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The Town and its Residents

A. Till the First World War


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by Hanoch Levin

Translated by Sara Mages

Chapter in the history of Hebrew education in Smorgon

Smorgon served as a place for one of the pedagogical experiments in the field of Hebrew education on the threshold of the new century. Echoes of the educational movement, and the ideas laid at its foundation, traveled far from the town's narrow passages, crossed the borders of its district – between Vilna and Minsk, and spread to the wide domain of Russian Jewry until it knocked on the doors of H. N. Bialik and E. L. Lewinsky, who were not exempt from determining their opinion, and their position, on the voice that came from Smorgon, Lita [Lithuania]. This right was brought to our town by the sons of HaRav Gordin, Abba and Zev, who were later called the Gordin brothers. They were known in Russia as seekers of anarchism but remained in the spiritual life of our people to fertilize the generation's mind with original seeds of thought – from the school of Abba Gordin.

However, all that came later. Earlier, in 1905, the dynamic young men arrived at the home of HaRav, R' Yehudah Leib, author of “Divrei Yehudah” and “Diglei Yehudah,” from the fanatical Hassidic Ostrow, to “free” Smorgon. They were deeply interested in knowledge and craved action. They were full of new thoughts and sought an outlet for their youthful vigor. They didn't come empty–handed. The amazing autodidacts, “the Gordin brothers,” already had the best minds of their generation. They were already familiar with the teachings of [Max] Striner, and knew whole chapters of his book, “The Individual and His Property,” by heart.

Their rabbi and teacher was [Pierre–Joseph] Proudhon, and saw him as a strong spirit. Tolstoy captivated them with his educational–pedagogic teachings, and the new gospel from “Yasnaya Polyana” shook all the cords of their hearts. And above all – the deep rooted knowledge of all the treasures of Jewish culture, the Talmud and its commentary, Halacha, Midrash and Aggadah – the legacy of HaRav, R' Yehudah Leib.

It wasn't long before the two began to implement their eclectic doctrine, in theory and in practice, in the field of education, and they started in Smorgon.

The advice was of Abba Gordin. At the beginning it didn't aspire to great things, all they wanted was to establish a new school, new in meaning, as an intermediate stage. “Heder metukan” [improved or reformed heder] served as the first layer of their educational structure, in the sense of a corridor to the parlor. They discussed and decided to set principles first:

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  1. The teaching in “heder metukan” would be Hebrew in Hebrew.
  2. The institution would be secular and free in its essence. It will not teach prayers and law, and will try to distance itself from everything that the religious spirit emanates from.
  3. With that, its teachers will focus on the acquisition of original Jewish values, as expressed in the classical literature – the Bible, and at the same time teach the new Hebrew literature. They will try to also bring the generation's thinking, with its various streams, before the talented students.
  4. “Yasnaya Polyana” will serve as an exemplary example.
Equipped with a fiery desire, clear principles and a well–tested plan, the two went out to conquer the uncultivated field, as they called it, of Jewish education in the town of Smorgon.

Although their father, the rabbi, stood aloof and his religious consciousness objected to the “youthful act” of his sons, he secretly blessed, from the depth of his heart, their exceptional daring out of hope that the work, and its framework, the concern for the matter and the difficulties of making a livelihood, will do their part and the “rebellious sons” will “grown up.”

The rabbi placed the rear half of his spacious apartment at the disposal of the “brothers.” Abba Gordin, and his brother Zev, went to work without delay. They collected furniture, everything they could lay their hands on – tables chairs and benches from the neighbors and even from Batei HaMidrash in town. With their own hands they distributed notices wherever they came: in the streets, in the shops, in the synagogue, in the heders and in the “small yeshiva,” in these words:

Since the Gordin brothers, the rabbi's sons, are opening “heder metukan,” our brothers, the Jewish people, are asked to come and register their children, in the place, on the day and the hour listed below…

And since the number of places is limited, we hereby notify everyone who is interested that, first come, first served.

The notices were written in three languages: Hebrew; Yiddish and Russian.

The results weren't long in coming. The day after the announcement was published many began to knock on the door of the town's rabbi.

Young mothers, daughters of homeowners, came to register their daughters. Also young fathers, “free,” so to speak, who “walked with the time,” were seen at the entrance to the rabbi's house. Some were anxious, some ashamed, with their little boys holding on the edge of their garment. And there was something to be anxious about: the Gordin brothers had a reputation of complete heretics. It was known that they dissociated themselves from the yoke of mitzvot and respect. Even on the Sabbath, and on holidays, they didn't come to the synagogue to pray and, there were those who said, that they would teach in “heder metukan” without a head cover…

Despite fears, 120 students enrolled in the first few days and it was necessary to stop the registration. The rabbi's rooms were too small to contain all this population and, in addition, the melamdim in town got up and “shouted”: the oppressors of the Jews deprive us of our livelihood, they, Heaven forbid! convert this “holy flock,” the Jewish children, who have not sinned, and, Woe for the calamity,

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at the rabbi's house, R' Yehudah Leib, author of “Diglei Yehudah.” The melamdim, of the town of Smorgon, called for a meeting and threatened to delay the “reading” on the Shabbat.

