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[Pages 13-23 - English section]

Gombin - The Life of a Jewish Shtetl in Poland

 

A Monography of the Shtetl Gombin

by Jacob M. Rothbart

Translated into English by Jacob M. Rothbart and son David Rothbart

Gombin is a small town in Poland located about ninety American miles west of the capital city of Warsaw, seven miles south of Poland's largest river, the Vistula, and fifteen miles east of the old city of P?ock. It is half-encircled by an ancient pine forest that provides the town with a constant fragrance of fresh pine scent. North of the town stretches the broad valley paralleling the Vistula. It was settled by Germans who had emigrated from Germany hundreds of years ago, although small in numbers that they were amidst a host of Poles with their dominant Polish language they yet adhered to their native German tongue, a dialect long un-used in Germany known as Hoch Deutch.

Seven miles to the south there was another settlement of Germans, but these had wandered in long ago from Saxony and they spoke Schwabish, the language of the Saxons, steeped in its own culture and entirely different from Hoch Deutch.

Both of these German colonies were agricultural and they were among the most productive farmers in Poland.

The population of Gombin was mixed in proportions of roughly two-thirds Jews, one-third Poles, with a small number of Germans, and also a few Chenovnikes, Russian officers of the Czar who reigned in Poland until 1917.

The language of the Jews was almost one hundred percent Yiddish, but they also knew Polish, Hoch Deutch, and some were even fluent in Schwabish, in Russian, and in “Loshen Kodosh,” the Holy Language (Hebrew). There were hardly any Jews who did not know enough Hebrew to Davan (Pray), to say a Broche (Blessing), or to chant the Sabbath Torah portion of the week. Most were able to comprehend the Aramaic of Targum Unkeles, an original translator who spent day and night studying at the Beth Hamedrash both individually and in groups. There was no Yeshiva in Gombin, but a good number of young men came from adjacent communities to study “Torah” at the Beth Hamedresh with local scholars of renown.

How many inhabitants were there in Gombin at the beginning of the 1900's? It is hard to be accurate on this question. The Czarist regime evinced little interest in a census, being indifferent to the local population except to preserve order during periodic uprising. Consequently there were only informal appraisals. A fair estimate was that the Jewish population comprised between 500 and 700 families. Other estimates ranged from 650 to 800; at any rate there were between 2500 and 3500 Jewish souls. Together with the non-Jews there were a total of 4,000 to 5,000 inhabitants in Gombin.

How did these nationalities coexist with each other until the year 1906? Tolerably. There were undeniably some anti-Semites. Prominent among them were the Polish shoemakers who made ready-made shoes and had to compete at the marketplace with the Jewish shoemakers whose workmanship was superior. Some could speak Yiddish as well as the Jews, yet were the bitterest of anti-Semites. Another anti-Semitic group were the slaughterers. A little anti-Semitism was in evidence among a class of poor farmers who had formerly been well-to-do landowners, and among civil servants such as teachers and government officials. The Polish Catholic clergy headed by the priests helped to spread anti-Semitic venom. But in general all lived together in a state of passable harmony. Often, indeed, relations between Jews and Poles were quite friendly. Many peasants from surrounding villages preferred to deal with the Jews in both buying and selling. Almost the entire commerce of the German settlements was with the Jews, even though Jew-haters among them were not scarce. Such were the conditions that existed until Polish anti-Semitism really went rampant in later years when they were stirred up by the reactionary N. D. P Narodova (National) Democratic Party, which reached its highest intensity when Poland gained its independence during the Kerensky Revolution against the Czar in Russia in 1917.

 

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Gombin: the center of the town

 

How did the panorama of Gombin lay itself out in the eyes of the Jews? At the center of town was the market square. This was a large rectangular expanse converged on from all sides by principal thoroughfares and side streets. Across from the eastern corner was the Polish Catholic church. To the left on the other corner was the city administration building, presided over by the Magistrate, and attached to it was the jail-house. After that came the market-square annex, also rectangular, fronting on the main square and lined by a row of “yatkes”, Jewish butcher shops. There were regular market days twice a week and frequent “yaridim” (market fairs) at irregular intervals. On these events the entire large market square and annex were spread with Polish and German peasants who came by horse drawn carts from the country-side to vend their farm-products. The “Langer Gass” (Long Street) started between the church and the administration building, extended to the edge of town where it became the highway Sanyik (where there was a large sugar mill), continued on to Warsaw, also branching off to the textile center city of ??d?, winding all the way through dozens of villages and estates.

