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[Cols. 689-704]

The Years 1915–1925

Heshl Gurvitch

From the book “On the Ruins of Wars and Turmoil” from the records
of the Regional Committee of YEKAPO, Vilna 1919–1931

Translated by Janie Respitz

 

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1.

It was the eve of Shavuot, 1915. We are not receiving warm regards. The Russian troops are suffering defeat after defeat. Denunciations are increasing and the danger of being shot hangs over our heads. Suddenly, like a clap of thunder we hear: “We're being chased out!” of the Kovno region.

We are all very sad. Vilna is boiling like a kettle; people are dragging themselves to the train station playing out heart wrenching scenes. A wounded Jewish soldier with a bandaged arm and the Cross of George for heroism is hugging his father with his left hand and crying…long trains are standing on the tracks, packed with people, mainly people escaping because they are distrusted. I as well, did not pay attention to the bad tidings and decided to go home to New–Sventzian for the holiday.

I arrived in New–Sventzian just on the eve of the holiday. Jews were walking around worried: “Who knows, perhaps our future is also unsure?”

Soon rumours began to spread that by evening a small train would arrive bringing those chased out of Panevezys. We went to the train, prepared homes for those arriving, collected food. Everyone gave what they had, not thinking about the holiday.

A committee was founded headed by Rabbi Merminsky. Days and nights were spent preparing to receive those chased from their homes to provide them with shelter and food. Every day their numbers increased and the town began to feel it would not be able to handle the burden.

[Col. 690]

It was decided to approach the Jewish community organization in Vilna for support. New–Sventzian became a centre for those expelled from their towns.

Slowly the work was taken over by the Vilna – St. Petersburg committee of YEKAPO. The concern for the homeless was great. They were being sent to Russia with a certain amount of nervousness. The earlier warmth was no longer felt. At this time, along with many others, I returned to my work in Vilna.

 

2.

In the month of Tishrei (September) 1915, the town was taken over by German troops. Jews began to arrive from surrounding towns, and a small Jewish settlement was formed.

New–Sventzian became a military station. As in other towns, coffee and tea houses were flourishing. People who were previously poor were thriving. There was no lack of food. The Russians left full warehouses behind. More Christians and Jews were arriving in New–Sventzian . The situation in Vilna was becoming more difficult, so I too returned to New–Sventzian .

Situated between New–Sventzian and Podbrodz was a former Russian military camp called “Poligon”. The Germans used it

[Col. 691]

as a holding place for the homeless chased out of war zones. The majority were Christians from destroyed villages. Among them were about 20 Jewish families. They were confined in the camp and were not permitted to move to surrounding towns.

Those of us in New–Sventzian heard the Jews in Poligon were starving. We began to think what we could do for them. The only place we were able to meet was in the House of Prayer. The Germans had taken over two of our Houses of Prayer. I decided to go to the one House of Prayer where Jews were permitted to attend, on Saturday during the Torah reading. I got up and called out: “Jews are starving in Poligon and we must help”!

The response to my short speech was warm. A committee was founded comprised of elder and wealthier men. I said we should not stand on ceremony and suggested that I too, a young man, should sit on this committee that must quickly begin intensive work.

We went immediately to work, collecting money and about three carts of flour. The members of the committee were: Turgel the pharmacist, Velvl Pupisky, Khayim Leyb Segalovitch, and me. We went to see the situation for ourselves. Of course this was done with permission from the military commander who agreed we could go with the transport of flour for the homeless Jews.

We were on our way when we heard a shout: “STOP”!

With our hands raised in the air we stood in front of the outstretched revolver of a German officer.

He shouted: “You, damned Jews! What do you have there?”

He barely listened to our answer, that we were bringing flour to distribute among the homeless in Poligon, and accused us of murdering German soldiers. He searched us for weapons. Finally he turned to us and said:

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“Travel on, but don't kill any German soldiers”.

He left and we arrived safely in Poligon. We gathered all the Jews, discussed their situation, distributed the flour and some money and returned home.

We calculated our work had to continue and decided to involve other towns. We organized a get together where representatives came from Sventzian, Kaltinian and Lingmian. The participants were: Rabbi Meirovitch and Brumberg from Sventzian, Rabbi Yosef Kahanman from Kaltinian, and Gershon Rudnitsky. At this consultation it was decided to approach the authorities for permission to bring the homeless Jews from Poligon to towns in the Kovno region. All the while we continued to distribute flour to the homeless.