Under these conditions the Gordin brothers decided to move their school from the rabbi's house, so they wouldn't be an obstacle to their father – on one hand, and be free in their actions – on the other hand. They went and rented a suitable house, with a large courtyard, across the Minsk Street Bridge.

A few days later, on the house, on its facade, above the window cornice, a large sign, almost to the width of the house, was displayed with all its glory. Only one word was written, in a shade of gold, on its black background:


On this day, the first Hebrew school was established in Smorgon (1908).

Loyal to their conviction and devoted to their opinions, the Gordin brothers set out to introduce to the new school, “Ivria,” the new methods of the best thinkers of their generation who, in their opinion, ensured the natural development of the child and his progress in life, and sought new means and ways to ensure the success of their enterprise.

Needless to say, that the Jews of Smorgon were amazed at the sight of the “Torah” that was being taught within the walls of “Ivria.” They wondered, and didn't understand… And how was it possible, sixty years ago, to explain these “strange” methods of education?

First of all, the children were free to do everything that was right in their eyes. They sang and danced at school, painted and sculpted, and engaged in all kinds of work and practical thinking. They didn't sit at all on their benches, they ran around all day long, and didn't read a book, even for a short while. Is this a new doctrine, and this is the reward? They also don't know how to hold a pen in their hand. The children of Smorgon will grow up, Heaven forbid! to be uneducated, and instead of becoming important people, they would fall into bad ways and become “actors.” Yes, real actors. There was an urgent rumor that “plays” were being held at “Ivria,” A “theatre,” Heaven forbid! Such, and similar, was the picture that appeared before the Jews of Smorgon when they looked at the aspect of “Ivria” – and weren't in favor of it …

The teachers, Abba and Zev Gordin, didn't notice what was happening around them. They were so engrossed in their new concept and were oblivious of the war that the religious circles, and the melamdim, were preparing against them. The two spent day and night at school. Here, they ate their meal… and here… they couldn't even fall asleep. “Ivria” was their only vision. They wrapped their souls in this educational enterprise. Even when students began to drop out, because of the hostile propaganda and whispers, they consoled themselves and said:

Leaves fall in the wind and the tree trunk stands firm.

The rate of leaving the school increased after a terrible incident took place within the walls of “Ivria.”

A girl, the only daughter to her parents, was beaten by one of the students and the teacher stood

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by and didn't intervene – the girl has to fight back, she must capture her place in the children's group on her own. The girl run away from school – startled her mother, and she burst out with complaints: scandal, how could such a thing happen? Children are beaten and the teachers stand idly by. The rest of the children will see and learn from the teachers' behavior. And what do you think will happen in the end? They will grow up without manners, to be robbers and thieves.

It must be published in the “Gaztin.” – – In the “Gaztin” – tells Abba Gordin in his book “Thirty years in Lita and Poland” – they didn't write but, they talked all over Smorgon about this “incident,” and the conclusion, that the townspeople came to was – that the school, “Ivria,” should be uprooted with everything in it.

And how do we do that? We will take the children out and the shepherds will only be left with their “flutes.”

The incident was – stimulating, and it would have brought disaster to the educational enterprise, but, the Gordin brothers' “flute,” with its clear beautiful sound, continued to play…

We must prevent disaster. The teachers of “Ivria” went out to the public in a publicity campaign. From house to house, in a face–to–face conversation, they tried to explain their way in education. The town's homeowners locked the doors in their faces. “We will not even allow them to stand on our threshold – these converts.” But they didn't give up, they found a few sympathetic fans that understood their spirit and believed in them. Two of them stood to the Gordin brothers in their distress and they are: Rachel Lamdenski, daughter of the former community activist who enrolled her only son to “Ivria” out of recognition, and the second, Yosha Lvitan, that his son and daughter also studied at the school. They didn't spare any effort to explain to the public and spread the idea of the new Hebrew school.

Abba and Zev Gordin's new pedagogical doctrine ripened in those difficult days. It was modern in its foundation and preceded, in almost one generation, the patriarchs of the new Hebrew education in the Diaspora. The method was given a clear form, it was embedded in scientific patterns and was well explained – it is the method of instructional teaching (the imperative method) of the Gordin brothers.

From their little experience at “Ivria,” they understood that the students do not grasp the method of wording. Not the verbal memorization and its numerous repetitions, but the liberating activation of the senses by direct contact – to do, perform and create.

