Which one of you is Alter Alyernik's son? With this question, she shocked us out of our gaping at her. As I approached her, she hastened to tell me that my father wanted me to go with her to the Rabbi to deposit a request. Until then, I had only attended the Rabbi's gatherings once. That was out of curiosity, not for religious reasons. I had wanted to observe the Hasidim grabbing leftovers from the Rabbi's table. I must admit that I didn't have much respect for how the Rabbi treated people at his table or how rude he was to people in general. My sadness always increased when he would arrogantly address each one as Boy.
The widow and I went in to the Rabbi and I heard, Boy, who are you? I immediately began to list my mother's family tree for the Rabbi. The family originated in the neighboring town of Sterdyn, and I was sure that the Rabbi was well acquainted with my dear grandfather Eliyahu Zrentshi, may he rest in peace, with his seven daughters and two sons, and each one was a world to be for himself I want you to know especially my two aunts Breine and Chashke, who freely were able to come to the Rabbi's yard.
Boy, who are you? the Rabbi asked me a second time in a very gruff tone. I realized that he was unsatisfied by my recitation of my mother's family tree. So I decided to enumerate my father's family and began with my grandfather, The Grajewo Rabbi Moshe Yosef, zl. I continued on with this recitation until I reached my uncle, the well-known scribe Rabbi Shepsel Rafalovitch. It appeared that the name Rafalovitch curtailed his challenging questions and he summoned the sexton, saying, Give the boy a glass of beer. At this point, I was standing before the Rabbi with the unfortunate widow Shmendzriche.
Once again the Rabbi showed annoyance, this time directed at the widow. You insolent one, he said roughly. The sexton understood that the Rabbi was angry because Shmendzriche's hair was partially uncovered. As she took a few moments to adjust her scarf, the Rabbi addressed me in a sweeter tone, Boy, is she a relative of yours? No, Rabbi, I answered, not the least mollified that he had softened his approach to me after the cruel welcome.
Then the widow broke her silence and sadly related the circumstances of her hard, broken life. She had been left a young widow with small children. To support them she worked day and night among the Gentiles, earning a meager living. She went on, telling how she had to leave her children alone while they played with the Polish children. And most unfortunately, the Gentiles had converted her son Yosef. She asked for the Rabbi's blessings that her son Yossele should return to his people and if G-d forbade that course, that her son should be erased and forgotten so that his dear father can rest in peace in his grave.
The Rabbi's prayer was not answered, or perhaps he didn't offer a prayer. Years later, I used to see Yosef amidst the Gentile farmers walking to church in their Sunday clothes. His fine Jewish face was still recognizable under his Polish cap, but there was not the slightest contrition for his act of apostasy.
We were a triumvirate: Chaim Pollack, oldest son of Mordecai Gartel, the monument engraver; Moshe Elkes, youngest son of Shaul the Blind One; and the writer of these lines, Alter Alyernik's youngest. One day we were standing together when the bus arrived. A broad shouldered young man alit from the bus and greeted each of us. His strong handshake revealed the calluses from working with his blacksmith's hammer. He had arrived from Zambrow where he was a member of the Communist Youth Organization. He had taken advantage of the Chol Hamoed Pessach break to meet his brother Yosef who had converted to the Gentile religion.
What do you mean by saying 'no'? asked the apostate. Who gave us the ability to talk, walk, see, and hear? Only G-d gave us these powers and how can we repay Him? By not believing? He went on to explain his direction in becoming a convert. It was not due to a woman; he was still single. Nor was it for material gain. He remained a country tailor and earned his living through hard work. He became a Christian from sincere belief. Hearing this did not deter his brother. Though he, himself, was a communist and freethinker, he was determined to bring his brother back to his Jewish roots.
To accomplish that goal, he brought up the tragic death of their mother. He described in great detail his inability to alleviate his mother's suffering. He could not raise the money to improve her material being. He had been a low paid apprentice blacksmith in Zambrow. To supplement his meager wages, he worked as a water carrier and as a woodchopper. But though he worked day and night, he could not manage to help his dying mother. The bereft woman was forced to beg from house to house. The winter of 1928 was especially cruel and bitter. While begging in the streets of Lomza, the hapless woman collapsed and froze to death. He went on and described the problems he incurred to have her buried. Yosef became more and more agitated and screamed out, I must visit my mother's grave at all cost. I must put up a tombstone. And he added, Here are 300 zlotys that I have saved. Please, dear brother, erect something in our mother's memory. The blacksmith replied, Then come with me to Lomza. Together we will visit our mother's grave. With a sad voice, Yosef replied, I cannot. I am under the supervision of the Ciechanowiec priest and am not allowed to leave his parish.