Besides the surrounding towns the committee also received donations from the Jewish – German Aid Organization, headed by the field Rabbi, Rabbi Levy.

In town we began to feel the fist of the German liberators, who confiscated and chased out the civilian population and created a Pale of Settlement, an area where Jews were permitted to live. Forced labour began. We began to experience hunger and suffering.

We knew the field Rabbi, who was reform, Rabbi Levy, had to pass through our town. We invited him to a meeting of our committee. We tried to present a picture of the difficult situation facing the Jews of our town. We were afraid to tell him the whole truth as we saw in him more of a German than a Jew. I realized the Rabbi would leave us without a clear sense of our situation. Without consulting anyone, I told him the entire truth not sparing bitter words about the Germans. Rabbi Levy replied to me:

“My child, you are young and passionate…you should not speak against others because you may get arrested…it is really bad and Jews will suffer more than others in this war. It can't be any different. We must suffer”.

[Col. 693]

The activists in Vilna were: Rabbi Rubinshteyn, Dr. Shabad, Dr. Vigodsky and others. They intervened on behalf of the Jews in Poligon to higher German authorities who promised to help. Nothing came of these promises. Together with activists in Kaltinian, we decided to slowly smuggle Jews out of Poligon.

In those days, a German officer was stationed in Kaltinian and was in charge of cutting down trees in the surrounding forests. Rabbi Yosef Kahanman was on good terms with him and decided to use the friendship toward the good of suffering Jews.

The Jews of Vilna, who were experiencing great hunger, began to walk through Lithuanian towns where there were many empty Jewish homes and a lot of wheat. With the help of the German officer, we took all the Jews who came to Kaltinian and sent them on the small train to Panevezyz. The military authority knew us and did not control when we travelled to Poligon every week. We decided when we returned, we would take their belongings with us to New–Sventzian . It would be easier for the Jews of Poligon to sneak out without their packs, and walk to town.

When the Germans learned of this, we could no longer go. We told the Jews in Poligon to leave for the forest where we would meet them with wagons and take them to town.

The following scene has remained unforgettable in my memory: The majority of those escaping to the forest were women and children, who with packs on their backs left on foot. It was a rainy day and their feet sunk into the mud. They dragged themselves with their last bit of strength. It pulled at my heart. Avrom Rabinovitch who was with me cried.

With great effort we managed to bring these downtrodden people to New–Sventzian , and sent them by wagon to Kaltinian. From there they were transported to the Panevezyz region.

Without ceasing, the Germans brought the poorest from starving Vilna to Poligon,

[Col. 694]

confined them in the camp like prisoners. Slowly, they died there.

 

3.

An order came down from the German deputy to start a German school for Jewish children. The school inspector called upon the important town leaders to bring them the order. A school committee was formed. None of the leaders opposed the fact the language of instruction would be German. They were used to the idea, the language of instruction in a public school (Folk – Shul) should be the language of the State.

The teachers were the former student at Kahan's High School, Shapiro and the female teacher Pliner. Rabbi Zvi Volin would teach religious subjects.

The children learned in German, sang German songs and went to school on Saturday because it was closed on Sundays.

The author of these lines, before the First World War while living in Vilna, fought together with the organized political forces for Yiddish to be the language of instruction in Jewish schools. He could not remain indifferent to the present situation and began to agitate against German as the language of instruction in the Folk – School. I used the fact the children had to go to school on the Sabbath, although they only taught religion, I went up to the podium after the reading of the Torah and in a short speech reminded everyone of the Russian schools for Jewish children, where they did not have to attend on Saturdays. I demanded the parents should not allow their children to go to school on Saturday.

There were two sides. The pious Jew Khone Viker ran to the school and hung a lock on the door. The children did not go to school that Saturday. The other side tried to scare me and said for such a revolt I will be arrested and sent to a camp.

The result of my revolt was the inspector changed his mind and the children went to school on Sunday instead of Saturday. They never went to school on Saturday again. I was not satisfied with that and continued the attack.

[Col. 695]

We demanded the children be taught Jewish studies. We called for Hindenburg's command to White Russians and Lithuanians and demanded Yiddish to be the language of instruction.

