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[Page 282]

Chapters of Memories

by I.M. Sidroni (Sendrowicz)

Translated by Alex Weingarten

A. I Learned Something From All My Melameds

1. My First Melamed [1]

I can't remember the name of my first melamed because he was never called by his real name, but only by his nickname. He was called “the hunchback of Bielsk” (der Bielsker hoiker). He lived in the house of Reb Zalman Berias (Friedman; so called because his father-in-law was Beria Oberfeld), near the new market. This was a hederfor the first stage of learning: alphabet, ivri (recognizing words from their letters), and prayer (reading the prayer book). The pupils were four or five years old; the implements of learning were a board with letters of the Hebrew alphabet on it, a rod, and a prayer book, and the “miracle” that would happen in every primary heder, and happened in mine too: every now and then, an '”angel” would drop a groschen (penny) on the alphabet board for the child who knew how to read.

All the “virtues” that writers and poets ascribed to the hederwere also in this one, as the poet says: “a small room, narrow and warm, with a flame on the stove top” with the Rabbi's wife with her kitchen utensils and domestic labor, and a few sticks of furniture and some sparse belongings, and the children (of the Rabbi, his only assets) with their shouts and tears. All this in the small and narrow room, but as for the rest of the poem “hear and remember my lessons, my sweet little boy; whoever reads Hebrew quickly, I will give him a prize” and similar comforting words, we never heard them from that Rabbi. He was strict and very bad-tempered. His scolding and yelling, at his pupils, at his wife and children, could be heard in the high heavens, and he would very often apply the thongs of a lash (it was called kantshik) to the bodies of the little children. There were not a few outbursts of real cruelty, incidents engraved deeply into the soul of a tender child and retained in memory until today. The Rabbi used the same lash with the leather thongs to beat his baby who was lying in his crib…

 

2. Rabbi Hershia Zlociower

My second melamed was my uncle, Rabbi Hershia Zlociower. He lived in the Gunsher house, near the mikve[2]. This was a hederfor the second phase of learning: the Pentateuch with comments by Rashi[3], the early prophets, and the beginnings of the Gemara[4] (the Tractate Baba Mezia). The pupils were six to eight years old.

The Rabbi was a good and even-tempered man. However, he too had a lash, with which he would “honor” one of his pupils from time to time. But he did it tenderly, and out of pity. He used a warm-hearted tone to explain the Pentateuch to us, and especially the biblical stories. He had a special melody, a sentimental and cordial inflection, whose echo has lasted in my memory to this day, which he used to recount to us, and sing with us, various parts of the Torah. This included the legend about the verse “And as for me, when I came from Paddan, Rachel died unto me in the land of Canaan” [Genesis 48, 7] (which he would begin with the words “When Nebuzaradan exiled the Jews, they passed by Rachel's grave”). Also the last testament of our patriarch Jacob (both in the Torah portion “And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt”) or “The Song of the Sea” [Exodus 15] (in the portion “And it Came to Pass”) and the song “Give ear, ye heavens” [Deuteronomy 23]. Similarly, the Rabbi would teach us, and sing with us the song Akdamut[5] and the scrolls of “The Song of Songs,” “Ruth,” “Ecclesiastes,” and “Esther.” We would learn and sing each scroll [megilla], together with its legends before the holiday with which it was associated, with a melody so beautiful and delicate and captivating, that its sweetness remains in the student's heart to this day.

When we began studying the Torah portion “they take for Me an offering” [Exodus 25], the Rabbi would use chalk to draw a menorah, the altar, and the other implements of the tabernacle on the blackboard. During the lesson on a particular implement, he would show us a drawing, whose form was not to be questioned. Similarly, the following week, during the Portion “And thou shalt command,” he would draw the ephod and hoshen[6] on the blackboard to make it easier for us to understand.

*

During the short winter days, it was customary to learn in the heder in the evenings as well. Evening lessons began two weeks after the Sukkoth holiday, with the Torah portion of “Get thee out of thy country” [Genesis 12] (“Get thee out” to the heder also in the evening), and lasted until the portion “They take for Me an offering” [Exodus 25] (the “offering” being stopping learning at night). There would be a special feast for the children to mark the end of the evening lessons. Of all the heders I studied in, I remember only the feast that was held in the heder of my uncle, Rabbi Hershia Zlociower (apparently, in the heders for older children, they did not have feasts). The feast was held on the last evening of lessons, that is, on Thursday evening of the Torah portion “They take for Me an offering.” There was no learning that evening, and it was completely dedicated to the meal.

And this is the account of the feast:
On the first day of the week of the portion “They take for Me an offering,” the children started bringing money for the feast; one would bring 10 groschen (pennies), and another would bring 20 groschen . There were also children who brought a full guilden (30 groschen ). They gave the money to the Rabbi, and he bought wine, fruits, and nuts. On the day of the feast, each child would bring some baked goods and sweets from home, and give them to the Rabbi. The Rabanit [Rabbi's wife], with help from her neighbors, prepared servings of “tasty things” that the children had brought and the Rabbi had purchased, and set the table. In the evening, when the children came back to the heder, the table was brimming with all the good food. They sat down, and the feast began. The atmosphere was joyful, and the children's faces shone with happiness and bliss, and the Rabbi and Rabanit were also happy at the joy of “their” children. The children would repeat the blessings for all the “tasty things,” and ate everything that was set before them. The Rabbi and Rabanit would serve them, and also taste the good food. The Rabbi would relate tales and also sing, together with the children “The Rock from Whom we have eaten.” The feast would keep going, with laughter and song, and the children would stop studying in the evenings.

*

There was also a meal on Lag B'Omer[7] in my uncle's heder, but this meal was less festive. On that day, we would come to the heder later than usual. Every boy came armed with a rifle or sword (of wood) and in addition, a cap pistol. Every boy would also bring a roll with butter, cheese, eggs, and scallions, and a bottle of milk or coffee, and we ate breakfast together. Later we went out with our full pack, accompanied by the Rabbi, for a hike outside the town. We went through the alleys[8] near the mikveand up the hill behind the “Kamnitza” (a large walled house) up to the boundary of the fields of the German called Falka. There we ran, jumped, fired our pistols, fooled around a little, and then sat down to eat the remnants of our breakfast. Then we returned to the heder. We didn't learn that day, and after we came back to the heder, we immediately went home.

*

In addition to the regular holidays that were in all the heders , we had special vacation days in this heder. Rabbi Hershia Zlociower would travel to see his Rabbi, the Rabbi from Radzin, before Rosh Hashanah and return after Yom Kippur, so that all the Days of Atonement were like a long vacation.

*

Rabbi Hershia Zlociower was a Hasid of the Rabbi Gershon Henich of Radzin. This Rabbi did a great deed that was quite extraordinary. He would make blue threads and his followers would put them on their tziztiot[9]. And this is the story:

The Talmud (Tractate Sanhedrin 91) says that once every seventy years a snail called hilazon comes from the sea. The temple priests, who knew how to predict the time and place of the appearance of the hilazon, would trap it, and make a pale blue dye from its blood. This was used to color the clothes that were worn in the temple. The followers of Rabbi Gershon Henich of Radzin said that their Rabbi had caught the hilazon, and made a blue dye from its blood. In order to be certain that the dye was authentic, the Rabbi traveled to Rome - so said his followers - to compare his blue with the blue of the curtain of the Holy Ark that was brought by Titus to Rome after the destruction of the temple, together with all the holy artifacts, and is now in the Papal archives. He found that his blue was identical to that blue. The Rabbi then prepared blue threads for all his followers to put in their tziztiot, as is written “and that they put with the fringe of each corner a thread of blue” [Numbers 15, 38]. I can remember very well that on one of the front fringes of the tallit[10] that my uncle, Rabbi Hershia Zlociower, wore, there was a blue thread.

*

Apparently, the income from teaching was not enough to maintain even the impoverished life of the Rabbi. Because of this he had two other unique sources of income. He made and sold wine from raisins for the kiddush[11], and baking and selling matzo shmura[12]. The students would help the Rabbi in this work. In the “wine industry” we would help in dicing the raisins. It was done in the following way: the raisins were spread over the bottom of a wide tub, and we would beat them with a large pole that had a sharp S-shaped piece of iron at the end. In preparing the matzo shmura, we would help by cleaning the wheat, and sorting the split seeds from the rest of the seeds. These tasks would be done by two students, while the rest of the class studied. Every now and then, the “workers” would be replaced. It is not necessary to state that we obeyed this commandment, “thou shalt surely release it with him” [Exodus 23 5], with all our heart and soul.

I have previously mentioned that the heder was close to the mikve. Once, during the winter, when we returned home in the evening, the rumor spread among us that in the evenings, especially on Thursdays, women bathe in the mikve, and when they leave, they abduct children… This rumor caused fear and terror among us. The dreaded thought pervaded us every evening that we had to cross this dangerous passage, through dark alleys and yards (we would go through a dark alley and then through the yard and entrance, also dark, of Mordechai David Turkeltaub, or of Yosef Pindek), until we reached the Jewish Street.

But we quickly recovered, and decided not to give in to feelings of fear, but to go home with head held high. We made the brave decision to fight if necessary with all the means at our command (sticks, stones, etc.) for our lives and honor. (Because, in addition to the danger, there was also the indignity - to be kidnapped by a woman.) So this is what happened: every evening we would walk home together in high spirits and ready for battle. Apparently the women became aware of our decision to fight and defend ourselves, and therefore abandoned the idea of abduction…

*

Once someone left some iron rails near the mikve. The rumor spread among us that Russia was preparing for war, and therefore they were beginning to lay a railroad track. Later, it turned out that the rails were brought to repair the roof of the mikve

 

3. Rabbi Leibush Rozenberg

I was seven and a half years old when I went to a higher heder, that of Rabbi Leibush Rosenberg. He lived on the Jewish Street, the third house from the bridge (on the market side). In this heder we studied the Pentateuch, the other books of the Bible (Pasuk) and Gemara, but at a higher level. The Rabbi was a gentle soul, mild tempered, well-liked by everyone, including his pupils. But he had poor fortune. Many troubles were visited on him during his lifetime; family problems, very little income. These caused bitterness and depression.

I started learning in the heder of Rabbi Leibush Rosenberg almost by chance. This is how it happened:
On the morning of the Friday after Passover, in the year 5668 (1908), I was at home with my mother. I was not going to the old heder anymore, and was not yet attending a new heder, because my father had not decided whether to send me to the heder of Rabbi Leibush Rosenberg or that of Rabbi Chayim Yosef Crystal. Suddenly, the door opened, and a boy came in and said, “The Rabbi said that Yechiel Moshe should come to the heder.”

“Which Rabbi?” my mother asked.

“The Rabbi Leibush Rosenberg,” the boy answered.

My mother thought that my father had decided to send me to the heder of Rabbi Leibush Rosenberg, and had told the Rabbi, who had sent the boy to get me. So she said “Go with the boy to the heder.” So I went.

Every Friday was very busy in our store, like in all stores. Friday was market day. Until about midday, customers would come from the surrounding villages, and after that, customers from town: Polish seamstresses who would want sewing notions for Saturday (there were no haberdashery shops in Sierpc yet), and Jewish men and women who needed a button, a pin, a shoelace, or a ribbon, or other item that was “required” for the Sabbath. And all of them were in a rush, and all of them pressing the shopkeeper: “Me first! Me first!” In addition to the proceeds, there was crowding, chaos, and noise. When my father finally closed the store and came home, it was late. Then he would quickly put on his Sabbath clothes, rush to the mikve, and then to the shtibl.[13]

At the evening feast, when father started talking about me and my next heder, my mother told him that I had already gone today the heder of Rabbi Leibush Rosenberg. She told him how it happened, and what she had thought. My father heard her out, thought about it for a moment, and said, “Oh well, let it be.” And so I remained the pupil of Rabbi Leibush Rosenberg.

The truth of the matter is that neither this Rabbi nor the heder were “genuine” or “natural,” but rather were “artificial.” In fact, Rabbi Leibush Rosenberg had a store that sold shoe leather and other cobbler's essentials. But the store was small, the stock limited, and his needs were large, both for sustenance, and for tending to the sick in his family (that after all his efforts were not cured, but died young). Rabbi Leibush Rosenberg opened a heder and became a Rabbi only because of his desperate condition. Even the room containing the heder was not “natural.” It was separated from the kitchen, and from the other residents of the house. They spent the day downstairs in the room near the store, and the heder was upstairs. The work did not suit the mild temper of the gentle Rabbi Leibush Rosenberg. Although the Rabbi had some pieces of leather (instead of a lash) with which he sometimes punished his pupils, but if truth be told, he did not know how to use them properly…

The house containing the heder had a tiny yard (shared with Madame Krosa Licht), but it lacked the most important amenity. Instead of this, we had an alternative, which we wouldn't have traded even for a palace - a place beneath the bridge (which was, as we said, nearby). Imagine for yourselves this wonderful place, this pleasure, this spaciousness, a river and a riverbank, a paradise on earth, all for us. An ideal place for games and passing the time, very difficult to part from and return to the heder. A number of times some pupils would forget to return to the heder, and the Rabbi sent an emissary to return the lost boys, and the emissary would also forget, until a second emissary came to get the first, and a third to get the second… In these instances, the Rabbi would apply his pieces of leather, but as I have said, he didn't know how to use them properly.

The biggest and oldest pupil among us was Avraham Licht (son of Shmuel Mendel Licht, the baker, and now in Argentina; because of his size he was called “Avraham Malech” [Avraham the angel]). Understandably, he was also the biggest mischief maker. Once, “Avraham Malech” took the Rabbi's leather strip and hid it under the bridge. Some of the pupils, including the author of these words, knew who the culprit was and where it was hidden, but no one revealed the secret, both because of solidarity, and because of fear of the culprit, who was the strongest boy among us. After a few days, “Avraham Malech” returned the leather strip to its place, and the secret was never revealed.

*

I remember two instances of rebellion in this heder. This is what happened:
One of the pupils was Gutkind Grina (son of Zalman Grina, the butcher). He resembled the rest of us in just about everything: age, studies, behavior, and so forth. For a short time, his older brother Toviah also learned with us, and he was different from us in just about everything: he was bigger (in age and size), and a big sheigetz[14]. His friends included not only Jewish shkotzim, but real shkotzim, Gentiles. The day of the fair was considered a vacation day, and there were no studies in the heder (because of the danger in walking to the heder). The older Grina convinced us not to go to the heder also in the evening before the fair (this was winter, when we studied in the heder in the evenings as well). We liked the idea, and agreed to meet in the evening in the market. So that we left our houses after the afternoon meal, as if to go to the heder, but we really went to the market.

It was a pleasant, wintry evening. The moon was wandering in the sky, and lit up the market, the water pump at its center, and everything else. The stars twinkled at us, as if to say, “We know the secret, but won't tell anyone.” The white surface beneath our feet, the snow, added to the loveliness of the evening and its congeniality. Some of the peddlers' stalls were already set up, and in another section, the owners were busy erecting them. There were many people in the market: some were working, and some wandering around; some laughing and some throwing snowballs and it felt carefree. We, with Grina in the lead, ran, jumped, threw snowballs, and generally fooled around. Grina reveled in his capabilities and his might. With every jump he would topple the upper rafter of a grain stall (apparently, they weren't fastened yet). We ran and jumped after him, but couldn't compete with his achievements.

Thus passed a good, pleasant, and happy evening. As far as I can remember, the aftermath of the evening was not terrible, either. At home, nobody knew about it. And the punishment we received from the Rabbi wasn't great, because the legal vacation day of the fair that separated the crime from the punishment lessened the crime and weakened the punishment.

*

The second rebellion did not have a specific ringleader:
As is well known, study is forbidden on the evening before Nittel[15], and there were no lessons then in the heder. But the next day, the day of Nittel, studies were as usual. And so we, the students of Rabbi Leibush Rosenberg, had to go to heder. But if on the evening of Nittel, before it even began, it was forbidden to study, then shouldn't it be obvious that it should be forbidden on the day of Nittel as well? We decided not to go to heder the next day and instead to meet on the riverbank, on the slope behind the yard of Reb Wolfe Hazan.

The next morning, we left home as usual, as if on our way to heder. But we went straight to the riverbank to our agreed upon meeting spot. We were just a few (I can remember only Baruch Burgand, the son of Reb Avraham Shochet) and we didn't know what happened to the rest of our friends. Where were they? The riverbank was covered with snow, and the edge of the river had any icy crust on top. We explored, played around, ate the meal we took with us to the heder, but we did not feel very happy. First, we were just a few, and second, we didn't know what happened to the rest of our friends, and were worried in case they had gone to the heder. Also, we didn't have much room for playing games, since we were afraid that some acquaintances would see us, either from the bridge, or from the yards that looked out on the river. So we wandered around until three in the afternoon, and then went home, as usual, for dinner.

As soon as I got to my house, my mother asked me, “Where were you all day?” “In the heder,” I answered. “What heder?” my mother raised her voice. “The Rabbi sent someone to look for you.”

