From the Days of my Youth

By Dr. Naftali Menatseach Translated by Jessica Cohen

A cold winter day. I am standing on one of the streets of Buczacz with my father, of blessed memory, and with his childhood friend Reb Mordechai Kamper, a Hebrew teacher at the Baron Hirsch Primary School. We are discussing my entering this school. It was my first visit to Buczacz, and it is ingrained in my memory. I went there from my home village of Pauszowka in the Czortkow region. Kamper recommends that I enter his school. But I am not inclined to do so and I do not wish to stay on my own in the unfamiliar town. Father, of blessed memory, accepted my refusal and we returned to our beloved village, where I spent my first, happiest childhood years. Approximately ten Jewish families lived in the village, all of whom made their living from commerce. There were also a few landowners. There was a small stream in the village and a large lake on the outskirts, where I would bathe with my father, of blessed memory, and with my friends, but regrettably I was unable to learn the art of swimming.

During the winter, I liked to go sledding down the mountain, and when the snow melted at the beginning of spring and the blocks of ice floated on the stream, I liked to sit on a block of ice and sail across the water…And when I fell into the stream, which was not deep, I did not despair, but rather got up onto another block, until I happened to hear Mother or Father calling, and then I would hurry ashore. I may have been slapped by Father, who was never idle and would give me a piece of his mind… In our large garden next to the house there were fruit trees, and at spring time I would enjoy the blossoming of the cherry tree, and the apple and pear trees. It was a great pleasure to climb the cherry tree and pick the beautiful juicy fruit and put it straight into my mouth. And how I loved going up to the wild-berry bushes and picking and eating the sweet, tart berries, an act which my mother, of blessed memory, said I excelled at as early as the age of two. And the best of all was the giant pear tree, full of juicy “Emperor pears,” whose taste, the taste of heaven, still lingers in my mouth. And there was also a forest in the village, where my friends and I would walk on Shabbat and that was our Oneg Shabbat, which would conclude with a visit to Count Wolenski’s fruit orchard, whose Jewish lessee would sell the fine apples, pears and plums. There were also pink rose bushes growing there and we would buy good fruit and roses and bring them home, and our mothers would make an excellent kind of confection from the roses, similar to jam, which is good, as is known, for times when there is no need to use it, or as the saying goes: “may we never have need for this confection…”

Lag Ba’Omer was a great occasion for children. We would climb a mountain which we referred to as “Mount Sinai,” armed with bows and arrows, and would have target practice. Then we would take out of our backpacks, which we brought from home, tasty biscuits, eggs and preserved cherries, and after saying the boreh pri ha’eitz and boreh minei mezonoth blessings, we would dine to our hearts’ content on these delicacies. And the merry winter holiday was Tu Bi’Shvat (“Arbor Day”) on the fifteenth day of the month of Shevat, which promised the enjoyment of Eretz Yisrael fruits such as figs, dates, carobs and almonds.

After returning to the village from Buczacz, my father placed me in the first grade of the village school. A gentle young village teacher taught us in Ukrainian and Polish. She tried to arouse our interest in the studies, and I did indeed find some interest in them, however my position as the only Jewish child in the class of “shkeitzim”, whose language I understood only a little, was unpleasant for me. And the foreign languages were not attractive to me either. I therefore left the school and stayed in my father’s house, where I continued my religious and secular studies as before. Besides Hebrew, I also studied German, Polish and arithmetic. I recall that when I was six years old, I would tutor my late brother Israel, who was five, in Hebrew writing.

My father, Reb Avraham, son of Nathan Rodes, a Buczaczer, who moved to the village of Pauszowka after his marriage with my mother Chaya Esther, daughter of Shlomo, tried his hand at first in commerce, like the other village Jews, and we had a general store. However, my father was not especially successful in his business, and gradually moved to the profession of teaching. He would teach all the Jewish village children from age 3 until their marriage (18 to 20, approximately). The content of the studies was: Hebrew, from the alphabet to the Tanach and Talmud, and German up to reading Schiller and Goethe and learning them by heart. His educational activities also included helping to write love letters from the groom to the bride in German, and letters to the father-in-law in Hebrew.

Most of the students were from the Zonensein family and the head of the family, Reb Moshe Zonensein, owner of an inn, was a learned and educated Jew, and wrote poetry in Hebrew and German. Some of his sons and grandsons are in Israel.