The school inspector stubbornly opposed our demands. Help came from Dr. Shabad and Fludermakher from Vilna. After a long struggle they gave in and brought the teacher Hellershteyn in 1917, which increased the prestige of our school. With each day, the idea of a Yiddish school gained more supporters.

 

4.

During this time we began intensive work for cultural enlightenment activities for adults. This included the founding of a library. This appeared to be beyond our abilities. When I went around with Sholem Berman collecting money, people looked at us as if we were crazy.

We collected a lot of money and bought books. The small cupboard with the books we purchased was at Yosef Pashmener's daughter's, Rokhl, on Kaltinian Street.

The books, although a small amount, brought a new zest for life to our town. In 1917, after many discussions, a National Society was founded with the help of Hellershteyn. The library was moved there.

All the youth in town became involved in the National Society. It was a non– partisan organization whose goal was to provide cultural activities. There were readings and lectures on various topics. It took place in the home of Shmuel Kulbak.

 

5.

Rumours began to flow about the outbreak of the Russian Revolution. We learned of the peace treaty with the Germans. Leyb Trotsky and Yoffe travelled through New–Sventzian on their way to Brisk where the peace treaty was signed.

[Col. 696]

The German front moved from Dvinsk behind Pskov. I travelled to my family in Russia. We rode through the free border in Polotzk. On the way, two people in our group contracted Typhus. We barely made it to Kozlov where my entire family lived. Moishe Kovarsky and Monieh Kisberg died there.

The October Revolution affected all segments of the population and the situation of my family was catastrophic. Together with the same group, we turned around and returned to New–Sventzian .

1918 arrived. The German revolution breaks out. Everyone in town is busy with the events which chase everyone after the other. The Germans leave New–Sventzian and the Bolsheviks arrive. The communal work is dead. The new bosses marched into our school life. It is forbidden to teach the Bible.

There was a heavy mood among all segments of the Jewish population. There was no desire to make the smallest effort to run cultural activities. The Red Cross established a station for the homeless for those returning from German captivity. I began to work for the homeless.

The Bolsheviks suddenly left New–Sventzian and the region was taken over by the Poles. Meanwhile there was a rash of robberies. The Bolsheviks considered the majority of Jews Bourgeois. The Poles believed all the Jews were Communists.

 

6.

On my way to buy produce for my work at the Red Cross a I bumped into Yeverov who was then once again organizing YEKAPO in Vilna. He shared the secret with me and after the Bolsheviks left the region we connected, I received some money for the needy and got to work.

Besides money for the needy we also received help for the school, which during the

[Col. 697]

transition, had been destroyed. We rented a space and brought the broken benches and the children began to learn again. Soon trucks began to arrive with food and clothing sent from America for our children. This help from America gave us courage and hope.

The economic and social life slowly began to regulate, and we began to organize an election for our community. Two lists were submitted; one from the youth and one from the older members. Among the devoted communal activists were: Borukh Turgel, Khaim Leyb Segalovitch, Avrom – Yitzkhok Rabinovitch, Velvl Pupisky, Hirsh Kisberg, Zanvl Bernshteyn, Leyzer Hellershteyn, Motl Bak, Yakov Shvartz, Eltchik Kulbak, Nekhama Kovarsky, Yitzkhak Gordus and the author of these lines.

We received funds from YEKAPO for various expenses which were connected to our activities. The social work developed every day, bringing in new people and blossoming. The school became more prestigious. The community workers understood the importance of maintaining Jewish honour in the eyes of the authorities in every domain.

 

7.

YEKAPO began to consolidate its activities in different places. There were many consultations and meetings of the YEKAPO committee which presented model of responsible communal activities. They were not satisfied with only providing economic aid, they also donated to cultural institutions.

We rented Boyershteyn's hall and as a great undertaking created a kitchen for school children, led by our friend Motl Bak. We were not fated to remain in that building for long. The kitchen was a thorn in the side of the Polish authority and they confiscated the building.

[Col. 698]

They gave the building to the military and we had to move to the women's section of our House of Prayer.

One day we went to the deputy in charge to ask for permission to hold a meeting. His first question was in what language were we planning to speak. I answered: Yiddish! He immediately replied:

“I will not permit a meeting that will take place in Yiddish”.

