Translated by Martin Jacobs My name in my family is Yekhiel-Meyer Koyfman, son of Moyshe Koyfman, grandson of Shlomo Zhegzhevitser. My memories are of the stormy revolutionary years just before the Fifth Year, and the part the Jewish working youth of Zyrardow played in the struggle against the Russian czarism of the time.
In 1903 I came from Volomin, where I had been studying for a little while. After coming home, I studied for a certain time in the beys-medresh and a little bit also with Mendel Miller.
At that time my cousin Khayim Poznanski came to me and proposed that I meet his friend Lozer Kubitski. We did meet and after spending several weeks together talking about socialism and the battle against injustice, I decided to join the local Polish socialist party and indeed began to help organize the Jewish working youth within the party. Lozer introduced me to the party members, Jews and Christians.
One night Kubitski was arrested. The next morning two Polish girls came to me and told me their father wanted to talk to me. When I came into the Pole's house he sent everybody out of the room and we were left alone. He then told me that Lozer Kubitski was under arrest and that he had said that if anything were to happen to him the party was to call me and explain that I was to take over the further leadership among the Jews in Zyrardow. The Christian assured me that in this work I would have the help of the party locally and of the central committee in Warsaw.
I took on the assignment. Because of this I often had the occasion to go to Warsaw, where I was given various political leaflets, brochures, and other informational materials, which we used to distribute among the Jewish workers in Zyrardow.
We really did organize quite a fine Jewish workers' movement. To begin with, we organized a trade-union and were involved in getting all Jewish workers to belong to it; we fought for an improvement in the condition of workers in all occupations. Of course, all did not go smoothly. We had to fight. We organized strikes. We had no meeting hall. We conducted our organizational work in a birzhe, a stock broker's office as we called it then, where we used to meet every evening. The stock brokerage was located on Frontov Street (this was the name of Wiskitski Street at the time).
Only later did other socialist parties spring up among the Jews: the Bund and the Zionist Socialists. We used to have debates among ourselves. From time to time we brought speakers from Warsaw and very often there were heated discussions.
The czarist police considered Zyrardow to be a nest of dangerous revolutionaries because of the frequent actions led by the Polish workers from the factory. They planted a network of spies among us who spied on everything. Of course they also penetrated our organized Jewish socialists. The PPS party (Polish Socialist Party) organized their own bojow organizatsye (war committee) in Zyrardow, the aim of which was to protect the organization from the police terror campaign and from other sudden attacks. We Jewish socialists also enjoyed the protection of the war committee at a time when an attempt was made to assault us physically. Only after our Polish colleagues came out to defend us were we left alone.
It was in general quite a difficult time. The wave of revolution which was flooding all of Russia was producing a reaction from the czarist administration. A state of war was declared. It was forbidden to have meetings indoors, or to walk in groups in the streets. In general, after nine in the evening it was forbidden to appear in the street. Our local police, headed by Cibulski, who was then well known to us, terrorized the whole movement, the Polish as well as Jewish sections. But we courageously carried on our work regardless. At the time we had a very fine group of young Jewish members who were wholeheartedly committed to socialism as a matter of life and death. The names I remember are Gedalye Shmulevitsh, Mane Skurnik, Fishl Leyfer, Hershl Faygenboym, Khayim Poznanski. This is, of course, not everyone; I have forgotten many names.
We also organized a small group in Wiskitki and assisted the Amshinov people in their work.
What I remember vividly from that time is the great gathering of the masses which the revolutionary movement organized when the czarist manifesto announcing the introduction of a Russian constitution came out. We considered it a great victory for the movement and, as everywhere, there were large demonstrations in Zyrardow with red flags and with the singing of revolutionary battle-songs. We, the Jewish socialists, also took part in these demonstrations. Among the speakers who appeared I remember that there was Avrom Vevyorke, son of Zyrardow's former cantor and ritual slaughterer. He had come back from abroad. His speech made a big hit with both Jews and Christians.
