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[Pages 465-462]

Chapter 11:

The Border

One edge of the city's forest reached Yanewo, Chorzel and even further. The other side neared Neidenberg, AUenstein and the vicinity of East Prussia. The forest started out near Roda and extended for dozens of miles all around.

The forests would have continued forever if not for the people who surveyed them and determined that in these thick woods Russia's territory ended and that of Germany began. Deep furrows were dug in the ground, border stones placed there and soldiers dressed in green were posted on the border to guard the pits and stones that separated the two countries.

As usual, the forests were green in spring and summer, white and covered with snow in the winter. Among the trees grew thousands of species of flowers. Animals and insects made their homes on the trees and many different birds chirped and flew about there.

When a forest serves as a border, many strangers appear who move about quietly and stealthily. They pray for a dark night, for a pouring rain, for the moon to be hidden by clouds, and for raging winds so that the green soldiers will not notice them as they cross the border, so that they will be neither seen nor heard. If one of them encounters a green solider, one of the two must give way or else move on into the next world. Once there was such an incident involving a Jew from Mlawa who did not want to retreat and who sent the green-garbed soldier to kingdom come. He tied the green one's body and his rifle to one of the trees so that it could continue to stand there and keep watch. This same Jew later erected a besmedresh in the city, put a fence all around the new cemetery and erected an ohel (a special structure built over the graves of Tzaddikim) over the old Rabbi's grave.

There is no need to be stubborn and have to shoot right next to the border. One can reach a compromise. It is possible to negotiate and reach an agreement with the green soldiers and include them in the action. That makes it possible to cross the border from either side without interference until, once again, there is some hitch.

The forest was a source of income for many people in town. True enough, such a livelihood was not an easy one and it involved danger and moral degradation. Mighty forces guarded the city and made sure it would not turn into a center for smuggling.

Together with the counterband goods from across the border, new concepts and ways of life began to penetrate the city.

One shouldn't think that the border was a sort of “Klondike” to which people rushed in search of gold. To the few Jewish ways of earning a living, another was added. A narrow crack appeared and the Jews burst through it in spite of all -the dangers involved, because they had no alternative. The border created new means of livelihood.

A young man would wander about town with no work in sight. There was nothing left of the dowry he had received and, perhaps, he had never received one. Life had become tedious. Until he married, he was a student in the Hassidim's Yeshiva (Talmudical academy). The Torah was his goods, his only possession. Now, suddenly, there was a millstone around his neck, a wife and children. What was he to do? He got a “pass” and began “to travel.”

In the dark of night, before the sun had risen, one could see thin, young Yeshiva students, unattached women, and young widows, turning towards the Prussian border. Thin and lean they infiltrated before sunrise, large and fat they returned in the evening. Throughout the day, the hearts of the young women at home would tremble with fear: “God willing he should cross safely.”

And when they succeeded in their mission, the young men returned in the evening and peeled off trousers, short jackets and coats, without end. Each of them tried to load his thin body with as much clothing as possible in one trip, with all the -dangers and expenses involved. Women draped themselves in silk and smuggled gold watches and diamonds. If they had bad luck and were caught, it was a nasty business. For the most part, the border was “ours,” meaning - the border guards had been bribed. From time to time there was an incident, the goyim confiscated the goods and in addition, “bestowed” generous blows. Veteran smugglers, like fish in water, sensed the dangers of the border, avoided being caught, and succeeded in slipping away.

In town, Hassidic Jews, respectable citizens and wealthy merchants awaited the young people and their goods. An extensive trade in used silk clothing and gold developed in town.

The “trips” across the border, the short garb, the risks involved the encounters with a totally different world and its foreign customs, removed the Yeshiva boys from the bosoms of their patriarchal families. New ideas and ambitions slowly crept, unnoticed, into their heads and hearts.

After some time had passed one could meet some of these young smugglers now active in various social and political institutions. Others, not many, fell into the slough of demoralization.

The trade in horses was on an entirely different scale. Not every young Hassid who was out of work was capable of smuggling horses across the border. It required expertise. Close to the border there was extensive trade in horses. In town there were respectable citizens such as the Wiur family, Freidenberg, Lichter, and Yoseph Domkiewicz who dealt in horses. Their trade extended throughout the country and abroad. No one thought it in bad taste. The lively trade in stolen horses was well described by Opatoshu in his book, “The Horse Thieves.” Horse thieves like Kivke Pareh and Gradid, the hurdy-gurdy man, occasionally stole a horse from a stable and sneaked it across the border. But this was only for “amateurs,” when they had the chance. “Big-time” professional horse thieves were called “kradnikim.” This profession was passed on from father to son. Not only were they horse thieves but also mayvins and great lovers of horses. For many years they headed this trade across the border.

In the course of time, this was all forgotten. One of them had the privilege of becoming the beadle of the large synagogue, in place of the respectable Yosef Rodak.

The pinnacle of this trade was reached in smuggling “little sea wolves” (“hechtlech”). It involved an extensive network of Jews and Gentiles, among them many top government officials and army men, that stretched out from the depths of Russia to Mlawa. For many years this organization dealt in the transfer of young army deserters, political dissenters, illegal residents across the border. In town, these travelers were called “little sea wolves.” From time to time, the city became full of hundreds of young outsiders from all over Russia. They would wait in town for a “propitious border hour.” In town the streets trembled under the wheels of the heavy wagons of Yanket Glotzer, Feivesh Domb and Zureh the Wagoner which were packed and loaded with “little sea wolves.” They streamed to the border and from there, on to America and other countries across the sea.

The police, the gendarmerie, the border's military guard and their officers and commanders were generally in the “pockets' of those in charge of the transactions involved in the smuggling of the “little sea wolves.” Sometimes the -fate of a provincial minister or of a top official, i.e. whether he remained in office or was exiled to the wilds of Russia, depended on the Jewish bosses of these deals. When the smugglers wanted to be rid of a goy who didn't understand the setup, they managed to have him exiled. The border once again was “ours.” If there was some hitch and they were detected, there were two alternatives: to plead “let us return” or to charge across the border under a fusillade of bullets from the other side.

Jews from all sectors of the population and from different social standings milled around the border. Slowly the city became the commercial center of the neighboring towns and attracted Jewish merchants, teachers, melamdim and clerks from many cities, even those far away. The encounter with the outside world served to set Mlawian Jewry onto a secular road.

The Jewish political refugees who had just arrived in town from Russia or Lithuania, brought with them something totally new. Among all the towns, Mlawa excelled in secularism, intelligentsia, and greater understanding of the aspirations of the time.

The social life, the various social and political institutions, the Mlawian representatives of all the executive committees of all the Jewish political parties and movements in Poland, show us that the city of Mlawa was not corrupted by the illegal border activities. It seems that honesty and integrity were deeply rooted in Mlawa's Jewish community and prevented the city from becoming merely a center for smuggling.

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