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[Page 167]

Shtetl Folklore

Meir Holcman

Translated by Ada Holtzman

 

My Childhood

My memory reaches the very early age of 4-5 years old. The event which was engraved in my memory was the Hebrew kindergarten where we fell in love with Hebrew, spelled by the Ashkenazi accent.

One late afternoon I see myself sitting on the stone stairway in from of my mother's grocery shop when I saw the children return from the Hebrew kindergarten, teasing me for not being in their class. When I heard this, I entered the shop, fell on the ground and kicked all over, screaming “I too want to join the Hebrew kindergarten!”.

From this outburst, the glass door smashed and until this very day, I still hear the sound of thousands of pieces of glass breaking down… Needless to mention that on the following day I was walking proudly also, stepping into the Jewish kindergarten…

A second picture which stands clearly in my memory is a pogrom parade done by the “Hellercziks” (followers of the extremist anti-Semite Polish General Heller). A horrible noise echoed from the street: “death to the Jews”!

The gang was notorious of its abusing the Jews, cutting beards and wigs, catching and torturing helpless Jews, without ever being brought to justice. This was how it was also in Gombin. I remember hiding in a small yard near the house, till the storm blew over. The incident happened before Passover. In a stable at the yard, we fattened goose for the Holiday. There was also a lamb, which I embraced strongly from the fear. The incident passed without injuries and all Jewish properties which stood on their way were destroyed.

I remember another story from my childhood:

We were on our way, me and my older sister Hana, walking to visit my sister Fajgele hy”d and her eldest daughter Rutka hy”d, while all of a sudden all the windows and the gates and the doors were shut down. We heard the voice of horses, galloping through the small town, carrying away the escaping Germans, soldiers, clerks, residents, all rushing away by the end of World War One… this was the rearguard of the Germans, leaving Poland, defeated… and the declaration of the independence of Poland. I was only six years old than.

My sister and me cried and were frightened to death as no shelter from the running horses. Breathless we finally arrived somehow to our married sister. The roaring noise of the horses echo still in my ears, almost 78 years after…

 

The Hebrew School

From the Hebrew kindergarten we moved to the Hebrew school, founded by “TARBUT” in Gombin. I remember the following unforgettable teachers: Gurzalka, Varhaftic, Londinski, Chaja, Kalmus, Perelgritz and Rembaum.

During the breaks we used to go and visit the ropes spun yarn of the Freedman's. We were enthusiastic about the colorful ropes, a real piece of art. The son of Freedman was my late friend, Yerucham Freedman from Kibbutz Beit Alpha who died in Israel and Shalom Freedman who is still alive and whom I met recently in the remembrance Gathering at Beit Gombin.

We often spent a lot of time near the shop of the Pole Ledzon. There were two black menacing dogs at the size of a calf. The mother name was Duga and her youngest son was Temerik. They were our friends and we shared our daily meals brought from home with them. Ledzon had a son who was a pilot in the Polish army, and when he flew over the town of Gombin, the people knew the Ledzon salutes the people of Gombin.

The Hebrew school crystallized our love to Eretz Israel and Zionism. I remember the food given to us by the Joint, right after World War I and our Zionist education. I remember as if it happened yesterday, the sad notice we got of the death of Max Nordau, a famous Zionist leader. The study stopped and a very impressive memorial gathering took place. The ceremony is well remembered and it enhanced our spiritual identification with the Zionist cause.

When the Hebrew school “Tarbut” was closed due to lack of resources, we moved to an elementary school (3rd grade) and parallel to this we studied in the Heder of Agudat Israel in Gombin. Our teacher was Rabbi Noach Gdalia Shlang, a brilliant clever Jew. For the “Pshetel” (study for the Bar Mitzva), I was taught by another teacher, Reb Moshe.

 

Hobbies

We played football a lot. We spent much time in the beautiful forest (Gombin was famous resort because of its pine trees which surrounded it). There, we played chess with buttons, and gathered chestnuts in autumn, etc.

