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[Page 108]

Yom Kippur in Gostynin

by Shmuel Keller, New York

Translated by Pamela Russ

 

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Shmuel Keller

 

For the hallowed memory of my beloved family and of all the Jews from my town Gostynin, who died by the hands of Hitler's beasts in sanctification of the name of God.

It is the eve of Yom Kippur. From all directions, one hears the cries and protests from the birds that are being used for “kaporah shlogen.[1]

You can smell the heavenly aromas coming from the Jewish bakeries where they are baking the challos and artistically braided, tall breads. Women and girls are carrying baked goods through the streets and hurry home with them. Also, the shochtim (ritual slaughterers) are exceptionally busy. They are slaughtering hens, roosters, ducks, and geese, and while waiting from one fowl to the other, they hold the special knife in their mouth …

I clearly remember the face of the cantor, Reb Yakov Miller, who was also a shochet. On the day of the eve of Yom Kippur, he would go from place to place slaughtering the chickens, and the shamash (beadle) from the shul would accompany him. He was the old Reb Hersh Leyb. A fine man, this Hersh Leyb was. But sadly he had one fault – he was deaf. If you wanted to tell him anything, you had to scream into his ears. If he would knock on your shutters for your attention then you would have to go out to him immediately. He did not speak quietly, but shouted, and on the night before Yom Kippur eve, you could hear his voice over the entire city.

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The mikva (ritual bath) was busy all night. Jews would go to immerse themselves in the waters to prepare themselves in honor of the upcoming holiday. The wealthier Jews had special baths prepared for them.

The day of Yom Kippur eve, early in the morning, before sun up, the Jews went to say selichos (special holiday prayers) in shul, and then would stay for the regular services. When they had completed the prayers, they would sit down and recite “hatoras nedorim” (a prayer that annuls all vows). Three men were seated and one recited the verses. Many were a little clumsy with their Hebrew reading skills, so they read quietly.

It was also a tradition to visit the cemetery on the day of Yom Kippur eve. The Chevra Kadisha (the “Holy Society” – an organization that takes care of funeral and burial needs according to Jewish law) distributed cake and brandy (in order to make a l'chaim in memory for the departed soul). As far as I can remember, my grandfather Reb Yisroel Itche Keller, of blessed memory, was the gabbai (manager) of the Chevra Kadisha. I loved my grandfather dearly and during my childhood years, I spent much time in my grandfather's house. I knew that every …

 

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A funeral in Gostynin

 

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… year, on the morning of Yom Kippur eve, my grandfather would go out to the cemetery with cake and brandy, so I hurried to be on time.

When I arrived at my grandfather's house, there was already a basket filled with cut up cake sitting on the table. There were also several bottles of brandy on the table, and the two gravediggers – Avrohom Yakov Shaten and Leybish Rudes, were already there.

Avrohom Yakov was a heavy man with a large belly, two ruddy cheeks, and very often his nose was red as well. But he was considered to be an honest man.

Leybish Rudes, generally known as “the tall Leybish,” was like a stretched out person with two long legs and a short, black beard. With his two large “sprinters” he would arrive more quickly at the cemetery than those who would go by horse and wagon.

Mendel Fisher went with his own wagon. He was a cold man. No matter what you said to him, even an insulting comment, he was never affected. He would look at you and not even bat an eye.

The two gravediggers carried out the cake and brandy and put it all onto the wagon. Meanwhile, Reb Leybke Wilner arrived, the second manager of the Chevra Kadisha. Everyone got into the wagon and was seated, and I sat next to my grandfather. I felt very proud that I was going with him and with all these esteemed Jews.

When we arrived at the cemetery, we already saw many Jews standing near the graves. One person was holding a Maaneh Loshon (book of prayers that are said at a gravesite), and another person was holding a Techina (book of prayers in Yiddish), and several others were reciting Psalms. The gates to the gravesite of the Gostynin Rebbe were wide open. People were going in and out of there.

Near the fence, many candles were burning. The grave was strewn with kvitlekh (handwritten notes) with all types of requests. In the service house of the cemetery, in the so-called “house of purification,” there was a long table covered with two tablecloths. On the table were …

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… bottles of brandy and nearby, piled high, the cake was set out.

At the head of the table, were my grandfather and Reb Leybke Wilner, and they were handing out the cake and brandy to everyone and wishing everyone “a good and healthy year” …

I waited for my father to come out to the cemetery. At that time, my father would go only to the Rebbe's gravesite. When my father had finished the prayers, we would go home together.
By the time we arrived home, it was already getting late. We had to hurry. We changed our clothes and went to Mincha services. As we were walking, we could see how on all the streets and smaller roads the Jews were on their way, as if in long rows, to the various shuls. The shuls were filled with candles. Rich and poor people – everyone had lit candles.

At the Mincha prayers, you already recited the Al Chet (confession of sins) and by now many were crying. In the service house of the shul there were many trays with all kinds of notes requesting charitable donations. Every Jew put something into one plate or another.

Going home after Mincha, you could see how the Jewish stores were shutting down. The dry goods stores of Reb Avrohom Yitzkhok Lomzer, Yeshaye Wajnzilber, and Avrohom Pinczewski were already locked up. When we came back home, we could feel the holiness of Yom Kippur in every corner. My beloved mother and older sister Charne prepared the table for the final meal before the fast. There were many candles on the table. Washing our hands and reciting the appropriate prayers before eating the chalah was also different than it was all year round. We hurried a little through the meal, more than usual. My only job was to get the mayim akharonim (water for washing fingers before reciting the “Grace after Meals”). While saying these prayers, all our eyes were on our father. My father's eyes were streaming with tears. When it came to the parts of “Rachem noh” (have mercy on us) or “Ve noh al tatzrikheinu …. Lo leidei matnas bosor vedom” (please make us not need anything … make us not dependent on human hands), he said these words with the deepest spiritual and devout pleading. This made …

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… a profound impression on us and our eyes also became wet with tears.

After completing the Grace after Meals, each of us, in order of age, went over to our father to receive his blessings. He placed his hands on one's head, blessed each of us, and his eyes were wet with tears.

