The Rav Hagaon Reb Avigdor Bialistotsky saw the danger lurking over the Jewish population of Yedwabne. He sent Kadish the Shamas to Reb Yona Rothchild to arrange that they two meet at a specified time in the priest's office. Reb Yona arrived in time for the consultation, only to see the Rabbi go alone into the priest's office, leaving Reb Yona standing in the waiting-room. It took only minutes and the Rabbi came out looking depressed, pale and completely lost. The priest had told the Rabbi that peace depended not on him, but on the police.
Reb Yona, as a member of the city council, also had close connections with the priest and many influential people in the area. He was an ironmonger. And in every form of construction there was a great need for steel and iron, which, the Christians found, only Reb Yona was able to supply. The new church was then in construction and certain types of the metals were difficult to obtain. However, with his years of experience in this business, and his numerous contacts with large suppliers, Reb Yona was able to satisfy all requirements for the church, and at very reasonable prices. Therefore Reb Yona marshalled his courage and entered the priest's office. He was told immediately, "I know why you are here, but there is nothing I can do." Reb Yona asked : "Do you want me to be murdered with the iron I obtained for you ?" "G-d forbid, No!" the priest replied. And he continued, "I beg you earnestly not to reveal to a soul what I am about to do. I will not permit Lupiansky's body to he in the church, and without any type of procession he will be immediately intered. I beg, Reb Yona, that during the time of the burial, not one Jew appear on the street. Also, during the approaching days of Easter, no Jews are to be seen. At the cementery, the priest gave a sermon, and with tears in his eyes, begged the Gentiles not to make a pogrom and not to spill innocent blood. And the chief of police, Bieletsky, who was a friend of the Jews, asked of Reb Yona that Michel Karopatveh the drayman (trucker) be elsewhere during the time of the burial. Reb Yona convinced Michel Karopatveh not to use his horse and wagon though no explanations were given.
A few weeks later, the priest met Reb Yona in the street and drew a small piece of paper from the depths of his long black robe and handed it to his friend. Reb Yona waited till he was alone before reading what was in the note. He learned that the priest had helped avoid another danger. A group of hooligans came to the priest to get his permission to have a little "fun" with the Jews during the fair. He sent them to Koslovsky the cafe owner, with instructions that they be fed, at the priest's expense, all they could eat. That they be given no strong drinks, and that they then be dispatched immediately to wherever they came from.
One fine day there arrived a state inspector from Bialystok. He had received a complaint that Yona Rothchild had bribed the police. It seemed that the anti-Semitic Endekes looked upon the honorable chief of police Bieletsky as a traitor since he permitted no pogrom against the Jews. What's more, he dispatched two policemen to maintain the peace at night, whereas the former police head had permitted only one. Reb Yona proved to the inspector that he had absolutely no ties with the police. As a matter of fact Reb Yona always managed to have other people talk with the chief in his stead.
One day, Police Chief Bieletsky came to Reb Yona with the news that he was being transferred to another city, but that he would rather remain in Yedwabne. On hearing this Reb Yona took action. The governor was expected, and when he arrived, Reb Yona was one of the first visitors. Directly and to the point he asked the official. "Would you want a pogrom against the Jews of Yedwabne, and, heaven forbid, the slaughter of many innocents ?" The governor immediately replied that he was no anti-semite and would not permit such occurrences. Reb Yona then informed him that if the police chief Bieletsky was transferred out of Yedwabne, its Jews would be left at the mercy of the anti-semites. The governor agreed that Police Chief Bieletsky remain in Yedwabne.
After Purim in 1935, Reb Yona Rothchild decided to leave Yedwabne and make his way to Israel. Harav Reb Avigdor Bialistotsky wished to influence Reb Yona to remain and pointed out that the Rav's son-in-law had been to Israel and had returned. However Reb Yona's many Christian friends advised that he leave and the quicker the better, before it was too late. There were already many accusations being spread against him because of his close relationship with the priest and the chief of police. He and his wife left all their wordly possessions and hurriedly left Yedwabne. In this manner did Reb Yona and his wife escape from certain death and settled in Israel.
My beloved Tanteh Soreh (Mrs. Sarah Brickman Gursky), Father's youngest sister, who was more than a sister-in-law to Mother; and to cousin Rochel (Mrs. Rose Shaber Brooks), daughter of my Onkel Vigdor Velvel, who was very close to Mother.
And to the memory of Mother and Father ; and of the members of both families for three generations, each of whom expressed affection, admiration, and appreciation of Mother, also to the Memory of my beloved Brother Murray (Moshe).
Note on Transliteration: The English transliteration of Yiddish, Hebrew-Yiddish, and Hebrew words and expressions is a reproduction of the actual pronunciation as I heard it, and does not follow the YIVO or any other system. I hope I will be pardoned for any inconsistencies in spelling.
One of the first words I learned as a beginner in speech during my very early childhood was lantsleit. The European townspeople who emigrated to America kept in close touch with each other. Sometime later I was able to distinguish lantsman from lantsfroi. These people were very important to my parents-and hence to me. It was not always clear to me if a lantsman was a cousin or not. In my childish experience, all of them were good people, whether related or not. At times, I would hear the words shifbruder and shifshvester, which testified to the continuing contacts among persons who shared the harrowing experience of crossing the Atlantic.
It was hard for the lantsleit to believe that I was a native of the New World, the first American male in my fanily on both sides. My daily speech was Yiddish, with some additions from the Hebrew, Polish, German, and Russian vocabulary, derived from my parents. Mother, in particular, was competent in these languages. My English I picked up in a fragmentary fashion in the street, and my first real knowledge of the language came when I was enrolled at the age of five in the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School.
I was born on June 30, 1913, in a tenement house located at 200 Eldridge Street, between Rivington and Stanton Streets. The surrounding segment of New York's Lower East Side was Rumanian territory. I suppose there was no apartment available that was closer to the relatives and lantsleit. We did not stay very long in this alien environment.
