by Rafael Weinstein
Translated by Sara Mages
My hometown Smorgon, what was this community before the First World War and after, in other words, what was its contribution to the Lithuanian Jewry and to the country of Israel?
When I was a boy I loved you, my hometown, I loved your streets and everything that was around you, the forests and the rivers. I clung to you, because from you I nursed my devotion to return to Zion and the holy city of Jerusalem, because you inspired me with your spirit, the spirit of religious nationalism. I was born at the beginning of the new world. The days were quiet and peaceful and everything was quiet around us. Peace and tranquility prevailed in the big world, and in our city people respected each other. There were distinguished men among us, whose concern for the community and their fellowman was greater than the concern for themselves.
It is possible to say that I was born on the knees of Zionism. In those days, a star shone from the darkness and lit up the dark roads on which our nation walked. A large movement rose, a great awakening to return to Zion, to redeem and build our country from its wilderness.
We lived in Avraham Zuckerman's house in the courtyard of Beit HaMidrash. All the houses of worship, the Kloyzn, the Shtiebelekh, and even the hospitality house were concentrated there. I was a curious boy by nature and I loved to hear the Hasidim sing when they danced. Their songs captured my heart and charmed my soul with the grief and joy that merged in them. Many times I forced my way, without being asked, into the circle of excited dancers, who danced and sang to the depths of their souls for the sanctity of the Sabbath or a festival. I felt that the whole world Was good! and there was nothing more superior and improved. At home, I received a national-religious education. My father was middle-aged then. He devoted all of his will and strength to public work, and engaged in the distribution of the Zionist idea with great enthusiasm. Our house was spacious with eight rooms. One of them was dedicated to the office of Gemilut Hasadim. On Saturdays and holidays it was used as Mikdash Me'at [minor sanctuary] where Jews from all the social classes prayed. It was called the The Zionists Minyan by the residents of our city. Every day there were many visitors to our house, and words of Torah, wisdom and piety were heard in it at all times. I absorbed the words of the visitors and debaters, who didn't intend to teach me, it was educational.
I remember the Fridays, around the time of lighting the Shabbat candles. Hirsh Yehudah Rodenski
walked from street to street and loudly announced that it was time to welcome the Sabbath. When he approached the side of the shops it was like terror fell on the merchants: Hirsh Yehudah is getting closer, meaning, that we need to close the shops. In an instant the bargaining ceased and all the work stopped in the city. A dense Sabbath atmosphere hovered over Smorgon's alleys and yards. There was no need for policemen and threats of fines. Hirsh Yehudah's voice was enough to stop all the secular wheels of commerce. The sanctity of the Sabbath took over on its own. Jews flocked to the houses of worship dressed in their Sabbath clothes, hurried to welcome the Sabbath Queen. Great voices, full of poetic effusion and holy longing, were heard in the courtyard of Beit HaMidrash and echoed in the distance.
|A winter view|
My birthplace, Smorgon, was a Jewish metropolis in Lita. Great Torah sages lived there and the generation's geniuses studied there. The genius rabbi, Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, May the memory of the righteous be of a blessing, studied in a Yeshiva in Smorgon. A number of Smorgon's rabbis were famous in Russia for their knowledge, wisdom, and piety. I will only mention two of them. HaRav Yehudah Leib Gordin, and Rabbi Menashe Gintzburg. There were many Hadarim [Jewish religious schools for young children] in our city, most of them taught from the old system and a few from the new. There were reformed Hadarim where the teaching language was Hebrew. It is worth mentioning the names of the outstanding teachers: Yakov Shenzon, Leib Gilinski, Avraham Buck, Shmuel Milikovski and others whose names escaped me. All were certified teachers who finished their studies in education. Dr. Epstein of blessed memory served as a doctor in our city and supported the founders of Tikvah School. Among the founders and educators were the activists: Mr. Gershon Weinstein, Mr. Liberman and Mr. Mendel Yanovsky. The pride of our city was the writer and poet Moyshe Kulbak, who earned himself a respectable place in Yiddish literature. And we can't ignore the artist and sculptor, Mr. Etking who was born and lived in Smorgon and earned a world reputation. The great author, Abraham Aharon Kabak,
also wrote his memories about the community of Smorgon. And it is impossible to ignore the family of Avigdor Koussevitzky, who were distinguished cantors with a fine singing voice.
Before the First World War there were nearly thirty thousand people in our city Smorgon. It was known as an industrial city and its residents engaged primarily in curing hides. The products were of the best quality and found buyers in many markets across Europe. There were also a lot of tradesmen in the city like tailors, seamstress, shoemakers, carpenters, sheet-metal workers, fitters, plasterers, oven-builders and more. There were also banks in the city. The owner of one of the banks, Meir Bronda of blessed memory, was considered to be the most respected proprietor. He was a biblical scholar, a philanthropist and a diligent activist. The city paid tax to fashion: there were two cinemas, Gignet and Eden. I went to see a movie by the name The Western Wall. The excitement in the audience peaked when they showed the mountains around Jerusalem.
During those days the following political parties were active among the Russian Jewry: the Zionist, the Bund, and Agudat Yisrael. They took up their stand in the social life of our city. My father's house, as I said above, was a communal house because my father was a diligent activist in the Zionist movement and in the community. My father's coworkers, Shmuel Fein, Yosef Reznikovich, Ajzik Bronda, Ben Meir Bronda, Chaim Alperowitch, Mendel Yenovsky, Gershon Broide, Zev Melkis, Rapoport, Ripkin and others, came to our home. They negotiated matters of Zionism, argued about the modes of propaganda and the methods of work. I was a boy, and of course, I didn't understand their discussions and debates. But I knew that they were talking about Eretz Yisrael. I saw young men and women going down to our cellar where they packed the Keren Hakayemet boxes. They wrapped them in white cloth and sent them to the nearby towns. This work was done in secret, underground, because it was forbidden. Every Saturday evening my father's acquaintances gathered for a national Zionist Se'udat Melaveh Malkah [Escorting the Sabbath Queen meal]. They sang songs of Zion and also Hassidic songs. Once I asked my father: who is Herzl? and what is Keren Hakayemet? My father answered me, when you grow up you will know and understand, but added and said: my son, Herzl is the man who wants to bring the whole Jewish nation to his homeland and Keren Hakayemet collects money to redeem the land from the Arabs. I was filled with astonishment and asked him again: what do we lack here in our homeland that we should look for in another country? We live in peace and quite, each in his own home, we keep the Sabbath, celebrate our holidays, and no one bothers us. His answer was: we aren't in our own country. We need to redeem our Holy Land and settle there.
