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Personalities {Cont.}

[Page 221]

The Teacher Rev. Efraim
and the Teacher Israel Tozman

Aharon Lifshitz & Yosef Segal (Givatayim) (Neve Oz)

Translated by Ala Gamulka

Unlike other neighboring towns, there was no traditional cheder in Rokitno, maybe because it was a younger town. Until 1916 we had traditional religious schooling by Rev. Efraim from Avrotch, a Torah-teaching center. The teacher was paid on a semester basis (from after Pesach to Rosh Hashana and from Succoth until Pesach). He also alternated staying in the homes of his pupils. Our teacher, Rev. Efraim was an old Jew, handsome. G-d fearing, a scholar and well-versed in Gmara and biblical interpretations. The cheder was located in the house of Old Nahum and later in the old synagogue.

As a pedagogue, he excelled in his explanations. He was able to interpret the most difficult sections. Every pupil understood what he taught. He was easy-going and kind. The course of study was mainly Gmara with interpretations, Tanach, weekly portion, bible with Rashi and prayers for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. There were no secular subjects. The school day went from morning till after Mincha, actually till evening. On Saturday afternoons, we studied Pirkei Avot. In winter we also studied at night and we returned home singing and holding lanterns. Since our days were filled with schoolwork, we had no time to play. We did not play any sports.

The pupils of Rev. Efraim were divided into two classes. In the higher class were Gedalya Lifshitz and Pinhas Kliger, z”l, and Yeshayahu Meiri (Meirson). In the other class were Yosef Segal, Aharon Lifshitz and Eliyahu Greenberg, z”l, who was killed in the Holocaust.

In 1916, the education system changed completely. A Hebrew teacher named Israel Tozman arrived in Rokitno. He was trained in modern methods. He was an experienced teacher who immediately began to teach Hebrew with a Sephardi pronunciation. Our parents were against these methods. They claimed that we would soon forget the Ashkenazi Hebrew and prayers we had learned from Rev. Efraim. However, they could not stop progress. Tozman's classes were mixed- boys and girls together. We studied literature, Jewish history, grammar, Tanach and Hebrew songs. As part of our studies, he imbued us with a love for Israel and a belief in Zionism.

After the Balfour Declaration, when the Zionist movement was organized in Rokitno, a new group was founded. Agudat Yaldei Zion (Union of Children of Zion) was intended to disseminate the Zionist dream among the youths. We collected money for Jewish National Fund. We even had a rubber stamp with a Star of David surrounded by the name of the Union.

At our Saturday meetings we read newspapers about events in the Zionist movement and in Eretz Yisrael. We donated a portion of our Hanukah gelt for the planting of three trees in Herzl Forest in the name of the Union. Among the founders of the Union were: Aharon Lifshitz, Yosef Segal, Malka Weiner, Avigdor Hefetz (he died while serving in the Red Army), Sender Lerner, Avraham Geipman, z”l, (one of the first pioneers to make Aliyah) and Shunamit Lifshitz (died during the Holocaust).

The founding of this Union was a direct result of the Hebrew education we received from our teacher, Mr. Tozman. He guided us in this direction.

[Page 223]

Interesting Jewish Personalities
in the Town of Rokitno

Efraim Vorona (Tel-Aviv)

Translated byAla & Larry Gamulka

I wish to immortalize several Jewish personalities in the village of Rokitno who are especially etched in my memory. I remember “Herschel the Yellow One”, a Jew who never allowed a Gmara book to leave his hand. He dealt in honey, wax and sour berries. At Pesach time, one could obtain a special mead. During Hol Hamoed of Pesach, we, the older boys, would go to Reb Herschel to drink mead and eat nuts.

His son, “Yosel the Yellow One” lived not far away. He was childless and loved to lead the prayers. When “the boys” saw Yosel leading the prayers they would twist some towels together and let him have it when he overdid the singing.

Yosel then would turn his head, mumble “Oh, ai, you non-believers!” and would continue to pray. Very often, on weekdays, “the boys” would prompt him into a holiday tune. Even the older Jews enjoyed these pranks.

