The Synagogue in Szczebrzeszyn, a Work of Art
Modest on the Outside,
by Eng. David Davidowitz
Translated by Yocheved Klausner
The Halacha in Maimonides (RAMBAM: Hilchot Tefilla [Laws of Prayer], chapter 11, paragraph 2) states: One builds a synagogue on the elevated part of the town, and the structure should be taller than any other structure in town. This law has been strictly and beautifully observed in Jewish Shebreshin. The picturesque synagogue, with its twolevel roof, stood out among the buildings of the town and rightly symbolized its important function in the old and deeprooted community, of a noble historical past. The community is first mentioned in the 17th century.
The Shebreshin rabbis, delegates at the Council of the Four Lands, served in famous communities in Europe and their names are deeply involved with the history of the Polish Jewry, until the days of its destruction (see Pinkas Vaad Arba Aratzot, a collection of regulations, articles and records, ed. Israel Halperin, Jerusalem 1945, pp. 32, 35, 37, 40, 63, 67, 78, 120, 143, 169, 182, 209, 214, 267, 274, 287, 289, 307, 333, 453, 456, 516). We shall mention in particular the name of R'Meir the son of R'Shmuel, one of the respected members of the Shebreshin community in the first half of the 17th century, who fled to Krakow after the invasion by the Kozacks. He authored the book Mizmor Shir Leyom Hashabbat (Venice 1639) and the wellknown chronicle about the 164849 pogroms Tzok Ha'itim (Krakow 1650; Venice 1656). This book is very rare today and only a small number of copies of the second edition (Venice 1656) are kept in the Bodleian Library, the British Museum. Before the war there were copies in the Jewish Community Library in Vienna and in the library of the Rabbinical Seminary in Breslau.
This old synagogue of the Shebreshin Community is worthy of special mention among the squarestructured synagogues built in the Renaissance style, which in the past adorned the Jewish communities of CongressPoland. It was built by the end of the 16th century, about the same time that the Renaissance style square synagogue was built in the neighboring community Zamosc. Indeed, these two synagogues resembled each other in style (see D. Davidowitz: The synagogue in the old city, the Zamosc Community, in the memorial book: Zamosc in its Glory and its Ruin, Tel Aviv 1953).
Among the synagogues in the Zamosc district, the synagogue in Shebreshin had the richest ornaments. The dome of the main praying area (21.35 m. x 23.48 m.) was of a monastery style,
with six lunettes and six openings to the women's gallery. As was the custom, the women's gallery was on the upper floor next to the west wall, while the first floor of that area was occupied by the Poolish [entry room, passageway] and the assembly room (community room). Attached to the women's gallery were several small rooms, at the north and south walls.
All those building additions were modest and had no architectural ornaments. The façade was modest as well: the walls were divided by pilasters and the tall mansard roof was the only outside ornament of the building. However, the inside was marked by relatively rich ornamentation.
Geometrical paintings were on the rim of the dome, their outlines similar to those in the Shebreshin churches, probably from the time the Zamosc Collegiate was built. On part of the dome the spaces between the lunettes and above the Torah Ark, along the axes of the walls and above the entrance the ornaments were richer and extended on the line below the windows. The Holy Ark, built of stone, was in local late Renaissance style, although quite simply executed. The gate of the Holy Ark, of carved wood, was more delicate, of a distinct oriental shape. The interior polychromy, which accentuated parts of the dome, was mainly light blue.
(A. SzyszkoBohusz: Materjaly do architektury boznikw Polsce Krakow 1926, p. 23)
The bimah, made of forged iron, was built much later, probably in the 19th century. Its modern style was noticeable on the background and general character of the interior of the old synagogue. A special piece of furniture was standing on the bimah, perhaps one of the most interesting and unique in the synagogue furniture in those times, which enlivened the center of the place: Eliyahu's Chair, made of wood, its shape reminding a canopy. The chair adjoined the western side of the bimah's beautiful banister that was supported by two poles. The contours were made in the spirit of the heraldry of the smaller Arks, found in private synagogues or Hassidic shtiblech.
While the general architecture and interior ornaments of the synagogue were not much different from those of the Zamosc synagogue (the dome, the square shape of the praying area), the wall ornaments of the Shebreshin synagogue showed great advancement. A beautiful ornament, which can be defined as a classical blind arcade appears on the walls, on the areas between the windows and between the openings to the women's gallery. This ornament will be found later as well, in the interior of the synagogues of the baroque and fortress types. The blind arcade is actually a line of flat recesses topped with arcs and set between pilasters. The flat areas of the arcade were sometimes used to post various prayers or announcements (see Davidowitz: The Hebrew Letter as an Ornamentation Element in Synagogues, Part III, Hed Hadefus, booklet 1953).
There was a distinct and interesting difference between the two synagogues in the structure of the roof as well. While the roof of the Zamosc synagogue was quite simple and did not add any special beauty to its rich architecture, the doubleroof structure of the Shebreshin synagogue was a strong reminder of the picturesque roofs of most of the wooden synagogues in Poland. This feature enlivened the exterior of the synagogue. It can be assumed, that this mansard roof was not built at the beginning, but it replaced the original roof as was the case with most of the square and fortresslike synagogues, after a fire or other predicament that necessitated rebuilding.
