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[Page 51]

The Town's Rabbi

by Mendel Sonabend

Translated by Sara Mages

My late father, Yehudah Leib Sonabend, was born in Dobrzyń in the Plock Province, and originated from an extensive rabbinical family. Indeed, his father, R' Rafael, was a textile merchant, but he was related to a privileged family of geniuses, and his nickname was - “The sharp-minded”. His brother, R' Avraham Sunaban, was the rabbi from Nishava [Nieszawa], his brother-in-law was the rabbi from Gostynin, and his nephew, R' Yisrael Alter Gruberd, was the rabbi from Bendin [Bedzin].

Close to his wedding, my father was appointed as the rabbi of the town of Janˇw in the Plock Province. Three years later, he received a letter of appointment from the community of Dobrzyń. The preparations for the selection of the rabbi were conducted in a heated struggle between the Gur Hassidim and the Aleksander Hassidim. The struggle was difficult and long. The Gur Hassidim were on my father's side, but the Aleksander Hassidim were on the side of their rabbi's grandson. The struggle took place in the whole town, without finding a solution that will be accepted by all. Only at the very last moment, the town's residents decided to join the Gur Hassidim, and it was decided to nominate my father as the town's rabbi. After the failure of the Aleksander Hassidim, a letter arrived from their rabbi, that he sees in it the will of the Creator.

My parents used to travel together with my grandfather, R' Mordechai Globus, in his elegant carriage. My grandfather was a well known forest merchant and his carriage, which was drawn by four white horses, attested to his upper class. My father came in this carriage to receive the letter of appointment, and a large crowd waited at the outskirts of the town to welcome him. They escorted him to the synagogue, where he was received by the community leaders in festive warmhearted reception. The cantor and the chorus sang the song “Baruch Haba” [“Blessed is he who comes”], and the crowd joined them. My father gave a long sermon, which was received with great enthusiasm, and even the Aleksander Hassidim wished him success.

There was a special room in the rabbi's apartment, which was designated for the meetings of the court.

[Page 52]

Shelves filled with the books of the Sages, Tannaim and Amoraim [teachers of the Mishnah and the Talmud], covered the walls. These books were the present of my grandfather- R' Mordechai Globus. In the court-room stood a long table, two benches, and a tall chair for the rabbi. Many Jews came here to pour out their troubles and to make their claims. After many discussions, when all the sides made their statements, my father considered the matter for several days after he received, in advance, the consent of the litigants to accept his verdict. This agreement was made in a special way, according to the local custom. The rabbi gave them a handkerchief, ordered each side to hold it, and pulled it out of their hands. This act was a “confirmation of an agreement”, and everyone pledged to accept the rabbi's decision. Divorces, arrangements for the “Halizah” and others were held in this court-room.

On Saturday evening, the respected proprietors gathered in my father's house for “Shalosh seudot”, and as they sat comfortably, they sang “Bnei Heichala” [“The sons of King's Palace”] and also other songs. My mother served herring and a challah to the table, and my father accompanied the meals with “Diveri Tora” [commentaries], since it was time for compliance when the gates of heaven opened. When the stars appeared in the sky, the assembled prayed “Tefilat Maariv”, while my mother's humble prayer - “Elohai Avraham, Yitzchk VeYakov” - came from the next room.

The twilight hour was enveloped with holiness, mystery and elation. It's difficult to describe in words the holiness that descended on the rabbi's house on the conclusion of the Sabbath. The prayers ended with the “Havdalah” blessing, when my father held the Spice Box in his hand, and the wineglass, which was filled to the rim, stood on the table. At the same time, all eyes were directed at my father and the lips wished: “Shavoa Tov! Shavoa Tov!” [good week].

My father served as Dobrzyń's Rabbi for thirty four years and died, at dawn, after a short illness. Before his death, he called all of his relatives and laid before them his special request: to protect each yeshiva student, since he took care of their education and their advanced studies in the Torah and the Talmud. He ordered to divide between them the booklet that he wrote, his Torah commentaries, to serve them as guides in their studies. His interpretations and innovations made a lot of impression on his acquaintances and his students. There was an exceptional depth in his writings, and they passed from hand to hand.

My father was known not only as a pious, but also as an educated gifted speaker, whose influence was great on everyone who came in contact with him. His acquaintances and his admirers admired him very much.

