« Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page »

[Page 53]

The Bristle Workers of Mezritsh

by Sofia Dubnow-Ehrlich of New York

Translated by Jerrold Landau

 

Portraits from the years 1900-1914

At the beginning of the 1890s, the workday of the bristle workers was 17-18 hours. On Thursdays, the bristle workers would work through the entire night, and on Fridays, they would work until nightfall. The sanitary conditions were frightful. They worked in low, small houses. In those narrow rooms, on tables placed alongside the walls, there were iron combs, which the workers would use to comb the raw pig hair. They would do the work standing up, by the light

 

mie057.jpg Bristle Workers at Work
Bristle Workers at Work

 

of kerosene lamps, which hung above their heads. First they would sort the pig hair and then clean it with the iron combs. Clouds of dust hovered in the air during the work, making breathing difficult. The odor of pig hair mixed with that of kerosene, which was used to oil the combs, and heightened the stench that came from the lamps.

[Page 54]

It is no wonder that workers who toiled under such conditions year after year would suffer from anemia and tuberculosis, and would have feet covered with sores and wounds.

At the beginning of the 1890s, a bristle worker would earn 3-4 rubles a week.

 

The First Strike in Mezritsh

In 1900, the first strike broke out in Mezritsh, a remote town in the region of Siedlce, which had more bristle workers (1,200) than any other city in this manufacturing district. The social conditions in the towns of the region of Suwalki had already changed fundamentally by that time, whereas life was still frozen in Mezritsh. Only in 1900 did the bristle workers of Mezritsh show signs of progress for the first time. They took advantage of a moment of pride in the field of bristle making, and issued a demand for a ten-hour workday and a restriction on the number of middlemen. The factory owners of Mezritsh, who were astonished by the brazen acts of the workers, were forced to respond to all of the radical demands – in the spirit of the times.

However, the economic struggle of the bristle workers of Mezritsh, who had just joined the general trade movement, was conducted in a unique manner. The conditions for the factory owners were favorable due to the rabbi's admonishment of the workers.

 

The Year 1901

In the autumn of 1901, the factory owners banded together and decided to cap wages and to lay off 25 workers who had come to be known as rebellious. Despite the crisis that was taking place in Mezritsh at that time, the workers declared a strike. They called for a rally, and delivered fiery speeches against the factory owners. After the rally, they marched over to the rabbi's house and complained to him about their bitter lot and the cruelty of the factory owners. The rabbi offered the following advice: the workers should make peace with their situation and promise their employers that they would never revolt again.

The workers gathered in the Beis Midrash of the bristle makers. They divided up by lot the workers who were laid off, and sent them to the various factories to issue an audacious demand to the employers: restore the jobs of the laid off workers. The factory owners were forced to submit. The enthusiasm and the spirit of confrontation grew among the bristle workers.

 

An Eight-Hour Workday

In the summer of 1905, an eight-hour workday became the practice throughout the entire area of Poland. The workers of Mezritsh achieved an eight-hour workday after a two-week strike. This important accomplishment raised enthusiasm within the community of bristle workers. In the towns where the bristle workers formed the core of the labor movement, the activity and ferment grew. Meetings took place and clubs were formed. The workers' “bourses” bustled from the multitudes of people. Often, such a “bourse” meeting of workers turned into an energetic rally.


[Page 55]

The Large Lockout[1]

In October 1906, the bristle manufacturers of Poland and Lithuania called for a lockout that affected approximately 3,000 workers. The manufacturers of Mezritsh were the instigators of this lockout. They declared that they would not negotiate with the trade unions. They demanded that the workers produce a set quantity of merchandise within a set time. The workers rejected these demands and made demands of their own for medical assistance and increased wages.

The spirit among the workers was strong. A delegate from the central office who arrived in Mezritsh convened several large rallies. Up to 800 people participated in some of them. The Bund newspaper of those days pointed out that no acts of terror had been perpetrated by the workers during the time of the lockout, despite the provocative behavior of the employers. (One of the employers even shot at the workers' guard who had come to inspect a factory). The other factories quickly joined the lockout instigated by the employers of Mezritsh. On November 10, the committee of factory owners in Eydtkuhnen [Chernyshevskoye] accepted the following resolutions:

“1) To support each other in the event of a dispute between the employers and the employees. 2) To refrain from hiring any worker employed by another employer, unless the worker brings a letter from his former employer. 3) If in any factory there are employees who were laid off by another employer due to a strike, they are to be fired immediately. 4) All of the employers belonging to the “Manufacturers Union” must suspend operations until the workers respond to the demands.”