I tried to justify myself, adding a sin to the crime, and said that I hadn't gone straight to the heder, but came a little late, and in the meantime the Rabbi sent someone to search for me. This was like adding fuel to the fire, and my mother started to yell at me: not only had I become a sheigetz, I had also become a liar. They made their own holiday, these shkotzim, a new holiday, Nittel. (I wondered, who told my mother, who revealed the secret?) From shouting, she went to weeping, crying about her bitter fate, left alone, with no one to watch me, to educate me (my father was no longer alive). I stood there, rooted to my spot, mortified, and didn't know what to say. If the earth had opened up at that moment, I would have willingly jumped into the pit, in order to save myself from my mother's screams and wails, and from my own guilty conscience, because in my heart I knew she was right. But what could I do now, after the fact? How could I take back the wrong I had done?

The lady who brought us water was sitting in our house at that moment. Of course, she backed my mother in her complaints. Not only that, but she would recite to me from time to time, a bit of doggerel (I don't know if she already knew it, or she composed it on the spot): “Nittel, farech interen hittell” (“Nittel, boils under your hat”). This little jingle irritated and humiliated me more than my mother's crying and shouting.

Finally, my mother gave me my dinner. I sat down to eat as if on hot coals. The food tasted to me as bitter as wormwood. I finished eating, and went to the heder. Going to the heder this time was like walking to the gallows. I was filled with feelings of fear and shame, and so, full of melancholy thoughts, I came to the heder.

Feeling weak in the knees, and with a bowed head, I went up to the stairs that led to the heder. Here began a new saga. Where were you? What did you do? Who incited you? I kept quiet, and didn't answer, for what could I say? I received my “portion” and sat down in my place. My friends received the same dose. Thus ended the second rebellion.

*

Rabbi Leibush Rosenberg initiated an important reform in his heder: writing. We would write in Yiddish for an hour a day from a lexicon (briefenshteler). We also wrote a little in Polish. I remember that I left a few partially empty lines in my notebook at the beginning and end of each paragraph, as I saw in the lexicon. The Rabbi told me not to use the lexicon as an example: the author left partial lines empty, because he profited from it. If you leave partial empty lines, you lose from it…

 

4. Rabbi Michalitia

I went from the heder of Rabbi Leibush Rosenberg to that of Rabbi Michael Bendkowski (who was called “Rabbi Michalitia”) when I was nine years old. At first he lived in the house of Binyamin Sobol, and later in the house of Yehuda Tcholk on Zhava (Zhavia) Street.

This was a typical heder for the study of Gemara. We learned the Bible there as well, but the main subject of study was the Gemara. We studied it in a number of ways: the “simple” Gemara (Pushet Gemara), Gemara with commentaries (Sheur), and independent study of the Gemara (Leinen, without the help of the Rabbi; this name evidently came from the word alein, alone). Rabbi Michalitia fulfilled for us the saying of our sages of blessed memory “Before the age of six do not accept pupils; from that age you can accept them, and stuff them with Torah like an ox” (Tractate Baba Bathra, Folio 21a, which Rashi interpreted as “until the age of six, do not oppose the child, and from then on, feed and irrigate him against his will, like an ox that has a yoke put upon it”). Rabbi Michalitia was very strict, and there was a firm discipline in his heder. Instead of a lash, the Rabbi had a rubber belt from a sewing machine (zeit in Yiddish; his daughter, Chayah, was a seamstress). But he usually used a more “natural” form of punishment, and generously applied smacks above the table and boots beneath the table to his pupils. (And if the smacks always hit their target, the boots would often hit the boy sitting next to the target.) Rabbi Michalitia was old and completely gray, but he was quick and agile. He was short (because of this he was called “Michalitia”). Some comedian said that when his wife Yetta (who was tall) went to buy fabric for pants for her husband, she said “Far Michaltien oif a por heizier.”[16]

*

During that period, the authorities issued a ruling that Jewish children learning in a heder must spend two hours each day in the government school. Jews viewed this ruling as a punitive edict, which would lead to ignorance of the Torah, and they alleviated its harshness by paying bribes. But there was a period when bribery didn't work and the children of the heders had to spend every day between four and six in the afternoon in the government school that was on Schools Street, behind the church.

This obviously took a couple of hours a day away from the Torah. But to tell the truth, we did not regret it at all. We considered it as bliss that we had never dreamed of; like a prize that was suddenly dropped on us from heaven. How much running, jumping, pushing, fighting and making up did we have every day going to and from the school? How much did we shout, yell, whistle and laugh on the way. Who would have thought that we would have great times like these!

The school itself was not bad at all; in everyone's opinion, it was better than the heder. First of all it took some time until all the pupils were in their seats and the deafening noise quieted down (the older ones among us felt themselves “responsible,” and calmed us down). Then the teacher came in (his name was Dembski, and all the children rose when he came in) and he started to read from a Russian text book, line by line. Avraham Licht (Avraham Malech, whom I mentioned earlier, who knew a little Russian) would translate into Yiddish. (There was another translator, and the two would take turns, translating every other day.) He would translate only a few words correctly (because the teacher understood the meaning of those words in Yiddish, according to the translator). The rest of his text was a mixture of silliness and nonsense. The children sat and tried not to burst out in laughter, out of fear of the teacher (he would hit them with a ruler) and also out of fear of the translator. After a while, the “edict” was withdrawn (apparently again by the payment of bribes), and we stopped going to the school.

I gained very little pleasure from going to the school. I went there for only a few days, and when it was over, the Rabbi told his grandson Hershel Yosef (who was also the grandson of my uncle Reb Moshe Sendrowicz) and me, “it would be a shame if your time would be wasted; better to stay here and we'll have a special lesson.” And so it was.

*

Nittel is apparently a day made especially for getting into trouble. I have already described the “incident” that we experienced on Nittel in the heder of Rabbi Leibush Rosenberg. Well, this is an “incident,” similar but not completely so, that happened to us in the heder of Rabbi Michalitia.

The Russian Orthodox community in Sierpc held a festive and splendid procession on Nittel. The procession included many icons (it was said that the glittering icons were made of gold), statues, and pictures of saints. The army regiment and military band also participated in the procession. The procession started at the Tcherkva (the Orthodox church) passed Plotzki Street, the market, Zhava Street (Zhavia, where our heder was located), the new market, and through the alley near the house of Reb Ahron Tcharnotchepka, went to the village of Bovorowa, and there they immersed the statue of Jesus in the river (that is what Jews said) in commemoration of the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River.

When the procession passed on the street in front of the heder, we heard the sound of singing and the music of the band, and of course we could not remain in our seats. Using the excuse that we had to go to the bathroom, we went out one by one to watch the parade. The splendor of the procession and the music of the band enthralled us, until we completely forgot who and where we were and started following the procession. We kept going until we entered the above alley (that was at the edge of town). Only then, as if we had become sober and opened our eyes, did we realize our strange situation and the double sin we had committed: we had left the heder for an extended time and followed the “ceremony,” with its priests, icons, and the rest of the profaneness.

Depressed and full of remorse we started back to the heder, full of fear of the heavy hand of the Rabbi. Embarrassed and fearful, we entered the heder. The Rabbi didn't even bother to ask, “Where were you?” Without saying a word, he pounced on us and distributed smacks in every direction, until our cheeks and ears were red as if on fire.

Like I said, Nittel is a day for getting into trouble…

*

We were treated to a slight relaxation in the severity of our studies in the winter of the year 5672 (1911-1912). The community of Sierpc had to find a new shochet [ritual slaughterer] and inspector, in place of the previous one, Reb Ischia Yossel Hanchovitch, who had left to become the shochet in Kalisz. A number of shochatim from different towns (of course smaller than Sierpc) proposed their candidacy. Among them was the son of the Rabbi, Reb Henich, who was the shochet and inspector in Lubitsch. Of course, the Rabbi wanted his son to be the shochet in Sierpc (a town considerably larger than Lubitsch) and he tried to influence various people who could be helpful in the matter. Because of this, the Rabbi would leave his house frequently, and people would come to visit him frequently, and talked, consulted, and whispered secrets. In the end, the Rabbi's son did not get the office of shochet and inspector (it went to Reb Yekel Ritzik of Sochocin), but we received many hours of freedom.

*

The longest period that I ever attended any heder was that which I spent in the heder of Rabbi Michalitia. I studied for five “semesters” in this heder. (This included an interval of three months because of illness and vacation. When it came to school and work, the term “semester” was considered to be six months - from Sukkoth to Passover, or from Passover to Sukkoth.)

 

5. Rabbi Ischia Margel

During the summer of the year 5672 (1912), I studied with Rabbi Ischia Margel (who was called Der Kleiner Itchia - the short Ischia). I purposely didn't say “in the heder of Rabbi Ischia” because he didn't have a heder at all. He had a small store with readymade goods in the small house of Frilanski (at the beginning of Fara Street; the house later belonged to Avraham Mlawa). The saleslady who did most of the work was his wife, Devorah (who was called Devorah Ischia's). He was very old, short, but a great scholar and a great Hasid. He studied the Torah and worked and behaved modestly and charitably all day long, and was indifferent to the problems and experiences of everyday life. Because of his poverty, he tried to open a heder, and a few parents (very few; there were six or seven students in this heder)[17] sent their sons there to study. But this heder was like “Jonah's gourd vine,” which came one night, and then was gone. The heder didn't last more than a “semester,” and parents left their children there only out of pity, because we hardly learned anything during that “semester.”

The heder was in two rooms: at times we would learn in a room next to the store, and at other times in the Rabbi's apartment, which was in Lieberman's house on the Jewish Street near the bridge (on the market side). Our daily schedule was as follows: we would first learn for less than an hour, and then the Rabbi would begin preparations for the Morning Prayer. The preparations for prayer were no small thing for him. When he left the room to “prepare himself,” he would remove his capote and put on a different one. He would say that it is forbidden to learn or pray in an article of clothing that was worn in the bathroom. The preparation took a long time. At ten o'clock when we went home for breakfast, the Rabbi went to pray. At twelve o'clock, when the Rabbi came back, we were already in the heder for some time, pretending to study. Actually, we were playing various games (I remember that we once played the game called shechelech[18] and continued it for many days until someone scored a thousand). Then the Rabbi would start doing three tasks at once: eat breakfast, teach, and doze off. This combination, which resulted in no eating, no learning and no sleeping, kept up until three o'clock, when we went home for dinner. When we came back, we again learned for less than an hour, and again the Rabbi would start preparing himself for the afternoon and evening prayers.

This was how the day passed, and how the weeks passed. That “semester” was like a long vacation.

 

6. Rabbi Moshia Karmelkeies

And finally, my last melamed was Rabbi Moshe Danziger (who was called “Moshia Karmelkeies”) who lived at first at the edge of town, in the Vloki[19] near Yehuda Baruch Skornik, and later in the house he (and his sister, the wife of Avraham Dikan the tailor) inherited from his father on Fara Street, near the church.

This Rabbi was different from his professional colleagues in two characteristics: physical and spiritual. Physically, he was a young man, thirty-six years old, but handicapped by a bent spine, who had difficulty walking around the room while leaning on his cane. Spiritually, he would “peek” at books about the Enlightenment. He was not really “spoiled” by this, as he was a strictly religious Jew, but he did have advanced ideas about the world and Judaism. The difference between this heder and other heders was a result of these two differences between this Rabbi and other Rabbis. The dissimilarities were evident in many aspects, but mainly in the number of pupils. All the other heders with children of this age had twelve pupils, but this heder had only six. Therefore, the tuition for this heder was almost twice that of other heders (6 rubles a month, compared to 4 rubles in other heders ). And another difference: in all the other heders the pupils would come at eight o'clock in the morning, pray, eat something, study till ten, and then go home for breakfast. In this heder, the pupils would arrive at nine o'clock, after praying and eating breakfast at home. The Rabbi settled on this arrangement because of his frailty, since he couldn't get up at an early hour.

Before starting to teach, the Rabbi would talk to us for about an hour in a friendly manner, about the news, or tell us a story, or a joke. He would say that such small talk would bring the pupils closer to the Rabbi and because of this they would learn not by coercion, but willingly. He brought a proof of this from the Gemara (Tractate Pesachim 117a): “Even as Rabbah used to say something humorous to his scholars before he commenced [his discourse], in order to amuse them; after that he sat in awe and commenced the lecture.” But the Rabbi did not have just a pleasant side; in times of need he also had a tool of fury. He had a lash with a few thongs whose handle was made of elegant braided leather. It was always by his side on the table or in his hand. But it was used more for entertainment than punishment. (We were already “big boys,” after bar mitzvah… and we also didn't cause much need to use a lash.)

After the initial short conversation, we started the lesson. The first hour was dedicated to the Pentateuch, the Torah portion of the week with interpretation by Rashi. After that we started to study the Gemara by ourselves (called leinen) with the Rabbi sitting on the side and listening. He would help us only in special cases, when we encountered “obstacles” that we couldn't handle by ourselves. (At the end of the week we repeated for the Rabbi the leinen of the whole week.) We studied till twelve o'clock, when had a half hour recess for eating and play. After the recess we started to learn sheur (Gemara with commentaries). We studied until three, and then went home for dinner. We came back at five o'clock.[20] From five to seven we studied “simple Gemara” (Gemara without commentaries). Here too the Rabbi did something different. We studied the “simple Gemara” like we did the leinen - alone, with almost no help from the Rabbi.

In “simple Gemara” we studied the Tractate Sabbath from the beginning till page 90, the end of the chapter “Rabbi Akiva Said.” From there, the beginning of the chapter “If one lays aside” to the end of the tractate we studied as “sheur.” In this way we completed all of Tractate Sabbath. For leinen we studied Tractate Sanhedrin.

The last hour - it usually lasted an hour and a half, and sometimes more - was dedicated to the study Nach[21]. The study of Nach in this heder had a completely different nature than in other heders . All the other heders treated study of Nach as a less important topic, as if just to satisfy an obligation. But in this heder, learning of Nach was an essential study, scholarship for its own sake, equal in value to the study of the Gemara. I remember that during the winter we studied the Book of Kings, so that at the end we could confidently answer such questions as: “How many kings ruled in Judea and how many in Israel, and what were their names? How many years did each king rule? Which of them died a natural death and which were killed, and by whom? How old was each king when he died? Who inherited his throne?” We could also answer compounded questions easily, such as: “How many kings of Judea and how many of Israel ruled for five years, what were their names, and what did they do? How many kings of Judea and how many of Israel died a natural death and how many were murdered, their names and stories? Similarly, we knew the important events that occurred in Judea and Israel during the life of each king. The Rabbi was very proud of our expertise, and if one of the parents visited the heder, he would show off our knowledge. It was like a small Bible quiz each time.

The six students who studied in this heder were divided into two groups, in accordance with their knowledge and capabilities. The first group consisted of Moshia Niapomoshzyk (who had an exceptional grasp of the material), Moshe Aaron Richgut, and the author of these lines. The second group consisted of Yisrael Osiolek (Yizraeli), Binyamin Burstein, Yechiel Meir Berman, Yisrael Wilk, Shepsel Visroza, Nissan Richgut, Gutkind Rankle, Ischia David Schnitzer - those who did not attend for all the three “semesters” that I studied in this heder. The two groups learned everything together, except for the self-study (leinen) of the Gemara. Here there was a difference, since each group studied a different tractate.

*

I mentioned above that only six students were in this heder. Once, a seventh pupil was added in the middle of the semester. This was Yisrael, the son of Shmuel Wilk (called “Shmualtia”). Shmuel Wilk was himself a melamed (for children, for “ivri” and Pentateuch). In addition he had a store that sold some haberdashery and some readymade underwear, and a stall in the market where he also sold these goods (he never made much money from all three enterprises put together). One of the pupils in the heder was Binyamin Burstein. His mother (Toviah) and brother (Avraham, his father was not among the living) also had a stall in the market that sold the same merchandise as Shmuel Wilk, and near his stall. They heartily hated each other and would quarrel every Tuesday and Friday (market days in Sierpc). After Shmuel's son started attending, Binyamin's brother once came to our heder, angry and agitated, pounded on the table, and yelled, “Voss teet do Shmualtia yung? Der mdubar iedech geven oif zex!” (“What's Shmualtia's boy doing here? We talked about only six!”) The Rabbi talked with him for over an hour (he sent us, the pupils, outside in the meantime), and apparently, they reconciled. The new pupil stayed with us until the end of the semester.

*

It seems that being a melamed was not enough to support the Rabbi's family, and so the Rabbi's wife took up commerce. For as long as they lived in the Vloki, she would buy butter and eggs on market days from the farmers for Shimshon Mordechai Visroza (the butter and egg merchants would give money on the eve of market days to many people who would buy merchandise for them, and settle accounts the day after market day). After they moved to Fara Street, she opened a stall in the market that sold readymade underwear.

*

The heder of Rabbi Moshia Karmelkeies was the leading heder in Sierpc. There were none in Sierpc that were better. The continuation of this heder was the Beit Hamidrash.[22]

 

7. In the Beit Hamidrash

On the holiday of freedom, in Passover of the year 5674 [1914], I became a free man. I stopped learning in a heder, and started studying in the (old) beit midrash.

