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[Pages 26–29]

Sources of Livelihood
of Działoszyce's Jews

by Shlomo Gertler

Translated by Roger Kaplan
Edited by Fay and Julian Bussgang

The soil of Działoszyce and that of the area both near and far from Działoszyce was known as being very fertile. It has always been used as a source for rich crops and supplied all sorts of produce, vegetables, and fruits, such as wheat, rye, barley, beans, eggs, butter, domestic fowl, calves, and other animals, especially pigs, as well as onion, garlic, cucumbers, and more.

The countryside around Działoszyce served as an important source of income to the Jews of Działoszyce – the merchants, shopkeepers, craftsmen, and the traveling tradesmen who would buy their goods.

This area was populated with many villages and farms. Most of the villagers were peasants, who worked small plots of land, and small and mid-sized farm owners of areas of around 200–300 dunams [50–75 acres], but not more than that. Every producer of crops dealt with the Działoszyce merchants and tradesmen. Owners of large farms, which occupied 400–600 dunams [100–150 acres] or more, used to sell the crops from their farms to wholesale merchants in larger cities.

The Jewish population of Działoszyce, like the village residents, was divided into classes. There were the peddlers who bought the crops of the peasants' fields, middlemen and agents who purchased the agricultural output from the middle-sized farms, and large merchants and wholesalers who did business with the large estate owners and bought their various agricultural products.

It can be presumed that every village or group of neighboring villages was linked by regular tradesmen who would visit these villages, and the villagers would distribute their different goods through them. These tradesmen were called “village trekkers” (dorf-geher in Yiddish).

In our town, there were a few hundred tradesmen who would go to the peasants' homes of the type I described, and they made their living through small-scale trading of agricultural products.

Every respectable estate owner had his own middleman who was usually a Jew and who arranged all of the matters for the paritz [nobleman], especially the distribution of farm products.

Twice a week (Tuesday and Friday afternoon), there was a market in Działoszyce. Villagers from all over the area use to come to these fairs, bringing their carts full of things for sale.

About 100–120 shops and stalls were in the market, and everyone made good money from those who came to the fairs. Every market day, they made enough money to last half a week, at least.

The villagers usually brought to town all kinds of farm-based produce – beans, cheese, butter, and all types of vegetables. They would then buy the things they needed such as kerosene, salt, clothing, boots, sickles, grinding stones, hardware, and such.

As I have stated above, about 300–400 Jewish families made their livelihood from the trade in agricultural goods from the villages in the area.

The agricultural products that were bought were only partly used by the local population; the rest was shipped to other areas where there was great demand for them, because these areas were densely populated and because their land was poor and not productive. The places where Działoszyce's agricultural products were sent, and the areas around them, were Sosnowiec, Będzin, Dąbrowa, Zawiercie, and the coal mine area.

Działoszyce was some distance from the main line of the Charsznica-Jędrzejów railroad.

Buying and transporting agricultural goods employed and provided a living for 50–60 families, the heads of which worked as wagon drivers. They would travel in their wagons every day from Działoszyce to the towns of Charsznica or Jędrzejów, carrying their produce along the way and bringing back different industrial goods, such as coal, items made from steel, dry goods, salt, kerosene, and other goods for household use that were in demand in Działoszyce and the area.

Some of the agricultural products were processed right on the spot.

In Działoszyce, two plants produced cooking oil. The raw material for this was the byproduct of vegetables from which oil and cottonseed were produced. These were returned to the different villages as processed products – oil for cooking and lighting, and cottonseed for eating and for feeding domestic animals.

Dozens of families made their living from industry and trade.

In addition, Działoszyce lay in the area bordering Galicia, which belonged to the Austro-Hungarian kaisers. The border also served as a source of income for dozens of families of smugglers and border thieves.

They used to transport cargo that came through Russia to the the city of Kraków, and then it was illegally smuggled via the “black” border or the “green” border[1]. These goods included mainly ostrich feathers and real and artificial coral. With regard to the “black” coral, a special profession began to develop, which was the threading of coral beads to make necklaces. About half the women of the town and their children worked in threading this coral.

From Austria, it was customary to smuggle all sorts of natural and artificial coral, packed unthreaded, in boxes. In Działoszyce, they used to work in the threading, keeping up with the demands of the great Russian market.

Dozens of families dealt in the sale of coral in Greater Russia, and these families traveled great distances. The traveling agents focused mainly on Ukrainian cities, but there were those who went as far as Siberia.

They would leave Działoszyce a few days after Passover. They spent a full year in Russia, and then on the eve of the first Passover seder, they would return to their homes and their families. During the year, shipments of coral would be sent in accordance with the agreed upon destination, and the purchaser would pay the price of the coral upon receipt of the shipment. But, as mentioned above, about half the women in the town and their children made their living by making coral necklaces all year round.

The areas around Działoszyce were blessed with an abundance of water, which flowed in rivers and streams. This brought about the establishment of many flour and barley mills. In the town itself and its environs, two large flour mills operated, and in the nearby vicinity, there were another five or six mills.

All of these mills were managed or leased by Jews.

Each week, large shipments of flour, weighing hundreds of tons, were shipped to Dąbrowa and Sosnowiec. All of this was in addition to the flour that the town itself and the surrounding area needed. The Jews handled all of the flour business, of course.

Dozens of families residing in the town of Działoszyce and the area were connected to the industry of the land. Among the owners of estates, there were well-known families: Szwimer, Łaznowski, and Owsiany; and among the farmers of smaller plots of land, there were the Szental, Spiro, and other families.

There were two banks in town that handled all of the town's trading business. They had links with other banks that were in the cities and that had commercial ties with Działoszyce.

Dozens of craftsmen's (tailors, sandal-makers) workshops operated within the town. They supplied the clothing and shoes needed for stores and businesses in big and small towns throughout Poland. A few workshops also were involved in the production of harnesses, tethers, saddles, and reins for export.

Even the chicory factory, which of course belonged to a Jew, was on the edge of town, close to Łabędź. A number of families made their living working in this industry, producing chicory – supplying the raw materials and selling the finished product.

These are the types of sources of income for the Jewish population in Działoszyce during World War I.

