[Pages 281 - 299]
For a long time, I knew Sokoly, the town of my birth, as a place of Torah and education. When I was still a young lad, I knew a few young men in Sokoly who already had achieved a reputation as great scholars among them were my brother Yaakov, who was a great Torah scholar, and Zelig, the teacher.They learned the difficult tractates of the Gemara, such as Eruvin, Yevamot and Nidda.
My dear father, Rav Moshe Yosef, of blessed memory, was among the renowned scholars of Sokoly. When he was a little boy, he was known as a genius. My father built the new study hall, and he was a sexton there for 40 years.
An additional list of Torah scholars at that time included Rav Pesach Brill and his brilliant son, who was famous all over the Jewish world Rav Yaakov Brill. When he was a boy, scholarly rabbis invited him to come to them so that they could test his expertise in Torah; among these was Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky of Vilna.
There were giants of Torah in Sokoly: Rav Mendel Pachiner and his sons, Rav Avraham and Rav Yitzchak Meir. The latter achieved public acclaim. He married the daughter of Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer of Jerusalem. At first, Rabbi Yitzchak Meir was appointed the Rabbi of Petach Tikva, where they called him Rabbi ben Menachem. He was later appointed as a rabbinic judge in the High Rabbinical Court in Jerusalem.
Other scholars included Rav Zalman Yachnes; Moshe Lipa Shulmeister (David Borowitz's son-in-law both of them were students at the Volozhin Yeshiva); Rav Yosef Czerbonicz; Rav Bendet Zeltser, and last, but not least, my brother-in-law, Rav Avraham Shapira, of blessed memory, who studied Torah day and night. He set a regular time to learn Torah from midnight until 3 o'clock in the morning. Summer and winter, he learned Gemora in Sokoly's new study hall. In our town, they called him the Torah scroll.
After the passing of the elderly Rabbi Menachem Yonah, of blessed memory, Torah people from various countries applied for the position of Rabbi of Sokoly. Even though Sokoly was a small town with only 500 Jewish families, it was very famous because of its people.
I well remember the days of my youth in Sokoly. For a certain length of time I was an official of the local Authority: a kind of Soltis [town leader] to the Jewish community. During that time, I was able to serve and assist the community not, Heaven forbid, for the sake of remuneration. I issued various documents for people which enabled them to emigrate to America, or which prevented them from being drafted into the Polish army. As a result, I was involved more than once in unpleasant, upsetting complications. Police and army officers would visit me in order to reveal evaders of service in the army.
Occasionally, I would be harassed by regional doctors regarding the cleanliness of the town and its surroundings. They forced me to point out homeowners who transgressed the law. I tried, as much as possible, to avoid blaming Jews and to protect them from paying fines. I myself was the sacrifice more than once; I was even imprisoned for three days.
With regard to the evaluation and estimations of taxes to be paid by the residents of the town, I tried to protect my Jewish brothers and attempted to prove to the authorities, for example, that so-and-so was a poor man, or that he lacked an income and was unable to pay.
I mourn the destruction of Jewish Sokoly and the dear members of my family!
In order to perceive how many years the Jewish settlement in Sokoly existed, I will tell a story that I heard from one elderly resident of our town, Reb Avraham Yankel Olsha, the baker, of blessed memory. I was still a young lad and he was an old man. He told this story to elderly people, not one of whom had ever heard it before.
Once, early in the morning, the landowner of Kruczewo village came to Sokoly with a group of farmers. The farmers had tools in their hands, and they stood near the old cemetery. Panic and confusion arose in the town. Something unusual warned the people.
The landowner turned toward the Jews, who had gathered near the old cemetery, with the following words: Your Jewish forefathers rented this field from my Christian forefathers one hundred years ago. Now, according to the contract, the period of rental is over and finished, and I have permission to come back here and plow up this cemetery.
The Jews began to cry and wail. They shouted that they would file complaints with the Czar. The landowner answered that he would wait a short time; meanwhile the decree would be delayed, but who would conduct a legal case against him? It must be considered that the transaction was made over one hundred years ago, at a time when the Polish landowners were the only rulers and had unlimited control over the farmers and Jews in their territories.
Thus, fear of the landowners overcame the Jews of Sokoly. What should they do?
At that time, the village tailor lived on Gonasoweki Street. He took it upon himself to be judged with the landowner and stand up to him. Having no choice, the men of Sokoly agreed to rely on the village tailor.
A short time later, in a carriage drawn by six strong horses, the landowner arrived in the middle of the marketplace and asked the Jews: Who is the Jewish representative that is taking me to Court? I haven't yet heard the name of your representative.
The Jews quickly sent messengers to bring the village tailor. He was sitting barefoot at his table, sewing. When he heard who was calling him, he left his work in a moment, ran to receive the landowner, and immediately asked, Who are you, that thinks that you have the strength to plow up our homeland? And the tailor continued, Do you see my bare feet? They will hurry and will arrive at a gallop in Lomza, the provincial city, or even in the capitol city of St. Petersburg, before your six strong horses. There is no lawlessness in the world. There is a Law, and there is a Judge.
The furious landowner whispered to his servants and quickly fled in his carriage that was hitched to the six horses, back to Kruczewo. Thus the old cemetery was rescued from the decree.
From this story, I deduced that our Jewish brethren already were living in Sokoly around the year 1700.
[Pages 284 - 285]
By nature, my father was a modest, quiet man, hidden among the vessels. Only the few who knew him well, knew how precious and interesting a man he was.
