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Personalities {Cont.}

[Page 206]

Remembering Moshe Lifshitz

Aryeh Geipman (Givatayim)

Translated by Thia Persoff

               Moshe Lifshitz

rok206.jpg [9 KB] The image of Reb Moshe Lifshitz was deeply imbedded in my mind since early childhood- a sharp mind, eyes that seemed to look through you, reflecting a hint of irony. He was determined and reacted sharply to anything that he thought was wrong.

In spite of the fact that in our town his name was synonymous with wealth, I doubt that he was a wealthy man. When someone wanted to tell his children that he cannot afford to fulfill their requests, he would say: “I am not Moshe Lifshitz, and I cannot afford it”.

Reb Moshe's house was always open – to storekeepers or persons seeking help in civil arbitration, Jewish law, etc. He was a learned man, and in his free time he studied the Torah.

He was not a public functionary in the regular sense. He was not an official functionary, but he was asked for advice on everything that had to do with the interest of the community. During the period of Petlura with his band of murderers, every time a troop of soldiers would arrive in Rokitno, they demanded contribution – money, foodstuff, or clothing. The leaders of the community would hold council in Reb Moshe's house to find ways of raising the needed monies to save the town's Jewish citizens from an imminent pogrom.

Being a prominent wholesaler of flour and other food products, it was only natural that all the grocery-store owners in town and the area received credit from him. Not once did he think to sue for unpaid debts. Moreover, anyone that was in need of charity would receive his help- in secret and in private.

Though he belonged to the older generation and he and his children had different ideas and opinions, he did not force his on them. He saw the importance of going along with the changes in time, and provided his children with higher education in the cities of Vilna and Kiev.

His house was a center for all Zionist and community functions. During the First World War, with the increased flow of Jewish refugees from Poland on their way to Russia through Rokitno, his house was used constantly – for days and weeks – as a food-collecting and packing center for the refugees.

The house was filled with the sound of local youth of all ages – the friends of Chaya Sarah, Gedalyahu, Yehudit, Shunamit, Leibel, and Aharon. As long as the older children were at home, the house was the “heart” of the town when it came to community and social functions.

Although Reb Moshe did not favor his children's activities, he treated it with tolerance. When Gedalyahu emigrated to Israel in 1922, a change in his attitude took place and his interest in the youth activities increased.

Reb Moshe made his last way in the company of the rest of our town's people – to the common grave in Sarny.

[Page 207]

Moshe Hirsch Linn

Linn family (Israel)

Translated by Thia Persoff

         Moshe Hirsch Linn

rok207.jpg [8 KB] To Reb Moshe Hirsch is reserved a special honor in his profession as a builder; he was one of the first to build in the new Rokitno. In 1920 he built the synagogue in the new town, donating his skill to the holy task, and collected donations for the building fund. When the building was completed, he felt that his foremost responsibility was to install a Torah scroll in it. He went to Hassel Shapira, the father of Avraham the butcher, and received from him a donation of calves' hides. Those he had tanned into parchment. He then gave the parchment to Hershel from Slutzk, the scribe of Holy Scriptures (S”TM = Sefarim, Tefillin, Mezuzot), to write the Torah scroll.

In the midst of writing Hassel Shapira died and left two grown daughters. Moshe Hirsch saw it as his duty to find them suitable worthy husbands. As it was the custom of the Rabbi from Stolin to be our guest on Shabbat-Shira, Moshe Hirsch talked with him about it. The Rabbi sent a young man from Stolin and the match was successful. The marriage took place on the day that the new Torah was installed. Moshe Hirsch provided for and gave the wedding party at his home. In spite of his hard labor, he gave much of his time to help the needy. Following the Commandment to help dower a poor bride was sublime and holy in his eyes.

Moshe Hirsch was a combination of learning and work. During the day he stood on the scaffold, and in the evening he would go to Rabbi Shames to study the daily “page”. He was a simple man, and in his simplicity- was his uniqueness. He had in him the folksiness of the Vilna Jew. He was filled with love for the people and for the land of Israel. Without knowing about Herzl and Ehad-Ha'am, he longed to emigrate to Israel. To the love and longing he came about from the book of

“Eyn-Ya'akov”, which he studied by himself and with others. May his generosity and love for his fellow man be an example to us and our children.