My parents were married in January, 1905, in Yedwabne, Lomzer Guberni, in North Russian Poland. This little shtetl was near the German border. My father, Sholem Dovid, was born in Friedrichsdorf (now Rosogi, Poland) on the German side, but lived at the time in Polish Mishnitz, also in Lomzer Guberni, not far from Yedwabne. My mother, Chayeh Soreh, was the youngest of six children born to Zvi (Hershel) and Maryasheh Shaber: Zelda, Vigdor VelVel, Chana Itke (Chanitke), Chaim Socher, and Beinush. The first product of my parents' marriage, Yitzchok Zorach, who was named after his great-grandfathers, only lived a year. I was named, if I recall correctly, after my mother's grandfather. Some of our relatives initially ridiculed the naming of myself after a "shmeiser", an assistant to a baal-agoleh (horse-and-wagon driver or carter, in traditional English). Apparently, they connected my ancestral past with my occupational future. My parents, of course, resisted the innuendo. No one mentioned the social slur a second time after being countered by my mother's wit.
It is a well-known fact that vital records were scarce, if at all in actual existence, "in der alter haym", the old country. In the absence of such records and of precise Oral History, I must rely on my birth certificate for some of the data about my parents. My date and place of birth are accurate, but there are some errors : My father (1883-1942) was born in Germany, not Russia, and the maiden name of my mother (1884-1956) was Shaber, not Krieger. These errors were doubtless due to the faulty memory of Dr. Isador C. Rubin (1883-1958), a famous gynecologist, a second cousin of my father who served the family for a time as obstetrician. The Rubin Pregnancy Test was devised by him. Earlier in life, he and my father were fellow-students in the Lomzer Yeshivah.
Upon coming to America, around 1908, my father learned and practiced the trade of "arbeter bei klucks" (tailor of women's coats). He continued to study in his spare time and tried to inspire me to become a "Rov" (Orthodox Rabbi). The more modem and "enlightened" members of his family were saying openly that they would like to see me become a "Rabbiner" or "Rabbai", that is a Conservative. Neither side prevailed.
My mother received a good traditional Jewish upbringing and was well versed in the "Korben-Mincheh Sidder", "Taitsch-Chumesh" "Techineh" and "Tsena -Urena". In addition, she attended secular school in the shtetl and was at home in Hebrew, Yiddish, Polish, Russian, German, and several other' subjects. She was independent in thought, expression, and action, and never suffered fools or rogues gladly. My sister Zeldeh Rochel (Zelda( recalls hearing from an older relative that my mother marched along with the Suffragettes in New York, I remember her as a "Zogerke" in the synagouge: she read the sacred prayer books aloud and was always surrounded by at least six women who were unable to read. One of her stories was about a Zogerke who pronounced "Umalochim yechofezun", a passage in the High Holy day ritual, and from the third row behind her came the repetition "myn man geit mit zerisene heizen". It was never clear to me whether she recounted an imaginary incident or a personal experience.
The traditional term "Yedwabner Kricher" crawler, could never be applied to my mother. She was always active and punctual, traits which my brother Maisheh (Murray) and my sister shared with me. Since I was her first-born in the new country, she spent the maximum possible amount of time with me before the arrival of my brother. It was then that I learned the fundamental facts of her shtetl, and these were reinforced by repetition all through her lifetime.
I learned that Yedwabne was not exactly a shtetl, but rather a tiny shtetele. It was as large, she emphasized, as "Tal u-moter in a klayn sidderl" (a two-word expression, "dew and rain in a little-little prayer book") - a triple diminutive. I had a clear notion of the geography of Yedwabne, especially the locations of the "Bod-gass' (bathhouse street) and the Tifleh (church). Yedwabne was so narrow that a horse-and-wagon could not make a U-turn, but had to back up. By 1979, Yedwabne had grown considerably.
The noted personalities were familiar to me: "Der Rov" (the Rabbi), Feivel der Shammes. (factotum of the synagogue). Tsallel der Beker Baker and others. Among the non-Jews, I was aware of the existence of the "Nachalnik" (Mayor), the "Kshontz" (Catholic priest), and "di Babke fun der Tifleh" (the old woman at the church).
Social and communal organization and other activities were communicated to me constantly. I learned about the "cheyder" (elementary Jewish school), the synagogues, of the various occupational specialties (e.g., Chevreh Shuster, Chevreh Shnyder), and other elements of shtetl society. The fact that my grandfather. Hershele Shaber, a "baal-agoleh" by occupation, owned a house made my mother eligible to attend the village shkole, where she mastered the basic curriculum. Der Zaydeh Hershel (Grandfather Hershel) was a man of resourcefulness. When Cossacks entered Yedwabne, he hid the womenfolk and loaded the soldiers with liquor. Moreover, he was a man of practical humor, a characteristic he passed on to his children (particularly my mother). When my mother, the muzhinke (youngest child), did not comprehend the meaning of the proverb, "Er shynt vi a shmit fartog" (he is as radiant as a blacksmith before daybreak), he determined to make it clear by the audio-visual method. In the wee hours of the night, he hitched his wagon and took my mother along to a nearby shtetl. He stopped by a house and rapped sharply on the door. Out came Reb Yankel der Shmit in anger. He demanded to know why Reb Hershel aroused him. "I merely want to show my daughter how radiant a blacksmith is early in the morning". My mother never quoted to me what Reb Yankel replied. On the roads near Yedwabne, I saw the same kind of boat-shaped wagon driven by my Zaideh.
I must record another example of Zaideh Hershel's humor. Once he demonstrated to my mother that an ordinary Poyer (peasant) knew Hebrew. Upon Zaideh's request to pronounce "kometz tzaddick", the Pole replied "Tzaw ?" (Polish for what ?).
