by Ephraim Talmi (Wluka)
Translated by Alex Weingarten
Sierpc, the town of my birth. Little Sierpc, squeezed between hills and valleys, with the Sierpienica River dividing it lengthwise and leaving its imprint. Sierpc, a city in the Polish exile at the crossroads of Warsaw, Plonsk, and Danzig. At the junction of an entire district of towns and villages, farms and estates of Gentiles. And among them and within them - toiling Jews occupied with bargaining, Torah, and work, with commerce and peddling, with skills and small manufacturing. Sierpc - the bells of memory toll and shake the depths of the soul. Forgotten sights, from far away, return and shake off the dust of obliviousness, take on a clear, certain form, which the hand tries to transform into script.
Sierpc, a town of ten or eleven thousand, about a third of whom were Jews. It served as a center for all the towns in the area; Sierpc is mentioned in a book by Joseph Opatoshu, In Polish Forests; it was the regional seat, with all the requisite government offices. There were roads and highways, paths and streets from all the corners of the heavens that led to Sierpc. It was situated between green hills and emerald valleys, a landscape of beauty and color. The land was not flat. If you came from the direction of Plotzk, you had to go down the steep Plotzki Street to get to the center of town. If from Drobin or Biezun, you would glide down the Jewish street to the central market square. But if you came from the direction of Prussia, from Rypin-Dobrzyn-Golub, you would find yourself tossed around in the carriage or cart or in later years in the bus, as you rapidly traveled down the street leading from the towering Catholic Church, erect on a high mountain with a marvelous vista for miles around.
The town was surrounded by vast fields of wildflowers that in the summer looked like an ocean of stalks of grain drifting in the wind, bending and bowing and becoming upright again. And the spacious gardens added their accompaniment of magic to the undulating shoots. All the fruits that Poland was blessed with grew in the orchards in and around the town. With the long and winding, narrow Sierpienica River dominating it all. The river that every boy in town remembers, and will recollect to the end of his days. The source of the river was undoubtedly unknown to any Jewish boy in Sierpc, because who would try to trace its path, to find its beginning and its end? There, in the Diaspora, we did not investigate the wonders of nature very much. From the time we were old enough to think for ourselves we saw the river as part of the town, something that was always there, a part of the way of life, for our entertainment and our dreams. The river was frozen in many places during the winter, covered with a layer of ice and snow. In the spring - the snow would melt. The cracking of the armor of ice that had constrained the water let it rush in from all the brooks and creeks and rivulets into this one river. A mighty swelling and the joy of spring, a storm of wild movement, sweeping away everything in its course, its strength finally liberated. The first rays of a warm sun dazzled the waters, and aroused them to unaccustomed life. The river swelled and waxed and widened and occupied new banks and the water poured into the yards that bordered it. There was a multitude of trees, planks, and small utensils whirling in the furious and turbid water. This lasted for a brief time, until the river returned to its boundaries, its power enfeebled, and became the steady river again. But in years of torrential rain and much snow, a flood followed the thaw, a flood that does not fade from memory and people do not stop talking about. There were mild floods that damaged only the lowest areas, where the poor lived. But every few years there was a greater flood, whose effects were visible for a long time because of the damage they caused. But when townspeople mentioned The Great Flood they meant the frightful flood that occurred at the end of the nineteenth century, which destroyed almost half the town, and whose damage was unprecedented, with lives lost. That flood, or as it was called with anguish in Yiddish, Das Gevister was a nightmare that could not be erased or forgotten.
But when summer came, the river would shrink and flow peacefully. We were acquainted with the length of river between the flour mill of Mr. Frilanski and the Bovorowa dam. There were shallow spots in the river, where you could cross by foot during the warm days of summer. And there were deep places with whirlpools that sucked you in and deep, dark pits. There were other places, usually in the Gentile neighborhoods, where the riverbanks were green and pleasant, and the land near them would astonish you with the vegetable gardens and fruit orchards. However, many sections of the river which passed through the Jewish areas were for the most part rundown and neglected. They were filthy and polluted with the debris of pots and pans. There were places, during the summer, in years with little rain, where the river would shrivel so much that a foul smelling green slime would climb its dry banks. Fragments of casks, hoops, and all types of discarded tools would stick out of the standing, moldy water, as if thrown into a sewer.
I can remember very well when the river was cleaned; the picture remains clear to me. It was during the German occupation, in 1915 or 1916. The conquerors, devotees of order and neatness, introduced new attitudes to the town. They decided to rid the river of its pollution, something that had not been done for generations. They dammed up the river outside of town, and diverted it to a different channel, until the stream in town dried up. Those were good times for the kids in town. All of a sudden, there was no water and no river, and you could walk on dry land. Barefoot, we plodded through the mud searching for treasures. And what riches we found! Broken pots and pans of generations past!
