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[Page 200]

In the Paths of my Town

by I. Ch. Biltzki

The tree grew by the house and its branches peeked through the window. Who planted it? Nobody knew. Grandfather or grandfather's grandfather. It stood there proud and tall and straight for tens and maybe hundreds of its springs. It changed its smooth skin, grew fruit, gave shade, renewed its youth and continued to weave a fairy tale, the live fairy tale of a family embedded in town, its effervescent life woven into the creative day to day scheme. From time to time a branch fell on the window sill and peeked into the house and listened very attentively to the melody of father, to mother's walk, to her hands spread over the Sabbath candelabras, to the brothers as they grew just like the tree, to little children who continually grow up, to the atmosphere of life, all of which said simplicity and grace.

The tree was part of the family. In the middle of the garden was its place. The fence surrounded it to protect it from any harm. A friend, a comrade, a faithful friend the tree was to those who came to be protected by its shadow and to the many children who surrounded it with their little hands and in a circle sang their youthful songs. The tree was a faithful witness to the changes that happened in the family, to the tear that suddenly appeared on mother's cheek when she said goodbye to her son who elected to travel so far, to the fresh youthful laughter of those who assumed the mitzvot, to someone being uprooted from the family and dying, to the horror of the whole neighborhood.

When I took my leave of the house, when I emigrated to Palestine, I said goodbye to that tree just like a person says goodbye to a living creature- I remember when I came back home for a short visit I greeted the tree whose scenery I absorbed into myself. And then the tree was uprooted with its roots and the house was destroyed. We still carry within us the scream of the uprooted roots.

We were small once. By our cradles stood a pure white kid and he dealt with almonds and raisins. By the cradle sat mother, bent with worry over her son, telling him various tales. The little one did not comprehend his mother's language but he felt it and he absorbed into his blood that feeling that in his mother's heart there was a deep worry for his way of life.

The child was only five years old and already he was carrying under his arm a big prayer book and ran as fast as he could to the small house, the poor low house of the sexton to study Torah. He was my first Rabbi, the sexton of the Beit Hamidrash. Twenty five springs have passed since then. The world has changed.

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Changes and changes, ups and downs, and you and your keys knew only one thing: to prepare the Beit Hamidrash for the worshippers. To Jews with long beards you assigned the eastern wall, to the shoemakers, the coachmen and other artisans, the “Palish”, and the keys never told you that there would come a day, my old sexton, when a wild animal would jump and destroy the eastern wall, would attack the “Palish” and destroy them.

In your Beit Hamidrash, my town of Kobrin, our parents walked with the prayer songs in their mouths and thick prayer books in their hands and spoke to their creator. How much faith, how much innocence, was hidden in their prayer? The sons who came late to the synagogue, came for the reading of the Torah or the “Mussaf,” were met with an angry look when they stared at father's face, but felt mother's gaze caressing them as if saying, “Well, even if you came late, my sons, you will still be honored with Maftir.”

To this day, those “maftirs” and father accompany me, but the keys are no longer in the hands of the sexton. Father is no longer by you, many of the sons of many have fallen and you are in Israel carrying inside you the pain of their fall and the horrible sadness. It disturbs your peace, but their memory obliges you!

There was a house in Kobrin at the edge of town a big wall of which contained in it all the fermentation, the wishes and the youthful vigor of the town. From within its wall came the sound of Mr. Alkon, “The dry bones listen to the word of God.” In my ears still rings the voice of Rav Zundel: “Two are holding in a Talit” and their voices were all mixed together, Hebrew and Yiddish, religion and secularism. You knew this was the treasury for the soul of the child in Kobrin. Here on the anvil of the schools was the soul of the child forged who struggled for life in Palestine and who built a permanent life in a town in Poland.

If you passed by the house in the evening and you came out to the big courtyard, you saw people of the “Shomer Hatzair” marching. A unit with six hundred men and women members, some of the best youth in town, with a song on their lips, “El Yevna Ha Galil” (“God will build the Galil”), and in another corner Beitar and its song, “Two banks to the Jordan,” and the blue shirt of the “Freiheit” group in a labor song. Their faces were all strained, ready for the coming tomorrow. The men of “Gordonia” and the unity group, a pioneer movement – each one added of its own color. From one of the windows on the second floor boomed the voice of Ben-Zion Pentol, the dedicated and dear comrade. He called for a free life in Eretz Israel. A short friend, Itchele Pinchuk, wrote the story of Kobrin and in his stuttering brought from the depths the teachings of Brochov before the young generation.

