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by Eleazer Mor (Mordkovitz)
From time to time I yearningly remember that small town of religious and observant Jews, scholars and simple everyday people who recited Psalms and studied Ayin Yaakov; merchants, shopkeepers and craftsmen; Raciaz as it was with its institutions, communal figures and educators, with the market-place from which its streets ran off, with its alleys and entries. It rises before my eyes as though it were still there, even though more than fifty years have passed since I left it and its inhabitants. There was the Warsaw Road in which my parents' house stood. It hummed with Jewish vitality. Here was the Gerrer Shtiebel and the Otvotzk Shtiebel, and the club of the Right-wing Poalei Zion, Hashomer Hatzair, and Hashomer Haleumi, as well as the Tarbut School. All of them were in this street. Our neighbours were Mottel Lipinsk, Reb Yeshaya Kanin and Shmuel Dobreshklanka.
The timber yard of Shmuel Dobreshklanka was in this street, and there we children used to climb over the fence that surrounded it and spent our time playing there. My parents' house stood between the Jewish houses that went on up to the market in the centre and the houses of the Poles which ran down towards the spacious fields with their wheat and rye, their fat buckwheat and spacious meadows of straw and hay and juicy fodder. All round there were fine apple and pear orchards and plum trees.
Many of the Jewish townsfolk made their living from them. They would lease the orchards from the estate owners when the blossoming season was over and it was already possible to estimate the season's crop. They spent the summer there with their families, watching the orchard, looking after the trees and the fruit, until the picking season came. They immediately marketed the early fruit while they stored the late ripening fruit in the cellars or the attics, putting them out on the market at the proper time.
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We lived in a one-storey house made of wood. Its front faced the street and there was a big courtyard behind where my parents grew vegetables and flowers. There were also fruit trees. Near the courtyard stood a big flour mill of three storeys, built of wood, the second largest in the town. The largest belonged to Knaster. It was built of red bricks and had a wall round it like a fortress. The community used to rent the mill near us every year in order to grind flour for matzot. At the proper season before the Passover it would be properly overhauled and cleaned from foundation to the shingles. I remember how my father of blessed memory, who was the neeman (trusted representative) of the community, used to welcome the local Rabbi and his companions and go through the mill with them and remark that everything was properly clean and there was not the slightest suspicion or sign of hametz (leaven). Then the Rabbi would give the hechsher (ritual authorisation) for grinding the flour for matzot. The mill was burnt down in Winter 1929. A very hard winter it was, with a sharp frost and heavy snowstorms. The fire burst out in the middle of the night with tremendous force. The whole town was lit up by the flames and sparks flew great distances. It was only the heavy snow which covered all the roofs and filled the streets that saved the whole town from complete destruction.
We were a large family. My parents, my father of blessed and saintly memory, Fishel Shlomo Mordkovitz and my mother Esther, my sisters Haya and Sarah, both now in the Argentine, Rachel, and my brother Abba Yehuda who migrated to America (Tuviah is now in the Argentine), I myself and my young brother Bunim, made our living from grinding buckwheat. The buckwheat mill consisted of two stones which were operated by a hired man. From time to time my sisters also helped in order to earn a little pocket-money. We used to grind the three kinds: The whole kind known as kasha, the medium 'or half kasha and the pure white tasty groats known as greiplech.
Father was quite popular. Our Polish neighbours were fond of him and appreciated him. I remember after the First World War
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when I was six or seven years old, bandits in uniform used to burst in from time to time and burn up the city and spread ruin and destruction, and as usual they voided all their fury on the Jews, who never dared even to go out into the streets then. Father and I entered the mill to arrange something. One of the gang who had taken up his station in the neighbouring courtyard noticed us and started quarreling with Father, claiming that he was spying on them and that he would have to be shot. Nothing that Futher said or explained helped at all. He drew his sword and wanted to kill him. But a miracle happened. By chance our Polish neighbour woman was at home and heard all the noise. She burst in and flung herself at the brigand's foot, weeping and entreating, and succeeded in persuading him to leave us alone. (But those brutes were angels compared with the Nazis.)
My father was a humble and modest man, scholar and truly G-d-fearing and meticulously pious. He devoted all his free time to the study of Torah. He was a Zionist heart and soul. I remember that he once took me to a meeting in the home of a householder who was the organiser and leading spirit of the local Zionists, but whose name I do not remember. There they spoke about a colony, buying land, and kushanim (title deeds). It was a highly moving atmosphere. I had the impression as though all those present were about to sell their property and proceed to Eretz Israel at once. Maybe that was why father was not so strict with us. The atmosphere at home was quite liberal. My older sisters belonged to the Right-wing Poalei Zion in which they were active. Members used to come to our house and argue and discuss about all the problems which then interested Zionist youth. The names of Yehoash, Leivick, Peretz and Borochov regularly flew to and fro. My parents did not object and did not interfere. Their concern was with the sons, and about them there were no compromises. After all, we were the ones who would have to continue along the good old Jewish lines, safeguarding the flame so that it should not go out. On Sabbaths we prayed at the Otvosk Shtiebel. My father of blessed memory was a Hassid of the Alexander
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Rebbe, but there were only a few of them in town and the Otvosk Shtiebel was a kind of centre for the Hassidic minorities, so to say.
