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[Page 176]

The First World War 1914-1918

By Eliezer Kacew - Buenos Aires

Translated by Judie Ostroff Goldstein

At the outbreak of the war, I was thirteen years old and it left a strong impression on me; frightened merchants ran around in circles and then stood near their stores and complained: “What are they doing? What will become of our children? Business is terrible; nobody is giving credit; everything is so cheap, but there isn't any money! (An axle for a groschen – but not a groschen to be had!).” More than anyone else I cannot forget the Jew “Berele from the cellar” who sold hot water for tea, after cholent on Shabes afternoons, on credit. He carried a special bookmark on which he placed folded papers in order to know who had taken a cup at which price – a kopeck, four or six.

Wherever several people gathered together, they would be discussing the war. Berel would listen first and after that chime in: “Messiah's time, it's the end of the world”.

Reb Ber, people would ask him, “what does the war have to do with Messiah's time?” “So you will understand, the gemore says Messiah will not come until every pocket is drained and people do not have even a penny, this then is Messiah's time…”

 

“General Rudzki” and his son “Welwel”

I was very interested in the discussions that would flare up in the new besmedresh at the end of prayers, mainly between tall Gdalje-Dawid and his son Icl. With open mouths, we youngsters devoured every word. Gdalje-Dawid, a Misnaged, who travelled around Germany collecting money for certain institutions - is for Russia. He would defend the strategy of General Rudzki. His son Icl - knowledgeable in German Literature - defended Wilhelm and that's why he was called “Welwel”.

We wanted to see the “Fonyes” [“Ruskies”] defeated and were already waiting impatiently for a sign that Wilhelm's soldiers were coming. But, in the meantime, we took revenge on “General Rudzki”. We hid his bookstand and wrote in large letters on his “shtot” [pun, means pew and city] “here sits General Rudzki”.

When the Germans entered Ostrowa, “Welwel” the son became secretary in the county-office and the father “General Rudzki”, poor thing, had to write requests to his son in German (he became a “plea” writer).

 

We Did Not Know What War Was

The pleasure of listening to our fathers' discussions was denied us for a long time. Thousands of refugees had started to arrive from the surrounding villages, from which the well-known villain Nikolai'ke and his staff had expelled the Jews. All the botei medrashim and Hasidic shtiblakh were full of refugees: women, small children, pillows, clothes and other stuff scattered on the floor.

I remember a certain Friday, an expelled merchant drove into our courtyard. He took away a lot of sacks with honey and cigarettes - suddenly something is coming down - large, one piece - a bomb! We had watched one sight too many and with grieving hearts we now knew the meaning of war.

 

The Germans Are Here

The days went by and people began to hear rumours. The Russians are preparing to retreat and in the last weeks they ordered the stores to remain open on Shabes. Jews are running around as if they are in mourning. “They mean it! Such blasphemy, desecrate the Sabbath.”

A rumour had spread that the commandant ordered kegs of pitch to be placed around town and that the Russians would burn it down before they retreated. But it seems they ran out of time before finishing this piece of work. Afterwards, people found several kegs of pitch, lying around here and there. Suddenly there's shooting, shrapnel flying…

People remained in their cellars, in their attics, wherever there was still a nook to hide. After a couple of hours in the cellar, I dared to venture out into the courtyard and to my surprise I saw the German army arriving. They were walking on both sides of the road, several meters between one another, rifles in their hands, forward…

I went back into the courtyard and at the top of my lungs shouted, “the Germans, the Germans are already here”. People crawled out from hiding places and welcomed the Germans. The religious Jews thought this was a good sign - so for now the Jews were joyous.

In less than half an hour the city was lively again and a “much needed” business in caramels, fruit, and soda water started up on the streets. The roads were full of wagons, soldiers and horses. Music and singing were heard everywhere.

 

Go Home! Go Home! Go To Sleep!…

But gradually the shtetl started to sober up as people saw what the Germans were capable of. The young people were experiencing a boom. Clubs and societies had been founded such as learning and reading circles, a tour union, Maccabi, a choir, and many others. But our wise scholars said: we should be immersed in Torah…do not go to any dance…Then bread-cards, sugar-cards, soap-cards were introduced and endless other cards after that…To get a piece of bread, one had to stand in line for hours, making life miserable. On summer evenings, people would go for a walk, discussing literature and other such things along the way. On hearing the soldier at the commandant's house (near Mieczkowski's pharmacy) sound the bugle, the streets would empty in less than five minutes, as if a heavy rain had suddenly started. While running, instead of saying “good night” to each other, prompted by the sounds of the bugler people said: Go home, go home, go- to- sleep!

 

“Those Seven Good Years”

Today I look back on the good and happy days, which we had found in Maccabi, but which the war abruptly brought to an end and our main food became potatoes, what we called bulbehs (at that time, people really sang the song “Sunday bulbehs, Monday bulbehs…etc.). And for no reason, I became a little scoundrel at heart…

Coming back to Maccabi and looking at how we were taught to stand with our backs straight, to walk straight with our heads held high, to be proud Jews. What enthusiastic youngsters we were, to know how “to sound off” one after the other. How inspired people became when they saw children marching to the beat, under the sound of the orchestra, “One two! One two!” we heard the command from Ajzsze Tejtel and then the children started singing: “Be proud my people, take the flag in hand and march for your fatherland!”

It seemed as if these were not children marching, only large heroes, who were willing to attack the enemy in full force… also the growing young men and young women had shown what they could do. Attention! - would be heard - energetic, but already a little hoarse from so much screaming. At the end we would call out: “Khazak v'ematz” [“be strong and courageous!”][1]

 

People Drive the Germans Out

Days and weeks flew by. People thought the Germans would stay in Poland forever. The Germans were starting to suffer defeats. After their defeat at the Marne, the public was already prophesying their downfall. The brass doorknobs from the doors, the brass candlesticks had been given up a long time ago to the “war raw material location” (some called it “the plundered material place”). During a pleasant afternoon, a couple of young men, loafers, were sitting in the reading hall and playing chess and as usual were singing a well known melody, when a young refugee ran in shouting at the top of his lungs: “Quickly, come see. They are driving the Germans out!” We went out onto the balcony and what a picture we saw:

Small fourteen year-old hooligans were positioned around a group of Germans as if they were going to take away their weapons. The rest of the Germans were already in the wagon ready to drive away. They looked beaten.

 

ost179.jpg
The committee for a tag day in 1921 for those starving in Russia

[Page 180]

Such days
(In my hometown Ostrowa)

By J. Frejlich, New York

From the book Widerklangen [“Echoes”],
with the exception of one paragraph.

Translated by Renée Saltzberg Paton

J. (Jechezkiel) Frejlich, writer and literary critic, published two books of prose. He was born on 11 July 1905 in Ostrów Mazowiecka and lived in the United States from 1924. A graduate of Syracuse University, he was the editor of the Journal “Undzer Veg” [“Our Way”] published in New York where his tragic death took place on 23 October 1955.

Ostrowa stood like an island, surrounded by thick, broad, silent, still forests. The trees of the forest, tall and pointed dreamy pines, stood clinging to each other. They whispered to each other; they murmured to each other; telling secrets of the forest, secrets that sent fear through them. Between the forests, from their very depths, radiated silvered roads with sharp sticks and small shavings. These roads were drawn over the green meadows and fields like ribbons on combed green heads. Like veins towards a heart, so the roads led towards the city: the road to Brok, the highway to Warszawa, the road to Rożan, to Malkinia, to Zambrów, to Komorowo and the railroad. Each day, early in the morning, the roads carried farmers' wagons, droshkys, freight-wagons, coaches and various wagons loaded with spices, merchandise, wood and with people who were going to or from Ostrowa; travelling to Brok, Ostrolęka, Zambrów, Białystok, and Warszawa.

