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[Page 45]

Memories

 

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Our Former Gostynin

by Josef Keller

Translated by Pamela Russ

 

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Josef Keller

 

In a mountain of ashes, destroyed and devastated, lies the city of our childhood years – Gostynin. It's hard to imagine that now Gostynin is a city without Shabbos, without yomim tovim (Jewish holidays), that on Friday nights no one is calling everyone to go to synagogue, and that our Jews are no longer rushing to the synagogue on Friday nights to pray. In the same way, it is hard to believe that the lives of our beloved and dearest ones were so horrifically snuffed out.

Yes, for us Gostynin is devoured and dead. The only ones left are we Gostyniner who left to America long before the destruction of Poland. Also, there are those who settled in Israel even before World War II, and several others who miraculously were saved from the plague of extermination that befell our brothers in Poland and are in the Land of Israel along with the other Gostyniner already there, and are part of the organization “Irgun Yotzei Gostynin Be'Yisrael” [organization of those from Gostynin in Israel].

We, the surviving Gostyniner, have promised to perpetuate our devastated home, and this very book about Gostynin will be an eternal monument that will leave a memory of our destroyed town and her martyrs for generations to come.

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I remember Gostynin from the early years of this century. A town, clean and neat, surrounded by natural greenery of forests, gardens, green fields and mountains that stretched one higher than the other, such that the tallest mountain was crowned with the name “har hahar” which meant “mountain of mountains.” Snaking between the mountains were all kinds of roads and footpaths that were hidden by the trees, so much so that these were the most special, beautiful, and discreet strolling places for the youth who did not want to be in the clear view of the older generation.

In the later years, when the political socialist movement tore through our town, the area of the “mountain of mountains” was chosen as the place for secret and illegal meetings.

When there was a Jewish holiday, some of the youth went to the forest in Plock, some to the Kutno forest; others went on the Koval road through the moss to the “mountain of mountains,” so that in this way they almost forgot that they lived in a small town.

The town itself was a Jewish one. There were more Jewish than Christian storekeepers because the Jews were primarily occupied in trade. There were grain merchants, lumber merchants, tailor shops and food shops, haberdasheries, and so on.

There were also craftsmen in the town such as tailors, shoemakers, milliners, carpenters, tinsmiths, and a large number of stocking manufacturers.

Among the merchants, there were many who spent a lot of their time in Torah studies; really as they say: “Tov Torah Im Derech Eretz” [“Beautiful is the study of Torah along with everyday life”].

This is a general, superficial glimpse of Gostynin. If you want to look more deeply into the Jewish community of Gostynin, then you have to begin with the Rav, Reb Yechiel Meyer, of blessed memory.

Even though this Rav, Reb Yechiel Meyer, lived and was active for some time before my time, I can't say that that time is totally foreign to me, because I heard many stories …

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… and many tales about this Tzadik [great, pious man]. The truth is that the Gostynin Rebbe's name was known across the entire Poland. His followers were Jews from all corners of Poland, and every one of them who came to see the Rebbe, whether a merchant or a craftsman, a teacher or an ordinary Jew, a rich man or a poor man, all were welcomed, important guests. He received everyone with respect and with heartfelt love. His true greatness lay in his humility. For all problems, he had but one salvation: to recite Psalms as much as possible.

This awesome story that was told at the time of the Rav's passing characteristically illustrates the holiness with which the Rav was enveloped.

I will retell this exactly as I heard it: When this righteous man died, the town naturally was enveloped in deep sorrow. The Burial Society, for whom doing the purification before burial was one of the most routine things, like (to differentiate) having a drink of whiskey, this time they had no desire to undertake this pre–burial purification simply out of fear of touching such a holy body. But still, the purification had to be done, so the Burial Society held a special meeting and it was decided that the most prominent members of the Burial Society would take care of the task. I don't know exactly who these people were, but I know that one of these was my grandfather Reb Yisroel Itche Keller, definitely an important man in the Burial Society, and someone close to the Rav during his lifetime. The elected Burial Society men went into the room where the purification was to be done, behind closed doors, to do their job undisturbed. But before they had finished, the door to the room suddenly opened and an uninvited member of the Burial Society was there. Wordlessly, but with stern motions, they gestured to the man to leave. When the door closed, they completed their work, and the funeral took place.

A tragic and deep sorrow covered the whole town after the Rebbe's death. But the day after the burial …

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… the Burial Society had another purification to do. This was the purification of the man from the Burial Society who had crossed the threshold of the room in which the purification of the pious Rav had been in process.

This story, as the people in the community told it, is very representational, and illustrates how holy this Rebbe was considered in Gostynin and in other cities in Poland.

These times in which the Gostynin Rav lived I cannot remember, but I will never forget the 21st day of Shevat [Hebrew month] which was his yahrzeit [anniversary of his death], because on that day Gostynin had a completely different appearance.

One day earlier, in the twilight of the eve of the yahrzeit, the study hall was packed with people praying who had come to the town from all corners of Poland. This crowd began to go to the Rav's gravesite right after the evening prayers. The following day, the actual day of the yahrzeit, an unending procession went along the Kutno road that led to the cemetery where the Rav's gravesite was situated.

Off the Kutno road, and approaching the cemetery, one could see from afar the ohel [structure over the grave] that stood in the foreground of the cemetery. Inside this structure was the grave surrounded by a barbed wire fence through which one could see the actual grave. There was a tall lantern atop a pole that rested on the ground. Inside the lantern was an “eternal light” [a lit candle]. On the day of the yahrzeit, this structure at the gravesite was filled to capacity, and outside there were groups of people awaiting their turn to enter.

The gravesite was completely covered with kvitlech [pieces of paper upon which people had written personal requests and prayers]. These were all kinds of written requests to the Rebbe. On these pieces of paper, each person, according to his capacity, poured out his heart to the Rebbe asking for his help. And for those who could not write these notes in Hebrew, there was a young man who was the designated “note writer” for the community.