Those who prayed there included old Starogovsky, Zemelman, Shmuel Dobreshklanko, who afterwards went over to the Gerrer Shtiebel. The young men who prayed there included Yehezkel Dobreshklanko, Abraham Zemelman, Pesach Moskovitch, Moishe Goldstein and others. In due course Moshe acted as the Torah reader on Sabbaths. He had a pleasant voice and it was very nice to hear him chanting the Torah sweetly and clearly, correctly stressing all the accents and notes.
The Hebrew Teachers (Melamdim)
Of the melamdim through whose hands most of the children then passed I remember: Danye the teacher of the tiny tots, from who we learnt the aleph-bet and reading. He was a plain fellow, short and chubby and good-hearted. He looked as though he were unable to drive a fly away from the wall. But how he rejoiced and made others rejoice at Simhat Torah or any religious occasion for a party (Seudat Mitzva). He became an entirely different person. I remember that he once came to such an occasion at the Otvotsk Shtiebel. A Warsaw Jew who had settled for a little while in our town was also present and could play Hassidic tunes on the violin. He played and Danye tucked the ends of the kapota into his girdle, and slowly, slowly, with his head on one side as though being whispered to he started dancing. First slowly and then more swiftly he began speeding up till he became virtually ecstatic, jumping onto the table like a boy and dancing fervently and devotedly with all those round him singing and chanting and dancing with him. How jolly it was!
Elia Gershon the badhan (marriage-jester) taught Humash (the Five Books of Moses), and the Bible. He was a harsh and strict fellow, treating his pupils very strictly. Just mentioning his name was enough to terrify the children. But he was also a first-class teacher. Leib der Einbinder (bookbinder) taught Talmud. He was a good fellow, friendly to everybody, and we were very fond of him.
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He opened the mansion of the Talmud before us, teaching us Mishna, Gemara, Rashi and some Tossafot. With him we had quite a good time between lessons. We were busy playing games and getting up to all kinds of mischief, playing hide-and seek in the women's part of the synagogue, organising in gangs and fighting one another, etc. The game we were fondest of was a kind of handball. We were a gay and mischievous set of youngsters. Our world was still fine and bright. Our faith was unimpaired and why should we worry and doubt the future? Particularly when the Torah was the best kind of ware!
The highest teacher before we entered the Beth Hamidrash and began to study on our own was Elia Hirsch. He was an outstanding scholar who knew the entire Talmud by heart. I remember him sitting for whole days on end in the Bet Hamidrash peering at the Gemara text with his half-blind eyes, swaying to and fro and studying silently. He taught us Talmud and Poskim (the principal later Rabbinical authorities). He repeated his lessons to us by heart and also gave us an inkling of the Zohar (the leading Kabbalist work). During the breaks when he was in a good mood he would read two sections of the Zohar to us and explain them. If any pupil misbehaved he would pull his ears till they hurt. Many of us used to wander round with flaming ears. When he was in a temper we kept well out of his reach
The old Bet Hamidrash
The Eastern Wall and the Holy Ark, with the Almemar in the centre of the room from which the Torah was read. The wardens of the congregation used to go up there to make their announcements. When a maggid (Preacher) came to town he used to stand there and preach and rebuke and rouse his listeners to repentance, prayer and charity. Up above on the balcony was the wiebershul (Womens' section) while in the attic was the room for the worn-out books, where town pages and ritual objects that were no longer fit for use were stored until the time came when they were taken and buried
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in the graveyard outside the town. (This was usually done on Lag B'Omer.)
Life concentrated in and around the Bet Hamidrash, and within its walls the Jew used to forget the difficulties of making a living and the toil of his days. He would pour his heart out to his Maker and to his comrades. They would talk of what is above and what is below, of business and money and communal affairs, the news of the great world and all that was going on in politics. Above all, the Bet Hamidrash was never empty or silent even for a moment. The traditional chant of Talmud study could always be heard there. We lads sat there day and night and studied with fervour.