[Page 208]

My Brother, Noah Soltzman

Yakov Soltzman (Tel-Aviv)

Translated by Thia Persoff

             Noah Soltzman

rok208.jpg [6 KB] In 1914 Noah, a pharmacist came to Rokitno. He bought Yossi Barzam's pharmacy in the old town (altshtot), which was developed and expanded as the population increased.

Being a Zionist, Noah loathed speaking in the local tongue. It surprised his customers that he spoke Yiddish with them, as the previous pharmacist spoke only Russian. He blended fast into Ochotnikov's Jewish community, and was liked by the townspeople.

With his move to the town started his activities – participating in assistance to the needy and in Hebrew education. With the eruption of war in 1914, a large number of Jewish refugees started to flow into Ochotnikov. Noah- along with Moshe Frayman, one of his first friends in town- made all possible efforts to ease their hardships. They collected donations from the townspeople for the “help and assistance fund”. But this was only a slight relief.

In addition to the aid for physical needs, Noah was concerned about the Jewish youth that were neglected and uneducated. As a patriotic Jew, he emphasized Hebrew education, and to that purpose he invested a great deal of effort in establishing a Hebrew school, part of the Tarbut (culture) association. The beginning was very modest; the budget was very small. Saddened, Noah searched for other sources of financial help to cover the school's deficit. One of them was organizing plays, in which he took part, as did his wife Clara, my wife Luba, Avraham Shvartz, and others. The proceeds helped somehow in balancing the budget, and a certain percentage was allocated for KKL (Keren Kayemet Le'Yisrael, Jewish National Fund).

At the end of the summer of 1919 when Poland conquered a large part of Volyn province (including Ochotnikov), Noah, with help from a few of the house-holders, purchased a lot for building a school and registered it to his name.

In a meeting of the Zionist board, it was decided that Noah would be in charge of all the school's affairs. A building permit was acquired, a plan drawn for a school with seven classes and all the necessary supplies. Noah started on this labor of love with devotion. His life's dream was of a Hebrew school for the children, to take them out of the Polish school – where they were educated in a foreign, alien atmosphere – and give them a Hebrew education. The school and its upkeep brought many worries to Noah. He struggled hard to see that the building debts be paid. Its upkeep too was a serious problem as many of the pupils were from poor families that could not pay tuition.

Noah demanded a budget from the town's council to help the struggling school but the Polish councilman Gertzvingel spoke against it saying: “It is not reasonable to support a school that teaches its pupils to leave the country and immigrate to Israel. When you send the young people away at the age to join the army, it weakens the ability of the country to defend itself. Do you think that you should be rewarded for that? Is it not our national duty to budget monies to the Polish schools, where the children are brought up to be loyal to their country?”

Those inciting words angered Noah, and he replied: “As long as we live in Poland and pay the country's and the town's taxes; as long as we, the Jews of Rokitno, are loyal to the government not less than the Polish individuals; as long as our sons serve in the army as the rest of the citizens – it is our right to demand and receive a budget for our educational institution, where Jewish children are brought up to love our ancient homeland and to be loyal to Poland, their birth country.” His argument won and the town council granted his demand.

A fateful, tragic step in Noah's life was his joining and being active in the Block #16 that Yitzhak Grinboym organized. It included the local minorities – Jews, Ukrainians, Russians, and Germans. Noah was one of the first to join and conducted extensive propaganda for it. The Polish authorities considered this a subversive activity and, as Noah was a Russian citizen, they decided to revoke his pharmacy permit in retaliation. Thanks to interference by his friend General Zabedsky (one of the “Huta” partners), the decision was canceled.

His life proceeded peacefully until the outbreak of the Second World War.

When the Red Army entered Rokitno, Noah- accused of being a Polish patriot, an enemy of communism, a counter-revolutionary, a Fascist, etc.- was arrested and incarcerated in a dark, damp cellar in the Sarny jail. There for two weeks, he was interrogated and tortured. All efforts to force him to admit perpetrating those “crimes”, yielded no “confession” or “admission” by this proud Jew to his uncommitted crimes. After two months, he was released. Abused and exhausted, the signs of torture on him, Noah continued to work in the pharmacy in spite of being shaken from his distressful experiences. He overcame the torments of his soul and encouraged himself and his family to hope for better days that are bound to come; the clouds will disperse and the sun will rise again on Rokitno's Jews. In reality there was no chance for this hope, the time was of disorder and chaos. The Russian army retreated from the Germans and its soldiers looted and plundered. They attacked the pharmacy and stole everything they could reach. Noah and I stood by, looking and seeing all our labor and efforts go down the drain- without uttering a sound.