The townspeople especially loved to listen to his moral sermons.

[Page 53]

They saw in him not only a rabbi, but a personality that was above it. His profound words brought their hearts closer to the work of the Creator.

My father was one of the enthusiastic supporters of the Hebrew language, which was expressed in his book “Shirei Tiferet” [beautiful poetry].

The yeshiva students were every close to his heart, and he dedicated most of his time to them. Twice a week he went out with them for a walk in the nearby forest. He loved them as if they were his sons. He taught them from the ancient works of Judaism, and dedicated all of his life to studying the Torah and its interpretation.

All the members of the town and hundreds of students, small and big, attended his funeral, and all of them felt that an extraordinary Torah scholar was taken from them.

 

A reception for Mendel Sonabend and his wife from Mexico, which was
held by the Association of Former Residents of Dobrzyń-Golub in Israel

 


[Pages 54-58]

In My Father's House[1]

by Yehuda Rozenwaks

Translated by Allen Flusberg

In and around Dobrzyn, my father was known not as Zalman Rozenwaks—Rozenwaks being our family name—but rather as “Zalman Hassid”.[2] He got this nickname because he distinguished himself in the way he lived as a Hassid[3]. In every one of his deeds he made sure to go beyond the letter of the law[4], in the way that someone rises above mundane, day–to–day life through benevolence.

I myself was not fortunate enough to have known my grandfather, my father's father. But my father's stories portrayed him as a pure and lofty figure, a Hassid who was devout in his benevolence, someone who had set his mind to perform good deeds. My father inherited these traits from him.

My father was not inclined to serve in any public role. However his heart was open to anyone in need, or to someone who was having a difficult time. He was glad to come to anyone's aid to the best of his ability. And he was particularly joyful whenever he was able to do a good deed.

On Friday nights, after Kabbalat Shabbat[5] in the shtibl[6] of the Alexander Hassidim, he would hurry to take care of out–of–town guests who were in the town by chance, and he would take much trouble to find them a place to stay over in. In general there was no shortage of Jews who were prepared to open their homes to guests; but when some of the guests were left with no suitable arrangements, our house would always be open to them. For this reason he would be travelling around on the roads four or five days a week, between Dobrzyn and Wloclawek[7], working hard. His hard labor did not, however, adversely affect his spirit. Since he had a good singing voice, he would customarily lead the Friday–evening service in the shtibl, and his good voice would give the Hassidim much pleasure.

Even after the evening meal he didn't go into his bed to relax, since Man does not live by bread alone. Rather, he sought the company of his Hassidic friends. And indeed, the Hassidim tended to get together in the home of one of the wealthy Hassidim, usually R.[8] Mendel Kohn, to listen to words of Torah as they sat at prepared tables. And mostly they were accustomed to gather together during the long winter nights, the meetings lasting until the wee hours of the night. And when they would return, each to his own home, their spirits had been uplifted, their souls elevated.

But anyone who has never seen the joy of the Hassidim on the Sabbath, the day they hallowed for the study of Torah, has never seen joy of exaltation in his life.[9] Most of the people gathered to pray in the shtibl for the Mincha[10] service and for the “Shalosh Seudot[11], which they held as a group. Each of them would bring along some food and drink: some would bring challa[12], and some would bring liquor or bottles of beer. After the Mincha prayer they would wash their hands and sit at prepared tables; they would eat a tiny bit and launch into the Shalosh Seudot hymns.

At this time my father would demonstrate his singing power: he would sing in a loud voice, pulling everyone else in to follow along and join him in song. They would all sing devoutly, with my father's voice audible above the rest. Indeed, these were moments when material thoughts were banished and the soul was uplifted. The Hassidim were caught up in their own world, a world of faith and devotion.

After the Maariv[13] prayer, the congregation would scatter, each man returning to his home. But they would come back and gather again in the shtibl after Havdala[14] to complete the Sabbath with a “Melaveh Malka[15] meal. And this meal lasted for many hours as well, not ending before midnight. Indeed, such was the way and custom of the Hassidim, and this is how they lived in those days in the various small towns of Poland.

