A Cultural and Social Shtetele
by Chanoch Drutz
Translated by Mindle Crystel Gross
Edited by Toby Bird
Svir was considered to be an intelligent town within the entire Vilna province.
The Jewish population was divided into two camps: Zionists and anti-Zionists. The Zionists, for the most part, congregated around the He'khalutz and Tseirey Tsiyon, and only a few were general Zionists and revisionists. The anti--Zionists belonged to the Bund or to the White Russian Communist party.
After WWI, there was a stubborn battle about the elementary school. The Zionists, however, emerged the victors and there existed in Svir a Tarbut school the entire time.
Rav H'Gaon R'Naftali Dovid Mosevzon,
of blessed memory
Nevertheless, we could not ignore the Yiddishist camp, because a portion of the intelligentsia centered itself around them. There were almost no assimilated in Svir, and very rarely and only in very few homes, did Jews speak Russian or Polish. That is why Svir was proud of its pure folk Yiddish, and even the most extreme adherents of the Tarbut school loved Yiddish and Jewish culture.
In Svir, the open trials were much loved as were the so-called box evenings. Various types of questions would be thrown into the box and the leaders of the different sides answered them. The questions were mostly of a literary and historical nature, but quite often, a piquant question would be asked and the audience would later joke about it.
Svir halutzim in 1932
In general, it was a rarity that a Friday evening or a Shabes should be without a gathering. Speakers loved to visit Svir because they always found an attentive audience. It almost never happened in Svir that a speaker would arrive and find an empty hall. There would always be an audience.
Svir earned its good name because of its cultural and social institutions which were always on a high level.
Svir was known for its excellent library, which in recent years had 1,000 books. We must comment that until 1918, there was no library in Svir. It was only after WWI that many tens of books were brought to Svir by Eliyohu Rabinovitz. With this, the foundation was laid for the later Svir people's library.
The funds were raised through various performances and other contributions. The entire youth, Yiddishists and Zionists, became united in order to enlarge the library. The initiative, however, always came from Henekh Miller.
There was almost no family in Svir who did not subscribe to a newspaper. If somebody did not have enough money, he partnered with somebody else. There were cases of three families subscribing together to one newspaper, but all read a daily newspaper. That is why Svir was considered to be a knowledgeable town.
The Vilna newspapers were read in Svir: Tsayt and Tog; the Warsaw newspapers: Haynt and Folks' Newspaper and the weekly Literary Pages and Folk Health.
The first to bring newspapers to Svir were Zolye Zlatayavke and Avrum Yitskhok Miller. Later on, Henekh Miller became involved and distributed newspapers around town.
Members of HaShomer HaTzair 1925
Sviri Hehalutz 1925
In general, it is worthwhile to note that the well-developed newspaper business owes its success in Svir to the Miller brothers, Avram Yitzhak, Heinich and Oyzer.
Soon the Hehalutz organized a reading room and opened, where we could find not only a daily newspaper but journals and monthly publications.
Of great interest were the journals which the youth of Svir themselves published. Thanks to the reading room, these written journals were read by tens of friends.
Quite often, lectures would take place in Svir. There were a number of good Zionist speakers who lived in Svir. Among those who distinguished themselves with their interesting lectures were the teachers Rogov and Yakov Dov Gordon, the rabbi's son-in-law, and Shloyme Kreitser, and from the Yiddishists Eliyohu Zlatayavke.
There were also frequent literary evenings. The best were about Mendele's Taksi, about God of Revenge, and Motek the Thief , the famous work by Sholem Ash.
In the entire province of Sventsiyon, Svir was noted for its dramatic circles. The Svir theatre performances were on a high artistic plain and were not just a play for those who loved theatre.
The first theatre performance took place in 1916 with the presentation of Gordon's play, Hertzele Meyuchas [lit. of distinguished lineage], at the home of Yose Moshe Ber.
