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Memoirs and Notes

 

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Why Y.L. Peretz Did Not Deliver
his Lecture in Chelm, Shavous, 1912

(and other episodes and events of a long forgotten time)

by Shmuel Winer

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

A great cultural holiday was celebrated in all corners of the world, wherever a Jewish settlement is located. It was the 100th anniversary (1851-1951) of the birth in the Polish-Jewish city of Zamosc, of the father of modern Jewish literature. For all of those, whose cradles stood in Poland, this name has a special significance. Yitzhak Leibush Peretz, the great writer, humorist, passionate fighter for social and national justice, for a new free man, personified the very finest and best in historical Polish Jewry. Peretz represented the most mature fruit of the Jewish cultural collection in Poland over the course of generations and generations before its tragic death. The name of Yitzhak Leibush Peretz will shine the clearest on the collective headstone of the annihilated Polish Jewry.

(Photo, caption: Shmuel Winer)

Therefore, now at this opportunity, it is the most appropriate moment to reveal an unknown episode in Peretz's life of forty years ago, in 1912, three years before his premature death. An episode to which both Chelm and I are connected. An episode that could have led him into deep trouble during the difficult times of Czarist despotism.

After the revolutionary spurt in 1905-1906, there came years of strong reaction, which suffocated and choked. The struggle against Czarism was strongly weakened; its pulse could barely be felt. However around 1910 a revival began again. The revolutionary parties began to rise tekhayis hameisim [be resurrected from the dead]. There was also movement among the Jewish illegal workers parties.

It was winter 1911-1912. A cluster remained of the former large S.S. [Zionist Socialists] organization in Warsaw. The helm of the workers movement that the intelligentsia had left in the difficult years of the reaction was taken over by the workers themselves. A generation of intelligent workers grew up during the years of the revolution. They sacrificed, were often arrested and

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it happened that they suffered years in the difficult conditions in the CZarist jails and in exile in the most distant, coldest corners of Siberia.

The sadder the surrounding reality, the stronger they huddled together, the warmer, more sincere was their friendship.

One of the heaviest cares then among those who were free, was: how do we obtain sufficient means to be able to take care of the most minimal needs of the comrades in jail and in exile. I, too, an active member of the S.S, did not stop thinking about this matter. I then hatched a daring plan in my head that, if realized, could bring in a significant sum for us. After I thought about all of the details I confided the plan to the two experienced communal workers in the organization, my closest comrades and friends, the two young intelligent workers, Mordekhai Birman and Avrahamel Kosman. In short the plan consisted of this: I would go to Peretz and invite him to Chelm for one or two readings. And if he agreed, the income that would remain from Peretz's appearance would be a great help in relieving the needs of the arrestees and exiled comrades. After long deliberation, weighing and measuring the arguments for and against the bold plan, we saw no other way out and I was wished luck in my mission. Naturally, it was agreed that the entire thing would remain a deep secret between a few people. No further peep.

A few days before Passover (1912) on a gloomy, rainy day, I found myself at the famous house in Warsaw, Ceglana 1. I went up to the first floor; I looked at the brass sign on Peretz's door with the Hebrew lettering indicating when he received guests. I saw that I had come at the correct time. I stood at his door and wanted to ring. However, I became paralyzed with fear and lost my courage. True, since I had been in Warsaw (autumn 1907), I had almost not missed one of his appearances, unless I had been arrested. I also was one of the exalted young men who would every Shabbos [Sabbath] in summertime sit on a bench on Igalkowa Aleje in Saxon Gardens and wait for when Peretz would stroll by with one or more of the young writers – Peretz Hirshben, Menacham and others. With his characteristic Peretz smile, he would greet us all on each side and we were in seventh heaven. However, here was something else, here I needed to meet the great master by myself face to face – and one needed to know how to speak to Peretz.

Standing and thinking at Peretz's door also had a limit; finally I took courage; what would be would be;

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and I strongly rang with great excitement – and fright at the same time.

It did not take the blink of an eye and, to my great astonishment, Peretz stood at the open door. He himself had opened the door for me. This again confused me. I did not expect Peretz would open the door himself. He invited me to come inside and excused himself that he could not take me into his office. Erev Pesakh [on the eve of Passover] they were cleaning and they were washing the room; he had nowhere to go. There being no other choice, we had to remain in the antechamber. He was wearing his brown velvet jacket, looked gloomy like the weather outside. I, too, became depressed and I thought: I came at the wrong time! I would have run away if I could. Peretz did not let me think for long and asked in a very friendly way what was my desire.

Meanwhile, my equilibrium returned and in a few words I told him that I had come to invite him to Chelm for either one or two evenings. I hoped that he would not refuse. We were sort of neighbors. How far was Zamosc from Chelm? And both cities – in Lublin Gubernja [province] and Chelm was not strange to him and here was the proof: His Chelemer Melamed [Chelm Teacher], his Shabbos Goy [Sabbath Gentile], his Iber a Shmek Tabak [A Pinch of Snuff].

