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Our Home

Shalom Margalit

 

My father, Reb Aron Jakow Margaliot, of blessed memory

My father's entry into life began something like this: the beginning was like every bar-mitzvah boy's. On Sabbath morning, my grandfather, Reb Shalom Margalit, appeared with his son, Aron Jankel the barmitzvah boy, at the Ciechanow study hall. They prayed and read from the Torah. When they reached the end of the Torah reading, the beadle announced: “Rise for maftir [the final section of the weekly Torah portion read on Sabbath and holiday mornings in synagogue], the young man Aron Jankel, son of Shalom”. He ascended the reader's platform and stood next to his father before the open Torah scroll. At the proper moment, his father called out in a solemn voice, “Blessed is He who has absolved me from the punishment of this [boy]”, that is, from that moment, he “opens” his son's own account, for good deeds as well as bad ones, Heaven forbid.

After three years, my grandfather brought him to Ostrolenka, to his bride, and ordered him to say the “Behold, you [are consecrated to me]”. The klezmorim played, it was merry, they danced a mitzvah tanz [mitzvah dance, dancing before the bride on the wedding night] with the virginal, modest bride. The jester made the crowd merry with his rhymes “for laughter and for tears”, and the in-laws congratulated each other – in short, joy and happiness. When the tumult subsided and the guests dispersed, the two, who had just come out from under the canopy – the husband, only recently turned sixteen years of age, and the young

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wife – were led to the bedroom in the father-in-law's apartment. They also said that from here, perpetual support began, that is to say, full maintenance of the groom in his father-in-law's home. The father and mother asked the in-laws, while parting, to take care of their son, so that he would sit and learn and be an observant Jew. Good friends praised the groom and recited his good qualities to the father-in-law: handsome, smart, a scholar. The father-in-law added “Indeed, I have got a bargain.” Those gathered immediately grasped this characterization, and the nickname “Metzia” [bargain] stuck to my father all the days of his life.

My father told me that his father-in-law owned a large workshop for leather goods and upholstery, and employed several workers and a foreman. At the time, my father still sat in the study hall and learned Torah from early in the morning until late at night. He was the leader of the “kept sons-in-law” before they began dealing in “something”, that is to say, before they found a source of support for themselves.

 

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Reb Aron Jakow Margaliot,
of blessed memory

 

After a time, my father suddenly began to appear at home in the evening, and also peeked into the workshop when work went on there at full speed. He showed great interest in work procedures, asked questions and made comments which already bordered on expressions of opinion.

The foreman saw him as a kind of competitor, and the father-in-law was angry at his son-in-law, who was neglecting the study of Torah. For it is clearly stated: “And the study of Torah is equal to them [mitzvot, religious commandments] all”, and the neglect of Torah study is the greatest transgression. They both forbade him to enter the workshop and indicated his proper place: the study hall.

The situation led to disputes and harsh conflict. Since my father could not tolerate this, he left the house and returned to his parents' home in Ciechanow.

Letters and messengers arrived. His wife was suffering, disgraced before others. But he was inflexible in his decision not to return. Grandfather went with my father to the famous Rebbe of Ciechanow, Reb Awrejmele, the very same rabbi that my father went to when he was a youth, he who had approved the match. The rabbi asked him why he had left his wife and returned to his father's house. My father explained to him that, besides learning Torah, he also wanted to learn to work and engage in trade. He did not agree that his father-in-law should work and support him.

When the rabbi turned to my grandfather and asked his opinion, he answered, “Holy Rabbi, my son lacks for nothing. In my opinion, the cessation of learning is a sin on his part” …

My father related that silence prevailed in the rabbi's room. The rabbi's face became serious, as if he was planning something. My father was desperate, because he knew that his fate hung on the rabbi's decision and that he could not oppose it.

The rabbi began to mumble something, as if he were consulting himself:

“While neglect of Torah study is indeed a sin, so hard work is a great thing, as is written: 'While you eat of the labor of your hands, happy shall you be and it will be well with you …

” Here the rabbi turned to my father and asked him aloud: “Who is it that interferes with your entering the workshop? If it is the foreman, perhaps he does not know that you are the son-in-law of the owner!” My father explained that this was impossible, since the foreman was at the wedding.

The rabbi signaled to my father to draw near him, and said to him, “Perhaps you should make clear to him that you are the son-in-law of the owner, and he, the foreman, is only a salaried worker.” Hearing this, my father was at a loss. The rabbi, as though shrouded in a cloud, suddenly uttered a few words: “Any Torah that is not supplemented with work – its end is idleness. He who formulated the idea of linking Torah with hard work – let him say how to act …”

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The rabbi took 20 kopeks out of his pocket and offered my father his contribution to the purchase of work tools, wished him success and ordered him to return to his wife.

When he returned home, my father really began to take an interest in the matter of work. Armed with the rabbi's blessing, he began to organize a group of young men from the study hall to support him in case of any trouble. The foreman was still not ready to accept my father's enthusiasm and wanted to dismiss him, but his friends came to his aid and a public scandal developed. Neighbors in the street also intervened. “This is the owner's son-in-law!” Finally, the two – the father-in-law and the foreman – agreed that my father would be recognized as a partner in the business. Gradually, he took upon himself the management of the workshop.

In those years, labor was done mostly by nonprofessionals. Thanks to his drive, sharp intellect and power of persuasion, my father succeeded in developing the business to the fullest extent in a short time. He began supplying merchandise to the army and formed ties with estate owners, as well as the nobility. His dress became very elegant, in Jewish style, however. To impress his clients, he used to travel in a private carriage, harnessed to his own horses, to get orders and manage accounts. His gaze was deep and wise, his beard short and well-trimmed. My father was not tall, but he walked very erectly, with quick steps. Interwoven in his conversation were wise maxims, verses and sayings of Our Sages. He always had an audience that listened with enjoyment to his stories, which were laced with humor and wit.

In time, his wealth grew, and he began to give interest-free loans to the needy in exchange for collateral. When the collateral was Sabbath or Chanukah candlesticks or another useful item, the debtor received it back for use whenever necessary, and then returned it to my father.

My father's prestige grew yearly, until he became an elder of the city and the Jewish community, and served as the latter's chairman for a time. He administered the city's affairs in his own way, and refused to be “harnessed to any political wagon”, especially the religious parties. His uncompromising personality did not permit the exploitation of any decision for the benefit of any group. He remained nonpartisan. His eyes and heart were open to everyone, without ascertaining the tendency of their thoughts or party affiliations. Therefore, he won the recognition and appreciation of all classes of the Jewish populace.

A practical person, my father understood how to make his actions suit every government and regime. When the Cossacks murdered the Jews of Miastkowa at the time of the Russian regime, the city's rabbi, Rabbi Icchak Bursztejn, of blessed memory, announced in the middle of prayers (it was on Rosh HaShana), that the congregation should perform the Torah reading quickly, as Reb Aron Jankel, my father, had to go to the gubernator to try to prevent the pogrom that might take place at any minute.

 

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My mother,
Fejga, of blessed memory

 

I remember that when I was already a mature youth, I heard my father's conversations with members of the German regime, and after a time – with the Poles. He behaved toward them as an equal among equals, and got their attention thanks to his power of persuasion and his words, which were always seasoned with piquant humor.

More than once, my father saved Jews from imprisonment and other punishments. Although he was a lobbyist – because other means were not available then to Jews – he acted with pride and not with flattery and obsequiousness. I remember an occasion of a commercial transaction, when a Polish officer (an apostate) from the Fifth Regiment of the Army Cavalry spoke to my father in a tone of disrespect, as if to a “Jew boy”. My father did not fail to respond. The officer was insulted and pointed to the signs of his rank, as proof that he was of senior status and privileged. My father immediately pointed to his white beard and said, “I am more senior than you …”

After World War I, when my father lived in Lomza with his family, a delegation from Ostrolenka, together

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with the mayor, Reb Mosze Aron Kaczor, came to him and asked that he return to them and help build the city. They promised to provide him with a new apartment, in place of his home, which had been burned. Although he was no longer young, he returned and went to work, still full of energy and firsthand experience. He assisted in the construction of the study hall, the ritual bath, the Talmud Torah and the community, and took an active part in the appointments of Jewish law adjudicators, slaughterers, etc. Apartments and work were given to refugees who came to the city, most of them from Pinsk. Out of their own pockets, they also took care of residents of the city who survived and were without employment and a roof over their heads.

I would like to mention here the famous story that has passed by word of mouth among Ostrolenkans to this day, about the way that Rabbi Bursztejn, of blessed memory, was hired to be rabbi of our city. The famous episode also touched directly on my father's communal activities. It is said that after Rabbi Mosze Nachum Jeruzalimski, of blessed memory, left the rabbinical seat, Ostrolenka remained without a rabbi. Two camps formed concerning the appointment of a new rabbi for our city. One side, made up of Gur and Amszinow Chassidim and others, demanded the appointment of a specific rabbi (a rabbi from Seraja, I believe, whose name I never heard). The second side, to which respectable balabatim, such as Welwel Benedon, Aron Jankel Margaliot, Mendel Brin, Lejbke Lejzer, Israel Chmiel and others belonged, insisted that only Rabbi Bursztejn from Piontnica (outskirts of Lomza) would get the rabbinate of Ostrolenka. A life or death dispute broke out in the city. The two sides did not balk at any means, even physical force, and also recruited their sons and hirelings in the “war”.