Not far from him resided Berel, son of Yitzhak. Surnames were not too important in Rokitno. It was enough to tell a child “Go to Berel, son of Yitzhak” and the child would know exactly where to go.

Berel, son of Yitzhak, owned a nice home, a small grocery store and two cows. He made a decent living. His son, Shimon, lived in Warsaw. It was understood that he was studying there. Others said that he was an employee in a business. No one really knew the truth. Thanks to these men, Rokitno was privileged to hear good cantors – even on weekdays.

When Shimon came to visit he brought a gramophone with a big speaker, which resembled a giant shofar. Thus the Jews would gather to hear the latest cantorial records. They were all in awe of this box and could never understand how such beautiful voices would emanate from it. Until then, the locals had never seen or heard a gramophone.

Berel the Mechanic

Berel the Mechanic! The younger generation and the newcomers have no idea who was Berel the Mechanic. The older generation probably still remembers the wonderful Jew. He was thought to be one of the “36 just men”. This is why more space is used to describe the Mechanic.

He was a tall, skinny Jew whose face emitted goodness. He had a long Orthodox beard, which he would comb through with his fingers.

It is told that he decided to build a house without the services of an engineer or an architect. He worked at it for a long time until he realized that the building was uninhabitable. He gave it to the community to be used as a bathhouse. Since then he was known as “Berel the Mechanic”.

He made a living from a small grocery store, which consisted of a cupboard containing sugar, raisins and other incidentals. A barrel of herring, kerosene, a few sacks of flour and a scale stood in an alcove. Since he spent most of his time praying and learning, his profits were barely enough to cover his living expenses.

He had a sick wife who was very swollen. She was very fat and found it difficult to move. Every Thursday, when all the women wanted to be served first, Berel would call on his swollen wife for help. It was understood that even with her best intentions she could not possibly help him. He would then approach her and tell her: “Even at the beginning it was not a good match between us”. He continued to say this to her when the total of their ages was 150 years!

Who does not remember Simchat Torah with Berel the Mechanic! Children would prepare themselves for weeks for this happy holiday. Berel would think holy thoughts. When other Jews would drink liquor in honor of Simchat Torah, Berel would form a circle with the older Jews and would weave the children through them. With a Torah scroll in his arms he would abandon himself in sacred dancing and sing: “Yavo Adir Bimhera Beyamenu” and “When will he come?” Everyone would answer: “When the Messiah will come.” Berel would continue: “A day of rejoicing, a day of singing.” He danced until the middle of the night.

In the morning, after prayers and Hakafot, the children would congregate around him. He would line them up and lead them, holding the hand of a child. This is how he marched in the street, singing “Yavo Adir” and “When will he come?” “When the Messiah arrives”.

Gentiles and policemen would respectfully get out of his way when he marched with the children. This is how he would visit every Jewish home. He and the children would sing “A Good Yom Tov” to the residents of each house. The children would be served refreshments. This would go on till evening.

In the evening, he returned home, but not before he brought each child to his or her home.

I remember how we used to discuss politics with the Jews in the synagogue. “The cursed one must fall (referring to Tsar Nicolai), if not, the Jews would suffer a lot more. The Jew-haters will abolish ritual slaughter and G-d knows what else. Bad times are coming to the Jews. G-d in Heaven should take pity on us.”

Just before World War I, Berel left for Eretz Yisrael. With his departure, the Jews of Rokitno felt abandoned. This was a big shock, particularly to the children who always waited impatiently for the big holiday of Simchat Torah. Each one wanted to join Berel the Mechanic's group, but the waiting was for nothing. Unfortunately, there was no longer anyone who could inject joy among the children and the adults as much as he did.

The streets of Rokitno were empty of that joy which this wonderful Jew managed to awaken in everyone. He was always referred to as one of the “36 just men”.

Deep in their hearts many people were envious of Reb Berel, that he was fortunate enough to go to Eretz Yisrael. G-d himself determined this – so the rumors went – and that is why a Jew like Reb Berel spent his last years in the Holy Land.

