Table of Contents

[Pages 39-59]

Jewish Social Living in the Shtetl

Eliezer Weinberg

Translated by Samuel Prum

Two places – names, history, and development

Gnyewishiv, is how they called the town where I was born in Yiddish; and in Polish - Gniewoszów. A small and simple shtetl [small village], with simple Jewish inhabitants.

How small was my shtetl? - It had a general inhabitant count of 600 families, of which 350 were Jewish, and were at first at first split into two separate developments: Gniewoszów and Granica (Grenitz).

The population in each development was each separately counted: Gniewoszów – about 250 families, of these 150 Jewish families. Granica – about 350 families, and of these around 200 Jewish families. The distinction between both places was an administrative one. The township, Powiat [district] and all the offices were in accordance with the previously mentioned names of the each shtetl. In a passport it was clearly noted where one was born: in Gniewoszów or Granica. Every house and shop were also noted in the mortgage or registration papers. The common name was Gniewoszów, but Granica also had a large market place. A stranger coming into Gniewoszów questioned how come such a small shtetl had two large market places.

Here is what our grandfathers told us about the development of the two separate communities: this happened before the Polish Powstanye (uprising) against the Tsarist government [in 1863]. The lands used to belong to privileged landowners, with various noble titles. The founders of the developments belonged to two different noble family lines – Gniewoszów and Granic. Gniewoszów called his Jewish superintendent and told him: “since your Jews are looking for places where they can settle, I am releasing these lands for such and such annual toll and they can put up housing and farms.” And so it happened. Jews began to come settle there and from then on they called the place Gniewoszów.

The second nobleman, Granic, noticed that his neighbor was not doing so badly in his deal with the Jews and was receiving a very nice income every year, so he followed the example of the nobleman Gniewoszów and he called his superintendent and had him offer the Jews lower taxes and a better share of the income. So the Jews began to settle there, and from then on the place is called Granica. This is how it was told to me and this is how I pass it on.

From a political administrative point of view, the shtetl with two names belonged to Congress Poland (occupied by Russia) until World War I; and was part of the Radom Gubernia, District of Kozienice, township of Sarnow. The two settlements both lie along the Wisła [Vistula] river, between Puławy and Demblin (Modrzyce) [its old Polish name, later called Deblin or Demblin]. To the right of Gniewoszów [east] is the district town of Puławy. To the left lies Demblin [the river Wisła makes a sharp 90 degree bend to the west, north of Puławy, before it turns north again towards Demblin (Deblin)], with a fortification that once carried the name “twierdza Iwangorodrzka” [Fortress Iwangorodrzka]. To Puławy or to Demblin is about 10 Km.

Years back, when one needed to go to Puławy, you had to cross the Wisła river by traveling to Gory Puławski and then be ferried over in a Parom, which carried wagons as well as people for a set fee. The Parom used to go back and forth. People could also cross over with a Lodke. At the start of winter and in early spring, when ice blocks flowed down the Wisła, Gniewoszów was cut-off from Puławy.

When the Wisła froze solid, one could travel by wagon or on foot across the ice. This was the way one reached Puławy until the beginning of the First World War. The link to Demblin was never broken because a bridge already existed over the Wisła with train tracks for the train from Radom to Demblin to Lublin, or Radom to Demblin to Warsaw. When the train was not running, people in wagons could cross the bridge.

Puławy and Demblin belonged to a different Gubernia, because Gniewoszów was on one side of the Wisła and the two towns were on the second side, yet the entire trade for Gniewoszów involved Puławy and Demblin.

 

The organization of the Jewish community and the local practices

The Jews from Gniewoszów and Granica formed one community. This community also included two smaller settlements – Garbatka, with 30 families, and Czeczechow – 20 families.

The administration of the community consisted of 4 Dozors [akin to councilmen] and a Rabbi. The institutions of the community were split between the various developments: Gniewoszów had a shul [synagogue], a rabbi, a shames [synagogue keeper], a shochet [ritual slayer and butcher] and a chazan [cantor]; there was minyan that every Shabbat prayed with the rabbi, and a separate cemetery. In Granica there was also a shul, a bet medresh [prayer and study house], a rabbi, a shochet, a shames, a chazan, and also two Hassidic shtibelach [prayer homes]: Gerer and Lubliner. Also, by the Grenitzer rabbi there was a minyan every Shabbat and a separate cemetery. But there was only one [ritual bath house], which was located in Granica, to which the Jews needed to come. The mikvah united both communities – and as a result, there were many anecdotes that were passed on….

