons and wore hats with shiny leather peaks in remembrance of the Russian High School of Slivinski that did not exist anymore. In that school studied most of the youth of Kobrin and there they received the educational equivalent to six grades of the Gymnasium. Among that youth stood out Bentza Pentol, Itche Pinchuk, of blessed memory, and Yechiel Chari who lives among us, and they congregated around them a group of friends that dedicated themselves to spread enlightenment to the people. I am not a person of Kobrin and its paths are not well enough known to me to speak with authority about its public institutions. Still I would like to tell something about their cultural life in those days.

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So, as far as I can remember the youth in Kobrin were not yet arranged by camp and by flag and did not belong to a state youth group. In that year there were some youth associations, “Techia” and “Herzliya.” The first included all graduates of the elementary school and it did modest cultural work: They continued to study Tanach, to read Hebrew literature. On Saturdays there would be literary trials all according to the young age, and in “Herzliya,” an older age, there would be advanced work done in several branches, literature, Hebrew instruction, political economy, geography and so on. And all this in a mobile auditorium, sometimes in an attic in Narodnicks and sometimes in a house on the other side of Zemochevitz on Pinsker Street and Brisker Street. All in rotation according to the time and according to the residents of a member of “Herzliya,” who was supposed to accommodate his association in an auditorium once in awhile. And we don't have to say too many words. The witness are the names of those associations, both of which were aimed at reviving the People and the Land.

I was not privileged to step amongst the adults then, but I felt their activities when we would crowd to listen to the excellent lecturers such as: Dr. I. Gottleib, Yossele Bergman, Dr. Moshe Weitzman and so on. There were also combined activities for youth and adults together, and I remember on one Saturday that was dedicated to the “pioneer fund”, lecturers of various ages would spread around in the synagogues and speak after the reading of the Torah about the value and importance of that fund. The owner of the pharmacy was angry about it and in the great Synagogue came out and said: Who heard such a thing? What do “landlords” have to do with pioneers? When pioneers are traveling to the land of Israel do the “landlords” have to give of their money?

Hassidism also based itself in Kobrin and you could find there representatives of various dynasties: Kobrin, Slonim, Trisk, Stolin, Lubashi and their Hassidim and their Shtiblach. A “Rabbi” guest for Sabbath was not a rarity. Such a respected and honored guest would bring a new lively spirit among his worshipers and also excitement among the enlightened youth and not necessarily the Hassidic youth. At the Rabbi's table on the Sabbath evening there were youngsters, some that had received the spark of Hassidism in their father's home and it had not been extinguished, and some of them who had come to see the Rabbi. These came out a little disappointed because among the Torah matters that they heard were also witticism, human morality and life's wisdom.

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As to public servants, I would like to mention especially Yudele the Sexton, an alert and short Jew who would come out with his announcement without stage fright as an old hand and someone who is used to it. People used to talk about the echo of his voice that could be heard from three streets away, “what is the news that Yudele brings us today? Is it an everyday matter or is it something exceptional?” They would not settle until they heard the announcement from Yudele's mouth. His announcements about some lecturer that came into the city, about some urgent meeting, about the heating of the bathhouse and about fresh calves' meat in the butcher shop of Michla Kantzipor he would spice with accompanying sayings and with some melodies that would arouse his listeners to laugh. Yudele the announcer would add his own commentary, his own comments to the Jewish tradition in the city. This mobile advertising office fit the life of a city that did not put out the old for the new.

The Man with the Three Seders

I will sin before the master of history if I will not say a few words about Aharah, a man of Chomsk who moved to Kobrin. He was the father of the “inventors” of the third seder.