My father, as I have mentioned, tended entirely toward the opinion of the balabatim.

The decisive day came when Rabbi Bursztejn was to arrive in the city. Everything was ready for his reception. The night before, however, the beadle woke my father and told him about the intrigues of the other side – the Chassidim. The access lane to the study hall was strewn with obstacles and the new rabbi's place at the eastern wall was destroyed and overturned by acts of mischief done when no one saw. The “department” of the balabatim's side labored all night to restore order. The next morning, the new rabbi was received with great honor and glory. My father's side celebrated after the victory.

For many years, Rabbi Bursztejn occupied the rabbinical seat in Ostrolenka. The entire Jewish populace, without exception, honored him greatly.

Arbitrations and compromises of all sorts between Jews and Gentiles, as well as between Gentiles and Gentiles, were a daily phenomenon at our home. My father's public activities cost him a great deal of energy, sleepless nights and sometimes expenditures from his own pocket, as well, because the community fund did not always have the means necessary to cover all expenses.

The way to help Jews in times of trouble was not always easy and simple. Sometimes a Jew built his modest home at great expense, but without the required license, and a demolition order was issued against him by the government; or the son of a poor widow, her sole support, was to be drafted into the army. In another instance, a young man went out one night and the police caught him when a red flag was hung on the telegraph wires. My father could help only before the report reached the Commandant, and he tried not to miss the deadline. This was not easy.

For several decades, my father served the city of Ostrolenka faithfully and devotedly. He helped Jews in times of trouble, great and small. Every groan echoed in his soul.

My father was born in 1885 in Ciechanow and passed away in 1939 in Lomza, which was already under Nazi rule.

Blessed be his memory.

My mother always used to talk about how her parents married. It happened thus: my mother's father leased lands on a large scale. Among others, he leased a plot of land in the village of Brzezany. He generously supported yeshivas and needy Jews. The father of a “grown-up” daughter (barely fifteen years old), he decided to marry her off. He therefore turned to the head of the yeshiva and asked him to find a groom among the “yeshiva's leading minds”. And indeed, he gave him one of the sharp minds. This was Rabbi Icchak Mosze, of blessed memory, the son of the great lamdan, Rabbi Meir Krulawiecki, author of Divrei Negidim and other books.

Of the daughter, the young bride, they did not speak at all, and no one cared how she looked. Terms were agreed upon and a date was set for the wedding.

A short time before the wedding – it was the week of Shabbat Bereshit [the Sabbath when the annual cycle of Torah readings recommences with Genesis I –

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Bereshit] – the bride's father invited the groom and the head of the yeshiva to [visit] him. The father-in-law's house was built in rustic style: a large square room, in the midst of which stood a wooden tub for waste water. Around it strolled chickens, pecking up food crumbs that were abundantly spread on the floor.

One day, in the afternoon, the sound of an approaching wagon was heard and someone called out “The groom is coming!” The young bride was panicstricken and, while running, slipped and fell into the waste water tub… She stood there, wet, and burst into tears when the groom entered and caught the first glimpse of his bride. He merely said “Rustic”, but this did not interfere with the match …

After the wedding, he devotedly continued his studies, wrote and published treatises about Torah matters, and was revealed to be extremely talented. His brilliant mind was an inexhaustible source of Torah, and his books won recognition from Torah and religious greats.

In time, three daughters were born to him, but he himself passed away in his prime, at the age of thirtysix. His unfinished treatises were completed by his father, Reb Dawid Meir, of blessed memory. One of the three orphans, named Fejga, a beautiful young girl, was “handed over” to the home of her father's sister, Sara Basia, and her husband, Eliezer Dimensztejn, in Lomza, where Torah and wisdom were respected. She was educated there.

My father, then a widower with three children, sought a mother for them and a wife for himself. He was among the city's community leaders and a very well-to-do man. He was presented to Fejga Krulawiecki, an eighteen year old beauty of very distinguished lineage. Although he was a widower and older than she, his captivating personality and the fact that she was an orphan were persuasive and she agreed to the match.

My father brought her to Ostrolenka, to his big, beautiful home. She demonstrated maternal devotion to her husband's three children, opened her good heart and gentle soul to them, and was like a real, not step-, mother to them. The fact that she herself had been orphaned from her mother helped. We, her five children, who were born to the family (who survived out of seven), did not feel the difference at all. It was as if we were the children of one mother. She also demonstrated a good and kind attitude to those around her.

I remember my mother always diligently and devotedly busy, occupied with housework. Even when my father's three sons from his first wife – Josef, Icze and Mosze – were already married, the house was still full of noise and hustle and bustle. The hardships of parenthood began when my brother, Meir, went to Israel. My mother worried without end and used to say sadly, “Does my son eat enough there? Who prepares a clean shirt for him? Is there someone who takes care of him when he is sick?” Her worry and disquiet caused her many sleepless nights and tears, which she wept in secret.

She led only one of her children to the wedding canopy – her eldest daughter, Chaja. She escorted all the others to the railway station in Kaczyny, on their way to Israel. Instead of singing Mazel Tov to the Bride and Groom, the song A Jew Goes to Israel with Tears in His Eyes echoed in the air.

My dear, beloved mother! You stood there brokenhearted, for instead of standing under your children's wedding canopies, you accompanied us on our way, while loud hora [Israeli folk dance] and stirring pioneer dance tunes played, which were not to your taste then. You stood there dumbfounded. You were silent and did not say anything. Only at the moment of departure did your eyes speak, expressing grief and deep pain. One tear trickled after another, out of love for your children who were going far away…

The train's whistle split the air and took us from her. Your heart was weakened, cut off, severed piece by piece… After the departure of each one of us, you returned home and counted how many were still left to you – and thus five times! The most painful of all is that we did not get the chance to repay you for your kindness, for your good-heartedness and devotion, for raising and educating us. We cannot be blamed for this. The hand of fate was involved, the loss of the six million by the demonical and evil hand, meticulously and thoroughly planned on that somber Friday which foreshadowed destruction. You, too, my dear mother, shared that cruel fate.

May your memory be blessed and may God avenge your blood!


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In 1937

Chasia Drori

In 1937, I was sent from Israel to the United States for public relations and fundraising on behalf of the Histadrut and the Moetzet HaPoalot [Working Women's Council]. On my way from the Zionist Congress in Lucerne, I was asked to stay at hachshara kibbutzim in Poland for two months.

I was glad to have this opportunity to visit my relatives in Ostrolenka and Zambrow – sisters of my husband, Awiezer (his sister, Leja, and a married daughter with children lived in Ostrolenka).

When I arrived from Warsaw at Ostrolenka's railway station, which was far from the city, a middleaged man suggested that we hire a carriage together. I agreed immediately. When we passed through an avenue of beautiful, tall birch trees, I remarked that, in Israel, the eucalyptus trees grow better and taller. My traveling companion demanded immediately that the coachman stop the horse, jumped as if bitten by a snake and, with his suitcase, ran away terrified, vehemently cursing the damned Jews all the while. The embarrassed Gentile coachman hurriedly brought me to my sister-inlaw in the city center, hinting that the man had supposed that I was a Christian tourist. He was a government clerk and, in light of the anti-Semitic state of affairs that was growing daily, it was impossible for a Polish government clerk to travel in public with a Jewish woman.

After the first joy of meeting passed, I felt the family's anxiety, an anxiety that returned every day at one o'clock in the afternoon, when their six year old grandson was due to return home from school, insulted, beaten, and sometimes scratched and injured by inflamed Polish children. Indeed, the grandson returned home a whole hour late, because he had searched for a new route to avoid the wrath of the Gentile children and their abuse.

Because of the growing anti-Semitism, the general boycott spread to the city's entire commercial life, attended by murderous terror. Every day, I went to the Square to observe the lives of the Jews and their suffering. Most of the Jews' shops were in the city's center, and above them – apartments. On the paved road, elderly people did business over small handcarts. At nine o'clock in the morning, young Poles appeared, dressed in the uniforms of the quasi-Fascist movement, and armed with special sticks. Within a few minutes, five carts and their contents were overturned and boxes strewn in every direction. With threats and murderous roars, they forced elderly Jewesses to leave the place. A Jew, dressed in long, somewhat shabby clothes, with a leather satchel under his arm, cautiously drew near to help gather up the merchandise. When he bent down under an overturned handcart, the impure hand of a young Gentile caught him up and dragged him the length of the street. He handed him over to his friend for additional blows from a stick intended for this purpose. The doors of the Jewish shops were closed against the “evil eye” of the Polish bullies. Heavy curtains covered the windows, so that Gentile customers who came in to make a purchase would not be seen. There was widespread spying by the youth gangs, and a Christian who bought from a Jewish store did not escape them. Heartbroken, I went out again the next day to see the hurt of my people with my own eyes. Standing on a corner on the side, I suddenly heard a prolonged whistling. This was a signal announcing that a Christian woman had violated the boycott and was in a Jewish store. In a minute, a group of six young bullies encircled a manufacturing shop, from which an elderly peasant woman burst, hiding some fabric under her clothing. She ran with all her might to evade her pursuers. Breathing heavily, she stood for a brief moment before the wild youths and shouted at them: “Savages! Scum! God does not dwell in your hearts! Are not the Jews human beings?” Their reply was an evil laugh, vehement curses and raised sticks. Alongside her stood a sturdy peasant, her husband, however, and she was rescued.

