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[Page 86]

Years of Seeking, Wrangling and Dreams

by Ruben MROZ, Kibbutz Lochamei HaGetaot

Translated from the Yiddish by Mindle Crystel Gross

Far, far from the Ochnia river, far from the narrow streets of Kutno and Zamenhof street and the low roofs, which can only be seen through memory, I now try to describe Kutno in the right colours, although we are distanced from that era by more than 30 years.

Here, at the foot of the beautiful Galil mountains, near the quiet shores of the Mediterranean sea, here where a new life was created – it is difficult to portray the long-ago. We are divided by an abyss of distance and time.

Before me lies the sad document which I found in the archives of Beit Katznelson: the Plockers and Hershkowiczes demand revenge by the living, those who witnessed our nearest on their last way – they scream – revenge!

My little daughter, nine years old, asks: Papa, what are you writing? I cannot find the words to explain this to her. But this book is being written for her and her peers. They need to understand this, must understand, that that which happened to their grandfathers and grandmothers – should never happen again.

As far as I remember, the years 1930-1939 ,prior to the great perishing, were years of disturbance and seeking in Jewish life. The youth too, look for ways, cannot remain within the confines of the narrow houses and workshops.

As with the adults, organizations and clubs are formed.

The Bund, which has great influence with the proletarian youth, concentrates around itself the youth organization Tsukunft[1] and the many boys apprenticed to tailors. A very nice building is built for their activities, a place for the professional unions, a sport club, Morgensztern[2], Perec Library a football team and a wind orchestra.

I also recall the CISZO[3] school which the Poalei Zion Left supported together with the Bund. The school folded due to budgetary problems.

I take this opportunity to remind you of the woman teacher Mandelman and the male teacher, both of whom gave much of their hearts and love to Jewish literature, poetry and other items of national importance.

It would be a sin not to mention the Powszechne[4] supported by the state which also educated Jewish children, but in the Polish language.

I now visualize in my mind like a caricature the lessons of religion and Tanach taught by a Jewish teacher in the Polish language about our forefathers.

Parallel to the development of the Bund, there also developed among the general citizenry the Maccabi organization. Around them gathered the children of small businessmen, merchants, artisans. There is also lively sports activity, a wonderful tournament league with its instructor Krokewer, a football team and a wind orchestra. There is no dearth of youth organizations of any kind. More than once, could be heard on Zamenhof street the Hebrew song of HaShomer HaTsa'ir and the melody of the Gerer Chassidim.

On Podrzeczna street can be heard the singing of the youth until late into the evening. There is where the HaShomer HaTsa'ir, Freiheit and the Bund are located. On Narutowicza street, the HaNo'ar HaTsioni is concentrated around the Achad Ha'am library and here is where wide-spread Zionist activities develop.

The Keren Kayemet spread their blue and white boxes throughout the majority of homes in Kutno, making this activity the responsibility for of the youth. There is competition to see which of the youth organizations can collect the most for Keren Kayemet for Israel.

The method of transforming the Zionist ideal into a reality, the colonizing of Eretz Israel, the battle with the powers of the mandate – all of this had influence upon the youth. The heated discussions were more than once accompanied by fights. The revisionists as well, fierce opponents of the official Zionist organization, developed their activities in Kutno.

The uniforms, the militaristic attitude appeals to the youth. It reminds them of Jabotinski's visit to Kutno when he was received with great honour and parade.

More than once one heard of the mutual destruction of premises, the tearing of pictures, and flags. On the day of Lag Ba'Omer[5] a wonderful demonstration by hundreds of young people takes place. They go out to the Glembow forest to celebrate in the midst of nature. On the return trip, there were also fights among the opposing groups.

The systematic work of the Zionist youth organizations begins to bear fruit. Greetings arrive from the training areas from all corners of Poland. Many of those who are too impatient to wait for certificates and must bide their time training for several years, return home. Regards also arrive from those who were successful in achieving aliya. We hear the name Ein Shemer. Greetings are also coming in from the builders of Tel-Aviv.

The only training area of the HaShomer HaTsa'ir in Kutno brings from time-to-time new boys and girls from the east. Some look at the youth with wonderment, others look at them with derision, and still others, with envy, They look at the young men and women in leather jackets and narrow riding pants. They are creating a work-place for themselves by chopping wood and performing other hard labor.

