R' David established his fame with his work Bet David which went into three editions, the first being published in Warsaw in 5662 (1902). The work contains all the laws of schechita (ritual slaughtering) according to the reference paragraphs of the Shulchan Aruch, the standard work of contemporary Orthodox Jewry. R' David's volume consists of three parts: the text proper, a short commentary, and a long commentary. The text proper gives the halachic decisions of the Shulchan Aruch and other authorities. The short commentary, which is named Amudei Habait (Pillars of the House), explains the principles or pillars on which his house is built. The long commentary is called Yesod Habait and deals with the foundation and source of each and every law, going back to Talmudic sources and earliest authorities and summarizing all differences of opinion and discussions on each specific issue from those early times until R' David's own day.
In his introduction we find a few biographical details from which we learn that before he came to Ciechanowiec, R' David had served as schochet and cantor in Budki. He writes as follows:
I am beholden to the people of Budki city where I first lived. May the sweetness of the Lord be with them and may they be blessed in all the works of their hands for having received me as schochet and inspector and emissary (i.e. cantor) of the community while I was still of tender age. I dwelt among them for seven years in honor and tranquility and parted from them without pleasure because the community of the holy congregation of Ciechanowiec sent two honored persons for me and they persuaded me to go to them. This is a large and ancient community (the Lord increase them a thousand fold) which is famed for its scholarly rabbis who have dwelt honorably there, and one of whom was a close companion of the Gaon Rabbi Eliyahu of saintly and holy memory of Vilna, as is mentioned in the introduction to the book Leviticus in his commentary Aderet Eliyahu. It is now about 25 years that I have been among them, likewise in honor and satisfaction, may my G-d remember them for good. . . And let me entreat that I may merit to proceed to the Holy Land to spend the rest of my life there engaging in Torah and holy toil for its own sake and entreating the dust thereof; and may that be my consolation for my bitter fate.In this introduction he eulogizes his wife, who had sustained him all her life and encouraged him while he was preparing his standard work:
And here I shall likewise give the name as an everlasting memorial of my spouse, who strengthened my spirit and girded me with valor throughout the years of my holy work, so that I should not be negligent; and she shared in my grief when she saw how I wearied and toiled by night as by day in order to produce something perfect.R' David gives a most touching confession in which he explains the deep spiritual reasons which led him to prepare this work. He was childless and so the book is the child of his spirit by means of which he hopes to increase and hallow his name and achieve spiritual survival. He writes:
Therefore may her name also be impressed on this my book for good, she having been a modest and pious woman, simple and straightforward, the fear of the Lord being her treasure, blessed above women in the tent, Mistress Golda Hanka daughter of our rabbinical and truly G-d fearing Master Shalom Zvi of blessed memory, born in the city of Maltch.
So although I know my little worth, yet because His Blessed Name has chastened me so that I have neither name nor remnant in the land, since by reason of my many sins I have not merited any lasting seed, may it not be said of any of us, I have therefore taken to heart some of the sayings of the sages of blessed memory in Tractate Baba Batra, leaf 116: Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Simeon bar Yochai, 'If any man does not leave a son to inherit from him, the Holy and Blessed One is wroth with him. ' Now Rabbi Yochanan and Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi discussed this point. One said it refers to any man who does not leave a son. The other said it means any man who does not leave a disciple. And it is written in Midrash Hane'elam on Ruth, Souls that are not built up in this world by begetting children are rejected from many gates in the world to come until they find correction. Taking all this to heart, my spirit was confused and abashed within me. When that which befalls all men comes to me what shall I have as a lasting memorial?. . . For he who has no children should do something to commemorate his name. And see Midrash Tanhuma, Portion Tissa, Section C, according to which Moses said to the Holy and Blessed One, Lord of the Universe, once I am dead I shall not even be remembered or mentioned. And if Moses our Master, may he rest in peace, desired to have his name remembered, then most assuredly a worthless block of wood like me [is for naught]. The only thing, I therefore said to myself, is for me to produce my own correction and adjustment from the Torah. Let me take a remedy and healing for my unfortunate soul and proceed to the work. So far about twelve years I have engaged in this hard labor with energy and devotion, turning nights into days and sacrificing the choicest of my life and the best of my years on the altar of productive achievement; for there has been no end to all my toil until I set everything in proper order and system. And this has been all my inspiration and the rest of my hopes and consolation during my vain life, and that is the portion out of all my toil.The work obtained approbations from Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk, Rabbi Eliyahu Baruch Komay, Rabbi Shneiersohn, Rabbi Yehuda Hahanochi and others. Here we quote a few sentences from the approbation of Rabbi Komay:
During the ten years or so that I have been dwelling here in the congregation of Ciechanowiec, I have known the noted cantor and schochet our Master Rabbi David ben R' Chaim Zvi, and have recognized his outstanding knowledge of Torah and his staunch fear of G-d. He is the skillful schochet and Emissary of our holy congregation and has toiled to weariness in the works of our first and last rabbis of blessed memory with respect to the laws governing slaughtering and ritual inspection. Since he knows of these matters in great depth, he has arranged all the laws concerning them in a systematic manner and in correct order, and on firm and faithful foundations he has erected his house, the work to which he has given the name Bet David. . . It is a good and delightful work and all he says has been impressed and stamped with truth.This approbation is dated Wednesday, 19 Av 5659 (1899). R' David lived to fulfill his longing and made aliyah to Eretz Yisrael in 1912 or 1913. In the introduction to his work, which was published with the aid of his admirers, we incidentally find the date of his death, Let us inscribe in this book the day of the passing of that Rabbi and Gaon the author, may he rest in Eden, Rabbi David ben R' Chaim Zvi may he be remembered for the life of the world to come, who passed away in the Holy City of Jerusalem, may she be builded up and firmly established, on the 14th day of Elul 5682 (1922).
The introduction to Bet David voices the desire which Rabbi David Kamin expressed before his passing:
And this is the blessing which he left behind him and set within his house, this very same Bet David. That it might serve him as an everlasting memorial after the fashion of the verse, Let my mouth speak wise things and the thoughts of my heart show understanding, the acronym of which in Hebrew is halifot. For the main thing in survival which remains after a man is gone, is that he has spoken wisdom and shown understanding and has brought these into the world. And all those who declare the law in his name lead to the result that he can be considered as though he were really alive and in existence in the world, as our sages of blessed memory said with regard to the verse, Let me dwell in thy tent forever (Psalms 61, 5). (A reference to a Talmudic passage in Tractate Yevamot 96 which is translated whenever the words of a dead scholar are quoted in this world, his lips murmur in the grave.)