Speaking to him in this way, I noticed how his face became clear, his eyes lightened with that particular Peretz look. I began to see that he was simply waiting for me, for my invitation. True, Peretz was not then yearning for an appearance. He had then reached his high point. It was after his triumphant trip through the great Jewish centers. The three Peretz-days several weeks earlier in the Jerusalem of Lithuania, in Vilna (in February) had been transformed into a great people's holiday and into a powerful demonstration for Yiddish literature, such as Vilna had never seen.

When I was finished, he smiled that, in fact, he would be interested in making a quick trip to Chelm and

(Photo, caption: A picture of the S.S. committee in 1906. Top row, standing from right to left: Shmuel Winer, Bishka Mandlbaum, Fayga Wilder and Yair Mandlbaum.
Second row, sitting from right to left: Josl Cymerman, Chana Wilder, Leibush Malier. In the very front of the first row – Yankl Birnbaum.
Of the entire group, two are alive today – Shmuel Winer and his wife, Chana Wilder. They have been in New York since December 1912.)

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he was happy at the opportunity. Why did he seize this; he did not tell me and understand that I did not ask him. Who knows? Perhaps it was because it was Chelm – the most famous and well-known Jewish city in the world?

After a minute or two of thinking it over, Peretz told me that he had the date for his appearance in Chelm. He was free of his duties in the community on Shavous [spring holiday celebrating the “Giving of the Torah”]; therefore, he could be in Chelm for Shavous.

With the date decided, I told Peretz that I was going home to Chelm for Passover and I would immediately start the preparations there for his appearance. Meanwhile, I asked him to prepare a Russian synopsis of his reading in order to receive permission for the lecture; the regime had to be provided with a synopsis with the exact contents of the lecture in Russian. I promised him I would be back in Warsaw right after Passover and would conclude all of the other matters in reference to his appearance. Peretz did not say one word about money.

I said goodbye to Peretz and left his residence. I breathed more freely. I felt fortunate and inspired by the warm reception I had received from Peretz and that my mission so far had been crowned with success. Yes, now we would be able to help the comrades in need and, yes through me, my Chelm would have the privilege of welcoming Peretz – to see and hear the great master.

I immediately gave a report of my visit with Peretz to my closest comrades, Mordekhai and Avrahamel. It is superfluous to say that they were happy about my first success with Peretz. However, the work first began.

I parted with my comrades; on erev Pesakh [on the eve of Passover] I went home to my parents and I entered Chelm at night just before the Seder.

In the morning, on the first day of Passover, I began to take my bearings, to arrange a plan about how to start the work. I met with a few old comrades and told them that we would need to immediately begin to prepare for Peretz's appearance in Chelm. They naturally were very surprised by the news. I said that we would need to prepare such an impressive welcome for Peretz that he would remember it, to show him what Chelm could do and, also, so that Chelm would never forget it. Now imagine the stir that this would create in the city as soon as the great news became public. However, until then, we had to be quiet (two of those comrades are now in America: B. Binsztok in New York and Kh. Zemelman in Los Angeles).

First came the thought about getting the appropriate hall. We had to have the largest hall in the city. This would have to be no other than the Syreny Cinema on Lubliner Street. It was resolved that this was the only hall that would be able to best serve our purpose … A day or two later I met with the owner of Syreny. He agreed to yield the hall to us for Motzei Shabbos [the conclusion of the Sabbath] Sukkous for this elevated opportunity and we began to prepare a solemn appeal to the city in honor of this extraordinary event.

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Meanwhile, I wrote a letter to Warsaw in order to inform my comrades how I was progressing with the preparations, several lines, naturally in a disguised manner, so that no one else would guess. Peretz's name was not mentioned. I wrote the few words to the address of Moshe Sztywelman, also from Chelm, who shared my room with me in Warsaw. I signed the letter with the initial Sh.

* * *

The years of strum un drang [storm and stress] of the Russian revolution (1905-1906) awoke the wide masses among us in Chelm to a new life as in all of the other cities and shtetlekh [towns]. We had struggled with all of our strength since the Middle Ages in which Chelm, as most cities and shtetlekh in Poland was still deeply seated. The short struggle for freedom brought out a new type of young worker. This new restless generation no longer wanted to and could not return to their earlier indifferent and boring lives. With their first steps, the Jewish workers parties awoke an interest in culture among the workers, a thirst to know, planted the habit of reading in them. Taught them to look at a book with respect. This, which the Enlightenment did for the middle-class children, was done for working masses by the Jewish workers parties beginning in the present century (20th century). A true cultural revolution occurred among them.

The reality in that pitch dark time was sorrowful. Poverty and need. The prospect of a better tomorrow was muddled. The reaction raged. True, the waves of bloody pogroms in the Jewish cities and shtetlekh were declining – pogroms in which bloody Czarism wanted to bury the revolutionary movement in Jewish blood. However, the cold pogrom did not end for a minute. Oppressive edicts that embittered our lives even more dropped on our heads every day without end. It became more difficult for the Jewish people to breathe. The hatred of the oppressed was without limit. However, we did not give up and we hoped for better times, which must finally come.