Around the edge of town, as though fearing that a famine might occur (G-d forbid), stood wind and steam mills that seemed like fanatical giant guards ready to protect the city from all its enemies with their tremendous strength. The sails of the windmills smacked the air and warned those around that no one should disturb the peace of the city. The steam mills, Masse's mill on Malkińska Street and Kagan's mill on Kosa, were always ready to grind kernels and grains into flour for bread to feed the town of Ostrowa. They nourished the city that constantly seemed ready to consume as much food as the mills were able to produce. On Przedmiesze Street in front of Eli Lach's house and large courtyard, that was always full of rusty sickles, ploughs, harrows and hoes, stood the church. The sharp steeple of the church looked like a pointed finger challenging the sky. The church with its resounding bells, whose ringing brought to mind the Inquisition, religious courts, gentile drunkenness and pogroms, looked out over the city with its stony countenance, its darkly coloured gaudy windows deeply set into the stone walls like the walls of a frightening, Middle-Ages torture chamber.

On the other side of the city, on Warszawska Road stood the depressed, neglected and shameful Russian church with its whitewashed dome and crosses that looked like broken arms hanging in plaster slung on lace. The park surrounding the Russian church was wild - overgrown with tall grass, thorns, leaves from wild radishes and rape seed. In a corner of the park, near the cross of the promenade garden, were several graves with poles on which were nailed boards. On the boards, inscribed in German was “Here lies a worthy Russian soldier” or “Here lies buried a Russian”.

In the middle of the city, equidistant from the Russian and Catholic Church, somewhere between the one and two storey wooden and brick houses with their shingle and tin-covered roofs, were hidden the new besmedresh, the old besmedresh and the numerous Hasidic shtiblakh. There, day and night, Jews studied, prayed, implored and thanked G-d on behalf of their followers, inquired about His ways and sought both the secret of the world's creation as well as the day of the Messiah's coming. They sat around tables in the shtiblakh and stood by the lecterns while they inquired, learned, implored and thanked G-d. They had great pity on the gentiles from both the Catholic and the Russian Orthodox Church because, unfortunately, fate did not bequeath them a share in the world to come.

When the German armies drove the rest of Tsar Nikolai's soldiers from town and occupied it, the Jews were so happy they had a joyous celebration. With the exception of Tall Frydman, Nachman Goldberg's son-in-law, Noach Dozer, hoarse Chajm Szaps, and a few other Jews, everyone in town had long hoped for and awaited the Germans as though waiting for the Messiah.

The honeymoon period of the German occupation quickly passed. The joy of the town's Jews, which dominated in those first days, rapidly dissipated. Frightful rumours spread throughout town. An oppressive quiet descended over Ostrowa. Already there was no help for the city - not even from the guardian mills. Like languishing tongues and palates so dry only a drink of water could quench, the sails stood still in the steam and windmills. Even at Fiszel “kasha-macher's” place on ulica Komorowo and at Szija and Motl “kasha-macher's” house on Jatke Alley, their blind horse stood with shrunken sides and longed for the dried chaff, the husks, that got into the dark crevices of the round, rarely used mill stones. In Cielak's oil shop, the grease from the pressed oil had already dried and not even money could buy feed for the animals.

At Aron wasermacher's in the kwas factory, the wheels stood still and the shelves, with their empty flasks languished for a drink of kwas. The small saccharine pills that the Germans had distributed were used in tea in order to warm shrunken bellies and nothing remained with which to sweeten the kwas.

At Nachum Lewartowicz's wholesale business the shelves were empty even before Pesach and at Mendel-Zindel's the corners of the long, narrow courtyard were devoid of even a small piece of iron.

A happy smile was on the face of the “dishonest one” and on his mind, devious thoughts. There were dried out bars of soap hidden in the secret corners of his dark, cellar like home. They were as valuable as money. They had also put into their damp cellar a whole barrel of kerosene that Icze Majer, the middle son of the “dishonest one”, had obtained by trickery. With a tube he sucked out a quart of kerosene each day, which was traded with the peasants for potatoes, a tub of butter, eggs or a sack of corn.

In the hallway of Abraham Jakubowicz's house, stood empty pots on tripods and under the glazed covers of the shop-counters were bare platters, which at one time had held gizzards, goose livers, roasted meat, salamis and snow white, smooth, polished, hard eggs.

Szija Mendel Bok, wearing boots with holes and carrying a whip in the red belt around his hips, stood near the counter and looked longingly at the empty plates. He smacked his lips as though he had lifted the glass and with an important flourish had taken a goose liver. His right hand was poised as though he was just about to replace the glass and say to Abraham Jakobcziche - “Pour another drink into the goblet.” He licked his dry, cracked lips and murmured - “Epilepsy should attack them”. Abraham Jankewicz's wife understood that he meant a misfortune should befall the souls of the Germans. She shook her head, rubbed her red inflamed eyes and said with fervent devotion: -Amen.

Tyk stood by the door of his paint business and coughed over the accounts smelling of turpentine, shellac, oil, benzene and paint, which were consuming his lungs. Nothing but the smell and a little plaster, lime and dry cement could be found in the store, but his coughing became harsher still and more frequent so that he felt like he had been grabbed by the throat. Near Majer Leszcz stood the Malkinia wagon drivers with their coaches, bemoaning the times they were living through. Jankiel Nianiak became angry and sorrowful, begged for pity for himself, his wife and children. With tearful emotion he grumbled at the wheels of his coach, at the axle - You should break down after what you have done to my earnings. That's how he spoke to his wagon, which had brought him a profitable livelihood for years, but he was referring to his enemy Szija Bok, whose small wagon travelled to Komorowo, to the army barracks. He meant also the Germans, whose gendarmes like dark shadows, fearful spectres, went around the city streets and brought sadness to everyone's lives.

The market place was bare, orphaned and neglected. The water pump with two wheels, from which everyone in he city drew crystal-clear water for tea, the wodechong, stood solitary and sick without hands on its wheels. It squeaked hoarsely when anyone moved it. Its pipes were rusty and its axle needed oil; there was nobody in the town who could cure its sick parts. The new masters of the town, the Germans, did not care that the water pump stood in the middle of the street dreadfully ill and in agony. In order to get water for tea, the townspeople had to use the little water which trickled under the little bridge along the highway to Warszawa, near the pond close to butcher Frejman's shop. Of the four pumps, one on each of the corners of the market, only the pumps near crazy Fajgele's shop and Podbielewicz's fancy-goods shop gave a little water. And then only when they had been primed with a bucket of water to give their “innards” and “lungs” strength to bring up enough water with which to satisfy the needs of the town.

People wandered in the streets as though it was a holiday, but without the holiday feeling - tailors, shoemakers, carpenters and cartwrights, bakers and butchers, turners and harness makers. People roamed the streets and dreamed about what they ate yesterday and dreamed about tomorrow and would it again bring bread, meat and butter. Would there be a little for Shabes, a cholent and a pudding, a good glass of wine and a rich carrot stew.

From the fields around the city, from the woods, from the meadows the smell carried. The smell of new blooms, of things growing, of the ripe earth mixed with the odours of bodies, people's and horses, rotting on the surface of the fallow fields. In addition to the terrible fear, strong smells from the rotten human bodies brought a plague to the town, which entered people's empty intestines and mercilessly tore and consumed them like locusts in a ripe field. From one house to the next, the epidemic spread like wild fire and destroyed everything standing in its path. Old and young - men and women - children in cribs and old people with canes, no one was spared.

Thus Jozef Aszer from the kerosene shop keeled over like a sheaf of wheat in a field. He did not even have time to make his confession; and Rejzel the baker was unable to wake her baby. And, woe, where do those heartrending cries come from? It is Josel Schreiber [Writer]. His eldest daughter died in agony. She is soon taken to the new cemetery dressed in her white bridal gown and white silk slippers. Her father, Josl the Writer, walked silent as the night while the mother went to the cemetery and removed one of the white shoes from her dead daughter's foot. When people tried to take the shoe from her, she clasped it to her and screamed:” No, I will not surrender it. I would rather throw myself into the grave with my daughter than give up her wedding shoe!” In the middle of her wailing, even before the writer's daughter was finally buried, the black wagon appeared and brought the stiff corpse of Lejbl, the paper merchant. No, the wagon was not large enough to carry all the dead. Stretchers also had to be used. The dead were taken in wagons, carts and hand-carts to be buried. The new cemetery on Malkinia Road was almost full to the gates.

