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[Pages 90-94]

Beloved and Unforgettable Kurenets

by Dov Benes

Dedicated to my dear parents,
my father Chaim Zeev son of Shmuel and Ada Benes
and my mother Feiga daughter of Reb Shlomo Itzhak and Henia Kopilovich from Ilia,
and my dear sister Chaia Aada (Only her daughter survived and lives in the U.S)

All of them perished in the Holocaust

Translated by Eilat Gordin Levitan

As if alive you come to my eyes, my hometown, beloved and never forgotten. Many, many years passed since the day I left you, but every day I will visit you in my heart. Sometimes I imagine that it was only a horrible night's hallucination that I experienced, and that one morning I will awake and find you alive and well as when I was there.

Our home that was built with years of toil would be standing in the corner of Myadel Street and the Market. I will enter the home and find my beautiful mother petting her youngest son [“the son of her old days”] Laizarkeh, singing to him songs of Elakim Tsonzer or a tune from a Goldfadden play. I would sit by her and also listen to her stories about the Ger Tzedek from the Potzotsky family, who hid from the fear of the government's informants in the big synagogue in the shtetl Ilia. The stories of her great grandmother, who would bring him food in secret. My mother would tell stories of how he was finally caught and imprisoned after the informants found him and how he was burned alive by the authorities one hour before they received word of his pardon. And here I'll see you, my father, kind and quiet. I do not remember you even once becoming angry. You blessed everyone with your generous and intelligent expression, and humorous anecdotes. Memories, memories!

Melameds (teachers) and their cheders

Some of them were fastidious, others were pleasant, and here comes to me one end of winter. It is almost time for vacation, Passover is approaching… Those were March days in 1917. It was a regular day, like any other day. I was sent by my aunt Yenta to deliver certain things. If my memory doesn't betray me it was flour to bake matzos. I was sitting in their home with the flour and all of a sudden comes my uncle, Shimon Mikhail, smaller-than-average built Jew with a long and splendid beard. He was a very enlightened Jew who didn't blabber away unnecessarily. But this time, he entered agitated and excited. Immediately he approached his wife, Aunt Yenta, and said,

“Miracle of miracles! Miracle of miracles! Did you hear what they are saying in the shtabel? Did you hear who was taken down from his throne? From his mighty perch? The Czar! Czar Nikolai was overthrown!”

My Aunt Yenta who was a true “Eschet- Chayl “ Vivacious and very capable, she was a born businesswoman and as soon as she heard it she warned my uncle,

“Look, Shimon. I beg you and warn you not to take any part in it. You must not take any part in it. The result could only be heavy taxation for us.”

Clearly at that moment I totally forgot the job that my aunt gave me, and as if my feet were on fire I started running to the synagogue to see with my own eyes what had happened. The synagogue was packed with people. Everyone seemed very excited and words like, “Czar”… “Nikolai”… “Freedom”… “Revolution”… and “Krensky” were thrown in the air, and here on the bimah [podium] stood Pesach the Cantonist as he was known, and with a voice filled with tears he blessed the moment with the blessing of “SheHecheyanou” [blessed that we were alive to see this time]. This blessing he made for this occasion. In his childhood Pesach was caught by the kidnappers and was given for 25 years of service in the Czar's army, and there he was forced to convert to Christianity. Now with the fall of Nikolai he would have no obstacles and he would be free to return to Judaism openly. In the synagogue that day he told of how he was a soldier in the Russian-Turkish war and took part in the battle near Palvana, and there he vowed that if God will save him and keep him alive, he will return to being a Jew, in spite of all the danger that this action would bring him.

I do remember Pesach the Cantonist who always sat in the big synagogue, in the back as the rabbi permitted, saying passages from Psalms and praying without wearing the tallit and fellim…

I remember how Netta the Shamash who was also a Hazan in beit midrash, during holidays or other special occasions. He approached Pesach with much excitement and with vibrating strain in his beautiful and clear voice said, “You were blessed, Pesach. You were able to accomplish your vow!”

The fierce waves of the revolution and its excitement engulfed the streets and the hearts in Kurenets. It awakened the civic movements in the eastern European shtetls with a sort of altered emphasis. It was a Zionist movement that florished. It started with the youths. They established a group named “Tiffeeret Bachurim” [“The Best of the Young Men”]. They would gather in the old shtabel. Their aim was to organize the youths in a sort of society that had some connections to old Jewish traditions and to the new socialist period. I remember that shortly after that day, on a Saturday night, Yosef Shimon son of Hillel Kremnik [perished in the Holocaust] came to me and gave me a note and said, “I ask you, Bere, you must give this note to your sisters Batia and Chaia Ada. But you must be careful not to open it and read it.”