Among the ritual objects of artistic value, which in the past adorned the interior of the synagogue, we shall mention the brass chandeliers (the spiders ninebranched chandeliers decorated with an eagle mounted on a spring, characteristic of the old Polish synagogues), little trays, Torah Crowns, reflectors, many Torah Scrolls, Ark Coverings, etc.
The Shebreshin synagogue was destroyed by the Nazi murderers during the first days of the terrible war, sharing the bitter fate of the other synagogues in Poland, as well as the fate of its members, its visitors and its admirers.
Professional terms in the area of architecture used in this article
One of the famous Synagogues
by Meir Balaban
Translated by Moses Milstein
Extract from the book: Zabtyki Historyczne Zydow w Polsce
The Shebreshiner shul is included among the famous shulslike the Vilna shul, and the Kracow, Lemberg, Lublin, and Poznan shuls.
Almost all the shuls in Eastern Poland are built in the form of a quadrangle. The first thing you notice on entering such a shul is that the prayer hall is below street level. You descend the stairs to go in. The educated explain it in a religious way based on the passage from T'hilim, Mi'ma'amkim karaticha Adonai.
The reality was different. In order to comply with the requirement of depth (Mi'ma'amkim), the chazzan's spot was lowered a little. But the general lowering of the building was due to an old church ruling, The unbelieving Jews are not to build synagogues of great splendor, or richness, but of moderation and moderate size. In order to get permission to build a shul, in spite of the bishops and the government, the area had to be reduced.
To the right of the chazzan, in most shuls, on both sides of the oren kodesh, stood a stone table in the form of a mizbe'ach. The Yizkor candles burned there on Yom Kippur. A nine-armed candelabra, in the form of the seven candled menorah seen on Titus' gate in Rome, sat on the table. Similar menorahs, small and large, were found in many shuls. Examples of the larger ones are found in Pogrebiszcz, S., and Zamosc. Some have smooth arms, some have arms covered with brass buttons, flowers, etc.
The name of the donor can sometimes be seen on the foot of the candelabra.
The ceiling in the Shebreshiner and the Zamosc shul is built over the center. The prayer hall is a regular and moderately sized quadrangle.
by Menachem Messinger
Translated by Moses Milstein
Going down the broad stone stairs into the shul a dazzling light would strike you. You stood inspired and in wonder. Your eyes closed involuntarily.
At the entrance, seven rows of tall pews symbolizing the days of the week. Saturdays, the cheder teachers would bring all their little students, seat them in the tall benches, and like a choir of birds at dawn, their voices would echo out in resonse to the ba'al tefilah, Baruch shemo, and Amen.
They sat clustered together like little angels, dressed in their shabes best. In each little hand, an apple or a cookie that their mothers prepared in honor of shabes. They listened to the ba'al tefilah with awe, and their responses echoed louderBaruch shemo, amen
The gaze of the assembled was drawn to the little heavenly angels who sang a song of praise to the creator of the world.
In the middle of the shul, rose the tall, elaborate, engraved and decorated balemer. On both sides, seven wooden stairs. On the wide wooden table with many drawers, there lay several sefer torahs, graced with beautiful colored velevet cloaks, through which were woven golden threads, with magnificent artistically engraved crownsketer Israel, tiny gold bells which sang out musically with every movement. The sound evokes in our childish breasts the memory of the splendid past about which we learned every day in cheder and awaken in us the strong belief that we will live to see the rebuilding of our ancient homeland. How many of the cheder children survived to see the rebuilding and return to our beautiful, sunny, colorful land!
Lifting our childish eyes to the high painted ceiling, our eyes were dazzled and drawn to the play of the sun in the high towerlike windows. We followed the reflections of the passage of the sun over the various artful drawings made by Jewish artists with fascination.
Then we saw the four brass plates in the high colored relief, arranged in a square, from which extended thick, woven, twisted, flax ropes ending in brass chains from which hung beautifully engraved chandeliers with branches holding white candles.
Slowly and solemnly we chidren lit our little candles that shone together with the light from the chandlelier on all four sides of the balemer in honor of seder hakafot.
The tall chazzan, R' Moishe, with his wide, long white beard, with his strong, appealing voice, carries in his strong arms a shein covered with a red velvet mantle, a sefer torah with a double crown set on the everyday knobs, and graced with pealing musical bells.
He descends the wooden stairs followed by worthy men carrying torahs in their arms, snaking their way with measured steps, and begins to sing with his echoing, strong voice, Ana adonai, hoshia na, ana donai, hatslicha na!
The dancing and singing becomes more energetic after each of the seven hakafot and we children sing along.
Suddenly, the tall wide wooden cupboards which are locked throughout the year are opened by R' Moishe Farber who calls out solemnly the names and grants everyone a sefer torah inscribed hundreds of years ago, and considered to be one of the greatest honors and which were donated at certain times accompanied with dancing and music into the shul.
At the end of 1905, major social struggles took place during the election of a new dozor. The newly elected dozor, Nicklesberg, applied himself energetically to the renovation of the fire damaged shul, with the help of Mordechai Fleischer, the large extended Sher family that dominated the takse of the shtetl in those days, and also the business men and tradesmen and even some of the Christian population.
