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[Page 477]

A Ray of Light from Past Years

Dow Brukarz

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

Imparting my memories of life in Czyzewo, I have the feeling that I am uttering laments over my birthplace in which I spent some 20 plus years of my childhood and youth, years of dreams and aspirations. I still feel bound to it and to my close relatives, comrades and friends, years after leaving the shtetl, with its small wooden houses, covered with shingle roofs, with the large market and its two rows of shops. There were three two-story houses found here, with brick walls. Only Shimeon-Nusan the melamed's [religious elementary school teacher] two-story house was wooden. A little farther, where Zembrower Road began, right near the Brak River, stood the Catholic Church with its two large tower windows looking out on the city market, from which the three main street spread out – Szmidisze Street on the west side, Kalje Street from the east side and Ciechanowiecer or Nurer Road on the south side.

Everything I describe is only perhaps a thousandth of the many generations of Jewish life in Czyzewo that was so mercilessly destroyed, just as in hundreds of other Jewish cities and shtetlekh [towns] where our savage enemy did not leave any scent of Jewish life.

The Time of Transition

I begin in 1913 because this year was a time of transition in my life.

I left the yeshiva [religious school] and remained standing at the crossroads, without a definite direction for my future, a period that was so characteristic for Jewish young people at that time.

It is clear to me that in my descriptions I will also weave in episodes and events that I experienced in my earlier childhood years or I will retell stories from my parents and other people. I will not avoid them. Let it remain a memorial and enrich the picture of Jewish life in Czyzewo before the Holocaust.

For such young men as I at that time, Czyzewo was a place to come together to spend time. We established certain places where we would meet for a conversation. Such meeting points were the brush factories, one of them belonging to Sholem, Miriam's son, which was at first called Czelianagura and later Grynberg. The second brush factory belonged to Yitzhak-Benimin's son, Moshel Blejwajs. They were brothers-in-law years later.

At this opportunity I want to mention that just as in other shtetlekh, in Czyzewo it was not customary to call someone by their family name. Everyone had his nickname, particularly when there were many people with the same name, such as for example, Itshes, of which there were very many in Czyzewo. Therefore, I will also call these people about whom I will speak by the names with which they were known in Czyzewo because there are many people there whose family names are not known even today. These people carried their nicknames with the greatest naturalness. No one made an effort to find out the origin of the nickname.

The young men who would come to these “small factories” would include those whose concerns centered around earning money for cigarettes, or for buying a young girl chocolates and soda water, fruits in Fladeszczike's orchard, or only for a quiet stroll in a splendid moonlit night.

It should be understood that the category “fardiner” [one who earns much money] could not be applied to the “working class.” There were not yet any parties then in Czyzewo. However, there were sympathizers toward various parties that existed then in Poland. There also existed class differences in Czyzewo, such as, for example: wagon drivers and porters, on one side and retailers, wealthy children, half and entirely idle on the other side. There were also sharp differences between Hasidim and misnagdim [opponents of Hasidism].

There were also two Alters among my friends who entered the small factories, Aizik Baran's Alter and Fayge-Brukha's Alter, to whom I was strongly attached and because we were always seen together, we were called “the triplets.” They had a great influence on the course of my life. We took the initiative upon ourselves to found the “people's library.” Others later also helped in running it, my brother, Mordekhai, may he rest in peace, among them.

This was later and I will return to it because this is an interesting chapter in the life of Czyzewo. Alter Baran played an important role here. Alas, he died in 1917 at the age of 21. Fayge-Brukha's Alter Szerszyn died in Petah Tikvah in 1938 at the age of 42.

There was another place where young people would meet. This was the barbershop of Avraham Josef Itsl, the son of the klezmer [musician] (Rithalc) where young men[1] and young men already married, who found it difficult to part with the life of an unmarried young man, would come. A “dramatic section,” as well as an orchestra, was founded in this barbershop through the initiative and leadership of Avraham Josef.

At all of these meeting places only young men would come together. Young women would meet separately in a residence of either this or that friend. If there was a brother there, young men would visit briefly. They said that they were coming to see the brother and if the parents were not in the home, there were found circumspect young men who danced a waltz, a polka, a sherele, a fadisfan or a Krakowiak (dances popular at the time) with the young women. The dances were done according to the cadence of the songs that were sung by the dancers themselves.

Fantn-shpiel [guessing games] were also included in the entertainments. And also “rumors” during which anonymous complimentary letters were sent with trusting young men and young women specifically chosen for this purpose. The best letters were later given a prize by a jury. For the fantn-spiel, a committee presented riddles to each participant and those who could not answer would be punished by the jury and after carrying out the verdict they would get back their fant (deposit). The most severe punishment was to kiss a young woman…

During the summertime we came together in the orchards and forests around the city and on

the roads outside the shtetl. Mostly we would stroll on Zembower Road where meadows with wide many-branched trees stretched on both sides and we could rest. The road was full of people strolling. Here could be seen young men arm in arm with young women, couples in love. There were no automobiles parking then and because it was Shabbos [Sabbath] it was rare to see a peasant wagon…

The Torn Out Poplars

A beloved stroll was also on Ciechanowiecer Road with its tall and thick poplar trees that stretched like a beautiful boulevard to the train station. In 1907, 49 poplars were torn out by the roots and in their place stood deep holes.

