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[Page 48 - Yiddish]

The People's Library

By Herzl Weiner

Translated by Mindle Crystel Gross

Edited by Toby Bird

The library in Svir was established right about the end of WWI, and it is thanks to the initiative of Eli Rabinovitch and actual help from Yekopo which set as its goal not only to rescue us from the economic ruin, but at the same time, to elevate the cultural level in town. With a total of 12 books, the foundation was laid for the people's library in Khatskelevitch's house, and later grew to be one of the largest libraries in the area with close to 3,000 books and a broad selection of various Yiddish and Hebrew volumes. They encompassed the classics and modern Jewish literature and also those translated from other languages, including many scientific works and assorted timely journals. The Jewish youth, enjoying the various novels, immersed itself in the rich well of the newly-grown Yiddish literature and enriched their knowledge. The Jewish town was poor and the people carried much spiritual baggage at that time, and the library was a window which opened wide onto the horizon of the surrounding bright world, and which broke through the narrowness of the small town, preparing the foundation for the latest events of the political parties and organizations in town. During the early years, the library was run by the so-called Yiddishist camp, like A. Zlatayavke, M. Drevyatski and others. Later, however, with the strengthening of the Zionist organizations, they participated in the administration and they worked with the brothers Alperovitz, Chanoch Miller, Sore Tsakh, Eliyohu Epshteyn, Moyshe Miller, Yehuda Gershovitz, and the writer of these lines, as well as others. It was a joint effort and pleasant years were enjoyed by both sides for the continuation and development of the library. Many theatre performances which raised funds were dedicated to the library and presented an opportunity to purchase books.

Herzl Weiner and his mother


There was also an intensive cultural effort conducted, such as establishing “box” evenings, where the so-called elite of the town would answer questions. They were B. Alperovitz, A. Zlatayavke, Kh. Rogov, Y. Engle, and others, including teachers who came later. Many serious questions were posed, scientific, political and literary, which troubled the minds of the youth, and which found their immediate answers. Also arranged were many literary evening “trials” which had a valuable influence on the upbringing of the young, like Mendele's Taksi, Peretz's Bontche Shvayg, and Sholem Ash's God of Revenge, and others.

Especially notable was the trial of the Woman which drew in a large number of participants and lasted for two months. The accusers, Y. Gordon and Y. Engle, were supported by Ita Vayniger and Strindberg. The defendants were supported by Y. Motzkin and B. Z. Malamyak to defend the non-Soviet literature. At the end, after hearing the witnesses for both sides, the verdict was announced by the tribunal and the woman speaks freely and accuses the community which had enslaved her and cast her out from life's better positions.

The “trial” resulted in great interest and left a deep impression in town.

The last years with the greatest number of active youth leaving the town, some to Eretz Yisroel, others immigrating to other countries, a simultaneous weakening in the work of all the parties in town. Once again, the library fulfilled its function as the spiritual center and concentrated around itself the creative talents. Thanks to the energetic administration and the initiative of B. Resnick and A. Zlatayovke, they were successful in obtaining through various methods, a radio, something very precious at that time, and the only one in town for the Jewish community. It ran on batteries as there was not yet any electricity in town. This created the possibility of listening for hours to various programs from the entire world, such as music, song and daily news from Poland. Most importantly, they found a strong interest in the Jewish programs from the Soviet Union, and with trembling joy, listened to every second and word from faraway Eretz Yisroel, which is so dear and to which everybody is tied organically and wants to go there. The youth enjoyed the broadcast music, dancing late into the night, a lovely cultural happening in town.

With the outbreak of the war, the library, along with the entire spiritual life of the community, was destroyed.

[Page 51 - Yiddish]

The First Elementary School in Svir

by Shmuel Dobkin

Translated by Mindle Crystel Gross

Edited by Toby Bird

The founding of the first elementary school in our town was a great happening and created a revolution in our education and upbringing.

This took place a couple of years after WWI. People began to breathe easier, new birds began to sing new songs, ideals about freedom, equality and national freedom were felt in the air, and people began to believe in a better tomorrow.