World famous artists were brought in. The centuriesold chandeliers were converted to gas lamps. The ancient balemer was refurbished, new stairs were constructed. The ornaments of the oren kodesh were refurbished and the amod, where the old chazzan and shochet, R' Moishe Hersh, used to daven, was rebuilt in the previous style. And so too was the Eastern wall where old Reb Simchaleh, the father of R' Fishele Goldberg, used to sit.
At the ehtrance of the shul, tall benches were built for the little children so they could say, Baruch hu uvaruch shemo and Amen. And the arcades, on which were written almost all the prayers in black letters, were redone with great skill and talent by the worthy R' Abraham Morechai Boim, the son of Leizer Papieroshnik.
That was how the old, firedamaged shul was given its historic and artistic appearance in the year 1905.
by Mendl Farber
Translated by Moses Milstein
The Shebreshin shul, which was as old as Jewish Poland, was very beautiful. Inside, it was high and round with beautiful cornices. The walls were painted with phrases from the prayers. There were also carvings symbolizing episodes of Jewish history beginning from the destruction of the Second Temple.
Two wooden chains hung over the oren kodesh and between them a grape vine. A date was visible between the boughs of grapes indicating the age of the work900 years it is believed. The oren kodesh held 310 torahs. One sefer contained only the haftorahs. The parchment was made of deerskin.
The shul's siddur was full of piyutim from all the holidays, slichot for the yamim norim, as well as slichot for the yohrzeit days of the many tragic epochs suffered by the Jews of Poland in general, and the Jews of S. in particular. The siddur's date indicated 910 years.
The shul contained many crowns for the sefer-torahs, mostly made of gold, diamonds and other precious gems, inscribed with dates of 300, 500 and 900 years ago. There were also silver crowns used on shabes and holidays. But for the Days of Awe, only the golden crowns were used.
There were also costly curtains over the ark from various eras. One of the curtains was adorned with the yizkor and El Maleh Rachamim sewn in gold thread. It was donated by R' Yuzil ben Chaiah and was 300 years old. The torah covers were 300 to 500 years old. Every fringe was of silver.
The vessels for hand washing for the kohanim also received special attention. They were made of silver, and there was a jug made of gold donated by R' Naphtali.
Lighting was provided by 12 golden lamps, 600 years old, donated by pious women. One of the lamps was dated 140 years ago. Inscribed on it was the name Bat Tovah Shper. A two-meter tall, 8 branched menorah hung over the balemer, and above it a golden bird. The menorah was only lit on Chanukah.
In 1906, the shul was renovated using only old Jewish tradesmen under the supervision of Abraham Mordechai Boim, zl, a great scholar who was also talented in painting and carving. At the entrance of the shul, he created a painting and signed it.
In a corner of the shul's attic, a small room for one person was walled off. It was popularly believed that the room was used to imprison those, for a short period of time, who had sinned against the kehila, or had committed a crime. There were also old clothes in the attic. Since it was the custom to put only old books in the attics of shuls and not clothing, it was believed that they stemmed from the victims of Chmielnicki.
Many old books were also found in the attic.
by Chava Sapian
Translated by Moses Milstein
When you came into the shul, you were overcome with awe, just as if you had entered the Temple. I can scarcely believe that I saw it with my own eyes. The colors and shades held the light of the sun, and the moon, and the rainbow.
It is said that, hundreds of years ago, a Jew whom no one knew, arrived in town. He undertook the building of the shul, which took several years. After the work was completed, he disappeared.
The following day, all the money he had been paid by the community for his work was found in a corner of the shul.
It was said that it was no other than Eliyahu Hanavi who had been the master builder, because no ordinary person could have made such superb holiness, and especially not without payment.
As I write these words and realize that the shul has been destroyed, tears fall, and my heart is sore.
by Aharon Lass
Translated by Yocheved Klausner
Our synagogue was one of the oldest and most beautiful synagogues in Poland. The exact date of its construction is not known, but according to the tradition of the Elders of the town in was built 900 years ago. When I visited the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam, I found a striking similarity between the shapes of the windows of both synagogues.
I remember well the weekdays Shahrit prayer [Morning Prayer] in the synagogue. One Monday a day when the Portion of the Torah is recited it was an autumn day, at the time when Poland achieved its independence. Bad news had arrived about the pogroms of Petliura's soldiers in the Ukraine and utter sadness was felt all over town.
At about that time, R'Nachum'che Twerski, of the dynasty of the Trisk ADMORs, arrived in Shebreshin. R'Nachum'che was a handsome Jew, a Talmid Chacham [Torah scholar], had a pleasant voice and was an excellent cantor. Although my father was not a Trisk Hassid, he had a special affection for this ADMOR. One morning R'Nachum'che was cantor, and when, in the prayer Tachnun [supplication] he came to the part Shomer Israel [the guardian of Israel] he left his place, circled the bimah and begged with his pleasant voice: The Guardian of Israel, protect the Children of Israel, who recite Shema Israel, so that we do not lose Israel. At that moment I felt that in this combination the synagogue and the people praying, led by R'Nachum'che a huge treasure of confidence and security is stored, which gives hope to overcome the bad times.
In the Tractate Megillah it is written: What is called a great city? The city that has ten batlanim and Rashi explains: ten people who are always present in the synagogue at the morning and evening prayers.