Of course, I did not see with my own eyes all the things that I described above. But I know very well about them, because I stayed in constant touch with Działoszyce by way of the town Charsznica, which was on the railroad line and was the gateway to the great wide world.


[Pages 30–48]

Grandmother's House

(Now in Ruins)

by Yisrael Zerachi

Translated by Zeva Shapiro
Edited by Fay and Julian Bussgang

The Betrothal

The cradle of my grandmother's family was a poor and remote Polish townlet that bordered on a murky river. In the spring, as the snow melted, adding to the flow of water in the valley, the river became somewhat more powerful, moving with increased vigor. But the rest of the year, it moved sluggishly, like someone with plenty of time but little energy. The townspeople would carry their pails beyond the populated area in search of unpolluted water. Their houses were in disrepair, plagued with rot, falling plaster, and sinking foundations. Grass grew in the cracks of the crumbling rooftops, and when goats climbed up to feast on this greenery, the local children chased them with unrestrained fury.

The Jews of the town sustained themselves with difficulty. As there weren't enough of them to support each other, they spread out to the neighboring countryside – the landowners' estates and the farms – buying wheat, selling shiny buttons and spools of thread. A plump young calf or a dozen fresh eggs might come their way, for which a customer could be counted on to pay well.

Just as the river followed its own course, so each family had its own means of livelihood. Grandmother's household traded in leather. Her father used to buy his wares from the animal skinners, deliver the leather to the tanner in town, and then bring them home – fine skins that filled the air with their strong smell – to sell to local merchants and shoemakers.

My grandmother, who was the youngest daughter, stayed at home. As she was born the day before Purim, she was given the name Ester. She grew into a beauty, her face round and fresh as an apple, her eyes crystal-clear, understanding everything. Even before she was of age, her father began looking for a suitable match. But her mother would scold him, “Is there no room in the house for the girl? Why do you want to send her away? She is still a child.” Her father would mutter into his beard and wink at the girl, as if to say: a father knows his daughter's heart.

Before long, Reb Zeev, the girl's father, went to celebrate Shavuos with his rebbe [Hasidic rabbi], as was his custom. He conveyed to the rebbe what was in his heart, that his daughter Ester'l, may she live long, would soon be “of age” and that in order to fulfill the mitsve [good deed/commandment] of arranging her marriage, it was his task to find her a proper mate.

The rebbe offered him his frail hand, saying, “Blessed be the maker of matches.”

At this point, many other followers arrived, from near and far, to see their rebbe's face and warm their souls in his light. Among them was Reb Izrael Zerach, a man of property and a military supplier to the czar. His beard was neatly groomed, his bearing erect. He had access to high officials, lived lavishly, and was generous. He would often bring his grandson, Jonas, with him – a shy, submissive boy who approached the rebbe, his eyes agape with wonder, his heart pounding wildly. Reb Izrael Zerach confided to the rebbe that he was hoping to find an appropriate match for his grandson. Eliasz Gabryjel, the boy's father, was incompetent, and he was the boy's guardian. It was not wealth he was seeking but a good name, a chaste and virtuous daughter of Israel.

The rebbe squinted and said, “Blessed be the maker of matches…”

At the end of Shabes, when the followers were ready to take leave of the rebbe, Reb Szymon-Zeev and Reb Izrael Zerach were called in to see him. Shortly thereafter, the betrothal was announced; the young groom, Jonas, son of Eliasz Gabryjel, son of Izrael Zerach, and the chaste bride, young Ester, daughter of Reb Zeev, were promised to each other!

It was a joyous night throughout the rebbe's court [circle of followers]. Those who had already harnessed their horses now loosened them. Those who had taken up their traveling gear set it down. Reb Izrael Zerach presided over the celebration, displaying his power and wealth. Wine cellars were emptied; the town's oven could not provide enough honey cakes and fragrant challah [braided holiday bread], so messengers were sent to neighboring towns to fill the gap.

Only one person did not participate in the celebration, not even dipping his lips in the wine. He stood in a corner, frightened and bewildered, unable to understand how he had fallen in with this raucous crowd. This was Jonas, the prospective groom.

The betrothal was celebrated into the morning hours. Then the Hasidim began to disperse and return home. Reb Szymon-Zeev, father of the bride, finally set out, arriving home after midnight. Full of joy and good feeling, he awakened his daughter and declared, “Mazel Tov [Congratulations], Ester'l. You've been betrothed, with God's blessing. You're betrothed, my child.”

The Wedding

On Sukes, the groom, young Jonas, then about 14, came to spend the holiday with the family of the bride, the maiden Ester. He arrived with his teacher and stayed in the home of the dayan [rabbinic judge], as it would not be proper for him to be under one roof with the girl. Reb Szymon-Zeev, his prospective father-in-law, walked to shul [synagogue] with him, proudly, as if he were a rare and precious esrog [type of citrus used in Sukes celebration].

The bride's friends plagued her with questions. “Nu, Ester'l, have you seen your bridegroom yet?” She answered calmly, though her heart was pounding. “What's the hurry about seeing him? In any case, he'll be my husband.”

Nonetheless, she allowed herself to be dragged into the adventure and, along with her friends, she ran past the courthouse where the guest was staying and even peered into the window. Seeing only the vague image of a boy bent over a page of Talmud, she wasn't satisfied and watched for him again toward morning. When she spotted him, marching to shul to pray, flanked by her father and his teacher, she jumped up and fled. She didn't leave her house the rest of the day, saying not a single word, not even in reply to her taunting girl friends.

Once the wedding day was set, the boy went home, but Satan intervened, and a heavy shadow descended on the bride's house, postponing the event. Reb Szymon-Zeev, the bride's father, died prematurely, leaving his wife with the burden of supporting the family. The wedding was put off from year to year, until relatives intervened. They all agreed that the marriage could no longer be postponed, that the girl, though physically small, was of age and should be married. The widow relented, and a wedding date was set.

The groom's family arrived – his father in a shiny silk cloak, his mother with an elaborate embroidered head-dress, and the grandfather, Reb Izrael Zerach, purveyor to the czar, in a stylish garment of a rare dark fabric and soft leather shoes that squeaked as he walked. Uncles and aunts arrived in festive clothes, and children, whose round black hats glowed with newness. The large entourage settled itself once again in the home of the dayan.