There were times that the Jewish population of Ciechanowiec became excited because a visiting cantor had arrived in town for Shabbat. After the services, if the cantor had sung well, the townspeople would engage in much praise of his performance. Now that's a cantor! would repeatedly be heard from the self-appointed connoisseurs. One year, an entire winter went by without a single visiting performance and most people were anxious for a new cantor to arrive.
One Friday morning after Passover, the merchants displayed their wares and half asleep began opening their stores. Exhausted, they stood in their doorways yawning and peering out into the street. A flock of pigeons flew down and pecked away at the seeds and grain that remained from the previous day's market. Suddenly, they were frightened and flew off with their wings fluttering noisily. The steady sound of horse's hoofs against the hard cobblestones had warned them of an approaching wagon. The wagon stopped in front of the tavern of Meyer Tuvia, which was also a boarding house. The coachman snapped his whip, entered the saloon, and announced that he had brought with him a blind cantor and his choir for Shabbat. The cantor and his choir sat in the wagon. The choir consisted of two young men and two boys. Meyer Tuvia came out to welcome them with a hearty Shalom and invited them into his house. He also called out to the merchant Moshe Yossel who was standing looking out at the scene. Moishe Yossele! We have a blind cantor and a choir of four for Shabbat! The news spread like lightning through the shtetl, and everyone's patience was tested on that Erev Shabbat.
The new synagogue was packed. The doors and windows were open wide and the beautiful singing of the cantor and choir filled the synagogue and carried out to the streets. The people were hypnotized by the sweet melodies and heart-rending words. After the conclusion of services, the congregants were most anxious to meet the cantor and his choir and crowded towards the eastern wall. With the expenditure of a great deal of energy, the sexton tried to impress on the crowd the necessity of leaving, so he could lock up and go home. When they finally left, it had grown quite dark. The Shabbat candles in most of their homes had almost reached their end.
The next morning, the blind cantor conducted services in the synagogue. During the Torah reading, people from the other synagogues started to stream in. Some of them had already eaten, others had only made Kiddush. They gathered in groups to discuss the cantor and his choir and their singing. The largest group convened around Shlomo Yagnik and Chaim Dovkes, the weaver. They were generally recognized as being experts on cantors. The sexton tried to keep order by banging on the podium. Let us continue the Torah reading. You are desecrating HaShem! But the people paid no heed to him. They continued to crowd around the two experts to catch their opinions. The experts' verdict was praise beyond compare. The congregation finally settled down when the cantor began to intone the Musaf service. They listened in reverie to the sweet and passionate melodies that emanated from the five singers.
Long after the blind cantor had left town and long after the visits of many other cantors, those beautiful melodies lingered in the ears of those who had heard him just that once. One could pass by a house where cobblers would be sitting at their workbenches and could hear them singing the blind cantor's rendition of Sim Shalom. And you could hear the worker Shia Klopot, who could imitate the blind cantor with every trill, as he stood up and sang as the blind cantor once sang. And the shoemakers would keep the rhythm with their hammers as they sang along, Sim, Sim, Sim Shalom, bring peace, goodness, and blessing.
In the early morning, my mother rushed in from the street very alarmed. She excitedly told of a tragic incident that happened the previous evening. A maid was on her way to draw a bucket of water from the Nurzec River, and she was believed to have drowned. The girl, from the nearby town of Nur which we Jews called Danir, was blind in one eye. No one in Ciechanowiec saw her return from the river and concern for her safety increased.
Finally, a messenger was sent to Nur to inquire of her mother if it was possible that her daughter had walked all the way home. The mother had not seen her daughter, and it was assumed that she had fallen into the river. The police were notified and that very morning boats were searching the river. Long poles were used to stir up the riverbed and recover the body. Nothing was found on the first day and after a second day of searching, the body was still not recovered. It seemed all of Ciechanowiec turned out to stand on the banks of the river and watch. The throngs murmured and then a demand rose up that the stoppers and locks be opened to facilitate the search. But such a move would be very detrimental for the mills. The locks regulated the flow of water, which was the driving force for the mills.
The consensus was to wait until after the third day. After all, the laws of physics indicated that the body would rise to the surface on the third day. But the girl's body did not appear and the locks were opened, allowing the water to flow out. The body of the girl was caught on one of the supporting columns. Apparently, her clothes became entangled there and she was left hanging in the water.