When I reached my second grade studies, I finally moved to the town of Buczacz and entered the second grade of the Baron Hirsch Primary School. The beautiful blonde teacher, Mrs. Langer, wife of the headmaster, had complete control over me there. This teacher managed to make the studies pleasant for the young children, and she would speak Polish and sometimes a little Yiddish with us. I recall that when I had to write an exercise in school and my pen nib broke, the teacher gave me a new nib and, pinching my arm, said: “here is a pinch and a nib for you” [in Yiddish]. A “Rabbi’s wife” such as this was likely to be beloved by the students more than a tutor with whip in hand at the ready.

At the same time I would also go to the cheder. In the winter I studied with the teacher Rabbi Meir on the Nagorzanka, and we would descend the hill in the evening, at eight, heading towards the town. We would go to the “animal market” near the soup kitchen, from whence we would go home in groups. Once, we reached the “animal market” and I was intending to walk home with a group of friends who lived nearby the great “Black Bridge,” which crossed the Stripa river. However, imagine my surprise and amazement when I saw all my friends capturing pigs, which always wondered around there, and riding them home… I, who was reluctant to ride such an unclean beast, had to walk home on my own to my residence with my Aunt Chana, of blessed memory, and pass through the main road near the cemetery’s stone wall. It was snowing heavily and I walked through the snow, daydreaming. And suddenly, I was horrified! A figure wrapped in a white prayer shawl appeared before me. It was none other than a “dead man” risen from his grave in the cemetery, approaching me. It did not take long for me to realize what this image was, I fell to the ground… When I awoke, I found myself in bed in my aunt’s house. It turned out that an acquaintance had passed by in a sled and found me laying on the road, and had taken me on his sled and brought me home to my aunt… During the summer, I studied in a different cheder with a “tutor” (not a rabbi), Shmuel Horn, the brother-in-law of Dr. Peller. He was addressed by the students as “teacher”, rather than “rabbi.” He had a beautiful young daughter named Bertha, and I met her years later in Vienna.

I left Buczacz again after one year of study and returned to our quiet village, where I continued to study diligently with my father and teacher. Eventually, the rural idyll ended because we moved to the city, and I then entered the Baron Hirsch Primary School again, in the forth grade, where I studied together with my friend Yosef Tischler. Apart from general studies in Polish, we also learned German and Ukrainian. We learned Hebrew from a text book in Polish translation, and Hebrew grammar from the teacher Mordechai Kamper, mentioned previously.

There was also a teacher of religion, meaning, Jewish history taught in Polish, who was the elderly teacher Reb Moshe Chaim Teuber, who had a long white beard and wore a black “prak”. He was a teacher who had become licentious, and according to the gossip about him, he secretly  smoked cigarettes on Shabbat. We had to learn the lessons by heart, word for word, from the Jewish history book, and mercy on us if we missed a word, God forbid… After the fourth grade of the primary school, we had to pass an exam in order to transfer to the gimnazjum. To my misfortune, the exam was given on Shabbat Chazon, the evening of Tisha Be’Av, and there was also a written exam. I was a religious boy, who kept all the mitzvot and was strictly observant, with short side-locks on my head – I was faced with the severe transgression of writing on Shabbat! The battle within my heart was difficult, but I gave in to the demand of my parents, of blessed memory, and I was also somewhat influenced by the bold approach of my friend Yosef Tischler to this severe transgression.

We passed the exam successfully and were accepted, with good fortune, to the gimnazjum, and once again I was tested by having to wear the goyishe uniform and cut off my side-locks. I lacked the courage for this operation, but my educated uncle Z. Rosenberg, of blessed memory, who later emigrated to America, stood by my side and took care of the arrangements. He led me to the barber, where I went through the “shearing” and returned home with my side-locks shorn, put on the blue uniform and went out with my uncle for a trial walk through town. In this way, I was admitted to the society of gimnazjum “students” in the highest educational institution in our town, where my fate was to battle the anti-Semitic teachers and fight for my survival, as I had to give private lessons to the school students and contribute to the support of my family, because my father, of blessed memory, continued to teach. My friend Yosef Tischler and I were among his students. We learned the Bible, Prophets, Talmud and Hebrew as a living language. I used the book “A Speaker of his People’s Language” at that time, and in order to make the studies easier I put together a Hebrew-German dictionary from the textbook. This pamphlet disappeared over time.

I loved the Hebrew language and studied it with dedication and diligence. I found the Talmud studies difficult, especially as I had to study in the evenings when I was sleepy and exhausted from hard day’s work. However, one thing would encourage me on those winter evenings of studying, which was an evening meal of hot potatoes and a cup of tea, after which I was able to continue my studies. I learned a few tractates, but I did not internalize the Aramaic language well.