The widow went to welcome them. When she saw the groom, a lad whose beard was beginning to grow in, now much taller and with a strikingly obtrusive nose, she greeted the party wanly, ran home to her expectant family, and began to wail, “They've switched grooms on me!”

The assembled relatives were bewildered. What is she talking about? But she persisted. “Do they think they can abuse me because I'm a widow? Because the girl's father isn't alive to protect her? Is this the delicate boy with the soft eyes and gentle face that my husband, Reb Szymon-Zeev, may he rest in peace, chose as a groom for his daughter Ester'l? This can't be! Is there no one who will rise to the defense of an orphan? I won't go along with this!”

What a commotion, everyone talking and arguing. One relative remarked that such things do happen, as in the case of Laban, the Aramean[2].

Another said that from the start he hadn't approved of the boy but, for the sake of peace, had remained silent. After a while, the more agitated voices subsided, and more considered ones were heard. “Let's ask those who knew the boy when he was here years ago!”

The bride's mother agreed on one condition: her older sister, Brajndla, must be the one to be consulted. In the absence of the bride's father, she would trust only her opinion.

It began to rain, so Aunt Brajndla put on her heavy boots, took her spectacles, and prepared for the journey. Magda, the gentile servant, who was like a member of the family, sharing its joys and troubles, took up a heavy wooden lantern, set a candle in it, as it was by now nightfall, and set out with Aunt Brajndla.

The delegation arrived at the home of the dayan. Brajndla put on her spectacles, took the lantern from Magda, shining it on the groom's face as she turned the baffled fellow around and around. She listened to his voice and checked his skin. When she returned to the bride's home, she delivered her verdict to those who were assembled there, waiting with bated breath. In a firm and measured tone she proclaimed: “No! He is not the same young man; he is not the chosen groom!”

Once again, the bride's mother began to wail. “Isn't that what I said from the start? Didn't I know it right away? A blind man would be able to tell! Because I'm a widow, is it all right to spill my blood?”

At the dayan's house, there was great confusion. The family was waiting to be called to the wedding ceremony to no avail. The guests didn't understand the delay nor did they know the meaning of the odd visits by the relatives of the bride. The evening passed with no celebration. The guest's faces fell.

After awhile, they became aware of the rumor that was circulating through the streets, stirring up the entire town. An incredible tale: the groom of Ester'l, daughter of Szymon-Zeev, may he rest in peace, was replaced by another young man!

And when this became public, the town's dignitaries, led by the rabbi, began to deal with the error. Reb Izrael Zerach swore that he had no grown grandson from his son Eliasz Gabryjel other than Jonas, the groom, who was here before their eyes. How could anyone claim that he had been switched? The bride's mother was called to the home of the dayan, and everyone began to plead and coax her with words sweeter than honey. “What could she have in mind? Such a clever and respected woman; she is mistaken. The true groom is right here, Jonas, and no other. Heaven forbid. The boy has merely grown in the interim and has become, no evil eye should harm them, an adult. What would be the point of switching grooms? She is a smart woman, and surely she can see her mistake. “

Several townspeople even testified that they recognized the groom as the one who had come some years back, Ester'l's true groom.

Slowly, the widowed woman began to feel more confident, and, after midnight, she finally agreed to go ahead with the wedding.

The delayed celebration was under way. Musicians and singers began to tune up; cooks became busy in the kitchen as tables were arranged for the feast. The groom was led to the bride's home along with his entire entourage. A jeering voice was heard from a member of this party, as the bride was led in to sign the ketuba [marriage contract]. “Is this the bride? She probably doesn't know how to sign. She's tiny as an olive.” To which the girl retorted, “Large coins are made of copper; a dinar is small but of gold.”

The bride allowed them to scurry about in search of a pen and ink, which had not been prepared in advance. When, still hesitant, they offered her the quill, she rejected it, declaring, “I have my own; I don't need yours.”

To everyone's surprise, she reached into her bag and produced an elegant quill along with a small bottle of ink. She opened the bottle, dipped the quill in the ink, and signed her name in large clear letters, like a string of pearls.

Her mother's eyes glowed with hidden pride, and the groom's family was also pleased. The groom, flushed with embarrassment, hid his face in the document on the table.

It was a wild wedding, such as the town had not known for a long time, and it was remembered for many years.

A Livelihood

Years passed. Many children were born to the young couple, but their situation was always precarious. Both of their families had been well off but were now in decline. In one case, because of the father's death, in the other, the grandfather's death. Trading in leather was no longer profitable, and the estate left behind by Reb Izrael Zerach diminished with time. The young student, Jonas, and his wife, Ester'l, had to devote themselves to supporting their household, like everyone else in the town. As their family grew, so did their poverty. The young father was compelled to abandon his studies and to work for a livelihood. Being a novice in the ways of commerce, he entered into a partnership with a bright but crafty fellow, whose strategy was to have one of them invest the capital and the other to collect the profit. This partnership was not successful…

Grandmother's brother, Reb Moszek, intervened. Known as “Moszek the Terror,” he could not stand by in silence as his innocent brother-in-law was cheated. In his youth, he himself had strayed from the proper path, gambling away days and nights, bringing sorrow and shame to the family, heartbreak to his mother. He would sometimes appear in the morning carrying a chest filled with valuables given to him by friends who couldn't pay their gambling debts. His mother would scold him harshly, even lock him out of the house. But he always found a way in. It was even reported that he had been involved in a love affair with a young woman, that after she was married to someone else, he wrote up their story, and his manuscript was passed from hand to hand and read by the doctor, the pharmacist, and the local lawyer. He had golden hands, endless skills. He once drew a menorah and wrote the entire scroll of Ester on it. This same Moszek was totally transformed after his marriage to a chaste young woman. His beard grew, his body filled out, he gave up gambling and licentiousness, began to deal in commerce, and even found some time for study. He was known for acts of charity and generosity. Before long he gained a reputation as an upstanding Jew with a sharp mind and experience in the ways of the world, so much so that people began to consult him about their financial affairs and disputes.