My beloved mother was standing next to the candles and was saying the special prayers for candle lighting. My father put on his kittel (white robe worn on Yom Kippur) and his tallis and overcoat, and we all went over to our grandfather, Reb Yisroel Itche, of blessed memory. When we arrived there, we met aunts and uncles and their children. Everyone had come to the head of the family to receive blessings and good wishes, and to return the blessings as well.

My grandfather was ready to leave and go to Kol Nidrei (Yom Kippur eve services). Our grandmother Chaya Soro, a refined, religious woman, a truly modest woman, was standing with the prayer book for Yom Kippur and saying various prayers. We approached her and she gave us each many blessings.

In Gostynin, women did not go to shul for Kol Nidrei. The same was true for the surrounding towns. All this was because of a tragedy that had occurred in the not-so-distant town of Ledzicz in the women's section of the shul during Kol Nidrei. A fire had broken out there. One woman let out a scream: “Fire!” All the women tried to run toward the steps that lead to the exit of the shul. In the chaos, 30 women were squashed to death. As a result, the rabbis in the entire area issued a decree telling women not to go to Kol Nidrei.

As I left the house with my grandfather, I could see how from all streets and smaller roads Jews were streaming forth to Kol Nidrei. Everyone's face showed a God-fearing countenance. Everyone who passed my grandfather and father stopped to wish them well. When I turned around and looked toward the west, I saw how the sun was going down between the mountains, leaving bloody-red, fiery stains in the sky. A great fear befell me. I imagined that the heavens were preparing for Judgment Day, that the angels were rushing to do God's bidding …

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… and were bringing in the large Book of Deeds, where it is written: “Today it is sealed in the Book of Deeds who will live and who will die.” And the prosecutor stands before the Holy Throne and speaks evilly about the Jews, detailing everyone's sins…

As a result of these childhood memories, a fear overcame me, so I nestled up closer to my grandfather. I loved my grandfather dearly. Whenever I was with my grandfather, I felt protected from all bad things. My grandfather had a great influence on me. All year round he prayed in a small chasidish shul, but for the Days of Awe (Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur) he prayed in the city's Beis Midrash. He was the one who began the services. Occasionally, it was the dayan (a person knowledgeable in Talmudic law who is consulted for religious questions) Reb Shmuel Volf Pinczewski who did this, but because of his age and frailty my grandfather took over that position.

As we entered the Beis Midrash, our eyes were blinded by the glow of hundreds of candles in the hanging light, from chests filled with sand, and from pots. Light was pouring forth from everywhere. Wax candles were burning on the platform from which the Torah was read, and there was hay strewn across the floor.

All the Jews wished each other a good and healthy year. Many Jews who were upset with each other all year, now made up because they knew that Yom Kippur did not forgive the sins of man towards man, but only forgave the sins of man towards God.

Many Jews were already standing with their prayer shawls covering their heads and were reciting Tefila Zaka.[2] The shamash, Michel Ber, was a tall man with a black beard peppered with some gray. He stood on the raised platform waiting for all the Jews to assemble. He knew everyone and so knew who was still missing. This was a man who was in charge of the entire Beis Medrash since he came from a wealthy family and was also a scholar unto his own right. He was a strong-minded person and spared no one other than a few wealthier people. He would stand on the platform and shout down, calling to each person by name. If any of the younger people would talk during prayers, he would call them by name so that their fathers would hear. He would …

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… chase the younger boys out of the Beis Medrash for the slightest antic. But on the eve of Yom Kippur, he was a totally different person. He stood on the platform with his prayer shawl over his head, lifting the shawl that covered his eyes, looked around, then pounded on the table. This was a signal for silence. He approached the eastern wall (place of honor) where Reb Leybish Lifsycz, of blessed memory, was standing. This was the son of the holy Gostynin Rebbe, of blessed memory. Reb Leybish was a tall man with a snow-white beard, a radiating face, one eye smaller than the other, that always gave the impression that he was looking at you.

With slow steps, Reb Leybish followed the shamash Mikhel Ber to the Holy Ark. The shamash took out a Torah scroll and put it into Reb Leybish's arms. With great reverence, Reb Leybish turned to the congregation and declared the verse: “Or zoruah latzadik, u'leyishrei lev simcha” (trans: Light is sown for the righteous, and for the upright of heart, gladness).

With enormous emotion, each person repeated this verse. With uneven steps, Reb Leybish went down the stairs that led away from the Holy Ark, while still holding the Torah scroll. I remember how my father approached these steps and used his prayer shawl to touch the Torah scroll, then kissed the prayer shawl in the spot that touched the Torah. With the Torah in his arms, Reb Leybish went around the platform and everyone pushed in with their prayer shawls to have a chance to kiss the Torah. The image is unforgettable.

They continued to say “Or zoruah latzadik” until Reb Leybish replaced the Torah scrolls into the Holy Ark. He left the doors open until the leader of the services recited the blessing of “Shehecheyonu” (in honor of the “new” holiday).

Reb Leybish the shochet (ritual slaughterer), the one who led the afternoon services, also led the Kol nidrei prayers, but before he began, Reb Leybish Lifsycz went to stand on one side of him and Reb Avrohom Yitzchok Lomzer, the one who blew the shofar, went to stand on the other.

Reb Avrohom Yitzchok Lomzer was a very hairy man. His beard, sidelocks, and mustache completely hid his face. His eyes, overhung with long eyebrows, were almost impossible to see. But if he set his eyes upon you, they looked angry. As far as I remember him, I never …

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… saw him with a friendly expression on his face. He was an angry man. Because his nose was always stuffed with tobacco, his speech was not clear and you had to restrain yourself from laughing when he spoke. He always replaced the letter “mem” with a “beis.” When Reb Leybish said “al daas hamokom” (“with the approval of God” is the introductory verse to Kol nidrei), he replied: “al daas abakom” [with his nose blocked], same was for “bi'shiva shel maaloh” (“in the convocation of the court above” is the next phrase of this verse), he said instead “bi'shiva shel baaloh” [again with a blocked nose]… But he was a very pious Jew, a scholar, and a God-fearing man.

