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Jewish Artisans in Gombin (cont.)

[Pages 38 - 39]

11. Musicians (Kleizmerim)

At the entrance of the narrow little street, which started at Dead people's street, there were two stores at each intersection. One store belonged to Itsik Zionts. It was a large flour establishment. At the second intersection was the grocery store belonging to the son-in-law of Leybele, Hanan Klezmer [the musician]. As soon as I walked into this little street, I would hear music being played. Sometimes I would hear only a violin, but often I would hear an entire band. Right behind Leybele's store lived Hanan the musician, the leader of the Gombiner klezmorim [musicians].

Honele Klezmer had in his band, in addition to his two sons, Hatzkel and Yosele (all three played the violin) also Volf Dude, who played a big bass violin which was almost as tall as he was. In Gombin such a bass violin was called a bandure. Nu, how far is dure from dude? So all his life he was called Volf Dude. There were others in the band who played other instruments. In short, it was a whole orchestra.

When Honele and his band played at a wedding, especially for well-established householders, it was something to hear. When they played the melody for “Kale basetsen” [seating the bride] especially if the girl was an orphan, it could break your heart. Not only the bride cried with bitter tears, but all the in-laws wept as well. And their “mitsve tentsl” [the dance of the bride with various male members of the family each one holding a kerchief] was something special. The day after the night of the wedding Honele and his band would come to the home of the bride's parents and play a merry “Dzshien dobri” (Good morning), which cheered everyone up and which refreshed them after they had been celebrating almost all night long..

Occasionally Honele's band had a good bit of income. That is, if the hosts were generous and gave a lot of tips for playing extra dance music they liked, the days after the wedding were also joyful ones for the band. Musicians, as most artists, are something of bohemians, even in such a “metropolis” as Gombin there were rumors that after such a wedding the musicians would whoop it up until the early dawn.

Honele's son Yosele was a very fine violinist. His son while still very young showed great talent as a violinist. It was thought in Gombin that he would grow up to be a famous violinist and that he would make his mark in the world. What happened to these hopes I do not know, for I left Gombin and lost contact with most of my landsleit.

It is important to emphasize one thing here, that a number of Gombin Jews made their living from music, and were also talented Jewish musicians.


[Pages 39 - 40]

12. Village Traders (Dorfsgayers)

There were many Jews in Gombin who did not have any special occupation. They tried all kinds of ways of earning a living. When they could find nothing to do in town, they would go out to the village to try their luck. Some peddled with household goods, which the farmers needed. Others sold all kinds of odds and ends especially for women and children. If they noticed that the farmers had things to sell, they would buy them, even if they were not sure what to do with them. Perhaps with God's help they could earn something from them.

Other village wanderers were more knowledgeable about what to buy. They did not bring things to sell, only went out to buy. They bought pigs' hair, horsehair, flax, hides of cows or calves, linseed and other articles, whatever they found. They were quite knowledgeable about the things they bought. There was quite a large trade in animal hides and pigs' hair in Gombin. There were set prices for them, and the merchants knew where to make more profit, what the different qualities were, etc.

There were other kinds of village wanderers as well, for example, butchers often went out to the villages to buy a cow, calves, and sometimes a sheep. This walready routine the Gombin butchers. Most of them had sons and sons-in-law working with them, so one of them would go to the villages to make the purchases needed for the week or for a holiday.

There were also dealers who would go to buy their wares in the villages. I remember my uncle, Avraham Pitel, who lived his whole life in the village of Yuleshev, around 7 kilometers from Gombin. He lived there for the sake of the pasture for his herds of cows and horses, always held in reserve for sale in other towns where he could get better prices.

Once, before the decrees of the 1890's which forbade land ownership to Jews, even in those Polish villages where it had been allowed until then, he had owned his own fields where he had pastured his herds.

Some of these village wanderers did other things as well. They might be in the villages until Thursday, and then go out to the lakes and help the fishermen bring in their nets full of live fish, buy them and bring them to sell to Jews for the Sabbath. Thus the village wanderer became a fisherman on Fridays. Or, on a fair day or market day the same village wanderer would take over a corner and spread out his wares of glazed pots and pans to sell to the peasants. Or sometimes he would sell all kinds of tin and porcelain ware.