At the edge of our town, in a house covered with straw which was almost falling off, lived a citizen by the name of Aharah, a Jew who ate his bread with the sweat of his brow and could barely make enough of a living to take care of his household. One bright day he got up and traveled to America for a few years to make some money. He worked at hard labor and in his heart was the hope that in another year and in another year he would come back to his house and to his town in the swamps of Pinsk and his lot would be better. That hope kept him during his days of much suffering and the hoped-for day arrived. Aharah came back to his happiness and the happiness of his household with a fortune of several thousand dollars, dressed in a blue suit, wearing shiny shoes and a new hat like a rich American, and a few English words in his mouth like: “yes,” or “all right” and so on. Aharah started inquiring for the advice of his relatives and his acquaintances as to where to invest his money to insure the future of his life.

He wanted to buy a small stone house like the few stone houses in the town. “A house of stone,” he used to say, “is not a house of wood. In case of a fire from a house of wood you have only a heap of ashes, but from a house of stone you have the walls remaining and even part of a roof, and you can fix it with very little expense.” And where shall this be bought? In Chomsk or in another town? Well, there are arguments for both approaches. On one hand, he would find great satisfaction when the eyes of the people of his town who had seen him during his poor days when he was despised would see him now in his rising up.

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On the other side, his daughter is now of a marriage age and what will he do when her time will come in this small town? Because of that he thought it would be much better to go to the large city to buy a stone house and to put roots there. After many consultations he chose Kobrin, the district city, to settle in. He went to Kobrin, bought himself a stone house on Pinsker Street, moved his family there and became a resident of the city. In days, Aharah was forgotten by the people of the town. They did not think about him anymore until a person from Kobrin came to our town and told us that during the last Passover Aharah had really created a storm on the street where he lived doing a very strange thing. When they passed on the third night of Passover by the house of Aharah they saw some special light and singing coming out of his house, a celebration not befitting to an intermediate night of the holiday. One curious person from those going back and forth approached the window to see what was happening and saw Aharah and his family sitting around the table and celebrating a third Seder. Quickly there was a rumor among all the people of the street and they came to see this unusual sight. After that night he was called the “man of the three seders.” Apparently neither the stone house nor the big city could satisfy him and he decided to enjoy arranging a third seder more than called for. One day when the writer of history comes to mention the inventor of the third seder, he will recognize the right of Aharah and not Zionists of England and America who are celebrating the third seder.

An Evolution of a Military March

One winter afternoon there came into the train station of our town where we lived at the time (Bloden, through which passes a railroad line between Warsaw and Moscow) an old man accompanied by a young woman. They were coming toward our house. When they came to us they were nicely received because the guest was one of the Slonim Hassidim to which my mother's household belonged, a Jew with a yellow beard, a sash dividing his coat. Behind his hat you could see the Yarmulke. This was Joseph Leib Birman of Kobrin and the young woman was his daughter. Because of the strategic situation of our town, which made it convenient for meeting and interviews, and because my grandfather was his colleague and they both went to the same Rabbi, he chose our town and our house for a meeting between his daughter and the bridegroom who was supposed to come to town from Bernovitch. For two days they would “see one another.” The clever matchmaker R' Moshe Malkovitch, also from among our friends, did not put his faith on the known fairy tale of the forty days. And he really put his energy to it and his power of persuasion and he struggled with the young man a while, while sitting, while walking, while in the house, while in the street, and he succeeded.

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It seemed as if the decision-making was hard for the bridegroom and he was not clear as to what to do, as to whether he had found it or hadn't found it, but as the travails of the interview were difficult so was the happiness in our house when we heard clearly from the young man that he wanted her. Instead of the environment of tension and nervousness came relief. Faces were happy and there was light. In the evening the engagement was arranged. Several of the residents of the town who had followed that tough battle were invited and after a handshake and reading the conditions and breaking the plate and tasting some desserts and some drinks, the musical program began, prepared and executed by the father of the bride, and lasted until the morning. Various melodies of Slonim,he sang before us and every melody had its explanation, like: This melody was composed by R' Yakov Telechanar during Passover a few years ago, and this melody was sung the first time in Slonim during this Rosh Hashana. Each melody had its chronology, and as far as I'm concerned, among all those melodies I was especially fond of the “march” in three parts. This “march,” Joseph Leib explained, was actually taken from a military band. One Hassid who happened to come for his business to a big Russian city on a celebration of the King heard during a festive parade this “march” and decided to follow the band until he learned the “march” thoroughly so he could bring it as a present for the Holiday of Succot to Slonim, and so it was.

