by Reuven Blank, Haifa
Translated from Yiddish by Miriam Leberstein
Chaim Berish was born to poor, honorable, pious parents, who struggled hard to make a living, without much success. His father, Hershl Shimele Rakowers, travelled around the small villages, buying agricultural products to resell in town, and also dealt in feathers, doing everything he could to support the household. His mother, Blume the chicken plucker, also helped to earn what she could, but they still had trouble making enough to buy what was needed to celebrate the Sabbath.
In contrast to the helplessness of his impoverished environment, Chaim Berish distinguished himself with his boldness, his clear understanding, his mischievousness, and his organizational skill.
An interesting episode from Chaim Berish's childhood – he was at the time all of 8 years old – illustrates the boldness of his character. During World War I, the Jews, afraid of the Russian soldiers, hid themselves away in cellars. One day, two Russian soldiers entered the cellar where Chaim Berish's family was hiding, along with others. You can imagine the commotion that ensued. The women were screaming, the children were crying, and no one knew what to do. Only one person kept his head – that was little Chaim Berish. Calmly and confidently, he approached the soldiers and began to play with their shiny buttons and their rifles, as if nothing was amiss. This immediately had a calming effect on everyone, and the visit ended well.
When Chaim Berish turned 13 and graduated the local school, his mother handed him over to a leather-stitcher to learn the craft. (His father had in the meantime died in America, and his mother's material circumstances were deteriorating from day to day.) At about the same time, he joined Hashomer Hatza'ir [Young Guard]. There he found an outlet for his painful longing for learning and knowledge. There, his organizational abilities were revealed, and he was elected to an array of committees. In every program, whether educations or political, he took an active role and was a member of the leadership.
Chaim Berish was also intensely active in the trade union where he was a member, and one of the most energetic and determined fighters for social justice. Hashomer Hatza'ir showed its confidence in him and elected him their representative in the leadership of the union.
The extent to which people trusted and respected him, and believed in his abilities,
can be seen in the fact that when the secretary of the trade union, Meyer Cimerman, left ‘ in 1922, the general assembly of the leather stitchers elected Chaim Berish, a boy not yet 16 years old, as acting secretary of the union.
When the above-mentioned Meyer Cimerman later returned to Staszów, and died of tuberculosis, Chaim Berish delivered a public eulogy at the cemetery. He blamed Cimerman's death on the capitalist order, holding it responsible for the so-called proletarian illness that was an inevitable result of the difficult sanitary conditions in which the poor were forced to live.
This event brought Chaim Berish to the attention of the police, who accused him of agitating against the existing order, and from then on, kept a close watch on him.
Chaim Berish also found time and energy for the cultural program of the Hashomer Hatza'ir branch. Among other accomplishments, he participated in self-education programs and was one of the most prominent and active members. He saw his activity in Hashomer not simply as a pastime, or a place to broaden his knowledge. More importantly, he saw it as a way of life, to which he was deeply committed. He was the first to try to defend the continued existence of the branch and to insist on the goal of personal fulfillment.
In fact, he was one of the first group of 12 who in 1926 went on hakhshore [Zionist training camp]. Working skillfully all day at farming, he spent the evenings, just as ably, dealing with the questions that were then on the agenda of the Hashomer Hatsa'ir movement, such as: whether to use Yiddish or Hebrew in the diaspora; whether to have positive or negative relationships with political struggles in one's provisional home; the Arab question, and so on.
In the summer of 1927, after the working season ended, Chaim Berish went on hakhshore for a second time. This time, he encountered members from other towns, and this left a lasting impression on him.
As previously noted, Chaim Berish was, like the entire Staszówer group, very left wing. As an uncompromising opponent of the existing social order, he didn't entirely reject the diaspora, and felt it necessary to actively work with the most extreme political parties. His encounter with others at the second hakhshore convinced him that there were people in the [Hashomer Hatza'ir] movement who thought differently, who – in complete contrast to his views – placed their main emphasis on the national moment. Chaim Berish was disappointed, and distanced himself from the movement, until he finally left it entirely and like many others, joined the Communists.
Naturally, this radical step was greatly influenced by the crisis that then affected the Zionist movement in general and the hechalutz [pioneer] movement in particular. This crisis resulted from the practically hermetic sealing of the gates to Eretz Yisroel by the British mandate power, brutally robbing many young people, who had totally bound up their personal fate with the principal of personal fulfillment, of the ability to realize their dreams. This crisis also made enormous strides in alienating a part of the thinking and truth-seeking Jewish youth from the interests and needs of their own suffering Jewish people, pushing them onto the slippery slope toward national self-denial.
On the other hand, there is no doubt that Chaim Berish's dynamic drive toward eternal truths, could not be satisfied by halfway measures and could not remain confined by the narrow framework of the Zionist pioneer movement. He sought wider horizons and was attracted by the enthralling slogans of world revolution and cosmopolitanism and so one.
And so, Chaim Berish fell victim to his own pursuit of truth, the truth he never could or never did find.