In the springtime the village wanderers would go out to the villages or to the German colonies and rent an orchard and become a “sadovnik” over the summer.

That is how Jews who did not have a trade in hand tried various ways to support their families. Only not to have to ask for charity, God forbid. There was a say, “ A melokhe is a brokhe:” A trade is a blessing.

The same Jews, who worked so hard to make a living, did not feel happy if they did not have a guest for the Sabbath or holidays. These same Jews would also sometimes offer a “day” [food for the day] to a poor boy who sat in the Bet HaMidrash and studied Torah. They would also not allow a beggar to pass by without giving him a contribution.

One should mention these Jews with a word of praise. In Gombin no one was ashamed of working hard at any kind of work, in order to support one's family and live an honest life.


[Pages 40 - 41]

13. Market Women (Mark Zitzers)

One of the ways women earned a living in Gombin was sitting at market stalls. These women were among the poorest of the poor.

At the west side of the market place, leading to Plock Street and on the right, to Meysim [Dead} Street, to the middle of the market place to Long Street, was the beginning of the market women's realm. At the beginning of the market place there were a few permanent wooden sheds. There all kinds of baked goods were sold. The sheds had wide roofs, which overhung both sides, to protect the goods from rain and snow. Right next to them were the stalls of the market women, and they reached all the way to Poznanski's house.

On days when there were fairs, there were stalls put up by Polish butchers where they sold all kinds of sausages and hams and other pork products. Further on, till the municipality, where Long Street begins, there were stalls with all kinds of goods for sale, for example, short pants, trousers, and other cheap clothing.

The Polish butchers were the market women's closest neighbors. They sometimes did disgusting things to the poor Jewish market women. When a woman was busy with a number of customers she did not notice one of the Polish youths throwing a piece of pork into her little pot of food, which she had brought from home to sustain her during the day. When she put her pot on her fire-pot, used to warm her on cold days, she smelled a strange odor, She was greatly distressed, but what could she do? She realized that one of the Polish “bastards” had played a trick on her, but how could she identify him? That was a fast day for her, poor thing. The Polish youths enjoyed the joke they had at the “kike's” expense.

 

gom040.jpg
Market Day in Gombin
Source: The Land Lovers Association of Gombin

 

The market women displayed many different items in large troughs. At the beginning of the summer they sold red and black cherries, the first summer apples and pears, and all kinds of chickpeas and beans, carrots and cucumbers, sorrel. They sold the first ripened fruits and vegetables that were available in town. In the fall their troughs were full of later ripening produce, dried plums, apples, pears, and other good things. Much of the foodstuffs sold in Gombin was sold by the market women. It is difficult to imagine how Gombin would have managed without them.

They worked hard long hours to earn their bread. They sat at their troughs in the heat of summer and the cold of winter. In the wintertime the kheyder boys would run to the market place to buy frozen apples, which they considered more delicious than the fresh ones. But the market women's lives were not so delicious. They had hard and bitter lives.


[Pages 41 - 44]

14. Shopkeepers in Gombin (Yiddishe Kremers in Gombin)

The groceries were the most important stores in Gombin. First, there were the stores where all kinds of flour were sold. There were three large flour shops on the Mesim Street (Street of the Dead) alone, owned by Taubers, Itsik Zayonts, and Leybele. Besides selling retail to selected customers, they also sold to bakers. They also had unmilled grain: wheat, chickpeas, beans, and other unmilled products. They sold them for the spring sowing to peasants and farmers who had not preserved the grains from the previous year. They also sold rice and other similar products. In addition to the shops on Mesim Street, there were quite a few flour stores scattered throughout the town.

In the market place between Plotsker and Kutner Streets, was Rasha's large store where many items besides flour were sold, such as all kinds of herring, kerosene, oil, and many other things (I seem to remember that they supplied herring to all the food shops in town). Besides her large store, which was at the front of her building, there was also an entrance on the side for wagon vendors. There it was always noisy with the unloading and loading of all kinds of merchandise, such as sacks of flour, vats of herring, tins of kerosene, sacks of sugar, rice, beans, grain, and other products.