Isaacs flower plantation served as an important workplace for a lot of trainees. We must stress, that the trainers from the circles led an important educational work in the local nest of the HaShomer HaTsa'ir, and as it happens, in the Yiddish language. As you know, the local instructors spoke Polish with the children and, when possible – Hebrew. They perceived Yiddish to be the language of the Diaspora and they negated it.

I remember the May demonstrations which were very impressive. The parade vehicles in the street of the Bund, Poalei Zion and non-organized workers who joined the general celebration, were outstanding with their individual uniqueness and creativity. The youth of HaShomer HaTsa'ir did not participate in the May demonstrations, stating that in the Diaspora there is no class warfare. In Eretz Israel, they said, classes are created.

We can speak of the many curiosities about participation of the Jewish workers and plain people relative to the May demonstrations. I remember Buksztajn, a shoemaker by trade, who, after Shabbat prayers, with tallit-bag under his arm, would immediately go to the May gathering, proudly carrying the red proletariat flag.

The Freiheit organization came into being only in the last couple of years before the outbreak of WWII. Several active members of the Poalei Zion (Socialist Zionists) Ayke, official of the Jewish community, Professor Szur, teacher in the Hebrew shool Am HaSefer[6], Chaim Zychlinski a tailor-home manufacturer invested much energy and time in creating this branch of Freiheit.

As you know, Freiheit also had Halutsim[7] and several young people for training to Klesov (Koenig and other boys and girls who find themselves in the land today). It was not a large branch in Kutno, but systematic educational work was conducted by them. We participated in almost all Zionist events, elections to the Parliament, town administration, Zionist Congresses and community. Every year, many of the youth went back home for summer colonies, participating in the Keren Kayemet drives. These were years when there took place in Eretz Israel difficult struggles for aliya and comprehension. This also was reflected in and influenced the activities and work of the Freiheit in Kutno.

We went for courses in Kibbutz Borochow in Lodz. There, there were also Hagana courses for the youth from the larger cities and towns.

More than once, the premises of Freiheit were changed.to a sort of secret place, where behind closed windows, signaling and communications were studied.

Pictures arrived from the land, pictures of the Jewish defenders and workers, the guard with the high papakha[8], rifle on his shoulder, and next to him – the plough. Communities sprang up overnight. The photos beautified the Zionist premises.

Long will there remain in one's mind the gatherings and the evenings, which were filled with Eretz Israel spirit. It is impossible to forget the gathering when we sent the first graduate for training to Bendin – Benjamin Abramowicz (today in Holon).

The first of September, 1939, as with the single thrust of a knife, the golden thread of young creativity and dreams was cut. Only individuals miraculously, managed to come through the flame of annihilation.

 

Translator's footnotes

  1. “Future”, Communist youth movement Return
  2. Morning Star Return
  3. Yiddish secular school Return
  4. Polish public schoolReturn
  5. 33rd day of counting the Omer 49 days between Passover and Shavuot Return
  6. “People of the Book” Return
  7. Pioneers Return
  8. Russian military fur hat Return


[Page 92]

The Old Market

by J. ELBAUM, E. WAJKSELFISZ and Z. LASMAN

Translated from the Hebrew by Carole Turkeltaub Borowitz

We couldn't possibly imagine Jewish Kutno, which lived by the Torah and toil, without mentioning the old market and its people. The market was not only a large open square with buildings, shops, stalls and workshops around it – it was a concept enclosing a whole world inside itself. Here, in the market, small-scale Jewish manufacturing and trade was concentrated. If we were going to form an impression by the market and its people alone, it would be all wrong, because Kutno is a brilliant Jewish town. Over there lay the houses, the shops, the stalls, the little huts and all sorts of workshops belonging to traders and peddlers, the hawkers and the hucksters, all Jewish, although the number of Jewish craftsmen was not great. The tailors, the cobblers, the carpenters, the hatters, the furriers, the watchmakers, the tinsmiths, the glaziers, the seamsters, the shoemakers and others – hiding in their work shops and work places that were in basements and attics in the yards of the houses. The ordinary people of Kutno – Jews of the scissors and the hammer – were not only producers: they were also the suppliers of essential products to the town and the neighbouring area. They blew the breath of life and vitality into the market. Here Jewish families battled for a crust of bread to take home. Here better days to come were dreamt of and longed for. Here plans were devised for the wedding of a marriageable daughter, or how to provide schooling and a religious education for a son. This is the place where the interests of the merchants and the Jewish craftsmen were interlaced and combined with those of their town and village customers.