I looked at the Treaty of Versailles which gives us the right to autonomous cultural work. This did not interest him. His reply was: “Why should I be interested in Versailles? This is New–Sventzian …”

We did not give in. After a stubborn fight we received permission to hold our meeting in Yiddish.

A similar story:

This took place while the train was at the station and some Jews made a lot of noise and fuss trying to get seats on the train. A government official, a nobleman from our region looked at the fuss and shouted:

“Be quiet Jews. This is not you community centre!” I went over to him and quietly explained that a state official should not speak like that. Once again I pointed out the Treaty of Versailles and showed him we are a minority with equal rights. It worked. He shut his mouth.

I would often write about the chicanery of the Polish state representatives and send it to the Yiddish newspapers and the military censor would always show it to the authorities in Sventzian.

They Sventzian authorities would not let me forget this. When I put my name on an election list to be a representative at City Hall, my name was removed. Through other people I was warned not to make noise as things could become worse. The Jewish representatives at City Hall were: Yitzkhak Gordus, Avrom Rabinovitch, Khaim Leyb Segalovitch and Borukh Turgel.

Many years before the two pharmacists in town were the assimilated Tzipkin brothers. The built a two story house,

[Col. 699]

and planted a large garden with fruit trees. They spoke only Polish with their clients. Their Judaism was expressed by going to synagogue only on the High Holidays in none other than the Hasidic shul.

The brothers died and one of their wives offered the Jewish community to buy the house for less money as she did not want it to fall into Christian hands.

We went to YEKAPO and received a large sum of money, but not enough. We had to go to the Jews in town for donations to make up the difference. After we bought the house, all the Jewish institutions moved in: the school, the library, the folk–club, fund for the needy, the youth organizations and the He' Chalutz. All meetings and theatre performances took place there. The house became the centre of Jewish communal life in town.

Things were not good on the military front. We could hear the thundering of canons and guns moving closer to our town. This is when the Bolsheviks took over our region. It did not take long for them to leave and the Lithuanians took over power.

 

8.

The Lithuanians played politics with the Jews. They appointed a Jewish minister and gave the Jews quite a bit of autonomy. I had a few confrontations with the authorities.

The Jewish coachmen received an order to work for the military, and of course on Saturday. Obviously, this caused great bitterness. I believed the coachmen should not work on the Sabbath. After an incident with the police I was called to the military commander and I introduced myself as a member of the Vilna YEKAPO committee. I told him it would be a great transgression for the coachmen to work on Saturdays. I told him the Jews were ready to fight for their rights. The terms were changed and the coachmen now worked for the military on Sundays instead of Saturdays.

In time, the Lithuanian authorities displayed

[Col. 700]

good relations to our institutions. Our school received regular monthly subsidies. The imprint of our community was recognized by the authorities.

 

9.

After the Zheligovsky march on Vilna, a new era began. The Middle– Lithuanian government was founded, which at first had a decent relationship toward the Jews. Bu the situation was unsure. Later the situation stabilized. Vilna and vicinity belonged to Poland. YEKAPO continued its intensive work. The schools were taken over by a separate education bureau. Our school, with Yiddish as the language of instruction, was now connected to TZISHO.

In 1921 we were privileged to have our first graduates. The graduates attended various high schools, the Yiddish High School, the Hebrew High School, the Technical Institute and the Jewish Teacher's Seminary.

With the arrival of our teachers: Avrom Vinik and Genia Yavitch, our pedagogic staff was improved and strengthened. But the material situation of our school was declining. The government was no longer providing subsidies. It was difficult to collect tuition. The organized community tried to provide all necessary materials. The drama club helped out. The worked tirelessly to stage performances and donated all proceeds to the school. The Jews in City Hall, led by Gordus, intervened and succeeded in obtaining subsidies. The school was situated in its own building, which became a model for all other school buildings in Vilna province.

In 1924 we celebrated the second graduation. As previously seen all the graduates went in different directions. The school played a vivacious and natural role in the life of our town. It brought in a new spirit which influenced the children and their parents.

The library which had been evolving received help from the book – camp of

[Col. 701]

YEKAPO. Thanks to the teacher Avrom Vinik, the library was raised to the level of a rich cultural institution.

The YEKAPO committee founded a People's Bank in Sventzian which played an important economic role and helped a lot of people get back on their feet.