As a youngster, my imagination was stimulated by my mother's description of the ceremony of the benediction of the Tsar and the imperial family in the synagogue. A high officer in full Russian army regalia marched with his staff into the shul and stood at attention. The Rov recited the "Ha-nosen tshua la-mloshim" (He who gives salvation unto kings), after which the military men marched out. Moreover, there were occasions when the Russians played the "Bozhitsa" imperial anthem in the shul. At no time did anyone jest about the blessing for the Tsar as in "Fiddler on the Roof". It was rather difficult for me, before I learned European history, to reconcile this practice with the singing of revolutionary songs in the shtetl. These evidences of opposition to the Russian regime were in Russian, Polish, Yiddish, and multilingual combinations. Thus, I learned the words and music of "Oy vay, doloi politsei" (down with the police)", "Tzar Nikolai", "Davolno braty" (enough brothers ... to the barricades) and the like. Apart from picking up these songs, I also mastered the Russian names of the imperial family in chronological order, just as my mother did in the shkole. In this connection, I understood the meaning of "Krenatsiya" (coronation) and the accompanying "illuminatsiya". Never did my mother refer to the Tsar as Nikolai, but always a "Nikolaiki--yemach shmo v'zichro zoll er veren" (may his name and remembrance be blotted out) *. Russia remained for her "Fonyeh Ganef" (the crook Ivan). By way of contrast, she would always mention with the utmost respect Emperor Francis Joseph of Austria-Hungary ("Efroyim Yosel" - a term of endearment for a friend of the Jews). Parenthetically, I wish to emphasize that not only did I learn political songs, but also Russian, Polish, Yiddish, and German folk songs. I was particularly fond of the Yiddish opera "Shulamis", by Abraham Goldfaden. At one time I must have known all the arias and choruses. My mother heard this opera when travelling troupes came to Yedwabne.
Like my father, my mother was a very pious person who was deeply concerned about behavior toward G-d and toward human beings. I seldom heard her mention "G-tt," except in the prayers. She generally used the terms "G-ttinyu," "Der Eibershter," or "Ha-Shem." When she feared that she was becoming too critical of someone, she would explain, "Der Eibershter zol mir nit shtrofen far di raid" (G-d should not punish me for my words). What impressed me most was when she referred to Him as "Dem vos ich bin nisht vert onzurufen bym nomen" (the One whose name I am unworthy to pronounce). One way of bringing home to me the need to avoid scattering of "chometz" (leaven) during the weeks prior to Paisach was to inform me that, "in der helm," the family cat's paws were covered with cloth immediately after Purim. These lessons, and others, were necessary, because I was "Velvele mazik" (Destructive Billy) to her and other adults.
My mother's speech often included Biblical phrases, either in the original or as part of a pun or other expression. Thus, she stressed industriousness and honesty by saying "yegiah coppi, nisht yegiah choppi." The reference is to Jacob's assertion to Laban that he gained his wealth by "the labor of my hands" (Genesis, 31:42). "Yegiah choppi," a bilingual pun, can be translated as "the labor of stealing." When someone distorted a Biblical meaning or the significance of a Jewish tradition or law, she would remark, "Rashi iz nit meshuggeh; der vos lerent em falsh iz meshuggeh" (Rashi, the popular medieval Biblical commentator, is not crazy; the one who misinterprets him is crazy."
Coming back to my mother's reminiscences of Yedwabne, I recall being deeply touched by her account of how the village escaped a pogrom that was planned for the Easter season. I cannot remember all the details, but the major events cannot be forgotten. As the rumors of a pogrom grew, word was communicated to the "polkovnik" (colonel) of the Russian army unit near the frontier. The colonel and his troops came into the shtetl and ordered all the inhabitants to assemble in the center. Aware of the Polish nationalist sentiment of the Christians, he told them: "You say nasa Polska (our Poland), then vasa Polska (your Poland) -, "nasa gura (our mountain), then vasa gura (your mountain) - but no pogroms!" This may have been an isolated incident, but it made a lasting impression upon me.
Another unforgettable story, but of another sort, concerned the famed Dr. Katzenellenbogen of Bialystok, to whom my mother would go from time to time. A professed non-believer, he insisted that he adhered only to the doctrine of "Tchias ha-meisim" (resurrection of the dead). His justification for this seeming contradiction was as follows : a Jew who eats a full Sabbath meal of "chont" (usually spelled "cholent") and other dishes, drinks abundant wine and liquor, sleeps for several hours, and then awakens - that is proof of "Tchias ha-meisim." I teamed many things, in several languages, about the "alter haym," from my mother. First of all, I became acquainted with the various villages of Lomzer guberni and of more distant places, especially health resorts visited by my mother. Seldom did I learn family names of Yedwabner lantsleit. These were identified by their parental or grandparental names, e.g., Beril Lozers or Yankel Leibel Chinkes.
Incidentally, I remember my paternal grandfather as Avremel Zorachs. Only as I got older, did I identify the family name of my mother's first cousin Bryna Rochel as Bermowitz, and that of Chayele, sister of my Uncle Avrom (Brownstein - husband of my mother's sister Chanitke), as Bukofsky.
One village character comes to mind. Whenever one of us children took up too much space, my mother would say, "Er zeshprayt zich ois azai vi Motel Chostovsky's tochter" (he spreads himself as Motel Chostovsky's daughter). We corrected ourselves at once. A variation of this statement was "Er hot zich zeshprayt vi bym taten in vyngorten" (he spreads himself as if he were in his father's vineyard).
I must have heard my mother's stories and expressions many times. The repetitions, whether to me or to the younger children, were always welcome, never boring.
As mentioned previously, my vocabulary then - and now - has been full of Central and East European linguistic terms acquired mainly from my mother. To this day, I use the word "Zavyerucha" for blizzard. When my father was about to punish me for a childish prang or misdeed my mother would exclaim, "nerus go," which I took to be the Polish for "Go easy with him." But my father also had other means of reproof. Whenever my Teaming zeal lapsed, he threatened to make me an apprentice to Simcha der Shuster, the shoemaker's trade apparently being the lowest in the social scale. It did not take me long to infer that "nye gada" exchanged by my parents meant "say nothing." One of the Russian expressions I learned from my mother was "skazeno sdyeleno" (no sooner said than done).
My mother's unparalleled sense of humor expressed itself in rhymes, bilingual puns, and stories. It was not necessary for me to search my memory for the samples that I will cite. Some of the sayings may be Yiddish proverbs, while others may be peculiar to Yedwabne. However, I am certain that she was linguistically creative. Within the confines of the intimate family, her expressions sometimes took on a quality of earthiness. These, if quoted, will not represent her exact language.