We liked very much the hobby of raising pigeons. I was a partner in the dovecote of Jakob Chude (the son of the coachman Chemle Chude) who had a stable with a half-blind horse. I was also a partner with Dubcia Bajbok, who will become in the future the leader of Beitar in Gombin. He was a very nice, strong and handsome young man.

The dovecote was kept by the coachman Moish'ele Gordon. His son, Shloime'leh was in my group in Hashomer Hatzair, a fine young boy. As Ben Guyer told me in the States, he was together with Mara and Cipra Tiber in the anti Nazi underground in Poland. They all perished in the Holocaust.

The most professional in raising and taking care of the pigeons was no doubt the Goy Frank Kopiczko. His family had a smithy, which supplied their living. Hundreds and hundreds of his pigeons nested on the roof of the church. We used to watch them flying. Frank could identify from vast distances any race and any type. It was interesting to see the maneuvers of the flocks when hawk flew near in order to save their lives. The brother of Frank was a distinguished runner and won many prizes.

[Page 171]

Football (Soccer) in Gombin

“Maccabi” had the best team, which defeated many groups, Jewish and Christian in the region. I shall mention some names whom I remember: Benjamin ZEIDMAN and Szlomo MANCZYK at the goal, and the brothers STOLCMAN, Herszel and Icek at the back. I remember TOBER, KALMUS, Zligel ROCHBERGER who moved to South America, the brothers Aharon and Dawid HODIS, The Brothers Dunio and Reuwen TAJFELD and others.

The goalkeeper and Szlomo MANCZYK was a worker in our family business, and whenever there was a victory, he got a day off.

Almost all the games took place on Sunday, the Polish rest day.

The two groups assembled near the Town Hall and in a festive manner they all marched to the “pigs field” where the games took place. Ahead of them marched cheerfully the Maccabi band which played marching music. Hundreds of children, me among them, joined the players. Some also managed to “crash” into the game field, without buying a ticket, as we the children, didn't even have pocket money most of the time.The Holtzman Family's Commerce

[Page 172]

The Children Football Team

In front of me I look at the picture of the children football team, taken probably in 1927. I am the only one who is still alive.

As soon as we returned home from school we went to play football. We used for playing the field near the house of Herszel Kerber. We played in the garden of trees and in the winter we suffered blows from the wet ball which hit the trees. Our first balls were made of rags, which we rolled around to make a football ball. We became a real football team only after we managed to buy a real ball. Nearly before the end, we also had real team shirts with which we felt like real football players.

The best among us was Chaim Gurker who died in America, while to his right played Itche Hodys and to its left myself. In the goal stood firm a very good goalkeeper, strong and tall young boy, Meir Fleishman.

The defenders were Lajbisz Kerber (brother of the dwarf Umcza) and Natan Schwartz. The wife of Natan Schwartz visited recently Israel and we had a very pleasant talk, with nostalgia to those days. Natan himself died a few years ago in Panama.

The other players were Lipa Blawat, Binem Cohen, and Itzhak Kilbert. I remember them all. I loved them all.

[Page 173]

The Holtzman Family's Commerce

Near my mother's shop the coachmen were sitting, talking and waiting for load and unloading.

Near them sat the coachmen Arie KALINSKI, Avrum and Eliahu ALTMAN (his son Zeev lives in Israel and was present in the last memorial gathering in Beit Gombin) and waited for orders.

Telephones just started to appear and we were among the first fortunate ones to own this technological magic, which enabled us to communicate width he connection men in Warsaw and Lodz.

I loved to sit near the coachmen, here their stories, learn from the wisdom of these simple people. I gained their friendship and even their love.

We dealt in selling summer and winter fruits. The fruits to Warsaw were expedited regularly. We used to hire whole orchards, according to the blossom of the flowers and estimation of the fruits when be ripe on the trees. In some places it was most interesting to see the work of packing the fruits in the wagons. There was always constant worry that the fruit will freeze and the whole consignment will be destroyed. We settled whole families in the orchards to guard the fruits which, when ripe, were sent to Lodz and Warsaw.