In his childhood, he excelled with his many talents. His parents had hopes that he would grow up to be a rabbi. They sent him to yeshivot. Under the books of the Talmud, he hid books of general knowledge. He learned; he studied; he thirstily drank from the fountain of education, in secret, without any guidance.
Those were the days of Russian rule over Poland. My father learned Russian, passed the government examinations, and obtained a license to teach. He then began his career as a municipal teacher of Russian, Hebrew and Yiddish. The daring pedagogical methods of the time were strange to him. He already understood that he must make the Torah dear to his students. He understood their feelings and presented everything to them in a simple manner that was easy to understand. He established a generation of students, who remember him to this day with great affection. He is still remembered by all those who left Sokoly by the nickname Zelka the teacher, even though in his later years he only taught a little.
In free Poland, the Jewish congregations received autonomy. My father, who by then had completed academic study of the Polish language, was appointed secretary of the congregation. He served in this position for the rest of his life.
He was gentle and sensitive by nature. He was not energetic, and did not have many accomplishments in his private life. He met many hardships in his family life, and was influenced by them. He was satisfied with very little. He did not seek greatness; his only request was that he would have enough time after his daily business to study and read. He was learned in Talmud, and was familiar with world literature. With his intelligence, he understood much and grasped everything; he had his own original ideas without consideration for conventions. He loved nature and was amazed at its beauty. I, the youngest of his children, would sometimes accompany him on his walks through the fields. With great affection, he would explain the wonders of nature to me, and would stroke every flower we came across.
He was a friend to his children. We were accustomed to sharing all of our impressions with him and asking him for explanations of all kinds of life's occurrences.
I remember that when we played with clay, Abba joined us. Always, his hands would create something beautiful that would serve us as an example.
When we drew pictures, Abba would instruct us. Again, he would succeed in surprising us. He found an interest in everything, quietly and modestly.
In his later years, his health failed, and he was tired of the hardships of life. He became bedridden in 1935 with a serious heart disease, and passed away three weeks later.
At his death, he was 69 years old. Until his last moments, his posture was straight and he had no gray hair. That is how I will always remember him.
Believe me, I still sense the scents of the wonderful, green meadow where we used to pick flowers! I still feel the gentle breeze that blew there and the clear air I breathed in the Idzki Forest and the surrounding hills. I still see the streets and alleys of the town, and I remember all of them. They are all engraved deeply in my memory, and awaken painful longing within me to this day. In my imagination is the circular market square with the houses around it, the old synagogue and the study halls. I still hear the notes of the monotonous tune of Moshe Koppel, the sexton, calling Get up to serve the Creator! or his call, at four in the morning on the Sabbath, to get up to say Psalms.
And here is the alley leading to our house. My great pain and suffering, on the last night of my mother's life, has not ended to this day. My mother, of blessed memory, lay in a long room. Around her bed stood a merciful nurse and the doctor on one side, and on the other, the family and children. Our dying mother had an inhaler in her mouth. She sent us a last blessing of parting. She made a great effort, with all her strength, and hugged each of her children to her, with a last, warm kiss.
I still feel the pressure of her weak arms around my neck and hear her words, Go, my dear girl, to the Land of Israel. There you will find your happiness! Her lips whispered this like a prayer, with the addition of the names of the children: Yehoshua, Nechemia, Beila, Bronia. Slowly, her tired eyes closed, her mouth closed, and it was all over. We cried bitterly over our dear mother, and granted her this last honor.
When he parted from me, crying, my father said: Our loss is very great and difficult. Only G-d in Heaven knows what else awaits us. Apparently, his heart prophesized to him that many troubles were likely to come upon us.
A short time later, I came to the Land of Israel, and again I was heartsick at parting from my family. Abba's worry about the future was so great, but the truth was thousands of times more terrible until six million of our Jewish brethren were destroyed in cruel and terrible deaths.
The cold, dark winter strengthened the anticipation of spring. The pale covering of snow on the deserted streets of the town, and the sound of the wind dancing through the tops of the trees, also did not detach us from the beloved appearance of spring, from that short period of the month of Nisan, which for the pursued and dreamy Jew was connected to the Passover holiday the holiday of freedom. This was a short exit from the everyday, a time of uplifting of the body and soul before new clouds covered the fields of Poland, before the rain and frost again returned us to the darkness of a new winter
I remember the dark nights around the heated stove in my father's house. How we sat, gathered around the leaping fire, counting the months and the days separating the winter and the Passover holiday; the voice of my sister, happily whispering: Another two months, and we will eat matzo again. And the image of Abba during those moments, the fire that was lit deep in his eyes and the smile of happiness that he tried to erase from his mouth. Of course he remembered that he had to act again, like always, like every year before the Passover holiday. Good Abba, who did good, who never forgot the commandment Love your neighbor as yourself, who always remembered the needy and the poor, who always participated in their suffering and was always ready to give a hand to help, with all of the bodily and spiritual means in his possession.
I remember how he would sit down before the holiday and send letters to America, trying and attempting to get donations for the poor of the town. How he would run around from house to house, gathering donations for the poor in his thin hands so that the poor man who lives at the corner of the street will also feel the special atmosphere of the holiday and when he would come home, tired but happy, he would sit at the head of the table and bless the matzo, I felt his silent thanks to the Creator for giving him the strength to properly fulfill His commandments.