This work is what its name declares. It contains heartening and inspiring words which produce the voice that cleaves the flames, raising sparks of fiery faith in men's hearts so as to bring sons back to the faith of their fathers. It is adorned with the jeweled and wondrous utterances of our sages of blessed memory and all the things hidden in their legends, penetrating to their most hidden content, bringing up the precious pearls to be found in their depths, now by way of investigation and logic and now in accordance to our histories and chronicles. Likewise, it contains valuable explanations of texts in the Holy Scriptures, as the eyes of the reader will see directly on the title page and within the contents. The sayings are comprehensible by all, both old and young, not to mention preachers and worthy homilists. It has been composed by me, least among the youths and servant of the servants of the Lord, Moshe Halevi Rubinstein, dwelling at Ciechanowiec.Rabbi Rubinstein prepared a commentary on his work entitled Mefitz Or (Shedder of Light). He explains his choice of name because the letters MFITZ contain the initials of his own name Moshe Yehoshua. The TZ represents the name of his father Tzvi Halevi (passed away on 21st Iyyar 5630 (1870) at Kamenietz in Lithuania) while the P was for his mother Feiga (passed away 17 Cheshvan 5651 (1891) in Brisk or Brest-Litovsk). This work obtained an approbation from Rabbi Chaim Halevi Soloveitchik and also from Rabbi Eliyahu Baruch Komay. The latter wrote:
I shall likewise take one book, when it leaves the printing press with the Censor's authorization, from my friend the great, keen and well-versed rabbi, who is so entire in wisdom and knowledge in that fashion which rises in the fear of the Lord, namely our Master Rabbi Moshe Halevi of this city; and I hope that all those of upright heart will enjoy ample satisfaction from his work which speaks in honor of the Torah and those who study it. Thursday, 12 Nissan 5657 (1897), here in Ciechanowiec, saith Eliyahu Baruch, encamped here in the aforesaid congregation.Rabbi Rubinstein left a manuscript commentary on Ecclesiastes entitled Heqer Tachlit (Investigation of the Ultimate End) which he declares is:
An extensive clarification of this scroll by the technique of investigation and deep consideration of the literal text. Those who peruse it will find that which they have been seeking these many days, for it penetrates to the depth of the literal text, drawn to its logical conclusion in accordance with the basic studies of our rabbis, the divine and Torah-inspired investigators, using direct logic and not warping the written text.In Rabbi Rubinstein we meet a homilist of a new type who did not resemble the mussarniks or moralist preachers of the Novogrudok school, nor that of the Maggid of Chelm, who was so noted a traveling preacher in East Europe during the final third of the 19th century. For the latter, the paths of Hell were as familiar as the lanes of his own birthplace and his sermons were more than terrifying with their descriptions of the punishments in store for the wicked.
Rabbi Rubinstein argued that times had changed and the form and content of the sermon had to be adapted to the new spirit. He described the difference between his own sermons and homilies and those of the Maggid of Chelm. Those of the Maggid of Chelm were spiced and flavored with descriptions of the punishments of Hell and painted in terrifying colors. With changed times it was necessary to incorporate the lessons of history, to evoke the sayings of our sages of blessed memory, and to use the legends of our people, all the time flavoring the talk with pleasant witticisms.
The scarlet thread running through Esh Dat is the philosophic thesis that the intellect is not an enemy of faith but, on the contrary, can be reconciled therewith and strengthen it. Rabbi Rubinstein expressed the interesting opinion that ancient philosophy had been congruent with faith in a single deity:
At the end of the period of the Second Temple all the nations still slept their foolish sleep in the bosom of their idolatrous faiths. Only a few people among them had opened their eyes and knew that the idols were all void and vanity, those being the sages and philosophers among them. But those philosophers remained silent and refrained from mocking the idols in the presence of their worshippers.However, Rabbi Rubinstein recognized the primacy of the Divine, Torah-influenced intelligence over the philosophic one. The difference between the two, said the Rabbi, consisted of two things.
First, that the human intelligence almost entirely goes astray in its theorizing, giving rise to false conclusions as to the renewal of the world and the link between divinity and the universe. It thus engenders false children, whereas the Torah-filled intelligence has offspring who are all the seed of truth. Second, human intelligence cannot give man the awareness of eternal existence, which is not the case for intelligence derived through Torah.Rabbi Rubinstein was an interesting phenomenon compared against the sternly religious background of Ciechanowiec at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th. He studied secular literature, devoted himself to the philosophic systems of non-Jewish sages, and in his work often refers to Plato, Aristotle, Diogenes the Cynic and the Gnostics. To be sure, he endeavors to prove that their sayings are at a lower level than those of our Holy Torah, yet the fact that he studied their writings is symptomatic of a changing attitude.
Rabbi Rubinstein passed away in Bialystok on 16 Adar 5680 (1920).
Ciechanowiec was known as a community of wisdom and wealth. Just as sages and scholars were attracted to study under R' David Katzenelbogen, so leading merchants came to the Ciechanowiec fairs from Danzig, Dresden, and Berlin. The commerce of the local Jews spread as far as distant Koenigsberg. Raw materials were brought to Ciechanowiec where they were transformed into manufactured products which would then be exported.
At the close of the 19th century the economic situation of middle-class Jews had worsened. They were subject to the whims and caprices of the regional squires who did not display any great affection for the Jews. The Hebrew weekly Hamelitz of 1883 (No.34) had the following gloomy description of the local economic position, written by a person signing himself Joab:
The Poles in our district have established their own commercial stores in a number of villages and propose to open shops with all kinds of goods in order to restrict the movement and livelihood of our brethren. In all this we find the hands of the noblemen and property owners who greatly hate the Jews, and of the journals which are published against us to make us unpopular. There has also been a single instance which happened here: One of our wealthy brethren purchased an estate from one of the land-owners, and for this reason their hatred and animosity has flared up to the point of destruction.This report does not reflect the whole economic picture of Ciechanowiec Jewry, but applies only to the petty and retail trades. In those days Ciechanowiec was actually a highly developed industrial center compared to most similar-sized Polish towns. As early as 1775 there had been weaving workshops in Ciechanowiec. By the 1820s this industry was flourishing, setting its stamp on the entire economic structure of the community. Two factors propelled the growth of the textile industry; one was political, the other geographical and climatic.
They make all efforts to do evil to us in every way they can, and they were particularly enraged with our brethren who held the inns. The squires have now leased these to Christians, thus driving from their positions even those whose leaseholds have not expired, for who can go to law with somebody more powerful and savage than he is? In this way the sources of livelihood of our unfortunate brethren will cease. Yet thanks to the Guardian of Israel, the peasants are wholeheartedly with us and pay no attention to the incitement of the nobles. Not long ago they saw clearly that our enemies are only aiming at us, to steal our bread from us without any reason; for on the market day in our city, during last Passover, many peasants gathered from the entire region surrounding the city. Now as the shops of the Jews were closed they had to purchase everything from the Christian shopkeepers and bakers; and they skinned them and took double prices from them for everything they had to buy.
