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[Pages 74-80]


by Alter Zimmerman

Translated by Eilat Gordin Levitan


Reuven der Maliskai

I studied in many cheders with various melameds during my childhood. At one melamed I studied for two periods of time, at another for three periods, but of all of them, the one who left the greatest imprint on my memory was a melamed who I spent only four months with. It was Reuven der Maliskai, in other words Reuven der Malisker as he was known amongst the local population. Already from his appearance you could see he was very special and bore no resemblance to the other melameds. He was a chubby Jew of average height with a short beard. His face was full and serious. His thick hair was sprinkled with gray, and he was about 60 years old. He was extremely clean and orderly. Reuven der Malisker was also very much a perfectionist. In the pocket of his vest he had a pocket watch attached to a chain that also held a small key. Every day without fail he would pray with the second minyan in the old synagogue where he had a permanent place near the coveted eastern wall. He had very regular habits. At first when he came to the synagogue he would open up the cover of the bench to check what was inside, and then he would take his scarf off his neck and very neatly fold it in a most perfect manner. Then he would take off his snow boots. When I try to remember, I am almost sure that sixty years ago [this was written in the 1950s] there were no rubber galoshes in Kurenets, and for the first time that I saw them, Reuven der Maliskai was wearing them. His galoshes were worn on top of short boots made of soft leather. At that point he would take out the shtender [?] and with it he would go check the clock in the big synagogue that was preserved in a special cabinet. He would go up and would pull on the weights in the clock. He would make a special point to check the time against his pocket watch to make sure that it was accurate and then he would adjust it if it was not. And this job he did daily. My heart is absolutely sure that a more accurate watch than Reuven der Malisker's did not exist in Kurenets in those days.

His treatment of his students was very attentive and demanding, but he would never raise his arm to spank them. In spite of this, the children would always listen to him and treated him with respect and good manners. Only four months I studied in his cheder, and at the beginning of the fifth month I became sick. It was during the winter, so at that point I finished my studies with him.

During the first day of my illness, it was clear that I was extremely feverish, but thermometers were very uncommon in these days and we could not get a hold of one. Anyway, I was given a lot of tea to drink with red berries, malinas, that supposedly had a special healing effect that would bring a sick person to the point of sweating. When all of these remedies didn't help, the next choice was to call Baruch the medic.

On the second day of my illness, on the way to the synagogue, my Rabbi, Reuven der Malisker came to my house. Since he found out that I was sick he decided to check on my situation. He took off his coat and patiently took off his scarf, and then he ordered me to sit down and to my very weak back he put his heavy head and started checking my breathing. “Breathe stronger, much stronger. Hold your breath. Deeper, deeper.” He checked me from the right to the left and back, and then he took my wrist and held it with his fingers, and with his other hand he took his watch, and while looking at it he kept counting quietly. The watch was so near me that I became excited from seeing it so close to me. After he finished his check, he took out of his pocket a piece of white paper and folded it in a very exact manner in four equal folds. He then cut one fourth of the paper and took out a very, very narrow pencil and wrote something. But the letters that he wrote were not Hebrew letters, and were unfamiliar to me. He gave instructions that someone should go to the pharmacy and buy this medicine, and I should drink from it three times a day, after eating. He stood up and put his scarf on his neck, took his coat and put it on and left.

There were other visitors in our house during that event and one of them who knew how to read Russian looked at the paper and announced, “This is impossible to read. I am very doubtful that a pharmacist will be able to read what he wrote.” However, miracle of miracles, the pharmacist knew how to read it and understood it, and gave me medicine according to what was written. Many days later I found out that Reuven der Malisker knew how to write Latin. Truth be told, shortly after I felt much better, but I was still coughing, so when the Rabbi came to check me again, he suggested I drink milk and honey, and further he suggested, “Since this winter is very blustery, and it's already near Purim, it's not a good idea to send the boy to the cheder until after Passover.”

But when Passover ended I didn't go back to his room since my parents decided to send me to a Talmud Torah yeshiva. Many, many years passed from that day, but until today, when I remember Reuven der Malisker, I get the sense that I am a sick boy and my back is weak as it was then, and I feel the heavy head of my healer, my rabbi.

Library and a Play

I think fifty years ago [ca. 1900], Kurenets was one of the only shtetls in the area that had a library. However, this was a small library and was established in secrecy… Don't you assume that this was done out of fear of the religious conservatives of the older generation. Most of the population of the Hasidic shtetl were Chabad Hasids, and Chabad stands for Chokhma Bina Da'at. [Knowledge, Wisdom, Intelligence?] It is true that in the town there was a spirit of knowledge and intelligence. It was a pleasant spirit and there was no break in it in the shtetl. When the old generation, as we called them, saw us straying off the path would respond with a sigh but not with fanaticism. So if I said before that the library was underground, it was there only because of fear of the civil authorities, since if we would have come during those days to the Natzalstevo to get a permit for a library, they would surely conclude that the youth of Kurenets was caught up in the wave of Revolution… So for that reason, the bookshelf was constantly on the move from one house to the next. If anyone would raise the suspicion that Uriyadnik had found out about it, or that someone in the Pristavo were informed about the existence of a library, in the middle of the night the devout founders would take the bookshelf to a new location. How beloved and dear was this library! It was like a favorite child, a small only child in front of his mother, and anyone who would exchange books would do it in a most careful way, secretly, so that no buttoned person would see them, God forbid…

