Jacob Frank in Czenstochow
(A chapter of history)
by Dr. Tzvi Cohen
Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund
Donated by Andrew Nusbaum
The chapter written by the Frankists in Jewish history in the second half of the 18th century is so strange and repugnant to the Jewish spirit, so unbelievable and incomprehensible that it seems unlikely that this was entirely possible. There were among the Jews at various times such movements that were incompatible with Jewish teachings. There were, for example, such sects as the Karaites who argued with the rabbis over the interpretations of the Torah. There were also sects that were involved with mysticism and metaphysics, but never (since the times of the first Temple when a number of Jews served various gods) was there such a sect among the Jews where debauchery and profligacy would be elevated to be mitzvoth [commandments] and good deeds. And through whom? Through learned men and former rabbis.
We truly must be astonished to read in the reports of that time of how pious Jews, scholars, Jews with beards and peyes [side curls] who until then were employed in studying and prayer and only studied and prayed. Suddenly they threw this all away and invited the public to sex orgies and to doing this publicly before everyone. It is truly unbelievable that vast numbers of religious zealots who were very distant from worldliness and who took care not to transgress with the smallest sin suddenly became so corrupt that they slept openly with their daughters and told their wives to do the same with their sons: and in general to carry on such wildly passionate relationships that they cannot be brought to paper….
Was this all under the hypnosis of the seducer Jacob Frank? Did he corrupt the soul of desolate, ignorant men, thus making an impression on the Jews with his declaration that he was the moshiakh [redeemer]? However, where were their eyes and where was their sense of seeing clearly that this soul who was absorbed in pure lust from his head to his feet was not a holy one and that they did not need to be seduced by him?…
And how far did they go to conversion, yes. The former rabbi, Elisha Shor, a grandson of the Tevuot Shor, and his son, also rabbis, were all seduced by this soul to the door of the priest in Czenstochow where they were sprinkled with Christian holy water. And
why [just mention these]? Ten thousand Jews converted in just a short time. A number of them settled in Kamenetz Podolsk [ManianetsPodilskyi, Ukraine] and others in Czenstochow to be close to their rabbi.
Had they not simply lost their commonsense? Did they entirely not know of boundaries? Did they become completely immoral; did this Jacob Frank really have such a hypnotic influence on them? And how can we understand that these Jews became denouncers and makers of false accusations and agitated with the priests that the Talmud should be burned on bonfires in the middle of the day? How can we understand that these former pious ones ran around through Jewish houses and took a Jewish religious book wherever they could and took it to be burned?
Many psychological experts of the human soul slaved away trying to learn what happened here and cannot find an answer. Because the
followers of Frank who decided to return to Judaism after Frank left Czenstochow later had regret for this and returned to Christianity and others decided to throw away the last bit of Yidishkeit [a Jewish way of life] from their homes and prepared to convert. The movement was particularly strong among the children of the converts who were raised as Christians and who benefited very little from the teaching of Yidishkeit because the kehile [organized Jewish community] was small and there was no synagogue and there was no Jewish life to observe. This led to many of the Frankist children, whose parents were going to make them Jews again or who themselves became Jews, giving up their connection with Jews and Yidishkeit and converting. The plague of conversion threw a dread in all Jewish communities surrounding Czenstochow and the name Czenstochower shmadnikes [converts from Czenstochow] spread everywhere to all the Jewish shtetlekh [towns] in the entire area. The shamdnikes even introduced the fashion of not changing the Jewish family names, but to add the ending owski, so, for example, someone named Balzam converted and he took the name Balzamowski. A second one who was named Wiszlic took the name Woszlicki and thus it continued: from Jakubowicz it became Jakubowski and from Icek it became Ickowski and thus also with other names.
The new community in Czenstochow was without a leader. No rabbi, no religious judge, no one competent to decide rabbinical matters. But all of these things were found in the surrounding shtetlekh. Therefore, they would bring kosher meat from Janowa to Czenstochow. They traveled to the surrounding shtetlekh on the Days of Awe to prayer there. There was no preacher and no leader in Czenstochow. This had a great effect on the cessation of the conversion epidemic for a time.
