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{260}

The Deeds of the Fathers are a Portent for the Children

by Zelda Holtzman (nee Funk)

Translated by Jerrold Landau

        As I retell the history of my family, memories come before me of a blossoming, many-branched family upon which destruction came. Only I out of all the members of the family merited to retell its history, after I actualized the secret dream of many of its members – the establishment of the Jewish homeland.

        My paternal grandfather, Reb Avraham Zelig, whose name I bear, made aliya to the Land of Israel in the year 5661-1901. He possessed fine character traits, loved his fellow man. Brotherly feelings toward his fellow beat in his heart all the days of his life. He was one of the dedicated worshippers of the Chevrat Kass synagogue. At home they would tell that, during the time that he served in the army of the Czar, he was extremely careful about Kashruth, and subsisted only on water, salt and bread.

        His love of Zion was very great, and he always pined to live in the Holy Land. As I stated, he fulfilled his desire in the year 5661. His letters from the Land of Israel flowed with love of the Land, and through his words, he stressed its uniqueness. Every letter was concluded with the phrase “May our eyes merit to see Your return to Zion”[1]. When he died, he was brought to eternal rest on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.

        The aliya of my grandfather to the Land, and his letters, influenced my father greatly. However for various reasons, it was impossible for him to join his father in the Land of Israel. He was active in various organizations that worked for the Land of Israel. In his naivete, he fell into a trap that was set for him and others by a Jewish group that called itself “Nachalat Achim” and sold “properties” in the Land of Israel. My father purchased a plot in the Land of Israel from that organization, and received a “document” attesting, so to speak, to his ownership. Many people fell into the trap of that organization, which succeeded in dishonestly “selling” hundreds of dunams of land in the Land of Israel. When the scam was uncovered and many people were overcome by wrath, my father's reaction was as I expected. He said: “It is forbidden to mislead Jews”, and he comforted himself with that. To his friends and neighbors who also fell into that trap he said: “At least the money went into the hands of Jews, they should be ashamed of themselves”.

        The will of my grandfather regarding aliya to the Land of Israel never left my father's heart. He never ceased to hope that one day he would merit to live in the land, and if Heaven forbid, his desire was not to be realized, he hoped that at least one of us would fulfill this hope. He was not only an enthusiastic lover of Zion, but he also loved his fellowman, and was concerned about other people. His home served as the address for many charitable institutions, not only for our town of Stawiski, but also for other neighboring towns, as well as for the capital city of Warsaw. They also knew of him there. During the course of his business, father would travel to Warsaw on occasion. Whenever he arrived there, there would be several communal activists as well as people who were in need of his spiritual and physical support waiting for him. In addition to his work for the various charitable institutions, my father ran his own charitable organization. How did he conduct it? Once every four or five weeks, he would travel to Warsaw to purchase merchandise for his textile store. He would finance the activities of the “cassa” with the money that he accumulated from selling the merchandise between his trips. He would provide loans of between 1,000 or 2,000 Zloty without interest, without documents, and without guarantors to whomever was in need. Many people depended upon loans from my father's private charitable organization. When a borrower defaulted in paying back the loan, my father would comfort him and say: “My son, nothing happened”), and he would push off the repayment of the debt. His borrowers included food merchants. If it was difficult for the grocery store owner or the butcher to pay the loan back in cash, he would accept repayment in foodstuffs. The helping of other people was the most important goal of his life.

        We children helped in the establishment of this charitable organization. We served as emissaries for the good deeds, that is to say we would bring the money to the needy person, who sometimes was embarrassed to ask my father directly for a loan. We would also return the debt to father. Our payment was that we received sweets from both sides.

{Photo page 261 -- The Funk Family- most were murdered in the Holocaust.}

        We had a large house, and we would rent out apartments. The tenants, such as the Bramzon widow and her children, as well as the ritual slaughterer and his three daughters did not wish to move to other dwellings, even though rooms for rent were plentiful in Stawiski. For why would they want to change dwellings? Father never pushed for the payment of rent, and in certain cases he satisfied himself with a token payment. Furthermore, he rented out the dwellings with no lease and no obligation. Who would want to leave such a landlord? With his motto was “Jews should benefit”, he continued along his path of helping others. He would always say: “Livelihood comes with the help of G-d.”

        My mother Bilha of blessed memory was a pretty woman, who dealt well with her fellow and was acceptable to everyone. My mother enjoyed reading books, and knew how to conduct business. She was very vigilant and intelligent, and loved to express her opinion not only regarding family matters, but also regarding to the communal matters of the time. My mother died early and left eight children – four girls and four boys. From that time, my father had to fulfill the role of mother and father simultaneously, and he filled that role with unbounded dedication and love. He sent us to the Hebrew school of the town. My brothers studied holy subjects (Bible, Mishnah, and Talmud) with expert teachers. Some of the children were sent to study in schools outside the town, and most of my brothers completed academic degrees, which enabled them to conduct business, perform accounting, etc.

        After I made aliya, I learned a few more details about my father and my family of blessed memory from the few Stawiskites who survived. After the Germans entered Stawiski, my father moved to Bialystok, where he continued in the textile business. He continued to assist refugees and conducted joint business ventures with them, which only rarely realized profits. He did what he did for the sake of Heaven. My father merited to die in his bed in exile of Bialystok, and was brought to burial in the Land of Israel on Tisha B'Av 5702-1942. May his soul be bound in the bonds of eternal life.