Everyone put their prayer shawls over their heads when reciting the “shmoneh esrei” (the
standing prayer, or the amidah). I stood under my father's prayer shawl and felt his tears drip down onto my head. I cried along when I felt my father's tears. I remember the “yaleh” and the “selach no” and the “oshamnu” and the “ki hinei kachomer” [all prominent Yom Kippur prayers], the way Reb Leybish the shochet said these. And who doesn't remember the heartfelt crying and lamenting of the “Shema koleinu” when they reached the phrase of “al tashlicheinu le'eis zikno” (do not forsake us in our old age).

After the evening prayers, no one left to go home. Reb Leybish Lifsycz went to the podium to recite the “Shir hayichud” (Song of Unity) [a prayer recited responsively after evening services have ended], verse by verse. And even after that, not everyone left for home. Many Jews remained in the Beis Medrash all night. Many learned a section of the Talmud, Mesechta yoma, and others recited Psalms all night long.

We woke up very early on Yom Kippur morning in order to go to shul with our father. I loved to hear my grandfather recite the early prayers, then Reb Moishe Holander who led the morning prayers, and later my father, and also the one who led the afternoon prayers Reb Leybish the shochet. I can still clearly hear in my ears as my grandfather sang: “hokeil be'saatzumois uzecho” (God, in the omnipotence of Your strength…), and the way Reb Moishe Holander, with his hoarse voice sang out: “Hamelech!” (“King of the Universe!”). I remember how his two sons, Mendel and Yehoshua, assisted him. I even remember the marches that they used to sing.

Somehow they didn't have a feel for music.

I couldn't wait for them to leave the podium. When Avrohom Moishe Holander said the “Shir hamalos mimamakim korosicho Hashem” (Song of Ascents, I call to God from the depths…) …

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… I cried bitterly. It didn't matter how young I was at the time. He had a strange timbre in his voice and would let out hoarse cries. I could hardly wait until Reb Leybish the shochet would go up to do the afternoon prayers.

I've heard many cantors in my life, but I've never heard anyone recite the “malchuyos – zichronos – shofros” (significant sections of the Yom Kippur prayers) as Reb Leybish the shochet did.

In the old times, the leader of the prayers did not say “Hineni he'oni mimaas” because this prayer had nothing to do with these congregants. This is a prayer exclusively recited by the leader of the prayers. But Reb Leybish the shochet placed his prayer shawl over his head and did recite this prayer, and cried his heart out while doing so.

In my later years, when I sang with the memorable cantor Reb Yakov Miller, of blessed memory, he did the same thing. Reb Leybish the shochet also had his two assistants: his son Yitzchok Volf, and his son-in-law. But these two could barely sing. They would always steer him off key. I will never forget how sweetly he prayed. Who doesn't remember what happened when it came to “Unesana tokef” (the peak of the Yom Kippur prayer). It was impossible at that point to silence the cries coming from the women's section of the shul. No matter how hard Michel Ber pounded on the table hoping to silence the women, nothing helped. It took quite some time before they all became quiet. And only then did Reb Leybish the shochet begin his sweet recitation of “u'veshofar gadol yitoka, vekol demomo dako yishoma” (trans: “the great shofar will be sounded and a still, thin sound will be heard”), and then took to singing “kevakoras ro'eh edroi” (trans: “like a shepherd inspecting the flock”). I've heard many choirs in my lifetime, but nothing even comes close to these prayers as they were recited in the Gostynin Beis Medrash.

Now in America, whenever I am standing at the avoda (section describing what the Priests and High Priest did in the Temple) part of the Yom Kippur service, as the cantor sings of the Priests (“Hakohanim”), and then he comes to the part where he describes how they bowed down and fell to the ground (“Hoyu Kor'im), and then only the leader of the prayers and the Rav bow and fall all the way down to the ground, I always remember how when Reb Leybish recited these prayers in the avoda describing the Priestly acts …

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… and even in later years when he sang with the cantor Reb Yakov Miller, of blessed memory, all the Jews, young and old, bowed down until the ground.

Who can forget how the Jews of Gostynin recited the prayer of “eileh ezkero” where the story of the death of the Ten Martyrs (“Aseres Harugei Malchus”) and Rabbi Akiva is told. How many, many tears did our fathers and grandfathers shed during this prayer!

How many tears were absorbed into the Yom Kippur machzorim (prayer books). How many tears of our fathers and grandfathers, mothers and grandmothers were buried in these prayers. …

Between the afternoon and evening prayers, one could already see many pale faces. My father sent me up to the women's section of the shul to see how my mother was feeling. Many people were resting, lying on the grass in the shul's courtyard. One individual, whom I still see in front of my eyes, was Mendel Eizenhendler. He was a very dear man, but he was a real clown. All year, he would utter forth all kinds of curses, but he would nonetheless do favors for anyone. He was lying on the grass, and every so often would sniff some sort of drops from a bottle. The drops used to be called “heart strength.” Well, here I see a Jew with a silver skullcap on his head and he is bringing the little box of snuff over to my grandfather. This was Reb Yosef Tremski, also an angry man. He was a man that would tell stories. But if someone would annoy him, well God would have to help that person. He was like a gunpowder keg. All in all, though, he was a fine and devout Jew.

I loved all these Jews. And they loved me as well. I learned a lot from them and until today, much of this has remained with me.

My father recited the evening prayers. I remember Epshtajn bought “maftir Yonah” (the reading of the Book of Jonah). I don't remember his first name. He was a Lithuanian Jew from the Lomzer region. His business was in forestry and later he built a sawmill where they cut wood. He was expert at reading Hebrew. He would read the Book of Jonah loudly and with the proper cantillations. You could hear every word.

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No one sits idly between the evening services and the closing prayers of Yom Kippur, Neilah. People are reciting Psalms. Along the eastern wall, near Reb Leyb Lifsycz there is one Jew who is studying a Hebrew text while wearing two pairs of glasses. This was Reb Fishel Ciwia. He was known as “the black Fishel.” They said that in his younger years his beard and his head of hair were a deep black and his face was dark. But when I knew him, he was already snow white, but his eyebrows still contained a few black threads. He was very sharp and full of stories and Torah knowledge. Some said that he even read books with content outside of the religious sphere. They considered him somewhat enlightened. Sometimes, my grandfather would send me to him to get a particular Hebrew text. He had a lot of books. If he would give me a book, he told me not to give it to anyone else but put it directly into my grandfather's hands.