In 1908, the year of the establishment of “Ivria” school, a textbook by S.L. Gordon was published by Tushia Publishing. With all its innovation it didn't answer all the pedagogical requirements of A. and Z. Gordin's school. Again, the boring statistics, and almost all of it words, words and names, and this is the innovation – pictures and drawings – but what will the children do with them?

The teachers of “Ivria” asked for a trigger which leads to movement. They

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wanted to start the child's mental mechanisms by means of short orders that give birth to actions and movements. From here came the name – the command system.

In order to bring the children into free oral expression, sentences of command were thrown into the classroom, one by one – to do, to act, to play, to be in motion and create.

Sentences, of this kind, were easily absorbed by the students until, a short time later, they had a great treasure of sentences, not isolated words, orphan and abstract, unrelated to one another, and all the more so, do not bring the children into action, activity and practical work but, to miniature masks of human actions that are stored within the framework of logical connections that cause the child's activity. The young teachers, sons of Rabbi Gordin, preceded the members of their generation with new pedagogical thought of an active and working school, preceded – with complete faith.

Since the founders of “Ivria” continued to follow the path they had chosen, and constant movement, action and workmanship found a place at the school, there was no reason not to set up the theater in the institution. Its growth was organic. All that was left for the teachers to do was to arrange the sequence of actions that the commands provoked around one subject and before them was a dramatic novella, a miniature play.

But Smorgon, in the first decade of the twentieth century, what did it have to do with the new advanced method? For her, it was the “theater” that – “He that keeps his soul holds himself far from it” [Proverbs 23/7]. That – and no more?

So far oral expression, but, how to teach reading and writing? It turned out that these can also be acquired by a game. The teachers of “Ivria” ordered from a carpenter and a tinsmith, both parents of students, typesetting boxes of letters and vowels. Each student was given a typesetting box. The students created, without any difficulty, imperative sentences from their typesetting box, and as small printers they stood before the general typesetting box, which was located in their classroom, and pulled from it, wonder of all the wonders, letters and words which joined in their hands into sentences that all of them demanded: do, act and create. It was impossible to pull the little ones away from this “magic box.” In turn, they composed written actions and built worlds.

At the same time, the teachers for beginners in Smorgon, Yankel Kazan, Baruch the melamed, and Itza Mechlis, stood before their flock and in a gesture (“teitel” in a foreign language) showed them the form of a holy letter in the “Sidur” and said: Kamatz, Aleph– A.

This is the way of A. and Z. Gordin, who couldn't settle for little in spiritual matters, and didn't rest until they published it in public. What did they do? They gathered strength, sat down and prepared a textbook for the children of “Ivria,” and like them everywhere, by the name, “Theatrical Garden,” which contained a series of gradual lessons for an entire school year, from beginning to end.

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When they finished their work they sent the manuscript to Moriah Publishing in Odessa. They didn't wait long for an answer, and the letter – the letter of H. N. Bialik himself and its exciting opening:

“Your work is useful and important” – and the first part and the last part is something like this:

Under the existing conditions (financial), the publishing house does not see the possibility of publishing your book (and again, the most useful and important), since, in the whole country, there is only a small number of institutions, “kindergarten” and “Ivria” such as yours, that can use your book. Therefore, you should send your manuscript to Eretz–Yisrael. Who knows, maybe your salvation will come from there.

Also, this time, the young educators didn't despair. Zev Gordin left for Warsaw, to Ben–Avigdor, with the recommendation letter from H. N. Bialik in his hand: helpful and important… Ben–Avigdor welcomed the teacher from Smorgon, praised their work, but he also rejected the publication of the book for the same reasons that H. N. Bialik rejected it – the generation is not ready for it…

And again, it was “Ivria” that saved its founders–teachers from loss of faith and despair. In their day–to–day work in the children's kingdom, although, a small kingdom (of the 120 students half remained) – they saw the whole vision. At last, they said, not the word written on paper is the essence of education, but the word engraved on the hearts of their students. Nothing else, only “Ivria” alone is the realm of desire, the promised land… “Theatrical Garden” wasn't published by Moriah, and not by Tushia, in 1909 it was published in Smorgon by the authors. After its publication booklets, on didactics and new methods of teaching, were added as loyal companions. This publishing house, which was born in Smorgon and called “The New Pedagogy,” published an original book, the first of its kind – “From Children to Children.” It was a collection of works by the students of “Ivria.” The two, who stood out among the young participants of this literary collection, were: Pinchas Lamdanski in poetry, and Tzvi Hersh Kevito (the future famous announcer of Radio Moscow). In the story, Lamdanski's father, who traveled through Odessa for his business, visited H. N. Bialik and gave him the collection, “From children to children.” The venerable national poet praised the book. When the story became known, the situation of the school improved and its virtues rose again. The teachers, Gordin, no longer had to fight for every child's soul. Many came to study with these “stubborn,” “craftsmen of one craft.” “Ivria” school in Smorgon developed a reputation throughout Russia and even overseas. An article written by A Litvin, who visited our town that year, was published in the American “Forverts.” In amazement and enthusiasm he tells about the institution and adds: I examined its students and there was no end to my amazement at the sound of their fluent Hebrew speech, the extent of their knowledge and understanding. Also S. Ansky, the well known writer of “The Dybbuk” who left to wander in the Jewish settlements to investigate the situation of the Jews and to collect folklore treasures,