To the west of the square, from the right corner, began the “Plotsker Gass” (street to P?ock) and from the left corner, the “Kutner Gass”.

On days of the yaridim (fairs) there was set up over the full length and breadth of the square, from the P?ocker Gass to the Langer Gass, canvas vending booths covered by over-hanging canopies, each with its own special wares displayed on hooks and tables. There were booths operated by Jewish women selling bread and rolls, fruits and vegetables; then a section of Polish butchers offering kolbassi, vursht (sausages), and shinka (ham); then shoe booths with “shtivel” and other peasant bootery. There were “peltz” booths of readymade sheepskin coats; tailors with ready-made “sarmages”, cheap cloth coats styled both short and long with cotton-quilted liners, “kutkes”, knicker pants, and double-breasted jackets. The cap-makers squeezed in wherever they could with their stiff-vizored “dashkes” and winter “kashkets.

On the main square there was also to be found glazed pottery, dishes and tinware; “potcherkes,” cheap costume jewelry; crosses and other religious items; balls and toys for children; “tashmes” women's headscarves; “stenges,” decorating material ; and everything else that could he sold at the fair.

On all sides facing the square were elegant buildings of wood and brick, residences of two stories and sometimes three above the standard ground-floor stores. One “kaminitze” (mansion) was five stories high. It was the most beautiful building in town, owned by a Jewish family named Posnanski who was reputed to have interests in sugar mills all over Poland. Grocers and merchants of all kinds occupied the stores. A family called Stolcman and a German family named Shtaily had the busiest taverns in town. In the days of the “torgen” on Mondays and Thursdays, and on the large “yaridim,” all stores and taverns were crowded to a density that made it difficult to push your way through the mass of people, humankind who wore all manner of garments: short European jackets, sheepskin, “peltz,“ “kutzkes” (three-quarter length coats), long “sermeges” (peasant overcoats), and djubetses, worn by a Polish peasant sect, resembling the Chassidic kapote with the split rear hanging to the ground. There were men with short, colored, pleated pants and red vests, accompanied by women in similar skirts and vests who were members of a sect called “Mazures.” In this potpourri of Christians, the Jews mingled with their own distinctive garb; also in short three-quarter length coats and Chassidic men in their ground-length robes with the split rear. And there were the Jewish women: matronly housewives with wigs, others gay-colored scarves on their heads who came to buy a live chicken, a sack of potatoes, fresh eggs, beets, carrots, “petroushke” (parsley), onions, cucumbers, radishes, and other products that the “poirim” brought in to sell.

 

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Group of young “Bundists” (Socialists) who organized the first illegal library in 1908

 

As aforementioned, the square was in the middle of the town and from it on all sides there protruded many streets, both long and short, and alleyways that divided the back yards. There were also other market-places in the town, like the Hog Market Square at the side of the Plocker Gass, the horse Market at the Kutner Gass, and the Old Horse Market near the German Church, which was filled on Sundays with the horse-carriages of the parishioners. Most of the carriages were drawn by two horses; some had four and even six that belonged to wealthy Germans who wanted to display their affluence. Later, about 1904, the city administration decreed that this square should be converted into a park, and it was truly a fine setting for a park.

All of these secondary market squares were immense and surrounded by houses where the majority of the Christian community resided, mainly homesteaders enrooted there for generations. These areas too were busy during the market fairs, packed with peasants, who had come to peddle their herds of hogs, calves, sheep, horses, and chickens. Some Jewish traders in livestock also milled about, so there was a mixture of Jewish butchers and Polish butchers, gypsies to trade horses, and plain peasants seeking to barter in livestock. Gombin was a major ag-ricultural trading center where the Jewish population could thrive and prosper to a much higher degree than in many other towns in Poland.