The day does not stand still. The sun moves farther west. The people in the Beis Medrash prepare for Neilah, the closing prayers for Yom Kippur. These half-faint Jews with their pale faces come back into the Beis Medrash from the shul courtyard. The air in the shul is very heavy with dust that has collected from the hay on the floor, mixed with the smoke from the flickering candles. Rays from the setting sun stream through the windows. It seems as if everything is under a thin mist. A silence hovers in the Beis Medrash. The congregation is ready for Neilah. The shamash bangs on the table, and the prayers of “U'vo letzion goel…” (trans: “and a redeemer shall come to Zion…”) begin.

The leader of the prayers approaches the podium. Somewhat weak, but with a pure voice, he begins the very familiar melody for Kaddish in Neilah. Many sing along with him. Everyone says the shmoneh esrei of Neilah with great devotion. The Holy Ark holding all the Torah scrolls is opened wide. The Ark remains open until Neilah is ended.

The sun moves farther. The day is running away. The crowd recites the “Sholosh esrei middos” (the “Thirteen Attributes of God”). I can still clearly hear the cries and intonations as they reach the attribute of rachamim (mercy) or the leader's prayer of “yehi rotzon milfonecho shomeah kol bechios” (trans: “May it be His Will to hear the voice of our cries”). The lamenting, the …

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… crying, remains until the end of the prayer services. With the final bits of strength, everyone recites “Avinu malkeinu” (Our Father, our King…).

Only now, after the terrible destruction of the Holocaust, can we understand why the Jews cried so bitterly. When they said: “Our Father our King, act for the sake of those who were murdered for Your Holy Name; Our Father our King, act for the sake of those who went into fire and water for the sanctification of Your Name; Our Father our King, avenge before our eyes the spilled blood of Your servants.”[3]

The crying and the devotion of these prayers lasted until sound of the final blast of the shofar (tekiah gedola) permeated the dusty air and the darkness of the Beis Medrash.

The day of Yom Kippur was very holy in our old home. But the holiness was not just for that one day – every day of our life was filled with a spiritual holiness. Jewish life was complete and had substance, saturated with people's desires and lofty hopes.

This world exists no longer. It was completely cut off. This world will always remain alive deep in our hearts and memories.

 


Translator's Footnotes

  1. The ritual of “kaporah shlogen” is practiced on the day preceding Yom Kippur. A bird is taken into a person's right hand and circled three times over one's head while reciting specific verses related to Yom Kippur. The bird is the atonement or “kaporah” for this person as he prepares body and soul for the upcoming Yom Kippur. The bird is then slaughtered and the meat is given to the poor. Return
  2. Introductory prayer said just before the evening services of Yom Kippur, where one expresses forgiveness towards others. Tefila Zaka also proclaims a revalidation of one's faith. Return
  3. From the Hebrew of Avinu Malkeinu in the Yom Kippur prayers: “Avinu malkeinu, kra roah gezar dineinu; Avinu malkeinu, asei le'maan harugim al shem kodshecho; Avinu malkeinu, asei le'maan boei boaish u'vamayim al kidus shemecho; Avinu malkeinu nekom le'eineinu nikmas dom avodecho hashofuch.Return


[Page 120]

In the Years 1914–1928

by Yisochar Matil

Translated by Pamela Russ

 

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Yisochar Matil

 

Soon after the outbreak of World War One, the German army invaded the provinces of Poland that were occupied by the Russian military. The Russians retreated back to Warsaw.

At the Russian military's first resistance, the Germans retreated until past Wloclawek.

On the eastern side of Gostynin, a small German unit delayed, and they remained stuck between Gombyn and Gostynin. In order to join up with the regular German army, these Germans, small in number, surrounded Gostynin and shot at it from all sides. The Russians, thinking that this was an attack of the regular German army, hid, and then fled in fear. The civilian population also fled to protect themselves in brick houses and in cellars.

At that time, we lived on Stodolni Street, better known by the Jews of Gostynin as “death street” because all the funerals went through Stodolni Street. Opposite us was a brick apartment house with a large cement cellar. So our whole family – my father, mother, four brothers, and three sisters, and my uncle Ben Zion Keller, who was then in our home – ran across the street to the cellar, to protect ourselves from the bullets. When the shooting stopped, and the Germans passed through Gostynin, everyone came out his hiding place and went to their own homes.

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Our entire family and our uncle Ben Zion also came out of hiding, crossed the road, and went back home. Meanwhile, the Russians, with the help of the anti–Semitic Polaks, took to searching for those guilty of their downfall, whom they could blame for all this. And just as we crossed the road to go home, they immediately came in and accused my father and my uncle Ben Zion of giving signals from a roof to the Germans. In other words, they were accused of being “spies.”

We pleaded and cried to them, begging that they leave our father and uncle with us, saying that we were only in the cement cellar to protect ourselves, and that neither our father nor our uncle was a spy. Their reply was that all Jews were spies and they were going to shoot these two Jewish spies. They took my father and uncle with them. We were distraught but could do nothing. A terror seized us all; a dread of the Russian soldiers, and particularly of the Cossacks.

That evening, my two brothers, Moshe and Yakov Leyb, carefully went into the street, with their hats pulled down low over their eyes so as not to be recognized, in order to find out what had happened to our unfortunate father and uncle. They returned with embittered hearts and didn't tell anyone what they had learned. The found out that at 2 AM that night the two Jewish “spies” were to be shot (this is what one Christian told the other). Crying bitterly, we all sat and prayed to God for some sort of salvation.

At 2 AM that night we heard several shots. Moshe and Yakov Leyb cried hysterically. We cried along with them until finally we moved away, exhausted and drained. Early in the morning, my mother and brothers ran to find out what had happened. Their hearts became lighter when they learned that there had been no executions. They also found out that during the night, they had also captured more Jews and Germans, among them the Rav and the German minister.

