About 150 years ago there were some 200 Jewish families in Mlawa. Only a few Hassidic and Mitnagdim families had any influence on the community. The ruling Hassidic congregations were the Worka, Bialower, Alexandrowite and, only later, Gur. The traditions and modes of life of the first families were later passed on to children and grandchildren thereby creating the Mlawa version of the Jewish way of life.
Many of the first families of Mlawa originated in the surrounding towns and villages. A conspicuous leftover of this rural background was the Mlawian Jew's hard Yiddish pronunciation. The background of fields and forest was blended with simplicity and Hassidic romanticism. These produced the unsophisticated Mlawian Jew with his emotional nature who was prone to moodiness, immersed in dreams, inclined to exaggeration, superstition, and attached to his homeland. Hassidism found fertile soil in the hearts of the simple Jews who lived in the blessed and beautiful flatland of Mazowsze.
The teachings of the Hassidic Rabbis were taken quite seriously. Faith, honesty, and decency were natural phenomena. Everyone could partake of as much learning and Hassidism as his heart desired. In the Hassidic shtibbls and in the batei midrash, workers sat together with the rich. There was closeness between the Hassidic and artisan families of Mlawa. The craftsmen were not scorned, as was the usual custom in other Jewish communities. It was natural for Hassidim, Mitnagdim and workers to be linked through marriage. Wealthy and respectable Hassidic Jews were the sons of craftsmen, tailors, and butchers who excelled in the study of the Torah and in good manners. Many craftsmen studied the Torah during their free time and enabled their sons to study as a full time occupation.
Israel Alter was descended from a large and aristocratic Hassidic family who had lived in the city for about 120 years. Sons, sons-in-law and grandchildren multiplied and established many new families (as reported by Berish Perlmutter).
Israel Alter lived in the market place in Brachfeld's house. He was a prominent dealer in timber and wool. He spoke Russian and Polish. His sons and daughters were instructed in languages and music. His sons' melamdim were chosen by the Rebbeh, with whom Israel was on intimate terms. When the Wurka Rebbeh came to visit, Israel Alter would sit on the balcony wearing his shtreimel (fur-edged hat). On the other hand when the governor of the province came to see him, he would put on his top hat.
In his home he had his own besmedresh. He conducted a table (presided over a table, like a Rebbeh), was associated with and maintained a cozy relationship with the Hassidim.
Hassidic families with business connections and relations with the authorities had to know how to treat non-Jewish merchants and top officials. Such homes had stables of their own, carriages, men and women-servants, bookkeepers and managers.
Israel Alter's first wife bore him five sons and three daughters: Moshe, Tanhum, Herschke, Shmuel and Yosef-Shiyeh, Rifka-Leah, Sheyneh and Golda. From his second marriage there were two sons and two daughters.
Only one of the sons, Shmuel, left Mlawa. The others remained to establish new families. The most learned of them all was Tanhum. The military barracks were housed in buildings he owned. Israel Alter bought estates for his other sons: Marianowa for Yosef-Shiyeh, Mlawka - for Herschke. This was according to the formula: estates, forests, paving roads, and building barracks.
One of the sons, Victor Alter, strayed from the beaten path. He became one of the main leaders of the Bund. His sister, Esther Iwinska, was also active and was the Bund representative in the City Council of Warsaw.
Tanhum Alter, Victor's brother was one of the forerunners of Hovevei Zion and one of the founders of the Zionist Organization in Mlawa. During World War I, Tanhum left town and made his way to Moscow and from there, to Vienna. He died in Paris.
His son, Mordechai Alter, changed his name to Marco Altieri and lived in Rome. He was the director of the Palestine Office for many years. Two of Tanhum's grandsons live in Israel. Their father, Wowe, was murdered by the Nazis in Paris.
Yossel Goldstein, who dealt in lumber, was also a native of Mlawa. He followed in the footsteps of his father-in-law. Goldstein was a Hassid and a great philanthropist. He prayed at the Alexander shtibbl and often traveled to visit the Rebbeh. He conducted a table for the Hassidim on Saturdays and festival days. He excelled in his hospitality. It was in his home that the town dowries were deposited.
