Shershev Yzkor Book – Chapter 4
Ten Years of the "Yavne" School in Shershev
Section 1 to 3
(which was affiliated with the "Tarbut" Organization in Poland*)
* Note: This account is taken from the Booklet that was published in honor of the 10th anniversary of the founding of the Jewish Hebrew school "Yavneh" [run] by the "Tarbut organization" in Shershev. It was printed in Shedlets in 1935.
There was once a Jew in Shershev by the name of Markl, the son of Bear Volf Pomeranietz. Various causes drove him to cold Siberia, to the town of Irkutsk. Older people of "that" generation still tell how Markl’s mother, poor thing, shed bitter tears over the tragedy which had befallen her and Markl. He was exiled among non-Jews in cold, terrible Siberia and was removed and estranged from Jewishness. Great was the grief of his parents over their unhappy, lonely son, captive amongst the Gentiles. And, for a long, long time, the "banishment" of Markl was the main conversational topic among the inhabitants of Shershev until the matter was gradually forgotten, just as many other things were forgotten from those "good times" when the local Jewish settlement stretched from the end of Kamenyetsk street to the end of Pruzhene street. (Nowadays, these are "Gentile" streets.)
But it is difficult to measure the worth of a Jewish soul. Even from Siberia, messages of greeting began to be received from the exiled Markl who had worked up there, become a "wealthy man", a "pyervi-gildi-kupyets" (first guild of merchants). Even there in Irkutsk, Markl had not forgotten his Jewishness; his warm Jewish heart could not be chilled even by cold Siberia. True, Markl Velvl’s (i.e. son of Velvl) name became Mark Vasilyevitch, but his native town of Shershev and its Jewishness remained deeply rooted in his heart. He carried in his heart the Jewish spark from his home, and when the "gracious Czar" forgave the "sins" of the Jewish people (that is, granted an amnesty) Markl was able to get out of Irkutsk for a while and come to Shershev to visit his family’s graves. By then he was gray and old - such is the report of the ancient householders, natives of Shershev, who were still young at the time.
Markl’s father, Volf, when he died, left a piece of land and a house on Kamenyetz street. In the house lived Markl’s sister-in-law, the widow of his elder brother Zelig. Markl bought the "inheritance" from his sister-in-law, and bought in addition a larger area of land and another house from Mr. Yitskhok Stolar adding up to an area of 15 by 80 klafter (klafter is a fathom – a unit of measure equal to 6 feet). He gave this to the Jewish Community of Shershev to build a hekdesh (poor house). The income from the hekdesh he allocated to paying for the education of poor Jewish children in Shershev.
Markl returned to Irkutsk. More than one young man of Shershev probably owed his "poor house" school fees to him. Unfortunately, we possess no documentation of this, but Markl, when he was in Shershev, acquainted himself with the low educational level of the Jewish children in his native town. He, of the "pyervi-gildi-kupyets" (first guild of merchants), could not understand how the Jews of Shershev, "ardent" Jews, full of Yidishkeit (Jewishness), could be content with the kheders (religious schools) in which their children were preparing to be "healthy" invalids and "lively" ne-er do wells or idlers for the rest of their lives. Mr. Markl took a risk and, in his will, which was drawn up by the notary of Irkutst, Vladimir Goryevitch Razumov, on November 12, 1910, he decided to help his brothers in Shershev to found a modern school for Jewish children. Among the 14 points of the will, which contains various family instructions, number 2 is as follows (in the translation from the Russian original):
"In the name of the G-d of Israel, at my death I, the merchant Mark Vasilyevitch Marcus, son of Volf Pomeranietz, leave the followingdirections:
In the town of Shershev, in the Uyezd of Pruzhany, Grodno gubernye (province), a school is to be founded to teach Jewish children Hebrew literature, religion and Russian literature, on condition that the school shall give the students a well-rounded education and prepare them to be loyal citizens of the people and the state. To build the school, I have decided to use a plot of land in the above-mentioned town, Shershev, on Kamenyetz street, which I bought from the heirs of Zelig Pomeranietz, his widow Feyge Pomeranietz and her neighbor. The land is 80 Klafter long and 13½ Klafter wide. Besides this, I leave capital of 13,000 rubles of which 10,000 rubles are to be put into a state bank in perpetuity, in cash or paper bills, on condition that the profit shall go to pay the salary of the teacher and the annual expense of running the school. The 3,000 rubles are to be spent on building a brick house for the school, on furnishing it and buying teaching materials.