This happened on the day when a pogrom was being prepared against the Jews in Czyzewo. Several days before Yosef's-hoga [the holiday of Jesus – Easter], the police learned about it and called for reinforcements from the powiat [county]. A company of soldiers also arrived. No Jews were seen outside. Everything was closed and they sat with beating hearts even in the special hiding places. But when a giant procession accompanied by echoing bell-ringing began, everyone experienced suffocating breathing. All of the streets were packed with peasant wagons, ready to be loaded with the possession of the Zydes [derogatory Polish word for Jews] that would need to be taken after the slaughter and murder.

Suddenly the sky became very cloudy and a downpour began. There was thunder and lightning. A fearful gale tore trees and roofs. Fear and great turmoil engulfed the peasants everywhere.

Then, the 49 poplars on Ciechanowiecer Road fell. Four such poplars stood not far from the Jewish cemetery near the furrier Moshe-Khatskl's garden. Two

fell and two were broken in half. The two remaining tree trunks were used by the tsitsis [fringe found on a talis or prayer shawl; fringed garment worn under clothing by Orthodox Jewish males] makers during the summer to stretch the tsitsis threads for drying.

The fear of the non-Jews after these events lasted for a very long time. The Jews saw in this a miracle from heaven.

Translator's notes

  1. The Yiddish word bokhur - bokhurim in the plural - is used for unmarried young men. return

[Page 483]

New Winds

by Dow Brukarz

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

With the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 new winds began to blow among the Czyzewo young. Groups were formed that carried on fervent political discussions. The meetings in the brush factories and in Avraham Yosef's barbershop were still more heated with discussion of world question. The young showed a strong drive to read books, newspapers. But we had to refrain from opening a library because of the dangers that lurked for every Jew as a result of the Russian defeats at the front.

Old Khanina Szerszin had a few of his own books and lent them out among the thirsty young who contributed with a small payment so the money could be used to buy new books. All of the discussions were fiery and took place in the middle of the market and drew larger groups of people who would scatter when a Russian policeman appeared.

When the Front Neared

The Warsaw–Petersburg (which was called Petrograd during the war and now Leningrad) train line ran through Czyzewo. The passing military [troops]

[Page 484]

would stop in Czyzewo for a short time. The soldiers were quartered in private houses. Several small incidents of theft and robbery took place. However, in general, they brought in a revival in retail [commerce]. Simultaneously, Czyzewo Jews began to provide military boots, uniforms and military great coats as well as meat and bread.

Life became more difficult when the front neared Czyzewo. Great masses of the military that began to give a difficult time to the Jewish population arrived. During the last two days of Russian rule, Cossack murderers began to rampage.

At night, the sky was red from the flames that approached from the villages that the Russians had burned during their withdrawal. Along with the heavy cannon fire, desperate screaming was heard moving from among the shops, to the market, to the neighboring alley that the soldiers had begun to loot. An individual case was when an officer drove away a band of soldiers who had looted the shop of Yoske (Grinberg), the son of Nisle.

[Page 485]

On the last day in the afternoon all of the Jews in the shtetl went out onto the field in front of the slaughterhouse, near the new cemetery. It was announced from the [Russian] military headquarters that the shtetl would soon be set on fire. A small number of the population withdrew to the cellars of the Zawl Eidlszten's and Pesakh Surowicz's brick houses.

Suddenly we saw from the distance that the wings had begun to turn on one of the four windmills that were located on Kalja Road. This curdled everyone's blood from fear. This could only mean a sealed death sentence, not only for the owner of the mill but also for the entire shtetl. The Russians could see secret signals in this that the Jews were giving to the Germans. Such rumors had been going around for a long time.

It did not take long and the soldiers began to search for Shimkha Glina, the son of Mendl–Yisroel Shlomo. Someone pointed him out and he was taken away. I do not know what happened and Shimkha returned a few hours later. Several minutes later all four windmills were in flames, which engulfed the surrounding houses.

The shooting became thicker. Bullets and shrapnel passed over our heads. The Germans shelled the train station. Shrapnel exploded in the middle of the city and the sad news immediately was carried that Berl–Dovid's wife, Chaya, was killed. Right after her, the wheelwright, Yitzhak. Avrahaml, Sura Malka's son–in–law, was wounded. These were the first victims. Later, there were others.

The shooting got even heavier at night. Frightening shouts of hoorah were heard.

[Page 486]

The Russians had attacked; everyone in the field was seized by a horrible fear. People ran to the cemetery in great confusion, hid behind the fence, behind the headstones. Others ran into the brick building of the slaughterhouse. They ran back and forth under the hail of bullets. The child of Hersh Welwl's daughter–in–law, whom she was holding in her arms, was shot. We hid under the wagons that were fully packed with furniture and bedding. Avrahaml Moshe, the bookbinder's son, lay near me shoulder to shoulder.