At dawn the synagogue filled up with Jews saying the Morning Prayers, reciting Psalms or reading the Ayin Yaakov. Near the wall, beyond the bookcase which was full to overflowing with various editions of the Talmud and Rabbinical Authorities and various commentaries, you would find certain people sitting at the tables. These were the scholarly householders, the rabbi Rev Isaac Mordechai Zlotnik of blessed memory, Reb Isiah Kamin of blessed memory, Itshe Meir Gelernter, my father of blessed memory and others, together with us Bet Hamidrash lads, each and every one with his text open before him. The sweet chant would rise in the air. One studied in a whisper, another aloud, so that the traditonal Talmud chant echoed through the Bet Hamidrash. From time to time a lecture was delivered on a difficult problem (sugia) by one of the local scholars. After the lecture was over he would sit at the head with all of them round him, and would contend with keen casuistry on questions and problems deriving from the original issue. The air would grow heated, they would grow more and more excited and it would became lively. We loved to hear the lectures of my master and teacher the Rabbi, Reb Yitzhak Mordechai Zlotnik of blessed memory (the father of Ephraim Tzoref). He would give his lecture directly and simply, without any irrelevant pilpul and divergations. His explanations were clear and went to the heart of the matters concerned. He served as Rabbi in town without receiving any pay, for he was a well-to-
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do man, pleasant and highly honoured and respected. From time to time I remember him with a warm heart, full of high esteem. He treated me with particular affection and very much wanted me to become ordained for the rabbinate. We started studying Tractate Hulin (dealing with the slaughtering of animals), and went on with the various volumes of the Turim and Shulhan Aruch, together with their authoritative commentators. When he did not feel well I used to go to his home to study in order not to miss a lesson, Heaven forbid. He was a saintly man. May his memory be blessed!
One of the outstanding youngsters was Selig the son of Nahum Israel, a member of the Agudat Israel. A shrewd and sharp lad he was, keen and a mountain-mover as they say in Hebrew. He was a Gerrer Hassid and together with a whole group of Hassidim I once went in his company to the Rabbi of Ger (Gura Kalvaria), one of the most outstanding Hassidic figures of the past century. During the night I was there the Bet Hamidrash was burnt. I remember that we received a telegram sent to Jacob Meir Lipinsky and running: The Bet Hamidrash and seven Torah Scrolls have been entirely burnt down. Wolf the simpleton has also been burnt.
The Mikveh (Ritual immersion pool)
The whole style of our life included the mikveh to which all Jews came, both large and small, in order to immerse and purify themselves and hallow themselves for Sabbath and festivals. The mikveh stood over a source of running water at a depth of eight to ten meters. During the week it would fill itself up to the brim. The water was then pumped out with hand pumps. This was one of the duties of Wolf the Simpleton. The mikveh was heated by steam which was run through a pipe from the stove which stood in the corridor. Pim-pom, pim-pom, the steam would force its way noisily into the water. It happened more than once that the water became too hot for ordinary everyday people. They would stand on the steps and wait for Reb Zerech, for Nahum Israel and for Shaya the Angel. Those were hot, glowing Jews. They would slowly
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descend, push their hands through the water like oars and paddles and mix the hot and cold together. They would immerse themselves several times swiftly, and then the mikveh was in order for general use. (We sometimes used to see to it that the mikveh water should really be almost boiling.) When they came out after their immersion they looked half-boiled
Moshe the bath-master (der kvenik) who was assistant head of the Hevra Kadisha (Holy or Burial Society) in town, had an only son named Reuben who studied in the Bet Hamidrash with us. When he married his father bought him several hundred chicks with his bride's dowry. The reckoning was a simple one. The chicks would lay eggs and he would make a living selling them. In brief, it would be easy and paying work. One fine morning the news spread, May it never befall you, all the chicks are dead! An epidemic has laid them low. Not one is left. And that was the way the first attempt to raise poultry on a commercial scale finished in our town.
On the Passover Eves it was in the glowing mikveh stove that he used to burn the hametz. The house would be clean and polished without the slightest sign of any leaven.
But in a few familiar places Mother used to leave some crumbs of set purpose. Father would seek and search by candle-light. With a chicken's wing he swept the leaven into a rag and would recite the Aramatic formula specially set out for the occasion.
My close comrade and friend was Yehezkel Dobreshklanka. We were born and grew up in the same street. Our parents' homes stood close together. We were neighbours and together went from childhood to adolescence. We played childish games, went on to Heder and Beth Hamidrash. Together we also tasted of Hakala (Enlightenment). The first books we read were the stories of Feierberg, Frishman and Bialik, with volumes of Hatekufa and the Heatid edited by S.J. Ish Hurwitz. The impression of those books is still etched in our hearts to this day. We lived tranquil and complete lives. Our faith and outlook were clear and firm. Then suddenly everything seemed to collapse like a tumble-down house in a storm. We faced
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all kinds of problems and conflicts which had been solved in the regular fashion by our forefathers; but now they rose with all their gravity afresh. Piles and heaps, whole mountains seemed to gather round us and demanded solution.
