Translated from the Yiddish by Martin Bornstein
Our Friend M. Klenowski sent us from Lodz an interesting fragment that is taken from the volume of memoirs from the known Polish Revolutionary fighter and writer Lucjan Rudniczki, dedicated to the Belchatow Jewish revolutionary Moshe Goldfish.
At the end of October there arrived a new group of prisoners from all corners of the Piotrkower industrial region. Also from Belchatow there was found a revolutionary in the personage of the shoemaker's apprentice Moshe Goldfish. He was placed in a cell, in captivity, together with me, and all those honored members, that was in those days set aside for political prisoners. The guards from the prison however were not acquainted (in agreement) with the ideology (concepts) of the prison administrator and were ready to deal out (bless) discipline, as Moshe now became acquainted with, as a political prisoner. The prison commander and his helpers avoided encountering him (the guard) and when they had to meet up with him, they closed their eyes or turned around. The smaller prison administrators were often not able to control things and because of that there constantly came about (events of) social friction.
Goldfish proud came to express himself to Ambultzin, when he used to go through the long corridor on a walk or on an exploration. The guard(s) didn't tolerate his bad walk (gate), with slow steps, and constantly pushed him to move faster. On (receiving) not correct (fair) notices Moshe answered with a grand lordly manner of indifference.
One of the guards, wanting to use strength to compel Goldfish to carry out his will, gave him a slap. We heard the struggle and the cry from Moshe: Slave! How are you guarding? I am a political (prisoner)! Hearing and partly seeing the conflict, I began to beat with a bench on the door of my cell. Upon (hearing) the echo of the beating sound, other guards came running. Moshe, the person making a stand, was pushed in by his stomach into his cell, but then his door also began to thunder. The (prison) commander was called along with one of his helpers, the so called by us horses-head, had called for the military. Several minutes later the guards came into the cell and took out all the valuable things. At the same moment a resounding sound was made in the whole prison. These were the remaining friends, numbering 30 men, proceeding to (the) assault.
When Moshe had been dragged into the dark punishment cell, he screamed to them:
- Friends they are beating Political (prisoners)!
The atmosphere was very strained, because upon the call from Moshe all the prisoners simultaneously began to demonstrate. Early the next day the prisoners began a hunger strike.
With the understanding (accordance) of the other friends I demanded the immediate release of our friend Goldfish from the dungeon, as well as the resignation of the (prison) commander and of the section (division) guard. I paint here (for you) the proud stance of Goldfish, as a Jew and Revolutionary. While fighting against oppression of people and social suppression, Moshe Goldfish simultaneously fought against racial discrimination.
Goldfish wore a long frock, from his face shined forth pride. So much attention and self importance did he have, that the pitiful long cloth coat, looked on him like a mantel of a Roman Patrician. . .
Translated from the Yiddish
in parts by
Arthur Haft, Rosa Rynski Haft, David Haft
and by Martin Bornstein
In Honor of his mother Dora Bornstein,
a Holocaust survivor from Belchatow
and by Gloria Berkenstat Freund
Edited by Gloria Berkenstat Freund and Jerry Liebowitz [with comments in brackets]
There was a road from Piotrkow. It went through fields, forests and villages that spread out between the Vistula and Warta Rivers to Prussia. The road led to Belchatow.
It was spring. The small fields around the shtetl [town] were in bloom. Potatoes and rye were growing; barley and oats grew. As in the shtetl, gardens and orchards were wedged in; cattle, calves, goats and chickens could be heard in the surrounding yards.
The houses on the main street of the shtetl, wooden and brick, for the most part small, low with pointy roofs, covered with grey wooden shingles, on which grew moss and others that were covered with tar paper and smeared with tar, were hung with shutters in which the shamas [synagogue caretaker] of the synagogue banged [to let people know it was time] to go to the synagogue; they stood in the front of a large open courtyard and the courtyard ran out into the fields.
The main street was not the only one, because there was one more. It ran crosswise from where the main street ended at the market place. The other street, which like the first one had no name, was located on one side in the Jewish shtetl and on the other side went out toward the highway.
The other street passed the beer brewery, merged into the highway, which began on the other side of the shtetl, and went further over gorgeous Polish, noble estates and across green meadows and forests of evergreens that held the sky on their heads.
The shtetl in Poland, the [part of] Poland that was allocated to the Russian Empire, was populated by Jews. The few Polish Christians who were there were Shabbos-goyim [Sabbath Gentiles who performed work that the Jews were prohibited from doing on the Sabbath]. They very much liked the Shabbos fish that was cooked by the Jewish women only for Shabbos. The Shabbos-goy very willingly took the metal candlesticks off the table and made a fire for a piece of gefilte fish [stuffed fish originally the ground fish was stuffed into fish skins and cooked].
As a shtetl in Russian-Poland, it did not have any freedom, any human rights and it was entirely subject to the rule of the autocracy of the Russian emperor, the tsar and despot of the Romanov dynasty.