The distance of around 100 kilometers was done by more than 24 hours, while the risk was very high to lose everything. The wooden boxes were covered in papers and rugs and around the wagon was spread a very strong piece of tarpaulin,

In the last years before the war, the first Ford trucks appeared, which eased and speeded the transports.

In Warsaw we had a middleman, David MAROM, a tall and handsome Jew. I was welcomed to his house a few times, in Solna street number 9.

In Lodz we had connections with EMERIK, who was the broker and received broker's fees. Also at his house I felt like at home. I got very friendly with his son Machel who married Anna WIROBEK from Gombin.

I was not involved in the family business, but from time to time I had fun going with my elder brothers and have them spoil me, mainly by eating in restaurants and enjoying excellent food.

We hosted many times the family EMERIK, the broker from Lodz, in our house and the common business connected us in true friendship.

Another broker in Lodz was David LANGE, a nice Jew. He had a Ford truck, so that during only few hours, the fruit arrived to the markets. He had a “crazy” driver name Sender. This Sender loved me and my sister Hana very much. I remember one very cold winter day he took us to a trip during dusk time, and was in a hurry to return to load the fruit. But alas! As by Satan's interference, the engine broke down, while we were still very far from home. Outside was severe cold and we were on the verge of panic. But our faithful driver calmly worked on the stubborn engine, until life returned to it and we could safely return to Gombin.

Also the commerce in eggs was part of the family business. In summer we put eggs in lime pools who were built in cellars and in the winter, when the extent of egg-laying was reduced, we sold the preserved eggs in the markets all over Poland.

The lime kept the freshness of the eggs, which were sold for cooking and not eating. The eggs were packed in large wooden cases, by layers which were separated by straw, closed by boards of wood and thus they reached their destination in the large cities.

My brothers accepted my mother's authority in managing the family commerce without any slight objection.

In the last years of the 30's, as part of the Poles' fight against the Jews' commerce, the Polish authorities run direct campaign against the Jews. These phenomena did not escape Gombin and our livelihood suffered a lot, mainly due to the high taxation. Shops were closed and many Jews impoverished, and nearly all the Jewish families in Gombin felt the economic distress.

When I immigrated to Eretz Israel in July 1939, I haven't, in my wildest dreams, believed that I shall not see my beloved active brothers and sisters anymore and that they will all end in the crematoria of Chelmno…

[Page 175]

Market Day in Gombin

There were no malls in Gombin, where you find all kinds of good, and the place where you could make all your shopping was the Market square, which once a week was filled with merchandise of all sorts and life.

The villagers arrived to town with carts harnessed to a horse or two horses, they sold their fruits, vegetable, eggs, chickens etc.

In the end of the sale, started the rush to the shops, nearly all exclusively owned by Jews. In the Jewish shop the supplied all their needs for their life in the village. Not once did the hatred of the Goyim and one of them explicitly expressed it, saying:

I brought a cart full merchandise and I go back home with a small sack of good.”

This was well exploited by Anti-Semites, especially the most dangerous of them all: the “Andekim” blotted be their names. Even the supporters of the Government, who were little ashamed of the impression of this hatred in the west, for which they were specially sensitive, hated the Jews and posted watch guards near every Jewish kiosk, calling to boycott the Jewish goods. It was nearly an official policy aimed to take the commerce off the hands of the Jews and transfer it to the Goyim.

There was also a line of defective merchandise sent to the market, as the villagers were not very sophisticated in shopping.

Before my immigration in July 1939, the economical crises worsened and nearly all the Jewish livelihood was victimized by the Authorities boycott and taxes robbery.

 

Bakeries

There were few bakeries of the Jews, among them Godel Rogorzinski who was named “Godel Beker” and of the Ettingers.

From each bakery spreads to the distances the smell of a baked paste in all sorts of tastes. The “balabuste ” (the housewives) were linked to one bakery, got used to the taste and persisted as customers for many years of the same bakery.