Bentsye Yudl acted in this performance as Mikhl the Matchmaker. The other chief roles were played by: Yisroel Alperovitch, Shloyme Ayzerovitz ,Eliyohu Rabinovitz, Kisenye Gordon, Berte Berson, Pere Kaplan and Bat-Sheva Svirsky, Yone the ironwork's owner's daughter. The director was one Berman, a refugee from Vileyke.
The fee went to feed the poor.
The performance was a great success and even the officers were enthusiastic about it.
After the war, thanks to the initiative of Bukhhalter, Shimon Rozaler, a second group was founded with other performers. Yisroel Lev Shvartzgar, Hershl Miller, Shmuel Resnick, Avrum Kaplan, Yosef Chaim and the women, Rivka Ayzikov, Khaye Vayler, Batya Fisher, Bat-Sheva Yaffe, Sheyne Reyzl Yaffe and Khana Kissin all belonged to this group.
The director, Shimon Rozaler, also acted in Vilna in a drama group. He opened an office in Svir for requests and the residents of Svir have much for which to thank him.
The most important plays which were performed on the Svir stage were:
Gordon's The Wild Man
Khassye the Orphan
Kobrin's The Village Youth
Peretz Hirshbeyn's The Carcass, The Intelligent One
Viktor Hugo's The Rich Man in Chains
Sholem Ash's Motke the Thief
Tankeler's The Bridegroom (Joseph Tunkel)
Tankeler's Bells (Joseph Tunkel)
Where Are My Children?
The Big Moment
Moliere's The Miser
The Empty Inn
Mote Melekh the Carpenter
Sholem Aleikhem's Two Hundred Thousand
The Seven Who Were Hanged
Motke the Thief produced by the drama group 1931
Outstanding in serious roles were: Yisroel Zev Shvartsgar, Berl Goldman, Avrum Kaplan, Rokhl Vayler, Basye Fisher, Bat-Sheva Yaffe and Sheyne Reyzl Yaffe. Excelling in comedy were: Heshl Miller, Shmuel Resnick and Yosef Khayt.
The greatest difficulty for the Svir actors was that they did not have a suitable venue. It was crowded at Yose Moyshe Ber's, and in Fayve Svirsky's stable it was cold, and at Velvl Drutz's, it was larger but also not comfortable. So the decision was made to build a stage in the women's shul and perform there. You understand, that all preparations had to be made in secret because they knew that the orthodox would not have permitted it.
Finally, in 1927, they built the big hall in the fire-fighters' building and there they built a permanent stage. From that time on, Svir had a proper theatre.
As long as all the youth was united in one drama group, things ran smoothly. When the money that was paid went to the folk-library and the fire-fighters, everybody was in agreement, but when He'khalutz began to demand a portion of the money for khalutzim who did not have the money for aliya to Eretz Yisroel, the Yiddisists agreed to form a separate drama group.
That is how two drama groups developed in Svir.
Nevertheless, Svir sought methods for uniting the two, and soon found them. This was The Tournament and Sports Club, The Guardians of the Sick and the orchestra.
The initiative to establish a Tournament organization in Svir came from Berl Alperovitz. He was an avid sportsman and had many theoretical and practical ideas about sports.
The Tournament and Sports Club was named Maccabee and was connected to the central Maccabee organization of Poland. The instructor was Berl Alperovitz.
They rented a place for practice at Chaim Moyshe Rabinovitz' and a football field was fixed up behind the Polish cemetery.
The Svir football players quickly earned a good name in the province. They defeated not only Mikhaleyshak, but even Smarna, and with Sventsyon, they remained tied. Yulke Motskin excelled as goal-keeper; defending were Avrum Kaplan and Berl Resnick; intercepting were Heshl Miller, Chanan Epshtayn and Yitskhok Resnick; opponents were Yosef Kamin, Avrum Yitskhok Miller, Leybl Moller, Lolye Zlatayavke and Pinkhas Hazan.
In addition to the football players, Svir also had divisions for light and difficult athletics.
