by Avraham Yitzhak Slutzki
Translated by Yocheved Klausner
About fifty or sixty years ago, the cultural situation in our Shtetl was deplorable. There was no public library the need for it was not felt and a person who would take the initiative and establish a library was not to be found.
There were, however, in the shtetl several intelligent and well-to-do families who owned private libraries. Some of them would lend a book occasionally, but we, the children of poor parents did not feel comfortable to ask from the rich aristocrats. So we read what we could find.
From time to time, a travelling book-seller would pass through our town and we would buy a novel, a book of wise sayings or a book of jokes about Hershele Ostropoler. These pieces of literature were read occasionally at an assembly of young people.
The same happened concerning newspapers. The rich and intelligent received Yiddish, Hebrew and even Russian newspapers, some individually and some in partnership with a neighbor or a friend. According to the postal arrangements at that time, the newspapers would arrive twice a week. The Wednesday, Thursday and Friday newspapers would arrive on Sunday, and the Sunday, Monday and Tuesday newspapers on Wednesday.
As mentioned before, the newspapers were the privilege of the very few and chosen. All the other people had to be satisfied with hearing the news of the entire great world in the synagogue, in the evening between the mincha and maariv prayers, from the newspaper readers Motel (Mordechai) Tziklig or Aharon-Leib Zeitchik. Around them a circle of people would form, who swallowed every word.
We, the young people, children of the simple folk, wanted to have a newspaper for ourselves. Three of us Shlomo Dalgin (was murdered by village bandits on the Starobin-Slutzk road), Mordechai the son of Yehoshua Tziklig and I, jointly subscribed to the BUND newspaper Folks-Zeitung. Who could compare with us? We would read the newspaper through and through, from beginning to end. In the middle of a circle of listeners one of us would read and we all listened eagerly.
I think it is necessary to relate a few interesting episodes, which had a certain effect upon the cultural development in our shtetl.
The gabai [chief attendant and treasurer] of the Old Shul Motel Mandelbaum or Leizer Vladovski (I am not sure) had brought from Pinsk a bookbinder, to bind and renew the books in the synagogue. The bookbinder was an intelligent and lively young man, and also had some dramatic talent. He met Tzviya and Dvor'ke, the daughters of Israel-Chaim the cantor, and suggested to create a young group and study drama, and then produce a Yiddish play. We liked the idea very much and it was decided to learn and produce the operetta The Witch [Hamechasheifa] by Avraham Goldfaden. Since at the time I was a member of the cantor's choir, I was attracted to this enterprise together with another member of the choir, Aba-Moshe Elias and also Avraham'ke, the cantor's son. I remember that Mania Migdalowitz played Mire'le. The young bookbinder chose the cast, and the rehearsals took place three times a week, in the cantor's house. All winter we were busy with Goldfaden's play and each of us studied diligently his and her part.
We performed the operetta before a small audience and we were ready to play in a bigger hall. This, however, we could unfortunately not accomplish, because our director left us after Passover and went home, and the famous drama group fell apart, leaving us with only a sweet dream.
The second episode was a result of our own initiative, without any help from outside. We decided to play the traditional Purim-Spiel Hochmat Shlomo [Shlomo's wisdom]. During the entire winter, we had rehearsals every Sabbath at the house of Zelig Yulewitz Itche Neche's. His son Zalman also participated in the play. I played two parts Bat-Sheva and little David. With a little pebble I killed the big Philistine Goliath.
When Purim came, the players walked through the streets with golden crowns on their heads and swords in their hands every one full of pride We wore royal attire with golden buttons, and were accompanied by a music band Efraim the klezmer and Efraim on the drum. The entire shtetl followed us: young people, girls, women and men. Even Christians accompanied us boys and girls you can imagine the procession
We were not allowed into the houses, however, for fear that we would break the windows. Our first performance took place at the house of the synagogue attendant, the shames Chaim Berl. The house was full we barely escaped after the performance, our royal clothes torn.
I remember that Noah Rubinstein, afraid of more damage, helped us out and when we were safely outside he gave us five Rubles, asking us to come next year The income from the performance was devoted to the Talmud Tora.
In short, it was not a great success financially, but culturally it was a very important achievement.
Several days after Purim, the Pristav summoned Ben-Zion Tziklig and interrogated him about the festivities, wanting to know whether the procession with the crowns and swords had anything to do with the revolutionary events in the country at that time. The Pristav accepted the calm explanation, that the Purim-Spiel was an old tradition without any political significance. Yet he asked not to repeat such processions through the streets of the town. Thus ended the cultural activity in Lenin.
by Eng. Mordechai Zeitchik
Translated by Yocheved Klausner
Since the first few years after WWI a Tarbut School was active in Lenin, as part of the Tarbut chain, with its central administration in Warsaw.