Suddenly it became still. The Germans withdrew to the river. The Russians chased them. Cossacks ran past us with wild, distorted faces and outstretched rifles with sparkling bayonets. An infuriated Cossack bent to our side and stuck the bayonet into Avrahaml's heart. He was still alive. I helped carry him into the slaughterhouse. He looked at me with sad eyes and asked me to sit near him. We could not help him at all and he quietly breathed out his soul.

Meanwhile, another young man was stabbed in the same manner outside. We did not know him. He came running here from Januszkowo, thinking that it was quiet here and found death here. Josl Katliarek's wife began birth pains at the same time and gave birth to a boy who died during his childhood.

When night fell, it suddenly became light from the flames that engulfed the entire shtetl. We did not

[Page 487]

see any Russian or German military. Everyone left on foot, running on the Ciechanowiecer road, on the road to Russia. A large number had wagons. It lasted several days until we arrived on the Russian side of Ciechanowiec in the forest. We were seized there by Germans, who told us to return to Czyzewo.

On the way, the German soldiers distributed bread, jams and chocolate to us. It was worse in the shtetl. German soldiers came into Yakov–Arya's [shop] to buy sugar. It was Shabbos and Sima–Leah led them into the shop; in several minutes they stole everything, left it empty shelved and escaped.

My partner Shmulke, Malka the baker's adopted son, and I left on foot for Ostrowa. There we bought cigarettes, cigars and matches and returned to Czyzewo with full sacks on our backs. We did very well on the transport and again returned to Ostrowa. Returning loaded with full sacks, we were very close to the shtetl. We met German soldiers who asked us to give them cigarettes, cigars. We quickly emptied our sacks. We considered it good luck – [they] quickly took the goods; the soldiers immediately were back in their wagons and without a word quickly departed. We thus lost all of our possessions [and] foreign money. We no longer had anything with which to trade.

Life began to become normal again little by little. The German commandant put together a militia and I was

[Page 488]

appointed as an interpreter at the headquarters. The Jews, local and foreign benefited from many favors. The Christian population tried to agitate with the German commandant against the Jews, denounced the Jews as smugglers of city wheat, kerosene, horses and other things. I was successful everywhere – with the help of Itshe Mankuta – at influencing the commandant on behalf of the Jews.

My Activity in the Library

At that time the provisional committee to found a library came together. All of the very young men and girls from Czyzewo were invited to the meeting where on the agenda were the questions:

  1. Approve the founding of a library,
  2. Determine the level of the enrollment cost and member's dues,
  3. Elect a managing committee and a review committee,
  4. Discussion, questions and answers.
Signing the invitation were: Baran, Brukasz and Szerszin.

At first the library was in the residence of the Flacker family, a brother–in–law of Itshe Mankuta, who voluntarily provided a place where books brought by Alter Szerszin were distributed. A short time later, an apartment of two rooms was rented from Leibl Benyimin Senders where the first founding meeting took place.

The following people were elected to the managing committee: Baran, Brukacz, Dr.

[Page 489]

Gelbaum, Yablonka Butsza, Szachnerowicz and Mordekhai Brukacz as librarian.

The library received the name “Jewish Folks [People's] Library in Czyzewo.” The premises were fully packed every evening. A division for chess and checkers also was created under the leadership of Dr. Gelbaum. Readings on various themes were given by Dr. Gelbaum, Dentist Szachnerowicz.

A stir began in the shtetl. The Hasidic parents learned that their children were going to the “Jewish kosciol [Catholic house of worship]” (that is how they referred to the library) and reading the secular books there. They began to demand of Leibl that he throw out the unclean books. Otherwise, they threatened to not permit him to offer the priestly blessing on the holidays (he was a kohan). Leibl was actually very frightened and put a lock on the door of the library.

The German commandant (he was Jew with the name Rozenbaum) sent two soldiers to rip off the lock. When Leibl tried to resist, they served him with several blows. This made an even stronger impression than the threat about the priestly blessing. In addition,

[Page 490]

we gave him an increase in rent money. The incident ended with this.

At the demand of the then Rabbi, Reb Shmuel Dovid Zablodower, may the name of a righteous man be blessed, we gave him our word of honor that the library would be closed from Friday at night to Shabbos after havdalah [the concluding Shabbos prayers]. The pious group did not stop making a fuss, until finally they became accustomed [to the library]. Their children contrived to take book from the library.

My activity in the library lasted until 1918. I became ill and was operated on in the Warsaw Hospital. Immediately afterwards I was mobilized into the Polish military. Therefore, I had to give up all communal work.

Returning after several months of active military service, I still helped to liquidate the cooperative store that was founded in 1917 with the help of Lev Yitzhak Rubinsztajn, Szachnerowicz and me. There were various unsuccessful attempts to strengthen the cooperative. However, it could not be supported in any way and it had to be liquidated against our will.

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