The plague continued its rampage. Kagan, the dispensing chemist whose ruddy complexion looked fungus-like, remained the same. He poured bottles of carbolic and they were snatched from him as though they contained matzah-water. People spat into their handkerchiefs and they boiled their water for drinking. The ditches of the town were cleaned and whitened with lime. They looked spotless, as though covered with freshly fallen snow. On the sidewalks and the streets there wasn't a spot of dirt. It looked like holiday time.

Herszl Czurz, Popelach, Mo'cze Mendel, all the town's madmen had already succumbed to the plague. Meanwhile, Ben-Cjon went around threatening that if he weren't given “teg”, he would leave for Andrzejewo and Ostrowa would be without even a madman for the healer to treat.

“The sin must be driven out of the city”, Reb Josef Kalisz repeated. He glanced at Reb Noach, a kehillah dozor who walked quietly by his side. Reb Noach Fajncajg appeared waxy yellow and shrunken. As he walked he felt a leaden terror lying on his shoulders. His feet dragged as though weighed down with blocks. He had already decided that for a person like him, there was no place left on earth where he could live. Several months earlier, he had said to his beloved daughter Rachel, “Rachel, dear, I tell you that if sweets cost ten pfenig an honest person cannot expect to make a living.” The word pfenig was said with bitterness and pain and with that his whole appearance changed. Reb Noach went with the Rabbi, Reb Jozef Kalisz, not because he was afraid the plague would spread, but because of the sins of the wealthy children of town. Reb Noach did not want to suffer in the next world because of the sins of others. Yes, he, the true warden of the town, felt that he carried a responsibility for the youth, the children of the city.

As he walked along, it seemed to Reb Noach that the ground from Komorowo Street, his Komorowo Street slid from under his feet. As he walked, he whispered to himself “How long, O Lord, will you allow us to be tormented in this strange world?”

Large advertisements in German, Polish and Yiddish hung on poles and on walls stating that everyone, without exception, must come to the steam-baths to be deloused. On the wall of Nachman Goldberg's brick house and at the pig-market, a large notice was hung, on which was drawn a gigantic, terrifying, shocking louse, with feet like bears' claws and a snout like a mole. In its mouth the louse carried the poison which spread the epidemic throughout the city. Underneath the drawing of the gigantic louse was written in all three languages: “Take care, this animal is dangerous. It carries death from house to house.”

In the town there were sleepless, hungry, and fearful nights which seemed to last forever. Although Kuczer, who awakened the men for morning prayers, did not have proof that it was dawn, it was time to wrench the people from their sleep with his hoarse, miserable voice. Therefore in the darkness of night, it seemed that Kuczer, banging with his knotty stick on the shutter, called like the angel of death over the grave of a dead person, “It's time to go to prayers, to go to divine service, it's time to rise.” His hoarse, rasping voice rose above the city and woke each one and seemed to call, “Time to expire in pain; time to enter the grave, no more time to rise!”

And at Moisze Waser-macher's four cornered courtyard, locked in as if inside a closed chest were Moisze Icchok with his family, Aaron Welwel the turner, the harness-maker with his daughter and son, Abraham the driver with his covered wagon, shoemakers, tailors, storekeepers, dentists, the midwife. In Moisze's courtyard, was the factory that had first belonged to Aron, the Rabbi of Nur's son. In that courtyard the epidemic took hold and with its deathly venomous nails tore people out from one home after another. Moisze from the corn store fell dead from a pain in his intestines and the wife of pale (olive skinned) Jozef Aszer the storekeeper died after a few hours. Lipski from the Hotel Victoria went through terrible suffering and his cries could be heard from a distance. It seemed as if the wings of the epidemic hovered over the courtyard.

The harness-maker was snatched from the jaws of death; Perl the hunchback was pulled from the hands of the Angel of death and immediately after that, one heard wailing in Reb Icze Itke's house. But in Reb Aaron's attic there was an eerie silence, like being covered with earflaps. It was he who had organized the people in the courtyard because he couldn't bear the smell of the dense crowd. Even in the Amszynower shtibl he would try to sit near the door. He could however see the people, even with his very short sight. Cype, Reb Aron's wife and Reb Noach's daughter, whom Reb Icze Itke's had crowned with the name “the wise pupil”, had deep, clear sharp eyes and went around on tiptoe afraid to disturb the stillness that covered her six children, who clung to her like sheep before a storm. With each new cry, with each fresh lament that was brought to her ears, she was further startled and distressed. She felt her heart sinking. Her deep, strangely bright eyes were half-closed under her long dark eyebrows and she whispered a plea, from the depth of her soul to G-d Almighty. “Listen to my request Father, I beg you and if, G-d forbid, I am not worthy, then protect my entire household I beg you Father in Heaven.” And tears burst from her closed eyes and she added: “If You want to punish me, strike me, Father, but not too hard, take pity!”

She sat enveloped in her fear and sewed new amulets to hang around her children's necks. Into each sack she put pepper, salt and bits of cloves, broken-up thunder stones and a psalm written in her masculine handwriting. She tied these with red threads and then raised her deep, moist eyes to heaven:” Chastise, chastise us, G-d!” again she implored G-d and in her own words, as always when she prayed she said “But, G-d in Heaven, don't take any of my children from me. I beg you, Father in Heaven.”

So Reb Aron's wife Cype sat and she saw how her husband put a skullcap under his hat, his belt on his hips, took his walking stick and went to the door. She inspected him from head to toe; she saw his yellowish face and the terror in his small, wrinkled eyes. She took pity on her husband, on her grown child, who had suddenly become an old man with a belt, skullcap and a cane in his hand. She knew that Aaron's sudden burst of religion came from fear and one had to hold one's soul ready to relinquish it to G-d at any moment. She asked her husband a question while he stretched his hand up to the mezuzah: “Where are you going, Aron?”

“Szepsl has passed away. I'll have to spend the night there”.

Like a shot Reb Aaron left the house and came face to face with the plague, with death. He did not know if he would ever kiss his mezuzah again. Cype did not know if Aron with his bashful tenderness, bold love, admiration and small, nearsighted eyes would ever see her again. She recalled how he used to look at her when she offered warm-hearted words to lift his heavy spirits.

From the town and the villages around Ostrowa, friends and relatives sent packets of spice, clothing, small quantities of preserves which had been saved, oranges as a remedy which had been obtained somewhere, in order to help the stricken city.

The Rabbi of Nur, Rabbi Izaak Dawid, could not stay put in his rabbinical court. Not only was he overcome by fear that the plague would come to his son Aron's house, but he was even more frightened that his son would lose his mind because of his fear of the plague. Rabbi Izaak Dawid Nurer knew his son well; he knew that when something extraordinary happened, his son would withdraw into a corner and bite the knuckles of his right hand. He would sit stiffly in a desperate, fearful silence that tore at one's heartstrings. Who knows what could happen to his son if this disease, G-d forbid, entered his house.

So Rabbi Izaak Dawid, the Nurer rabbi, put his streymel over his skullcap, put on his new satin kapote and his new sandals with the rubber on the sides. He called for a peasant's wagon and filled it with a sack of peas, a measure of potatoes, two jars of oil, a sack of onions and lastly a small amount of black bean flour. He sat down on a board covered with straw and rode down the Malkinia highway towards Ostrowa. He didn't go through the market. He turned off from Malkinia Road and went along the Old-Brokowska Alleyway, past the yeshiva, near the spice factory and from there he went to Mosze waser-macher's courtyard.

The next morning when Rabbi Aron was returning home from the funeral of his friend Szepsl, he saw his father, with his yellowish-grey, wide, combed beard, in the courtyard. He stiffened and like a beaten child called out to him “father”.