*

The market was a square, shaped like a crate, with its centre next to the church. To its left, a long building, that in the past served as a barracks, and was later on turned into a school and finally became a casino for army officers. A little distance from it stood the farm house of Rabbi Kaplan. He settled in Kutno after the First World War, bought some fields and worked the land by himself. During the period of independent Poland, the Rabbi's farm served as a training camp for pioneers from Kutno and other places.

Among the grocery shop owners the most popular was the giant Majlech and his tiny wife Chana'le. In Kutno it was said that she was the shortest of all the women in the town. The produce merchant Grinbaum and the inn kept by Baruch Bild were also part of the market landscape. There both Jews and Christians feasted to their heart's content off hot lentils with a jug of beer and warm refreshments… Nearby was the furniture store of Ajdel Kraut. Because, during his time in the Russian army he served as a drummer in the military band, he got stuck with the nickname of “Ajdel Poiker” [Ajdel the Drummer]. Next to this store were the butcher's shops of the Nosal brothers, butchers who were well-known in the town.

The bicycle shops of Goldberg and Luks hired out these means of transport to the Jewish youngsters when they went out on trips. Frequently, the kids came back from these outings sore, hoarse and chilled (tired out, of course, went without saying). The anxious and angry parents turned on these shop owners, complaining to know why they were harming their children.

Market days in Kutno were held twice a week, on Tuesdays and Fridays, which gave the Jewish tradesmen dealing in cheap stuff an opportunity to sell off the remnants of their stock. The Kozak brothers, Icze, Mordechai and Michael, were well-known among these tradesmen. The three looked exactly like each other, like three peas in a pod - of short stature, skinny and light-haired. They were shrewd merchants and energetic traders. All at the same time they managed their workshops, served at their stalls on market days and also visited the fairs outside Kutno. On market days the stall hucksters and the hawkers busied themselves in persuading the farmers, by words or force, to drop into the brothers' shop. The farmer who passed over the threshold of the brothers Kozak's shop was hard pressed not to go out empty handed.

The five Lajchman brothers and their housewife mother Frajda Necha were included among the untrained craftsmen. Due to their appearance they were nicknamed “Burtzikes” [“The Little Beetroots”]. The brothers Lajb Ber, Mordechai, Lajbisz, Pinchas and Jakob all worked selling at their stall in the market. They called out their wares and grabbed passersby and sometimes even dragged a buyer over to their stall from one nearby, and because of that more than once a squabble and a fight broke out. The principal sales person was the mother herself, Frajda Necha, wearing a cloth purse hanging round her neck; she would slip the day's takings into it.

Among the dealers in cheap stuff, the most respectable we remember were: Lasman, £êczycki, Moszkowicz, Ita Babe, Osowski, Pope Lola and her daughter, and Zakrzewski. If the women were traders, then the men were the tailors, or took the place of the women when they went off to £ódŸ to buy raw materials or finished goods. They journeyed to fairs taking their kids with them, so that the little ones could act as “hawkers and hucksters” to attract buyers to their mothers' wares.

A worthy woman such as these would also sell merchandise from her house on days when there was no fair. Mainly, the women did this on the Christian holidays when buying and selling was strictly prohibited by the authorities. Also, the Christian farmers from the neighbouring areas would drop in at the houses of the Jewish women after Sunday prayers at the Christian church in Kutno, in order to buy various commodities from them. Although, at that time, the police force would keep a sharp eye on the Jewish houses lest there was trading going on there, and should they catch a Jew breaking the prohibition, he would be punished severely. However, even on those days, Sundays and holidays, a buyer would be captured and conveyed to the house of the Jew. Once, because of something like this happening, a serious row broke out between the craftsman Benisz Moszkowicz and Rywka Lasman which ended up at the court room. But, after an apology from Moszkowicz, Mrs. Lasman withdrew her complaint.