On that day the sun shone in our town to the sound of the “march” which spread to our place.

kob188.jpg [25 KB] - Brisker Street
Brisker Street

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The House That Shines in the Distance

by Eliyahu Biltzki

“In memory of the days that gave taste to life and to the future:
the struggle for the liberation of the nation and man.”

There were days and they passed. They did not sink and disappear into oblivion. They exist and accompany your life as it meanders the joys and the sorrow. What has been woven somewhere in the corners of the house, the little Jewish town, since the beginning of the dawn of youth instructs our lives like a torch of light that lights the darkness of the past.

Thirty-eight years of my life are folded in a scroll whose origin is in the evening twilight, the dreams and the yearnings that originated in the house, the paths of the Jewish town which decided the road for future life. In the framework of cities and towns in Israel's dispersion there is a special place for our city, for its involvement in the great processes of renewed Jewish life toward a change in the fate of the entire nation.

Pages, pages, the meaning of those youthful days; during nights of destruction and horror when the foundations of life was uprooted and everything dear to you went down to destruction in the storm. The feelings of revenge and cursing became stronger, but behold. See how deep the roots are. The clinging to the memories of those days exists in all its cruelty even when the terror of the destruction bothers your rest. It is not a clinging to the past. Of course the youthful era with its visions is magical, but the roots are even deeper. Here by the light of the fires has been lit the history of those yearnings that we have woven somewhere in a club, on the roads, in the forest, in the summer camps, in the Hebrew School, in the Jewish street. From here the mental tie which is unshakable leads to all paths of life even though there are rivers of blood that already separate us.

Only here in the processes of creativity and struggle do you feel the long connection that spans the distances and the days and the connection whose foundations are somewhere. Something along the line, “If you want to know the springs from whence your brothers drank.” The secret is combining the house in greater processes until the house now has the capacity to project to the distance. The house within its limited life became a larger world which bothered us and asked us for an account and this is the greatness of our unforgettable town: In its seeking the paths for life, the barrier was removed from between the house and the world. An anchor was thrown into the distances.

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Uprooted Stormy Chapters of Life

From a distance of time (twenty years) and of distance (thousands of kilometers) - whenever I remember you, my destroyed house, the chapters of my youthful life are rejuvenated in me, stormy and uprooted. The line of continuity has been interrupted and fearful depths have come between days of childhood filled with joy and hope for life and murder, destruction and uprootedness. But through all this, the experiences of my stormy youthful life are still kept.

The chapters of a childhood developing in a peaceful Jewish town whose life has been interwoven in wider paths for the help of the people and the whole spectrum, many colors which contradict and compliment one another, this is how I see the tapestry when I bring it up today in my imagination: The magnificent youth movements of labor Israel – “Hashomer Hatzair,” “Hehalutz,” “Freiheit,” the schools (Yiddish culture, the gymnasium and the government public schools) that were bustling with the life of national Jewish youth that was readying itself to put on its shoulders great weight. The Zion labor parties, the right and the left, the “Bund,” the Communist Party, the general Zionist parties, Et Lebnot (“time to build”), Al HaMishmar (“on guard”), the parties that defended the traditional Jewish life with its negative and positive elements. The Jewish life with its lights and shadows, the new and the old that where struggling within for domination and for determining the path. The local newspaper, the unceasing ideological struggle between left and right, between Zion and the haters of Zion, between youth and old age, between the new, bursting, and the old, defending itself. This was the complete weave of the youthful chapters of my life that had a lot of splendor and movement in my house, in my town, the life that fell and surrendered to the scythe of the harvester.