In our synagogue we had a group of Omrei Tehillim [reciters of Psalms], headed by R'Hersh Neta's. Our house was not far from the synagogue and every Sabbath at an early hour I would hear R'Hersh's strong and clear voice repeating the Psalms. It was said that R'Hersh knew by heart the entire Book of Psalms not only from beginning to end, but also from the end to the beginning.
by Emanuel Chmielash
Translated by Moses Milstein
You could say that our shtetele was poor. But it is we who are poor today. From that little shtetl of yesteryear shone greatness and spiritual richness. It is of little use to compare the small satisfactions of life in little Shebreshin to the wealthier life in the outside world. Those of us who still dream can be forgiven if we still dream of the past in S., and not of something else.
We had a colorful and meaningful life. All sorts of images of the past come quickly to mind, but to transcribe them to paper is harder.
Shabes. Every Shabes has an Erev Shabes
A hot, summer Friday, about 3:00 or 4:00 in the afternoon. I lived with my parents, sister and brother, HYD, on Green Street (R' Mordechai Fleischer's street).
My Shabes clothes are prepared with great attention. Having finished work, I leave the house by the front, near Geshichter's pharmacy warehouse. Years before, it had belonged to Shnitser.)
On the stairs of the warehouse sit R' Zelig Getzl, and R' Shaul Moshe Pinye HYD. At the wall, in front of Mordechai Fleischer's house stand, like soldiers at a fortress, Zelig Getzl's sons. Now, they aren't looking for a farmer and a sack of wheat, they are just out for a breath of air after a week of hard work. During the week, they were oppressed by the stress of making a living: Friday night, the air was free.
On Friday night, the cement stairs in front of Estherishe Fleischer's , HYD, closed front door are also occupied.
The merchants on and around the street are still busily engaged in getting ready for Shabes. Some carry cholents, and following them come small girls carrying little pieces of wood to contribute to the oven. The mitzvah of keeping the ovens going for the neighborhood cholents belonged to Chaiele, Moishe Pinye's, and Menuche Chana the ba'al hagule's daughter-in-law, HYD. Merchants run to Shimon Goldman and Feigele Gedalia's, HYD, food stores to buy chicory with coffee they had forgotten to add to Thursday's shopping list.
There is still smoke coming out of the chimney of the wooden house belonging to Mordechai Fleischer and where his daughter Nechama Gernreich lives. In other homes, floors are still being washed. Other men carry the milchedik borscht and the food for sholes sudes down into the cellars where they each have a locker. At Laizer Shtifim's, half the floor is washed while, on the other half, the father and sons still sit at their sewing machines, hurriedly finishing a bit of work. It needs to be ready for early Sunday morning for a customer in Cukrownia.
Closer to Shabes, the children of R' Mordechai Fleischer come out of the house, a Sabbath glow spread over their faces. Dressed already in their Shabes clothes, they sit around the stairs. From time to time, you can see the grandchildren come running from their zayde's house and straight to Shimon Oldman's store to buy treats.
From afar comes the sound of R' Moishe Shemesh's hammer calling out the time for candle lighting. Then follow the sounds of doors closing and keys jingling as Jews close their stores for Shabes. The streets thin out. Soon the windows begin to display the red flames of the Shabes candles. Shabes!
With the coming of Shabes, the appearance of the street changes. The stores are shut behind iron bars. Locks, serious and determined, hang on the bars as if to say, We are having Shabes! The sidewalk is cleared of the weekly dust and dirt, the gutters whitewashed. The stones of the sidewalk arrogantly say to the bricks, The wheels of the farmer's heavy wagons will no longer batter our backs. And the bricks answer, And, over us, will walk Shabesdike Yidden.
And indeed, the wheels fall silent, and young, Jewish girls, full of charm, come out to go walking after a long hard Friday at work. Jews in satin and cloth kapotes with sidurim under their arms hurry to the synagogues for Kaballat Shabbat.
Prayers in R' Mordechai Fleischer's small beit hamidrash, in his courtyard, were attended by himself, his sons-in-law, his son Dan, HYD, all the neighbors, the carpenters from the courtyard next door, and others. The Gabai was Zelig Blachazh, HYD, fanatically religious, but an honest Jew. In the seat of honor sat Mordechai Fleischer. His sons-in-law occupied the Eastern wall. In the first row, sat R' Yermiyahu Rabinovitch (Later rabbi for Bialobrzeg, from Czepla Street in Warsaw). His presence truly graced the little bet hamidrash and the shtetl. The west wall was occupied by the ordinary citizens with Dantsche Fleisher at the head. He didn't, it seems, want to sit next to his brothers-in-law.
Even before Kabbales Shabes, the prayers take on a cheerful tone. Faces, shed of the gloom of the work week, the stresses of making a living, of hard toil, take on a Shabes appearance. Some are already looking for someone to play a joke on. They arrange for a real ba'al menagn to lead the prayers. The initiative usually comes from the west wall group. In the middle of lechu neranena they mischievously lead him to the tones of the Days of Awe to the pleasure of the audience. But R' Yermiahu turns his face from the ark to the west, and with one look, they are serious again.
As the worshippers return home, the young people end their walks, and the street is deserted. From the open doors and windows, you can hear the sounds of dishes clattering, intermingled with the songs of Shabes
Saturday morning, and singing is heard. Familiar words, heimische melodies. The closer it gets, the clearer. They are in Hebrew. Curiosity takes you out of your house. In the distancecolumns of soldiers. As they near, you can make out a brown reflectionthe Betar youth, returning from their military muster.
