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[Pages 291-293]

The Dramatic Group Of Shumsk

by Rachel Feldger

Translated by Gal Amir

Edited by Lynne Tolman

Note: The author of this article, Rachel Onie nee Feldger, immigrated to Palestine in 1937. She lost her family -- mother, sister, two brothers and their families, who were murdered by the Nazis in Shumsk in 1942. Rachel passed away in Afula, Israel, in 1984. This article was translated into English from the original Hebrew by her grandson, Gal Amir.)

The towns in Volhynia were renowned for their vibrant Jewish social life, but our town Shumsk, so it seems to me, was outstanding in this respect. Its public life was Jewish-Zionist, since most of the population was Jewish. No other national group held any public activity.

Jewish social activities in the town were varied. There was a large “Hechalutz” branch, which prepared pioneers for their aliyah; there were the national funds for rebuilding a Jewish homeland --the Keren Kayemet and Keren Hayesod --contributions to which increased annually; there was a large Tarbut school, a Hebrew library which numbered most of the young people of the town among its readers, etc.

Much could be written about each of these, and this would be of major interest for research into the early stages of nation-building, but I will only write about the activities of our dramatic group. This group, of which I was a longtime member, was very dear to me, and its memory still reverberates within me.

I do not know exactly when the company was founded. I was among the youngest of its participants.

Its most prominent figure, one who will be forever remembered by anyone who participated in the group, was our director, (Mordechai) Mirmelsztejn, and his wife, Shaindel, of blessed memory. He and his wife volunteered to set up the group in their home and the meetings and rehearsals were held there.

The dramatic society had two objectives. The first was to develop the artistic and cultural interests of its participants and its audience. The second was to engage in activities which would strengthen our identification with Zionism. Artistically, we made efforts to present plays by well- known Yiddish playwrights, above all Sholom Aleichem, Goldfadden and Gordin. Zionist activity centered on donating the proceeds of the shows to the national funds and the “Hechalutz,” and to helping those of our friends who were making aliyah. The dramatic society had a third objective, incidental but of educational significance. It was to make us aware of our responsibility to our community. Part of our income went to charity for the needy -- matzot for Passover, firewood in the winter, etc.

It goes without saying that the activities of the drama group were based completely on voluntary collective efforts, with no personal financial rewards for anyone. And yet, some of the audience viewed us as mere “comedians.” Fortunately, most of the audience appreciated our work and were sympathetic to our cause.

We spared no time or effort. None of us ever missed a single rehearsal, in rain or snow, and we even contributed our own money for costumes, scenery, or musical scores in the cases where a show did not cover its expenses.

I remember Mirmelsztejn, standing among us during the rehearsal, guiding, encouraging, influencing, giving strength, like the great teacher he was. He wanted his pupils to succeed, and he was concerned with the nature of the group we were building, so he did not spare his anger when he felt that we had deviated from the spirit of the play or the goals of the dramatic society.

In the home of Sheindel and Mirmelsztejn we experienced a taste of freedom and deep friendship, and we loved meeting there.

Sometimes in my mind's eye, I see myself in their home, engulfed by its warmth, belonging to a large, ever growing group. To this day, I feel that I am connected to those who with me participated in those cultural evenings, and who are no longer with us now. Sometimes their images appear to me, and I remember them as they were. Here are Fania and Grisha Akerman, of blessed memory, Fania, our “prima dona,” and Grisha, the director who succeeded Mirmelsztejn. The beautiful Fania played every part like a professional actress, with talent, taste and charm. Grisha was the cheerful joker who made us laugh and be happy. My sister Batiah, of blessed memory, played the part of the Jewish “Yachne” [1] in many plays.

Chaim Klejnsztejn was the comedian, the company jester, who played Hotzmach in “The Witch” (by Colondia), and Ting Tang in “Salome.” Alongside them were the many less talented actors who were always prepared to allow the stars to “shine” and so ensure the success of the show.

Alongside the dramatic group there was a small string orchestra which accompanied the performances. Here too were beloved friends who gave of their musical talents for the success of the plays, and I recall those who were most prominent: my brothers, Moshe and Yaakov Feldger, of blessed memory; Meir Akerman, may he rest in peace, and Tartekovsky, of blessed memory. This modest orchestra was so devoted to its calling that it developed into the best of such musical ensembles. Even members of the arrogant Polish ruling class who held anything not Polish in contempt had no choice but to recognize their talent and invited them to play at their shows. This, of course, enhanced our pride in being Jews.

The repertoire of the dramatic society included outstanding plays by Jewish playwrights, such as Gordin's “Mirele Efros,” “The Great Win” by Sholom Aleichem, and others, and Goldfaden's operettas “ Bar Kochva,” “Salome,” and “The Witch,” which were the audience's favorites.