Meanwhile, we devoted ourselves with fervor to the Yiddish book, to self-education. We diligently read the modern Yiddish literature that blossomed then so beautifully. It brought the holiday spirit to the grey realities and beautified life a little. The reverence for the creations of the Yiddish word, particularly for Peretz, who was already a legend, was implicit. The fervid wish among everyone was to see Peretz themselves.

We could barely conceal what Peretz' appearance would have meant then for Chelm!

However, how does the folk saying go: “Man thinks [plans] and God laughs.” And the blow that soon had to fall did not wait for long.

During Khol Kamoed Pesakh [the intervening days of Passover], I received a telegram from Warsaw with, I thought, an entirely innocent content: “My mother has become ill; I await a letter with more details.” It meant in the disguised language of that time: an

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arrest had taken place and I should not move from my place until I received a letter. And finally, the dream was gone of Peretz in Chelm. And the troubles began to spread. A Chelm girl, Bayla Wilder, a distinguished activist with the S.S., had sent the telegram from Warsaw.

There could no longer be any talk about preparing an appearance by Peretz. Now I had to wait for a letter; the letter did not keep us waiting for long. Several days later, I received the much awaited letter and it turned out that it was a great deal worse than I could imagine.

To make it short, this is precisely what happened. There was a meeting Khol Kamoed Pesakh of the leading workers at the Warsaw S.S. in order to put together a 1st of May proclamation. Naturally, everything was done secretly – highly conspiratorially, as it was then called. Yet the Okhrana (the Czarist political secret police was named the Okhrana) invaded the meeting and arrested everyone. The mystery of how the Okhrana knew about and invaded the meeting – was revealed in 1917. (After the revolution, when the archive of the Okhrana was opened and the names of all of the provocateurs, bought souls were released, among them was the name of the provocateur, Dovid Landa, an active S.S. worker, who had betrayed that meeting.) The earlier mentioned Moshe Sztywelman, to whom I had sent the note about the preparations for Peretz's appearance in Chelm, had the accidental misfortune to “go astray”; I say “go astray” because he was not supposed to be there. He was not called to that meeting. They did not want to send him away; he was one of them. So he was arrested there with everyone else. And here the misfortune started.

Moshe Sztywelman, as mentioned earlier, was a Chelemer. He came from the deepest poverty; he was orphaned early. At first, he was in Warsaw for a total of about a year or maybe a little more. He worked at his trade – carpentry – quite passably and lived well. We divided a room at Marjagska 8. He was an uncomplicated, honest comrade and a devoted friend, quiet and withdrawn. He was satisfied and felt elevated by the warm, friendly environment in which he now lived and he appreciated it. He now first began to savor life. It was a bit of redress for his bitter childhood and years of his youth. Yet, at times he fell into a paralyzing melancholy from which he tried to free himself, but with little success. He was approximately the same age as I.

In short, my above-mentioned comrades, Mordekhai Birman and Avrahaml Kosman, were among the arrested. A day or two after the arrest, Bayla Wilder already had an appointment with Mordekhai Birman at Pawiak [Warsaw prison] at his request. He was a handsomer type of young worker, full of energy, with a clear head on his shoulders and a strong and warm heart. He could scarcely wait for her. There was great trouble. At the investigation at the Okhrana, Moshe Sztywelman could not bear the great pressure and revealed

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who the Sh. was that had signed my letter that had been found with him. Mordekhai told her that I should be informed immediately and forthwith that the Okhrana knew that I was in Chelm and what I was now doing there. Several days later, when Bayla Wilder was again at Pawiak for an appointment with Mordekhai Birman, Moshe Sztywelman had a visitor, his brother, just at the same time. She almost did not recognize Moshe Sztywelman at her first look at him through the bars that divided the arrestees from the visitors. He was no longer the same as he was several days earlier before his arrest. [He was] disheveled with a wild, confused look in his eyes. He noticed her and the idea came to him slowly to cleanse himself. He called her over. He had to talk to her. With a sad, guilty smile and choppy phrases, full of regret, he quickly began to explain: When they found my letter with him at the Okhrana, they forced him to say who Sh. was who had signed the letter and where I was now. The Okhrana now knew everything. I should be warned in time; I should know what I had to do.

Little by little we learned more details about this sad case.

During the arrest, on that fatal night, Moshe Sztywelman immediately fell into a panic. Yet he did not have to be there. How, with his own free will had he crawled into fire?

Immediately after his arrest, at the investigation by the Okhrana, he was completely stupefied by charcoal fumes. They hammered at him that he should reveal who was the Sh. was who had signed the letter that had been found on him and where he was now. They turned their “tested” means on him. They tried with anger and with good, with false, cunning spiteful remarks. He could no longer bear the inquisition and capitulated. As if in a trance, he told who Sh. was and where he was, what he was doing there.