Among the merchants and peddlers at the market was also a collection of agents (working on commission) which was a special group by itself. Since they did not have access to independent capital for trading or production, they would sell on commission ready-made garments that they got from the merchants or artisans. If they were not successful in selling the clothes they returned them to where they came from. These agents were treated with contempt and disdain, and even abuse, and buyers were not allowed to go near their stalls. Some of them were forced to give up trading and become small artisans or market “hucksters”.

The shop of the textiles dealer, Dawid Metal, was also located in the old market. He was good hearted, supported the small artisans and other needy folk by giving loans or anonymous donations.

*

Among for the “home made” manufacturers (the small time workers), who were never famous for being rich, were the hat makers. The attics or basements where they lived also served as their workshops. Their hard earned living came to them from sewing new hats, not only to Jews and country folk – this was the first consideration – to the primary and high school children. While the hatters Klajn and Mroz, produced hats, selling them in the market, the hatter Gajst made hats for the army, especially for officers. These customers gave him higher standing in his line of work.

We especially remember, from all the traders in the old market, the following people: Mosze Bild, Icchak Szymonowicz, Hirsz Braun (“zeluch”), Szaja Blank (faake”). Their circumstances were satisfactory, even though they were stall keepers in the market. However, they usually “grabbed” buyers from among the farmers of the countryside. At the shoemaker Ajzyk Szapszewicz's hung a long stick, with two big shoes tied on to it. He used to travel to fairs and markets around Kutno; his nickname was “eilch”. Later on, Poles began to go into the trade of shoemaking.

Famous in the old market were the barbers Klar and his two sons, and Dawid Pakulski (of blessed memory) who used to work for them. On market days they had their hands full, working. A small distance from the market, in Królewska Street, was the barber's shop of Gerszkowicz [Kashliaf]. In addition to hair cutting and shaving, he also used glass cups for bloodletting, leaches and enemas for anyone who needed… On market days when his barber's shop was invaded all at once by about ten farmers he did not lose his cool. He would sit them down on a long bench, and with a bucket of soap suds, left and right and right and left, lathered their faces and let them sit there… And when he noticed that the patience of the soapy ones was wearing thin, he would suddenly cry out: “Orchestra!”. Then the soapy farmers would leap up and rush outside to see the band… The people outside would burst into laughter and everyone would be amused at the sight. Even those just hanging around looked forward to market day, so that they could watch this entertaining sight. Meanwhile, the foamy farmers had forgotten why they were standing in the street. Only when they went back into the shop did the barber start shaving them. At that time he played in the Maccabi band at the cinema (when a silent film was showing), and at weddings. Owing to his knowledge in first aid he was a member of the committee of the charity Linas HaTzedek [charity clinic]. He was a cheerful, friendly and pleasant Jew.

*

Two greengrocers were part of the “human scene” in the old market. Even on days when the farmers from the countryside brought loads of vegetables to sell in the town, the townspeople did not forsake these sellers, cadgers many times over, and continued to buy a few vegetables from them – carrots and onions, radishes and cabbages.

Among the haberdashers' shops in the market we will mention two who lodged in the house of Abale Braun. One of them seemed nice at first sight, but its shelves were full of empty boxes. On market days, when a customer was inside a shop like that, the shop keeper would urgently send his son to another shop to get the required item and meanwhile chat with the buyer in his shop. In contrast, Mirale Mroz and her daughter exhibited on their stall “Samples” only: shoe laces, shoe soles, handkerchiefs, belts and many

 


Renovation of the synagogue in 1934

 

empty boxes. They also attempted to keep the customer talking until the product was brought from another shop.

The leathers merchants included: Menche, Kolaszinski, Perec Kenig, Erdberg. The shoe makers included: Plocker, Szaja Kuczynski, Guttman, Epsztajn. The garment decorators: Jakob Mroz.

*

A miserable little wooden hut in the old market served as the kiosk of J. Zak. There you could get hold of soda water, ice creams and candies, all home made. That's why he got the nickname of “Cold water” (zimna wodi in Polish). The youngsters used to get together there; there, they argued heatedly and after lots of arguing they had to wet their whistles and drink soda water, made by J. Zak. He was a member of the Chevra Kadisha (Burial Society) committee, and took his position very seriously.