During the elections to the Duma, the Russian parliament, a strong war flared up between the Zionists and the Bund movement in the city. The Zionists had the upper hand. My father and his helpers engaged in propaganda in favor of Zionism, and fought the city's Bund members, because our city was an industrial city with a lot of factory workers.
The Russian revolution appealed to the Bundists [members of the Bund movement], who waited for it to erupt and change their lifestyle. The Bundists mocked us, the Zionists, and claimed that we should build our future here, in the Diaspora, and abolish the Zionist aspiration. Great Zionist speakers visited our city and gave their speeches. I will mention the most distinguished among them: Dr. Shmaryahu Levin, Dr. Mosenzon, Ze'ev Jabotinsky and others. No wonder, that many young people emigrated from our city to Israel, settled there and engaged in agriculture. Many of Smorgon's people live on their land in Hadera and established a generation of farmers in Israel. On this occasion I'll comment, that Smorgon had a suburb by the name of Krake. Jews, who worked the land and lived on their crops, lived there. We called them the Krake's Jews. They had sort of communal autonomy: their own rabbi and slaughterer.
|Wilenska Street in Smorgon|
When the First World War broke out we were expelled from our homeland. The city was set on fire. We fled for our lives to the vastness of Russia and Ukraine. In our places of exile we formed a Smorgon's group, the Zionist movement continued to operate, we cared for each other and offered a helping hand. When we arrived to Minsk, my father and Mr. Yakov Perewoski, the veteran activist of our community, provided the inhabitants of our city with identity cards that were stamped with the seal of our community that they hadn't forgotten to take with them when they were expelled from the city. This identity card served as an official passport for everything. Many refugees from our city settled in Kharkov, the capital of Ukraine. They immediately organized and concentrated around the Zionists' synagogue, which was located at the home of the well known philanthropist Abraham Yehudah Zuckerman of blessed memory. I remember the time of the Balfour Declaration. How great was the happiness of the refugees from Smorgon.
A great assembly gathered in Zuckerman's home, and my father preached about the beginning of the desired redemption.
Our community's activists remained faithful to their public work until they return to Smorgon at the end of the war, and helped to rebuild it and restore it.
In 1921, when the civil war was at its peak, different squadrons consolidated, fought against the Bolshevik regime, and carried out pogroms against the Jews. The Bolshevik authorities allowed the war refugees to return to their homeland, and many refugees returned to Smorgon.
And when the first refugees returned, what did they find? destruction and desolation. It was hard to find the road to the city because it was completely covered with grass and shrubs. Foxes and wolves walked in it. They started to clear it off. They cut down the trees, uprooted the shrubs and exterminated the weeds. The returnees flowed day after day, and family came after family. When we returned we found one house standing alone in Wilenska Street. The family of Moshe Kagan lived in that house. My father left to wander around the city. He searched and after a lot of efforts he found the veteran activist Mr. Yakov Perewoski, Moshe Sherira, and a number of families residents of Krake. The three activists came to a decision that there was a need to establish a temporary immigrants' committee which will design a program to rebuild the ruined city, speed up the return of Surgeon's scattered residents, gather the deposed, and offer assistance to all the needy. These are the members of the committee: Gershon Weinstein, Yakov Perewoski, Moshe Kagan, Yakov Boaz Horowitz, Shmuel Greis and Moshe Sherira. Gershon Weinstein was elected as secretary. The first action was to rent an apartment from a Gentile. The house had two small rooms and its roof was made of straw. The committee took up residence here. The diligent secretary started to send letters to our townspeople Relief (Aid) committee, which was established in the United States. In his letters he described the destruction of the city, the shortages, the poverty among the returnees, and stirred the hearts of our merciful brothers. The response came immediately and crates full of food and clothing arrived. A short time later, delegations of behalf of Relief arrived, and donations started to flow. There was also a Jewish relief committee for war victims in Vilna called YEKOPO [acronym of Yevreyskiy komitet pomoschi zhertvam voyny] which gave construction loans to the needy. A short time later, houses for the returning refugees were built with the help of the two committees, Relief and YEKOPO. The first building was built in the courtyard of Beit Hamidrash. The returnees lived there until they received loans to build their own homes.
A large sum of money was received from the aid committee in the United States, about twenty thousand dollars. With this money they fixed the Great Beit Hamidrash and the fence around the cemetery which lay open. They filled the trenches that were left from the days of the war, established a bank for the residents, opened a library and also built a number of public buildings. Those who came from afar lived there temporarily.
The secretary and treasurer of the bank was Gershon Weinstein. Chaim Tarachan was the primary bookkeeper. And these are the members of the bank: Shlomo Katz, Mordechai Mirski, Yeshaya Kovarsky, A. Schulman, Chaim Alperowitch, Reuven Rodenski, Meir Goldberg, and Padulsky.
Gradually, the social life started to flow in a normal rate and it was time to organize a community where all the representatives of the Jewish population will be found. The leaders of the community were: Yakov Perewoski, Moshe Kreinis, Natan Kovarsky and Shlomo Katz,Gershon Weinstein was elected as the community's secretary.
Dov Bindman and G. Weinstein established a school by the name of Tarbut [culture]. Most of the city's children studied there. It was located in a two storey building. The orphanage boarding school was also located in this building. The studies of all the subjects were conducted in Hebrew. A Talmud Torah school was founded, and Rabbi Menashe Ginzburg cared for its existence. There was a Small Yeshiva and young men from the city and the region studied there. At the head of this religious institute stood: HaRav Yakov Boaz Horowitz, Moshe Sherira, Dov Bindman and Avraham Eliezer Gurevich, of blessed memory.