We did not know of books, of newspapers, of periodicals. The only things that were printed with Yiddish letters were the old written religious prayers and seforim [religious books], which kept the Jews in fear, in dejection, in submission. No one thought of a change; they believed themselves as inferior and they did not feel the humiliation. Thus they dragged the yoke, just to survive the wretched years here on earth.
Jews whispered in the synagogue somewhere in far Russia, noblemen had created a plan of action against the emperor this reached to the real Petersburg They had already shot at him. There were further rumors about the revolutionary movement of the Narodna Volya [People's Will left-wing organization responsible for the assassination of Alexander II], which went through the small synagogue of the Jewish shtetl in Poland, but the town Jews had no feelings or thoughts about this. A blessing was said in the synagogue for the Russian emperor on Shabbos before reading the Torah and done.
Of the mighty Greater Russian Empire to which the shtetl belonged its political regime, its government, its laws, its institutions who in the Jewish shtetl knew of this? They did not even know yet that they lived in a ghetto, a large ghetto, which consisted of all of Russian Poland, White Russia, Lithuania, Bessarabia, to part of Ukraine, but a ghetto of the largest part of the land, where Jews were not supposed to live, unless a merchant of the first gilde [merchant's guild], which Belchatow did not have. Who even thought of political regimes? Of democracy and freedom, of culture, of citizen's rights, of human rights, of protest, of opposition, struggle, revolution? These were terribly strange, alien words for a Jewish shtetl into which they had not yet entered and whose meanings were unknown. In their own, only natural mother tongue, Yiddish, which they were not even taught, these words, worldly and expressive of secular things, were entirely absent.
The shtetl was open on all sides, but the world did not enter. And the Jews with consciousness of the great we must not for everything, absorbed it into themselves with all their strength, and saw to it with all their power that they did not transgress against we must not that they not, God forbid, rebel against the lack of rights, and so they lived shut in their own ghetto.
They actually traveled. They did not make a yetsies [going-out/exodus], no exodus, no emigration God forbid; they traveled to fairs; they traveled to Piotrkow and to Lodz to purchase goods, took their goods and in return brought new fibers for the Belchatow cloth weavers; they traveled to arrange marriages for their children, because matches were made with those in other places; they traveled to weddings with the bridegrooms when the brides, who did not know their matches and whom they did not see until under the khupah [wedding canopy] (if they did see them under khupah [the bride was veiled and the pair may not have seen each other until after the wedding ceremony]), lived in other towns with their parents who were marrying off their daughters; and they also traveled to look for apprentices who were taken on for four years; they also searched for yahr-yinglekh [year boys]. These were [young men] who had just finished their studies and had not yet been taken on as apprentices for a term and they also looked for journeymen.
Hershl Bliacharsz's young wife, who was the house owner and the supplier of everything, made a trip that year to no less than Tamoszow, to bring an entire troika [three workers] for herself. In Piotrkow, she barely got a yahr-yingl; she brought an apprentice from Tomaszow, but she did not get a journeyman. It was after Pesach [Passover], spring, when the men who were hired khol-hamoed [intervening days of holiday, when work is permitted] for a period of time were already busy and the Bliacharszes were pelted with work.
The shtetl had six week days: from Shabbas night after Havdalah [the closing Shabbos prayer] until Friday night before blessing the candles when the Shamas went through the streets and called aloud: Jews, go into the synagogue!
The weekdays were filled with work. They worked so much, just as if life in the world had been sentenced to work, or as if the work took up all of their interest and all of their enjoyment in life. Eating, sleeping were in order to be able to work; even a son-in-law oyf kest [the expenses of a young man who was engaged in religious study were paid for by his father-in-law] also worked day and night he sat over the Gemara [Talmudic commentary]. They would also have worked on Shabbos and on holidays if it had not been a sin, but the prohibition against working on Shabbos and on holidays was still in essence only because of the work. To be a little rested for it.
[Spending time in] the shtetl's large yeshiva [religious school for young men] with a large number of young yeshiva men was thought of as a profession that consisted of learning Torah, in praying for the shtetl, holy work for which one is rewarded with essen teg [daily meals provided for students in the local homes] with the shtetl middleclass.
And with the exception of the cloth makers, all trades worked first for the benefit of the shtetl itself; one worked for another, all worked for everyone and each worked for everyone.
If the cloth makers, the weavers, worked through Lodz, for the interior market, from which the shtetl also had to buy goods to dress itself, through the earnings for their work they were then able to pay for the production in the shtetl for their needs and to provide through this the opportunity for the shtetl to import what it needed.
All trades had enough to do [to meet the] needs of the town itself.
The population grew. At 15 one became a bride and at 18 a groom and such a couple gave the shtetl a child every year. Wealthy men, powerful men, also had children, less in number, but they had. One would not not have [children]. All of the Jews in the shtetl were pious, even the wealthy men were pious. And Jews had religious divorces after 10 years of not having children. Who knew of methods to not have children? This life did not choose child murder, not before [birth] and not after. If the rich, after they also were granted the mitzvah [commandment] of having children, carried out a certain control over their further fruitfulness and reproduction, this was not the case of the poor who were rich in this regard. And there were few rich Jews in the shtetl, while there were many poor, almost all.
