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[Page 159]

Serocker Jews

Yehuda Mendzelewski (Bat Yam)

Translated by Pamela Russ

We see you lonely, poor, and honorable Jews. We see you handsome and proud Jews. We see you God-fearing Jews all going with your taleisim (prayer shawls) at dawn to pay back a debt to the Master of the Universe of whatever debts you always owed him. We see you sitting in the study halls (beis hamedrash) learning until after midnight.

We also see your dear children going out of their schools (kheder) and on the way reviewing the verses from the Torah that they did not complete in school. We also see you - happy, rejoicing children - as you leave school, jumping and dancing. We also see you, children, playfully pushing each other - some with a round ball, some with a football, in winter on the ice with snowballs in your hands. We see you also grown boys and girls, fiery idealists and a struggling youth.

A youth group
First on the left in the second row from the bottom is Shloime Ostrowski

 

[Page 160]

A youth group
From right to left, first row, standing: Chava Blumberg, Hershel Rosenfeld, Feige Kopetch, Avrohom Jazombek, Feige Bresler, Avrohom Gutkowski
Second row, sitting: Feivel Borow, Chava Stelang, Hershel Zalcman, Gutman Kalina, Liba Khaimowicz
Third row, sitting: Laya Zalcman and Dvoire Kreda

 

We see all the groups, helping institutions, all kinds of unions, Zionist organizations from all directions, the famous Jewish orchestra, culture corners, and drama circles.

A small town, this Serock, with so much energy, so much intellectual strength and idealism to the point of self-sacrifice - Yakov Kuznicki, Hershel Mendzelewski, and others. Who didn't know Shloime Ostrowski? How much energy! How much strength! And how much enthusiasm! And with how much motivation did he organize the Yiddish drama circle in Serock. All performances produced by him were presented with great success. The Serock drama circle was comprised of tens of members. Shloime Ostrowski, with his sharp eye, knew everyone individually. When he needed a good-hearted mother, he found her in Feige Bresler, and when he needed a Yeshiva boy (bokhur) he got to know one through Avrohom …

[Page 161]

The Football Team

 

… Jazombek. The same was with Moishe Bresler, Feivel Borow, Rele Gladek, Volf Gerwer, Hersh Zalcman, Rochel Grinberg, and may he live and be well, Shmuel Brukhanski, and others. That's how everyone gave their tireless assistance to the Serock drama circle, turning it into one of the best in the entire area.

There was no work center for people to be able to exist financially in Serock. The majority of the youth went to look for work in the large city of Warsaw, but no one stayed there for a long time. They were all homesick. The magical town drew them with her beautiful, delightful, natural landscape, also the early morning Shabbos flights into the beautiful forests and the enchanting, secretive, artistic mountains helped one completely forget about his existence. It was never a late hour (too late), an inner quiet song poured over you from the silent murmuring and flowing of the Narew River. Life in the town was free and carefree, and the belief was that here the sky was clearer, more beautiful, and everyone trusted and believed that there would be a glorious future, but what came was the destruction.


[Page 162]

Military conscription in Poland
between the Two World Wars

Yehuda Mendzelewski (Bat Yam)

Translated by Pamela Russ

When the time came to present yourself to the military commission, the Serock youth, both Polish and Jewish, had to go to the main city of Pultusk on that day. It always came out at the end of spring. A day before the conscription, the Polish conscripts (prizivnikes), fired up by the NKVD (the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs [the government's secret police organization]), went into the Jewish shops and demanded compensation (money), or they would do terrible damage that night. The owners of the shops, knowing what was waiting for them, paid themselves out, giving the demanded monies to the hooligans. Woe to those who tried to negotiate the monies. The damage done at night to those was much greater. The hooligans used the money they collected to get drunk. After such a night of drinking, they became completely wild, breaking and destroying whatever got in their way. Those who had paid themselves off earlier in the day, suffered less damage. The hooligans kept a list to keep tabs on this.

The conscripts for the army called themselves losownikes (note: “Losovnikes" were a group of conscripts already picked by lottery waiting to be called up for mobilization). The Jewish losownikes kept themselves separate and also did not use the free transportation (podvoda) from city hall, but put together their few pennies (groshen) and got a wagon driver to drive them to the military commission in Pultusk, 21 kilometers from Serock. The wagon driver was Leibele Zuker (Yankele Zeldes), a very bold and strong young man, and one who could give you a real blow if ever necessary. Leibele Zuker was often found on the road, and often found himself up against the Polaks, one against many. But no one dared put a hand on him, knowing this was not going to end well.