This Moszek, seeing his brother-in-law's troubles, said to him one day, “Jonas, it seems to me that you were not destined to be a merchant. Why torture yourself? Even if it is the way of good men to accept suffering, which is known to purge the soul, they don't tend to pursue it. There are many ways to serve God faithfully. And you, after all, have a wife and small children.”

The young student looked at him sadly and said, “What can I do? I don't have the strength to bear my suffering. But what is there for me to do? Give in to despair?” To which his brother-in-law responded, “Was that my suggestion? I, myself, in my youth, had days when I didn't know how I would extricate myself from my difficulties. And it's no secret; one has to wake up and take action. With God's help, I abandoned my wanton ways and achieved my present position. If I have accomplished this, why not you?”

“What more can I do?”

You should leave this town. As the saying goes: “Change of place, change of fortune.” Find work that offers you steady pay. You won't be dependent on trade where the profit is sometimes high, sometimes meager. And there are those for whom it is always meager.”

The young student pulled at his beard, his eyes flaming with emotion. “Where can I go?” To which Moszek responded, “I'll take care of that, if you agree!” “In the name of my love for my family, I agree!” They shook hands, and nothing further was said.

In less than a month, a situation was found for Jonas far beyond the town limits. When his brother-in-law gave him the news, he said to his wife, “I'll go first. Maybe the place will be hard to live in. Why should we both suffer?” She answered, “Whither thou goest I shall go. I'm no better than you. And I may be able to help.”

They prepared for the trip. On the appointed day, they loaded their belongings onto a wagon, settling the children among the packages. They took leave of the family and set out with Magda, the servant girl, who walked alongside the wagon for awhile, making sure the ropes were secure and reminding the children not to cry or be a burden to their mother. When the wagon was some distance from the town, warm tears began to fill Ester'l's lovely eyes, flowing relentlessly down her cheeks. She was leaving her parents' home for the very first time, the humble wooden house at the edge of a modest stream, its interior suffused with warm, caressing light.

After a day's travel, they reached their destination: a grain mill situated in a grassy valley, beside a powerful steady stream whose waters powered the wheels of the mill. There was no sign of habitation, apart from a single house, and no trace of Jews in the entire area. The mill belonged to a paritz [nobleman], who owned property and leased it to Jews. They, in turn, hired my grandfather to be treasurer, secretary, and miller – in charge of the entire operation.

This is how my grandparents' new life began. They – Jonas, the student, and his wife, Ester, were still young.

The Pains of Parenthood

Here, in their new home at the mill, young Ester's qualities and pleasant ways became evident. She understood how to meet her husband's needs, smooth his rough edges. He, who was not accustomed to being in public, was suddenly successful in his affairs – knowing when to be tough and when to be gentle. It was, in fact, his wife who counseled him, with her intelligence, and was a source of strength to him.

Though this new work was not rewarded lavishly, there was now food on the table. Jonas's gentle temperament, integrity, and honesty made him easy to get along with and widely appreciated. There were fewer financial worries, but other worries took their place. There were almost no Jews in the area, so the oldest boy, Szymon-Zeev, could not study Torah. He had already learned to read Hebrew but was beginning to forget what he knew. How could his parents allow him to be deprived of study? Yet, for the boy, the new town was a treasure, an unexpected find. Broad meadows, cool springs, and a rushing river unlike the muddy one of his birthplace – can one make light of all these riches? The boy would leap like a goat, swim in the river, and sun himself, just like the children of the neighboring farmers. His father was horrified when he saw this; would his firstborn son grow up coarse and vulgar like them? This could not be! At night he would share his concern with his wife; the other children were still too young to worry about, but what would become of Szymon-Zeev?

One morning, he took a break from his work at the mill, tied his horse to his wagon, and brought his son back to the town of his birth, to Grandma Dina, Ester'l's mother, so he could study with Jews rather than spend his time with the local boys.

At first, the boy enjoyed the change; living with Grandma rather than under his parents' watchful eyes, going to Reb Kalman's kheyder [small Jewish religious school] to study, getting pocket money every week – what more could he ask?

The pocket money was especially precious to him; nothing was as sweet. What could it not buy? Bagels, immersed in boiling water, then baked, a giant pear, dripping with nectar; but most wondrous of all was shopping in Reb Mendele's fragrant store. The kheyder boys would cram into this narrow, dimly lit space, filled with the perfumes of Eden; there they reached into crates of rare fruit, boxes of raisins, and fig rolls, but the main object of their desire was a glistening carob. Its enticing scent caressing their nostrils, they checked to see if it was wormy as they haggled over a price. They were about to drop their coin into Mendele's wooden money box, when the boy Szymon asked one final question, “Is this carob truly from Eretz Yisroel [the Land of Israel]?”

At this point, Black Laja, Mendel's nasty wife appeared and yelled, in a voice with the power to bring death to the living and life to the dead, “Imagine, for a few dingy coins they expect carob from Eretz Yisroel. Get lost, you hoodlums, before I get my cane and chase you.”

They left the store without making their purchase, with money in their pockets and the scent of carob on their fingertips.

It wasn't long before the boy began to reject his new life. Grandma Dina turned into a tough woman, strict with her grandchild, raising her hand to him for no reason. Why was she angry? Because of the pocket money! She changed her tune and stopped giving the boy his allowance. “You don't need pocket money,” she argued. “You want a pear, here's a pear! Nuts? have some nuts! Show me a single store where, for a copper coin, you'll get such a big pear or a handful of nuts like the ones I give you. Silly boy, do you think Mendel will give you anything like this?”

But the boy did not relent. He wailed, “I don't understand, Grandma. All the boys get money, and what's the point of getting nuts instead?”

Grandma insisted. Whatever he would like to buy, she would give him, but she would not give him a single penny!

The boy suddenly remembered his parents and the grassy meadow in the country, the mill, and the rushing stream. His head was filled with longing. Now, when his father came to town on business, the boy clung to his father and went everywhere with him. And unbeknownst to Grandma Dina, his father slipped him some pocket money. He then took leave of him, sadly, regretting that he was leaving the child in exile.