For some time, the Jews of Rokitno did not hear news of Reb Berel. Later, it was reported that in 1914, because of the war, he was delayed in Turkey and died there. A second version made it clear that he did reach Eretz Yisrael and was buried in Jerusalem.

To this day, it is not known where this great Jew was buried, the one who was known as Berel the Mechanic.

David Grinshpan

He was called “David the Estate Owner”. The young and the old knew him and loved him. He was a tall Jew, with a beautiful, long, white beard, round cheeks and dreamy eyes.

I do not know from where came his nickname – the Estate Owner. It is possible that it was because he owned a big, beautiful house with a big backyard. In addition, he was blessed with a voice like an angel. The tunes that came out of his mouth were sweet and heartfelt. When Reb David sang Kol Nidrei, you could hear a pin drop in the synagogue. His lyrical voice couched in Jewish suffering would break the hearts of the Jews of Rokitno. The praying people would be enveloped in holiness through his beautiful voice. When the majority of the rural residents moved into town, Reb David also did so since his children were living there.

In his later years he became paralyzed and was bed-ridden. He was alone at home when he overturned a burning lamp and he was burned lying in his bed.

[Page 227]

Personalities of Rokitno

Yosef Segal (Givatayim)

Translated by Ala Gamulka

A. Avraham Gelfand

Reb Avraham Gelfand, son of Zalman, was an extremely wealthy man. He had two country estates: one in Voltche Gorko- east of Rokitno, near the village of Snovidovitch- and the second- south of Rokitno, in the village called Kisorich. On both estates, Gelfand had sawmills and the lumber industry there was highly developed. His business was managed by his clerks, who were all Jews. Gelfand's son-in-law was Minister of Finance in the Ukrainian government, headed by Hetman Skoropedsky.

As was well known in Tzarist Russia, not every Jew was able to legally own property, land and forests. Therefore, all of Gelfand's properties were registered under a Russian called Banov. For this privilege, Gelfand paid him large sums of money. Banov lived a life of drinking and partying in Moscow and Petersburg. In fact, all of the estates and the business were managed by Gelfand, who resided in Odessa.

When Rokitno was settled early in the twentieth century and Jews from surrounding areas moved there, Gelfand built a beautiful synagogue as a gift to the Jews of Rokitno. He furnished it and purchased Torah scrolls and tomes of Mishna. Gelfand came all the way from Odessa for the dedication of the synagogue and he participated in the celebration. He was very well received by the community.
The synagogue, in addition to being a house of prayer, also served as a place for national celebrations. I recall that during the Balfour Declaration there was a spontaneous rally in the synagogue. Collections were made for several funds. When bad times came to the Jews, be it Petlura's gangs or the Holocaust, meetings were held there to find solutions, to try to alleviate the difficulties.

Gelfand died of starvation in Odessa during the revolution. The synagogue he built for the Jews of Rokitno was destroyed during the Holocaust, as were the Jews of Rokitno.

B. Moshe Wolf Horman

rok228.jpg [8 KB] In our town lived a Jew called Reb Moshe Wolf Horman, an older man. He was a craftsman who cut lumber for construction purposes. No one knew him by the name of Horman; however, if you asked for “Moshe Wolf the carpenter” – you would immediately have a response.

He came to our town from Dombrovitz with the first settlers and participated in its founding. As were most of the tradesmen in our area, Reb Moshe Wolf was an honest man who supported his family by hard work and who was content with his lot. Although he was slightly liberal in his beliefs, he went to synagogue daily to attend afternoon and evening services. When those present studied “Eyn Ya'akov” or discussed a section of Gmara, he would sigh and sadly say that instead of arguing about an egg which either hatched or not on a holy day, our sages should have thought about producing arms. Then, the Jews would not suffer so bitterly in exile.

Reb Moshe Wolf worked on the construction of the synagogue in Rokitno. Avraham Gelfand liked him and appointed him manager of the farm in Voltche Gorko. Reb Moshe Wolf fulfilled his function loyally and at Gelfand's invitation, he traveled often to visit him in Odessa in order to report to him personally about his holdings and to seek his advice.