Woe to he who did not possess the spiritual and moral strength to be able to look the enemy right in the eyes. However, most were like the earlier mentioned Mordekhai Birman and Avrahaml Kosman. They grew up when they fell into the paws of the enemy. In jail, they worked to catch up with the education that they had not had the opportunity to pursue when they were free. They showed such courage and human self-worth both during the trial and after the trial that they evoked respect even from the enemy. (Now in America, I carry out a correspondence with them. My letters are smuggled to them in Pawiak and their letters are smuggled out and sent to me in New York.

(Photo, caption: Moshe Sztywelman)

Their letters to me in which they describe very interestingly the then difficult life of the political

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arrestees in the Czarist jails, were published by Dr. Chaim Zhitlowski in his monthly journal, Dos Naye Lebn [The New Life] in the issue of March 1914 with an introduction and explanations by Moshe Katz, the respected publicist and literary critic.

Alas, our fellow townsman, Moshe Sztywelman, was not kneaded from that same dough. Immediately at his first face-to-face meeting with the enemy, he lost his physical strength and he gave in.

After the “interrogation” by the Okhrana, he was led, side by side with the other arrestees, up into the Pawiak and they were placed in one room. There in the jail room, he sobered up from the charcoal fumes; his mind began to clear; he saw for the first time with complete clarity what he had done! To so betray his dearest comrades and friends! But there was no longer a way back – it already was too late! He wrestled with himself and desperately looked for a refuge somewhere – and he did not find it. He could not endure it any longer and broke under the heavy burden, which was unbearable for him. Thus, not seeing any other way out, in order to save himself from the hellish suffering, in order to escape from the unbearable reality, he was seized little by little by darkness, until it reached so far that he became wild and in the middle of the night he even attacked his closest comrades, Mordekhai and Avrahaml, with whom he was in the same cell and he began to choke them. Once, and then again. Despite the fact that they covered themselves and blocked everything. They were afraid that removing him from their cell would be worse. The watched him as if he were a helpless child and helped him in any way they could. They sympathized with him in his catastrophe and suffered with him in his great misfortune.

The end was tragic. Little by little, little by little, his reason completely left him. He was taken from Pawiak to an institution. He was brought to his trial, a scant two years later (December 1913), but there no longer was someone to judge. While my closest comrades, Mordekhai and Avrahaml and others, were sentenced to eternal exile in Siberia and others in the group to various prison terms, Moshe Sztywelman was sent to a state institution in Warsaw for the deranged.

He did not regain his sanity before his quick, premature death at the young age of twenty-plus years. Six weeks after the trial in the middle of the summer of 1914, on the eve of the First World War, he breathed out his last breath. He had yet to begin to live and clung fast to life. And under normal humane circumstances he would have been able to live out his given years. Let us here mention our unfortunate townsman, Moshe Sztywelman, upon whom fell the dark fate to be one of the thousands of innocent victims of Czarist despotism.

* * *

We return to Chelm.

As already said earlier, all the preparations for

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Peretz's appearance ceased and all traces disappeared, as if there had been nothing. Naturally, I did not return to Warsaw. And I began to prepare for the inevitable visit by the Warsaw Okhrana.

I was certain that I would not get off so easily now. I was branded by them. I was in their hands twice during the last two years. In the middle of March, 1910, 10 to 12 of us Chelm young men and girls in Warsaw came together on a Shabbos night to spend a joyous evening in honor of Purim. Agents of the Okhrana and the police already were concealed in the room from before and when someone opened the door and stuck in his head, he immediately fell into their ready hands – no none came out of there alone. The entire thing was a mystery to us. First we were dropped into real trouble at the “hearing” (investigation) at the Okhrana; then we were scattered for more than four month in the worst jails. It was crowded and packed in the jails, so we suffered for most of the time, in the wet, cold holes in one of the forts – in the Aleksejewski fort – in the Warsaw fortress. Not having any evidence with which to bring us to trial, we were sent out of Poland for six months. We were taken away to Kowle with “pageantry” in a procession of convicts. (Chana Wilder also was among those prisoners – she was later my wife. Still alive from that group also are: Hillel Szmaragd, in Paris; Ester Wilder in Paris and, I think, Rayzl Luksenberg in Canada).

When we returned to Warsaw six months later, the mystery of our ambush on was solved. A certain young man from Berdichev wanted to have an “easy income” – all kinds of reptiles swarm in a swamp – he became a denouncer for the Okhrana, a bought soul. He gave into their hands the Jewish young people – right and left. He did not know us – I did not know him; by chance, he was a frequent visitor in that house where we were supposed to come together and he learned that we would come together there on Shabbos night and that was enough for him. Not knowing any of us, he threw us all together in one pot and “designated” us as anarchists. Why anarchists? They [the Okhrana] paid the highest price for anarchists. He was paid per head. The truth was that more than half of us were not connected with any illegal revolutionary movement. This was a person of that type, from which was recruited years later, in the days of Hitler, may his name and memory be blotted out, the greatest human-dregs, the shame of the Jewish people – the accursed kapo [a concentration camp prisoner recruited as a supervisor of forced labor]. (A few dozen years ago, I heard that this debased denouncer lives very calmly in New York.)