In 1923, the first pioneers left Smorgon and immigrated illegally to Israel: Yona Megidai, Zampkin, Shmuel Weinstein and Galinsky. They belonged to the end of the Third Aliya [immigration].
After that, a chapter of HeHalutz [the pioneer] federation was established in our city. The member Rasish came to our city to organize the Halutz activities. At the head of the local Halutz organization stood the members: Mordechai Cohen, Shmuel Rodenski, Eliakum Lamdansky, Eliezer Schlemowitz, Zalman Katzkowitch, and more. A few years later, all of them were able to immigrate to Israel. When they arrived to Israel they joined the Haganah [The Defense] and participated in the building and the defense of the homeland.
And here, the pioneering training period started in Poland, and a group of young people from Smorgon left for a Hachsharah [pioneering training] Kibbutz in Klosow [Poland]: Binyamin Marshak, Zalman Alperowitch of blessed memory, Pergament and others. After their training they immigrated to Israel, settled in Hadera where most of the immigrants from our city concentrated.
HeHalutz wasn't the only active organization in our city Smorgon. There were a number of other organizations like the General Zionists federation, the Hitachdut Zionist Labor party, Poalei Zion Right and Hashomer Hatzair. All of them strove for one purpose, the redemption and the building of the land of Israel, and the revival of the Jewish culture in the Diaspora and in Israel. All the organizations offices were concentrated in the most magnificent building in our city. The name of the building, which previously served as a school for Smorgon's orphans, was Internat. This building was the cultural center of our city, and in it, as it is mentioned above, was also Tarbut School. Quiet a few students of this school serve as teachers and counselors in elementary schools in Israel. Among the teachers of Tarbut School were: Yosef Bernstein, Moshe Fisher, Shmuel Katz, may their memory be blessed. Yosef Bernstein and Moshe Fisher preached the Zionist idea from the synagogue's Bimah. They aroused the congregation to act for the benefit of our people and their settlement in their own country, and they repeatedly emphasized that our nation is facing annihilation in the Diaspora.
The members who were active in the Hitachdut Zionist Labor party were: Eliezer Schulman, Raphael Weinstein, Reuven Greenberg, Zalman Pergament and Yisrael Gass, but the driving force of the party was Yosef Bernstein. The members who excelled in the management of Hashomer Hatzair and HeHalutz were: Avigdor Jacobson, David Perewoski, Ahuva Bronda, Bracha Jacobson and Etka Meltzer. Most of the best young students in our city were concentrated in Hashomer Hatzair movement. Most of them spoke Hebrew and were imbued with a national pioneering spirit. To our joy, many of them are now in Israel. They were able to immigrate to Israel before the Holocaust.
A branch of Tarbut acted vigorously in our city. Its duty was to ensure the existence of a school bearing the name Tarbut, spread the knowledge of the Hebrew language, bring the Hebrew book into the Jewish homes, and educate to youth in the spirit of Zionism. The branch also provided the tuition for children of families who were unable to pay because the community couldn't allocate sums of money for this purpose. Six members represented the Jewish community in the municipality. They lobbied before this institution to support the school with a set amount of tax money that was collected from Smorgon's Jewish residents. Their efforts were unsuccessful. They encountered the anti-Semitism that existed between the members of the municipality, and we alone carried this financial burden. The writer of these modest columns spent quite a lot of efforts and energy to collect the necessary funds needed for the needy students. Occasionally, the active members of the drama club and lovers of the stage staged plays for this purpose. We plotted to invent all kind of tricks in order to collect contributions from various parties.
There were also other difficulties that we had to overcome and remove from the path of Hebrew education. The Polish government schools in the city tried to absorb the Jewish children, and plotted for the souls of the children of the poor. They offered them varied inducements in order to capture them into their network like: studies on Sunday instead of Saturday, and various discounts. During enrollment days we recruited our friends and placed two of them in each region to speak to the parents' hearts, and explain to them the national sin of giving their children to a foreign culture and to assimilation. We worked in secret to avoid capture by the hostile Polish police. The members who excelled in these actions were: Reuven Greenberg, Zalman Pergament and the writer of these lines.
It is impossible to ignore our community's library and the great reading room. There were Yiddish and Hebrew books in the library. Most of them were reading books and a few were textbooks and encyclopedias. The library was given to the Zionist administration by the members who were active in the community's culture department. We the youth, developed, nourished and expanded the library. All the activists worked voluntarily. There were seven members in the administration which was elected for a period of one year. The library's revenues were meager and we filled in the deficit by charging admission to lectures, literary debates, films, and also plays. In this manner we were able to purchase new books every year. In the reading room it was possible to find newspapers from all over the world.
The writer of this article served as the chairman of the board, the secretary was Reuven Greenberg and the board members were: Natan Lepkin of blessed memory, and may they live - Chana Aleprowitch and Alte Denishevsky (today Shoshanna Plowsky).
A drama club existed in our city. The first and foremost amateur actor was Shmuel Rodenski. We predicted a bright future for him on the stage and our prediction was fulfilled. He became famous in Israel as one of the great stage artists. The following members participated in the performances: Feigale Leggat, Zipora Rubin, Gitila Bronda, Malka Bronda, Liba the seamstress, Hinda Lipkir, Etka Meltzer, Aharon Rubin, Pesach Taborsky, Zila Schar, Mordechai Cohen, of blessed memory.
We will finish our review with a society named Linat Tzedek. This charitable organization played an important role in our city. Most of its activists were women: Rachel Rabinowitch, Sara Denishevsky, Chana Bernstein, Alta Denishevsky (Shoshanna Plowsky), Bertha Horowitz, Margalit, Bracha Bronda, Ema Rudnick. Tzedek Rudnick was the head of the organization.
Second row: P. Denishevsky, M. Katz, H. Koplovich, A. Bronda, A. Meltzer, H. Kirzner, K. Lagget, H. Greenberg, L. Pergament.