This transition - from studying in a heder, where the boy has to be present all day, from morning till evening, and even later, imprisoned within the four walls of a small and stuffy room, confined to his seat under the constant watchful eye and strict discipline of the Rabbi - to studying in the beit midrash where the boy is in a large and roomy hall all day, among different people, young and old, studying and praying, and enjoying the freedom and independence -- is a great event in the life of the youth. It is an event that places a mark on the youth's development, and has a great influence on the future course of his life. To be sure, the freedom that the youth enjoys studying in the beit midrash is not absolute. There are enough elders and worriers - like uncles, friends, neighbors, and ordinary acquaintances - that come to the beit midrash to pray and incidentally follow the actions and deeds of the youth and pass detailed reports to his parents. But even the relative freedom that the youth enjoys has a bad influence, whether on the continuation of his studies, or his behavior in general. Also his sudden entrance into the company of grownups can have a negative influence. In previous times, when the beit midrash was full of studious youths, two or three “new boys” would study with one of the youths, who would be a sort of guardian of the “new boys,” keeping an eye on them. But during this period, because of our many sins, the glory and splendor of the beit midrash had diminished, and also of the youths attending it. Only a few remained in the beit midrash and they were there only a few hours of the day. The events that happened around that time almost completely silenced the sound of Torah in the beit midrash.

*

I studied there for a short time with Motel Ritzik (now in the United States) and Yossel Goldman overseen by Yossel's brother, Moshe Ber Goldman (now a rabbi in the city of Cleveland, United States). He was a learned and enlightened youth. There was gossip about him that he strayed a little from the “straight path” and also read “outside books.” His outward appearance suggested, in fact, that he had “glanced and been smitten.” His face was fringed with a beard that was trimmed short, he wore a white collar, his clothes were spotless, and his shoes were brightly polished. Our one hour lesson was in the morning, between nine and ten o'clock. We sat at the small table that was next to the stove opposite the door that looked out onto the courtyard. Sometimes, after a lesson, Moshe Ber would teach Yossel and Motel a new melody that he had composed.

Yossel Goldman had a short and turbulent life. From a zealously religious youth, he turned into a passionate communist. The extreme communism of the son clashed with the extreme piety of the father. The father, Reb Yehoshua Goldman, was an outstanding scholar and devout and strict hasid, and the son left his father's house, together with Hanna Leah, the daughter of Wolfe Hazan (called “Wolfe Kalmaias” after his father-in-law Kalman Fenster) and her bridegroom (a young man from Lodz who worked in Sierpc as a tailor). They illegally crossed the Polish-Russian border, and the three of them were arrested by a Russian border patrol, and charged with desertion of the cause of communist activity and propaganda (according to their view, a loyal communist must remain outside of a communist country so that he can participate in communist propaganda and activity there). After they were released - thanks to the efforts of another communist, a Jew from Lodz who was a friend of the bridegroom - the three of them studied at the Teachers' Seminary [in Warsaw]. Yossel Goldman would sometimes publish poetry in the Yiddish newspapers in Poland or Russia. During that time he died tragically, and his brief and stormy life came to an end.

 

8. Secular Education

At the end of this chapter - “I Learned Something From All My Melameds” - I want to mention my two teachers of secular subjects (Russian, Polish, and arithmetic) with whom I studied during that period. (I talk about my teachers from a different period, Mintz and Cohen, in another chapter.) During a short period of the summer of 1914, Shlomo Finberg (called Der Lutvak who lived in a house near the mikve,) and Shimon Gelbart (lived in Litvinski's house, near the synagogue), were, in succession, my teachers. They were both good and honest people, who lived lives of poverty and distress, but concealed their hardship. Shimon Gelbart was an enlightened man on Jewish subjects who was knowledgeable both in secular matters and medical topics. Later, Finberg was a clerk in the town hall, and Gelbart was a caretaker of the synagogue.

 

B. World War I

a. The First Period - The Russians

1. The First Days

War between Russia and Germany was declared on August 1, 1914. Within a short time, most of the European countries were involved, and when the United States joined in (in April 1917), it was honored with the name “The First World War.” August 1 was on the ninth day of the Month of Av[23], and Jews saw this as more proof that this day is marked for calamities.

I still have the picture in my mind: it was Thursday, June 30, just before evening. I left the beit midrash after the afternoon prayer, and I saw a large gathering at the entrance. The caretaker of the magistrat (town hall) pushed his way through the crowd with a Bundle of papers in his hand. All the people who had gathered there, and all those coming there forced their way to the wall to read the large notice just put up by the caretaker. The notice states, in large letters, that military mobilization has been declared in all of Russia and every man who is subject to conscription will be notified of the place to which he must report. The notice was signed by the Minister of War, Sokhomligov. The shocking news immediately penetrated the beit midrash, and all the worshipers poured outside to look at the depressing news for themselves. A mantle of gloom descended over the whole town, accompanied by fear and panic, especially in families where the husband, son, or sons were subject to the draft. Everywhere there were groups of people talking about the great event and the disaster that was about to take place. Everyone showed off his knowledge of politics and strategy, and everyone agreed that this war would not last long and at the most for three months. This was because no country could withstand the effects of the advanced tools of destruction that both sides had prepared for a longer period than that.

The conscription of the Sierpcers subject to the draft never took place. From time to time, the would-be conscripts were called to come to Plotzk on a certain day, and they traveled to Plotzk, but they didn't report. The Germans, who in the meantime had conquered the other bank of the Visla River, apparently knew the date of the coming conscription every time, and they attacked the area with artillery and prevented the recruitment.

On the day that war broke out (it was Saturday), the “Greens” (they border patrol were called “Greens” because of the color of their uniforms) could be seen in town. They had retreated from the border near Rypin. There were also a few carts that brought Jewish refugees from Rypin. The stopped at the market, opposite the magistrat, and the people living in the area gave them food and drink, and after a short stop they continued to Plotzk. It should be noted that these refugees were an exception. Usually, the residents of the border towns in our region stayed put.

On Sunday, a small panic started, with food hoarding. People bought two or three loaves of bread and a few more staples in quantities a bit larger than usual, and thought that would be enough to get by during the days of rage.

On that day, just before evening, the first plane flew over Sierpc. It was during the afternoon prayer, and all the worshippers came out of the shtibl of Gur that was in our courtyard (we lived in the house of Moshe Elsztejn at the beginning of Plotzki Street), wrapped in their ritual shawls and adorned with their phylacteries (it was the Fast of the Ninth of Av that had been postponed [because of the Sabbath]) to look at this great wonder. The airplane flew at a very high altitude, and looked like a bird to us, but we could hear its engine. If it was “ours” or the enemy's - we did not know.[24]

*

With the outbreak of the war came a shortage of small change. Small coins, whether of copper or silver, disappeared. One conjecture was that the Russian Bank was stockpiling silver coins, collecting them but not issuing them. A second conjecture was that people, especially the peasants were hoarding the metal coins (both silver and copper) because they had no faith in paper money. But either way (or maybe both), the lack of small coins caused big problems for the shopkeepers. It was hard enough to cope with the Jewish shoppers who bought for a few groschen (pennies) or kopeks (two pennies) and paid with a two ruble bill. (It should be noted than one ruble bills were not in circulation before the war; they were issued only at the start of the war.) It was harder to deal with the Gentile shoppers who were acquaintances and honest. And it was still harder to handle unfamiliar Gentiles. They would shout, threaten, and act outraged. And the worst were the shkotzim, criminals, and soldiers. They would simply grab merchandise and run.

Relief from the shortage of coins and a reprieve for the shopkeepers came from paper vouchers issued by the magistrat. Vouchers for one, three, and five kopeks were issued with the notation “Kop. towar “ (kopeks for merchandise) written on them. The first vouchers were hand-written with the rubber stamp “Kasa pomocy bratniej w Sierpcu” (fund to aid our brothers of Sierpc) with a drawing of two linked hands at the center of the stamp. After a short time, the rumor spread that vouchers were being forged. New vouchers were then issued, printed this time. In addition to the previous rubber stamp, the other side had an indecipherable Latin phrase stamped in sealing wax. The colors of the vouchers were: for one kopek - purple; three kopeks -green; and five kopeks - pink.

 

2. Troubles, Suffering, and Insults

It was the second day of Rosh Hashanah of the year 5675 [1914]. As everyone knows, it's forbidden to interrupt the Mussaf [additional prayer for the holiday] prayer (with conversation) on Rosh Hashanah, starting with the blessings prior to blowing the shofar [ram's horn]. This prohibition extends during all the time that the prayer of the Shmone Esrei [Eighteen Benedictions] is said in a whisper, the t'kiot [sounds of the shofar], when the prayer of the Shmone Esrei is said aloud (repeated by the prayer leader) with the t'kiot, until the final t'kiot that are in the middle of the Kadish that comes after the Shmone Esrei prayer. All this lasts for about two hours, but when we had just started whispering the Shmone Esrei prayer, Pultiah (Raphael Klinhoz) entered the shtibl (the shtibl of Alexander, which was then in the courtyard of Ezriel Yehuda Kotcholak on Zhava Street). The young men and those older worshippers who stood near the entrance and saw Pultiah understood that something was wrong in town. They were struck with foreboding and wanted to know what happened with all their souls, but - it was forbidden to stop praying. A soft, mute murmur passed through the congregation and reached the Eastern Wall. All the worshippers turned towards the entrance and peeked through their prayer shawls. Whether or not they saw Pultiah, they all felt the fear that was hanging over the shtibl. They very much wanted to know what happened in town, but - it was forbidden to stop praying. Only two youths (Ber Lanczner and Ezriel Dobroszklanka, who were not among the most pious, during the pause after Malchuyot when the congregation is waiting for the t'kiot), dared to ask Pultiah, “What happened in town?” But Pultiah remained silent and didn't answer. In spite of the apprehension and anxiety of the worshippers about what was happening in town, the prayers and t'kiot continued as usual. Pultiah also stood and waited patiently, without uttering a word, until the prayer ended.

At the end of the whispered Shmone Esrei, Pultiah approached the podium, banged it with his hand, and said, “Gentlemen, you should be aware that a cavalry company has entered town. The company commander went to the Rabbi and told him that he demands that the Jews provide all that is necessary for his men and their horses during their stay in Sierpc. In addition, he warns the Jews not to walk in the streets and to glance out of their windows, especially in the market. Whoever looks out of a window will be shot. The Rabbi is now consulting with the dozors (community leaders) about supplying the company. He sent me to inform all the prayer houses about this.”

Fear grabbed every one of us. Everybody wanted to ask what was happening in town. Had, God forbid, some disaster occurred? And what do Jews in other prayer houses say? What should we do after the prayer - go home, or maybe it's preferable to remain in the shtibl? Everyone wanted to ask these and similar questions, but - it was forbidden to stop praying. And Pultiah, when he had finished talking, left.

The prayer leader for the Mussaf starts the service with the words “Agitated and terrified” (Reb Yaakov Meiria {Kolas} was the regular Mussaf prayer leader of the Alexander shtibl) and said the Shmone Esrei prayer aloud (repetition of the prayer leader), and the worshippers were agitated and terrified as they went through the liturgy and heard the t'kiot.

At the end of the Shmone Esrei prayer, the last t'kiot, and Kaddish, a torrent of words, questions, fears, and guesses broke out in the congregation. Everyone expressed his worries and qualms; everyone asked questions, without anyone being able to calm people down and answer the questions.

Slowly, those worshippers that lived near the shtibl or in the new market dispersed to their houses. But those that lived in the (old) market or had to pass through it stayed a while at the shtibl. Since there was nothing suspicious in sight, and no noise was heard, the people who lived around the market began to try and get home. In small groups of two or three we started towards the market, and when we were near the market, we separated and went one by one. We saw nothing unusual in the market, just a few soldiers standing next to their horses near the magistrat.

*

Many Russian army regiments passed through Sierpc on their way to the German border[25]. They came day and night, coming from the road to Plotzk, and going to the road to Rypin. Thus went company after company and battalion after battalion, tired and dusty, and sometimes hungry, with just one question on their lips, “Daloko du Berlina?” (“Is it far to Berlin?”)

The Polish Jews suffered many tribulations and insults during this period, and the Jews of Sierpc experienced the bitterness as well. Beatings, name-calling, snatching merchandise from stores were everyday occurrences. The suffering was especially bad on days when just a small group of soldiers were in town, and few officers were seen on the streets. On those days, the Jews and their property were defenseless. Blows to the heads of Jews were regular occurrences. The soldiers took anything they wanted from the stores, not only for themselves, but also for their companions, the local shkotzim. The more “honest” soldiers would try to pay with a bill, and because there were no coins available for change, they would take the merchandise and go. On those days, the Jews would refrain from going outdoors as much as possible. When the day turned into evening, the Jews, and especially Jewish girls, totally avoided the market. The Jews would stay in their apartments in the evening, with locked doors, shades drawn, lights lowered, walking slowly and talking quietly. They were very fearful, with ears attentive to the slightest sounds from outside.

After the great and shameful Russian defeat in East Prussia, a few of the survivors again passed through our town on their way back. Individual soldiers or small groups from various regiments and companies would drag their feet through the streets with no order or discipline. Coming on the road from Rypin, and disappearing into the road to Plotzk, they were tired and depressed, filthy and full of dust, in tattered and worn out clothes, one without a hat and another without shoes, one slightly lame or in shabby vehicle or on a haggard horse (sometimes two on one horse). There were no officers to be seen among them. Apparently, because of the disgrace, they didn't accompany them. This mournful procession came through the town day after day.

In order to appease the soldiers, the Jews set up tables in the streets that the soldiers passed through and gave them food, fruits, sweets, and cigarettes. A thin stream of soldiers also came through the Jewish Street. They came from the Vloki, passed the Jewish Street and the market and turned to Plotzki Street. There was a table near the house of Dudia Tcharnotchepka from which the offerings were distributed to the soldiers. A friend and I were on the sidewalk across the street when two soldiers received some gifts. One of the soldiers, after he had distanced himself by a few steps from the table, aimed and threw the apple that he had just received from the Jews, and hit me in the face. The blow hurt, but more than the physical pain, I felt an inner ache. I thought about this villain, “Were you also such a hero there, and hit your target with the same accuracy? At the front you had a terrible and disgraceful defeat and now you show your bravery against a Jewish boy? And for this you use a gift that you just received from Jews, you despicable coward.”

*

Most of the Jews were happy about the failure of Russia. They had suffered many ordeals over the years because of this evil and corrupt empire. The cruel and savage Russian soldiers had shed a lot of Jewish blood in the few months since the start of the war.[26] But the Jews were careful about voicing their opinions, because there were rumors that the streets were full of spies. Not only those not from the covenant (who understand Yiddish), but also members of the covenant. But among friends, they could talk about their hopes for the defeat of the villains and ridicule their heroism.

 

3. Changings of the Guard

Sierpc changed hands a few times. Sometimes the Germans would come into the town and stay for a while - from a few hours to a couple of weeks - and then leave as quickly as they came. Every time that the Germans came into the town, the Jews could lift their heads and breathe easier. The fear left their hearts and the gloom departed. The German soldiers were nice and very polite in their behavior towards the Jews, since they knew that the Jews were friends. (What a difference between the Germans of the First World War and the Germans of the Second World War! Who can understand the heart of man and the reversals of men and nations?) It was the opposite with the Poles. The Germans did not harm them, but they knew that the Poles were allied with the Russians and therefore treated them with suspicion. There was also the matter of language that separated them.[27] However, the Jews kept their feelings to themselves, and did not get too close to the Germans, so as not to give any food for thought to informers or excuses for spies.

Once, when the Russians came back to Sierpc after the Germans had been there for a few days, they found a picture in the show case of the photographer Esther Podskocz. It was of Mordecai-Yudel (Rosenfeld, the village idiot) standing between two German officers. The Russians saw this as proof that Mordecai-Yudel was a German spy and, in spite of all the entreaties and intercessions, banished him to Siberia, from where he never returned.

The brothers Shmuel-Asher and Itzik Ostaszewer were also exiled to Siberia. They had gone to Rypin on business during a period when the Germans were in Sierpc, and didn't get back in time before the Russians returned. On their way back to Sierpc they were captured by the Russians and sent to Siberia. After the war they came back to Sierpc in good health.

There were a number of cases when, without a shot or any noise whatsoever, a policeman would rush into the magistrat (the town hall; our store was opposite the magistrat), which had the police station on the first floor, and immediately policemen would come out carrying rifles and packages and head towards Plotzki Street. Then we knew that the Germans were getting close to town. Sometimes they would enter the town hall for a short time, and sometimes they wouldn't, and after a few hours the policemen would return to their station.

Once we woke up at night because of a loud noise. When we looked outside, we saw red skies in all directions. It turned out that the Russians left the town, blew up the bridges, and set fire to the lumberyards at the edges of town. This happened on Wednesday, the fifteenth of Heshvon, in the year 5674 (November 4, 1914). There was little damage to the town. The fires were immediately put out, and the bridges, which had hardly been damaged, were soon fixed.

