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[Page 165]

The Princess, Gostynin

by Rose Shoshana

Translated by Pamela Russ

 

gos165.jpg
Rose Shoshana

 

In the holy memory of my mother, Hinda Brawarska-Mozer, who was killed by the Hitler murderers.

My mother was a widow for many years, and did not want to marry a second time. She spent her young years, dark and alone, because she didn't want to give us – her little children, a stepfather.

Only when I was a young girl and chose to marry the publisher Lazar Kahan, may his murderers' blood be avenged, did my mother marry a Gostynin resident. And so she became a Gostyniner, and that's how I became tied to Gostynin.

I fell in love with the beautiful, clean town of Gostynin. I remember until today the lovely and powerful impression the town made on me the first time that I came to Gostynin. The cleanliness of the houses and the streets, the beautifully dressed women – completely different from the other provincial towns. Like a queen's daughter, a princess, is how Gostynin looked in my eyes. And as I would come there more often, I was sure that I had not been wrong, and that my first impressions had been right.

Gostynin was a lot more intelligent than other Jewish towns of the same size that time in Poland.

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Maybe this was because there was a gymnasium and officer school in Gostynin. The city was full of students from the surrounding cities, and even from larger cities. Students came to Gostynin to study in the gymnasium because it was easier to get in there than in other larger cities.

Gostynin actually also earned a livelihood from these students. They were given board, food was cooked for them, and the cooks even had a chance to eat these meals as well.

 

gos166.jpg
From right: Rose Shoshana, her sister Chava Bresler (who was killed), her mother Hinda Mozer from Gostynin, her grandmother Chana Jakobowicz, and her brother Philip

 

I see that large gymnasium on Kutner Sreet, a building that would have been proud to stand on any street in the largest city in Poland. Kutner Street could have told many tales, because it stretched for many streets behind the city where it turned into a highway, covered on both sides by dense trees that hid the deepness of the forest in which the youth loved to stroll.

How romantic and beautiful was the Kutner highway on a Shabbos afternoon when the city's youth …

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… would go for walks. The Gostynin forest could also have told many tales about all the discussions that took place there, and about lucky and unlucky love. We were young, young with emotion, and yet we were hunched over with the yoke of seriousness. The youth of that time, and that includes those of Gostynin, was filled with obligations and responsibilities; they were not as carefree as today's youth.

The strolls on the “mountain of mountains,” the long, black peat fields, the four-cornered trimmed pieces of peat (heating material with which they used to heat the ovens) that were spread out across the fields to dry, accompany me without end when I remember myself in Gostynin.

Now I see them, the temperamental youth, during discussions about the theater and about other problems.

Now I see them the religious Jews, during heated discussions about politics, as they are spread out in a wide row walking after prayers on Shabbos in the wide open market place.

Now I see her, the large, beautiful, proud shul … and I see them, the proud Jews.

I see before my eyes the amateurs from Gostynin who loved the theater more than life, who sacrificed themselves for art, fanatics about Jewish theater ….

Jewish theater was like air for them, like sustenance, without which one could not exist. They worked tirelessly, rehearsed, studied, and performed in the theater. And they performed well! This was the best amateur troupe from all the surrounding areas, and was there anything they did not perform? Everything was from the better literature, such as: Tchirikov's “Jews,” Ansky's “The Dybbuk,” Kobrin's “Yankel Boila,” Ibsen's “Ghosts,” Psibisewski's “Snow,” Sholom Asch's “With the Stream,” and Yakov Gordon's “God, Man, and the Devil.”

And if they only sensed that a professional actor was somewhere in the area, they did everything possible …

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… to ensure that this person would come to perform with them, and he ultimately did.

Actually, once they found out that I was visiting my mother and delegations came right over saying that I had to perform with them. My answer that I was only here for a short time made no difference, and soon they put us all to work.

I see before my eyes Adam Domb, who had a photography studio in Gostynin that served more as a meeting place for the amateurs rather than a place of livelihood.

A customer enters, wants to take pictures, but Domb has no time, he first has to end his discussion with us.

When I performed Pinskin's “Gabri and the Women,” with the Gostynin amateur group, Domb played the male lead roles with me. Later, Adam Domb actually became a professional actor. He left the photography studio that gave him a good livelihood and joined WIKT (Warsaw Jewish Acting Theater), and then later the Vilna acting troupe.
And now I see the provocatively beautiful Pela Sarna, and Zandman and Keller and Yakov Leyb Motel and Shloime Gostinski – all, all of them worked for the performance with all their soul, those on stage and those off the stage.