There are already a few youngsters out walking on the trottoirone in new shoes, another in a new suit. A new suit, on the first Shabes, means the young man has to undergo a public exam. His friends circle him, appraise him from all angles, ask who the tailor was, and of course, give their opinions.
The barber shops are busy. Stubble-faced boys go in and come out with clean shaven faces.
The new sidewalk becomes steadily livelier. Some stand in groups hotly engaged in conversation. Others walk along companionably, softly singing a workers song. Coming from Gershon Cooper's house are the strains of a newly composed march, El Adon. That would be the Gerrer Chasidim davening Shachris. Their Shachris always began earlier so that they could take a break before Musaf to study Talmud.
Fathers and their children, talissim under their arms, are streaming, either towards the shul, or to the large beit hamidrash. And in that beit hamidrash, daven together Chasidim without a shtibl, Chasidim quarreling with their shtibl, Zionist business men, non-Zionist business men, and plain, simple people. The left half of the eastern wall was Zionist. Seated in that pew were Moishe Hersh Berger, Abraham Finkel, Yerachmiel Ginzberg, Benjamin Chmielash, Shia Wertman, and Moishe Mantile.
Prayers from the Zionist pew only begin to get going at the Kriat shema. After the first shmone esrei, the eastern half becomes livelier. Important issues are thrashed out, taken from the news in Heint, or Moment. With great relish, they repeat words of Yeushson, argue about an article by Itshak Greenboim, remark favorably on an essay by Hillel Zeitlin, or criticize a statement by Zev Jabotinsky. Neither banging on the table or hisses of sha… from the congregation can subdue their heated discussions. An excited participant can only be silenced when the Gabai honors him with an oleh torah. It isn't until katar that they realize the davening is coming to an end, and they take off their talissim. Slowly, some just ending their vikoach, people make their way home.
Walking back from the beit hamidrash, you run into girls and boys coming out from the beit hamidrash and getting in a walk while their fathers are still davening at the shtibls. They usually end later. Slowly the strolling groups leave, and the street empties. The air carries the sharp smell of cholent being carried by the mothers.
After the meal, we go out to the benches near the houses. We eat fruit and chat amicably with neighbors. A little later, the older people retire for a nap, and the young take the afternoon to leave the city. In town, it is blazingly hot. Hezkel's soda water factory is packed with people. There they slake their thirst caused by the salty, fatty cholent they have eaten, with bubbly, cold soda water.
Some people avoid the heat and play chess in the shade of the half-open candy stores of Yankel Yar, or Yosele Warman.. Many of the young go to the plazhe, others to the Bloiner orchards, and others to the valleys between the hills around the cemetery.
Young girls and boys, half dressed, take the sun lying on the lawns of the plazhe. They smear cream on their faces, put leaves on their noses to avoid sunburn. Boys splash in the water, teaching others how to swim. Swimmers show off their skills.
In the orchards, ex-shtibl boys and girls gather, and eat the fresh fruit. On blankets spread close to one another on the ground, or on suit jackets, couples lie, and declare their love.
The valleys between the mountains were used by the various organizations, Zionists, Bundists, HeChalutz. There the Yudenshtats Partei arose and held several meetings. This was after the putsch by the revisionist party in 1933. The leaders were Yankel Gewertz, Chaim Ber Bach. I was a member of the committee.
Many youthful secrets were left in the valleys, expressions of affection, words of love. More than once, their sweet dreams were interrupted by a goy running after them swinging a scythe or a sickle.
Around 5:00 o'clock, they all begin to stream back to town. At 6:00 o'clock, the promenading begins in and around the shtetl. Girls dressed elegantly. Boys in presentable suits, striped shirts with stiff shiny collarslike at an exhibition.
The new promenade, the Zamosc Road, the Roslop Road, and Fleischer's sawmill, are filled with peoplenewlyweds, boys and girls walking side by side, or girls in a group, with boys eagerly following. Flirting is the order of the day. From time to time a girl's embarrassed giggle can be heard, and a blushing face can be seen. The strolling goes on until late in the night.
With the appearance of stars in the sky, you hear the shop doors opening with a weekday clang. Have a good week, they call out.
Business partners get together for their weekly accounting. Many of the strollers leave to begin their work week. Couples tarry as late as possible until the girl says, It's time to go home. The boy takes her home silently, and waits by the door, unwilling to part, until she says, Yes, it's late, and steals into the house so as not to wake anyone.
by Moshe Zisser
Translated by Moses Milstein
My father, Laizer Zalman, was a Radziner Chasid. He would study all year in the Radziner shtibl . His entire livelihood came from selling Passover salt. He was the only one in town who was occupied in this business.
In 1904, when I was eight years old, my father took me to the Radziner shtibl to study. The older boys studied separately from the younger boys.
Mornings and evenings were for studying and davening, but the rest of the day was given over to the clandestine work of Zionism which was illegal under the Tsar.
At first the older boys kept their activities from us, driving us away with blows when we approached their desks. But later, they took us gradually into the work. We would stand guard, stationed 20 meters apart, and when we saw the police or the watchman approach, we would give the signal, Lecha dodi, Barach dodi ch'tsevi, and the one closest to the shtibl would shout, Tchivchak is coming.