They always had to build: molding clay and carrying bricks; erecting walls and covering roofs; sawing wood and making furniture; providing shoes and boots (made entirely by hand), dressing with long, wide dresses to cover the sinful bodies and covering the heads of the women with caps and sheitln [wigs worn by married women] and the heads of the males with yarmulkes [skull caps], hats with low crowns, shtreimlekh [fur hats worn by many married Hasidic men].
Talisim [prayer shawls], tefilin [phylacteries], tsitis [garment with fringes on four corners worn by observant men], mezuzahs [small boxes containing the Shema prayer placed on every doorpost in a house], sidurim [prayer books], sforim [religious books] and other holy articles were imported; however, Shabbos candles, havdalah candles and wedding candles and soap to wash clothing were fabricated by the Jews in the shtetl. Also from our shtetl: the shoykhetim [ritual slaughterers] did the ritual slaughter; the moyhelim [ritual circumcisers] the circumcisions, and there also were several klezmorim [musicians] for the weddings. Today they work in the mikvah [ritual bath] and the cemetery.
All of this required a great deal of work; in addition, the synagogue was completed at that time on the street of the beis-medrash [house of prayer] and where the yeshiva was located.
However, the shtetl also worked for the gentiles, for the Polish male peasants and female peasants who would come in their village horse-drawn carriages and would also come on foot in their colorful clothing and the men in four-cornered hats and the women in red and white striped, pleated dresses, hanging from the head down. They came to the town market that was [held] once a week and they brought their goods to the market: bundles of bark straw for straw mattresses and for beds, bundles of wood to burn, young calves for slaughter, eggs and poultry, green branches for Sukkos [Feast of Tabernacles the branches are used as a roof for the sukkah the hut in which meals are eaten]; butter wrapped in cabbage leaves and baskets of black and red berries and of mushrooms.
However, they did not remove any rubbed off three-kopek pieces from the shtetl. Tables with brand-new colorful peasant dresses, stiff belts, aprons, boots, laced gaiters with bootlegs; cakes and candies; sparkling tin utensils, lanterns and lamps; whips, horse-collars and reins and wagon grease; cut-goods, ribbons and rosaries, of which the Jewish artisans and shopkeepers knew the tastes of the Polish peasants these were displayed so attractively and drew the male and female peasants and very often a peasant couple left a few gildn in the shtetl that they had brought from the village wrapped in a knot of a kerchief.
Hershl Bliacharsz also stood at a table at the market, a Jew, a member of the shtetl middleclass, an influential man, a boor who gave slaps rather than talking to those who were stubborn at conflicts about synagogue matters, about the rabbi in the shtetl, the purity of the ritual bath, about maftir [person reading the Haftorah reading from the Prophets at the Sabbath service] and the 613 mitzvos [commandments].
Hershl Bliacharsz was a resolute Jew with a black beard that looked as if it had been trimmed and which grew up around his lips and on the cheeks of a fleshy face with a low forehead, from under which looked out a pair of hot black eyes as if they were filled with the tar with which Hershl Bliacharsz smeared the tar paper roofs in general, he did what he was permitted to do rather than that which was forbidden.
His feet were wrapped with squares of cloth and placed in a pair of light black boots that were smeared with castor oil every erev Shabbos [Sabbath eve] and erev yom-tov [holiday eve]; [he wore] a wide talis-koten [four cornered tasseled garment worn under a pious man's clothing] that hung from his shoulders down beneath his stomach and four-tied up, white tsitsis [fringes] dangled to his knees and [he wore] a wide kaftan with long, wide sleeves that covered him, and, as he walked and stood, only a nose appeared in the middle of an overgrown face under a black, shallow and round Jewish-Polish hat yet Hershl Bliacharsz exuded a passion for everything.
Hershl Bliacharsz had to cover the roof of the new synagogue with black tin and to make the cornices, the gutters and the pipes of zinc-tin; he had a great deal to do in finishing the spires, towers and cupola of the local church, which stood with its front to the main street and with its back to an orchard of plums, raspberries, gooseberries, currants, grapes, pears and apples that teased the appetite and that were not forbidden fruit for those who worked there. Hershl Bliacharsz worked on the municipal brick buildings; there were not many, but those that were, were his. He also had work at the surrounding aristocratic courts. In addition to this he was involved with the forest, where gentiles, who rented from Hershl Bliacharsz, cut grown pine, oak and white birch trees; they hewed, sawed into blocks, into posts and into boards for construction. If this was too little, he also placed a table at the market. He did not stand at the table, only his wife; she was a better seller. However, Hershl Bliacharsz also stood at a table, not because he had to do so, but that was the way of a shtetl Jew, an artisan, a middleclass man, to not let anything fall through that could provide a gildn of income and because Hershl Bliacharsz, actually [it was] she more than he, had a hidden tavern on Shabbos after a nap and on holidays in the afternoon, because the apprentices rolled a barrel of beer from the brewery on Friday night. They did not, God forbid, sell [beer] for money on Shabbos, and did not write down [who owed money], but kept it in their heads that someone had treated someone and what one had requested he be given, allowing them in for this through the back door.