Their engagement in Torah, prayers and hymns provided to some extent a way to make them forget the hardships of their daily lives, lives that were difficult and ashen, lives in which each of them had to strive to provide for his household. My father struggled to make a living in small business, spending many hours traveling between Dobrzyn and the large city of Wloclawek. He would go in his own wagon, which was hitched to a team of horses, there not being any other means of transportation in the towns in those days. He customarily made the trip to the big city twice a week. There he would purchase various types of merchandise, which he would re–sell to either Jews or Christians. However, like other small–business merchants, he didn't always manage to get paid in cash, since in those days most commerce took place on credit. And, as usual, “the needs of the people of Israel are extensive, but money is tight”[16] …particularly in a place like Dobrzyn, where the townspeople were not very prosperous…so my father had to trudge after his debtors to collect what they owed him. And many times he had to compromise with a debtor who was unable to pay—and compromise meant a large discount, sometimes fraught with a real loss.

It was hard to do business under these conditions, in which the profit margin was small; and my father could not manage to take the losses. However, he didn't give up, but rather put his trust in the Creator to take care of him as He takes care of all of His creatures. Therefore he didn't despair, and he continued to supply merchandise even to those debtors who didn't pay their debts, always believing, in his naivetÚ, that they would settle their debts the next time.

And the troubles never ended: sometimes a wheel came off the wagon; or, even worse, sometimes a horse suddenly gave up the ghost and my father would be left on the road, unable to continue going. Truth be told, the townspeople of Dobrzyn did not neglect him, upholding the command “azov taazov imo[17] …They helped him through his ordeals, making sure that he could continue to make a living.

As time went on the situation deteriorated, going from bad to worse, until finally my father was forced to find a different livelihood. What did he do? He began dealing in the sale of seasonal staples such as dried fruit, citrus fruit, various vegetable seeds, and wine for the holidays—each of which had its own season. The burden for this occupation fell mainly on my mother, and even we youngsters would work along with her in our spare time at our market stand, mostly on Tuesdays and Fridays.

The years passed. One of my sisters immigrated to the Land of Israel. My parents, who remained in Dobrzyn, were growing old. My mother passed away. My second sister remained with my father, to care for him in his old age. My father was elderly and frail then, after my mother's death, and he longed with all his heart to immigrate to Israel in his twilight years. I sent him an immigration permit and he prepared to make Aliya, but fate would have it otherwise…Two weeks before his journey was to begin, when everything had already been prepared for the trip, he fell ill and never recovered. He did not merit to realize the objective he had longed for, his great dream—to go to the Holy Land and to be buried in the Land of the Patriarchs.

After my father, of blessed memory, had passed away, my second sister immigrated to Israel; only my oldest brother, Avraham Yaakov and his family (seven children), as well as my oldest sister, Miriam and her family (six children), remained in Dobrzyn. They perished, together with the other six million, at the hand of the accursed Nazi beast…Only two of my brother's children, Yerachmeel and Yehudit, survived: Yerachmeel, who is in the United States, and Yehudit, who is in Israel.

 

R. Zalman Rozenwaks (Zalman Hassid)[18]

 

Fine young men in Dobrzyn
Right to left: Aharon Kohn, Elyakim Rojna, Yaakov Yechiel Bielawski[19]

 