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That's how powerful the day of the Rav's yahrzeit appeared in the town. That's why the 21st day of Shevat is so strongly etched in my memory.

After the death of the Gostynin Rav, I don't know exactly how long after, the position of the Gostynin Rav was assumed by the Kinsk [Konskie] genius Reb Yoav Yehoshua. Truthfully, I also remember very little of this Kinsker. But you can't write about Gostynin of those times and not mention him, since it was well known to all that Reb Yoav Yehoshua was one of the greatest scholars with a genius mind. The best students in Poland would come to learn with him. In Gostynin, he was very beloved, particularly by the student of Torah.

But Kinsk could never come to terms with the fact that their community should be without Reb Yoav Yehoshua, so they would often request that he come to them from Gostynin. From the other side, factions began to form and finally the Rav agreed to the requests of the Kinsk community and left Gostynin to return to Kinsk. As I later heard, an argument broke out in Gostynin regarding the fact that this Kinsker had left town.

After the Kinsker left, the seat of the Gostynin Rav was taken over by the Rotsheinzer Rav, Reb Chaim Meshulem Kaufman Hakohen Aterman.

This Rav, Reb Chaim Meshulem Kaufman, I do remember well. This new Rav was a person of magnificent beauty. His appearance and his intelligence were of European style. Other than that he was a great scholar and author of several religious books, he was also very knowledgeable in worldly matters, as were many Polish rabbis of that time. He knew the Russian language that governed at that time, so that he was able to converse easily with the authorities. This was something new at the time in Gostynin, and if something important happened in the community that required an intervention or just something that had to be addressed with a government organization, one would see the elegantly dressed Rav …

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… with his beadle at his side going through the marketplace to the then Kommandant, Prince Obolenski.

The community felt very proud of the fact that the Rav did not have to depend on interceders with the authorities regarding community issues. In fact, the community did become more prestigious in the eyes of the non–Jew population, just as good in the eyes of the government.

Reb Chaim Meshulem Kaufman left Gostynin where he was Rav for thirteen years, to take over the position of Rav in Pultusk. In the year 1924, he went to Warsaw for treatments, but he died that same year.

Since we are remembering the rabbis of Gostynin, we should also mention Reb Shmuel Volf Pinczewski, the dayan [judge in Jewish religious court], who answered questions of religious life as well as the Rav, and who was always studying the Torah and its commentaries. I remember him best for his recitation of selichos [special prayers before the High Holidays] for the people in the Beis Medrash [study hall]. He was also the one who led the morning prayers on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, since evidently, the task of the one who led these High Holiday prayers was an important one. You can see this since the congregation wanted the person who led these prayers to be someone who prayed with significance, and should be worthy to represent the congregation, because after the death of the Dayan Reb Shmuel Volf, it was my grandfather, Reb Yisroel Itche who took over this role. My grandfather was really one of the pillars of the Gostynin community, a person whose word was strongly heeded, to whom one turned when there was a disagreement, and one whose arbitration was very reliable. So, he was a most appropriate leader of prayers.

If we are speaking of the people who held religious positions in Gostynin, we undoubtedly have to pause at the cantor/ritual slaughterer of that time, Reb Yakov Miller, of blessed memory, who came to Gostynin from Skidzyel [Skidel], of the Grodno province. This man was beloved in the whole town, without exception. And not for nothing. He was very serious about both his cantorship as well as his ritual slaughtering. This slaughtering was for him an act of holiness, a type of work in which one had to be very strict, and to be a …

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The Gostynin Cantor Reb Yakov Miller with his choir

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First row from right to left: Eliyahu Meyer Tabachnik, Yechiel Meyer Keller, Marcus Nemach (from Wyszogrod), Yisochor Motil, Yakov Motil
Second row from right to left: Shmuel Keller, Chaim Yehoshua Tabachnik, Cantor Yakov Miller, Chono Zajacz, Pula Danziger

 

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… leader of prayers representing the congregation he held as a great responsibility. The prayer “Hineni He'oni Mimaas…” [“I come before Thee” recited by the leader of the prayers during the High Holidays], was as if specially written for him.

While the cantor was singing his prayer, the essence of it was clearly expressed because he understood the meaning of the words and knew how to translate them. He was knowledgeable in Hebrew and in Hebrew literature, so the text was not foreign to him. Along with all that, he was a gifted musician.

Music for him was much more than a means of livelihood. Music for him was a holy art and his thirst for this art way surpassed the boundaries of the prayers.

To show how great and how far his achievements in this art went, it will be enough to cite the following fact:

At that time, there was in Gostynin a bandleader from the military band, the very gifted Jewish musician, Gersowycz. When the band leader came into the synagogue and heard the cantor's prayers, he was very moved and quickly became friendly with the cantor. Slowly their friendship strengthened and as a result Reb Yakov Miller, a few times a week, very secretly went to see the bandleader where he studied music and harmony. One has to keep in mind that in those times an act of this sort would be considered by the congregation as a terrible sin, and there were always a thousand eyes directed at the cantor/ritual slaughterer. But this cantor's thirst to learn music systematically was so strong that he risked his livelihood and reputation completely and totally, just so that he could study music.

Naturally, this was a great secret and only the very select, close few knew this secret. But now, this secret of that time can be revealed. Before the holidays one could already hear on Buch Street the cantor's rehearsals with his choirboys until late in the night. His choirboys were not trained singers, and to knock music into these boys' heads – music that was unknown to them, without the help of notes, that none of them …

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… understood anyway, was not an easy task. I know that countless times for the cantor, his gall was eaten up [he was very upset] when after practicing for many days the group of choirboys remained coarse, so much so that the cantor angrily told them to shut their holiday prayer books and go to sleep. But because he couldn't proceed without the choirboys, he quickly made amends, reopened the prayer books, and began singing again. The practicing went on for weeks and many times months. But the cantor never tired. His one worry was that while they would be at the podium not one of the singers should lose his memory.