My father, of blessed memory, used to pray at the great Beit Midrash (Sephardi version) next to the Great Synagogue. I was bar-mitzvahed at that Beit Midrash, and I would always pray there on Shabbat and holidays with my father. Rabbi Demata would also pray there, and the Beit Midrash attendees would sit and study diligently. I recall two prominent scholars, one was the grandson of the great tzadik from Buczacz, Rabbi Yisrael Leib, who was short and hunched, but his face was noble. The old-timer scholars would address him with various questions, especially when they were stuck with some serious problem. The second was a blind man, Chaim Raphael, and when someone would read to him from the Gemara, he could explain every single thing and could also continue reciting by heart from the place the reader had stopped. From among the town’s most educated men, I recall S.Y. Agnon’s father, who was a merchant and an educated man. It appears that it was he who paved the way for his young son in the field of Hebrew literature and lit the spark of poetry in his heart. I also recall Matityahu Weinraub’s father, who was a scholar and was fluent in Hebrew and German. There was also the Zionist scholar Leibisch Fried, as well as David Neuman and Ginsberg, may they live long, who are now in Israel. There were also Jewish socialists such as Gottwald, who was associated with the Zionists, and a militant socialist from the town’s group of assimilators, Mosler, a leader of the movement in the region, who also exerted great influence on the Ukrainian peasants.

On week days I would usually pray not in the large Beit Midrash, but in the old mittnagdim Beit Midrash, because I had to get up early and prepare to go to school. Therefore, I would pray early in the morning with the old-timers. As I stood in one corner of the Beit Midrash, immersed in my prayer, a young religious scholar with side-locks and a long coat stood at the other corner – it was S.Y. Agnon, who was destined to become the greatest Hebrew writer of our generation.

My love for Zion began when I was very young, in my childhood village, in the fields, gardens and forests of Pauszowka. During those days, I read a pamphlet published by “Hovevei Zion” in Odessa, which was very influential on me. During the First Zionist Congress my father, of blessed memory, would read reports from the congress in “HaTzfira” with me, about Dr. Herzl’s speeches and his opponents…  On Shabbat afternoons my father would attend a Hebrew speakers club in the “Zion” group, and he would come home and tell of how they spoke Hebrew for a whole hour, which made a great impression on me. During that period I would hike through the forests of Podlesie and Fedor in the environs of Buczacz, and I would read the historical stories of S. Friedberg about “The Kingdom of the House of David,” Mapu’s “Love of Zion” and also “Religion and Life” by Reuven Asher Broides, “The Book of Wandering” by Peretz Smolenskin, and amusement books by Yitzhak Farnhof. Zionist preachers would come and give sermons in the Great Synagogue and I waited impatiently for the preacher to finally start talking of the love of Zion and Eretz Yisrael. I particularly recall the preacher Abramson, who I believe was from the Ukraine, and who was the father of the Hebrew writer H. S. Ben-Avram, who now lives in Israel. He was a prominent Zionist national speaker, and how happy I was to hear him speak out against the Uganda plan, for I suffered the pain of “Zion Zionists”, who were outraged at the “Ugandists.” At that time, we read the Hebrew newspaper  “Hamaggid”, which was published in Krakow, and later “Hamitzpeh” and “Hatzfira”. We also read the official German Zionist newspaper Die Welt, and later the Polish Wschod and Moriah.

Our “practical” Zionist activity began from the forth division of the gimnazjum, and consisted of founding Zionist circles among the unassimilated students. In these circles, we studied the history of Judaism and Zionism (using V. Sapir’s book) and Eretz Yisrael studies. In particular, the students organized activities for JNF fundraising, distributing collection boxes to all sectors of the Jewish population and in the synagogues and study houses. Our first counselors and teachers were Matityahu Weinrab and Avraham Silbersein, of blessed memory, students of the upper classes in the gimnazjum, and after completing their studies at the gimnazjum – as academics. I recall how my friends Avraham Chalfan and Zvi Anderman (who is now a Reform rabbi in America) and I studied the book of Jessayahu with Silbersein, including learning entire chapters by heart. Silbersein also gave Chalfan lessons in Polish on Jewish history, from a book which would be published as a textbook by the “Zeirei Zion” center, which was a Zionist organization of Galician high-school students, from which Hashomer Hazair stemmed at the end of the First World War. Silbersein taught “Hebrew in Hebrew” to the gimnazjum students from all classes, both beginners and advanced students. His influence on us was great and he instilled in our hearts a significant affinity with Hebrew culture, for he was a philosopher with extensive knowledge of Jewish culture. There were some contrasts and a kind of completion between the two leaders, Avraham Silbersein and Matityahu Weinrab. The latter was an expert in Torah and Talmud and was warm-tempered, an enthusiastic Zionist and an exciting orator. He was a prominent Zionist activist, founder of the women’s society, “Rachel,” together with Dr. Peller’s wife, and was very active there. This society conducted Zionist lectures. And I recall a lecture by Shlomo Schiller, who was invited especially from Lvov. Matityahu Weinrab’s friend and partner in Zionist activity was Leon Weksler, an extremely talented orator, who was well-known as a popular speaker.