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sent a positive opinion on “Ivria” to the company on whose behalf he was sent. Among the other visitors, who spent their days at the school to closely examine the methods used in it, were: the teacher and educator, Y. Y Glass, author the “Heder,” and Hochenberg the author of textbooks at the time. They published their impressions, both orally and in writing, in public.

“Ivria” has long ceased to be just a school, a closed educational area in Smorgon. The institution began to serve as a source of inspiration and center for the new Hebrew education for the entire district of Vilna, and even beyond its borders. The extensive pedagogical work, which took place within its walls, found expression in many textbooks, the most famous of which was “Alphon Mischak” [Alphabet book with games]. On the occasion of the publication of the “Alphon,” Abba Gordin left for Warsaw. There, he made his first contacts with Hebrew teachers and educators, pioneers of Hebrew teaching in the Diaspora, Y. Alterman, P. Halperin and Pugachev who heard about “Ivria” and knew its process according to rumor. They were amazed by the young teacher, who stood before them and lectured confidently and enthusiastically about his pedagogical opinions. They didn't support everything, but the “innovation” – the new way – captivated them.

It was Fischel Lachower, the literary critic and historian of the new literature, who recognized the merits of the book “Alphon Mischak,” the fruit of six years of experimental work in “Ivria,” a theory, which can be carried into practice. It was he who blessed the completed work and published the book by “Safrot” Publishing.

Al off a sudden, the place became too narrow for the Gordin brothers in Smorgon, not they despised it, but because they knew a bigger world and new horizons were revealed to them.

The blessed acquaintance with the literary “lions,” I. L. Peretz, D. Frishman, young Sholem Asch and other “young priests,” who stood at that time in the eastern “wall” of Hebrew creation – all these, including their literary–pedagogical program, could no longer be stored within the walls of “Ivria” in Smorgon. The talent and dynamism, inherent in them from birth, now wanted a broader field of action. In their imagination, the teachers, from the home of HaRav Gordin, had already taken off beyond their town to evoke a general human–educational movement. For six whole years, from 1908 to 1914, the joy of small school children filled “Ivria” in Smorgon and, suddenly, its voice fell silent…

The school didn't open for the 1914 school year. The joy of the children of Smorgon ceased and the taste of childhood life was taken from them. They looked up with grief at the sign “Ivria,” which hung orphaned on the school's fašade, a painful reminder of what was, and passed.

The author, Elchanan Cajtlin, son of Hillel Cajtlin, immortalized “Ivria” in his book, “In the House of Literature,” and so he wrote:

The Gordin brothers came to my father's house in Warsaw. Stood and preached before him about the new ways of education and unacceptable forms of teaching. In their hometown, Smorgon, they founded and managed a school that served as a laboratory for their daring ideas. They were the first among our people to lay the

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foundation for a school called, “Creative school.” Thanks to them Smorgon was given the right to be the first Jewish town with new modern education.

And as an end to the unfinished “pedagogic poem” of “Ivria” in Smorgon, and as an echo of orphan poetry, I bring one case that the hand of fate has made it a symbol:

After the First World War, in the early 1920s, the survivors, refugees of sword and famine, returned from Russia to the ruins of their hometown, Smorgon, The first thing they wanted to do was – to establish a Hebrew school for their children. In the “women's section” of the ruined Great Synagogue they installed a temporary house of prayer and housed the first classrooms there. They invited from Vilna the teachers, young Y. Tatarsky and the veteran teacher Beck.

Between classes, in one of the breaks, a group of children, whose members wandered every day among the mounds of their destroyed town, dragged kind of a strange beaten object – a tin sign whose shape had been lost and was covered with rust. They brought the sign to their teachers and together deciphered one word: – “Ivria.”

The golden color didn't remain in its letters. On the ruins of the town of Smorgon the sign wallowed in ashes during the days of the war, as if it wanted to stay there and not be taken away. This is last remnant of a loyal testimony of interesting educational experience.