I have already given the 3,000 rubles for the above-mentioned purpose, to the committee of the "Society for the spread of education among the Jews of Russia". The practical accomplishment of this matter has been undertaken - with thanks - by the Society, whose headquarters is in the capital city of Petersburg, on Zamyatina street #4. If the above-mentioned society is unable, for any reason, to carry out my instructions, then my heirs will do so. They will exert themselves to build the school, and receive from the above-mentioned Society the 3,000 rubles.
Once more, I emphasize that the school is to be founded unconditionally in the town of Shershev and not in any other town. The future management of the school, its leadership and its practical educational activities are to be supported on the responsibility of the Jewish community in the town of Shershev, specifically in the persons of a committee elected by the Jewish community and consisting of four members under the chairmanship of the local rabbi and the supervision of the "Society for the spread of education among the Jews of Russia". After my death the guardian of the school will be my son Moyshe Pomeranietz and, after him, the eldest member of my family in order of birth."
We can see from this will how far, and how deeply, the exiled and yet near Markl Pomeranietz understood the noble mission of educating the children of the Jewish community of Shershev.
But it was not fated (and perhaps Shershev was not worthy) that the will should be carried out and that the Jewish children of Shershev should be rid of the old, narrow, moldy cheder buildings and get their education at a modern school. The terrible, fatal year 1914 came quickly upon them. The younger, better energies of the local Jewish society were torn away from their home to the various positions and fronts of the war. Those who remained in the half-burned town, the old people and the juveniles, were occupied with their daily problems and worries that have etched themselves in all of our memories. The former rabbi, Rabbi Yitskhok Meyer Meyerovitz, who had the will in his charge, left the town at the time when the front approached Shershev (in 1915). When the rabbi left, the matter was entirely forgotten.
During the war the widows and victims of fires, (belonging to the families) of various former local "kley-kodesh" (religious officers, rabbi, gabai, etc.) lived in the "tsavoe-hayzer" (buildings erected under the terms of the will). The town became impoverished. The German occupation completely ruined the town. The typhoid epidemic, which came in the train of the combating armies, snatched away many dozens of young lives prematurely. Because the occupying soldiers requisitioned the foodstuffs of the local population the famine increased and the result was countless deaths. The edict concerning "tsvangs-arbeit" (forced labor) came from the German occupying force. A shameful hunt after the young people began. Some were sent to different places. Some of these ended up in the bigger towns where the persecutions were, to some degree, weaker. Others went to a “konditsye” run by a Jewish farmer, and so on.
Study houses were transformed into hospitals and theaters. The casualties of the war were treated there. Money was collected for the destitute before they became sick. Elderly people were driven into the bath-house where, with cold, cynical brutality their beards were shaved. Among those who lost their beards was the Rabbi Avrom Ahron Waldshan. He had stopped in Shershev to replace the Rabbi Meyer Yitskhok Meyerovits. The brutality reached its climax when Reb Avrom Velvl, the melamed (teacher in a cheder), Reb Shalom Pinski and other old, infirm Jews were put in harness and used to plow the gardens. Various vegetables were needed for the occupying forces in Shershev. In those difficult times, no one was interested in such "frivolities" as schooling and education. Meanwhile, as a result of the war, there were great political and economic upheavals in the world. People were cut off from their friends in Russia, not to speak of Siberia. The 3,000 rubles in the keeping of the Society for spreading education disappeared together with the Society itself. No more news arrived about Markl. Of his goodwill and noble plan there remained, as a remnant saved from destruction, the above-mentioned places. The two houses were burned during the Bolshevik invasion. There was a memorial to a "Jew who was once in Shershev".