I was taken the second time in 1911. It was on a Shabbos day, in the middle of May when the Okhrana attacked the general meeting of the Jewish Literary Society in Warsaw. The Okhrana “sifted out” around 30 people from among the several hundred assembled and gave me the honor to be counted as one of them. And

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again the well known investigation and again jail. However, the extent to which the Czarist regime had considerably decayed can be demonstrated by this characteristic fact. Among the arrestees was an engineer Heler, a Bundist, the chairman of that meeting. He came from a rich family in Riga. His father came to Warsaw and bribed none other than Rachmaninov himself, the great inquisitor of the Okhrana, with a considerably large fortune. He freed several other arrestees along with engineer Heler so as not evoke any suspicion toward him. It fell upon me to be one of the lucky ones. This time I had languished for several months.

The main thing, is it not remarkable that I was not now very eager to meet them again? However, they did not let me wait long.

It was a day or two after Passover. A mild spring day. My father had just left me alone in the middle of the day to give attention to his iron business (in Leibele Kupersztok's courtyard entrance on Lubliner Street). I noticed how the gendarme with the beard – he was call “the beard” because of the long respectable beard he wore – was prowling, smelling and sniffing around the shop. He even stuck his beard in the shop – this because he apparently was making sure that this was really me. This gendarme with the middle class beard and with his leisurely gait always walked among Jews. He knew everyone – large and small – knew where everyone lived and everyone knew him. His religious worship was to sniff out if it was necessary to bring one in. Meanwhile, before anything [happened], my little sister, Bluma, who was with me in the shop, disappeared from sight. She ran home to warn our parents. As young as she was, not yet a full six years old, she knew what this meant. We lived in Avraham Gecele's house at Seminarska Street across from the Belzer shtibl [one-room synagogue]. At the same time my mother learned that “the beard” had been to the house owner today ostensibly to record the names of all of the residents in the house and exactly where everyone lived.

At night it already was very dark; I went home through Lubliner Street. I recognized several Warsaw Okhranakes [members of Okhrana] strolling so pleasantly. In short, all signs showed that it would happen today, at night. There could no longer be any doubt.

Coming home I found my family very worried. I even tried to calm my parents, but naturally it was useless. After eating in a heavy mood I left our home, leaving everyone in distressed expectation on the strange night watch that was before them. I strode away with quick steps to my hiding place.

A long, sleepless night; barely lived to see morning come. It did not take long and my father sneaked into my hiding place. He told me that he had looked very carefully the entire way to see if they were following him. One look at his very pale tortured face immediately

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gave witness to the inquisition that he had endured that night. Without further delays he started to relate:

That night we did not close our eyes. With quivering hearts, we awaited the 'uninvited guests.' The time draws out as if from resin. And it was night – when their custom was to drag the [people] out of their beds in the middle of the night – it already was one in the morning. They knocked on the door and it began. The key inside fell out of the lock from the banging on the door. With dread my father searched for the key. They began to rage on the other side of the door with oaths and vehement curses and threats that they would immediately break the door. My father finally found the key and unlocked the door. An entire gang burst in with an uproar with the gendarme with the beard as their guide. They also had a large bloodhound with them. After they asked my father if he was Hersh Leib Winer, the father of Shmuel Winer and also my mother if she was Sheva Winer, they went to “work.” Under the leadership of the “beard” they immediately went to the beds – the first was my brother Pinkhas' bed. With his first look, the “beard” saw his “disaster” and with an almost crying voice he groaned to the caught one “Etonya tot” (It is not him). They also went to the beds of my sisters, Gisha and Bluma, looked for me under their beds. (My brother Pinkhas and both sisters, Gisha and Bluma, are in New York today.) They also asked about my brother, Benyamin, who was then in Yekatrinoslav [Dnipropetrovsk]. Then they turned to my father – he should immediately say where I was hiding. He told them that I was in Warsaw. What do you mean, Warsaw? – They tapped with their feet – you such and such. Had we not seem him today with our own eyes? They again started to curse and to threaten him; he must immediately tell them where I was hiding. Despite their threats, my father stood fast: I was always home for Passover and, as always, immediately after Passover, I returned to Warsaw. They all had a fit of rage – they had the net ready, everything had gone as if oiled and here the fish had slid out from under their hands, he was gone.

They did not spare my mother. She also was terrorized.