Regarding illness, it was the habit of the shtetl Jew not to immediately run for the doctor when he did not feel right; first he used all of his own remedies: a wet handkerchief for a headache; wolfberry for vomiting; fenchel [fennel] tea and castor oil for stomach aches; garlic and pepper and ground horse teeth on burned coals for toothaches. And when it was not better, they went to the apothecary, he should give them something and then when leeches and cupping glasses needed to be applied or a tooth had to be pulled, they called the feldsher [barber-surgeon] who on the way took along a scissors in case a Jew wanted to have a haircut, and then, finally, after a remedy against the evil eye had been said and the women also were in the synagogue and pleaded in front of the open ark for a complete cure, the doctor was called.
The shtetl had its merchants, shopkeepers and booths that provided the daily needs of the shtetl. However, there were mainly trades weaving and tailoring, shoemaking and hatmaking, baking and retailing, building and blacksmithing and as was the custom, the family's residence was part of the [artisan's workshop] and the home life of the family was carried out alongside the apprenticeships and the professional life.
The teaching of the trade began with the boy as an apprentice. These were years of pure slavery.
Only the apprentice boy and not the apprentice girl, because Jewish girls did not learn a trade, they did work in the home, the housekeeping, also helped in the trade work in the house, helped in the shop and, in the very poor families, they became servants for those who were richer.
The apprentice, usually 13 years old when he was rented out, was hired, based on a promise, for four years. It is understandable that one takes an apprentice [by agreeing to provide] food and sleep and clothing. What kind of food, what kind of bed and what kind of clothing was not recorded anywhere. The little bit of food for the apprentice was just [enough] to maintain him. Sleep, the several hours at night on some sort of bed, was in the workshop where they also ate. When the clothing, which the apprentice usually wore, fell apart, it was changed completely, so that it would not be said that with Moshe-Meir the carpenter, or with Dovid Khackl the gaiter maker, the apprentice wore torn clothing. But all in all, the clothing for the apprentice cost the foreman, as the boss, the artisan was called, only a few rubles in the course of all four years.
However, this, which the foreman gave as a donation to the apprentice, was a matter of secondary importance. The same with the instruction, which the boy stole, more than received. It was mainly this, that the apprentice had to do things for the foreman (master craftsman), for his wife, for their children and even for the half and full men or journeymen. The so-called apprentice was completely subject to the boss. The apprentice had to do unskilled work, dirty work, heavy work and even work that was not related to the trade [to which he was apprenticed]. He had to be slavishly obedient, obey everyone and follow everything, as well as the whims and making fun of him and the insults. He was beaten for not obeying something, showing resentment, transgressing, committing such a crime as stealing a piece of bread; everyone in the foreman's household could always hit the apprentice; he could be beaten for a reason and he also could be beaten without a reason. The apprentice had no one to whom he could complain; he could only run away. Several did so, although the apprentice could not [make things better for himself] because it was the same with all of the foremen.
And the apprentice was the servant for the mistress of the house; he had to be this. It was the routine of being an apprentice; every servant did everything that he was asked for every mistress of the house. And if the foreman had older children, the apprentice also had to serve them, and where there were men hired for allotted times, journeymen, the apprentice had to serve them. Very little time remained for the apprentice after so much service that had nothing to do with the trade. Therefore, the apprenticeship period for the four years was one in which the apprentice stole and nibbled more learning than was given to him and in the end he barely had any mastery when he finished the four years of slavery and an apprenticeship of hard labor.
The apprentice went to yearly work after finishing with the apprenticeship; more to learn the trade; he was a boy employed by the year.
The apprentice who emerged from his apprenticeship through four years of slavery could earn as a year-boy for another year with the same foreman with whom he had been for his apprenticeship, but as patriarchal as it was in the Jewish artisan-house in the shtetl (as well as in the city), the apprentice who had finished [his apprenticeship] wanted to be freed from the house where he been a slave for four interminable years and he rented himself or he was rented to another foreman of the same trade. One served for a year, from Pesach to Pesach, or from Sukkos [the Feast of Tabernacles] to Sukkos, with food and a place to sleep, but without clothing. However, for a wage that reached up to 25 rubles for the entire year.
The patriarchy or the slavery continued. The difference between an apprentice and a year-boy was that the apprentice was a servant and also was used in the trade and the year-boy worked in the trade and he also was used as a servant. This was not done with the purpose that the apprentice perfect his technique in the trade, but because it was so worthwhile for the income of the boss. The apprentice, under the supervision of the journeyman, or of the foreman, almost did the work of a man, or a journeyman or the foreman himself.
The work was put away every Friday night, when the shamas went through the shtetl and cried out that it was time for Shabbos, until Shabbos ended with Havdalah, which was observed as soon as the stars appeared in the sky. A pause also was made in the work which did not have any time limit and during which we were forbidden to look at the watch because of the Jewish holidays: Pesach, Shavuos, even Tisha B'Av is also a holiday. In addition, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkos. It was a shame for the boy employed for a year that Chanukah was not a holiday and that Purim only was a one-day holiday, after having fasted on the fast of Esther.