On Saturday, after the prayer you saw the children bringing home the “Tshulent ” (a traditional Sabbath dish) which on Friday was brought to the baker. The Tshulent was a masterpiece, special to every woman. The basic ingredient was potatoes, beet, “kishke ”, etc; in which was added all parts of meet and in the end had a taste of paradise…

I remember a story, and even now, after 70 years, I shall not mention the names of the people involved:

Also the “Epikores ” (Epicurean, skeptic) of the Bund loved the Tshulent dish and participated in the general celebration. The story goes that in taking out the Tshulent from certain bakery, the pots were mixed by error, and the Rabbi of town arrived a different dish than his, the one of one of the Bund's leader in town. Any alas and alack! When they opened the pot, here was a young foot of a pig inside it…

It is hard for me to remember how this public scandal ended…

[Page 176]

The Underworld of Gombin

I don't remember in the town violence, which ended in killing, but I recall some quarrels and spankings.

Everyone remembers the leader of the underworld in Gombin: Leon Szczeczynski and his whore sister Toszka and the brothers Kowaly who were not violent towards the Jews.

I shall tell an anecdote.

We used to stroll around the town's square with friends. One day, my sister Hana walked there with a friend, when our acquaintance Leon Szczeczynski, drunk as a fiddler, stuck to them and harassed them, until my heroine Hana gave him a whirred slap in the face and took advantage of his shock, to run away, back home.

Leon's wrath was kindled, a Jew'ess will slap him in public to be mocked by everyone. This was unheard of. The following morning the hooligan sniffed around, inquiring who is that girl, who dared slap him in his face. When he learnt it was Hana Holcman, daughter of Rasza, he didn't hesitate a minute and showed up in my mother's grocery shop, kissing my mother's hand and asking for forgiveness. Of course he didn't leave the shop with empty hands…

I remember people crowding in the square. Leon went wild, completely drunk and one policeman, his name was Kupczyk, if I remember well, shot him and Leon was wounded and lied on the ground for a long time, while the crowd was surrounding him. Finally he was taken to the hospital.

Leon lived in neighborhood to my brother Moshe-Aharon, together with the Felke family.

I don't remember any harassment to his Jewish neighbors, not even once. Only us, as children, were afraid of his sister the whore, who “worked” , right under the staircase, in the passage to the yard.

I assume that this booklet in which I write my memoirs, is the only place where these people are mentioned, in the history of the town Gombin. But I believe they too belong to the landscape of my childhood and my youth, and added a certain color to Gombin folklore and life.

 

The Court in Gombin

There was a court in Gombin, and we often attended trials, as a way to spend our free time.

I don't remember its authorizations, but it was most probably limited to handle neighbors' conflicts, financial conflicts, the civilians' taxation etc.

In the serious processes showed up an authorized advocate, and sometimes only his appearance and his arguments determinated the judges' ruling.

I remember trials in which the accusation was so evident that the Jewish advocate had nothing else to do.

But still, our admired scholar appeared and won the case of his client.

We all gathered, tens of us, in the court hall, to see a free drama, and learn what the advocate could say when the accusation is so clear. To our enjoyment, it was proven that due to the eloquence and the charisma of the Jewish advocate, the judges were biased, and the accused was cleared of the guilt.

It was thus proven that in a small town like Gombin was, there were other factors that perverted justice, and one of the main ones, was the wisdom of the Jewish advocate.

[Page 177]

The Jewish Holidays

The holidays were always celebrated traditionally. Everybody went to the synagogue and later gathered at the family's house where a kings' dinner awaited for them. Also the character of the Shabat was similar. All week long, the poor Jews wandered in the villages around, searching “Parnusa”, to make some living to their families and bring a piece of bread to the children. But when a Jewish Holiday approached, or the Holy Shabat (Saturday), the simple Jew became a prince celebrating Sabbath the queen… He was only than freed of the day-to-day distress and wondered to his own world of imagination and the vision of redemption.