*

One time, during the first weeks of the war, in midday, there was a panic in the market. The people went into their stores and shut the doors halfway. A cart hitched to two horses appeared from the direction of Zhava Street. It was driven by a peasant and surrounded by mounted Russian soldiers, armed, about ten in number, holding bayonets. The procession passed the market, and went to Plotzki Street. It turned out that the Russians had captured two German soldiers. So what did they do? They confiscated a peasant's cart along with its owner, padded the cart with hay, made the two prisoners lie inside face down, covered them with blankets, and took them wherever they took them.

Usually, news of something that happened in the market reached the Jewish Street within half an hour and the Vloki within an hour. That is what happened this time as well. A long time after the alarm subsided and the people dispersed and the conversations stopped and the normal course of affairs returned to the market, there was a panicked rush of people from the Jewish Street to the market. At first there were children and a few young people, and then a multitude of adults. The people in the market became frightened and peppered them with questions. “What happened?” “What happened in your neighborhood?” The people from the Jewish Street answered that there was a lot of panic because something had happened in the market, the doors were shut, and the people went into hiding. Only after an hour did they work up the nerve to leave the street and go to the market to find out what happened.

At a later time, ten German prisoners passed through town surrounded by twenty mounted and armed Russian soldiers.

 

4. Battles

There were no pitched battles in the vicinity of Sierpc. However, there were days when we heard gunshots, machine gun fire and artillery all day. Sometimes the window panes rattled after every cannon shot. A few times, as the firing grew louder, we would go into the shelter. Of course, the shelter then was not an “essential common necessity” found in every house. But by chance, our courtyard had a good shelter. Beneath the house at the front of the courtyard (which was the sales room for Berish Poznanski's ironworks) there was a half cellar (it was a cellar only on the street side) with very thick walls and an arched ceiling. The cellar served as the storeroom for the iron goods of the shop owner, but there was enough room for the residents of the house and nearby houses, as well as a few passersby.

There was a heavy engagement near Sierpc on Yom Kippur eve. We shut the windows and rushed to the shelter. After quite a long time, the firing died down and we left the shelter. I went to the grocery store run by “Shasha di Levitetes” to buy a large candle for Yom Kippur. When I was in the store, the gunshots resumed. The people in the street rushed into the stores and shut the doors after them. After a while, the guns went silent, the doors of the stores opened, and people went home.

There were also air raids. German planes dropped bombs on Sierpc a few times. One bomb fell in the yard of Toviah Bluman. It hit the corner of the roof of the house without causing any appreciable damage. Some shrapnel from this bomb hit a Polish man who was walking on the sidewalk across the street, near the bakery of Yehuda Licht, and killed him immediately. Another bomb fell in the fields behind the houses on Plotzki Street (on Licht's side), and did not cause any damage.

*

A very fierce battle - the only one that was not only heard in town but also caused damage and was momentous for the town - took place on Thursday, the 27th day of Shevat in the year 5675 (November 2, 1915). We were in the shelter for many hours, from around three in the afternoon till late at night. We sat in fear and silence and listened to the muffled echoes of the thunder of cannons. Sometimes we heard the sound of galloping horses in the street. (We thought: are those soldiers rushing into battle, or running away from it?) Sometimes there were sounds of men walking fast on the sidewalk. Once we heard a women crying. Terror came over us when we heard this sound. Listening to it, we understood that a calamity had occurred. Later we found out that it was the voice of Leahle Kotcholak, who was hurrying to get the medic Vlotzkovski for her brother, Abba, who was hit by shell shrapnel. (He had been in the shelter but went out to bring food to their horse. He died of his wounds. People said that some soldiers in the street had also been hit by shell shrapnel.)

There were many people in the shelter then - men, women, and children, residents of the house and of nearby houses. They had come at the beginning of the attack, or while it was going on, taking advantage of a lull in the fighting. There were also passersby who were nearby when the fighting started. As the sounds of the battle get louder, the fear increases, and the silence and attentiveness inside grows. When the sounds die down a little, there is less tension, and conversations about strategy begin. One of the people in the shelter proposes that we recite the Psalms, but another answers him that under these conditions it is impossible even to say the Psalms. (The proposer was Noach Zilberberg and the responder was Shmuel Frank.) One of those who happened by chance to be in the shelter was Bronka Garfinkel, daughter of the lawyer Garfinkel. She sat in a corner all the time, and wrote in a diary. Everybody was amazed at her calmness and restraint, that she was capable at such a time to busy herself with writing in a diary.

In the evening the attack quieted down and the sounds of gunfire lessened. But we all stayed in the shelter for another long hour. It was very late when we left. There was absolute silence outside. We strode the few steps between the shelter and our house in awe and fright, and went inside. The other residents of the house and neighboring houses did the same. But those that lived far away stayed in the shelter until morning.

That was a sleepless night for many of the townspeople. They waited for the light of day with anxiety and expectations. In the morning, there were groups of German soldiers streaming into town through all the streets and entrances. (The first Germans had entered the town at 10:30 in the evening.)

 

b. The Second Period - The German Occupation

1. Nit Kosse, Nit Kosse

The front did not move far from Sierpc. The German army halted its advance somewhere between Sierpc and Drobin, and stayed there for a few months. It seems that battles took place there from time to time, and then we could hear the muffled sounds of artillery fire in the town.

After fierce battles in Lodz and Sochaczew, the Germans conquered these cities in the month of July. Then the German army advanced along the entire front, conquered Warsaw (on August 6, 1915), and all of Poland was captured.

The front near Sierpc also moved. In a battle that took place between Sierpc and Drobin, the Germans took about a thousand Russian prisoners, and moved them through Sierpc. That morning, the Germans ordered every landlord in the market to prepare food for twenty prisoners. Before evening, the prisoners were brought to the market and divided into groups of twenty accompanied by two German soldiers, and each group went to one of the houses in the market. The prisoners sat down on the edge of the pavement and the residents served them bread and cooked food in large pots. There were many Jews among the prisoners, and they were served special food. Among the group of prisoners near our house there were two Jews. With the permission of the German guards, we took these two Jews from the group, sat them down on the steps of the store, and the neighbors brought them food. Two German soldiers, who were not among the guards, approached the prisoners and asked if any of them spoke German. We pointed at the two Jews and said that they spoke German. The two Germans went over to the Jews and asked, “Shmekt iIhnen das essen?” (“How does the food taste?”) The Jews, who were apparently very hungry and also didn't understand the question, did not pay attention to the inquiry and kept on eating. Then we turned to the Jews and said, “The gentlemen are asking if the food is tasty?” One of them lifted his head to the Germans while he was holding a spoonful next to his mouth, and said in his Litvak [Lithuanian accented] Yiddish, “Nit kosse, nit kosse” (“Not hard, not bad.“) and quickly put the spoon to his mouth and continued to eat. The Germans marveled at the sound of this “German” that they could not understand. We explained the answer of the Jews to them, and they left.

 

2. New Times, New Melodies

All the time that the front was near Sierpc, we felt that we were trapped inside a small circle, from which we could not move in any direction. Obviously, this situation had a bad effect of trade and on life in general. Because of this, people started working at dangerous and deceitful occupations. On the one hand, smuggling of all sorts of merchandise developed. On the other hand, there were families - even decent ones - that opened cafes in their houses for the soldiers, and thanks to the girls in the family, these business flourished.

Even after all of Poland was conquered, life did not return to normal quickly. It would be more correct to say that it never went back to the previous state. The way of life that we had been used to changed entirely. First, civil rights increased, with freedom of speech and political activity. All types of political parties were established, educational and cultural organizations were founded, and newspapers appeared with all sorts of opinions and ideas. In general, social and cultural life thrived. However, in contrast, economic and trade activity was limited. The decrees that barred free trade in all sorts of necessities and merchandise sprouted like mushrooms after a storm. All sorts of grains, wheat, bread, sugar, oil and other staples were regulated by the occupying authorities. Necessary food products were rationed using ration cards. Free trade decreased, and in its place an underground traffic developed. Smuggling and black market, activities that can bring large profits, but also danger and large losses, flourished. At first the underground operators had a lot of problems, because unlike the Russians, the Germans didn't know about bribery. But slowly, the Jews started teaching them, and because they had tasted the fruit, they took without limit. The businesses grew in spite of the large expenses for bribing the Germans and money to silence the Jewish informers. As in the whole world during the war, and also in all Polish cities, there emerged a class, albeit thin, of war profiteers in Sierpc.

In about 1917, when the shortage of goods and materials in Germany became very noticeable, the German occupation authority in Poland issued a confiscation decree for items made of copper and brass. (The Germans also removed the copper bells from the church towers and hung metal bells in their place.) With great sadness and longing people parted from their dishes and pots, some very old and costly, with artistic value, heirlooms from a grandmother or great-great-grandmother. Some of them had adorned the Sabbath table and evoked an aura of family warmth, and some had decorated the walls of kitchens for generations. Chandeliers, candlestick holders, large pots, pans, mortars and pestles, basins, and all kinds of tools were handed over to the authorities. They were paid using the German price list, measly pennies.

 

3. Transportation and Lighting

The transportation and lighting in Sierpc and vicinity improved considerably during the German occupation. New roads were paved and old roads were fixed inside and outside of Sierpc. But the most important achievement of the Germans was to lay down a track (kolieika) for a light railway line that went through the towns of Lubitsch, Kikol, Lipno, Skempe, Sierpc, Racionz, Plonsk, and Nasielsk. The railway cut the travel time between Sierpc and Warsaw significantly. Before the war, the journey from Sierpc to Warsaw took a long time. This was how we traveled then:

The travelers would leave Sierpc in a povoz (a closed horse drawn carriage for six people) or an omnibus. At midnight, after about a two and a half hour ride, they would get to Bielsk. The coach stopped there, and the travelers would go to an inn and drink a cup of tea, and in the winter, a shot of liquor to warm themselves, eat something from the hamper in their luggage or that they bought in the inn, and talked and joked with each other. The horses also dined, and rested a bit. After three on the morning, they continued on their way to Plotzk. If the road was in order, they would get to Plotzk at six in the morning. But the road wasn't always in order. In the winter, after a heavy snow, the travelers would have to get off the povoz or omnibus, and push it to get it out of the snow. When they arrived in Plotzk, they would go to the Visla River (Visel, or in the Sierpc accent, “ Waassel”) and buy tickets and board the statek ( steamboat) that sailed to Warsaw. The ride on the statek was pleasant and took a day, from about 7 in the morning until seven in the evening. The travelers (most of them were Jewish merchants) had plenty of time to pray, recite a few chapters of Psalms, eat, study, rest, doze a little, organize their lists, orders, and bills, talk about business, listen to and tell tales and jokes. Also, for the more sensitive among them, time to look around and enjoy the beautiful views of the river and nature, and the towns on either bank of the Visla. That is how it was during the summer. In the winter, when it became cold and the Visla froze (though this did not happen every year), they had to travel on roundabout routes, something that caused more expenses and much discomfort.

When the light railway line came, the whole journey from Sierpc to Warsaw would take one night. Travelers would leave Sierpc at ten in the evening and arrive in Nasielsk. There they would transfer to the regular railway, and they would be in Warsaw by seven in the morning. Then they had the whole day before them to buy merchandise and arrange other matters.

*

Lighting also was improved during the occupation. Both the streets and the houses had electric lights. Before the war, it never occurred to anyone that it was possible to bring electricity to small towns. Many small towns in Poland were connected to electricity during the war. The owner of the flour mill in Sierpc, Rudovski, brought a generator to power the mill, and this machine provided electricity at first for street lights and then for the houses. The generator was really too small for the needs, and there were blackouts, but in spite of that, it was an advance and achievement for the town.

*

Because the owner of the flour mill had a generator, he bought a movie projector, put it in an auditorium, and showed movies twice a week, on Saturday evening and on Sunday. This was also an achievement that the residents of Sierpc and the surrounding villages had not dreamt about before the war, and attained during the German occupation.

Once, they showed pictures from the Land of Israel. It showed holy places, cities, settlements, youth, Shomrim[28], street festivals for Passover, riders on horses, and so forth. I can still see the galloping noble horses on the screen, with their young riders from the settlements. The horses get larger and larger, and come closer every fraction of a second, and I instinctively flinch out of fear that in another moment they will run over me. These pictures, especially those of the new settlements, the youth, and the Shomrim, excited the audience, and particularly the young people, and brought about a wave of enthusiasm for the Zionist movement. These pictures were shown for a week, and the movie theater was full every night. In order for hasidim to see this show, one evening it was restricted to men only.

 

4. Pressed Into Work

I stated above “New roads were paved and old roads were fixed inside and outside of Sierpc.” Residents of the town were used every day for roadwork in the vicinity. One day (in the spring of 1916) the Germans announced that the residents were expected to volunteer every day for work, and bring a basket or a sack with them. I was among the first volunteers that presented themselves to a place near the magistrat (I can only remember one other volunteer - Avrahamia Valuka). But since the volunteers were few in number, the German soldiers went through the streets and seized young men and added them to the volunteers. The soldiers took us to the road that leads to Rypin and ordered us to pick up rocks from the field and set them up in piles. That was the day that the episodes of pressing people into work began, and was repeated day after day.

One morning, about a week after my volunteer day, when I was in the (old) beit midrash, some German soldiers barged in and began seizing young men from among the students and worshippers for work. Some of the men (those near the entrance) were captured, and some ran out the back door and scattered in all directions. I and two others (one was Libia Serena, son of Shmualtia the Glazier, another one, I think, was Gutkind Renkel, son of Avraham Natan) did something daring. We jumped into the river and ran across it, with the water coming to above our knees, to the other bank, where the garden of Mashrowski was located. The Germans, who had in the meantime reached the courtyard of the beit midrash, didn't chase us, and went back into the beit midrash. We were happy about our victory, and the beautiful spot, full of wildlife, flowers, and trees where we had found ourselves by chance. We wandered back and forth, talked, and said the Morning Prayer for which we had not yet had time (we had managed to take our phylacteries with us before we ran out). Meanwhile, our clothes were drying out, when suddenly, like they had popped up out of the earth, we were confronted with two German soldiers. They were delighted at the prey they had just captured, and asked, amid loud laughter, “Zind zi gegangen smecken Mai-luft?” (“Have you gone out to smell the air of May?”). From there they took us to work. (This upset me no end. After I volunteered on the first day, they come now and snatch me. This is my reward for volunteering?)

We worked in the same fields and at the same tasks as on my volunteer day. Some of us gathered stones and piled them up in the field, and some took the stones from the piles and carried them to the road and stacked them nearby. Apparently, people had informed our families that we had been pressed into work, and they sent us food. At the midday break, we ate and prayed.

The forced labor caused a lot of suffering to the residents in general and to the Jews in particular, because most of the abducted laborers were Jews. This is the place to note that the idyll between the German soldiers and the Jews that happened at the beginning of the occupation did not last long. When the Germans and the Poles started getting friendly and learned a bit of each other's language, the attitude of the Germans changed immediately. They were still far from expressing hatred, or any open enmity. Also all through the occupation the Jews felt themselves to be far freer than before the war. But here and there, in isolated cases, the Germans would show anti-Semitic tendencies, and there were anti-Semitic incidents. Also in finding forced labor, there was pronounced anti-Semitic bias. They would look only in Jewish streets, even in the beit midrash, so that only, or almost only, Jews were abducted.

But in the end, there was an arrangement. A quota of people was established that the magistrat had to supply each day for work. The town hall drafted people from a list of households in town, so that each household, in turn, would supply someone for work. However, even with this arrangement, the Jews were the majority of the laborers. This was because the town clerks, using various pretexts, removed many Poles from the lists. But even then, this arrangement, while flawed, was better than the abductions.

The labor could be done by the member of the household, or by an agent. There were people who made a living from this labor, working every day in place of someone else.

In addition to the workers sent by the town hall, there were also permanent laborers. Among these were the brothers Leibush and Moshe-Meir Ostaszewer, whose father had been banished to Siberia by the Russians (as mentioned above). Moshe-Meir, who was still a young man, but tall and alert, was liked by the Germans, who appointed him to be an interpreter. He had a white ribbon on his sleeve and rode with the foreman in a handsome carriage, and everyone envied him.

 

5. A “War” Within a War

It is worthwhile describing here the “war” within the war that took place in all the towns of Poland between the “Germans” and the “Russians.”

The “war' was between Jewish children (who called themselves “Germans”) and Polish children (who called themselves “Russians”). It occurred during the summer months of 1915 and 1916. The combatants at the “front” were boys between the ages of twelve and fifteen, and sometimes older. Younger boys contributed by supplying ammunition from the hinterland. The weapons were right hands, and the ammunition - stones. The sharp-shooters used a slingshot made of a strip of leather with two strings tied to its ends.

In Sierpc, the battles took place in the pig market and the field behind it, up to the foot of the hill. The top of the hill was the bastion of the “Russians.” When they were in trouble they would flee up the hill. The “Germans,” who gave chase, would get to the middle of the hill, but didn't dare to go any higher. The “German” fortress was in one of the lumberyards in the new market. When the “Russians” gained the upper hand, the “Germans” fled there and closed the gate. The “Russians” could not, and would not dare to enter the closed fortress. The “battles” took place every day, in the late afternoon.