But this time, in 1933, bloodshed was incited by the Polaks …

[Page 163]

… as to why Jews are also involved in the holy undertaking of the Polish military - and they vowed to teach the Jews (zhides) a lesson. Our driver, sensing that the return trip would not go so smoothly, urged us to complete our tasks quickly because he wanted to leave Pultusk for Serock an hour before the Polaks did in order to avoid a clash with them on the road. But things happened differently: The Polaks, seeing that the driver with the zhides had run off, they began to chase them with their “resarske britchkes” (“knight's horse-drawn carriage,” referring to a covered wagon that had more metal on it than wood, as a knight had “metal”), they harnessed up two horses to them, and chased Leibele's weak little horse to the village of Kluski, four kilometers before Serock. With wild cries of “Go to the Jews!” they began to jump off the wagon and with stones and sticks they headed towards us. We became very frightened. Only Leibele remained calm in his place near his horse and wagon, and quickly said: “Those of you who are weak, run away!” Some of us ran off, as much as we could. Not knowing what to do or where to run, I instinctively jumped down and ran in the direction of Serock and remained standing about 50 meters distance from the hooligans. It is impossible to describe the heroism that our wagon driver demonstrated - one against 50 or more. One after another, he dodged the stones and sticks, grabbed a stick from one of them and beat them right and left and threw one on top of another. The hooligans were upset and ran off, and I continued running in the direction of Serock. Ahead of me, there were also a few young boys running, but I remained the last one. After this episode, the bandits wanted to take revenge on anyone they could, so they began to chase me with their horses. But with superhuman strength, I ran another two kilometers, until they and their horses reached me. When I sensed three bandits about five meters behind me, and heard a cry of: “Jew face! I'm going to kill you!” I appeared, unbeknownst to them, to turn left into a field in the direction of the Narew, and the big miracle was that it was a mountainous area there, so that the bandits, who were running towards me with momentum, came out at the bottom of the mountain. In order to reach me, they had to climb back up the mountain. Meanwhile, I dragged myself to a cottage that belonged to …

[Page 164]

… a shoemaker, a Polak. I just went in, and the shoemaker, a fine man, quickly took in the scene. He immediately locked the door and glanced through the window. When he saw three ruffians with sticks in their hands looking in all directions, he quickly blocked the window and didn't even ask me what had happened. Anyway, I couldn't even utter a single word, so he held me for a moment and calmed me down.

When I slowly came to myself, he put me to bed and several hours later, in the evening, he went to town to my parents to tell them to take me home.

The Serock City Hall

 


[Page 165]

Our former hometown

Elimelekh Hershfinger (Kibbutz Afek)

Translated by Pamela Russ

Our little town of Serock did in general not lag behind the surrounding towns. There was a shul, a beis hamedrash, steibelekh (smaller places for prayers) - Ger, Alexander [names of different khasidic groups - a Rav, a dayan (religious judge who decides on issues of Jewish law and its applications to Jewish life), a Jewish community with caretakers of the shul, and a forward thinking youth. There were Zionist organizations from all groups - and also from the Leftists, a library, and a drama circle that would give performances several times during the year. The town had a mechanical mill that belonged to a Jew. Merchants - big ones and small ones, and market merchants. Workers: craftsmen, shoemakers, tailors - almost all of them earned their living from the town. All week, everyone was rushing, busy, and Friday afternoon they ran to the mikve (ritual bath) to wash and to shed the weekday burden, and become a different person.

In the home, by some more and by some less, things were ready for Shabbos - the house was cleaned, the workroom cleaned, and a white cover was tossed over the sewing machine. With one word - it's Shabbos in the world and by us in our town.

Friday nights, when the people would come home from shul, everything was changed over and scrubbed. The table was covered with challah and wine for kiddush (ceremonial blessing made over wine on Friday nights), and the whole family sat around the table not rushing as they would during the week. The youth left for their organizations to attend meetings, and some to the theatre shows, or the next day, on Shabbos afternoon, would just simply stroll around leisurely. During the summer they would go to the Narew River to the beach, or to the Napoleon mountains to relax.

The Jews of Serock tell that when Napoleon went to Russia with his army, Serock was an important point for him. He ordered that the mountains become embankments (defense posts). On Shabbos evening, young and old would go out strolling, girls dressed in modern clothing, young men in nice suits, on the main street May Third, from which one street leads to Warsaw and the other to the major city of Pultusk.

[Page 166]

In the evenings, some go out for entertainment, some go to community meetings at the Jewish People's Bank or to the charity meetings to decide how to distribute loans.

In my town, you were born, raised, grew up, got married, and brought in new generations. The entire town rejoiced when someone had a happy occasion. And the reverse, when someone had a tragedy, children and families, young and old, cried. There were peaceful times, and hard times passed. During the winter, around the warmth of the oven, the older people would tell of former times, and the bubbeh (grandmother), while plucking the feathers and blowing her nose in her apron, would sigh and say in agreement: “Yes, yes, children, it's true. That's how it was.” During bad times, Jews recited Psalms (tehilim) and tried to revoke the decrees. There were good Jews who put forth worlds before God, sacrificed their lives, fasted each week on Mondays and Thursdays, so that times would be good again. There were times like that….

It was at the end of 1933. Mendel Bobek died at the beginning of the winter. Daily, he would go to prayers in shul to pray with the minyan (quorum of ten men) and to learn Talmud right away early in the morning. He did not live only for himself, but he kept in mind all the poor workers. When he died, the entire town showed their respect, escorting him until the cemetery, and they asked that he intercede for the whole nation of Israel because a new Haman had arisen, an enemy of the Jewish people, who had a plan to destroy all the Jews. They asked him [Bobek] to cry to the heavens … but the gates were locked.