To my mother, a fool was at about the bottom rung in the social ladder. He was to be laughed at, but also to be pitied. "Az a nar geit in krom, freien zich di sochrim" (when a fool enters a store, the merchants rejoice). "Er shteit vi a nar oif a chasuneh" (he stands as a fool at a wedding). "Fun a nar hot men tsar" (from a fool we have sorrow). "Zy nit kein nar, vet men fun der nit lachen" (don't be a fool, and no one will laugh at you). In the bathhouse, someone yelled, "Naronim fun bod gayt arois" (fools, leave the bathhouse). There followed silence, but one voice, doubtless that of a nar, called out plaintively, "Myn ditkeh iz aych a ditkeh" (I also paid my three-kopek piece). But a fool might at times have the last laugh : "Az a nar varft a shtein in vaser, kenen tsen kluge es nit aroisnemen" (when a fool throws a stone into a body of water, ten wise persons cannot retrieve it). When she applied the term narele" (little fool) to me, in was mild reproof combined with affection.
Let me list miscellaneous expressions frequently used by Mother. When she wanted to be especially specific, she would embellish the Biblical paraphrase: "B'Rochel bitchoh ha-ktaneh - un Laya di groysse" (Rachel, your younger daughter - and Leah the elder), referring to Rashi's famous interpretation of Jacob's vain effort at ensuring that he marry Rachel. She would frequently give advice to us youngsters : "Fang zich on mit a besseren fun dir, aider mit an ergeren" (if you must start an argument with someone, do so with someone who is better, not worse, than you are) ; "az men git gelt, gai nit, men vet dir nit geben - az men git klep, gai tsu un du vest aych krigen" (don't go where money is distributed, since you won't get any - but should you go where blows are administered, you will get your share). We should keep away from anyone who is "off his rocker" : "A meshuggener varft zich nisht a shteyn in kop, nor yenem" (a madman does not throw a stone at his own head, but at someone else's). We were advised not to criticize others when we might be equally vulnerable : "Az men hot kinder in di viggen, zoll men lozen lyteh tsfriden" (one who has children of his own should not point out the misbehavior of other person's offspring). An overabundance of activities evoked, "Ven iz dem dzhad a klog, az er hot tsway yeriden in ayn tog" (an old man mourns when he has two fairs in one day).
Critical comments came easily to my mother. A wedding or Bar-Mitzvah meal that offered something less than a "prepared table" she characterized as follows : "Fish un flaysh ayin lo roassa, tish un benk azay vi holtz" (no one ever saw fish and meat, but tables and benches were as abundant as wood). No matter how appropriate the translation - and I do not claim that mine is by any means the best the English somehow never quite catches the full flavor of the Yiddish expression. My mother's attitude toward an individual who ranked a notch or two above that of a "nar" was shown in the phraseology: "Mit zyn saychel un myn gelt ken men foren kayn Amerika" (with his intelligence and my money one can sail to America).
In a variation of this thought, Mother would say, "Mit syn saychel ken men foren in Leipzig handlen" (with his intelligence, he can travel to do business at the Leipzig fair). Concerning parents, she would sometimes remark, "Der tateh iz getry, di mameh derbye" (the father is devoted when the mother is nearby). Immigrants whose practice of Jewish law in America did not watch their standard in the Old Country would be characterized as follows : "In der haym, az er hot gehaysen Mendel, hot men gemegt essen fun zyn fendel; in Amerikeh, az men ruft em Max, meg men by em nor essen lox" (in Europe, where he was known by the Jewish name of Mendel, one could eat everything at his home; in America, with the non-Jewish name of Max, one can eat only smoked salmon).
Yet, she was frequently capable of good will and reverence, e.g, "Zollst leben biz hundert un tsvantsik yor on a potshinkeh, un dan bet men G-t oif veiter" (may you live to be 120 years old without troubles, and then request G-d for an extension) ; "avu es shteit a bal tshuveh ken a bal tfileh nit shteien" (where a repentant stands, a cantor cannot - actually untranslatable, but explainable in several sentences). And speaking of untranslatability, I threw up my hands at "riba fish un gelt afn tish" (rib from Polish ryba, a fish). The translation of the words is easy, but the meaning is elusive. By the way, there is another rhyming line to this in Polish, but I had better not quote it.
Typical of my mother's sayings was the proverb, based on her own experience, that the patient know more about his malady than the physician: "Men fregt nit dem rayfe; men fregt dem chayleh." I have recently heard a distinguished doctor of medicine say the same thing with a less direct vocabulary.
Notwithstanding the illness from which she suffered perennially, my mother led a life of levity at home and enlivened meetings with relatives, lantsleit, and neighbors. When we children demanded story after story, she would consent with a condition: "Ir vet shveigen ?" (Will you be silent)). We hurriedly promised. "Vel ich oich shveigen" (then I will also be silent), was her reply. Whenever I inquired whether I would eat bread and thus be required to wash my hands ritually, the following dialogue inevitably took place: "Mameh, zoll ich vashen?" "Du bist azoi oich shein" (You are handsome even if unwashed).
I must relate a frequently told tale by my mother. It seems that, "in der alter haym," a young bridegroom had conscientious objections about participating in the traditional wedding ritual. As a modern, enlightened, secularly educated person, he had no desire, in the first place, for the entire ceremony. Persuaded by the bride and the two families, he stood under the "chuppeh" (canopy) and grudgingly allowed the blessings over the wine. When he was supposed to put the ring on the bride's finger, he refused to recite the binding formula, "You are wedded unto me with this ring in accordance with the law of Moses and Israel." There ensued a turmoil. Finally, the friends of the groom convinced him that it was but a mere statement and that his agnosticism would by no means be compromised. "Skazhee Boruch haray at," they implored (Pronounce "You are," Baruch !) in Polish-Hebrew phraseology ; that is to say, let's get it over with. In our home, "Skazhee Boruch haray at" became the standard expression for any routine or cursory action.
Another favorite story of my mother's -- and of the children too -- was about the Kayser's (Kaiser's or perhaps any emperors) wardrobe. A poor man, it seems, only changes his clothes for the Sabbath. One who is much better off financially, three times weekly. A rich man, daily. What about the Kayser ? "Der Kayser shtayt un tut zich on un tut zich oys" (The Kaiser has so many clothes that he is constantly changing them).
