by Shlomo Gostynski
Translated by Pamela Russ
The Germans, more and more, removed all sorts of grains and life's necessities from Poland, and that which they left behind for the starving people was carefully controlled by the government. People had no food, and this took its toll on the health of the residents in the cities and in the towns, especially on the poor class of the Jewish sector. Everywhere, epidemics raged. Many died as victims of the typhus epidemic. In the large cities, Warsaw, Lodz, the destruction was not as evident as in the smaller towns, where everyone lived as one family. If one died of typhus, the entire town mourned and cried for the victim.
In a town such as our Gostynin, where the typhus epidemic ripped away tens of victims, the destruction was fearfully huge. The town administration and the magistrate had to extend their aid activities. In a house on Dluga Street, the magistrate set up a hospital specifically for typhus patients; on Pobteczne Street, they changed over Yakov Matil's house into a clinic, especially for the Jewish sick.
There was practically no house without a patient. Everyone lived with the thought that he was a candidate to become sick.
In the town, they began to regard the group Linat Hatzedek [aid society]
differently. Before, they used to look at the organization as company for the youth, whose entire job consisted of dressing up on Purim, and having several gatherings a year for their own honor. But in truth, Linat Hatzedek provided great help for the sick. The group would help the poor sick people with money or with medicine. Their greatest assistance was when one of them would come to keep an eye on the sick person throughout the night. That enabled the household, the sick person's family, to rest and then the next day they could continue with their normal
Seated from the right: Yisroel Zelig Kuczinski, Yosef Gonshor, Yitzchok Izak Gerst, Shlome Matil, Henoch Kuczinski,
Bottom: Yakov Sarna, Boruch Meyer Matil
daily life. Now when typhus and dysentery were raging, Linat Hatzedek, under the directorship of my friend Yosel Gonshor, organized and extended its activities.
Gonshor pulled in the volunteer work of young people, who helped out greatly the hard hit families.
I would like to describe the incident with my friend Shmuel Chaim Hode's. He was not a member of the Linat Tzedek, but he nonetheless wanted to help take care of the sick. But he was too young for this work, and no matter how we pleaded with him to take on other work, he remained fixed in his wishes. Tragically, he contracted typhus and he himself died from it.
The relationship between the town and Linat Tzedek changed dramatically. The group became completely respected. Everyone gave their deepest thanks to the tireless deeds of my energetic friend Yosel Gonshor. (In the years of the Holocaust, he and his entire family died in the Warsaw ghetto.)
In the middle of winter 1917, a representative of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee came to Gostynin from Warsaw. He had been working there for a while. I don't know if the representative of the Joint had other things to take care of in Gostynin, but I remember well that his main goal was to find out how many Jews there were in town who would need help for the upcoming Passover, in the traditional campaign of Maos Chitin [donating food for the holidays: matzo, wine, etc.].
At that time, Jewish parties and organizations in Poland were already able to operate legally. Even in towns such as Gostynin, the parties were already all organized, some with more and some with fewer members. The Joint representative began to negotiate with these organized parties, to establish a united committee that should take charge of the assistance campaign. It turns out that in time, the Joint set up an assistance campaign in Gostynin through private individuals, who
distributed Joint monies in a wrong and simply dishonest way. The organizational part of this committee was set by the Joint representative through the Local Council [gemina]. The synagogue supervisor [dozor or gabbai], Noteh Matil, permitted a notice to be posted in the synagogue and the Beis Medrash saying that the first meeting of the party representatives would be held on Monday, in the hall of the Local Council.
On Shabbath and Sunday, the town was on wheels [everyone was all excited and busy]. Every party, every court, tried to present their best delegate to this planned committee in order to earn the prestige of the Gostynin Jewish people.