A. and Z. Gordin


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The Smorgon “Kibbutz”

by M. Ivenski

Translated by Yocheved Klausner


Smorgon was located between Vilna and Minsk. It was considered a small town in the district, but in truth it was livelier, if not even greater, than the district town Oshmien. It was easy to make a living in town – there were more than a few wealthy Jewish families. Although most of the residents were simple shopkeepers and workers, Smorgon was considered a rich town. There was enough “flour” and the Jewish residents sought to plant also “Torah” as much as possible.

The main source of livelihood in Smorgon was the leather manufacture. The owners as well as the workers were totally dedicated to their work; however, spiritual matters were not neglected and Torah study was always first. When the Volozhyn Yeshiva was closed in 1892, some of the Balebatim [well-to-do and respected leaders of the community, lit. “house owners”] brought a number of students and teachers to Smorgon, thereby establishing, amidst the “weekday” atmosphere of business, a kibbutz [group] of learners and worshippers, who were immersed in Torah study with body and soul.

Most of the members of this kibbutz (called “kloizniks”), were adult men ordained as rabbis. But the group included younger men as well, who had just left the yeshiva to begin their independent lives. There were no regular lessons at the kibbutz, but the kloizniks would study in pairs, learning from one another.

One of the kloizniks (1895) became later famous as the

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Yiddish writer A. Weiter. His real name was Aizik Meir Devenishki, and the kloizniks nicknamed him “the Bianiankener” after the name of his town of birth. Aizik Meir Devenishki was probably 15-16 years old at the time; he was one of the oldest of the younger group.

Considering the standards of the times, the kibbutz was doing well financially. The kloizniks did not have to “eat days.” They even received a weekly support that could amount to 2 Rubles and 50 Kopeks a week for those who had been ordained as rabbis. The others received 30 Kopeks a week, sometimes less. But nobody was hungry – the community would not let anyone fall. The money for the weekly payments was collected from various sources: at circumcision ceremonies, weddings, contract signing ceremonies, even at funerals. It was said that the community would collect money for that purpose “from the living and from the dead.” The collector, who was also the supervisor in the yeshiva and the beadle of the synagogue, was a short Jew, with a face that looked like yellow parchment. His name was Feitel. This Feitel would fast for days, sleep on a bench in the synagogue and be content with very little, as long as his kloizniks were taken care of. He was for them a father, albeit sometimes a very angry father.

Life in Smorgon was peaceful and comfortable. Businesses flourished, as did Torah study. However, this serene situation did not last long. Something happened in the shtetl that caused an uproar. It was kept secret for a long time, but in the end the secret came out. “Horrible things” became known, and the entire town was distressed.

In the outskirts of Smorgon lived a former activist named Ivan Frantzovitch Sinitzki, who was considered trouble by most of the balebatim in town. Sinitzki was a true Russian (although Polish by origin), a fine, respected gentile, who helped Jews whenever he could. However, he was one of those who intended “to turn the world upside down” – change things that were there “since creation.” He was part of the Russian intelligentsia and he devoted his life to “enlighten the masses.” Among the Jews of Smorgon he found fertile ground for his ideas. Most of his students and followers were Jewish adolescents – boys and girls.

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Sinitzki's influence was definitely felt in Smorgon. The sons and daughters of the best Jewish families would go to Sinitzki's house to listen to his lessons. Among them were the rabbi's daughter Liebe Ginsburg (who later became Mrs. Lyessin) and her sister Beile. The balebatim in town were furious, but kept silent: their own children were involved in this.

Sinitzki's influence reached even the Beit Midrash, the study-house where the kloizniks studied under Feitel's supervision. Sinitzki had two representatives there: young Nuchimovski and Shimshelevitz; they preached socialism – the great and important meaning of Labor.

The idea of socialism we could understand and accept; but we could not consent to the activity of assimilators – assimilators were treif, “impure.” We were nationalists.

Shimshelewitz, who was also a “Hebraist,” recommended a Hebrew book, “The Enlightened Carpenter.” This was a small book, part of a series of Hebrew books published by Ben Avigdor under the general name of “One-Groshen-Books.” This book described a Torah student, a genius from Volozhyn, who left his studies and became a carpenter, an “enlightened carpenter,” whose idea and goal was “to be useful to humanity.” Shimshelewitz told me that this was a true story. He knew the young genius who became the hero of the book: his name was Avraham Walt. Shimshelewitz also revealed the secret: this Walt had been in Smorgon a while ago and had a long argument with Sinitzki. Walt was indeed a genius – he said – a socialist, a poet, but he had not yet left Judaism. He was a fiery nationalist… he was a genial person, a great personality…

“The Enlightened Carpenter” caused controversy and indignation, in particular among the kloizniks…

The book set forth among Jews the idea of “work” as a socialist concept. This idea was later adopted and promoted by A. D. Gordon, as the “Religion of Work” [Dat Ha'avoda].