In Kutno there were a dozen bakers of various sorts: cakes, bagels, bread and rolls. Head of the all was Nisen Grinbaum who was called “smoloch” [“dusty”– tar, in Polish]. It is interesting, that he got his nickname since his bakery was outstandingly clean and was inspected by the authorities, and did not operate in a basement. But because he was so proud of the cleanliness of his bakery he gave it the name of “dusty”. But he knows how to stoutly defend the interests of his Jewish friends at the general bakers' guild. And the baker Wajsman was known throughout the town for his delicious cakes which he sold successfully on market days.

The square was a world of its own and closed into itself. In the middle, like a fortress standing guard over its surroundings, stood the large red brick building of Reb Michael Szaje Rasz, father of eight daughters and one son. He was the owner of a well-to-do house and in addition was a sort of Jewish landlord. There was a time when he ran a large country farm, and if he was not exactly the owner, he had it on a lease. In the huge cellars of his house he used to pickle different vegetables, especially cucumbers and cabbage, which were now and then sent to markets abroad. His daughter, Genia, was his right hand “man”. She was the wife of Zalman Kirsztajn (of blessed memory), who was shot by the Nazis at the beginning of the war.

The first cinema in Kutno, which also served as a hall for parties and weddings, was set up by Reb Michael Szaje, in his house. After the First World War, when halls and new cinemas were built, the centre for entertainment and culture moved over to the new square. Then Reb Michael Szaje turned the spacious hall into roomy living quarters at the request of his relative, Reb Abraham Fromer, whose wife, Frymet, the daughter of Reb Mosze Aharon Menche, was close to the Rasz family.

Reb Abraham used to supply cloth to all the workshops round the square. There was almost not a single tailor who would turn to another supplier, for instance, Reb Jakob Opatowski and Reb Szmuel Asz. The tailors in the square remained loyal to Reb Avraham and enjoyed almost unlimited credit. According to what was prevalent in the town, Reb Abraham ran a big business. His brother-in-law Reb Mosze Skorka, a Gur chassid, worked with him. His daughter, Luwsia Skorka, was one of the first Jewish girls from the square to receive a matriculation certificate from the national high school. Two of his children also worked in the business – Jakob and Chana. Menche kept the account books. On market days one could see Reb Abraham's youngest son, Symcha, eleven or twelve years old, wearing a gymnasium pupil's cap, walking among the market stalls with a list in his hand, collecting debts from the traders.

The cloth was brought from £ódŸ. The wagon of Mosze Janczes the carter, harnessed with two sturdy horses, would pull in to the big yard of Reb Michael Szaja Rasz every Tuesday and Friday morning. Rolls and parcels of cloth and materials that had travelled like this on the long road from £ódŸ to Kutno would be dismantled from the wagon, despite the excellent railway connection.

The shop of Reb Herszel Plocker, the wine producer, stood almost in the middle of the row of shops. Who did not buy wine for the Sabbath eve from him? Impatiently, they would shower Reb Hirsz with questions; When would the “Ein Gedi” wine arrive already for the Passover service?

The square was usually dirty. Open channels of sewage carried the rubbish of the area from here to there. But on the Sabbath eve the square changed completely. A stranger who happened to be there would not believe that he was in a Christian town. The whole square was decked out for a festival. The shops were closed up and all work was at a standstill. Towards the Sabbath the traders covered up their stock and tools in a corner of the single room which served for living and work. The floor was swept, washed and strewn with a fresh layer of yellow sand. The men folk changed their tattered everyday clothes for clean Sabbath garb. On the Sabbath morning everyone went off to the synagogue. After prayers, at noon, the children went to the baker's to take out the chulent [casserole] and kugel [pie]. A guest from the synagogue would accompany the better-off citizens, to be honoured with a Sabbath meal. After a nap, the families would go out for a stroll around the square and the streets coming off it, or pay a visit to relatives and have a glass of tea. Then, the square was cloaked in tenderness and beauty – a picture that certainly served as a backcloth and inspiration of romantic expression about the town in Yiddish literature in the Diaspora.

Completely different faces could be seen in the square on Sundays – the Christian Sabbath. From Shabbat morning the municipal street sweepers were already out, cleaning the whole square of the dirt that was left over from Friday's market day.

