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[Page 197]

My Childhood-Years and Youth-Years in the Shtetl (cont.)

B. Roads (Highways), Streets and Alleys

There come to mind memories tied up and woven with Jewish life in a time just before its disappearance: the last act of a generations-long drama, at the edge of the tragic epilogue…

Ciechanow is remembered with its long-stretching roads (highways) leading to the wide unknown world. The fastest road (Plonsker), whose beginning is opposite a forest of crosses. “Here all roads end” -- the philosophically-tragic faded sign says on the semi-circular wall of the Christian wall. But the road, as though in spite, stretching on full of life, to the brick factory, to the small Krubin forest, to other shtetlech like the Pultusker road, that runs parallel to it, the road leads to the old Jewish cemetery, cuts its way to the road to the Glinkes, the periphery of Polish poverty and extends further, dusty, and during the rains -- a muddy road to the Jewish cemetery. There one rarely sees a living soul, other than accompanying a dead one to the final resting place. That is one of the safest meeting places for our illegal meetings.

The Proshnitzer road with its giant military barracks that attract and frighten at the same time, with their immensity and structure, with its cold build that towers up from the high walls that are so similar to each other… One can enter the barracks only when some event is taking place there -- a horse-race or a football match. At such times the band of the Eleventh Legion Regiment entertains the audience with its music, led by a Jewish bandleader…

When there is a football match white chevreh sneak in, not necessarily through the “parade gate” but by crawling around and around through the barbed wire gates, often catching and thus ripping off a piece of ones trousers…

At the finish of the match, as soon as the whistle blows, we Jewish boys run as fast as we can, out of breath, all the way home in order not to have stones thrown at us or be hit by the shkotzim (non-Jewish boys). “Home” generally means, to the streets and alleys around the marketplace where the greatest portion of Jews of the shtetl live.

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At the edge of the market square, there is a proud-looking and decorated magistrature-building with a large town clock that gets wound by the old Jewish clock-maker, Melman. Every day he takes care of this. The right wing of the magistrature-building houses the city's police station. Under the building -- the long dismal prison yard, that stretches to the electrovinia. Opposite the neighboring house, relatives and friends come to wink to the prisoners and communicate to one another by hand signing.

Nearby is the fire hall. There theater performances take place from time to time in Yiddish by traveling actors and also by our own drama group with Zabelski, from Lodz, as director ever since he settled in Ciechanow. My sister Chayche also belongs to this group. For this reason I am allowed free entry to performances. There I first became fascinated with Sh. An-ski's mystic play, Tzvishn Tog un Nakht (Between Night and Day) and Dybbuk and I shept nakhes from the happy couplets in Rumanishe Khaseneh (Rumanian Wedding).

The marketplace was a Jewish cultural center. For a while there was a group of Hashomeir-Hatzair there, as well as a Hebrew Tarbut Library, the Bais Yaacov School, and a Free Loan Society.

*

Twice a week, Tuesday and Friday, was market day. On those days Jewish merchants, those who came to fairs, brought out whatever bit of goods they had, each on his stall, on the place set aside for them, and arranged the goods ready for business. The goods consisted of: boots and hats, ready-made clothing, colorful yard fabrics for women's clothes and kerchiefs, haberdashery, clay pots and blue dishes… They would exchange friendly slaps of hands, spit on their palms and the deal would be accomplished for wheat, potatoes, wood and peat while in the narrow alleys, closer to the river, there were plenty of eggs and butter, fowl and dairy and vegetable products… and around the market the narrow Jewish streets: the pharmacy (Shlonski's) and Werner's goyishe pharmacy (where we sometimes came to “redeem” tipping the hat respectfully, the shtibl on Slivke's courtyard, where father has been davening for some years.

From Slivke's courtyard through Slava the baker's courtyard, one exits at Nadzechna. In this street the motors of the city's electric power sounds incessantly. The mills that belong to Lubinetsky and Mundzak clatter.

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In the evenings there is the clamor and singing of the Jewish youth organizations which had their premises there: Hashomeir Hatzair, Hechalutz, Freiheit and Betar, that later split into Grausmanisten and “Revisionists. The split was with a furor, scandal and fighting.

In the same narrow street was the premises of the Bund also. From there the pathetic voice of Wolf Kostsheva, leader of the Bund, was often heard. Later (at the end of its flowering period), the Bund moved to the Rebbe's courtyard opposite our house in Proshnitzer Street. In the same courtyard, in the loft of Itchele Shuster, there is the hidden rescued remainder of the great Sh. An-ski library that belonged to the “Leftists”. Until the An-ski library was closed by the police it carried on a variety of cultural and sport activities amongst the working-youth.

The Flinsker Street resounds with Yiddishkeit. There fowl/chickens were ritually slaughtered in the shames courtyard. A little way off was the shtibl of the Gerer Hasidim, the Talmud Torah, the Mikveh; then there is the wide-open space near the Jewish cemetery that sometimes serves as a cattle-market and sometimes as a football field; circuses with their acts; opposite there shine the multi-colored windowpanes of the grand new shul. Then there is the narrow quiet bais hamedresh. Further on is the Yiddishe Street (Yoselovicha) with old crooked houses leaning against one another, with damp walls. Nor are all the surroundings any better. There the street of butcher shops is also located, where meat and fish are sold.