When it was a few days before the holidays, new problems began. The choirboys came with new problems. One couldn't go to the synagogue because he needed a new pair of boots. Another one needed a proper hat. The third had only a torn pair of pants. What could the cantor do but buy the necessary clothing for the singers. The cantor had to put up with these and all kinds of other problems from the choirboys. But, even so, when the singing at the podium was seamless, the cantor forgave them completely and after the holidays he celebrated a real feast with them.

In the cantor's house there was a warm, pleasant atmosphere. It was a meeting place for the intellectual young generation. They would have social gatherings there along with the cantor's children.

In Warsaw, at that time, there was a “romanzeitung” [journal of song] published in which a song with its notes were printed weekly. And as quickly as that journal came from Warsaw, that's how quickly we, the youth, would take this to the cantor and he would teach us the song.

In general, Yakov Miller was very popular and beloved in the city. He had a friendly word for everyone. He had a natural warmth about him that brought people close and attracted people to him. He was one of the major hosts in the city, and even though he didn't have a great income from both his …

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… jobs, he nonetheless was very charitable and did it all very discreetly.

After World War One, when the cantor prepared to leave Gostynin and go to his children to America, there was a general sadness in the city and on the day of his departure the entire city went out onto the Kutno road to accompany him and wish him a heartfelt safe trip.

(It's worth mentioning that in the city of Detroit in America, where Reb Yakov Miller settled, he established ritual slaughter [shechita] and cantorialship, and very quickly became famous and beloved.)

Other than this cantor/ritual slaughterer, there were two other ritual slaughterers. One was Leybish the shochet, or as they called him Leybush Bobyoker, and that was because he came to Gostynin from Bobyok. Other than being the shochet, he was the regular person to lead the prayers [baal tefilah] in the study hall [beis medrash]. During the High Holidays, his two sons and a son–in–law would help him, as they said in Gostynin. That's when he did the real job of a cantor. The congregants of the beis medrash had great pleasure from his prayers because he really was a talented reciter.

The third shochet, Binyomin Levi, was a product of Gostynin. Doing the ritual slaughter was appropriate for Binyomin Levi because he came from a very prominent family with generations of rabbis and scholars.

So Gostynin was really equipped with three ritual slaughterers. But whether these three were secure with their livelihoods was always doubtful to me…

It will be appropriate to remember a few of the town's Torah teachers, whose student I was. Because my father Yakov Mendel, may he rest in peace, who in a large fashion had a huge portion of my grandfather in him, that is a piece of Yisroel Itche, with his intelligent view of life, with his logical mind, and whose steps he followed, and for whom he had a great love, hoped that maybe I would also take after my grandfather, he therefore directed me to study. But it ended that …

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… I remained only at the foot of the mountain at whose top was my grandfather, Reb Yisroel Itche, may he rest in peace. Nonetheless, I spent some time studying in the beis medrash. And in the manner that it was, I studied with some outstanding teachers. I would like to mention them here:

Dovid Lipsycz: He was a grandson of the Gostynin Rebbe, Reb Yechiel Meyer, of blessed memory, and the son of Reb Leybish Lipsycz. A gentle young man, a prodigy, with a smart head, who learned with desire and enthusiasm.

Nochum Yisroel Shajar: A son–in–law of Mordechai Mendel and Tauba Chaja Danziger. Truly razor sharp, from whose mouth the words fell like pearls, with a harmonious, calm tone.

Avrohom Geizler: A young man, studious, a diligent student, who never tired of learning.

And Chaim Tremski: A young man with a very sharp mind. To study with him was no small feat, because you had to understand him between the lines. I was a student of Chaimel Tremski and at the same time I was a friend of his. Chaim had a sharp head with a mystical undertone, and I understood him well. That's why we were teacher and student and also good friends. That's also why he gave me more time than did the others with whom I studied. In the later years, Chaim Tremski moved over to the neighboring Wloclowek where he was involved in the social life of the city and was one of the directors of the Wloclowker “Mizrachi” [religious Zionist movements].

Among these, we should also mention Yitzchok Shtern, who was Yeshayohu Fajnzilber's son–in–law. He was given meals [kest] and was like a scholar who had rabbinic ordination. He had a group of young men around him, with whom he learned.

***

After the Russo–Japanese War, when Russia suffered terrible defeats in the killing fields of the distant East, and in the country they began to feel the bitter chaos of the Russian bear's defeat, and the underground free powers were feeling that it was …

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… the right time to release a spark of hope for the revolution that soon burned like a quiet fire, burning and extending to all corners of the country, our Gostynin also could not be saved from this.

One afternoon there appeared in town a short but wide–boned person with an oversized set of shoulders so that from behind his head hardly showed. With steps and intuition of a hunter he slid through the streets of Gostynin until he made contact with someone from our group, and then brought the others from our circle around him. These others were: Tuvia Jakubowycz, Efraim Motil, Chaim Sender Domb, Zelig Motil (Machles) who is now in Chicago, Yakov Leyb Rosental, and also the author of these lines.

Our first get–together with this unknown person came about in the house of Tuvia Jakubowycz. It's worth spending some time mentioning Tuvia's personality, because Tuvia was an interesting individual. At that time, he already was an independent businessman, with a wife and with his own house. And his livelihood he made from his razor shop [for shaving] that he set up in the house of the black Frieda on Plock Street.

His razor shop was more modern than the others in the city because Tuvia alone was a lot more progressive than a great number of other Gostyniner at that time.