One of my mother's favorite pastimes was to turn a phrase into a rhyme. Thus, when one would tell her "a dank" (thanks), she would respond "droshe geshank" (gift for the bridegroom for his Torah lecture prior to the wedding). In translation, it is meaningless, as it probably is in Yiddish, but everyone thought it was funny. When one dropped into a relative's or neighbor's home during mealtime, he would generally be greeted with "kum mit essen" (join us for the meal). My mother's reply was "kum mit, nor essen nit" (I'll take a seat, but not to eat). When I concluded a snack with the "boray nefoshos" blessing and pronounced the last three words "boruch chay ho-olomim" (Blessed be He who lives eternally), my mother would add, "a gezunt in dyn ponim" (untranslatable, but meaning may you be healthy).
When pestered by one of the children, or any other relative for that matter, my mother would close the conversation with a pet phrase, "fardray zich dein kop, un mich los up" (approximately-none of your guff, just let me off). Of one who was overwhelmed by self-awareness of handsomeness or beauty, she would say, "der ocher un der Ponim - zynen tsway mechutonim' (again hardly translatable, but conveying the "image of close relationship of the face with part of the anatomy).
Numbers, especially nine, had their own significance. Thus, when one of us was naughty, we would be warned with quiet firmess: "Du vest krigen nyn mol nyn-in ocher aryn" (nine times nine, dear-right in the rear). On the wider social scene, Mother would show her disdain for a fellow-female's propensity for perpetual prattle by adapting a Talmudic comment: "A froi hot nyn moss raid-zie hot nyn un nyntsik" (a woman has nine measures of talk out of ten, but she has 99). And speaking of numbers, when I started teaming multipication in school, mother taught me as she was taught in Yedwabne: 5 times 2, 2 times 5 equals 10.
Some attention must be given to Mother's intra-Jewish ethnic awareness. At the top of the scale of peoples were those who originated in North Poland (Litvish Paylen, or Lithuanian Poland). These "Paylishe Litvakes" were distinguished from the "gebrotene Litvakes" (Lithuanian Litvaks) by the fact that they did not confound the letters shin and sin in Hebrew and Yiddish. There were exceptions, for example the nar and the occasional rogue. The people of Warsaw were "Varshover ganovim" (Warsaw thieves) until her niece Rochel married Chaim Shiya (Hyman) Brooks. Toward Galitzianer (Galicia in southern Poland) her attitude was negative at best and abusive at worst -- until my brother and sister married into Galitzianer families. Rumania and Hungary were neutral areas. Germans were unpopularly identified as "Yeckes". Mother was never able to convince me that she meant what she said about the groups toward which she would express disdain. The only time I felt she realy expressed true negativeness was toward the city and Jewish inhabitants of Stavisk, a town a few miles northwest of Yedwabne. These were "anshei samach" (people of Samach, the first letter of Stavisk). "Avu a Stavisker shtayt, dort zol der ort brenen" (where a Stavisker stands, that spot should bum). She modified the expression of the Psalm which is recited on penitential and fast days and on High Holy Days : "Al tashlichaynu l'Stavisk" (Do not abandon us to Stavisk). I never learned what made her use these expressions. Oddly, my mother was very friendly to two Stavisker families, one of which was very close to us. Finally, with regard to America, she had great respect, and "America, I love you" was one of the English songs she liked to sing. Whereas she was suspicious of the deviousness of some immigrants, she would describe a native with these words : "Er iz an Americaner -er vays nit fun kayn gedraydlach" (He is an American - a straight shooter).
I have not exhausted all the wise sayings, proverbs, rhymes, rejoinders, and other statements by my mother . My dear friend and relative by marriage, Professor Simon Lopata, who often conversed with my mother has repeatedly urged me to compile all her words because, in their totality, they were rare coming from one person. I've always replied that I would never forget them and that I would find at some time the opportunity to write about my mother. The basic reason that I never forgot was that I would constantly quote her expressions at appropriate times even if I articulated them only to myself. In addition, as a child and adolescent, I used to write long Yiddish letters at frequent intervals to my grandparents, Zaydeh Avremel and Bobbeh Mindel Brickman in Kolno (Poland), and Zaydeh Hershel and Bobbeh Maryashe Shaber in Lochovich (U.S.S.R.). My Yiddish style was based on the phrases I heard daily from my father and mother, including several that I have quoted.
Thus, in brief, I have recounted the reminiscences and remarks of my mother, "Zoll zie ruhen in Gan Eiden, un zoll zyn a gute beterin far unz' (may she rest in Gan Eden and serve as a good mediator with the Almighty), as she would have said. From her I teamed to know, appreciate, respect, and love her native shtetl of Yedwabne. To this day I cherish such feelings. It is still hard for me to reject the view of those adults who found it incredible that I was a "higger" (American-born) and not a Yedwabner lantsman.
To this day, I can recall relatives and lantsleit pointing at me as saying, "Dos iz Hershele Shaber." This is a strong link to the Yedwabner half of my old-world heritage
For their continual encouragement and help, I am indebted to my late brother Murray, sister Zelda, and Aunt Sarah Gursky. Rabbi Jacob L. Baker has been a constant source of inspiration. I also acknowledge the editorial suggestions and typing assistance by my beloved wife, Sylvia, as well as the help by Mrs. Rae Guttman, my secretary at Touro College
She was endowed with all the graces. Beautiful, endearing, clever and a great woman of Valor. Whatever she put her hands to, became perfection. Her hand embroidered tablecloths, her phylactery-bags for bar mitzvah boys, and her tallit-bags for bridegrooms were known in the whole neighborhood. As for her cooking and baking, the odors and tastes spoke for themselevs. Young brides-to-be would come to her to learn these arts, and she, a dear soul, was also an outstanding teacher.