All of these decisions required certification at the manufacturers' convention during the Leipzig Fair. The convention decided to close the factories and not to re-open them unless employees agreed to the following conditions: 1) There would be no negotiation with representatives of the professional guilds. 2) Employees would be paid by the foot instead of receiving a weekly salary. 3) Factory owners would be entitled to rehire only the workers of their choosing.

In order to free themselves from “undesirable elements” in the factories, the convention decided to approach the governor of the Suwalki district with a request to authorize the expulsion of workers from outside the area to their former places of residence, and to utilize special means of punishment for workers who incited others to strike. In Volkovysk [Vawkavysk], these expulsions were on such a large scale that they angered workers to the point where the manufacturers themselves saw the need to annul the decree. In several places, revolutionary demonstrations took place as the deported workers were sent away.

The factories in the area of Poland made efforts to include the manufacturers of Lithuania in the lockout. This was successful in a few places. The manufacturer Chaim Korin closed his factories in Kreslavka [Kraslava] and Shklow. Some of the employers in Trestina [Trzcianne], Orsha, Tyktin[Tykocin], Knyszyn, and Kerosz followed suit. Heavy fighting took place in Volkovysk [Vawkavysk] and Worzbawlowa. The lockout lasted for 11 weeks and cost the “farband” [union] 3,500 rubles. This money was raised from the ranks of the organization in Russia. The Jewish landsmanschaften in the United States also provided some assistance.

[Page 56]

The Employers Recognize the Trade Union

The lockout of 1906-1907 was directed against the “farband”. The owners were forced to recognize the trade union as a result of the workers' victory.

The resulting economic situation for the bristle workers can be summed up as follows: an eight hour workday was established in every place except for Trestina and Vilna [Vilnius], where the workday was nine hours. Salaries ranged from 6 rubles per week in Nevel to 7.75 rubles in Mezritsh.

 

Years of Crisis

The years 1908 and 1909 were years of severe crisis for the entire Jewish workers' movement. Many of the workers left their unions due to persecution and oppression. In 1908, there were only a few dozen offices of the trade union remaining in the Pale of Settlement, whereas there had been several hundred in 1906. The emigration of the Jewish workers to the United States, which reached epidemic proportions in those days, also had a negative effect on the workers' movement. The battle fought by workers in 1909 weakened the energy and resolve of the “farband”. When the employers instituted a lockout of their factories in the fall of that year, the workers were unable to garner the strength to mount an opposition. With virtually no effort, the employers of the entire bristle making region, excluding Mezritsh, were able to lengthen the workday to 9-10 hours.

 

The Lockout of 1908

In the autumn of 1908, a great awakening occurred in the bristle-making industry of Mezritsh. The workers had recently struggled for and attained a higher salary, and they were in good spirits. However at the beginning of the winter, the manufacturers of Mezritsh decided not to diverge from the practices of their fellow manufacturers in other places, and attempted to set a workday of ten hours. The employers locked the workers out in reaction to their refusal to accept the new conditions. The lockout lasted all winter, until the employers were finally forced to back down from their demands.

 

The Years 1910-1911

In 1910 Mezritsh was the only city in the entire bristle making district with an eight hour workday. At the beginning of 1911, the battle for the eight hour workday was reignited. After a brief hiatus, the employers of Mezritsh once again declared a lockout. Days of hunger for the bristle workers of Mezritsh, who had recovered from their last period of unemployment with difficulty, came once again. The struggle of the workers in Mezritsh encouraged the oppressed spirit of the community of bristle workers. When the battle of the workers of Mezritsh ended in victory after 17 weeks, a strike broke out throughout the bristle making region with the aim of restoring the eight hour workday.