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I was greatly impressed by Shimshelewitz's words…

Even before I met Walt personally, I felt the effect of his ideas. Shimshelewitz would bring us pages of poems written by that mysterious person, who had become the hero of a tale. The poems passed from hand to hand; they were full of Jewish suffering and pain, and willingness to sacrifice his life for Jews.

But Shimshelewitz brought to the kloizniks not only national poems by Walt; he brought also revolutionary poems…. this was actually his main goal. The poems had a significant effect; they greatly inspired some of the younger kloizniks.

The revolutionary poems were known not only among the kloizniks. Craftsmen and other workers were aware of them as well, and in 1896 circles of Jewish workers began to organize. Most organizers came from Vilna; among them was a friend of Walt (Lyessin), Shmuel Levine (Dr. Shmuel Levine, who died in New York about 30 years ago). Levine worked among the kloizniks as well and he talked with admiration about one of them, a genius, who became a great poet and socialist. He meant his friend Walt.

By that time, strikes began in town. This was already too much for the Balebatim – they were furious. At the same time, a preacher came then to our town, Simcha Cohen, who was a singer as well as a speaker. He would “sing” his sermons in a threatening voice that penetrated the souls of his listeners. In his sermons he asked the fathers not to spare their sons, but to do everything in their power to annihilate the “idol worship” [socialism] from their midst. The effect of the sermons was great: it caused trouble in many families, where sons and daughters of rich Jews helped enlighten poor laborers, show them how they have been exploited and organized strikes against their own fathers.

Even among the kloizniks in the Yeshiva incidents began to happen. Feitel the supervisor caught one of the students, Botwinik (from Rakov) reading from a book that he kept on top of his open Gemara [Talmud volume]. Actually the book was an entirely

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“innocent” book: it was a grammar book of the Russian language by Kirpitchnikov. But a rumor began, that the Rakover was one of Sinitzki's men. The result of Kirpitchnikov's grammar book incident was sad indeed. One of the Smorgon Jews, the rich man Baruch Nathan, slapped the Rakover and drove him out of the Bet Midrash.

The fact that a kloiznik was beaten upset the entire kibbutz in the Bet Midrash. Older pious people were angry at Nathan, who dared to raise a hand on a teacher. The Rakover was a friend of mine, we lived in the same neighborhood; and although I did not always agree with him and we had many arguments about his friendship with the assimilates, I suffered the consequences of the well-known saying “woe to the wicked, woe to his neighbor”…. Smorgon had become too crowded for me. Many of my acquaintances had moved to Minsk.


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Whenever I speak about her…
(A chapter of memories)

by Regina Helman

Translated by Sara Mages


Not without excitement and longing I bring up my memories today on the sheet of paper before me…As in a play, the images of my childhood pass before me through a bright transparent mirror, and I hold them one by one.

Smorgon my hometown – my cradle stood in you, I took my first steps in you, in your streets I learned my first lesson in human relations, and bought wisdom in your “Heders” and “schools”.

My house in you was small, but the whole world resided in it. It was saturated with faith in God and love for the nation of Israel.

Untypical for girls, my father of blessed memory entered me to the “Heder” of Rabbi Gershon Yankel in Karka Street (Krever Gas). I was a small tender girl then. I was barely five years old.

Even now I can see in my dreams the long wooden benches adjacent to the tables. There were various strange engravings on them, birds and animals that the children's imagination carved, some with a small cheap knife, and some with a nail or a piece of glass. Next to this long table sat a congregation of babies, boys and girls, and learned prayers, the Chumash and the Bible. Next to the “class room” was a small room that served as the residence of the “Rabbi” and his “Polish woman”, dark and narrow was this room and its entire space was filled with two wide beds. The naughty among us played “hide and seek” under the beds of this gloomy room.

Attached to the Rabbi's house grew a tree that its bough almost covered the roof and sloped towards the fence. I remember that the teacher's goat was tied to this tree. The goat, “the only daughter”, was spoiled but kind hearted and overflowing with milk for the children of Rabbi Gershon Yankel. One day, the goat disappeared, and it was “Tisha B'Av” in the rabbi's house. The Rebbetzin clasped her hands, cried and shouted in a voice full of fear.

“The goat is lost and gone, Woe to me! our provider!” Needless to say, that we, the small children, participated in the great grief of the rabbi's wife.

My mother of blessed memory educated us in the spirit of tradition and religion. Every morning, when we got up, she placed us, the children, in a row and we repeated after her word by word: “Modeh Ani Lefanecha” [“I am grateful before You”], and at bedtime, when we climbed on our beds, she gave us a copper laver full of water and a bowl on its side to wash our hands and say: “Hamapil hevlei sheina” [the Bedtime Shema].

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Our mother insisted that also her daughters will pray “Shacharit”, “Mincha” and “Maariv” every day.