And this was the way it was until the year 1906. At that point, there seemed to be some change. Days of temporary and relative openness, and now the library received a permit to operate legally and openly. Now the books would be exchanged in public with no fear. But at that moment we were faced with a new question to solve, and this was also a very important question. As we didn't have to hide the library or keep it small, we wanted to enrich it and to purchase new books. From the amount of money that was received from the membership dues there was no chance to purchase books, so at that point someone suggested that we put on a play and all the proceeds would go directly for this purpose. For myself, during those days, I moved to Vilna and had a job there. I was also a member in the dramatic club Hazamir, which means the Nightingale. In this club, many well-known authors were members, amongst them Numberg who was the head of the club and the writer Anakhi was the secretary. S. Nigal would read his essays, and Peretz Hirshbein would rehearse with us his plays. And Shalom Ash would read to us many times his manuscripts before publishing them.

One summer, when I came home from vacation, all the young people, my friends kept bugging me that I, and only I, would be the man to do it, meaning that I should be the director and I should produce a play to benefit the library that needed to be enlarged. So everyone gathered together and I suggested that we should perform a play by Peretz Hirshbein since I was very familiar with all the characters of this play, and since we already worked with Hirshbein and he instructed us on how to perform it. To my surprise, my friends were not agreeable to my suggestion. The one who was most against it was Nashkaleh Tsipa's, meaning Nathan the son of Tsipa. He was my childhood friend, the same age as me, and he gave me his reasons in very clear messages that a play by Yakov Gordin would be much better understood and be more suitable for the audience that came from the community of Kurenets. An argument ensued but Nashkaleh won and we performed the play by Gordin…

The short of it was that the town became quite excited by the theater and actors were chosen, roles were assigned. We leased the big barn that belonged to Yuda Zusia's Alperovich. We cleaned it diligently and with much excitement and devotion we worked on the play. From a nearby forest we brought branches of fir trees and pine trees and put them on the walls, an on top of the barn's dirt we put down yellow sand. We went to every house and asked to borrow benches and this became a fancy theater. It was fancy and very decorated. Such high style decorations were not known before in Kurenets, and our hearts were filled with wonders and excitement. Now our town was not an out-of-the-way backwoods shtetl. At this point we were becoming more and more residents of the big enlightened world. We even built a stage from wood and a little booth for the soplio [someone to whisper lines to the actors if they forget them]. I am almost sure that during the original opening night of the theater in our town there was not one town resident who stayed home. Many sat inside the theater but even more of them were outside, at the entrance, or by the walls looking for a little crack or hole to peek in and see what a theater was like. The level of performance or the excellence of the play was not at all important at that moment. What mattered was that the actors did their jobs with honesty and dedication, and that evening turned out to be an important occasion in the life of the town…

Since I mentioned my friend who was like a brother to me, my friend who was like a brother to me, Nashka Tsipa's, or as we called him affectionately, Nashkaleh, I must, even if it is in bold lines, draw his image. Nashkaleh was beloved by the entire town. His father was Yasha Leib the Melamed. He was amongst the most respected Jews in town, a friendly, knowledgeable man. Every Saturday he would read the interpretation of Malbim in the old shtabel. As far as his son Nashkaleh, he taught him as much Torah as the boy could handle. The boy was like a vessel that would never overflow or spill over. He retained everything that he studied. Nashka looked very much like his father: he was short, had expressive eyes that would look at you with much love. Eyes that expressed a deep, splendid smile in them. I never saw him depressed or angry. Even when he had reasons to be sad, he had a smile on his face, and I was very envious of him. Here was a person that had no darkness in him, and there was no way you could get him to show anger or hostility. Sometimes we would try to make him mad, but he would conquer us with his generous smile, as if he were saying to us, “So let's see what sorts of energies and stubbornness you have.”

Nashkaleh studied much with his father, but this didn't satisfy him and he started studying on his own. The very first thing he was interested in was Russian literature, and he studied it very systematically, and with great attention to detail. When he was satisfied with that, he dedicated himself to Yiddish literature. And when he was done with that, he put all his talents and energy and excitement to Hebrew literature. As we said, everything he did he did with his heart and his soul. And when I would ask him, “Nashkaleh, wasn't it enough for you all that you studied in your father's house? The Tanach, the Gmara, and the other tiny lettering from your childhood days? And secondly, don't you really like the Bund? What is it with you that all of a sudden got caught by Hebrew literature?”

But even in this argument he had the upper hand. He would answer me with his intelligent smile, “Alter, Alter. Do you know the splendor that is found in this language? The expressions and the wonderful passages that it contains? Here, take for example a passage from Psalms: Sas anochi al imratha kemotze shalal rav… [I'm so happy with your sayings as if I had found a treasure?] Listen carefully to the tune! Listen! Wastefully you will try to transfer or translate this passage into Yiddish. No, my friend, you could never accomplish it.”