At one time, the Train-Police showed up in the pharmacy accusing him of destroying Russian property. One of the policemen pulled a gun and aimed it at Noah's temple. His wife, Clara and I started crying and begged for our life. Lucky for us, at that very crucial moment a troupe of Soviet soldiers burst in and continued looting. The policemen realized who caused the destruction to the Soviet property and let go of Noah. That is how he was saved from certain death. But for a short time only – the total annihilation was at the horizon already.

Noah's care and responsibility towards Rokitno's Jews were most pronounced during the Shoah period. One day the head of the Judenrat, Aharon Slutzki, came to him and said that though the Germans demand that the apartment of the German commander be elegantly furnished, it is not being done. Noah understood well the consequence, and asked Slutzki to send some people over to take the furniture from his house, and save Rokitno's Jews from calamity.

I am unable to describe the agonies that my brother suffered in Rokitno ghetto until he was killed. He was taken with his wife, Clara and his daughters, Lucia and Shoshana, to Sarny. Together they left and together they went to the pit. Standing on the edge of it, he turned his head towards his family and the other unfortunate wretched ones, slapped his chest, raised his eyes to the heavens and started justifying the judgment: “Our Father who art in Heaven – We are guilty, We have sinned, We have betrayed, We have transgressed”. These were his last words as he died in Kiddush-Hashem.

[Page 211]

My Father, Betzalel Kokel

Nehama Kokel (Tel-Aviv)

Translated by Thia Persoff

              Betzalel Kokel

rok211.jpg [8 KB] It is difficult for a person to write about his father. You can write about anyone when not emotionally attached – but not your father, that you are part of and he of you, so that you cannot see him as a separate image from yourself. It is harder; manifold, to write about a father that you loved very much. How can you dissect a beloved one's image into parts of character, of behavior, and tell about him section by section, when you always see it as a whole, a unit complete and perfect. A wave of warmth floods your heart – the pen shakes, the writing is impossible, the eyes dominate us. There is no stopping them.

The life history of a proud Jew, who existed hardly for himself, but for his household needs and his family's affections, for charity and good deeds, for working on the needs of the community with devotion. Devotion – unbounded. In the belief that with each person he helps, he helps the entire world. And more so, maybe with the feeling that all he does for the good in this world is basically for humanity's soul, and that in this is the greatness of service to the community. To see in the work for supporting an orphanage not only a community project, but first as for an individual orphan, the forsaken human, that you can delve the depth of his emotional distress. Just separate him from the crowd and you can see in him the true embodiment of the human tragedy.

That's the way he was walking around town – and taking in what he saw. Walking fast, in a bit of haste, in a rush to make time. Hardly seen, but always seeing. Returning home saturated with what he noticed and observed. Before even telling and explaining to the family of the worries and problems and failures of earning a living, he would describe what he saw in the streets: children dressed in rags, young ones playing in the street instead of going to school, townspeople that you can see on them how distressed their situation is at home, sometimes to the point of hunger. Those observations weighed heavily on him and caused worries that would not let up. As a result, ideas and plans had formed: to start a Talmud-Torah school, to organize a group of teachers, to collect all the children off the streets – into the school, to form a fund for charity to help those that have limited means, to always carry a small bundle for helping privately – to be returned or not, and more – gently in humility and in secrecy, without acknowledgement. Gentility – that was the road that my father followed until his last day. And a parallel road of love – for all men, all creatures.

Beloved father – one of the pearls in the crown of a Jewish town that was felled and is no more, but one more stone among the gravestones on the grave of the slaughtered of the Jewish nation. And our home with it.

[Page 212]

Haim David Weiner

Yakov Soltzman (Tel-Aviv)

Translated by Thia Persoff

         Haim David Weiner

rok212.jpg [8 KB] Haim David Weiner was one of Rokitno's founders. He was active in community and Zionist work, and the endowing of the Hebrew language to the local children.