In preparing material for the shows we were always concerned with presenting problems and the search for their solution, but in order to remain acceptable to a wide audience we were compelled to acquiesce to common taste. If we didn't present plays which were attractive, the audience would leave us. We, in the dramatic group, had developed a group spirit of our own, had many shared experiences, and were a unique force in our town, Shumsk. We had many shared experiences behind the scene, with all that these entail.

There was no dearth of humorous incidents and “curiosities.” We presented the last plays in the auditorium of the public school Shkola Pobshechna, but before that we performed in the Wilskier Braver, a wine hall that did not have enough light, but had enough space … and also had birds which would defecate on the audience during the shows...

I remember during one show in the Shkola Pobshechna we all went on stage, in costume and makeup. The curtain went up, and the actors waited for the cue from the prompter -- but the prompter was not in his place! The audience sat quietly, waiting expectantly, but the fellow had disappeared ... Of course we had to lower the curtain. We stood there, not knowing what to do, when suddenly we saw the prompter, Zecharia Sztejnberg, may he rest in peace, standing in one of the corners of the stage, behind the scenes, praying “Shemone Esre” [2] with devotion. This made us laugh -- not according to the program, of course, and the audience stirred in surprise. But we forgave Zecharia, and the play was a success in spite of the late start. It was only then that we learned of the identity of our prompter. There was something in him that symbolized our activities: boundless dedication to the Jewish nation, employing all means possible -- both the ancient one of prayer and the so-called modern one of artistic expression -- each one loyally whispered, with equal fervor.

[Pages 294-296]

Things I Remember

by Akiva Shprecher

Translated by Rachel Bar Yosef

Edited by Lynne Tolman

Note: The translation of this article is in memory of Akiva Shprecher, who immigrated to Palestine from Shumsk in the late 1930s, lived in Haifa, and passed away in 1993; the translation is donated by his children Haim Shprecher and Miriam Adir.

I write these words, which spring from my great love for my town, especially for the Shumsk Yizkor Book. My fondest wish is that this book will serve as a historic document, to which future generations will turn to read about the conditions in which we grew up, studied, developed. Our reality here in Israel today is nothing whatsoever like the conditions of that time and place. Herein lies the greatness — as well as the weaknesses — of our forebears.

Our town of Shumsk was surrounded by 24 villages, most of whose inhabitants were Pravoslavic Ukrainians, who made their living either farming or working in the nearby forests. A few thousand Jews lived in the center of the town; most of them were engaged in trade, with the exception of a few dozen heads of families who were laborers (tailors, cobblers, carpenters, glaziers, etc.).

Part of the town was hilly. At its southern edge ran the Vilya stream, which drove two large mills. Avraham Rajch's mill supplied Shumsk with electricity, lighting streets and houses. In this our town was different from the other towns in the area, which remained in darkness for many subsequent years .

Every week there was a traditional market, to which the farmers would bring grains, fruits, and vegetables. With their profits they would buy groceries, clothing, and shoes, and they would end up getting drunk … and being arrested by the police.


The youth of Shumsk — their education and future prospects

For many years, the people of Shumsk were content to study Jewish religious subjects in the Talmud Torah school in the synagogue study hall. As time passed, they started to teach their sons secular subjects and de-emphasized Torah and Gemarrah. There were two schools in the town, a state elementary school and the private “Tarbut” school, whose high tuition cost made it inaccessible for many children. This was a great pity.

The children at the Tarbut school were taught Hebrew and general subjects, as well as receiving a Zionist education that involved preparation for physical labor and “Hachsharot.”[3] Once a boy finished his elementary schooling, in most cases he would work to help support his parents and family. But since there were an average of four or five children in each family and there was not enough work to go around, thoughts of emigrating to America would enter people's heads (already in those days tens of thousands of Jews were bewitched by the thought of America). Later, beginning in the 1920s, some pioneering spirits started thinking in terms of settling in the Land of Israel. This was when our local branch of “Hechalutz”[4] got organized, encouraging the young people to adopt real physical labor. The boys, including Lokaczer, Seforim, Shalom Rojchman, and others, worked in the timber warehouse, and all the Efros sons started learning carpentry. The parents were amazed by the phenomenon that our boys, with their own hands, were turning out work on a higher level of craftsmanship than the gentiles. The girls started to learn to weave reed baskets, under the guidance of a gentile master basketweaver, right in our own home. My sister Devora, Malka Klejnsztein, and Gittel Seforim later went to “Hachsharot” in Klosova[5] and other places in Poland. To the best of my recollection, the first pioneers made aliyah[6] during the riots of 1929, after taking their leave of the townspeople with a mixture of joy and sadness.