With the tolling of church bells, Sunday took over the town. Already the ordinary folk started rushing by foot, the posh ones in their coaches, the local farmers and landowners in their carriages, decorated with their aristocratic emblems. The ladies and gentlemen entered the church, the coachmen waited outside and refreshed themselves with a glass of spirits in the inns belonging to Szymanski or Bild that were in the square.

Extraordinary celebrations were seen in the square on special festivals. On the eve of Constitution Day [established in 1791], the 3rd of May, windows, balconies, and house entrances were adorned with the national flag and carpets, and pictures of the Polish President. On the evening of the holiday, a company of the 37th regiment stationed in the town marched past, headed by the military band (one of the best ones in Poland) playing popular music, surrounded by torches the length of the square, all along Królewska Street and up to the New Market square.

The next day, the holiday, an army parade took place. The army, armed military organizations – among them a section of Jewish Gadna [Gedudei Noar: premilitary service training for youth] – called after Berek Joselewicz [1764-1809; Jewish merchant, colonel in the Polish army], armed with rifles and led by Jewish commanders, the rifles drawn ready in their hands. The police also took part in the procession, and the fire brigade, youth movements, the scouts (but not the Jewish organizations) and the schools. Each group had its own flag and sometimes its own band. Before the procession there was a military inspection with an entire ceremony, mostly accompanied by a speech on parliamentary matters given by one of the town's dignitaries from the central balcony of the Framers' house. On days such as these the square was the focal point of interest. An inquisitive audience from all corners of the town, and from outside it, crowded on the pavements all around the square, friends and relatives reserved places for themselves in houses overlooking the square, so that they could watch the festive parade.

We can remember the following craftsmen: the carpenter Abramowicz, whose family had been in Kutno for generations. His brother also worked in that craft. They became famous thanks to a special cupboard that they put together for the flag of the 37th regiment which was stationed in Kutno. This flag was donated by the Jewish community of the town and was proudly displayed in Zinger's shop window. A gold key was fixed on to it, and on the golden plate that was put on to the flag the donor's name was inscribed: “The Jewish Community of Kutno”. One of the Abramowicz brothers was the representative of the Jewish carpenters' guild. This man even visited Eretz Israel.

 


A group of worshippers at the “Ein Yaacov” synagogue

 

Chaim Zajdenwar (LEPEK) came to live in Kutno before the First World War. His three sons and daughter were active in various Zionist organizations; the father himself distinguished himself by his worthy activities for the Zionist idea, visited Eretz Israel several times as an emissary, and emigrated to Israel with his whole family in 1937. In Kutno, he always fought against divisions among the Jewish tradesmen who belonged to two professional organizations – the Zionists and the “Bundists” [non-Zionist socialists]. Since the Christian carpenters' guild did not want to acknowledge even one of these two organizations (or even merged together into one), Zajdenwar, together with Plocker, Kanal, Abraham Mroz, Kleczewski and £êczycki, travelled specially to the centres of these parties in Warsaw, to try to combine the two organizations in Kutno. Mr. Czerniakow and Mr. Rak came from Warsaw for this purpose. The amalgamation ceremony included the establishment of an independent synagogue and the dedication of the flag with the powerless participation of the Polish authorities.

As is usual, the various representatives honoured the nailing up of the flag – the representative from the municipality, the Polish trade union and the Jewish community.

A special blessing was said by the Rabbi of Kutno, Rabbi Icchak Jehuda Trunk, at the opening ceremony of the synagogue.

*

In the middle of the market, like some sort of island, stood the commercial centre. On one side were the shops and on the other – warehouses. Two water pumps beautified the place – the house of Moniek (Michael Jehoszua) Rasz also stood there. The Orner family lived there – eleven sons and one daughter. The father was occupied selling haberdashery items, all sorts of jewellery, and picture frames. He was also the secretary of the traders' union and even wrote out requests to the tax offices from the Jews of Kutno.