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A variety of figures come up before me, Torah and wisdom and fairy tales, healthy bodies young and fresh. How much hope we pinned on them, how much hope there was in the young energy: Yosele Svartz, a rising star, who knew how to combine scouting and the Torah which came together nicely.

When I went to Palestine I knew that the group of “Hashomer Hatzair” was in good hands. On Friday evening the house was never quiet. It absorbed into it various melodies. From the house of father and mother we ran to the bosom of the movements. Trauguta Street was the youth street, the most bustling street in town. Everybody ran there from all over town on Yom Kippur or on a summer day, Torah never ceased in this, house. Parties for a friend who was going to Palestine were a holiday for the whole town. Some anniversary that some movement or another was celebrating was a celebration for all the residents. When a group was sailing away or coming back the reception was a celebration for the masses. When a messenger came into town he was carried on the broad shoulders of a faithful camaraderie because we had the fire in us.

The wall fell. Buckled. The voices were silenced. And all of us who remained alive carry in our blood the echo of the house. Yitgadal Veyitkadash, the wall of Trauguta in our town of Kobrin, deserves a memory and a marking.

Your streets, my town Kobrin. In the grey six weekdays, workers, people of labor and commerce, went out at dawn to earn something. Not once you saw swollen faces, eyes with tears of blood. The holy and the secular were mixed together, but our fathers knew that when the morning came they had to run to the synagogue, someone for the first minyan and someone for the second minyan, to remember a “yahrzeit” of father or grandfather or a son who was taken in his youth and to talk about what is happening in the world, “news from the great world”, to think and manage the quarrel among different nations, to express an opinion about current events and at the same time to fasten the covenant with God.

My father's wide Talit, who destroyed your fringes and who tore its crown and who chopped the tree, my father? Cursed are those unclean hands. The streets, my town. Days of work. Busy and bothered, sons and fathers walked.

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The sawmill of Gurevitch sounded its whistles and you knew that members of the Kibbutz “Shachria,” who received their training in Kobrin, were getting ready to work in Palestine; laborers were walking hurriedly, someone to the flour mill of Yadvab and someone else to his store, his workshop the source of his dull bread.

Your streets, my town! They were bustling with people on a Sabbath and holiday. In the center of the main street is a kiosk for newspapers. At nine-thirty the train would come from Warsaw and with it the news of the world. By the kiosk would assemble the Jews of the town who would peek at the Heint and someone else at the “Moment” or Das Wort and someone else at some skit in the paper of Shefner in the Volkszeitung. Whoever had already read the paper would exchange it at high noon with Berele, who was the supplier of the newspapers in Kobrin. With his quiet partner Holtzman, he was the center of town. The little kiosk was filled with newspapers and monthlies and even the Polish socialists would have to come from afar to receive their Robotnik. Little Otska, one of the five members of the left Poalei Zion in town, saw to it that Volkszeitung was not discriminated against. Avram Frilock was the “informator” and the “commentator” of the soccer games. By that kiosk there was more than once a very stormy debate between a person from the working Palestine and a person of Beitar and between them and a Bund man. And with them Yankel Lipschitz, a man who spent six years in the prison in Shedlitz and had a very long communistic past. He dismissed both of them with a smile on his lips, a smile that said, “With me and only with me is the truth.”

From the depth of memory I bring up my recollections about the streets in my town, about a street called “Egypt Street” and the alley of Old Jerusalem, where poverty reigned. Children with bare bottoms would walk and their mothers would hover over them. In the center was the Yeshiva of Kobrin and from there came out the voices of arguments and from within you often heard people arguing not only about Rabba Abbyei but Reb Pesach and Reb Michael, the two rabbis in town, who occupied our dear parents in many arguments for many years.

From the depths of my memories comes also and floats the river Mochevitz and its bridge that divided and connected the parts of town. How many young bodies swam in its waters. Some of them who were not good swimmers would swim in a canal; some who knew better would swim in other places; an expert swimmer still in another place.

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The good swimmers of the town would try to dive all the way and bring some dirt from the bottom of the river as a witness that they really reached the bottom. Where are you, those divers and the people who played on the river banks? Those who on summer days would swim in the Mochevitz, use an oar or climb on a raft on its way to Brisk or Pinsk?