Bad times began for the Jews in Poland from 1936 until 1939, when WWII broke out. A Fascist might came to power. It began with an economic uprooting of the Polish Jews and then became pro-Nazi. The Polish government, with Skladkowski at the head, decreed to rip out business from Jewish hands, and the owszem* [literal translation: “of course,” implying consent to economic boycott], was enough for the Polish anti-Semites. The Polish press wrote very frankly and openly the greatest abuses against the Jews. Also in our town Serock the Polish anti-Semites did not hold back. They set up pickets in front of Jewish stores…

*The infamous owszem or economic boycott politics began in June 1936, after being suggested in the inaugural speech of the new Prime Minister of Poland, General F. Slawoy-Skladkowski. This policy encouraged Polish customers to boycott Jewish businessmen, shops, handicraftsmen, and factories. Actively implemented by the nationalist extremists, the policy consisted of more than propaganda. It involved picketing Jewish stores and threatening Poles who dared enter, smashing store windows, overturning stalls and pushcarts, destroying merchandise, and knifing and beating Jewish owners. (See http://davidhorodok.tripod.com/4a.html.)

[Page 167]

… and did not allow the Polish people to buy anything from the Jews, but only from the newly arisen Polish merchants. That's how the crisis began for the Jews in Serock.

In Warsaw, Polish students were always permitted to fight with the Jews in the Jewish neighborhoods; also in the small towns, and Serock was included. We Jews in Poland became lost. We would bemoan our situation to the police, but the guards that maintained order just made fun of us. After that came the pogrom in Przytyk with the famous judgment against the Jewish youth that had the audacity to stand up in opposition. Also, in Brisk and Minsk-Mazowiecki and in other towns, Jewish goods and possessions were being lost. Jewish blood became cheap. To cut or tear out a Jewish beard until there was blood was a common occurrence, also to throw out a Jew from a train car while it was travelling was a form of entertainment for the Poles. The same Polish women entertained themselves by laughing at the Jew who was pleading and crying that he is a father of children: “Tateleh, mameleh, kinderlekh (children).” They laugh even harder. If a Jew went into the village, he returned beaten up and bloodied. We remained without protection, the earth burning under our feet. One is insecure on the street - travelling or even at home. Daily one hears bad news from Germany of the Jews there. Everything is locked away from the Jews. A black cloud is moving towards us.

The Poles take the Zaolzie territory from the Czechs, and important visitors come from the Third Reich to visit the Poles. External Minister Beck maintains the best relations with Nazi Germany. Before the end of 1939, the Poles became busy with themselves but nevertheless, they did not forget to torture the Jews. Even on our Jews of Serock, a heavy burden of fear is pressing down.


[Page 168]

My Town (Shtetl)

Yisroel Markewicz (Tel Aviv)

Translated by Pamela Russ

The day began with the opening of the stores, the warehouses, and the bakeries. Still half asleep, we would run to buy baked goods, and to charm the woman baker for the tasty, black corn bread, and some to Zlate the baker for fresh latkes and a flat roll with onions. It began with a rush of people. Everyone was in a rush: some with the wagons to ride to the trains - and later with the buses - to Warsaw, and others rushed to work or to the villages. The young boys went to kheder (religious school) and some went to the public school. The small merchants and those who went to the villages searched for a means to earn a few zlotys for a day's wages.

Before noon, the few Jewish unemployed would wander around the streets. They would look for means to pass the time, some would gather to discuss politics at Meyer the barber, and some would gather by Berish Rosenfeld in a soda shop. In the evenings, they would assemble in the various organizations, where the majority of the Serock youth were organized to meet. There was the Shomer Hatzair, Beitar, and so on.

When I remember the small town of Serock, where our near and dear ones lived for generations, I see all kinds of figures and personalities from our Jewish life in our shtetl. Jews from all levels struggled with their daily lives, some with work, and some with business. There was great unemployment, there were no factories. There were two mills where ninety percent of the workers were Polish. City hall did not employ any Jewish workers. Jews worked only in certain vocations and there was not enough work for all. At daybreak, while it was still dark, the Jews would awaken and go to shul to pray. The first one was Avrohom Yankel Pnjiewski. He would open the shul and recite Psalms until more Jews would arrive and they would begin the prayers.

The largest part of the working youth assembled in the People's- …

[Page 169]

… Education League that made a great contribution to the cultural evolution. The committee had a huge and wealthy library, and twice a week, they would exchange books. There was a lot of activity there for the advancement of culture, led by Yosel Feinboym, and there was a good drama circle led by Shlomo Ostrowski who presented the best of the Yiddish classics. There was an active speaker's circle, with lectures on political economics, socialism, literature; and there were recitations, kestel oventen, “Kestel-oventn” [evenings with a variety of speakers and writers presenting their ideas, designed for people with little education, with open debates and free discussion], and other cultural attractions.

That's how the small town of Serock lived until the destruction.

A House in Serock

 

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