It used to be a custom that on Rosh Hashanah for Maariv [evening prayer], Jews would go to pray wearing Talitim [prayer shawls], but only in Gniewoszów. Two legends were told as to the origins of this practice. The first one told how, many years back, the Jews from Gniewoszów came one time on Rosh Hashanah evening to pray for Maariv. Inside the shul there was such crowding that it was impossible to move around. At that time the Kozienice Seer, Rav Israel, happened to be in Gniewoszów. He stood up and told all congregants present that they should go home and bring back with them their Talitim and wrap themselves in them. All the congregants did as told. When they came back into the synagogue to pray Maariv, the congestion disappeared. Every one could move around. From then on it became a custom at Maariv on Rosh Hashanah, that all Jews in Gniewoszów wear their Talitim.

The second legend portrays the explanation for the custom in a completely different light. Many years back in our area it was a very dry year. The entire harvest burnt down (the opposite was also said - that it was a very wet year and the harvest spoiled in the field), this brought about famine. They used to cook cockroaches, which the people were not used to eating. At the same time, a cholera epidemic broke out in Gniewoszów. Many people died. For Erev [evening of] Rosh Hashanah, the Rabbi called out for all the people in Gniewoszów to come to shul wearing their Talitim, and ask G-d to end the epidemic. From then on it became a custom: for Maariv on Rosh Hashanah, as well as for Kol Nidrei [Yom Kippur evening prayer], for all congregants attending prayers in the Gniewoszów synagogue (and later on in the Bet Hamidrash), to wear their Talitim. In Granica and in the Hassidic shtibelach such a custom did not exist.

Until the First World War, the community administration was conducted as follows: to the shtetl came the head of the Powiat, Natszalnik, from Kozienice. He called a meeting of all the Jews at the Bet Midrash in Granica, and asked for a show of hands of those who wanted to become a shtetl Dozor. Anyone who wanted the job could become Dozor for a few rubles, since Natszalnik made the final decision. In reality, the Dozors of the community did not have any great wisdom.

For the position of government Rabbi, the Hassidic Jews wanted to have their own man, because among the two rabbis of Gniewoszów and Granica, neither one was eligible to become the official rabbi [meaning a Government rabbi]; as this position required someone who could speak and write Russian. As a result, a Gerer Hassid became the official Rabbi.

 

The Way of Life of Jews in Gniewoszów

Jews earned their living in both shtetl developments by being merchants, storekeepers, and craftsmen – tailors, shoemakers, furriers, glaziers, metal workers, and transporters. The biggest business day was market day, which took place once a week Tuesdays. On that day, farmers used to come from all the surrounding villages with their products to sell. From the money they made, they would buy supplies in the stores or at stalls in the market that were especially set up every Tuesday.

In Granica, as you descended the hill, was located the shul and the Bet Hamidrash. To the side from the prayer houses were the Mikvah and a washing house. In the shul they prayed according to the Ashkenazi custom. Across, at the Bet Hamidrash, they followed the Sefardic custom. Along three walls (north, east and south), sat bachurim [young students] and Baalei Batim [homeowners], and they studied from early in the morning until late at night. The entire western wall was filled with books, religious tracts, and other tractates.

In winter time, by four in the morning the shames would fire up two wood burning ovens, The Baalei Batim and the bachurim would sit down to study from the time regular Jews would start to say Tehilim [psalms], and until it was time for prayer.

In order to purchase new books, or to repair damaged books there was a “Va'ad Tikun Sefarim,” [Committee for the Repair of Books] that was made up by some of the young students. Every Thursday, the Committee used to send a couple of the “poor” younger student members of the Committee into Gniewoszów and Granica, to collect money for the repair for the books. They conducted a Buchalterye, since there was a weekly tax on each homeowner from five to twenty groschen [cents of the unit of currency used]. Many Gerer households paid the same taxes, as they felt they were doing a great Mitzvah. There were also households who answered: “come back next week” – and would not pay for six months. Then they would wait for the homeowner and exact from him in one visit a large amount of money.

There was a custom that when a child was ready to put on Tefilin [phylacteria], the father would come with his Bar Mitzvah boy to the Bet Hamidrash and show him how the Mitzvah is done. After the first time putting the Tefilin on, the child was required to distribute cigarettes to everyone who was at the Bet Hamidrash, young and old. A similar custom also existed for a new groom, who was called to the Torah. From Sunday morning until the day of the wedding, he gave out cigarettes, but only to his friends and acquaintances.