While we kept guard outside, the older boys were inside reading various Hebrew newspapers, mostly, HaTsfira , whose editor was R' Nachum Sokolow. There was always a fire going in the stove when they were reading the newspapers and books, so they could, in the worst case, burn the material.
Illegal even among our own
One Friday, we were visited by several prominent young people, among them, the Talmud chochem, R' Abraham MordechaiLaizer Papieroshnik's son, Leibish Kretchish, David Groiser, Yankel GershtenblitIsrael Milchiker's son, Leibish Kiro, Abraham Itche Becher, Todros Nickelsberg, and others. They had brought a sack, and from it they distributed Keren Kayemet pushkes to the boys. The pushkes were considered traif by the frume Jews of the shtetl. When they found out about the great transgression, they threw the boys out of the shtibl. It was a big disgrace for the parents.
I remember that once, before I began going to the Radziner shtibl, I went to call my brother to come home for dinner. I saw none of the older students there, except for R' Moshe Honigman who told me. Go tell your father that Yosel is also now with the learned ones.
And so, nationalist enlightenment gradually spread throughout our shtetl.
by Feige Ethel Boim
Translated by Moses Milstein
With great secrecy, we brought 15 blue-white boxes with a Star of David in the middle, into our shtetl. My husband, a Chasid in the Belz court, in spite of being very pious, and a renowned Talmudist, was greatly interested in the keren kayemet boxes.
One Friday evening, he came running home, perspiring, red-faced, and said, Feigele, look, this is the pushke from R' Dr. Herzl. He is a great leader of our generation and, without fail, every Friday evening, before candle lighting, you must deposit a few groschen in the box, and should you be faced with the dilemma of either buying wine for the Kiddush or putting it into the pushke, you must not buy the wine because Kiddush you can say over the chales. The mitzvah of building Eretz-Israel in our time is greater than wine for Kiddush.
Of course, I obeyed my honest husband, zl, and immediately began throwing our last few couple of groschen in the pushke, and didn't buy the wine, and my husband made Kiddush over the chales. But the Kiddush rang differently in my ears than at any other time, because tears of joy ran from my husband's eyes, because we two were participants in the mitzvah of the building of Eretz Israel. And this very Shabes was the happiest one.
But here began our troubles thanks to the blue-white pushke of R' Dr. Herzl.
The whole shtetl became aware of this. My husband, along with other young men was thrown out of all the shtiblach by the fanatics and had nowhere to daven. These were: Todros Nicklesberg, Yehoshua Waldman, Simcha Reifman, Yakov Honigman, Ephraim Yehoshua Stern, Naphtali Hop, and others. They were the first members of the Zionist movement in the shtetl. Their wives were also prevented from praying in the women's shul.
My husband died very young. He was among the first of the youth in our town to accept the blue-white pushkes. I believe that as a result of the pushkes, God helped me, and I was saved from Hitler's hands, and together with my children, may they be healthy and strong, we arrived at different times in Israel, and we are all here today.
by Aharon Lass
Translated by Yocheved Klausner
Every time I hear about Shebreshin, my childhood years appear in my memory, although I lived in that town only a few years. When I was 11, I went to live with my grandmother in Chelm, and returned to Shebreshin only for the holidays of Pesach [Passover] and Sukkot.
My parents, Sara Ita and David Lass, were religious, Hassidic, and the mitzvot [commandments] were strictly observed in our home. Thanks to my mother, our home was always clean and beautiful, and the children were always neat and dressed in good taste. In addition to raising her seven children, my mother excelled in embroidery, especially tablecloths for Sabbath and holidays. It was not in vain that my father, every Friday night before the Sabbath meal, sang the Eshet Chayil song [a woman of valor (Proverbs 31:10)] with a special emphasis.
My father, R'David the son of Zev Hakohen Lass, was born in Chelm. He was a learned Jew, one of the important Radzin Hassidim in Shebreshin. Twice a week, he would wake me and my brother Lipman at 5 in the morning, before we got ready to go to the Heder, and teach us the Tractate Sanhedrin. To this day I remember his clear explanations of the Talmud's various subjects.
Joy and cheerfulness was always present in our home, in particular during the evening meals of Shabbath and holidays, when all members of the family my parents, my brothers, Lipman and Mordechai, and my sisters, Yenta, Zlata, Tova and Chana (and sometimes a guest as well) were sitting at the beautifully set table, and singing together the Sabbath songs. All this remains etched in my memory to this day.
Wrapped in the prayershawl to the Heder
My first memories are from the day I heard my father's voice calling me to leave the children that I played with and come into the house. Inside, my parents waited for me and happily announced that on that day I would begin heder. My mother dressed me in my Sabbath clothes, and my father wrapped me in his prayershawl, took me in his arms, and carried me to my first melamed, Shlomo Belfer.
In the heder, I met many children my age, three and four, and some older children as well. Two long tables stood in the middle of the room and along the wall were low benches for the children. The melamed, Shlomo, sat on a chair at one of the tables he was the teacher of the older children. His son Yitzhak sat at the other table with the young children. Here I learned the AlefBet and continued until I began Chumash (the five books of the Torah). I remember one Saturday, a crowd of people gathered in our house. I was standing on a table, decorated with my new gold watch, uneasy and apprehensive but I passed the exam: I translated the entire first sedra [Torah portion] of the book of Leviticus from Hebrew, the holy language to Yiddish.