I remember Pinsker Street that had an air of aristocracy to it and that is where the city hospital was. I can see the huge lot by the old cemetery where at one time the young people of Kobrin trained their feet in soccer and then it was assigned a storage place for market days. The streets, my town, how were you destroyed?

Figures, my town. One was Mr. Alkon, a teacher, an educator, an enthusiastic instructor. His black hair gave him a special grace. The person was burning with a flame of a faithful Jew. He was a poet. He ran around the streets of the town with his cane in his hand, his eyes open for everything. Who of us did not absorb his melody, who of us did not absorb into him a portion of his saying of his soul that was constantly fermenting and rebelling? He was a brilliant conversationalist who knew how to bring an everyday mundane discussion to a higher level and to bring out of its depth a comforting thought when we felt bad. When there were bad rumors from Palestine he would not rest. He made speeches. He aroused everybody and, above all, he implanted within us love for our fatherland. And he, our teacher, Mr. Alkon, was not so fortunate, and maybe he was this pillar of fire who was encouraging us, and maybe he won chapters of the book of Psalms filled with faith and sorrow to go into the fire.

Rabbi Michael, a man with a fine distinguished face who would walk pleasantly and speak pleasantly, a man of letters of law who always argued with a man of the Agada legend. He was also ready to help ease things. What did the Nazi murderers do to you? What was the last verse unfinished in your Talmud on your table and what was your last song?

And you Ben-Zion, we never called you by your family name, Pentol, because in all your being was a comforting friendship. You were like an announcement on the walls, like a poster screaming and alerting people. When you came with us to the train station and we said good-bye to you, we knew very well that we left you on guard, the guard of working Eretz Israel.

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kob205.jpg [30 KB] - Kobrin scenery
Kobrin scenery

I can still hear echoing in my ears your kiss on my cheek when we departed, Ben Zion. I remember: not once I stood with you on the stage of the auditorium and you with your booming voice filled with faith, pathos and sweet folksiness, you poured into the veins of the Jews of Kobrin a strong will to stand forcefully in times of trouble and to break through and go to Palestine. The man, the friend who fell under his own yoke and united with the web of public creativity.

And you Itchele, you also we would not call by your family name, Pinchuk. In all of your occurrences you appeared to be a wise student who dives into the depth of a question until he consumes it. The chapters of Borochov you read by heart and you were speaking about Sirkin with a conquering excitement and in your stuttering there were sparks of a man who always was struggling with himself. You were one of the most faithful bearers of the flag of working Eretz Israel in our town.

And you, the youthful Yosef Shvartz (who I called Yosele). When your young body was cut off, how many hopes were gone? I remember close to the beginning of the war, I met with you in your beautiful appearance, standing there in the center of the “Hashomer Hatzair” house, beaming and believing in the righteousness of your pioneering way. We were cruel to you because we stopped you from immigrating. We could not empty the unit and we knew that you needed to be with them. Your departing gaze accompanies me to this day.

Through the fog of the days comes up the figure of Mr. Koloditzki who was short, dynamic, a man of Zionist innocence who knew how to act and make other people act. His speeches, which were delivered quickly like a great waterfall, really touched us. There is no time, no time, quick, hurry.

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As boulders of rock falling you seemed to me, Kobrin. Midnight. And it seems to you that the town is asleep. But somewhere there are whistles. And not just whistles, but a melody is hidden in them. Ari Vigodski closes the street and with his whistles filled with many longings across the border, across the secular life. How were you cut down? such a strong and rooted tree.

Your weddings, my town. “Lets play a happy Mazel Tov, people.” So the trumpet of Shimshon would announce, and the drummers. There was much merriment in the family, in the street, in town. Hassidim would unite in circles and melodies would pour out and the borders between young and old would be blurred and their faces would shine. They loved life. They wanted a continuation. They were stubborn. They longed for joy.

How were you uprooted?

To the Memory of the Jews of Zemochevitz

by Menucha Lifshitz

The writing is difficult. The feeling takes over memories that are connected primarily with the family, but nevertheless I will make the effort and put on paper some memories that are connected with my poor town. I will allow myself to describe in short the atmosphere of part of the town where I was born and grew up, Zemochevitz. Of course this suburb was not very much different than the other parts of the town but it seems that nevertheless it had something special.