On some days, a certain sheigetz, about eighteen years old, would decide to play a practical joke. He would join the Jews, and at their head, he would chase the Poles up the hill. But sometimes he set a trap for the Jews. In the middle of chasing the Poles, he would turn around and start beating the Jews. The Poles in an instant would become attackers instead of attacked, and the Jews would retreat with loss of face and under heavy blows.

Sometimes a German soldier would pass through the battlefield during a “skirmish.” The “Germans” explained the “war” to the soldier, and the names and allegiances of the combatting sides. The German soldier would immediately join the “Germans” and at their head would chase the “Russians.” The defeat of the “Russians” was then complete, and without showing any opposition, they fled to their fortress. The “Germans” then scored an easy victory.

Sometimes, a combatant would be seriously hurt by a stone to the head or eye. One of the Jewish boys died after he was hit by a stone to his head. Once one of the warriors, a Polish boy, received a very serious blow to the head and died as a result. The Jews were fearful of revenge by the Poles, but the incident passed quietly. The “battles” then stopped for a few days until everything calmed down, and then broke out again.

 

6. Doctors, Medics, Midwives, Pharmacists, and “Doctors”

Medicine in Sierpc was born under the sign of the twins [Gemini]. Every one of the medical professions had two representatives, sort of “there went in two and two unto Noah into the ark”[29].

There were two doctors in Sierpc before the war. One of them, Dr. Gizler, was considered a “righteous Gentile.” He was a kind and pleasant man, esteemed by the public in general, and by the Jews in particular. His agreeable and comforting manner won over his patients, and they trusted him completely. The other doctor was Dr. Gumewski, and he was known to be an anti-Semite. But he did not show his dislike when he treated his patients, and only their recovery was important to him then.

Dr. Gizler died a few years before the outbreak of the war. Then, for the first time in the history of Sierpc, a Jewish doctor, Dr. Shapiro, came to town. Again, there were two doctors, and the twins principal was not violated. Dr. Shapiro was considered to be a good doctor in the town. He was a nationalistic Jew who was friendly with other Jews, and spoke only in Yiddish with them. He stayed in Sierpc for only a few years. He left the town shortly before the beginning of the war.

There were also two medics (placherim - doctors' assistants) in Sierpc. One, Vlotchkowski, was a specialist medic, “half a doctor,” and with respect to children, the women said he was a “complete doctor.” He was not an anti-Semite, but he was not a lover of Israel either. During the “boycott” that came after the election of Yagalalo[30], he opened a stationery and book store, which his family managed. (It was said that his daughters were open anti-Semites.) The second medic was a Jew, Moshe Zomer. His expertise was not great, but in spite of this, people would turn to him when Vlotchkowski was busy.

Sierpc also had two midwives. One of them, Zelda, was very famous as the “grandma” of most of the children in town, or more correctly, “grandma” of fathers and sons in the town. The second midwife, Sarah, was the mother of Zomer the medic, and was less famous than the first.

Near the start of the war, there came to Sierpc two more midwives, “modern” and educated. One was Madame Sarah Mendelsohn (the sister of Pultiah {Raphael} Klinhoz, she was murdered in Plotzk in 1919 together with her brother). She came from Ciechanów and had a lot of work (because the two midwives mentioned previously were old and frail) and because the women of the town liked her. The second midwife was the wife of the medic Moshe Zomer, Madam Makhala-Tirtza, who was not as busy as the first one.

There were also two pharmacies in Sierpc. One was the well-known drugstore of Radomiski, at the corner of the market and the Jewish Street. The second pharmacy was in the house of Ischia Klein and was owned by Wolkowiski, a Jew from Warsaw. Officially, it was not a pharmacy (a Jew could not get a permit for a pharmacy in Czarist Russia) but a sklad aptachni (a medical warehouse, which can only sell patent medicines), but Wolkowiski also prepared prescriptions there. For a time, the teacher Yaakov Cohen (from Plonsk, later a teacher in the gymnasia [high school] in Plotzk was a partner in the sklad aptachni.

Dentistry was an exception to the rule of “twins.” There was only one dentist in town. This was Leib (Leon) Hiller.

*

Epidemics are a common phenomenon during a war, and a direct result of it. We did not escape this misfortune during the World War. In 1916, typhus broke out in Sierpc and the surrounding towns, and many people died. There were no local doctors in town. Dr. Gizler was already dead, Dr. Shapiro had already left, and Dr. Gumewski had been drafted into the army by the Russian authorities at the beginning of the war. The Germans then established a hospital in town[31], and army doctors treated the patients. These same doctors also made house calls.

I said “There were no local doctors in town.” This is not completely correct, because we did have two local “doctors.” Not just local, but native Sierpcer, and in addition - Jewish.

One “doctor” was the wife of Moshe Zomer, Makhala-Tirtza. She apparently acquired her “expertise” by inheritance. Her husband was a medic, her mother-in-law was a midwife, and she was a “modern” midwife herself, so that she in any case had familiarity with medicine. (Here we must defer to the saying in Yiddish “mimaila haut zi gekent a krenk” [anyway, she knew someone who was sick].) She was called when there was a mild illness, a suspicion of a contagious disease and people were afraid of calling a German doctor or the medic Vlotchkowski, because the patient might be taken to the hospital. She also brought the medicines.

The second “doctor” was the shoemaker Hershieh Brutigam (called “Hershieh Shister” or “Hershieh Dudek”). Hershieh became friendly with one of the German doctors, and would accompany him everywhere, both in the street and in the hospital. Because of this, people stopped calling him “Hershieh Shister” or “Hershieh Dudek” and started calling him “Hershieh Doctor.” Because of his friendship with the German doctor, “Hershieh Doctor” became intimate with the powers that be. He knew the occupation authorities well and became “a macher” [wheeler-dealer]. He would pass discreet gifts to officials and do favors for Jews. Understandably, he himself no longer worked as a shoemaker, but opened a workshop with laborers who worked for him. He always walked around with a leather briefcase. Some pranksters said that once they had opened the briefcase, and found - a shoetree. In the end (after the war) he became sick both physically and mentally, and died.

 

7. “Independent” Poland

The war became more extensive (in area) and ferocious (with time). The Germans went on to greater victories, and with them their economic problems also grew. As a result, it placed greater burdens on the conquered countries, including Poland. They confiscated grain, cattle, the little machinery that was there, and anything else that they thought they needed. Of course, the confiscations made the residents hostile to the German authorities.

In order to win over the population and gain its willing cooperation, the two conquering powers, Germany and Austria, decided to declare Polish independence. This was announced on November 5, 1916, with the independence to occur in stages. A provisional national government was formed, whose members were appointed by the occupying authorities. Decisions were to be made by two governor-generals, the rulers of the two occupied zones of Poland. These were the German governor-general Von Beizeler, the Governor of Warsaw, and the Austrian governor-general Von Cook, the Governor of Lublin. There was a call for volunteers for the Polish Legion. (The Polish Legion was founded in Galicia[32] by Pilsudski, and together with the Austrians, fought the Russians.)

The enthusiasm of the Poles for this “independence” was very restrained. Over time, as the irrelevance of the declaration became obvious, the enthusiasm died down completely. The following joke, widespread in Poland at the time, demonstrates the extent of this “independence.” A German soldier sees a Polish peasant carrying some flour. The soldier, as usual, confiscates the flour. The Pole says to him, “ P'shechezh Polska nasha” (“But Poland is ours”). The German answers “ Polska washa, aleh munka nasha” (“Poland is yours, but the flour is ours”).

The enlistments in the Polish Legion were a disappointment for the occupying authorities, but their disappointment was even greater when they wanted them to swear allegiance to the conquering power. (The Germans wanted to send them to fight on the front in France.) The Poles, to a man, refused. The leaders of the Legion, with Pilsudski at their head, were imprisoned in the fortress of Magdenberg, and remained there until German defeat and the retreat of its army from Poland.

If the recruitment of the Poles was unsatisfactory, then understandably the recruitment of the Jews was non-existent. But there is no rule without an exception, and there were exceptions here too. Even in Sierpc, one Jew volunteered for the Polish Legion (he was called “ der legionist” - the legionnaire).

 

8. The Underground

The war dragged on and spread. In spite of its great victories and extensive conquests, the situation in Germany became worse every day. A lack of materials, a lack of food, and also a lack of manpower affected the German war machine. In April 1917, after Germany declared an expansion of its submarine warfare, and the sinking of the hospital ship Lusitania, the United States joined the Allied Powers (Russia, England, France, and eighteen other nations) in the war against the Central Powers (Germany, Austria, Turkey, and Bulgaria). With its defeat on the horizon, with its defeat in the battles of the spring of 1918, the German army started pulling back from the front in France.

The weakening of Germany at the front had an influence on the mood in the occupied countries. The fear of the German policeman, gendarme, and soldier faded a little. Underground resistance groups were established to sabotage the German war machine. An underground Polish organization called P.O.W. was established, (Polska Organizacja Wojskowa - Polish Army Organization) whose members were supporters of P.P.S. (Polska Partja Socjalistyczna - Polish Socialist Party). The resistance went from talk to action, and in a number of places, German policemen and soldiers were killed.

At the beginning of August 1918, four German soldiers were killed in the vicinity of Sierpc. The Germans imposed harsh punishments on the villages of the area, and Sierpc was also punished: a strict curfew from six in the evening till sunrise.

 

9. The End of the War - Independent Poland

The situation of Germany became worse and worse, both inside the country and at the front, until the country collapsed entirely. On November 9 1918, Kaiser Wilhelm resigned, and on the eleventh of the month, Germany surrendered to the Allied powers. This was the end of the First World War.

With the German defeat, its armies left the many occupied countries. The exit from Poland was a funeral procession for the Germans. Their respect had faded and their spirit was broken. The Poles mocked them, laughed at them openly, took their weapons and equipment, tore off their insignias of rank and unit, and also spit in their faces. And they, yesterday's strong and proud men, turned into base cowards who saw, heard, and felt their disgrace, and would not respond.

The Germans left Sierpc on November 11. It was on a Tuesday, market day. Only some of the stalls were set up in the market (out of fear of disturbances, not all the merchants had set up their stalls) and not very many peasants came either (from the same fears). The members of the fire department kept order, and prevented the mob from harming the passing German soldiers. They came by in small groups, on foot and by vehicle, from Plotzki Street and through the market to the new market and the road to Rypin. In spite of the presence of the firefighters, there were a few minor incidents of rabble attacking the Germans that led to small disturbances in the market, and caused panic among the Jewish traders. Small groups of German soldiers passed through the streets of Sierpc the next day as well, coming from Plotzk.

This brought an end to the First World War and the period of occupation by the Germans of Sierpc and all of Poland. It also began a new era - that of independent Poland.

 

10. Defense (“Haganah”)

Towards the end of the First World War, there was apprehension (that turned out to be correct in a number of towns) that following the exit of the Germans, the Poles would initiate pogroms against the Jews. In order to prepare for the hard times, defense groups [Haganah] were organized in many towns, composed of the best members of the “Maccabee” athletic organization.

Sierpc also had a defense group organized by a delegate from Warsaw, also of members of “Maccabee.” The group was divided into cells of five members each, and each member knew only the colleagues in his cell. Every member had to pledge allegiance to the Haganah when he joined and to a strict discipline. The swearing in took place in a dark room, in the courtyard of Aaron Tcharnotchepka. The group managed to obtain some weapons (pistols), purchased from German soldiers. (Because of the retreat of the German army, the famous discipline of the German soldier crumbled.) The town was divided into zones, and during tense days, especially between the departure of the Germans and the establishment of Polish rule in town, the members of Haganah would “wander” in pairs through the streets, each pair in its zone, when one of the pair would carry a pistol.

The Haganah groups existed for only a few months. To the delight of the members, and of the Jews of Sierpc, there was no need for the use of force.

The members of the Haganah committee were Natan Metz, Maiorek (Meir) Cohen, Avraham Fried (Yerushalmi), David Rosen, and Shmuel Szampan. In the district council of the Haganah group that met in Włocławek - where the Rabbi of Włocławek, Rabbi Kowalski, also participated - the representative of Sierpc was Avraham Fried.

The members of the Haganah were Yitzhak Bergson, Hanik Garfinkel, Salak Garfinkel, Mendel Tatz, Leib Mintz, Fishel Szampan, Yitzhak Rosen, and others.

C. Zionism, Education, and Culture

a. Zionism

1. Development and Progress

For all of Polish Jewry, including the community of Sierpc, all the aspects of public life, and especially Zionism, flourished during the German occupation of the First World War. I have already mentioned that during the occupation, various political parties were formed. Newspapers were published, and new ideas appeared. Of course the government was that of the occupation authorities, and there was military censorship, but internal Jewish life was not adversely affected. And if there were some limitations, they were negligible compared to the restrictions at every step during the Russian government period.

During this time, the Zionist Organization, Mizrachi [Religious Zionists], Poalei-Tzion [Socialist Zionists] (before the split), and Bund [Yiddish Socialists] came out from the underground. These parties had been illegal under the Russians and therefore of limited extent and few activities. They now expanded and spread all over Poland. They opened branches in every city and town, and their ideas and spokesmen reached all these branches. At the same time, the religious party Agudat Ortodoxim [Orthodox Union] was formed. (Most of its members were Gur Hasidim.) It was later called Agudat Israel or Aguda for short. It was founded at the initiative of Dr. Kahan and Dr. Karlbach. The “Popular Party” was also founded at that time by Noach Prilotzki. It was a party with few members and few supporters. Each party published its own newspaper, either daily or weekly, as well as propaganda pamphlets. In addition, each party held meeting and lectures, so that its ideas and aspirations were spread both in print and by word of mouth.

In addition to the political parties, national organizations of workers and employers were formed. Among these were workers' unions that tended to favor the Bund, with a minority for Poalei-Tzion, craftsmen's unions, merchants' societies, and small tradesmen's organizations. The organizations also supported professional activities, cultural endeavors, and disseminated information and propaganda, including bulletins and newspapers.

The Zionist Organization developed the most during this period. The Zionist ideal excited many people, both among the youth and adults. Many joined the Zionist Organization and the majority of Polish Jews supported it. The Zionist Organization did not only engage in strictly Zionist activity such as encouraging a return to Zion, the sale of shekalim, collections for the Jewish National Fund, and spreading the Hebrew language. It also was concerned with, possibly primarily concerned with (in the spirit of the decisions made at the Helsingfors Congress of 1906 on “Tasks for the Present”), the everyday problems of Polish Jewry, such as the civil rights of Jews, protection of their economic interests, community matters, education, elections, and so forth. It was from such activities, especially elections, that it was possible to determine the sympathies of the public in favor of the Zionist Organization.

Branches of all the above mentioned parties were founded in Sierpc as well during the German occupation, except for the “Popular Party.” They held meetings, arranged lectures, and carried out various partisan and cultural activities. Unions with branches for every vocation were founded, alongside a craftsmen's union and a merchants' society.

The largest branch of a political party in Sierpc, as well as the most active and well-known, was the branch of the Zionist Party, known as Agudat Tzion .

 

2. Hovevei Tzion - Bnei Tzion

There were a number of Hovevei Tzion [Lovers of Zion] and Zionists in the previous generation in Sierpc: Ephraim Yossel Valuka, Eliezer Vasolak, Chayim Nachum Tunbol (who visited the Land of Israel in 1908); and some younger Zionists: Azrieltia Podskocz, Mordechai Hirsch Mintz, Avrahamia Valuka (son of Reb Ephraim Yossel), and others. They were also known as students of the Torah, enlightened, and tolerant in religious matters. They prayed in the new beit midrash[33] and were considered the remnants of the “Kolhekot.”[34]

The active Zionists in Sierpc during the period between the beginning of the twentieth century and the start of the First World War were Yitzhak Karpa, Yitzhak Aaron Liebson, Shmuel Szampan, Avraham Podskocz, Avraham Gorlitz, Yeshayahu Friedman, and others, and after he came to Sierpc in 1910, Avraham Yerushalmi (Fried). Some of them were just plain Zionists (“General Zionists” did not exist yet as a party), and some were Poalei Tzion [Zionist Workers party]. Many of the youth in Sierpc belonged to this new party, and they made an important contribution to the Second Aliyah[35]. Six young men from Sierpc went to the Land of Israel then, in about 1907. They were David Bornstein, Akiva Glazer, Yitzhak Kahana (Kana), Yitzhak Aaron Liebson, Yitzhak Karpa (Itche Karp), and Shmuel Szampan. Regrettably, most of them followed the path of the majority of the Second Aliyah, and left Palestine. (Only Bornstein stayed, and Karp returned to Israel a few years ago.)

Agudat Tzion , which we have previously mentioned, was not the first Zionist Society in Sierpc. It was preceded by Bnei Tzion. There was a certificate of registration in the Gold Book of the Jewish National Fund on the wall of the office of Agudat Tzion of Sierpc. I have heard from Avraham Yerushalmi (Fried) that when he came to Sierpc he found some money held by Zionist functionaries that was collected for the Jewish National Fund, and some documents belonging to the Bnei Tzion Society. (He was born in Zuromin, near Sierpc. In 1910 he married Sarah Vasolak, daughter of one of the Hovevei Tzion, the enlightened Eliezer Vasolak of Sierpc, and settled there.) He took the money, sent it to the Jewish National Fund, which in return registered the Bnei Tzion Society in its Golden Book.