From “Zabeh Street (Targova) where there live mostly cobblers and tailors, there stretches the new wide road to the railway, and then the “crown” of the city: the Varshever Street. Here people stroll every evening and Shabbat and Yomtov afternoons. Closer to the market, Varshever Street is still old-fashioned, Yiddish, similar to the nearby streets. The further one goes the more Christian it becomes: the houses taller, more modern. From here the road winds, leading to the churches and goyishe schools.

Varshever Street ends with a cinema, the only one. Sometimes Jewish performances or readings take place there. In the garden near the cinema one rests between strolls (so long as no shkotzim come to make trouble. In the last years before the war this was a common occurrence. Continuing from here one comes to the not-so-homelike Christian streets, where a very few Jewish families live also.

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C. The Castle, the River and the Meadows

The most beautiful and interesting structure of the Middle Ages in Ciechanow is the castle. More correctly: the remains of the castle built by the Polish King Zigmund Stary for his wife as a summer residence. One explanation of this is the fact that the name stems from Uchekna Nova, the queen's name. Whether or not this is true is a problem for historians, as is the question of whether or not the bricks were made of clay mixed purely with egg-whites. This is supposed to explain the thick and unusually strong walls… However, the turrets have long ago lost their form of former days and birds build their nests there.

There is also an added wooden tower to the castle, that of the firemen. All kinds of entertainment took place in the castle. But Jewish children generally were not allowed in there. There were a few exceptions that remain in my memory.

I recall a large gathering of the Bund. Wolf Kostsheva leads the whole army, dressed in blue shirts with red kerchiefs “forward to the castle!” And inside he holds a speech -- and leftist youth who are not allowed in any conditions -- get together and break down the iron gate …

*

The area around the castle was a paradise on the Sabbaths for the Jewish youth who enjoyed the shade of the high castle walls that protected from the burning sun during the hot summer days.

All week card players and drunks found shelter there: but in the hot Shabbat days, Jewish fathers and mothers came to enjoy the fresh air, read a newspaper, and take a nap on the fresh grass. Hashomeir Hatzair youth did exercises/gymnastics with Hebrew commands, and Betar members played at Military games; and in the evening, when it got empty around the castle, the secret “left” youth groups gathered .

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Not far from the castle there flowed the Lidinya River. Its source and its final destination is a matter for geographers. Sprint time it sometimes overflows ifs banks but summer time it is quite calm. Jokers used to say that the water reaches to ones ear if one stands on ones head… Women come here to wash clothes and water carriers to fill their buckets. Young people swim, leaving their clothes on the ground near the bank. Better swimmers go two or three kilometers down the way where the water is very deep. Though it was said that every year some drown in the river, it did not stop them from showing off. But the ordinary youth satisfied themselves with the part of the river that was almost completely in Jewish “territory” – from the electric power station to the right, up to the wooden bridge, the Lava.

The meadows on both sides of the river also played their part in Jewish life. Jewish sport groups used to come here to train and white chevreh played “football” for many an hour, with a kid's ball, often barefoot. School children did gymnastics there and youth came there to sunbathe, though there was no sand there they would lie on the grass and soak up the sun. Others relax in the shadow of the trees. There they play cards, less often dominoes, chess, carry on discussions or relax as they watch the cows munching on the grass and how young colts roll on the ground. More romantic pairs walk away further and disappear into the endless meadows and waving wheat fields.

D. The United Library Named after Sholem Aleichem

The memories of my youth prior to the khurban, I want to end with a description of the library that was situated in the home of chaver Robota.

The United Workers' Library, named after Sholem Aleichem, existed until 1938. It was established as a result of an agreement between three groups: communists, Left Poele Tzion, and Bund.

The communists brought with them the rescued remainder of books from the one-time Sh. An-ski library. The Left Poele Tzion and the Bund the books from their previous libraries.

The library that was legalized by the powers was a successful undertaking and attracted large parts of the working youth, bringing them the progressive work and the Jewish culture. Youthful workers cam to exchange books, read a newspaper, play checkers and chat with friends or have an exchange of opinions.

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A tag day for the Sholem Aleichem Library
A tag day for the Sholem Aleichem Library

Picture Index

Friday evenings, political overviews were presented. Sometimes the discussion between Leftists and Bund got quite heated. The main speakers were: Yosl Grosbard and Wolf Kostsheva. In the end the Bundistsleft the library for various reasons.

But the library was not liquidated at that time. It continued to exist and broadened its activities and influence.

The two remaining groups managed, generally, to avoid ideological disputes so as to avoid a further split that would have endangered the existence of the library. New books were purchased. Readings took place, evenings of recitation, dance evenings, Ping-Pong was played, and in general the youth had a warm place there where they could forget their troubles and become immersed in the belief that a better day was possible…

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The United Workers' Library was like a thorn in the eye of the Polish reactionary government. One day the library was shut down, the books confiscated, with the excuse that it was a masked communist “center”.

The closed doors of the United Workers' Library, the increased Jew-hatred, were like a prediction of the horrendous time that was coming. The scent of gunpowder over Jewish lives could already be felt. The tragic shadow of death and destruction got closer and closer to the shtetl

Jewish soldiers in the Polish army before the start of World War II
Jewish soldiers in the Polish army before the start of World War II

Picture Index

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