The river Mochevitz is neither wide nor stormy. Its waters flowed quietly, peacefully between its shores that were covered with bushes and there were grassy lawns around it that gave it a village atmosphere. There were cows that grazed that belonged to the Christian farmers and also cows that belonged to the Jews. The promenade by the river served as a place for walks and spending time in a village atmosphere for many of the townspeople. On summer nights they would sail on the river in a boat. The Christians built their houses on the streets of Sedovia, Gonchernia, Koliova and Podertzia. When we would walk through these streets toward the train we would smell the aroma of the field, the winking of the colorful flowers behind the low wooden fences. Not once would the hand be drawn toward them, tempted to pick them and take them to the Jewish neighborhood. The relations between the Jews and the Christians were correct outwardly but quite a bit of animosity could be seen our neighbors' eyes toward us, the Jews.

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There were also a number of hoodlums among them who occupied themselves in thievery and arson and black business. They would go to the houses of the rich people and steal and when they would have a dispute they would also torch and the Jews were scared of them. In those streets also lived the Christian intelligencia, government clerks whose children went together with the Jewish kids to government schools.

The Jewish part of Zemochevitz was, as I mentioned, different than the other parts of the town. It was used as a suburb for light industry in our town for oil, for tar, for whitewash, for bricks, for the wood sawmill. Many artisans lived there. This made it so that the population in this suburb was very distinctly divided into strata more than in other parts of the town. On one side there were the rich homeowners who lived luxuriously. On the other side there were the simple workers who subsisted on their very hard day's work. This social element was always very clearly seen. There were in Zemochevitz also a type of store owners and peddlers that subsisted on buying and selling to the peasants in the nearby villages. The peasants when they would come into town would pass first through Zemochevitz and their product they would sell primarily in the entrance to town. The peddlers would sell their wares like grain and wheat to the flour mills and seeds to my father for the production of oil. On market days our house and courtyard were bustling with people and carriages. Among the peddlers of the market there were also those who did not have money for dealing. These peddlers would bring the peasant to my father's oil press and would receive from my father a finder's fee. On this social background you could see also the tall houses as compared to the short houses.

The education in Zemochevitz was also special. There were several places for religious education. Among them there were some good ones. There were not too many schools for teaching secular studies. In the year 1910 there was established a modern school by the teachers Pinchuk and Poris and it existed until the First World War. In 1914 it had four classes where they studied Hebrew and Russian. This elementary school was the first studying place for children of rich parents. After this school the children left, each according to the economic capabilities of his parents to continue to pay for it, some to a pro-gymnasium, some to other schools, and some to learn through private tutoring. The children of the working class were forced to leave the study of the Torah at a young age and to prepare themselves for a trade. The young educated group in Zemochevitz belonged to the Zionist movement. From among my family who belonged to this movement, my older sister was especially active. I remember from my childhood the Palestinian spirit in our house and receiving the “Tzfira” (a newspaper) and the appearance of songs from Palestine.

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We sang them with excitement and with longing. It was as if we were dreaming. Later many others of the people of Zemochevitz joined the “Ha'Chalutz” and they actually implemented the idea of immigrating to Palestine.

A Hebrew library existed on the upper floor of the school of Poris. This library was illegal. The librarian during my childhood was my brother-in-law, Benjamin Israel, one of the more learned people in Zemochevitz.

kob208.jpg [30 KB] - On the Bank of the River
On the Bank of the River

The religious jury in Zemochevitz was divided between Hassidim and Mitnagdim who were the majority. There were two synagogues: One was called “the Russian” and the second “the Japanese.” And why was that? During the Russia-Japan war the opinions among the Jews of Zemochevitz were divided and because of that they named those synagogues as they did. In addition to that there was also a minyan for the Hassidim on the Sabbaths and on holidays in our house. From the time of the great fire in Kobrin until after the First World War, my father, of blessed memory, himself would go on the Sabbaths and on holidays to pray in the Shtiebel of the Rabbi of Kobrin.

At the end of the First World War part of the youth of Kobrin began to feel suffocation in the surrounding where it grew and the young roots looked for another source for nourishment and to belong. The same feeling accompanied also many of the people of the sons of Zemochevitz. A movement started among the Zionist youth, a kind of a burst of daring, and the first ones left for Palestine. After them there were many others. The sons of Zemochevitz did not stand apart and they are today to be found in all parts of Palestine.

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