However, it may be that the plague of conversion that opened also the eyes of the small number of Jews who were there to reflect on this and they began to try to create a Jewish communal life in Czenstochow.
In a very short time at the beginning of the 19th century we see a great change there. A fine Jewish kehile grew quickly from a shtetl that was very backwards in Jewish matters. They built a synagogue and immediately afterwards a house of study. A cemetery was purchased and Jewish communal institutions arose. Naturally, the first was the khevra kadisha [burial society], but also many others, not only for the dead but also for the living.
Thus, about Czenstochow we can say the verse: …from the strong came forth sweetness. From the evil manifestation of the Frankists, from their conversion processions to Czenstochow, from the city in which no Jews were allowed, emerged a great Jewish community that in 1939, before the destruction by Hitler, was the most beautiful in the entire area. From a minyon of Jews, Czenstochow became a metropolis and with its rabbis and scholars, with its philanthropists and institutions, it won a place at the head of Jewish life in Poland. This makes the grief over its destruction even deeper.
Reizele and Moshe Berkensztat
by Y. Sh. Herc
Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund
Reizele was born in about 1902 in Czenstochow, her husband Moshe around 1894 in a small community in the vicinity of the city. Both were killed by the Nazis during the Second World War, along with their two children.
In 1912, when a general illegal meeting of leather workers took place in an attic room in the poor streets of Czenstochow, Moshe Berkensztat was one of its organizers (he was a gaiter maker).
During the First World War, they both joined the movement, which was concentrated around the S. S. [Zionist Socialist] party and later Fareinkte. In 1922, when Fareinkte together with Dr. Boleslaw Drobner's group built the Independent Socialist Workers' Party, they both, already as husband and wife, moved to the Bund, where they were involved in managing the office: Moshe as Leader and Secretary of the Bundist Organization in Czenstochow, Reizele as librarian of the Medem-Library.
Moshe Berkensztat was a child of poor parents. In his eyes burned the great light of joy of a young and needy Jewish life, which he, and hundreds of others such as he, symbolized and embodied. His dealings were distinguished with modesty and tenderness. The calmness of his face and the smile on his lips were never lost.
She, Reizele née Fiertag was a child of the Yatke (butcher shop) Street, a daughter of Nute the butcher. However, she was like a bright star in her surroundings, completely out of the ordinary. She lived in a world of books. In the Jewish workers' movement and particularly in the Jewish workers' school, she found her reward. She was among the first group of Jewish girls, who were Froebelians, teachers in the children's home and was one of the first founders of the Y. L. Peretz children's home in Czenstochow. The Jewish child and the school were the new substance of her life.
After, she herself became a mother and her first son, Aizik, was raised and grew up in the school that she had with such motherly devotion created. A second child was born. Moshe and Reizele with extraordinary devotion served their ideals and worked for the movement.
A second world war came. The German murderer's army took Czenstochow. On the 6th of June 1941, the Gestapo arrested the married couple in connection with the arrest of Maria Szczensna, a Polish courier from Tz. K. of the Bund underground. What they had had to bear from the Gestapo was later told by Comrade M. Kusznir, who was also arrested in the same matter and was a witness of the torture during the investigation:
The worst pain he related was for Comrade Reizele Berkensztat, when the women Gestapo pressed her breasts in a door of a tavern. I, they lay bound with my head under a faucet and every second a drop of water from the tap dripped in the middle of my head. They did the same with Comrade Berkensztat. Thus they tortured us from 6 in the morning until late at night.
After a range of efforts, Reizele succeeded in wrenching herself from the nails of the Gestapo. Her husband, swollen and with punched kidneys, was sent to Auschwitz, where he was killed. Reizele later suffered the fate of the vast majority of Czenstochower Jews.
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