After the cleanup, and boosting and bolstering the soil of the riverbanks, the water was once again allowed to flow through the river, as in the old days. The searching and the scratching and the wonder of finding antiques were over.
A river provides a lot of activity for the boys in town; endless entertainment and satisfaction. In the winter, you could skate on the ice. To feel the cold air that cuts into your very soul! To fear and tremble that the ice will open up at some spot and to yell like a wild man when you finish skating with no mishaps. The body is warm; the cheeks are enflamed. Your face is flushed from the wind and the cold and the effort, and your eyes are flashing sparks of delight, and your mouth is a trumpet full of joy!
And in the summer, you could go fishing with a big sieve or colander filched from father's store, where it was used for straining flour or grain. Sometimes we would use a fishing rod, like real fishermen. We would sit for hours on the bank of the river, waiting for a bite which rarely came. Or we would walk with the old sieve through the clear water that reflected the sun, chasing the minnows that hurried away. Sometimes we were successful, and from their hiding places between the river weeds the fish would rush into the large sieve. Then there would be no end to our joy, but these were exceptional circumstances. But in spite of this, our enthusiasm and eagerness never abated.
It was a river for sailing in boats. This was a popular sport during the summer. The young people would go down to the boat station near the bridge, by the statues of Menashe and his Sons. They would row the boats till the Bovorowa dam. Usually they would sail in the afternoon or before evening. But there were also moonlit nights, and the young blood pulsed in their veins. Bands of rowers would swarm over the river with its pale silver light, punctuated with shadows of the tall trees with wide branches that grew by the side of the river. There was youthful singing, full of tenderness and longings of the heart that broke the stillness of the night. From time to time there were shouts of joy that would frighten the birds that nested in the tall trees. And there were secret whispers of young lovers. It was a rich web of life that flowed like the waves of the river.
But these excursions were not always quiet and idyllic. There were times that shkotzim would attack the Jewish rowers, throw rocks and try to sink the boats. The rowers would be beaten and injured, and then their hearts would be full of pain and anger. To be a Jew in the Diaspora.…
People would swim in the river all summer long, beginning right after Sukkoth. As soon as it became known that a sheigetz had drowned in the river, and it had received its sacrifice, the Jews began to bathe there as well. There were a few swimming places in town: near Frilanski's flour mill; near the Lunka not far from where the Valker lived; near the Bovorowa dam, and a few other places.
There were more than a few Sierpc townspeople who knew how to swim, and there were some that were excellent at it. People spoke with great admiration about the expert swimming styles of Motel Tikolski, Leibl Kashe-Makher, Avraham Wluka, and others. They spoke with awe especially about their vasser-strit; as if they were walking on water.
The swimming in the river also had peaceful periods and periods of troubles and harassment. If there was a black cloud hanging over the shkotzim, they would find pretexts to beat the Jewish swimmers. They would hit them until they drew blood, steal their clothes, and abuse the defenseless younger swimmers. There were times when we counter-attacked and paid them back in full, or more. But I remember one incident where we were swimming in Bovorowa, and a large gang of shkotzim pounced on us. We managed to get out of there with great difficulty, carrying our clothes, and naked as jaybirds we ran for two kilometers until we reached the first Jewish houses.
During the winter, we had other pastimes, skating on the frozen lake near the railway station. As soon as the ice was thick enough, we came out to skate on the lake. Some of the Jewish skaters showed great artistry. Until they learned, they would tumble seven times, but they would get up and continue. There were many sprained knees and injured hands. Sometimes the ice was not thick enough in places, and a skater who wandered to a weak spot like that would find that his leg had broken through.… But generally they were careful and the pleasure of skating was complete.