Ending the year after the apprenticeship, the year-boy became a journeyman. Then he rented himself out not for only one year, but for a term, for a half year, from Pesach to Sukkos or from Sukkos to Pesach. They earned food and a place to sleep as usual and a wage of 30 rubles for the term, which became higher with each future term with the same foreman or with another one and they reached up to 60 rubles for the last term when the journeyman married and he became a boss himself, an artisan, a boss with or without men.
The hope of the journeyman, who became fit for marriage as soon as he became a journeyman, was to marry and to become a boss.
The artisans usually married later, later than a Talmudic student, than a young man in a yeshiva, or the child of a merchant. Firstly, no one chased after an artisan, a young tailor, a young weaver, a young baker, and, secondly, one had to have the means to create a workshop. One anticipated a dowry. Or what does one do if the dowry was only a promised one? No matter, one got married and then [there was no dowry]. They swore that the dowry had been deposited with such and such valid businessman and that it would be settled right after the wedding. What was not done for the mitzvah [commandment] of [arranging] a marriage for a Jewish daughter?
Not sure of the dowry, the journeyman was sure that a match would be made with the draft. He would not make a mistake with the match. And if he needed to serve Russia and be sent to the devil, he would not wait for the match [to be completed] but would go out into the world.
The accumulation [of money] during the terms [of employment] was used for a workshop because there would not be a divorce over not being able to agree on the promised dowry. And yet getting married, becoming a husband was connected to the hope of becoming a boss oneself, a small businessman, with wealth: a wife, children, employees, a household, furniture, a workshop, shelves of ones own manufactured good, or with woven skeins of yarn, sent with the large wagons to Lodz
He became a master, a boss; he no longer worked for someone; he worked for himself; he no longer had to obey anyone. He had to be obeyed and he was the one who asked, the one who gave orders, the one who bullied his men and the one who hit, the one who slapped if he was not obeyed, it someone sinned with something, or when he wanted to show who was the boss.
The boss himself did not know of freedom, of any rights, of any human dignity: he lived in fear of God the all powerful, of the strong gentile and of the brass buttons of the policeman with his whip, sword and pistol representing the Czar in the shtetl, the brutal, the God-anointed Czarist regime from which nothing good was expected.
Jewish trade in Belchatow, the commerce, the business, was a special thing; [the opportunities for] a trade and income were small and very limited. This does not match the anti-Semitic idea that Jews only were involved in trade, but this was the reality in Belchatow. The great majority of Belchatow Jews were employed in productive work. This was not because of a principle, not a preference, not an ideal. They were involved with productive work because of income. This was always the result of productive work; but with trade this was not the case.
At that time, at the end of the preceding century [19th century], all of the necessary productive work was done by the Jews. There were very few gentiles in the shtetl. There were no excess workers. There was a shortage of workers. It even resulted in writing or traveling to Piotrkow, to Tomaszow [to look for] workers and it was difficult to get them because if they left home, they went from the smaller city to a larger one.
And the artisans, the craft workers commercialized their production. They were the shopkeepers, the merchants of the things that they themselves had made. No one went to a shop to buy bread, but one went to a baker for bread; one went to a shoemaker for boots, gaiters, slippers or loafers. Whoever needed a long man's coat, a pair of pants, a hat, a cap, a shtreiml [fur hat worn by Hasidim], a fur went to a tailor, to a hat-maker, and to a furrier.
And if someone wanted to buy a watch, a remedy, a teapot one went to a watchmaker, to an apothecary, who sold soda water and honey as a remedy. They were dissuaded from being a cloth weaver, which was the main trade in the shtetl, both in number and in importance, in size and in security and who did not have anything to sell. The large rolls of goods that they manufactured were taken to Lodz on large wagons. Middle class women and their daughters created several items for their own use, or as gifts; they made sacred items, although the sacred considered them as sinful and they belittled and insulted them, saying: it is ritually unclean for an old man to touch a woman. At prayer in the hall of the synagogue into which no woman was supposed to enter, the old man said: for not making me a woman, which is thanks to God that one was not created as a woman yet she sewed bags for tefillin [phylacteries], bags for talisim [prayer shawls] and cloaks for the Torah scrolls.
Something also remained for commerce: goods that the shtetl did not produce itself: Havdalah [ceremony ending the Sabbath] spices, raisins and almonds, herring, sugar, kasha [buckwheat groats], millet, rice, chicory or sacred things such as talisim, tefillin, tsitsis [four corned garment with fringes worn by pious men], sedorim [prayer books], makhzorim [prayer book for the Days of Awe], or haberdashery and dry goods, needles, threads, buttons, combs, so that there was some retail and even intermediate trade, but very restricted, so it did not play the same role in the economic life of the shtetl as the great role played by the crafts, the productive work, whose concert of creation was always heard in the streets of the shtetl, except on the Sabbath and on holidays.
The chorale of the gemara [oral law] melody in the yeshiva that was located in the house of study on the main street of the shtetl, across from the new synagogue which stood almost completed, covered with a black tin roof, painted red with a high window and colored window panes and in which there already was prayer, also joined the concert of Jewish productive work in the shtetl, in which was heard the pain of slavery, the groan of weariness and dejection, of pain and suffering.