As I mentioned, there were two Hassidic shtibelach, a Gerer and a Lubliner. They prayed in the shtibelach during Shabbat, Yom Tov [holidays], and the Days of Awe. Most renowned was the Gerer shtibel. Everybody there wore satin or silk Kapotes [Coats] with thick bands, long and broad Talit braids, and velvet Kipot [headcoverings]. A large number of the Hassidim wore Shtreimels [fur-lined hats], and those who did not have the means, wore velvet hats. Young students only had velvet Kipot and silk Kapotes.

Shabbat morning at 7 they started praying in the Hassidic shtibelach. From the end of Shacharit [morning prayers] until the reading of the Torah, there was a break. And they sat down to study. The children ran home to get a snack. The more erudite, allowed themselves a break to read Tehilim. A Hassid who did not consider himself a great student and sat down to just read books of proverbs did not suffer any troubles. A young student would come by and ask questions about interpretations on various topics by the Tossafot or the Ma'harasha [wisemen renowned for their interpretation of the Talmud]. Those Hassidim studying Kabalah were also left alone.

There used to be Yomah Difgra [literally days off, or days to relax] – Purim and Simchat Torah. When it was warm and welcoming in the shtibl. They used to get a Hassid drunk and would have him say Mincha [afternoon prayer]. By then he did not feel a thing. Talitim [prayer shawls] would be thrown at him and he would sing Mincha using a Yom Kippur melody. Only at these times did the Hassidim celebrate and be happy, otherwise it did not happen.

 

The Dispute Between the Two Hassidic Shtibelach

Between the two Hassidic shtibelach there was a dispute as to who should lead the religious life in Gniewoszów – Ger or Lublin. Also there was a “Mitzvah War” as to whether it was more important to get a shochet or a rabbi: then the Hassidim from both sides began to be more interested in the simpler praying approach of the shul or the Bet Hamidrash. They also took into account the interests of the homeowners and got a letter of petition seeking even more signatures of support. Each side of the Hassidim started seeking the support of the senior leadership in town as well as regular folk who could influence the people.

When it came to hiring a shochet, both sides sent their leaders all over town lobbying for their side, that they should handle the deal. At the same time, they sent delegations of Hassidim to their rabbis, to ask for them to send candidates for a shochet. Each candidate brought with him a certificate from his rabbi, and by the certificates, one could see who the rabbi wanted for a shochet. Each Hassidic group began to work behind the scenes to undermine the other's candidate's credibility by urging a careful review of the certificate provided.

One time they needed to hire a shochet, so the Gerer Hassidim brought the renowned and learned Rev Shimon Mandelboim (Shimon Leib Notes) to build support from the people and from their leader, Rev Kissel. Rev Shimon cut a deal with Rev Kissel, and promised, in the name of the shochet, that the shochet would contribute so and so to the Bet Midrash, the shul, and other institutions, thereby showing all the value the shochet added, including being a good mohel [person performing the ritual circumcision], a nice keeper of the tradition, a good leader of prayer, and therefore a very special, upright Jew. It was agreed that in about two weeks, when they bless Rosh Chodesh [start of the new Jewish month], the shochet would come to lead public prayers in the synagogue or the Bet Midrash.

The Gerer Hassidim together with Rev Shimon then wrote a letter to the candidate and described what they had accomplished, that there was already an agreement with the leader of the people to pay for him, so that in about two weeks the shochet should plan to come to spend Shabbat and lead prayers and bless Rosh Chodesh, and G-d willing there will be a gathering on Motzaei Shabbat [the evening at the end of theSabbath], at which they will issue him a signed written contract from the homeowners.

The Lubliner Hassidim became very upset over the behind-the-scenes scheme being carried out by Rev Shimon. So pretending as if they knew nothing, they went to see Rev Kissel and began to describe to him all the things that the shochet was asked to do. He has to donate so and so to the community management and they, the Lubliner Hassidim, would also have to give separately. The Lubliner Hassidim had to give 25 rubles, all without anyone knowing, so that Rev Kissel can have a Kiddush [reception after prayers] with his friends. Rev Kissel than promised the Lubliner Hassidim that they need not worry and everything would be all right.

Meantime, the time came when the candidate needed to come lead prayers and bless Rosh Chodesh. He led prayers, showed his skills, and was actually a very good Baal Tefilah [prayer leader], and a good singer. But when the prayers ended, Rev Kissel stood up and said: “I do not believe the shochet will be good for us.” Immediately some runners went to the Gerer shtibel and reported on what Rev Kissel had said. Rev Shimon in great surprise grabbed his heart and started to scream: “Oh my, oh my, I had no idea that Kissel is a liar!” From then on, it became a saying amongst us: “Oh my, oh my, I had no idea that Kissel is a liar!” when a lie was told, or when someone was known to be a liar. Also, one would hear people say: “what are you telling me, it's well known that Kissel is a liar!”