As if he were talking to himself he would whisper with pleasure every word separately. Sas… anochi… al imratha… kemotze… shalal rav…

When Nashkaleh was satisfied with the Hebrew literature he became involved with German literature, and not many days passed before he was fluent in that language. In 1922, Nashkaleh suddenly left Kurenets. He secretly crossed the Polish border towards the Soviet Union and settled in Minsk, and from then on we didn't hear anything about him. In the year 1941, a very short time before the Nazi invasion, I had the first chance to get papers to go to Minsk. In 1939 the area had become part of the Soviet Union. The main reason I went there was to look for Nashkaleh.

I arrived in Minsk and I was able to find him, but alas, in what situation I found him! He was handicapped as one of his legs had been amputated, and he now had a wooden leg. My heart cried inside of me but I didn't ask him about the circumstances of this tragedy. I asked him for his occupation, and he told me that he was a German teacher in the high school. He said that in the past he would write articles for the Yiddish newspaper that was published in Minsk, and that he had also written two plays. One of them was named Gavrahana Tzoymin [Broken Checkpoints] and it was performed in the Jewish theater in Odessa and found great success. It had great critical reviews in the theatrical pages in the newspapers, so I asked him what had been happening with him after all of this. Nashkaleh answered that after all this success, here is what happened: “My wife gave me a son in my very old age [he had married when he was old], and the Jewish heart, you must understand, still beats with Jewishness. So I decided to bring my son into the Union of our Forefather Abraham [he was circumcised, according to Jewish tradition] and you will understand, my friend, that since that day, the Communist authorities prevented any of my essays to be printed in the papers, and the plays I wrote were disallowed on stage… And, my dear friend, if I wasn't crippled, and if I was a person with two legs… yes, yes my dear friend,” Nashkaleh kept saying, and from his “yes yes” I heard all the miseries of his life. He ended the conversation by saying, “Surely you will forgive me, Alter, but I have very little time and I must leave now to go school to give the children German lessons. We will still meet and talk. Now we are both citizens of the Soviet Union…” But I would never see him again. Nashkaleh with the pure and splendid soul, was annihilated by the Nazis, whose mother tongue he taught his students…

Once again I return to the days right after the First World War. In our town there was a youth that was enlightened and excited, especially after the Tarbut school was established and in its environs different parties and community activities were involved. They would take part in speeches, debates, and night school… To perform a play became a very common thing. At that time, well-known theatrical troupes would come to perform. Sometimes they would hold a series of performances, evening after evening, and the community of Kurenets would gather to see the plays.

kur074.jpg [30 KB]
A play written by Yakov Gordin

Performed, directed and acted in a Kurenets playhouse by citizens of Kurenets. Standing first from the right, Zalman son of Moshe-Binia Alperovich. To his left, Eliyahu-Chaim son of Nechama-Risha Nee Gelman and Mendel Zalman's Alperovich. Fifth from the right, David son of Leib Motosov. Standing seventh from the right, Rivka daughter of Rachel and Aharon Shulman. Eighth from the right, Shmuel Spector.

At that point we had teachers who were natives of the town. They were graduates of the teachers' seminary in Vilna, and our dear town was standing in the light of the Enlightenment. This was the situation amongst the younger generation, but also the older generation, the older generation of Chabad participated. During the last two years, we had two rabbis, Rabbi Moshe Aharon Feldman, Z”L, a dear man and a gentle soul, and Rabbi Shlomo Elie Oshpal, Z”L. And how I loved the Sabbaths during winter days between Minha and Maariv. I would enter the new synagogue where Rabbi Oshpal would say Hasidic passages. The congregation was not big, maybe only a few dozens. The synagogue would be enveloped by a gray cloud of the changing sunlight.

Rabbi Oshpal would close his eyes when he spoke. It must have been that he was able to become one with his sermon's ideas. The congregation would listen in serious somberness. Some would slowly shake their heads and bodies, others would close their eyes to try to understand the depth of the ideas. And the Torah passages would come out of the Rabbi's mouth, as if he was a living river, flowing ceaselessly. It was more than an hour that he was giving his sermon and everything sounded so fresh that it would elevate you, bring you farther until you heard the sentence, “Vehu vehum yihaper avon.” And the congregation of listeners would awake as if just returning from a wonderful, distant world. And they would start praying the Maariv prayer…

Days and events that happened do not exist anymore… Everything was erased. Rabbi Feldman, Z”L, was martyred and died a torturous death in Kurenets. Rabbi Oshpal became a martyr in the shtetl of Sventzian. My body shakes when I remember how I returned after the liberation of Kurenets in 1944. All the synagogues were burned and on the dust you would find passages from the Torah book, and I walked there, collecting them. Almost the entire town was burned and I thought to myself, “It is very good that you were burned, my town. Our brothers were tortured, killed, and burned. So it is best that their possessions will not become an inherited by people who participated in their tortures and murders.”

Everywhere I walked and stood, my feet touched the spilled of my beloved and my heart cried and cried. And it can never be healed…

kur075.jpg [30 KB]
Natives of Kurenets meet in Tel Aviv after the war

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