The boy began to neglect his studies. He began to dislike his teacher, Kalman Kalonas, and to slip away from school. The assistant would chase him through the alleys, sometimes even over the low rooftops and force him to return. Uncle Moszek tried to influence him, but to no avail. His grandmother appealed to his conscience, in a tone at once coaxing and menacing – invoking ancestors, distinguished in learning and wisdom, but without success. When she realized that her words were having no effect, she took action. Grandma Dina was a fierce woman, and she decided to break the boy's will.

Once, when the assistant teacher came with the “good news” that Szymon-Zeev had, once again, failed to come to school, she hired a porter to find the boy, tie him to his back and deliver him to school, like a sack of potatoes. She agreed on a sum to be paid upon delivery.

It was a long time before the boy was found. He was caught, tied up, as instructed by his grandmother, and delivered, like a fattened calf, to school. In response to the boy's shrieks, crowds gathered and accompanied them all the way. The porter, after fulfilling his mission, went to collect his pay. As Grandma was reaching into her apron pocket for the money, the boy appeared, having managed to escape from school yet again. He was sobbing violently. Grandmother left the money in her pocket and shouted at the porter, “What's this all about? Why should I pay you when here he is?!” To which the porter answered, “What's that to me? Is it my affair? You hired me to carry merchandise from one place to another, and I did. Now give me the money!”

But the woman refused. Until the boy was back in school, she would not agree to pay a penny.

The boy enjoyed this negotiation and stopped crying so he could hear the argument. They finally compromised and settled for half the sum. But this was the boy's last day in town. The next day he was sent back to his village with a farmer who had brought flour from the mill and was returning with an empty wagon. He dreaded the meeting with his parents. This was not how he had pictured his return.

It was a sad day when the boy arrived. His parents were heart broken when they saw their child sent home by his grandmother. And the boy, as if suddenly transformed, begged his parents to send him back to the town. He promised that he would study diligently and not cause any more trouble. But he was not sent back. From their meager resources, his parents set aside some money and found a teacher who would come to teach him in the country.

A Guest Arrives from Nearby

One day, a young, rather odd-looking man arrived on the evening train. His young face, almost childlike, was adorned by a light, silky beard. He wore a large broad-brimmed hat and a flowing black cape that flapped in the wind as he walked. His shoes were worn, their soles almost non-existent, and barely a trace of heels could be seen. He carried a small bag and, with a firm step, as if the path was familiar, he turned toward Grandmother Esterl's house. He opened the door calmly and seated himself at the large dining table. At that moment, there was no one else in the room, but, soon, the littlest girl came in and, startled by the sight of the stranger, she ran to call her father. Grandfather's eyes were no longer very sharp, so that when he entered the room, he didn't recognize the stranger but simply greeted him politely. The guest extended his hand to Grandfather and said nothing. Grandfather was uncomfortable, not knowing how to begin a conversation with this stranger, yet hesitating to ask what he wanted. As it would not be very welcoming to ask the guest why he had come, Grandfather nodded in response and went to call Grandmother.

Grandma came into the room, bewildered, having already heard about the odd guest. She approached him, looked into his eyes and cried, “Why it's Szlama. May evil overtake my enemies, have you lost your mind? Why are you wearing a Purim costume on an ordinary day? What is this?!”

The guest smiled broadly, fell into his mother's arms and kissed her. Everyone crowded around and began to laugh heartily. The little girl hadn't recognized her brother, and now she was crying. Grandfather laughed good-naturedly. But Grandma shouted, “Go right to the barber, and get rid of those clothes. Did your brothers send you to the city so you would come back dressed like a priest?”

Uncle Szlama tried to explain to Grandmother that he couldn't possibly give up the black cape or the beard he had been grooming for months. And he tried to explain to his brothers that his clothes and beard were not frivolous but related to his faith, as it were… “Just what sort of faith?” his brothers asked, grinning. The young man's face turned serious as he responded, “If you don't laugh, I'll tell you.”

They promised, and he answered gravely, as if revealing a cherished secret. “Anarchism,” he whispered, as if mouthing the ineffable name of God. “I plan to translate Krapotkin [a Russian nihilist] into the holy tongue. “This was received with laughter and confused chatter. His brothers looked at him as if he had lost his mind. “Who is this Krapotkin whose teachings you mean to translate? Is he a descendant of the Kotzker [from Kock] rebbe, z”l [of blessed memory]? Who is he? It turns out that our Szlama, son of Reb Jonas and Ester'l, is an anarchist?” They sighed and laughed as hard as they could.

The guest was offended and retorted, “I thought you would laugh, but you promised not to.” They fell silent, and he began to explain to them about private property, resisting authority, love, marriage – the entire catechism on one foot. He spoke about the struggle between the rich and the poor, argued that poverty was not a thing to be ashamed of – until his throat was sore.

Grandma, feeling sorry for her son, interrupted him, “True, poverty is not a disgrace, but is it something to be proud of? As for the beard, let the boy be. Tomorrow he'll go to the barber and put an end to it. Meanwhile, come into the kitchen and have some meat dumplings, the kind you love. Unless anarchists are not allowed to eat such delicacies.”

Grandmother's face was aglow with love, which influenced the rest of the family. The storm subsided, and they all escorted the guest into the spacious kitchen and joined him for a meal. They devoured the dumplings, for which Grandmother was famous, stared at his thin, well groomed beard, their laughter replaced with warm smiles and a sense of well-being.

The young man stayed at home for a while. He took off his cape, folded it with religious fervor, and placed it in his bag. Chaim-Ber, the family shoemaker, replaced the heels on his worn shoes. Even Grandmother had no impact on his beard.

Zuszka, a young gentile girl from a poor village adjoining the train station – ten meager huts, their foundations sinking into the ground and their roofs covered with black straw – worked in Grandmother's house. The poverty in this remote village was overwhelming; its men worked at the station loading and unloading freight for grandfather or for Reb Mordecai's warehouse. The young women did housework for Jews by day; some of them spent their nights at the train station. They often returned home with swollen bellies, remaining there until they were fit to work again.

This Zuszka, who worked for Grandmother, was a hefty young woman. The wooden floors groaned under her weight, and the glass objects in the pantry rattled gently when she walked by. When she washed the floor, she would roll up her skirt, tucking it under the belt that circled her waist. Her full, powerful thighs, tanned by the sun, would show through the simple homespun cloth.

