Family Memories

Translated by Dr. Rose Shoshana Ages (Kleiner/Neufeld)

World War I destroyed our tranquil home. Many of my memories have now become dim. And the angel of death, who took away our father before his time, had also brought a sudden end to those memories.

Father was in the habit of speaking to us as he would to equals. He would share with us his impressions of things, his ambitions in life, and that which his eyes observed. He shared with us the beauty of nature, taught us how to enjoy life in its fullness, and how to endure life's difficult moments.

I shall never forget the hikes, during our summer vacations, on which father took us through the pine forests of the Carpathian mountains. He taught us how to climb the mountain cliffs, encouraged us to reach the peaks, and to observe the beautiful landscapes which unfolded before us. Father used to enthrall us with his poetic language, and therefore, it is no wonder that we, the children, were in the habit of expressing our feelings in a poetic, childish language before we even learned to write. Father enjoyed very much recording our rhymes on paper. He saved them, and even showed them to us when we grew up.

Only my big brother (Moomi) was to continue writing, while the rest of us were to become submerged in the practical world. Father was the embodiment of goodness; he never punished any one of us. However, the very fact that he was angry with us, or that his mind was not at ease, was in itself a great punishment for us.

With the help of my elderly mother, who survived the Nazi slaughter and lives with me, and with the help of a few of my father's friends, who are still living, among them Gershon Bader, Dr. Shimon Bernshtein, and Dr. Louie Launer, I am attempting to write a biographical sketch, that would be combined with my own memories of my father.

My father's birth date is the subject of controversy. According to the marriage certificate he was born in l866. However, in his death certificate the date given is l867, while according to the file card of the New York Public Library, which lists all of my father's books in its holdings, his birth date is l866. This date seems acceptable to my mother, who wishes with all her heart to be regarded as a little younger than my father, at least on paper.

He was the son of Israel Fernhof, and Chaya, whose maiden name was Fliegler. They lived in Buczacz, Galicia.

Father lost his mother when he was seven years old. She was soon replaced by a stepmother. However, luckily, he was taken to the home of his uncle Fliegler, who actively supervised his studies. There he acquired a thorough mastery of the six books of the Mishnah, and its commentaries. He excelled in these studies, and also acquired a very good knowledge of the Hebrew language. Secretly he used to read anything he could lay his hands on, in Hebrew and in Yiddish. He studied German literature in the same clandestine manner. Before long he became an expert in the classic literature of Goethe, Schiller and Heine. His knowledge of written and spoken German was very good, even though he had to conceal this from his teachers and educators, lest he be caught in the act of pursuing these forbidden studies.

Even in the later years he was a controversial figure in the community, since he dared to publish in his "Sifrei Sha'ashu'im" (Books of Delights) a chassidic sketch by Micha Yosef Berdichevsky, who was still a young man at that time. Soon the young intellectuals of Galicia gathered around this brilliant autodidact. He became the head of a literary circle and began to write. His articles and poems were printed in the Hebrew periodicals which were appearing in Europe at the time. With these writings he became one of the founders of the new Hebrew literature in Galicia.

I should like to bring here a short biographical sketch, which had been printed on a postcard, with my father's photograph. This postcard, along with postcards of other well-known Hebrew writers of the day, was distributed by the publishing house of Abraham Robinson in Stanislav. The text of the postcard reads as follows:

"Yitzhak Fernhof was born in Buczacz (Galicia) in the year l865. A man of diverse talents. In his childhood he recited many poems, and in the end he began to write stories, and sketches, which are characterized by their sharp observations and gentle humor. He was the first to lay the foundation of Hebrew literature in Galicia.

He skillfully edited the "Sifrei Sha'ashu'im", which helped greatly to spread the Hebrew language in Galicia, and to attract to it the young men whose learning had centered around the 'klois' (small synagogue and house of study). He was also the editor of "Ha-Yarden" (The Jordan), and "Ha-Tsair" (The Young Person). Several years ago his stories and sketches appeared in a collection called "Me-Aggadot Ha-Chaim" (From the Legends of Life). At present his book, "Ha-Mitnagdim" (The Opponents of Chassidim), has been submitted for publication. It is unique in its new approach, and is highly regarded by those who have read the manuscript.