The chairman of the first meeting in the Council was the Joint representative. The Council was represented by Noteh Matil and Hershel Alberstajn; the delegates from the Zionist organization were Avrohom Dovid Kuczinski and Yekel Linderman; the People's Party, although small in number, also sent two representatives: V. Shafran and Dovid Gliksberg; the Orthodox: Yitzchok Shtern and Shmuel Meyer Bruzdowski; from the Poalei Zion: Dovid Levi and the writer of these lines [Shlomo Gostynski]. The Bund did not send any delegate, because at that time the Bund declined to collaborate on any work with the Council. The Joint representative requested that all those present should sign a declaration that each person was bearing the responsibility for the entire job of the committee. Yitzchok Shtern and Hershel Albershtajn declined to put their signature, but they nonetheless remained on the committee because everyone vouched for their honesty. That's how the representatives of the Gostynin Jewish parties and groups constituted the new assistance committee. It was decided with the Warsaw messenger [the Joint representative] that in order that the Joint should know how much flour for matzo Gostynin would need, the committee should send a detailed list to Warsaw of all their needs.
Three days later, the second meeting of the committee took place at the Rav's. At that time, the Zionists withdrew their representative Avrohom Dovid Kuczinski and instead put up the delegate Tuvia
Jakubowycz, who was more popular with the Jewish residents. Noteh Matil opened the meeting and suggested that they should elect the Rav as the permanent chairman of the committee. I put forward the candidacy of Tuvia Jakubowycz as the representative of the largest party in Gostynin. But Jakubowycz declined in deference to the Rav. The party representatives brought detailed lists of those who needed assistance. But it turned out that the lists were not exhaustive. Yakov Linderman suggested that on Shabbath in shul and in the Beis Medrash, they should let it be known that anyone who needs financial aid should sign up in the Council or with one of the committee members. The suggestion was taken on with an amendment by Dovid Levi, that it should be stated in writing, absolutely stressed, that this is not about charity or about handouts, but it is strictly a gift that our brothers in America sent over, and no one has to be embarrassed to come and give his name and receive his share of the gift.
It's worthwhile to describe a typical incident that occurred at this point, the first of a lineup of later disagreements and difference of opinions in the history of the assistance committee. The representative of the Orthodox, Meyer Bruzdowski, expressed himself in opposition to Yakov Linderman's suggestion, saying that It's not nice that we should show the Council how to write an announcement, and in general, the youth in the committee have to sit and listen, and not want to be the leaders. The dozor, Noteh Matil, interrupted Bruzdowski's speech, and said to him that he does not have to assume the honor of the Council unto himself, and the most important thing was that the assistance activity was not coming from the community and no one will be more worthy than anyone else in front of the committee. Dovid Levy requested that the chairman should underline that all the representatives in the committee, without any age differentiation, have equal rights, and he demanded that Shmuel Meyer Brudzowski pardon himself for his insulting words towards the younger committee members. For the purpose of peace, the chairman tried to diminish the incident; he said that
it did not pay do get insulted if someone jumps out with some words. In the end, everyone wants to do a good thing to distribute the assistance from the Joint honestly. He asked the dozor to get the announcement so that they could send the list to Warsaw the following week. And with that, the meeting adjourned.
Meanwhile, the existence of the committee became known in the city, and of the announcement as well. Many became really excited. Representatives of the committee went from house to house and noted the number of members in each family. It happened that some registered with two or even more committee representatives
Moshe Ziger, Y.M. Krusnewski, Yisroel Meyer Rusak, Efraim Matil, Moshe Matil, Berish Zhikhlinski, Moshe Morycz, Tuvia Jakubowycz, Ben Zion Keller, Yakov Zhikhlinski, M.B. Zandman.
with the hope that they would get a double share of their promised products. Yidel the watercarrier's wife, Potje Minje, a Jewish woman, well known in Gostynin, came to the writer of these lines, with lots of complaints about fairness. How can it be? Where is the wine for the four cups [for the Passover seder]? And meat, fish, and other things? They told her that all these things were under my responsibility, and in a loud voice, she demanded that I give these things to her. There were also incidents of lending out children in order to receive larger portions of flour. This went on not out of dishonesty, but out of great poverty that existed in the town.