[Page 57]

The Survey of the Bristle Makers of Mezritsh in 1913

The decision of the fifth convention to issue a survey was not carried anywhere except for Mezritsh, where the remnants of the organization still remained. The 1913 survey counted 846 bristle workers in Mezritsh, including 659 men and 187 women. The salaries ranged from 2.50 rubles per week (116 workers) to 8-9 rubles (73-77 workers). A small group of workers earned a higher salary: 17 workers earned 12 rubles per week, and 3 workers earned 15 rubles.

The survey highlighted difficult working conditions: cramped workshops, which lacked ventilation. There were very few middle-aged people among the workers. According to the survey, there were only a few workers between the ages of 40 and 60.

Sections from the “Annals of the Bristle Workers Union” by Sofia Dubnow-Ehrlich, published in Warsaw in 1937. From Yiddish by Y. Ronkin.


[Page 58]

The Dispute with Wladek
in the Large Beis Midrash

by M. R. Slodki

Translated by Jerrold Landau

After the proclamation of the constitution in 1905, the Czar had the upper hand. The Czar's agents crushed the revolution with great cruelty. Those fighting for freedom and liberty were deported to Siberia. Russian jails were filled to the brim. All of the fighters for equality and liberty were muted and disappeared. Among the Jews, the Bund began to pick up the pieces and reorganize. Our city, a city of Jewish workers, was almost the only one in all of Russia that did not experience the changes. It was not for nothing that it was called “The Switzerland of Russia”.

The Bund ruled supreme. All of the working youth followed the Bund. It was only it was only in the hearts of the more intellectual youth that an internal battle raged between nationalist and socialist ideals and organizations such as the S.S.[3], the Sejmists, and the like. The Bund wanted to tilt public opinion in its direction, and therefore invited the best orators of the day to our city. One day an announcement was made that a youthful orator, known by his nickname “Leyzel the Second”, would come to Mezritsh and lecture in the Great Beis Midrash. That evening, a well-known preacher of that time, Simcha Kahana, was speaking at that same Beis Midrash. He was not the usual style of preacher, but rather spoke in accordance with the concepts of that time. The Beis Midrash was filled to the rafters, as the preacher stood and lectured about the theory of Judaism and its aspirations in accordance with the spirit of the time. Then a group of youths stormed into the Beis Midrash, led by the head of the Bund, Comrade S., who brandished a revolver in his hand. Next to him was a swarthy youth with a serious expression and two prominent, alert eyes. A crowd of workers followed them. They immediately ascended the bima in the middle of the Beis Midrash and positioned themselves at the table opposite the preacher who stood on the bima next to the Holy Ark. The preacher did not stop speaking, but continued with the topic of his lecture: “Our Father Jacob Did Not Die”. The youth, whose identity and name nobody knew, but was understood to probably be “Leyzel the Second”, thundered out loudly:

“My master the Maggid, it is not correct. Jacob our forefather has already died!” The preacher did not stumble, and called out in a mighty voice: “Indeed, Jacob our forefather did not die; the Jewish people, which is symbolized by Jacob, is not dead; it continues to live and will arise to a full revival.”

The youth became angry and called out: “The Jewish people as a nation is dead. It will never rise to life again. The bima, upon which you, the Maggid, are standing was not built by your hands, but by ours, the workers. We create everything, and we will rise to life along with the workers of all the nations. Then will salvation for all the oppressed and unfortunate people come.”

His words were like bars of iron. His hands clenched, and the Beis Midrash became silent. Everyone was eager to see how the scene would end.

The preacher did not back down, but began with a trembling voice that became stronger: “You are not correct, young man. Your calculations are in error. The Jewish people, with all its factions, will arise to a new life!”

When the head of the Bund saw that he had not succeeded in his attempt to manipulate the situation, he pointed his revolver at the preacher and shouted: “I am going to shoot!”

[Page 59]

The preacher opened his cloak, bared his chest and called out, “Shoot!” However, the youth persuaded him to put down his revolver. The two sides stood, each one claiming victory over the other. Then suddenly the call was heard, “The police are coming.” The youth was able to jump out of the window and escape.

That night's astonishing scene is etched unforgettably in my memory. It was a struggle between opposing opinions and beliefs, and the preacher was victorious.