Those moments, when we sat around the long table, feeling the atmosphere of the holiday in every corner, accompany me until today. To me, the Passover holiday in Sokoly is the source of memories and longings that cannot be erased or forgotten. This is the source that guides me anew to the days of my childhood and youth, to the recent past that was suddenly cut off in such a tragic way and that left behind only memories and longings that are hidden in the depths of my soul and the chambers of my heart, because childhood memories have no order, and have no end .
Days and years have passed, and Sokoly, a small town near Bialystok, is still engraved in my heart. It stands before me, as if I left it only recently. This is not surprising. I lived there during the lovely days of my youth, without worries and without suffering. As a young orphan, I was brought to my grandfather's house; nevertheless, everything was good for me and I cannot remember even a hint of anything bad, or deprivation. My grandmother Rachel, of blessed memory, was a righteous woman. On Fridays, she was accustomed to distribute requirements for the Sabbath to the poor. Every morning, she got up early to go to the synagogue, to pour out her heart to the Creator. She loved me very much, and if I did something wrong, she didn't allow anyone to harm me, saying that I was punished enough, because I was an orphan. Many of our acquaintances certainly remember her goodness. May her memory be blessed!
My grandfather, Menachem Mendel, of blessed memory, is drawn in my memory as a dear, good man whom I loved. He was of pleasant appearance, beautifully dressed. He was a Torah scholar who fulfilled the rule, and you should study it day and night. On the Sabbath, I would go with him to the synagogue. I remember that once he took me with him to walk in the field, where he picked flowers for me and wove a wreath from them to put on my head. May his merit protect us.
With love and holy trembling, I wish to mention the image of my father, the brilliant Rabbi Avraham Pacziner, of blessed memory, may G-d avenge his blood. He was a Torah scholar, who taught Torah to many people. He was occupied with communal affairs, and his house was the home of the committee of elders of Chasidei [followers of the Rabbi of] Gur. He was especially devoted to matters of charity and mercy. The voice of his Torah still rings in my ears. He would awaken before dawn to learn and pray. He met everyone with a greeting.
My father devoted himself to educating his sons with exceptional selflessness. He was dear to everyone. When the Nazis, may their names be erased, took over our town, Abba fled to Bialystok, and from there to Slonim, where he was murdered together with his three sons and his daughter. May G-d avenge their blood.
I remember my uncle Shmuel, may G-d avenge his blood, with deep love. He was a good-hearted, beloved man. He met everyone kindly and with a heartfelt smile. He was careful to honor his father and mother.He was devoted and faithful to one and all, and he always concerned himself with the other person's situation.
I did not know my Aunt Golda. They told me that she was a wonderful woman, and that she did good deeds for the community. May G-d avenge her blood.
I remember my Aunt Chana as a very lovely woman. She was gentle in her ways and in the manner of doing good deeds for others. May G-d avenge her blood.
My uncle, Abba Borowitz, head of the family, was a handsome man of standing in the community. He was a G-d fearing, distinguished scholar, an honest man of considered, conservative ways. His very appearance spoke of honor. The synagogue was a second home to him. He had been a crops and flour wholesaler, but over the years he disposed of his property because of the policies of the Polish government. They imposed heavy taxes on the Jews. My uncle and his family made their living from the grocery store. The truth is that my Aunt Masha was the salesperson and owner of the store, as well as a good housekeeper. She was always over her head with work, but a smile was always on her face. The children were attached to her, heart and soul, and there I found plenty of warmth and motherly love. My Aunt Masha's good-heartedness cannot be described in words. She was always ready to do everything to help someone else.
Two daughters, Rachel and Malka, and two sons, Bezalel and Shmuel, remained in the Borowitz house. The eldest son, Bezalel, wandered abroad to South America, until he finally arrived, with the active help of his brother Shmuel, in the U.S.
When Shmuel was still in Sokoly, he wasn't only a cousin to me; he was a brother and a good friend. He was good to everyone he met. He was active in various committees, especially in the Zionist organization. Among other things, he did everything he could to help his parents in every way. In 1928, after failing to obtain permission to enter the Land of Israel, Shmuel emigrated to the U.S.
With my relatives, the family of Abba Borowitz, I found peace of mind. But nevertheless, I didn't see a future for myself in Poland only in the Land of Israel.
|Aharon Zamir (Shostak)|
O for those who are gone and cannot be replaced.
These are my uncle and my aunt, Reb Yitzchak Meir and his wife, Perl Greenspan, in whose memory I place a memorial in this book, since I do not know the location of their eternal rest. Where they found their deaths, in the Holocaust that struck the Jewish people, is unknown. My uncle and aunt were like a father and a mother to me. They raised me and my brother Mordechai Shostak after the death of my young mother, may she rest in peace, at the beginning of World War I. My mother left six orphaned children, homeless and with no one to take care of them. My father, of blessed memory, was then already in America, but because of the War, America was cut off and we had no way of contacting him. All the children were divided among relatives of the family who lived in different towns. My brother Mordechai and I remained with our uncle and aunt in Sokoly. It was our good fortune that we had a better, nicer place than all the rest of our siblings.
Our uncle and aunt were devoted to us with all their hearts and souls. We felt like we were in our parents' house. They were parents in every way. They took care of all our physical and spiritual needs alike. They tried to provide us with an education with the best teachers, and taught us both traditional and modern Jewish learning. They planted a love of the Land of Israel in our hearts. They wanted us to be honest, educated men. Even at a time of great distress, they fed the children and provided all their needs with great enjoyment and satisfaction, at the expense of their own sustenance. They were crop merchants all their lives. During the War, this was a forbidden occupation, but what could they do? They had to support themselves and the orphans! In the merit of this, G-d would help them and would not let evil befall them. That was their great belief.