 

Pesach (the Passover)

I remember the Pesach Seders of my childhood. Although some of my brothers were already married, everyone loved to gather in my mother's house (Beit Ima). Like in a mist, I recall my late father Eliahu, sited at the head of the table and running reading the Seder Hagada. Years later, my eldest brother Abraham, managed the Seder after him. He used to lean on some pillows and thus conduct the special evening.

We locked ourselves at home because in Poland a great deal of agony and fears of pogroms were associated to the history of the Passover holiday. The Poles had the deeply rooted blood libel that the Jews are using Christian children blood, to prepare their “Matzoth”. So around every Seder celebrated in the shtetl, hovered the hope that it will be celebrated in peace and no hooligan anti-Semite attacks.

In my mother's house, we used to leave the door between the kitchen and the grocery shop open, for the royal entrance of Eliahu the Prophet. I remember the tension around the table, when we reached the prayer “Shfoch khamatcha al ha'Goyiim she'lo Yaducha ” (Pour out Your Wrath upon the Nations! Jer. 10,28). All the children watched with eagerness and curiosity the big glass of wine, prepared for Eliahu the prophet. One of my brothers touched and moved the glass from beneath the table. We, the children amazingly could see the miracle happening, the glass trembling and Eliahu the Prophet did visit our humble Seder table, blessing us for good prosperous life…

Aftermath, on the following morning, from the talks of other children in our school, it was found out that Eliahu the prophet just visited them as well, drinking from their Seder glass of wine… So this trick was used in many other Jewish homes of my shtetl Gombin.

 

Yom Kippur - Day of Atonement

Yom Kippur was a Holy Day; no other days were like that one in its holiness. After the “Arucha Mafseket ” (the last meal) every one gathered in the grand synagogue of Gombin and not a crumb of food or a drop of water reached their throat.

In this Holy Day I saw the role of status in the shtetl and social classes, according to the seat of the Jew in the synagogue. Near the Eastern wall, near the Khazan (Cantor) and the synagogue Choir, the rich and powerful Jews bought the preferred seats months in advance.

There were people who sinned and broke the 10 commandments during the year, in their day-to-day life. Mainly in the commerce and shops, the simple Jew was cheated and robbed. But, here in Yom Kippur, the Jew wrap himself with the Talith (the praying shawl), united in solitude with the Almighty, cleans himself from all sins and gain compassion and pardon. A day later, he opened a new chapter and reverted to his evil ways, because the God of the Jews is merciful and gracious and listens to the prayers of his People…

Everybody fasted and did not eat or drink anything, strictly following the tradition. The smell of tobacco prevailed everywhere, because it was used as a natural stimulator to wake the people up and prevent them from falling asleep. We, the Holcmans, sat in the middle of the synagogue. My mother had a most honorable seat in the women's section. During a break in the prayers, she sent me (still a child) home, to taste her delicious dishes from which she kept special piece for me, hidden in the cellar of our house – “As a child, you are exempted from fasting” she judged…

I remember Hune'leh KARO who was the fortunate one to become “Shliakh Tzibur” (the leader in synagogal prayer) during the last one close to sunset: 'Tfilath Ne'ilah”.

Hune'leh was already an old man but his voice thundered when he prayed to Heaven, for opening of the skies, a cry, to mercy, to life… Everyone hoped that it will all pass well, because they were afraid that the hernia from which he suffered and which was wrapped all over, will break open again, Khas Ve'Halila…” (God forbid…)

By the end of the Holiday, everybody gathered in my mother's house, congratulated each other and sat for a “King's Dinner” which my mother prepared in advance. Everybody was optimistic and expressed his wishes for health and good “Parnasa” (livelihood) in the coming new year. In a later stage, when already adults, we were absent from the regular seats kept for our family in the synagogue. In spite of this, we always showed up in the most important prayer and gave our parents a lot of “Nakhath” (satisfaction and happiness), when seeing us in the synagogue again.

 

[Page 178]

Jokes Remembered

 

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