Many families, who had left for Russia, returned to our town after being held in captivity. They could not have managed without help from YEKAPO. Artisans received machines, tools and horses. Merchants received money to help them start their business. Inflation annihilated all the capital in the banks. Right after the devaluation the situation improved and the bank once again became active.

 

10.

We must mention here the special work of the YEKAPO committee in New–Sventzian .

[Col. 702]

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A certificate for Heshl Gurvitch from the Middle – Lithuaninan authority. Permission to control the returning refugees

 

The special work was for the homeless who were returning from northern Russia. They had to deal with many problems from the border – residents, the Polish authority which created a centre for the homeless under

 

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The young, active communal workers in New–Sventzian

Seated: Leyzer Hellershteyn, Khaim Motl Shteyngold, Heshl Gurvitch, Avrom Kovarsky
Standing: Avrom Vinik, Yitzkhak Gurdus, Yakov Shvartz, Eliye Kulbak, Motl Bak
(Text in photo: Feb. 21, 1925, Departure of Our Dear Friend Heshl to Eretz Israel)

[Col. 703]

Military control. As later, the civil authority caused problems for the Jewish homeless. As head of the YEKAPO committee in New–Sventzian , I wanted to create a special centre for the Jewish homeless in an attempt to avoid and spare them any further suffering. It should be stressed that not only did the Jewish centre help Jews but also Karaites. Tartars and Christians would also come to us, and they never left with empty hands.

 

11.

YEKAPO joined with HIAS and took over the work so that money arriving from relatives in America would not get lost. In Vilna as well as in other towns, special immigration offices were set up. Our office, which was at the centre for the homeless helped people from New–Sventzian and surrounding towns connect with their relatives in America.

YEKAPO did a lot of work helping orphans in our town. They were given an opportunity to learn a trade, go to school, and provided them with shoes and clothing.

After the liquidation of the YEKAPO centre in

[Col. 704]

New–Sventzian, the work was taken over by a town committee.

The economic situation in New–Sventzian improved, and people were once again standing on their feet. The contact with YEKAPO was never totally stopped. YEKAPO remained the help centre for the province and since 1919 was the actual representative for all social and communal work of the Jewish population. The YEKAPO workers distinguished themselves with their devotion and selflessness. The General Secretary was Moishe Shalit and his helpers were: VEVE Yevzerov, Uri Kliansky, Yitzkhak Volk and Nosn Kovarsky. They provided the spirit of life and hope for the dejected Jewish population.

For ten years we remained devoted to our work at YEKAPO. I will never forget all those who helped out in Vilna and throughout the province. Until today we remember episodes and events connected to our work in various communal activities. Thanks to the personalities and characters of the people, and their individuality which provided encouragement to fight, create and build.


[Col. 705]

YEKAPO Activity in the Vilna Region

Shraga Antovil / Tel Aviv

Translated by Meir Razy

 

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The YEKAPO[1] Aid Society for the refugees of the First World War was organized by Jewish activists in the Russian capital, Saint Petersburg. Originally, the purpose of the Society was to be a support for the Jewish victims of war by collecting gifts for soldiers in the front and providing medical assistance in military hospitals. The founders thought of devoting resources to aid families of soldiers, families who had no source of income when their breadwinners were drafted and sent to war. That mission was expanded after war refugees had begun moving from border towns to the main cities in their regions.

As long as the Imperial Tsarist Russian Army advanced into German Prussia, near Lithuania, the number of Jewish refugees was small. The Jews kept their properties, places of work and sources of income and were unwilling to leave their permanent residences even though thousands of refugees, fearing the approaching war, started arriving in Vilna.

The situation changed drastically with the news of the Russian army's defeats in Prussia and its frantic retreat back into Russia's borders. False stories were being circulated at the same time among the non–Jewish residents and the soldiers that the Jews were helping the Germans, providing information about the movements of the Russian army, clandestine telephones calls, signals from roofs, etc.

All these fabricated stories and lies were repeated in too many places and Jewish representatives were unable to counter or control their spread in the local population. The retreating, embittered Russian Army was very receptive to these stories as–well.

The following event then shook the Jewish communities all over Russia. An order was given by the Head of the Army, who was the uncle of King Nikolai, on May 5, 1915 that all the Jews should leave their places of residence within 24 hours. The number of refugees peaked at over a quarter of a million Jews, most Jewish properties were looted.