Iser Meier Matel undertook to go and plea for mercy …

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… for the Rav and for the other Jews that were arrested. He went to the Russian colonel who had his quarters in Rzesztowa in the hotel.

When the Russian colonel heard why the Jew had come, he grabbed his gun and wanted to shoot him on the spot for his chutzpa, that a Jew comes to plea on behalf of the Jewish “spies.”

Iser Meier just barely escaped with his life. Pale and terrified, he hid in fear. This frightened and upset the Gostynin Jews even more. At midday, the news spread that the pre–war Gostynin authorities had returned. Then, there was a real miracle.

Our uncles, Mote Matel and Yakov Mendel Keller, went immediately to see the prince. They told him that the Rav, my father and uncle, and many other Jews had been thrown into prison and they were accused of being spies.

The prince assured them that he would do everything to free them and he reassured them that no bad would happen to them, if they were lucky and were still alive. Later that same day, the Rav was freed. A day later, my father and uncle. And a few days after that, all the Jews as well as the Germans.

The Gostynin Jews were thrilled with the release of the Rav and with the other Jews.

Our joy was boundless. We were thrilled about the miracle that had delivered our father and uncle alive.

My father and Uncle Ben Zion told us what they experienced in those first hours and on the first night of their arrest. They were guarded heavily and were told that soon, soon they would be shot.

In the room where they were held, they had to kneel the entire time. When more Jews were brought in and some time later the Rav and several Germans along with the minister, they were sure…

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… that these were their final minutes. They were sure that the Rav and the minister had been brought to say confession with them. Only later did they find out that the Rav and the minister were also under the same suspicion of guilt. Later in the day, when the Rav was freed, salvation came for them too.

The slaughter behind Wloclawek went on for a few weeks until the Russians retreated to the western side of Gostynin. At the time, the Gostynin people went through great fear because of the fighting and were terrified that the entire town of Gostynin would be destroyed. The Jews lived in fear of the Russian soldiers. They rarely went out into the streets and, as all the other Gostynin residents, they slept in their clothes, ready to run for safety in seconds.

After a few weeks, the Russian army retreated to the east, between Gostynin and Gombyn.

Gostynin was also lucky this time. The Russians were running so quickly, that they didn't have enough time to rob the Jews or make any pogroms.

Also, the city did not incur any damage.

The slaughter on the eastern side of Gostynin continued for a few days and the Russian army continued to flee.

In a few months, the Germans occupied all of Poland.

 

German Occupation

Life under German occupation was very difficult. The city was under guard. German patrols guarded all corners of the city, not permitting any life essentials or other materials to be brought in or taken out. By 10 PM, no one was allowed in the streets. Bread, sugar, and flour ration cards were enforced. There were long lineups in front of the stores. But despite all these difficulties, somehow life began to normalize.

The gymnasiums, schools, and cheders opened their doors, and everyone went back to their daily business. Then the Gostynin ….

[Page 124]

… Jews took to restoring the material and societal damage that the war had left behind, and to set up necessary organizations that the times required.

The first thing that was established was a community kitchen where meals were distributed to the poor Jewish population in the city and to those who were roving through the city because the war had left them homeless, and also to the many from the big cities who were hungry, since they had left those cities in search of a small piece of bread in the small city provinces.

The entire Jewish youth participated in the work around the kitchen, and the entire Jewish population helped them.

The women cooked and served, and took care of the hygiene. The men took care of the finances of managing the kitchen. With the help of the women they organized all kinds of projects, such as a flower day, raffles for pledges, dance evenings, and often gave theatrical performances.

The Yiddish theater that was once opposed by the Chassidic and religious businessmen, who did not permit their children to go and watch the performances, now became very popular. Now they ran to the theater seeing how useful the funds they raised were for the kitchen. The parents no longer prevented the children from going to watch the performances. This led to the fact that at one particular performance, my uncles Nute Matel and Yakov Mendel Keller and a group of other businessmen were the main guests. Nute was the treasurer and Yakov Mendel was the manager. Their wives organized the buffet and were the waitresses.

In 1915, the new group “Linat Hatzedek” [“where righteousness dwells,” a charity organization that took care of the sick] was founded. The first officials of the group were: Yosef Gonshor, my wife's brother, who died in the Warsaw ghetto along with his wife and two children; Ben Zion Keller, my mother's brother, who died along with his wife and daughter and all the Gostyniners on April 17, 1942, in Chelmno.

Linat Hatzedek had a very large task, because …

[Page 125]

 

gos125.jpg
The “Hatchiya” administration and the drama circle “Habimah” in Gostynin
Seated from right to left: Dovid Katz, Waserman, Tuvia Jakubowicz, Yakov Zarkhyn, Adam Domb, Mordechai Moricz, Yosef Gonshor
First row standing, from right to left: Henokh Kuczinski, Yechiel Zalman Matel, Feige Sarna, Bashe Zaidman, Yakov Leyb Matel, Chaim Sender Zandman, Dvora Zajacs, Hetzke Sarna, and Chana Zajacs
Second row standing, from right to left: Yakov Sarna, Mordecai Reuven Moskol, Yakov Gostinski, Shmuel Keller, Baruch Meier Matel, Chaim Yehoshua Tabacznik, Yisroel Zelig Kuczinski, Yehoshua Noach Wilner

 

[Page 126]

… there was a typhus epidemic in the entire Poland. In Gostynin, a large number of Jews became sick with typhus.

The Linat Hatzedek helped with medicines and money for all those who were in need, and to all those who were sick they sent two members to spend entire nights – sometimes entire days – with them. The Linat Hatzedek raised its funds in the same way that the community kitchen did, and they also sent out men to collect money for weddings and other Jewish celebrations. Also, on Purim, there were masquerading Purim entertainers who went from house to house who raised money for the needs of Linat Hatzedek.

The typhus epidemic subsided after taking many victims, such as: my wife's father Eliezer Gonshor, Yakov Lipe Kaufman, Volf Nosinowycz, Yosef Chaim Hodes, and others. Also, the barber–surgeon Zalman Micholski, who saved many people from the plague, but couldn't help himself and died during the epidemic.