Yehezkel and I, our comrade Pesach Moskovitch, fell on the books like someone lost in the desert dashes to a spring of water. Together we read, we studied, we debated, we exchanged views and opinions. We were drawn to new beliefs, we began to put the world to rights, we were concerned for humanity at large. We searched and groped for a way of our own and for our place in life and the world. It was an exciting period full of stormy experiences. Nor was it easy for us. Our parents and the townsfolk watched us at every step. But we found ways and means of our own to quench our thirst for knowledge.
Yehezkel Dobreshklanka was a many-sided individual, and an enlightened maskil in the full sense of the word. He was familiar with world literature, and particularly with Modern and Haskala Hebrew literature. In him there was a good deal of the active politician. He was always aware of what was going on in the outer world and within Jewry, and had a very clear and definite stand of his own. Active as he was in our cultural and communal life, he always set out to convince, to win people to the Zionist idea; and he was successful. He was graced with personal charm and the qualities of a true educator, so that he could find his way to the hearts of the younger generation. And he was liked by all and accepted by all, a Zionist heart and soul.
It was he who established the Hashomer Haleumi troop and raised it to a high level, educating a whole generation of youngsters for aliya to Eretz Israel. Many came here under his influence, I joined them and was an active member, and in due course came here after spending a certain time at hachshara (halutz training).
Yehezkel was the only one who accompanied me to the train when I came to Eretz Israel. I left our town furtively, in order not to attract the attention of the authorities, for I should have reported
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for military service. The Movement demanded that its members should join the kibbutzim established at Magdiel and Kefar Saba, and set up new ones. The educational stress was to live in the kevutza. For that reason Yehezkel deferred his own aliya. He felt apprehensive, in case he would not be absorbed in that kind of life. For he was an individualist by nature and outlook. An upright man he was, who said what was on his mind and in his heart and never wished to promise what he would be unable to fulfill. May his memory be blessed.
|A group of amateurs in Racionz, presenting the melodrama Jiduvka (The Jewess)|
by Rachel Beth-Zion Lask-Abrahams
The 20th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising was the occasion for a general commemoration which drew Jews to Poland from the far corners of the earth. They came by plane, by boat, by train and by coach in order to pay homage and to mourn their dead collectively. Many were comforted that those Ghetto heroes now dead, who had fought at such hopeless odds, were not forgotten.
The actual memorial demonstration was an impressive sight, with delegates from the different countries and organisations taking their turn to lay the token of remembrance on the ground in front of the Ghetto Memorial. Tall Polish soldiers, picked for their height and handsome appearance, flanked the Memorial on one side. As each wreath was placed a drummer beat a few staccato notes which were carried far into the air by amplifiers. The Memorial itself faced the still standing Ghetto walls where gaps in the masonry and glassless window apertures stared vacantly like a blind man's sightless eyes. The space was filled with spectators. It was too crowded - too packed with people, spoilt for me by the noise of the onlookers, their restless milling around and the many photographers busily taking pictures of the different groups as they came in turn to lay their wreaths. It was a collective, public display, a stage-set of spectators, actors, musical accompaniment even, lacking for me the immediacy and poignancy of personal mourning.
Grief is an emotion which is suffered individually and has nothing to do with a collective public spectacle. This was revealed to me when I, in traditional Jewish way, went on my pilgrimage - Kever Aboth - to visit the tombs of my ancestors. This was one of the reasons I had availed myself of the chance of attending the Warsaw Ghetto commemoration.
My parents had come to England at the end of last century from Raciaz, a Polish townlet; and though I know that it had shared the fate of those numberless other Polish places where Jews lived in
pre-war times, I was impelled by the sentiment which sends people generations after to visit ancestral birthplaces and ancestor's tombs, to see where my family had lived for generations.
Raciaz lies two hours by road from Warsaw, in the district of Plock. It was a warm spring day when I went on my pilgrimage, enabled to do so through the kindness of a fellow-member of the London group who had arranged for a Polish taxi-driver, who knew some little English, to accompany us.
A little way out of Warsaw he pointed to a small cemetery wall well tended, with white headstones gleaming in the sun. It was of Italian prisoners-of-war who had died in Poland during the First World War. There was little traffic and soon we were in open country. And seeing the fine countryside, I was pleased that all had not been drabness for my elders here in this land. We drove through country lanes, passing people dressed in their Sunday best, on the way to church. On through tracks where we passed not a single soul.
It was with a thrill that I saw the names of villages known to me since childhood from my parents' references - the Polish countryside is well sign-posted.