Tuvia Jakubowycz was a little older than the other friends in our group but he was a really interesting and liberal thinking person. Because of that he felt closer to our younger group to which he was really more suited and with which he felt a greater understanding. Even though in that time in Gostynin one could not have a broad worldly education, Tuvia educated himself and read a lot of Hebrew, Yiddish, Polish, and Russian. Other than the Yiddish Peterburg newspaper “Der Fraind” [the friend], that was written in partnership with …

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… the author of these lines along with Efraim Motil, he also read “Hatzefira” [the dawn], in partnership with Yona Boruch Katz, Fishel Tzivia, and the cantor Reb Yakov Miller. They also found by him the Russian newspapers “Sin Otechestvo” [son of the fatherland], one of the most radical newspapers of those times. So it's no surprise that we, the younger group, stuck to him. Because of that, Tuvia's house was the most regular and appropriate place for the work of the radicals' upswing. It was natural that the first meeting to be held would be at his place. And so, we did get together at Tuvia's razor shop with the window blinds pulled down so that outside they would not be able to see the not–so–kosher gathering.

Truthfully, this turned out to be a lecture because we all sat quietly with open ears and listened very carefully to this stranger with the very wide shoulders that looked even wider when he was sitting down. He had such a glib tongue that his words and fine Lithuanian expression came out of his mouth all turned about. He spoke with enthusiasm, so much so that he also relished his own words, as if he had eaten a delicious food.

As we found out later, this man was the Bundist [socialist party] organizer, known by the name of “Avrohom the Hunchback,” a member of the Polish district committee.

We listened and swallowed every word. He unravelled for us the Bundist Torah [all the philosophies and information], that until that point was absolutely unknown to us, and he tried very hard to infuse into us the fundamentals of the Bundist platform, namely “national cultural autonomy.”

It was a long evening, and he, the lecturer, used every minute. And when he was done, the whole concept was not yet clear to us. Nonetheless, just as the Jews at Mount Sinai said “we will do and we will hear,” [just before Moses gave the Jews the Ten Commandments], we said the same and mazel tov.

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The foundation stone was put down – the foundation for the building to be known by the name of “The Jewish Bund of Poland.”

With the establishment of the Bundist committee in Gostynin, it then became evident, that the city was now on the map of Poland, because suddenly delegates from all the parties arrived into the city. First, there came a dandy from Warsaw, with a black mustache, and he looked either Polish or French, maybe even Italian. And even though we didn't know which doctrine he wanted to preach, from his appearance alone we could be educated about the PPS [Polish Socialist Party].

He was not the only guest in the city. There were also delegates from the Poalei Zionists [Labor Zionist party], Socialist Territorialists, and even Socialist Revolutionaries, the SRs. Each of them was looking for members to join their party. But the truth was that Gostynin was too small and the Jewish population – particularly the youth – too meagre to digest such a multi–party movement. The end result was that the Bund held 90% of the Gostynin youth of that time. That was because “Avrohom the Hunchback” was the first to preach the Bundist doctrines to a few of the people who had a great influence on the Gostynin youth of that time and who adopted his knowledge.

Soon began the chapter of secret meetings where illegal brochures were distributed with proclamations on white paper with blood–red print, literature that had to be smuggled in under the noses of the police. Suddenly, it became interesting and alive in the town.

The town now had a different face. Suddenly one was able to see with his own eyes that the upper class and even Chassidic young men were suddenly friendly with the city's workers, with the tailors, shoemakers, second–hand dealers, and so on. This slightly unsettled the upper class of the city. The mixed marriage of the more privileged …

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… with the simple young tailors and shoemakers was for them a bitter medicine that they couldn't swallow so easily. And, as usual, in the homes of those whose names were blackened, there were often fights between the fathers and their sons. The sons really often felt the anger of their prominent but upset fathers.

The anger of the privileged and the prominent people became more intense when suddenly young men and young women appeared together in the streets, an appearance that until then had hardly ever happened in Gostynin. And these were girls not, God forbid, from the upper class, but from the poor class, and then there were even servant girls. This strongly angered the respected people. But they could do nothing against this. All kinds of reports and rumors came from the larger cities such as Warsaw, Lodz, Lublin, and even from our neighboring cities such as Plock and Gombyn, that this is a type of crowd that wanted to topple governments, so what can ordinary Jews do? So they suffered and were silent.

But there were fanatics who wanted forcefully to hold on to the old–time traditions and in no way would they allow their children to mix with the general rabble. I remember the extremely frequent problems and challenges that my dearest friend Yakov Leyb Rosental had unfortunately to experience because of his father Binyomin Mendel. Binyomin Mendel was a pious Jews, who spread his governance across his entire household as the work of a dictator. He could in no way tolerate that his son Yakov Leyb had left the straight path to become a convert and go around with the “unity” groups along with the young women. Whoever heard of such a thing? … If other young men wish to convert, let them mess up their own heads, but not Binyomin Mendel's son.

I do remember one Shabbos evening, when the group had gone for a pleasure stroll in the gardens near the Russian church, young men and young girls, …

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… when out of the clear blue, just as a whirlwind, Binyomin Mendel Rosental came running, looking for Yakov Mendel among the strollers, and then in front of everyone, as they are witness, he gave him a few strong smacks and dragged him out of the garden.

The group would have liked to give Mendel a lecture on how to slap, but since they wanted to avoid scandals, they remained quiet. But the slap was of absolutely no help to Mendel [like cupping on a dead person] because Yakov Leyb not only continued with his work in Gostynin but later became one of the most important activists of the Bund. His activities were in Wloclavek, a much larger city than Gostynin.

In Wloclawek he was a permanent member of the Bundist committee. From 1921–1929 he was a delegate at the Bundist gatherings. He was also a councilman, a community overseer of Wloclawek, and was very active in the CJSZO (The Central Organization of Yiddish Schools or the Tzisha) school affairs.