Between the houses of two Byelorussian farmers on Kamenyets Street #11, there was a big empty place that waited for its redeemer. Markl’s relatives, nephews Borukh and Moyshe-Shmuel Pomeranietz, lived in Pruzhany. On a dark, deplorable morning they came to Shershev and sold their inherited piece of land to a certain farmer, Kaleneyko, who sowed a grain-crop on the land. The farmer, afraid of the Jews of Shershev, did his work in the morning hours on Saturdays, when the Jews were comfortably asleep, resting their weary bones after the days of earning a living during the week.
However, the neighbor, Daniel Mayster, accidentally noticed the farmer’s work. He ran and raised an outcry; he roused up the leaders of the community, Mr. Yekhezkhel Krugman, Yosef Pomeranietz, Yosef Pantel and others. With the speed of lightning the whole town was on its feet. It seemed that they felt the danger that threatened the future education of the young generation in Shershev. After much argument, they drove the farmer from the place by force. They appointed a powerful guard so that the farmer would not resume his invasive work.
On Sunday, May 12, 1924 at eight o’clock in the morning, in haste and at no charge, the "podrubes" (a certain kind of foundation) for a school building were laid down by the local carpenters (Chaikel Nirenblat, Zalman Livkovitch, Chaim Tenenboim and Dovid Tenenboim). The “podrubes” were manufactured at no-cost by almost all the smiths of the town. The historic day will stay etched in our memories forever because it marked the beginning of a new era; an era of extraordinary hard work in awakening the national spirit of the young people by the active parents in the field of modern education. The building committee, which was founded on the same historic Sabbath, and which was headed by Mr. Yekhezkhel Krugman, an untiring, energetic and strong-willed man, full of initiative. He has worked ceaselessly up to this day and he understood that if the opportunity was not seized to wake up the energy of the petrified, backward elements in Shershev, then it would not happen in a hurry. The prezes (chairman), Mr. Yekhezkhel Krugman, brought all of his initiatory power to bear in organizing the members of the building committee and arousing in them the ambition to carry out the noble undertaking of building a schoolhouse for the children of Shershev. The active, strong-willed Mr. Shloyme Averbuch helped a lot. He is now in America.
It is worth emphasizing that not a single communal shilling was at the disposal of the chairman. Mr. Yekhezkhel Krugman was not the kind of person to be easily discouraged. With his iron determination to carry out his plan in full he was not put off by the lack of money. He paid for the necessary building materials with his own money, or put them on his account.
Thanks to his initiative, the young people were organized. They formed a drama group which played from time to time in order to raise sums of money for the school which was then being built. Among the members of the drama group, the one who was most distinguished for altruism and devotion on behalf of the school, was Mr. Moyshe Mordche Gelman. In spite of his poor health, he appeared on stage and performed in top-ranking roles. Moreover, he was, until his death, an active member of the building committee and, later, of the school committee. May his memory be honored. The drama group consisted of the following people:
Feldboim, Sore Kagan, Hirshl Rakhames, Bubl
Gelman, Moshe-Mordche Kantorovitch, Bashke Rasichovski, Alter
Layenman, Shimen Kantorovitch, Ruven Shmulitsh, the barber
Lerer Rak, Shmuel Kirzner, Ester Leah Pomeranietz, Sore
Mr. Krugman also had the task of creating for the production, the appropriate mood in the population (by agitation) so that people would visit the theater in droves.