My pulses quickened when I saw the name Raciaz. We came in through the Warsaw Street - this, I knew, had been the Jewish quarter. The village square, common throughout Poland, was surrounded by houses irregularly placed. No one was about, but as the car turned, we saw an elderly man, walking. My companion stopped, to ask him where the Jewish cemetery lay. The man affected not to know, saying he was a stranger in the district. So we turned back to the village. This time we noticed a woman in a small garden regarding us with curiosity, for noticeably we were strangers. She answered our questions readily, first, however, enquiring the names of my family. She had known members, mentioning them by their first names. I did not question her about them, for what would have been the use? I knew what their fate had been; and it was scarcely likely that she would have been willing to impart to me, a total stranger, anything likely to implicate or incriminate others.
However, she did direct us to where the Jewish cemetery was - had been, rather, for she said it had been demolished by the Germans and tombstones were all gone. But if we went straight on, across the fields, past the village's own Christian cemetery and a stone memorial - we would recognize the Jewish cemetery by scattered broken stones lying around.
We went across the fields as far as we could by car, till boggy ground stopped us. We passed a neatly fenced, pleasantly situated cemetery, well tended, with tombstones bright in the sunshine. We passed the memorial column indicated by the Polish woman. This my companion on inspection declared was erected to the victims of a cholera epidemic some 80 years before.
We continued through the fields, on the look-out for the stones which would identify the place I sought.
I knew that the Jewish cemetery was at some distance from the village, for my Father had spoken of this fact. But I did not know, could not know, how far - and the directions had been vague. The fields we passed were cultivated, some newly furrowed. They stretched gently uphill. There were tracks in the distance - grass grew and some scattered clumps of heather. Above, the sky stretched - immense in that open space - and softly blue. But there was an absence of birdsong; and there were no stones, no signs of such kind as I sought.
I began to despair and suggested to my companion that it might perhaps be better to desist. But he - he was a fine man, his own brother had been shot for aiding Jews during the war - would not hear of this. You have come a long way, he said to me in broken English, Your heart will never be at rest unless you find what you seek. It is a holy duty. So we continued on our way.
Soon my companion noticed what looked like farm outbuildings in the distance. Bidding me remain where I was and not move but wait till he returned, he set off to make enquiries.
I stood alone, in the midst of those open fields on that beautiful April morning. All seemed quiet and at peace and the sun shone down from out the placid sky on this scene - on this very place where I know my ancestors had trod; which they had passed as they carried their dead to eternal rest.
I do not know how long I stood there, alone, in that place on that beautiful day. But of a sudden I was aware that from a distance, at first high on the horizon, then low, came a single bird. It was black and the wing motion was very rapid as it flew - beating the air as it came towards me. There were no other birds in the sky; this was the only one. As it came, its course was circular, describing a wide circle. Twice its flight encircled the fields and me, holding its course with the unusually rapid beating of the wings as in distress, as though communicating with me in some inarticulate way, trying to force a message. It brought to my mind how, when my Father had died, a dove flew into the small chapel where the Rabbi was giving the memorial address and had rested on a small ornament in a niche in the wall the whole time the Rabbi spike - until my Father's dear body was borne from there and laid to rest. The incident had comforted me at the time because folklore links birds with the souls of the departed. But this lone bird brought me no comfort. Its agitated flight brought me some message, communicating that here was no rest; no peace in death - something urgent. I knew not what. And then it was gone.
I stood alone and was not afraid even though my companion was out of sight for some time. Within me was a feeling of inevitability - as though I had come for this; and that I had had a message and must accomplish the task or mission stressed by the bird's agitated flight.
Eventually my companion returned accompanied by a farm-worker who offered to show us the place we sought: he knew where it lay.
So, again we set off. Over more fields - up another incline; over ground no longer cultivated. Then we came to a place where
grass grew wildly - and the Pole stopped, pointing. And there, amid the grass, were some fragments of stone, chips, some small slabs; in one place a section of what had been a rounded column, it surface rugged and pitted, but of golden-brown colour in the small smooth undamaged sections as they shone, sparkling like diamonds in the sun - a reminder of what had been a tombstone. But there were no words, no letters, no lettering - nothing to indicate what had borne an inscription of any kind. I walked, stumbling, seeking some sign, searching for something that would indicate that here had been the House of Life of the generations of the Jews of Raciaz - my own family and ancestors.
There were only stone chips scattered around, only fragments. The thought suddenly assailed me that I was possibly standing on the very graves of my grandparents. And the thought - how the mind supplies its own torture! - this time that my Father who was a Cohen and had been punctilious about such matters, could not have trodden here for the graves were no longer clearly defined and the paths between were non-existent, making it impossible to observe the Biblical and Talmudic regulations regarding uncleanness. I was stricken.