Third row: A. Badnes, A. Koplovich, L. Schulman, K. Kagan, R. Weinstein,Viz. Pergament, S. Denishevsky.
Fourth row: S. Rodenski, Y. Gass, M. Denishevsky, G. Denishevsky.
Fifth row: H. Vitkin, B. Taborsky, S. Chadash, Y. Friedman.
By Golda Shalem
Translated by Sara Mages
It seems to me, that it is difficult and almost impossible to come up with any kind of memories about the image of the city and its character that don't carry a strong personal character. These memories should be part of their writer's autobiography, because fate wanted that we - the natives of Smorgon, a generation who was born at the beginning of the 20th century and reached the days of the Holocaust - will also know two world wars. All the hardships of this period left their mark and molded the character of the child and the youth, who were born in Smorgon, from the beginning of their lives. Each one of us who wants to write what he can still remember from his childhood in his birthplace - will find out that at the dawn of his life he only had a few years of peaceful life at his parents' home, with his family, relatives and friends, in a typical Jewish town. But this life, idyllic life in a quite densely populated town, which was adorned with a beautiful rural landscape of fields, forests, farms, and Belarusian farmers with their rural way of life - disappeared in 1914, the first year of World War I. In 1915, the Russian army ordered all the city residents to leave their city, because the Russians had to retreat and the army headquarters had chosen the tactic of scorched earth. In no time the city turned into mounds of ash and burning embers. I still remember the shocking image of the burning city - which started to burn before we left. Each child only took a small bundle in his hand, and we also took our cow (because we lived out of town). On the road, the cow was the source of life for the nine small children. And so, in an instant, we and the other residents of the city, turned into a great huge camp of refugees who trudged their way south on the road leading to Maladzyechna, and from there to Minsk which at that time was still far from the front. And so it happened, that the peaceful quiet life of the children and youth in the background of a town, its environment and its rural landscape, stopped overnight and was replaced with other living arrangements and other ways of life in the large expanses of Great Russia. So, naturally, if we just want to reminisce back to that period of our lives in our birthplace in the Diaspora - these childhood memories should contain all the secrecy and romance that were reflected in the mind of a Jewish child in his early childhood. And here comes the main obstacle, and it is the poor eloquence of an ordinary person, a worker, who never wrote his
memories, despite this he tries his best, because he has a strong desire to rescue from obscurity all that he can still save: and I'll start with this.
I'm from a family of a laborer who worked in the tannery industry, a family with many children who tasted the life of a hired worker of those days. My father worked a long and arduous day, and received a very small salary which was barely enough to support his large family and pay all types of expenses. It is very possible, that the difficult economic situation of the Jewish worker in the towns of those times - determined my future as a member of a collective farm in Israel.
My earliest memories relate to the period of my life when I was 4-5 years old. I remember that we lived in a rented apartment, one in a row of apartments that shared one yard. The buildings stood in a long line on the right side of the yard, on the other side, across from the buildings, was a wooden fence. It was a totally sealed fence without a single crack and it separated our yard from the slaughterhouse yard.
The smells and the sounds that came over this fence didn't add pleasure or peace to the residents of our yard. I remember that my parents had a very strong desire to move from this place, even to a place farther from the city center where the shops and the market were. And indeed, my parents found a way to fulfill their wish.
During that period, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Smorgon decided to lease plots of land by the size of 1-2 Dunam to Jews who wanted to build a house outside the dense populated area. Previously, these plots of land were part of a public garden that also belonged to the church. It was leased to the city for all kinds of social events, like masquerade parties and summer concerts by the firefighters and the police orchestras. The plots, which were leased to the Jews, lay in a semicircle around the garden, and therefore, each plot owner had a common border with the public garden and was able to watch all the events in the garden. Of course, it wasn't easy for a hired worker with a large family to save money to build a house, even the simplest one. Nevertheless, the idea became a reality, and the houses were built, for some earlier and for some later, in the form of a new street with its new houses. Each house had a beautiful well maintained flower garden and a narrow wooden walkway for pedestrians according to the needs of that time. Our new street was given the name - the Gardens Street. In a short period of time it turned into a nature road, a place for a summer stroll for the residents of the crowded areazv who once a week, on a Sabbath afternoon, enjoyed the sight of green fields and fresh air because our Gardens Street was only built on its right side, and fields of grain, barley, oats and abundance of wild flowers lay on its left side. Shortly after we settled in our new home a new Catholic Church was built in town (until then the Catholics didn't have a proper church). The church was built at the continuation of Minsk Street on the left side of Sinkzki's gardens, and Gardens Street ran in a semicircle on the right side.
And we, the Jewish children, from the street near the church, were uninvited guests to almost all the weddings that took place there and also to the funerals. It opened a new religious world for us, the religious ceremonies of the nation in which we lived. We also became proficient in the Gentile's language, something that helped us to befriend the neighborhood's no-Jewish children (because there were also non-Jewish families in the new neighborhood).