Everyone cried out in grief at the sight of her body and her mother became hysterical. Preparations were made for a funeral and a huge turnout was expected. But the leader of the investigative team notified everyone that first there must be an autopsy to determine if there was any foul play. When Breindel the cook, who had actively participated in the rescue attempt, heard that it would be necessary to perform an autopsy, she hastened to the head of the Jewish community. With tears in her eyes, she begged the leaders to prevent such desecration of the dead. Her request was denied and she next hurried to speak with the medic Rubinstein who had influence with the authorities. Breindel asked that he use his relationship with the police to deny the horrible edict of autopsy. Her appeal was based on the fact that Rubinstein would then be doing a great mitzva. When Rubinstein heard that the reward for using his influence would be a mitzva, he responded to Breindel, Here, I will sell you the mitzva. Breindel perceived that Rubinstein had a cheap assessment of mitzvot and she began to negotiate with him. She reached a deal that he would sell all his mitzvot to her and she offered him three rubles. The transaction was carried out according to Jewish law with witnesses and the appropriate signatures.
Rubinstein convinced the police that an autopsy was unnecessary. The poor girl was given a very large funeral and was buried that very day. Stores were closed and students halted their schoolwork. The young people accompanied the body to the cemetery, and everyone cried and grieved for the unfortunate victim.
If you think for a moment that the funeral of this young girl is the final chapter of this narrative, you are greatly mistaken. It is only the prelude. A short time after this incident occurred, Rubinstein became very ill and was on the threshold of death. He became convinced that G-d was punishing him because he had sold his mitzvot. Fear mounted in his heart. He had qualms about arriving in the great beyond without mitzvot. How would it look to the Heavenly Court if he told them that he had sold his mitzvot for a pittance. Was that the value he placed on doing good?
Consequently, he sent for Breindel. He pleaded for her mercy and that she should sell back to him his mitzvot. He didn't want any of hers, just his own mitzvot. He offered her a five-ruble banknote and asked that she destroy the previous contract with the signatures. Breindel adamantly refused, stating, A deal is a deal and there is no returning. Rubinstein raised his offer to six, seven, even ten rubles and she continued to refuse. She stated firmly that even for all the wealth of the world, she would not sell the mitzvot back to him.
Rubinstein recovered from his illness, but he felt his life had no meaning. He was like a shadow of a man, living without a single mitzva. Whatever new mitzvot he might perform would be meaningless. He was certain he could not correct his sins without recovering those he had flippantly sold. Without them, G-d would deem him unworthy. And thus, Rubinstein left this world empty of mitzvot.
We classified recreation into two components: spiritual and physical. Spiritual recreation included academic pursuits such as reading. We viewed going to the theatre or viewing films as spiritual. Physical recreation was pursued under the open skies.
That which was routine for the older people often became a celebration for the youth. There was the case of Gershon, Zishe Brightbart's brother. A renowned strongman and athlete, he would perform by lifting astounding weights, bending iron rods, and tearing apart iron chains. We would be very impressed by his demonstration of strength and after he left, some would-be strongman tried to duplicate his feats. This nearly led to a tragic conclusion. One guy thought himself more an athlete than he was. He lay down on the ground and had others cover him with boards. Heavy stones were then placed on the boards and several young men of girth sat on top. The athlete was in the process of being crushed when, fortunately for him, a passerby heard his groans and saved him from disaster. Those who were enjoying this recreation were punished.
We were also inspired when a circus came to town. We children were very much attracted to the various acts and their images lingered in our memory for a long time. Each of us would prompt our companions to dance, romp like a horse, walk on high wires, juggle with three objects, dress up as clowns, and perform skits. Indeed, dramatic groups were formed and we prepared plays. We even charged for tickets that were priced from two to five groschen. And they were sold out immediately! When our theatrical season was concluded, we returned to our other youthful pursuits such as playing ball.
The Nurzec River which passes through Ciechanowiec provided us with much pleasure. Canoes and other types of boats would glide down the river on beautiful summer days. A boat could be rented for an entire day for 20 groschen.
Lovers of outdoor activities had many facilities in and around Ciechanowiec. There were the expansive forests, the school grounds, and open fields which could be used for many different sports.
Ciechanowiec had no formal academies. Speeches and discussions would be arranged by the Zionist organizations and other groups of young people. They might not have been orderly or punctual, but that did not detract from their accomplishments. The public was very pleased with the heated discussions and wonderful orators like Munya Yabkowsky of Nordiya. Even when giving indoor speeches, he acted like the sportsman, giving a kick to the bench, sending objects flying to the back of the room, and speaking forcefully and rapidly, straight to the point. Ciechanowiec movies? - I will tell you the names of the films and you can form your own opinion: The Seventh Heaven, Sunrise, Faust, World Without Women, Yanka Musician, etc. These films were old and worn out. I once mentioned to the manager of the movie house that instead of these poor quality talkies, he ought to show silent films. He gave me a harsh look, and I left immediately. But sometimes we had traveling theatres passing through town. These presented better quality performances.