The yeshiva pushed its way into its own ghetto, in the old house of study, between the thick, grey old walls hung with spider webs, from which emanated an odor.
A mass of yeshiva students. Not one from the shtetl itself; all arrive from near and far and always remain strangers here. They are still young, but their faces are darkened, their foreheads wrinkled and they look much older than they are. Small hairs first begin to sprout on the older ones, on the chin, under the nose and on the jaws, from which hand curled peyos [side curls] that grow from under the creased, dirtied velvet hats that are never taken off, not day or night; not in sleep and not when awake, once-black kapotes [long coats] looking as if they have turned green hang on the body like a sack.
He [the yeshiva student] lives in the old house of study. The furniture of the yeshiva students' residence long, heavy tables covered with the wax drippings from the candles, with burned in old black stains, and long, hard benches worn out from sitting. He sleeps in the old house of study on the hard bench or on the floor and he eats teg [meals provided each day by residents of the shtetl]: one day a week with one head of a household in the shtetl and another day with a second head of a household. He must provide for the seven days of eating at seven heads of a household. And if he is left with one day not provided for he goes hungry for the day. No one is forced to give food for a teg. One does it of his own will; it is considered a mitzvah to maintain the soul of a yeshiva student, for his spending day and night studying the Torah, which to the simple Jew was considered to be serving God, that is, doing a sacred work that everyone is obliged to do, but which not everyone can.
The yeshiva thus was maintained in the old house of study with needs, without funds and without concerns about living. And the yeshiva students sat at the tables covered with tallow from dawn until into the night, day in and day out and wrinkled their brows and racked their brains over the yellowed and creased pages of the large gemaras and an anguished song was heard like a touchingly sincere cry from a group that longs for, that suffers, that tortures itself, that torments itself and that struggles and that cries in a chorus with a haunting melody and which resounds from the city's symphony of labor:
May ko mashme lon? What does this teach me?...
The yeshiva student only crawls out of the house of study to eat from the teg. He does not speak to anyone while eating; he does not look at anyone. He sits at the table and yet he is not there; where is he? What does he do in life? Does he go anywhere? What will be the purpose? Perhaps he will marry? Become a son-in-law oyf kest [financial support given while he studies Torah]. He will see the bride on the day of the wedding, after fasting, after the khuppah [wedding ceremony] Who will be his in-laws? His father-in-law? How long will he be oyf kest?... Belchatow is a shtetl of artisans. A local head of a household would rather have his daughter's husband with a ready trade; what will be his fate?...
The life of a child, of childhood, of the young how did it seem?
It is difficult, very difficult to remember something that almost never was. If the child was a girl, from behind the environment of her mother's apron she only heard, It is forbidden and she was frightened, held constantly in fear of a gentile, of a corpse, of a legendary monster and of God and she was frightened of all kinds of punishments. If it was a boy, that is, a little Jew, he had to endure the kheder during his childhood years.
The kheder this was the primitive residence of the melamed [religious primary school teacher], where hygiene had no entry and which was a prison for the child in which he was held from the morning until night. Thus, day after day, week after week, year after year, the melamed appeared before one's eyes in the form of a flogger.
The melamed took to the teaching profession because he did not have anything else, because he did not want to do something else; because he knew that this was a trade that he did not have to know, or because he wanted to be employed with a sacred thing, with prayer and he knew that all that was need was a pointer made of fish bone and mainly a small whip with thick leather straps that would cause pain when it slapped, and the melamed, who the children had to call rebbe, loved, had pleasure from whipping bare flesh.
They did not learn Yiddish, no Hebrew; they did not learn to write, to read, to do arithmetic; they did not learn any history, no geography, no natural science and God protected them from astronomy The kheder did not know of any education, and, besides the kheder, the Jewish child did not go anywhere. They crammed Hebrew with diacritic marks for pronunciation in the kheder. They learned the Holy language [the Hebrew of the Torah] which the rebbe often did not himself know. This was cramming words that they did not understand, just as the praying, the other prayers and the sections of the khumash [Torah] that they learned in the same way, in which the subject was not understood and because of which the child was transformed into a little Jew, languishing his childhood years in the kheder.
The shtetl did not know of childhood. A childhood did not have where, when and how to be expressed. The young ones (there was no such concept then) left for an apprenticeship during which his young years were blackened and he became embittered. In a few cases, the young boys continued their education with a gemara-melamed, but there is no childhood for the boy before and after his bar mitzvah in learning gemara, and when his father blesses him with the Borukh she-ptornai [Blessed be He who has freed me], he himself now has to carry on his back the 613 mitzvos [commandments].
There was no time for childhood sins. During the week, after 18-hour workdays, one fell down asleep, dead tired. On Shabbos and on holidays a considerable part of the day passed at meals at which there also was singing and the recitation of Psalms. Only during the several Shabbos afternoon hours, a small portion of the Jewish male young people, the so-called young weavers, young tailors, young blacksmiths and other such young people amused themselves at the open places around the shtetl in primitive, naïve play, or went to the surrounding meadows, into the forests, picked fruits in the orchard, or fought with the gentile boys.