Here, in the new place, an ample space opened for us, the children, for activities and games. During the winter, when the snow piled up and covered everything in the yard, we had to sweep it sideways to open a path to the primitive cowshed which was built from wooden beams, and a path to the well which was located in the street and served several neighbors. We, the children, threw snowballs at each other while we were clearing the snow, and we also built snowmen. Not once the game was at the expense of helping our mother (we only helped our mother because our father left early in the morning while we were still asleep - and came home from work in the evening, not before the hour of seven, and sometimes later. I remember that only the older children were still awake at this hour). But, we saw the real life during the summer. Then - who will resemble us and who will compare to us. Who needs a more ideal place for a game of hide and seek than a high flour field, almost as tall as an adult? (they were fields of rye). As time went by, we weren't allowed to play hide and seek in the fields before harvest for obvious reasons. And if not the fields, we found other hiding places. The passion for the game was very strong, and I remember my brother Zalman, who was forced to retire from the game for a few moments in order to pray the Mincha prayers as he always did at twilight. But it was almost impossible for him to be totally disconnected from the game, could it be? If so, he found a way. He stood near the corner of the house, muttered the prayer verses quickly, and his eyes followed the course of the game (of course, all of that not in the presence of our father). In brief, the new house opened a whole world for us. A pine forest stretched behind the fields and a train paved its rhythmic course thought it. We always heard its whistles and we could see the thick smoke that rose from the locomotive's chimney. But as the saying goes: There's a fly in the ointment. It was heaven on earth for the children and additional difficulties for our parents. Mother was forced to carry the family's food baskets and the concentrated food for the cow over a great distance. To this day I can't imagine how my mother could do it all, the specious new home added more work and also the garden next to it. Every year, in the spring, we took the manure out of the cowshed, spread it over the designated area, and a gentile, the owner of a horse and a plough, came in one of the spring days, ploughed the plot for us and mixed the manure with the earth. We planted potatoes at the farthest plot from the house, and vegetables closer to the house. Of course, we really worked hard at that. We spread all over the garden, 3-4 children together with our mother, and the work was done for the best because we ate from the fruit of our garden all summer, each vegetable in its season. There was a payment for the work in the garden, and the family's food budget balanced more easily. Mother saved money from her food budget and spent it in other areas, like clothing and footwear. In those days every Jewish child was guaranteed a new outfit and new shoes for the holiday of Rosh Hashanah, and it wasn't a trivial matter for our family.
There were also two purple palm bushes in our plot of land, and at the back of the plot stood a bent multi branches old apple tree. Every year it bloomed in early spring and was covered with flowers. Almost every year the flowers turned into Antonov apples, which ripped late, almost in the fall. But the most important thing, that delighted the children's heart, was an ancient elm tree with a stork's nest at the treetop. At the beginning of the spring, we, the children, watched the treetop to see if the storks returned from the warm countries. And when the pair of storks finally returned, they began to repair and pad the nest, and get ready for hatching. But we were not rewarded to see a lot of generations of storks, and were not rewarded to see our only apple tree blooming in the spring, because the war broke out and uprooted us from our new home, and from a beautiful corner of an outstanding rural landscape with all the nice things in it. We were uprooted from our home shortly after we won it and after so many yearnings - and we never returned to it.
Unconsciously, I divided the stories of my memories into two conflicting authorities. Like series. One is the home - that is to say, mother and children, and the other authority - the father, who was barely noticeable in the life of the family and in his children's education. After all, he had no choice but to accept this unwanted partition that is solely the result of the reality of life. The only day of the week, in which the whole family sat together around the table according to the traditional ceremony, was Friday eve. Father blessed the wine and sliced a slice of white challah for each child. All the Sabbath dishes were good and plentiful as in a home of a wealthy family. After eating, all the participants recited the blessing on the food, and almost all of us knew the blessing by heart. At the end came the Sabbath songs that I remember to this day. After the Sabbath came six more days of hard work that we can't ignore. Maybe I'll write about it in more details.
The tannery work, in which my father worked as a laborer most of his life, was the primary industry in Smorgon and a source of livelihood for many. It was the processing of crude skins, mainly for the upper parts of shoes and boots. Those were small factories which employed a small number of workers. Next to them were bigger factories that the number workers in each one reached to a few dozens. The tanner's wage was higher than the wage of a worker in a workshop. The tannery industry, which started in a small scale, spread and grew. Of course, something from this profitability was also felt in the wages of all the workers. I remember that my father's salary in those days reached to
twenty five rubles a week, which was considered to be an acceptable salary. It was already during the time when my father was promoted to foreman (a master in his field).
Every Jewish teenager preferred to work as an apprentice in a tannery than working as an apprentice in the tailoring or the shoemaking industry. The dignity of the tannery industry was in its organization. Every Jewish young man, who began his professional career in a tannery, advanced over the years and also received a higher salary, something that helped him so save for his future.
These factories spread mostly south of the city and concentrated on a side street. The street, or rather - the alley - was built diagonally on a slope. The Jews called this alley the Bathhouse Alley, but much later it received the official Russian name - the crooked street or the winding road. I especially remember this winding road because it led to the factory where my father of blessed memory worked, and because in one of the houses, on this street, I learnt the Hebrew alphabet from Jewish teacher with a curly yellow beard.
It was a year before the outbreak of the war. I turned six and was given to this Jew so he could teach me the beginning of the art of reading and writing. Every morning I ran from our house in Gardens Street, passed a section of Minsk street, the square with its many shops, and went down to this alley where the honorable Heder, that I liked very much despite all of its deficiencies, stood. And the deficiencies were mostly - the place itself, because in that street there wasn't even a single courtyard which wasn't used for tanning hides. The courtyards were filled with large tubs and giant boilers in which skins were soaked in a chemical solution that produced unpleasant odors, and there wasn't a shortage of flies in the summer. We, the group of children, in this narrow crowded corner, didn't have a suitable place to play games during the break between classes. Yet, I was proud of the place where I bought my first knowledge and where learned to read. And I was very proud when I visited my father's place of work with my mother. There, in the factory, was a world in itself. Jews with beards and sidelocks worked alongside Jewish and non-Jewish teenagers.
It was late fall 1915, when the war took us far from our birthplace and from our home. For a short time we lived as refugees in the big Jewish city of Minsk that received us with a lot of love and kindness. We were housed in its many synagogues. From there we left for the interior of Great Russia, and arrived to the northern expenses of the Volga near the city of Stalingrad, (then Tsaritsyn). Father got a job with the same factory owner from Smorgon who moved his factory there. Relatively to others, he was a large factory owner
and his name was Hut (Gut in Russian). A whole new world full of experiences opened for us, the children, another environment and another human landscape, a lot different from what we were used to. The Russian language began to replace the Yiddish, but only in the street, at home we continued with our usual traditional life of a simple Jewish family.