As far as I can recall the original version of the book, "Ha-Mitnagdim," was submitted to "Ha-Olam" (The World), which was edited by Mr. Moshe Kleinman (may he rest in peace) in Moscow. However, during World War I this book, already in print, was lost during the chaos that reigned in Russia in those days, and its traces were never found. Fortunately, a damaged and imperfect copy of the original manuscript was found by my brother in the wreckage of our old home in Stanislav, and it was sent to me before the Nazi invasion, which reduced this city to rubble. Thirty five years later I see it as a debt of honor to assist with its publication in the state of Israel.

I also know that this would have been the fondest of father's dreams, who was one of the earliest pioneers of Zionism, a contemporary of Theodor Herzl. No matter where my father lived he was the head of the Zionists and Hebraists, and he filled our hearts, the hearts of children, with a love of Zion. Were it not for the wars we would have made aliyah to Israel as chalutzim, or pioneers.

His work in literature did not provide sufficient income to support my father and his family. There was the constant pressure of worrying about earning a livelihood for the family. My father thus became a flour merchant, and managed his father-in-law's flour mill, and the enterprises connected with his warehouse. However, in the meantime he acquired a reputation as someone proficient in Hebrew and German, and as an expert in the literature of the humanities. That is when the foundation established by Baron Hirsch invited him to join the teaching faculty of its schools, first in Zlochov, and ultimately in Stanislav.

After my second brother, Shmuel, was born, in l894, and after I was born, in l897, my father's financial situation became difficult, and he was forced to give private lessons, in order to support us, and in order to provide the best education for us. It was an education that he himself had never been given; he was obliged to acquire it through his own efforts, and under enormously difficult conditions – subjected to terror and fear lest his teachers catch him, for they regarded any time spent on secular studies as heresy.

How I admired my father when I'd see him tired from his teaching day at the school, and yet still playing with us and telling us wonderful legends, which he himself had created for us. Or he would read to us his own poems and sketches.

I also remember that father invited to our home people such as Sholom Aleichem, Reuven Brainin and others, who would be visiting our town as public lecturers. He would describe to us the greatness of those people, and it would leave a strong impression on us. Incidentally, he always used to serve as chairman at these public lectures. He would introduce them to the public in a beautiful and polished Hebrew, which was envied by many. Our home was always a meeting place for the leading figures among the Hebraists, for my father's pupils, and for his followers.

It was a great event in my father's life when he purchased his own home in the beautiful section of Stanislav, on Lipova Street 88, close to the magnificent gardens of the Elizabeth promenade. In this house he set up his library, of which he was so proud, and for which he was envied by all the book collectors.

All this was destroyed and demolished by the invasion of Petlyura's bands during the upheavals that followed World War I.

When that war broke out we, like many others, left our home in Stanislav, with our little sister, Klara, who was only a few years old. She was father's joy, and he saw in her the personification of beauty and charm. We fled from our town in a wagon, and on foot, through the Carpathian mountains to Hungary, and we were subjected to all the trials of the war. We wandered from town to town, and after many hardships arrived in Vienna.

Worries about making a living drained father's strength. He gave private lessons, worked for the Joint as a researcher, and did not shirk from any work, as long as he could feed his family. During that long war all his sons were drafted into the Austrian army and even he himself wore a uniform, despite the fact that he was already over 50 years old.

After the war he was again unemployed. He was promised the position of librarian at Vienna's Jewish community library. However, as on many previous occasions, he was now also obliged to face one disappointment after another. The Baron Hirsch foundation, which paid a low salary, warned father that they would cut off that salary if he did not agree to return to Stanislav to begin teaching at the school. It would be under the conditions of chaos and destruction which prevailed after the war. Since he always worried first about his family's welfare, he left his wife and his children to enjoy the comforts of life in Vienna, while he himself returned to the region of ruins that was now Stanislav.