In the end, the shochet ended up staying. Hassidim from the Gerer shtibl began new negotiations with Kissel and took the approach of coming up with a settlement. The Hassidim knew that with money you could get anything done with Kissel. The shochet had to contribute another 100 rubles. Of the 100 rubles, 50 had to be laid out to the community administration, and the second 50 rubles to the agent alone, that is to say Kissel.

The Gerer had control over the religious articles in Gniewoszów and Granica. The Hassidim of Ger controlled the Granica rabbi, both positions, and the rabbi from Kozienice. The Lubliner Hassidim had absolutely no influence over the religious effects. The Gniewoszów rabbi happened to be a Porisaver Hassid, but not a fanatic. He rarely went to the rabbinate headquarters. With the Gniewoszów rabbi, Rabbi Yaacov Leib Tzuker, there was always a minyan. There, went to pray Hassidim who were followers of many rabbis. The Hassidim from Granica played the leading role, because there were more of them than in Gniewoszów. Gerer or Lubliner Hassidim had to go to Granica to pray at their respective shtibels.

 

The Beginning of Cultural and Zionist Activities

Until 1921, Gniewoszów did not know about social life. Until the First World War there were religious based societies, such as the society Shass, the Tehilim society, the burial society, and the society to repair books. At the time of the war, a society for welfare was founded. In 1916, a group of young people wanted to start a library and began to gather books. The driving force behind this was Moshe Rozenwein, or as they called him in the shtetl – Moshe Fallach. But this did not sustain itself for very long. Soon after Poland's independence [Poland was reconstituted as a nation as part of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919], almost all activists, together with the instigator Moshe Rozenwein, emigrated from Poland.

It was not until 1921 when a group of 16-year old Bet Midrash young men laid the foundation for social life in the shtetl (only one 20-year old young man was among them – Leibl Liebhober).

Soon after the First World War new winds began to blow among the young Jewish people in the small shtetlech, led by the young men from the Bet Hamidrash. They began to hide under the books of Gemorah [second part of the Talmud consisting mainly of commentaries], Hebrew and Yiddish books and newspapers. The first two books I came across were from the Zionist library in Puławy, which I received from my cousin who lived there. Many other young men received books from other places. In this way we traded books amongst ourselves over a period of several months. The young people, eight in number, used to discuss among themselves current issues and what to do about them. Exact plans as to what to do nobody had. Several times we stopped the gathering and we would then discuss that we must meet (obviously in secret) in a special place and invite also the girls from Hassidic homes.

We agreed that Shabbat eve we should come together. For this purpose we rented for several hours a room in the home of the Christian Adam Stefien in Aleksover Road. Jews no longer lived in that area. We let the girls know that at such a time on Shabbat eve they should come to the Christian home.

At the agreed time the girls came to the place, where we were already waiting with beating hearts. The gathering began well (in luck). The chairman of the gathering became Leibl Liebhober, who already had a nice black beard.

No definite decisions were reached. We discussed standing up a library and creating books, seeking to legalize the library, and looking for a special place to rent. In the middle of the gathering something amazing happened: from the ground suddenly rose the parents of the girls, with an additional group of pious women. Among them was the old Kalman Leib Tzweingenberg, who lived not too far from the place where we were holding the gathering; and among the girls were three grandchildren of his. The woes and screams from those who had arrived were so loud they could be heard in the heart of heaven!

“It's burning! A fire is burning!,” they were screaming. “Who could have imagined such a terrible outcome? Such a terrible disgrace and shame (Chorpot u'Boshot), that young men from the Bet Hamidrash should get together with girls!”

The screams and woes grew stronger and louder, as the Christians from the neighborhood came running in. The Jews did not stop berating the young men: “How dare you, young men, to come after the girls from Gniewoszów? Take your own girls from Granica! Don't you have enough girls in Granica?”

The line of reasoning seemed “fair,” since there was not a single young man from Gniewoszów in the group, all were from Granica; and among the girls it was completely the opposite: all of them were from Gniewoszów.

Here is the list of the boys from Granica: Leibl Liebhober, Yosef Kuropatwe, Moshe Kosman, Pinkhas Goldstein, Chaim Zlotogure, Motl Malekh, Avish Shteinfeld, and the writer of these memoirs.