When I was accepted to the Russian Elementary school of that time - I was the only Jewish girl in a class of 60 children (at that time there were very few Jews in the Russian cities because of Pale Settlement that existed during the days of the Czar). During the Russian Orthodox religion class, when the priest explained the stories of the Bible according to the New Testament and showed pictures of characters from the Bible, I could also raise my hand because these stories were not strange to me, I still remembered them from home. But when I entered High School these memories started to fade. I no longer saw a printed Hebrew word. Eventually, we became like the children of the country except for the Yiddish language that we kept at home and within the family circle. The environment, the street and the school, impacted me, and when the 1917 revolution broke out I was drawn to the revolutionary ideas which flowed like a tidal wave that flooded everything and everyone. I started to love the vast country and its people who held such lofty ideas. When the new regime established the Komosol, the national organization of Russian youth, we, the High School student of the seventh class, were ready to join. The grand state ceremony was going to take place in the large city square and in the presence of a rabbi.
But meanwhile something happened - the authorities announced that each citizen, who wasn't born in Great Russia and wanted to go back to his native city, may do so. My father of blessed memory held on to this one and only opportunity. We packed our belongings and left for the road - to Smorgon, which was already in independent Poland. My father had two reasons: the religious and national assimilation of the Jewish youth, and the severe economic crisis that struck Russia at the same period (it was right after the Russian civil war when famine and epidemics ravaged the population).
And here came the fateful turning point for us and for everyone who returned from Russia. After a lot of wanderings, that lasted about six weeks, we arrived to Smorgon. New houses started to emerge from the scorched earth, public buildings were built, the synagogue was restored, and the city came back to life. But for me it was as if I fell from heaven to earth. I stood on the verge of despair. Suddenly I found myself detached from my studies and from my friends, and I didn't see any possibility to renew my studies.
In great desperation I started to look for a reason to continue my life and found it when I started to give myself a report of what was there - it wasn't mine - not the earth, not the people and not their ambitions. Very slowly I started to get closer to myself, to my origin, to the young Jewish generation and its aspirations. And here again, a new world opened before me, but its source was ancient. First of all I remembered the Hebrew alphabet that I once learned from the yellow-bearded rabbi. I started to search for a Hebrew written word. At first I read books in Yiddish and became familiar with its great extensive literature. This reading brought us to the source of our origin and the recognition of our strength. I read Fiarberg's fascinating short story Le'an [where to] and The way of our world by Shalom Asch. But in order to peek into the modern Hebrew literature of the time, like Masada by David Shimoni, Days and Nights and A beautiful heart by Natan Bistritzky [Agmon], sing patriotic songs and more and more..it was necessary to know the language in which they were written, the language of our forefathers and our country that came back to life after centuries of stagnation. So, we started to study Hebrew from the Tarbut school teacher Yosef Bernstein of blessed memory.
He was a veteran Zionist, dedicated with his heart and soul to the Zionist idea. He maintained close ties with the pioneer youth movements, which conquered almost all the Jewish streets, mostly the Jewish youth who returned not long ago from the cities of Russia after the establishment of independent Poland. At that time, the youth federations Gordonia and HeHalutz Hatzair and the political parties Hitachdut and Social Zionists were established in Smorgon. In the meetings of the youth organizations we heard for the first time the echoes from Israel, about the organization of the Jewish worker in the country, about the Histadrut [General Federation of Laborers in the land of Israel], but the emphasis was placed on the way of life of the Israeli laborer - and it is the kibbutz idea. A labor battalion was established in the name of Yosef Trumpeldor, the large group and the small group of those days. And all the settlement movements, who at that time marched their first steps in Israel. There were close to one hundred members in HeHalutz Hatzair chapter in Smorgon. The Halutz chapter was one of the largest and strongest in the area. Members started to leave for Hakhshara [pioneer training] kibbutzim to get ready for their immigration. But the immigration policy of the Mandate government of that period appeared, and many members were left in the Hakhshara kibbutzim until their immigration to Israel. In each quota of certificates [visas] that were received at the Zionist office, there were also certificates for us, the youth of Smorgon. The yearning and the joy to immigrate were felt in the whole city and in each Jewish home. Parents accompanied their children with joy and hope that one day they will join them and immigrate to Israel. After all, all of them gathered and came to the ruined city from all corners of Great Russia to fulfill their Zionist historical designation. Indeed, many of the members' parents, who immigrated to Israel after their children, live to this day with us in the country.
By Leah Rotbart
Translated by Sara Mages
About seventy Jewish families lived in Kreke. I'm the third generation of the first settlers. My father's name is Chaim Malkes. Kreke's Jews were framers and engaged in agriculture: they planted wheat, barley, oats and potatoes. They also had vegetable gardens and orchards. There were cows, sheep and horses in the farms.
1914. The First World War broke out.
Shots were heard from the direction of the village of Firibuz? which was located on the banks of the Viliya River. We saw plumes of smoke rising to the heavens. The battle between the Russians and the Germans attackers intensified and got closer to Kreke. Great fear grasped the tranquil residents.
Our family consisted of seven persons: father, mother, two sons - Avraham age fifteen and Mordechai age thirteen, and three daughters - Rachel age nine, Chava age seven and me Leah age four and a half.
The seven of us left our home, our farm and all of our belongings, and fled to Smorgon.
We were housed as war refugees in the synagogue's courtyard.
1915. The Cossacks entered. They expelled the entire population of Smorgon. We walked and came to Minsk where we only stayed for a few months.
Idelson had a tannery in Smorgon. He moved to Elisavetgrad [Ukraine] with all of his workers. One of his workers was my uncle Shlomo Levin. He came especially to Minsk to transfer his parents. We traveled with him to Elisavetgrad and stayed there for five years.
My father and my brother worked in Idelson's factory. Father as a carpenter, he repaired and prepared work equipment for them, and my brother - as a tanner's apprentice.
1918-1919. A civil war raged. There was an exchange of regimes in the Ukraine, Skoropadsky, Denikin, Petliura. A regime left and a regime entered.
Riots broke out. On one Saturday they carried out a terrible massacre on the Jewish residents of Elisavetgrad. It was on the eve of the Bolsheviks' entrance to the city and its conquest.
We hid with a Staroöbriadtsy family (a Greek Catholic sect of religious conservatives). The fear was awful. We were not sure of our lives. That night the city was occupied by the Red Army soldiers.