Through the center of town there snaked a stream that the Jews called “The Buch,” a German word for “river.” The widest part of the Buch was at the base of a hill and atop the hill was the Shul (synagogue). Across the way to the left, going down the hill, was the Beth Hamedresh (House of Learning) and below that the Mikva (ritual bath), which was part of the merchetz (bathhouse), located close to the stream. Behind the Mikva was the main city latrine. Going down the hill to the right behind the Shul were private Jewish homes, and below them the city poorhouse. At the bottom was the old slaughterhouse raised on stilts astride the edge of the stream, into which drained the blood when they were slaughtering. At that place the stream was 25 to 30 feet wide. Later they moved the slaughterhouse outside the town limits.

Rats larger than cats and more courageous proliferated at that spot. Nevertheless, intrepid Jewish girls came down in summer months with baskets of laundry and did their washing upstream from the slaughterhouse in the clear cold water of the stream that never ran dry. They brought with them soap and a “prolnik,” a small straight board with a flat handle. They soaped the clothes, laid them on the board, beat them with mighty strokes and rinsed them in the flowing water.

The Buch was a paradise for the Jewish boys. They devised a raft out of a wide board or two, propelled themselves with long poles, and felt like “Gott in Odessa” (akin to the bliss that one reputedly experiences in the resort city of Odessa) until a mother or an assistant teacher from the Cheder came to tear them away from their rafts, which then became common property. In the frost of winter they had as fine a skating rink on the frozen stream as a boy could want, no matter how often he felt the sting of the Rebbe's lash. It is noteworthy to mention that the Jewish children referred to the stream as “the Jordan,” oriented as they were to thoughts of The Holy Land.

On the opposite side of the stream there lived a German named Schneider who operated a tannery. He employed several Jewish workers who produced many varieties of leather-work. The tannery was located across from the city latrine and drew clear water from the stream through pipes into the large yard of the tannery; there it was treated with chemicals and used to soak the leather in vats. The Buch was deeper at this point than anywhere else for the reason that several houses above was a dyeing establishment which required a lot of clear water so the dyer dammed his part of the stream, slowing the flow and also enabling the development of a deep water basin to provide for the needs of the tannery. It also served as “The Jordan” to accommodate the Jewish boys in their summer and winter sporting pleasures.

The Buch showed no other prominent features except that after a heavy rainstorm, and in the spring when the snow melted, the stream overflowed its banks, washing away accumulated debris and flooding the lower pastures outside of town. When the flood-waters receded, the fertile pastures were lush with new greenery and it was delightful to observe the rejuvenated trees and sprouting vegetation, which contributed in extra measure to the prosperity of the dairymen who pastured their cows in these areas.

Bridges and roads were ravaged by such floods wherever the meandering stream intersected, like at the Plotsker Gass and at the Kutner Gass, but no really great damage resulted because the stream ran mostly through the lower sections of town bordering on fields, orchards and yards.

 

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Members of the Zionist “Hashomer Hatzair”

 

I previously described the locales where the Jews and the Poles were concentrated, and I recall some other aspect of the neighborhoods where each nationality lived:

Again, the main square was at the center of town and major streets and small byways fanned out from all sides of the square. All of these were settled exclusively by Jews and by Jewish secular and religious institutions. In this section was located the synagogue which was old and styled in the architecture of the 18th century, with two lookout towers facing west toward the German border. It was built that way to comply with a Polish requirement that all public buildings have watchtowers to forewarn if the Germans, with whom the Poles used to have many battles, could be seen approaching from a distance. Catty-corner from the Shul was the Beth Hamedresh at the head of a different street. One was called the Shul Gass, the other the Beth Hamedresh Gass. Between the Shul and the Beth Hamedresh was the roadway sloping down to the stream. The street that ran parallel east of the synagogue was called the Maissim (dead) Gass because it led to the cemetery outside of town to the north, but it was called the Maissim Gass for only as far out as the Jews lived, and then it become the Shoemaker Gass where the Polish “Shusters” lived, though not as far out as the cemetery. Further out on this road lived the “vatelles,” homesteaders who had fields and farm plots away from their homes where' they cultivated gardens and grain and raised livestock.