During the Second World War, when the Nazis established a ghetto in Wloclawek for Jews, Yakov Leyb played an important role. When the community council had to send someone to Warsaw to meet with Joint members to discuss help for the Wloclawek Jews, and if no one of the …

 

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Yosef Keller and Yakov–Leyb Rosental

 

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… community representatives was willing to go, Yakov Leyb voluntarily offered to go and went twice to meet with the Joint organization. At the same time, he joined the central committee of the Bund in Warsaw, and brought a lot of information to the Jews in the Wloclawek ghetto.

In the Wloclawek ghetto, a kitchen was set up in the cemetery in the room where they would prepare the bodies for burial. From this kitchen hundreds of meals a day were prepared. Yakov Leyb Rosental was the secretary of the kitchen management.

With the last transport of Jews from Wloclawek that were driven out by the Germans and taken to Chelmno, were Yakov Leyb and his son Somke, may their blood be avenged.

For a very short time, it seemed that the echo of the resounding slap of that Shabbos evening in the gardens quietened things down. But that was not so because the “Cossack treatment” – as it was called – of Binyomin Mendel evoked a rage from the committee and there was no doubt that such an ugly deed should not be silenced so that it never would repeat itself. So, in fact, a strict warning was given in the city to the community and to individuals that such intolerable incidents as the garden incident, whose intention was to disrupt the movement, would be punished without mercy in Warsaw's manner. The people knew what the “Warsaw manner” meant: After a punishment like that, you would hesitate to ever slap again…

That was the first time that the Gostyniners heard such clear and sharp words from their own children. And this had the desired effect because after that there was no slapping in the gardens and in no other places either.

Other than with these exceptional incidents, such as Binyomin Mendel's attack on his son, the population as a whole was not opposed to the new movement in the town.

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There were some who were unhappy because the old line of the aristocracy was becoming less noted. But this was a quiet, discreet dissatisfaction because for the time being, this did not cause anyone any material damage … Gostynin was not an industrial center, the issue of work or capital problems in the broader sense did not exist.

***

There were urban artisans whose products were used by the city and partially by the population in the surrounding areas.

The only trade the Gostynin managed with other cities was the stocking production, and even this on a small scale such that the class struggle, in the true sense of the word, was not applicable.

The terms such as “class struggle” and “exploitation” and “centralization of the capital” were only phrases that one heard on the Bundist exchange that stretched from Plock Street to the Biezewyczer highway.

What did disturb the population was the fear of what could happen to the city if the government would find out what was going on. It was known that “unions” were forbidden; the Jewish children of Gostynin did not want the Kaiser. So the Jews were frightened, went around in fear, but they couldn't help the situation because there was no one to talk to within the “union” crowd.

These fearsome thoughts tormented them and they always thought that their children would be soon arrested and sent to Siberia and the city would be destroyed.

But among these were some who were happy that there was excitement in the city. One of these, it is important to mention him, was Isser Meyer Motil (the father of Regina Margolis, now in Tel Aviv, the secretary of the “Irgun Yotzei Gostynin be'Yisrael” (Organization for the Emigris from Gostynin in Israel).

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By nature, Isser was a person who hated to be stifled. That's why – if you can call him that – he was a traitor to the government. He intentionally wanted to do what the government forbade, such as, saccharin was a prohibited item, so Isser Meyer sold it. He also secretly sold bullets for small weapons. It was strongly prohibited to cross the border into another country without a passport but he had his ways that he helped people smuggle across the border. He was the type of person that the tight reins of small town life did not leave him satisfied. He just wanted to spread out his hands to do things that he didn't even know what, and that's why he always did things that others would not even have thought about. He was blessed with natural good humor, such that he could tap any innocent victim on the shoulder and sell him the moon and the stars for payoffs….

Our group was very friendly with him. I remember that after I left Gostynin and had been in New York for a bit of time, a letter arrived from Gostynin with the sad news that Isser Meyer Motil had died. This terrible news really upset me because Isser Meyer was a young, healthy man, and a real friend. But a short while after that another letter arrived from Gostynin in which my friends wrote that the news of Isser Meyer's death was incorrect; he was alive and well. So, what happened? He wanted to hear, while he was still alive, what his friends in America would say about him after this death ….

These were the types of ideas that Isser Meyer Motil had.

It was therefore natural that when the movement began in the city, Isser Meyer would be one of the sympathizers, because it really did bring new life into the city.

And even – as I already mentioned – though in the small towns the movements didn't really create such an upheaval ….

[Page 64]

… they still had a tremendous morale and spiritual influence on the youth in general and on the artisans in particular. First, they began to better understand and appreciate their own worth. The businessmen themselves also began to look at their own workers with different eyes. They knew that behind the workers was the group of “unionists” so you couldn't bother them too much. So, the workers began to be treated better and even received better pay. No one worked late into the night any longer.

***

There were no large factories in the city at all, only small workshops where there were only two or three apprentices. The only trade that employed more workers in a factory was in the stocking production. By Avrohom Moshe Holander – who was the largest stocking producer in the city –– there were twelve or more workers. There were other stocking producers who employed five or six workers, or even less.

Stocking production was – and I don't know why – considered a more prestigious trade than tailoring or shoemaking, so the workers that were employed in the stocking factory were from a better line of people.

To have an idea about the size of a stocking factory that employed fifteen people, it would be enough to see that the entire factory consisted of one room in a house in which the owner, Avrohom Moshe Holander lived. In summertime, the windows of the factory would be thrown open so that if you just got closer to the intersection of Kovaler and Tandajter streets, you could already hear through these windows all kinds of songs that the stocking makers would be singing while they worked.

As was mentioned, there were no great changes in the city. From time to time, they would smuggle in …

[Page 65]

… Bundist brochures. There were all kinds of discussions printed in these brochures, theoretical arguments, and party news and reports from many cities. In an indirect way, these reports stimulated active work.