As if on the palm of my hand I can remember those days. Everything was interwoven and anchored in the one important goal. We called it in our youthful zeal the revival of the people of the nation, the building of the country, immigration, realization. The Jewish realization in the town fed that excitement. The reality had its negative and positive, the Jewish tradition on one side and the development of the political and economic life on the other. With what fanatic excitement the few of us stormed toward the opening of the Hebrew School, Tarbut [Culture], to advance the fermenting of Hebrew and widen its space.

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Here we should remember our teacher and friend, Avraham Levits, of blessed memory, who, with the zeal of his youth, his splendor, his standing and his proud position, stood with a warm heart at the head of the Hebrew enterprise in our town. He educated Hebrew youth in the hundreds as faithful sons to their nation. They who immigrated and put roots in the life of the land of Israel and those whose bitter fate demolished them for eternity.

I remember a strike that I led in that Hebrew school, the first strike I led in my life. I was then about fifteen years old. The students of the fourth grade refused to continue to study geography in the Polish language. They demanded that the Hebrew language be the one language in the school in all subjects apart from the one hour for studying Polish. The excitement spread throughout the department and a strike was declared. There was fear that the school would be closed by the board of directors. As the one responsible for the strike, or one of those responsible, I was forced to leave the school and go and study in Vilna. I was threatened by my distinguished teacher, the late Levits, but the dedication of the students did its positive work.

Like a beautiful outstanding web, I see the fermentation and the education in front of my eyes in the movement, “Hashomer Hatzair.” Hundreds of boys and girls, adolescents creating everyday new life, new sacred life, sacred in its goal. Only from afar can you see the vitality of its movement and its historical value, uniting the people toward a different type of life. The desire for somewhere else that was comprehensible and not comprehensible, the Kineret [Sea of Galilee], the Jordan River, the mountain and the valley, the singing in an intimate group, the assembly of the cell and the group, the journeys, the wandering in the forests together and alone, in summer camp the conversation, the discussion and the ideological examination, these are pages and pages that were written on the blackboard very very deep. As I said, they dictated the tastes of life and its future.

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In front of my eyes come one by one the group of directors and guides that “created the history.” Mintz, one of the first heads of our group from the time of the scouts; Chaim Goldberg, a fine person who struggled with a crazy Nazi animal and succeeded; Pintche (Pinchas Goldshmitz) who is still alive, who was an authority and had a lot of influence. The latter was an educator and a symbol of simplicity. By the fire in the forest during late night hours he gave us the hymn of our battalion, “Be ready you guard of honest activity, a hard path you have still to cross,” and so on. This was about twenty-two years ago and indeed since then – a hard road.

Tzalke (Betzalel Shwartz), who was very studious, dragged behind him the best of the youth to deepen their knowledge of a subject in order that they be able to carry the yoke of work and enlightenment in a grey shirt and in a simple life. Thus we acquired the values.

And so the younger strata continued this chain, preparing for a life of fulfillment.

We all called him Yankel (Yakov Chabovitzki) who used to philosophize and look for the roots of things, with handsome eyes and body filled with youth. The problems that he had at home prevented him from immigrating and he fell among the slaughtered.

Here is the manly Zusia Weiner, wide and courageous. More than once a “Shaigetz” felt his hand, and he, as it seems, also fell as a soldier on the front. Tens of hundreds were those magnificent characters, boys and girls beautiful in soul and body, male friends and female friends who together longed for a common future, but before they had a chance to reach the necessary faithful conclusion of their youthful vision, their youthfulness was destroyed in an untimely fashion.

From every corner, hidden and clear, came up those stormy and explosive chapters of life. Those who were uprooted still clung forever to the ground, and our roots in the town, and its surrounding. To those who remained, they shall always be shining pages that nourish the rest of their lives in experience, in remembrance of those days and in remaining faithful to the path.