It is remarkable that his social and commercial sense never failed him when he looked for or developed other sources of income. A characteristic source of income was the esrog business that he founded. That shows how devoted, body and soul, Mr. Yekhezkhel Krugman was to the idea of a school. In 1924 esrogs, for various reasons, were a great rarity. He opportunely brought an esrog from Warsaw and the whole town used it. A comparitively large sum of money resulted from this and was devoted to the building. He also thought of carrying out a "plet-aktsye" (raffle) and of other one-shot sources of income. His impulsive spirit was not completely satisfied however, until he founded (with great effort and superhuman energy) stable, permanent sources of income, such as neydarim (promises) for weddings, Yom Kippur collections, payments for ritual slaughter, tax from the burial society, grants from the magistrate (municipality), tax from the sale of leaven and yeasst, weekly subscriptions from the population of Shershev and payments for authorizing birth certificates. For this purpose, special "year witnesses" were appointed who, whenever a birth certificate had to be authorized, took a certain fee for the school. By such ways and means the idea of a school penetrated the broadest masses, until everyone formed the image of the school as the darling of Shershev’s Jewish community. This was a very important educative proof for the conservative elements which are not absent from any town, especially a small town. The task was carried out excellently by the recognized and worthy activist and chairman, Mr. Krugman. All the permanent sources of income lasted, more or less, until the years of crisis, and until the Kehilah came to exist in Shershev. At that moment everything was erased from the surface, as if with a magic wand. It is true that many of the sources of income were dependent on the conditions of the time, but many were affected too, by the weariness and exhaustion of the chairman. The active members left and "one person at the front is no soldier" as the proverb says.
“Unless the Whole Town Builds, the Work of the Individual Will be in Vain”, such was the slogan proclaimed by the building committee that was founded on that historic Sabbath.
Thanks to the well-organized building committee, an atmosphere of extraordinary enthusiasm was created. Everyone helped with what he could: with a donation, or with labor - like the Jews of long ago when they built the tabernacle.
I still see before my eyes an impressive picture which illustrates most clearly the assistance given by the town in building the school, and the enthusiasm. It was Chol Hamoed Sukkoth (the intermediate weekdays between the first two and last days of Sukkoth) in 1924 on a beautiful sunny day. The streets were alive with well-rested people in carefree holiday mood on Chol-Hamoednikes. I was was walking with them. Suddenly, a dense crowd of people, old people, young people and small people. Voices were crying up to the sky, "Rocks!", "Here’s a rock!" I stopped and saw a dozen wagons driven by our communal leaders with the chairman, Mr. Klugman, at their head, and around them, the real schoolchildren! They were collecting rocks for the foundation of the school building. Every rock called forth great jubilation on the part of the activists, as if they had found something wonderful. Every rock was accompanied by the exultant shouting of the crowd of children. Then, they found the biggest rock of all! To lift it at least a dozen ‘strong hands of Esau” are needed. I don’t know how much strength was required to roll the rock into the wagon that could scarcely tolerate the load. It must have been done with hidden strength. In a state of this sort of enthusiasm, the potential energy in people is revealed. I thought, "A person would be able to achieve wonders if this kind of enthusiasm could be aroused in him". For much of this enthusiasm, perhaps 99% of it, we can thank the chairman. A great psychologist has said, "In order to bring forth enthusiasm in another person, or to bring forth his belief in anything, it is necessary first for the person to be himself, full of the same enthusiasm or belief, right to the depths of his soul." Whoever saw this scene, was easily convinced that the young man who was in charge of collecting rocks owed it, in great measure, to his enthusiasm.