There were always Jewish porters around the building, loading and unloading merchandise onto and from the large wagons. There were always more porters than Rasha needed, and when one of the other storekeepers needed someone to load merchandise he would come to Rasha's building and call one or more of the porters.

Rasha had been born in Plock and married a man from Gombin. Right after the wedding it was obvious that she was better suited to business than her husband. Thus the store was called Rasha's.

Rasha was a sister of Rabbi Yehuda Leyb Zlotnik. Rabbi Zlotnik was chosen to be the rabbi of Gombin in 1911 when he was 24 years old. He held this post until 1919. By the way, one should mention that the late Rabbi Zlotnik was one of the best known folklorists in Poland. I mention it here because I am convinced that in Gombin Rabbi Zlotnik was able to learn a great deal of Jewish folklore, and Gombin has a share in his later fame.

 

gom041.jpg
Rasha Holcman nee' Zlotnik Plock 1870 - Gombin 1937
Source: Ada Holtzman's Collection

 

There were also a number of dry-goods stores in Gombin. The largest were those belonging to Itele Zelig, Abbas Rosental, and Leyzer Vigderovich. In addition there were smaller stores, like the one belonging to the Chassid Zander, on Kutner Street. At Zander's one could buy all kinds of linens. There were also stores, which specialized in fittings used by tailors of men's clothing and seamstresses: linings, buttons, needles, etc. There were also stores, which sold leather for shoes, boots, and soles. In these shops one could find everything necessary for shoemaking.

As for Jewish saloons, I remember only Bibergal and the tavern belonging to the Shtolcman family which was in the middle of the market place, near Long Street. Menashe Shtolcman was in charge of the tavern, which was a large fbusiness, and was comparato the lartaverns in the big cities of Poland. Most of the other taverns in Gombin were run by Poles, except for a German family named Schteile. They owned a large tavern, situated opposite the Shtolcman's tavern.The Schteile family had quite good relations with Jews. Perhaps it was because they disliked Poles as much as they disliked Jews.

From Shtolcman's tavern up to the Polish church, where Long Street began, there were a number of two story “mansions,” the most beautiful buildings in town. There resided the wealthier Jews, many of whom had assimilated to Polish culture, and they spoke Polish exclusively.

Karapki's food store was exclusive. There one could buy the best-imported foodstuffs, for example sardines, lox, little herrings from abroad, almonds, dates, oranges, lemons, pressed dates, figs, chocolate, candies, and whatever one could wish for. But these were not for the ordinary Jews of Gombin. Very few of them tasted or even knew about the taste of what was in this shop. Karapki's customers were the Polish aristocracy and office holders as well as the rich German colonists of the environs. I do not know whether Karapke had other businesses as well besides his imported foods. In any case, he was considered one of the richest men in Gombin and his family lived in a fashion so lavish that the Jews of Gombin could not even dream of it.

There were also wheat merchants in town, who sent their goods to other cities. There were also wood dealers and a number of iron stores. One of the iron stores, the largest in town, belonged to the Krasek family. This family, too, lived on a richer level than most of the Jews in Gombin.

There were also lumber merchants in Gombin, but their business was not in town, but far from Gombin, and the Jews of Gombin had only a vague idea of their business. It was rumored in town that they had big sugar factories, but nobody knew for certain.

There were probably less than ten very rich Jews in Gombin. Shmulik and Poznanski were among the wealthiest Jews, it was said. Then came Zelig Abba Volfovitch, Yosele Borenshtein, and after them less and less wealthy men, Nobody actually knew how rich they were, because people had a very vague idea of what real wealth meant. They were compared with the majority of the Jews of Gombin Even if there were a handful of rich Jews, ninety percent of Gombin Jews were poor, hardworking laborers, artisans, and small storekeepers who worked even harder than the artisans. They worked by the sweat of their brows, in order to earn a living.