        My brother Gershon of blessed memory, the first born of the brothers, was a member of the leadership council of “Hechalutz”. He went through Hachsharah on a Kibbutz, and received a permit to make Aliya to the Land of Israel. However, his luck turned bad, and at that time, he was drafted into the Polish army. My brother Betzalel was also active in a Zionist pioneering organization, Hashomer Hadati. He also desired to make aliya to the Land, but his desire was never fulfilled.

        My brother, the lawyer Avraham Funk, who was named after my father, immigrated to the United States. He established his family there; however in his inner heart, he always hoped to make aliya to Israel. On his last visit here a few years ago, he told me a bit about the thoughts of his heart. However, due to his illness, he was not able to realize his heart's desire. He died in the year 5729 (1969) in a foreign land. He left behind a wife and a son named Pinchas, who is a university student in Boston. He is the only one who carries on the Funk name.

        We absorbed a great deal of fine traits from father's home, which I have tried to instill into the hearts of my children whom I raised in Israel.

        I met my husband Avraham Holtzman in 1932. He was a Zionist activist, who was active in the Keren Kayemet Leyisrael (Jewish National Fund), Keren Hayesod, and Hechalutz. He carried with him the credentials to obtain a certificate for aliya to Israel, which was for us a prime factor in setting up a Jewish home. Before I made aliya, I took leave of my large family – from my three sisters Reizel, Zlatka and Sheindele, and from my young brother Dov Berele. The words of my father Reb Pinchas, which he said to me at the time of our parting, are engraved upon my heart: “May our eyes merit to see Your return to Zion” – words which were always on the lips of his father. Father further told me: “You are the only one who merited to actualize the desire of your grandfather with respect to making aliya to the Land of Israel”. On November 2, 1933, the anniversary of the Balfour declaration, I and my husband Avraham Holtzman arrived in the Land of Israel on the ship Polonia. After many trials and tribulations we arrived at the port of Kantara on the Suez Canal, from where we continued by train to Tel Aviv. I am the only descendent of the large family who was able to actualize the will of my grandfather Reb Zelig of blessed memory.

Footnotes:

  1. A quote from the daily prayers, expressing the hope that our eyes should merit the return of the Divine presence to Zion. Return


{263}

Personalities and Characters from my Hometown of Stawiski

by Chaim Aryeh Lewinowicz of Miami, Florida

Translated by Jerrold Landau

The Jewish towns of Poland, with their populist-traditional way of life, were well endowed with personalities of lofty spiritual levels, as well as simple folk. Both types forged their way in the exile of Poland, which was full of tribulations.

       These personalities and characters arose and were nurtured in the unique Jewish environment in which they lived. They inhaled its atmosphere, and soaked up into their souls the traditions and customs that had been passed down from generation to generation, which forged their personalities, and bestowed color and content to their lives, gracing them with an exceptional Jewish charm.

       Stawiski did not stand out in the wide spectrum of cities and towns of Poland. Even though it was a small town – it only had a population of about 3,000 people – it was influenced by various personalities and characters, like a kaleidoscope of personalities. I will attempt to describe some of them who are etched in the depths of my memory, and who in combination form a wide tapestry of various different types of Jews.

       The first whom I member, different from all the others, who had a special aura surrounding him, was the town's Tzadik Reb Velvele Zak. He had a generous personality. His righteousness, uprightness modesty, and spiritual nobility rendered him heads and shoulders above anyone else in the community.

       Every generation has its own righteous people. In the previous generation, there was Reb Chaim Leib, the Tzadik of that generation who lived in our town. A few people of our town, myself included, merited to be named after him. The Jews wished that their children would grow up to be G-d fearing, and they saw it as a good omen to name their children after Tzadikim who had been dear to them. More than once I heard my mother of blessed memory utter the name of the Tzadik Reb Chaim Leib with holy awe. She added afterward a supplication that he should be an intercessor for us in the world of truth [1].

       Reb Velvele Zak was an outstanding personality, who served in our town as a rabbinic judge. He was the only one who the Jews of Stawiski referred to with the endearing title of Tzadik. When the name of the rabbi was uttered, they would say “The rabbi, may he live long”, however they related to Reb Velvele as if they would relate to the holy G-d. They saw him as the additional soul of Stawiski.

       Indeed, Reb Velvele was unique in town. He had rabbinic ordination, and if he had wished, he could have sat on the rabbinic seat of Stawiski, however he refused to accept this position because he did not want to make Torah as a spade to dig with [2]. He earned his living from his metal goods store. His occupation in business was a trivial matter to him, for most of his time was spent in studying torah for its own sake. Reb Velvele sat in the Beis Midrash day and night, and occupied himself with the debates of Abaye and Rabba [3].

       The patriarchal image of Reb Velvele stands before my eyes to this very day. He was tall and erect, and his large sad eyes exuded good heartedness, uprightness, and spiritual peace. We were neighbors and our families were friends. Often I went to Reb Velvele's house, and I can testify that I never heard him raise his voice to anyone, neither in his home nor in the Beis Midrash. He presented a class in Gemera to the erudite of the town in the Beis Midrash. They sat around a long table, and he stood on his feet during the lecture. In my imagination, I see him as one of the sages of old who spread Torah to their students in the famous Yeshivas of Israel and Babylon. Reb Velvele conducted the question and answer period that followed the lecture quietly and serenely, as it says, “the words of the wise are heard in serenity.” [4]

       His wife Rivkele was also righteous. She was short in height, and a woman of few words. Her good heartedness and refinement glowed from her melancholy face. When she came to our house, her footsteps were barely heard. My mother would listen to her words with awe and respect. When she was shopping, she never haggled over prices, as did the other women of the town, and on Fridays she never touched the challas with her hands as did the other women of the town. She came quietly and left quietly, and when she exited, she left behind an atmosphere of calm, which lasted for quite a while, and affected the rest of the purchasers in the store.