So lived Reb Moshe Wolf with his family in Voltche Gorko until the Poles arrived in our area. He was killed during the Holocaust and did not live to see how Jews manufacture arms in their own land at the same time as they argue Talmudic and scientific points.

C. Feivel The Porter

Feivel the Porter was one of the tradesmen and laborers in our town and earned his living by physical labor. We did not know his surname and it was difficult to guess his age. He was a bachelor around thirty years of age and he never seemed to age. He was short and squat with a muscular build.

Feivel came to Rokitno with his parents from Brezne at the beginning of its development. They were quite elderly. Reb Nahum, with his flowing white beard, was his stepfather. Feivel was not too developed intellectually. In addition, he had speech difficulties. He pronounced “k” as a “t” and that created some humorous situations.

As his name indicates, he earned his living as a porter. He would get up early, say his prayers and go to the train situation in the middle of town. The train travelers who arrived in our town would put their luggage on his back. Feivel would put as much as he could on his back, tying it around him with a rope. Slowly he would move and panting, he would reach either the inns of Reb Sheftel Levin and Haim David Weiner or, in the new town, the inns of Buzi Litvak, Hesia Geipman and Sheindel Kagan. Those who used his services were mostly lumber merchants who wandered on business from station to station. Rokitno was their center. They were always in touch with Feivel and paid him well for his work. When a customer tried to underpay him, Feivel would insist on receiving what was due to him and would not give up. He would stammer and redden with anger.

When Feivel was overloaded one could not see whether it was a human being or a walking cargo. Work exhilarated him and you could hear from a distance: “A parcel, a parcel”.

In the mornings when Feivel passed the stores, he would receive orders for delivery from the owners. He used the intervals between trains to fill these orders. He would put on his back sacks of flour, sugar or millet weighing 80 – 100 kilograms and he delivered them to the stores. It is no wonder that Feivel was busy from dawn to late at night. He would come home for a short break only to eat a meal.

When he returned home at night he would distribute his earnings. He gave a part to his mother for living expenses and a part he would store away in a locked crate. He kept the key tied to his pocket. Because of his work, he was always dirty and he wore shabby clothes and heavy boots.

This was his daily routine. However, on Friday afternoons, when Feivel came home clean from the bathhouse, he turned into a “prince”. When he came to the synagogue in the evening, he wore a beautiful clean suit, polished shoes and a shirt and tie.

In the synagogue he prayed devoutly, but you could not tell which prayer he was reciting. His lips moved silently. Sometimes he was moved to play a prank. When he saw a praying man who fell asleep during the services, he would quietly approach him, slap him on his ear or his nose and quickly move away from the scene of the crime. When he returned to his seat, he would giggle.

At the end of Shabbat on his way to the train and before he went to work, he cleaned his Shabbat clothes well and put them in his crate until the following Shabbat. He took good care of his clothes. I cannot recall if he ever had new clothes.

Feivel died in the 1920's.

D. Yankel the Shames

Who did not know Yankel the Shames? He inherited the position at a young age after the death of his father, Reb Eisenman, who served in this position for many years in the synagogue in the old town. Everyone knew him as Yankel, son of Nahum the Shames. His mother died when he was small and he was brought up by a stepmother. He was feeble in body and mind. He did not learn a trade and did not know how to do any work. However, he was an honest and straight man, full of goodness.

He could not pronounce the letter ”m”. When he addressed his wife (whose name was Malka) the word came out as Nalka. There were many other funny utterances. He also could not pronounce the letter “p”. When the hooligans – who lived near the Huta – attacked him, he yelled Tolice instead of Police.

Yankel filled many positions in town such as keeping and delivering the wedding canopy, inviting litigants to the Rabbi, delivering invitations to a circumcision and waking up Jews for Selichot. He did not only participate in happy events. He also took part in funerals holding a tzedakah box in his hand.