Goldstein's daughters were known for their beauty and their education. Several of them were university graduates. At the end of the 19th century, several Mlawian girls broke through to the outside world and went abroad, generally to Belgium, to complete their education. The first to go were members of the following families: Konecki, Mendel Borenstein, Yossel Goldstein, and Shayeh Lifschitz.
Yossel Goldstein's sons left Mlawa and scattered all over Poland. Shmuel was the head of the Czestochowa community council; Peretz settled in Kalisz; Mendel was a building contractor in Warsaw; Wolf, the brother-in-law of David Pizic went to Biala.
Mordechai Ben Tov (Gutgeld), the renowned leader of Hashomer Hatzair, Israel's first Minister of Labor, and Shulamith Bar Don, active in the Israeli theatre, are the great-grandchildren of Yossel Goldstein and of Israel Alter.
As one continues to study the pedigrees, one comes to Avrum Landau and his large family who were all immersed in Hassidim. Avrum Landau used to travel to visit the old Tzaddik of Wurka and became linked by marriage to the son of the Biale Rebbeh, Reb Itchkeh Landau. Abraham Landau's sons, Itcheleh and Yerahmiel, were Hassidim who dealt in textiles, faithful followers of the Rebbeh. The Landaus and their sons and grandsons lived in the market where they owned textile stores. They kept their sons from any secular learning.
Yerahmiel Landau excelled in the mitzvoth (merits) of hospitality. He never came home alone but always, with a guest. When his wife grumbled because he had not notified her in advance, he would say: And what do I ask of you, another spoonful of soup? On Saturdays he brought home all the melamdim for kiddush (blessing over a cup of wine consecrating the Sabbath or holiday) and they too ate their fill.
Highly regarded in town was the family of Shlomo Lizbraski and his sons: Fischel, Haim, Yehuda-Meyer, Abraham and Zalman. Some of them were Alexandrower Hassidim, others Gur-Hassidim. They lived in the market and were engaged in road construction, textiles, and wine.
Mention must be made of other established Hassidic families, those of Zelik Warszawski and Mendel Warszawski. They were distinguished for their honesty and modesty. When Mendel turned fifty, he liquidated his affairs, assured his daughters of dowries and devoted himself to books on ethics.
The teacher and writer, Yakir Warszawski, and the Bund activist and journalist, Binem Warszawski, are related to the Warszawski families of Mlawa.
The Wyszynski family was an extensive one, well represented in the batei midrash and Hassidic houses of prayer.
One of the prominent, well-to-do families was that of Haim Leyzer Narzemski. He was a modest man of means, solid, clever and a respectable citizen. He was always well dressed. He could always be relied upon to mediate justly between contestants in civil disputes. For many years he was one of the heads of the Jewish community. He dealt in hides, chinaware and the wholesale distribution of liquor. He was a Mitnaged and yet, sent his sons, Wolf and Yosef-Lev, to study in the shtibbl. His sons-in-law were Hassidim. One of them was Hirsch Tuvia Yonish.
The Makowski family followed an entirely different course. Yossel Makowski, who did not know how to read, provided his sons with a secular education. He himself was a handsome, wealthy Jew in the wheat and wool business. Once he came to Yossel Goldstein's house, took a newspaper into his hands and suddenly called out to Yossel Goldstein's wife: Rifka-Leah, a ship has sunk. He was not aware that he was holding the paper upside down. His son Haim knew several languages and his grandson Yossel was the only Jewish doctor of the Mlawian community during the last twenty years of its existence.
Among the veteran families of village origin who blended in with the urban population and held important positions was the eccentric family of Lemel Kleniec. He became wealthy from trading in timber. His son, Herman Kleniec, was prominent in public affairs. He was one of the first Zionists in the city. Herman's sons received high school and college education. This was all due to his wife, Sarah, the daughter of an intelligent Jewish family from Plock.
