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[Pages 595-597]

How Amshinov Looks Now

by S. L. Schneiderman[1]

The house where H.D. Nomberg grew up and the Rabbinical Court of Reb Joseph Kalish remain intact. –- But in the shtetl not one Jew remains. – A visit to Amshinov which took place thirty years ago, just after the death of H.D. Nomberg. -- Past wars between Misnagdim[2] and Hassidim in Amshinov. – A Polish shopkeeper asks about the children of the Rebbe. – The only heir of the Amshinov dynasty can now be found in Williamsburg.
When I drove into Amshinov, and glanced for the first time at the long main street of the shtetl, my impression was that the small wooden houses had half-sunk and shrunk, and had been robbed of their previous Jewish charm.

It was Friday before lunch. The frost had melted and the day had become milder and sunnier. But there were few passers-by in the shtetl. If a foreign Jew had come to this town and read the sign “Mszczonow” he would find it hard to guess that this is the famous Jewish shtetl, Amshinov. Here, a deeply rooted Jewish community with schools, synagogues, yeshivas and heders existed for several hundred years. And this is the shtetl where more than a hundred years ago there was such a battle between the truculent Misnagdim and the young Hassidim, who proved victorious and brought to Amshinov the son of the great Reb Yitzhak Vorker, thus founding the Hassidic dynasty of the Amshinov rebbes.

I first visited Amshinov thirty years ago[3] at about the same time of the year, early winter. It was a few days after the death of the renowned Yiddish poet, novelist and playwright, Hersh Dovid Nomberg, who was born there. I was just beginning my journalistic career as the correspondent for the Yiddish-Polish newspaper Our Review (Nash Psheglond) and had been sent to write about the shtetl of the only just deceased H.D.Nomberg, a pioneer of Yiddish literature in the great art of travel reporting from far-away lands and continents

My visit to the shtetl of H.D. Nomberg, which is barely twenty miles from Warsaw, was my first journalistic trip. For this 'voyage' I was accompanied by the gifted, up and coming young Jewish-Polish poet Moyshe Shimel. Since arriving in Warsaw he had been moving closer to the Yiddish writer-family, although he came from an assimilated Jewish background in Lemburg. For him Amshinov was a great revelation because he had never before seen this type of Jewish shtetl. First of all he couldn't understand how the Jews had managed to turn the difficult Polish name “Mszczonow” into Amshinov, and so he asked one of the people we talked to in the marketplace.

“Well, it's like this,” answered a young man with crooked shoulders, a topsy-turvy smile spreading across his bony, pale face with its glowing clever eyes. “How can a Jew possibly say such a name? And why should such an important place begin with an “M” rather than the first letter of the alphabet?”

It is hard to believe this was really the motive of the first Jew who three or four hundred years ago decided that the shtetl Mszczonow should be called Amshinov, but it was an answer to our question.

Moyshe looked with amazement at the little wooden houses with their moss-overgrown, shingled roofs, where cats chased pigeons. And, enchanted, he couldn't stop repeating that this shtetl had been taken straight from Chagall's paintings.

The main street of the shtetl was now empty except for three co-operative stores. Muddy puddles lay everywhere on its cobblestones. Then, thirty years ago that is, the street hummed like a beehive. Door after door on both sides of the street belonged to scores of small Jewish shops and larger businesses. Men with all kinds of beards and earlocks moved swiftly among the peasant customers from outlying villages. They wore long, black gabardines and round hats, which often barely concealed skullcaps set low on the napes of their necks.

Groups of young people stood around in the marketplace. Some had carefully trimmed beards, others were clean-shaven, some still wore the traditional round hats, some had cycling caps on, others wore modern hats. They argued about which of the town's types Nomberg had immortalized, calling his characters by their true names. Someone told the following story. Years before, on a visit to his home town, Nomberg had been attacked by one of his protagonists, who had recognized himself as the character in a story. He was a giant and, with fists at the ready, threw himself upon the weak, little man.. Luckily, Nomberg was accompanied by friends who protected him.

The gossiping Jews in the Amshinov marketplace also talked about other episodes from Nomberg's life and about his wealthy family on his maternal side, including his maternal grandfather, Aaron Eisenberg. It was in Aaron Eisenberg's house that Nomberg grew up. Nomberg's grandfather was a successful timber merchant who traded with the landowner of a large nearby estate, called Bobsk. His grandfather used to drive around town in a coach drawn by four horses. Every year he spent several months in Danzig from whence he brought expensive amber pipes, gilded porcelain plates and silver fox furs. He was also chief of the town's fire brigade, and rode a horse in traditional Jewish attire, astonishing the local population. It was from this grandfather – according to the enlightened young fellows in Amshinov - that Nomberg had inherited his lust for life and intense curiosity about the world.

Printed posters in black frames announcing H.D. Nomberg's death were hanging in the Amshinov marketplace and on many doors of the little businesses. The obituaries had been hung up by the local branch of the People's Party of which Nomberg was the co-founder.

I saw them on all the roads and side streets of the town except the one where the synagogue was, the bailiwick of Rabbi Joseph Kalish. Some hot-tempered Hassidim had come to blows with heretical members of the People's Party who had attempted to affix the obituary to the wall of Nomberg's birthplace, which adjoined the rebbe's court.