In addition to the pleasures connected with the river and the lake, there were other special events in town, the big fairs and market days. Because Sierpc was the largest town in the area, it would hold large fairs, where thousands of peasants from the whole region would come to sell their produce and purchase supplies. It was a vibrant exhibit of all the kinds of fruit of the earth and different types of commercial goods. There were thousands of horses, cows, sheep, grocery stalls, and peddlers. An enormous crowd in colorful clothes rambling through a great festival, with loud and piercing noises. A huge symphony of shouts, braying and whinnying horses, snorting of bulls and lowing of cows, squealing of wheels and lashing of whips, cackling of hens and quacking of ducks, the honking of geese; a commotion that did not stop from the morning until closing time at ten at night. When the town emptied of the great throng, the markets and squares and malls became quiet, like an abandoned battlefield.…
Life went on in all of its variety in the small town. Sometimes the tide would crest with fairs, special gatherings, festivals, state holidays, the international workers' holiday on the first of May, Polish independence on the third of May, and in contrast, the second of November, the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration. When the tide ebbed, life would go on as before, quietly and sedately. The Jews would finish their weeklong struggle to begin preparing for the Sabbath. The nimble ones would rush to Schweitzer's Mikve on Mikve Street to get a proper immersion in steam. They would leave there bathed, with mist rising from their bodies, wet haired and beards dripping, red faced and refreshed, hurrying home to put on their Sabbath clothes and go to public prayer, to greet the Sabbath queen. Not much earlier and the same Jews were busy earning their living, encrusted with oil and flour and kerosene, and smelling of all kinds of groceries, and now they had turned into different people. They had removed their worldly garments and become the sons of kings. The sounds of prayer filled the village spaces, an accompaniment of grace and glory to the light of the candles and radiance of the chandeliers that came from the prayer houses and homes. The Sabbath queen was everywhere in the dwelling places of Israel.
On Saturday, the fervent Jew would study Mishna and Gemara and the layman would read the Psalms and chapters of Ein Yaakov. Fathers would quiz their children about their knowledge, to see if they had properly learned their lessons during the week. The women would pore over a Pentateuch with a Yiddish translation, the Tzeina VeReina, and stories of wise and pious men. The political parties would hold literary sessions, question and answer evenings. There would be discussions of the important topics facing the world, both Jewish and secular. There were visits with relatives, friends, and acquaintances. When the Sabbath came to an end, the wheels of the quotidian life would again start turning - until the next Sabbath. The merchants returned to their stores, the craftsmen to their labors, the peddlers to their stalls, the melameds to teach the Torah. In the rooms of the very fervent, a return to the six books of the Mishna and the tractates of the Talmud. In the improved heder of Mordecai Zvi Mintz, Hebrew studies in Hebrew. Every man to his own needs and traditions.
Jewish life was rich and full of substance. If from the outside it looked like a forlorn and declining town, sleepy and sluggish, without spirit and ambitions, inside it was bursting with life, stormy and restless, a life of the spirit and the mind. There was Torah study and there was nationalism. The pious were preparing themselves for God, all their deeds directed towards the creator and eternal life. The nationalists were doing their utmost to revive the feelings of patriotism and national glory among the youth and the rest of the population, the aspiration to be a free people in the transformed fatherland. And there were workers' organizations, laboring to improve their economic status, their prestige, and their intellectual experience. There were appearances by emissaries from headquarters in Warsaw, and representatives sent to conferences in the capitol. There were arguments and turbulent meetings, and attempts at convincing someone to switch from one political party to another. There were many cultural events, amateur drama productions, and artists' appearances. Libraries were founded that disseminated knowledge and enlightenment. Schools appeared, such as Tarbuthand Tzisha. And there was aliyah to the land of Israel and constant contact with the immigrants. As the economic conditions worsened and the persecutions and the spitefulness increased, the desire to leave the valley of tears of the Diaspora became stronger. But only a few hundred went to Palestine over the years, and others went to the lands in America. But most of the Jews of Sierpc remained in town, troubled and fearful, busy and preoccupied, worried and hopeful.
So thus the wheel of life revolved, a cycle of happiness and grief, pain and trouble. Contentment and longing, disappointment and despair would follow each other and then repeat themselves. Generations came and went, until the awful catastrophe, until the Holocaust came for Polish Jewry, and everything descended into the din of desolation. The town was destroyed and crumbled into the depths of devastation. Sierpc was no longer Jewish. The song of life was interrupted for thousands of our sisters and brothers, our mothers and fathers, our relatives and acquaintances, friends and companions. We shall remember them forever.
by Yerachmiel Weingarten
(A Chapter from the book, A World in Flames)
Translated by Dr. Jacob Solomon Berger
It is a cold autumn day. A cold wind blows through the streets that drives everyone indoors. However, my wife and I must go into the city, because this is the day we are supposed to travel to Vilna, and we have to visit a number of friends from Bialystok, in order to take our leave of them, and to thank them for their extraordinary generosity to us.
We come out into the plaza where the municipal building is, and we remain standing there, as if turned into stone what is this? Have the wandering groups from Hirschbein's Galut come to life, and broken out of the confines of the novel?