Translator's Footnotes

  1. From My Town: In Memory of the Communities Dobrzyn–Gollob, edited by M. Harpaz, (published by the Dobrzyn–Golub Society, Israel, 1969), pp. 54–58. Return
  2. For more on Zalman Hassid (or Zalman Chossid), see pp. 289–290 of S. Dzialdow and N. Sanger, “Religious Life in Dobrzyn,” pp. 284–291; also Y. Lichtenstein, “Dobrzyn, My Little Town,” pp. 30–40, both in reference cited in Footnote 1. Return
  3. Here the term Hassid denotes someone who consistently demonstrates extreme kindness and benevolence (the usage in Pirkei Avot [Ethics of the Fathers] 5:9: “Someone who says ‘Your property belongs to you, and my property belongs to you’ is a Hassid.”), rather than the more common meaning as a follower of the Hassidic Movement of Judaism. Return
  4. Hebrew: Lifnim mishurat hadin = going beyond the letter of the law (with leniency), bending over backwards. See, for example, Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 30b for examples given of this type of behavior in the Talmudic period. Return
  5. Kabbalat Shabbat = the Friday–night service to welcome the Sabbath, consisting of psalms and poems that are sung with joyous melodies Return
  6. shtibl (alternative spellings: shtiebel, shtiebl) = a small prayer house, typically used by Hassidim Return
  7. Wloclawek was a larger town, located on the Vistula River, ~60km south of Dobrzyn Return
  8. R. = Reb, similar to English “Mr.” Return
  9. Borrowing from the Talmudic statement (Mishna Sukkah 5:1), “Whoever has not seen the Water–Drawing Rejoicing has never seen rejoicing in his life.” Return
  10. Mincha = afternoon prayer service Return
  11. Shalosh Seudot = (literally) three meals, the name used for the last (third) meal of the Sabbath Return
  12. challah = a special type of bread that is eaten on the Sabbath Return
  13. Maariv = night prayer service Return
  14. Havdala = separation (literally), blessings said over wine, spices and fire at the completion of the Sabbath to indicate the beginning of a new week Return
  15. Melaveh Malka = accompanying the queen (literally), the queen referring allegorically to the Sabbath Return
  16. A Jewish saying Return
  17. azov taazov imo (Ex. 23:5) usually translated as “You shall surely help him”, and interpreted to refer to helping anyone in need. Return
  18. From p. 55 of reference cited in Footnote 1 Return
  19. From p. 57 of reference cited in Footnote 1 Return


[Pages 59-62]

Daily Life in the Town[1]

by Avraham Dor (Dobroshklanka)

Translated by Allen Flusberg

At first glance the town of Dobrzyn is no different from other small towns of Poland: a town square surrounded by streets and alleyways, filled with large and small houses pressed up against one another, some standing sturdily, and others showing signs of age. The Dreventz[2] River, flowing along the side of the town, constitutes a natural boundary between Germany and Russia. Pedestrians and wagons cross over the bridge spanning the river.

At the entrance to the town, coming along the road from Rypin, one can see, at the top of the mountain, the historical castle from the Crusader period. In it there is a museum that incorporates a collection of valuable artifacts. Villages lie scattered all around the town. They are populated by Polish farmers, who make up the agricultural hinterland that provides for the town.

With the exception of the road to Rypin, all the roads leading into the town are unpaved. For this reason they are difficult to navigate during autumn because of the deep mud that the frequent rainfall brings. And in the town itself, even here are streets that are nearly impassable because of the deep mud. Many a time passersby would leave behind their galoshes, which they had been unable to extricate.

On the cold winter days, when snow fell and covered the streets with a thick layer that reached up to the windowsills, the residents would emerge and try to shovel it aside, toiling until their faces became flushed. Afterwards they would clear the sidewalks so that it would be possible to reach the shops.

The winter season is hard on the ordinary people, who have to use their limited resources to stockpile food and fuel throughout the rest of the year. And when winter finally does end, the town comes back to life, awakening as if from a deep sleep, and begins to resume its normal routine.

For the young people, summer starts with cheerful outings to the nearby fields and forests. They gather strawberries, biting into them passionately and bringing home whatever is left. These “celebrations” are repeated several times during the summer, each one giving everyone great joy.

There are two reasons why most of the young people are unemployed. First, there are practically no sources of employment for Jewish young people. And second, which Jewish boy would be willing to sully his hand with real labor that is considered lowly and contemptible by the community?

And so it is common and accepted that a younger boy, and even an older boy, is taken care of by his father, who toils with all his strength to support him. The father, the head of the family, is the one and only source of livelihood for all of his dependents. Often he is just a wreck, a weak and failing man, who is burdened with a household of more than ten people and is killing himself to support them.

There was no shortage in our town of “pious women”, or—as they would be referred to nowadays—community volunteers. Some were concerned with the poor and needy for the sake of fulfilling mitzvoth[3], while others were motivated by compassion. In both cases they aided the poor and oppressed, rescuing them from degradation and from the shame of hunger.

The needy of the town fell into two categories: those who were extremely poor—the destitute paupers for whom hunger had always been a constant presence; and those who had only recently fallen on hard times and were ashamed to receive charity. The second category included respectable families—craftsmen, small–time peddlers and businessmen who had lost everything, either because of the boycott or as a result of an economic crisis. These were taken care of by those particular “pious women” who knew them; they saw to their needs in a special, proper manner, doing their good deeds secretly so as not to hurt their feelings.