[Col. 706]

The Jews of Vilna and the surrounding area devoted themselves to helping their heartbroken brothers but were not able to cope with the huge stream of refugees. The YEKAPO aid committee was then created in Vilna. The committee, with the help of the Jewish youth and intelligentsia, stepped up to help the refugees. The rescue operation continued for about four months, until the great retreat of the Russian army. Following that Poland, Lithuania and the Baltic States were completely abandoned by the Russians. This was the first time in the history of Tsarist Russia that Jewish refugees were allowed to move inside Russia without restriction. The departure of the Government and military institutions from Vilna began in September 1915, along with the departure of tens of thousands of residents. The exit frenzy included many in the Jewish community and the city of Vilna was practically emptied of its inhabitants, especially the affluent, the industrialists, the intelligentsia and the merchants.

At the same time – a trickle of Jews from small towns began arriving, searching for a temporary shelter in Vilna, the big city, afraid of staying in the small towns.

The YEKAPO organizers from Petersburg prepared to leave Vilna and transferred the responsibility for the rescue work to the Vilna activists who decided to stay in the city. Among them were Dr. Wigodski, Dr. Sever, Rabbi Rubinstein and Yosef Izbitzky. The German army entered Vilna Yom Kippur 1915.

The refugees from the small towns started returning to their places of residence even before the Germans could organize their civilian institutions. When the refugees left Vilna, everyone discovered that the Jewish city was empty of its inhabitants. Instead of the 70,000 Jews who were counted before the outbreak of the war, only 42–43 thousand remained. And if we add that most of those who left the city were wealthy, skilled and capable, it is easy to understand the situation of the urban community in the first year under the German rule. Unimaginable poverty and misery.

YEKAPO in the second variation of its existence

Displaced refugees started coming back from Russia to Vilna and its surrounding towns after the October Revolution of 1917 in Russia and after the German Revolution in 1918. The influx of refugees increased at the beginning of 1919 with the entry of the Bolsheviks.

[Col. 707]

Since the community institutions in the city of Vilna and in other towns of Lithuania were not functioning, an idea arose to restart the YEKAPO organization for the benefit of those returning and to contact the appropriate Soviet institutions in order to obtain financial help. The former functionaries were joined by others who had returned from Russia, including Ansky[2] and Baruch Cohen, who were activists of YEKAPO. Dr. Z. Shabad was elected as the chairman of YEKAPO with L. Yoffe and B. Cohen as his deputies, and Moshe Shalit as the Secretary. This was the first time that resettlement measures were obtained from the Soviet Government.

It was not long before the Polish army challenged the Red Army. To their unexpected surprise, the Polish army entered the city of Vilna on the last day of Passover, April 19, 1919. The Soviet Red Army and Soviet officials fought the advancing Poles in the city for three days. This was used as a pretext for the Poles to attack the Jews and to carry out a pogrom. Marshal Pilsudski ordered the riots to stop, but they continued in some small cities and towns. The whole area was in a state of depression and oppressive poverty. As it is well known – the community was unable to operate during the Bolshevik rule and during the transition period or to appeal to any help from abroad.

The YEKAPO, on the other hand, succeeded in reaching all parts of the world and especially Jewish institutions in the United States with its demand for help for the returnees. YEKAPO, for example, received a first check for $250,000 from America immediately after the Polish army pogroms in the city of Vilna and in the surrounding towns.

 

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The First Regional Conference if Yekapo Representatives in Vilna, September 8-9-10, 1919

3rd row left to right; Dovid Kahan, Natan Kovarski, Yitzhak Volk, M. Ivdzerov, Moishe Shalit, Rabbi Shatzkes, Dr. Tzemach Shabad, Rabbi Fine, Dr. I. Kovarski, Baruch Kahan, Heshl Gurwitz
2nd row right to left; the second Yosef Brumberg, the fourth Yoseg Swirski, both from Sventzian

[Col. 708]

It was clear to everyone that this money was meant to help the whole region, not just Vilna itself. There was an argument about how to divide the funds. It is worth pointing out the honest and responsible position of Ansky, the author. He emphasized that in America they did not know about the community leadership which had been elected democratically during the German occupation but, not surprisingly, was not able to operate under the Bolsheviks (who did not recognize Jewish democratic actions). Ansky has always supported the small towns that were deprived by the large communities. However – at this time the YEKAPO recognized the dire situation of the Vilna community and allocated two thirds of the received sum to Vilna and a third to the provincial cities and returnees. It became clear that YEKAPO was operating in the small towns as–well–as in the large cities.