It was rumored that this young woman's behavior, though she worked for Ester'l, was not altogether proper. When the young man in the cape arrived, talking of freedom in government and freedom in love, the rumors became more intense. When he retrieved the cape from his bag, as it was time for him to return to Kraków, and Zuszka's belly, in the meanwhile, had begun to swell, the gossips observed, “Isn't this what we predicted? Wait and see, Zuszka's baby will be born with a cape on its shoulders.”

My grandparents were too innocent to pay attention to this talk. It may even be that it never reached their ears. But, as Zuszka's body grew rounder, Grandmother scolded her harshly, “Why did you get yourself in such trouble? Were you missing anything here? Now go away; there is no room for such behavior in this house!”

The girl cried and pleaded. It was not her fault if her young blood cried out for a man, and they, the men, were vying with each other for her favors. She begged her mistress to allow her to stay. She had nothing to live on, and who would hire her now?

Grandmother stood firm and sent the girl away. But the next day she filled a basket with provisions – a sack of flour, a bottle of goose fat, some meat – which she gave to her young daughter to deliver. “Take this basket to Zuszka,” she said. “She's sick. But don't get involved in conversation, dear, because you could catch her sickness. Leave the basket at her door and hurry back home.”

Grandmother, with her heart of gold, sent food to Zuszka throughout the pregnancy. After the birth, she even cooked her a chicken soup, grumbling incessantly about the girl's immoral behavior… I don't know whether Zuszka's child was born with a cape on its shoulders. I know only that from then on she used to come to Grandma's regularly to do the laundry. She often disappeared for a while, when her belly began to swell, and returned to the mill some months later, pale and feeble.

Returning to the Ancestral Home

The road extended over hill and dale, through dense forests, across crumbling bridges. Finally, the stumbling wagon reached the outskirts of Grandmother's town. The old mare, its strength giving out, plodded along sadly. The passengers, almost breathless from exhaustion, sighed and groaned dejectedly. The children wailed, but there was nothing to offer them for comfort. All the food had been eaten, leaving nothing but hope to sustain them. The mustached driver was cursing his horse, the passengers, even himself, spitting in anger and rage. Only Grandmother was wondrously calm. As the wagon approached the outskirts of town, she began to call out the name of every familiar path, each field and hill – this was where she used to walk when she was young.

They finally arrived at a stream. The horse began to drink thirstily; the driver got down and unharnessed the animal. Then, when the horse finished drinking, they crossed the stream, the water lapping noisily at the wheels of the wagon. They entered a small valley that separated the riverbanks from the gentile cemetery. Its tall trees rustled in the wind. This valley was the scene of an annual fair which, in Grandma's youth, was a festive and noisy event. The village children would gather there, play an endless variety of games, ride colorful wooden horses, buy kites, paper birds, candy on a stick, all sorts of confections, and sweet fruit drinks. Her husband, when he was young, used to love the bustle of the fair. Her children, young and old, used to spend endless hours there. Only these young grandchildren of hers knew nothing about it.

At last, one could see smoke rising from chimneys in the town. Eager eyes fixed themselves on a transparent cloud that trembled in the air. The scent of cooking wafted their way, as if the warmth of home was rising to greet them. Any minute now… they would soon be there. But what was in store for them now in this remote Jewish town?

The travelers got out of the wagon to lighten the old mare's load, walking slowly toward the outlying houses. When they reached the first alleys of the town, a confused scene unfolded: hundreds of refugees from near and far – from regions already affected by the turmoil and from areas it was about to overtake – seeking refuge in this remote corner, hoping it would be spared. Entire families, young and old, camped in the streets with their bags. As there was no housing for them, they claimed a spot in any available corner, in vacant lots strewn with trash, in the ruins of crumbling buildings. The town was dying under the burden.

The main concentration of people could be seen beside the lazy stream, in the square that stretched between the butcher shops and the old synagogue. With difficulty, the wagon made its way through the mass of people and bundles, reaching the end of the encampment, where children dozed in their parents' arms, old people sat and argued, women tried to find food or sat with their eyes fixed desperately on the ominous horizon.

A noisy commotion was heard from beyond the synagogue where a crowd had gathered around a small, frail Jew with disheveled hair, his peos [side locks] rocking wildly, his black hat slipping down his back, his entire appearance bedraggled and confused, as if he had escaped some great calamity. The wagon was forced to stop before the crowds that blocked its way. Its occupants watched as the strange fellow climbed onto a pile of rocks. His fiery words stirred the hearts of his audience. He waved his hands to and fro; his eyes blazing with an alien fire as he spoke the fierce words that seemed to inflame his throat: “A holy people, a tortured people, how can I comfort you? From whom can I demand recompense? When will the fury relent? Is this how You reward Your people, Israel? You have spilled its blood, violated its honor. How long? Until when? Entire holy communities are torn apart, destroyed, slaughtered. There is no justice and no judge.”

The meaning of these words was soon explained. There was no one in the village, either among its inhabitants or the refugees, who didn't know this man. He was an observant Jew, a teacher, who was as careful with minor commandments as with more serious ones, the scion of a fine family that Grandmother knew well in her youth. This was a man who had deprived himself of all luxury, devoting himself to lamenting the destruction of the temple. On Shabes, he didn't so much as speak to his family. And from sunset on Shabes eve until the three stars that signified its end, he didn't utter a sound other than prayer and penitence. He was a fervent Jew, ready to sanctify the name of his God in public. When calamity struck, destroying Jewish settlements in adjacent lands, when Satan's hand was extended over the entire state to destroy and annihilate, he was transformed by grief. He began to rant against heaven, violated the Shabes in public, called people together to listen to his raging, horrific orations.

The wagon began to move again, wending its way through the crowd, the alarming words they had just heard echoing in their ears: “Woe unto the ship that has no captain and woe unto the ship whose captain You are. Is this how you redeem the blood of the persecuted?” Those who heard his words nodded sadly and shrugged their shoulders in sympathy. “May the Lord have pity on him. This pious Jew has lost his mind from so much suffering and pain. May God forgive him.”