All the communication lines to that city were broken, and only by chance did we learn about his death, six months after he had passed away. His death occurred on February 23. He died from a typhoid infection, in an isolated cubicle of the Stanislav hospital, far from his family, in his effort to spare us his painful suffering and loneliness. On his dying lips he uttered the name of his beloved daughter. At his grave site all his students and friends were present, but not one member of his family was there. Before me lies a copy of the Juedische Volkszeitung, of February 28, l9l9 which contains an obituary for my father. I bring it here just as it appeared: "The new Hebrew literature, and Yiddish literature in general, have suffered an irretrievable loss. Yitzhak Fernhof is no more!

He was about 51 at his death. He was buried with his people, far from his family, a martyr of the great art of teaching, a martyr of his passionate love for his family, and his people. He labored some thirty years without a break, as a pedagogue and Hebrew-Yiddish writer. As a teacher at the local school, established by Baron Hirsch, he was one of its first founders and leaders, and he was the guiding light of the local society, "Safah Berurah" (Pure Language).

From l896 to l898 he published the periodical "Sefer Sha'ashuim." Among the first participants in this literary undertaking were such great writers as Shaul Tchernikhovsky, Mikhah Yosef Berdichevsky and Reuven Brainin. In l906 he published here, in Stanislav, the Hebrew periodical "Ha 'Yarden". One also has to mention his book, "Me'aggadot Ha'chaim." His last big book contains stories, some of which had already been printed, about the lives of the mitnagdim. He composed several excellent textbooks for the teaching of Hebrew. He also contributed to various Hebrew periodicals.

Being that he did not have the means to bring his family from Vienna to Stanislav, after four years of wanderings, he ended up here living a lonely, isolated life from the end of August of the previous year.

Loved and honored by all the different classes of the Jewish public in Stanislav, he stood firmly by his duties until his last breath.

In the hearts of the young, who were undergoing a renaissance, and who felt gratitude toward him, he built for himself an eternal monument. May he rest in peace!"

Beneath this obituary appeared a poem, by the editor, Herbert Sfondson, which expressed the love of all my father's students and friends, in German. The Hebrew translation is given below:


on the death of the teacher and unforgettable friend

Yitzhak Fernhof

On the day he was lowered into his grave
A clear and pleasant day in early spring,
the light of sunshine softened the earth
but a striking thunderbolt from the great heavens
stunned the hearts of all your students.
We rushed in shock to the graveyard
to the source of our friendship, the creator.
We followed you to the cemetery in tears
To a grave site narrow and dark.
The man who awoke our spirit is gone
His words stirred our hearts.
In the black dust, oh our teacher, you shall rest
You were the crowning glory of our soul
May your sleep be sweet! As in the past, so at present
We shall honor everything you have commanded us,
In the heart of the youth, whom you have taught,
An eternal monument you have built for yourself.

About 20 days before his death, on January 3, l9l9, the same paper printed the following announcement:

"On Saturday, December 28, l9l8, there was held at the local "Pure Language" society, a public examination of the 50 students in the first course that had been capably directed by the renowned Hebrew writer Yitzhak Fernhof. From the midst of the parents group, which was on this occasion moved to the point of tears, one father presented Mr. Fernhof with a silver cup, made by a craftsman, as a token of appreciation and thanks."

My brother, Dr. Moshe Fernhof, a writer and poet and known especially to the Yiddish writers of his time, has written a moving poem, in which he asks father's forgiveness. "Forgive us, father" that we were not able to stand by your bedside during your last days. The poem was published in a German newspaper in Vienna.

In his last letter to my sister, who was still a little girl and was making her first efforts at letter writing, father begged her to write him long letters. "What a beautiful thing it is when a father and his daughter understand each other well, and they discuss everything by means of letters, at a time when a person to person conversation, to my regret, is not possible."

Most of the things that father wrote in his youth were signed with the name Itzi, until professor Yosef Klausner convinced him to change his name to Yitzhak.

In the spring of l938 I visited my father's grave at the old Jewish cemetery in Stanislav. It was an attractive stone structure, designed and built by a mason. This was a short time before Hitler's invasion, and my heart told me that this was the last time that I was going to have the privilege of visiting that site. Now, after the horrendous tragedy that fell upon the Jewish communities of Europe, when all the sacred sites of Judaism were destroyed, there is no more hope of seeing that grave.

This book, which contains the best of my father's writings, will serve as a monument to his memory. His words – they are his memorial.

William Fernhof
Woodridge, New York, l949.