After the Polish revolt of 1830 had been suppressed, the Russian authorities closed the frontier and prohibited the import of goods from Poland to Russia. This protectionist move had a particular affect on the textile industry which was highly developed in Poland at that time. In accordance with an edict of the Tsar dated November 13, 1834, a heavy customs duty was imposed on all goods imported from Poland. As a result, foreign workers and industrialists ceased to come to Poland and the industrial workers migrated to Russia. The Russian government invited German textile experts, who laid the foundations of industry in the city.
An important geographical factor was also operative. Ciechanowiec lies near dense forests and has extensive meadows in the surrounding countryside. These meadows provided grazing grounds for sheep, while the forests supplied ample wood as fuel for engines.
A list of weaving factories and workshops established in Ciechanowiec from the first half of the 19th century exemplifies what a large part that industry played in the economy. In the factory of Greimich and Greinmann there were seven looms and ten workers were employed. The Vengrovsky factory had four mechanical seats and eight workers. It also had equipment for dyeing and finishing wool. The A. P. Sieber factory was founded in 1878 and employed fifteen workers. The Lamprech factory specialized in handwork with four looms and six workers, the same size as the Lipschitz factory. The Malinach had eight workers, the Maisler five, and that of the Prenski family employed six. The factory of Henryk Farberg was one of the oldest in Ciechanowiec, having been founded in 1850. At that time, the wool was worked up and dyed in a modern facility with the latest equipment. In the Freidker factory the wool was washed, dyed, spun, and woven. Many were employed in this operation. Freiman had work for eleven men in his facility and the Kluge factory employed three. Another seven workers were employed by Starkstein. Mandel Rosenbloom established a large weaving plant in 1876. The Schulz factory employed six workers but another owned by Schulz and Freimark was founded in 1895 and became the largest in Ciechanowiec. It employed 39 workers at its peak.
This list is no doubt incomplete. Still, it is enough to show the extent of textile trade in 19th and early 20th century Ciechanowiec. This was definitely an industrial town with hundreds of factory workers. Indeed, it was known with some justification as Little Bialystok.
Ciechanowiec also boasted an important mother-of-pearl industry, which was founded not by Germans but by a locally born Jew named Saul Severin Suravitch. This exceptional man lived a full and active life and thanks to him Ciechanowiec became famous throughout Russia. In his youth Suravitch went to Paris where he studied at the High School for Commerce and Technology. After obtaining certification as an engineer he went to England where he married. From there he crossed the Atlantic and spent some time in America. Suravitch had a driving desire to be a worldly man. Returning to Europe, he settled in Spain for a number of years. Thanks to his prolonged wanderings, he became proficient in many languages and achieved renown as an outstanding linguist.
Returning to Paris from Spain, he met Count Ludwig Krasinsky, a wealthy Polish nobleman. Suravitch persuaded the Count to establish a new industry in Poland - horn buttons and combs. Krasinsky brought Suravitch to Warsaw and authorized him to set up a manufacturing plant for these products. Devoting himself to the task with alacrity and diligence, Suravitch founded his first factories in the districts of Prasznic and Mlawa, the area of Count Krasinsky's estates. Business expanded rapidly and a large workshop for mother-of-pearl buttons was established in Warsaw under the direct management of Suravitch. However, his ambition was thwarted by vicious anti-Semitism and he was forced to resign. Although Saul Suravitch was a heretic with regard to religion and had rejected all belief in G-d, he identified strongly with Jewish culture and his people and was a fervent Zionist.
It was then that Suravitch felt he must return to his birthplace of Ciechanowiec. His experience and knowledge was put to work and he set up a mother-of-pearl button factory in his home town. It was the first which employed a large number of Jewish workers. Being a faithful follower of Theodore Herzl, his enthusiasm for Zionism translated into a desire to make aliyah. He resolved to transfer his factory with all its equipment and workers to Eretz Yisrael. There he hoped the enterprise would flourish in a Jewish settlement. In an attempt to realize this plan, Suravitch visited Odessa repeatedly. There he conferred with the Odessa Committee of Hovevei Zion, which carried out most Zionist settlement work from Russia until 1914. He convinced the Committee to send M. Dizengoff to Ciechanowiec for on-site study of the proposal. Dizengoff was in the process of setting up a glass factory at Tantura on the coast of Eretz Yisrael and was very interested in industrialization of the Jewish homeland. He became enthusiastic about Suravitch's daring plan and promised his faithful help. However, the Odessa Committee moved very slowly, and before a final decision was received, Suravitch died of a heart attack in 1903. His bold and innovative plan was soon forgotten.
It was not industry alone that helped the development of Ciechanowiec. Prosperous merchants lived there. In Hamelitz, issue 92 of 1883, we read of a major timber merchant of Ciechanowiec named Meir Atlas, who contributed wood from his forest for the completion of the synagogue.
The Rosenbloom family made significant contributions to the development of commerce in the town. They had been engaged in trade from the beginning of the 19th century. Hamaggid of December 18, 1872 had an account by the correspondent Har-Shefer, describing the importance of the then head of this family:
28 Kislev 5633 (1872) - The Congregation of Israel in this city mourned grievously today when its leading resident, the very aged and truly G-d fearing magnate, worthy and philanthropic, our honored Master Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Rosenbloom of blessed memory, was taken for burial.
The deceased has left his good memory in the heart of many who knew and esteemed him, both in this country and abroad, and who had been engaged in commercial relations with him for some 50 years. All of them honor his name and praise him, declaring that among the entire body of merchants it would be hard to find anyone who could be relied on to trade so honestly as he did.
As his name Shlomo, so was he, entire with the Lord and his Torah at all times during his life on earth. As his wealth increased, so he honored the Lord more, devoting fixed times to the study of Torah and engaging in anonymous charity. Much as he did to benefit those who were rejected in spirit and in dire human need, his heart was never seduced towards imaginary honor; and from the time he reached manhood the principle of proceeding modestly was a lamp to his feet while awe of the Almighty lighted him on his paths.