On Succot, he would run around from early morning to honor all the Jews with the etrog and lulav blessing. Not once would one of the pious women complain to him that he was late in bringing the etrog and lulav and she had to fast as a result. He would excuse himself as much as possible.

However, his main function was guarding and maintaining the synagogue. There were always some people among the worshippers who complained to him: the synagogue is not clean enough, the clock stopped, there is not enough heat in the winter, etc. If it happened, G-d forbid, that the Shabbes Goy- who stoked the furnaces of the Jews- did not appear, they would all direct their anger at Yankel. He was one of those people who are insulted but do not insult back. He would listen and sob quietly.

He did not earn a regular salary. With all his many functions, he barely eked out a living. At times he had to ask for charity in order to prepare for Shabbat and to support his wife and only daughter.

Yankel, his wife and daughter were able to escape Rokitno before the Nazis came. They reached the Soviet Union, but no one knows what happened to them.

E. Mindel (Cossack) Eisenberg

rok232.jpg [6 KB] Mindel Eisenberg, known as the Cossack, was born into the large and highly respected family of Reb Yehoshua Vorona in the village of Rokitno. She was married, at the age of 16, to Salek Eisenberg from Vistozk. He was conscripted into the Russian army right after the wedding and he was sent to Warsaw. Mindel followed him. She yelled and screamed and succeeded in liberating him from the army. That is why she was nicknamed “The Cossack”.

She was energetic, courageous and kind. She feared nothing. She would slap many Christians who threatened her. At the start of World War I, her brother Nachman, together with Salek Kaplan, were arrested by the tzarist police for not joining the army. The prisoners were brought to the jail in Olevsk. All efforts to free them were in vain. Mindel did not give up and was able to return them to their families.

Even the Poles respected Mindel. Due to her recommendations, many sick Jews were able to be seen by the Polish military doctor who was not known to be a lover of Zion.

Secret help to the needy and the unfortunate was to her sacred work. She would run back and forth among the Jews of Rokitno to collect funds for this purpose. No one ever refused her since they trusted her. She performed all these deeds with modesty and without publicity. In general, even the needy did not know who helped them.

Mindel had five sons and three daughters. In 1920 she gave birth to triplets – three sons all at once. Mindel became a sensation. The triplets were named after our patriarchs: Avraham, Yitzhak and Yaakov. Only Avraham remained alive. He was a brave partisan who fought the Nazis in the forests and lives with us in Israel.

She educated her children in the spirit of tradition and Zionism. They all attended the Tarbut School in Rokitno.

On the 13th of Elul 1942 when the Jews of Rokitno were executed, Mindel presented herself in the market square. She stood with her grandchildren in her arms and was the first to sense the killers approaching. She screamed out: “Jews, save yourselves! The murderers are coming to kill us!” Many of the remnants of the town were saved by this scream. She herself was not so fortunate. She was taken with her husband and grandchildren to Sarny. Her end was like the end of all the Jews. She was 48 years old when she was murdered.

[Page 232]

Candles of Remembrance

The Editorial Board

Translated by Ala Gamulka

Reb Hebert the Shohet

We remember him as an elderly man. His hands trembled and he stopped working as a slaughterer. He would chant his own tunes in the synagogue. He was a scholar and spoke well. He took part in all celebrations in town. One day he was invited to four happy events. The old man sighed and said: “Today I am going to all four” (walking on four legs…).

Shaya Gendelman (Shaya the Blacksmith)

Reb Shaya Gendelman, nicknamed Shaya the Blacksmith, was an honest man who always supported himself by his work. He prayed daily in the synagogue where he sat at the eastern wall. He prayed devoutly. On Shabbat he would not speak Yiddish, only Holy Tongue.

In the synagogue he made certain that no one spoke during services and he would loudly scold those who talked. The young people sometimes used their time in the synagogue for idle talk and they disturbed those praying. Reb Shaya would walk over to them, scatter them and tell them: “Each person to his own station” or he would point at what was written on the eastern wall: “This is a House of G-d” in order to teach them to respect this holy place.