The Nurer Rabbi, Rabbi Izaak Dawid, with his inquisitiveness, looked carefully at his son and saw clearly how the burden of the epidemic in the city was lying on his son's shoulders. He did not put his hand out to greet his child, he only said to him: “Come, Aron, let's sit down and talk!” In his satin kapote, with his fur hat on his head the Nurer rabbi sat himself on one of Aron Welwel the turner's logs that was in the courtyard. He asked his son to sit near him and with parental feeling comforted his child, his son Aron, himself the father of six children.

From the windows of the surrounding houses of Mosze's courtyard, people were amazed and wondered why the Nurer Rabbi would come to town during such an epidemic. Why did he come to sit on a log in the courtyard and what did he say to his son Aron the intellectual, the most astute politician in town, the sage and wit. But just at the moment that Rabbi Isaac David sat down and spoke with his son, Reb Aron Welwel, the turner, called to his wife from his deathbed and asked her to bring him a drink of water. He opened his eyes very wide; drank the boiled water and through his cracked lips whispered “Thank G-d, I feel better”. Looking through the window of his house, the harness-maker noticed that when the Nurer rabbi came to see his son, the thick darkness of the epidemic which had hung over the courtyard like a heavy cloud in the wind, lifted from the earth and rose to the heights.

Father and son sat under the window in the courtyard of Aron the turner and the Nurer rabbi comforted his son saying “G-d, praised be His name, will save us and the epidemic will avoid your house!” Reb Aron felt like a child in front of his father and wanted to clasp him to his bosom. He felt how good it was to have his father near him. He thought he saw that the air around him became clearer and the dark clouds that had hung over the city melted like snow in the sun.

“I'll go to afternoon prayers and prepare to be on my way” said Reb Izaak Dawid tenderly to his son. He called for the food to be unloaded from the wagon and entered the house showering each grandchild with affection. He said the afternoon prayers, blessed the grandchildren and as he was leaving said to his daughter-in-law, “Czypisze, everything will be fine, G-d willing.” G-d willing”, Cype answered in her sweet voice. She accompanied her father-in-law to the street and at the gate of Moisze's courtyard she asked the Nurer rabbi: “Why didn't you wash and have a morsel to eat in my house?”

Reb Aron at first thought that his father had not even been in his house. He wondered why his father was in such a hurry and had not even stayed for supper. “Why didn't you take even a slice of bread in our house?” Aron asked his father. The Nurer rabbi sought an answer. He didn't want to cause his children pain by reminding them of the epidemic that raged in the town. “I'm not hungry” he stammered.

“I'll accompany you as far as Masses' Mill”, Reb Aron said, when he saw that the wagon was ready to go.

At first the father and son walked slowly. The wagon followed behind them. As they approached the yeshiva, Reb Aron asked his father “Why did you not even wash in my house?” Although the Nurer rabbi tried to avoid giving his son an answer to the question, he finally had to say, “I was not allowed to. I could not eat in the town because, G-d forbid, I could bring this disease back to my congregation”. Rabbi Izaak Dawid was chagrined because he reminded his son so directly that he lived in the town where the flames of the epidemic were still burning bright. He saw how the expression on his son's face altered. He heard his son ask him, “Father, do you think it is a good idea perhaps for Cype and the children to go to your house?”

Reb Aron's voice was sweet, pleading, insecure and hesitant. The Nurer rabbi felt such pity for his son. He said, “Bring your household to me”. But he took him aside and said to him, “You know, my child that you cannot run away from the plague because there is a greater danger that the plague will, G-d forbid, follow you as….”

Rabbi Izaak Dawid grew silent in the middle of the speech. Words failed him. “I know that one cannot run away from a plague!” Reb Aron said. “But”, “No buts!” said his father. “Indeed as you are so busy visiting the sick, therefore you will be spared and your family will be saved from the plague”.

Father and son pressed their hands together. When the Nurer Rabbi sat down on the wagon, the peasant hit the horse with the whip. Reb Aron noticed that from Malkinia Road and from the fields around, strong winds, with a noisy rush, were beginning to blow the air away from town. The scent of the dead bodies that had hovered for so long over the town was lifting.

Reb Aron returned to town by the back lanes. Through the Jatke Alley he went on to the Amszynower shtibl. He went and he felt a yearning for his father growing in his heart. He passed the old besmedresh; he came upon Tall Motke, who appeared even taller than usual, because he was emaciated from hunger.

“Why are you so distressed, Aron?” Mot'ke asked him. He did not wait for an answer before saying, “Today is the Yahrtzeit of “his” z”l death. We must make a “l'chaim” - to commemorate him. Do you remember, Aron how “he” z”l always said, “Sadness can lead to strange things, So let us be happy Aron”.

Mot'ke gave Aron a slap on the shoulder. He took a flask out of his chest pocket and practically sang in the middle of the street “We will drink to “his” z”l honour. Let's go to the shtibl.”

On the way to the Amszynower shtibl, Mot'ke spoke quickly and rapidly. Reb Aron did not hear anything Mot'ke said. A dreadful yearning for his father tore at his heart. As he walked, he felt that his feet were dragging along behind him. The two men came to the Amszynower shtibl. Mot'ke entered through the front door and Reb Aron went in through the back door of the shtibl. He saw the yellowed face of his father-in-law Reb Noach near the long, broad table. In front of him was a leather bound, gold lettered volume of Mishnah and he swayed back and forth like a dry ear of corn in the wind.

Reb Aron turned his head away from his father-in-law. He went to a corner and in an ancient melody quietly recited the Kol Nidre prayers.

* * * * *

And the wide, broad forests around Ostrowa, the fields of Brok, the Rożanska, Warszawska and Zambrów highways whispered fearfully and they held the town in a dark, heavily laden, frightening, insecure stillness.

 

ost190.jpg
A woman in a forest

[Page 191]

Nechemia Gravedigger

By Israel Emiot

Translated by Renée Patton Saltzberg

Israel Emiot (Goldwasser) – poet, began writing in Hebrew and later changed to Yiddish. He is published in various literary magazines in Poland, Russia and America. His first four books of poetry appeared in Ostrowa, two books in the Soviet Union where he was during the war and in 1957, a book in Poland. His work was translated into Hebrew, Polish, Russian, [and also English]. He has lived in the United States since 1959.

For thirty years Nechemia was the gravedigger in the shtetl. He was responsible for the cemetery and its graves and he had grown accustomed to the anguished cries and hysterics - once, over a young child, a baby who departed early from this world, once an uncircumcised boy and once a mother of small children. For thirty years he had lived in the house at the cemetery. He did his work perfectly. He was the guardian of the graveyard, watched that nobody stepped on the graves, argued with the women, who came to the cemetery every erev Rosheshoneh to their relatives, about why they did not walk on the marked paths instead of over the graves. He never lamented for anyone. During the “empty days” when he was not busy digging graves, he would go about the cemetery looking over the gravestones and think how there was no difference between the rich and the poor of the world: they all lay equally in the ground.

Strangely, the thirty years that Nechemiah was gravedigger passed by quickly, as if in a dream. For the first time, when he was in his sixties, after working for such a long time at the cemetery, Nechemia suddenly began to feel alone in the world.

He feels today like he did during his first year as gravedigger. Later on he would always remember that time with a little smile.

In his first year as a gravedigger, he remembered that he was so afraid to go into the cemetery at night, he was not used to it…

He was struck by the sadness of such a desolate field. He was then a young man and through an accident had begun this work. His house in town had burned down; he had no alternative and thus became the gravedigger. Nechemiah was not then the Nechemia of today; he was not even called “Nechemiah” then…he was not an uneducated person. After evening prayers he studied with a group in the besmedresh. He found grave digging very hard in that first year. He recalled how hard it was for him to cover a grave…Just at that time a young child had died and the mother's cries split the heavens. The mother, wild with grief, threw herself on the open grave of her only child and would not allow it to be covered. Then Nechemiah moved away and cried out loud. The “khevrah” had to quiet him and reproached him for carrying on like a woman and not doing his job…

During that first year, every day stretched like a year. In winter he was struck by the graves wrapped in snow, a desolate tree with bare branches like the hanging hands of the dead…He would sit for days on end reciting Psalms in his dwelling that was next to the ablution chamber. His solitude, which rose from every corner as from a ruin, found expression in the melancholy Psalms melodies.