Each poor man receives his aid from the Wardens and the Committee sends the financial support of the community home to many of the poor folk of our city with the postman, so that they should not be ashamed. And the poor people of other cities also express ample thanks to this Committee because they do not need to weary their feet any longer at the doors of the generous; and each one receives thirty kopeks and two meals. A preacher who is not well known receives one ruble, while a famous preacher receives three rubles. The income of the Committee is now about 80 rubles a week, and almost all this money is shared among the poor folk of the city in accordance with the saying of the sages of blessed memory, The poor of your city come first. However, the poor from other cities are not turned away empty either.The Ciechanowiec magnate R' Yaacov Rosenbloom was renowned by reason of his generosity and great concern for the requirements of the community. This generosity enjoyed the particular commendation of Rabbi Eliyahu Baruch Komay. In Hatzefira, issue 286 of 1891, we read the following words of the Rabbi:
In the name of my entire community I must give thanks to the wealthy and generous R' Yaacov Rosenbloom, may his light shine forth, and to his wealthy spouse Mistress Henna, long may she live, for the many kindnesses they have shown our city which is the magnate's birthplace and was their dwelling place until they departed, for making a contribution of 1,000 rubles for the establishment of a Gemilut Hassadim (Free Loan Society). When prices rose they hastened to aid the poor. They likewise made their generous contribution of 700 rubles towards the building of the Bet Hamidrash here, and countless more donations of the same kind.One instance of exceptional generosity on the part of a person born in Ciechanowiec gave the town a reputation throughout the whole of Russia. The man who brought this fame to Ciechanowiec was the Hebrew writer Mordechai ben Hillel Hacohen. In a report on the life of Jews in St. Petersburg, published in Hatzefira, No 10 of the 4th of Nissan 5640 (1880), he writes:
Last Sabbath, 23 Adar, a certain man passed away here who was among those who had formerly served in the army. In his will which he wrote before his death, he left 25,000 rubles for establishing a school to teach crafts to the Children of Israel in the small town of Ciechanowiec, in the Bielsk region of Grodno Guberniya; for this little town, which is near Bialystok, was his birthplace. The name of this man was Kozak, and since he was alone, he dedicated all his wealth to this act of charity and kindness. Apart from this act of grace, he also left 4,000 rubles for various charities. This will was registered in accordance with the requirements, before his death, and the money has been placed in one of the banks here.There was a great scandal in Ciechanowiec in connection with this bequest, which reflects the cultural and social state of the Jews of the town during the 1880s. Hazefira, issue 38 of 5641 (1881), contained the following account by a person signing himself with the initials Z.H.T.
In spite of myself I have to report to the press on this occasion and inform the readers of a regrettable case which shows the unsatisfactory moral situation of our city and the indifferent spirit and idleness to be found among its residents.Round the foundation of this vocational school, for which the bequest was dedicated, there was a great quarrel which shows up in strong colors the obstinate fight of the representatives of tradition, who wished to cling with all their might to the horns of the old style altar. The Orthodox Jews of Ciechanowiec mobilized for a religious war. They imposed fasts on the community because, as they put it, of the wish to lead Jewish children to conversion, G-d forbid. For a trade school could be nothing but a mask for the activities of the missionaries who came to mislead and incite. And they swore, It shall never come to pass. However, the more progressive young men were just as obstinate and also mobilized for a war of principle. Finally, the secularist members of the Haskalah (Enlightenment) generation defeated the sacred protagonists of the old way of life and the trade school was set up to the great benefit of the children of the town.
It is generally known that about six months ago a Jew born in our town died in the capital city. He had been taken to the army, bearing upon himself the transgressions of the community 25 years ago. (Apparently, he had been a Kantonist, a young boy aged eight to twelve years who had been drafted by the Russian army by order of Tsar Nicholas I, and who was compelled to serve for 25 years after reaching the age of 18.) This man was Mr. B. Kozak, who did not remember the transgressions of his townsfolk, and upon his death left them all his property which amounted to a total of 25,000 rubles as capital for the establishment of a trade school in his native city.
The news of this inheritance brought joy to the Wardens of the Talmud Torah and the heads of the various societies and all the recipients of good in the town. The former wished to use this find, that was coming their way so unexpectedly, for strengthening the Talmud Torah. The pupils in their school may have their bellies filled with Talmud but still they have to go wandering through alleys and markets to collect old rags and bones, or be watchmen over orchards in summer and other such honorable tasks.
Others said that the best thing to do would be to commemorate the dead man's name forever by building a new mikveh with his money. Still others felt it would be proper to build a Bet Hamidrash, as the great synagogue is too small to contain all the people who come there to pray once a week.
To sum up, the men of Ciechanowiec saw the find and fell on it and imagined that they would treat the dead man's bequest as a man treats what is entirely his own. To be sure, the Rabbi, our Master and Teacher, R' Leibush Heller, Father of the Court here, wrote to the learned Rabbi Olswanger in St. Petersburg and asked him to inform him of the details of the will and the way of expending the money for the desired purpose. Rabbi Olswanger, who was one of the persons whom the deceased had appointed as Trustee for his bequest, promptly answered that the townsfolk had permission to take 5,000 rubles for purchasing or building a school specifically for the purpose designated in the will, and not for any other purpose. They would receive the interest on 20,000 rubles regularly each year for the upkeep of the building, the wages of the teachers, and assistance to the pupils. But first of all, the Rabbi of the community must summon a meeting of the notables of the city and arrange a program approved by the majority. The program must then be sent to Rabbi Olswanger or to Rabbi Drabkin, who was the second Trustee on behalf of the deceased.
After all this, we expected to see the Rabbi and notables of the community hasting to put this great deed into effect, and that they would know how to appreciate this chance and the happy hour which had arrived. But to our regret, we see that neither the Rabbi nor the members of the community turn their hearts towards this precious enterprise. And whenever the Rabbi is asked questions about this matter, he has given answers which are not satisfactory and does not supply any correct reasons.
Likewise the wealthy, who hold expansive views and whose words are listened to, stand aside and do not wish to be among the supporters of this precious enterprise. After all, even if there are many poor and needy who go begging from door to door, they do not spend more than 50 or 100 kopeks a week on them, and how shall they spend more of their valuable time on such undertakings? Therefore they leave this matter to the Rabbi together with the imperious and strong men of the town, and pay no attention to the fact that the Rabbi, with all his good will, is an old man burdened with troubles of the community who also has to give counsel to the men of neighboring cities. And what the strong men of the town do will not be to the satisfaction of the Trustees in the capital city.
The second characteristic of Ciechanowiec Jewry was their great devotion to Eretz Yisrael. Indeed, they could have applied to themselves those words which Rabbi Nachman of Breslov once used in speaking of himself, The only place for me is Eretz Yisrael. No matter where I journey, I am traveling only to Eretz Yisrael. Ciechanowiec Jewry began their first moves to Eretz Yisrael as early as the time of Eliyahu, Gaon of Vilna. In the days of the learned R' David Katzenelbogen, the Dayan or Assessor R' Levi served as Head of the Court in Ciechanowiec. The first person born in Ciechanowiec to make aliyah was one of his descendants. In 1824 a boy was born there named Fishel Rosenzweig, who afterwards achieved a considerable reputation as a writer in the Hebrew press. His father, R' Shlomo, was the town schochet. R' David Katzenelbogen was R' Shlomo's uncle, while R' Aryeh Leibush Heller, the third rabbi after Rabbi Katzenelbogen, was also a kinsman.
In his childhood Fishel Rosenzweig was already dreaming of going to Eretz Yisrael. At age nine he left Ciechanowiec for Paris and then fulfilled his dream, arriving in the Holy Land before 1844. He lived in Eretz Yisrael for many years, traveling throughout the length and breadth of the country, always overwhelmed by the sanctity of the land. For reasons which are not clear, he left in his later years, returning to France, where he lived to the end of his life. However, his father-in-law Rabbi Yaacov Samson, schochet of Lubavitch, also made aliyah, settling in Hebron, never to leave. We know of three other Ciechanowiec-born Jews who made aliyah in the first half of the 19th century.
