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[Pages 429-422]

Chapter 17:

Warsaw Street

During the 1850's, Warsaw Street was totally destroyed by fire. Avrum Dombkiewicz (Terzer) was the first to rebuild houses on this street along the river “rzeka”. He sold the houses to Leibel Warsawer. Later he renovated old houses and built new ones at the end of the market place and on Plock Street. He himself lived in the first building, the one with the “entrance.” In the second house live the Russian, Ivanow, a former Cantonist.

Warsaw Street was the longest of the Jewish streets. It led the Jews of Mlawa on their last journey to the old and new cemeteries. But before that, there was a long stretch to go.

The street started off as a sort of corridor to the Old Market. Every day people traded in fish, fruit and vegetables here. The fisherman, the fruit peddlers, the stall owners and also Huneh the lame and his wife, Mania - were the ones who carried weight here. The housewives feared them like raging fire. They were careful not to slip and fall victim to their vicious tongues. Haim the Red contentedly sat on the fruit stalls with his daughter Rifka, who went crazy two weeks out of every four. “Rifka the Black,” the mother of Elka, the servant girl, was the most veteran huckster here. In winter she wore a warm coat lined with cotton and held a pot full of glowing embers between her knees in order to keep warm.

The fish were kept in a wooden bucket filled with lumps of ice. The fruit was placed in narrow, wooden pails and in deep, round baskets, or laid out in rows on wooden stands.

Red and yellow cherries, green gooseberries, green, yellowish-white currants, plums of all sorts and sizes, apples, pears alongside red radishes, yellow carrots, onions and beets were in abundance. All kinds of fruits and vegetables delighted the eye in their blaze of cool and fresh colors. The small market was always full. Even on weekdays it had festive look. Encircling it were the Jewish stores and Jewish craftsmen.

The entrance to Warsaw Street was watched over by Alter Kohn, the leader of “the Holy One's Cossacks,” who belonged to the Alexandrower shtibbl.

From the market, the street continued down the slope until it reached the pump. Then it climbed up to the little “Tzudek bridge,” racing uphill until the end of town.

The little houses were, for the most part, made of wood, in accordance with their owners' characters and taste. Only Jews lived there. Not EVEN ONE TREE GREW ON THE ENTIRE STREET. The street's inhabitants filled the air with noise. It was here that the organ grinders lived, the rag pickers, the drivers, coachmen and itinerant peddlers such as Yoel Lentke. Scattered here and there lived also Hassidic Jews like Mendel Wold, Haim-Shmayah the Dayan, Herszc-Tivia, Itcheh Mendel and Fischel Rosenstein. This was a street of artisans and storekeepers, a street of ordinary Jews.

A tall iron pump stood in the middle of the street. A pump was not an unusual sight. It provided water for house and beast. Many of the town's streets had pumps, there was one even in the market place opposite David Pizicz's house. The pump on Warsaw Street was different than all the others. Here it served as a border, a boundary between life and death. Every day it creaked and groaned with each pull of its bent iron handle as it sluggishly went up and down. Sometimes two or three personas had to hang on to it in order to draw some water. In the winter a mountain of ice built up around the pump and made it almost inaccessible. The water-carriers had to put glowing embers on the ice in order to melt it.

All of a sudden, there would be a death in town. The funeral proceeded from the market to Warsaw Street. In the winter, the pump grew like a mountain, blocking passage and making it difficult to pass. The escorts reached the pump, again extolled the deceased's virtues, participated in the weeping, delved into reflections, washed their hands, and returned. Continuing on his was, the corpse remained only with its dear and near ones. The “city” paid its last respects only up to the pump. The path from town to the pump was strewn with remorse, moral stocktaking, and sad thoughts.

The pump on Warsaw Street differed from all the others in town.