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A Note to my Parents and Members of my Household

It was eighteen years ago on a stormy and angry Sabbath night. There was a huge snowstorm when I last fixed my stare at my town, my birthplace, at my parents and my dear brothers and many, many who came to say good-bye before I departed to go to Israel, for a new life path. I will not forget the snowstorm. It went wild that night, as if it were announcing the coming of the horrible storm which would bring annihilation on everything good and superior in the life of a man, and against it the storm in the heart. My dear father! How you cried and clung to me was heart piercing. Slowly, slowly, your children left you to wander in the world. It was as if your heart were predicting bad things: You will never see them again. I had never seen you in your weakness, and here it was, an old man with a fine face crying like a baby and mumbling chokingly the going away blessing to your son who you would never see for eternity. Truly that night you saw the most horrible of sights. The sight will never go away from me, your figure noble and at the same time showing fright in those parting moments.

And my loving mother, you hugged me and kissed me. The train was already moving slowly and you would not let go. Those were the last parting moments of a mother who gave birth to ten sons and who felt the days of loneliness and bereavement.

And so you, my older brother, who broke down completely in the last hours before our parting. You knew that the form you chose for your own life was different than that of ours, a group of bare feet on the road. You felt the friendship being disconnected the severing of the feeling between loving brothers which was so deep in your heart.

Through the distance of the times and the terror of those days still there is a special light on the memories of the house and the youth and all that surrounds you, the street, the neighbor, the road, the path where you were by yourself and had your thoughts. The house was an loom to the life of a Jewish family, weaving its life according to the tradition and the law of Israel. But the processes of the development made their own, the struggle between the old and the new, and the wearing out from our giving way to the new and the upcoming, in the house and also in the street. Side by side dwelt those two processes, sometime complementing one another and sometimes struggling with one another. The tradition and the secular life and the fanatical guarding of the status quo and the desperate trying for the new – This was the stormy development of our home life, the street and the surroundings.

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And the father was from the house of Shamai. He was strict, pure of heart, honest, and a zealot for values, the values of the Jewish tradition which continue the chain. He saw the continuation of the existence of the people. He kept the mitzvot of Israel and defended its holiness. We absorbed in our youth the fundamental values of Judaism, all the lofty and eternal as well as the passing and the trivial. The melody was the tradition of Israeli holidays, the holiness of the Sabbath, the atmosphere, the home life and the family life, all that was engraved on the tablet of our heart and fixed the milestones for the continuation of life.

If father had some understanding for sons who went for “bad culture” still his belief was unshaken that we were harming Judaism and that we had to protect it meticulously. These basic traits of my dear father influenced me totally. I imagine that in his last moments of life, when the frenzy of the beast reached a peak, my father put on his talit and sanctified the name of Israel as he went down into his grave. Not so my mother, the housewife who carried the burden, who managed the business, who gave birth to sons. She was a Hebrew mother who accompanied her husband in the life of the house, but her bright shining eyes showed forgiveness and flexibility at once. Her smile and a little laughter were a good substitute for the angry look. With all the burdens of life, she knew how to treat them more lightly and also with understanding and forgiveness. She was from the house of Hillel and so maintained a balance of educating and influencing was maintained in the framework of the household. For the many strict “nos” that father saw as absolute mother knew how to find a wise compromise. Although she was burdened with life, she also had a lot of life wisdom. She was faithful to the tradition “Tzena and Rena” and with that she had an open heart to everything that was happening and developing and renewing.

My brother Israel-Chaim and I left home to study in Vilna and Prozna at the Hebrew gymnasium thanks to mother's understanding, flexibility and vision. It did not fit her way of life but she dared to take a peek.

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Today I see my older brother as a tragic figure who, from among the ten sons and brothers, was the one who found his place by the parents, at the house, and there found his place for eternity. The development of Jewish life did not know only extreme contradictions- It also knew the walking in the middle. Life in the Jewish street was varied and there were many forms of life that put their imprint on the average Jew. My older brother remained stuck in the middle of the road. He left the bounds of tradition and in that took a step forward, but he did not arrive at bold conclusions as far as his future life. Somehow the revolutionary fervor did not stick to him, the same revolutionary fervor that conquered his younger brothers as to the place of our town in our future life. Also the mystery of emigration did not stick to him as it did to his two other brothers, one younger and the other older than him.