The holiday, however, did not last long. A bitter reaction set in and the czarist administration began to drown the revolution in streams of blood, and, before everything else, with pogroms against the Jews. Just as everywhere else, we began to organize self-protection for a possible pogrom. We decided to go to well-to-do Jews to help us to create a fund for the purchase of weapons. Unfortunately we were not successful. Those who were able did not wish to; they maintained that there would be no pogroms in the proletarian town of Zyrardow. Under the circumstances we had to rely on the help which the Polish party would give us.
With the strengthening of the spy network in Zyrardow, the local party organization turned to the leadership in Warsaw to undertake some sort of action against those principally responsible for the terror. In the summer of 1906 the bojow committee did indeed send two men from Warsaw, who, together with local members, were to get rid of the principals of the Zyrardow police who had given the movement so much grief. The planned assassination was only partially successful. Unfortunately the one who was supposed to provide cover for the attackers did not carry out his task. So as not to fall into the hands of the police, the one who shot at the police shot himself also. Reacting to the assassination attempt, the Cossacks who were lodged in our town carried out a real blood bath there. Three Jewish youths active in the movement were killed. The memoirs of other landslayt will surely tell about this incident.
The police were looking for me too. I went away to Amshinov. My friend and colleague from the movement, Fishl Leyfer, was there with me. We went from there to Skierniewice. There we encountered Zyrardow police officers, among them Chmelnik. Fishl Leyfer returned to Zyrardow to continue the work and I wandered about in the neighboring villages, not spending the night where I passed the day.
The movement was not stopped. The struggle was continued regardless of the terror. Ignoring the fact that the police were continually spying on me, I too tried to continue organizing the Jewish workers. However, the decline of the revolution was beginning. The mood got more and more depressed. Many of the youth were beginning to leave the country or move elsewhere. I myself had to endure a struggle with the local police, who were always right behind and continually spied on me.
In August 1907 I learned that my father, who was already in America, had sent ship's passage for me. I decided to leave. My colleagues and friends came to say goodbye. The train station was full; there were over a hundred men there. And the police were there.
Up to the present day those wonderful years of youthful struggle are fresh in my memory. So many years have passed and everything is still vivid for me. In our new homeland I and my colleagues have done everything we could so that that time not be forgotten. Our longing for our destroyed home is great and painful, because everything was so brutally annihilated.
by Sam Meppen
A Few Words About Myself
My name is Avrom-Shloyme Meppen. Everyone in our town knew my father very well the tailor Yosl Meppen, known as Gritzer after the shtetl from which he had come. I am now in my sixties, work in a factory that makes women's clothing, have a wife and two children, and have been living in New York since 1920.
I still have two brothers: Moyshe-Volf who also lives in New York, and Pinkhes who lives in Israel. Pinkhes had quite a military career. During the Second World War he was a Sergeant in the Jewish Brigade in Italy. Afterwards, with the rank of Captain, he fought in the Israeli War of Independence. At the end of the war in Europe, Pinkhes returned to Poland and visited our home town, Zyrardow, to find out who was still alive. Everyone else in our big family including a step-mother, another brother, four sisters and brother-in-laws, many nephews and nieces, cousins, uncles and aunts - was killed in the Warsaw ghetto, where they had been deported from Zyrardow. My father got lucky, he died a year before Hitler ignited the Second World War.
The Stormy Fifth Year
I'll begin my glance backward, my memories, at the time of the 1905 Revolution.
A large number of the workers in our factories belonged to the Polish Socialist Party (known as the PPS.). They were constantly agitating among the workers, encouraging them to fight against Tsarism and exploitation. Often there were strikes, demonstrations, and protests. The Russian police and gendarmerie kept a watchful eye on the factories. Apparently, they couldn't manage the situation alone and therefore safeguarded themselves with a division of cossacks from abroad.