Yosef Haim Baum

Reb Yosef Haim Baum was a tailor. However, in our humble opinion, he was rarely seen plying his trade. He was fortunate to have employees to do the work. He neglected his trade in order to do community work such as the Association of Tradesmen. He was their representative in City Hall and fought for their rights, for the lowering of taxes imposed on them. He helped them get their permits since many of them did not have the necessary funds. He spoke for them in the community and in various Jewish organizations. He gave generously of his time and his effort.

He was often seen on a rainy day making his way to one meeting or another. He bore his role as a representative of the Proletariat with pride and devotion.

Shlomo Bender

He was tall, broad-shouldered, round-faced with a perpetual smile. His bearing spoke of strength. He owned a restaurant and most of his customers were Poles who were not necessarily lovers of the Jews. As a result, he had dealings with the ruling class in the town and in the county.

He had a warm Jewish heart and was always prepared to do a good deed. He was one of the founders of “Linat Hatzedek” and helped in many charitable institutions.

He served as a shield and a defender of the Jews of Rokitno. His name alone frightened many of the criminals and hooligans. He came to Rokitno from Warsaw as a sergeant in the Polish Mounted Army Regiment. He married a woman from Rokitno from the Vorona family. He was killed in a bombing raid in 1941 as he was fleeing to the Soviet Union.

Mendel Kercher

He came to Rokitno as an adult from Slichets in the twenties. He integrated into the community and dedicated himself to Jewish communal affairs. When Rokitno was annexed to Sarny, he was elected chairman of the Joint Community. He served in that capacity for many years. He was also a member of city council and the permanent treasurer in the new synagogue that was built at his urging. He was a strong man and he fought courageously for the rights of the Jews in municipal and government institutions. He was respected by the Jews of Rokitno as well as by other non-Jewish citizens.

He died at a ripe old age in 1940 as the Soviets were entering town.

Moshe Zelig Shyulman

He was a wealthy and successful lumber merchant. He bought Anikin's ranch near Rokitno in the 30's and managed it successfully. He came with his wife Necha to our town as a young man from the village of Vitkovich.

Reb Moshe Zelig was not selfish since he did not feel that money meant everything. He did communal work, mainly in Zionist circles. He was well known as a charitable man and he donated substantially to the various national and charitable funds in Rokitno. He helped with money and materials in the construction of the Tarbut School in Rokitno and he served on the Parents Committee of the school. As a dedicated Zionist, he visited Eretz Yisrael and decided to settle there. He was on the verge of liquidating his business, but the war changed his plans and he was forced to give up his dream of Aliyah.

When the Soviets entered Rokitno he had to leave town and he hid in Zdolovonov. He was killed there during the Nazi occupation.

Zeidel (Herzel) Binder

He was one of the first leather goods merchants. He was also one of the founders of the “Hevra Kadisha”(Burial Society) and the “Linat Hatzedek”, and he remained active in these institutions all his life. During World War I, many Jewish refugees- escapees from the army- came to Rokitno. Zeidel collected money and paid off Oradnik and Pristov so they would not be caught.

In 1925, Zeidel was sent by a group of residents to Eretz Yisrael in order to buy them land. Due to the Depression there at the time, he did not succeed in his mission. He returned to Rokitno and continued with his business. Being a Zionist, he educated his children in the Zionist spirit. His home was a center for Zionist activities. All Jewish National Fund activities emanated from his house. He was killed in the Holocaust.

Esther Hassel Rootman

She was considered in our town as a clever woman, full of energy and resourcefulness. She was good-natured and was always ready to help others. Her home was open to the needy. Many unfortunate people, Jewish and non-Jewish, found refuge from the winter cold in her bakery.

She especially stood out as a hostess. On Friday nights and on Shabbat, there were always poor souls who would come from great distances to dine at her table. This wonderful custom became a family tradition. Her home was imbued with an aura of Zionism and a love of Israel. Her children grew up in this atmosphere.

Esther Hassel was fortunate to leave our town before the Holocaust and made Aliyah in 1935. She died in Jerusalem on the eleventh day of Nissan, 1955 at the age of 83.

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