They now went to “work” with fury. They looked, rummaged in all of the corners of the house. They looked for me, the “sages,” under my mother's bed. A few went into the courtyard, they forced open the rooms and they searched for me there, too. A police guard even stood around the house – no one came in and no one went out. The “work” in the house continued. They looked for trayf [non-kosher, in other words, illegal] literature, proclamations. They scattered; they struck everything that was in the house. They looked through my father's religious books; they looked through the pages of the High Holy Day prayer books, the Five Books of Moses, until they came to my mother's woman's prayer book and there they finally discovered the right “subversive literature.” They pulled out a prayer – one page that lay in my mother's prayer book, printed on both sides. With a look full of triumph, they began to wave the prayer right in my father's face: “What is this? You should answer immediately.” Sensing that a misfortune was moving on him, he began to move backwards and answered them shaking that this was a molitve [Russian – prayer], (a Tkhine [Yiddish book of prayers for women]) belonging to my mother.

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Well, he did not need anything more. They started to roar with blood-curdling curses: “You rogue, such nerve – to deceive us before our eyes! Are we blind? Do we not see that it is a Zydowska [Jewish – a pejorative word] proclamation!” And the scoundrels threw themselves on him and they began to beat him with a hail of fists. (My father was a weak man and he began to suffer with heart problems after this brutality and the terror and pain. Little by little, he constantly lay sick until the last day of his life, 15 Tevet [3 January] 1923.

Ten of my notebooks from the Hebrew journal Reshafim (Sparks) were in our house. Several of the notebooks had colored covers of thick paper. The notebooks were in a small parchment pocket. They began to choose several notebooks with great joy – now they had the right goods. Why only these few? Because they had red covers! It is enough to say that the editor of Reshafim was none other than Dovid Friszman and the journal was published in Warsaw with the permission, naturally, of the Czarist censor.

But this still was not everything. When they finally were finished with the search, they swarmed to cut to pieces everything that fell into their hands – then they used their last trump card. They attacked my brother, Pinkhas, told him to get dressed and go with them. True, they did not really mean him – but as I was not here, they took him as a hostage. It should be understood that with this they had in mind to break the stubbornness of my parents. They were not completely stupid. After everything, they had no doubt that my parents knew of my hiding place. However, my parents also resisted the psychological attack on their nerves. Shooting their last bullet, they finally ended the inquisition and left, actually taking my brother with them. They did not forget to take my mother's Tkhine, the Reshafim notebooks and more with them

One can imagine the situation in which my parents and sisters found themselves. (After a day or two, realizing that their strategy was a failure, the Okhrana had no other choice than to free my brother.)

In short, for the present, I came out the victor in the first uneven contest between me and the Czarist gendarmes, police and agents dressed in civilian clothes. However, now what? This question stood before me in its true intensity. With the particular stubbornness with which they had chased after me, I realized that I was playing with fire. It is certain that my letter, which they had found with Moshe Sztywelman about Peretz' appearance in Chelm was to blame and they sharpened their teeth for Peretz himself. True, Peretz' name was not directly mentioned in my letter – however, they now knew who and what, after the disclosures by Moshe Sztywelman. Only with this, I think, can the more than usual perseverance with which they chased after me, the only one directly implicated in the matter, be explained. My arrested comrades in Warsaw, too – with whom I stayed in contact, in secret, naturally – warned me that my name also figured in the case that was being prepared against the Warsaw S.S. [Zionist Socialist] organization.

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They kept urging me to leave the country, quickly, to not give the Okhrana the opportunity to catch me. Their devotion was truly touching, how they took my fate to their hearts – more than their own difficult situation.

However, it was not as easy to do as to say it. In addition, the thought of emigrating then pressed on my spirit as it meant saying goodbye to those closest and dearest for eternity – never seeing them again. But, since the corrupt Czarist, despotic regime was considerably decayed, we could calculate that in five years this giant on clay feet would lay on the garbage heap of history.

In short, time does not stand still. Through the window of my hiding place I often saw the gendarme with the beard prowling on the opposite sidewalk. He was lying in wait for me at the entrance to Chana Wilder's house. He divided his time between my home and her home. It already was almost after the summer and it appeared that the gendarme with the beard was beginning to get tired. I began to earnestly prepare to leave. However, sneaking across the border was too risky. Often [people] were caught and sent home under escort. At the advice of Goldfeld, a Chelemer ship-ticket agent, we would travel on the Russian ship-line from Libave[1] [Liepeja, Latvia] for 25 rubles. No matter what legal peril, the governor's office issued a passport for traveling abroad. This Russian ship line helped with this, so they also could profit from the great storm of Jewish emigration that made the German and English ship companies rich.

The beginning of November. A dark sof khoydesh [end of the Hebrew calendar month], a very cloudy sky – the wind outside cried cold tears – and I quietly sneaked into the house of Chana Wilder. Here, a quiet wedding would take place, without klezmer [musicians]. We would be led to the khupah [wedding canopy]. In addition to our parents, there were only a few guests from the closest family at the secret wedding. The entire scene, near the thickly covered windows, muffled lights, worried faces and quiet whispering – looked more like a Marrano Kol Nidre scene, gathered in a deep cellar at the time of the Spanish Inquisition[2] – than like a wedding. Incidentally, this was a double “celebration” – both, so to say, a wedding and a farewell for our departure for America. Naturally, there was no lack of tears at the “celebration” – everyone separately thinking – would we see each other again?