 

3. Agudat Tzion

Agudat Tzion was founded, according to the same Yerushalmi, in 1911. But its unrestricted emergence and public activity only began in 1916, during the German occupation. The offices of the society, from its beginnings to the middle of 1917, were in a small room in the apartment of the teacher Mordechai Hirsch Mintz, in the house of Patlick (a German), near his school, which was in the house of Aaron Tcharnotchepka. Later it moved to two small rooms in the courtyard of the house of Moshe Elsztejn. The steering committee of the Society (in 1918-1920) was made up of Frieda Offenbach, Hinda Rosa Atlas, Mendel Bloom, Tzirel Bergson, Yitzhak Zomer, Zvi (Hezhe) Malowanczyk, Yechiel Moshe Sendrowicz (Sidroni), Avraham Fried (Yerushalmi), Yeshayahu Friedman, Yetta Feiga Tzina, and Fishel Szampan. The chairman of the society and its driving force was Avraham Fried (Yerushalmi). He dedicated all his energy and thoughts to Agudat Tzion and its communal activities. He was the initiator and the executor, the activist and the operator, and thanks to him, Agudat Tzion became accepted as an important public institution in Sierpc. The secretary of the society was at first Fishel Szampan (who died tragically in Paris in 1933 or 1934), and from the beginning of 1920, Zvi Malowanczyk.

Some of the younger members of the committee would take turns serving in the office of Agudat Tzion . Each one in turn would be in the office for a week, two hours every evening, during which he was available to answer members' questions, collect the monthly dues and arrange various activities.

*

In accordance with the wishes of the chairman, Avraham Yerushalmi (Fried), the steering committee had a number of subcommittees, each with its chairman and secretary. There were five such subcommittees: culture, Jewish National Fund, political, housekeeping, and correspondence. The chairperson of the culture subcommittee was Tzirel Bergson, and the secretary was the author of these lines; Yeshayahu Friedman was chairman of the Jewish National Fund subcommittee and Zvi Malowanczyk was its secretary; the political subcommittee was chaired by Avraham Yerushalmi and its secretary was Zvi Malowanczyk; the housekeeping subcommittee was chaired by Hinda Rosa Atlas and your author served as its secretary; the chairman of the correspondence committee was Fishel Szampan, and your author was its secretary. It should be noted that the society chairman, Avraham Fried (Yerushalmi) was the guiding force behind all the subcommittees, and especially the culture committee.[36]

*

The culture subcommittee organized a meeting every Saturday (Saturday night during the winter, or Saturday afternoon in the summer). This would be a political lecture, a literary reading (reading a story and interpreting it), or a question and answer evening (kestel ovent). The lecturers and readers were the members Avraham Yerushalmi (Fried), Yeshayahu Friedman, Hinda Rosa Atlas, Fishel Szampan, and Leib Mintz. On vacation days, or for a festive occasion, the teacher Mordecai Hirsch Mintz would give a lecture. Avraham Yerushalmi (Fried) also had many roles in these Saturday meetings. In addition to those Saturdays where he was scheduled to give a lecture or to read, he would substitute for any lecturer who for some reason could not make it to the meeting. The meetings took place in the building of Talmud Torah, which was in the same courtyard as the offices of Agudat Tzion , that of Elsztejn.

The subcommittee would also hold a memorial evening on the twentieth day of the month of Tammuz[37], or a show an exhibit on the holidays: the intermediate days of Sukkoth, the intermediate days of Passover, Hanukah, Purim, and Lag B'Omer. The arrival of a lecturer sent by the central committee, an author or artist who came from Warsaw, would be managed by the culture subcommittee. It would prepare and arrange the lecture or the festivity, and order pamphlets from the central committee and distribute them (for a fee) among the members.

The Balfour Declaration[38] was announced on November 2, 1917. This news was announced in Poland, under German occupation, without the enthusiasm and publicity that accompanied it in the countries that were allied with England. In spite of this, the news of the Balfour Declaration brought joy and exhilaration to all the Jews of Poland, and especially the Zionists. Agudat Tzion held two festive meetings in Sierpc in honor of the event: in the synagogue and in the movie theater. The speakers in the synagogue were Azrieltia Podskocz, Mordecai Hirsch Mintz and Avraham Yerushalmi (Fried). The speakers in the movie theater were: Mordecai Hirsch Mintz, Avraham Yerushalmi (Fried) and Yeshayahu Friedman. In both meetings, the speakers talked about the historical importance of the event: the announcement by a great power of a Jewish homeland in the Land of Israel, a declaration that was made because of the political activity and actions of the Zionist movement, and which will become, if we know how to take advantage of it, the beginning of our liberation. Both meetings were held in a festive atmosphere, with a large audience, and ended with the singing of HaTikvah.[39]

*

The Jewish National Fund (JNF [or Keren Kayemet]) committee would collect money for the fund at every suitable occasion. They would collect money in pairs (two boys or two girls) from stores during school holidays, at weddings, distributing and emptying the blue Keren Kayemet boxes, selling Keren Kayemet stamps, placing collection bowls in prayer houses on Yom Kippur eve, Purim, and other occasions. In order that not even a penny of Jewish National Fund moneys would be spent for anything other than their intended purpose, the expenses of sending the money to the Warsaw center (there were no collection expenses) were paid for by Agudat Tzion . The JNF committee also sold shekalim[40] during the month of Nissan. Members, in pairs, would fan out all over town, visiting stores and apartments, trying to convince all the Jews to buy shekalim.

My partner in selling shekalim was Shmerel (Shmaryahu) Hazan of blessed memory (drowned in the month of Tammuz 5686 {1926} in the sea near Tel-Aviv, when trying to save some people from drowning). Our area was a section of the Jewish Street. Beryl “Shmatcharz” (a rag dealer) lived on the top floor of the house of Zisa Mirel Nipomoscz. The way up to the top floor was very difficult, the stairs being more like a ladder than stairs. When we saw the state that the house was in, we were sure that there was no chance of selling a shekel, and wanted to go on to the next house. But the landlady said to come up, so we did, and we weren't sorry. The “Schmatzerkan” (her name was Devorah Rechel), when she heard we had come to sell her a shekel, welcomed us joyfully. She gave us an enthusiastic “speech” about how Zionism will liberate the Jews from exile and from all their problems and make the Jewish nation equal to all the nations, and the shortsightedness and foolishness of those Jews that do not support Zionism. Surprised and deeply gratified, we stood and listened to her “speech.” We gave her the shekel and took the money, and very carefully went down the stairs, with the “Schmatzerkan” accompanying us with blessings and compliments for us and for the whole Zionist movement. Encouraged by her enthusiastic words, we continued with our task with greater determination and energy.

*

The political subcommittee was a sort of “foreign office” of Agudat Tzion . Its functions were dealings with other parties in town, relations with the Jewish community, contacts with the authorities (concerning permits for meetings, festivities, and exhibits), election matters, and so forth.

In those days, there was no defined authority for the Sierpc community. Of the prewar community board, some members had resigned, some left town, and only the chairman, Nahum Tatz, was left. The occupation authorities established a community council and appointed two members to it from each party, society, and house of worship. The council only had advisory status; the decision making power was exercised solely by its elected chairman Nahum Tatz. The representatives of Agudat Tzion in the council were the chairman of the political subcommittee Avraham Yerushalmi (Fried) and the subcommittee member Yeshayahu Friedman.

*

It was customary in the Diaspora for the leaders and elders of the town to collect money before Passover to provide the means for the poor people to celebrate the holiday. This appeal was called maot hittin [small coins] or kimchee DePascha [flour of Passover]. And in spite of our brothers, the children of Israel, being the most compassionate and generous contributors to charities and all causes, the collection of money was always tough and unpleasant work. So the appeal for maot hittin would run into problems every year.

Avraham Fried (Yerushalmi) once suggested, as a member of the community council, to cancel the maot hittin appeal. In its place, he proposed that the community council should bake matzos for all the Jews of the town. It would then sell the matzos from the community center to everyone according to his capability to pay. The rich will pay the most, the less fortunate will pay little, and the poorest will receive the matzos at no cost. The profits from the sale of matzos will go to maot hittin. The proposal was accepted. The community baked the matzos, and sold them from the community center at progressive rates. The member Yerushalmi was designated as the seller of the matzos. He established order and discipline in the matzo sales. He would not allow anyone to touch them in order to choose better-looking matzos. Only his assistants could handle them: weigh them, wrap them, and give them to each buyer in turn.

Among those who bought matzos was Avraham Glazer, a well-respected Jew and member of the community council. He didn't ask any questions, but went to the head of the line and started picking matzos for himself, nice ones and bright ones, thin and without any creases. Comrade Yerushalmi did not interfere, waited until he had finished and then took them and handed them over to a poor Jew who was waiting in line. Obviously this greatly annoyed Avraham Glazer, and he left without taking any matzos, after giving Yerushalmi a piece of his mind.

The next morning, the chairman of the council, Nahum Tatz, reproached Yerushalmi for his abrupt manner towards a respected Jew and a member of the council. Yerushalmi replied that Avraham Glazer had readied enough wine, eggs, oil, fish, meat potatoes, and sweets for Passover, and he and his family would not need matzos. On the other hand, the poor Jew who received the matzos cannot afford to buy all of those staples, so that he and his family will need the matzos more than the Glazer family. So why shouldn't he get good, nice and thin matzos?

One winter, there was a lot of snow, which melted in the spring. The rivers overflowed, and it was impossible to get to the flour mill in the village of Bovorowa, where the flour intended for matzos was stored. The access to the mill became passable only a few days before Passover, so that they managed to mill only part of the wheat. The community baked the matzos, stored them in the community center, and distributed just a portion of its matzo needs to each family. The poor, who received their matzos from maot hittin also received only a part of their needs. On the intermediate days of Passover they milled the rest of the wheat, baked the matzos, and distributed the rest of the matzos to each family. The poor also received the rest of their needs.

*

The political subcommittee accomplished a great deal after Poland was liberated. As is known, the independence started with persecutions of the Jews. In some towns such as Lwow, Kielce, and others, there were very serious pogroms, resulting in loss of Jewish lives and property. But there were minor pogroms in almost every town in Poland. During that time, the Zionist Organization proposed to all the [Jewish] parties to establish a National Jewish Council which would be the sovereign and legal representative of Polish Jewry, and would protect its interests. According to the proposal, there would be elections in all of Poland for a committee of all Polish Jews, and the committee would choose a national council. As usual, there were negotiations between the parties, along with debates and arguments. This went on and on and the problems increased, and the need for representation and protection became greater. Therefore a provisional committee was set up, without elections, composed of the Zionist Organization, Tzeirei Tzion, Mizrachi, and the communities. (Understandably, the communities that participated were only those which had a majority of Zionist parties.) It chose a “Temporary National Jewish Council. (The Sierpc delegate to the provisional committee was Avraham Shlomo Glazer, the representative of the community.) The council was headed by Y. Grinbaum and A. Hertglas. They handled all the complaints and requests for aid that came to the Temporary Council from all cities and towns. These came from Jews that suffered from large and small pogroms perpetrated by hooligans from the rabble or from the army. They would pass all these painful topics on to the higher authorities, and demanded protection for the Jews and their property,

In addition to protecting the Jews and their property, the Temporary Council also defended the rights of the Jews as a national minority in Poland. This included community rights, the situation of the Jewish schools, the right of Jews to keep their stores open on Sundays, etc.[41]

Sierpc too experienced outbreaks and attacks on a few Jews and the snatching of goods from their stores. These were not pogroms in the accepted sense of the word, but the misery of the Jews never stopped for even a day. Complaints to the police on these matters were of no use. A Jew who protested to the police about these matters would be met with ridicule, and would leave the police station disappointed and humiliated. The Jews knew that in place of the police there was an association that handled these matters and maintained respect for the Jews and for their belongings. This was Agudat Tzion . The political subcommittee documented all the incidents that occurred. They would record the words of the complainants (the note takers were: the secretary of the subcommittee, Zvi Malowanczyk, and a member, the author of these lines) with all details of the incident, and send the minutes, with their signatures to the Temporary Jewish National Council. These were handed over to the Interior Ministry and from there they arrived, through a number of conduits, to the Sierpc police with instructions to investigate the matter. When the investigation was begun a number of months after the incident, there were no results. However they caused no end of headaches and unpleasantness for the police, and to prevent this they were forced to keep the peace in town more effectively.

*

The political subcommittee of Agudat Tzion carried out an important activity during the elections for the first Polish sejm (parliament) in September 1919. There was an energetic campaign for the Temporary National Jewish Council. The representatives of the subcommittee spoke in all the prayer houses for this list.

There was a lot to get done in the office of Agudat Tzion on the evening before the elections. All the members were called to the office that evening. The town was divided into districts, and a pair of members (two boys or two girls) was assigned a district. The task of each pair was to go next day from house to house in the district, visit every apartment, basement and attic to remind everyone that today is “a day of destiny,” election day. The occupants would be asked to get to the polling place early and given a slip of paper with the symbol of the National Council on it, and to beware of using a different symbol when voting.

My partner was Shmerel (Shmaryahu) Hazan of blessed memory, and our district consisted of the “Kamnitza” (a large walled house), the streets called Kartoffel mit Ferfel Gesselech (“Potatoes and Dough Crumbs Alleys”), an area of very poor people. We reached our district very early since our instruction was to reach the voters at an early hour to find them when they were still at home. We knocked on the first doors and woke up the occupants. They opened their doors, and when they found out why we were there they welcomed us and invited us in.

I still remember the conditions in many of the apartments. Small and stuffy rooms with low ceilings, no circulation of air inside. The rooms were crammed with old beds and shabby furniture. Almost all the floor was covered with raggedy bedding, with disheveled heads of hair peeping out curiously and sleepily from under piles of old clothes and raggedy blankets. The darkness of the room, because of the early hour, added to the general gloom and completed this picture of extreme poverty. Those pictures of destitution that I saw then left a deep impression on me and were imprinted in my mind and my heart.

*

I mentioned earlier that the same courtyard that contained the office of Agudat Tzion , that of Moshe Elsztejn, also contained the Talmud Torah school. The school was in the long building in the middle of the courtyard[42]. The Talmud Torah in Sierpc, as in all towns, was a community institution. But because the institution was founded at the initiative of Avraham Fried (Yerushalmi) and because of his devoted efforts for the school, it was effectively under the supervision of Agudat Tzion . Therefore, Agudat Tzion was able to use the Talmud Torah auditorium when necessary.

Agudat Tzion once showed a movie, the proceeds of which were dedicated to providing clothing and shoes for the children of the Talmud Torah. The author of these lines paid the suppliers for the merchandise, according to instructions from Avraham Fried (Yerushalmi). I pasted a Jewish National Fund stamp on every receipt, and deducted its cost from the payment. It should be noted that no supplier protested.

As part of the aid given to the Talmud Torah by Agudat Tzion , Zvi Malowanczyk provided the students there with exercise lessons.

*

Yaakov Bachrach, the secretary of Agudat Tzion , was among the few in town, and almost the only one among the youth who had ever been to a foreign country. He returned to Sierpc after having lived in France for a few years. He had been touring with Shmuel Szampan, who had also been to Belgium and Palestine and returned to Sierpc. The young people admired them and were jealous of them, and considered them authorities on any matters concerning far away countries, other peoples, and social problems. In the end, they both returned to France, where Szampan died a few years later.

 

4. “The Breachers of the Fence”

My friend Itzik Zilberberg (Y. M. Simchoni) and the author of these lines were the first of the boys from the shtibl and beit midrash to join Agudat Tzion . Being a Zionist then was considered heresy, so despite that in our hearts we were enthusiastic Zionists, it was difficult for us to make it public and become members of Agudat Tzion . We knew that when this step became common knowledge, it would cause a severe reaction, and we wanted to avoid this. Therefore, we looked for a way to register as members of Agudat Tzion when there would be no superfluous people in the office. To do this, we hung around for many nights near the window to the office and across the street, on the sidewalk in front of Aaron Tcharnotchepka's house. Unfortunately, the curtain along the lower half of the window hid the inside of the office from us, so we tried to get a peek from above and from the sides. We wanted to see what was going on in the little room that seemed like a mysterious and holy place to us. It was a place where things were happening that would fulfill our highest aspirations, to redeem the Land of Israel and liberate the people of Israel.

One evening, when we thought there were no extra people in the office, we plucked up our courage, and went in. As soon as we opened the door, we knew we were mistaken. In addition to the secretary Yaakov Bachrach, the chairman Avraham Fried (Yerushalmi) and the committee member Yisrael Yaakov Cohen were sitting in the corner. Since it was impossible to just leave, we entered, walked over to the table, and stated our request. Our appearance apparently surprised those present, so they asked us some questions about the status of Zionism in our circles and about the steps we were about to take. We answered that for the time being we were alone among our crowd, and we were sure that this move would cause consternation among the youth of the shtibl and beit midrash, and cause us some unpleasantness, but that were firm in wanting to do this. In the meantime, the secretary registered us in the membership book, and gave us the “membership card.” This was a small, thin, and good looking notebook, with a nice looking rubber stamp in the shape of a Star of David as if attached to the page by six rivets. Inside were the words “Certificate Number 118,” signed by the chairman Avraham Fried and the secretary Yaakov Bachrach. A nice, pleasant, and cherished notebook. This happened on the 27th of Nissan 5677 (19 April 1917). The chairman asked us if we would also participate in the procession that Agudat Tzion was planning for Lag B'Omer together with Maccabee. We answered that two such revolutionary steps within such a short time were too much for us. We left the office happy and recognizing that we had started on a new path in life, the right one. The road for every young Jew who is loyal to his people and his land.