The Polish Catholic church was situated at the beginning of the Langer Gass east of the main square. It was an enormous structure surrounded by a large park with paved driveways that winded in a circular design that was fashioned for religious processions. Adjoining the churchyard further out on the Langer Gass was the large brick residence of the head priest and his assistants. There also was located the housekeeper of the hierarchy with her dozen children. It was well-known that she had never been legally married, nevertheless she gave birth almost yearly, and her children were raised in luxuriant conditions befitting the housekeeper of such a grand establishment… and nobody in the town asked any questions. All around this comp-lex of church buildings and park was a high solid wall that insulated the lay community.

The cross-corner opposite the Church marked the boundary of a tract of land belonging to a wealthy Jew named Chonnan Resky[1]. The houses that he rented out were known as the “Chonnan Resky's houses,” part of them located on the Langer Gass, part on the street behind the town hall, and behind the “yatkes” (butcher shops) further down began “Chonnan Resky's orchards.” The houses on this property were laid out in the form of a right angle, one section occupied by Jews, and the whole compound was surrounded by a wooden fence. Next to the Resky building along the Langer Gass were a few additional houses occupied by Jews, and a little further out it became entirely Polish as the Gass continued on to become the highway to Sanyik.[2] The countryside around Gombin was peopled with Poles and more Poles, and perhaps a very few astray Jews.

Now to the spiritual and social life of the Jews and Poles on Gombin:

Having lived for a long time in free America and observed how the new generations of diverse ethnic origin relate to one another, I find it hard to understand how two nationalities can mingle, live door to door, and still be almost completely strangers to each other. That is how it was in Gombin. There were a few exceptional families who lived under one roof and were friendly with each other, but their social and spiritual experience was entirely alien.

I want to describe two such families. When my sister and I were still very young my parents moved us into the large house of a Polish chimney cleaner. Both he and his wife were very friendly. He cleaned the chimneys mainly of Jewish homes and she was the housekeeper. The house was about where the Maissim Gass ended and the Polish Shuster Gass began. Nei-ther our landlord nor his wife could read or write. They did not even go to church on Sunday let alone participate in any other kind of social activity that was non-existent anyway. Their whole life consisted of working, eating and sleeping. Behind the house was a large yard, and as soon as the man came home from cleaning chimneys he got to work in the garden. They also had two children, a boy and a girl, and though very young they already helped with the household. These mundane considerations apparently summed up the entire inspirational outlook of this family for an entire lifetime.

My parents could not brag of riches either, and had to work hard, yet they had an interesting life. Each weekday when my father was not traveling he awoke at daybreak and hurried to the first Shachres Minyan at the Beth Hamedresh. He returned, ate breakfast, “Opgebenched” (gave thanks to the Almighty) and ran out to earn a livelihood. My mother, Oleho-hasholom (May she rest in Peace), besides cooking and cleaning, seeing to it that the children were neat and her husband's appetite appeased, busied herself with all kinds of commercial dealings to help my father get along financially and never be in a position of having to seek assistance from others. Yet she never neglected to invite a poor seminary “bocher” from the Beth Hamedresh to come and eat his meals for at least one day a week, and if she were otherwise occupied on the day that he was scheduled to come she gave him cash so he would not go hungry that day.

All of the Jewish holidays were strictly observed by my parents in either solemnity or rejoicing as befitted the occasion, but none exceeded the exultation with which they greeted the Holy Sabbath each week. Even now the memory of this event evokes in me a nostalgic glow. My father (Olev-hasholom) was a man of modest means, nor was he a dedicated scholar, but on Friday evening he became a Melech a King of the Sabbath. Before he returned from services my mother blessed and lit the candles at sundown and set the table. He usually brought home with him a poor “oriech” (guest) from Shul. They came in; my father said “Gut Shabbes!” to his family, and greeted the Sabbath as it were a revelation of heavenly emissaries: “Sholom Aleichem, Malache Hashoretes, Malache Elyon” -- “Angels of service, Angels from above”. He bestowed a tribute to womanhood by reciting, “Aishis chail Mi-Imtsu,” “Who can find a woman of valor! ” (Book of Proverbs Ch. 3l-l0), then poured sacramental wine and “made Kiddush.” He washed his hands, blessed the chollahs, and the festive meal began. Between each course he sang “zmires,” (songs) and my father's songs of the Sabbath were a real treat to hear! The meal lasted through most of the evening and my father did not leave out even the smallest detail, yet he sustained the mood of grandeur and exhilaration during the entire ceremony.

