By Esther Graner-Rabbe
Translated by Pamela Russ
Donated by Steve Bolef
My father Yakov Leyb was an eminent, respected man in town, always surrounded by friends and family, met by every person who needed a favor; and he mainly granted these favors in a discreet manner (matan beseser). In community matters he was one of the most active people. He was also one of the first followers of Dr. Herzl even before the First Congress, and together with others, he – still in those years – founded the Zionist Organization in Dobrzyn. My father had the position of chairman, and in a short time, he was able to attract other friends, mainly from the older generation. He had to overcome many challenges from the religious circles that said they would only go to Israel with the help of the Messiah (Moshiach), and he who goes to Israel to settle before that is a heretic. In conflict with the chassidim (religious Jews) was the well-known Zionist community activist Reb Yitzchok Moishe Ofenbach, whom my father came to help, and who later was at the head of the Zionist Organization. With his enthusiastic and persuasive speeches that he gave each Motzoei Shabbos (Saturday night after the end of Sabbath) he convinced many of the chassidic circles to believe in Dr. Herzl's national, political thought and movement. Reb Yitzchok Moishe, with his broad, community-minded stature, established a Zionist youth circle and later established the club Hatchiya that served as a gathering place and also for evening courses for the youth to learn Hebrew. My father was always the right hand man of Reb Yitzchok Moishe and helped him in his devoted daily Zionist work. Still at the end of the previous century, my father organized a circle of Hebrew readers, subscribed to the Hatzefira and other Zionist newspapers for the town.
And whoever was interested in knowing what was happening in the Zionist world came to Reb Yakov Leyb Graner. Many times there were debates in our house on many different subjects. The house was always filled with visitors who my father welcomed warmly, and he discussed all kinds of worldly issues with them. My home, as I remember, was never sad – but on the contrary, was always joyous. Groups of people would sit with a glass of tea until late into the night. There were also some Jews in town for whom reading a newspaper was a difficulty. For them, my father set aside a few hours during the daytime to read them the newspaper. That's how he would sit on the steps of his flour factory, a quorum of ten men (minyan) around him, and their ears perked to hear how Reb Yakov Leyb reads the newspaper about the daily news. Of greatest interest to them was the Political Letters from Itchele in the paper Haynt (today). The letters were published each Sunday. The excitement around Itchele's commentaries on the political letters was enormous. They would discuss these with appropriate critique of the writer. It is noteworthy that these were Jews without a livelihood, and who barely had bread in their homes. And that's how they spent their years, with the hope of a better tomorrow.
My father also played a significant role in community life in Dobrzyn. He wanted and was able to accomplish a lot, but with communities in small towns it was not easy to agree on things. And so the struggle in community issues
was always sharp and bitter. For a long time, my father supported the city and then he undertook to renovate the synagogue that had been terribly neglected for a long time. In his time, the shul was redone almost like new. They changed the benches, chairs, and podiums, extended the women's section, and most important of all, brought painters from Plotsk – not ordinary painters, but artistic painters who painted permanent historical scenes on walls and ceilings – scenes such as: Mother Rachel's Tomb, Absalom's Tomb, the Tower of David, the Tombs of the Patriarchs, the Western Wall, and many other historical places. There's likely not even one person from Dobrzyn who doesn't carry these beautiful images of these artistic paintings in the Dobrzyn synagogue in his mind. Foreigners who visited this synagogue marveled at the artwork. Our synagogue was also prominent in the surrounding towns, and this was the pride of those from Dobrzyn.
The women of the Ezras Noshim (women's assistance committee) fulfilled their obligation and helped sew the curtain that covered the ark where the Torah was kept, and also made special drapes. They prepared the opening day of the synagogue with great splendor. That Shabbos, they brought in a famous cantor along with his choir from Lodz who sang the Lecho Dodi of the Friday night prayers, and the next day his prayers were filled with song; along with the help of the choir they created a holiday spirit in the town. The joyous event was tremendous and each person felt as if it was his own house that was being presented as new.
At the time when he held the position of supporting the city, my father also organized the cemetery that was without a fence for scores of years. The animals had broken through the flimsy wooden fence and ate the grass that was on the graves. Since there was no money in the fund, the community borrowed a sum of money, bought lots of bricks and cement from the brothers Mendel and Avrohom Hirsh Cohen, and built a tall fence (wall) that was visible from quite a distance. When the fence was built, the neglect ended and the Jews in the town had much nachas (pride) from Reb Yakov Leyb Graner's accomplishment.
Also, the bais medrash was fixed. The walls were painted, a new oven was built so that the yeshiva boys that learned there in the cold winter days should not suffer from the cold, and also so that the congregants should be warm when they come to pray.
My father organized a small guest house (hachnosas orchim) that was located not far from the street where the synagogue was. It was a tradition in Poland that the Jewish poor people, or goers as they were called, would go from town to town, and in each place would have the opportunity to spend two days and two nights in the guest houses where they would have a place to eat and a place to sleep. Along with that, they were permitted to collect alms from the congregants in the synagogue and from those learning in the bais medrash for those two days that they were in town. After those two days, they would receive a sum of money from the community fund, then they would leave and continue with their journey. Amongst them sometimes were also women and young children. For years they were homeless, practically like gypsies, but by the end of the 1920s the number of goers had diminished and after that it stopped completely. It is worthwhile to note that the phenomenon of the Jewish wanderers in these towns, especially in Poland, was a direct result of the difficult economic situation after World War I. It is also worthy to note that if the goer would have to leave town on a Thursday, then he would be kept over the Sabbath and they would send him for meals to the home of a wealthy man. What incredible compassion did Dobrzyn model for the many surrounding towns.
In the general destruction in Poland, much of the wrath was poured out onto the Jewish community of Dobrzyn. All the holy places, such as the shul, the bais medrash, and all
the other community institutions were destroyed. The cemetery was demolished and the streets were paved with the tombstones. About 90% of the population died in the killing camps and some in the vast wasteland of Russia. This is how the story of the dear, beloved town of Dobrzyn ended, after being in existence for many generations, and after bringing forth many dedicated Jews, among them my father Yakov Leyb Graner, and all who remember him, know what he accomplished for the town and for her Jewish population.
But, all is not lost for the Jews (lo alman yisroel). Our greatest comfort is that with our own hands, we built a Jewish state. And Jews all over the world are proud of their country. We owe much thanks to our parents who raised us in the spirit of love for Israel. My father also belongs to them – he raised his children with this same spirit, and in that atmosphere an entire generation of Jews was raised in Dobrzyn.
May his soul be bound up in the bond of everlasting life
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