There was also a great tumult in the parties. Everyone looked to get monies from the party funds, so they wanted their list of those who needed help for Passover to be longer than that of the other party's. There were really those who put their names on the list not because they needed help, but just to do a favor for a prestigious party man. Factions were set up. Mordechai, Boruch Matil's, who always felt that the Council was adequate, and that We don't need these parties and the youth who want to grab away everything and offer their opinions on everything, played the leading role in the opposition. His main opponent was Chaim Leyb Maskal. He proposed the argument that We've already seen what has happened in the former years, when the wealthy businessmen squandered the community's money and the poor had nothing to eat. They didn't even give them potatoes.
This dispute, as usual in Gostynin, took place in front of Meyer'l Burak's restaurant where the water carriers would meet. The main spokesman was Mendel the water carrier. He well represented his colleagues Beryl, Judel, and Gershon. To this business, would also come Laibe the sand carrier and his son Izak the day-laborer. Mordechai Solmanowycz ran the show. He would deride Mordechai, Boruch's, saying, It won't help him. The youth will win this time, because they're right. With that, Mordechai Solmanowycz
would turn directly to those who were standing around him: What's wrong? Is Tuvia Jakubowycz not good enough for you? And Yekel Linderman does not have enough respectability for you? He needs his aristocracy. One of ours is not good enough for him.
Mordechai, Boruch's Matil, did not hold back with an answer. He would talk about the Local Council as if he himself was a dozor [overseer of the Jewish community], and he would say: Without a doubt, the Local Council would give a Mark for each person in the family. What difference would that make to you? But if they don't want the dozores [overseers] to have any opinions, then they won't give you any money. And since when were the Zionists concerned for the poor? Just give them Palestine and they'll forgive you for everything right away.
In this type of noisy crowd, there was this small person, who would answer to everyone. Speaking was difficult for him. He would stutter and make long pauses between one word and another. But what he said was always relevant to the issue, thought out, and people would hear him out patiently. He possessed the skill of convincing [winning over] even an opponent who would debate with him. In particular, he felt very much at home when the issues were around the poor, unemployed people. His name was Wajnstajn; he was from Lodz. But he felt like a resident in Gostynin. In these verbal disputes, he would not discuss anything directly with Boruch's Mordechai, but would approach the people around him and ask: Since when does the Local Council concern itself with the poor people in Gostynin? At the head of the Council are wealthy people, people who own houses and estates, and they have to represent the paupers who need help? Remember how it went in the earlier years. What did the Council do for the poor the entire year? Do the wealthy in Gostynin worry that the poor can't even buy for themselves, unfortunately, that which the Germans give from their ration cards?
We must have, Wajnstajn would say with great effort on each word, our own representatives who should distribute the help honestly
and according to the numbers in each family. As it says in the Ethics of Our Fathers [Pirkei Avos], If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? Those are the sorts of representatives they should have on their lists. Down with the dependence on the honesty of the wealthy! We must put our hands to the task!
At these words, Wajnstajn would take out a list from his breast pocket and show that there were already a number of families undersigned, and he would ask that the crowd listening there to him should sign the list and write down the number of people in their families. When Gershon the water carrier said that he had already signed the list of Ber Gonshor and Lipa Pluczer, then Wajnstajn would assure him that this was the same list as the worker's party, and Gershon would already worry that his daughter, who was not yet signed up on any list, should sign up on this list with Wajnstajn.
Understandably, the other parties did not sit idly by. They also worked hard to get large number of signatures on their lists. Krisnewski from the Zionists put in huge efforts. His main argument was that with the Zionists, the most prominent, wealthy men of Gostynin are partnered, and therefore, the poor people should only sign up with them. Apparently, the Zionists made the greatest efforts to have the largest number of names. They didn't do their work with any great noise, but discreetly, from person to person. As it later turned out, it seems that the masses were more loyal to the workers' party. The largest number of families had signed up with them, with the guarantee that the workers' party would take care of their interests better than the other party.