Here is the list of the girls from Gniewoszów: Chantshe Korman, Sarah Korman, Rochtshe Tzweigenberg, Chava Tzweigenberg, Raizl Kuperman, Sarah-Leah Lifshitz and Sarah Tzweigenberg (lived in Radom, born in Gniewoszów).

For the girls, the way home with their parents, you can imagine how it went. What they received at their homes remained a secret, because the girls were ashamed to tell. But the punishment received by Chava and Rochtshe Tzweigenberg, we did know about: When nighttime arrived, they were not allowed to leave their home for several weeks.

This way came the gathering to an end for the seven girls. For the boys it only just began the “marriage” to their homes. Sunday morning, when the parents came to the Granica Bet Hamidrash, they learned what had happened the evening before on the Alexower Road. Both towns, Gniewoszów and Granica, were boiling! If children from Hassidic homes could possibly do such things, what would children from simple homes do!

This way it continued to boil and simmer in both towns for a period of time, until finally all men and women finally quieted down.

There were, however, parents that could not make peace with one another. Most upset were the parents of Yosef Kuropatwe, who were active in the running of the Kehila [the town's Jewish administrative organization]. Yosef's father was a shochet, who depended on the good will of the homeowners, and especially the women, the real keepers of the family wealth. In addition, it is well known that a member of the management of the Kehila is never well liked. It is said that these people (Kahal members) always have their hands open to take, but never to give. So almost all the mothers of the boys became angry with the parents of Yosef Kuropatwe, saying that only he was guilty. Most vocal was the mother of Moshe Kosman. They were neighbors with the shochet, and she wanted her one and only child to become a rabbi – and if not a rabbi, at least a Rav [learned man]. And here such a terrible thing had happened. Her only child in the world with girls! She would not stop screaming: “if it were not for the poorly raised Yosl, her child would not have followed such wrong ways.”

 

How did it turn out for me after the “tragedy”?

Sunday very early my father traveled to Puławy and knew nothing about the whole affair. Monday morning he went to pray at the Bet Hamidrash in Granica and there someone told him what happened Saturday evening by the Christian on Aleksover road. We lived exactly on the second corner of the town of Granica, also in a Christian neighborhood. I waited every moment for my father to arrive. As soon as he crossed the threshold to the house and he saw me, he could not help himself and broke down crying. I had never seen my father cry, except on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, when he would stand at the Bimah [praying area, usually in the center of the shul] and lead the prayers. Then he would shed a tear several times. As he was crying, he said to me:

“I took you to the greatest teachers, I sat with you day and night and with you I studied…and here you bring such dishonor and shame! Young men with girls! At a Christian's home – and my son in the midst…”

My mother, upon hearing what had happened, started to cry and beat herself in the head. It was frightening what was happening then in our home.

More or less in this manner were all the young men confronted in their homes the first time they met with their parents.

When these scenes took place in our home, I decided I would not do it again. The parents, I thought, are right. They had been so caring for me, and here I had brought them shame and embarrassment?

My commitment, however, did not last long. As soon as I was back in the Bet Hamidrash with my other friends, we all forgot what happened at home. Some time passed. The men and women stopped talking about the incident, and the parents tried to forget what happened with their children.

We, however, met again during breaks in the Bet Hamidrash, or Shabbat afternoon, together with the girls – in the Saranow forest, two kilometers away from town. There we held our gatherings, sang Hebrew and Yiddish songs, and at times the girls taught us to dance. In those times we still wore the traditional Jewish garments – the well-known hats, and long kapotes. In honor of Shabbat and holidays, we wore the special velvet hats and trimmed kapotes. A bit later we began to wear starched clothes, and then some would go into the Bet Hamidrash and look up a book or study a page of Gemorah. This lasted for part of a year, until it got close to Rosh Hashanah and Succot [fall Harvest festival].