The passiveness was sickening, and the committee saw to it that the constant parading at the exchange and rehashing of phrases such as “national cultural autonomy,” “exploitation,” etc., was becoming monotonous, and they wanted to make it that Gostynin would also be part of the newspaper's party reports.

It did not take long, and the committee adopted a resolution that to infuse some life into the movement and create an upheaval in the city in general, they would have to put out in the name of the workers a demand for higher wages.

And since the greatest number of workers was in the stocking trade, they became the first in the struggle for improved working conditions in Gostynin.

Behind the stables, meetings were held with the stocking producers and as soon as they heard that they would be getting higher wages, they were overjoyed. And when they found out that there was a possibility they would have to quit work and strike if the bosses would not agree to the conditions, they became very enthusiastic. The decision to get better conditions for the stocking makers was approved and the meeting ended on a very optimistic note.

A few days later, the stocking factory owners were informed that the stocking workers under the direction of the Bund had decided to demand higher wages for their work, and if the bosses would not agree to meet their demands, then the workers would stop their work and declare a strike. The bosses ignored the demands and then all the stocking workers quit work and walked out on strike.

[Page 66]

My father, Yakov Mendel Keller, was also a stocking manufacturer, and so naturally his workers didn't come to work either. But when Avrohom Moshe Holander heard that the workers quit because of demands for higher wages he immediately sent out a messenger to find out whether Yakov Mendel's workers had also quit. He wanted to know if the workers in Yakov Mendel's factory quit, ignoring the fact that Yakov Mendel's son was an activist in the “union” groups. When he heard the report, that work was stopped even at Yakov Mendel's factory, he then understood that this was serious business.

Avrohom Moshe Holander was a frequent visitor in the large industrial city of Lodz, and from there he knew that if the Bund put out demands, then it would not be easy to get out of that. Also, he knew that if he would provoke the Gostynin Bund, then maybe he would not be welcomed into the Lodz city gates. So, because of that, he did not delay and immediately agreed to meet the demands of his workers.

With lightning speed, this news spread across the city and the result was that all other smaller factory manufacturers also immediately recalled their workers, agreeing to higher wages. So very soon, the stocking machinery in town once again began to run.

The general workers in the city, and particularly the stocking workers, were stunned by this unexpectedly quick victory. Truthfully, the biggest victory belonged to the movement. This was a great victory to their morale because first of all, the people began to view the party as a strong entity, with which they would have to contend. And the report of the stocking workers' victory, that was described in the Bundist paper “The Worker” of that time, along with the praise of the Gostynin movement, was a great honor for the workers,

[Page 67]

… because that meant that the central organization of the Bund acknowledged the Gostynin movement.

***

A comical incident that took place at that time is probably interesting to relate here. And this happened because a few comrades [“friends” of the Bundist movement] attended a Gombyner party meeting. This was at the beginning of the summer, when the comrades from our neighboring town of Gombyn, with whom we had regular contact, sent a special invitation to our executive to come to Gombyn to an important party meeting.

Gombyn was one of the exceptional cities in Poland, with extensive party activities that took place there. Even though Gombyn was a smaller city than Gostynin, there were many active party members there with a clear and broad awareness of class and intelligence, and their meetings were very interesting and educational.

But not all members of our executive were able to go over to Gombyn, and Yakov Leyb Rosental and the writer of these lines did not want to let such an opportunity pass, so they went to the meeting.

The Gombyner city synagogue was crowded when the meeting opened at nine o'clock in the evening. Several talented speakers spoke and the meeting went on until the middle of the night.

When the crowd began to disperse, we were then able to talk to some of the Gombyner comrades: Yitzchok Luria, Elya Leizer Tiber, Mailech Tudeles and friend Mindel and Yerachmiel Sofer's son, as they called him at that time in Gombyn. In discussion like that, we went out onto the Gostynin main road, and none of us were thinking about time. Only Mailech Tudeles and Mindel, who were almost always together, returned to the city.

[Page 68]

The evening was mild, the sky deep blue, starry, and the moon with its brightness lit up the wide road, and with the dense trees on either side of the road, the route seemed like a walkway in a rich fruity orchard. All five of us strode in the breadth of the road. Yitzchok Luria, the Bundist theoreticist and gifted speaker, kept us captive with his ongoing speaking. He spoke like that for minutes and hours, and we always walked ahead.

When a little light appeared in the east showing the approach of morning, we looked around and saw that we were already at the Plock forest. Not far from the Plock forest, on the way to Gostynin, was Epshtajn's sawmill. All around were chopped down trees, from which all kinds of boards were made in the sawmill, and we stopped there to examine the sawing machinery.

Near the sawmill, also on the Plock highway, Mordechai Mendel Dancziker and his wife Tauba Chaya had a food store (grocery), and on that very night thieves robbed the store. This awoke Tauba Chaya and she called the police who quickly went out onto the Plock highway to search for the thieves. When the police saw five youths walking around the sawmill area, they were sure that these were the thieves from Mordechai Mendel's store, so they immediately approached them and began to interrogate them. As much as we tried to convince them that we had no connection to the robbery, they were not satisfied. They wanted to know where we had come from so early, at dawn. Although we told them that we had come from a Bundist meeting, and argued with them for some time, it did not help. They arrested us for robbery.

The shops in town were already open when the police marched us with great fanfare though the Plocker Street to the magistrate.

It was not long afterwards that my father found out about this. The people of Gostynin thought that we …

[Page 69]

… had been arrested for some political crime. But when my father found out from the magistrate that we had been arrested for robbery, he burst into laughter and they immediately released us into his charge.

***

It is worthwhile to tell about the establishment of the first public library of Gostynin, the foundation of the Gostynin Jewish cultural life.

