Rosa Portnoi

Written by author
March 13th, 2014

This page is dedicated to memoirs about Jewish life in Lithuania.
Cette page est consacrée aux mémoires sur la vie juive en Lituanie.


This site and of the projects I developed in recent years have been inspired by my mother Rosa Portnoi Rozenbaumas (February 1921- 5 August 2013).

Her father came from Pinsk and was a railroad worker who was educated and encouraged her to study with affection, using a method that today’s pedagogy would perhaps discourage. She recalled that when she got a good grade in class, he always rewarded her with a coin. She loved learning and had talent for it.

In the atmosphere of piety and poverty of her native Telz, studying and parnasa (livelihood) were the major concerns of the Jewish inhabitants.

My grandfather Barukh Portnoi was frail and soon left the railroad tracks. I do not know how he got to purchase a horse and cart, the fact remains that he became the bal-hagole of Telz, carrying passengers to the train. One survivor recently told me that he would always fetch Rabbi Bloch (one of the Telzer rabbinical families) from the shul, not letting him walk home, but sometimes, exhausted from fatigue, he fell asleep in a heyder corner waiting for him. The family was very poor and there is a touching testimony of their condition by one of the survivors from Telz Sonia (Sarah) Yosolowitz Toor :

My grandmother Hasye-Rivke had eight children, seven girls, two of which still live in Israel, Golda and Reyke (Rachel), whose children love and praise my mom. Rosa was a second mother to her siblings, she took care of them, washed them and brushed their hair, she helped her beloved mother at home. She studied in the light of a candle.

What was I supposed to understand when my mom used to insist that she absolutely wanted to enter Gymnasium Yavne to study with Rabbi Holtzberg Rafael-Etsyon? Unfortunately when she entered high school, he had already left Lithuania for Palestine where he held important positions in Education. And how should I interpret that she didn’t learn English because she studied Latin ? At some point of my research I discovered that indeed the Rav has left Telz for Palestine in 1933 (the very year she entered the high school) and that Latin replaced English in the curriculum of Gymnasium Yavne in 1931. Mom had a sharp memory and learned several languages, taking delight in Hebrew grammar and Lithuanian grammar (one of the most difficult that is) with ease and even grace. She could handle, at the zenith of her life, seven languages, and only the war, poverty and family responsibilities interrupted the formation of this so gifted young woman. After trying hard to keep up while caring of her siblings, Rosa had to drop out probably around 1936 or 1937 and work to support her family. It may well be that she never recovered from having to drop out. The economical crisis had hit hard the Jews of Lithuania and seamstress was a more natural orientation than doctor at this time. Her pride and courage remained intact, and she always loved to find the opportunity to speak Hebrew (from the Hebrew speakers she spoke with, she spoke with a perfect dikduk, grammar), Lithuanian, Russian, German with people stunned at her ease. And we must believe that the Telzer rabbis were very imprudent for the tsniyout (decency) of their female students, since an Italian friend heard her remember a verse of poetry … Catullus.

Yes, the girls of Yavne in Telz studied Latin. And the small bibliography in Lithuanian (among hundreds of documents from the archives of the school Yavne Telz) demonstrate the excellence of education provided in this school for girls: Halevi Yehuda Ibn Gabirol, Bahai, Rambam, amidst luminaries of Western literature, from the medieval epic lyric (“Chanson de Geste”) of Roland to Voltaire and Rousseau via Shakespeare, Goethe and Novalis. The daughters of Telz were not exactly considered dumb.

Bibliography of texts studied in Gymnasium Yavne

Bibliography of texts studied in Gymnasium Yavne

Mom knew the liturgy by heart, quoting from memory, and was always at the right page in shul where her less educated neighbors (and myself) used her compass during the high holidays services.

During the war, Barukh took his family and neighbors on his cart at the first German bombing and they passed the bridge Riga (200 miles north of Telsiai) a few minutes before it was blown up. After wanderings and sufferings, the survival in the depths of the Urals was a miracle and I only know a small part of that story. Mom would dig up potatoes barefoot in clogs, in the snow. Her sisters went through pretty tough times. She worked as a seamstress and had befriended a young Russian woman from Debiosi (Debiosa?).

Nevertheless, she didn’t taste a piece of meat during the war, where the family survived in an hostile non-Jewish context, fearing it could be pork.

Coming back – to Vilna and not to Telz where almost no Jew survived, because they were slaughtered by the Lithuanian Nazi collaborators , Rosa took care of the orphans who came from Russia and became a secretary to Reb Ausband (who later became the husband of Khayele Bloch, Rebbetsin Khayele Bloch Ausband remembered her husband recalledthat he had been impressed by a halachic question Rosa has asked about the sfires (the counting of the days between two holidays. The rebbetsin asked me when I met her in June 2011: Do you really know who your mother is?

Rosa at the end of the war

My father Moishe who wrote his memoirs lived with my mother as a tree knotted to another. There was just and only Reyzele and Meyshke. A life of work and love (with a bit of wrangling to spice).