They say that the walls have ears. The rumor about the “evil deed” that these two boys had done, the “breaching of the fence,” started a series of denunciations of us. Neither I nor my friend was studying then in the beit midrash, but we came there every day to pray. We had to stand there every day, near the bookshelves between the stove and the door to the courtyard. We were the few against the many, and had to stand up to the bitter attacks and arguments about the “Zionist religion” that were aimed at us by many boys our age. We argued for many hours every day until we were hoarse, and even though we were a minority, we manage to repulse the attacks and leave the battlefield each day in one piece.

Obviously, the matter became known at home instantly. The informer added his own personal touch and stated that we had also joined Maccabee. But there was no opposition at home to our act. On the contrary, it was apparent that my mother and sister were proud that I was a Zionist.

 

5. Mizrachi

Reb Sander Tkorzh, the shochet [kosher ritual slaughterer and inspector] from Vlotzlabek (and father of Rabbi Tkorzh) came to Sierpc in the summer of 5677 (1917). He came for the express purpose of founding a branch of the Mizrachi [Religious Zionist] Organization. We saw him as a marvel and an innovator: a very religious Jew in all his manners and customs, and in addition a shochet, and not just a member of Mizrachi, but an organizer and proselytizer for the movement! If there weren't yet any Mizrachi in Sierpc, we all knew who the candidates for membership were. Most of them were people who had strayed a little from tradition, whether by a change in their garments, or by shaving their beards, or both, and by their general behavior. The shochet Tkorzh gave an enthusiastic speech on Zionism and religion in the new beit midrash, and Mizrachi was established in Sierpc.

The chief founder of Mizrachi in Sierpc and only activist was Isaac Neiman. He prayed in the Alexander shtibl, but he was not a fervent Hasid. However, he was a fervent Mizrachi member. He was the chairman and the only one who bore the yoke. The members who signed onto Mizrachi were the veteran Zionists such as Mordechai Hirsch Mintz, Azrieltia Podskocz, and others who were not comfortable with Agudat Tzion , and various men of means who prayed in the beit midrash or synagogue. Among the worshippers in the shtibls, the only one who joined, if I remember correctly, was the chairman, Isaac Neiman.

Mizrachi did not display an excess of activity. For an office, it rented a room in Isaac Kutner's new house, and arranged for a minyan[43] there on Saturdays. Those called to read the Torah would pledge money to the Jewish National Fund, and after the prayers they would sing Adon Olam[44] to the melody of HaTikvah. This was almost all of their Zionist activities. The minyan too assembled with difficulty until they started sending invitations to members to come pray next Saturday at Mizrachi. (Meir Malin, who was a member, came frequently, because he liked to lead the prayer - he had a nice voice - and there he could always find an opportunity.) Mizrachi had a few younger members, and on the appropriate occasions they would collect small sums for the Jewish National Fund.

At the urging of Mordechai Hirsch Mintz, the young members of Mizrachi founded a group called Sons of the Prophets. The purpose of the group was to practice giving speeches. We would assemble every Saturday in the Mizrachi office and a member of the group would give a speech on a Zionist, social, or historic topic. The members of the group that I remember were Itzik Zilberberg, Livieh Serena, Avraham Kutner, Gutkind Renkel, and I. Because we were embarrassed and didn't want our practice sessions to be public, we locked the door. At the end of the speech, before people came for the afternoon service, we unlocked it. Once, while someone was speaking, we heard a knock on the door. We made believe we hadn't heard a thing, and didn't open it. When the knocking resumed, we opened the door, and found Shlomo Lubaszka standing in front of us. He came in and said in his mild tone, “You're probably smoking cigarettes here, and that's why you locked the door.” I must admit that no famous orator ever emerged from this group.

*

A short time after Mizrachi was founded, a “preacher” (a “modern” interpreter of text) came to Sierpc. The local branch arranged for his sermon to be given at the new beit midrash. (Usually, the visitors would speak at the old beit midrash.) The substance of the sermon was religion and Zionism. By using references in the Bible and in the maxims of our sages of blessed memory, he proved not only that Zionism and settlement of the land of Israel were permitted, but that their enactment was a great commandment and an obligation for every Jew.

 

6. Hebrew

As the Zionist ideal deepened and Zionist organizations were established in all the cities and towns, the ambition to learn the Hebrew language became keener. Hebrew lessons were instituted everywhere, either by the local Zionist organization, or at the initiative of the students themselves. The young people studied the language in groups or in private lessons.

The aspiration to learn Hebrew came to Sierpc, and became a fashion that encompassed almost all the youth. There were evening lessons given by the teacher Mordechai Hirsch Mintz. Many young people took private lessons from the teachers Mintz and Cohen.

*

We were a group of four students who learned Hebrew and general subjects with Mordechai Hirsch Mintz. We would learn three days a week, two hours a day. The others in our group were Shepsel Visroza, Binem Lanczner, and Moshia Nipomoszcz. The pupils who went to the school of the teacher Mintz and were educated by him are better equipped to talk about him, but I must recount the great marvel that I witnessed. I personally heard the teacher Mintz talking to his son Shimon (now in America) only in Hebrew! (Remember, this was in Sierpc in 1916!) There was a story that there was an agreement between father and son that for every word that the son would say to his father that was not in Hebrew, he would have to pay a fine.

There was one more father in Sierpc who spoke to his son only in Hebrew, and that was Shmuel Yehudah Balt, the son of Meir Oved. Also the two friends, Shimon Mintz and Naftali Balt, spoke only Hebrew between themselves.

After a while, our group went to Yisrael Yaakov Cohen to learn Hebrew, and Itzik Zilberberg joined us. Teacher Cohen's style was lively and quick, appropriate for older students, whereas Mintz's teaching style was more gradual, better suited to younger pupils.

 

7. Maccabee

At that same time, the idea of a new activity infiltrated minds of the Jewish youth - that of athletics. Exercise and sports, which were as far from Jewish life as east is from west, became a preoccupation of Jewish youth all over Poland. There was an athletic association founded in almost every town and village. All of them were called “Maccabee” and they were distinctly Zionist organizations. The Maccabee organizations, with their double purpose, sports and Zionism, inspired young Jewish people. It strengthened and invigorated them and gained them respect from the Gentiles. Sport then was limited to gymnastics and soccer but was still unknown in Jewish circles. The coaches and trainers in all the towns were German soldiers.

The Society for Exercise and Sport Maccabee was founded in Sierpc in the month of Nissan 5677 (1917). In Sierpc too, the coach was a German soldier, and the practice field was the Manazh (the field used by the Russian cavalry battalion once assigned to Sierpc, at the end of Plotzki Street). The first public appearance of Maccabee (as it was called for short) was about a month after its founding, on Lag B'Omer, before it really had a chance to practice and train sufficiently. Agudat Tzion and Maccabee staged a joint procession through town and a hike outside of town for the whole day. The hatter Moshe Gongola had hardly enough time to prepare hats for Maccabee (a gray hat with a blue and white hatband and a shiny black visor) and the female members of the Agudat Tzion committee barely finished preparing the Maccabee flag (blue and white with the Star of David, and the word “Maccabee” inside).

The men of Maccabee strode in straight lines, four to a row, with the flag carrier at the front holding the big, new, beautiful flag. After them came the members of Agudat Tzion , also in straight lines, four to a row. Beside them strode the chairman, Avraham Fried (Yerushalmi) wearing his Sabbath coat, and on its lapel was a large streamer with two ribbons, one white and one blue, that reached to his knees and fluttered in the wind. Fried was the commander and inspector of the procession. The parade passed the Jewish Street, the market, and Plotzki Street, and then continued out of town. From there they went to the woods of Lavondzh, where they spent the day playing games, singing, and dancing.

Maccabee may have been a new and untrained creature, but it made a great impression on the youth and on every Jew that had any nationalist feelings in his heart. The Gentiles too watched the procession, with the flag and the muscular young men marching, with awe. The parade was exactly one week after the 3rd of May, the Polish national holiday, when there was a grandiose procession in Sierpc, with many participants, and accompanied by the firefighters' band. The Jews then looked on with envy at that parade, at the freedom of the Poles and their nationalistic feelings and unity. Our procession, though it was small and meager compared to the 3rd of May parade, nonetheless compensated somewhat for the longing of the Jews for a crumb of freedom and a public appearance of the national identity.

Maccabee also made a great impression on the twentieth day of the month of Tammuz at the memorial service for Herzl at the synagogue. They came to the synagogue in a procession with the flag in the lead. They arranged themselves in the synagogue in two lines, on both sides of the platform, from the entrance to the Holy Ark, with the flag carrier and his partners standing between the Ark and the platform, facing the platform. During the speeches by Avraham Fried (who opened the service), Azrieltia Podskocz, and the teacher Mordechai Hirsch Mintz, and during the prayer El Malei Rachamim [“God Full of Pity”], the Maccabee members stood quietly and listened. When the time came to sing HaTikvah, they stood at attention. Their quiet and orderly demeanor and the presence of the national flag added color to the memorial service for Dr. Herzl, the national leader.

Also impressive were the ceremonies connected with bringing out and putting away the flag. (The flag was kept at the Mintz School.) The Maccabee members, standing in two rows, would stand at attention and sing HaTikvah. The flag carrier and his partner would leave the line, take the flag out of the school or take it into the school, come back to their places, finish singing, and then the procession would disperse.

*

The Maccabee of Lipno came to visit Sierpc that summer. The visit turned into a great holiday for the Jewish youth of Sierpc. The local Maccabee went to the outskirts of town to receive the guest Maccabee. The two groups went back through town with their flags and a small brass band with a group of motorcycle riders with sidecars carrying the equipment (“ ovoz”) of the visiting society. They passed the new market, Zhava (Zhavia) Street, the market, and Plotzki Street, to the courtyard of Moshe Hirsch Kotcholak, which had been designated as the encampment place of the guest society (the guests were lodged in private homes). It was a wonderful sight that lifted the spirits of the young people, and not just the young people.

The next day, the visitors displayed their achievements in gymnastics. In the afternoon, some of the motorcyclists rode through town, with small national flags on the handlebars, and bugles hung around their necks. They would blow short blasts on their bugles to muster their members. They lined up at the encampment and from there they went to the exhibition place, which was in one of the lumberyards of the new market. All the young people and many of their elders streamed there to see the show of gymnastics. And it was worthwhile watching. The guests showed us some very nice exercises. They displayed very good training, with a great deal of agility and precision. A number of groups showed off their accomplishments, and all of them played their parts well. But the best exercises were performed by the select team. This group showed us drills that we thought were miraculous. The show ended with a huge and beautiful pyramid.

The next day the guests returned to their town. Again the two societies passed through the town with their flags and all the equipment of the visiting society. The local Maccabee accompanied the guests to the outskirts of town, and there they parted.

It is difficult to describe the great impression that the visitors from Lipno made on the residents of the town, young and old, Jew and Gentile. Their proud and pleasing appearance, their gallant and orderly stride, and their sublime and splendid exercises stirred all of us. Both the young people and a great many of the grownups - that part that looked forward to the rebirth and renewal of the nation - were delighted with these young men, men who realized and could display their promise. The Gentiles also observed them with regard and respect, and called them “ Zydowski wojsko” (the Jewish Army). The term “ der Lipner Maccabee” (the Maccabee from Lipno) became a household expression among us, signifying beauty, order, courage and capability. We remembered their performance for a long time.

When they marched through the streets of the town, the visitors sang various songs, and between songs, the small band would display its capabilities. One of the songs that they played was Nes Tziona[45] with a melody different from the one we used when we sang it in Sierpc. The new melody quickly spread throughout the town, and was called “ der Lipner Nes Tziona” (the Lipno Nes Tziona).

 

8. Aliyah, Hehalutz, Training

For weeks and months after the end of the First World War, insecurity and disarray were widespread all over the world, and travelling by road was dangerous. Gangs of deserters, ex-soldiers, and plain robbers would lie in wait in forests and roads to rob and kill travelers. In spite of this, an undertaking for aliyah[46] to the Land of Israel began, the start of the Third Aliyah. Groups of young people from Ukraine and Russia immigrated using chaotic and dangerous roads, and by sea. Not a few of them were lost on these harsh voyages.

There was a restlessness and desire for aliyah among the young people in Poland as well. The Zionist youth in Rypin sent a representative to the Zionist youth in Sierpc about aliyah. A restricted meeting was arranged in the Mintz School. The representative gave a talk and told us about groups of young people in various towns that were planning aliyah. He told us that a group from Będzin had already left (incidentally, the Będzin group was among the first of the Third Aliyah) and a group from Rypin that was ready to go but was delayed because of rumors of strikes on the Polish and Czechoslovak railways. He talked about an emissary that that would be sent to scout the way to the Czechoslovak border, and after his return, a decision would be made on what to do next. His purpose in coming to us was: a) organize a youth group for aliyah; b) get our participation in scouting the border with our emissary; and c) general cooperation between our two groups to ease somewhat the many difficult problems involved in accomplishing our aims.

Those present decided on the spot to organize an aliyah group and cooperate with the Rypin group. Participation in scouting the way to the border was also agreed upon. Also discussed was the necessity of getting assurances from the emissaries that when they reached the border, they would not cross it, but return and report on road conditions. To pay for the expenses of the joint operation, everyone contributed two Marks.

In order to prepare the way for this revolutionary step, I informed my family slowly and with half-truths, until the entire secret was revealed: that I was a member of a group planning to go to Palestine. The news caused agitation and sorrow at home. My mother and sister tried to persuade me to change my mind, because of my young age, my lack of experience at working and earning a living, and the suffering that I might cause.

In the meantime, the situation on the roads got worse. The railway strikes increased and spread and nothing came of our grand plans.

The meeting took place one or two months after the end of the war (December 1918 or January 1919). There were about fifteen participants. I can remember the following: Avraham Fried (Yerushalmi), Yeshayahu Friedman, Leib Mintz, Y. M. Zilberberg (Simchoni), and the author of these lines.

*

A short time later, the Hehalutz [The Pioneer] organization was founded in Poland. The main office was in Warsaw, and branches were opened in various cities. The purpose of Hehalutz was not immediate aliyah, but aliyah after a training period. All members of Hehalutz were supposed to prepare themselves for working at one of the vocations that were required in the Land of Israel, usually in agriculture. It was also necessary to get a working knowledge of the Hebrew language. Only then could the member obtain permission for aliyah from the main office.

A branch of Hehalutz was founded in Sierpc as well. At a restricted meeting of about twenty members at the offices of Agudat Tzion, the chairman, Avraham Fried (Yerushalmi), read a letter from the main office of Hehalutz in Warsaw. The letter contained the first directives for founding a branch in Sierpc, and especially for filling out a questionnaire that should be sent back to Warsaw. The questions were about the name of the member, gender, age, education, occupation, and which training vocation would be chosen. On the choice of vocation, almost everyone answered agriculture, the most necessary occupation in Palestine.

Only two of those present did not choose agriculture. One of them, Yitzhak Zomer (was in Palestine for a few years, then went to America in 1933) said that agricultural training is a very difficult proposition: one has to leave the town for the countryside. Leave your parents' home for a house or barn on a Polish farm. It means changing all your habits and way of life, along with problems in supporting yourself that you won't know how to solve. His opinion was that it's better to learn metalworking. This is a very necessary occupation in a country that's starting to be built. And this vocation can be learned in town, with a Polish blacksmith, and the products made can be used to pay for tuition without any difficulty.

But we decided to start agricultural training. However, there was no one among us with the initiative to find a place to train, so nothing came of our grand plan. The Sierpc branch of Hehalutz died before it had a chance to live. The participants of that meeting that I can still remember are Avraham Fried (Yerushalmi), Yitzhak Zomer, Hezhe (Zvi) Malowanczyk, and I.

*

There was an attempt at agricultural training, without any connection to the above decision, by a small group of members.

About five kilometers from Sierpc, on the road to Drobin (Drubnin) there was a Jewish farm that belonged to four brothers and a sister, all single and well into marriageable age. One of the brothers had been to Palestine and had returned before the war. Itzik Zilberberg (Y. M. Simchoni), Shmerel Hazan, Moshe Fogel, Gutkind Renkel, and I went to this farm on the first day after the Passover holiday in the year 5679 (1919). We wanted to learn farming. We told the owners of our objective, and they agreed to our proposal and promised to teach us all the tasks so that we would be expert at them. We agreed among ourselves to return home to prepare work clothes for farming (during the war and afterwards, it became customary to use work clothes made out of the material of burlap bags) and then return to the village to work. They showed us around the farm and explained various things about farm work, and then invited us in for a midday meal. We ate a tasty and excellent meal of potatoes and sour sorrel soup. After spending a few hours at the farm, we went home.