YEKAPO resumed its work for the returnees during the Bolshevik period and continued it throughout the political upheaval. The area was passed back and forth six times in the following several months, but the flow of returnees did not abate. The infiltration from Russia continued through the borders of the region during the Polish rule. Together with the people who returned home, it was also possible to see people whose purpose was to emigrate and join their relatives in the United States and also to other countries. This forced YEKAPO to establish special offices in key places. Towns and villages through which the returnees and the emigrants passed witnessed the suffering of the wandering people and cooperated with the representatives of YEKAPO.

[Col. 709]

One station was in Novo–Sventzian on the border between Lithuania and Latvia. Its director on behalf of YEKAPO was the activist Shilo*(could be Heshl) Gurewitz.

When I am evaluating the YEKAPO activities, I divided the functions of the institution into two parts; one was entirely dedicated to the provincial towns and dealt with social assistance, rehabilitation of neighborhoods and the rebuilding communities. The second one covered the entire area with its main city providing services such as information on immigration, contacting relatives, helping immigrants, contacts with HIAS[3] and with Amigdirect[4].

It is worth noting that in June 1919, despite the opposition of the JOINT[5], the YEKAPO administration decided to not help people who were not interested in working or studying.

The first wave was followed by an overwhelming tide that created employment opportunities. We saw the creation of the “Loan Fund” (=Credit Union) and support organizations in all the towns. The Central Bank of Vilna, founded by Nathan Kovarsky (born in Sventzian), represented the towns' “Loan Fund” in the provinces in the major financial institutions and continuously transferred funds to the towns, thus connecting the Jewish communities across the Pale of Settlement.

From the start of YEKAPO's activities considerable funds were allocated to rebuild residential and public buildings since. The actual work, however, did not start until enough money from the JOINT, JCA[6] and other sources was accumulated for this purpose.

This operation lasted for several years and achieved great results.

Towns which were destroyed by wartime actions were rebuilt and restored. Much was done at that time to develop working skills and to teach various crafts to war orphans. The orphans were assembled and brought for the purpose of learning a trade from their towns to Vilna. YEKAPO's management provided them with food, housing and their everyday needs throughout their years of study. I would like to cover one aspect that YEKAPO, as the central institution representing the towns, was exempt from dealing with: providing general education to the younger generation. YEKAPO, because of the war waged among the Yiddish–oriented movement, the Hebrew–oriented movement and the religious movement in the towns of the Vilna area, did not intervene and remained neutral. It limited itself to worrying about suitable buildings for the schools, participated in financing the training seminars for teachers, and shared the cost of both the Yiddish and Hebrew seminars in accordance with the number of students from the provinces. It is worth mentioning the central library of YEKAPO which became an important cultural asset. As–well, YEKAPO printed and distributed textbooks and reading books to schools in the towns.

[Col. 710]

I have already mentioned that meeting face–to–face with the immigrants who had fled from Russia led YEKAPO to seek ways to expand the activities of assisting in dealing with the immigration bureaucracy, searching for relatives and financial assistance for them. A lot of work was done with the inclusion of HIAS as a special department within the YEKAPO organization, according to the following sections:

  1. Registering the people who wished to emigrate and join their relatives in the United States and other countries
  2. Transferring funds received from relatives through HIAS for financial assistance to the immigrants
  3. Searching for Relatives
  4. Providing credible information on immigration possibilities
  5. Legal assistance in consular inquiries
  6. Monitoring the ship companies that operated in the vicinity.
I must emphasize that the activities of many dedicated activists, in all the towns and regions, led to the development of cultural and organizational skills. Despite the poverty and poor economic situation after the First World War which existed in the entire Vilna region, I made no attempt to influence the internal community life in the towns. I believe that others, those who had lived and fought there, would be better qualified than me to manage life in the towns. I took a global view of the activities that focused on the main effort at the time – YEKAPO. I did not mention the many names of the activists whose work, due to their benevolence, benefitted the entire region. I saw them all and all of them deserved to be commended.