She herself would spin the fringes (tsitsot) for the four-cornered garment (arba kanfot) and prayer shawls (talitot) that her male children and grandchildren wore. This was a lengthy project. For this purpose she carefully nurtured a lamb, making sure that the wool grew clean and strong. When it was time for shearing, the lamb quietly permitted the process, perhaps because it listened to Raizele's voice earnestly repeating throughout the process "For the Sake of the Commandment of Fringes" (Lshem Mitzvot Tsitsit). And, during the washing and the spinning of the wool, she continued repeating in full awareness of purpose, "for the sake of the Commandment of Fringes". All of this was usually accomplished while all were peacefully asleep, and her husband Berl the Miller had awaknened in the middle of the night to make the special prayer (tikun chatsot) to redeem our suffering from exile. That was when she spun the wool for the sake of the Commandment of Fringes. How does one depict Reizele's joy when she saw the fruit of her labor, the fully eight-threaded fringes (kafulshmoneh tsitsit) each strand was made up of eight threads twisted together) worn by her children and grandchildren ?
When Raizele's grandchildren studied in the Lomze Yeshiva, she walked there and back twice a week, the twenty kilometers, to bring them a special treat, either some pastry, cake or "eingemechts" so they could study Torah with contentment. When she was asked why she did not use a horse and cart, her answer was simple. "I want to have the reward of walking towards a mitzvah and have no desire to share that pleasure with the horse".
Raizele's love for the land which is now our Israel is impossible to deseribe, She once heard of a group that was making a pilgrimage by foot to the Holy Land and tried to join it. Her devout prayers for Shivat-Zion made a deep impression on all who knew her.
The prettiest garden in the village was Raizele's. Her chickens and ducks, which she hatched herself, were the finest and the biggest and she treasured them. Whenever she appeared in the yard, the poultry would come running to greet her excitedly. She would stand in their midst, put her hands into her apron pockets and draw them out full of corn which she distributed generously to her noisy friends. And the well-fed little red heifer, with the pretty white spot on its forehead, followed after her, cuddling close like a child, and with her tongue caressing Raizele's hands and face. Many times Raizele hid a piece of bread or slices of potato in the apron pocket, and she never failed to find the hidden treat. She quickly sniffed and snuffled and poked about with her nose until she touched the goody and in no time at all was in the heifer's mouth. And how proud the mistress was.
Raizele's home was open to all comers. Her great love for humanity, Jews or Gentiles, was all-encompassing. She possessed a good heart and a noble soul. Another's suffering became her suffering, and another's joy her joy. Jealousy and hatred were not part of her nature. A poor wanderer always found in her home a roof over his head and a hearty meal. And even though she was always overworked and harried in helping her husband at the mill, she still found time to help others according to their needs. The minute she was through with her gardening, with looking after the heifer and the poultry, and preparing the delicious meals for the family and assuring that all their requirements were fulfilled, she would, with her quick steps, start off to the village. There she brought milk, butter and eggs for the teachers of her children. And to people in need she gave a treat of her home-made goodies,
On Grandmother Raizele's fragile shoulders was set the head of a minister. She quickly solved problems which arose in the mill. She smoothed out differences between her Gentile neighbors. And further, when there appeared a conflict of opinion between Jew and Gentile, both would go to Raizele for her judgment. She was well versed in the books in Yiddish providing synopses of the portion of the week and also in the Midrash with that portion from the Tzenah Urenah. On Sabbath afternoons she gathered together a number of women. For those who were unable to communicate with G-d, may His Name be Blessed, by means of the holy letters of the alphabet, she read the text and they repeated each phrase, absorbing like hungry neglected ones.
Reizele and her husband Berl, who was a learned man inclined towards Chassidism, had two sons and two daughters. Beautiful and charming were the Jewish daughters of Yedwabne. But even more lovely were the miller's daughters. Their cheeks were the color of ripe red apples, eyes as blue as the heavens and golden curls framed their faces. Every Sabbath after the meal, the wide road which led from Yedwabne to the mill was filled with teenagers who with their pranks and joyous Hebrew made the area ring with gleeful delight.
This road stretched far and wide between dense produce fields, from which peeked flowers of all colors whose beauty caught every eye. And here also "grew" out the tall windmill with its long, outstretched wings pointing to the heavens as if in thought or daydream, not moving at all, in deep meditation and gratitude to G-d for His Holy Day of rest, the Sabbath. This is the mystic time when not only man and animals rest, but also even a windmill, an inanimate object, moves not the breadth of a finger.
Raizele the miller's wife had all this time been sitting in the shade of a tree, surrounded by her lady friends and deriving a great deal of pleasure from her handsome and talented children, Soon she rose to her feet and quickly walked to the house and into the cellar from which she returned with jugs full of cold sourmilk and delicious butter-cakes which could be eaten without "netilat yadayim", the washing of hands. And with warm hospitality she served the ladies and her daughter's starving and thirsty friends.
After the hearty sustenance for the body, the young ones soon developed a burning hunger for spiritual food. Many of them were yeshiva students who repeated something new which they had beard, or presented an original thought. The young audience, which not so long ago was more than a little boisterous, now sat quietly and good-naturedly in a circle on the grass and listened intently. Only when the sun, a flaming red, began to wane and its last rays wandered over the wings of the windmill and from the distance was heard the mellow sound of the lowing herd returning from pasture, only then did the friends break up the heated deep discussion. They arose to go home, but the return was not as happy and cheerful as the arrival to the mill. With nightfall, one already felt the gray week and its worries and anxieties. They walked with slow steps, close to one another, quietly. They softly sang a little sad song, "Once again Sabbath departs and approaching are the weekdays".
In the moments of that twilight, painters, artists of renown should have seen Raizele the Miller's Wife lost in the depths of her thoughts as she sang the prayer "G-d of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Holy Sabbath is leaving us soon". Numerous portraits of her would have been painted, numerous songs composed, and numerous poems written in praise of this lovely, delicate personality - Raizele.
The girls were in a quandry. Other food was impossible to obtain on a stormy winter night in Yedwabne, while father would be arriving soon, and very hungry. Since there was no choice they decided to put the food on the table to let Moshe Mordechai detect whether something was wrong.
They watched their father eat the dish with an extra appetite. When finished, they asked him whether he noticed anything strange in the food. "No!" he said, "it was very good". They informed him what had happened. He stated happily: "Don't worry children, Moishe Mordechai 'The Poritz's' (honored gentleman) stomach may digest blissfully a combination of kasha with naphtha".