 

It is worth to make note of a special episode that took place

On Shemini Ha'atzeret [last day of Succot] at the Bet Hamidrash in Granica, my friend, Yosef Kuropatwe, was looking forward to buying the right to do Maftir [reading of the last section of the Torah for that occasion]. The bidding began. A well-known homeowner (Ba'al Habait) had hard feelings towards Yosef Kuropatwe, because he believed that my friend was discouraging a friend of his from taking the Ba'al Habait's daughter for a bride. So he urged a friend to bid up so that Yosef Kuropatwe, would not get any Maftir, and he gave him the money to drive up the bid. One of Yosef Kuropatwe's friends called out: “What kind of son has such worth, that the other side would not pay? He must put down a guarantee that after [the holiday] he will pay up.” This got the Ba'al Habait's attention and who gave out a loud cry: “ such young men that go with girls still dare to ask to do Maftir on Shemini Ha'atzeret, when one prays for rain?” It came close to a fight. Soon there were people taking both sides. The woes and screaming could be heard in heaven. Suddenly it got quiet. The shames pounded on the prayer table several times and quieted the crowd – in the name of the Rav, I want you to know that to lead us in our prayer for rain, I have asked the Ba'al Habait Rav Pinkhas Weinberg, I am giving to him the Maftir, and the responsibility to lead the payers.

That got everyone's attention, it got quiet and everyone joined the praying and the reading of the Torah. Everything continued without a fight and without desecrating G-d's name.

Between the holidays, we got together several times, increasingly more often, and we began to try to figure out how we could legalize our meetings, so we would not be used as an example by someone wanting to inform on us. At the time that we were dreaming of being able to acquire a dedicated place for our meetings, came to stay as a guest of his father the young man Pinkhas Liebhober of the town of Markushov, where he had married before World War I. In his town he was one of the first founders of the Zionist organization. He met with us and shared the latest information and gave us several examples on ways to proceed.

Right after the holidays, we communicated with the headquarters of the Zionist organization and told them we want to open in our town a branch, so we asked them to grant us an official charter. It did not take long to receive an answer, asking that we send three men age 21 or older, and send with them a request – so that they can then issue an official charter in Warsaw. To comply with this, we only had one member who was already 21 years old – Leibl Liebhober. We assigned to him two other young men who were no more than 17 years old. Fortunately, it worked out, and we received the much-desired legal charter, which gave us the right to carry out work on behalf of Zionism and culture.

 

The “Forbidden”

Now a question got posed: who will rent us a space in which to meet? But just as we lucked out in the process for obtaining a charter, we also lucked out in getting a place for our meetings, which, as they say, fell out of the heaven. Our friend who took part in the original meeting, and was the only one who did not happen to be part of the young men from the Bet Hamidrash, Avish Shteinfeld, had married very young the daughter of Boruch Rozenwein (Boruch Shmokler). The parents of Rozenwein's wife were no longer alive, and he alone had become the proprietor of the house that the parents had left. So we rented from the young man a couple of rooms, a large one and a small one. Soon after, we bought a large number of books for the library.

When the place was opened, it became known in the town as “The Forbidden,” as they would often refer to a church in small towns. That name was even used by those parents who did not oppose their children from going into the place.

Slowly more and more young men from the town began to come into both the library and the meeting area. Different kinds of programs were scheduled: discussion-evenings, literary evenings. A drama group was formed that staged different plays. Of course, all this was limited by our own abilities and strength. We also brought a troupe from Demblin, which presented the first play, “The Wild Man.” What transpired that Shabbat at the Bet Hamidrash is hard to describe. They issued a ban and a warning to the parents against letting the children go out in the evening after Shabbat, and G-d forbid, they should go into the room where the play was being staged.

That evening a large number of women gathered around the place where the play was being staged and began to create a scandalous scene, demanding nobody should go in. The police was called and the women were dispersed. This is how the first performance took place.

Very little Zionist work took place. The main theme was attracting the young people, since so many of them did not know what it meant to read a book or a newspaper.

In those times came from Piacki a man and his two children, who had married a woman from Gniewoszów. His name: Abraham Tzelniker. His older boy, Mordechai, already belonged in Piacki to a left leaning youth organization. So he began to actively work in our facility to organize the young people, and they easily became attached to him. A great part of the youth worked in various crafts, and was being heavily exploited. The founders of the Zionist organization feared that over time the entire organization could be converted into a home- grown left-leaning group, because a portion of the youth were using the rooms simply for meetings – they were neither reading a book nor holding a discussion.

After several meetings we decided to close the facility from that point forward and conduct a new registration of the youth in order to bring about a more Zionist agenda. Beginning in 1924, we decided to rent a place owned by the Christian Alshowietz, in his new two-story house. A half a floor was staying empty. It consisted of a large salon and two rooms. In the salon we immediately built shelves and benches. It only cost us for the material, because the new young members did all the woodwork: Chaim Glozman and Moshe Lindberg, with the help of others. When everything was done, we began to enroll new supporters. To the first general assembly came around 40 new male and female members, in addition to the original founders. A committee of seven members was created; it defined the following goals for the organization: 1) Advocacy for Zionist ideas and raising money for Keren Kayemet [Jewish National Fund], 2) Bringing a Hebrew teacher, 3) Rebuilding the library.