Clearly after such a warning my curiosity rose twenty-fold, and I immediately opened the note and read it. I found out that this was an invitation asking my sisters to come to a gathering of the youths that would take part in the house of Chaim Avremel Alperovitz or in the house of Zalman Rashka's Alperovitz. The aim was to organize a Zionist movement in town by the name of Tzeiret Zion [The Youth of Zion]. Amongst other things it was written in the note that at this meeting, Yudel Dardak from Ilia, and Benish Ginzburg from Dolhinov would make speeches. Since the two speakers were cousins of mine, I used this nepotism and entered the meeting bearing in mind my young age. After I promised everyone that I would sit quietly and not disturb the meeting. To tell you the truth it was a very difficult agreement to make for me, but I had no other choice so I made my promise. During this meeting for the first time I heard talk about Zionism, about the living Eretz Israel, and a return to Zion, and establishing a Hebrew nation for the Jewish people. The speeches were filled with excitement, and speakers were talking as if they were breathing fire in the air. The room was filled with echoing sentences. “If the Jewish nation will wish and won't retreat in front of the difficulty, the dream of 2000 years will be accomplished. If you wish it, it will not be a fairy tale.” I sat in one of the corners excited and flying on unseen wings. My head was caught in a dream, and only my eyes stayed fixed on the speakers. Could I really disturb such an exciting meeting? My heart widened and was filled with new urges that were awakened in me. When I returned home I couldn't sleep. Early the next morning I left my home and I found the book “Yossefon” by Yosef Plavius. I Remember until today that the book was written in Rashi lettering. I read the book many, many times until I learned it by heart, and since that day there was not one Zionist meeting that I was not present at. Sometimes by permission, but many times in secret. At times when there was no way to enter the place I would stand behind a window, drinking with great thirst every word that came from the speakers' mouths.

I was less than twelve at this point and it is clear that this new interest affected my studies in the cheder. It affected it so much that the rabbi came to my parents and said, “Ayar zon is kilya gavarn. Er ist Zionist.” Meaning, “Your son is spoiled, he became a Zionist.” My parents started discussing what they should do with me. They decided to send me away from all of the occurrences and a resolution was made that I should go to the town of Ilia to my uncle Moshe Leib Kopilovich, and there I should continue my Jewish studies.

My uncle was a “Talmid Hacham” Jew, very scholarly in Jewish studies. He was a very easygoing person and I studied with him for about a year. But in Ilia there were also my relatives; the Dardak brothers, and using the reason that I was related to them I followed them in every unoccupied minute that I was blessed with, and from their noble spirit they spread to me the love to Israel. I must thank them for the road I chose in the future.

Meanwhile, the Germans conquered Kurenets and I was separated from my parents until one night a villager from the village Kosita came to Ilia to take me back to Kurenets, and I returned home with him. The Zionist activity during the German occupation in the first World War continued in secret, underground. They disguised themselves as a drama club. Also there was a Hebrew school and night classes in Hebrew headed by Yudel Dardak and Yosef Shimon Kramnik. After some time, Natan Gordon, the son of Yasha Leib the Melamed and his wife Tsipa, joined the drama club. Tsipa Gordon, the wife of Yasha Leib, was known in Kurenets as a very able woman. She would do five or six things at the same time. In one hand she would roll the yarn, in the other hand she would churn butter, with one foot she would rock the baby's cradle, with her other leg she would keep pedaling to keep the loom going, and her mouth would say passages from Psalms, and her eyes would watch the students so they would not become wild.

Natan Gordon, or Nashkaleh as we called him, belonged to the Bund. He tried very hard to find new souls for his Bund party but had very little success. For us it was impossible to understand how a Jew could be against the idea of returning to Zion. We kept with the Zionist activities until the Germans retreated and the Bolsheviks entered. At that point all the Zionist activities ceased. During the days of the Bolsheviks, the town was living a sort of double life. On the one hand there was famine, depression, and fear about what tomorrow would bring, on the other hand there was a lot of civic activities by the authorities, and this was expressed in many theatre plays, concerts, and other activities in the community house that they established in the Ungerman Ranch. Many, many meetings, always with bands that played in the central market. They did everything to win over the hearts of the public. I remember one occasion that would sound like a joke, but in my opinion it symbolized those times. It was on a Saturday and a Soviet troop arrived in town. At the head of the troop there was a big band. They all rested in the market. The soldiers were very tired and hungry. They waited there for the arrival of the Kuchnaya, the field kitchen that usually would follow the troops. All of a sudden the soldiers yelled, “Kuchnaya yedit!”, meaning, “The kitchen is moving!” And soon after arrived a big container. It was on wheels and was pulled by a pair of horses that stopped in the center of the market. All the soldiers stood in line with their food containers. The cook stood on the podium and opened the cover of a container and started taking things out of it. As it turned out, it was filled with pamphlets and newspapers and other propaganda…

The town after that kept passing many times from hand to hand, between the Polish and the Bolsheviks. At the end the Polish took roots there, the war ended, and Zionist activities returned.

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Tzeirei Zion movement was founded. There was a Hebrew school that was established. At first the Yiddish-speakers tried to control the education in town and brought for this purpose a teacher from Vilna, from the CBK. But mainly for the commitment and the blessed activities of Zalman Gvint Z”L [perished in the Holocaust], these attempts to control the education failed, and the school passed to the Tarbut movement. All the subjects were taught entirely in Hebrew. Zalman Gvint was a very special person. He was blessed with all the distinguished qualities that makes a public servant remarkable. He did his job for the sake of doing it, and not to receive any awards. His commitment to the school had no boundaries, and only for his involvement the school survived in spite of all the difficulties and troubles it encountered. One day, after studies, the teacher Berl Dardak announced that a letter was received from Vilna and it said, “Charut Hetria will establish branches in the shtetls in the Vilna district.” They suggested that we establish a branch in town. This suggestion was received with great excitement. It was at that point long a dream of ours to belong to an organized Zionist movement, so immediately we established a Zionist committee which was the first in town. The first members were graduates of the Hebrew school. The first meeting took place in the house of Naftali Alperovich on Vileyka Street, and a few of the people who took part in it are now [1950] in Israel. I remember that Efraim Leib Kremer Z” L [died in Eretz Israel] who in Israel changed his name to Ben David, was the first secretary and was the first among us to go to Eretz Israel. The most important cultural activity Charut Vet'chia was the studies of Hebrew history and the history of the laboring in Eretz Israel.

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