One evening a woman, whom we used to call the Half Woman because she was so petite, came to our home. With great concern she approached my mother and said, Sima Gittel, let's go into the other room. I have something important to tell you. My mother reappeared after a few minutes and announced that the Half Woman was very upset. She was frightened because she believed that the yeshiva student who slept in her home was a sorcerer. She had told my mother that he arrived late each evening and went straight to his room. There he lit a candle and set up various pieces of wood on a board. The wood was carved with points and some had horses' heads. He moved the pieces from point to point, all the while talking to himself.
That is how a Ciechanowiec woman described the game of chess.
A policeman was passing by and upon hearing the noise, he entered the synagogue. The man by the western wall knew the policeman and explained that he had bought the third aliyah. The policeman interrupted him and asked why he needed the aliyah. Wouldn't it be better if he bought a new pair of pants, as his were torn and ragged?
The airplane created the greatest joy for the Hebrew school children. They received permission from their teachers, Yerocham and Yehezkiel, to be excused from class on that day of the airplane landing. And on the next morning, there was no one to teach because students and teachers played hookey. The airplane was the subject of discussion in Ciechanowiec for a long time.
One day, the municipal government ordered that holes be dug and poles be set in place. The streets would finally be lit by gas lamps. The work proceeded and one day the City Council gave orders that the lanterns be lowered so that gas could be pumped in and the wicks lit. The joy was unbelievable. Old and young walked up and down the streets till late at night. Those who were lucky enough to live near the light poles showed their neighbors how their houses were lit by the lamps. And our household helper Leah would go outside, stick a needle in the ground and show all who passed that there was so much light that you could find a needle in the night time streets.
Who does not recall the thrill of that first night when electricity invaded our homes? You could look into the houses and see them alternating between light and darkness as the children were shown the miracle that by touching a button you could make light.
An electric lamp was hung in the synagogue and electric candles, made to look like real wax, lit the pulpit where the cantor led the prayers. Little children would be lifted to the cantor's table and asked to blow out the candles. Of course they could not do it, and everyone would laugh. There was much joy throughout town; Ciechanowiec had arrived.
I'm not sure if anyone ever tried that, but Meyer Shapiro's son made a real radio. He would allow anyone to listen to it for money. I got in line and signed up for the opportunity. Moshele Shapiro also signed up. We paid according to what we wanted: one earphone was ten groschen for half an hour; two earphones would cost 15 groschen. Meyer liked me and quietly told me to wait until 12 noon. Then you will hear music. Those who were eager and wanted to go early heard reports on weather or field conditions. They were broadcast in Polish, and we didn't understand the language. But that wasn't important. The main thing was that we all heard radio!
Once a group of teenagers was returning home after midnight. They were going by the church and passed the narrow lane leading to the old graveyard. Suddenly, a frightful scream spewed past the lips of one of the group. Shema Yisrael! Jews, help us! The youth fled from the scene and raced homeward. They were so terrified that their souls almost escaped their bodies.
Only the fearless Yudel Kalamarz remained. He turned his head one way and another, peering into the darkness, seeking out what had so frightened his friends. His vision focused on the old graveyard and what he saw verily froze his blood. A two-headed specter wrapped in death shrouds stood before him, spinning one of its heads with dizzying speed.
Yudel had always been of brave spirit. His strength and courage were almost legendary among his peers. But now, for the first time in his life, he felt heart-weary and unsure of himself. This apparition was enough to startle and alarm anyone. He had never encountered a creature with two heads, one solidly attached to its body and the other spinning in the air.
But Yudel was not some stillborn babe. He was Yudel and his natural courage allowed him to quickly recover. He called out strongly, Who's there? The dead person neither stirred nor responded to Yudel's threatening growls. Yudel put his life in his hands and slowly approached the mysterious creature with extreme caution. To Yudel's great horror, the phantom saw him and as Yudel crept ever closer, the head spun faster and faster. Yudel felt sure that he was as good as dead. With nothing to lose, he grabbed the fearsome vision by the arm.
Immediately a voice cried out, followed by laughter which echoed down across the countryside. Was it the laughter of a dead person? No, it was none other than Meir the Medic, who was known as a great prankster. He had shrouded himself and lodged his hat on a stick above his head. Turning the stick in the misty darkness provided the illusion of the spinning head. Hence, the frightening specter of the two-headed ghost.
A story circulated of one such author who came to Ciechanowiec and intoned, May my book be dressed in fine binding as the wrappings of choice foods, for I am sure that it will be more satisfying.
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