I recalled this entire episode when I read in the newspapers that Wladek[4] had sent a telegram to President Roosevelt on the matter of the Land of Israel and the People of Israel, wherein he wrote about our ancestor Jacob, who did not die…


Translator's Footnotes

  1. The word shvita (generally translated as strike) is used whether the workers or the owners instigated the strike. To differentiate, I translated the worker initiated strike as 'strike' and the owner initiated strike as 'lockout'. This entire article is confusing, with an alternating series of strikes and lockouts. However, the message of labor unrest and management dissatisfaction is clear. return
  2. This presumably refers to the October Manifesto issued by Czar Nicholas II in response to the Russian Revolution of 1905. Poland, which was part of Russia during this period, played a significant role in the revolution. return
  3. This probably refers to the organization Socjalistyczni Syjonisci -- the Socialist Zionists [Party]. return
  4. The text implies that Wladek and “Leyzel the Second” are one and the same. return


[Page 60]

The Two-Story House

(Chapters of Memories)

by Yehoshua H. Jawin

Translated by Jerrold Landau

 

A world that has expired, a world of which no shadow or echo remains today. Only fifty years separate us from it, but it seems as if 5,000 years have passed since then. It is a world whose last remnants were swept away with furious cruelty by the enemy gentiles…

It is not the intention of the author of these memoirs to describe a “former Garden of Eden”. Such a Garden of Eden never existed. The Jewish exile was always a vale of agony, sadness and fear -- even during times of relative calm. It is the author's wish to recall dear and simple personalities: to present their suffering, their agony, their soulfulness, their profound cordiality -- so that the younger generation will know that they did not come from a void, but rather rose from a succession of generations who were good and sublime in their essence, even in the minute details of their lives, touching the splendor of the sun of Jerusalem.

*

The splendid two-story house on the Street of the Bridge in the town of Mezritsh, the inheritance of the well-pedigreed wealthy woman Mrs. Tzina Golda Marszalkowicz, is a home full of Torah. The hymns of poor guests gathered around the table never ceases. The home is shrouded in silent agony, and the members of the household go around on their tiptoes with bowed shoulders. Even the maids and strangers who enter the house lower their voices and walk slowly due to the impenetrable grief: in one of the inside rooms, the only daughter of the mistress, Rachele, lies on her sick bed. She is a 29 year-old girl who was graced by G-d with beauty of body and soul. She lies on her deathbed, from which she will never rise again. Doctors, from the main city of the district, and from the entire area, come and go. A professor from nearby Warsaw is summoned by telegraph. He, like the others, leaves the sickroom silent and with a bowed head: there is no hope…

The recital of Psalms in the Synagogue on the Street of the Bridge is to no avail, nor is the generous distribution of charity to the poor. All of the gates of mercy have been locked…

The mistress of the house paces from room to room, clasping her small, refined hands. Her daughter had become seriously ill three years earlier. The doctors diagnosed a growth on the brain, and gave up on her life. The good and benevolent L-rd had granted her daughter an additional three years of life. Rachele had been able to rise from her bed, and return to mothering and dandling of her young child Yehoshuale. The three years are now expired, and the serious illness returned. The wings of the Black Angel are fluttering in the house, among the fine vessels. They are approaching, approaching that room…

[Page 61]

One of the boy's uncles (a son of the mistress of the house) holds Yehoshuale's four-year-old hand, and leads him to his mother's room. There, in the corner, lies Mother. Her white face, clear as milk, has become yellowed and shriveled. The golden hair adorning her head has grown long and unkempt. Next to Mother's bed there is a small table made of red wood with many bottles on top of it. These are bottles of medicine, with a long list of prescriptions behind them. There are white, clear, and yellow bottles. The lovely bottles are attractive to the boy. He chooses a few of the empty ones and begins to roll them on the carpet that covers the floor. The uncle scolds him, for any small noise, any movement of a chair causes hellish suffering to his deathly-ill sister who suffers from terrible headaches. He wants to remove the child from the room, but Mother whispers in a weak voice, with her eyes staring lovingly at the child:

“It is okay, it is okay, leave my young chick, my pleasant bird (“mein shpil-foigele”). I want him to remain here. A little longer, a little longer …….”.

The child never saw his mother again. A few days later, during the afternoon, the house was shaken to its foundations, and was filled with weeping. Grandmother Tzina Golda wept. The uncles wept. The maids wept -- and it seemed as if even the heavens and the earth burst out weeping. Even little Yehoshuale wept bitterly with all of them, despite the fact that he did not know why, or for what, they were weeping.