       She would visit us on Sabbaths. If someone uttered something bad about a person, even justly, she would put her fingers in her ears and say in a whisper: “It is forbidden, it is forbidden to speak bad about a Jew”. This was the noble and refined character of Rivkele, the wife of Reb Velvele.

       Their son, Avraham Leizer Zak studied in Yeshiva, and was given the nickname “the genius of Stawiski”. He was also an unusual person. He was blessed with a wonderful memory. It is said of him that he remembered every page of Gemara by heart (this was surely and exaggeration, however there is no doubt that he possessed an exceptional memory). Not only this, but he was also able to read an upside down page of Gemara by heart, that is to say from bottom to top. When he read a book, he would merely flip the pages, and he would know the content better than someone who read the book for many days would. My father of blessed memory, the pious Reb Mendel, always sat at the right side of Reb Velvele when he gave his class in Gemara. He always kept quiet about the freethinking ideas of Aharon Leizer, and he did indeed suspect that he was somewhat of a heretic; however due to his respect for him he never let on what he was thinking.

       The youth of the town literally revered Aharon Leizer. We saw him as our spiritual guide. He was short and also stuttered slightly; however, when he appeared before a group or a gathering of youth, he words flowed like an overflowing spring. On such occasions, he was freed completely from stuttering. He was a wonderful orator. He never prepared himself for a lecture or presentation. His words flowed without stop, and his influence on his audience was so great that he would often bring them to tears. On joyous occasion, he would jest and joke as he described those present, and the audience would be rolling with laughter. He was not a good-looking man, and he was bald; however he had sharp black eyes which added charm to his visage.

Reb Akiva

       Reb Akiva, the prayer leader at our Beis Midrash, was a Hassid. The question was asked: In our town, where most of the population were Misnagdim (non-Hassidim), why was it such that a Hassid led the prayers in the synagogue? There is no real answer to this question, but one thing is known to me: the Misnagdim also enjoyed his style of prayer and his pleasant voice. He would lead the prayers on the High Holy Days, and his pleasant voice and melodies are remembered by me to this day. His style of prayer and enunciation were filled with grace. The young people particularly enjoyed hearing his Hassidic melodies and songs. Even today, when Rosh Hashanah arrives, my heart pines to hear “And therefore instill your fear”, or “Let our supplications arise” in the style and melody of Reb Akiva, the prayer leader of our Beis Midrash, as he would pour out his heart before the Blessed G-d on the Days of Awe.

Reb Shalom the Teacher

       Reb Shalom the Teacher was a unique character in our town. Reb Shalom was the Gemara teacher, and he was graced with a fine and sharp sense of humor, which often strongly affected his “victim”. To be honest, he himself was often the object of his own sharp barbs. He did not withhold the staff of his mouth from his students who did not pay attention to his lessons. For example, once he told a particularly bright student who was graced with a long nose: “Your problem is that you exchange your good head for your long nose, however withhold your nose, lest it grow even longer.”

       On occasion, he would reprimand a student with in the style of Gemara: “There is no immodest matter with less than two people. What does that teach us? That a cow flies from the rooftop and lays an egg, that will take you into the darkness.” The poor, confused student would then answer in the same Gemara melody: “That he will take you to the darkness.” The answer caused the students to laugh, for in the end the barb came back to Reb Shalom the teacher.

       He also baked the Matzo Shmura [5]for the Orthodox Jews of Stawiski. For this endeavor, he hired many women to roll the matzos. It was interesting to see how he urged them on that they should role faster. He would bring an image of the exodus from Egypt and declare in a loud voice: “Hurry up women, work faster, do not delay the redemption”. The matzos were rolled with haste and enthusiasm.

A Jew for the Whole Year

       Itche Leizer the innkeeper was without doubt one of the colorful Jews of Stawiski. There was one inn in the village, on the road to Lomza, and he, Itche Leizer, was the proprietor. He was not a great scholar; however he had the ambition to be perceived as a learned person, and he loved to converse with the scholars of the town. On the Sabbath after the meal, he would come to our home to converse with my father and with Aharon Leizer the son of the judge, who was in our house every Sabbath. My father of blessed memory, Reb Mendel the baker, was considered to be the sharpest scholar of Stawiski. After the death of Reb Velvele, he accepted the responsibility of giving a class in Gemara to the scholars of Stawiski. Reb Itche Leizer the innkeeper would say: “and why should I not go into the home of Reb Mendel?”. He would then make a deduction according the style of Tevye the milkman: [6]“Harav et riveinu, hadan et dineinu – A rabbi goes to a rabbi, a judge to a judge, and I go to Reb Mendel. And where do you expect me to go? To the ignoramuses, to the wagon drivers?”

       The adage “Leolam yehei adam” [7]was explained by Itche Leizer as follows: Always be a man, and fear G-d in private”. He loved to quote, as it were, Ben Sira [8]. He would say: “Ben Sira says: A person should always be what he does.” Who would argue with him and say that Ben Sira did not say this? In general, people listened to his interpretations with patience, and they even enjoyed his pranks.

       Once, an event occurred which aroused the ire of Itche Leizer against his neighbor Paltiel the shopkeeper. Paltiel was a very poor Jew, however, he satisfied himself with little. He was a modest, G-d fearing Jew, and he would not even hurt a fly. His store was tiny, and his income was small change. It is hard to understand from where this Jew earned his livelihood. His honesty was without bounds. They would say of him that he would even cut a peppercorn in half, so that they would not suspect him, Heaven forbid, of taking merchandise into his store in an incorrect measure.