The only Hassid in the Kleniec family was Moshe-Yosef, a sort of goyish Hassid. He wore a Jewish hat with a leather visor like that of the goyim.
Lemel Kleniec chose his sons-in-law from Hassidic circles though he himself was far removed from Hassidism. One of his sons-in-law was the known iron dealer, the Alexandrower Hassid Shimon Lipsker.
The Rybaks were a respected and wealthy family. Even in those times, Ya'akov-Wolf and Yosef Rybak wore short jackets. Yosef was the Sane Bonislawski agent for the Russian fish trade. His son Henryk was an uncertified dentist in town. At present he is in Israel.
Ya'akov-Wolf was an exporter of wheat to Germany. His son Abraham Rybak was one of the local forerunners of Hovevei Zion.
A special chapter should be devoted to the melamdim who lived in Mlawa. Even Reb Itchkeh, who conducted himself like a Rebbeh, brought his grandsons a special melamed from the Rebbeh's court, Itcheleh Cziczower. Every melamed brought from out of town by some family was provided with food, clothing, and a salary. Many other melamdim such as Reb Ya'akov Winower, Mattathiahu Zaratiner, would rent a corner in some poor family '5 home. Others opened heders of their own.
It should be mentioned that the dardeki (small children) melamed, who came from Chorzel, 70 years ago, had a heder in which he taught both girls and boys. Tirza Bat Yehuda-Meir Lidzbarski, who some years later became the wife of the watchmaker Feivel Shapira, studied in this heder as did Esther Warszawski and others. The melamed '5 apartment led to the heder. Benches were set up in the room, mended plates, and clocks hung on the walls - this was the Chorzel melamed's side-occupation. All his pupils excelled in the reading of Ivrit - Hebrew).
The melamdim, of whom there was no lack, were named according to the cities from which they hailed. They were brought in from all over the country.
An entirely different sort of melamed was Zelik Baranower (Rosenberg), a Hassid and a great scholar. He accepted only four pupils. His wife and daughters helped to earn a living by making headbands and women's hats.
Meyer-Shlomo Rosenthal was very erudite. He liked to pray and also to peek into secular books. He sewed his coattails together so as to be exempt from the tzitzit commandment.
After the Polish uprising was put down, there was extensive assimilation among the Jews. At the same time the Litvaks (Lithuanians), who had been expelled from Russia, arrived in Poland. They brought with them the first concepts of the Haskalah (Enlightenment). One of those exiles was the melamed Yuzelewski who, even before Gordon, opened a modern heder in town.
A totally different character was the melamed Rouven-Leib Hertzfeld the Czajker (from the town Czajk). He was well versed in languages, especially German, taught Hebrew and the Bible. Even Reb Itchke, who considered Hertzfeld treyf (unfit), needed the melamed when his son wanted to learn to read and write Hebrew properly. The Czajker had two sons and two daughters. He used to say about one of the sons, who went about with a talith and phylacteries: He is a Rebbeh without Hassidim (followers). The other son was proficient in secular learning.
Of him the Czajker said: This is a professor without a chair. Sixty years ago, Hertzfeld's two daughters opened a school for girls for the study of Hebrew in which Hebrew was the language of instruction. One of the girls became the wife of Moshe the Shohet.
A group of Jews who enjoyed studying ancient Hebrew literature and philosophy gathered around the Czajker. The Czajker spent his free time in the company of David Opatowski. Together they wrote the preface to the first Pinkas (annals) of Hovevei Zion in town. He was also a friend of Israel Goldman (the brother-in -law of Yossel Goldstein), an Alexander Hassid who was both very pious and a great scholar, grammarian and poet. Like his friend, David Opatowski, the father of the well-known writer Yosef Opatoshu, he was well versed in ancient Jewish philosophical literature.
Rybak of Plock discarded his long caftan and taught foreign languages. Later, so did the teachers Sanino, Bukowtzer, the elementary school teacher and, finally, Moshe Golumb. Generally, only the children of the rich studied languages. The Jewish girls attended the Polish pensia (high school).
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