The next day, many elderly Jews entered the room where Mother had lain earlier. They brought in a coffin covered with a cloth upon which a Magen David was embroidered. All of those who entered recited many prayers. They stood Yehoshuale next to the red table, which was now cleared of medicine. His head with curly hair was hidden behind the table, which was much taller than him. One of the uncles said to him, “Say Yisgadal”. He said “Yisgadal Veyiskadash”, and he said “Veyiskadash”…[1]. From then, his custom was to recite these words evening, morning and afternoon. When the days of mourning had concluded, Yehoshuale had grown bigger and already knew how to recite both the Mourner's Kaddish and the more cumbersome Rabbinical Kaddish by heart (He was already studying Chumash and Rashi…). He was already taller - his chin reached the table at which he recited the Kaddish.

*

The home of Grandmother Tzina Golda was a white, two-story house, with a blue horizontal stripe passing through its center from end to end like a rim. It was built in a very spacious manner, as houses were built in those times and places, where lots were not sold by “the yard” but rather by the weight of gold. Anyone who entered the large hallway immediately noticed the black hole in the ceiling. This was the “shiur” [remnant], the area measuring one-cubit-square, which a Jew is commanded to leave un-plastered in his house as a reminder of the destruction of the Temple. This serves to teach that Jews, even if blessed by G-d with an abundance of belongings and a life of comfort, are nothing other than children who were exiled from the table of their Father, wandering as transients on unfriendly, foreign soil, commanded to ever await the day when G-d will remember them and allow them to leave their prison to return to their native Jerusalem. The black “remnant” in the ceiling of their houses reminds them of this, day and night.

[Page 62]

There was a large parlor (“the salon”) in the middle of the house. The walls of the salon were adorned with Rococo-style mirrors with gold borders reaching to the ceiling. They were placed opposite to each other, so they seemed to double and triple the space in an endless fashion.

*

During daylight, the floor of the parlor would be woven with squares of light and shade, in the style that children typically draw on sidewalks. Yehoshuale would try to hop over the squares on one foot without touching the shade, touching only the light squares that were in-between.

The “girandola” hung from the middle of the parlor. It was a heavy chandelier made out of bronze and decorated with many crystals. To a child, the chandelier often appeared as if it was bearing fruit. One of the glass fruits had loosened, and was hanging down like a ripe fruit. Yehoshuale was fascinated by the hanging “fruit”. He would stare for a long time at the glass, which refracted the light, breaking it into red, blue, purple and yellow hues that were attractive to the eye. Three candelabras, which were never lit, stood on the table, serving only as decoration. The cover of one of them was made of precious glass and had the appearance of a flowing fountain in a landscape of snow. A blooming summer landscape was featured on the “body” of the second one. The receptacle of the third lay upon a heavy bronze statue of a black man wearing a turban. The nose of the black man had been flattened in accordance with the prohibition “Thou shalt not make for yourself a graven image”[2]. Several pictures hung on the walls, one of them being a unique form that attracted the imagination of a child: it had bears with wings and red tongue crouching between uprooted trees. The child would scratch his head trying to stretch his imagination to understand the anonymous drawing, but to no avail.

The parlor was generally closed, and nobody entered. The parlor doors were opened only when important guests came, such as relatives from Warsaw or in-laws. Then, the splendid room, which was generally empty and silent, sprang to life.

Second in importance in the house after the parlor (and in some respects, even more important) was the sukkah. This sukkah, the roof of which was made out of green stalks, served as a living room and Torah study room throughout the year. After Yom Kippur the workmen would come, climb to the top, shake the stalks of the ceiling in order to make a space between each stalk, oil the wheels of the “cover” that protected the sukkah, and push the cover back so that the blue sky could be seen. Then, the stalks were covered with schach[3]. Since the city of Mezritsh (Mezritshia in Russian, meaning lying between rivers) lies on many bodies of water, bulrushes were available in abundance. Therefore, people covered their sukkahs with bulrushes rather than tree branches, as was the custom in other places.

During the festival of Sukkot, we would eat, drink, study Torah, and even sleep in the sukkah. If

[Page 63]

rain fell, we would unroll the tarp and return it to its place -- turning the sukkah back into its normal status as a room.