Photo caption: p.360 Chaim Berish [Dov] Rosenmuter
by Sara Zalcman, Sao Paolo
Translated from Yiddish by Miriam Leberstein
The vision of Isaiah son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.[Isaiah, 1:1]
Say it, Sorele, say it louder – this was how my rebbe, Reb Hershele the Blindman, taught the Bible.
Way back when, when his soul first descended to this sinful world, the light was taken from his eyes, and he remained blind for his entire life. It wasn't granted to him to see the buds open, or the flowers bloom; he never saw the splendor of the purplish red sky at twilight, or the nightingale as it sang its song to the Creator.
When we saw him sitting at the window of the single room that served as bedroom, kitchen and classroom, murmuring and turning his sightless eyes to mysterious infinity, it appeared as if he had developed the ability to see, and that his blindness was just imagined. And, in truth, when he had lost the ability to see the external world, he developed an internal vision, the ability to see into the future, to see images while he was awake, an amazing memory, and a rich, artistic imagination.
When he taught his students the story of how Joshua son of Nun marched upon Jericho, it wasn't told as if it were some long past occurrence; in his imagination, it was as if he himself were participating in this glorious conquest. When we came to the chapters in which the prophet, in his fervor, excoriates the Jews, the rebbe's voice took on such a demanding, grating tone, just as if he himself were the prophet.
His blindness erected a barrier between him and reality. That was why the images and prophetic visions of thousands of years ago shone for him as in a mirror, erasing the distance between them and today's reality.
Once, as was my habit, I was on my way to study with the rebbe at dusk. Through the window I could see him as his sightless eyes stared into infinity, and a smile appeared on his face. Surely, I thought, he is thinking about far off worlds, about redemption and happiness. I remained standing, not wanting to disturb his dream. Suddenly, he was awakened from his reverie by a commotion: his two sons, holding a discussion, had begun quarreling. At that moment, I came in. Oh, quiet, Sorele's arrived, Sorele is here. This is how all my lessons began. When he explained certain mistakes I had made, you could clearly see how he was actually living the story, how he strode freely along the roads of the Bible, how clear every detail of the Bible stories was to him.
Once, right after Shevuos, I was studying Chumash with him. He suddenly stopped and said, Listen Sorele, to what I'm going to tell you. A few days ago, at Shevuos, I went for a walk in the field. How splendidly the field was greening, how wonderfully the blooming flowers were shining. I could sense it through their aroma, the aroma of paradise. And as he enthusiastically described for me the surrounding nature, pearly tears trickled down his face. Yes, you could really sense how great and infinite was the world that he could see with his unconscious, his internal self. In this way fate had endowed my rebbe with the power of imagination, beating out the rhythm of his sad life.
His sad life became even sadder when his woman of valor, Miriam'l Khane, the one who nourished him, served as his eyes, and his support, was taken from him. There was no longer anyone to ask, Hershele, aren't you hungry?-- no longer anyone to bring him a bit of hot soup for lunch. And so the months and years of his tragic, lonely life stretched out.
Then came the time when the God of Wrath released his flames all over the world and sent down the devil of death in its German guise, reaching my town, Staszów. The skies were covered with smoke, enveloping the Jewish communities in black, endless mourning. In those horrifying days, when rivers of blood and tears flowed from every door and window of Jewish homes, the devil's wings also covered my unforgettable rebbe, Reb Hershele, tore him from his dream world, to share the fate of all the other Jews of Staszów. Honor to his memory.
by Michael Zalcman, Sao Paolo
Translated from Yiddish by Miriam Leberstein
A mind of steel: That’s what all of Staszów — the voice of the people is the voice of God — said about him. Jews came to him as they would to a judge, to settle their disputes, and as they would to a rabbi, to ask advice. Just as he was sober, objective, and thoughtful as a judge, so was he sincere and completely unbiased as a rabbi. That is because Reb Alter was distinguished by his innate trait of serving and applying the truth, in every situation and under all circumstances.
In personal relationships, it often becomes necessary to rebuke a person, or say something unpleasant. Many people avoid this; some, for the sake of keeping peace, a legitimate, often justified, goal. Many others, however, do it out a desire to ingratiate themselves, or out of a lack of courage, even when such courage is desirable or even necessary.
Reb Alter Buchwald wasn’t like that. He never tried to avoid the truth. He was always prepared to defend it, to confront his opponents with it. Often, in order to demonstrate the correctness of his position, he would undertake difficult responsibilities, even when this entailed unpleasant personal consequences.
These characteristics found their fullest expression in the following event. For years after World War I, the Jewish cemetery stood neglected, left open to horses, cows and goats, who roamed there freely, destroying the headstones and graves. When the community’s conscience was finally aroused by this overt desecration, the town undertook in the1920s to build a wall around the cemetery.
There soon appeared a Jew, an entrepreneur, who submitted an accounting for the costs of constructing the wall. Reb Alter Buchwald, my father in law, was among the town householders who were dealing with this sacred project. Learning of the amounts quoted, he became interested in the details, and it soon became clear to him that this man intended to make a living from the dead.