Indeed, there apparently were some people among the Poles who were disgusted by the manifestations of hatred against the Jews – but how few they were! I stayed in Ostrolenka for five days, because I had to visit Zambrow before going on to Vilna, Lodz, Brisk and Warsaw. That week, in very large letters, the newspaper announced a national Andaks convention. Deathly fear seized nearby towns, in the expectation that a pogrom would follow the Andaks convention. It was Yom Kippur Eve. The synagogues were full to the

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bursting. A heart-rending cry rose from the women's section. I myself had grown up in Homel, a city in White Russia, formerly a large Jewish center. During my childhood, I had not attended a synagogue except for on Simchat Torah for Hakafot [seven dancing circuits made with Torah scrolls on the holiday]. Here in Ostrolenka, however, in the women's section of the synagogue, I wept bitterly for our bitter fate, together with the multitude of Israel.

The rumor of my arrival from Israel by way of the Zionist Congress and my mission to the Jews of America reached many who dreamed of emigration and certificates – especially the youth groups. On Sabbath afternoon, my sister-in-law's house was full to the bursting: men, women, young couples and youths. I told them about my village, Kfar Yechezkel, which was being built, about the accomplishments of the settlement movement and the Histadrut, about our war against decrees to strangle emigration, about bloody events that still continued, about the first of the “stockade and tower” settlements that year, about the hope of meeting soon in the fields of Israel. Ah, they were not fulfilled – these, my hopes, their hopes – all our hopes.

Who could have imagined that the lives of the Jews in Ostrolenka during that black year were idyllic, compared to the Holocaust and the loss which overtook them after only two years? Solitary, broken survivors came from there. From the extensive, established Kupferminc family, not a single soul arrived. I was the last to see them.

May we be worthy of the holy ones of Ostrolenka in our renewed lives in the sovereign State of Israel.

Kfar Yechezkel


Memories of the Townspeople

Like other cities in Poland, our city of Ostrolenka also excelled in interesting “types”, whose names are worthy of preservation. I will describe here one of the interesting and important couples – perhaps the most important in our city – Chaim Elkes and his wife, Pina, of blessed memory (his nickname was Chaim Skornik).

Although everyone in Ostrolenka knew them well, no one was as attached and close to them as my parents, may they rest in peace, and we children, since our early childhood. Therefore, I feel obliged to describe these two rare people.

Chaim Elkes was of medium height and a bit plump. When he walked in the street, his body always leaned forward, in the direction of his steps. He had a beautiful yellow beard (which, at the end, was already graying). By nature, he was very meticulous. In his dress, on Sabbaths and on weekdays, his cleanliness and preciseness were obvious. His boots shone in the winter, as did his shoes in the summer. He was a keen Gur Chassid, but without political involvement. He never got involved in the political strife of the shtebl of the Gur Chassidim. He walked the path of a Torah Jew. He studied a Gemara lesson every morning, and among those who studied with him was Icze Szperling (the son of Herszel Szperling). His life went on this way daily.

Chaim Elkes and his wife, Pina, were cousins of my parents, may they rest in peace, and lived in our apartments. Chaim had a store of hard and soft leathers, which he sold to tailors and shoemakers, Jews and Christians alike. Farmers who came to the city on market days bought his merchandise, too. We, the children, [visited] them, ran about and got into mischief every day after we returned from heder. Chaim and Pina loved us very much (they were childless). On Purim, I came to them in costume, sang a few Purim songs and received three kopeks and, in exchange for the mishloach manot [Purim gift basket] I brought them, three kopeks more. By the start of World War I, I already received 10 kopeks for mishloach manot, and thus ended my Purim profits…

A fireproof safe stood in Chaim's house. He used to give charitable loans in exchange for collateral, which he kept in the safe until the debtors came to redeem them. It would happen that on a Sunday, a woman brought her silver candlesticks, her only possessions, as collateral, in order to get a charitable loan so that she could earn her bread during the week. Of course, Chaim gave it to her. If on Friday, however, she did not repay her debt, he understood that she had not earned anything. In such an instance, he gave her the candlesticks on Friday, so that she could light candles and so that, God forbid!, her Sabbath would not be disturbed. In addition, he left her a bit of money for

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Sabbath expenses. He sometimes returned collateral without getting a loan back, especially when respectable balabatim were concerned. He understood their condition well, and instances like these were not rare. I remember that, once, he was robbed and a great deal of merchandise was taken from his store, which was not insured. The lost was very great, but he did not talk about it a great deal. In general, every loss was lovingly accepted.

Thus he conducted his affairs until he left the city, a year after World War I broke out.

The war broke out on Tisha B'Av [the ninth day of the month of Av, a major annual Jewish fast day] in 1914. After exactly one year, a decree was published, according to which all the city's inhabitants had to evacuate the area of the front. Chaim and his wife went to Ostrowa and we met them there. We were together for three weeks and then we separated. Both families moved to Russia, but in different directions. After a few weeks, my parents received news that Chaim and his wife were in Homel. We were in central Russia. Chaim, a devoted and faithful Chassid, was unable to sit in peace, and wished to be united with the holiness of Chassidism.

One day, my parents received a letter from him, informing them that he intended to go to Rostov, where the Lubavitcher Rebbe resided. He went there, absorbed the Chassidic atmosphere for a few days and visited us on his way back. We were all glad to meet after a separation of several years. After a few days, he returned to Homel. After that, we did not see Chaim in Russia. They returned to Ostrolenka a long time before we did. As soon as they arrived in the city, they went to their apartment (on our lot) to find articles they had hidden in the cellar, as well as collateral that the Jews had not managed to redeem before the evacuation. Chaim and Pina were stunned to discover that nothing remained; everything had been burned, and even the foundation stones were uprooted.

Having no alternative, they began a new life. They settled in Pesach Hochberg's house, where they received an apartment and an empty store nearby. Chaim returned to his business, trading in hard and soft leathers, and his business flourished. Meanwhile, we, too, returned from Russia. Our first stop was Chaim's house, because nothing remained of ours. In a few days, my mother and two of her sisters, may they rest in peace, fell ill with typhus. This was a result of traveling for weeks in Russian freight trains in shameful sanitary conditions (various plagues ran rampant in Russia then).

Chaim and Pina were not frightened, despite the fact that the disease was contagious. When neighbors suggested moving the sick to a hospital, they did not consent, and preferred tending them by themselves and helping as much as they could. To this day, I remember their warmth and devotion toward my mother and her sisters, may they rest in peace, until they had completely recovered.

Chaim was a man of integrity. He gave his merchandise on credit to Jewish tailors and shoemakers, and patiently waited until they were able to pay him. He never tried to collect notes from Jews. He was also very charitable – openly and, even more, in secret. I often met him on Thursdays in some side alley, on his way back from a home where he had left an anonymous donation for Sabbath expenses. The main thing was that Jews should not go hungry. And there were more than a few homes like these. He also brought charitable loans to the lender's home. Now, he did not ask for collateral. After he returned from Russia, he gave loans and did not take any collateral. And so his life went on until World War II broke out.

Pina also followed in her husband's footsteps. I often met her carrying a hot stew pot under a shawl, so that it would not get cold. She took it to a poor, sick woman, in whose home, Heaven forbid!, there was nothing with which to keep body and soul together. She also brought food daily to women in confinement and prepared it for the Sabbath, too. Yeshiva students ate regularly at their house and left there satisfied.

How did Chaim spend the Purim holiday? I remember, when I entered the house I always found people sitting around the table, a mixture of Chassidim and Misnagdim, drinking a toast and happy. And then Chaim stood up on a chair and sang Dudele… and also Duchovnemu Naszemu Rabinu Sznejorosona – Ah Pintele (To the Holy Rabbi Schneerson – a Point), and many other songs. Only late at night did the company disperse. This is what Chaim did every year. On Simchat Torah, it was even merrier at his house …

Chaim never spoke ill of anyone. As long as I knew him, I never heard him speak a word of slander. He spoke respectfully about the Chafetz Chaim, the righteous, of blessed memory. Although he was an extreme Gur Chassid, he often sat and studied the books of the Chafetz Chaim which were arranged in his book closet, including Shmirat HaLashon.