*

A large bookcase stood in the sukkah. This was one of the two giant-sized bookcases in the house.

It might sound sacrilegious to say that we had a “rich bookshelf” in the house. The bookshelves were not a mere library. They had the status of the Ark of Covenant in our house, and the books they held were like the tablets of the covenant -- the strict and sublime law by which the household lived, and would not deviate by even a hair's-breadth. This library was the breath of life of the household. Every other matter -- including issues of livelihood, business, and the finding of marriage partners -- was subordinate and subservient to it, for the reverence of the spirit is the foundation stone of the Jewish essence in the world. The “Ex-Libris” [bookplate] of the late head of the family, Grandmother's father Reb Shimon Papirna of blessed memory, was inscribed on the inside cover of each book: “Our King, hear our entreaty and bless the Papirna dwelling place”. The acronym of the first five words of the inscription formed the word “Shimon”, the name of the scholarly and wealthy man[4]. The large Nuns and Pes in the inscription testified to his strength of character.

Aside from various splendid editions of the Chumash [Torah] and the Bible, including a large size Mikraot Gedolot[5] (which would cover the greater part of the table when I would open them there), there was also a Slavita edition of the Talmud, many editions of halachic decisors, the Arba Turim[6] of Rabbi Yaakov ben Ro'sh, the four volumes of the Shulchan Aruch[7] of Rabbi Yosef Karo, old volumes of the Levush[8] bound in wooden covers, several editions of the Zohar[9], the books of Talmud didactics (Pilpul) of the Pnei Yehoshua, the Tzla”ch, and the Shita Mekubetzet, and a very ancient edition of the Moreh Nevuchim[10] -- almost an incunabula[11]. When important guests would visit, the members of the household would show them this ancient book that was their pride. Several pages had gone missing from the book several generations back, and were replaced by handwritten text so artfully executed that only an expert eye could discern the printed pages from those copied by hand. Even if we also mention the book of the She'la and the Siddur of the She'la, also bound in wooden covers, we would have only itemized a small portion of that collection which was lovingly assembled by that wealthy, well-versed man, the father of Grandmother Tzina Golda, about whom more will be said later in this article.

*

Next to the gigantic book case with its treasures, there was a small book case with modern books of knowledge: One book of Aeneas with the translation of Mich”l [Micha Yosef Cohen Lebensohn], upon which one anonymous zealot wrote: “this book fulfills the verse in Isaiah, 'And they shall peer upon the children of the gentiles'”; there were the history books of Kalman Schulman, the books of Yehuda Leib Gordon, and another book

[Page 64]

that the child Yehoshuale enjoyed very much as he reached the age of youth: that is The Two Extremes of Reuven Asher Broides. The heart of the child was attracted by the love of Israel, and the love of the ways of Israel that were described in it. Etched in his mind to this day is the “sermon” -- the description of a sermon of a young child who had begun to study the book of Vayikra [Leviticus] in Chumash. The description touched the deepest heart of the youth, and to this day, the aging man believes that book to be important not sufficiently appreciated; but that is incidental.

Indeed, the youth drew a measure of spiritual satisfaction from the few books in the small bookshelf. Even so, next to the giant books in the large bookshelf, the scanty books seemed, to the boy's eyes, to be the withered stalks standing next to the full, fine stalks in Pharaoh's dream: as grasshoppers next to giants. While still studying Chumash and prophets with the feeble teacher Yehoshua-Meir, the lad awaited the day when he would be able to delve into the depths of those secret-laden books in the large bookcase and discover all that was hidden in them, for during those youthful days he believed that all of the world's truths were contained in those holy books…

 

The Book of Isaiah -- By Heart

The thick foliage on the trees in Grandmother's fruit orchard could be seen from the windows of the house. There were many different types of fruit trees, starting with the most noble of fruit trees - the “djusz” pears, full of syrup, with a satisfying, wine-like taste; the lemon and orange pears that recall the two types of citrus trees in the far-off Land of our Fathers; the red apples, bloodlike; the “resinous” apple trees, with pink lines crossing the white peel, and with a refreshing, tart taste; other, simpler apples, hard and covered with whitish spots, which ripened a long time after harvest -- in the middle of the winter; there were plum trees whose roots would drip a sweetish, glassy sap nicknamed “kalifania”, used by violin players to lubricate the string of their bows; there were aromatic raspberries, sweet gooseberries and sour red currants…

