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Sefer Vladimirets

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Chapters from a Journal

From: Sefer Vladimirets, 1963

Author: A. Mordechai Naloitsky

** Webmaster Note: The following is a translation from Hebrew by Laia Ben-Dov as sponsored by George Zilbergeld. Additional clarifications are provided in parenthesis ( ).


After the defeat of the Russians in Eastern Prussia – "The Samsonov Army" – headquarters decreed the expulsion of Jews from the towns near the German border (March 1915).  I was among those expelled, and I went to search for a place for myself in the vastness of Russia.  Thus, during the entire War, I was cut off from my surroundings and from my father's house.  The expellees turned back where they came from, and after the German conquest, they returned to take possession of their destroyed home.  I, a lone refugee wandering through the land, was called to protect the Russian homeland.  As a soldier in the reserves, I spent a long, boring winter in central Siberia, far from any Jewish surroundings.  Toward the spring of 1916, I was sent back in the direction from whence I had been expelled – toward the West, to wait for the Germans.

On our way, near Roslavl, our battalion was delayed for a few days.  The generous Jewish community prepared the Passover holiday for the Jewish soldiers according to faith and the Law.  The generous Jews near our last station, Luninietz, took care to supply our needs for the last day of Passover, and with that, our connection with the Jewish nation ended.  We came to the area of the warfront, from which the Jews (the civilians) had been distanced.  The decree extended even to printed or handwritten matter in the Hebrew language.  I had with me a few commentaries on the Book of Genesis, with Ibn-Ezra and the Ramban, with which I quieted my hunger for a Jewish word. 

Spring, 1917.  Russia was freed from the Czar's regime.  One patriotic officer tried to teach us that now we should fight the enemy with doubled strength and dedication, but matters went in a different direction.  Discipline became weakened, and there even was some lack of restraint.  For example, they cancelled the honorary titles of the officers:  "your Lordship" (vasha balagorodya).  One of the generals of the older generation was not careful and he complained about it.  Immediately, a storm arose in the first line of the front with mass meetings.  For some reason, even I was awakened to speak to those gathered there.  I called for understanding and calmness.  A call was immediately heard, "Get down" – this was enough to remind me that in spite of all of my honest Jewish patriotism, my place was not here…

"My vineyard is before me," and see, here is your house, your homeland, because finally the barrier fell – we arrived at the Jewish towns near the front.  It was an inestimable happiness to meet with the sons of your own nation and to talk to them in their language, without hints or talking in circles – without hindrance.

We arrived at the first town on the Passover holiday, and on one of the evenings of the holiday, we were also present at an interesting appearance:  a speech by the Rabbi in the study hall on current events.  A young, dark-complected man stood on the stage, and with flashing eyes, he called out in a vibrating voice:  "To take revenge upon the gentiles, rebukes upon the nations."  He spoke beautifully. 

The next day, several of us soldiers gathered in one house for a discussion about organizing the community life of the Jews in the battalion.  From somewhere, a few young women also joined in the conversation.  In our "mixed" meeting, an appropriate decision was made:  the young people of the town would be invited to the soldiers' meeting.  But before we were able to carry out this decision, a rumor spread in the town:  "The soldiers will speak to the community," and immediately the study hall was filled, until there was no room.  It was impossible to belittle the respect of the public, and we accepted the matter with love.  We were forced to delay our own meeting and went to the meeting in the study hall.  A young man, dressed in khaki, stood up and told, in simple words, about what had happened and also about the chances that we could expect would come as things progressed, also including the hidden wishes that we expected to be fulfilled in our days.  The audience listened tensely, among them the young rabbi who had spoken so glowingly the night before.

When we came to Sarny, Gorodnya, Torczyn, Vladimirets and everywhere else, we heard one thing:  "Our town is behind, it no longer has anything." And what was lacking was expressed in three things:  a library, Hebrew lessons and a Zionist organization.  They began, as usual, to obtain a few books, the first of which were the books by S. Y. Abramowitz.  Ordinary readers were immediately taken by "Di Kliatshe" [(The Mare, 1873), a powerful satire] and continued reading until they arrived at a general knowledge of (jewish) literature. They also obtained a new Jewish awareness, and this was the spiritual equipment received by that generation, upon whose shoulders was carried the Jewish revolution of our times:  Zionism, "The Pioneer," aliya, fulfillment, and the like.

There certainly were many things that were lacking in Vladimirets, but it cannot be said that it had nothing.  A committee of "Supporters of the Fallen," for assisting the needy of the War, was active there a long time prior to the Revolution.  It was the first seed of new community awareness.  Afterwards, the Zionist leadership was created from among its members.  Around them stirred warm-hearted young people, thirsty for life and activity, wanting to hear new ideas and to carry out any action placed upon them.  I said "stirred," and that is precisely the required expression.  To this day, I see the town and its people – the youth, but not only the youth – like something stirring, always in movement, with a positive inner strength.  

Apparently, I came to the town not before the Shavuot holiday, and I quickly became acclimated.  I felt a kind of spiritual closeness to the people of the place.  These young people also attracted me with their willingness to fulfill any plan of action imaginable.  It seems to me that in Vladimirets, there was nothing that was postponed because it couldn't be done, so to speak.  In addition, there I felt at home.  On one hand, I encountered a family in its home, a sort of public property, where whatever was done there was revealed to everyone, and indeed everything that belonged to the life of society was reflected there:  a meeting would take place, a lecture, an amateur play, and the like – everything was discussed and clarified here.  And on the other hand, here there was a kind of intimacy that is unequalled.  There, I was like one of the family, and when I arrived there, the mother welcomed me warmly, as if she were my mother or sister.