Once in a while the oppressive stillness was broken by funerals. With a groan, the gate of the cemetery would open and the wagon would lead in the sobbing relatives of the dead person. Once the grave was covered, the crying became louder, frightening a crow standing somewhere on a tombstone looking around in wonder at the crowd of people who had suddenly gathered there. The crow gave a slap of its wings, circled the cemetery several times and flew into the snowy distance.

It was very difficult for Nechemiah that first year. But he gradually became accustomed to the long winter nights and to the endless summer days.

Only when Nechemiah became old did he began to delight in his solitude.

He appeared to be the very same Nechemiah, the screaming, fierce man who had argued with those who stepped on the graves. He was not moved by the wailing of the unfortunate orphans who remained alone after the death of their father. But he was not the same. Is it his age? Somehow, he did not feel entirely secure when he came home from the cemetery. Such regretful sadness and compassion stole through his hard shell of anger.

Is it perhaps the war? Now there is an epidemic in the city. The wagon brings the dead every couple of hours. Often they brought a stretcher with a person who had been shot by murderous hands, in the days when there was no law protecting Jewish lives. There in the city the pain was at least everyone's; here Nechemiah was alone, along with all the martyrs and plague victims.
This has stayed with him from his years as a young man and turns up after each burial.

Is this the usual crying today or something different? It is so short, so shocking and makes the skin crawl.

What kind of person had not already been brought here, felled by the evil plague? Young and elderly Jews, righteous and sinners and the wailing hung over the cemetery fir trees. There in the city the people are together, they forgive each other for their sins. They support each other against the powerful enemy lying in wait outside…against the terrible plague. When a misfortune occurs, it is everyone's misfortune. Everyone is a partner to the trouble. Only here Nechemiah is abandoned, alone.

Once, late on a summer's day, at dusk, during the burial of Reb Abraham Dayan, the entire town came to the cemetery. Everyone lamented this terrible misfortune, who could hold back tears? A terrible wailing was heard in the cemetery. With tears they committed this pious man to the grave. He was still a young man and was carried off by the terrible epidemic. Little by little, the cemetery was emptying. The anxious stillness that had suddenly taken over the cemetery was even more shocking than the earlier storm. The wind shrieked through the fir trees, bending them over the graves. In the west the sun was already setting and a sickly redness spread across the horizon. Somewhere in a fir tree a bird sang a haunting, sad song. From the nearby forest the sound of a mournful cuckoo was heard. In Nechemiah's house the lamp was already lit and night had begun to fall…but Nechemiah was still in the cemetery searching among the graves. He knows that the grave of a hidden righteous man, a quiet, great Jew must be somewhere on the side. He was drawn to the grave - all his anxiety, his accumulated worry would abate - the righteous man would be his defender. The trouble would disappear. One can hardly believe it! Nechemiah, who had already spent thirty years as a gravedigger, with a strict indifference to crying and suffering, cried and wailed loudly, just as he had done when he was a young man, who before his wedding had gone to his mother's grave to inform her of his wedding day. He had no idea of what was happening around him and as if a community messenger of pain and suffering he sobbed against a grave, begging for mercy.

When the wagon arrived at the cemetery with yet another plague victim, they searched for Nechemiah for a long time. He was lying semi-conscious and wailing on the righteous man's grave. When he was asked to dig a grave, he could only stammer… I cannot anymore…I cannot anymore…someone else will have to do…

And with another wretched cry, he died…


[Page 194]

The Community Committee

By Tuwia Makower
Former Secretary of the Ostrowa Kehilla

Translated by Judie Ostroff Goldstein

During the time when Russia ruled over Poland, until 1914, the Jewish Community Committee [kehilla] did not have any independence. The representatives of the kehilla, or as people called them “dozors” were so to speak, sextons of the Russian town council. The town council controlled the elections of the dozors. This was not democratic rule. Only taxpayers had the right to vote. The function of the dozors was to put together the tax list and estimate how much tax each Jew should pay. But only the town council could collect the taxes. They also arranged for a blessing in the besmedresh on the birthdays of each member of the royal family. The rabbi and the dozors had to be present at this ceremony. The rabbi said a couple of prayers and the cantor with the choir sang the Russian National Anthem “Bozhe Tzaria Khrani” [“God Save The Tsar”]. A government representative was also present (a member of the Russian National Assembly or the District Manager) and one time, not even the Governor came.

The town council awarded the lease for the public baths with the mikveh - and not the dozors. The leasee paid the town council and out of the taxes, the town council would pay a part of the wages for the rabbis; the other part came from slaughtering, through the ritual slaughterers. The taxpayers had the right to choose a rabbi, but did not have at their disposal any funds to meet the needs of charitable institutions. These institutions had to support themselves by asking for donations from Jews, etc. Understandably, under the circumstances, the implementation of charitable institutions was neglected.

From 1914 to 1918, during the German occupation, the military government would have nothing to do with the activities of the kehilla. The German Occupation Government appointed a committee that they chose and there was no representative from the Jewish population, leaving us without any rights. The same situation existed after that, during the first years of Polish independence. Pilsudski's decree about controlling the election of the kehilla and rabbis first appeared in 1924. The elections were on a democratic basis. In the large communities a council and a committee were elected, and in the small ones - only a committee. Our city Ostrowa was considered a large community. The entire male population over 21 was entitled to vote. They voted only for the council of 12 people and after that the council elected a committee of 8 people. No council member could become a committee member. The activity of the new kehilla was entirely different from what it had been. Their function was to put together a budget - for all religious needs such as choosing rabbis, ritual slaughterers, judges, trustees, mikveh, botei midrashim, pledges, Talmud Torah, a to z and also to head charitable and social institutions.

The chief income came from taxes and the ritual slaughterer of animals. The yearly budget had to be approved by the Ministry of Religious Affairs. During this time the kehilla was able to control more activities independently. More importantly, in the first few years, the committee took an interest in Jewish business life in the city. They overhauled the badly neglected mikveh and by doing so improved the sanitary conditions as well. They took control of the ritual slaughtering, organizing it better and appointed new directors for the Khakhnasas Orhim who were leaders in the city's charitable works.

 

Linat Hazedek and Bikur Holim

Linat Hazedek and Bikur Holim were founded by a group of volunteers who were sixty years of age and older and continued their activities until the day World War Two broke out.

 

ost195.jpg
Linat HaZedek: Society and Oversight Committee Ostrów Maz. 1924
Sitting from right: society members Lejb Olszaker, Jakob Goldberg, Efrim Rybka, Chairman Morchai Kohn, Mosze Pokrzywa, Dawid Lichtensztejn and Bendet Lichtensztejn.
Standing in 2nd row: Society members Secretary Sana Bitman, Fiszel Rozental, Abraham Zysk, Chaim Estryk, Lejbel Halpern and Izrael Kuperberg.
Standing in 3rd row: Oversight Committee Pinchus Bronak, Mendel Wszawer Szmuel Ryba, Chairman

 

Linat Hazedek had two goals:
  1. To send someone on duty overnight to the very sick in order lighten the burden of the family so that they could continue to work during the day.
  2. To help the sick with doctors, prescriptions, medicine, etc.

At the time Linat Hazedek was one of the most popular institutions in our town and surrounding villages. The committee and the volunteers were always simple people. Their generosity towards this institution was extraordinary. When they were running a campaign or a fund-raiser, everybody went to work. The town always responded warmly to every campaign. This was the only institution that never received any help from America. From year to year their activities grew and they helped many unfortunate patients in critical condition. Their warehouse, stocked with medicine, grew larger and everyone in town, including the Christians, would come to them for remedies.