       It happened that Itche Leizer took out his anger upon that Jew. One day, he met Aharon Leizer Zak on the street, and told him in these words: “Aharon Leizerke, you surely know this scoundrel, this despicable person, this denier of the G-d of Israel”. Aharon Leizer asked him in surprise: “Who is such a Jew?” Itche Leizer answered him: “Aharon Leizerke, I am surprised how a person such as you does not know who it is. It is Paltuska the storekeeper.”

       It is further told of Itche Leizer: Once he took a loan from a well to do man in the town, with the condition that the loan should be paid back in one year. As was customary in those days among the Jews, no surety was given for the loan. A word and a handshake were sufficient. The well to do person visited Itche Leizer often in his store, and he was always greeted pleasantly, and offered a glass of whiskey and biscuits. He was even on occasion invited for a meal. The food was very good, and the well to do person enjoyed the tasty delicacies. Obviously, he was certain that the storeowner was doing this out of gratitude for the money that was lent to him. However, Itche Leizer did his own accounting, and when the time for the payment of the loan arrived, he opened up his “book of accounts”. In it was written in black and white a list of all the good food that the well to do person ate at his store. At the end of the accounts, he explained that the loan had already been repaid for some time, and that the well to do person even owes him several dozen silver rubles over and above the original amount of the loan.

Wagon Drivers

       The wagon drivers were considered among the haughtiest and coursest people of Stawiski. They were also known for being willing to step over each other; not physically, but through curses and boycotts. In this area, there were no other people equal to them. More then once, when I would be going to the Beis Midrash, I would hear their lengthy curses that they would pour onto each other. These curses and swear words would not be found in any dictionary. In truth, they were experts in Yiddish swear words.

       The wagon drivers of our town were not strong men, with one exception – Hershel the wagon driver. Hershel was a strong, hot-tempered man, who instilled his fear upon anyone who saw him. Even the gentiles were deathly afraid of him. Due to his “fine character”, he was the ruler of the marketplace of wagon drivers, and he had a monopoly on the transit to Lomza, the capital of our district.

       All year long, Hershel the wagon driver ruled by force, by instilling fear in everyone. However, when the Days of Awe drew near, this man would change significantly, as if he shed his skin and wore a new skin. This was seen as a wonder, how this coarse man, who spewed out curses and swear words from his mouth like a volcano, all of a sudden turned into a quiet and modest Jew, who walked modestly among his fellow man, was very polite, and barely uttered a word from his mouth.

       He was the first to arrive at the Selichot service [9]. He was also the first to arise when he heard the knocking of the shamash as he declared: “Jews, arise for the service of the L-rd!”. On the eve of Yom Kippur, Hershel the wagon driver requested that the shamash have no mercy on him during the administering of the flogging him, and give him the full number of 39 lashes. On Yom Kippur, he did not budge for one moment from his place, which was in the row right behind us. He worshiped with great devotion, and when he came to the Al Chet prayer, he beat his chest with such force that the entire Beis Midrash shook.

       On Yom Kippur, I had the opportunity to study Hershel the wagon driver very closely. His countenance did not show at all that he was a coarse and strong Jew. Just the opposite, he appeared as a fine Jew, whose heart was open to the service of the Creator. There was a small smile on his face, which looked almost ethereal. I remember that as a child, I was not afraid of him at all on Yom Kippur. On the contrary, I wanted to go up to him and ask him: “Reb Hershel, how is your fast going?”, and to wish him that he might be sealed in the Book of Life.

       Here lies the secret of Jewish spirituality, in that even the coarsest person could, for a period of time, attain a lofty level and turn into a refined and modest person.

       All of these characters and personalities, who could be found in any Jewish city and town, were annihilated and murdered by the murderers while the world looked on silently. We are the surviving orphans of most down to earth and vivacious portion of our people. We are witnesses to the destruction that was greater than any other destruction that our people endured throughout its history.


Translator's Footnotes:

  1. The world of truth referring to the life of the soul after death. Return
  2. A statement from the Mishnaic tractate of Ethics of the Fathers, saying that one should not make use of the Torah to earn a money (the metaphor used is not to use the Torah as a spade to dig with). Return
  3. Two sages who are frequently quoted in the Talmud. Return
  4. A quote from the Book of Proverbs. Return
  5. Matzo prepared with special meticulousness for Passover. Return
  6. This is the Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof. The following quote is a play on words. The phrase 'harav et riveinu, hadan et dineinu' is a segment of the blessing recited on the festival of Purim following the reading of the book of Esther (the Megilla). It literally means “He who fights our cases, and who judges our judgments”. 'Rav', here meaning to fight, is a homonym with the work 'Rav' meaning rabbi, although there is absolutely no relationship between these words. The deduction made here is a meaningless one. Return
  7. A segment of the morning prayers, quoted only in part here. The translation is: A person should always fear G-d in private and in public. Return
  8. Ben Sira is an author of an apocryphal book of adages, similar to the book of Proverbs, but not often studies in traditional Jewish circles. Return
  9. Selichot (Penitential Prayers) are special services conducted every weekday morning from approximately one week prior to Rosh Hashanah up till Yom Kippur. The first Selichot service takes place around midnight on the Saturday night preceding Rosh Hashanah (or one week earlier if Rosh Hashanah falls early in the week). There is a custom, not often practiced nowadays, but frequent in Europe, of the shamash of the synagogue administering a symbolic flogging to the members of the congregation. Al Chet is the confessional prayer of Yom Kippur that enumerates the sins that people are guilty of. Return



{273}

Hershel the Wagon Driver

by Moshe Goelman of blessed memory

Translated by Jerrold Landau

At the beginning of this century, more than sixty years ago, before there were automobiles and busses, our town did not even have one carriage to transport people to Lomza, the district capital, or to other nearby villages. There was only the covered wagon of Hershel the wagon driver.