The first fruits of the library, still hidden under the surface of the open Jewish socialist life, belong to the last days of October of the fifth year of the current century. Then, in the midst of the fiery freedom movements, in many cities pogroms began to broil, heated up by Russian and Polish hooligans. The Jewish workers, with the help of the revolutionary parties, organized independent security battalions. News about the wave of pogroms threw a fear onto the Jewish population of the cities where there was no protection. Even though we did not expect a pogrom in Gostynin, simply because the Jewish and Christian residents lived together in amicable conditions, nonetheless, we saw this as a golden opportunity to raise monies successfully from the Jewish residents, considering that no one would decline giving monies to such a necessary cause.

We called a special meeting where we elected several committees with the goal to raise funds and not leave out a single home. The committee, of which I was a member, took over Kutner Street, where the city's wealthy man, Aron Bresler, lived. It was an open secret to the entire city that Aron Bresler did not give money to just anyone. But if he thought that there could be a threat to his life, he gave out of fear. I remember that he not only gave a few rubles, but he also gave me his gun for which he …

[Page 70]

… had a government permit. Naturally, we left the revolver with him, but took the few rubles.

As was expected, everyone contributed and a hefty sum was amassed. Meanwhile, news arrived that our security summoned a strong resistance as soon as any unrest would begin, and because of their heroic resistance in all the cities, the flood of pogroms was halted. Now, since the question of self–protection was suddenly taken care of, the finance department and the committee held a conference to decide what to do with the monies collected. That the conference about the money would evoke a hot debate, we all knew as soon as we got together, because we were familiar with the difference of opinions that ruled among those involved. As soon as the debate began, Zelig (Machles) Motil opened with this statement that they should buy guns with the money … He, Zelig, was convinced overall that the organization needed guns. But the majority, that was opposed to violence, naturally did not agree with him because in Gostynin guns were absolutely not necessary. Elye Jeshan, a party fanatic, without reservation, said that the money should be sent to the district committee of the Bund, from which there already came intimations for the money.

The other members, who were present in majority, argued that since the money was raised from the Gostynin residents, then it should be used in the best possible way for Gostynin. Since there was a shortage and very little cultural resources in the town, it was decided that several Jewish books would be purchased for the money, and that a public library for all the Gostynin residents would be established, and particularly for the Gostynin workers.

This is the history of the public library in Gostynin.

[Page 71]

Without any further discussion, Tuvia's razor shop was to be the home of the library. Since an open library must have a special permit from municipal government, a whole chapter of petitions began, with requests made to the Warsaw governor, all of course, with Tuvia's name because he was the legal owner of the planned library.

After many and very strained efforts, finally the much coveted permit was acknowledged, and immediately they bought about one hundred books in Warsaw, selected works that were appropriate to the class of readers in Gostynin at that time. That's how, with great fanfare, the first Jewish public library in Gostynin opened in the home of Tuvia Jakubowycz's razor shop.

I was the librarian for some time and on the library's committee until I left Gostynin.

***

The day of my departure from Gostynin came out in the month of May, and even though outside there was actually the fragrance of spring and rebirth, the atmosphere in our home was one of gloomy, cold autumn. My bags were packed, and all of us, the entire household, waited for blond Aron the wagon driver, who took passengers to the Kutno train station.

It's worthwhile to describe the tone of a Jewish house when a member of the household would leave to go across the ocean. One didn't leave for reasons of pride and joy. Immigration was a result of the economic bleakness of the small, and in the long run, old fashioned Jewish towns of Poland. The youth tore themselves away going to unfamiliar faraway places from which there was a glimmer of an existence and success. But really, the fact of leaving home threw serious despair on the children of the house, a real sadness. “Who knows,” those who remained thought, “if we will…

[Page 72]

… ever again see our son or daughter, brother or sister, with our own eyes?”

I will therefore describe how it looked in our house at the time that I was leaving Gostynin. The picture is representative of hundreds of other houses…

My father, may he rest in peace, a man of strong character, who didn't lose himself even under the worst conditions, was sitting at the table writing something. The silence in the house was so heavy that you could hear the scratches of the pen.

My dear mother, may she rest in peace, who often suffered with headaches, was sitting at the window with her head all bound up, and she followed me everywhere with her cloudy eyes, her trembling lips always whimpering.

Her heartache was tremendous, that I, her Yosef, was leaving to America, a place from which one rarely returned. For my parents, America was a synonym for a far–flung country, and each of them was thinking to themselves, even though they didn't express it, that even the Jewishness there was not in order…

My countless reassurances that I would return did not help. “No, no,” my mother said. “No one comes back.” My sister Charna, who was always ready to help everyone, and who was a friend and sister to me, sat quietly in a corner of the house, with red, overflowing eyes.

My brother Moshe, an ambitious young man, who was apprenticing to be a merchant and often made business trips – for my father – in the nearby cities, with a youthful tone, commented: “And what is America? You'll see, it won't be too long and I will come to visit you.”

For my sister Chava, who by nature was not so cheerful, that morning played right into her mood. With a cloud …

[Page 73]

… over her face, she stood next to our mother near the window, and with dismal eyes she looked out onto the street.

My sister Pesse, who was then working in Warsaw, was not at home. I had made a special trip to Warsaw a week earlier to say my goodbyes to her.

My brother Shmuel, the only one of the family who had left Gostynin to go to America just after the First World War, the only comfort of our family's tragedy on Poland, was already then a compassionate young man, and because I had absolutely promised to come over to America, and he believed me, he stood with very troubled, mixed feelings.

 

Businessmen in Gostynin help promote a theater presentation by raising money for the free kitchen

gos073.jpg
Seated from right to left: Shimon Yosef Motyl, Mendel Krel, Note Motyl, Yakov Mendel Keller, Yakov Zarchin
Standing from right to left: Yakov Motyl, Yitzchok Bresler, Efraim Motyl, Moshe Keller, Krigerman, Hershel Motyl, Iser Meyer Motyl, Adam Domb

 

[Page 74]

Yechiel Meyer, Sholom, and Aron, my three youngest brothers, were too young to understand the whole to do. They didn't even begin to understand why going to America was such a terrible tragedy that should cause such a disaster in the home. They went around looking lost and confused about the whole thing.