There is an antiquarian work by Asher Leib Brisk entitled Helkat Mehokek (Portion of the Lawgiver) which contains the epitaphs on all the Jewish graves on the Mount of Olives. Three of these are from gravestones set over the resting places of Ciechanowiec landsmen.
Here lies the aged rabbinical scholar Our Master Rabbi Simon Isaiah ben Rabbi Yosef of blessed memory from Ciechanowiec, who passed away to his eternal home on the 11th day of Av 5639.The earliest grave dates from 5639 (1879). Since this R' Simeon is described as an aged man at the time of his decease, it may be assumed that he lived in Eretz Yisrael for a long time. We have no details about their lives, nor do we know when they came or what they did here. However, the very fact that they lived and died in Eretz Yisrael indicates the close ties which existed for generations between Ciechanowiec and the homeland of the Jewish people.
Here lies the woman Mistress Leah bat R' Nissan of Ciechanowiec who passed away on the 26th of Tammuz 5651. May her soul be bound up in the bundle of life.
Here lies the site of the grave which I have dug for myself, Mistress Chaya Sarah bat R' Moshe Danziger of Ciechanowiec; passed away on the 28th of Tevet 5648.
In the Russian half of the town of Ciechanowiec a certain woman gave birth on the first day of Pesach last, to a pair of male twins joined at their ribs so they appeared as one broad body with two hands, two heads above it, and four legs below. After their mother delivered them, their eyes were open for about a quarter of an hour as they peered at one another. They seemed happy to be joined forever in this fraternal bond. But their joy did not last long for a short time later they died. All those who witnessed this awesome pair wished to investigate the cause of the marvel. Under questioning, the mother told of intently watching the slaughter of a cow in which two calves were found joined together, and she marked this scene in her powerful imagination. And that had been the reason why she too had given birth to such a monster. This I heard from a reliable gentleman who would not lie and who had seen it himself. So I determined to tell this tale in the columns of Hamaggid, so that other pregnant women may hear of it and refrain from looking at anything that is strange and repugnant to man and nature while they are carrying their offspring.Eliezer Lipman Silberman, editor of the journal, added his footnote supporting his correspondent's opinion, It is generally agreed among the great sages who have investigated this matter that it is proper for a pregnant woman to guard her eyes and heart - and therefore the honored writer has done well to raise the issue. And these matters are familiar since ancient times.
However, even in those days, when the slightest deviation from the homogeneous religious way of life would lead to a ban or excommunication, there was already a breaker of the fence in Ciechanowiec. This personage publicly taught the theory of Democritus that the heavens are only air and contain neither the G-d of Israel nor those of the gentiles. This was none other than Saul Severin Suravitch who has already been introduced to the reader. His remarks to this effect fell like a thunderbolt in the religious environment of those days. Yet, the zealots did not ban this heretic because he was sitting in an important economic position and employed a considerable number of workers who maintained their adherence to Judaism. Indeed, at that time a non-religious Jewish worker was hard to find.
Suravitch was one of the very first who introduced Western culture to Ciechanowiec. He is what is sometimes called a polyhistor, a man of vast erudition in classical and modern European literature. Young people who thirsted for a change in conditions gathered around him, wishing to break down the walls of tradition. For there were some who did not agree with the views expressed by Rabbi Yehuda Halevi in his work Kuzari, And let no Greek wisdom mislead you, since it has no fruits but only flowers. These youths wished to drink at the fount of ancient Greek wisdom. Others wanted to have some knowledge of general literature. All of them found sustenance in the library of Suravitch, which contained books in many languages and was open to all who thirsted for knowledge or wished for art and beauty. Suravitch was not a fighter by nature, but his presence was itself an indication of a revolutionary change in values.
It is not surprising that this outstanding person was hated by the old fashioned and observant. True, they did not dare to take any steps against him in his lifetime, but after his death the creditor found occasion to collect his debt. The zealots refused to arrange for his burial, for they said that Suravitch had not admitted the existence of the Creator and so could not be brought to a Jewish grave. His body was left lying for two days until Rabbi Hahanochi spoke of his merits. Pointing out that Suravitch was an exceedingly charitable man he authorized his burial in the Jewish cemetery.
The scandal regarding the burial of Suravitch took place in 1903. Two years later, Ciechanowiec faced another great quarrel. The teacher and pedagogue R' Moshe David Heller began a determined struggle for the secularization of life. R' Moshe David entered this fight armed with a great vision which aimed to bring about a major transformation in the functioning of the Jewish community and hence establish a better life. This vision was infused by a sense that everything on earth, including tradition, was subject to the whims of fate. He was propelled by an urge to take that great historic step, and he operated with that inner freedom and enthusiasm which is characteristic of every true fighter. His was a struggle to allow the progressives of the Enlightenment to dictate the mode of living of the Ciechanowiec Jews; to strip that power from the representatives of the religious world.
The zealots, who had been raised to believe that religion is the principal bond of the Jewish community, set out to counter every manifestation of heresy. They therefore waged war against R' Moshe David, for they held that he was aiming to destroy the basic continuity of traditional Jewish life. His secularist activities were decried as a manifestation of pure evil.
However, as we know from the history of civilization, everything finally gives way to a spiritual force which is directed systematically, consistently, and devotedly. And so R' Moshe David emerged the victor from this struggle between old and new and can be regarded as the father of the Hebrew Haskalah in Ciechanowiec. The will towards a secular consciousness which was to be found in many young men, now became manifest and imbued the entire spiritual world of the local Jews, proving to be exceptionally beneficial.
R' Moshe David is the first link with the modern spiritual history of the Ciechanowiec Jews. He set his seal on the life of the final generations of the city. He implanted Hebrew speech that derived from both ancient and modern sources. He fought against the euphuistic style known as the Melitza, for he wished the Hebrew of his pupils and disciples to be lively and natural. He wanted it to be a language of thought and feeling alike. Indeed, he created a type of modern Hebrew maskil in the town, whose oral and written Hebrew could be used in everyday affairs. His chief characteristic was faithfulness. He was faithful to the sanctities of the Jewish people, faithful to the idea of the revival of the Hebrew language, and equally faithful to the national revival known as Zionism. These elements so filled him that they left no place for other thoughts and aspirations.