This was the generation of revolution and revolt, a generation that took a dim view of our town life, so deficient in terms of economic stability. They aspired to put the situation to rights by making a radical change and embracing a productive life of manual labor and the realization of the dream of establishing a Jewish state in the Land of Israel. Later, the town's branch of Betar and the “Hachsharah Kibbutz” were organized, based mostly on work in the sawmill in Malanyov (about 7 kilometers from Shumsk). This was backbreaking work, which involved, among other things, lifting and positioning the logs for sawing, and all manner of associated tasks. This work supported these boys, at the same time that it provided training in an occupation for those who were not thinking of leaving Poland. There were other boys who went to the ORT school in Kremenets to study. (ORT was a Bund influenced school system that sought to train Jewish youth for productive employment.) Jewish boys began unashamedly to turn their energies to physical labor, even if they were planning to spend the rest of their lives in Jewish Shumsk.


Social life and leisure

The young people would meet at their branch clubhouses, whether that be Hechalutz or Betar, and every Shabbat there would be a general meeting ending with a hike to Gorka, where there was a lovely pine forest. Some went farther afield, to the Malanyov forest, to gather berries. In the rainy season the young people would have to be content to entertain themselves in the clubhouse. The river would freeze over in winter, stretching as far as the village of Olyvus, which added an enormous amount of glassy-smooth territory to the town.[7] Not only did this make it easier for the farmers to get to the town; the frozen river also enabled the more athletic young people to ice-skate, some with wooden blades and some with steel. In the evenings, they would gather with their sleds on the top of a hill and slide down, over and over.


Enlistment in the army

When a boy reached the age of 18, he reported to the municipal office for a routine examination of his papers, and at 21 he had to report to the recruitment office in the district city of Kremenets for a medical examination and assignment of his health status. A boy who was underweight would receive a deferment for one year, but if after three examinations he was still underweight and his health did not improve, he would receive a release from the army. To obtain this magical release, our boys would gather for months before they were due to report, spending hours upon hours eating seeds, in their desperate effort to lose weight and get out of serving in the alien army. There were extreme cases in which parents collaborated with their sons and baked them cakes made with castor oil for this purpose. Those who had already resigned themselves to serving in the Polish army used to run riot on the last evenings before their mobilization. A typical prank might be changing signs from “cobbler” to “doctor” or from “doctor” to “carpenter,” or using boards and snow sleds to erect tall barricades, and so on. I should point out that the gentiles considered it a source of great shame to evade army service, but Jewish youths would resist being called up for two reasons: fear of anti-Semitic abuse at the hands of their comrades in arms, or fear of eating meat that was not kosher or not ritually slaughtered, or a combination of the two.

There were the youth of Shumsk, and these were their concerns and activities.

Translator's Footnotes

  1. “yachne” -- Yiddish. The stock comic character of a woman gossip. Return
  2. “Shemone Esre” -- Hebrew. The central prayer of the Jewish service. Recited silently while standing. Return
  3. Hachsharot (Heb) -- Literally, preparation. The term refers to activities done in preparation for emigration to the Land of Israel and also to special farms where hechalutz (pioneers) went to prepare themselves for the life they would live after emigrating.
    Penina (Dorfman) Sharon of Kibbutz Afek in Israel, originally from Shumsk, explains in oral communication with the Shumsk Yizkor book translation project coordinator that the Shumsk branch of Hechalutz Hatzair (the Young Pioneers) -- which was a youth movement for children and teenagers -- had a special hachshara project for its young members. It involved working on tobacco plantations that were owned by two Polish Army officers who had been granted land in the area by the Polish government for their exemplary service in World War I. Return
  4. Hechalutz (Heb.) -- Literally, pioneer. It is the name of a worldwide movement, founded in Odessa in the first decade of the 20th century, of young people who were preparing for pioneering immigration to Palestine and later the State of Israel and were planning to settle the land. Return
  5. Klosova -- This was the name of a large, important hachshara farm in Poland (in present-day Ukraine), attended by many members of the Hechalutz of Shumsk. Return
  6. Aliyah (Heb.) -- Literally, ascent; the term refers to immigration to Israel from the Diaspora. Return
  7. Penina (Dorfman) Sharon of Kibbutz Afek in Israel, originally from Shumsk, explains in oral communication with the Shumsk Yizkor book translation project coordinator that each January ice from the river was cut into blocks and placed in cellars of homes, providing refrigeration for the food stored there. She remembers that the ice would last in the cellars until late summer. Return


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