I had said my goodbyes to my uncles and aunts the night before, and among those were also my father's sister, my aunt Bluma Miriam, and my uncle Hershel. All of us children were very close to Aunt Bluma Miriam because of her warm friendliness. I remember that in my eyes she was the embodiment of compassion, beauty, and love. I never missed even one Shabbos of going to see her, and she always brought the honor of Shabbos to me.

She, Bluma Miriam, as it turned out, did not have enough during our farewells the night before, because as we were in the house the door opened, on the doorstep with her usual Aunt Bluma Miriam smile, there she was. Her arrival brought a little bit of change to the depressed atmosphere. My father immediately put away his writing and a lighter conversation took place with a certain tension in the atmosphere.

But it didn't take long, and the blond Aron arrived with his wagon, thrust open the door, grabbed my packed bags and threw them over his shoulder and said to me in his screechy voice: “Hey, don't delay, it's getting late.”

That was the signal that it was time to say goodbye. Such an experience of hysteria and crying I never again had in my entire life. It was more appropriate for a terrible tragedy, Heaven forbid. And at the door, even my father's fixed smile disappeared and there were tears in his eyes that rolled down his pale face.

[Page 75]

My Aunt Bluma Miriam stopped me in the doorway and placed a gold ring – that she had taken off from one of her fingers – onto one of my fingers, and then once again said her goodbyes to me.

I left the house a broken person. There were many people standing outside, who were there to toss a final glance onto a young man who was leaving for America, a land from which one never returned.

I never forgot that day. I also never forgot that promise to my mother – that I would one day return.

But I never returned home. The Hitler murderers destroyed Jewish Gostynin – and my Gostynin no longer exists.


[Page 92]

Rabbis and Melamdim

by Hershel Leib Leizerowitz (Israel)

Translated by Yocheved Klausner

 

gos092.jpg
Hershel Leib Leizerowitz

 

It has been sixty years that I remember you, my town Gostynin. Your name has been shining far beyond your borders, on the merit of your Thilim Yid [the Psalms reader], the great Tzadik. You have produced a long chain of generations  scholars, Tzadikim, craftsmen and simple Jews, and righteous women. Gostynin was a beautiful Jewish community, with a Bet Midrash [House of Prayer and Study], a synagogue and a Shtibl [a Hasidic house of prayer]. The community managed several institutioms as well: A Home for the Aged, Linat Tzedek [charity sleeping accommodation for the needy], a Gemilut Chasadim Fund [free-of-interest-loan], Hachnasat Kala fund [financial aid for the needy brides] etc. I remember the beautiful Shabat and holiday times. I see before my eyes the Jewish streets, the life of the neighbors, the love and devotion between one another. Everyone took part in the happy and joyful moments of the others, and felt for them in grief. Jewish Gostynin lived together like one family.

Who had shaped the Jewish Gostynin and given it its identity? As everywhere, this was the holy work of the teachers and educators. The following were the Gostynin melamdim: R'Sender, R'Leizer and his son Yosef, who inherited the vocation from his father, R'Grunem melamed and R'Avraham Fleischman. They were the young children's teachers, who instilled in them the Mode Ani [the beginning of the morning prayer] and the Shema Israel. When R'Sender the melamed died at the age of almost one hundred years, the entire Jewish Gostynin went to his funeral and mourned him. Every person considered himself as one of his pupils.

[Page 93]

In general, the life of the melamdim was a difficult life; poverty and need showed in every corner. But they saw their work as a holy mission and they guided their heder with love and devotion, bringing up generations of children.

There were also the teachers of Chumash with Rashi [the Five Books of Moses with the great commentator Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki)] and Talmud, for the older children: R'Leibel Tzishik, Avraham Yitzhak Holzman, R'Yechezkel Bagno, R'Levi Melamed, an old man who was a great scholar and died at a very advanced age. All his pupils praised greatly his teaching.

The Gostynin rabbis enriched the Jewish life in town. Not only did they lead their community in the proper Jewish way, but they represented it honorably and were its faithful spokesmen in front of the authorities. They were well-known throughout the country. R'Yechiel Meir Lifshitz z”l became rabbi in Gostynin when he was still a young man. His great scholarship and vast knowledge of Torah, his modesty and his love for every individual brought him to the position of Rabbi and great Tzadik. “The Gostyniner Rabbi” became famous throughout the entire Jewish world. He died on Sabbath eve, 21 Shevat 5648. The position of rabbi was then occupied by the Kinsker rabbi, R'Yoav-Yehoshua, an author of several books and a student of the Sochatchower rabbi R'Avraham, author of the book Avnei Nezer. After he left Gostynin, he was followed by the Rav R'Chaim Meshulam Hakohen Unterman, a great scholar, a student of the Ostrowecer rabbi R'Meir Yechiel Halevi, one of the greatest scholars in the rabbinic world. The follower of R'Chaim Meshulam Hakohen was R'David Sillman, a son of the Chmelniker rabbi R'Aharon Sillman and a son-in-law of the Ostrowecer rabbi. He was one of the leaders of the Mizrahi party and he supported and strengthened the Zionist movement in town. He died young, on 10 Shevat 5682.

At that time, the question arose who shall take the post of rabbi. Rabbi Yitzhak Meir Bornstein was elected by a large majority. He was a great scholar, a student of the rabbi of Gora [the Gerer rebbe], the author of the famous book Sefat Emet. He was also a member of the Zionist party Mizrahi and he led the community in that spirit. Rabbi Yitzhak Meir was the last rabbi in Gotystin and, together with all the other Jews in Gostynin he perished by the Nazi murderers.

 

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