The economic conditions were favorable, but we were afraid to stay in a city where our lives were in danger. But my brothers stayed and continued to work at the factory. We left at the end of 1919 and came to Smorgon. We traveled in the coach of the Red Soldiers who retreated from the Polish Army attack after Poland gained its independence.
1920. Our father returned several weeks ahead of us. The mother and the three daughters returned. Our family was one of the first families to return to their homeland. When we arrived we found a number of people in Kreke. They made up their minds to leave the place and escape the wrath of the Polish legionnaires who captured the village from the Bolsheviks in 1920.
When we returned to our native village we didn't find a trace of our house and our farm. We sat outside on the packages that we brought with us and burst into tears. The mother hurried to go and search for the father. She found him a after a careful examination. He worked as a carpenter for the farmers in Firibuz? There weren't any houses in the whole neighborhood because all of them went up in flames during the battles that took place in the area. We moved to one of the trenches that were left from the war between the Russians and the German invaders. Also now it was not quite in the country because of the war between the Russian's Red Army and the Polish legionnaires. The Russian's camp was on one side of the Viliya River and the Polish - on the other side. They exchanged artillery fire regularly.
We moved to live in the village of Klapi, which was at the rear and a little farther from the battlefield. We lived in this village for half a year. Our father built us a timber house, meaning that he only erected the skeleton, walls without a floor and without a ceiling. Later, we moved the skeleton of this house to Smorgon when we returned in the summer. Meanwhile, other families returned from the Diaspora. YEKOPO (a Jewish aid society)
sent a certain amount of money. An apartment building, which was divided into small cubicles, was built with this money. It was possible to place two beds in each small cubicle.
1921. Gradually more families returned. The city of Smorgon recovered a little, but it didn't return to its first economic strength.
Four families lived in the apartment building. At that time there wasn't a bakery in Smorgon and my sisters, together with children from other families, walked to Lebiedzieva (a small town whose Jewish residents weren't deported during the war), and bought flour in the shops. They brought a sack of flour weighing half a pound, and we baked a rye bread from it. There wasn't a single doctor in the whole area. All of us got sick and suffered from severe abdominal pain. There wasn't anyone to turn to for advice or medicines. Yankel Febuzki's firstborn son served as a sanitary nurse in the army and tried to be our doctor. He advised us to pick wormwood leaves, boil them and drink the water. We followed his advice and recovered.
The cemetery was completely destroyed. The children went to the cemetery and collected the scattered bones. The adults dug a grave and brought them back to a Jewish grave.
The cellar of Kovarsky the medic served as a place of worship. There, they gathered and prayed on weekdays, on the Sabbath and even during the holidays.
Every Wednesday was market day. The farmers came and brought the products of their farms, meaning, eggs, butter, cheese and even linen. We bought our food from the farmers, delivered it to Vilna, sold it for a profit - and made our living.
We drew water from the stream which flowed near Strashinsky's mansion.
Thorns and weeds grew in Smorgon's streets during the years of our absent.
The men went to the surrounding villages or towns to search for work, and the women and children stayed at home. At night we heard the mewing of cats, the howling of various small animals, the creaking of the ruined synagogue's tin roof which was swinging and banging in the wind. These strange noises, which joined other loud noises, terrorized us until the blood froze in our veins.
At the end of 1921 we moved to Kreke. We engaged in farming again. We plowed, seeded and also harvested.
A special messenger came from the United States and brought each and every family a gift of help and relief from their relatives in America.
At that time Smorgon was under Polish rule, and its ruler was Pił?sudski.
The stream of the returning families increased. All the places of worship and Beit HaMidrash were restored. A school, with eighteen boys and girls, was established. Our teacher was Tetraski who knew Hebrew. He was the brother of the Rebbetzin from Kreke. A university student, who was left without means, and couldn't continue with his studies. He came to Smorgon and engaged in teaching. After him came a second teacher by the name of Beck.
The school grew and there were a number of classes. The school with all of his classes resided in women's gallery of the ruined synagogue.
The teacher Gilinski, a native of Smorgon, returned and taught us the Bible. Another teacher appeared, his name was Katz, he taught us general studies and his wife taught us crafts, meaning, sewing.
There was a Hekdesh, a hostel for poor travelers, in Smorgon. The Hekdesh, which remained intact, was located next to the cemetery. The Hebrew School, with its five classes, was housed in this Hekdesh. In it we studied both religious and secular subjects. The teachers were Katz, Bernstein and Shoshanna Denishevski. Among the students was also Hanoch Levin who now lives in Israel. He is the principal of Ilanot school in Ramat Aviv.
Later on, the school was transferred to the big building that the Jewish community of Smorgon built with the aid that it received from the United States and from YEKOPO.
This building served as a cultural center: the library, the theater, the youth clubs, and other institutions were located there. The building was called Internat.
(Daughter of the Rav Menashe)
Translated by Yocheved Klausner
Our Smorgon has suffered very much during the First World War. The town was entirely destroyed, the population was evacuated and the Jews were dispersed and scattered over the seven seas. When the war ended, the population began to return and started to rebuild the ruins, and some time later I came back as well.
I entered town through Krever Street. It was impossible to recognize anything. Here and there some houses or parts of them have been rebuilt, standing between heaps of barbed wire, half-burned walls and ditches. Wide-open cellars could be seen, and lone chimneys rose to the sky. I intended to tell my coach driver where to stop, but it didn't take long and we found ourselves out of town. I had hoped to recognize our own new house, but the streets were overgrown with wild, tall grass and the remnants of the houses were barely seen.
Most of the townspeople who had returned were still living in the cellars. They slept on wooden boards that they had found scattered around, and the place was full of various merchandise that helped them make a living, more or less. Geese, chickens and goats were trampling around, feeling at home. A cat was impossible to be found; we had to import cats from Vilna. However, the people who had returned did not feel lost; on the contrary, they were hopeful and full of courage. A few were disappointed and regretted their return from Russia, but when they remembered that this place had been their only hope while in exile they did not give up: smiles were seen on faces and even jokes were told
Everyone was hospitable to the extreme. Every returnee was received with open arms and was immediately given an honored place. In our house I found Meir Feivel, very sick, and my father zl was taking care of him.