After I graduated from Shlomo Belfer's heder I went to the heder of Avreime'le Binyomin's. With him I continued studying Chumash, with Rashi, the known and beloved commentator. The room was small and not many children were in this class. The rabbi would eat his meager meals at the pupils' table. He would recite silently the blessing after meals, but when he reached the verse And He shall lead us upright to our Land he would raise his voice and recite the passage with a special melody. I can truly say that this kindled in me the first sparks of Zionist education.
My third place of study was the heder of Yankel Shloimele's. This heder was more orderly and methodical, and the explanations were much clearer. Here I began to study Talmud. R'Yankel Shloimele's was a good teacher, he gave us not only meaningful explanations of the weekly portion [sedra] but he did it with special, heartfelt melodies. I remember well the sweet and moving tune of Jacob's confession facing his son Yosef, [Va'ani Bevo'i] in the last portion of the Book of Genesis. The period of time we studied with him was interesting from another aspect as well: besides the regular study we were very interested in the news from the various fronts of the First World War.
|Iron bars supporting the walls|
After Yankel's heder I qualified for Pinchas Groebard's heder. The melamed's nickname was the blind Pinchas. The study in this heder was advanced. Every Thursday we studied the Weekly Portion [parashat hashavu'a] with Rashi commentary. R'Pinchas was very learned in Torah and Talmud and we enjoyed his beautiful comments and explanations.
The Radzin Shtibl
Among the Hassidim in town, the Radzin Hassidim were the most remarkable and the most numerous. They owned their shtibl and were not forced to wander from place to place. Shelves loaded with books were placed along the walls of the shtibl and the Hassidim would study Mishna, Eyn Yaakov, Talmud and Midrash. I remember R'Daniel Becher, grandfather of the Bechers, always sitting by the table and studying the Yalkut Shimoni Midrash.
The shtibl was open day and night and was always filled with people, in particular during the winter, thanks to the hot stove in the room. On Saturdays, they had a common lesson of Gemara [Talmud], with the participation of R'Moshe David, R'David Elboim, Pinyele Suessberger the reader of the text, my father zl and others. It was nice to listen to the Gemara music coming from these fine people.
I would like to mention a few of these shtiblgoers that I always met there.
R'Mote'le Binyamin, a relative of the Maimon family of Shebreshin. He was a widower or a divorced man, always alone, moved to our shtetl as an adult man. He was a scholar, erudite in Talmud and Poskim, always studying. From him I learned the Tractate Bechorot with the commentary of R'YomTov Elgazi from Izmir. Studying with R'Motele was very enlightening.
R'Moshe Honigman, a short man, a widower, with protruding eyes from so much reading without glasses. He never participated in the discussions. Always reading the Zohar book or another book on Kabala, bent over the book. Always sitting or standing in the same place at the table.
R'Meir Pinye, a widower, did not have a fixed place. He would move from wall to wall. He would always join the discussion and argue for his opinions. I remember a discussion on a winter day, in the shtibl near the warm stove, on the subject of the Christians' relation to Jews. All participants mentioned the negative attitude of the goyim. Suddenly R'Meir Pinye sprung up and cried: Not true! There are good goyim too! and he told us a story, something that happened to him.
Once on a winter day, he was walking to the village. It was almost dark and he was freezing. One of the Christians took him into his house, asked his son to bring firewood and lit the stove to warm him up. I remember how he repeated the Christian's call to his son, in Polish: Pal, Pal! (light the fire!).
by Yankel Lam
Translated by Moses Milstein
In the Shebreshiner cemetery, there was a tombstone of the gaon, author of the book, Nodah Beyehuda, in two volumes containing 855 questions and answers, divided into four parts of the Shulchan Aruch: Orach Chaim, Yoreh De'ah, Even Ha'ezer, Choshen Mishpat.
In the Encyclopedia Klalit, published by Masada, Tel Aviv, we find the following comments about him.
Yechezkel Halevi Landauborn in 1713. Died1793. One of the foremost torah scholars and rabbis of his time. He was a Rav, a Rosh Yeshiva, and a Pusk in Brodi, Yampoli, and Prague. He founded a large yeshivah, and graduated thousands of students. Was an authority on Halacha. He was recognized by the authorities and lobbied on behalf of the Jews on occasion. He opposed Frankism, Chasidism and Haskala. Came out strongly against Mendelssohn's commentary on the Tanach. His books: Nodah Beyehuda, Zion Lenefesh Chaiah, Ahavat Zion. (He wanted to immigrate to Israel).
The chair of the rabbinate in the 70s and 80s was occupied by the Biyaler R' Shmuel Levi, a great gaon, famous for his modesty. It was said that he was a stranger to monetary matters. He was known for hosting others at his table.
Later, when he was taken to Biale, the chair was occupied by Simchele Goldberg from Lublin. After his term, around 1909-1910, his son, R' Fishele Goldberg, took over. He was sickly and died in middle age, around 1920-1921.
His place was taken by R' Yechiel Blankman, a young 30 year old. He differed from all the others in that he was not only preoccupied with Halacha, but also with economic and cultural issues, as well as the needs of the community. He was also fluent in other languages, especially Polish. He appeared in open meetings and intervened when the need arose.