The most beautiful qualities of faith, morals and

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ethics were hidden in Chaim Elkes. He was one of those Jews about whom King Solomon wrote in Proverbs: “That you may walk in the way of good men, and keep the paths of the righteous.” Thus he behaved during the last years, before he was killed, although he had large financial losses.

It should be mentioned that a short time before I went to Australia, a Polish shoemaker (named Niewiarowski) owed him 18,000 zlotys, which was then a huge sum. Smaller sums were also owed him, but despite all this, he did not alter his usual way of life and never complained. Only Pina, his wife, would come to us on Sabbath Eve, and sigh and tell us about his losses. Chaim had great confidence; he believed that God Almighty derived more satisfaction from a Jew who never stopped hoping and was always grateful for everything he received. He always referred to the verse in Psalms: “But as for me, I will hope continually, and will praise You yet more and more.” If someone asked him “What is the extent of your wealth?”, he would surely answer as the great Rothschild of Frankfurt answered – that the Torah tells us: “And every man's hallowed things shall be his” – everything that a man gives for holiness, for charity, for anonymous donations, this is his wealth. Anything else does not belong to him …

A few years before World War II broke out, Chaim and Pina adopted an orphaned girl. Her name was Brajna and she was a member of the family in the full sense of the word. They educated her in the same spirit as they themselves behaved. A short time before the war, they married her off to a yeshiva student and gave her a nice dowry. This was the last wish of Chaim and Pina.

Chaim and Pina were killed in Slonim, together with many of our townspeople. May God avenge their blood.

May their souls be bound up in the bond of life, with the rest of the holy and pure souls of our townspeople!

Aryeh Liubka Levi, Australia


A Home in Ostrolenka

Menachem Flakser, Brooklyn

With the passage of years, you look at the nest where you grew and from which you went out into the great world. How much sorrow and pain you endured during those years! Two World Wars took place, your home was burned. Everyone close to you was destroyed and you do not know where their graves are.

But that warm and pure nest still stands before your eyes, and why is it to blame? You left it, believing that you were going to a new life, to dreams wrapped in soft silk. How rosy, enticing and beautiful the world looked to me during my childhood years in Ostrolenka. It was as if something pushed me toward it when I crossed the bridge over the River Narew. There, near the “monument”, I hid my hot head in the damp grass of the field. The walk was like going out into endless blue distances, enfolded in youthful expectations.

Sometimes, we gathered in the municipal park toward evening, lads and lasses, and sang songs of longing and yearning, such as The Sun Sets in Flames (by Yitzhak Katzenelson).

This was a difficult period for youths in all the Jewish towns. The Revolution of 1905 lingered in the ruins. I remember our revolutionaries of those years: Mendel the Blind, Fenster and Herszel Rozenblum, who often sat in the giant prison in our city, opposite the park. For the brief periods of time when they were released from prison, they still tried secretly to continue their activities to overthrow the Tsar, but the youth was already disappointed. More and more, they began to look inward, into our nation, into our origins, and were drawn to Zion.

I remember what happened in our city when one fellow went to Israel to study in a high school in Jaffa.

My dear teacher, Anszel Lew, was the one who prepared him for the journey and the studies. The Chassidim, on the other hand, congregated around their rabbis. During the week, they made do with a poor existence, but on Sabbaths, they gave expression to their

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faith and gushing joy. Be there a Tsar or not, it did not affect their inner world one bit.

I would like to tell of such an ardent Jew. He shines from my childhood years, and not just because he was my grandfather. His name was Efraim Goldbruch. He owned a stone house in the old market, as well as a large store where Russian army officers and the Polish authorities in the area shopped.

In fact, it was my grandmother, Frejdele, who was the great merchant. It was she who traveled to Warsaw in a wagon with a canopy to purchase wares for the store. It was she who went to the barracks on the 20th of every month to collect the officers' debts before they became hopelessly drunk. It was she who traveled distances in search of grooms for her daughters.

Theirs was a home of Torah and greatness, of Chassidism and wealth. Into this home, my father came as a groom with “perpetual board”. The store prospered and it seemed as though homes like these were created to stand forever. As a young lad, however, I already sensed the storm taking place in the atmosphere of the house. Frejdele, a “woman of valor”, ran the house and her daughters helped her. Efraim, the husband, however, always walked around as if immersed in other worlds. It seemed as if all the abundance of the house did not interest him. He did not interfere at all in the store and would disappear from the house for days on end.

Perhaps it is not completely true that Efraim Goldbruch was driven away from the rich house, as our dear townsman, the poet Yisroel Shtern, described in his poem Ostrolenka. But there was friction between my grandfather and grandmother, which was with me all my childhood years, because of deeds that I will describe below.

Grandfather and Grandmother did not talk to each other. If here and there a word was spoken, it was with bitterness and anger. Thunder echoed in my young ears and I could not understand why domestic peace did not prevail, why they quarreled all the time, when the Almighty blessed them with plenty, with the respect of their fellow men and with a beautiful and spacious home. In time, I learned that in his youth, Efraim lived in Kotzk, and the rebellious spirit of Reb Mendele Kotzker stuck to him all his life. He did not acknowledge the importance of daily functioning and of responsibility for the family. He rebelled against everything – and also against his wife and children.

When Frejdele passed away at an advanced age, Efraim still remained as though standing aloof. He did not care who inherited the property and who ran the house and the store. After matters of the inheritance were settled, he lived with my parents, who paid the other children their share and received possession of the house and the store. He was supposed to be boarded at our home.

How strange it seemed to my young eyes, however, when, at a moment when my father turned his head, I once saw Grandfather snatch challah [Sabbath bread] from the Sabbath table, hide it under his coat and run quickly from the house. I could not believe that he did this to satiate his hunger far from us. I did not know my grandfather to be such a glutton.

Later on, Grandfather began taking not only Sabbath challot from the house, but anything that could satisfy a hungry man or make a wretched man happy. The entire city quickly came to know Efraim Goldbruch. They saw him every Friday, loitering around houses where Sabbath dishes were being prepared. He asked for a bit of chicken soup, a chicken wing or gizzard, a little wine for kiddush or two candles – all this to bring the Sabbath atmosphere to the homes of Jews who could not buy these things themselves.

They saw this old man, with a white beard and shaking hands, holding a basket and running in the direction of Send, the city's poor neighborhood. There, like Elijah the Prophet, he brought the light of the Sabbath, thus wiping away tears from the eyes of an unfortunate widow and her children.

And then came the worst of all: Efraim Goldbruch, the wealthiest man in the city, the owner of a big store and a stone house in the market square, standing near the door of the study house every morning and extending his hand for a donation. He does not omit any Jew who comes to pray, and gets a cent from him. And so he stands on his feet from early in the morning until the afternoon. The Jews are astonished, but no one refuses to give him a penny. They know that something is hidden behind this.

And what did Efraim Goldbruch do with the pennies he gathered? He set up a residence for the elderly, for those who were homeless. He rented an apartment in a narrow lane between our house and the study hall, and put iron beds with mattresses, a book case and everything necessary for a home in it. He began to walk among the houses not just on Friday, but every day; to keep the old Jews alive in “his” residence for the elderly, he got all the food the generous housewives had saved.

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In the cold and the snow, Efraim Goldbruch walked through Send, searching for dejected widows or merely poor people to cheer with the goodness of his heart. The rebellious spark of the Kotzk days created a purified humaneness in him; however, this was not obvious to those around him. To his closest family, it was not clear exactly what Grandfather was doing and why. They supposed that he was ashamed of it. They accepted his deeds as a punishment from God; there was no need to become too excited about them.

But Efraim Goldbruch could not eat his bread to satiety while so many were hungry around him. He rebelled and wanted to destroy his home. He fled to a place where he could do only good for others.

Efraim Goldbruch was one of the beautiful and noble personalities in our city. He was aware of the solitude of man on earth, of his ignorance of how and why things happen, of his going the way of “Against your will you were created and against your will you will die.” On Motzei Shabbat (Saturday night), he appeared in poor homes, like Elijah the Prophet, bringing a message of justice and equality and the smile of the Omnipotent to the despondent and forgotten.

Once, I remember, he took me, his small grandson, to show me the “splendor of his creation” – the primitive residence for the elderly that he founded with his own hands. I saw old, weak Jews lying in beds, in the hands of each a book. A spark lit up in their extinguished eyes when Efraim appeared and began to distribute food to them.

This is the last picture I remember of my grandfather: it was in 1915, at the height of World War I. The Germans approached our city, which had already been bombed by a zeppelin. We were ordered to flee and abandon everything. There was only one way to Ostrowa, and we had go on foot. Crowds walked in that direction, most of them families carrying little children and bundles of food and clothing in their arms.

Efraim Goldbruch walked on this road of pain, in his arms a Torah scroll from a synagogue that he had managed to save. The fate of his children and grandchildren did not interest him. He took the Torah scroll to his heart, the dearest thing worth saving.