The most important wish, for everybody, was to be able to leave the cellars. The motivation and drive to rebuild was enormous. The sound of hammers was heard everywhere. Logs and other building materials were found among the rubble. But we did not have enough workers, because we had no money to pay them. We were happy to be able to erect four walls and a ceiling and the floor was tolerable, but we didn't even begin to think about dividing the area into rooms. We thanked God for the roof over our heads. In the middle of the house we had a stove and it kept us warm.
The economic support of the town was the weekly market, on Wednesdays. If it rained on that day, the market was postponed to the next Wednesday. There were very few shops, and most of the trading was done on little tables, set on the street. We would buy from the peasants dairy products, eggs and chickens and we would take the merchandise to Vilna and sell it there. When the market closed on market day, men and women and even young children could be seen on their way to the train station, carrying heavy baskets.
Traveling to Vilna was a problem: the train authorities did not allow merchandise on the train, so it had to be hidden. But the chickens were naturally noisy, and not once did the owner jump off the train at some station, out of fear of being discovered. Many times I would take with me, arriving in Vilna, baskets full of merchandise that didn't belong to me and wait at the station, sometimes for hours, until the owner arrived on the next train.
The most important cultural center was, at first, the women's synagogue. Men and women would assemble there. Right after prayer, the place turned into a Talmud Torah. The community meetings were held there and important matters were discussed. For the refugees who returned from Russia it was the first place where they could rest, temporarily. One could see there, at the same time, one person sleeping, another eating and still another putting on his prayer-shawl for the morning prayer; sometimes children were seen, waiting for their teacher.
The town was in the process of rebuilding. The relief organization YEKOPO helped a great deal. Some people were supported by their relatives in America, until they could stand on their own two feet.
America was perceived as a country that can make one happy. Shortly before I arrived in Smorgon, an emissary from America had visited the town, and he was talked about for a long time after he had left. At the farewell party the community arranged for him, everybody wished to be next year in . and no more was said.
A very important step was the grounding of a Children's Home. Orphans and children of poor families were taken out of the moist, cold cellars and given a warm home, as well as food and drink. What was still missing was a bit of Yiddishkeit (Jewish religious atmosphere). The children themselves, most of them from traditional Jewish homes, complained that they were not given arba kanfot [a traditional small fringed prayer shawl] to wear. Still, it would have been a great tragedy for the children and their families if the home was closed. Poverty was terrible, all around. The sources of aid and support were gradually drained out and YEKOPO was forced to retract the loans. And yet another misfortune befell the
population: the rate of the Polish Zloty kept falling and it became impossible to return the loans with the same value, which brought chaos to the commerce and money change. Even the American relatives became tired of helping and the need increased. However, in spite of all these difficulties, the townspeople tried to help each other as much as they could. There we found the really good-hearted people, who were ready to help discreetly and modestly: they would bring bread to the hungry, help the sick, and bake matza for the poor on the eve of Passover.
In time, these good people formed a committee, which grew to include 22 persons and I was among them as well. The committee was very active, and it became an important and useful institution, for the good of the town.
Not far from Smorgon was a Jewish Colony called The Land. Before the war, the inhabitants of the colony would hire workers to till their land and they would look for work in town they found this to be more practical. This arrangement brought them no great luck, however, and they were, in general, poorer than the townspeople. After the war they were in a much better situation than their friends in town: they had their own potatoes, beets and other vegetables what can be better than that?
I spent in Smorgon about three years. During that time, the town has made progress. The wild grass in the streets was gone, the streets were cleaned and leveled out and wooden boards were fastened to the openings of the cellars, so that, in the darkness of the night, people would not stumble and fall in. The half burned houses, which upset and scared the passers-by, were demolished and life became more normal. The community members began to restore the buildings of the Jewish institutions, the Talmud Torah began to function in its own building and the men were able to pray in their own shul [synagogue].
The Talmud Torah was in a good situation. The teachers Katz and Bernstein were devoted to the children heart and soul and the children were happy there. They received a full Jewish and general education. In addition, the children from the poorest families received a good meal. The fine and charitable woman, Alte Danishewski, helped by several other women, took care of these meals.
The house that had once been the bank became the center of all cultural and social activities. The meetings of various institutions were held there. The house contained also a large library, managed very skillfully by the adolescent members of the community.
In general, very few young people returned to Smorgon after the war. Those who did return left after a short while, because there was nothing to do for them there. However, their place was soon taken by the children who began to grow up and became the youth of the town.
When Usischkin, the well-known Zionist leader, visited Vilna, his visit made a very strong impression on the Smorgon Jews.
I remember as if it was today, when my father zl came home from shul on holiday, his face shone and he announced with joy: Usischkin is in Vilna and he is collecting money to redeem Eretz Israel. The brothers Akon were visiting with at the time. They were fanatic members of the Agudat Israel religious party, although they wore their beards short. My father's joyfulness upset them a great deal and they asked: Did you know, Rabbi, what the Zionists are doing in Eretz Israel? They eat Chametz on Passover, in public, so everyone would see. I know, I know everything, my father interrupted, I also know that they travel on the Sabbath. But, as R'Tevele has said: before the Huppa [wedding ceremony] the servants clean the place and make it ready. It was a beautiful sight to look at my father, his face like that of a saint, declare: Eretz Israel, the Holy Land, a home for the Jews. The brothers Akon were silenced.
The emigration from Smorgon to Eretz Israel increased, but mostly because there was no other country we could go to. Those who managed to receive a certificate [a British official permit to immigrate to Eretz Israel] were happy. With every group that left, Smorgon became smaller. No Jew came to take the place of those who had left. The news from Smorgon did not encourage people to come.
The picture of my saying farewell to Smorgon and leave for America is alive in my memory to this day. With tears in the eyes, my friends and family shook my hands and wished me a safe and healthy journey. Nobody doubted my joy and happiness for being able to take that step and going to America.
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