Once, it happened that somebody denounced them to the accursed German occupiers of that time, the fathers of the Nazis, and told them that we were dealing in a forbidden trade. They immediately came and confiscated all of the produce that was in our warehouses, and we were left without any food. I remember the cries of my uncle at that time, Woe to me, what will I give the orphans to eat? I will never forget this cry, which echoes in my ears and accompanies me every time I remember or think of them, or tell someone about them. Then my aunt took both of us, my brother and I, by our hands, and approached the officer who was appointed to carry out the confiscation. She requested that he leave her some food for the children. He did her a favor he left her one sack of peas. They loaded all the rest on wagons and took it away. And from that time, my uncle was left without a cent.
It was impossible to start trading again in order to survive. I think that only their strong belief and faith in G-d enabled them to stand up under all of their troubles. For the most part, they borrowed some money here and there, bought a bit of merchandise and sold it to repay the loans. Everyone called this charity. It was a great precept. The majority of traders in the town conducted their business in this manner after the War. One would lend to another, and the chain would continue. It would certainly be amazing in the eyes of our generation if I would say that all of these loans were carried out without any obligatory signatures; would anyone even think of not repaying the loan? Such a thing didn't exist!
My Uncle Yitzchak Meir was a very modest man. He was G-d fearing and was completely devoted to learning Torah whenever he had free time. He woke up early in order to go to the bet medrash to learn and to pray with devotion to the Master of the Universe. During all the years I was with my uncle, I never actually saw him get up in the morning; even if I would wake up before dawn. I didn't find him because he was already in the bet medrash. We children were very curious and wanted to see our uncle get up, but we didn't succeed. Whatever time it was when we woke up, we found that he had already gone out of the house.
He would finish his prayers early, and after that he went out to the villages to bring food to the family, particularly for the children. The days were days of war, and it was hard to obtain food. When he did succeed in bringing food and our aunt would prepare a meal, his joy was very great. He never finished his own portion, but would divide most of it among the children. There was no limit to his devotion to us. He never scolded us and he never hit us, but tried to manage us with convincing words, and that is why we loved him so much.
When I grew bigger, I would help him in the produce warehouse on market fair days. In general, all of the children of the town were freed from school and the cheder on the day of the fair. Some helped their parents in their business, and others just had a good time. The important thing was vacation, and we truly needed a vacation, because we learned for many hours each day.
In the morning, we would go to the Hebrew school and the cheder. In the afternoons, we went to the school to learn Polish, and after that we went again to the cheder. The lessons continued until 8 or 9 o'clock in the evening. In the winter, when the days were very short, and we went home from the cheder at night, every boy was equipped with a lantern to light his way home. Most of these lanterns were lit by a candle inside them. The lantern was made of tin and formed, by a local tinsmith, in the shape of a little house. The four walls of the house were made of glass, through which the light of the candle would shine and light our way.
When we came home, our aunt would interest herself in our preparing the lessons for the next day, and she took care that all the homework would be properly done and that nothing was missing. She was concerned that we learn proper Hebrew, and loved to hear us speaking Hebrew when we did our lessons and at every other opportunity. Aunt Perl was a housewife and also helped in the business. She was the spirit of life in the family. She was a first class trader, and a good teacher. Many of her sayings and proverbs accompany me to this day. She was known in the town as being involved in all kinds of establishments for helping the needy, and she did this with all her soul. She tried to know what was going on with any person who needed advice or help, financial or physical. She helped the poor. Occasionally, my brother and I were her messengers, bringing the poor their regular portions of food. She would help the sick, sitting next to the bed of a solitary sick man for entire nights in order to help him. If the sick man had a family and his relatives were tired from his lengthy illness, it was necessary for someone else to sleep next to his bed. This was called the righteous sleep and it was a great precept. She was very careful to observe this, even though she herself was tired from a day of work both in her house and in trade.
Aunt Perl also sewed clothing for herself and for the whole family, especially for the children. She would sit and sew until late at night, so that we would be well dressed. Of course, it was all according to her limited resources. When we were little, she brought us to cheder herself in order to protect us from any harm. Every new garment she made us we would wear for the first time in honor of the Sabbath.
On Friday evenings, we would dress and go to the bet medrash. When we left the house, she would go outside and stand near the house, enjoying watching us from a distance, until we traveled the entire length of the street and she couldn't see us any more. Afterwards, when we came home with our uncle from the prayers, she received us with great joy and compassion, mixed with a few tears. Apparently, she remembered at that time that we were orphans and cried over the death of our mother, may she rest in peace, but she quickly recovered and wiped the tears off her cheeks so we wouldn't see them, and sat us down next to the table. Our uncle then chanted the Kiddush for us, in the traditional, lovely melody. During the meal, among the other songs, our aunt taught us some of our father's songs, who was then in America, so as to plant some love for him in our hearts and create a connection with him, even though we didn't know him.
The next day, Sabbath morning, we went with our aunt to the bet medrash. We couldn't go with our uncle, because he got up so early also on the Sabbath. We went with our aunt, because the prayers did not begin early, but at 9 o'clock in the morning. I now see before my eyes the image of my aunt and how she was dressed when we went out on the Sabbath. She was beautifully and elegantly dressed, like a woman who lived in a big city. As she went, she awakened respect in those she met and with whom she came into social contact, because she was involved with everyone.