When they reached the other side of the square, they caught sight of their small ancestral home. It looked even more forlorn and modest, having sunk ever more deeply into the ground, its frame in total disrepair. Yet the distant shadow of the past cast over it an aura of love, charm, and longing – like the longing for a distant childhood. This humble house was now a rare refuge, the fulfillment of a long dream, the most beloved, most precious of houses.

They stood before it in deep prayer. When the wagon came to a halt at its doorway, their eyes were misty. Grandmother's legs began to falter, and it was necessary to support her and all but carry her inside, where she was welcomed with a burst of activity and excitement. Some of Grandmother's children, driven by fear of the encroaching enemy, had already assembled here. When the men left the centers of commerce during the first days of the catastrophe, they decided to return to the shelter of their ancestral home. Though they had each followed a different road, they were reunited, without having made such a plan ahead of time. Now their wives and children, along with Grandma herself, joined them. In the midst of the terrible events, was this not a happy occasion?

As soon as she arrived, Grandma felt weak and had to get into bed. Her legs were swollen, her entire body painful. The wanderers no longer needed her to cast her protective spirit over them. She could rest. This small, aged woman, this valiant Jewish mother, having collected her dispersed family, could finally rest.

When the children fussed over her and tried to relieve her discomfort, she would dismiss them with a gentle sigh. “It's all right, children. It's all right. Don't worry about me, my dears. I don't need anything more. I'm home again, back home, like in the past, so many years ago. Don't worry about me. Am I a young woman? I'm almost eighty; I ask only that I be allowed to reach eighty…”

Chaos

The joy in the old house was short-lived. It was soon replaced by terror. The enemy's heavy equipment advanced steadily, tightening the noose around the entire country. Jews were trampled and abused in all the lands of conquest. There was no escape from the airplanes that circled everywhere. Even the skies of the village began to thunder. No lights were lit at night for fear of the airplanes, but by day the sun provided light for the demons of destruction. Meanwhile, there were heart-rending rumors. Warsaw was besieged; German tanks decimated the cavalry regiments that defended the city. Acts of heroism and despair were recounted again and again – how Polish and Jewish soldiers, armed only with swords, rose up against the tanks only to be crushed, falling like grains of sand… The Hel Peninsula, a fortress on the Baltic Sea, surrendered. When, after a bloody battle, enemy soldiers entered the fortress, they were stunned by the courage of the defenders. There were no armed men left; they were all dead or fatally wounded – a handful of fighters wanting only to die.

One day, the village was shattered by the sound of a powerful explosion. Many houses were destroyed. The sturdier ones survived, though all their windowpanes were broken. Everyone thought the end had come. But the sound was not repeated. It was later discovered that a nearby junction, rarely used as it was in such disrepair, had been bombed. An entire refugee family, camping close to that spot, was destroyed. It wasn't even possible to bury their remains in the proper Jewish way. There were constant upheavals. The refugees began to run again, but where was there a safe place? Slowly, the panic subsided.

But no attack from above could match the fear that came with the news that the German army was approaching. Many refugees resumed their wandering. The village was divested of its first round of refugees, but newcomers replaced them. Regiments, defeated by the enemy and now in flight, began to occupy the abandoned houses; and recruits, who had not yet been mobilized, wandered about like lost souls. Husbands searched for their wives, desperate parents searched for children lost in the confusion.

As the enemy approached, those men who had not already fled, left for the interior of the country, which continued to hold out. The male members of Grandmother's family decided to leave the danger zone and, once again, they took leave of their loved ones – the second such parting since the terror began. This time they took their grown sons with them. First in the procession was Uncle Szlama with his oldest son. He kissed his wife, then Grandma and the others, and went off. Uncle Henie walked along with him for a while, but then they parted ways, as Szlama had a Polish friend, a town official, whom he wanted to see before leaving. When he found his friend, the fellow seized him and declared, “Panie [Mr.] Salomon, my dear Panie Salomon; I've been struggling all day – to leave or not to leave. My family holds me back. But I myself… I can't bear to see the swastika in our sacred land. I would rather die. Now I know what I'll do. I will go with you. Wait just a minute. Wait for me, my friend.”

His family surrounded him and began to wail. But he ignored them, turning to Szlama. “My dear friend, wait. We'll go together. We will flee from our misfortune. Don't we have one fate? The destruction of your temple so long ago is like our terrible destruction now. Because we hated you… How did we treat you? With hatred? Envy? Murderous rage?! This is the day of reckoning. Our plight is the same as that of the Jews. Our beloved Polish homeland is being trampled by the Krauts [Germans].”

He fell on the neck of Uncle Szlama, his shoulders trembling as he wept. Beyond the window, the dirge of that mad Jew could be heard, bemoaning the destruction of the people of Israel; while, here, the Pole was lamenting the destruction of his people. Only Uncle Szlama's soul wept, secretly, for both losses.

Less than a week after the men fled the town, German regiments approached. First, they appeared on motorcycles. Then came tanks, followed by a mass of troops. Their air force provided cover, for which there was little need, the spirit of the town's defenders having already been broken. No one dared resist the enemy. Deadly terror overcame the town. The people stayed in their houses, crowded together and densely packed, not daring to stick their heads out.

Soon there was no more food. A few daring individuals ventured out, submitting to the yoke of the cruel conqueror, exposing their souls to scorn and humiliation. The ironclad steps of German soldiers, messengers of Satan, echoed everywhere, spreading terror throughout the town.

At first, the family tried to hide the arrival of the Germans from Grandma, who was sick and bedridden. But, though she hadn't been told the news, she asked, “Are they as cruel as their leader? Have they not a single spark of soul? After all, don't they have wives and children at home? Is there no God in their hearts?” The family was silent.

As soon as the Germans took charge, a Polish mob, led by seasoned rioters, began to seize and plunder the meager property of the Jews, attacking, wounding, smashing windows, inciting the neighboring peasants, inviting them to bring their wagons to town and fill them with loot. Screams were heard in the alleys as rioters with axes broke down the doors of Jewish stores. There was total license with regard to Jewish property, a gift from the Germans to the Poles, whose homeland they were trampling – a soulless people who leaped at this bargain, unleashing their rage and fury, behaving like vicious animals.