During the First World War, 1914-1918, they found themselves with some very difficult cases. There were no doctors, no prescriptions and the Jewish population was financially ruined and there was no way to make a living. The town was full of refugees from the surrounding, burnt out villages such as Zaręby Kościelne, Czyzewo, Rożan, Andrzejewo, Brok, Nur, Długosiodło, etc. Fresh epidemics broke out often. Linat Hazedek was beleaguered by masses of people looking for help for their sick relatives. There were many heart rending scenes, and through it all Linat Hazedek some how managed to help all those in need.

The generous volunteers worked with great energy. They brought a doctor from Warszawa. They kept in touch with a certain pharmacist from whom they bought medicine cheaply. During the First World War we endeavoured to have the German Occupation Government release food for the sick and this brought results. Every month there was sugar, rice, flour, kasha etc. and so we were able to relieve the needs of the sick.

The committee was made up of the following: Chaim Chrust, Tuwia Grynberg, Tuwia Makower, Abraham Zysk, Sana Bitman, Chaim Estryk, Stanisław Kagan (the pharmacist), Aron Frejlich, Jakob Mańkuta, Lejbel Olszaker, Lejbel Tenccza and Beril Dmocher. But special mention must be given to Efrim Rybka. An artisan, a family man responsible for ten people, who lived in an attic, he was the guiding spirit of Linat Hazedek from its founding until its last day at the outbreak of the Second World War. Tired from a long workday, he never refused to help a sick person. At every fund-raiser, he was the first to volunteer.

The keys to the warehouse were left with him. When people needed medicine during the night, they came knocking on his door. Never giving thought to how tired he was from a full day of work, he immediately got up and went out to get the medicine. In the middle of the night he would fetch a doctor or medicine, whatever was necessary.

When somebody very sick had to be taken to Warszawa and they did not know the city, he left work and drove with them.

It happened that somebody needed a certificate from the town council or from the kehilla for a sick person, in the middle of the night and he woke an official in order to have the papers filled out.

He was very popular in town and as soon as some one fell ill, people went straight to him for help. He never refused anyone. He gave heart and soul to Linat Hazedek and Bikur Holim.

May his memory be blessed.


[Page 197]

Doctor Rubin Klaczko

By T. M – R

Translated by Judie Ostroff Goldstein

Dr. Rubin Klaczko was known throughout the region. This well-known medical doctor was born in Russia to assimilated parents, studied in Russian schools and did not have any Jewish education. He came to Ostrowa around 1900 and he became a fervent “national” Jew and a self-sacrificing social worker for the good of the Jewish population. This was not by any means an act, as he would not take any payment from us. His respect and generosity towards sick Jews was really fatherly and in every Jewish house he was a friend. When he came on a call to a poor, sick person, not only would he not even taken an honourarium, but he was also helpful with remedies. He also gave a lot of time to Linat Hazedek and Bikur Holim. At each charity drive, he was the first to respond with large sums. He was one of the founders of the large savings and loan fund in the city and devoted many years to being its leader. Because of his personality, people had great confidence in the fund. At times there was a great number of requests for loans and funds were short, therefore it would not have been possible to fulfill all the requests, so he privately laid out large sums to the fund in order to meet the demand. His wife came from a religious family and kept a genuine kosher kitchen.

His popularity as a doctor grew from day to day, also with the non-Jewish population who had great respect for him. However, a part of the Polish population persecuted him because of his popularity as a great doctor and ardent Jewish community activist. When World War One broke out in 1914, the Poles took the opportunity, with the help of the Russian police, to send him deep into Russia with the community activists Mendel Wszabor, Menacham Kahan, Jukiel Tejtel, Eliezer Knysiński, the Drozdowski brothers, Icl and Judel and Motl Langlejb. When the war ended in 1918, the Poles undertook, by every means possible - legal and illegal - through the Polish town council, headed by Mieczkowski, to deny him permission to come back and so he remained in Russia.


[Page 198]

The Head Barber-Surgeon

By A. M-T

Translated by Judie Ostroff Goldstein

The eldest and most popular feldsher [barber-surgeon] in the city was the “boss”. He lived on ulica 3go Maja near Eli Tejtel. Outside, over the door, hung three brass plates, a sign that the feldsher lived there.

The head barber-surgeon was a very short Jew with a healthy face, German style of dress[2] and a rigid, black hat. He always carried a maroon leather satchel under his arm and a cupping glass. A very caring person, he would go into the streets and alleys to see to the sick. No matter what the illness, he was never afraid. The “boss” stood there with his calm speech, and simple manner. He made the potion for the sick on the spot; he brought comfort with him.

In any case, Jews and gentiles used the barber-surgeon, and all the pharmacies used his recipes. He used leeches and cupping glasses, extracted a tooth, let blood, swabbed a throat and examined a sick person with a stethoscope, like a doctor.

People asked for his diagnosis, especially since he was not full of himself, and if necessary, he would call the doctor. The “head” barber-surgeon left Ostrowa after World War I.


[Page 199]

Religious Life

By Tuwia Makower, Bnei Brak

Translated by Judie Ostroff Goldstein

More than eight thousand Jews lived in Ostrów-Mazowiecka – or as the town was called before Polish Independence in 1918 – Ostrow-Lomżinski. There is not enough historical information from the past about the influence of the Jewish population. There is information from several hundred years ago stating that the Jewish population was made up of learned men, Hasidim, enlightened men, merchants (small and large) small-traders, artisans and labourers. The wood and grain industries were the largest. With time each group created their own clubs, synagogues, Hasidic shtiblakh, minyonim and societies, for example: Khevra Shas [Talmud Society], Mishnayes [Mishnah Society], Ein-Jankew, Chaieh-Odem, T'hilim [Psalms Society], Khakhnasses Orhim, Bikur Holim, Linat Hazedek, Talmud Torah, Yeshiva, Khesed L'Abraham[Kindness to Abraham Society], Gmiles-Khesed and Khevras Ezres-Yiladot [Society for Pregnant Women]– with the well-known woman Fejga Tejtel as leader. Ostrowa was well known for its rabbis, prominent Torah students and world famous gaonim. The following men held the Ostrowa rabbinical chair. The Rodziner Rebbe, Reb Gerszon Henoch Lajner zz”l; the Sokolker Rabbi zz”l; the Lifner Rabbi zz”l; the Stargoner Rabbi, Reb Jechuda Lejb Gordon zz”l; the Amszynower Rebbe, Reb Jozef Kalisz zz”l; the famous gaon Reb Mejer Dan Plocki zz”l and the Dayan Reb Jozef Cynowiec zz”l. The last rabbis were Reb Icchok Dawid Szulewiec zz”l, Reb Natan Plocki zz”l and Reb Szraga Zynger zz”l.

The old besmedresh on ulica Ostrolęka was the principal building of the so-called besmedresh Jews. The rabbis prayed in the old besmedresh. The rabbis gave sermons in the old besmedresh on Shabes Shuvah, Shabes haGadol and also on special occasions[3]. The voice of Torah was heard the entire day. From morning until night young men were studying, at night the Khevra Mishnayes was at one table, at a second – the Khevra Chai Adom; at a third – Ein Jankew, etc. On Shabes from three o'clock in the morning you could hear the sweet voice of Psalms being said collectively by Jews - simple Jews and rich Jews. One was Reb Lejzor Lawa, the bal hanikrah[Torah reader] and another, Lejzor Kuczer a”h, a simple Jew, a very poor man. Every Friday from two o'clock in the morning he went around town to wake people for Psalms by shouting: “Yidn shteyt oyf la'avdes boyreh” [“Jews come to the service of G-d”]. Even during the winter, in the freezing cold, he would wake everyone for Psalms. Not once did the police arrest him for waking people in the middle of the night, but he was not enthusiastic and later continued his divine service without any salary. On arriving in the besmedresh, you would meet Jews sitting around the oven with Psalm books in their hands; they would also tell stories about events from the past. One would constantly meet the very learned and bright Reb Pinchus Lejb zz”l sitting and studying; he sat and waited in case a young student needed to ask a question about his studies.