And what is remarkable in this? After all, our mother was the daughter of a rabbi, the granddaughter of “R' Yosile der Villner”, and also the uncles were teachers, judges and rabbis like R' Yodel der Zurferner, R' Zalman and others.

Every Friday, after “Kabalat Shabbat”, my father used to bring a poor guest to the house, and mother brought a needy “Yeshiva Bocher” [an unmarried Yeshiva student] every Tuesday.

My father was a scholar, a “reader”, a respectful man with a pleasant voice. His teaching was organized and in his spare time he taught us. How I loved to hear my father explaining the Bible. His explanations opened my eyes, and to this day I haven't forgotten the knowledge that I acquired from him in my childhood. On summer evenings and on the Sabbath he taught me “Pirkei Avot” and “Barchi Nafshi” in the winter.

The first planted words of wisdom and morals in my soul, and the second the love for poetry and the wonders of God. I grew up a little and started to study in the “Reformed Heder” [“Heder Metukan”] of the teacher Schinuk of blessed memory. He was an excellent teacher, a “grammarian”, an enthusiastic lover of Zion, and an advocate of the Hebrew literature. Parallel to my studies in the “Reformed Heder” I also studied in the Russian Elementary School.

Nevertheless, I preferred my Hebrew studies over the Russian studies. When I started to read Hebrew books on my own – I didn't let them go. I was shaken when I read “Ahavat Zion” [Love of Zion] and “Ashmat Shomron” [The Guilt of Samaria] by Abraham Mapu. For many days I wandered dreamily and my eyes rose longingly to Zion.

Our teacher Schinuk had a large part in nurturing the Zionist dream among the children of Smorgon. He inspired us with his stories and lit a sacred fire in us for the love of our nation.

I remember a short essay that I wrote at that time under the influence and the teaching of our favorite teacher. The essay was about a way-of-a-dream, and this is its summery: One day the teacher Schinuk came and said to us: children we are going on a trip. The teacher took us and transferred us on eagles' wings to Eretz Yisrael. And here, our feet are standing at the gates to Jerusalem. We climb the mountains around her and descend into the valleys. In a valley, between fields and vineyards, Jewish farmers are reaping with joy, and the sounds of happiness and joy are being heard from all sides. Blue sky stretches over our heads. Jewish shepherds are sitting on the hills playing their flutes and their sheep are dancing in front of them. We come to a vineyard and our teacher picks a cluster of grapes and tells us: let's carry it with a “pole for two”- we carry the cluster of grapes and bring it to our brothers in the Diaspora.

I woke up and it was a dream. The teacher Schinuk of blessed memory checked the essay and praised the writer (it's me) publicly. He asked me to give him my essay so he could read it before the members of the “Zionist Federation”. I remember the phrase that the teacher wrote on the essay in addition to the grade:

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“Indeed, your feet will step on the land of Zion and your eyes will see the return of our people to their country.”

Not before long, the “Reformed Heder” of Schinuk of blessed memory received a “burst of power.” A young Jewish woman, a graduate of the Zionist School ''Yehudia'' in Vilna, who was qualified as a teacher, came to Smorgon, married our teacher Schinuk, and helped him with his revival work.

Maybe this teacher from ''Yehudia'' in Vilna was the cause of my deepen desire to be a teacher. That thought gave me no rest and I looked for ways to make it happen. My parents' financial status was strained, there were many children at home and my sisters came of age. O where will my help come from? My prayer and my secret tears were received in the heavens. Spirit and salvation came to me from a place that I've never expected.

In those days, Dr. Epstein of blessed memory lived in Smorgon. A precious Jew and an ardent Zionist. Though, he was a doctor for his people's illnesses, meaning, body illnesses, he didn't prevent himself from giving medicines for the illnesses of our people's spirit and soul. The city's Zionists gathered in his home for holiday parties or for reading parties from the nest Hebrew literature. And since I was gifted with a nice voice and read poems with the correct emotion, I was invited to one of these parties to read the poem “Igeret Ketana”[A brief letter] by Hayim Nahman Bialik. It seems that I succeeded in reading the poem, because soon after Dr. Epstein invited me and had a long conversation with me. He asked me about my aspirations, examined me carefully, and had made this decision.

The next day, Dr. Epstein came to my father, sat with him for a long time, and persuaded him to send me to a kindergarten teachers' school in Warsaw. My father didn't want to hear about Warsaw. Rumors spread: that “girls were abducted” in Warsaw in order to send them overseas… but my father accepted Dr. Epstein's offer to send me to ''Yehudia'' in Vilna. And thus I arrived to “Yerushalayim deLita”. The gates to the Torah and knowledge opened before me in this Jewish metropolis, and I lived the life of national and cultural revival of that generation. On holidays I returned to Smorgon. In one of these days - we presented in this city “Chana and her Seven Sons” with Moyshe Kulbak, who later became famous. Smorgon, my Divine city, accompanied me in all the many stations of my life, in all my long wanderings around the world, in the steppes of Russia and Siberia, and in the European countries. And now, when I check my way of my life, I find that a lot of the grace and beauty of my hometown, from the good and noble, are embedded in…[the remainder is missing]

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A testimony

by Pesach Taburiski

Translated by Sara Mages


I was born in Smorgon in 1903.