The work got moving. We contacted the central committee and asked for instructors. The instructor Apel came from Warsaw, and from the central office of the Keren Kayemet came Fishl Popowski from Shedletz. The two instructors increased the level of activity and we started to work intensively. (As an interesting aside: the central committee of the Keren Kayemet taxed us 500 Zloty a year. A few days before Rosh Hashanah, we had only obtained 467 Zloty. So our bureau agreed to give the additional 33 Zloty, so we would not become indebted. At the end, we toasted a Lechaim [to good health], wished each other a good year and closed the meeting.)

Our bureau also contacted the central culture and education committee, the “tarbut committee,” asking for a Hebrew teacher. It did not take long before they sent us the Hebrew teacher Jagode. He started to organize class groups. The classes were held in to two rooms next to the large salon.

At the same time, the library started to be organized. A committee for culture-work was formed. The library was open for use every evening for two hours, and in time, new young people began to come. At the beginning they were all “book readers.” Later on, they began to show interest in becoming members of the Zionist organization. In this way, the original 15 founding members worked assigned times, and we referred to the rest of the members as the “youngsters.” even though some of them were more than 20 years old (as opposed to the “old ones”).

 

What were the attitudes of the old generation towards Zionism?

To the old generation, Zionist work was not acceptable, as the town still felt that Zionism is an idea of the young men and women, so they can dance the Horah and sing songs.

Our administration wanted to avoid creating the wrong impression within the general population. Therefore, we had to explain to the old generation that Zionism meant to create a Jewish national home in Eretz [land of] Israel, to build our own land. We sent a letter to the headquarters of Keren Kayemet, telling them that if they want us to raise more money, they need to send us, as an instructor and speaker, a Jew with a beard; and it is desirable if he had the title of Rav, so he could give a presentation at the Bet Hamidrash about the reasons and benefits of Zionism – to release the Jewish people from their bond to foreign hands.

It did not take long before our representative received an answer from the central office of Keren Kayemet, that they are sending to us Rav Spetman (I think that was the name). Our bureau became very excited about the response and began to make the preparations for the visit. We worked to publicize that a speech would be given Shabbat afternoon in the Bet Hamidrash (a special event) by the renowned Rav Spetman.

At the arranged time, the delegate from Keren Kayemet, Pinkhas Goldstein, got over to the prayer area and announced that the speech on Zionism and Keren Kayemet is being given by Rav Spetman. The speech did not draw much attention. At the time of the speech, very religious Jews were sitting on one side of the Bet Hamidrash, by the tables. They did not want to hear, or made believe they did not hear, what was being said. Some of them pretended to be looking at books, while some pretended to be reading Gemorah.

The speech did bring some good results. They stopped looking at us as children who are just dancing the Horah with girls. But with the very religious, we were still viewed the same way. However, the staring and screaming at us and calling us Goyim [strangers], stopped. Also they stopped referring to us as “the forbidden.” Instead they called us “the organization,” and fathers would ask: “are you going again to the organization?” Or they would say: “are you going up again?” (up because our facility was in the second floor – and in the town, a two story house was unusual).

After Rav Spetman departed, the town administration issued an edict: to distribute the white and blue Pushka [box for donations] to the homes. Many others were distributed to other places. Each member identified a circle of his acquaintances to whom to also distribute the boxes. This action was very successful. For the first time, the Pushka of Keren Kayemet hung on the wall in many homes. The second edict was that, on Hanukkah and Purim, the sponsoring group of friends should go around town to the well-to-do homes, and collect additional funds. In time, some of the members got married and became members of the town. We also decided that on Tu B'Shevat [a holiday to celebrate nature], a celebration reception should be scheduled and there would be fruit from Eretz Israel. These edicts were carried out every year, until the outbreak of World War II.

 

The support of the Kozienice Rabbi

In the year 1924 a new business was founded in Kozienice under the control of the local rabbi, Rabbi Israel Eliezer Hofstein. The purpose of the company was to buy land in Eretz Israel, so that, as time passed and people came, they could farm the land there.

A manager of the business came to Gniewoszów, to ask the homeowners to become members of the company and buy land in Eretz Israel. Rav Tzukerman from Kozienice remained to sign up five Jews, who immediately paid out their share of money: Chaim Nachum Pontsch, Pinkhas Lederman, Hirshl Girsch, Dovid Steinfeld an Yechiel Teitel.