Tsar Nicholas's men, with the help of spies, knew very well who the leaders of the PPS were. Afraid of what might happen during the First of May demonstrations, each year, before this date, they would arrest all the worker leaders and hold them in the Warsaw Prison (;Paviak) and then free them again. Those considered by the authorities to be the worst culprits, were sent to Siberia.
Understandably, socialist propaganda also reached the Jewish street. Among Jewish craftsmen and journey men there were sympathizers and members of the PPS who helped hand out political leaflets to the Polish people and encouraged Jewish workers to improve their economic situation.
Three such dear young faces etched themselves into my memory, and still live in me. The first was Elye Lubtshanski. We called him the Red Elye because he had red hair. He was a tailor and actually worked with my father in his workshop. He was a hearty lad, slender, happy and very honorable. The second PPS-nik, Mendl Gelis Mayman, was of middle-height, strongly built, very honest and a dyer by trade. The third PPS-nik was Luzer Kubitski. He was a maker of shoe and boot uppers, very thin and mobile, with a hump on his back.
I remember how once, in the summer of 1906, two young men came from Warsaw, and on an ordinary midweek day, hurled a bomb into the market-place, near the police station. The two bomb throwers were soon trapped by the police in an elementary school and both immediately shot.
I also remember how that very day my father hid Red Elye in a side room of our house. But he was desperate to get out onto the streets to fight the police and the cossacks that Red Elye later stole out of the house and was immediately noticed by gendarmes who chased after him. They chased him to Synagogue Street and shot him there. Mendl Genis Mayman was also killed that day fighting the police. And in the same day, through a mishap, a third young man was also shot Yekhiel Mikhavski.
My father was beside himself with grief, everyone in the house was crying.
A day later the three young Jewish men who had been shot were brought to their final resting place and the burial was done in a particularly appalling way. In the middle of the night the three bodies were put on a wagon and only three Jews from the khevre-kedishe were allowed to go with them, to bury the murdered ones. One of the three was my father. Surrounded by fifty cossacks and a large number of police-guards, with the clip-clop of horses hooves, the wagon traveled over the Zyrardow streets. Terrified Jews looked out of their broken windows, pleading with God to protect them from Tsar Nicholas and more murders.
According to our law [Original Editor's note in text: actually the law of the state] the three shot men were not permitted to be buried among the other corpses, so they were brought for burial near the fence of the cemetery. But so as to gain a better place in heaven for the three near ones, my father opened a grave where a packet of pages from sacred books had been buried and hid the shot young men in the same grave.
My father told me this when he came home from the cemetery on that terrible night. As he was telling us these facts, tears poured from his eyes.
After the burial of the three young men, rumors spread through the shtetl that the Black Hundreds (a Russian anti-semitic organization) was preparing a pogrom against the Jews. Everyone was afraid. People started guarding the yards at night, with iron bars in their hands. The police were passive.
A few days later the Jewish community leaders and some Jewish businessmen came together at the home of Avrom Pshetitzki who was well acquainted with a number of high Russian officials. On the same night two of these officials were invited to Pshetitzki's home. One officer was called Bartoshek and the other Tzibulski. They discussed the matter, and on agreement were offered a sizable fortune. The Jews were reassured that they had nothing to worry about, no-one would do them any harm, and so the town calmed down.
Summer life in Zyrardow
Our town was known for the woods around it, and for the smaller and bigger streams. Each summer the woods became thickly populated with holiday makers who came not only from the surrounding area but even from Warsaw. We know that what is good for others is also not bad for oneself. So Zyrardowers, both old and young, took advantage of every opportunity to enjoy the woods and local streams.
Every shabes, even before the cock managed to crow, groups of Zyrardowers of various ages took themselves to the woods for their MAyufkes. What drew them was not only the fresh air of the woods, not only the streams, but also the well known canal.. This was an underground pipe through which a hot stream of water from the textile factory's paddle was emptied into a local stream. Right by the canal, we undressed and crawled inside, sitting tightly one behind the other, and well and truly warmed our whole bodies. Just as in a home bath, we didn't spare the soap, nor our joyful groans and shrieks.