The average number of pupils was about 150 children yearly. There were 4 or 5 grades and a preparatory class. There was no kindergarten; the children began first grade at the age of 5.
The teachers were mostly from other towns or cities, sent by the Tarbut Center. They would teach in our shtetl between 1 and 3-4 years.
An exception was the teacher A. L. Zeitchik, who served in the shtetl nearly 5 decades
During the 18 years of the school's existence in Lenin a varied collection of teachers, men and women, of all sizes and colors, worked at the school.
In truth, a school existed in Lenin before, since about 1900. It was a regular school, situated in a special building, with discipline, with grades and a syllabus, with recess and even with a bell
This school was on Lachov Street, among the big houses, and it had a large yard where the children could play during recess.
There were four teachers. The program consisted of Chumash [the Five Books of Moses], TANACH [the Bible] and secular studies: grammar, arithmetic, geography, history (mostly Jewish history), language, etc.
Understandably, the Tarbut School was more modern and suited the new times; the school hours were a little shorter, but new subjects were added, as music, sports etc.
One must confess that the discipline was not as strict as before, yet on the average, the children learned diligently and behaved well.
After graduating from this elementary school, some of the young students especially those who possessed the means and desired to continue their studies went to Pinsk and enrolled in the Hebrew High-School, or to the Vilna Teachers College. Some went to the vocational school ORT in Brisk.
The shtetl had also a Polish elementary school, of 7 grades. Some of the Jewish children learned there, especially in the higher grades.
The Tarbut Library
The young people in town would meet at the Tarbut Club. There they would spend the evening reading various newspapers and journals in several languages.
Meetings were also held there: at the meetings various reports were presented, mostly from the Shlihim [messengers] to Eretz Israel, and discussions took place on various subjects.
The place contained also a quite rich and well organized library, which in time developed and grew, and lately possessed a great number of books in several languages, and periodicals as for example Hatekufa and others. The library became very popular and had a great number of registered readers.
One of the important aspects of the Club was that people from all social layers would meet there children of laborers and other professions and through the constant contact they became close and learned to live together.
All political parties were of course represented in Lenin: BEITAR, the General Zionists, Hashomer Hatza'ir etc. There were disputes and conflicts between the parties, as usual,
but it never led to serious incidents. Sometimes, on a holiday like Chanuka or Purim a conflict would flare off, but soon the parties would make peace
Theater and Music
The history of the theater in Lenin is quite old, beginning from the time a performance was called a spectacle and was staged in a pozharne.
What was a pozharne? usually a long and narrow building, about 20 meters long and 8 meters wide, which contained the town pozharne that is, the fire fighters equipment, consisting of several barrels on wagons, each equipped with a water pump with two handles, one on each side, a few ladders and some shining helmets
When a spectacle was scheduled, all these things were taken out. It was done about two days before the show; during that time we arranged seats chairs, benches and armchairs collected from the Jewish population of the town, and then we decorated the stage. When all was ready we put on the show All the Jews in town prepared themselves a long time in advance, for the day of the spectacle, which became a true holiday.
The first plays were historic or biblical not modern: The selling of Joseph, David and Goliath and so forth. Later we presented newer, more modern plays, among them even L'Avare [The Miser] by Molière.
After we left the pozharne building, we played in the building of the Russian Narodnaya Utchilitche [Russian elementary school], which possessed many large halls.
Later yet, during Polish rule, when the Dom Ludowi was built, all theatrical performances as well as movies were presented there. The hall, the stage, and the service rooms were built for that purpose.
Various plays were staged at that time, for example: God, Man and Devil, Chasye the Orphan, Motke Thief and even such famous plays as The Dibbuk, Tevye the Milkman [Teyvye der Milchiker] and others. We performed even operettas The players were, of course, local people, people of our own, some of them quite talented.
The successful director was Meir Buckstein, who was also a teacher and a talented artist (painter).
As to moving pictures the shtetl was privileged to see its first movie in 1923. The spectators were overcome with marvelous wonder: people, horses, were moving on the screen, moving their hands, running, fighting, etc
During the last several years, a film was shown in Lenin almost every week. But a movie-house has not been built yet.
The shtetl was also rich in musical performances. It had an orchestra, which accompanied the theatrical performances; after the performance ended the music continued to play and people began to dance, sometimes until early in the morning
The people would enjoy the opportunity that when a performance took place they were allowed to remain outside all evening, and came by masses. All the time that Lenin was under Polish rule, a curfew was imposed on the population from dark until morning the reason being that the town was situated near the Russian border, in the so-called border-zone.
Because of this special position of the town, the population, especially the youth, suffered from the harassment of the police and patrols, whose main purpose was to guard the town and keep everybody in their houses during the night. Almost every resident passed at least one night either at the police or in jail, because he was found in the street a few minutes after the curfew time. The punishment was to spend the night in jail or to pay a fine. If a person broke the law several times he was taken to Luninetz and the punishment would be more severe.