A day or two later we were both, my wife and I, on the way to Libave – the harbor of our hopes. We arrived there after around 30 hours without any pitfalls on the way. The paper in my pocket that I had taken out a few days earlier at the [provincial office] in Lublin – the small piece of paper, which qualified us to receive a passport in Libave, warmed me. It turned out that there, in Libave, I was not an only son. [There were] other passengers, such I, also Jewish runaway soldiers.

[Page 402]

A day before embarking on the ship. The passengers assembled in a giant room, chinovnikes [Russian functionaries] sat behind small windows and gave out passports. It was the turn of my row, I presented my paper and 25 rubles and – there was a calamity: The chinovnik found a blemish in my paper and – and nothing helped – I did not receive our passports and we could not sail with our ship.

This blow, however heavy it was lowered on us, did not leave us despondent. Now that we had come so far, we must not panic. The next morning I already was sitting on the train which carried me speedily back to Lublin. Chana, my wife, remained waiting in Libave. Having traveled about three quarters of the way, everything had gone smoothly. It was evening; the train stopped at the Malkin station, not far from Bialystok and – a rush, turmoil, gendarmes, militiamen, a commotion. Just then, no other than Czar Nikolai the last, himself, had a whim to be there with his general retinue and government officials. He was, just then, present at large scale military maneuvers in that area. Multitudes of gendarmes entered into the turmoil in the wagons and they carried out searches and they led out everyone – no matter whom. And again, a lucky accident – there is a lot to tell – and I exited unscathed. After the train had been held for many hours, it finally moved. I finally arrived in Lublin peacefully the next morning. I received the correct paper from there – for a ruble naturally – and I traveled to Chelm. I again said farewell to my home, again tears. I immediately went back to Libave peacefully.

Now there were no more difficulties. We received the well-guarded passport and a few days later we were on the ship. The irony of the story was this, that our ship, which withdrew farther from the shores of the “Land of Blood,” as Jews then referred to Czarist Russia, and began to cut the waves of the sea on its way to America, - this ship that now saved a few people from the Czarist jail and persecutions, - that the ship itself carried the name “Czar.”

Our trip took 13 days. There were no great storms. On the 14th day, on the 8th of December 1912, the “Czar” landed in New York Harbor. As fast as we left the Russian ship and set foot on the hard New York ground, we finally, for the first time in a long time, breathed freely.

* * *

I returned to Chelm nine years later and naturally, in addition to the great experience of seeing my parents and family again, there also was the happy satisfaction over the bad end that had ensnared all of the Czarist satraps, hangmen and executioners who so embittered our lives in Russian during the revolution. A justly earned end – keyn yovdu [may they all come to the same end – said upon learning of the misfortune of an enemy]!

The last drops of joy seeped out quickly upon seeing the practical result for us of the newly resurrected from the dead

[Page 403]

Poland. When one compares the earlier Czarist pogrom regime with the present bitter anti-Semitic Polish regime, one can only say: if not yet worse. They even go as far on the road as Hitler with their concentration camp in Kartuz Bereza [detention camp for opponents of the Polish regime], where the best sons of Poland are tortured with such savagery that a number are tortured to death. They have the qualities for pogroms against the Jews. Jewish blood again runs like water: in Pinsk, Vilna, Przytyk, Brisk and others. Jews are thrown out of moving trains, Jewish beards are torn out by the skin and there are other persecutions and harassments. Anti-Semitism and boycotts are the official policy of the Polish feudal regime. They tear the last bit of bread from the mouth. The tax policy completely impoverishes us. We are very visible to them – too many Jews in Poland – Zydzi do Paestyny [Jews to Palestine] – is the official state slogan. And this after over 800 years of living on Polish soil, deeply woven into the history, into the economic, social, cultural and political fabric of the nation.

Here is a characteristic incident from that time. In the middle of the day, my father came running home, very agitated, pale and simply falling to pieces. We had to put him to bed immediately. What happened? He was friendly with a Pole with whom he would carry on trade. They would go to each other's homes. That day my father was supposed to be with the Pole, but before he crossed the threshold, the Pole grabbed him with great rage, took a hunting rifle down from the wall and aimed at him, raising a cry that he [my father] should leave his house immediately or he would immediately shoot him on the spot. My father barely escaped with his life. A few hours later, the Pole came running to us and, with tears in his eyes, begged my father to forgive him. He told him that just when my father came in to him, a representative from Warsaw, who had been specially sent to strengthen the boycott movement against the Jews in Chelm, was sitting there. He said he had been denounced because he trades with Jews. In order to save his life, he had to take the extreme step – play the tragic-comedy.