At that time, the first school was founded in town, and we saw in it the beginning of a new era, a better one, a more beautiful one. The first two teachers themselves were former students, consumed with the idea of going to the people to teach them, educate them, threw themselves with great fervor into organizing the school and situating it on a new pedagogic and modern foundation. They began to create something out of nothing. They did not have at their disposition the good will of the parents, and the enthusiasm of the children to learn. They tested all the future students and created the classes. The yeshiva building near the synagogue was turned into a place for the school, and we, the children, began with great joy and enthusiasm to learn there. Everything was a great revelation for us. We studied only five-six hours a day, with a break after each lesson during which time we played in the courtyard, jumping and running. In addition to the Jewish studies, we also studied general subjects, e.g.: arithmetic, geography, science, music and so forth. The lessons themselves were not taught the way they were in kheder The teacher had conversations with the children in our language and asked questions. The teacher later reviewed everything and it all became clear. The new school books that we received elicited great happiness and respect from us. We began to feel that the school was unfolding a new world for us, a real one, a substantial one, and it was eager to connect us with it, and to interest us in this large world.

The school taught us to recognize nature around us, the trees, the fields and meadows, and maybe to love them as well and to give thought to the entire development-process of the larger surroundings.

The respect for these first two teachers was great. Their word is holy to us. The school becomes the cultural center of the town.

In the history of the Jewish education in our town, the first elementary school will be noted as having been an important contributor to our social and cultural success.

[Page 53]

The first Hebrew School in Svir

Chaim Rugovin

Translated by Sara Mages

I'd reached old age, because our Sages said in Avot [5:21] “at sixty to be an elder”, and when I do the account of my life, I add the establishment of the Hebrew School in Svir, one of the most important enterprises of my life, to my account. Now, when the memory of Svir's Jewry with all of its institutions has been uprooted from the world, the review of the past will give us the opportunity to appreciate the historical value of the Hebrew School. This school taught boys and girls to love the Jewish people and the land of Israel. This school prepared the hearts before the storm, which destroyed almost all of the European Jewry, and in my opinion, it was the biggest factor that a very large percentage survived the decrees and the Holocaust from such a small town. If the TSYSHO School (Tsentrale Yidishe Shul-Organizatsye - central Yiddish school organization), that I found at the beginning of 1921, remained, it would have turned the hearts of its graduates to travel and escape to Stalin and his friends' Evil Kingdom. To what can this be compared? to people who survived the fire and fell into deep water, “none who go to her return again” [the Book of Proverbs 2:19].

I came to Vilna in the winter of 1921 with a small suitcase in my hand and about 200 Polish Marks in my pocket. Of course, I lacked a Polish document that I was resident of the district of Vilna. By chance, I met a man on the street who knew me and my family from Minsk. I told him about my hardships, and what happened to me since I escaped from the “Bolsheviks” in Minsk. He went with me to the Jewish community. I saw that many clerks and the head of the community, the old Dr. Vigodski, knew him. There, he met another man and said to him: “we both go and testify about this man”, and pointed his finger at me. I introduced myself to the stranger and both of them approached one of the clerks. The clerk swore them on their testimony that I'm a decent honest man. The clerk wrote a document in Polish, stamped it with the community's seal, and Dr. Vigodski signed it. I felt more secure walking in the streets with this kosher amulet. The days were the days of the government of the Polish General Zygowski. The Jews, who lived in the district of Vilna, were afraid of the slightest noise. The general tried to show himself as a liberal, and was cordial to Jewish community of Vilna in order

[Page 54]

to distract their minds from his political trickery, to rip the district of Vilna from Lita - where the Jews enjoyed all the civil rights – and annex it to the Polish government.

I went to the Hebrew teachers' center to ask for a job. There, they told me that there were too many Hebrew teachers in Vilna, the roads around Vilna were too dangerous, and the teachers' center had no clear information about Hebrew schools in small towns. When I told them that the Polish Marks are shrinking in my pocket, they advised me to go to TSYSHO, because sometimes they need a “cure”, a Hebrew teacher. Without a choice, and against my will, I went to TSYSHO. There, they told me that they received a request for a Hebrew teacher from their school in Svir, who will teach Hebrew in Yiddish but not Hebrew in Hebrew. They informed me that the school already has a teacher for general studies and the Polish language, and they recognize her as the principal. They also let it slip, that the Polish superintendent in the province city of Švenèionys refuses to confirm her. They asked me about my knowledge in general studies. I showed them my papers from the Russian secondary school in Minsk, and since the Poles controlled Minsk for about a year, there was a also a Polish stamp on them.