In Amshinov there were always such ideological wars and both sides were ever ready to sacrifice their lives for their convictions. The maternal and paternal sides of Nomberg's family both embodied the different worlds of Misnagdish and Hassidic Amshinov. The struggle between these two worlds in Nomberg's soul was expressed in his creative works and his fiery journalism. On the one side was Nomberg's lucid rationalism and exquisite astuteness. And on the other the deep lyrical pessimism and soul-searching represented in the characters in his tales.

This did not stop Nomberg from fervently throwing himself into the fight for secular Jewishness and for the Yiddish language. He even went into politics and as leader of the People's Party was, for a short time, a member of the Polish Sejm.

As an 18-year-old yeshiva student, H.D.Nomberg left Amshinov's synagogue street for the first time and headed for Warsaw with a packet of his Hebrew verses. It was only after meeting I.L. Peretz that Nomberg began to write in Yiddish. In Peretz's house Nomberg got to know Avrom Reisen and Sholem Ash, and together they became known in Yiddish literature as the “Inseparable Triplets”.

Up to this day the synagogue street where Nomberg was born remains unchanged. The wooden dwelling with its large chiseled porch veranda still stands – the house of Reb Aaron Eisenberg in which Nomberg grew up.

The buildings in the rebbe's court had escaped devastation as well. But what was once a living shtetl in itself, with inns and soup-kitchens and horses' stables for the Hassidim who came to stay, is now empty. A cobblers' cooperative had been set up in the stone synagogue. The tall-windowed dwellings where the rebbe's extended family lived are now occupied by Polish workers, mostly from other places, who settled there during the Nazi occupation, when the Amshinov Jews were herded into the ghetto of nearby Rawa-Mazowiecka[4].

At the corner of the street is a pitiful, privately owned, grocery store – one of the few in Amshinov that was opened after the October 1956 revolt, when the Gomulka regime liberalized the ban on “private enterprise”. I bought a pound of apples. The owner, Jan Ruczinski, a man in his sixties, told me that he had known the shtetl's last rebbe, Joseph Kalish, who died shortly before the outbreak of the war.

“ I supplied the rebbe with wood,” he said. “I'd stack cords of lumber in his court as early as summertime. I knew the tzadik well. (He actually used this Hebrew word for saintly man.) He was a wise man. Even Count Korski, the landlord of the nearby estate, thought highly of him and sowed an acre of wheat especially for him, so that he'd have flour for Passover matzos.”

“We Poles,” confessed the grocer to me, “sure committed sins against our Jews. (He used the Polish diminutive zydki.) And that's why God has punished us with such a bitter fate. We blamed the Jews for everything, all our troubles. Only now do we realize that while the Jews lived among us we Poles lived much better. We made our livelihood from them. When the name of our town was Amshinov, the Jewish name for it, things were hopping here. Now I can wait in my little store all day and not take in 50 zlotys. (Two dollars at the official exchange rate but really barely half a dollar.) But now, you can see for yourself what our Mszczonow looks like – it's a town that's half dead.”

The Polish grocer told me that at the outbreak of war the population of Amshinov was 6000 people, including almost 5000 Jews.[5] Now there were about 3000 Poles who worked mostly in the surrounding factories or went to work in Warsaw.

The same emptiness as in the privately-owned store was also to be found in the nearby co-operative stores. Opposite was the packed-full X-ray laboratory that had been established in what was once the big fashion store of an Amshinov businessman.

“This is the only success in our shtetl,” the Polish grocer told me. He had closed his little store and accompanied me on my stroll around Amshinov. Hearing that I was from America, he asked if I had happened to meet the children of the Amshinov Rebbe. He had heard from an Amshinov Jew who now lived in Lodz that they had survived and were living in America.

The Pole's comment about the children of the Amshinov Rebbe stayed in my memory and stung me into finding the heir of the Amshinov dynasty, Reb Yitzikl Kalish, who had settled in Williamsburg like the heirs of other great Rabbinical dynasties from Eastern Europe. When I told the young Rebbe that I brought greetings from Amshinov, real tears appeared in his eyes. I had to tell him exactly how the shtetl looked now and what buildings were standing in the synagogue street and rabbinical court, which had been built by his great-grandfather and later added to by his grandfather and father.

At the outbreak of the last world war the young Rebbe was in Otwock and ran away to Lublin, and later to Kovno in Lithuania. He ended up in Shanghai and at the end of the war came across to New York.

The present Amshinov Rebbe in Willamsburg is the only one to survive of the 80 members of his family. His ten sisters and two brothers were all killed in the Warsaw ghetto.


Footnotes

  1. Part of this account appears in S.L. Schneiderman's The River Remembers (pp118-122). The remainder is translated from the original by Renata Singer. Original footnote: Reporting on a visit after the Holocaust. Published in a number of Jewish periodicals. return
  2. Misnagdim: the opponents of the Hassidim within Jewish orthodoxy return
  3. In 1927 return
  4. The Amshinov Jews were sent first to the Zyrardow ghetto and, when that was emptied in 1941, they were sent to the Warsaw ghetto. return
  5. Jews made up less than half the population of Amshinov which was about 5000 people before the war. In 1921 43.6% of Amshinov's people were Jews and their numbers continued to decline up to the outbreak of World War 2. return

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