Although R' Moshe David Heller's name is connected with a great schism, a major ideological and cultural split which shook the foundations of the older style of life of the community, the fact remains that his revolutionary activities maintained the historical spiritual continuity which was one of the finest elements in the heritage of the local Jewry. The religious aspect, whose outstanding representatives were the great rabbis resident in Ciechanowiec for so many generations, and the secular-cultural aspect heralded by R' Moshe Heller, characterized the two basic tendencies within the spiritual world of the Jewish townsfolk and merged in a rare and lofty spiritual unity. It became a twin universe and none can say which aspect took precedence. The spiritual world of the Jewish community in Ciechanowiec lost nothing thanks to the educational activities of R' Moshe David, but was enriched by a new coloration and flavor. Both of these living streams, religious and secular, aimed at an elevating and moral purpose which served to shape the Jewish community in the city.
World War I was the worst calamity up to that time for Ciechanowiec. The town was almost completely burnt to the ground. Many of the Jews fled elsewhere, some seeking refuge deep in the heartland of Russia. Only a handful of the 4,000 Jews who had previously comprised the community were left. The horrors experienced by the Jews found expression in a report published in Hatzefira of 3rd Elul 5675 (September 7, 1915).
Twenty-two Jews were killed in the bombing of Ciechanowiec and were all buried on the same day. All the townsfolk, led by the Rabbi, went out into the fields and remained there for three days. Several children died of hunger and thirst. The Russians burnt the part of the city which lies in Lomza Guberniya. When they withdrew from the part of the city that was in Grodno Guberniya and the Germans entered, they did not find a living soul. The dead were lying in the street. Other people found wandering in the forest related that the Russians had pillaged the town and killed most of the inhabitants. They compelled the remainder to go with them.However, when the heat of battle died down and the fires ceased to rage, the Jews returned to rebuild their ruined homes. By 1921 1,649 Jews were once again living in Ciechanowiec out of a total population of 3,291. Jewish communal and Zionist activities, which had come to a complete standstill during the war, were reborn. A popular library that had been established in the ashes in 1916 now served as a focal point for the young people of the town. Schools were re-established, the most successful one being Tarbut. All of the schools taught Hebrew with diligence and many of the young graduates furthered their studies in Bialystok, Grodno, and Vilna.
Zionist parties and the Chalutz Youth Movement began organizing campaigns. Agricultural training for a new life in Israel was of prime concern. Ciechanowiec was well represented at the Zionist Conference of Lomza Guberniya which was held on 24 Adar 5680 (Spring 1920). The town surged with life and the Jewish community expanded with remarkable rapidity. Its numbers doubled and then trebled. Self reliance for their own security became an important characteristic of the Ciechanowiec community. This generated a feeling that from now on things would always be in order. The community reached a peak of 6,000 Jews between the two World Wars. And then everything was destroyed - swept away in the overwhelming flood.
That ends the history of the Jews in Ciechanowiec. Today there are no longer any left. Herodotus tells the following tale in his History:
When King Xerxes saw the entire Hellespont filled with ships, and the shores covered with men, he burst into tears. His Uncle Artbanus asked him why he was weeping, and he replied, I feel saddened when I think how brief are the lives of men as a whole. For many as these are, not one will be here 100 years from today.We have experienced a calamity such as has never been seen since G-d created the Heavens and the Earth; not a century ago, but in our own generation and before our very eyes. All those who once lived with us, dreamed with us, and whose hearts beat in the same rhythm as our own, have departed from the world. We now stand as after a final terrifying and overwhelming funeral.
Death in all its forms ravaged Ciechanowiec. Whatever cruelty lies hidden in human nature burst all its bounds, overriding the laws of man and G-d; and so the blood of our dear ones was shed with a cruelty that has never been equaled. May these pages be a record of their suffering and serve as a memorial to them.
Originally translated by I.M. Lask
Under a rain of explosions and bombs, my mother, three sisters, my brother and myself, escaped to a nearby village of Kuczyn. We observed that our small town was in flames and we took refuge in the fields. In the morning we saw the inhabitants of Kuczyn carrying flowers to receive Hitler's storm troopers and it became evident that the Germans had occupied the area. In the evening we returned to Ciechanowiec. Nieustadt (the New City) was entirely burnt. Corpses of the victims lay everywhere. The Nazis' very first decree was that the Jews should wear yellow stars on their left arms as a means of identification.
Soon thereafter the Jews were interned in two ghettos. Our house served as a meeting place for the minyan, but only Maariv (the evening prayer) could be said as all day long we were forced into labor by the Nazis. From dawn to dusk we worked and were subject to all the refined Nazi atrocities. Once, during the prayers, the apartment was surrounded by policemen carrying whips and bludgeons. They forced all the men into the dark stinking cellar and kept them there for several hours. The tortured victims were then forced out under severe beating and, broken in spirit and body, staggered to their ghetto homes.
Several days after this incident, the S.S. seized my brother and some other Jews on a Saturday afternoon. They were taken into a special forced labor detail. We feared for their lives. That evening my brother returned terrified and told us that he and his companions were ordered to dig graves near the mill of Malisky, at the place called Kosarer Kartches. The earth was frozen and it was difficult to dig but under S.S. supervision they exerted every last bit of energy to accomplish the odious task. Then we understood the purpose of the graves. In the morning, a truck drove by in the direction of Kosarer Kartches. We could see several men squeezed in the truck. We recognized Moshe Zlotolow, Yitzhak Aryeh Levin, Yitzhak's sons Chaim and Herschel, Yitzhak Zaliza, Feivel Varstein, Shepsel Krzemien, and Mulik Rogove. We knew they were condemned to be slaughtered. Bracha Zlotolow, Moshe's wife, her children, and myself climbed to the roof to see the hapless victims on their last way. We could hear Moshe desperately crying out, Save us, Jews. Simple execution was too good for these Jews. Romanus, the evil S.S. chief, was giving them special treatment using various torture techniques. Manes and Shlomo, sons of Avraham Yitzhak and Shaindel Lew, were among the prisoners. One day, during the morning exercises, Manes called out, Let me die with the Philistines, and he threw himself at Romanus and tried to strangle him. The S.S. murderer was shaken but regained his wits and shot Manes for his act of Samson-like courage. Shlomo was taken with the rest of the Jews of Ciechanowiec to the Treblinka extermination camp and martyred there.
On November 2, 1942 rumors spread that many S.S. men had arrived in our town, bringing with them enormous quantities of rope. We knew that was a bad omen. After a relatively quiet night, the Germans started shooting. It was a tactic to strike panic among the Jews. Trapped within the ghetto, the Jews tried desperately to escape by running towards the fences. The German assassins were ready for us. They delivered heavy blows on us indiscriminately and their automatic guns spewed forth death to those who tried to escape. Nevertheless, I managed to evade their shower of whistling bullets and made my way to the house of Abraham Chazan. I banged on the door seeking refuge but the Gentile woman who had taken over the house refused to let me in.
I removed the yellow star and went in the direction of the Malisky mill. It was in a forested region and I rested under a tree in the relative safety of the canopied branches. I racked my brain for a way to escape from these men-beasts. Malisky's wife took pity on me and sheltered me in the stable. She brought me food and I was happy to be warmed by the straw. From the ghetto I heard terrified shouting and screaming. The tumult was indescribable. Jews were being mercilessly beaten by the Germans and their Polish aides. Tied with rope, they were packed into carts like sheep.