Before I left Vilna, I revisited the center of “Tzeirei Zion” [Young Zionists] movement. They asked me to write them on the status of the youth in the town of Svir, maybe they'll be able to establish a branch of “Tzeirei Zion” there. They also told me that a “Tarbut” [a network of secular Hebrew-language schools] center will be established soon. Menachem Rudnicki arrived, or fled from Moscow, and he'll head the center. Then, they'll establish Hebrew schools in small towns, and wage a war against TSYSHO in the provinces.

In the Svirim's hostel, in Rivka Solowizik's home, they told that on the same night, a dark rainy night, a convoy of carts will leave for Svir. I told one of the carters that I don't have the money to pay for the trip, but I was sure that the school's management will pay him. He agreed to take me. I remember that Polie Seirski and his brother Yitzchak were also members of the caravan. At night we were stopped by the police. They searched the carts, my suitcase, my pockets, and also frisked me. The document from the community wasn't good enough for them, and by miracle they didn't stop me. On the second night, a snowy night, one of the nights of the month of Shevat 1921, we finally arrived to Henie Kaplan's home.

[Page 55]

They told me to get off there. It was about an hour before midnight. Shulamit, the school principle, also lived in Henie's home. She slept in the same room with Perale, Henie's stepdaughter, and I slept in the dining room. The first homeowner to greet me was Zalman Michel Fisher. On the next day I started to teach at the school. The intellectual climate of the school was foreign to my liking, and the Hebrew studies were at a low level. When we returned from school, I sat down to eat together with Shulamit. She asked my opinion about the school. I expressed my opinion that we should correct the studies of our nation's history, and give the children a positive attitude towards our actions and hopes in our homeland. During the conversation I realized that we were students of foreign worlds, and opposed each other.

Meanwhile, I met good innocent people who cared about me, like Zev Drutz. None of them suspected that I didn't like their school.

Teachers Chaim Rugovin and Chaim Gershater


[Page 56]

I was alone and lonely. I wanted to rent a special room for myself so I won't have to sleep in the dining room, and they told me that there was no such thing in town.

After the holiday of Purim, the principal Shulamit traveled to Švenèionys to see the Polish inspector in charge of the district's schools, and took my papers to confirm me as a teacher. When she returned she surprised me. The inspector confirmed me as a principle and her as a teacher, because he didn't find anything wrong with my papers. He sent me an official certificate that I was the official school's principal. From that time, the district supervisor turned to me in all the official negotiations about the school, even though I didn't know Polish. This fact angered TSYSHO.

Those were the days of commercial prosperity because of the depreciation of the Polish Mark. The whole town was busy trading and exchanging money from Dollars to Marks and vice versa. A young man came and said that he was a dance teacher, and all the youth joined him and began to dance at night.

The month of Nisan arrived and brought the spring winds. I started to miss the friendship of people my age because the homeowners, who come to visit me, were older than me by many years. One day, at the beginning of Nisan, as I sat alone in the dining room, Perale's brother came and told me that a youth delegation want to talk to me. I received them amicably. We talked, and from the conversation I learned that the town's youth grew during the war, during the days of chaos. Apart from the knowledge that they have acquired in the old “Heder”, they had almost no education. They heard about the Zionist movements, but their concepts weren't clear to them. They wander through life and eager for a different intellectual world. In short, they wanted me to guide them, organize them and be their mentor. I took this job with great joy. At first, I organized a branch of “Tzeirei Zion”. I wanted to establish a platform and support if I decide to wage a war against the Yiddish School. At the beginning the branch wasn't big. Among the members were: Reuven Reznik, Isaac Tzakh, and May they live - Yisrael Wele Schwartz who lives in the United States, and Chaim Chaiat who was the first pioneer to immigrate from Svir to Israel. The last was

[Page 57]

Chana Rugovin's parents, Mina and Zalman Eliyahu Swirski of blessed memory


knowledgeable in Hebrew and Yiddish literature more than anyone else. I wanted to expand the branch and attract the fathers and mothers, the parents of the school children.