These events were good publicity for the Zionist organization. That is, realizing that the Kozienicer Rabbi himself takes interest in buying land in order to go to Eretz Israel. Not only that, but among the five who agreed to buy land, was the head of the Kehila, Pinkhas Lederman. The second one was a very devoted Hassidic Jew, Chaim Nahum Pontsch. It was not long before two of the families, Steinfeld and Teitel, received a notice to get ready to travel.

The last Shabbat before their departure, the Zionist organization organized a farewell reception in which many older people also participated. They were already becoming sympathetic to Zionism.

The salon room was filled to capacity. The mood was celebratory. There were speeches given, songs chanted, and wishes to the two departing families for good luck on the road and success in Eretz Israel. The evening concluded with the singing of Hatikvah [Israel's national anthem].

For the first time the facilities of the Zionist organization were filled with many elder people who got to see hanging the blue and white Pushkes, and the posters showing the Zionist credo.

On the day of their departure, the organization decided that all members should come to the train station to wish them well.

The Zionist activities grew stronger every day that passed, and the cultural work also continued. There continued to be purchases of new books and the library was enlarged. The number of readers grew, mainly the young ones – students as well as young workers. Often, literary evenings were scheduled, and performances and full plays staged; these were performed in the salon.

Speakers were brought in to chair discussions on Zionism, literature and political themes.

As part of the organization, the “Hashomer Haleumi” was started. Over time, the name was changed to “Hanoar Hatzioni.” [These were organizations founded to encourage young people to emigrate to Israel and help build the new country, each followed its own unique set of political beliefs].

Later the “Hechalutz” was also started, and carried out its own separate work.

As part of the Zionist direction in Poland, there were at the time several different views as to how it should proceed, and what relationship to have with the Jewish agents. There were three different views; “Al Hashomer,” “Eit Lebanot,” and Revisionists. Amongst us there were only two views: “Al Hashomer” and “Eit Lebanot.” At the beginning, the majority of the members, say 60 percent were “Eit Lebanot.” Slowly their numbers diminished.

For the tenth national reunion of the Zionist organization, Gniewoszów was allowed two delegates, and both were to be from “Al Hashomer.” In the central committee of the Zionist organization at the time, both views were represented: “Eit Lebanot” headed by Leon Lewite, and “Al Hashomer” headed by Yitzchak Grinboim. Because our organization was completely made up of “Al Hashomer,” a separate group, headed by the editor of Haint [Yiddish for “Today”], Abraham Goldberg, was also formed as the conference start neared. It took on the name “Umofhenggike” [gathering of the people]. Several days prior to submitting the appointed names of the delegates to the central committee, a student came from Warsaw (I do not remember his name), with a letter issued by the central administration for “Al Hamishmar” signed by the directors, Moshe Polakewitch and Moshe Kleinboim (Sanah), asking us to reconsider the appointment of one of our delegates and to appoint the editor of the newspaper “Haint” in his stead. The student explained to us that in Warsaw, where A. Goldberg was well known, they were afraid that if he did not get a formal representation, he would cause problems. So he advised us to appoint him as a delegate. He noted that after the conference Goldberg planned to travel for a visit to Eretz Israel and when he returned, he would be with a magistrate in Gniewoszów; he thanks us in advance for the consideration the organization would be giving him. So it happened, and when it was all over, it turned out that editor Goldberg did not seek us out, when coming back from Eretz Israel, as he got sick and in a short time died.

Within the Zionist organization, a sports club was also founded. Special uniforms were brought from Warsaw.

Slowly our organization began to gain visibility, and additional older Jews began to join. A Zionist shtibl was used to pray every Shabbat and holidays. The first shtibl was located in the home of our member Shaya Perlstein, and then it moved over to our member Hershl Wiershbitzki. Our Zionist organization became the place to get things done: for the town's important issues, for the Kehila, and for the Polish Gemina [county]. The ongoing competition between Granica and Gniewoszów got in the way at times. But after 1935, when the division ended, resolution of the Kehila and general issues were transferred to the hands of the Zionist organization.

So it was, that beginning in the year 1921, with a few boys and girls from Hassidic homes, that held an internal meeting at the Christian's place in Aleksover Road, was formed the Zionist organization, and in the 1930's it became the most important builder of ideas in the town. This continued until World War II, when Hitler's murderers disturbed it and destroyed everything. Only a few individuals remained.

May these remarks serve as a remembrance for those who did not have the benefit of seeing Medinat [the country of] Israel, but certainly gave everything to make it happen.

 

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