My aunt had influence, not only among the Jews, but also among the gentiles. Because of her beautiful pronunciation and fluent Polish, she obtained whatever she wanted. For example, after the War, when the world was freed and we were able to contact our father in America, he immediately sent money and an entrance permit to the United States for my sister and three brothers, except for us. My brother and I were in a place that was as good as our parents' home, and our father didn't have the financial ability to take all of us. So we remained. But who was the organizer of all of the formal matters regarding the trip? It was Aunt Perl. She gathered all of the children from all of the places where they were staying and brought them to her house. She dealt with the matter of passports, which were as hard to obtain as the splitting of the Red Sea, either because they weren't registered or because, as a result of the War, the population registry had been destroyed and there was no documentation on the basis of which passports could be issued. At that time, the authorities were very strict, especially the American authorities. But my aunt would not be discouraged. She turned to the Polish mayor of the town, and through her influence and with a great effort, she obtained her request. The whole family regarded this as a miracle. Could such a thing be done? And after that, she arranged all the rest of the matters and brought the children to Warsaw, where she put them on a train that took them on their journey.
But that wasn't enough for her. After a time, after she saw the way things were going in Free Poland, she started to tell me, as the older brother, that I must think about leaving Poland.
I don't see a future for young Jews in Poland! she said. Travel to the Land of Israel. Even though you are like a son to me, I won't damage your future for my sake. You must leave Poland, no matter what happens. She immediately began to deal with this matter, and she got what she wanted. A few years later, when I was 16 years old, I left Poland and came to the Land of Israel. And that is how Aunt Perl saved my life!
After I came to the Holy Land and was alone, I realized what an uncle, and what an aunt, I had. Whoever came to the Land of Israel from our town, brought me a package from my aunt, so that I wouldn't be lacking anything. I would write to them that everything was fine, that I didn't need anything, just like all the pioneering youth wrote who came to the Land of Israel in the Fourth Aliya [wave of immigration]. This was the largest Aliya ever up to that time, in spite of the suffering and the hunger that we suffered. We accepted everything with love, with idealism, in order to reach the longed-for purpose: rebuilding the Holy Land! Wasn't it so? If we hadn't done so, who knows if we would have been able to receive the essential immigration refugees from the sword and survivors of the Holocaust.
A few years later, I was informed that my younger brother Mordechai had also left Poland. He traveled to America, which he was forced to do because the Mandatory government had closed the doors to the Holy Land to Jewish immigration, and it was impossible for Jews to go there. Instead, they ignored the entry of Arabs from all the neighboring Arab countries, thereby increasing the Arab population of the Holy Land.
In the end, it turns out that my brother and I were rescued from the Holocaust, thanks to the timely awareness of our Aunt Perl. We didn't know then what awaited the Nation of Israel in the countries of their dispersion!
I had another aunt and uncle in Sokoly: Reb Mordechai Aharon Shostak and his wife, Sarah. They had two sons and two daughters, and these are their names: Toiba, Felek, Zissel and Avraham, may G-d avenge their blood! This uncle of mine was a handsome man, pleasant in his ways, and his clothing was elegant and clean. By nature, he was strict in religious matters and observed every single holiday according to Jewish Law. Everything he did was with prior thought. He was a great scholar and meticulous in learning the commentaries. Sometimes he would sit and teach Mishnayot at the table in the old bet medrash, surrounded by 30 or 40 men, and when he would explain, everyone would understand with no difficulty. All this was because he was exact in his clear pronunciation. He didn't hesitate to repeat an explanation once, twice, or even three times. At the end, he would ask if everyone understood, and only then would he continue onward.
He was also appointed sexton of the books in the old bet medrash. He was not among those who got up early for the morning prayers, perhaps because he was not very healthy, but he was among those who left the bet medrash at a late hour. He never hurried. He arranged his tallit and tefillin slowly and carefully. Possibly this was because he did not manage his business, a factory store. This burden he placed on the shoulders of his young son, Avraham.
He had a special custom on Rosh Hashana [the Jewish New Year Holiday]. In the evening, he took a very long time saying the Shmona Esrei [Eighteen benedictions] prayer, until everyone else finished their prayers and after they all had left the bet medrash, he would still be praying. He was with his brother-in-law, Reb Yonah Czentkowski, may G-d avenge his blood. All this left an indelible impression in my memory. As a boy, I found this amazing. Is it possible that Uncle Mordechai Aharon will finish his prayers later than the Rabbi? Is he more righteous than the Rabbi? My brother and I asked each other these questions with great amazement on the way home from the bet medrash. We didn't know how to explain it.
He had time to give for the needs of the community. For a while, he was the representative of the Jews in the Municipality (the Magistrat) and to the best of his ability, he did good things for the Jews, like lowering taxes, and more. Also in the Municipality, the gentile officials liked him because of his cleanliness and his elegant appearance as a proud Jew, who didn't grovel before his masters. He brought honor to his Jewish constituents.
My brother and I, who were brought up by his sister, visited him every Sabbath, but he was not such a favorite of ours, because he liked to test us (farheren) on what we had learned all that week. And of course, we didn't want that. When he would begin to ask questions, we would answer him on the spur of the moment and run out, saying Shabbat Shalom.