 

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Jews studying mishnayes

 

Rich men embellished the eastern wall. Some of them were Reb Nachman Goldberg, hanikrah [Torah reader]; the patriarchal Bromberg z”l; Reb Lejzor Antyfryner z”l who was the father-in-law of the great gaon Reb Ben-Cjon Rabinowiec zz”l (known to the world as Reb Ben-Cjon Ostrower). Included among these rich men were Reb Dawid Bandrymer z”l, father-in-law of the well-known Żirodower Rabbi; Reb Mendel Albek zz”l; Reb Dan Bromberg z”l; Reb Hirsz Icchok Wizenberg z”l; Reb Jakob Mosze Flatau z”l, Reb Michal, son of Zew Tejtel z”l and the famous khazan, Chajkel z”l with his beautiful outlook and wonderful voice – he was a brilliant man.

When he taught Torah for the masses the besmedresh was packed. It was such a joy to listen to him as he taught. He sent a great invention to Petrograd and received great thanks with the remark that someone had already invented the same thing.

The shamas in the old besmedresh – old Reb Tanchum z”l – was a wonderful human being. All day long he would go to the hederim and spend time with the children telling them anecdotes. At that time anecdotes were printed on calendars and they were all his. During last minutes of his life he was still coming out with witticisms. When he lay dying, several members of the Burial Society arrived. His wife saw them and began to cry. He called her and said “Do not cry, they will not take me while I'm still alive”.

Also the later shamasim Reb Natan Zelig z”l and Reb Arke Shamas z”l were also learned in Torah. Arke shamas, a former student at the Slobodker Yeshiva, was knowledgeable in Torah and virtues. At three in the morning he was already sitting in the besmedresh and studying. It is a fact that the rabbis did not want him as a shamas with Reb Natan Zelig, because he was a learned and wise man.

Among those who prayed at the old besmedresh were all different types of Jews: artisans, butchers, wagon drivers, porters and bosses. All of those who were noisy in the street and those who were known for their strength were always quiet and calm in the synagogue.

All the butchers, themselves simple men, had chosen scholars for sons-in-law.

Those who prayed in the so-called new besmedresh on ulica Brok were eminent and intellectual Jews. Among them were Reb Beriszl Szapiro z”l, a son of the famous gaon Reb Ajzyszl Slonimer zz”l; the learned and enlightened Reb Gdali-Dawid Morgensztern z”l; the very learned genius Reb Abraham Jakob Frydman zz”l, hy”d; Reb Jakob Mordchai Drozdowski z”l; Reb Icl Morgensztern z”l; Reb Welwel Tejtel z”l; Reb Eli Tejtel z”l; the very learned Reb Motl Miler z”l; Reb Menachem Drozdowski z”l; Reb Icchok Zorach Orlański z”l; Reb Aba Pajus z”l; Reb Szmuel Jozef Margolis z”l; Reb Michal son of Isser Tejtel z”l; Reb Aszer Dawid Kagan z”l; Reb Jakob Berenholc z”l; Reb Abram Elkes z”l; etc.

The shamas Hirszl Balbier z”l, was called Hersz'ke shamas. He was not like a shamas men were used to seeing in the Polish-Litvak villages for circumcisions and weddings. He had a very nice handwriting and was able to write well in Polish and Russian and was in charge of all the civil and marriage records at City Hall. Without him nothing would get done. He had everything in his head and the books were always accessible to him at City Hall.

Every evening in the new besmedresh a Khevra Shas met to study and it was founded by Rabbi Reb Zelman Saracki shlit”a (Lucker rabbi who should have been Ostrower rabbi). Every evening he gathered about one hundred fifty people from among the most learned Ostrowers and studied gemore. The principal speakers were Reb Abraham Jakob Frydman z”l, Reb Motl Miler z”l, Reb Gerszon Srebrnik z”l, Reb Abraham Hirsz shoy”b Polakiewicz z”l, etc.

The Yeshiva in Ostrowa was founded in 1850. The following respected Yeshiva leaders taught there: the great learned and humble Reb Nisel Lewiński zz”l; the great scholar with a brilliant mind (Amszynower Hasid), Reb Wolf Ber zz”l; Reb Jechusza Lejb zz”l (Nisel's son-in-law), the great and famous bal masbir [explainer, clarifier of Torah passages] Reb Hirszl Iglewicz zz”l. The yeshiva was under the direction of the respected community leaders Reb Abraham Jakob Frydman z”l, Reb Aszer Dawid Kagan z”l (glass manufacturer), Reb Nachum son of Fiszel Dawid Lewartowicz, z”l. There were about one hundred fifty students attending the yeshiva and a large number of the graduates became Rabbis.

The respected, pious woman and great philanthropist Fejga Zysl Bromberg a”h had built a special house for the yeshiva, when it was founded. While Russian Cossacks were on summer maneuvers in Ostrowa, they burnt down several houses and barns as well as the yeshiva, so Fejga Zysl immediately built a second house for the yeshiva, this time of brick.

The Talmud Torah for two hundred children was in the same building. The majority of the students were from poor families. Every day the children would receive a warm breakfast.

The Talmud Torah head teacher was the well-known, learned man Reb Mejer Icze Augustower z”l. His teaching created intellectual joy for the children.

Fejga Zysl had built two houses for the yeshiva and Talmud Torah and also provided half the food for the needy yeshiva and Talmud Torah students. May her memory be blessed.

 

The Novarodoker Yeshiva “Bes Jozef”

Not much was known about the Novarodoker [Polish, Nowogrńdek] Yeshiva “Bes Jozef” until its founding in Poland. The basic principals of the Novarodoker Yeshiva were: a) morals, b) self-criticism and c) humility.

When in 5682 – 1922[4] yeshiva leaders and students from Russia arrived in Poland they began to spread out into the Jewish Polish towns and villages to found Novarodoker yeshivas. A group of young men arrived in Ostrowa and started a drive to begin the yeshiva.

Due to their physical appearance and the state of their clothes, with the tsitsis hanging out from all sides, at first people were not prepared to take them seriously. They did not believe that the yeshiva could succeed in Ostrowa. But their experience in Russia had hardened the Novarodokers and they did not despair. With great devotion they founded the yeshiva in Ostrowa.

The yeshiva started with a small number of students and it grew from day to day. It attracted students from Ostrowa and the surrounding villages, especially as real authorities were appointed as yeshiva deans. A few examples are Rabbi gaon Reb Joel Klejnerman zz”l (a son-in-law of the Novarodoker yeshiva's founder gaon Reb Jozef Hurwicz zz”l), as well as Rabbi gaon Reb Aron Ogulnik zz”l and Bal Korah Reb Aaron Kameier. The yeshiva became popular throughout the region.

The students came from all social classes: Hasidim, Misnagdim, scholars, wealthy, artisans and labourers. In the last years before the Second World War, the number of students reached three hundred.

With their zeal for learning, their ecstatic praying, the shunning of pleasure and their different attitude, they gained a lot of respect from the entire population, even from those who were not religious.

Every afternoon and evening, after the Torah lesson, the yeshiva heads held discussions on deep, religious, philosophical subjects with the older students. From time to time, the great leaders of the Novarodoker Yeshiva visited Ostrowa, such as gaon Reb Abraham Jaffa from Białystok, gaon Dawid Blacharz zz”l from Mezrich [Międzyrzecze]. These discussions created a lot of interest, especially among the wealthy.

Men's and women's committee were created to help keep things in order and to help with cooking. The men's committee was in charge of monthly taxes, and from time to time special fund-raisers. The women in America also helped the yeshiva, led by Mrs. Kornet (the wife of the famous men's tailor in Ostrowa, Reb Jeszija Kornet – living in America). The eminent, orthodox, wealthy, Ostrower Reb Ben-Cjon Komorowski from ulica Pułtusk made two houses available for the yeshiva on ulica Pułtusk and ulica Koza.