We, the exiled, walked on the stony road, stricken with worry for the future. We did not know where we would sleep, on what we would rest our weary heads. But the head of Efraim Goldbruch was in the heavens.

His eyes shone, he went toward a never-changing eternity. The Torah scroll he embraced was his warm nest; no storm could get the better of it.

Thus is the Efraim Goldbruch engraved in my memory: his white beard fluttering in the wind, his head held high, holding the holy Torah scroll and walking toward a clear, pure future, more exalted than a simple person of flesh and blood could comprehend.

Yitzhak Kachan, Melbourne


Our Old Home

 

A. Visiting the Graves of Our Fathers

Today, in thought and feeling, I was at my old home, visiting the graves of our fathers. I tried to open a door to the yesterday that was annihilated. I peeked into the houses in the narrow lanes, into the small and large stores in the Small Market. I reached the Old Market. Silhouettes appeared before me and I was reminded of names that began to echo in my ears, quietly at first, and then gradually growing and sounding like the ringing of bells. Forgotten figures stealthily appeared from doors and gates, those near and far united in one circle – a circle of the city of my birth, of my childhood years and the dreams of my youth.

*

Yesterday's doors open without creaking. How much time has passed? Twenty years – it seems like an eternity!

Our fathers lived their lives until they ended in the same city, on the same street and in the same house. They grew old peacefully (sometimes in sorrow, each according to his own fate…). Years came and went, hair whitened, those who were close came and went, voices were silenced. One generation interwoven with the second, like links in a chain. One generation passes away and another generation comes…

I look at the city in which I was born, now destroyed, where every stone was familiar to me. There was Cyganska Street, jammed with small houses, in each a minute workshop. And there, at Small Market

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number 3, lived the shoemaker from Goworowo. While sewing boots, his three sons sang Ve'al Kulam from the Yom Kippur [prayers], which they had learned from the High Holy Days cantor.

And near them, the facades of small and large stores. I see Alter Szlomo the Baker standing on the corner in front of his door, tired and pale after baking during the suffocating summer night. And above, on the second floor, was the Alexander shtebl. With their prayer shawls and phylacteries, Jewish tradesmen hurry to be on time for the first minyan. The merchants pray later. Why not? The customers will wait for them. And here, with measured steps, walks Reb Herszel Szperling, his hands clasped behind his back, a wide smile spread over his broad face. He seems to be pondering some question. Coming toward him, with rapid steps, is Reb Menachem Frydman. The two of them walk back and forth near the study hall, deep in conversation about Chassidism and business.

*

I dip into the morning dew of the lively town which has already become romanticized. Memory sharpens recollections, experiences and pictures combine, images and visions of the past rise anew before my eyes. Here are Chassidic Jews, here the faces of youths who wove a dream of redemption, of a land of our own. Here a picture arises and is reborn: Sabbath morning on Lomza Street. On the corner, near Szapira's house, a group of Poalei Zion members encircle Herszel Rozenblum, the old Bundist, and argue about Yiddish and Hebrew. Like a game ball, verses fly from Borochow and from Medem (Medema). The boisterous laugh of Berel Zabludowicz is heard, he must have scored a goal… but Herszel Rozenblum does not give in, he strikes back. He is short and, when he speaks, he stands on tiptoe and looks with satisfaction at the opposite side. He reciprocates with an opposing goal… the circle expands. Aaron Zusman and Bomsztejn arrive. The partisan argument ended a while ago, but for another two hours they stand there, until the street empties and everyone hurries to the Sabbath meal. After eating, they go out again. Couples stroll arm in arm and walk toward the park near the Lomza Road.

It is dusk. The park fills with youths strolling in groups. Suddenly a solo song is heard. A girl's voice sings Peretz's song, Zei ah Beiter fahr deiner Chassidim, Bim-Bum, Bim-Bum, Bum…” (Please, ask for the sake of your Chassidim). Those gathered draw near the source of the song, the bench by the widebranched pine tree. Now we see the singer – it is Chajale Gingold. Her clear voice echoes afar. After she finishes the song, everyone applauds and asks her to continue. She begins a new song, quite well-known. From a far corner, basses and tenors join her, and the whole park gives voice to wonderful song, Az die peiklach hoben gepeikelt … (When the drums did beat). A pale, full moon appears in the sky. Light and shadow combine on a Motzei Shabbat summer night in 1928.


B. My father, as I knew him

(Lines of an intimate picture)

It is not easy to write about my own father.

The intimate, delicate feelings we feel for someone who is closest to us also influence memories. Therefore, when I write about my father, I try to refrain from superlatives and concealment. Simultaneously, I feel that the unique picture I draw reflects the typical type of Polish Jew of dozens of generations and what characterizes him: faith and confidence, Chassidic fervor and Misnagdic coolness, acuity and innocence, earnestness and lightheartedness, outer creases and inner perfection.

When he shook off the dust of weekdays, in the depth of his dealings with life, this type did not only think, but also pondered and delved into matters of life, and lived the burning questions of existence as well as distant problems of eternity.

 

ost233.jpg
Reb Chaim Dow Hakoen the Ritual Slaughterer

 

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These Jews, who had drive, thought and feeling, who in their way of life personified this unique nation, they who Y.Y. Trunk defined so felicitously as “the full and wonderful Jews of Poland”, who were sentenced by cruel decree of history, to them is dedicated this description of an individual – my father, may he rest in peace – who was one of that community.

*

In every person's life, there are moments engraved deep in one's memory. At the time, although they may not have seemed so significant, something in them, fundamental and lingering, entered the soul forever. While writing these lines, memories arise that I see now in a stronger light than in the past. I remember how my father once explained the meaning of “the People of the Book” to a Polish doctor. The doctor came to our house to examine my father, who was ill and whose temperature had gone up. When he came in, my father was learning aloud from a book. “Until what age do Jews learn?”, he asked in wonderment. “We learn our whole lives, we learn during the day and also at night”, my father replied with a smile. “Yes”, said the doctor, “I have heard that the Jews are called 'the People of the Book'. Does this mean that you are so enamored of books and learn for the sake of learning? What does it give you?” “Oh, very much”, answered Father, “The book is our flag.” And then he pointed at me and added, “Here sits my son, who reads books other than the ones I do, books of our contemporaries, modern ones. But he, too, is not cut off from books. He is a son of the People of the Book.”

When we examine the creation of our spiritual roots, we should look first for the family's roots, the environment in which we spent the years of our childhood and youth.

My father's figure stands before me: taller than average, his movements direct, as was his behavior. He had a dignified appearance and smiling eyes, radiating joy and warmth. His black beard, always tidy and combed, emphasized the lines of his face – a combination of gentleness and decisiveness.

He spent every free minute with the Gemara or a Chassidic book. But he was not a dry scholar, who dealt only with halacha. He had a sense of the beauty of the Midrash [commentaries on the Jewish Bible] and the Aggadah. Halacha and Aggadah shaped his spiritual nature. He was affable and people were therefore drawn to him. He loved Chassidism, which symbolizes the joy of life.

Pictures from my childhood years in the Alexander shtebl arise in my memory. Young and old Chassidim crowded around Father, avidly absorbing his Chassidic folktales. My father was a walking encyclopedia of Chassidic folklore, a wonderful storyteller with a phenomenal memory. He always found an apt proverb, a saying of a saintly person (I have not forgotten what he related from Yismach Moshe: “There is nothing more whole than a broken Jewish heart” …). People were ready to listen to Father's stories all night long. But, while telling them, he looked at the clock and finished quickly. The Chassidim begged: Chaim Berel, sing us the Rebbe's old melody, and Father acceded. He loved musical renditions very much. Not only as a prayer leader on the pulpit on the High Holy Days and holidays, but on festive occasions, as well, he loved to sing warmhearted Modzitz melodies.

I remember Sabbath nights in the summertime in our house. Zmirot went on and on into the night. Father sang new tunes, mostly from Modzitz, which he learned from chance guests (they sat at our table on Sabbaths, as well as weekdays). Father sang a melody of atmosphere and mood and we, the children, accompanied him. Our singing got stronger and, beyond the open windows, the melody carried outside the house and spread into nearby courtyards. Neighbors finished their meals, went out to their porches and listened to the singing which echoed in the silence of the night.

Sabbath night singing was very characteristic of the feeling of the neshama yetera [additional Sabbath soul] in Poland's Jewish towns. Now, I live in far-off Australia. When I feel a strong longing for the past, there appears before me the picture of the Jewish home in Ostrolenka on Sabbath Eve, the sweet smells of cooking and fresh baking. Twilight comes, the joyous melody of Lecha Dodi Likrat Kallah [Come My Beloved to Greet the Sabbath Bride] heralds the coming of the angels of peace and the ministering angels … and the Sabbath Queen, described so beautifully by Heinrich Heine, escorted on Motzei Shabbat by the sad melody of seudah shlishit [third Sabbath meal]. Between these two eves – Sabbath Eve and Motzei Shabbat – the coming and going of the Sabbath drama took place in the Jewish home. The pictures come, bringing the atmosphere of those days.