       He had a long wagon with two long ladders on each side of it. It was upholstered inside with two half of baskets that were woven from branches. On top, it was covered by large wooden rings with spaces between them, connected to each other by ladders. A tarpaulin was spread out over the rings, which in the summer served as protection from the sun or rain, and in the winter from snowstorms and cold winds.

       There were two sections in the wagon. The back section was for transporting merchandise that the local merchants ordered from Lomza, such as barrels of kerosene, herring, cases of tobacco and cigarettes, as well as sacks of sugar, flour, salt, and other such items. In the front section, there were narrow ladder-like planks covered with wheat sacks, which served as seats for the travelers. Two or three people would sit on each plank. There were sacks filled with oats and fodder for the horses in the front near the horses. The wagon driver himself sat on these sacks.

       This was the “boyd” (wagon) which traveled daily to the large city of Lomza. There were smaller wagons that traveled to the neighboring villages such as Kolno, Szczuczyn, and Grajewo a few times a week. There was another large wagon in Stawiski, with boards on all sides and covered by a thick tarpaulin. It was driven by Niedzwiadowicz once a week to the capital city of Warsaw in order to bring in merchandise that was ordered by the local merchants, in particular various types of cloth and material. Niedzwiadowicz left Stawiski on Saturday night after the Sabbath and returned on Thursday with his wagon laden with merchandise.

       In our town, they baked matzo for the Jews of Warsaw. The matzo for export was baked by Michael the baker, who commenced his baking on Tu Bishvat and continued until Purim [1]. These matzos were sent to Warsaw via Niedzwiadowicz immediately after they were baked.

       Hershel the wagon driver was a well-known character in our town. When anyone found it necessary to travel to Lomza to arrange various matters, in particular the merchants who went to purchase merchandise from the wholesales, Hershel was the man who would transport the merchandise to town. There were certainly other wagon drivers who drove to Lomza; however Hershel was heads and tails over them all due to his trustworthiness and importance. Hershel was a person whom one could trust. On frequent occasions, a merchant would give to Hershel the list of merchandise he required, and Hershel would arrange the purchase and deliver the merchandise to the person who ordered it the same day.

       Hershel was tall, strong, with wide shoulders, and red cheeks. A small yellow beard adorned his face. He was known for his great strength. If a wheel would break while on the journey, Hershel would lift up the wagon with his shoulder and replace the broken wheel.

       A story circulated around the children regarding the source of Hershel's strength. It was said that he had wide rings of blood around his waste, from which he drew his strength. We all had a great desire to find him in the town bathhouse on the eve of the Sabbath, in order to verify this story. However our desire was not filled, for Hershel was always the last of the last to come to the bathhouse, and he left there when the shamash had already issued his declaration: “Jews, come to the synagogue!” His voice was strong and loud, and his tongue was different from the tongues of the other wagon drivers, in that he often uttered verses of Psalms and other prayers that he remembered by heart.

       The order of his day on weekdays was as follows: He woke up at dawn and hurried to the small Beis Midrash, Chevra Tehillim, where he worshipped. This Beis Midrash was located in the anteroom of the main Beis Midrash. He hurriedly recited his daily Psalms, worshiped, hurried home for breakfast, and then took out his wagon to road, near the street of the butchers. He would slowly collect his travelers at that location, and then travel onward to his final stop, which was next to the inn of Itche Leizer. From there he would ascend to his platform on the wagon and go on his way.

       When he tired of waiting for a traveler who was slow in going out from his house to the wagon, he would hurry him along with his loud voice: “Nu, move already and come out to the wagon. The east side [2]is already occupied, and you will not have any place to sit.” (The “east side” of his wagon was the two first planks next to him, where the most honorable travelers, who did not wish to sit with the woman, would sit.)

       His voice was so strong that it could be heard throughout the Market Square, particularly when he was arguing with one of his fellow wagon drivers, when he was negotiating shipping fees with a merchant, or when he was urging a traveler to hurry up and leave his house. He did not go to beg for the shipping fees from his customers; rather, they had to go to him, to the wagon, to discuss the price and pay. His strength and loud voice instilled fear in everybody. He would not hesitate to use physical strength when a dispute broke out with another wagon driver. If it came to pass that a merchant could not agree on the freight fee with him, the merchant would run home and send out his wife to finish the business. He spoke calmly and quietly only with women. Hershel was a trustworthy and honest man. He kept his word and fulfilled his promises exactingly. In short, one could trust him.

       He lived in an alley on Bicki Street, in the eastern part of the village. It was a long walk from his home to Chevrat Tehillim, however he went there every morning at dawn, in any weather, summer and winter, in order to recite his daily Psalms and to worship.

       On Sabbath mornings, in the summer and the winter, the worshipers of Chevrat Tehillim would gather together one hour before the prayers to study the weekly Torah Portion, and a section of the Code of Jewish Law. My father of blessed memory was their rabbi for all the years that he lived in Stawiski. The worshipers were wagon drivers, porters, smiths, and other workers. They would come to wake father up with a strong knock on the window shutter. The small room of Chevrat Tehillim was always filled to the brim, especially on Passover and Sukkot. On these festivals, the workers came to celebrate together with the Song of Songs and Kohelet [3]. They would be sitting and standing, listening with complete concentration, in particular to the stories and legends, and to the special melody which father used to give his lesson on the words of our sages.