Interesting and strange curiosities would happen when people who stayed outside too late were caught.
For young people, naturally, it was not easy to lock themselves up in the houses too early in the evening, in particular during the long winter evenings. We used to gather in one of the houses and spend the time together, reading, playing cards etc. but going home later was indeed a problem!
We had to be very attentive and maneuver with great care, sneak from courtyard to courtyard, climb over fences and with fear arrive finally home. It often happened that right by your house a policeman would be positioned Often we managed to get to the door and be inside in a second, then slam the door in the policeman's face to come in he didn't dare, or maybe he was not allowed to do that.
The cold winter, with frost all around and snow under our feet, was a blessing and a disadvantage at the same time. The advantage was, that we heard from a distance the policeman's steps on the snow and could hide; the disadvantage was the same: the policeman could wait in ambush for a victim, and when you were quite close he would shout: Halt! Who is walking?
One way or another for young people it was an interesting challenge.
The development of sports in Lenin began in 1923. The sports group was quite small, consisting of a number of students who, during vacation came home from Pinsk and Vilna where they studied and were joined by a few local youths.
The main sports activity was the game of football (soccer), then volleyball and basketball etc. During the first years the level of the games was quite low. The player would hit the ball with his shoe, his boot or his bare feet (and, by the way, the ball would sometimes tear and the play had to be stopped ).
Only several years later a football association was formed, and in the meantime the players learned to play according to the accepted rules.
At first the members of the football team were all Jewish. Later a mixed team was formed, together with Russians, and they would play against strong Polish military teams; they lost often, but at the same time they learned from experts how to play.
The mixed team was at its best during the years 1930 1933. They played against strong teams from Mishkewitz and Lachwe, sometimes with good results (once they won 2:0 against Lachwe).
As to other sports there was swimming and skating.
Walks and entertainment places
Lenin was rich in places where one could take a walk. Long ago, before WWI, before Lenin became a border-town, the place to take walks, in particular on Shabat and Holidays, was on the other side of the bridge; we would go to the Green Mountain or farther to the Zavod (the mill, or factory) or the Mayak (a tall tower in the forest).
The Green Mountain was the closest. It was not a mountain really, just a low hill, but for Lenin it was considered a mountain, because it was surrounded by low valleys and marshes.
On the way to the Green Mountain we would catch snakes the place was full of them and carry them with their heads down all the way to the mountain that was full of ants. There we would throw the snakes into the large anthills, among the million ants, which would cover each snake instantly. The snake
would twist and struggle with the ants but to no avail. In a few minutes nothing would remain except the empty skin.
On the way to the mayak we passed the zavod. As a matter of fact, a long time there was no factory, only a remnant of a burned up building.
The mayak, built at the beginning of the First World War, was about 100 meters tall, standing on a little mound not far from the river, about 3 kilometers from town.
Only the most courageous of the young people dared to climb up to the very top. On the top there was a little platform with a little table placed on it. One could crawl up, or going by ladders from level to level. People looked very small and funny when seen from the ground. Some would take with them a small log when climbing up, and then throw it down from the height of the tower, to see how it would sink in the marsh below.
It is worth mentioning, that a large pine-tree forest has grown around the tower, and the air had a wonderful scent.
After the war, the road has become overgrown with grass, and people began taking their walks in another direction the infirmary on the road to Yawitch. Pine-trees grew there as well, and the air was dry and pleasant. But mostly we walked to the Makewitch Road, on the way to Makewitch, about 3 kilometers from our town. This was a romantic road, in particular in autumn, when it was all covered with the fallen oak leaves.
An important place to go for long walks was the Kantarski plantation. This was a large piece of land, which belonged to the rich Agorkov. He and his family spent most of the time outside the country and came home for very short times. The plantation contained various fruit-trees, famous in the entire region. The fruit was exported, not before the needs of the town were met.
In addition to all that, there was the flour-mill, the famous white house with the beautiful ornate windows and other decorations, where guests would always stop during their short visits; then The Red Wall built entirely of red bricks, and many more structures, a granary and others, beside the living quarters and apartments of the laborers and employees.
There were two beautiful boulevards: the Beryozov and the Yadlow Streets.
Many shrubs grew everywhere, carrying all kinds of berries, nuts etc. and between the thick trees one could sometimes see wild goats running around.
Lately, several bears appeared in the area, and the people of the town took care of them; when young bears were born they built for them a large iron cage.
The entrance to the plantation was through the end of the Lachow Street. During the summer we would go there to buy fresh fruit. The plantation was rented every year, mainly to Lenin Jews, who hired guardians to protect the place.
The seasonal fruits were sent to various towns to be sold. Special fruits, which could be stored for a longer time, were saved for local use.
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