Lifsha, the mother, had a young and vibrant soul (and she was already the mother of seven sons and daughters), golden hands and a golden heart.  To say the least, she was good-hearted.  She also had to be a wise and energetic housewife in order to be able to respectably maintain a household with seven children (and the number of guests was sometimes greater than the number of children).  And if a homeless soldier is to be released, proper clothing must be prepared for him, and so one sits and tailors at the sewing machine.

Lifsha's eldest sister, Feige Rachel, lived in the same house, on the other side of the wall.  If, in Lifsha's house, there ruled a type of democracy that was a bit noisy, Feige Rachel's house was dominated by the silence of restrained nobility…

Zelig Pinchas Tscherniak, Lifsha's husband, was a kind of symbol of Chassidic "cancellation of what is":  he always sat on the side, and it was as if his soul was in the upper worlds.  His brother-in-law, Pinchas David Gurzik, who was older, was a Jew of majestic appearance and intelligence.  His oldest daughter Taibele (Tova) was similar in appearance, and she was the first, or the only one, who was devoted to public activities – at first in "Support for the Fallen" and later in the Zionist committee.  The next younger sister, Chava, was more involved with her aunt's family and was like them. She was blessed with a talent for acting, as was her cousin Pesach.

The oldest son, Natan, was a wise and pleasant lad.  He was the pillar of the house and one of the first to be concerned with public affairs.  He had a gentle character, a good and modest expression.  He was a complicated personality:  he was the head of the household and was involved mostly in public affairs; he was a trader and man of ideas; a believer in party politics who allowed himself to place doubt upon several party orders.  He had an aware intelligence – and held back inner enthusiasm:  according to all of the matters, both public and private, that surrounded him, he had to have a broad and varied education.  Would he at least have time to read a book?  How quickly the young people of those days grew up!

The situation on the warfront was quiet, and we, the soldiers, were free to come to the town from time to time.  Approximately in the middle of July, there was some movement on the front, which stopped our work and caused panic in some places.  Of course, the situation changed with the coming of autumn – the month of October!

I cannot remember all of the soldiers – among them also those who were close in spirit – who settled there.  I will mention only two, soul-mates and companions at work.  One was from the Jewish settlement in Kherson Bubroby Kut [Bobrovy Kut in Kherson province] (the birthplace of Frug):  Marenson, a professional actor, whose very bones acted, and it was always as if several actors were acting within him, a pleasant, flexible lad.  He also was a good, cheerful singer, and if I add that he also was a successful producer – this is a symbol of completeness, and he was happy with it.  Sometimes his young wife would accompany him.  She was beautiful, and also was an actress.  The second one was Natan Gordon – he was short of stature and shy, but he was a friendly soul.  I think he was born in Smorgon.  He was a tailor who observed the Torah.  He had a great deal of knowledge about Yiddish and also Hebrew, literature and a broad range of social questions.  During the days of great confusion, he quietly established the "Youth of Zion" association (and this testifies to a different community climate, the climate from which he came, in the neighborhood of Vilna, a major city of Israel).

Different in our characteristics and our types of work, the three of us constituted a single totality, and when we had the opportunity to be together, the impression in the town was recognizable.  I was busy with lecturing about actual and theoretical matters.  Of organizational activities, I remember only two:  a parade, which took place, apparently, on Simchat Torah.  I remember that then we were in the synagogue at the time of the hakafot [marches around the synagogue with the Torah scrolls], and I was very impressed.  Actually, the parade began at the synagogue and continued to the community center.  In front of the community center, we stopped.  The Rabbi came out and said a few words.  We honored him with cheers and continued on our way.  A disciplined squad of soldiers marched at the head of the parade, singing Hatikva, and around and behind them marched the crowds in perfect order.  It made a great impression.  We arrived at the community center and below the national flag, I spoke to the congregation.  I finished my speech with the words of the vision, "and return the hearts of the fathers to their sons, and the hearts of the sons to their fathers," which truly expressed the mood of the speaker and the audience, but it is doubtful whether echoes of the approaching stormy days were heard.  The date was September 26, precisely three weeks before … the 17th of October!

And I remember a meeting of women regarding community elections, which was arranged by the Zionist organization.  At this meeting, a fighting spirit was expressed, different from the idealistic spirit expressed at the parade.  In response to the many activities and Orthodox "unity," we organized a special women's meeting in the kloiz.  The presidency of that meeting was filled by respected women from among our members who were our adherents.  They were Freidel Kanonitz, Chava Garmarnik, Chava Gurzik and Teibel Gurzik (Mrs. Tova Sandberg), who was also the speaker.  She spoke about the tasks of the community and arranged activities on behalf of the women.  The speech, and also the composition of the presidency, greatly increased our respect in the eyes of the audience.  In a controversy that ignited between me and our opposition, we came to a somewhat heated conflict when I used an allegory from the well-known legend about the two angels who accompany the Jew on the Sabbath eve, and if the house is lit, the good angel blesses him "and the evil angel is forced to answer 'Amen.'"  Otherwise, the allegory was too strong and I am sorry I used it, perhaps unnecessarily, because our meeting accomplished its purpose without it being needed.  If I nevertheless mention it here, it is because it shows the atmosphere of those days.  Those were days that brought us only disappointment, but they still were great, unforgettable days.

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