While in the stable, grieving for the fate of my parents, I was startled by the approach by two women. One was the wife of Dr. Baya, the pediatrician. The other was Mishe Einbinder. Dr. Baya was accorded special privileges because of his skills and was allowed to live outside the ghetto. His wife was on the list of the condemned. Mr. Malisky agreed to deliver a note from her to her husband telling him of her whereabouts. Dr. Baya soon appeared and Malisky arranged with some friends to obtain forged Aryan papers. They found their way to Warsaw. Dr. Baya survived the war but his wife met death in the annihilation of the Warsaw Ghetto.
I remained alone with Mishe. We experienced the terror of living in a cellar of a ruined house in the vicinity of the forest. In the mornings we wandered from village to village begging for a piece of bread and a sip of water. The cold was unbearable and we implored the people to let us warm our frostbitten limbs. One Gentile informed us that with his own eyes he saw a long convoy of carts carrying Jews from Ciechanowiec to the Czyzewo railway station. In our wanderings we met the parents of Velvel Ptashek. They had found refuge in the Augustin village. We reached Zlatki-Przeczki which is about halfway between Ciechanowiec and Czyzewo. We found the house of Kaminski who was considered friendly to the Jews. In reality, his hands were already soaked with Jewish blood. He told us that he sheltered the hairdresser Mattis (the fiancé of Misha Lew of Nieustadt) and Abraham Gonshak. He declined our request to see them under the pretext that it might reveal their hiding place and endanger them. To convince us, he pointed out a pair of boots belonging to Mattis. Listening to his story we were unaware that Mattis was already dead, strangled at the hands of his supposed benefactor. We learned the true version of what happened from Stakowski, Kaminski's neighbor and one of the Righteous Among the Nations (Righteous Gentile). With the liquidation of the ghetto, Mattis managed to escape and offered Kaminski all his valuables in exchange for a shelter until the end of the war. Mattis had hidden all his gold, silver, etc. in a pit. Kaminski crossed his heart and solemnly promised to keep him in his house until the day of liberation. One dark night, Kaminski harnessed his horses and together with Mattis drove to Ciechanowiec. After loading the cart with all of Mattis' valuables, they returned to Zlatki. Three nights later, Kaminski dragged Mattis into a granary and strangled him with a rope. He threw the body into a field and went to the Gestapo boasting that he himself had killed a Jew. For such bravery he received a prize of two kilograms of sugar.
Stakowski offered us hospitality at his house where several Jews had already found refuge. There we met Shifra Czerni, an orphan raised by Herschel Yaskolka. The sisters Rachel and Mina Ulshach had arrived from Zaremby Koscielnie where they had fled after the Russians occupied Ciechanowiec. Also protected by Stakowski were Shalom the glazier and Tzivia Lew. Although relieved to be among our townsfolk, we refused Stakowski's kind offer, as our aim was to join the partisans. Shifra and Tzivia decided to accompany us and we started out once again. Shivering from the freezing cold and having nothing to eat, we foraged for dry grass which might be left on the icy ground. We concluded that our chances would be enhanced if we split in two pairs. I stayed with Mishe Einbinder and Shifra and Tzivia formed the other pair. They managed to find some handiwork in exchange for bread and water. But this idyll did not last long. They were attacked by a vicious Pole who strangled one with his bare hands and split the other's head with a hatchet. Learning of the fate of our two friends, we returned panic-stricken to Stakowski. Abraham Gonshak, who had escaped death at the hands of Kaminski, was there. He was very upset and despaired of life. A few evenings later, Kaminski appeared with a village official (sultus) and ordered that Gonshak be turned over. But Abraham eased his way through the back door and escaped. We never saw him again.
Mrs. Chazan of Ciechanowiec met her children Yitzhak, Esther, and Aryeh at Stakowski's house. One Saturday night Yitzhak and his mother went out to search for some bread. Esther Chazan stayed behind in the field with us. Suddenly we heard Mrs. Chazan's voice begging, Don't shoot me, I have three little lambs. Then Yitzhak's trembling voice, Kill me but let my mother live. It was to no avail. Two shots penetrated the evening cold and the voices drifted to silence. On hearing her mother's pleas, Esther burst out crying and we were forced to cover her mouth as we were surrounded by savages. The sobs aroused Aryeh, who was hidden under a heap of fodder. He knew something horrible had happened and started running in the direction of the village. He stumbled over the still-warm bodies of his mother and brother and a terrible cry rose from him, Dear, dear Mother, I wish I were dead like you! With whom did you leave me?
The situation grew worse day by day. We felt that everyone was demanding our blood. The Polish underground called Armja Krajowa and The NSZ (Narodowe Sily Zbrojne) entered into action. Although these bandits organized to fight the conquerors of their country, they first dirtied their hands with Jewish blood.
In August 1943 we met the brothers Leibel and Joseph Slovatczyk. They told us that they were hiding in a pit in the forest together with Yehuda Ritz and his son Shmuel from Danir (Nur), Shmuel Danowitz, and Moshe Rosenkranz. They promised to enlarge the pit and take us in. A time of waiting followed. As it was harvest time and grain was being taken to the storehouse, we were exposed to all sorts of calamities. Dying of hunger and thoroughly soaked from rain, we reached the village of Augustin. We found a garden adjoining the house of a Gentile named Zoystovski. We intended to hide there until dawn. But suddenly, from between the trees, appeared two monsters with human faces, armed with guns. They were members of the Armja Krajowa. Taken to the Zoystovski house, we faced still another human beast. Then we knew that no shred of hope was left us. The room was lit by a petrol lamp. I whispered to Mishe, These are our last moments. There was no drop of pity in these heroes. Thirsty for Jewish blood, they dragged us outside under a rain of blows. Mishe's face was covered by the blood from her wounds. We started to yell in the hope that somebody might hear us and come to our rescue. Instead, we were now in an abandoned field and heard the murderers intone, Here you will find your death. Trembling with fear and anger I fell to the ground. But I immediately came back to my senses and struggled to pull the gun that was aimed at me from the assassin's hands. I succeeded in making him release it and it fell to the ground. He called his friend for help but he was having his own problems with Mishe, who despite a great loss of blood, continued to struggle for her life. With the gun on the ground, I started to run with trembling legs trying to vanish from my assailant's sight. The voice of the second savage followed me over the increasing distance, I am finished with the Zydowka. I knew then that Mishe was dead. But with the fall of darkness they could not find me. They lit matches that the rain quickly extinguished. Fortunate for me, they sought their prey in the wrong direction. I was able to take refuge in a pond of water. It was raining cats and dogs and a storm was raging. I was fearful that the lightning might reveal me.
