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[Page 108]

Yom Kippur in Gostynin

by Shmuel Keller, New York

Translated by Pamela Russ


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 …


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


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