Here go young men. They are wearing long Hasidic kapotes, and are dressed in European clothing. Their faces are long, unwashed, with overgrown beards, sunken eyes sunken (from tears, or from beatings?) and heads bowed to the ground – the mark of two thousand years of exile lies in their eyes and in their demeanor, pressing down on their backs, and bending them to the earth. They go in one group, holding on tightly one to another, as if they did not trust anyone around them Master of the Universe! From where do I know these people, if not from the picture portrayed by Hirschbein?
My wife suddenly runs over to this band of wanderers. She leaves her basket, with her purchased treasures standing on the ground, and calls out:
– Baruch! Dear Baruch!
The group of wanderers halts. Their state of paralysis is broken. They ring around my wife, and heartily take joy in her presence, because with her arrival, a breath of their memories of their home, family, and town where they were born, was infused into them.
My wife's little shtetl, Sierpc now I finally recognize all of you. I may not remember everyone's name, but I remember you all exactly: part of you once studied in my school, when many years ago I was a teacher in Sierpc, others I recall as listeners to my speeches, as members of the Sierpc library, Zionist Organization Whose hand has so cruelly concentrated you together in this way, and brought you here to unfamiliar Bialystok?
Sierpc, the little shtetl where my wife was born The little shtetl of my own early youth You were a symbol of the Jewish Ideal for me, in Poland. How beautiful were your small houses, in which a community of God-fearing Jewish people lived; with an unwavering faith, they believed in God, as it were, and lived in the best possible state of amity with the peasant of the village, who would come to the market twice a week, Tuesday and Friday, in order to earn a living from the Children of Israel. How handsome and how good-natured were your unusually idealistic youth.
My little shtetl of Sierpc! I will never forget that small town Zionist leader who, on that great sunny fall November day, when the telegram about the Balfour Declaration arrived, ran from house to house, with his small sack of potato peels (he would by this to feed his two cows), knocking on all of the shutters, on all the doors, while calling out: Jews, come to the synagogue, and let us praise God; the Messiah is coming, and days afterwards – the mass meetings, when the faces of all the young people were inflamed, their eyes drawn wide open, and, in pathos said: somewhere a great thing is being built, but we want our share!
Or can those bench evenings ever be forgotten, when with the greatest fidelity, philosophized and ruminated about the cosmos: Did God create Man, or did Man create God?
My little shtetl Sierpc you are one of the oldest Jewish settlements in Poland, but your pedigree – the old folios of the town records – was taken away by the fire a number of times, and all that remains is a remnant of your old bricks, which the Polish authorities prohibited anyone to use. This old brick of Sierpc was a symbol like a sheep, that Jews were like a muted sheep before its shearers and this situation aligns with the old legend: that Jews, fleeing German funeral pyres, created a new place in which to live in an alien and desolate land, which they called Poy-Lin-- Lodge Here– and it was from this that Polish Poland later arose.
This is what the legend tells about the settlement of the Jews in Sierpc: they had fled oppression, like a sheep fleeing the teeth of a wolf, finding an unencumbered and separate place between two valleys, and there they put up the tents of Jacob, there they planted Torah, and the practice of good deeds, built a formidable synagogue there, and called the place Szeps [sic: sheep]. The gentiles then arrived, who did not grasp the reference, that they were the wolves, and they altered the name of the little shtetl to Sierpc.
My little shtetl of Sierpc, hills surround it Over the quiet streets, in the evening, the sound of Torah [study] was carried, and on your Rabbinical seat, shepherds of your people sat, who nourished the folk in an enlightened God-fearing manner. The Jewish street was always suffused with Yiddishkeit. In the morning, the beadles would lead their sacred flock with a sacred melody. The four year-old lambs – leading them into the Heder. After the noon hour, happy young boys from the Heder would run through the streets to a reading of the Shema – many, many Shema Readers, would, no evil-eye intended, fill up that tiny, small little street.
Occasionally a long, substantial funeral cortege would make its way to the old, distant cemetery: all the stores would be closed, because all the Jews of the little shtetl rendered their final respects , when one of their own – and everyone was considered to be one's own – had been torn out from among the living, and was transiting into the Better World. Out in front of the coffin carrying the deceased, a host of young Heder boys stretches out, and intones: May justice go before him
My little shtetl of Sierpc each hillock and each vale within you, is suffused with Jewish history. Wondrous tales from ancient times are told in Sierpc, in every little hut, and across each threshold, every little byway, and even every little bridge over the small bit of water, that flows through the little shtetl, in order to avoid needing to cross the Vistula at Plock, or the Drw.ca [River] in [Golub-] Dobrzyn, or to the creek in nearby Rypin, if, God Forbid, it becomes necessary to write out a Get for a Jewish daughter.