Svir Hehalutz in 1931
The Tournament and Sports Club lost its role in the life of Svir at the beginning of the 1930's. Berl Alperovitz went to Paris, Yosef Kamin went to Argentina and many other players left to Eretz Israel. Among them was also the best player of the second group, Khanon Weiner.
The arrests of the Communists robbed the Sport Club of one of its main strengths, Yulke Motzkin, the Svir goal-keeper.
All this caused the downfall of the great football club.
Svir the Guardians of the Sick
A beautiful, beloved and worthwhile institution which also helped to unite all levels was The Guardians of the Sick.
The initiative for this institution was Elyakim Kovorski. While sitting in his house on one occasion, discussing various tragedies which had befallen residents of Svir, the thought occurred that the entire burden should not be carried by the family members. The youth of Svir must help. The help is most necessary at night because the family caregivers must also rest and there is no hospital in Svir, nor nurses. Therefore, every night another couple of people must be sent to help and watch the patient.
It did not take much thought in Svir said and done.
A general meeting was immediately called of the entire Svir youth, not differentiating between party or direction.
Velvl Drutz, one of the active members of The Guardians of the Sick, his wife, Sore, daughter and son-in-law
Elikim Kovarski spoke about the proposal, and after a short discussion, it was accepted with enthusiasm.
At the first meeting were elected: Elikim Kovarski, Moyshe Drevyatski, Berl Alperovitz, Shmuel Resnick, Heshl Miller, Ruven Meyer Resnick and Abba Weiner.
A short time later, it was decided that they could not do with only sending people at night to the sick. Very often, a doctor must be brought and free medicine to the indigent sick supplied. They thought about how to raise the necessary funds.
Mostly, the money was raised through theatre performances, but the administration also created other sources.
This is how The Guardians of the Sick took upon themselves the task of baking matzos for Passover. All the friends obligated themselves to work without pay. Some worked as the one who put the matzo into the oven, others as the one who made the perforations, others to roll out the dough. Most importantly, so many people gave The Guardians the chore of baking their matzo that the revenue from this was quite significant. It is worthwhile mentioning that Elye Rabinovitz permitted his house to be used for such an important purpose.
In the list of those who were sick for whom the members of the Guardians provided night after night, for months serving with devotion, we note Rabbi Mosevzon, Velvl Drutz, Minnie Fisher and many others.
The Svir Orchestra
After the big fire at Fayvl Svirsky's house, the firefighters group strengthened in Svir. Each homeowner gave ten zlotys and quite a large sum was collected.
After long deliberations, the administration decided to establish a wind orchestra. Since they had approximately 1200 zlotys, they bought 14 instruments. This was not enough because 15 people had signed up for the orchestra, so they were divided into two groups and they began to study.
The Svir Wind Orchestra 1930
The first director was Elikim Kovarski. Later on, they hired a Christian from Smarna and still later, Zalman Alpert took over the reins and finally, at the end, Perl Resnick.
The Svir orchestra participated in all the celebrations of the town, as well as Jewish-national celebrations. Above all, it met with great success at the welcome celebration for president Mestitskin.
In 1935, the Svir orchestra attended the first May demonstrations in Vilna. Since all the members were Socialists, nobody refused to go. In the Subatch kibbutz, they met up with those from Sventsiyon.
On the corner of Vilna and Metzkevitz Streets, they were attacked by a group of hooligans and were badly beaten.
From that time on, the orchestra performed only in Svir. During the winter, the rehearsals were held in the elementary school and in Saray during the summer.
In the last years before WWII, the orchestra was composed of the best talents of the Svir youth.
Among the most talented orchestra members were: Aaron Gitlin, Akiva Fisher, Nakhum Shrayer, Yekhiel Miller, Zelig Rabinovitz, the brothers Moyshe and Noyakh Alperovitz and others.
You understand, of course, that everybody played without being paid.
They were rewarded for this by living to enjoy pleasure because their efforts were not for naught. The orchestra quickly developed into one of the best institutions in Svir and became a part of Svir's cultural and social life.
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