Already old and infirm, only recently recovered from a heart attack, Reb Alter nevertheless threw himself into the matter. Early each morning he came to the cemetery to direct the workers. As a result, the cost was less than half of what the entrepreneur had stated. To the entrepreneur’s question — How can you do this? Why don’t you let a man make some money?— he received a characteristically candid Buchwaldian response: You don’t try to get rich from the dead or from poor people struggling to bury the poor.
It should be emphasized that this work was accomplished in the face of stubborn, forceful resistance by the gentile neighbors, who found it very convenient to have a wide-open cemetery, not just to pasture their animals, but also as an easy shortcut to the meadows outside the town. This resistance was overcome only after a difficult, energetic, and years-long struggle by the Jewish kehile, and especially by Efraim Zinger, who despite personal danger from the agitated and inflamed Gentiles, unceasingly continued his efforts, through the courts and the police, to put an end to this blatant desecration.
True to his nature, determined to do the right thing, Reb Alter Buchwald, despite his physical limitations and under the truly dangerous circumstances described above, continued his efforts until the wall was completed.
He died during the liquidation of the Staszów Jewish community on 28 Marcheshvan 5703 (November 8, 1942). May God avenge his blood.
by Elchanan Erlich
Translated from Yiddish by Miriam Leberstein
Although Tsvi Lewowicz's name is mentioned often in this book, in various contexts, I cannot close this section without adding a few words about the role he played in the organizational life of the town.
Born into an extremely religious Jewish home, he received the normal education for a Jewish boy, i.e. heder, besmedresh and yeshiva. Tsvi was a rebel from his earliest years. With all his power he opposed the stagnant way of life and outlook of his conservative, religious home and environment. The more his pious parents opposed the new ideas and social forces, the more stubbornly Tsvi clung to them, refusing to retreat in the face of any measures taken against him.
One mustn't forget that his father, Reb Bentsion Lewowicz was among the archtypical representatives of the older generation, and was one of its most ardent defenders. He believed that the future survival of the Jewish people depended on the eternal continuation of the way of life and ideals sanctified by generations.
At the age of 16, in 1929, Tsvi joined the Zionist organization. A year later, in 1930, Tsvi, always alive with new plans and new ideas, and impelled by an inner drive to create and renew, was no longer able to tolerate the then stagnating local Zionist organization and its members. With the full fervor of his young soul, with the stubbornness of a creative person who sees the end of the story from the beginning, with the sacrifice of a true believer for whom ridicule and temptation are but initial obstacles, encouraging one to persist, Tsvi established and ran – almost entirely single-handedly – a branch of Hanoar Hatzion [Zionist Youth.] This organization grew into a large mass organization and he was its moving force and most active member for the entire course of its existence, until the town was destroyed.
In the meantime, Tsvi also established the Hechalutz Haklal Zioni [pioneer organization of Hanoar Hatzioni] and a series of hakhshores [Zionist training farms] in the area, where young Jews prepared to make aliyah [emigration to Israel], with many actually doing so. In this way, Tsvi, whose original intent was to liberate the town youth from economic need, political oppression and national-cultural stagnation, contributed his part to the rescue of several youths from the Nazi forces who later attacked us.
Sadly, Tsvi did not have the opportunity to save himself. He was always tied up with work, unable to tear himself away from the organization's needs and demands: here, a cultural program; there, a celebration; here, an organizing mission in the region; there, a meeting of the branch or circle; or simply sending out memos (printed on a hectograph). He never had time to think about himself, until it was too late and the Nazi war broke out, severing all his connections.
During the Nazi annihilation effort against the Jews, Tsvi did everything in his power to organize an armed resistance. But the objective conditions in our region ended this effort in smoke, as more fully described in the next section [of this book], and Tsvi shared the fate of his people. He died at the friendly hands of the Poles, in the first two or three months after the deportation. May God avenge his death.
by Tilly Gewirtz
Translated from Yiddish by Miriam Leberstein
Motel Goldfarb was born October 2, 1881 in Staszów, the youngest of five children of Itsik and Khana Kornblum-Goldfarb. As a young man, he always wanted to recite poetry at parties and events. His repertoire of Jewish songs and humorous stories made him beloved in the town.
In 1906, he married Toybe Wolman, and a month later the young couple emigrated to America. But they were homesick for Staszów, and after three years in America they returned home. After his reurn, Motel completed his studies at the school of Cantor Avrom Ber Birnbaum in Cz?stochowa and received his cantorial diploma. Soon after that, a daughter was born. Given this change in circumstances, he decided to return to America. He lived in the United States and Canada for 35 years, working as cantor and composer of religious music in a number of cities, including Toronto, Philadelphia, Altoona, Troy-Barnsboro.
He led a rich and meaningful life, dedicated to Jewish literature and culture and to Zionist activities. He died while reciting maftir shabbes in the morning in the Toronto synagogue in 1946.
Motel will long be remembered for his noble character, and his innumerable good deeds on behalf the weak and oppressed. This fine singer not only knew how to pray and sing, but also raised his voice powerfully in the struggle against injustice, and would eagerly join a picket line in the struggle for workers' rights.
His wife, children and close friends will remember him best for his erudition, his constant seeking, and the ethical road he followed, his compassion in a materialistic world.
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