Near one of these small bridges, a distance from the Jewish street, there stood a small Kapelitsa, and in it, there were several sacred Christian figurines. Jewish boys would ran past that location, with their hearts pounding, in order that they not, God forbid, be forced to doff their head wear. This small hallowed structure was given the name, Menashe with the three sons.
Elderly grandmothers, heaving a sigh, would tell of a certain Menashe, a rich Jewish man with three sons, whom it didn't suit to live among Jews – and the end of this was that they turned their coats inside out
The Szeps community suffered much shame and abuse from this, in which all of the Jews in the Jewish street sat Shiva, and tore their garments in mourning [sic: K'riah], and before this seven day period of mourning was over, they came to their violent end and so the gentiles built a small shrine to them, and demanded that Jewish children [walking by] show them respect
This is how it starts – the elderly grandmothers would sigh, using a moralizing tone of voice – first you abandon the Jewish street, later on Yiddishkeit, until, God forbid and then they spit out three times, so that it not be said at an inauspicious hour.
But the Jewish street, God forbid, did not become emptied of Jews, rather the opposite – in the last years, this little Jewish street spread out, and absorbed all the streets that circumscribe the old marketplace, and the large municipal pump. A little at a time, Jews began to relocate into gentile neighborhoods, but they did not sunder the thread of Yiddishkeit, and did not forget the way to the synagogue.
Pamphlets and Magazines began to appear in Jewish homes. Those, who were Enlightened, told of a broader larger world, but Sierpc was a world unto itself, practically a Jewish nation, with its own community house, its own synagogues, houses of study, Heders, an inn for transients, a mikva for ablutions, and a funeral facility for after one hundred twenty years True, the poverty was great, and the Jews of Sierpc left to go out into the larger world – to America, sending money back from there, and taking over their relatives there Cracks began to manifest themselves in the solidarity of the community, but it remained rock-solid.
A World War broke out in 1914: the Russian r?gime abandoned Sierpc, and three German soldiers began to guard the mills, the bakeries and eating places But in the larger cities, the hunger was more widespread and intense. Accordingly, refugees from those locations began to stream in, to take advantage of the wheat fields around Sierpc, and to benefit from the better air of the hills and dales around Sierpc. Among those who came, was an elderly Jew, wearing a hat, and sporting a small gray beard. An elderly Jew – in a hat – this alone was an extraordinary occurrence in Sierpc, and today, he walks through the streets and in a loud voice, speaks in Hebrew?! He became a teacher [for children in] the wealthier homes. It was said that, before the war, he was a wealthy merchant, and he possessed property in the Land of Israel. This very elderly Jew, who wore a hat, brought with him a young son, who goes through the streets bare-headed, having a head of thick, black hair, surrounded by a claque of little boys and girls, who only want to reconstruct the world, and all they do is read pamphlets, they take courses, and use libraries, dedicating their time to long promenades, over the dolinkas (dales) that are around the shtetl, from which they return home in late at night, with ruddy countenances and inflamed imaginations
And so, the sorrow and fear if the God-fearing fathers grew larger, when the young man with the mass of black hair on his head, Lord save us, cast his eye on the Hasidic daughter of R' Wolf
You can easily understand that this young man, with the mass of black hair, is, in fact, me, and the Hasidic daughter (like all Hasidic daughters of that time, could not even speak a proper Yiddish) – this is my wife.
And here comes The Second World War. We wandered off to Bialystok and other Sierpc refugees came after we did.
My wife is now standing, ringed by hapless itinerants, the remnant of her birthplace, Sierpc. Like in a kaleidoscope, pictures run by my eyes, starting from the origins of Szeps, to the modern city of Sierpc, in the year 1939
When a person feels that death is imminent – an old folk expression says – he sees everything he has experienced in life, in a split second it appears that instinctively, I sensed the extermination of this old, deeply rooted Jewish community, as if its entire history, with a sudden clarity, roused my thought processes, and with such pitiless speed, summoned the sight of these images, of types of people, and personalities, that had lived, breathed and suffered, and now, an uncivilized bestialized horde of people has descended [on it], and the community is to be destroyed.
Immediately, I am surrounded by this group of escapees from Sierpc.
– How is it that all of you come together here? – I ask them.
Chaotically, they begin to tell, with one interrupting the other, but from their interrupted words, sighing, and choked back tears, I obtain a confirmation of my tragic, instinctive premonition, that an old Jewish community has been wiped out.
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