Grass was grown around and above these chips. The others sensing my distress sought to ease things for me - tried to find a stone - something - an engraved letter even, to prove something - something - but what? They sought, the least sign even, that here had been laid to rest known men and women for whom there had once been preserved some identity in death; even collectively: that here was once an ordered Jewish cemetery.
I did not know where to turn, where to look, where to find and where to prove that here since 200 years, when an ancestor had come from Lask, near Lodz, the first Jew to settle, (Raciaz had belonged to the Church and Jews had not previously been permitted to reside) Raciaz Jews had been interred. Around me were those wide-open spaces - and soon overgrowth would obliterate even what fragments now remained.
There was no tomb on which to place a stone in traditional manner, so instead I placed one on the broken chipped column which lay on the earth, which may even have been an ancestor's memorial.
I had come long way to see the tombs of my fathers. But I could not find them. They had been wantonly destroyed, so I was told, by an enemy determined to blot out not only the living but even the memorial memory of the dead. This was the deed of the avowed enemy of Jewry - and not in any sense understandable.
But what hurt most and ravaged the heart was the disregard, the indifference of those among whom my people had lived for generation on generation. Though they had been part of the life of the villages and the townlets which made up the greater part of Poland, there had been no sign of any regard, any regret for their fate; no sign of any tenderness such as one offers in the death of one's enemies even - death which makes all men equal. I thought of the well tended graves of the Italian prisoners-of-war which had been pointed out to me. I thought of the villagers' own churchyard and the memorial to the cholera victims. I thought of those German airmen shot down in Britain during the war whose graves were tended by the very women who had lost their own dear ones through the action of those same airmen. I thought: how strange that the Government which showed its disapproval of the attitude of former Polish governments towards Jews so strongly - and had, in fact, openly sympathized and participated in the very commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising - this same government had such little regard for Jewish feeling and sentiment concerning Jewish places of interment. Even oblivious of the financial aspect of the tourism which would bring Jews on their own individual pilgrimages to the tombs of their fathers. It would be so simple to set up signs, to tend by other means, however slight, and show some respect for those place where Jews had in the many centuries of their sojourn in Poland laid their dead to rest.
In the course of time cemeteries become derelict, tombstones vanish,
are covered over and disappear. But this does not happen until generations have passed so that the feelings of family and friends are not harrowed; decency not violated. But here, within less than a generation, Jews had been violently desecrated in death no less than they had been in life and left with no memorial, no means of identification for those of their own to go on pilgrimage, so natural an urge among peoples. They, alas, alas, have been thought fit only to fertilise, as does dung, the earth of the people among whom they had lived for more than a thousand years.
I brought away with me a fragment of stone as proof, if only to me in a far-off land, of a place where my own had been reverently laid to rest; but which those among whom they had lived and together suffered in the universal process of living, regarded with cold indifference. They had been alien in life and in their death they were denied repose. All too soon even the now remaining pitiable signs would be completely obliterated - and men will forget the places where lie no less the least than the great ones of a Jewry that flourished and gave luster to Jewish life in the Exile. Their bodies will remain, to fertilise an alien soil.
Their memory for a blessing.
by Esther Guttman
It was the Eve of Purim in 1932. At midnight the town bell suddenly began ringing, alarming all the population with the tidings that a fire had begun. The late Mordechai Goldberg ran through the streets yelling, in a voice entirely unlike himself: The Bet Hamidrash is burning! The Bet Hamidrash is burning! And his voice startled us much more than the big bell.
The old Bet Hamidrash was built of wood. Everybody in town left their homes and gathered apprehensively in the Kiniki Street. It was danger to the life and property of all of us. True, there were Christian firemen, but they were in no hurry. The burning of the Jewish Bet Hamidrash did not worry them. So all the Jews mobilised themselves. The pump was in the market-place far away from the burning building. So they had to line up in a chain passing pails of water from one to the other. But where were they to take so many pails and buckets? There was only one word repeated in a dreadful monotone that expressed all the grief and danger and fear and urgency: Fetch pails, pails, pails! Fetch pails! Pails! People began packing up all their movable goods. In spite of the tumult and confusion there were comical incidents. One family that lived near the fire took out a table and carried it maybe half a kilometer, as though that were all their property.
I can still hear the anguish-stricken despairing cries of the Jews as they yelled: The Bet Hamidrash is burning! Jews, the Bet Hamidrash is on fire! Where's Woolf Mayinki? They suddenly remembered Crazy Woolf who slept in the synagogue. Where is he? they asked the Poles. Have you seen Woolf? But their neighbours misled them. One said he had seen him here and another one there. They hated the Jews so much that they were happy to have him burn. At last the fire brigade came and helped to put out the fire. In the morning when people went to clear away the ruins, Woolf's body
was discovered. It was one burnt charred mass, terrifying to see. That depressed us more than the actual burning of the Bet Hamidrash. For we told ourselves that a new one would certainly be built, but Woolf, who had always helped all the Jews of the town, would never come back.