Father came from the shtebl after the afternoon prayer. Mother prepared two small challahs, a knife, a

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salt shaker and leftovers of Sabbath foods or cold sour milk (in the summer). The shadows become more pronounced and actually oppress the heart. Father sits at seudah shlishit in the company of some Chassidim and sings Bnei Heychala in the Lubavitcher Rebbe's melancholy tune, so suited to the Sabbath Day twilight. The melody's sad sounds spread all over the street and cast awe on us, the young children, sitting near the house and telling each other stories. Later, we listened to Mother's Elohei Avraham prayer, and with our youthful gaze, accompanied Father and his Chassidim on their way to the shtebl, with their slow and sedate steps.

On his return from the shtebl, Father made Havdala [the prayer separating the holy Sabbath and the secular week] and assembled the tables for the Melave Malka repast [Saturday evening meal attending the Sabbath Queen's departure] which would be held in our home (every Motzei Shabbat at the home of another Chassid). Our large house filled with Chassidim of all ages, from young to old. In the kitchen there was a great bustle: groats cooked on the stove and Mother prepared the herring. Slices of meat, fish, lungs and the cheek meat that the Chassidim brought with them for King David's feast [the Melave Malka] were arranged on plates.

The crowd warms up with a little of the 96 proof liquor that Josel Dawid brought. Father begins to tell someone something from Yismach Moshe. Mendel Mashgiach adds something about the nephew of Rabbi Fajwele, who passed away at an early age. Pinczas Hakoen quotes a verse from Proverbs. Fajwisz the Melamed takes a pinch of snuff and interrupts Pinczas' words: “You have a verse from Proverbs for everything”…

Menachem Frydman mixes in: “What do you care about the verse?”, and begins to talk politics. A discussion begins about hard times, about “Grabski's wagon” [Grabski was Prime Minister and Treasury Minister; his “wagon” was the Tax Ministry wagon, in which possessions of Jews who could not pay taxes were confiscated] and that the young men were being drawn to the big world… To dispel the bad mood, Mendel Liberc pounds on the table with his fist: “Chaim Ber, start singing Eliahu!”. Father begins to sing and the whole house is filled with the sounds of sorrow and longing for Eliahu HaTishbi and supplications that he should come speedily. Quietly at first, but then the song gets stronger and more powerful. All those gathered join in and ask him to come already and bring good news of consolation and the coming of the Messiah… And then more liquor is served and again they tell of the words of the Saints. The elderly Chassidim mention “The Bialer” [Rebbe] and thus the Melave Malka continues until morning. In vain, Mother asks us, the children, to go to bed. We would not hear of it! Our tender souls absorbed the joy of the Melave Malka, the atmosphere of the good days. These were hours of happy exaltation of the soul of our childhood in Ostrolenka. As I describe these dear pictures from my father's house, I see in them all our homes, homes that gave us joy and sorrow, light and shadow – the unique life of a throbbing Jewish community, until the murderer's ax descended upon us …

*

A few biographical details about my father, of blessed memory.

He was born in Ostrolenka in 1881. My grandfather, Reb Szmuelke, hung great hopes on him and, indeed, in time, he became my grandfather's deputy. The elders surely remember that unique personage, descended from a great Chassidic lineage. I can barely remember him, because he departed from us when I was still very young, but I heard a great deal from many people about his character and personality. Although my father inherited many characteristics from him, two World Wars did not affect him, he was not forced to take the wanderer's stick in hand. He lived his life until a good old age in Ostrolenka. During World War I, my father fled to Russia with his family and experienced the tragic events of the civil war there, the pogroms, plagues and famine. He lived in different Russian cities (Levadjan, Lipetsk and Vitebsk), and in each of them worked as a ritual slaughterer, a cantor and a mohel [Jewish ritual circumciser]. Until the Revolution, he was the representative of the refugees (in the city of Levadjan). During the conventions in Moscow, he became well-acquainted with Rabbi Mazeh, of blessed memory, who greatly valued Father's spiritual qualities. Father was then revealed to be a great speaker. Many years later, I read his accounts of these conventions and was impressed by their unique style.

At the end of 1921, Father returned to Poland, to Ostrolenka, which he missed during all the years he spent in Russia. Between the two World Wars, he dealt with religious matters. His skill as a mohel and a ritual slaughterer of great repute made him well-known far

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beyond Ostrolenka's borders (he was often invited to serve as a mohel in Lomza). He was a devoted husband and father. Although modern concepts of “isms” were foreign to him, he related to the aspirations of the young generation with great tolerance because of his Orthodox-traditional world outlook.

I saw my father for the last time before I left for Australia in December 1937. On a snowy winter morning, we waited at the Kaczyny station for the train, which arrived late. Father wandered around, sad and silent, sorrow in his eyes, as before a storm. “You should be happy, Reb Chaim Ber, that your son is going to a great country”, said an acquaintance to him. “Yes, everyone tells me that, but I feel…”. Father did not finish the sentence, as if afraid to give his thought utterance. I felt that the words burned his throat. Later, to improve the atmosphere, he quoted an adage of the Sages, which symbolized a baby's birth. “Why, asks the Gemara, does a baby go out into the world from his mother's womb with clenched fists? Because the baby has come to conquer the world. And at the time of his death, a man's palms are open, as if to say: 'See, I am not taking anything with me.' The last part symbolizes the absolute truth. But in the matter of birth”, Father continued, “I prefer another interpretation. The baby's clenched fists say that he does not arrive like a torn-off leaf, but that he brings a long history with him.” And then my father said to me: “You are going to a foreign land, but don't think that you will be like a torn-off leaf there. You take with you pictures, memories and experiences – a piece of history and a cultural treasure with which you must identify and know your roots …”

The train arrived and we parted emotionally. Forever!…

*

In September 1939, my father, my mother and two sisters, walked the road of the torment of the slaughtered Jewish nation. The path of the seven levels of Hell extended though Lomza and continued until Molczat (near Baranowicz). During the first months of the Nazi invasion of Russia (1941), they were murdered, together with the entire community of Ostrolenka's Jews.

*

Near Molczat, there is a large common grave in the shape of the letter dalet [the fourth letter of the Hebrew alphabet]. Our holy martyrs are buried there. While writing these last lines, I cannot sever my gaze from my father's picture. Memories of my childhood arise in me. I see him walking about the house on Motzei Shabbat and saying Veyiten Lecha … “May God give you of the dew of heaven and the riches of the land … Nations will serve you and be your slaves … God chose you, do not fear, Jacob”.

*

After great and cruel torment, my dear, unforgettable ones, my father, Chaim Dow, my mother, Chaja Bejla, and my sisters, Fejga and Rejzel, were buried in the ground of Molczat.

May these lines serve as a gravestone in their memory.


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Ostrolenka of Long Ago

Rabbi Jakow Hirsz Zimmerman[1], London

Whoever remembers Ostrolenka, with its balabatim, scholars, Chassidim, rich men and common folk; with its institutions, schools, study halls, Chassidic shteblich, Talmud Torahs, yeshivas, its shelter for the poor, sick and needy, and so on – can understand the meaning of Ostrolenka's destruction.

Ostrolenka was among those Polish cities known for their people – balabatim, Torah scholars, community workers, the intelligentsia and the Godfearing. Several thousand Jewish families (approximately half the general population) resided in it, and all of them were like one big family. Even the disputes among them (about a rabbi, adjudicator, ritual slaughterer, community elections, Sejm (Parliament) elections, or even about an attendant at the ritual bath and the modern bath house, or the position of beadle at the synagogue) – these were disputes confined within the walls of the house, as within the family. After the disagreement was settled, peace and serenity prevailed once more. The reason for this was quite simple: serious divisions between one group and another did not exist. The sole division between the Jews was primarily religion. But in Ostrolenka, this did not exist either. Only infrequently did someone dare to defile the Sabbath publicly. There was a Sabbath Observance Society, which dealt primarily with two matters: supervising the eruv [a fence enabling carrying within its boundaries on the Sabbath], as well as the bakers – that they should not put pots of cholent (a meat stew traditionally eaten on the Sabbath) into the oven after the Sabbath had begun. As to kashrut [fitness in accordance with Jewish law] – there was almost no Jewish home that aroused a doubt as to whether one could eat there. Even in the homes of the most “free”, they were punctilious as to family purity. And who then was considered “free”? – those who wore stiff collars and pressed pants. I remember only three agnostics: actually, two “whole ones” and the third – only “half a one”. The two were beardless, and the third had a short beard. Each of the three wore a short jacket. They were the doctor, the druggist and the attorney.

Ostrolenka was a center of Torah and Chassidism. They prayed in the large synagogue only on Sabbaths and holidays. In the very same courtyard stood a large study hall, where they prayed every day and all through the day; that is, they began prayers at daybreak until one o'clock in the afternoon. After one – the afternoon prayer. Later, the evening prayer and, thus, without a break until night. Near the study hall was the place of prayer called the community shtebl, where they learned with study partners. Early in the morning and between afternoon and evening prayers: Mishnayot, Ein Yakov, Gemara and Chayei Adam.