To carry out my wish, we decided that I should speak from the synagogue's Holy Ark Bimah wrapped in a prayer shawl. We chose the Sabbath of Parashat ”Aharei Mot [“After the death” Torah portion]. On Friday eve we hung a notice in the synagogue that I'll speak an hour before Mincha prayer. On that Sabbath, the Shamash called the congregation to come to the synagogue after their afternoon nap. As in Rosh Hashanah, the synagogue and the women's section were full of people. My subject was “strange fire” – which is mentioned in the same Parasha. The impression was great, and on the next day we sold one hundred “Tzeirei Zion” shekels [memberships]. Many asked us to sign them as members of “Tzeirei Zion”. I think about fifty men and women signed up. Many important homeowners started to visit me regularly like: Zev Drutz, Nachman Gurvitz, Spekter and the like. We started to meet almost every Saturday, and the number of participants increased.

[Page 58]

I chose a subject: Hebrew or Yiddish? Shulamit was frightened. She suddenly realized that TSYSHO made a mistake hiring me. The Yidishe [Yiddish speaking] started to organize. Their friends were of various types: Bundistim, communists, and just “those who don't know to ask”. In my opinion, their biggest shortcoming was that they didn't have a leader and a manager. Shulamit couldn't give a speech, and so were the other teachers from TSYSHO.

The first quarrel that broke out between us was in early May of the same year (1921). The Polish authority turned to me, the official school principal, with a request that we won't teach on May third, their Constitution Day. They asked that Shulamit and I will organize the children in rows, and march in a procession through the main street to a location near the Christian Church where the Polish School children will also gather. I agreed to participate in this procession, but suggested that our school will march with our national blue and white flag. The Polish delegates promised me that they would bring this condition before the celebration committee. On May second I received a positive answer. When Shulamit heard it, her face reddened from anger. She screamed very loudly: “The Jews don't have a flag. Our flag is the flag of this country, the Polish flag, the blue and white flag is the flag of the Zionist's dream”. Time was short because it was already the evening of May second, and on the next day, at nine o'clock in morning, we had to march. I called Yisrael Wele Schwartz and Chaim Chaiat, and they decided that all the members of “Tzeirei Zion”, mostly the female members, will come to school immediately. Shortly after, I had a big blue and white flag in my hands, and dozens of small blue and white flags for the children to hold in their hands. Our school's May third procession was festive. After their schools sang the Polish national anthem, our children sang “Hatikvah”, and we sang it again when we returned to the anger of the Yidishe. I think that many former students, who now live in Israel, remember this festive occasion and the impression that it left on the town.

Since then, I started to demand publicly that the Yiddish School should be demolished and a Hebrew “Tarbut” School will be established. Almost all the homeowners, whose children studied in the school, supported me. Then, I slowly began to lay the foundation for Hebrew in Hebrew.

[Page 59]

I decided to prepare the most talented students, Chanoch Drutz, the two Yoel brothers, Sutzkewer, Dubkin and others, and increase their vocabulary. They probably didn't understand why I gave them more work. Very important public work was done until the summer vacation. Large meetings were held every Saturday and I spoke about various international issues, especially about the treasures of the Hebrew language. That spring “Tzeirei Zion” held a conference in Vilna, and I was sent as a delegate. The economic situation in town wasn't bad, and most of the parents paid tuition. Once, YEKOPO [an aid organization for Jewish victims of war] received a few hundred dollars from America, which were exchanged to tens of thousands of Polish Marks. They also donated money to the school in Svir. Central Lita wasn't annexed to Poland yet, and for the sake of appearance they continued to maintain the international contract, and sometimes donated money to the national minority schools. Therefore, the school in Svir also received a few thousands Marks. I also received my salary, which was four thousands Marks a month. They also paid me for all the vacation days – I don't remember – six weeks or two months. In the month of Elul 1921, I left Svir because I got a job in the municipal “Talmud Torah” school in Vilna, which was one of Mizrachi's schools. .