And Yakov Gostinski, what didn't he do for the benefit of the theater! And all the others whose names I cannot remember who always supported the goal of improving the Jewish theater in Gostynin and in the surrounding areas wherever they went.

Now I see the theater, the firemen's coach house on Gombyner Street not far from the shul, a guardhouse, very primitive, but the beloved Jews would flow there in masses to the Yiddish performances.

When I came for a second time to visit Gostynin, and at that time there was also the famous singer and performer Yakov Kelter, well, would the stubborn Gostynin amateurs miss an opportunity like that? They got both of us, and to deny them, these beloved Gostyniners, was impossible … so we performed in several one-act plays (understandably without honorarium). Again, they were exceptional both in their acting and in their commitment and love for this project.

And now I see before me the beloved Chana Bagno, Shmuel Keller, and others in Mark Ornstein's “The Eternal Song,” and in Peretz's “After the Burial” that we performed at that time.

And this youth was not only busy with activities of the theater, but they were also busy with other cultural activities and projects.

I remember well the warmth of the Gostynin Jews also towards the Polish speakers. The Jews respectfully attended the speeches that were brought from Warsaw and Lodz. My husband as well, the deceased publisher Lazar Kahan, was among those who came to Gostynin with a presentation. How hungry they were for worldly knowledge, they swallowed ideas of Strindberg and his views about which my husband spoke.

Only memories remain ….


[Page 170]

Gostyniner Jews

by Yitzhak Zandman (Israel)

Translated by Pamela Russ

Sometimes one thinks that there was no yesterday at all. You never had any parents, no brothers or sisters, no wife and children, no friends and acquaintances – you think that you were born from a stone…

Here I am going back and stepping on Gostynin ground. I am taken over by a chill, by a shudder. No one is left. The murderers eliminated everyone. And a longing takes over you for what once was. You see the people, the shops, the houses, the homes, and you want to eternalize each voice, each nuance. The cheerful laughter of children greet me, a father's worry as he admonishes his children with love, the tender whispers of a loving couple; I would eternalize the groaning of an invalid, the cries of the unfortunates, the rhythmic melody of those studying a page of gemara or a chapter of Tanach.

****

It's the year 1946, after my return to Gostynin. No one – I meet no one. And my ear catches no Jewish sound, does not pick up any familiar voice.

There is the train station – the appearance is the same as it was. The railroad street did not change either. But on Gombyner Street I immediately see the gruesome changes. There is no trace of Jewish life in Gostynin. The Beis Medrash, the small shul, erased – there is no shul, the Rav's house, the municipal office, the ritual baths.

I go around, deep in my thoughts and mourn over the gruesome destruction. Here was our Beis Medrash.

[Page 171]

The Beis Medrash

A large wooden building with big windows looked out onto Gombyner Street. Inside, long tables were set out with even longer benches, and opposite that, there was a bookcase on the wall filled with religious books (seforim). The podium stood at the eastern wall – and several steps up directed you to the Holy Ark. Right in the middle of the Beis Medrash you could see the table used for the people [who had been called up to the reading of the Torah]. On both sides there were steps for those people going up and for those going down. At that table, they honored many congregants who had been called up to the Torah reading. In that same place, the Rav delivered his Rosh Hashona sermons just before the blowing of the shofar and then on Shabbos Tshuva [the Shabbos between Rosh Hashona and Yom Kippur]. From that same table, other rabbinic speakers that were passing through penetrated the hearts of the Beis Medrash Jews with their sharp words as they called the congregants to repentance. From that same place, there were also speeches about the rebirth of Zionism. Also from there were the protests against the world for the Jewish problems and pains, as well as eulogies for scholarly, true sages of Torah.

The uncrowned (?) manager of the Beis Medrash was Michel Ber (Pluczer) the beadle (shamash). He was a little taller than average, and had a long, white beard. His eyes were hung over by dense, pitch-black eyebrows. He opened and locked up the Beis Medrash. On his order – after a bang on the podium – they began the prayers. At the call of the shamash – again after a bang on the podium – the Baal Tefila (one who led the prayers) began and allowed his voice to be heard. The shamash called individuals up to the Torah reading, and took care of the pledges as well.