The uneducated, the illiterate, almost did not exist in Ostrolenka. This was the concern of certain Jews, among those prominent in the city, who knew Torah. One of them was Reb Mordechaj Farber, of blessed memory – a scholar who did not want to turn the Torah into a tool for financial gain. He owned a dye-works, but his wife ran the business, and he helped her in the factory for only about two hours a day. Reb Mordechaj gave classes for the young men among the tradesmen and the merchants[2], as well as for those who were older. Three generations studied under him at the same time. Later, some of them served as teachers themselves. There was not even one tradesman who did not go to at least one of his three daily lessons: in the morning, between the afternoon and evening prayers, and at eight o'clock in the evening.

In my time, there were about one hundred sons-inlaw who were supported by their in-laws. Even the simplest people tried to acquire bridegrooms who were learned for their daughters. These young men studied mostly in the Chassidic shteblich, and learned with great diligence, day and night. There were about 300 worshippers in the shtebl of the Gur Chassidim, all of whom studied and were learned. In time, most of them became respected rabbis, such as Reb Hirsz-Lejb, the son-in-law of Efraim Goldbruch, who was the Rabbi of

† Half the townspeople were his students. He did not do this as a livelihood. On the contrary, it cost him a great deal of money. He could have found a very honorable rabbinical position, but preferred not to do so.

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Szefarow; Reb Berysz, the son-in-law of Frumkis – a rabbi in Racionza; Reb Efraim Perlmutter (known as Szmuel Icchak's Efraim) – a Jewish law adjudicator in Ciechanow.

Among the Chassidic scholars, [these] are worthy of special mention: Welwel Noskes, Ben Zion Cukrowicz, Lazer Mintz, Awraham Mlynarzewicz (known as Dawid's Awraham), Mendel Cuker, who ran the yeshiva, Szlomo Sapir, Szmuel Baruch Landau and others.

Each and every one of the balabatim in Ostrolenka wanted to have a guest for the Sabbath or a holiday. (In Poland, there were many itinerant beggars, as well as Jewish soldiers from other places who “served” in Ostrolenka.)

Even the poorest balabatim invited yeshiva students to eat at their homes one or two days a week. Even in small, uncomfortable apartments, yeshiva students were given places to sleep – free of charge, of course. (It should be noted that Avraham Brum, an old Jewish man who is a native of Ostrolenka, lives in Jerusalem. In Ostrolenka, he was known as Awrejmel Ben Israel- Icchak. He was a teacher and a Torah scholar. He was a Gur Chassid, and the Rabbi of Gur, who lives in Jerusalem, visits him frequently.)

We feel the destruction more intensely when we remember that all this is gone, and that not a trace remains of our Ostrolenka. The will burns in our bones to perpetuate a monument memorializing the holy lives of our townspeople who are no longer, to remember them always and not forget for even one second, to fulfill what is written: “Remember what Amalek did to you!”

May God avenge their blood!


The Ostrolenka That Is No More

Chanoch Gingold, Sydney, Australia

When we come to write about “a city and mother in Israel” that is no more, where we were born and raised – a strong will strikes us to raise things from the depths of our memory, in order to perpetuate them in eternal memory. “Types”, streets, pictures, people who lived and created, organizations which were active, etc, etc. All this is so dear to our heart and our desire to perpetuate it for the next generations – everything that the evil hand of the Nazis destroyed and uprooted.

I wish to mention here some types and episodes that are engraved in my memory of Ostrolenka.

Our city Ostrolenka was blessed with important and significant personalities, who did much for the city. There were also, however, idlers, who contributed to the unique lifestyle of the society. Who among us does not remember the two clowns of the city, Pinie Gedanken and Dan Kachan, who in the last years did almost nothing, except to serve here and there as witnesses in court as to a person's age, to carry out some chance brokerage deal, or to say kaddish for someone who had passed away. Their main profession was to cheer the townspeople … Pinie and Dan, the two friends, always strolled the streets together and sought opportunities to surprise people with their pranks.

In Ostrolenka there were also Jews who were expert at construction work. There was Reb Awraham Aron the Plasterer, who went to Israel with his sons as early as 1924-1925. Here is Lejbel Korman, nicknamed Lejbel Trotsky (I don't know why). The popular opinion was that it was impossible to build a house without him. He was tall, and I remember him always looking at building plans. I was particularly impressed when they built Mosze Szafran's house, but the height of his work came when they built the new ritual bath. It was impossible to speak to him then. It was a unique project. He attended to matters of water tanks, pumps, steam, special bathtubs and other complex devices. My father, of blessed memory, Reb Pinczas Gingold, soon came to his aid and supervised all the work. It was impossible to fool him, as he was expert in these matters (I will tell about my father below).

Ostrolenka also had its “town wise man”. This was “Mosze Sechtoni”. From where he got that name, I don't know. Probably it was connected somehow to ritual slaughtering.

“Mosze Sechtoni” was the son of Reb Fajwel Lejb

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Hersz, who played the role of doctor in Ostrolenka. He was expert at cupping treatments and enemas, and was also said to have an understanding of heart diseases and “heard” the patient's heartbeats in a primitive way. His healing methods were not especially medically “kosher”. For example, if someone complained of a sore throat, Fajwel Lejb Hersz always had cotton wool ready, not because he had a first-aid kit with him, but very simply because he wore a winter coat padded with cotton wool. Whenever necessary, he pulled a piece of cotton wool out from under the lining. And from where did he take a stick to wrap with cotton wool? In every home there was a twig broom. He took a small twig from the broom, wrapped it with cotton wool, dipped it in iodine and swabbed the throat of the patient, who became better immediately. He also determined if the patient needed cupping or whether it was enough to spread a salve on his back. When the matter was serious, he also advised as to whether or not to consult a doctor. From whence came his skill in medical matters? It was said that he served in the Russian Army in his youth, and was sent to work in a military hospital. There he learned [medical] theory. Reb Fajwel was a pleasant man, a lamedvavnik type [one of 36 hidden saints, for whose sake God preserves the world, even if humanity has degenerated to total barbarism]. He always made do with what he was paid. In poor homes, he did not ask anything, and even left an abundance of blessings and wishes for a speedy recovery there. In exchange for that “payment”, he would visit the patient another time.

The son, “Mosze Sechtoni”, was the complete opposite of his modest father. He earned the nickname “The Courier” in the city, because he spread all the gossip. He was the first to know about everything that happened, and never kept a secret.

Ostrolenka was known for the original family names of its inhabitants, such as Ma Towu, Adon Olam, Thylim, Malach, Misznayot, Ismach and others.

I wish to mention one of the members of the Ismach family, Szmuel Lejbel, who was my good friend. He was a watchmaker (a profession passed down in his family from generation to generation) and a skilled professional, but he belonged body and soul to the party (Rightist Poalei Zion) and politics. He had a heart of gold, a good soul and always sought honesty and justice. Szmuel Lejbel contributed a great deal to the life of Ostrolenka's community, and always supported the needy with great devotion and good will. His brothers: Chaim (now in America), Anszel (he was a hatter), one more brother and two sisters whose names I do not remember. All belonged to the Poalei Zion party.

I would like to mention another water drawer in Ostrolenka, Beniamin – a tall, broad man with a black beard. He looked like a lamedvavnik (a type like Bontshe Schweig – Bontshe the Silent). He never insulted anyone. After he brought water, he went straight to the study hall to say the afternoon-evening prayers, and heard a bit of the Mishnayot that Mordechaj Iglewicz taught. In the morning, he got up for the first minyan. On the holy Sabbath, after resting from the exhausting work he did all week, he went to the study hall to hear Ethics of the Fathers from Mordechaj. Beniamin's life was honest and pure. What its end was – I don't know.

Here I am reminded of another honest Jew, that is, Chaim Welwel Malach, who had a big family and small means. In Mir, they called him “Der Fleter”. His trade was mending books and all sorts of things. The worshippers at the shtebl took care to provide him with his weekly sustenance. He was learned, somewhat cut off from reality and believed that evil did not even exist in the world. He never complained and always prayed for the Jewish people.

Among the teachers in our city only two are etched in my memory – those I studied under. I remember them with honor and respect: Dawid Lichtensztejn and Meir Jankel Bloumenkranz. Dawid Lichtensztejn was still a young man. His great talent was that he knew how to influence his students and awaken the will to learn in them. It was really a pleasure to study at his heder. Later, he became a merchant and did not do badly in his business. Meir Jankel Bloumenkranz was my last teacher. I say “last” because at that time, although I already worked at my profession, for a long time I still came to him for a “lesson” every morning before work. He was a person, as is said, without an evil bone in his body, and had a special relationship with children. He never struck us, as was customary among other teachers. If it happened that on a certain day we did not feel like learning, he did not get angry, but delved into the Gemara and studied by himself with great diligence. We became sick of sitting idly by very quickly. He used to say, “If you don't want to learn – alright, but don't disturb me in my studies.” Of course, his words influenced us and, as one, we immediately sat down before the Gemara. In the summer, on especially hot days, he released us for an hour, so that we could take a

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dip in the river. His house was near Sojka's flour mill, very close to the river. After we took a dip in the cool water, we came back to learn refreshed, with desire and diligence. Meir Jankel was a mature man, but he had great patience with his students.