When news of the calamity and of the burning of the Torah Scrolls reached the surrounding towns, people came to the funeral from Plotzk, from Drobnin, Mlava, Sierpce, Bielsk, and elsewhere. They all mourned the burning of the Bet Hamidrash and the Torah Scrolls, and they spoke of the holy martyr who had merited burial with the Torah Scrolls. They even proclaimed, He must have been one of the Lamed Vav, the thirty-six hidden saints.
He was buried as a martyr next to the Holy Ark in which the ashes of the Torah Scrolls were found.
|Aryeh Rachum, former president of the Rocionz society in Israel in his welcoming
address at the banquet given in honour of Mr. Ely Chapman, a guest from Chicago
by Y. Buch
Green Thursday is a Christian holiday. On that day the children do not go to the Polish schools, work stops and so does business. On that day the Christians used to put a green stand round the big cross that stood in the centre of the big market in Raciaz. There was another stand which they covered with flowers and with all kinds of sacred pictures. It was next to the home of Joshua Pshedetzki and Pinhas Greenspan.
The priest went amid a large crowd of celebrants, some bearing banners and crosses, to the large cross in the middle of the marketplace. There he prayed, and then the procession moved to the other stand where the ceremony continued. Through Pshedetzki's window it was possible to see the Catholic festivities. The lads who worked for him were curious and wanted to see the procession. We neighbours also crowded to the window in order to watch. It so happened that the two fellows who worked with me were wearing blue-white striped shirts. All of a sudden the celebrants began yelling that we Jews were mocking the prayers of the priest, and the proof was that the young men were wearing Jewish Tallitim (prayer-shawls).
Some of the crowd prepared to break into Pshedetzki's house, but the Raciaz police sergeant held them back and quieted them down. Then he started an investigation. Naturally he put the blame on us, particularly the two young fellows who were wearing the striped sports shirts. They were Joel Kuzhbarodski and Yossel Zhbich. The other observers who were together with them served as witnesses. They were: Isaac Buch, Feivel Brodski and Reuven Zhbich, Yossel Birnbaum and Mordechai Kitai. We were very worried, for we knew very well what a trial on such a charge might mean. If they were found guilty there would be riots.
The parents of the accused lads appealed to their Hassidic rabbis to pray for the cancelling of the charge, while we appealed to Advo-
cate Hartglass in Warsaw, who was then a delegate in the Polish Sejm. At first he hesitated about accepting the defence, but when we made the situation clear to him and the danger of the community, he agreed to take the case.
Several months later the trial was held in Sierpce, the District Centre. I shall never be able to forget the great impression made upon us by the late Advocate Hartglass. From the moment he entered the Court you could feel his worth and dignity.
And now the bell rang. We all rose to our feet. The Judge entered, sat down, quietly turned over the charge sheet. The witnesses were summoned to the stand: Five Jews and eight Christians. The investigation began. The first to be questioned were the Witnesses for the Prosecution. Advocate Hartglass noted each detail down. Then he commenced his keen cross-examination. The contradictions and falsehoods of the Poles at once became obvious. In brief, our defending counsel showed up the worthlessness of all their witnesses. Then he began his speech for the defence which lasted about two hours. Finally he succeeded in convincing the judge of the innocence of the accused, and our lads were found not guilty.
When the verdict was given a wave of enthusiasm and joy and happiness burst through the courtroom. It spread at once into the streets of Sierpce and was passed by telephone to our own town. The Jews of Raciaz felt that this was a great miracle, and a proof that the truth can sometimes be victorious over falsehood.
by Rachel Kopolis (of Issac Zemelman's Family)
Before the First World War a Gemilut Hassadim (Free Loan fund) was founded in Raciaz. My father of blessed memory was the treasurer. Afterwards, when the fund became the Merchants' Bank, he continued to serve as treasurer without receiving any pay.
At that time he was elected chairman of the Community Council and Parnass (Warden) of the town. He was a Hassid of Gur and from time to time he would visit the Rabbi of Gur. (We were thirteen children. Three died in childhood and five brothers and five sisters were left). Our home was always open to wayfarers and the needy although we were such a big family.
I remember that during the First World War the Jewish soldiers were guests in our home, where they were provided with ample board and lodging. Once it happened that a religious soldier with a beard happened to come when we had no food ready. My father of blessed memory came into the kitchen and saw a goose which had been slaughtered and plucked and was lying ready for Sabbath. He ordered the liver to be taken out of the goose, roasted and fried at once for a meal for the soldier guest.