After this hot bath, at around 8.00 o'clock, the adults returned to the shtetl to go to shul to pray. The younger people would gather in the woods to look for blueberries or take a swim in the stream. But they remembered that that they had to get back in time to catch the last minyan in case the older ones asked who had led the prayers.
Khevres in the shtetl
Just as in other shtetls, out shtetl had a khevre-kedishe and a khevre bikur- khoylim. Both societies were closely entwined. Among the organizers of the khevre kedishe were: Dovid Shmelkis Roznberg, Yosl Meppen, Abe Veytzer, Neter Tiger, Leybish Vargatsh, Fayvl Shteper, Moyshe Vapner, Dovid Vilung (the small Dovidl), Itshele Kriger (Kashtan); Yosef Koyfman, and a number of others. Their task was to bury everyone for nothing, everyone that is except the rich from whom one used to take burial money for the poor. Rich funerals (or bigshots as we called the wealthy corpses) were rare but when they did occur, the khevre-kedishe Jews would eat and drink in the tavern at the expense of the forthcoming wealthy funeral. The khevre-kedishe had their own shtibl in Synagogue Street, where they prayed every shabes and yontev.
The khevre bikur-khoylim was made up of the following businessmen: Avremale Diamont (Kohen/Priest) Avrom Vengrover; Avrom Pshetitzki; Yosl Meppen; Leybish Blank; Neter Tiger; Abe Dorembus; Dovid Vilung; Gershon Miller; Sholem Gutkind and many others. Their task was to provide the poor sick people with a doctor, a feldsher and with medicine. Money for this purpose was gathered every Friday from the whole shtetl by the members of the bikur-khoylim. A second source of revenue for this purpose came from going around in masked groups to Jewish weddings and gathering money from the guests. But the main source of revenue was Purim. At Purim every one of the town's wealthy men gave big donations to masked groups who knocked at their doors. Among the wealthy businessmen who could be counted on for big donations were: the Blushteyns, the Gutglasses, the Viners and others.
In our shtetl, as elsewhere, you could find eccentric individuals. I want to recall one such person who is etched in my memory. This was our moyrer-kharoye , Yosef by name, who actually lived not far from us on Synagogue Street. Wives would come to him with their questions about ritual purity. Despite the fact that he was considered a fervent fanatic, I found his behavior showed deep humanity, what you would call social justice.
For example, when a poor woman came to him with a problem about a hen, he would consider the hen, and after looking in a holy book about the nature of the question for a long time, he would ask the woman about her economic situation. And finding out that she didn't have another hen in the house, he would judge the hen to be kosher.
Once when my father sent me to him for advice about a hen, I met a poor woman at his place who had also come with a query about a hen. I watched as he considered the woman's hen, then looked in a holy book, and I heard his questions about the woman's economic position. I was happy to hear that he ruled her hen to be kosher.
Afterwards, when he considered my question, he also looked for a while in a holy book. Suddenly he asked:
-- So tell me boy, is there another hen in your house that could be slaughtered?
-- Of course I answered. - There are two more hens.
-- If so he replied with a happy smile go home and tell your mother that the hen is treyf.
Despite my youth, I felt the justice of his behavior and the deep humanity of our moyre-haroye.
I'm reminded of another long ago heymish scene from our heymish forest. Every summer about 40 to 50 orphans were sent to be looked after in our pine woods. Every shabes after lunch a kind of ceremony took place. The orphans stood in a row, and under the leadership of their blonde teacher, sang Yiddish and Polish folk songs. I remember how powerfully I was inspired by Varshavski's just released song oyfen pripetshik brent a feyerl (In the hearth burns a fire). Hundreds of people stood for a long time, enthralled, listening to the wonderful tenor of the children's singing. The same oyfen pripetshik is still always with me, from all those decades ago, till this day.