In addition to merchants, peddlers, market-traders, hawkers and hucksters, there were craftsmen in the old market – Jewish workmen who crafted by hand. They were labourers and small artisans and among them were respected public servants, party leaders, people with authority: such as Mroz, the Lajbisz brothers, Benjamin Piotrkowski (left-wing Poalei-Zion); Efraim Frajnd of the tailors' union, Moniek Rasz (the small merchants' union), Perec (secretary of the Community Council), Manes Zylber (communist party), the son of Rabbi Kaplan (the new Zionist trade union), Icchak Lidauer (revisionist party), Icchak Szymonowicz (leader of the small traders' union), Natan Wajnsztajn (delegate of the community), Prync (active with the Am HaSefer school and Brit HaHayal [a revisionist Zionist association of Jewish reservists in the Polish army, founded in 1932], Orner (Brit Yeshurun [a religious revisionist association set up in 1933]), Gdalyahu Kowalski (founder of young Agudat Israel – the religious party), Plocker (active with the Am HaSefer school), A. Sz. Metal (young artist), and many others whose names we have forgotten.

We have not yet squeezed dry the list of names of public figures. The names mentioned here are those people who were associated with the old market. But, in Jewish Kutno, there were many from the various political parties, associations and institutions, who were active and busy. A few of them can be mentioned here: Aspirsztajn – he came to Kutno in the year 1932 from Plock. He was a paramedic and dentist, and among the most active in the Linas HaTzedek clinic and Bikur Holim [aid to the sick], and even gave his home for Zionist association activities. One of his sons survived the Holocaust and currently lives in Poland. He is a doctor.

Jakob Opatowski – he was a textiles merchant and was born in Kutno. In his youth he was active in the Zionist movement and also in the traders' union.

Icchak Opatowski – born in Kutno, graduated from the high school in Kutno. Was secretary of the small merchants' union for many years.

Abraham Opoczynski – born in Kutno, painter and outstanding artist. In 1931 he took on himself to paint the great synagogue in the town, and earned much respect by his beautiful paintings. In his work he was assisted by Chaim Josef Tiber, Abraham Benet and A. Sz. Metal. After many months of exhausting and devoted labour, the Kutno synagogue which was built in 1799, was renewed.


[Page 97]

Our Town Before Its Destruction

by Dwora KRAUT-KOHN, Mexico

Translated by Mindle Crystel Gross

In 1937, my husband I were living in Paris. We suddenly received a telegram informing us that my mother had become ill with a lung infection. We did not have to give much thought before deciding leave for Kutno to see my sick mother.

On July 17, 1937, we left Paris by train. The route went through Germany. Arriving at the first station of the Third Reich, we immediately felt the stinking atmosphere of the new order. Black uniformed SS bandits on every station, drilling into each passenger with their furious looks, searching each car and questioning. Each stop at a German station affected our health. How lucky we finally were to arrive on Polish territory. We hoped at least to breathe a little freer.

In Poland, we received our first disappointment. Since a few hours still remained before the train departed for Kutno, we also encountered in the Posen station pointedly hateful looks from anti-Semitic Poles. They were even prepared to beat my husband who had the appearance of a Jew, but thanks to our speaking French, we avoided an attack and much unpleasantness.

We finally arrived in our hometown. Today, I think that at that time it did not occur to me that I would someday have to write about and mourn the destruction of Jewish Kutno, the best and spiritual centre of a vibrant Jewish cultural life.

I still remember very well the beautiful welcome by the students of the Michalewicz School in honour of our arrival. The school even had its own building. I see before me the beaming faces of the children of the Hebrew high school in Kutno. I remember the bright faces of the children and youth who came to borrow books in our libraries. Thousands of books, an entire treasure of knowledge, culture and history was prepared for them. The libraries matched each teacher with the appropriate books.

And who does not remember the discussion evenings, box-conversations, lectures and readings, gatherings and meetings, and the clear explanations of international problems and Jewish topics.

And the older generation? Although emotionally depressed, always busy with worries, earning a living, family matters, they never lost their faith in better times. Observant Jews believed in the coming of the Messiah and hoped that He who lived forever, would never desert them in a time of trouble. Zionists tied their dreams and future to Eretz Israel and the national home which was being created there, and the Socialists were certain that the world would be rebuilt upon a new and just foundation.

And so once again, we inhaled the spiritual, national and world liberating atmosphere of Jewish Kutno during our visit to our hometown. Still today, I ask myself more than once, how was it possible in such poverty to elevate one's self to such a spiritual Jewish life? Surely, their strength gave them courage and endurance on their last way. Honour their memory.

 

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