Many Jews took part in public life in Ostrolenka, but I would like to mention only a few of them. One, who was closest to me, and he whose ways I knew, of course, was my father, Chaim Pinczas Gingold, of blessed memory. He guided Ostrolenka's Jews from birth to death, because he was the mohel [Jewish ritual circumciser] and a member of the burial society at one and the same time. He was always at the service of the community. If there was a Jew who came from the country whose son had to be circumcised on the Sabbath, he [my father] did not care whether it was stingingly cold or pouring rain. Chaim Pinczas got into his wagon on Friday afternoon and traveled to the country. He was a member of the city council, representing the Agudah.

After World War I, when the Joint established in Ostrolenka a public soup kitchen, where free meals were distributed to the poor, he was immediately recruited to this job, and made sure that everything ran properly and that no one was deprived. In his eyes, the first thing was honesty, and then mercy. Perhaps because of this, his opinion – that all the needy were entitled to equal assistance, and not a great deal to one and little or nothing to another – was not always properly appreciated. No one could change his ways and his principles, not even his wife. He became a dozor [an elder] in the community. He was active in all areas, and was especially prominent in his involvement in the construction of the large study hall, the Talmud Torah and the ritual bath. He demonstrated familiarity with and great knowledge of matters of construction. Experienced craftsmen respected him and his opinions. Later, he was elected Chairman of the community and, in fact, administered the lives of the Jews in the city. In addition, in various disputes that were usual in towns, he steered matters fearlessly. Who among us does not remember the famous dispute concerning the ritual slaughterers? In the shtebl of the Gur Chassidim, he set the tone and took care that no one would be deprived. If guests came to prayers on the Sabbath, he took care that each one was invited for a meal, and would not go home until everything had been arranged.

In time, a committee was established, consisting of people from the shtebl. (I remember two of them, because they were good friends of my father: Chaim Elkes and Welwel Chacek.) Together, they founded an interest-free charitable fund especially for Jews of the shtebl who had met with financial difficulties. Each person was required to pay one zloty a week (everyone was required to pay, without exception; the poor paid 20 grosz per week). Jews received loans of hundreds of zlotys, to be returned in small installments. This fund was active for a long time, for as long as I can remember. Later, the city's youths became its administrators. One of them was Lejbel Barszcz. It should be mentioned that my father, Chaim Pinczas, himself went to collect the fund's weekly contributions. Many brought the money by themselves. Thus he worked for the lives of the Jews in Ostrolenka for many years. May his memory be blessed.

Because I have told about my father here, I also wish to mention my mother, Judyt Gingold, of blessed memory, who was, in my opinion, the complete opposite of my father. For her, mercy was in the first place, and then honesty. I saw in her the picture of “Sara Bat Tovim”; she gave a great deal of charity and supported the needy by giving charity in secret. As the youngest son, the task was often assigned to me of fulfilling her charitable missions, especially on Fridays, Sabbath Eve. On market days in town, Mother was most busy, and I would help her. In addition to waiting on customers in the store, we packed up bundles of food for distribution to the needy, according to a prepared list. On holidays, especially before Passover or Rosh HaShana, the commotion was at its height. This was a critical charity season, and so special lists were prepared of families that must be provided with matzos, wine, bundles of food, as well as sums of money. Here, too, I was the mitzvah [religious commandment] messenger. I sometimes added money from my own pocket, for which Mother later reimbursed me. Thus she dedicated a great deal of her life to charity and good works. May her memory be honored.

I wish to relate the interesting incident of “Yom Kippur on a weekday”, which happened at the home of Mendel and Josef Cuker, with the participation of the tenants of the house. It happened at the time of the war between Poland and the Bolsheviks (1920). When the Bolsheviks pursued the Poles, the old market in our city filled with the Polish Army. I remember that on that day, a heavy rain fell and because of the wetness, one of the bricks fell off the building, landed on the Polish soldiers and injured one of them. Inside the house, we

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did not know what had happened. Suddenly, a great many soldiers broke in and accused the Jews of throwing stones at the Polish soldiers. They also added that apparently someone from this house had flown a red flag – the symbol of the Bolsheviks. Before the Jews had a chance to say anything, they took two people out of the house as guilty of throwing stones and giving secret passwords to the enemy. (Witnesses to this were not lacking then. At the time, Poland was “blessed” with witnesses of all kinds …). The two hostages were, if I am not mistaken, Mendel Cuker and Aszer Motel Cuker (the sons of Josef Cuker). In our house, a Yom Kippur atmosphere prevailed. A short time after the two were arrested, two gendarmes – the fate of Ostrolenka in their hands – came and took us for questioning. In the main, they asked where we had hidden the red flag and the bricks we had thrown at the soldiers. Many lost control and burst into tears. Only my sister, Tanja Cuker, took courage and with decisiveness, invited the gendarmes to search the entire house. Of course, they found neither bricks nor a red flag. What they did find were various wares in our store. When we began to prepare packages of delicacies – for them, their wives and children – the “red” became “white”, and immediately after the gifts passed into their hands, the two “guilty ones” returned home. The happiness that took over the entire city was unimaginable.

But the matter did not end there. Unexpectedly, after a few days, an order was issued by the City Commander concerning the evacuation of Ostrolenka's populace in the shortest time possible. The news fell on us like thunder on a clear day. Had we not suffered enough during the war? But quick as a flash, the order was cancelled and the situation returned to what had been. Again, a committee was organized with Tanja Cuker at its head, and a delegation, laden with the best of everything, saved us from the new decree.

I have mentioned Chaim Elkes, and I wish to add a few more words about him. This man was always ready to do a favor for any Jew. He was the first to contribute money for the shtebl charitable fund, in order to distribute loans even before the weekly contributions had been collected. Lejbel Barszcz was also beloved by the city's Jews. He was a dozor [elder] of the community. After I left Ostrolenka, he was elected Chairman of the community.

Another interesting incident should be mentioned, about an American Jew, of those who came from Wojciechowice, who left a respectable sum of money to establish a municipal charitable fund. I do not remember the exact name (I think it was Blum or Ajblum, a relative of the family of the teacher, Gorzelczany). This man came to visit his family in Wojciechowice (a brick factory) and, as a guest, was invited to pray at the [synagogue's] eastern wall. But he waived this honor. He asked that on Motzei Shabbat (Saturday night), the honorable balabatim would gather at the home of the Rabbi. He informed them that he intended to leave a large sum of money for the community. When it became clear that this was indeed so, there was a great deal of surprise in the city; people did not stop talking about it. With the money he left, a charitable fund was established and all the Jews of Ostrolenka were eligible to receive an interest-free loan. He left five thousand dollars, another thousand dollars to erect a fence around the cemetery were his parents were buried, and another thousand dollars to complete the construction of the large study hall. In addition, he promised to send more money every year to the charitable fund. Unfortunately, however, he went bankrupt and was unable to keep his promise anymore.

All the parties and organizations that existed in those days in the Jewish street also existed in Ostrolenka, for example, the Zionists, the Bund, Poalei Zion, Mizrachi, Agudah, as well as youth movements: HaShomer HaTzair, HaShomer HaDati, Freiheit and Beitar.

When HaShomer HaTzair was still a young movement in the world in general, and in Ostrolenka in particular, it was considered a scouting movement that needed an older leader. Pesach Hochberg was elected to this position. He was devoted heart and soul to the organization and to the Zionist movement in general. Who among us does not remember the Keren HaKayemet meetings he ran? Generally, all activities for Israel were held in his house and under his leadership. Finally, I wish to mention another two Ostrolenkans who, like Dan and Pinie, also loved to cheer the townspeople. These were two young men, Hercke Sojka and Eli Bajuk, who used to react to every event in the city with acting and jests, with criticism and moral lessons. Who among us does not remember their appearances in merry current affairs sketches and songs describing community meetings, Chassidic scandals and more.

There arise in my memory many figures from my life in Ostrolenka who were, and are no longer: familiar

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people, relatives and friends. It is as if they plead: memorialize us! Revenge our spilled blood, our destruction!

May these lines serve as a monument to their memory!

May God avenge their blood!

Footnotes

  1. Rabbi Zimmerman was a rabbi in London for 32 years. At first, he was an Agudat Yisrael Rabbi; currently he is Chairman of the Rabbinate at the Union of Synagogues.Return
  2. Half the townspeople were his students. He did not do this as a livelihood. On the contrary, it cost him a great deal of money. He could have found a very honorable rabbinical position, but preferred not to do so. Return

 

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