After the First World War, when Zionist activities were permitted, he worked devotedly for the Jewish National Fund and the Jewish Foundation Fund in town, and was the J.N.F.'s representative in Rokitno. When someone asked, “How many Jewish families lived in Rokitno?” – the reply was, “Go to Haim David Weiner, the J.N.F. representative, and you will get your answer.” The number of J.N.F. donation boxes equaled the number of the Jewish families in Rokitno. He made sure that not one Jewish household in our town will be without a J.N.F. box.

He was a man of few words. Not among the wealthy, he was content with little (he earned his living from a small store and rent from an apartment). During changes in regimes and the scare from attacks by local gangs, Haim David Weiner was one of the organizers of the “Self Protectors” and would go to guard in the nights. He loved work and had a deep feeling for agriculture; the land around his house was always tilled and sown, and the vegetables from his garden were always on his table.

His life was devoted to the national funds. And as such – he was an example to the Zionist youth in Rokitno, who continued with his good work.

[Page 213]

My Father, Aharon Levin

Yaakov Levin (Haifa)

Translated by Ala Gamulka

            Aharon Levin

rok213.jpg [7 KB] He was a personality that stood out among all other important people in Rokitno. He was well received by everyone as an advisor on many matters and as a great host. His home was open to the Jews of the town. They willingly came to listen to him and to discuss Torah with him. He was an expert chess player and he played many opponents. His main strength was the study of Torah. He had a deep understanding and knowledge of Jewish topics. He was known as an undisputed authority.

As proof, the following interpretations: “I accepted Habert's version because of my respect for him. However, Habert thought it over and came to the conclusion that I had been right. That is why he bothered to come on this cold night, to confess that I had the correct version.”

My father was one of the founders of Mizrachi in our town and he was also one of the main supporters of “Linat Hatzedek." All his life he was devoted to the progressive Zionist movement. He educated his sons and daughters as Zionists and was fortunate that they all made Aliyah.

When World War II broke out, he called me and begged me to go to Russia. He hoped it would save my life and that I, too, would join my brothers and relate the story. One night during the month of Shevat, the elderly shohet Habert came to tell my father that his interpretation had been correct. When the children wondered about this nocturnal visit, my father replied: “Yesterday we were discussing a Mishna and there were several sisters in Eretz Yisrael.” I begged my father to join me in going to our relatives in Kharkov. Father refused, saying: “Mother and I are like an ancient tree. If it is uprooted and replanted in strange soil, it would need too much care. If the tree would go on the road, it would not survive the journey and it might die.”

He remained in Rokitno and relied on providence. However, this tree with many roots was uprooted. He and my mother died as martyrs.

[Page 214]

Yakov Persitz

Aryeh Geipman (Givatayim)

Translated by Ala Gamulka

            Yakov Persitz

rok214.jpg [9 KB] Yakov Persitz was not one of the veterans of the town nor was he one of its founders. However, his arrival in Rokitno in 1925 was a turning point and the beginning of a new era in the economic development of the town and its vicinity.

Many of the residents of Rokitno, especially those who were involved in the lumber business, wondered about this man who stood as head of a large lumber producing plant. They were all certain that the director would stay in his office in the town and would run the business from there. What a surprise when it became known that Yakov Persitz moved to the village of Borovey to personally supervise the work.

The man regularly arose at 4 a.m. and by 5 he would meet with the many office clerks to instruct them on the daily agenda.

He visited daily all the remote corners in the forests. These forests covered large areas. He checked the progress of each clerk in his place of work and that is how he became so knowledgeable.

Yakov Persitz was well versed in Jewish and in general literature. He had an excellent memory. He spoke few words and listened intently and with infinite patience. His replies were appropriate and short. Even his casual conversation with friends and acquaintances was pleasant. His eyes shone with intelligence. His workers could not understand how he knew their good and bad points in such a short time. An additional virtue attributed to Yakov Persitz was his generosity. He gave with an open hand and without much publicity.

When he completed his tour of duty in the lumberyard, Yakov Persitz settled in Rokitno. He was much attached to the town and he went into his own business. His family spread throughout the world and he was not fortunate enough to see his sons and daughters in his later years.

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