 

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Dramatic Circle of the I. L. Yeretz Library in Shalom Aleychem's Comedy “It's Hard to be a Jew”

 

This was the way the Sabbath was celebrated in nearly every Jewish home in Gombin, and by the Jews throughout every country in Eastern Europe.

Living so near his Polish neighbors did not disturb my father in his routine. He was serenely indifferent to how he sounded to them or how his mode of living looked to them. He had nothing to hide and nothing to learn from them, and they were equally uninterested in learning from him. This situation between Jews and Christians was typical. Their values and viewpoints set them apart and they lived as in two different worlds.

It would be too large an undertaking to enumerate in full all of the rich interests and activities of the Jews in Gombin some sixty years ago. Life “roiled and boiled” as it used to be said. There were societies of all kinds. Some were involved with serious matters, such as: the “Chevreh Tehillim,” a group which chanted Psalms; Chevreh Kaddishe, a burial society; Chevreh Mishnayos, those devoted to the Book of Ethics; “Hachnosses Kalleh, those who helped in the marriage of a poor bride; and various “Chasidim Shtieblach,” followers of a favorite rabbi. There were chedorim where children were taught. On any Saturday afternoon and on many evenings one could hear an itinerant Maggid preach on special topics, usually concerning mitzvas (good deeds), and regarding “The Other World.”

Both rich and poor could find their favorite niche among the many fraternities and associations that existed.

For young people whose interests were less sober, there were gatherings for general social intercourse as well as for special occasions. There were occupational groups, such as apprentice dressmakers, wigmakers, servant girls, tailors, shoemakers, and other youngsters, who usually assembled in private homes. In summer they had access to nearby orchards, where they bought and treated each other to gooseberries, currants, strawberries, apples, peaches, pears and plums as they came into season. They strolled in the woods and vented their spirits in song. They danced at home socials and at weddings, and they were patrons of semi-private confectionaries. Such a one was operated by “YochviGoldberg, an old maid who lived with her father in an upstairs apartment. The apartment was arranged with shelves where she displayed the finest assortment of sweets to be found, and she welcomed them to use it as a meeting-place. She was blind from birth and the object of wonder and admiration for the dexterity with which she handled money and conducted her business. These Jewish young people were exuberant and wholesome. They had fiery romances, but they were decorous at all times and scandal of any kind was unknown.

 

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Sport Organization “Morgenstern” (of the “Bund”)

 

By contrast, the Polish life looked grey and monotonous. Outside of religious services at the church there was no social life in the town. There is no doubt that there did exist a rich Polish literature and culture that had developed in the large cities but it had not spread to the small-town populations except for an occasional Polish doctor, notary or other professional. The only people who spoke knowledgeably about this culture were some rich Jews who fancied themselves to have been assimilated into the Polish gentry. They were loud patriots of Poland who read Polish books, hired live-in Polish tutors for their children, and spoke Polish even among themselves. Neither they nor the few Polish intellectuals had any influence on the Polish masses and certainly not on the Jews. It must be noted that there were here and there a few Poles who had friendly relations with the Jews, and peasants who were not affected by anti-Semitic agitation.

Everything that I have depicted here about Gombin is the way I knew it up to the year 1906 when I departed from Poland. I am familiar with the fact that many changes occurred after that. Several years before I left, the “Bund” revolutionary movement had already started among the Jews. We campaigned for support of the Polish youth and we won a small number of friends among them. When some of our Jewish comrades were arrested by the Czarist regime for revolutionary activities and sent to Siberia in 1906, there was one Pole with them whom we had drawn in the movement.

Later developments and impressions will have to be recorded by those who remained after I left; those who lived through the events leading to the first World War, then the second World War in 1939 with its devilish Nazism and Hitlerism, “Y'Machshemom Zichrom” “May their names and memory be forgotten” (a curse that evolved during the Egyptian exodus when the Jews were attacked by the Amelaikim).

I hope that a few of the Gombiners who remained longer in Gombin will be able to continue this narrative beyond the period that I have described.

 

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Group of Zionists in Gombin

 

Footnotes
  1. Probably the place her refers to is the nearby small town of Sanniki Return
  2. Probably the correct name is LASKI AH. Return

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