The piety, the fanaticism and the entire ghetto-Jewish way of life, the [fact] that the poor only spoke jargon [derogatory description of Yiddish], were religious, did not subscribe to any culture there was no word and no concept of it [culture] in the Jewish shtetl at that time and [no culture] to write about here at this time.
There was no education in modernity, in the free, objective and worldly sense; there was no school and there was no sort of education. There dared not be; the religious way of life prohibited it. There was no literature and there was no press; there was no theater system, except at Purim and there were no concerts, except the playing by the klezmer [traditional Jewish musicians], who only played at weddings.
Yet Belchatow, as a Jewish working shtetl, as was the neighboring shtetele Grocholice, was not culturally backwards compared to the Jewish shtetl of Poland, but stood with a forward step facing the rise of a new Jewish life in a Poland of earlier times.
With the arrival of our century, the 20th, that our amiable Belchatow also did not escape, the Jewish shtetl removed its own ghetto, opened its windows to the world; stood up and joined in the new life that came with the revolutionary movement of the Jewish worker and intelligentsia in Poland, in step with the general movement for freedom.
Translated from the Yiddish by the late Morris Horowitz
Translation donated by Lisa Webne-Behrman
The Jews of Belchatow lived in peace with their non-Jewish neighbors, but it was not at the expense of unwarranted expediencies - like refraining from reacting against injustices, lest it displease their non-Jewish neighbors. The Belchatow Jews were proud Jews conscious of their rights and of their status of being first class citizens.
There are some events which are deeply impressed upon my memory and I wish to record several of them, especially those which show how the Jews of Belchatow stood up for their human dignity.
The story which I am about to tell I heard when I was yet a small child.
The Chief Officer of our town (equivalent to an American mayor) was replaced by a harsh Russian. This new officer was from Siberia. He clung relentlessly to the harshest interpretation of the municipal ordinances. He was very stubborn and all negotiations to divert him from issuing his strict edicts had failed. In order to show his authority this Siberian despot made life for the Jewish inhabitants of Belchatow extremely difficult. In their effort to free themselves from near bondage, the Jews of Belchatow had devised a resourceful idea in combating their dictator.
Once on a dark evening some strong hands got a hold of their oppressor, there was a sack over his head and dragged him down to a deep well which was near the mikvah, the Jewish ritual bath house. There they told him as follows: if you change your tactics and become more human, you will lack nothing among the Jewish people, you will have plenty of vodka, gifillte fish, chicken soup and chicken necks, but if you persist to remain as brutal as ever,
you will be thrown into this well and no one will ever know your whereabouts."
After this lesson this man became as soft as butter and Belchatow lived in peace.
In 1905 Belchatow was all shaken by the revolutionary spirit which prevailed in Russia at that time. Strikes street demonstrations and the display of red flags were common occurrences of the day. Jewish youngsters were prominent participants in the revolutionary movement. Carrying loaded guns they would shoot at government officials. The police were in mortal fear of these revolutionaries and instead of resisting them, they were hiding.
I distinctly remember one such revolutionary demonstration. I was then a child attending cheder. My teacher was Berish the Melamed. What I am about to tell happened several months past the holiday of Sukkoth, when the days are short and the nights are long. We used to Judy in cheder, by the light of small kerosene lamps. One day my regular teacher became sick and his substitute was his son, Elie, who had a self-inflicted chopped off tip of his right thumb. He did it in order to avoid service in the Russian army. Yet with this disfigured thumb he would nick us whenever we dared to look out of the window instead of looking into our books.
When on that day I came home for lunch from cheder, my brother Shmuel told me that a demonstration would take place in that same day. Shmuel was a member of the P. P. S. and he never moved any place without a loaded revolver.
It was evident that on that day I had not been at peace in cheder. I kept looking out of the window to see whether the demonstration had started. It was already pitch dark and the kerosene lamp was burning and spreading its dim light at the open books of the Talmud in which some of the students were absorbed. I found an alibi and asked to be excused from the rest of the students. All of a sudden I began to notice lights of lanterns approaching, it was indeed a demonstration, a sensuous and a quick one with flags draped in black. When I saw that, I hastily opened the door of the cheder and announced in great excitement, they are coming. My rabbi did not like my actions at all. On the following day I was severely punished and received a torrid slap on my face.
This is how Belchatow had taken part in the revolution. Belchatow was one of the cities high on the list of the insurrectionists and had, therefore, been singled out for suppression. From time to time the government would send into Belchatow about 15 selected Cossacks, who would roam the streets on their swift horses and with heavy clubs in their hands would beat up all suspicious people. This evil practice was especially executed on Friday evenings when young Jewish people would go out for walks.
I remember that on one Friday evening they arrived drunk and ordered all to raise their hands and they began to beat them brutally with their clubs. The streets were then quickly evacuated and people began to hide in their homes, locking the doors behind them and looking through the crevices of the closed shutters outside.