In town, hard water was brought from a pump or drawn from a well in a neighboring yard. There was much water at Yachet's, far away from the city. The water carriers carted the water on wooden barrels from house to house. Most of the water carriers belonged to the “Ladno” family. Itzikl carried water in two pails attached to a shoulder pole. He was a short, stocky Jew with flushed cheeks and short, black hair scattered over his head. Leibel “Pral” “ate days” in exchange for supplying water. Leibel was known all over town. Everyone took advantage of him and he was afraid of everybody, even of small boys. If anyone whispered into his ear the two words: “Leibel, knife,” this overgrown boy would put down his full pails, throw off the yoke, and start to run as though escaping from a blazing fire. Saturdays he ate at Abraham Yizhak Wiszinski's table. Twice a year he received a white elastic collar and a shirt from Berish Tzeitag. The Grzebieniarz family provided him with cotton trousers and a cotton jacket in exchange for porter services: carrying merchandise to the stall on market days. He used to get a large loaf of hallah, a few pennies, for carrying out an errand or for bringing shalahmones (exchange of gifts at Purim). During the entire year he carried water for the klezmorim in exchange for the privilege of carrying the double-bass and the trumpet to weddings. Leibel belonged to the city and the city took care of him.

A fine fellow, black as a Tartar was Leibel. His head floated in the clouds. Both winter and summer, his fat, shiny face erupted in red pimples from which stuck out bristles of short hair, sharp as needles. He was not one for talking. The words tumbled from his mouth, which extended from ear to ear, like single, unconnected links falling off a chain. He serached for each word like a person leaping from stone to stone as he tried to keep himself from falling into the mud. Each word was involved with the exertion of all his senses, all the muscles of his face and eyes. Finally a blurred sound would erupt, a word without defined borders that floated up from his thoughts.

The city took almost no interest in Leibel “Pral.” The folks believed that it was natural for a city like Mlawa to have its own madman, its own “sheketz” (shaygetz-scamp), and its own fool. And that's what they used to say: “When we do need a village fool, a town scamp, will we go to borrow such a creature from another town?”

Leibel himself did not bother anybody, never stood in anyone's way. He had one weakness, he took great pleasure in cantorial music. And if such longings slumbered in his heart, his great desire, his strong passion, was to once be worthy of the privilege of himself being the cantor before the reader;s stand in the synagogue. When Leib - Hirsch's son, who was a cantor in Breslau, came to visit his father, the days of carrying water and running errands, of being a porter in the market, came to an end. For days on end, Leibel hung about Leib-Hirsch's yard in order to see and hear the cantor from Breslau.

On Purim and on Simhat Torah, the Jews allowed themselves the liberty of seating Leibel in the middle of the synagogue hall with a trumpet in his hand so that he could demonstrate his ability. Leibel took this performance very seriously. His sounded the brass trumpet with the full force of his healthy lungs. Sounds flitted through the hall like black bats. All those who heard them, shuddered from fear and loathing. This maltreatment of Leibel brought about neither joy nor pleasure.

The same thing used to happen on Simhat Tora. When the rejoicing had reached its peak and the men were throwing their prayer shawls at one another, Leibel would be brought before the reader's stand. Once a year his wishes were fulfilled and his desires satisfied.

At noontime on Warsaw Street life went on outdoors. Jews sat in their stores, or stood at the entrances. Here was an artisan working away; there, next to a stall, stood his dealer. A cart passed, a wagon, Nahum the Ice Cream Man in his white apron, and barrels on his head.

In Alter Kohn's building there were many stores. First of all his store - chock0full of materials and fabrics. Wooden stairs lead to it. Alter Kohn's wife served the customers. Next to this store was the small shop of Moshe Gaben from the Alexandrower shtibbl. He was rent apart from being pressured by his bargaining clients. His head was covered with a velvet, Sabbath hat. Leah Fillar had a store there which also served as a delicatessen. One could eat a piece of herring and polish it off with a slice of sponge cake, drink a glass of tea or a glass of soda with syrup which was measured out in small wine-glasses made of white metal. These were soldered onto long, wire handles that hung over the tops of glass jars containing syrups of various colors; red like raspberries and citron-yellow. They whetted the desire to drink, to exchange a few words with the owner who once had been pretty and clever. Opposite this shop sat a sallow Jew, “futerl” (little father) in a real inn. The Gentiles drank beer and brandy there and gorged themselves on derma and cabbage.

Next to Leah Fillar's store lived and worked for many years Mendel the Cap-Maker, who was the son of Yohanan and the brother0in-law of Shmuelm the tombstone engraver. Mendel's lips quivered endlessly, like two loaded springs, as he recited chapters of Psalms and worked. He used to pray as he blocked a hat over his knees and even while being paid. He sewed caps for hundreds and thousands of Jewish and Gentile heads of all sorts and sizes. Jewish boys were brought to Mendel on festival eves. His two teenage sons worked with him. They followed their father in ways of Hassidism.