That year on Seder night a German Jewish soldier who was the son of a judge in Berlin was at the Seder with us. He read the Hagadah together with my brother Moshe of blessed memory. For the second night he came late. We had already reached the middle of the meal. When Father saw him come in he said to him at once: Go and wash! in order that he should sit down and begin eating. But the soldier did not understand and began to undress to wash himself all over until they explained that all that was wanted was that he should wash his hands for the meal.
When my little brother Moshe Aharon was born, Father made a feast on the day of the Brit (circumcision) for the poor folk of Raciaz and the vicinity. He sat among them and ate with them, and
after they had finished he made a generous gift to each one of them separately.
In our home it was Father's practice to lend money to needy people from week to week. When Father had to go to Warsaw and needed to collect the money we children went in regular sequence to remind the borrowers very politely that the money should be returned. We would tell them, Daddy's going to Warsaw, in order that we should not appear to be dunning them, which would be against the Din. All the borrowers understood the hint and returned the money with complete punctuality and gratitude.
Every Sabbath a certain honourable man who had come down in the world used to eat regularly at our home. He came from a town near Raciaz. This was in addition to the Sabbath guest sent to us on a slip by the father of Michael Avukai, who was charged with finding board and lodging for out-of-town people (orhim).
When there was a dispute between neighbours Father was the one who used to make peace between them. In cases of financial disputes the two parties would choose him and put the money in his hands until they reached an agreement. There was a case of a certain Polish woman whose husband was sending her money from America, and who entrusted all her money with Father. When she became very ill and was on her death-bed she asked Father to be called in order that she should make a will for her daughter to inherit the money. Father refrained from going because of the cross worn by the Priest who was there, but sent my mother and me, the oldest daughter, in order to receive her verbal will from her and afterwards to distribute the money as she desired. We did so.
Twice a year, before Passover and before Sukkot, my mother of blessed memory used to send parcels by my hands and those of my sisters as a secret gift to the poor folk of Raciaz (matan beseter).
Father had a beautiful handwriting, particularly in Latin characters, and he undertook to gather all the addresses of overseas kinsfolk of Raciaz Jews, for whom he used to write the addresses on the letters that they sent abroad.
My mother of blessed memory
My mother of blessed memory was a courageous and intelligent woman with a generous heart, exceedingly upright and naturally religious. In her days she was also regarded as a scholar. She regularly visited the synagogue and helped others to find prayers that they did not know. She was particularly good at letter-writing, and gave clear and lively accounts and descriptions. She carried out many important tasks. Together with Father she successfully managed the cloth shop. During that period of time she bore thirteen children, eight sons and five daughters. Naturally there were servants at home. I remember that my mother's greatest aspiration was that her sons should study and receive Rabbinical diplomas. She used to tell Father that he should choose the most expensive teachers for the sons, and their tuition fees used to be paid generously and regularly.
On Sabbath afternoons, after sleeping a little while, Father used to examine his sons in all that they had studied during the week. And Mother glowed with happiness when she heard that her sons knew their lessons. I remember that on Tisha B'Av the neighbours used to gather in our home and Mother would weep as she read them of the Destruction of the Temple and all that was connected therewith. The weeping and sighing of the women gathered there was heartbreaking. We girls used to weep quietly, with boundless grief and anguish. It continued like that until Father and sons returned from the synagogue and the shteibel.
My mother of blessed memory was a model daughter. Her parents lived with us at the end of their lives. It seems to me that there could never have been a more devoted and better daughter than my mother. She revered her parents and instructed that they were to be given all that was best and finest in the house.
That was during the First World War. Flour was a rarity, and Grandfather loved noodles. Mother gave orders that noodles were to be cooked for him in the kitchen every day and for him alone, in order that the flour should last longer for the purpose.
Another example: Grandmother loved to eat her food piping hot, but of course it took a little time to share things out and bring them to table for our big family. So naturally the food cooled off a little. As soon as Mother learnt of this she ordered that the first portion straight as it was, boiling from the pot, was to be given to Grandmother without any delay, and we should let her sit and eat without waiting. And only after she finished was the meal served to the rest of the family.
According to Mother's instructions it was always necessary to consider Grandmother's preferences about food, to prepare what she liked, and to refrain from dishes of which she was not fond. Incidentally, I always saw Grandmother praying with glasses. Yet remarkably enough, at the age of over seventy she no longer needed them, but used to read the prayers in the Siddur and the text of the Tse-ena Ure-eyna (The old Yiddish version of the Five Books of Moses, with legends and illustrative remarks) without any glasses.
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