In spite of his harsh glare, that sometimes threw fear onto the children, he really had a mild character, played with the children, and told them enjoyable stories. Not once did he remind me that thanks to him I was made a Jew in the right time, on the eighth day after birth. And he told me all the details about this: I was born a weak and thin soul. “Experienced men” said that the circumcision (bris) should wait until I had more strength. But Michel Ber, the shamash, of blessed memory, ….

[Page 172]

… gave out the order: “Go ahead and cut! He will be a young man with strong bones …” And that's exactly how it was.

Outside, on the street, through the walls of the Beis Medrash, one could hear the gemara melody of the young boys who were learning, even though in the later years they were small in number. But there were always students who made sure that the voice of learning Torah would be heard.

Directly opposite the entrance of the Beis Medrash was the Rav's home. The first room in this house served as the room for the Jewish court.

Reb Yitzchok Meyer Borenstajn, of blessed memory, was the last Rav of Gostynin. He was of average size, a little bit full, with a handsome dark, wide beard peppered with silver hair. When walking in the street, he would carry a dark brown cane with a metal white handle.

In the shul courtyard, when this Rav eulogized the deceased, he tore apart the hearts of the mourning Jews, with tears pouring down everyone's faces. On the Days of Awe, when the Rav led the prayers, the hearts of the congregants were very moved.

His sons, Moshe Mordechai and Gedalia, accompanied him during prayers like a choir. Gedalia had definite musical skill. Moshe Mordechai did not remain in Gostynin, but he tried to live his life in the larger cities.

The Rav's daughters, Chana and Gittel, were both brunettes and very charming. One married Falek Landberg, the editorial official of the Poalei Agudas Yisroel organization and one of its main people. The Rav's daughters would elicit a sigh of longing from the pious young men who were in the chassidim room that was part of the Rav's house. The daughters' singing and laughing often mingled with the melodies of those who were learning.

 

The Shtiebel

As in all the cities and towns in Poland, the Jewish community of Gostynin was also divided into different colors. There were …

[Page 173]

… separate groups of the Agudah individuals, Poalei Agudah, and even the more extreme religious people. We had Zionists of all kinds. There were Bundists, Folkists, and even Communists. There was also not a shortage of assimilated Jews and regular Jews from the whole year. But the difficult challenges of the Jews united them all. The various decrees from the Polish government hurt everyone, and danger hung over everyone's head, regardless of what type of Jew he was.

The shtiebel was the natural haven for the Chassidic circles. A large majority of them supported the religious party of the Agudas Yisroel. Among the Chassidim were also followers of the Mizrachi movement. A portion of the youth were discreet sympathizers of the radical socialist movement. In the shtiebel, all were Chassidim, and all prayed in the same manner – but they weren't all united when it came to traveling to see the Rebbe. Each group glorified its own Rebbe whom they would visit to seek counsel or ask for a blessing. Before God, these Jews were all of one camp. In the shtiebel, Gerer and Alexander Chassidim prayed together, as did Sochatchover, Skernewyczer, Strykower, and Ostrowczer.

On Shabbos morning, the Gerer Chassidim prayed in two quorums: one at 7:30 AM and the other at 10:00AM.

The entrance to the shtiebel was at the front of the house where there was a cement floor. In this foyer of the house there was a door on the right side that opened into the Beis Medrash, and the door on the left led to the Rav's house.

Right at the entrance of the shtiebel there was a ladder. One could climb up the ladder to sneak up to the attic.

As you entered the shtiebel, on the right side stood a large barrel with water for hand washing, along with a long, hanging towel that was always wet from drying hands. Near the barrel was a small cup in which dirty water collected as people rinsed their hands. Each person washed his hands six times (three times on each hand), bending the body to the right then to the left over the barrel – just to be able to get some water out of it. Most of the water ….

[Page 174]

… was spilled directly over the wooden floor. If I'm not mistaken, in later years, the barrel was replaced with a sink.

Along the wall to the right of the barrel, there was a long table and benches. The table was used by the congregants for putting down their daily prayer books, their chumashim (printed Torah books), and their holiday prayer books. They also put their tallis and tefillin bags there. On this same side, the majority of those who prayed there were the “cold” Chassidim. These Chassidim also traveled to see the Rebbe, but not very often. They did not join in the joyous dancing nor did they participate in the Chassidic gatherings. One of these Chassidim was Reb Leibish Bender, the grain merchant, a short and stout Jew with a straight beard. His four sons were: Fishel, Yossel, Yakov, and Simcha. He also had several daughters. Simcha, the youngest son, became a scholar in his later years.