It was a short time after my Bar-Mitzvah, in the year 1920, when the Polish army shattered and chased the Germans from the Polish soil.In response to our request, to explain a great Yedwabner legend that as a young boy, he saved 60 prominent Jews from the gallows, Itzchok Yankel Neumark records his outstanding and heroic action in the year 1920. The blessings from the 10 rescued rabbis brought his own salvation during the entire Hitler Holocaust period.
The notorious anti-semite, General Haller decided to crown his triumph against the Germans by celebrating a pogrom against the Jews of Poland.
In Haller's army were then enrolled the most notorious anti-semites who, unconscionably plundered, beat, and murdered, tore out beards, and threw Jewish men, women and children from trains. On the eve of Yom Kippur the Hallerites killed a gentile and hid the body under the house of the Rabbi of Radzilovo, which was situated 16 kilometers from Yedwabne. Afterwards they let pigs out from their stys to uncover the body. They immediately spread a rumor that the Rabbi had murdered the man and thus called publicly to take revenge from the Jews at once - by arresting 10 Rabbis and 50 Community Leaders from the towns surrounding Radzilovo and publicly executing them all. They arrested the following towns' Rabbis; Radzilovo, Yedwabne, including Reb Faivele, Stavisk, Grayeevo, Raigrod, Goniondz, etc., together with the laymen, 60 people.
The Radzilover Rabbi know personally the arch-bishop of Lomza for he had previonsly saved the life of the arch-bishop from the Russians. He was the only one who might have an impression on the antisemites and therefore could save the 60 lives. The problem was, though, how to reach him in a time when all the roads to Lomza were fenced out by Haller's men.
The Radzilover Rabbi wrote a letter to the arch-bishop which was signed by all the Rabbis. But they still needed an able young horse rider who could carry our the most dangerous undertaking of delivering the letter into the hands of the arch-bishop in Lomza, and in the quickest possible time, for the execution was scheduled for the next 11 A.M.
Then a delegation of the following community leaders came to me; Sholom, Hershl Mendl's Shtein, Avrom Aaron Ibram, Chonche Goldberg, Chone Zaidenstat. They pleaded that I undertake to be the messenger. Although I was much afraid, for I understood the serious danger that awaited me on the roads, the thought and deep conviction that I was thereby going to save such great Zadikim (righteous people), and Chasidim (of highest generosity) put me at peace. So I accepted, donned a gentile type hat, borrowed my gentile neighbor's horse, (my own horse had conspicuous brown coloring) and as an arrow I flew until I reached Piontnica. A Hallerite noticed me and tried to restrain me, but I escaped from him and arrived in Lomza.
I then saw what the anti-semites do to the Jews. Near the old church lay dead Reb Yochanan the salami maker, further on Zondova Street the vinegar maker lay dead. Near the old market place in the gutter was the candlestick maker's corpse. I then went to the Rabbinate in order to inform them of my message. Their faces were all covered with black shawls for the Hallerites had their beards torn out until blood ; they all wept. They wondered how I made my way in such a terrible time. But they blessed me that no evil shall come to me and that I shall carry through my whole message in peace.
Since the Lomza streets were then empty of people, I took courage and quickly rode to the Dvorna Street to the residence of the archbishop. When I knocked on the door a nun came out and asked me what I wanted. I informed her that I had a letter to the Holy Father which I had to hand over to him personally. Then came out a priest who requested that I should hand him the letter. I refused, explaining that I'm forced to hand the letter personally to the arch-bishop for the Hallerites were about to shoot many righteous Polish people. He then allowed me in, where the Archbishop dressed in a purple, gold covered vestment accepted the letter from me. Immediately after he read the letter he wrote a letter which he quickly sent out with his special messenger (all the phones were then cut off). He then bid me farewell and said everything will be all-right. The arch-bishop's messenger reached the destination 20 minutes before the execution of the 60 people was to take place.
I immediately rode back to Yedwabne in order to be home for Yom Kippur. Until midway, which was the village of Yezurk, I saw no one. But within the village I was held up by a Hallerite, and while they were searching for cord to tie me to the horse and then let him run while dragging me on the ground to death, I utilized that moment to jump up on the horse and quickly escape, galloping towards my home town. The Hallerites pursued after me while shooting, but I made my way to come home healthy in body and spirit, although my horse had been shot through the ear. The Jewish people greeted me with hugging and kisses. They wanted to pay me for my heroic accomplishment, but I told them that such a Mitzvah they may never buy for money.
After the Shovuos Holiday, there arrived to Yedwabne a full bus of Rabbis in order to meet me and to convey their gratitude and blessings upon me. Then someone disguised made believe that he was the one who carried through the message, but when he was questioned to give details, he immediately admitted and pointed to me as having been the true messenger. After a brief exchange of words with me on the details of the entrance to the Bishop's residence, etc., the Zadik of Radzilova took my hands in his and said the following prayer: "Through fires and waters, through thunders and lightning, nothing shall ever touch you." There after did au the other Rabbis, one after the other bestow their blessings upon me.
I believe truly and whole heartedly that in virtue of their blessings I was saved, first from the flaming barn in Yedwabne, and later through the 5½ years in the most dangerous concentration camps.
Thank G-d I always came through without even a scratch - so shall the Heavenly Father continue to help me and my family in virute of the Righteous People's Blessings and we shall all live to see the coming of the Messiah who will bring Peace to Israel and to the entire world. Amen! So be His will.
In attempting to portray the characteristics of a number of Jewish families who, because of their livelihood, dwelt entirely among Polish goyim, we may gain an insight into the kind of virtues attributed to our forbears which enabled them to exist amongst all kinds of neighbors.
Because a windmill needs a lot of wind to turn its huge blades to grind the grains of the many villages surrounding it, the Jewish miller family Midlarsky was situated alone in the purely gentile village of Kovnat, 7 kilometers from Yedwabne.
This writer had the opportunity to spend a night with this uniquely situated but wonderful Jewish family.
It was in the year of 1937, when the anti-kosher meat law in Poland affected every Jewish family including the Midlarskys, who besides their flour mill also operated a farm with live-stock. Like all Jews of our town they wouldn't even think of tasting non-kosher meats.