[Pages 44 - 45]

15. Mordkhele, the Rope Maker (Mordkhele - shtrikmacher)

Tevya Shtrikmakher lived on the Mesim Street [Street of the Dead] in the heart of the poorest neighborhood in town. There were always newly arrived paupers in his home, even though he himself had a house full of children. His oldest son Mordekhai was twelve or thirteen years old.

I knew Tevya Ropemaker, or Tevya Ropetwister, as the Gombin jokesters used to call him, because in order to make the ropes he had a kind of “machine” which twisted the linen fibers into all kinds of ropes, from thin strands to thick ropes.

His workshop was in the middle of Mesim Street during the summer months. He used to station his son Mordekhai at one end of the street (according to how long he planned to make the rope), would place a “machine” in his hand, to which he attached the long fibers into which he had twisted his “twister” and gave his son signals: “Ho! Ho-ho!” Then he would approach the boy. The wheel turned and by the time he reached his son the rope would be made.

Children and passers-by would stop and stand around to watch eagerly as ropes were made. If a gentile would come by from the meadow with a wagon of hay, Tevya would move his whole “factory” to the side of the street and when the wagon had passed he would return to the same position as before and continue twisting the rope. Then he would continue sending loud signals to his son: “Ho! Ho-Ho!”

The second reason I knew the Ropemaker was because of his son Mordekhai who could tell wonderful stories. We children could simply not get enough of them when he would begin telling his tales,

In the summer evenings a group of children would gather in the synagogue yard which bordered Mesim Street. We would sit on the boards scattered here and there. They were needed for fixing the wooden walls of the synagogue. Due to age, the walls were bowed and “bellied” and were under constant repair. There was always a supply of boards of various sizes there. That was our meeting place. We would sit there with pieces of bread and khale in our pockets. Sometimes we would also bring other things for our “rebbe,” Mordekhai the Ropemaker.

Even though Tevya's family was always hungry, Mordekhai was a stocky, well-built boy. His appetite was without limit. No matter how much we children (younger than he) would bring along, it was still not enough to satisfy him. He would take a large piece of bread in his mouth, curl his tongue, and the bread would disappear. But as soon as he would finish off the bread and sometimes a piece of gefilte fish, then he would wipe his mouth with his sleeve and would begin to spin his tales, and all kinds of legends, and we boys would sit as if in a dream. Occasionally a boy would actually fall into a sweet sleep.

Books could be written of Mordkhele's stories. When he would begin a story he would put in all the details. His princes and princesses traveled in palaces on rubber wheels. They were served all kinds of meats and poultry, even roasted doves. They ate with silver and gold utensils. Their bedding was of the richest embroidered linens. He saw to it that they had all the conveniences. He did not even omit an indoor toilet for the prince and princess.

He told stones of a king and a king's son who had sinned against his father, who exiled him to distant lands. The prince went around there in rags. He decided to become a doctor. And he wandered the world dressed as a vagabond until he came close to his hometown. . There he discovered that his sister, the princess, was terribly sick, and no doctor could help her. Meanwhile the king made known all over the country that whoever would heal his daughter could marry her. And would become the king's heir. The prince quickly went to the palace and announced that he would undertake to heal the princess. The servants drove him out of the courtyard --such a tramp, dressed in rags, wants to heal the princess! So he again came and announced that he undertook to heal the princess, and again the servants threw him out. And so on and so on until the king heard that a vagabond wanted to undertake to heal his daughter. He ordered: Let him in!” The end was that the prince healed the princess, and when it came time for the wedding, he revealed who he really was. You can imagine the joy in the palace.

The younger boys sat enchanted by the story and some of them were already deeply asleep.

Mordkhele was a magnificent storyteller. His voice was clear as running water. He also had stories about Polish “Paritzim” landowners and their wives. He had stories about the Polish revolt and how the Jews hid the rebels. He had stories about “Zadikim” the Jewish Righteous, magic and wonders. He told about Jews who came from far-away places and settled in Gombin. And if ever there was a slanderer or a wicked person, he was always only from those foreigners who came from far away.

As the years passed, and I grew up and new ideas conquered me, I lost the connection with Mordkhele the rope maker, but the tens of his legends and stories remain for ever in my memory and for remembrance I now put them on this paper.

 

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