       Hershel was particularly diligent in two commandments, which he kept with all his might. One was between man and G-d, this was the recital of the daily Psalms which he recited every morning, and the attendance at the class on Sabbaths and festivals. The second, between man and his fellowman, was that he always expressed honor to scholars.

       As is known, many of our townsfolk studied in the Yeshiva in Lomza. As was customary with all Yeshiva students, they would eat two meals a day on a rotation basis with different householders, and they would receive 3 kopecks for their evening meal – bread and a glass of tea that they purchased from the shamash of the Yeshiva. There were a few students, not many, who were lucky and had a rotation arrangement for all the days of the week, but most of them were missing a few days. These students would sustain themselves on those days with dry bread and a glass of tea. Thus, it was very important for these students to receive care packages of food at least once a week from their home. Hershel was the emissary for this holy duty, and he brought the packages and letters to these students from their families. He fulfilled this commandment with love and dedication.

       There were set times during the week when the students would go out the courtyard where the wagons that arrived from neighboring areas would park. They would come to Hershel and receive their packages and letters from him. In this manner, they would also send letters back to their parents, for who would be able to permit himself to spend 3 kopecks for postage? Hershel would greet each student in a friendly manner, and if there were no package for a student that day, he would comfort the student and promise to speak to his mother to insure that a package would be sent the next day.

       His son Michael was not as kind hearted as his father. He would chase the students, shouting: “Go on your way, why are you bothering me?” When Hershel heard his son telling off the students, he would reprimand him for this. He would say to his son: “You know Michael, this is a great mitzvah, and you do not know whom you are yelling at. Perhaps he is destined to be a rabbi, and certainly a scholar.”

       That “brave Samson”, as the children would call him, changed completely when the month of Elul arrived. When he heard the first shofar blast, he would immediately lower his stature, go around with his eyes facing downward, and speak slowly and calmly. He would address everyone in a respectful manner [4], including his fellow wagon drivers whom he normally related to with scorn and cursing. In the month of Elul, he would speak to them calmly, in particular to the chief porter. He would say: “Reb Moshe Ber, be well and healthy, hurry up a bit, for my horses also have to have a bit of rest after a hard day of work. Beware of harming the animals…”. To the merchants who would be negotiating prices with him, he would say: “Give me one more guilden (15 kopeck coin), and may you be blessed with a good year!” He himself would spend more time in his Beis Midrash, and lengthen his daily recital of Psalms as well as his prayers. On those days, his son Michael would take out the wagon to the street.

       On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Chevra Tehillim synagogue was closed and the worshipers went to various other synagogues, including the large Beis Midrash, Chevrat Kass, and the Talmud Torah. Hershel and his son Michael worshiped in the Beis Midrash, in the bench just behind us. Hershel would stand during the prayers, with his tallis (prayer shawl) over his head and he would recite the prayers and liturgical poems with a heart filled with emotion. He would weep with actual tears. On occasion, a sigh would come out from his heart, accompanied by “Oy, Merciful Father!”. He would not exchange a word with anyone else, even during the breaks in the prayers. Rather, he would read from his book of Psalms. He only answered when someone wished him a good year. After the conclusion of the services, he did not hurry to go out. Rather, he waited until some of the worshipers passed by him and wished him a good year. He would especially wait for the worshipers of the eastern wall to pass by him and bless him with a good year “immediately”. He did not understand the import of this word; however he would listen to it with special concentration, as if there was a great secret hidden in it. He valued the blessings of the scholars.

       On Yom Kippur, he stood on his feet all day, including the breaks. The beating of his breast during the Ashamnu and Al Chet (confessional) prayers resounded throughout the entire Beis Midrash, especially during the silent Shemone Esrei prayer. During the break in the services, he would recite chapters of Psalms, and review the liturgy of the day.

       One Yom Kippur, when I was eight or nine years old, I had already begun to fast for part of the day. I only ate once during the day, between the Shacharit and Mussaf prayers, and then I fasted for the remainder of the holy day. During the Neila prayer (the concluding prayer of Yom Kippur), when the congregation was standing on its feet, I no longer had the strength to stand, and I sat on the bench behind my father. Suddenly, when the cantor called out with a loud voice “Open for us the gates”, the bench moved and I fell to the ground. Father looked behind me, however he did not want to interrupt his prayers, so I stood beside him until the conclusion of the service.

       After the evening service at the conclusion of Yom Kippur, when all of the congregation went out to sanctify the moon [5], Hershel stood beside father and recited the blessing of sanctification of the moon by heart, hearing it from father word by word. Father attempted to say it slowly so that Hershel could recite it after him.

       As we walked home, father asked Hershel: “Reb Hershel, why did you shake so much during the recital of 'Open for us the gates'?” Hershel smiled and answered: “Reb Gedalia, what do you think, that the gate should open by itself? One has to assist it with a strong push…!”


Translator's Footnotes:

  1. Tu Bishvat is a minor holiday that falls two months prior to Passover (three months prior in a leap year). Purim is one month prior to Passover. Return
  2. The east side of the synagogue is considered the most honorable place to sit. Return
  3. The Song of Songs is read in the synagogue on Passover, and Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) is read on Sukkot. Return
  4. Literally, in the plural form, which is considered a formal respectful mode of addressing one's honorable fellow. Return
  5. The ceremony of sanctification of the moon is a blessing and accompanying verses that are recited once per month when the new moon is in view. It can be recited any time during the first part of the month, when the new moon is waxing. For the month of Tishrei, it is customarily recited at the conclusion of Yom Kippur, which falls on the 10th of the month. Return


{281}

Yossel Joreder the Rabbi of the Thieves

by Pesach Kaplan of blessed memory

Translated by Jerrold Landau

        The story of Yossel Joreder, who was hanged in Stawiski after the Polish uprising of 1863, eight years before my birth, has remained in my memory for decades, due to my mother's frequent retelling of it.