There were no professional beggars in the town. Even the well–known pair—Leibke and Shimele—who for many years would go from house to house to collect alms, were not viewed as beggars; they were greeted pleasantly, with smiling faces, as if they were visiting guests. During the period of the Czar, a normal donation was a single groshen; and if someone, in a spirit of generosity, allowed himself to hand them a kopeke, they would be indignant, complaining “What, are you trying to make fun of us?!” For dozens of years they would collect the pennies generously given to them on their traditional Friday “rounds” of the town homeowners.

The “large fairs”, special market days that were conducted four or five times a year, were like holidays in the town. At these times all the farmers of the region would stream into the town square with their goods. On the previous day the town would awaken as if to a new life, with everyone getting ready to set up stalls for selling merchandise. The stalls would be spread out next to the sidewalks, along “Long Street” (Pilsudski). Here the dealers laid out pants, coats and suits. Even the shoemakers laid their goods out—shoes and boots— in stalls. However the hat makers and the haberdashery dealers brought their goods to the market square itself, where they placed their merchandise on tables.

Thousands of farmers descended on the town on this day, whether to sell their own goods or to buy merchandise that they needed. They would fill the taverns to capacity, drinking beer and whiskey until they were intoxicated. As evening fell and the market day ended, many of them could be found lying along the sides of the streets and on the sidewalks, drunk as Lot, having spent all their money on liquor.

For the children these market days were especially joyous. They would look at the mobs of farmers with great glee, watching them wandering around the town square and the streets with deafening noise. In addition, the children would also get some “fair money” and become “rich” on these days.

And indeed on various other occasions and holidays the children were given many opportunities to play and have a good time, the way children do. Thus, for example, they would go out on Lag BaOmer[4] to the nearby forests, carrying bows and arrows and shooting at birds up in the trees. They would spend the entire day there, returning home in the evening, group by group, singing with gusto.

On Purim[5] everyone would be disguised in colorful masks, purchased at Yehoshua Meir Waldenberg's store. Bigger boys, wearing scary masks, would go out of their way to frighten the little children and make them cry.

A “wedding procession” was a particularly spectacular event. It would run from the bride's home to the synagogue. The bride would be accompanied by close relatives and a festive crowd, marching to singing and music. The adults would dance as they walked, and the young people would accompany them with song. Indeed, the following saying was common: when Dobrzyn marries off one of its girls, all of the townspeople are mehutanim[6].

There was a long list of customs that were specific to the town. Some had been initiated during periods of joy, others in periods of grief. But with the passage of time, as new ideas made their way into the small towns, including our own, some of these customs fell into disuse. The few customs that were retained had long traditions behind them. However, with the destruction of Polish Jewry, such unique customs—characteristic of Jews who lived in small towns—disappeared, leaving no trace behind.

May these lines serve as a small remembrance of the lives and customs of the Jews of Dobrzyn.

 

The western portion of the town square[7]

 

A group of boy scouts in Dobrzyn[8]

 


Translator's Footnotes

  1. From My Town: In Memory of the Communities Dobrzyn–Gollob, edited by M. Harpaz, (published by the Dobrzyn–Golub Society, Israel, 1969), pp. 59–62. Return
  2. Polish spelling: Drwęc (pronounced Dreventz). Return
  3. Mitzvot = commandments, in this case the requirement by Jewish law to care for the poor and needy Return
  4. Lag BaOmer = A minor holiday on the 33rd day after Passover, celebrated with outings in forests, as well as archery and other sports. Return
  5. Purim = a joyful holiday commemorating the survival of the Jews of Persia after being threatened with destruction by their enemies, according to the account in the Biblical Book of Esther. It occurs in February or March, one month before Passover, and is celebrated with costumes and disguises. Return
  6. Mehutanim = in–laws, i.e. partaking relatives. Return
  7. From p. 59 of reference cited in Footnote 1. The German print at the top left reads “Gollub, W. Pr.” (abbreviation of Westpreußen =West Prussia). The German print at the top right reads “Marktplatz m. Burgruine Golau” = Market square with ruin of Golau castle. The photograph appears to have been part of a pre–World–War–I postcard. Return
  8. From p. 62 of reference cited in Footnote 1 Return

 

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