The meeting of the committee that took place on the Wednesday after that Shabbath, was from the onset, a stormy one. The party representatives had to put their cards down, showing the number of families who had signed up with them. On the Council's list, there were 25 families; on the workers' party, Poalei Zion, there were 37 families; on the Zionists' party's list there were 22; of the People's party there were 6; and on the Orthodox, there were only 5. Shmuel Brudzowksi, the representative of the Orthodox,
explained that among the religious Jews many were embarrassed to ask for help. In total, the number of people who needed help was about 100 souls, and for a town the size of Gostynin, this was a pretty high percentage. Some of those who had signed up actually did have work, but did not earn enough to live.
Dovid Levi suggested that the committee set up a commission of three members who should bear the responsibility of distributing the money and the flour. Tuvia Jakubowycz ignored the suggestion and put forth the question of who would distribute the money and flour when it arrived in Warsaw? The majority of the committee members expressed that the entire committee should be involved with the distribution of the help. The dozor Noteh Matil remarked that the distribution of money and flour is a time consuming job so that it would be better to designate two people for this task and then they should elect a commission that would supervise the job of those designated. He added that the Council would pay those designated for the task. With a majority of 8 to 3, the dozor's suggestion was accepted. The dozor proposed Feivish Unger as one of those designated, and the other Yitzchok Volf Lomski. No one had any opposition to these two, and the suggestions were accepted.
It was a lot more difficult to elect a supervisory commission. Each party wanted to have their person on the commission. Noteh Matil made a fine gesture. He said that the commission should comprise only three, but that every committee member who would wish to work voluntarily with the commission should be committed to the work. Those elected were: Noteh Matil the dozor, Tuvia Jakubowycz, and Shloime Gostynski.
The Rav, as the chairman of the committee, remarked that the meeting had done an important job, but the committee members shouldn't think that once the commission of three had been selected, they were exempt from any work. But he proposed that the committee as a whole should undertake to do all possible work.
Shafran, of the People's party, put the question to the committee that had a special secretary, of whether the secretary's work would be done by the Council's secretary. The dozor, Noteh Matil, replied that the Council would accept the decision of the majority, and he thinks that the Council secretary is familiar with the work. And the main thing was that there would be no further expenses. In the end, the committee accepted the suggestion of Tuvia Jakubowycz: The committee should select someone to officially record all decisions of the supervisory commission. As candidates for secretary, proposed were Yekel Linderman of the Zionists, and Dovid Levi of the Workers' party. For voting, the representative of the Orthodox, Shmuel Meyer Brudzowski, explained that he did not see what his group still had to do with this committee, since all the work was controlled by the Zionists. In order to avoid arguments, at the suggestion of the Zionists, H. Shafran, the representative of the smaller parties, was elected as the secretary of the committee.
The representative of the Orthodox, at that same meeting, requested that to the list of those who needed, should be added a designated sum for 20 anonymous families. There are he explained many families who don't want to come and ask for help, but they should be given help in the form of Matan Be'seiser [discreet donation]. This suggestion evoked a storm. They boiled and stewed and tossed around arguments and the participants were hot.
The youth just sat. The Council had to listen to voices of the parties. The sharp person left the social arena.
The committee distributed the help, without biases, objectively, and honestly.
The first Joint assistance project in Gostynin not only supported the poor, the impoverished, and the victims of the war, but also cemented and impacted the social life in the town.
by Rose Shoshana
Translated by Pamela Russ
by Rose Shoshana
Translated by Pamela Russ
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.
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.
|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
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
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 .
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.
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, ….
… 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.
As in all the cities and towns in Poland, the Jewish community of Gostynin was also divided into different colors. There were …
… 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 ….
… 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.
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 ….
… 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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