After several years, the yeshiva had produced wise men, rabbis and musar scholars who spread out into the villages of Poland and founded other “Bes Jozef” yeshivas. Their generosity attracted a large number of students to the Novarodoker yeshivas in Poland.

After the death of Reb Josef Joizel Hurwiec, known as Der Alter, his students consulted with the Chofetz Chaim who advised them to leave the Soviet Union for Poland. Only about 600 made it – some were killed and others sent to Siberia. The 600 settled in Białystok and from there Der Alter's son-in-law, Reb Abraham Jaffa went on to establish seventy yeshivas throughout Poland.

A large number of rabbis and famous orators, such as Rabbi Reb Ajzyk Grajewski zz”l (rabbi in Narewka) etc. came from these yeshivas.

Rabbis and students from the Ostrower yeshiva can be found in Israel: Rabbi Reb Mejer Segal shlit”a in Haifa, (a brother-in-law of Reb Joel Kejnerman zz”l the yeshiva dean), Rabbi Reb Ben-Cjon Bruk shlit”a in Jerusalem and Rabbi Reb Zew Guelman in Bnei-Brak.[5]

The deluge of violence tore apart the holy Novarodoker yeshiva “Bes Jozef” in Ostrowa, along with its martyrs: the yeshiva deans and students.

 

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[Page 204]

The “Kosher Meal” Society in Ostrów Mazowiecka

By Tuwia Makower

Translated by Judie Ostroff Goldstein

Until the First World War in 1914, when Congress Poland was under Russian rule, there was a large contingent of Russian Military stationed nearby. Two complete infantry companies along with the 6th division were stationed in Komorowo and the 6th artillery brigade was stationed on Rożaner Highway, one kilometer from town. During the summer, the 2nd half-division from Ostrolęka and Rożan would also arrive.

There were a large number of Jewish soldiers among the military – from two to three hundred men.

Through the initiative of one person and with help mainly from the young men in the besmedresh, the “Kosher Meal” Society was founded in 1890, with the idea of preparing kosher meals for all the Jewish soldiers at the base.

The money came from a monthly tax and from various other fund-raisers. The young men would go to weddings wearing masks and military uniforms and collect money from the guests. The society collected larger and larger amounts of money by going to weddings. We received a permit from the sheriff to be on the street all night without being disturbed. We were constantly collecting money, but the work was very difficult. In those years, weddings took place during the winter and there would be a lot of them in one night. We would go out in small groups, the entire night, collecting money.

It is important to mention Reb Mosze Szwarc z”l, Reb Jakob Szwarc's z”l father, who was very generous and gave his heart and soul to the society. He gave us a special room in his house where we could store our clothes. We took our sealed pushkes from him and brought them back to him full. He would stay up all night and wait for the returning groups. When a group would come back with a large amount of money, his face would light up with pleasure.

The following wer volunteers worked for the “Kosher Meal” Society: Wolf Margolis z”l, Reb Lejb Margolies' older brother; Jozef Szwarc z”l, Aba Akselrod, Icze Mejer Perlmutter hy”d, Aron Bogacz, Tuwi Makower, Symcha Kohn z”l, Chaim Makower hy”d and Symcha Nyska.

This is how the “Kosher Meal” Society was run in our beautiful town until 1914 when the First World War broke out.


[Page 205]

Khevra Kadisha[6]

By A. M-T

Translated by Judie Ostroff Goldstein

Outwardly, the Khevra Kadisha [Burial Society] was a society like all other societies, but internally it was alone in its resolute discipline and autonomy. The society decided where to bury the dead and how much it would cost. Mainly they “settled accounts” with dead, stingy, rich men who had not made donations to the Society while they were still alive. Their children were sent an accounting that they had to pay on behalf of the dead man.

According to the rules, any one who wanted to buy a membership in the Burial Society, had to first do a “service” of cold, hard work and then prepare a feast.

A feast for the Society was not a simple thing – it was expensive. A Burial Society feast was prepared with only the best - things that would not be found on a simple Jew's table. The night before every new month, after prayers, they celebrated with a feast, where they talked about the day of the “yearly feast” (the day of Mosze Rabeinu's yahrzeit[7]). On that day they would choose a new gabe [pronounced gabeh] for the New Year. The preparations for that feast took weeks.

The feast was celebrated in the head gabe's house. Once it was Reb Hirsz Icchok Wizenberg, after him Reb Fajwel Kielewicz, who was called Fajwel Lewi's [son] and the last was Reb Icze Jadower. Once, a long time ago, Reb Bendet Lichtensztejn was gabe.

Members of the society during various periods were: Reb Nachman Goldberg, Mosze Michal Szlezynger, Lejbel Zaliszer, Mejer Leszcz, Hirsz Chaim Faskowicz, Hirsz Josel Warszowski and many others.

The society had a large income, as it was said, “torn from the dead and from the living”. True, from a poor man there was nothing for them to take, but they took plenty from the rich, or collected from the children of the rich who had not been generous enough while they were alive.

There are many stories about the prices charged the Society for burials.

 

Footnotes
  1. Khazak v'ematz” is the customary farewell among members of HaShomer HaTsair movement. At the end of the annual cycle of weekly readings from the Pentateuch in the synagogue, on the Sabbath when the last portion of one of the Five Books of Moses is read, the reader and the congregation call out together at the completion of the reading: “Be strong, be strong and may we be strengthened!” The source of “Be strong and of good courage: is to be found in Deuteronomy 31:5,7 and 23 as well as various other places in the Bible. Return
  2. German style of dress as opposed to Orthodox clothing. He wore a short jacket, not a kapote. Return
  3. The rabbis were primarily busy with Torah study and community affairs and would only speak publicly twice a year. Incontrast with America where Jews have a rabbi eulogize at funerals, the rabbi in the shtetlach left eulogies to others except in the case of an outstanding lscholar or an extraordinary tragedy. The magid was responsible for giving sermons and they were gifted orators with vast knowledge of scriptures, rabbinic writings, musar and parables and of course they used a niggun along with their words. In Hasidic communities, the rebbe was responsible for chastising the community leaving no opportunity for the magidim to earn a living there. Return
  4. After World War One, the Bolsheviks became a threat to the Novarodok yeshivas in former Russia. At first they tried fighting but soon realized that they could not come to any resolution with the Communists. Return
  5. Translator's note 1997: Rabbi Reb Jakob Kret, who lives in New York City, was a student at “Bes Jozef” Yeshiva in Ostrowa and in 1939 was a Yeshiva dean. After the Germans arrived in Ostrowa in 1939, Rabbi Kret left with a group of students for Russia, their ultimate destination being Wilno. They stopped in a small town close to the Russian-Lithuanian border for several days. Rabbi Kret sent his students on to Wilno with one of the other rabbis while he stayed behind to finish some business. The next day, when he went to cross into Lithuania, the border was closed. He was arrested by the Russians and sent to prison, then to a labour camp. He survived the war, in Siberia, but none of his students hy”d did. They were all murdered in Wilno and probably lie in a mass grave in Ponar. Return
  6. After a Jew dies, a Burial Society, known in Aramaic as the Khevra Kadisha (literally “Holy Society”) prepares the body for interment. The ritual cleansing of the corpse is called purification. Jewish tradition considers members of a Khevra Kadisha exceptionally meritorious because so few volunteer. The corpse is then wrapped in a shroud and in the case of a man also wrapped in his tallis [prayer shawl] with the fringes cut to signify that this man is no longer required to carry out the commandments. Return
  7. It was traditional for members of the Khevra Kadisha to fast on the seventh of Adar [February], the anniversary of Moisze Rabeinu's [our master's] death. They did this to atone for any disrespect they may have inadvertently shown to the dead. The night after the fast, they held a feast to celebrate their honoured position in Jewish life. Return

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