Aunt Sarah was a modest woman, a housewife who raised her children well; the main thing was that they should be good Jews. She sometimes helped out in the store. Of course, she ran her house according to her means and physical ability. She was satisfied with the small income they had from the store. They always were far from making a profit, always modest, but even so, this did not detract from my uncle's morale as he sat at the table, bent over his Gemara, learning in his pleasant voice, in the traditional tune that we enjoyed hearing.
While writing, I remembered one activity that this uncle of mine was devoted to with all his soul, for the sake of the mitzvah, and this was his baking of matza [unleavened bread] in honor of Passover. I take this opportunity to tell the younger readers, who certainly don't know what the procedure was of baking matza in our town and in other towns during those years. They didn't buy packages of matza like people now do in Israel. There, life wasn't easy; such a thing didn't exist. Every family had to bake its own matza, in an amount that would be enough for all eight days of the Passover holiday, because it was impossible to get matza during the Intermediate Days of the holiday if they needed more.
Every family would buy an amount of wheat and would try to keep it of high quality and very clean. They would bring this wheat to the flour mill (windmill) to be ground and then they would bring the flour to the bakery. In our town, there were two or three of these bakeries that were installed for baking matzos. To kasher a chometz [not-for-Passover] bakery for baking matza was extremely difficult, and therefore not every baker was prepared to do so.
One of these bakeries belonged to Liba Hirshman (Liba the baker), the wife of one of the rabbis who taught in the cheder, whose name was Rav Yisrael Hirshman. He had a cheder, and his wife had a bakery. He was a Rebbe of a higher degree; he also taught Gemara. I took my first steps in Gemara with him.
Two or three weeks before Passover, we would stop learning, and the entire house was turned into a matza bakery. The Rebbe's job was to pierce the matzos. This was done by hand. There was a wheel with sharp teeth having points that were the thickness of pins. The wheel turned on an axle placed in a wooden handle. In Hebrew, this rolling pin is called a makdeh from the root nakod [to pierce]. When it was rolled back and forth over the unbaked matza, it made holes in the dough like those in present-day matzos (but our matzos were round). In order for the lines of holes to be straight, a maggila was placed over the matza. This was a round piece of wood for rolling dough [a rolling pin]. The matzos were rolled with the rolling pin. The Rebbe would roll the dough with the maggila in one hand, and with the other hand he rolled the makdeh back and forth all at once, as if they were a ruler and a pencil on paper, until the matza was finished. Someone who was accustomed to doing this, could do it very quickly, like an arrow shot from a bow.
The preparations for baking matzos would begin every day toward evening for the next day's baking. First of all, water had to be prepared. Water was brought from the well, because in the small towns there was no general supply of water in every house; there were no pipes and faucets. We didn't know of such an easy life. There were a few wells in the town, and there were poor men who made a living from drawing water and carrying the water to the houses in two pails attached to either side of a yoke that they carried on their shoulders. Those who weren't able to buy water from the water drawers, had to go get it themselves.
There were two kinds of wells in the town: wells whose water was soft and good for cooking and drinking, and wells whose water was hard and was used only for laundry, watering cattle, and the like.
The transporting of water for matza was done very carefully, so that no chametz would fall into the water. I remember well one of the water drawers, who brought the water to the matza bakery. His name was Avraham Spektor (Avraham the bookbinder). We pronounced his name as Avram. At one time he had been a bookbinder and a teacher of beginning pupils. I was also one of his pupils. From him, we learned the Hebrew alphabet and how to read syllables, which was called Ivri. From his class, we gradually moved to higher teachers. He would stand and work at his bookbinding, while the pupil would stand at his side and read, but he didn't earn enough from both professions to feed his family. What did he do? He decided to occupy himself with a third occupation, bringing water to the houses. He got himself a two-wheeled wagon with a barrel on the axle between the wheels, like in a kerosene wagon in our country. But that barrel was made of wood, with a hole at the top for filling it with water, and a second hole at the back in the bottom of the barrel, for emptying the water, which was closed with a plug made of wood. Avram would stand between the two poles of the wagon and pull it, and two of his children would push it from behind. When the children he passed in the street saw this, they liked the idea and they would also help push the wagon for fun, as a game. They would push him so much that he wasn't able to run any faster and his strength would give out. He would stop near the house of each of his customers and, for each one, fill the number of pails of water that had been ordered. When he finished, he would close the barrel with the plug and continue on his way. He was paid according to the number of pails he delivered.
In the matza bakeries, there were very large barrels that would be filled with water. When the water was poured into the barrel, they would spread a white cloth over the mouth of the barrel to strain the water. They had to estimate how much water would be enough for each day, because it was forbidden to use water that hadn't been prepared on the prior evening. The water had to rest all night, and the next morning they began to use it. This water was called our water in other words, water that was ours all night. In the morning, they began to knead the dough for the matzos, and this was done in small amounts, so that the dough would not rest a long time until it was rolled, because it could then become leavened. When one batch of dough was finished, they started to prepare the next one, and so on.
This was the method: They would knead the dough in a large bowl; a copper basin. One woman would knead the dough while someone would pour water and add flour. For the most part, this was a young boy, who at that time of year was freed from his studies. He would receive only a few cents for this job, but he was happy with his portion. It was forbidden for the hands of the woman who was kneading the dough to come into contact with the water and dough alternately, because of the concern that the dough would become leavened. Therefore, another person poured the water, and after the dough was already prepared, they brought it to a table, which was several meters long. Women (about 20 in number) stood on both sides of the table, with rolling pins. Each of them received a piece of dough that was enough to make a single matza, and each would roll it out thin. When it was rolled out, they brought the matza to the Rebbe's table, and he made the perforations with the above-mentioned tool with great expertise. The Yiddish title for the person doing this job is radler, which means, the person who worked with the roller. When he finished, the matza was brought to the oven, where a fire was always lit, and the matzos were baked next to the flame. Liba the baker worked next to the oven herself. She didn't want to trust anyone else, because of the responsibility of her job, to make sure that the matzos didn't get burnt.