I would like to recount some events which are ingrained in my memory from those days. Once during the morning break from classes at the gimnazjum, my friend Manio Pohorile came over to me, alarmed, and said: “Did you know – Herzl has died!” It was a blow to the Zionist ideology which nested deep in our young hearts and it was impossible to accept this terrible news.

I was deeply impressed by the mourning assembly held in memory of Kishinev after the pogroms. This moving ceremony was held in the Great Synagogue, and besides the recitals of “Yizkor” and “El Male Rachamim” [prayer for the dead] by the cantor, some of the Zionist leaders participated in the ceremony as speakers, and the student choir sang Yehuda Halevi’s “Eli Zion Ve’Areyah”.

In 1906 a Hebrew author, Eliezer Rokeach, came to Buczacz. He was the uncle of former Minister of the Interior, Yisrael Rokeach, and came from Eretz Yisrael through Romania (see his description in Silberbusch’s memoirs and in Moshe Smilenski’s “The Family of Earth”). Rokeach quickly made contact with the intellectuals of Buczacz, especially with Mordechai Kamper, the Baron Hirsch School teacher mentioned previously, who had socialist tendencies. He also contacted the young poet, who was a rising star, Shmuel Yosef Czaczkes (Agnon). Together with them, Rokeach established a Hebrew literary journal, “HaYarden,” and also published a weekly, “Der Waker” (the Arouser). In my estimation, these two intellectuals, Rokeach and Kamper, had no small influence on their young friend, the dreamer, who was taking his first steps in the field of Hebrew literature. Agnon would stroll with his two elderly friends in the “Schulgas Forest” and they would discuss literary and cultural issues, matters of great importance. I recall a literary lecture given by Agnon, a kind of essay on the new Hebrew literature, which was full of pearls of wisdom and brilliance.

Rokeach’s lectures on Eretz Yisrael and Hebrew literature were scientific and in-depth, but the lecturer would flit from one subject to another and would strew his talks with the ideas of Aristotle, the Rambam, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Wagner. I remember one sentence from one of the lectures, when he was intending to compare and contrast Schopenhauer and Wagner: “Schopenhauer musizierte in der Philosophie und Wagner philosophierte in der Musik” (“Schopenhauer made philosophy into a kind of music and Wagner made music into a kind of philosophy”). I recall Mordechai Kamper’s literary essay in “HaYarden” on Henryk Ibsen.

It would be appropriate to describe our gimnazjum teachers a little. There were a few Jewish teachers, and among the Christian teachers there were many enemies of Israel, but this did not prevent them from secretly accepting gifts, in cash and deeds, from the Jewish students’ fathers, in order to sweeten the children’s fate in the progress of their studies. An exception to this was the Latin and Greek teacher, whose name was Chlebek. He was a Pole, with white hair, dressed in old-fashioned “Schlacziz” clothes, a kind of short, green zupitza which reached down to his knees, and folded boots. He was a philologist, and besides the European and classical languages, Greek and Latin, he also knew Sanskrit and Semitic languages, including Hebrew, which he learned from Munish Bauer, the former Beit Midrash attendant, who became heretical. And the latter studied Latin and Greek from his student and teacher, Professor Chlebek. Chlebek would show the school students the similarities between Hebrew and the Arian languages, Latin and Greek, and Sanskrit. For example: the word “Ra’ah” [saw] is in Greek “hora’u”, “har” [mountain] is similar to “horus,” “shakaf” [transparent] to “skuapeo”, “yayin” [wine] to “oyanus” and so forth. He would speak Hebrew with me, and would tell me to translate into Hebrew the lesson I had translated from Polish to Greek, and of course I would do so willingly. Once a supervisor came to visit the gimnazjum and when he saw my notebook, he asked: “What is this script doing in the Greek class?”  Chlebek replied: “This student knows Hebrew, and I suggested that he translate the Greek into Hebrew.”