My brother Sacha has always been the “ unique and favorite” son of my mom and his relationship with my parents and his love for all of us is infinite and beyond comprehension.

Our Jewish education is an integral part of the training, high intelligence, authenticity and sincerity of our parents Judaism. Mom wanted us out of the Soviet Union so that we might live a Jewish life.

My mother Rosa and me

11 avril 2012, Tel Aviv, Bat Kama At s’apprête à rencontrer Sonia (Sarah) Toor.

L’une de mes jeunes filles née en 1920, et que je dois interviewer Dimanche, Sonia (Sarah) Toor, me rappelle très troublée.
Après s’être assurée que le père de ma mère se nommait bien Borekh Portnoi et que la famille vivait en face du cimetière de Telz, elle me dit : « Je me souviens parfaitement de cette famille. C’était une maisonnée très pauvre et pleine de petites filles (il y avait à la veille de la guerre 7 filles et un garçon). Ton grand-père, sais-tu comment on l’appelait à Telz ? ».
Je reste interdite, hésitant entre plusieurs souvenirs et autant d’émotions. Rosa Portnoi, qui était intarrissable sur son lycée Yavne de Telz, ne s’épanchait pas sur sa famille, et savait peu de chose sur l’histoire de son père, qui était un orphelin, originaire de Pinsk, et avait deux frères dont l’un avait émigré aux Etats-Unis au début du siècle et l’autre vivait à Ber-Sheva.
« Ton grand-père – dayn zeyde – poursuit-elle, était connu sous le nom de Trotski parce qu’il était éloquent, élégant et professait avec conviction des opinions de gauche. »
Baruch Portnoi avait travaillé aux chemins de fer (Pinsk faisait partie de l’Empire tsariste), et semblait avec sa vareuse et son képi portant un insigne sortir d’un film d’Eisenstein.

La guerre dite soviéto-polonaise et son cortège de pogromes, qui avait fait rage jusqu’en Biélorussie en 1919 et 1920 avait-elle dévoré sa famille ? Rosa parlait d’un oncle, un jeune étudiant de yeshiva, qui avait été fusillé par les soviétiques sous l’accusation d’espionnage. Les Juifs – qui n’avaient pas un goût inné pour la guerre, même révolutionnaire, et lui préférait l’étude – avaient souvent fait les frais de telles violences.
Rien n’indique quand Barukh a quitté Pinsk. En 1921, Rosa, la première-née de huit enfants, voit le jour à Telsiai (Telz)
La santé de Barukh n’était guère brillante et c’est, paraît-il, pour cela qu’il abandonna les chemins de fer pour devenir un bal-hagole, un conducteur de charette, qui ne transportait pas de marchandises mais conduisait les clients à la gare ou sur de courtes distances.
Sonia ne pouvait oublier la pauvreté dans laquelle elle avait trouvé cette famille, dans la maison située en face du cimetière de Telz et à une faible distance du premier emplacement de l’école Yavne. Une image est restée gravée dans sa mémoire et c’est cette image surtout qui l’avait poussée à me rappeler et qu’elle ne pouvait garder pour elle jusqu’à dimanche. Un jour d’hiver, par un froid mordant, elle se rend dans la maison avec Rosa Portnoi et voit qu’une vitre brisée n’a pas pu être remplacée et qu’elle est colmatée par un coussin qu’on a fixé là pour atténuer le froid.
C’est vers cette époque peut-être qu’a été prise cette photo de famille. Pour quelle occasion, je ne sais, mais on y voit la mère de Rosa portant son cinquième enfant, et les petites filles au regard un peu perdu dans leurs robes parfois trop grandes, et Nekhemie, le petit dernier assis sagement. Les yeux de Barukh fixent sereinement l’appareil.

Dans son costume trois-pièces bien coupé, il pense peut-être à l’avenir de ses filles. C’est lui qui encouragea sa première et celles qui suivirent à acquérir une solide éducation. Rosa, quant à elle, désirait fréquenter le Gymnasium Yavne après l’école élémentaire, et suivre les cours réputés de son directeur, le Dr. Rafael Holsberg-Etsyon, mais l’année même où elle intégra le lycée, à la rentrée scolaire de 1933, celui-ci se mit en route pour la Palestine. Barukh avait l’habitude d’aider sa fille dans les matières scientifiques et de la gratifier d’une pièce de monnaie pour chaque bonne note.
Rosa parlait de son père comme d’un homme pieux, mais sans doute a-t-elle effacé de sa mémoire les tensions qu’elle a dû ressentir entre sa très religieuse éducation au lycée Yavne de Telz et ce père aux idées de gauche très arrêtées et hautement revendiquées. La Lituanie indépendante qui glissait lentement vers un régime autoritaire sous la présidence de Smetana laissait encore une petite place et la vie sauve à ce supposé émule de Trotski.

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