I arrived in Chelm at daybreak, as I said, erev Sukkus [on the eve of the Feast of Tabernacles], 1921. By night I already had given out to around 50 Chelemer families the few thousand dollars that their relatives and families in America had given to me for their sake. “Relief” in New York, in which I was active, had sent a good sum with me for the institutions in Chelm – for Linas-haTzedek [society providing a place for the needy to sleep], moyshav-skayneym [old age home], Talmud Torah [religious elementary school for poor boys], Peretz Library and others.

This time, coming back to New York, I say goodbye to my father forever. After my father's death (15 Tevet [3 January], 1923), we, my brother and sisters, brought our mother to New York. She lived out her last years with us (she died on 20 Cheshvan [14 November], 1939).

* * *

Forty years have passed since that strange spring, 1912. Could it occur to us that

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my forced emigration carried such terrible far reaching consequences – and not only for me? The very richest (or wildest) fantasy could not have suspected it!

It was in that period of sturm und drang [turmoil], at the beginning of this century (the 20th). The young in Chelm – as in other cities and shtetlekh – tore away from the narrow homes into the larger world – for us it really meant, to Warsaw. There was for these young people then an unwritten law, an inviolable law that whatever happened, all must return dressed up to the home nest on Passover for the Seder [ritual meal describing the Exodus from Egypt], loaded with the newest literary publications. It had to be that for certain reasons, Bayla Wilder (my wife's sister) did not come home on that Passover and, therefore, as mentioned earlier, could immediately inform me about that fateful arrest in Warsaw (Bayla Wilder and her husband, B. Binsztok, are today in New

(Photo, caption: Hersh Leib and Sheva Winer – parents of Shimeon[3] Winer

York). Understandably, if not for this lucky chance, I, today, probably would not be writing these lines. How only thanks to this chance, not only were my bones saved, as well as the body and souls of my wife, Chana, daughter, Ruth, and son, Milton (Mendl), from Hitler's crematoria and gas chamber, and another few dozen Jewish souls and their future generations avoided the tragic fate of our unfortunate six million sisters and brothers in the Hitlerist death factories.

* * *

To this day, after so many years, when the melancholy coincidence of my inviting Peretz to Chelm 40 years ago reaches my imagination – I become puzzled by the great mystery as to why the Okhrana would have undertook such an expensive

[Page 405]

mouthful. After everything, Peretz was “stamped” by them for a long time. It is certain that they kept an eye on him from 1899, when he was imprisoned for three months in the Warsaw Citadel, after he was arrested at an illegal workers' gathering.

It is now difficult to say conclusively if Peretz knew that his appearance in Chelm would also by used to create aid for the political arrestees – a heavy crime in the eyes of the Czarist regime. While I arranged with Peretz to come to Chelm, I did not say it to him directly and he also did not ask any questions. However, while that conversation was so ephemeral, talk did occur of the attack almost a year earlier, which the Czarist regime made on the Jewish Literary Society, of which Peretz was the president, and made a short end to its rich existence… This first mass society for spreading Jewish culture was very popular and beloved by the great mass of the young in Warsaw. Incidentally, it is the greatest surprise that no earnest attempt has been made to research this highly stimulating chapter in the life of modern Jewish culture, over 40 years ago. The society was the prototype and precursor for all later movements and societies that had the same purposes. (The Literary Society was born in the autumn of 1909 and was ended during the earlier mentioned attack in May 1911.) In short, during that attack on the general meeting of the Jewish Literary Society, in

[Page 406]

the Harmony Room, at Nowigiarski 12, on a Shabbos day, in the middle of May, 1911, the Okhrana arrested about 30 people from among the several hundred assembled.

The arrestees were all members of the general workers parties, all those for whom the Okhrana already had a record of an earlier arrest. It is also a fact that I was one of that group of arrestees, which I recalled during my talk with Peretz. He knew precisely to whom he was talking. Can it be possible that Peretz did not at all suspect something? However, on the other side, naturally, no one can vouch that he did have some sort of premonition.

Consequently, the mystery as to why the Okhrana left Peretz alone – now when they had such a good pretext to bother him – can in the light of the circumstance of that time, I think, be cleared up only with this, that in 1912, Peretz was, even for them, no longer the Peretz of 1899. Not only had Peretz now reached the highpoint in his creation of the great classics of Yiddish literature – but, in addition, he was then perhaps the most prominent and the most impressive figure among the Jewish people in all parts of the world. And even the blindly brutal Czarist regime had to consider this and to take account of it and no longer dared to touch Peretz. He was now too big a bite for them to swallow. Now, they simply did not succeed in picking a quarrel with the world. (And I, my humble self, must have all the more reason to feel lucky that Peretz at that time escaped from the great calamity.)

New York, 1952


Translator's Footnotes

1. Someone has crossed out “Libave” in the New York Public Library copy of the book and handwritten the name “Libau” next to it. return
2. Spanish Jews who had nominally converted to Christianity saying the prayer recited on the eve of Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement. return
3. Someone has crossed out “Shimeon” in the New York Public Library copy of the book and handwritten the name “Shmuel” under it. return

 

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