He did not enter the social and economic development that influenced our lives just as they were influencing the general processes that surrounded the life of the nation in the Diaspora. The petite bourgeoisie continued to live its life and influence the character of the Jewish street, its social characteristics and its economic base. As a matter of fact this was also the majority of the younger generation, which did not dare to come to other conclusions. They wove their life based on the old ways even when they had moved far away in other respects. Following Zionism and giving generously to Jewish National Fund were not enough to promote bold action in a wider historical perspective. I am seeing now in my imagination the street of our town and its families one by one, their ways of making a living, their wishes and the atmosphere and the tradition. Across the distances and wild times I am supported in my basic assumptions which we heard during our youth when we called for the abandoning of the foundation and a fundamental changing of our values.

The petite bourgeoisie did not know how to listen to the “Catastrophe March” which even then already took its steps in, strongly and very quickly. My older brother did not see that until the end. His good heart, his deep family feelings that were embedded in his heart, made him cling to our parents. He built his life with them, with father and mother, and with him his wife, the friend of his youth. Their souls were tied when they were still very young. Belki was pretty in body and in soul, a daughter to a family of popular and very accepted Hassidim. Later in time she was a mother to two kids and abounded with life, work – but with it a yearning for something new. She despised what was, but she did not have a chance to come to something new.

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I remember more than once my older brother saying to me, “We cannot leave mother and father by themselves because they are approaching old age. You left them one by one and I accepted upon me with love the fate of remaining with them.” There was in it a lot from the goodness of his heart and the deep family feelings that he had. With a feeling of special satisfaction he used to tell me about the packages of food that he sent to me in Vilna when I was studying there. He did not do it out of a duty. He knew how to love very deeply, even if he did not always find a fitting expression for it. His crying the night that we parted turned, literally, into a roar whose echoes accompanied me for a distance with the rumble of the wheels of the train.

This is the character that found its expression among millions of Jews when the fury of history treated them with such cruelty that there is very little to equal it in the history of our nation. A deep honor and an eternal praise to the memory of our parents, our brothers and our sisters and the members of our household that were sent to oblivion by the fascistic bloodthirsty beast. May it be that this awful shadow will be like a bad dream upon those who caused it, those who created this horrible Holocaust upon the house of Israel and its Diaspora.

To the Memory of my Teacher and Rabbi

If the assumption is true that the school desk influences the school of man's future, I have thanks for my teachers and Rabbis who marked the road, my road, even if it was only an hour's teaching. They stood against the assimilation and the imitation which the government developed in town through the Polish gymnasium, the public schools and the comfort of a career that was implied in all of that. In the struggle between “our dwelling” and “their dwelling,” it could be said that the hand of Judaism was on top. The Jewish character in our town was fixed as an absolute fact. Assimilation could not reach wide strata. The intelligentsia which imitated the Goyim could not be blessed with a big following. Our various schools – Hebrew, Yiddish, “Culture” and even the yeshivas – had a very important role. The group of teachers carried a torch the power of the light of which they were not themselves aware, and that light was aimed at great distances.

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I can see now my teachers and my Rabbis from my early childhood that from morning till night stood on guard for “dem pintele yid” (the little dot of Jewishness). The school, Tarbut [Culture] was a great source for hundreds of children of Israel who were educated for Torah, for work and for the continuation of guarding our history. Here they are, one by one, simple people, hewers of wood, who day by day stood on guard for Jewish education: Shmuel Gerber, Rav Moshe, Rav Yitzchak, Rav Mendel, Mr. and Mrs. Stavski, Mr. Noach Alkon, Mr. Avraham Levits. One by one in their place in the big and small matter, all of them created the embroidery and all its colors.