But I will not be able to conclude this review without highlighting the leaders who headed YEKAPO, each one during his watch, such as Dr. Zemach Shabad, Dr. Yaakov Vigodsky, Rabbi Rubinstein, Rabbi Fried, Yitzhak Berger, A.L. Yoffe, Baruch Cohen, Vave Yazararav(?), Yitzhak Wollak, Uri Kaliansky, Eliahu Rudnitzky, Natan Kovarsky, (undecipherable?), Zakheim, Langbard and Shraga Antovil (=the author of this chapter).

The guiding personality that organized, guided and expanded the YEKAPO activities was the general secretary, writer and teacher Moshe Shalit. He had been the director of the institution since 1919, and he was the one who had created all the plans and carried out many of the activities. Shalit devoted all his organizational talents to the institution. We can see his literary talent in his published works “Undzer Hilf” (=Our Help) and “Oif Churvot Un Milchamot” (=The Ruins of War). He had driven the townspeople to writing, many of them for the first time in their lives.

YEKAPO was the parliament of two hundred towns of the district of Vilnius, and Moshe Shalit was the creator and the educator of this unique Jewish parliament.


Footnotes:
  1. YEKAPO: Abbreviation for “The Jewish Aid Society” (Polish: Israelski Komitet Pomocy) (Russian Yevreyski Komitet Pomoshchy). Return
  2. Shloyme Zanvl Rappoport (1863 – November 8, 1920), known by his pseudonym S. Ansky (or An–sky), was a Jewish author, playwright, researcher of Jewish folklore, polemicist, and cultural and political activist. He is best known for his play The Dybbuk or Between Two Worlds, written in 1914. Return
  3. HIAS: A Jewish American nonprofit organization that provides humanitarian aid and assistance to refugees, was established in 1881. Return
  4. Emigrant Savings Bank is a private American financial institution, the oldest savings bank in New York City Founded in 1850 by the Irish Emigrant Society. Return
  5. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, also known as the Joint or the JDC, is a Jewish relief organization based in New York City. Return
  6. JCA: the Jewish Colonization Association was created in 1891 by Baron Maurice de Hirsch. Its aim was to facilitate the mass emigration of Jews from Russia and other Eastern European countries, by settling them in agricultural colonies on lands purchased by the committee, particularly in North America (Canada and the United States), and South America (Argentina and Brazil). Return


[Col. 711]

Bread for My Brother

H.G.[1]

Translated by Janie Respitz

With this chapter we conclude the section on the history of our town. There is nowhere to probe or search for more material. All material came from our recollections. Therefore we spoke a lot about our activities in the realm of social help. I want to emphasize, in that salty life – climate, which was filled with human pain, the legendary tree of knowledge never stopped blooming.

During every time period, when the communal workers worked at trying to alleviate suffering, they were also interested in all types of spiritual interests and at the first opportunity presented it as a problem for our awareness.

During the most difficult times of Jewish life in New-Sventzian there was never a crisis of survival instinct as we never lost faith in humanity. Tired from ongoing existential struggles, from earlier, smaller catastrophes, this small Jewish

[Col. 712]

community continued to feel as part of a collective, a Jewish collective.

Because of this, little place in our history is given to the struggle against assimilation, as this was not an issue. This is contrary to other towns where socialism took over the Jewish intelligentsia and ripped them from their roots. In our town the intelligentsia remained attached to Jewish life. The Jew of New –Sventzian felt he was a limb of a Jewish living, creative and developing collective: with a Jewish heart he wanted a national Jewish life.

The workers at YEKAPO were always people with a feeling for Jewish culture, for heritage treasures and continuity, for future perspective and future hopes. The social workers therefore felt the need to build and form a Jewish future structure in an effort to provide continuity of Yiddish culture.

In the most difficult times, the poet Beinish Zilbershteyn expressed himself through his quiet, intelligent lyrics and life's wisdom, what came from realizing, that shame will never repress him as long as the struggle for social help ensues:

My good is bread for my brother,
My bad – only the stone is for me;
Alone and ashamed, but no one
Ashamed remains at my door.
In eternal suffering and hunger,
On roads of a blue dawn –
I consider it a wonder,
That I am still here.


Footnote:
  1. Initials of Heshl Gurvitch Return

 

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