Opposite, one could get a haircut at the shop of Ya'akov Greenberg, the klezmer. Adjacent, at Loewenthal the Tailor's, hung a sign on which was drawn a woman in a long coat. Haim Slusarz (locksmith), Haskel Slusarz and Meyer Slusarz worked in the cellar. From Meyer's workshop one could hear the sounds of hammering and filing made by them and their apprentices.

The three locksmiths lived in this vicinity. One usually heard Meyer's voice. During all those years he began work as soon as the Sabbath was over. He was involved with the people of the town. Meyer was always mouthing proverbs, jokes in obscene language, even when not asked for his opinion. He had sons who were strong as steel, firm and solid. The boys in town knew that Herschel had a “barrel stave” in his belly and that he could stand up against the whole world.

Among the strong and healthy locksmiths lived a thin, pale, citron-yellow Jew. This was Mendel Owsianko who dealt in skins. Nearby was a large sign on which was drawn A Russian officer. That was where the army tailor Wielgolaski lived. In front of the door sat an old woman with poor sight and hearing. Pimples grew on her old skin. She cooked salty, spicy chickpeas that for years she measured out to the children in a wooden container, a little bit larger than a wine glass.

Next to Pinkus the Tinsmith and Rouhel-Leah who delivered chickens to Warsaw, lived Menasze Szrenski, a learned Hassid, the cantor of the Musaf prayer (prayer following the reading of the torah) in the old besmedresh. His sons wore spectacles set in gold frames. They were lovers of music.

Slightly closer to the market lived the shoemaker, Simha the Lame, and Abram who sewed fur coats. Opposite the pump lived the tarrer, Altman, and his brother, the “pharmacist,” who was “not quite right in the head.” He was covered from head to toe with the lubricating oil he offered the peasants in small, three legged metal bowls together with a small, black brush to smear over their boots.

On the left side of the street lived Shmuel-Eliyah Klein, the tailor Szrenski, the “Dziedzic” (a family) fishermen who dealt in trade with Germany, and the cap-maker Haskel Blum whose son Maneh's was the Jewish lawyer in town. Nearby lived and worked the dyer Eliyah. Just before the pump you could find the sons of Mordechai Yablon who, after his death, became barbers and klezmorim. When the rich began to hold their weddings in halls in Warsaw and the klezmorim's income dwindled, together with the son of Morgenstein the Tailor, they established an orchestra.

On the same street resided the cobbler Shapik, the valisemaker Krasnoborski, and many other Jews. Just in front of the little bridge lived the melamed Nuskeh and his son. Teitelbaum with the blond, pointed beard. He wore a stiff, black hat. By profession he was a writer of requests and a small-scale hedge lawyer, his special attire suited his trade. He advised poor clients on legal matters and took care of any clerical work involved.

The largest courtyard on Warsaw Street was that of Leyzer Narzemski. He conducted a large-scale business with Russia and Germany in skins, wines and chinaware. After his death, his business empire was conducted by his son-in-law, the Hassid Hersch -Tovieh Yonish, who was married to the pretty and clever Zisa-Reizel. In that yard traffic bustled and seethed. Many families lived there. People were constantly arriving and leaving or milling about.

In Hersch-Tovieh's time, there was a great change. The courtyard ceased to be a yard. Right in the middle of it, a house was suddenly erected, a warm and open Hassidic home. From morning until late at night, the doors never closed. People came to discuss matters of Hassidim, to ask for advice, to drink a glass of tea, and to play chess. If the walls could speak, they would tell how Zisa-Reizel, with the aid of other housewives, wisely and gracefully conducted the complex and secret work of bringing money and bundles of food and clothing to respectable families that had fallen on bad times. All this was carried out in the big and spacious kitchen that sparkled and shone with its pots and pans hanging on the walls and its cauldrons of heavy copper. Everything was done in secrecy, in strict confidence, so that no one would have any inkling of what was going on. Sara Wattemacher was the chief assistant. With the utmost grace she appeared wherever there was need to join in weeping and to comfort and gladden people's hearts with a maxim or a proverb.