At dawn I returned to the village and entered the house of the Gentile Bialy. To my great joy, I found there the surviving Chazan brother and sister. They too were excited to see me as a rumor had spread that I was murdered. It seems that my hat flew off during my escape and was found in the field. The brothers Slovatczyk were speechless, as if I had come back from hell. The Chazans and I joined them in their forested hiding place. One Sunday, a woman and child came to pick mushrooms in the forest. The child seeing the entrance to our hiding place shouted, Aunt, look, the Jews are hiding here! It was clear to us that we were again exposed to danger and we evacuated that place for the house of Bialy.
After what we considered a safe interval, we returned to the pit. One Erev Yom Kippur, we heard shots and were certain that the Germans had discovered our hiding place. Unfortunately, our suspicions were justified. German troops encircled the pit and immediately shot Shmuel Vinowitz, Moshe Rosencranz (the son of Yehuda Ritz), and a girl named Henia from the village of Lachowo. Together with the Chazans, I returned to our benefactor Stakowski. Much to my distress, no more Jews were there. The Nazis had issued a decree of capital punishment to all those who hide Jews. At dawn we noticed a fire in the village of Zlatki. Stakowski told us that the Germans were burning a house with Armja Krajowa men within. In his opinion it was too dangerous for us to stay in the village and it would be best to leave. At this point, Mrs Stakowski came to our rescue with some subterfuge which fortunately succeeded. The Chazans and myself were put in sacks on a cart covered with straw. Afterwards, Mrs. Stakowski led her sheep from the shed and with the cart and flock proceeded past the German guard, greeting him nicely. The guard responded in a cordial fashion and in that way we escaped the burning village.
After a short time it became evident that the Germans had suffered one defeat after another and that Hitler's rule of blood and terror was nearing its end. It was then that the barbarism of the Nazis reached its zenith. A horrible wave of gruesome torture and burnt villages was left behind them. Laying hidden in the field, we watched the fires raging and listened to the heavy bombardment. One night I was so exhausted that I fell asleep. When I awoke I saw many tanks, artillery pieces, trucks laden with soldiers and a German officer shouting, Escape, without any delay! It was an unbelievable sight. I thought I was daydreaming. After some hours had elapsed, Stakowski, overjoyed, came to bring us the good tidings that we are free and that the Nazis had run away. The next day Russian troops arrived in the village. To us it meant life and freedom.
I determined immediately to go to my native town of Ciechanowiec. Stakowski tried to dissuade me but in vain. At the least, I wanted to see our destroyed village and pay tribute at the graves of our martyrs. We bade farewell to our benefactor and with the Ulshach sisters left for Ciechanowiec. We passed through many ruined villages and hovering everywhere was the stench of the countless unburied dead. Some Gentiles along the way told us that several Jews had shown up in Ciechanowiec. Arriving there, we indeed found Reuven, Joseph Chazan and his children, Velvel and Itka Ptashek, Ephraim Winer, Leibel and Joseph Slovatczyk, Berl Munzer, Abcie Lifshitz, Chaya Kiziak, Reuven Butchkevitz, and Yaacov Yeger.
My whole family had been slaughtered there or had been sent to the Nazi gas chambers. I went to see the place where our house stood, but there was only a heap of rubble. It was hard to believe that once human beings lived there. We knew that Ciechanowiec will never again greet an old Jew murmuring psalms, or another on his way to the synagogue.
The ruins were cleared, the earth ploughed, and while turning the earth for tilling only a stone was left to complain of the injustice that was done to us. My heart was broken in sorrow. I stood trembling in despair, rooted to the spot.
The Polish gangs were not satisfied that there were still Jews who survived the Holocaust. It was now their turn to inflict pogroms and finish the job. In the darkness of night I left Ciechanowiec together with Chaya Kiziak. We reached Bialystok wherefrom I immigrated to Israel in 1950.
Included in this mass migration were, of course, our own Chechanoffzer landsleit. Establishing a foothold, getting acclimated and oriented were all experiences rich in pain and struggle - and irrepressible hope. Much has been written of these early arrivals, of their deep anxieties and dogged determination to start a new life in this, the most promising, thrill-filled world.
Turbulently, the human stream kept rushing on, segmented, fractionalized, moving along by its own momentum - into seeming nowhere. It was a mass movement rich in its social and economic implications and, of course, heavily weighted with tears and heroic effort.
For a while the new arrivals were wandering forlornly in what seemed a jungle of confused disorganization. However, as distress signals went up, organizational nuclei began to form, coalescing into compact groupings. Fear and chaos slowly subsided as mutual recognition stabilized the fluid mass into unified gatherings whose immediate function it was to attract and hold together isolated, floating elements and thus generate material and spiritual succor. In banding together as they did, our early landsleit did discover meaning, moral support, and staying power. Mutual benefit societies mushroomed. They formed centers, little oases in the midst of teeming, milling strangers. Instinctively, our people groped and somehow did gravitate toward these transplanted bits of Ciechanowiec on a soil foreign yet so full of promise. In these societies, the mystique of a common heritage has come to full flowering.
The key phrase was mutual help. Those of us who had come earlier and had fallen more readily under the influences of the wind swept American life, eagerly offered a helping hand to those who came later. Here and there private homes opened hospitable doors, practically to all comers and which thus became the mecca for the newest arrivals.
One such home was our own, and known in its time - in friendly mockery, no doubt - as the Tabak Hotel. All we had were five small rooms but there were such things as folding cots and mattresses and we were all happy living in close proximity and sharing freely what little we had. Our green landsleit were able to find a temporary but warm home, a place to sleep the first nights, to eat the first American meal, don American clothes and be guided and directed to and into the rudiments of rehabilitation. Thus, when World War I came it found us ready. When news of the ravages and devastation reached us, there was a quickening all along the line. Organizations, large and small, and individuals from all over America responded to our call for help in a way that made history. A holy feverish activity seized us all. Compassion for our suffering home people was overwhelming. Mass meetings were held and on the spot donations reached thousands of dollars. Collector committees were formed for home visits. Prominent among these collectors were the late Meyer Tabak and the - still living, thank G-d - Morris Kalish and Mr. Bender and Mr. Henry Rosenberg and names too numerous to mention; all of which culminated at the termination of the war in the selection of a shaliach in the person of the late Max Tabak who was charged with the duty of carrying the collected funds directly to the victims of Ciechanowiec. He also carried many private offerings from and to relatives for personal distribution - on the spot.
In carrying out his mandate, our representative (as he later reported) went through hell on earth, mostly due to the new war between Russia and Poland, what with disrupted communications and rampant anti-Semitism. I still remember the huge meeting called to hear his report upon his return. It took him more than four hours to tell it and many of us wept unashamedly.
A new skeleton organization of the Chechanoffzer Relief is still functioning today. Once a year a memorial meeting is held for all the departed landsleit and some money is raised for distribution to the needy in Israel.
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