One afternoon they sent a coach for me with the plea that I honor them with a visit and kosher a steer for them. I found the family so well-read and Jewishly motivated that I was fascinated and curious to know how they managed alone within a large forest of goyim . I noticed first of all that they were all hard and good laborers, a point which is always respected. Furthermore they practiced true Judaism and thereby were a symbol of kindness to all their neighbours. But most of all, they were well armed and known for their heroism.
How Reizale the wind-miller developed benevolence between Jew and Gentile
As with the miller family of the village of Kovnat, so too was the Jewish wind-miller of Yedwabne. It was owned by the well known Beryl and Reizale Pecynowitz, and it was situated on the outskirts of the town, which meant it was in a purely gentile neighborhood. One winter nightfall, I observed neighbour Shilava's little girl deliver to Reizale a small amount of potato peel for her cow, for which she immediately reimbursed her with a whole gallon of milk. When I wondered at the unequal exchange Reizale explained it thus : "From the small amount of potato peel we may deduce how little food that family had for supper."
When she baked the Sabbath loaves she would secure the doors and windows by closing them tightly and even draping them. She explained it philosophically: "Should our gentile neighbours be provoked by the appetizing odors of the fresh baking, just because their holiday falls on a day other than ours ?"
It was an impressive scene one day during the Bolshevik war in 1920, the way Reizale reached out from her open cellar, her head barely reaching to the doorway, handing over large loaves of corn bread to a long line of hungry neighbors. She had baked a large number of loaves and preserved them in her cool cellar for just such an emergency. It is self understood how those gentile recipients then valued Reizale's foresight. Again she explained it this way: "We Jews have been gifted with the characteristic of saving for a rainy day since the time of our forefather Jacob. The Bible tells us, in the time of famine Jacob said to his children : "why should you appear to your neighbours as though you are satisfied, although you have saved up for such a time while they did not?
Reizale tended her special sheep, concerned with the cleanliness of their wool. She sheared, combed and spun the wool carefully, then bid her male grandchildren to assist in binding the tzitzis on the garment, and by chanting "Lshaim mitzvas Tzitzis!"
Reizale loved to expound upon the following story. Our forefather Jacob observed through the Holy Vision that his children were destined to build a Tabernacle in the desert. He therefore took with him seedlings of cedarwood from his land, planted same in the soil of Egypt, and commanded his children to take those cedars with them when they leave Egypt .
She would ask ; "Since Jacob knew that the earth of Egypt is suitable for growing cedar trees, why go to the effort and waste of time, at his old age, first to dig out the seedlings from Eretz Israel, and then to carry them and replant them in Egypt, if he could have arranged all of this in Egypt proper ?" "The reason for his so doing carries an important message for us," she said, "since the Tabernacle to be built in the desert is for the purpose of establishing a resting place for G-d's Shechina, its building material and workmanship must derive solely from our own labour.
As we see, independence was the idealogy of life, derived from the depth of true religious conviction by the miner family of Kovnat, as well as of Yedwabne. We may thus perceive their secret in the respect which they commanded throughout many generations.
As a footnote to the millers' life principal of independence, see "Sforno" Exodus 33. 5-21. He elaborates upon the theme that the Tabernacle, which was designed for limited duration, as compared to the 1-st and 2nd Temples, exists forever in "Geniza" complete, not even a fragment having fallen into enemy hands, according to our sages. In contrast, the Sanctuary built by King Solomon as well as the second built by Ezra and Nehemia were burned to ashes. The "Sforno" explains it thus : Because the Tabernacle was built solely by the highly righteous Bezalel and his helpers the Shechina penetrated every particle of their work, such that no part could fall into enemies' hands. But since the Sanctuary of Solomon was built by laborers of 'Tzor' and the second Sanctuary was actively and financially built by Cyrus, Tzidornim and Tzorim, they were completely destroyed by the enemies. See also Jonathan Ben Uziel Exodus 26, 5-28 ... that the inner bar in the midst of the boards derived from Abraham's tree.
The Rebbi, Reb Yehuda Nadolnik was my first Gemoroh melamed and also my melamed in the Books of the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel. Besides being a Talmid Chochom he was a sweet-natured human being. We don't recall a moment that he was ever aggravated by a student. Mr. Yosky Bromstein, a classmate in that cheder, now in Haifa, Israel, testified to that fact when met at the Yedwabner Memorial meeting in Tel Aviv on the Yahrtzeit day on the 15th of Tamuz, the summer of 1978.
I recall an impressive moment when a distinguished guest came to our cheder from Eretz Israel in the person of Rabbi Ticochinsky from Jerusalem , formerly Rav in Pyontnica near Lomza.
Since the guest was a close relative to our Rabbi and Rebbitzen Sarah Nadolnik, we students also felt close to him. He warmly reciprocated by displaying before us beautiful pictures of Jerusalem, the Western wall and its then very narrow approaches. We fell in love with everything of Eretz Israel, but vowed to see the approaches to the "Kotel" widened, which has been done, thank G-d, in our own days, by the State of Israel.
I visited the Rebbi Nadolnik and his lovely family when they were later settled in Pyontnica. I recall the sweet, beautiful Gitele, and whenever we reread the record in this book, of what the reshayim did to her, a screem comes from the depth of our hearts : 0 Heavenly Father Revenge Her Blood.
There were five Faivelach in Yedwabne.
1. Reb Faivele the Melamed. He taught beginners, boys and girls.It was said that his style of teaching was with a "Taitel" and with a Konchuk" . I remember him as being a good "Baal Tephila" .
2. Reb Faivele Blumowicz, the "Gazlen" He probably won that title because he wouldn't even hurt a fly. He was a great Talmudic scholar but tried hard not to disclose the fact. He was the son of the Yedwabner "Dayan", Blumowicz. He was considered by some to be perhaps one of the world's 36 righteous people on whose merits the world exists.
3. Faivele Pedak, the shoe maker. He lived just across the door from the last mentioned Faivele, and, therefore, must have humbly gleaned some of his Torah learnings.
4. Faivele Prives, who fasted all the extra fast days during the year, something which very few Jews do. He lived to a ripe old age.
5. Faivele (dziojag) Gushacki, he and Faivele the Melamed were the two grandfathers of our good friend Mr. Motel Lowell now in Brooklyn N.Y.
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