In contrast to the strict R' Hershele Shenker, he offered lenient interpretations of the law. I remember, when a poor woman came to R' Hershele to ask about a defect in a chicken. His decision: treif. The woman was despondent. It was Erev-shabes. Malkah, Pinchas the shochet's wife, calmed her down and suggested she go see R' Yechiel. She left R' Yechoel's happy, the hen was kosher. R' Yechiel would search and search until he found an appropriate interpretation.
The so-called Koziner Rabiner, R' Abraham Bronstein, arrived in the shtetl in the 90s. He was, at the time, the official representative of the Czarist government. He was fluent in Russian and Polish.
He was one of the founding members, at the beginning of the 1900s, of the savings-and-loan bank, a Jewish and Christian society, which provided much aid to the Jewish community, merchants and tradesmen. The last two decades, he was occupied with writing petitions, and was an advisor on government affairs.
Times were hard during the period of Poland's emerging independence. The White Cross sent food and clothing aid. He was put in charge of distributing it. He needed helpers and the Zionist organizations came to his aid. They created a children's kitchen and a distribution center in the old poorhouse.
Brooklyn, New York
by Yosef Boim
Translated by Yocheved Klausner
On that Saturday morning, bitter, heartbreaking screams broke out from the throats of hundreds, or thousands in the shtetl. The cries of the women could be heard from all alleys and corners of the town, in particular the cries of the pious women, whose husbands were spending most of their time in the Bet Midrash, studying Torah with the rabbi R'Fishele Goldberg zl.
Our world was darkened at midday! cried one woman to her neighbor.
The crown of our head has fallen! cried another.
Woe to us, for we have become orphans! a bitter cry was heard from an alley.
The bitter mourning and cries soon penetrated the closed doors and shutters. Frightened people ran out into the street, some dressed hastily and some in their underwear: what happened?
Hearing the terrible news, that the rabbi had died, even the men cried bitterly and silently. Soon they disappeared into their houses and came out dressed in their Sabbath clothes, and began walking toward the house of the Rav. It was freezing outside. The fresh snow that had fallen during the night squeaked under their boots. Rivers of hot tears streamed from their eyes, melting in the cold snow below.
Some of the people kept repeating the customary phrase on such occasions: Baruch Dayan Emet [Blessed be the True Judge], and others sighed and said: because of our sins God is punishing the righteous. We are the sinners and the great men of the generation are paying with their lives. The town is full of nonbelievers, young men have left the Bet Midrash and the study of the Torah, women go without headcovering and do not observe the law…
The crowd reached the apartment of the rabbi, who lived in the house of R'Shalom Maimon zl and we, the children followed them. From all parts of town people men, women and children streamed toward the house of R'Shalom Maimon.
Silently, the details of the tragedy passed from person to person: the rabbi R'Fishe'le was studying with his two pupils, one was his firstborn son Yankele, the other was his good friend Leibele, the son of Binyamin Kamashenshtepper.
The rabbi had decided to teach Leibele together with his son because of his intelligence and sharp mind. He loved him as he loved his own son Yankele, and he taught them until his soul rose to Heaven in holiness and purity.
It was the night of the Holy Sabbath. The family had gone to bed, and only the rabbi and his two pupils were still studying. At midnight the pupils became tired and the rabbi sent them to bed as well Leibele slept in the house of the rabbi with his own children. The rabbi continued to study the Gemara, alling asleep now and then, until finally he closed the volume, kissed it and went to bed. He had an internal hemorrhage, and returned his pure and righteous soul to his Maker.
Since R'Shalom Maimon was one of the Belz Hassidim and their shtibl was in my grandfather's house, and since R'Shalom Maimon knew all the details about the tragedy of the rabbi's death, for many days I was the hero of all the children of my age, because I was the source of the news about the tragedy, in all details I was the primary source, as the saying goes.
Although it is forbidden to mourn on the Sabbath day, on that Sabbath no songs were heard in our shtetl….
In the evening, as the Sabbath ended, the snow stopped, but it was still freezing. Midnight came. The full moon was shining gloriously in the sky, exactly above the center of the town, over the roof of the City Hall, as if it was sent to lead the Tzadik to the other world. No one, young or old, remained at home that night. Everyone was outside, waiting for the funeral. Some managed to get into the synagogue. I don't remember how, but I was among them suddenly I found myself inside the synagogue. What I saw and heard there became engraved in my memory for the rest of my life…
At midnight the rabbis from the neighboring villages arrived. The coffin was placed on the bimah. During the eulogies, weeping was heard from all sides, especially from the women's rooms, which intensified the feeling of mourning. This weeping, which penetrated the depth of my soul, I shall never forget.
It was said in the shtetl, that if the two pupils of the rabbi had been of the right age, one of them would have taken the rabbi's place and served as the town's rabbi; but they were not yet BarMitzva.
However, when these two pupils reached adulthood, they were among the founders of the Hechalutz Hamizrachi organization. Leibele, the son of Binyamin Kamashenshtepper, is Leibl Licht, a leader in town, who headed the Hechalutz Hamizrachi and the library in the name of Mendele Mocher Sefarim and was one of the founders of BEITAR. He was also a member of the Town Council. He made Aliya in 1933.
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