After each person's portion of matzos was finished baking, it was placed in a kabul, a container belonging to the homeowner, which was usually an enormous basket. A special white sheet, unstarched (because starch is leaven), was spread in the basket. The size of the sheet was much larger than the basket, and after the matzos were put inside and the basket was full, the edges of the sheet were folded over to cover the basket, so that nothing forbidden would get inside.
When it was my Uncle Mordechai Aharon's turn to bake his matzos, he came alone to the bakery. He didn't want to depend on anyone else. While writing these words, I see him in my mind's eye, dressed in his spotless holiday clothes in honor of the mitzvah, with a long, white towel hanging over both of his shoulders, looking into every corner and making sure that every detail of the Laws regarding kashrut was fulfilled. He was very exacting. Every once in a while, he would approach each of the people who came into direct contact with the matzo, and would give them the towel to wipe their hands so as to keep them dry. He would occasionally inspect the rolling pins used by the women to make sure that there were no remainders of dough on them that could become leavened if left too long. From there, he would go to the place where the dough was kneaded to make sure that all of the rules for making matzo were correctly carried out, and then to the oven, to check the baked matzos coming out of the oven. If a matzo came out folded, he would break off the folded portion, because if a matzo were folded, it would take longer to bake, and during the lengthened baking time, the folded-over portion could become leavened.
That is how that generation acted; in all the areas of their lives, they strengthened their faith, their nationalism, their hope for redemption and an ease in the suffering of life in Exile. Of course, my Uncle Mordechai Aharon was not the only one who conducted himself in that manner, but he did so with extra strictness. It was enjoyable to watch him in action, and when he would finish his task, his face would radiate happiness and satisfaction that he had merited to fulfill such a mitzvah. He would announce, Thank G-d, Pesach [the Passover Holiday] is already in the house. May we merit to reach it next year, with all of our children.
Regarding his children, he did not have much pleasure from them. His oldest daughter Toiba, beautiful both in name and appearance, passed away at the dawn of her youth during the widespread typhoid epidemic at the end of World War I. Whoever became ill of that disease did not recover, probably because at the time the necessary treatments did not exist, and the medical profession in general was not as developed as it is at present.
His son Felek (I don't know the meaning of this name; I think it is derived from the Biblical name Palu) learned in the Lomza Yeshiva. He was a genius. He sat there day and night and learned, and was regarded as one of the few geniuses in the Yeshiva that is what, in my boyhood, I heard from the grown-ups. Being concerned about his health, my Uncle would go to visit him from time to time, to try to convince him to lessen his exaggerated learning. When I left Poland to come to the Land of Israel in 1925, he was still in the Yeshiva. After that, they began to write to me, asking if I could arrange a permit for him to come on aliya at that time, in order to enter the country, one needed a permit from the Mandatory Government but meanwhile, Felek became ill and passed away.
Two other children remained, the daughter Zissel and the son, Avraham, who was the wage-earner of the family. He would travel to Bialystok to buy merchandise for their store. He was a trader in the market on Thursdays, and at the fairs that were held several times a year, when all of the villagers in the surrounding area would gather to sell their agricultural produce and buy the industrial products that they needed. Most of the people of the town supported themselves in this way.
About the time I left Poland, my cousin Avraham decided to learn how to read the Torah. He wanted to be the reader in the synagogue. At the beginning, he read in the shteiblach, because he wasn't an experienced professional. After that, he began to read in the old beit midrash. I did not see him do this before I left Poland, but people who arrived in the Land told me about it.
As I write, I see in my mind's eye my Uncle Mordechai Aharon, as he went to the evening prayers in the beit midrash on the Sabbath after the third meal (Shaleshudes). As he walked, he would cross the vegel - the promenade. I wish to speak a bit more about this promenade, because it was the main place of enjoyment where we all would walk. We spent a good deal of our young lives there. It was in the center of the town on the market street, which formed a large square from which all the rest of the streets branched out. This was the commercial, spiritual and cultural center of the town. The bet medrashes, the synagogue and the schools all were located here, as well as the library and reading hall where we were educated. Who doesn't remember this place? Toward evening on Sabbaths and holidays, it was crowded with people, young and old, children and youths. Everyone walked there. Loving couples found their place there. Each one found his group of friends. Group by group, they walked along, and on the faces of all of them was an expression of Sabbath contentment and rest. This was part of the modern enjoyment of the Sabbath. In general, our town was not weak, but it was progressive. All of the celebratory events began at that same promenade, for example, the Lag B'Omer celebration, during the time of the venerated teacher and educator, Israel Zimbel.