The wealthy man in the shtiebel was Reb Meyer Brustowski, a handsome Jew with a superbly long, silvered beard. He was one who led the prayers. When he stood before the pulpit leading the prayers, everyone felt as if it was a holiday. His three sons were: Yankel, Yechiel Moshe, and Leybish. He also had four daughters. Reb Yankel Brustowski, also one who led prayers, merited to die a natural death when times were still good.

One should also remember Reb Mendel Vajngarten, an elderly Jew, a Chassid, who would study together with Yissoschar Pinczewski, was a scholar of mishnayos, and also studied the Zohar (a book of Kabbalah, mysticism).

One of the most prominent figures in the shtiebel was Reb Avrohom Mordechai Cohen, a wealthy man with a wide, white beard and with a large wart near his eye. He was already in his eighties but he still held his regular position as the leader of the prayers. On the Days of Awe, he led the morning prayers and on Yom Kippur he even led the mincha (early evening) prayers. When he banged on the podium for attention, the walls actually trembled.

And now, Reb Avrohom Yitzchok the dye maker. He was a small, thin Jew, but he was the best swimmer in the entire region. He would wade across the mouth of the lake standing up, eating a meal while going one way.

[Page 175]

Then there was Reb Avrohom Meyer Flajshman, the teacher of young children in the Talmud Torah. Hundreds of children went through his hands, as he instructed each of them in the alef bais. He was known in the shtiebel for his deep sighing during the prayers of “The song of ascents, I call to You God from the depths…” said during the Days of Awe. His deep sighing was heard from under his talis which covered his head. This was a sign that one had to recite this particular prayer with great earnest.

There was another teacher that was well-known in the town, Reb Avrohom Yitzchok Holczman, a short man with a dark brown, little beard. He was considered a great scholar. He studied gemara and its commentaries (tosefos and poskim) with the young men. When he studied the books of the Torah, particularly the Book of Isaiah, all his limbs trembled. Many students were gripped by fear when this teacher became angry and admonished the students severely with: “Oy, you sinning goy!”

Let us remember a whole line of pious, devout Chassidim: There is Reb Shmuel Hersh Fajnzilber and his sons Yisroel Yitzchok and Yoshe; Reb Yisroel Dovid Alberstajn the alderman of Agudas Yisroel, and Reb Yankel Lewi the councilman of the same organization. And there is also Reb Yishai Princz and Reb Chaim Domb. Reb Sholom Alberstajn – a great grandson of the Gostynin Rebbe. Reb Sholom would never leave the shtiebel before having completed his reading of the entire Book of Psalms (tehilim). Reb Yakov Lomzer, the one who read the Torah, and Reb Elchonon Placzman, a charming, pious leader of prayers. And there was also Reb Efraim Yitzchok Rotenbach, an intense Chassid, he was able to learn well, had a sharp mind – he was also called “Grinboim.” He was the synagogue councilman for the district. He went to the Rebbe for Rosh Hashona and Yom Kippur and then for Shavuos as well. If anyone criticized him for going to the Rebbe and leaving his wife who had just given birth, he gave this answer one Friday night before the Shabbos prayers. He banged on the podium and said in these words: “When a person becomes dangerously ill, and they have to operate immediately, would it occur to anyone to say that the sick person should refuse to have the operation? And what if it is someone in his family who is sick, God forbid? No. I, friends and rabbis, am sick in my ….

[Page 176]

… soul. When the Days of Awe approach, I feel that I must have an urgent operation on my soul – Do I have to forego this and God forbid, die from this?…”

Let us end with Reb Shmuel (Shmelke) Zarkowski, the fiery Chassid, and Reb Berl Zonshajn. For a time, the community representatives were Reb Motel Hobergricz, the leader of the mussaf prayers on Rosh Hashona and Yom Kippur, and Reb Yakov Aryeh Zundman, the one who blew the shofar.

***

Every city had its Jews. Gostynin was no exception. We loved Gostynin, because there were Jews there. These very Jews left their imprint on the town. And without these very Jews Gostynin would not have been Gostynin. They are no longer here. Gostynin is standing, but Gostynin is without Jews. My city is no longer, it is not the same Gostynin.

 

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