In the apartment below, Hersch Tovieh walked about with a prayer shawl around his shoulders. He went from one room to another, walking back and forth even after prayers. Both in winter and in summer, Hersch-Tuvia's day began with a dip in the mikveh's cold water. “Is a Mitnaged able to appreciate the full flavor of a cool dip on a Saturday?” he used to say. This morning habit had taken root in the days when he had studied together with Yankeleh Radzyminer who later became a Rabbi. Hersch-Tovieh's head was always working. He just couldn't bring himself to behave like all the other Jews, he sought ways of his own. At the wedding of his first-born, Abraham Yankev, he just had to dance in the wine.

Hersch-Tovieh stopped travelling to visit the Rebbeh. When asked the reason why, he answered: “Each Rebbeh sets a table of his own. A small Rebbeh has a small table, a big one - a large table. My Rebbeh is so big and so great that his table reaches all the way to Mlawa. This means that I am always seated at the table of my Rebbeh.”

Hersch-Tovieh was considered one of the wisest persons in town. From morning till noon he sat and studied. Evenings people came, good friends, to ask his advice, to present him with matters for arbitration. He was known as a great arbiter not only in his town. He settled the most complicated disputes. When the Rabbi had difficulty in reaching a judgment, he would consult with Hersch-Tovieh.

Hersch-Tovieh's yard continued up to the little bridge. Here the street tilted slightly upwards as though to keep a distance from the dirty waters of the river “rzeka” that flowed so sluggishly that it bored one to tears. The stream cut the street in two. On the other side of the little bridge lived Haim-Shmayah the dayan. He was a Sabbath and festival-day Jew (one who held every day holy), totally immersed in the study of the Torah. His wife Dina together with her daughter Lieba saw to their livelihood. They had a small shop quite close to the little bridge. Haim-Shmayah taught the Fur Hassidim in their shtibbl.

An entirely different type was the proprietor of the house in which Haim-Shmayah lived. In Haim-Shmayah's apartment, which was in the upper portion of the building, people were immersed in Hassidim, in self-denial, always busy with preparing themselves for the world to come, praying, fasting and learning Torah. In the back of the yard stood a strong, sturdy, swarthy Jew, wearing a leather apron and holding an ax in his hand. He carved wheels out of hard wood and made carts for the peasants. This was Ya'akov-Hersch the Coachbuilder, known in town as Olbrisz. Because of a well known incident, he won fame among the gymnasium students who regarded him with admiration and envy. This was in the days when the youth wanted t o learn a trade suitable for living in Eretz Yisrael. The coachbuilder's trade was considered a difficult one. David Perla, Motek Bornstein and Ze'ev Jonis still remembered how hard it was for them to learn this trade. Haim-Yosef Eichler “tsots”, were he still alive, would also certainly recall Azriel the Blacksmith from whom Eichler and his friends learned a suitable and good profession for Eretz Yisrael.

Ya'akov-Hersch discovered, all of a sudden, that his trade was nothing to be ashamed of. Even in the Land of Yisrael this profession was in demand. Young men who “knew how to write” turned to him to learn coach building. It was hard for him to grasp and comprehend why people who “excelled in writing well” should seek to become coachbuilders.

*

Starting at the home of Azriel the Blacksmith, the houses became sparser. Here was the tar pit and where an unpaved alley passed through. Here were the beginnings of “Hashomer Hatzair” and of the gymnasium. Originally, Russian officers had lived there. Later, the “Talmud Torah” was in this place. Gardens laden with fruit made the Jewish boys risk their lives to climb over the fence and steal fruit.

From the hill extended the fields and orchards of the Starostow offices - the lungs of Warsaw Street. The sand paths raced pell-mell downhill until Yachet, up to the Segal distilleries, until they reached the Christian cemetery. At the edge of town was the government elementary school for the children of the Jews, Golomb's school. A bit further on, were Mendel Borenstein's brick factory and David Przysuskier's beer tavern.

A vast field spread out over a long distance. It was fenced off by a wall of red brick. On Tishah Be-Av, in the month of Elul, during the Ten Days of Penitence (between New Year's and the Day of Atonement), during the troubled days of the individual and the community, the paths were full of Jews. Men and women went to prostrate themselves on the graves, to implore and seek an advocate to plead their cause up above. Here was the cemetery in which a Mlawan Jew found his final resting-place.

The watchman who guarded the cemetery was from Argentine. His wife Pearl and his daughter Rachel carried milk to town.

This was the end of Warsaw Street. Here the Jewish town ended.

Tel Aviv, 1949

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