I studied at the Russian Elementary School which was located in Minsk Street. There were five classes in the school. The school's principal was Skott, and the teachers were Horowitz the author of the grammar book, Dubkis, and Filler. Mrs. Scott was the principal of an elementary school for girls

In 1911, at the age of eight, I entered the Elementary School's preparatory class. The school had about 250 students. Each student, who was accepted, had to be able to read and write Russian, be versed in the multiplication table and the four rules of mathematics.

Skott taught the Bible which was translated into Russian. We also prayed in Russian. We started the morning with a prayer for the king.

I studied four years in the school. The studies continued without interruption even during the war which broke out in 1914.

The big recruitment day came. The recruits, meaning, the reserves up to age 45, were transported to Oshmene [Ashmyany]. Their number reached tens of thousands.

During the first year of the First World War, convoys of Jewish refugees from Kovno, Jonava, Kurlandia [Courland] and also from cities in Poland arrived to Smorgon's station.

Immediately, our city organized a “War refugee aid committee.”

We welcomed the refugees in the train station. We brought them food. Smorgon's notable women worked in an improvised kitchen. Samovars were brought and tea was boiled. We watered and fed the poor people who fled from the German's sword, or deported from their place of residency according to the decree of the commander-in-chief of the Russian Army, Nikolay Nikolayevich, the Jews' enemy. We received the refugees who wanted to remain in our city with open arms. Some of them stayed with us for a whole year.

The Germans entered the city and captured it on the eve of Rosh Hashanah. They robbed the grocery stores and the wine stores. They handed out chocolate to the city's children to earn their trust.

The Jews treated them with open sympathy. Not out of love for Wilhelm [Kaiser Wilhelm II], but out of hatred for Czar Nikolay II, the Czar who was hostile towards the Jews. Under his orders, his wicked people, who pretended to be nationalists, carried out pogroms against the Jews in the cities of the Pale Settlement.

The conquerors didn't harm the civilians.

One fine day we heard shots from the Firibeiz? side, meaning, across the Viliya River.

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The Russians built a new bridge over the river, because the Germans demolished the old bridge and also blew up the railway line. The battle was fought almost within the city limits, buildings were ignited and fires broke out.

The Russian infantry seized the city and took it from the Germans. Cossacks' troops arrived after the infantry.

After a few days, an order arrived from Nikolay Nikolayevich to burn the whole city and expel all of its Jewish residents.

Those who refused to obey, about forty people, gathered in the Koidenav Shtiebel. The Cossacks burnt the house on them.

The Cossacks stormed the few dozens men and women who hid in Kovrsky's liquor workshop. They tortured the women and set the distillery on fire.

All of us, who were expelled from the city, walked towards Minsk. We arrived, some in a cart and some by foot, to Maladzyechna. From there we traveled by train to Minsk. In Minsk they put us in the synagogue. We were welcomed by the workers of the Red Cross and the members of the “Refugee Aid Committee.” Only a few refugees from Smorgon remained in Mink. The majority of the refugees traveled to various cities: Bogorodsk, Krakow and Poltova. Some traveled farther and reached Siberia. Some immigrated to the United States through Harbin [China] and Japan.

When we were expelled we didn't have the time to take food, clothing or underwear with us, we left with nothing. A few refugees bundled a little food in a tablecloth and the women took Sabbath candles.

We had a big oven in our house and the neighbors used to keep their Sabbath meals in it. Our uncle lived in the Bears Street. He was a busy factory owner and didn't know what was happening in the city. As usual he came to our house on Saturday to attend the Shabbat meal with the family. He entered, and to his astonishment he saw the Cossacks sitting around the table eating Jewish food, fish, meat and cholent, that they took out of the oven. They showered him with blows and he fled for his life

After the feast, they took kerosene from our storeroom, poured it on the Jews' houses and set them on fire. - - -

In 1920, some began to return to Smorgon. These were the forerunners… meaning, the families who lived in Minsk and their return journey wasn't long. Most of Smorgon's residents returned in 1921-1922. Some of those who returned stopped on the way and lived temporarily in Vilna, and some came straight to Smorgon. They settled in the cellars of the surviving buildings. A few busied themselves in building new houses to replace those that were burnt. For building material they used the wooden beams that they removed from the trenches which remained intact. They were built two, three, or even four stories below ground.

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