The social energy was used for cultural tasks. A reading room was opened at the Peretz Library, that until then only distributed books for reading, and that now amassed a greater number of books. Other than Yiddish books, the Peretz Library also distributed Polish and Hebrew books. The Peretz Library supported the youth and the progressive well–to–do people.

Assisting greatly were young Jewish students from the surrounding cities and towns – such as Plock, Wloclawek, Kutno, Zychlin, Gombyn, Koval, Radziejow, Lipno, Rypin, Wisograd, and other cities – who studied in the Gostynin gymnasium.

In the year 1915, Hatchiya was also founded. Hatchiya had three units:

  1. Herzliya – a purely Zionist organization
  2. Maccabi – a competition and sport organization
  3. Habima – a drama circle
Herzliya was run by the Zionist group. Maccabi, to which the majority of the youth belonged, was managed by …

[Page 127]

… a committee that represented all factions. Nonetheless, the uniform hat of the Maccabi was colored blue and white, the symbolic colors of Zionism. Every member wore this with pride on every trip and on each sports holiday.

The Habima, under Domb's direction, attracted the most talented youth and prepared to present wonderful performances.

The Hatchiya, bought the house on Dlugo near Lustgarten Street, where the first Gostynin cinema was, and before that the Russian teahouse (China). They freshened it up a little, and then moved in with the three units.

Maccabi bought sports equipment and invited Hershel Holczman's grandson, Itche Holczman's son from Kutno, who studied in the Gostynin gymnasium, to be the sports instructor. He set up men's groups and women's groups and taught them to march and to exercise.

With pride, he led the entire sports club, with his men's and women's groups, through the streets of Gostynin, during their excursions. Later, Maccabi hired a sports instructor, Finkelstajn from Warsaw, with a monthly salary.

During a trip to Kutno, the entire Jewish population welcomed the Gostynin Maccabis and watched how Dovid Katz, the chairman at the time, led the men's and women's teams through the streets of Kutno, and then later watched the practice exercises at the sports festival.

When the Gostynin Maccabis later came to Zychlin, there were great festivities in the town.

The Habima presented their beautiful performances in town, and also in the neighboring towns – Plock, Kutno, Zychlin – with great success.

In 1915, the director Dzhalowski and his family settled in Gostynin. He came from Lodz. Dzhalowski organized …

[Page 128]

 

gos125.jpg
Men's groups of the competition and sports club “Maccabi” in 1915
First row, sitting, from right to left: Chaim Gerst, Lipe Pluczer, Chaim Bresler, Moshe Yoske Matel, Baruch Meier Matel, Henoch Linderman, Heczke Sarna, Eliezer Flajsman, Chaim Yehoshua Tabacznik, Mordechai Reuven Moskal, Yoske Morycz, Chaim Sender Zandman, the child Yeshiye Zhychlin
Second row, from right to left: Yisroel Shajer, Yisroel Zelig Kuczinski, Henoch Kuczinski, Itzik Bresler, Moshe Morycz, the competition instructor Finkelstajn, Tuvia Jakubowycz, Shmuel Keller, Duvid Levy, Yakov Lefkowycz, Iser Meier Matel, Yakov Zarchin
Third row, from right to left: Avrohom Hershel Matel, unknown, Shmuel Baruch Matel, Yisroel Hersh Zholandz, Yechiel Boczan, Ziskind Goldman, Kahane, Mordechai Morycz, Peretz Keller
Fourth row, from right to left: Fishel Bresler, two unknowns, Swarcbard, unknown, Yankel Nisanowycz, Yosef Kowadlo, unknown
Fifth row, from right to left: Itche Katz, Chaim Zweighaft, Yosef Bagno, Chana Zajacs, Baruch Meier Matel, unknown, Feivish Lichtenstajn, Avrohom Zajacs, Chaim Kruczik
Last row, from right to left: Avrohom Nisanowycz, Kowent, Yitzchok Izak Gerst, Hershel Zweighaft, Yisochar Matel, Shmuel Markowycz, Yakov Sarna, Reuven Lichtenstajn

 

[Page 129]

… a youth choir and presented beautiful concerts. After a few years, Dzhalowski and his family left Gostynin.

The entire income of the theater performances and concerts went to the Peretz Library and the community kitchen.

Adam Domb's performances strongly influenced the love for the theater for all those in Gostynin. And when a Jewish troupe from Lodz or Warsaw came to Gostynin, the theater was always full. Once, Shavuos time, Waksman and his troupe from Lodz came to present three performances in Gostynin. That Shavuos, the Rav gave a sermon in the synagogue during prayers, saying that the Jews of Gostynin were absolutely forbidden from desecrating the holiday by permitting the theater troupe to perform on the holiday. He placed a ban on Waksman and his troupe and placed guards on the streets of Gostynin in order to prevent those who did want to go to the theatre from actually going. Waksman himself performed in the first and second of the three performances for those few who had climbed over the fences on the side streets to get in. The third performance, held on the night when Shavuos ended, when he presented “The Siberian Bells,” had a full theater. Waksman went onto the stage, very spirited, greeted the audience, and assured them that he would never forget the Gostynin public. The Gostyniners forgot the ban, but not the theater.

Under the German occupation, the Jewish Community Administration of Gostynin was also established. The municipality directed all the activities in the city involving all the Jewish religious and social activities in the city.

In 1915, the construction of the electric station was completed. And in the middle of the summer the streets of Gostynin were lit up with electric lights. Soon afterwards, the government buildings and many private homes used this light as well. This light was provided from sundown until midnight, and later until 1 AM.

This was life under the yoke of German occupation, but despite all the difficulties because of the Germans, often more was accomplished than under normal circumstances, and times of peace and plenitude.

[Page 130]

In Independent Poland

The establishment of an independent Poland at the end of the First World War filled hearts with a lot of hope, and an optimistic mood enveloped the Polish Jews.

The population organized itself. Unions were set up from every [socio–political] position that existed on the Jewish street: the Bund, leftist and rightist Poalei–Zionists [Zionist socialist party]; Zionists in general; communists and their sympathizers, and Agudists [religious opposition to Zionists].