Each year, several weeks before the official call to the shtetl for conscripts, the poor young men of Zyrardow would start getting up early to go to shul to pray to God to save them from being conscripted. The rich young men, also potential conscripts, would try to get out of going to shul. First of all, they were almost sure that they would stay at home and secondly, it didn't suit them to sit in shul with the sons of tailors and shoemakers.
Every morning the poor young men would knock on the doors of the rich conscripts and not only coerce them into coming to shul, but force them to bring cake and spirits. The outcome was as expected. The rich sons stayed at home and the poor ones went to serve the Russians.
First Angry then Calmer Winds
The First World war broke out in August 1914 and it wasn't long before the German army began moving towards Poland. The train line that ran from Warsaw to Vienna was cut between Skerniewice and Zyrardow and the battlefront established. High earth trenches were defended by cannons and machine guns: on one side the Germans, on the other, the Russians. The battles began in the wet autumn days and continued in deep snow into the cold frost winter ones. Thousands of wounded Russian soldiers, and German prisoners as well, were brought from the battlefront. Because of a lack of places for the sick, some of the Zyrardow factories were turned into hospitals.
Right from the beginning the war had a bad effect on the Jewish community. A large number of young Jewish men, and older family men up to age of 45, were drafted into the army. Thus, the wage-earners were taken away. Many Polish workers, who had taken goods from Jewish stores and businesses on credit, were also taken into the army and their families could not afford to pay their debts, either to the stores or the craftsmen. Need and hunger broke out in the Jewish houses.
One morning word got around that the Russian authorities had arrested a number of German and Polish technicians who worked in the textile factory. Among the arrested was Yosef Koyfman, a distinguished town businessman. This led to uneasiness among the Jews and created a stir, but the Jews understood that at such a time, with the military administration, they couldn't do anything about it. A day later they watched the police take the arrested, including Yosef Koyfman, to the train probably on their way to Siberia.
A while later the Russians decreed that all the Jews from Zyrardow and the surrounding areas had to leave their homes within 24 hours and go to Warsaw. It was horrible to see the long line of peasant wagons, packed with Jewish men, women and children along with their bundles, being dragged over the slick snow, heading for Warsaw.
Life had been bitter in Zyrardow but it was even worse in Warsaw. The city was overcrowded with refugees who had been forced out or fled before the invading forces. There was nowhere to live and no food. The Zyrardowers had to settle in cellars, with many families to one dwelling. A means of support had to be pulled together from whatever possible ways of earning a living. Some jobs were connected with the war. So people sewed sacks that were filled with sand for the Russians to use to defend their trenches. Others worked making bandages for the wounded. The tailors and shoemakers, from time to time, managed to grab a few rubles from their old craft.
During the time the Zyrardow Jews were struggling in Warsaw, some Poles in the shtetl organized shpulkes, cooperative stores with the slogan svuy do svego - from our own to our own. This had already been instituted in various parts of Poland by anti-semitic elements who wanted to push the Jews out of their role in commerce. These shpulkes had had no success in normal times in Zyrardow because the local worker element was not susceptible to anti-semitic slogans. When the Jews were not in the shtetl , the anti-semites found just the right moment to establish such competitive stores. The Christian community had no choice, they had to shop in them, although the prices were higher than they had been with the Jews.
In August 1915 the Germans captured Warsaw. The Jews, just like the rest of Polish population, greeted the Germans with bread and salt to show our joy at being freed from the hateful Tsarist regime, and because the Germans were seen as the army of a cultured people.
In time things improved. Little by little the refugees returned to their home towns. The Zyrardow Jews also returned and resettled into their old homes and previous occupations. The anti-semitic slogan svuy do svego burst like a soap bubble as the Christian population happily returned to shopping in the Jewish stores where the prices were cheaper, and forsook the nationalistic Polish co-operatives.