        A few years ago, I found the history written in an edition of the “Der Farband” journal, the organ of the federation of Polish Jews in New York. Then, the story again floated around in my head, thanks to the Stawiski native, writer, and party activist A. W. Rabinowicz.

        I will attempt to restore the story, as it is recorded in my memory.

        My mother was already an old woman when she told me the story. She would speak in an easy going manner, reciting the words, the entire time wiping off with two fingers of her left hand the small streaks of foam that accumulated in the corners of her mouth. Apparently, she, as I at the time, could scarcely estimate the moral level of the Jews of Stawiski. This is what she told me, and this is what remains with me.

        Yossel Joreder came from the small village of Jurowce, not far from Stawiski. He was reckoned as an outstanding householder in the town, although they knew that he earned his living through robbery, and that he was the “rabbi” of the thieves.

        I was amazed by strange expression – how could it be, a rabbi, not of the Hassidim, not for students, but for … thieves? My mother explained to me that a rabbi of thieves is not someone who goes out himself to rob, but rather who dispenses advice, takes the stolen objects from them, sells them, and divides up the earnings among the group – in short, someone who does not have a very fine profession, but who could himself be a fine person.

        Indeed, Yossel was a very fine person. He was a middle aged Jew with a long yellow beard, with an atlas style long frock [1], slippers, white socks and a red kerchief hanging from his back pocket. He would walk with deliberate steps. He would never miss a service at the Beis Midrash. He would get a fine aliya [2] and give a fine donation.

        They used to say that thanks to him, Stawiski and its surrounding region were careful regarding thieves. He would “work” only in far off places.

        Often, he would be away for a week. In town, they understood that somewhere, a large piece of work was transpiring. However, he would return, and again become the calm, sedate, fine householder. Never did they catch or punish him.

        His own house, in which he lived, was not far from the church. He rented out a portion of it to the chief of the guards, as well as the subordinate thieves and drunks who were not lacking from any town.

        At that time, when heaven and earth were being swept in Poland, when people were afraid to travel for fear of the Russian and Polish soldiers, Yossel was away for several weeks, until they brought him back beaten and in chains. They placed him with the chief guard, in his own house.

        One can conceive of the terrible cries of his wife and children. In town, they said that they arrested him at an armed robbery at a landowner's (Poretz's) estate near Suwalki, and he was sentenced to the death penalty. Therefore, everyone was very amazed when they quickly let Yossel go to his wife. What took place? There were no secrets, and very soon, everyone had something to tell to his fellow.

        Yossel worked as a middleman in conducting the armed robbery. They let him out on bail so that he would bring his accomplices. Then his sentence would be lightened.

        He was absent again. His first absence was for a few weeks. Then he returned and brought a victim with him, who was imprisoned alongside Yossel. The entire town wept for that victim. He was a young man who had sung with the cantor in the Great Synagogue during the previous High Holy Days and who ate on a daily basis [3] with several householders. Whether that singer was indeed dragged into the band of thieves, or whether he a free victim of Yossel's provocation, this is a mystery which is covered in the earth.

        Later they arrested a third partner, a gentile. They tried him, and his sentence was hanging.

        The hanging was to take place behind the town, on the left of the Lomza Highway, not far from the Jewish cemetery. The two Jewish convicts were first taken to the mikva [4]. Drums were drumming in the ears during the entire duration of their immersion, so that they could not hear the lamenting of Yossel's family, and of the entire town for the singer. Afterward, they led them to the gallows. After the execution, they buried them near the gallows.

        I myself saw that hilly ground.

        I knew Yossel's son. He was a small Jew with a yellow beard, named Zeligel. He was a furrier by trade, as well as a professional informer. One used to see him in the Beis Midrash sitting near the door, wearing his dirty tallis. He informed about military conscription, and about contraband. Thus did all the years pass by.

        Finally, something ugly took place to him. On a winter night, someone placed a sack on his head, took him to the Lomza Highway, and drove him to the Narew. In the spring, the river spat him out. They conducted a large trial against Jews of the town, which lasted for several years and resulted in nothing.


Translator's Footnotes:

  1. I am not sure of the reference here. Return
  2. An aliya is the honor of being called up to the public reading of the Torah in the synagogue. At each service where the Torah is read, a certain number of people are called up for an aliya. Return
  3. This refers to the daily rotation system used to sustain Yeshiva students from out of town, who are assigned to a different house each day to partake of their meals. Return
  4. A ritual bath. Return



{283}

Three Personalities

by Meir (Meitshak) Bogdanowicz

Translated by Jerrold Landau

Chaya Shlia of blessed memory

       Her name was Chaya, but the people added to her name the nickname Shlia. Why Shlia? There is no explanation. Perhaps because she always dragged her feet in a large pair of shoes – men's shoes – and wore two dresses, one on top of the other. One was long and reached the ground, and the other was shorter than the first.

       Chaya Shlia was not born in a golden cradle, and she did not have much happiness and comfort in her life. Chaya also had a heart and soul that was in need of its share of comfort, and without any other source, she got her pleasure in the following manner.