My hopes that made me move to Vilna dashed very slowly. The parents of the children, who came from Svir to Vilna for their business, persuaded me to return to Svir, remove the school from the ownership of TSYSHO, transfer it to the ownership of “Tarbut”, and be its principal. In Svir, the teachers were paid ten thousands Marks a month, more than in Vilna. Even my wife Chana begged me to return to Svir. All these things influenced me. In Vilna I was only a teacher, and in Svir I was going to create something new. I consulted with the director of the institute, because I trusted him, and he answered me: “Do as you wish, but my heart is telling me that you'll regret it”. I thought it over and made a crucial decision, to return to Svir and establish a “Tarbut” School there. I think I returned in the month of Adar 1922. All the residents of the town received me with love and affection, and of course, the Yidishe camp wasn't happy with me. I had a lot of work to do: I started to correct and modify the curriculum, and corresponded with the “Tarbut” office in Vilna in the matter of a second teacher.

[Page 60]

I also reorganize the branch of “Tzeirei Zion”, which has weakened during my absence from Svir, because I knew that the federation would support me and the school. A second teacher arrived after Passover. He was a good teacher, who influenced the children by organizing sports games, a subject that I wasn't familiar with.

The Yidishe camp wanted to get rid of me. They believed that if I left the town, they would seize the school building and everything will return to normal. There were a number of thugs among them who informed the kingdom that came from Russia, and every Jew who came from Russia was a Russian spy in the eyes of the Polish government. In the month of Elul of the same year (1922), I celebrated my wedding feast, and before the seven days of the feast ended I was summoned to the police for an investigation. The Yidishe camp was jubilant and happy. The Polish passport, which I've acquired, was taken from me. I started to wander from Svir to Švenèionys, and from here to there. I was interrogated by police, and I was in danger of expulsion from Poland to Russia. Returning to Russia was equal to a capital punishment, because I escaped from there and my name was blacklisted. It is difficult to describe the troubles that the informers caused me. It took me almost a year to obtain a valid Polish passport.

Despite all the troubles, the Hebrew School continued to evolve, and most of the students succeeded in their studies.

Meanwhile, the economic situation of the Jews in Poland has worsened, including the Jews of Svir. Of course, it also affected the financial situation of the school. The value of the Polish Mark fell, and the teachers demanded a pay raise. When the days of Grabeski, may his name be blotted out, started, the Polish Jews lost their livelihood. It was difficult to pay tuition, and I, the “swindler”, the principal of the school in Svir, was forced to demand salaries for me and for the other teachers. The leaders of “Tzeirei Zion” like Yisrael Wele Schwartz, Chaim Chaiat, Issac Schwartz and others decided to intervene. They realized that the Hebrew School, which they helped to built, is going to be destroyed. They took it on themselves to collect the teachers' salaries - andYisrael Wele Schwartz was elected as treasurer. If my memory serves me, there was a fundraiser for the school in the form of a school play.

[Page 61]

Members of Tarbut school in Svir – 1925
[Tarbut – Zionist network of Hebrew educational institutions founded in 1922]


The financial resources of “Tzeirei Zion” were temporary, and I saw that it was difficult for them to carry the burden. Since I realized that if I left the school it would remain Hebrew and a “Tarbut” institution, I decided during the vacation days of 1925 to leave the school in Svir, and look for a job in another town, and so I have done.

In the month of Elul of the same year (1925), I was accepted as a teacher in Dokshiz, a town four times larger than Svir. The school was also founded by “Tarbut” - but it was more established because there was an organized community there. There were also a number of affluent educated people in the community. There were four teachers. The Polish language teacher was also the principal, who was sent from “Tarbut”, but what happened to me in Svir also happened to me here. The Polish superintended appointed me as the official school principal. Also there, I revived the chapters of “Tzeirei Zion” and “HeHalutz”. At the end of the year they kept me for the next year. Meanwhile, I received an opportunity to travel to the United States. I traveled from Dokshiz to Vilna, where I taught at the Hebrew High School for two months, and at the end of November (1926) I left Poland and traveled to America.

I don't know what happened at the school in Svir since the vacation days of 1925, but one thing is clear, the school remained a Hebrew School and continued what I started,

[Page 62]

to build, in the spirit of Hebrew language, a productive home for future generations who would be closely connected to our ancient new country.

San Francisco, California, United States – 18 Adar 5718


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