Because of the severity of the economic situation, the occupying German forces confiscated peasants' produce, and divided this among the population using ration cards. There was an extreme shortage of potatoes and bread, which by the way was actually mixed with milled straw. To get the ration cards you had to have your photo taken. At first the Jews were afraid of the photograph decree as they thought it was connected to being sent far away to work. But quickly they calmed down.
Quite soon liberal winds began blowing from Warsaw. The new regime permitted the running of community activities: arranging meetings, opening libraries, organizing lectures and drama groups. Of course, for each of these undertakings you needed a permit from the Poviat (local authorities).
The youth of Zyrardow enthusiastically jumped on the bandwagon. This enthusiasm gripped all the groups in the shtetl. One group went to Warsaw straight away, bought a number of books and immediately opened a library.
A chapter of the Bund was formed under the leadership of Hertzke Shwartzshtayn with the help of Melekh Hertzkovitsh, Barukh Kshantshenitser, Aron Koyfman, Gele Nisnberg, myself (Shloyme Meppen), the two sisters Tzipe and Gitl Zalashinski, Melekh Rotshtayn, Rukhl Birnboym, Itshe Miltz and others.
A Poale-Zion group was also established with the participation of: Yosl and Rukhl-Nekher Nisnberg, Yankl Boymerder, Moyshe Reytovski, Sholem Blumenstayn, Hershl Yakubson, Blume Boymerder, Rukhl and Itzhak Urbach, Avrum-Yakob Mazelshtayn, Feyvl Rotshtayn and others.
A drama group under the leadership of Moyshe Vagner was also organized. I remember the participants of this long-ago dramatic circle: Gele and Rukhl-Nekher Nisnberg, Hertzke Shwartzshtayn, Shloyme Meppen (the author), Aron Koyfman, Barukh Kshantshenitser, Gitl and Tzipe Zalashinki, Melekh Rotshtayn, Rukhl Birnboym, Melekh Hershkovinski and others.
The drama group quite quickly put on: Yakob Gordin's King Lear; Beylis's Trial', and a series of one act plays by Sholem Aleichem, I.L. Peretz, Sholem Ash, as well as presenting various recitations and musical numbers. From time to time speakers from Warsaw were invited to appear. Of course in accordance with the law of the occupying power there had to be a representative of the German regime at every performance. [Editors note in the original: Elsewhere in our pinkhes there are separate factual articles about these institutions from our landsleyt.]
I have probably confused some names and forgotten others in mentioning the names of those who were active in the various institutions. This all happened 40 years ago or more.
This was life in our town, where hundreds of families lived, created, struggled, fought for their existence, and aspired to a better, more beautiful life. They worked and dreamed, each in their own way, according to their ideals and aspirations.
But .. all these bright hopes and dreams were later brutally crushed by Hitler and his cohorts, by the beast who, alas, wore a human face. Huge parts of Europe were drowned in blood, and in the first place amongst them were our own 6 million killed our nearest, our dearest, our brothers and sisters. Our own shtetl, our beloved home shtetl of Zyrardow was also destroyed. From her 700 families there are now, as far as we know, only two remaining.
TWO OUT OF SEVEN HUNDRED .
|Yosl Gritzer (Meppen) with his wife Malke and family, children and grandchildren. All but his son Pinkhes, who lives in Israel, were killed by the Nazis. Yosl Gritzer himself died in Zyrardow, before the outbreak of the Second World War.|
The names of those killed: Yosl's wife Malke; daughters Sheyndl, Khaye-Ite, Khave-Leah; son Melekh and his wife, Freyde; son-in-laws, Itshe Miltz and Avrom Nadel, nephews, Avrom-Moyshe and Nusen Haltz, Yosef Nadel, sister Khave Sategberg, and grandaughter, Nyese-Leyale.
|Page 107:||Itshe Miltz, son-in-law of Yosl Meppen, killed.|
|Page 107:||Melekh Meppen and his wife, killed in the Warsaw Ghetto|
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