The workers' groups partnered to set up professional unions in the city. In a short time, with the help of the radical voice of the Jewish students and thanks to the ongoing education among the Jewish workers in the city, they were able to organize the professional unions. A needle trade union was established, also transport unions, porter unions, spats [low laced boots] union, and barbers' union.

All these unions had one location where each trade has its representative in the central administration office that managed all the work. In this location of the professional union there were also lectures that were given and readings in Polish and Yiddish. There were also courses in reading and writing.

The lectures and readings were given by the Gostynin young students who were at that time very democratic yet traditional in their disposition.

Aside from this professional work, there were also May First celebrations, and street demonstrations.

Once, before one such street demonstration, we realized at the last minute that although we had prepared everything, we had forgotten a red flag.

It was already late in the evening. We ran to Yehoshua Noach (Wilner), and awoke him and his wife and told them about our dilemma. Yehoshua Noach's face clouded over, and as always, when …

[Page 131]

… he had a dilemma, he placed a finger on his upper lip and thought about what to do. We noticed that Yehoshua Noach's face soon lit up. He winked to his wife Faige. Faige quickly grasped what her husband Yehoshua Noach meant and she cried out hysterically: “Not that! It's a new blouse! I haven't even worn it yet!”

Yehoshua Noach did was not taken aback by her request. He simply said to Faige: “Yes.” We still had a few hours to make the flag. A few minutes later, Faige was standing there with a pair of scissors and she cut into the pretty, new blouse, as she began to sew up the red flag. That's how the red flag for the first street demonstration in 1919 in Gostynin was created.

The first time, the police did not interfere with the street demonstrations because in Gostynin they were French units.

As long as the French were in the city, the Polish police behaved in a civil and fine manner during home searches. They were looking for communist literature, and they searched without end. According to them all Jews were communists. When the French left the city, the police became aggressive and rough. They did everything they could to disrupt the street demonstrations, and very often beat the participants. During house searches they behaved terribly and shamefully.

With the rise of the parties, Hatchiya and its units dissolved.

The community kitchen was no longer necessary. The only thing that remained was the drama circle under Adam Domb's direction.

In the year 1919, help arrived for the Gostynin Jews from the Gostynin compatriots in America. Later, thanks to American aid, the non–profit fund [gemilas chesed] was set up, that helped many Jews with interest free loans.

A break in the activities took place in Jewish Gostynin …

[Page 132]

… with the outbreak of the Polish Russian war. The Bolshevik invasion pushed the community life of Gostynin into stagnation. Poland mobilized the military draft. The Jewish youth in general did not want to go into the Polish army, nor did they want to fight against the Russian Red Army. Many of the youth believed that Lenin and Trotsky would bring the ultimate salvation.

At the height of the war, in the summer of 1920, Yakov Miller, the cantor, who was beloved by all the Jewish residents, left Gostynin and went to America.

At the beginning of 1921, Rav Silman, the Rav of Gostynin, died. When the city calmed down a little, it prepared to take on a new Rav. Then there was a fight between the Chassidim and the Misnagdim [opponents to the Chassidim]. The Misnagdim won. With the help of the Zionists, the Bielsker Rav, HaRav Bernshtajn, became the Rav of Gostynin.

HaRav Bernshtajn was a Zionist sympathizer. He was a charming man. His wife and his two daughters were also charming people and were always very happy to spend time with the people.

In 1921, Poland began taking care of the losses from the war that the Bolshevik invasion left behind. The Jews in Gostynin also resumed their interrupted work, reopening all the cultural, professional, and social organizations that had been closed over the last few years.

 

The Peretz Library

The Peretz Library was the pride of the town, and everyone, regardless to which party they belonged, was involved in its existence. Everyone did whatever was possible to increase the number of books.

At the opening of the Peretz Library, a general meeting was called. These meetings were called once a year and were charged with the task of electing a new administration and review committee. The administration …

[Page 133]

gos133.jpg
The Administration and Review Committee of the Numberg Library in 1933
Seated from right: Lutke Matel, Manja Keller (Zarachyn), Refoel Burak, Shafrin, Ben Zion Morycz
Standing from right: Shmuel Matel, Chana Zajacs, Shalom Keller, Chaim Bresler, Yakov Leyb Pinczewski, Yechiel Meier Keller

 

[Page 134]

… comprised nine members; the review committee had three.

The elections were for budgetary allotments. The administration already had a plan worked out: 65% of the monies went to buy books – 25% for Polish books, 10% for Hebrew books. Still, the cost of Polish books exceeded the number of Yiddish books, because the Yiddish books were much more expensive.

There was peace in the Peretz Library until 1923, when the party conflicts began in town. No doubt, these began to affect the library as well.

Long–standing discussions were of no help. The factions separated, especially since it became clear that Gostynin was too small to have two Jewish libraries.

The Poalei Zion, left and right, joined up with the communists and other groups and began a bitter struggle against the Bundist group.

The Bund pulled out of the Peretz Library, and a few weeks later opened the Medem Library and a reading room in the Bund location on Kutno Street, opposite the gardens [lustgarten].

After a year, the officials of the Peretz Library saw that it was difficult for them to maintain the library, and impossible to buy new books. So peace negotiations began. The Bund conceded to close up the Medem Library and went back to the Peretz Library where the work continued as before. At that time, the library already had a few thousand books, which only increased in number.

When my wife Zisele and I left Gostynin and came to America, I maintained an ongoing correspondence with the comrades and friends of the Peretz Library, and helped them in whatever way possible. In 1933, I received the photographs of the members of the administration and review committee…

[Page 135]

… of the Numberg library. The name Peretz Library had to be changed because the Polish government closed down the Peretz Library.

 

Reopening of the Professional Movement

The professional unions had one central committee where all the trades were represented. Each trade committee took care that the decisions of the business owners should be implemented and that the workers should be union members.

When there were no professional unions in Gostynin, a worker would labor for endless hours a day. School boys or girls, aside from learning the trade, would do all the dirty work for the boss. When the trades were organized, ….