       Every day, before dawn, Chaya would already be dragging her feet through the alleys of Stawiski. Where would she be going at such an early hour? To the Beis Midrash. She would come to the vestibule, wash her hands, and then enter into the Beis Midrash, place herself before the holy ark, and say in her simple language: “Good morning, Master of the World, your servant Chaya is here.” She would say her piece, and then leave the Beis Midrash. She would then go to the vestibule, stand in a corner, and wait until the Jews would come to pray in the first minyan (prayer quorum). After each blessing, she would answer Amen. During the recital of Kedusha (the sanctification prayer), she would jump up a bit as did the men. Chaya Shlia would then return home happy.

       The entire town knew about Chaya's morning visits to the Beis Midrash. One day, one of the town jesters decided to play a practical joke at the expense of Chaya, in such a manner that the entire town would be rolling with laughter. Given that Chaya wakes up before dawn, our hero woke up that night in the latter part of the night, and immediately hurried to the Beis Midrash. He hid there in a corner, so that nobody would see him, and waited patiently for his victim.

       Chaya arrived at the Beis Midrash, and said as usual: “Good morning Master of the entire world, your servant Chaya is here”. A voice was heard in response: “Good morning to you, my servant Chaya Shlia”.

       Due to her great naïveté, she believed that the voice that was speaking to her was the L-rd's. Her face shone with joy. She forgot that she was standing in the Beis Midrash of Stawiski, and her imagination carried her to the celestial worlds, the worlds of splendor and purity. Her ears heard song and joy. This is the son – she said to herself – of the angels singing each morning in honor of the Creator of the world. Chaya looked around and saw the closed door; however she believed that at any moment the door would open and G-d in His glory would enter and appear before her eyes. After she attained her first “victory” – hearing the voice of G-d – she had the strong desire to attain her second and final “victory”. She called out enthusiastically: “G-d, now that I have merited to hear Your voice, please show me Your being.” Our hero did not hesitate, he came out from his hiding place, placed himself face to face before Chaya and showed her his true identity.

       Chaya was distraught. In a split second, she fell from her lofty heights to a deep pit. She again saw herself in the Beis Midrash of Stawiski. Her face was enveloped with gloom. With great travail, she dragged her feet to the door and went outside. The freshness of the morning restored her soul, and only then did she begin to understand what had happened to her, and whom she had seen – her closest neighbor. Tears of anger and disgrace rose up from the throat of Chaya. That morning, she returned home crushed and in agony.

Itche Leizer Horowicz

       Itche Leizer Horowicz though very highly of himself, and took pride in his pedigree. What was the greatness of his pedigree? It was that there were no mere working people in his family; everyone was a merchant. He himself was an innkeeper. Itche used to say that a working person is like a dog.

       Itche Leizer was afraid of three things: G-d, death, and the police. If he saw a policeman on the street, even from a great distance, Itche Leizer would immediately flee. If it happened that someone died in town, Itche Leizer would be so perplexed that he would hide under his bed. On the other hand, he went three times a day to the Beis Midrash to pay his debts to the Creator of the world with all his heart.

       The Jews suffered greatly in anti-Semitic, Fascist Poland, however they also had some “benefits”, such as high taxes and the requirement of army duty. Of course, the young Jews of Stawiski were among those who possessed these “rights”, and every year, when the time came, a group of them were required to present themselves before the army induction committee.

       The night before the enlistment, the conscripts did not sleep. That night was dedicated to various pranks. The most popular prank was always the parking of the “carriage” (that is the hearse which transported the deceased to the cemetery) in front of Itche Leizer's door. As usual, Itche Leizer woke up early in order to be one of the first to arrive at the Beis Midrash. However, when he opened his door and saw the “carriage”, he let out a scream that would pierce the heavens and called for the assistance of his wife Shifra. (Itche Leizer always interchanged 'r' with 'l'.) He would say: “Shiflinka, what has happened to me? I still want to live; I will send them to jail for a week”. Itche Leizer uttered his bitter shriek every year, when he gave release to all the fear that was stored up in his heart as he saw the “carriage” standing in front of his door.

       In truth, he Itche Leizer never “sent” anyone to jail, and hi himself was barely spared from the great fear which accompanied him all his days, which, when expressed, made him into a laughing stock not just in the eyes of the town pranksters, but also in the eyes of serious people.

Hillel the Hat Maker

       Who did not know Hillel the hat maker? He toiled all his days, traveled to fairs, and was only able to sustain his family in a meager fashion. However Hillel was blessed with one fine trait – he was happy with his lot and satisfied with what he had.

       One Friday, when he was going with his hats to the marketplace, Hillel saw an unusual piece of paper lying on the ground. He bent down, lifted up the notes, and was full of wonder at the nice looking people who were illustrated on the paper. As he was still walking along in wonderment, he met one of the young men of the town. Hillel showed him the “note” and told him that he found it on the street. That person took advantage of Hillel's naïveté and told him that he had just lost that note. Of course, Hillel returned the note to “its owner”.

       When the matter became known to people, they explained to Hillel that this note was a five dollar bank note, that the money did not belong to the man who took it from him deceitfully, and that with the amount, he would be able to purchase a new pair of boots. Hillel answered them: “Well, it looks like I won't have a new pair of boots”.

       “Buntze the silent” (the mighty man of Peretz), did not withhold himself from a bun spread with butter, and he also did not feel that he had to purchase it with his own money; while he, Hillel, passed over a new pair of boots that he could have had without toil. One must toil and work hard for a pair of boots, for only then would they have value. If one finds a note that one could exchange for a pair of boots – this was not the business of Hillel the hat maker of Stawiski. Boots such as this would not be worthy of their name.

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