Finally, the Germans put an end to the riots so they could get on with their program. The old synagogue was turned into a stable. Aged Jews were forced to groom the horses. Many of the young people were imprisoned. No one knew their whereabouts. Special laws were enacted, excluding Jews from the human community. They were forbidden to leave the house after sunset under penalty of death; they were ordered to salute every German soldier and make way for him; they were not to walk on the sidewalks. There was to be no contact between Poles and Jews; property was being confiscated.

And then this happened: One night some carousing German soldiers got drunk and began singing blood-curdling songs about the Jews. When they were thoroughly intoxicated, they began waving their weapons at each other, and, in the course of their horseplay, a shot was fired, injuring one of the soldiers. The rumor went out, instantly, that the wretched Jews had struck a German soldier. And there were even some Poles who attested to this. A few leading citizens were summoned by the military governor. What transpired is unknown. But when they were released, crushed, and humiliated, the crowd of Jews was informed that this time they would be pardoned and merely required to pay a ransom; but, should there be a second offense, the town would be razed and not a single Jewish soul would remain.

The fine imposed on the impoverished community was beyond its modest means. Money, jewelry, and provisions were collected and delivered to the authorities. But was that enough to satisfy the appetite of the new rulers and to assuage their anger? Not a day passed without incident. The lives of Jews were in mortal danger.

One comforting possibility remained; the forces fighting in the eastern sector might still defeat the enemy and rout its armies from its border. Every heartbeat was devoted to this hope, which shone like a distant star. Then came the astonishing news that the Russian army was camped on Poland's eastern border. There was great joy in the occupied territories; everyone was eager for the Germans and Russians to confront each other. Hope was ignited even in those hearts that had despaired. Everyone expected the German enemy to be driven out. But then the [Soviet] alliance with the enemy was made public; the unoccupied section of Poland, which was now prepared to defend itself, had fallen into the hands of the Russians[3]. In the light of this news, the last of the freedom fighters dispersed. Warsaw fell; the occupation of Poland was complete – the forces of the Swastika having joined hands with those of the Red Star over the body of Poland, now torn apart and writhing in its own blood.

Grandma's family was similarly torn apart. The men were trapped in the area taken over by Russia, the women and children remained in the clutches of the Germans. The fate of those who fled is unknown. There was no news from them. A heavy black curtain obscured everything.

Sunset

Winter descended on the town, on all its gloomy dwellings. White snow covered the fields, brightening the blackened roofs and the worn cobblestones. The river froze. At first, it was covered with a thin strip of ice under which it continued its lazy flow. Then, the last drop of water froze, and it became totally still.

Once, on a cold and frosty day, an old woman came to Grandmother's door, her head covered by a woolen scarf as was the way of the local peasants. She entered the house with gingerly steps, leaning on a heavy stick. When no move was made to welcome her, she exclaimed, “What's the matter? You don't recognize old Magda?” Is it for this that she had worked all those years? Only to be forgotten? When she undid her scarf, they all recognized her immediately. This was, indeed, Magda, who had worked in their house so long ago. They bestirred themselves and brought her a chair.

She caught her breath, allowed the scarf to slip down her back, and said, “I heard Ester'l had come to town, and I had to see her. Though I haven't been here in years, I've come from the country to see the girl.” She went in to see Grandmother, whom the old servant woman still regarded as the little girl from the ancient house. She threw herself on Grandmother's bed and wailed: “My dove, my heart, are you sick? You're not old at all, my soul… When was your wedding, wasn't it only yesterday? And the mix-up with the groom, remember? I heard he's already dead. May he rest in peace. I remember everything, everything. When did it all happen? Wasn't it only yesterday? My dove, dear heart of mine, I found out that you are here, and I came, quick as an arrow, on my aged feet.”

She embraced Grandma and bestowed warm kisses on her cheek. Grandma's eyes blazed with a distant light, warm and excited. The family tried in vain to remove old Magda from the sickroom. Grandmother protested, asking, with her burning eyes, that the guest remain at her side. And Magda murmured repeatedly: “Now that I've come to you, my dove, to my heart, can I leave so quickly? I've brought some food for you, my soul. At such a time, when such villains are ruling the land, who knows – you may need something.”

As she spoke, she dug into the recesses of her crude garment and produced a cup of butter and a dozen large eggs, which she placed at the edge of the bed. Then she fell silent, sat on the bed, took Grandmother's pale hands in her own and pressed them tight. The two old women sat together, a remnant of distant times, their hands clasped in silence.

But Grandmother didn't need the nourishment old Magda had brought. She was sinking, the thread of her life becoming more tenuous. Only her eyes retained a faint spark. She worried about her children, scattered in far off fields, wandering in unknown places. They might be hungry; they could have fallen into the hands of the cruel enemy. One night she asked that one of her young grandchildren be brought to her. When he approached, she gave him a finely crafted silver goblet, one of the few objects that had survived the upheavals, and whispered, “When you grow up and go to Eretz Yisroel, give this goblet to Izrael Zerach [the author of this account], and tell him that it belonged to your grandfather, whose memory is a blessing.”

She kissed the boy, who didn't understand her words, and sank back into the pillows.

Purim arrived – Grandmother's 80th birthday. But the time was not suited to celebration, with the enemy ruling one's body and trampling one's soul, the family torn asunder and Grandma herself, like the House of Israel, shrinking. Nonetheless, the plan was to mark the day. As the Megile [Purim story of Ester] was being read, in the semi-darkness of the low-ceilinged room, Grandmother's heart began to falter, and she no longer understood what was going on around her.

The following day, her simple, innocent soul, the soul of a precious Jewish mother, continued to fade. Benign spirits arrived to envelop her soul, the spirits of the old homestead to which she had returned to complete the circle of her life. Images from the bright shores of childhood and from the abyss of great sadness were now revived, fluttering before her eyes. What they whispered to the old woman in her last moments is not known…


Editors' Footnotes

  1. The “green border” refers to areas in the countryside where the border was not patrolled and could be easily crossed. The “black border” perhaps refers to black market activity. Return
  2. Laban substituted his daughter Leah for her sister, Rachel, as a wife for Isaac. Return
  3. Based on the Molotov-Ribbentrop secret pact between the USSR and Germany, the Soviets entered and occupied the eastern half of Poland on September 17, 1939. Return

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