Apart from our friend and dear teacher Avraham Levits of blessed memory, not one of them succeeded in emigrating to Palestine. They took only the first step. Their roots were embedded in the soil of the Jewish town in the Diaspora, even when their teaching fertilized other fields far away. Together with their students and all the rest of their people in the town they found their tragic end.

Avraham Levits or as we called him, Engineer Levits, was a man of imagination and determination. The teacher and the political man, the symbol of the Jewish intelligentsia which severed its chains from the foreign bourgeois as well as Jewish assimilation, he found his place in Palestine together with his many students. And even here, in the renewed land of Israel, he found his place in the first ranks of youth instructors, preparing, himself for a life of work and creativity in Palestine. Indeed, the straight line lead again to the path of instruction and education for the children of Israel in their land, preparing them for a life of work. Always he had a youthful soul, but it was overcome by a bad disease which destroyed him while he was still at the height of his ability.

As a giant and a man of a spirit comes the creative and dynamic figure of our distinguished teacher Mr. Noach Alkon. His face, his noble figure, his burning eyes, his special walk, everything about him was a phenomenon with much vitality whose influence on life was not only local. He became an instructor for that generation which lived in his midst. . It has been now twenty years from the time when a special committee of teachers and students and other involved people published a special newspaper to celebrate twenty years of teaching and involvement of that distinguished teacher.

[Page 198]

When I was then a student of the Hebrew gymnasium in Vilna, I wrote in that newspaper, with deep feeling, in an article, “The Instructor and His Generation,” the following: “A Hebrew youngster and Mr. Alkon, is there anything that distinguishes between them? Are there any matters between them that contradict one another? The Hebrew youth in our town is the fruit of their work and great effort of the jubilee of our educator. His Torah remains and will always remain an integral part of our soul, of our national Hebrew atmosphere.”

Like a dedicated father he invested his intellectual powers and spiritual powers in educating the new generation, “a generation that will understand redemption and who will wish to be redeemed.” It was a rich spiritual personality which had its source in two things: in the Hebrew student and the renewed Israeli pioneering spirit. When we were youngsters and our hearts were sensitive and open to every trembling, he was the hand that wrote on our heart with depth and force. He did not make slight markings to direct the path. He engraved deeply and commanded the path. Hundreds of pioneers are now living their lives in Palestine, in the field, in the factory, in the city and in the office. They started weaving their beginning points with you, our teacher, Mr. Noach Alkon, tens of years before when you spread around your burning fire of the love of Israel and everything that was happening inside.

Every Hebrew lesson was not only a professional instruction it was a deep spiritual uplifting. The style, the expression, the way of speaking, the love of the language that was being rejuvenated from the dust of the generations – all that found in us deep echoes and wrote on our hearts. It was a poetic soul that went far from the place and the time. In the eyes of your spirit you saw the pioneer sowing and harvesting, carving and breaking rocks, the Jordan, the Kineret, the tent that is bending over almost falling, the wailing of the crocodile, the hora and the malaria, the sad song and the bursting song. And when you saw all of this – in the eyes of your spirit – you gave us all that through your talent of expression in the soul's storm which so aroused you and took you away from your rest.

How we remembered those hours at school, in the educational movement, in conversation, and in the public lecture. He was the center of the spiritual life; he was an opponent to the “Bund,” a fighter against assimilation; he would send arrows, piercing critical arrows, in every direction, calling for a greater depth of thought for Hebrew, for seeing the land of Israel as the center of our being.

[Page 199]

It is tragic that this great patriot for our people, for its language and its land, did not succeed in seeing what he was yearning for. He was slaughter among the slaughtered. Who knows what kind of a fiery curse he spat at his enemies when they put him in his grave.

Your students are carrying you in their heart, in their life and in their work.

kob199.jpg [25 KB] - A bridge on the Muchevitch
A bridge on the Muchevitch

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