 

gos135.jpg
The “Bund” and “Tzukunft” [“Future”] in Gostynin (1928)
Seated from right: Feivish Lichtenshtajn, Refoel Burak, Shlomo Matel, Chumtche Kaufman, Moshe Morycz, Etke Rok, Yakov Leyb Pinczewski, Yisochar Matel, Lay'tche Makowski, Avrohom Zajacs, Chana Zajacs, Simcha Goldman, Zalman Motelinski, Lipe Pluczer

 

[Page 136]

… an eight–hour workday was established and no one had to do any work other than the work he had learned. When domestic workers organized themselves, a nine–hour day was also instituted and a six–day work week.

That's how the work of the professional union was, where all parties were represented, cooperated peacefully, and everyone understood that the professional movement is not and did not have to be divided into parties.

In 1922, the communists began a struggle to usurp the unions or to destroy them. They came to a union meeting and sat there as if they were not the issue.

Since I was chairman of the union at that time, it was suspicious that everyone without exception suddenly showed up at the meeting. I quickly realized what the communists wanted to do and quickly removed the permit – that was granted by the government – from the table, as well as the rubber stamp with the list of members, and then put it all into my pocket. The communists noticed this and demanded that I put all of it back on the desk. I refused to comply with their demands, so they approached the desk to take the papers with force. But their way was blocked by: Shmuel Wolf Pinczewski, Avrohom Hershel Matel, Shmulik Matel, Shloime Zweighaft, Shimon Reuven Dzenczjol, Eliezer Flajsman, all the Poalei Zionists, and some others who did not allow the communists to approach me. When they couldn't get close, they locked the door and did not permit anyone to leave. Out of fear, many of the girls began to cry and scream. There was a great uproar.

The group that protected me, told me to leave through the window. They were sure that as soon as I would leave, everything would be over, because what those communists wanted was permit, the rubber stamp, and the list of members.

I did what they asked, left through the window, and went home. Things calmed down after that.

[Page 137]

They hadn't counted on such a defeat.

We continued with our work with the professional unions. We didn't bar anyone of the communists, but we kept an eye on their activities. And that's how it went until my wife and I left Gostynin.

 

“The Bund

The Bundist organization was the largest in the city and had a great influence on the Jewish street.

The Bund had a building with a reading room on Kutno Street opposite the gardens. The youth group called Zukunft [Future], a children's group “Skif,” and “Morgenstern,” and a worker's society for physical education.

 

gos137.jpg
The Bund and the Zukunft say farewell to Yisochar Matel
Seated from right: Yisochar Matel, Yakov Leyb Pinczewski, Lipe Pluczer, Zalman Aspe, Avrohom Zajacs, Beila Lewi, Refoel Burak

 

[Page 138]

The person, thanks to whom the Bund was a strong local organization, was Yakov Leyb Pinczewski. He brought a large number of youths to the Bund.

Later, before I left to America, there was a Bundist alderman, and my brother Shloime Matel and Yakov Leyb Pinczewski and Avrohom Zajacs were Bundist councilmen.

The organization continued to win over the youth that was very active. The organization conducted evening courses and education sessions between the Zukunft and the Skif.

Even though I am here in America, I never broke contact with all these friends in Poland.

 

Other Parties

The Poalei Zion was situated on Zhikhlyn Street. In the same location there was a club where one could get a drink and some food. The Poalei Zion also had its own sports organization.

The director of the Poalei Zion was Shmuel Wold Pinczewski.

The Zionists had their organization and did their work for the benefit of the Land of Israel.

Their directors were Yakov Zarchyn, Krysnewski, Tuviah Jakubowycz, Iczik Bresler, Yakov Linderman, Avrohom Dovid Kuczinski, Moshe Morycz, and others.

Other than an organization, the Agudists had their own Bais Yakov school where the teacher was Krisa Shtern, the daughter of Shtern.

The communists became very powerful right after Poland's independence, illegal and insignificant in the later years.

All these parties also undertook timely city activities and general political tasks.

[Page 139]

Election in the City

The party quarrels became more embittered every day. And when the first Polish elections for the Sejm [Polish parliament] and city council approached, it became lively in town.

On the Jewish street, they put out candidate lists: the Bund, Poalei Zion, Zionists, and Agudists. There began a fight with election meetings and anger in each individual group. Every organization brought representatives from the organization's central office in Warsaw to their election meetings.

On the day of election to the city council, the whole town was anxious for the results. Late in the evening, when the votes were counted, it was the Bund that took first place with three candidates. The elected were: Shloime Matel, Yakov Leyb Pinczewski, and Avrohom Zajacs; the Poalei Zion had one candidate: Yehosua Matel; Zionists had one: Moshe Brakman; the Agudists had one: Yakov Lewi.

In general, it was a socialist city council that was elected. Twenty–four councilmen were elected: eleven from the Polish Workers Party (PPS); three from the Bund; one Poalei Zionist; seven from the Christian citizens; one Zionist; one Agudist.

The new city council elected a member from the PPS as mayor. From these three aldermen, one was from the PPS and the other from the Bund.

The first thing that the new council did was to pass a law that all residents of Gostynin that needed wood to heat their homes should get it for free from the city's forests, which Gostynin had in abundance. Very soon, wagonloads of wood were sent to all the poor residents, on the city's account.

The socialist city council passed other liberal laws, such as the decision to build the first workhouse in the city. This house was built at the edge of Dluga Street, …

[Page 140]

… behind the former barracks, where there used to be the elementary government schools.

In general, there was a good mood among the entire democratic voiced population.

 

A Train in Gostynin

In the year 1923, the first train line opened in the city. The line was called Plock Lodz. The train went until Radziejow, and a bridge across the Vistula was to take the train to Plock.

In Gostynin, the train station was behind Epstajn – Beker's sawmills, on the eastern side of the “bachelor's path.” One had access to it via Gombyner Street that was made longer. And that's how Gostynin became a city with a train station.

At the end of April 1928, my wife and I left Gostynin. We left behind a town filled with social activity, a town filled with lively Jews – a typical Jewish town in Poland.

Once there was a town called Gostynin; Gostynin is no longer. A piece of Jewish life was cut off. In the hearts and thoughts of those compatriots who remained alive, the town and her Jews will remain alive forever.

 

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