In the upper classes of the gimnazjum, when we had to write an essay on a topic of our choosing, I abided by the following rule: begin every essay with a Hebrew saying. For example, I began the essay on the function of blood in the body with Hebrew and Latin characters: “Blood is the soul.” I recall the teacher Kironski, who was a Greek teacher. When he entered the classroom we were in danger of being tested on our ability to recite a lesson from Xenofon or Homer. My friend then asked me to ask the teacher what he thought of some idea from a Jewish philosopher, a Talmud scholar or the principles of Judaism, as compared to the ideas of Socrates, Aristotle or Plato. The scheme was successful, for the philosopher teacher with his great mind, would delve into the ocean of Greek learning and extract several ideas from Greek wisdom. He would not have time to finish his lecture in one class and would have to continue the next class. With this trick, my friend and I escaped the hassle of a recitation exam a few times. I also recall another Latin teacher by the name of Rembetz, who had an awkward, fat body, and who was very fearful of the socialists and the anarchists. He called me an “anarchist” – I do not know where he got this opinion from.

Our serious cultural life occurred outside of school, in the general and Zionist cultural clubs, where we heard lectures on topics from general literature or historical subjects, or Hebrew literature. In those days I would prepare my homework together with my friend Manio Pohorile, who now lives in Jerusalem. Along with other friends, such as Zvi Heller, Schenberg, Guttfreud and others, we would give Zionist parties, especially Hebrew literature parties. Once we held a party in honor of Ahad Ha’Am’s anniversary. I knew that Bialik had written a poem “To Ahad Ha’Am.” However, I was unable to locate a book of Bialik’s poems in the entire town, so having no choice, I had to sit down and write a poem for Ahad Ha’Am. And thus Ahad Ha’Am was saved from having no poem at the party held in his honor. All the Zionist gimnazjum students were organized in clubs with counselors from the upper classes, including myself.

Apart from the “Zion” group, in which the Zionists were organized, there was also the “Ivriya” club, where the young Hebrew teacher Yisrael Farnhof was especially active. They held various lectures on historical, Zionist and Jewish topics.

The Zionist activists in Buczacz tried to establish a Hebrew school in town. We attempted to bring in an external teacher, in addition to the local teachers. I found out that the writer G. Shofman was living in Lvov, and also engaged in teaching. I quickly wrote to him and invited him to come to our town and serve as the teacher in the Hebrew school about to be established. I received a rapid response on a postcard, with the words: “I will not move from here.” Some time ago, when I visited Shofman, he reminded me of his words: “Do you remember what I wrote to you from Lvov: ‘I will not move from here’…”  “What a wonderful memory you have” I replied. In 1907, the expert teacher Baruch Yitzhak Berkowitz, who now lives in Hadera, was invited to Buczacz by the Galician teachers organization.

In 1907 I left Buczacz, due to the oppressive gimnazjum teachers, and moved to the town of Brzezany. There, I continued my studies and my Zionist activities, in the framework of the “Zeirei Zion” organization of students, and in “Ha’Ivriyah”, under the guidance of the Hebrew teacher Zvi Sharpstein, now a professor at a teaching seminary in America. And on the holidays when I came to the home of my parents, of blessed memory, in Buczacz, I took part in “Ivriyah.” My friend Yosef Tischler, who came to his parents’ house on holidays, would also be active in “Ivriyah,” and I remember one lecture he gave on “the Jewish Legend.” After completing my gimnazjum studies in 1909, I had to decide which profession was most suitable for me in Eretz Yisrael before entering university. I asked for advice at the “Hovevei Zion” office in Jaffa, whose secretary was then S.Y. Agnon, who had made aliya two years prior. I received a reply with advice to study medicine, but Agnon wrote on the margins of the card: “Stay where you are and seek out a living there.” This angered me, for I viewed it as an insult to my heart’s desire to make aliya to Eretz Yisrael. And when I met Agnon here I asked him why he had given such as response. He replied that during those days they were not issuing propaganda for making aliya, due to the harsh conditions in Israel. Agnon later immortalized that conversation of ours in his book A Guest for the Night, in a conversation that occurs between the narrator and Dr. Milch.

After I left Galicia in 1909 and moved to Vienna, I of course continued my Zionist activities, in the JNF and the Eretz Yisrael office, and I took part in founding the Hebrew academic society “HaTchiah,” together with my friends from Buczacz, Avraham Chalfan and Zvi Anderman. We later founded the Hebrew Association, but that is a separate episode in the history of Zionist youth who moved from Buczacz to Vienna.

My parents moved from Buczacz to Vienna in 1915 and I lived there with them until coming to Israel. Later, I visited them frequently here in Hadera, until their deaths in 5702.

Dr. Naftali Menatseach