But this attempt did not lead to anything either. Whether because we lacked the nerve, or for some other reason, this plan ended like the other ones. At least Shmerel Hazan and Moshe Fogel worked for two or three days at the farm, but they never continued.

 

b. Education and Culture

1. Education

When the Germans came to Poland during the First World War, it was as if a new spirit had come to the country, a taste of Western Europe. A spirit of enlightenment and education entered the dwelling places of Israel. This spirit brought about deviations, if small ones, from the accepted customs and truths, and brought about changes in values in many fields.

There was a great change in the field of education. (We are talking about the Haredi [extremely pious] education that was learned by ninety per cent of Jewish children.) The heder, that ancient and widespread institution that educated millions of Jewish children, that instilled in them Torah and morality, and brought them up to live the traditional Jewish life, almost entirely disappeared. Because of the requirements of the authorities for improvements in the hygienic conditions at places of learning, and the “new spirit” that encompassed the Jewish community, Haredi educational institutions called “ Yesodai HaTorah” [Foundations of the Torah] were founded in all the towns' of Poland. Out of habit and because of a wish to maintain the traditional name, they were popularly called “hederYesodai HaTorah.” But in actuality, these were an obvious copy of modern schools, with classes, a principal, a secretary, an office, exams, and grades. In addition to Gemara, exegesis by Rashi, and commentaries, a number of hours a day were devoted to secular subjects. There were also Poles among the teachers.

Sierpc also had a Yesodai HaTorah school. It was in Litvinski's house, across from the synagogue. Perhaps one or two heders , small and illegal, were left in town in their former condition. Except for these, they were all swallowed up by Yesodai HaTorah and the melameds of the heders became melameds in the classes of Yesodai HaTorah. The institution was run by a committee, which decided on the curriculum, and accepted the pupils. It collected tuition and paid wages to the principal, the secretary, the melameds and the teachers, and was responsible for all the expenses of the institution.

The principal of Yesodai HaTorah of Sierpc was Eliyahu Meir Schleifer, the son-in-law of Chayim Shochet (Bergson, formerly a ritual slaughterer). Schleifer, who came from Drobin, was a learned Yeshiva student, and had been ordained as a ritual slaughterer. It was generally accepted that a ritual slaughterer in town should also be a cantor, but this Yeshiva student had a wooden voice, unpleasant, that grated on the ears. He tried, from time to time, to stand before the ark in the shtibl of Alexander, and pray, perhaps thinking that maybe this time a clear and pleasant tone might emerge from his throat? But it never happened, and the worshippers laughed when he sat down. Some jokers said that he had a stick jammed in his throat, and because he couldn't succeed as a cantor he never tried to apply as a ritual slaughterer and inspector in any town or village. He remained in Sierpc with the “ordination” in his pocket and made his living from a store that sold readymade items which was at the start of the Jewish Street, in the same house as the drugstore.

The Yesodai HaTorah institutions were under the influence of Agudat Israel, which was associated with the courtyard of the Rabbi of Gur. The Alexander Hasidim sent their children to the school, since there was no other alternative, but they were unhappy about the arrangement, which increased the stature of Gur.

One of the most active functionaries of Yesodai HaTorah in Sierpc was Yudel Rabbinowicz, who was the secretary of the institution. He was a native of Sierpc, but he had lived for many years in Lodz, and during the war, when there was hardship and hunger in the big cities, he returned to Sierpc. He had many relatives in town (the families Sendrowicz and Yeshaievitz). He was a Hasid of Alexander, and the other Hasidim in the shtibl were offended by his activities for Yesodai HaTorah.

*

All the changes and transformations brought something new to town. A Polish progymnasium was opened and a few parents (Tzadok Bluman, the brothers Yaakov (Yukev) and Avraham Valuka, Zelig Minchin, Mordechai Hirsch Mintz, Yaakov Maniamchevka, Avraham Podskocz, Matityahu (Matat) Przasnyszski, Esther Rachel Szampan, and others) sent their sons to study there, even though they were obliged to attend on Saturday (though they were exempt from writing on Saturday). Something like that would not have happened in Sierpc before the war.[47]

A number of the “bourgeoisie” (not Hasidim; worshippers in the beit midrash and the synagogue) started during that time to clip their beards and shorten their coats and also replace their traditional hats with flat European hats. (I remember Avraham Bluman, Kalman Brenner, Nachman Horowitz, Kalman Kalmanowicz, and others.) One time Lipaia (Lipa Naselski, a Jew who enjoyed telling jokes and entertaining people) asked Nachman Horowitz “Tell me Nachman, how much did you pay for that frying pan?” (He was referring to the flat hat.)

Many of the young people then started walking around outside bareheaded. The change came gradually, in two stages. First they went bareheaded, but held a hat in their hands. After they had grown accustomed to the first stage, they went on to the next step: they went outside without any hat at all.

 

2. Culture

There were also immense developments in the area of culture in Poland during that period, that of the First World War. Libraries were opened in all the cities and towns, or already existing libraries were renewed or expanded. In the small towns there was a single general library that served all the young people, without any association with political parties. In the cities each party had its own library. During that period, when political parties developed, many general libraries split up into political libraries. Obviously, these schisms caused great cultural damage. A library that had great significance as a single institution lost all value when it was turned into a few tiny libraries.

A drama club that was associated with the library was founded in every town. From time to time, the club would present a play, either all on its own, or with the help of an actor (understandably, of the second or third rank) that was invited from a large city. The income from the presentation would be for the benefit of the library. A successful show would be presented in the surrounding towns as well, and if the income did not increase appreciably, at least the prestige did. A play with visiting actors would make the local youth envious, and such envy increased the number of times the play was presented. Sometimes the town would host a visiting troupe of professional actors that would present a number of plays. Like the libraries, the drama clubs would be united in the towns and divided, according to political parties, in the cities.

The libraries or the parties would from time to time invite lecturers from the large cities. They would talk about various subjects: literary, historical, social, or partisan.

There was a library in Sierpc before the war. Then, there were no official political parties or societies in town, and the library served as the single center of cultural and social life. All the progressive youth in town were there, of all classes and persuasions.

During the period of the German occupation, the library was in the alley behind the house of Aaron Tcharnotchepka (Chalpin Street). There were already political parties in town, but just one library. Because most of its members were Zionist, the committee was composed of Zionists. From time to time, the library would hold question and answer evenings (kestel ovent), parties, and exhibitions, and the income was dedicated to buying books.

Young men from Hasidic homes also started reading secular books then. Most of them didn't come to the library themselves, or join as members. They took books to read from their sisters, or from their friends' sisters, or from others. Few had the nerve to come to the library, register as members, and take out books for themselves.

This book contains a photograph of a library card, made out to the author of these lines, and signed by Yossel Goldman, who was then the regular librarian. A previous library card was signed by Rasha Farkal (grew up in the house of Binyamin Sobol, now in America), a volunteer librarian.

The library also served as a meeting place for friends. It was said that one girl, who wanted to meet with Yeshayahu Friedman, who was the librarian for a time (before the war), would come to the library every day to exchange books. Some clowns noticed this, and started to ask her about the contents of the book she was returning. Of course, she couldn't answer, and with that her daily visits to the library stopped, as well as her daily meetings.

Among the young men that came to the library were those that out of respect for their father would go the shtibl on Saturday to pray. The Hasidim did not care for this very much, and once, before the reading of the Torah, Yehonatan Lipchitz (in the Gur shtibl) pounded on the table and announced, “ Di Iden vos geien in di lebetik aran, zoln nisht geien shtibl aran; in di Iden vos geien in shtibl aran zoln nisht geien in di lebetik aran” (“Those going to the library, don't come to the shtibl, and those coming to the shtibl, don't go to the library”).

From time to time lecturers visited Sierpc, invited by the library or one of the political parties in town, or were sent by one of party offices in Warsaw. Not just literary talks, but political speeches. Youth from different circles would attend. Members of the rival parties would ask questions, argue, and try to contradict the lecturer. He would answer his hecklers, and try of course to prove his points. Sometimes the discussions would be conducted quietly, and sometimes with interruptions, shouts, and very lively spirits. These were always interesting and instructive evenings,

*

In this section “Chapters of Memories” I have recorded my memoirs of Sierpc (Sheps), until the end of the First World War. This was also the end of the Russian and German occupation of Poland, and the start of a new era - independent Poland.

With the beginning of the revival of Poland, skirmishes began between the Polish army and Ukrainian irregular forces and revolutionaries. These skirmishes became a war between Poland and Bolshevik Russia. The draft of youth for the army and war then began. With my conscription into the army, the period of Sierpc (Sheps) in my life ended.

 

Translator's Footnotes

  1. A melamed was the teacher of little children in the heder, the one room school. As a courtesy he was called “Rabbi” but he was not necessarily an ordained rabbi. Return
  2. The Mikve was the ritual bathhouse. Return
  3. Rashi - the acronym used for Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, an eleventh century Jewish sage. Return
  4. The Gemara is that part of the Talmud that is analysis and commentary on the Mishna, which is itself a review and analysis of biblical commandments. Return
  5. Akdamut is a song written in the eleventh century and is an introduction to the 10 commandments, sung in the synagogue on the first day of the Shavuot (Pentecost) holiday. Return
  6. Ephod - vest; Hoshen - breastplate. Vestments worn by the high priest in the temple. Return
  7. 33rd day of the Omer, the 49 days between the Passover and Shavuot holidays, a traditional day for picnics and camping outdoors. Return
  8. These alleyways were called “ Kartoffel mit Ferfel Gesselech” ( “Potatoes and Dough Crumbs Alleys”). Most of the residents of these alleys were the poorest of the poor, and so was their food, from which these alleys got their name. Return
  9. The ritual fringes that Orthodox Jews wear with their underwear. Return
  10. Ritual prayer shawl. Return
  11. The prayer recited on Saturday and holiday eves, or on festive occasions at the prayer house, sanctified with the blessing over a glass of wine. Return
  12. Specially prepared matzo, in accordance with the very strictest ultra-orthodox standards. Return
  13. A small prayer room of a Hasidic sect. Return
  14. A Yiddish term, usually derogatory, which literally meant non-Jewish boy, but also applied in a more genial way to Jewish boys who were considered mischief makers. The plural is shkotzim. Return
  15. Nittel is the 25th of December, the date of the birth of Jesus. (The origin of the word is the Latin “ Natale” meaning birth.) The prohibition of studies is to prevent mentioning to his credit “that man” who studied Torah. Because of this prohibition, Hasidim and others would play cards on that evening. Yeshiva students and beit midrash students would play games with scraps of paper. The Jews in Russia and Russian Poland preferred the Nittel according to the Julian (Russian Orthodox) calendar over the Gregorian (Catholic) calendar. The preference of the Julian calendar was undoubtedly due to the influence of Russian rule. This night is called “ Bozche Narodziny” (the birth of God) in Polish. In Yiddish we called it “ Baiz Gvoiren” (the birth of bad). Probably called so in Yiddish because of the play of words Bozche - Baiz. Return
  16. “For Michalitia, for a pair of houses”; a pun in Yiddish: “ heizier” (houses) sounds like “ hoizen” (pants). Return
  17. Usually, a heder of little children had about 20 pupils, and a heder of older children (called “Gemara boys”) had about 12 pupils. Return
  18. Shechelech” [jacks] is a game played with five stones (also with five nuts or five links from a chicken's throat), where you throw one or more up into the air, pick up the ones on the ground and then catch the ones in the air. The name “ shechelach” probably comes from the word sharelech (graden - scratching, since some people pronounce the “r” sound as “ch”), since the stones on the ground are dragged one after another in order to pick them up all at once. Return
  19. A neighborhood on the edge of Sierpc which was once a separate town, but later annexed to Sierpc. Return
  20. In other heders the afternoon break was only one hour, but in this heder it was two hours, because the pupils went home only once a day. Return
  21. Nach” is the Hebrew acronym for the books of the Bible not including the Pentateuch - the books of the prophets ( “Nvi'im”) and the other writings ( “ Ketuvim”). The complete Old Testament is referred to in Hebrew as “ Tanach,” the acronym for “ Torah, Nevi'im, Ketuvim.Return
  22. In addition to the heders that I have mentioned above, there were other heders in Sierpc. The most important were: the heder of Rabbi Chayim Yosef (Crystal) that was at a level similar to that of Rabbi Michalitia, and the heder of Rabbi Avraham Aaron (Burstyn) that was at the same level as the heder of Rabbi Moshia Karmelkeies. Return
  23. Called Tisha B'Av, the day is a fast day in the Jewish calendar, to commemorate the destruction of the first and second temples. Return
  24. About two years before the war, a German airplane made a forced landing near Sierpc. Many people went to see it, and the rumor spread that the plane had flown on a spy mission. The pilots were arrested for a while by the police, and then released. Return
  25. It is now known that the Germans set a trap for the Russians. They allowed them to enter a region of Prussia that was heavily mined. After the army of General Samsonov went in there, one hundred thousand troops with all their equipment, they were all blown up by pressing one button. Only a few survivors were saved from this hell. Return
  26. The bodies of two Jews were found in the vicinity of Sierpc, murdered by Russian soldiers. (We did not know who they were or where they came from, and they were buried in the cemetery near the fence.) Return
  27. The Jews spoke Yiddish, which is a dialect of German with additions of Hebrew and other languages. Return
  28. Shomrim (Guards in Hebrew) - an early quasi-military Zionist organization in Palestine set up to guard Jewish settlements. Return
  29. Genesis, 7: 9 Return
  30. In 1912 there were elections in all of Russia for the Fourth Duma (Russian Parliament). The Polish right wing put up Kochaczewski as their candidate, and the left wing put up Yagalalo. The left wing won, with the help of the Jewish vote. The Poles declared a boycott of the Jews and opened private cooperative stores (spulki) in all the towns and villages. (I said “the Poles declared” because in the matter of anti-Semitism, they were all, both the right and the left, of the same opinion. In many places, especially the villages, there were physical attacks on the Jews. In one village, the Poles set fire to a house along with the eight members of the Jewish family who were inside. Return
  31. The hospital was on Farah Street, opposite the church, in Kulashinski's house (one house after the Falka house). There was also a branch of the hospital on Shkolna Street, behind the church, in the school. Return
  32. The region between Poland and Ukraine, not the one in Spain. Return
  33. The people who prayed in the old beit midrash were simple men of means and the poor. The worshippers in the new beit midrash were “bourgeoisie” who knew the Torah well, Hovevei Tzion, and enlightened and advanced people. The worshipers in the synagogue were simple men of means, and in later years, also “bourgeoisie,” Zionists, and intellectuals (these came to the synagogue only on holidays). Return
  34. Kolhekot - small community. They were a group of enlightened Mitnagdim [opposed to Hasidim] that had a controversy (schism) with the rest of the community and the rabbi, and appointed their own rabbi. Return
  35. The Zionist immigration to Palestine between 1904 and 1914. Return
  36. I will mention an interesting fact here. A few months after the steering committee had been divided into subcommittees, there was a national congress of the Zionist Organization in Warsaw, which elected a new central committee. At the suggestion of its chairman, Yitzhak Grinbaum, it was divided into subcommittees, similar to those of Agudat Tzion in Sierpc. The members of the society were very pleased with this result, and called Avraham Fried “the little Grinbaum.” Return
  37. The day of Herzl's death. Return
  38. The declaration by the government of Great Britain that it considers Palestine to be the homeland of the Jewish people. Return
  39. The Zionist (and Israeli) national anthem. Return
  40. Vouchers in lieu of a currency to be issued by a future Jewish state; Shekel - the plural is Shekalim - is the present Israeli currency. Return
  41. We should mention here the outstanding work of the great scientist and activist Noach Perlotzki who, on his own, dealt with complaints of many communities and of individual Jews who turned to him. His efforts were an immense help to the suffering Polish Jews. Return
  42. This same long building was used as a soup kitchen during the years 19i6-1918 for the poor of the town, as well as the poverty stricken from other cities, especially from Lodz and Warsaw. Economic conditions and the supply of food were terrible there. The volunteers at the soup kitchen were Shmuel Glazer, Zalman Jakubowicz, Czeshka Lubaszka, Falka Malowanczyk, Yehezkel Stari ( “Hatchek” from the village of Rozcheshuwo), Hinda Szampan, and others. Return
  43. The minimum of ten men required for a public prayer. Return
  44. The hymn that closes the service. Return
  45. An anthem of the first Zionist flag, from “Set up a standard toward Zion” - Jeremiah 4,6 Return
  46. The Hebrew word and Zionist term for immigration (“ascent”) to the Land of Israel. It is usually identified by consecutive numbers, which then refer to the periods in which these immigrations occurred: thus “First Aliyah” was 1880-1904, “Second Aliyah” was 1904-1914, “ Third Aliyah” was 1919-1923, etc. Return
  47. An interesting curio: One of the teachers at the progymnasium, a Polish professor called Maievski, would buy a Zionist Shekel every year, not from love of Israel, but from enmity. “Maybe in this way” he said, “I will help to rid Poland of the Jews.” Return

 

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