While this was happening a sixteen-year-old weaver was walking on the sidewalk erect and unafraid, facing the Cossacks. When the Cossacks saw the young man they began to scream wildly ordering him to raise his hands, but the teenager whose name was Moishe, did not mind them and kept on walking with his hands in his pockets. He cursed them and looked them straight in their eyes and exclaimed I am not going to raise my hands. The people who saw and heard this, while looking through the crevices of their shutters, were mortally afraid. What was going to happen to Moishe they wondered fearfully. But before the Cossacks were able to do anything to Moishe, he got mixed up with the crowd in the street and the Cossacks were not able to find him.
Yitzchak Uri, the son of Leibush, also a weaver was not that lucky. One day the Cossacks spotted him and ordered him to raise his hands, but he defied them and showed them his behind. The Cossacks caught him, they beat him up brutally and then they exiled him to Siberia.
However, this heroic and fearless resistance of the young weavers, instilled some heroics in the hearts of the rank and file who also began to rebel against their merciless task masters. It raised the morale of the people, the authority of the oppressors was downgraded and this is what had eventually happened:
During one night when the Cossacks had ostensibly slept in peace in Kasteletzkis' house - a group of fearless revolutionaries overpowered the guard on duty. Another group broke into the house and took away the uniforms of the sleeping Cossacks and also their arms. The young revolutionaries then got dressed in the cossack's clothes and ran away riding on their horses. When the Cossacks awakened they found themselves without clothes, horses or arms.
Belchatow had no river, unlike its neighboring town Sterzer, but close to Belchatow there is the village, Binkoff. There, there is a clean transparent lake. In this lake young people used to bathe and learn to swim. On Friday afternoon elderly Jews would come to the lake to bathe in honor of the Sabbath.
The gentiles of the village did not like it and had tried many times to chase us away from there. As a result, many battles ensued between the Jews and the gentiles. We received blows and we landed blows, but they were not able to chase us away.
New Way was one of the widest and most beautiful streets of Belchatow. It was surrounded by grass and trees. Summer evenings and on Sabbaths the young generation used to constantly walk on this street, girls separately and boys separately. One could, however, notice the exchange of winks and hear some suggestive words between the boys and girls. When it became dark the males and females began to mix with one another.
Many of the anti-Semitic Poles could not stand our well-being of those pleasant evenings. One day a group of chauvinistic Poles from a nearby village attacked the hikers of the New Way, some of them attacked with pointed knives. One young boy by the name of Meyer did not seem to be frightened. He faced one of the hooligans who threatened him with a knife, skillfully dispossessed him of the knife and stabbed him with his own knife, wounding him seriously,
A trial was held in Petrikoff and Meyer was exonerated. The court had ruled that Meyer acted in self-defense and was therefore freed. From that day on the hikes on New Way continued with much less intervention.
In the year 1911, Belchatow was captured by the Austrians. Prior to the entry of the Austrians, Belchatow was for awhile without a government. No harm was done to anyone, although there was no one to preserve order in the city.
However, this ideal situation did not last very long. Many idle goyim and drunks had felt that this was ---a good opportunity to plunder Jewish possessions. So they let out on such a course with the Chief of the Firemen at the head. His name was Nagurski. This citizen militia began to terrorize the Jewish Community in an effort to extort money from them. As time went on they became more intolerant. They arrested many Jews, they made their own laws, and they made it difficult for Jewish merchants to do business.
These gangsters grew more confident after their initial successes. The hooligans took the Jewish patience as a weakness. They became bolder with every passing day. Their motto was beat the Jews".
At first Jewish leaders tried to intercede. Among them were a few aged and respected Jews. They were Kalman Skarpes and Tzemach, the Rabbis of Belchatow. They were able to somewhat appease the rulers of the mob and cool their heated tempers.
Rabbi Tzemach was the son of the Rabbi of Walbish and he caused some conflicts in the city when he took over the mantle of the rabbinate. The Hassidim of Ger had it against him because he did not get married through a matchmaker, but got married through love, just like the goyim. They never forgave him for that. Rabbi Tzemach was a tall, well, and healthily built person with powerful shoulders. He got a hold of the chief of the mob and shook him up like a lulav. Although the mob was more numerous than the Jews congregated, they nevertheless began to withdraw while Rabbi Tzemach held onto their chief. One of the mob even began to beg the Rabbi to let the chief go, but the Rabbi held on to Mr. Nagurski, the chief, and continually rebuked him for the evil which he had been doing to innocent people.
On that very evening a meeting was held in the field near the river. The meeting consisted of mostly young people. They decided to make an end to the wicked rule of the self-proclaimed militia.
All vowed that they would not go home until all the arrested Jewswere freed from prison. Hence, a march toward the doors of the prison began when they approached the gate of the prison. They ordered the guard to open the doors, but he refused. However, among the group was the strong Shimon, the cake-baker. He took hold of the guard, lifted him up high and warned him either you open the doors or you will be thrown to the ground with your head down". The guard became immediately submissive, he opened the doors and all prisoners were freed.
Hence we lived up to our vow. The prisoners came home and the militia went out of existence.
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