The heirs did not give up their inherited plot of land. After the farmer had been driven from the site, the heirs took the community leaders to court for taking possession of their property. When the court found that the inherited land belonged to the city, they took the matter to a higher court. Not wanting to waste energy on such matters, the building committee decided to make a peaceful settlement with the heirs. For this purpose, a delegation was chosen; the Rabbi Avrom Ahron Waldshan, Mr. Shmuel Mayster and Mr. Yekheskhel Krugman, who travelled to Pruzhany on October 27, 1924. They discussed the dispute for whole night with the rabbi of Pruzhany, and then with Mr. Zalman Grinzburg, but they did not reach any agreement. It was not until the next morning, in the Hotel Galubovich, that the disagreement between the different parties was settled. The heirs were given 125 dollars. The contract which the heirs gave to the Jewish community of Shershev is as follows (in literal translation from the Hebrew):
With the help of G-d, as a permanent proof of the fact before the Jewish community of Shershev, the statement signed hereunder by us, the brothers Borekh and Moyshe-Shmuel Pomeranietz. stipulates:
The plot of land in the town of Shershev, on Kamenyetz street, that we inherited from our parents, and that we sold to our Uncle Markl Pomeranietz who gave the above-mentioned land as a donation to the Jewish Community of Shershev for the purpose of building on it a Talmud Torah building. We have, with our good will arrived at a mutual agreement about the above-mentioned plot of land, receiving as compensation 125 dollars. >From now, and for the future, the land belongs to the Jewish community of Shershev which can do what it wishes with it. Neither we, nor our children have any hereditary right to the land. We sign the above in good will and we confirm that without being forced or pressured we have settled the dispute with the Jewish community of Shershev on Thursday, the second day of the month of Markheshvan, in the year 5685 (1925) in the town of Pruzhany.
Signed: Borekh and Moshe-Shmuel Pomeranietz.
The above-mentioned settlement took place, according to Jewish law, in our presence and in front of our eyes: Herr Boreck and Herr Moyshe-Shmuel Pomerantz signed with their own hands.
To confirm this, we sign below, on the above-mentioned date.
Signatures: Shmuel Pinski, Feivl Galubovich.
At the end of 1926, the building was nearly finished. In order to form a basis on which, immediately after the school had been built, a normal and appropriate program for children could be organized, the building committee invited Mr. Yankel Shreibman of Pruzhany, who is today the general secretary of the "Histadrut of Teachers" in Poland (and was then a graduate of a seminary) to visit the local teachers in order to establish which of them would be suitable as a future teachers in the school. Those who were chosen were: the writer of these lines and Mr. Bokser who, following the same recommendation, was engaged from the Vilna Teachers Seminary. We were entrusted with the task of dividing the school-age children into classes and getting them ready for the new school year. We pioneer teachers worked in exraordinarily difficult conditions in a house rented from Mr. Asher, the barber. We sat in two cramped rooms, together with children of various ages and degrees of knowledge, and labored at the "sacred craft", enduring trials on all sides. After much effort, we succeeded in dividing the children into three groups. We invited Freulien Glotser from Pruzhany to join us.
After five months of hard work we were able, more or less, to bring all the children up to the same norm of knowledge and to introduce them to the discipline of school life. In this way, we laid the foundations on which we later would have to build the whole inner workings of the school that would form the corresponding outward aspect of education in the years to come.
On the 9th of March, 1926, the building committee contacted the central "Tarbut" offices in Warsaw with the goal of creating a legitimate Snif-Tarbut, in the name of which the school would be opened in the new school year 1926-1927. The central committee, with Mr. Moyshe Gordon at its head, then took an intensive, serious interest in giving us the appropriate information and interceding with the relevant administrative authorities. On April 19th, 1926 the official general meeting took place at the house of Mr. Yekhezkhel Krugman where a Snif’Tarbut committee was elected and constituted. The apothecary Mr. Eliyohy Boymriter, of blessed memory, was unanimously elected as chairman. On April 23, 1926 the Snif-Tarbut was confirmed by the authorities and entered into the register of the societies and organizations of the Krayz (county) of Pruzhany under the number 243.
The Snif-Tarbut committee, wanting to convince itself of the progress of the children, invited the well known pedagogue of the Tarbut school in Pruzhany, Mr. Okin, to inspect our school on June 18, 1926. He acquainted himself with the pedagogic work of the school and the conditions in which it was being performed. As part of the entertainment for the visitor to Shershev, a meeting of the people was arranged in the large bes-medresh (House of Study). The speakers were the writer of these lines and the visitor, Mr. Okin. The visitor impressed the Jewish population of Shershev favorably. He created a pleasant atmosphere around the school.