At this point, I wish to tell the young readers a few words about Israel Zimbel. Who was he, and what did he do? He came from the nearby town of Bransk (which, by the way, is the town where I was born). Until his arrival, the matter of education in Sokoly was very neglected and unorganized. There were cheder schools where religious subjects were taught, and there were private teachers who taught secular subjects, in other words, general education. What did Zimbel do? He gathered them all into one place and organized a general school with proper classes. He sorted all of the children according to knowledge and age, and placed each one in the appropriate class. There were specific hours for each subject, and he was the supervisor of everything. He gathered several men of the town as an education committee, and they helped to organize the financial aspect of the school. This continued for a few years. Zimbel ruled with a strong hand. All the children feared and respected him, and not one of them dared not to do his lessons. Even at home, the children conducted themselves properly. It was enough for a parent to mention, I will tell your teacher, and the child immediately obeyed whatever his parents said. My aunt and uncle always said about me, that whatever I knew, I knew from the time Zimbel ran the school.
Under Zimbel's protection, all the school children would gather in the square, each class separately at a distance from the others, in rows of three. I would go with my two best friends, Moshe Zeltzer and Meir Sarbrolov, may G-d avenge their blood, and from there we went out in a happy, joyous parade, with our national flag waving over our heads, to the nearby forest, where we spent the entire Lag B'Omer day playing bow and arrow games, in memory of the revered Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son.
There were also many other events, one of which rose just now in my memory. This was the last event I attended before I left Poland and made aliya. It was the celebration of the opening of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. How the entire street was crowded with people, National pride shining on the faces of everyone as we paraded through the streets of the town. This was a result of the both nationalistic and religious education that we received and grew up with, because the nationality and religion of the Nation of Israel are connected with each other. All of our holy books teach us, and implant in us, a love of the nation and the Land. Every one of our holidays is unbreakably connected with the climatic cycle of the year in our Land. All this was implanted in us by our forefathers, our rabbis and our teachers, who worked very hard in order to do so.
After a few years, Zimbel left Sokoly for a foreign country. I don't know where he emigrated to originally, but he eventually arrived in the Land of Israel and settled in Hadera.
As I have already mentioned joyous national events, I will also mention a day of national sadness, the events of the 20th of Tammuz, the first yahrzeit of our leader Dr. Herzl, of blessed memory, who was from his shoulders and upward taller than the entire nation. At the time of his death, his dreams of building our Land in its historic boundaries and gathering most of the Nation of Israel from all the lands of their dispersion into the Land, had not been fulfilled. It was the bad luck of the people of Israel that his heart stopped at the wrong time and we were left without a saviour in the midst of the ocean. As it is written in the Talmud, Woe to the ship that has lost its captain.
At the time, because of my youth, I didn't understand how great this loss was to the Jewish people, but over time, I began to understand. As I remember it, the memorial ceremony in our town was as follows: The adults made a memorial in the bet medrashes of the town and donated to the Land of Israel in memory of Benjamin Zeev, the son of Yaakov Herzl. They were not satisfied with a local speaker, and to increase the honor, invited a speaker from among the Zionist leaders of the big city, Bialystok. The youth made their own memorial in other ways, such as decorating the town: every balcony, every porch on the front of every house was decorated with a rug and a large picture of Herzl framed in black, with two national flags, one on each side. Pictures of Herzl, blue on a white background, were pasted in every single window on the front of every house. All of the clubs and the town reading hall were decorated with national flags, and speeches were made about current events. Pair by pair, the youths moved through the streets and houses, giving everyone a flower made of two special pieces of paper, a blue and a white attached together. For this reason, the day was called Flower Day. At the end, we all went out in a parade through the streets of the town. I remember how I would participate in enthusiastically preparing these flowers, because we were filled with a deep Zionistic spirit that we inherited from Herzl's teachings, who, if he had lived longer, would have been able to redeem a larger portion of the nation, thereby lessening the number of victims of the Holocaust. His memory will remain inscribed in our hearts.
I am now continuing to write a few lines in memory of our neighbors, for whom not a single relative is left to mourn. Our house was on the circular street, across from the Polish church. It was the last house on the street. Behind it was the beginning of the street of the non-Jews. It was a two-family house, with a common entry in the middle. On the other side of the entry, lived a family known by the mother's name, Chaicha Ahchens (meaning, Aharon's Chaya). I remember that in my childhood, a few of the family died untimely deaths, and only one single daughter, named Sorcha (Sara) remained. We lived together very well; we were like one family. They were distant relatives of my Uncle Yitzchak Meir. After some time, my Aunt Perl made a match for Sorcha with a yeshiva student and married her off. The yeshiva student was from another town. He was studious and righteous. Of course, my Aunt took the role of the chief mother-in-law. She made the whole wedding. The student's name was Zvi Asher. They had inherited a thread and knitting wool store, but there was no one to manage the store and it was neglected. After the wedding, they began to improve the store. The yeshiva student was very talented in every way. He was a good homeowner and a good merchant. Of course, since the house was a two-family house, there were a lot of things that were of joint responsibility and had been neglected because there was no one to take care of them. My Uncle Yitzchak Meir was not good at maintenance, and therefore everything waited for a redeemer. I always liked Sorcha, because she sometimes rescued me from my Aunt when she was angry at me. Sometimes, my Aunt was angry because of some crime, such as not doing my homework or the like, and I would run away to Sorcha, where I waited until my aunt's anger would pass.
My stomach churned; my heart turned within me, when the touching thoughts arose that our town and many other communities, were destroyed, and all the shining Judaism was covered with a black cloud named Hitler and his assistants, may their names be blotted out. I am held in shock, as in the words of the Prophet Jeremiah: Who will give water to my head and a source of tears to my eyes, and I will cry day and night for the fallen of my people. Their memory will never be forgotten.
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