Two of the fruit trees were used for fulfilling a commandment. “The Rosh Hashanah apple tree” had small, whitish, sweet apples, which would be dipped in honey and eaten on the night of Rosh Hashanah. There was also a lone grape vine, which would be buried in the ground in the winter so that its stock would not freeze. Its grapes would never ripen. They were half green and half black, and blunt the teeth due to their sourness. They were brought to the table on the second night of Rosh Hashanah for the Shehecheyanu blessing.

At the beginning of the spring, the garden would blossom with the white pear blossoms and the pink apple blossoms. All of the garden paths would be covered with those fine, semi-transparent blossoms. In the middle of the summer, the branches of the trees would bend under the weight of their fruit. They had to be propped up with supports so that they would not crack under the weight.

Once, Sana the Shamash (his name was Netanel, pronounced Nesenal in the Ashkenazi pronunciation, and shortened by the townsfolk to Sana) entered the garden.

[Page 65]

He saw a youth sitting with his Rebbe under a thick pear tree, studying Torah with Gemaras open before them. The heart of the impoverished Shamash constricted, for during the course of the year, he only received two aliyas [Torah honors], in which he absorbed all the bitterness of the Tochacha (in the Torah portions of Bechukotai and Ki Tavo) [12], whereas he distributed the “fine aliyas” to the well-off synagogue attendees. He said, “I have never been jealous of the wealthy people, to whom everything is given from Heaven, but here I have to be jealous, for here I see Torah and greatness in one place.”

*

At the conclusion of the festivals of the month of Tishrei, when the rainy winds begin to blow through the world, the garden is stripped of all its splendor. The magnificent foliage falls to the ground under the trees, and is trampled over with the autumn mud. The lovely tree branches are denuded by the stormy winds. An orphaned, blackened, overripe pear that someone forgot to pick, shakes back and forth on a branch in the rainy wind -- stubbornly refusing to fall…

Grandmother looked after her property with great thrift, bordering on miserliness. However, there was one thing that she did not skimp on: charitable deeds. She would host many poor guests at her table on Sabbaths and festivals. At the end of the summer, during the time of army maneuvers, army battalions whitened with dust passed through the outskirts of the city, four pairs of horses hauled canons with guns pointed downward, cannoneers, with helmets tied around their chins, rode their horses-- at that time, many “three-week” and “four-week” enlisted Jewish reservists passed through the city. They would eat at Grandmother's table on the Sabbath eve. Since the authorities were lenient with them and did not insist that they shave their beards, as was routinely done with new recruits, these men had such unkempt beards and peyos, that they did not look like soldiers, but rather like ordinary Hassidic Jews whose souls yearned to wear the garb of the King. At the end of the meal when they recited the Grace After Meals over a cup of wine, as was the custom, and their numbers were more than a minyan, the house thundered with the sound of their voices blessing G-d in unison: “We will bless our G-d of Whose bounty we have eaten.”

*

Even before this, at the beginning of the winter, as the cold, rainy days were approaching, the “double windows” were installed, threads of scarlet and blue were placed upon a bed of cotton between the two windows, serving as a type of partition between the trees that lay bare outside and the people and their utensils in the house.

All of this expanded the soul of the child who grew up alone in the home of his grandmother, among her older children. Yehoshuale did not have friends during his childhood. Grandmother objected to such friendships: the grandson of Reb Yehoshua Heschel and the great-grandson of Reb Shamale Papirna should not play with children “who were not his type”.

[Page 66]

At times the child would disobey, go out to the street and participate in the games and squabbles of the neighboring children, and, like them, cover himself in dust. One of the neighbors would then immediately come out, take him by the hand, and return him to his home, to the study of Torah, and to the adults' conversations and preoccupations. The child Yehoshuale studied a great deal of Torah, and slowly but surely ascended the ladder of Torah knowledge. At first Shaya Meir, a weak Jew with a gray face and an intestinal ailment, served as his teacher. Often Shaya Meir would have to rest on the sofa as he attempted to overcome his severe pains. He would leave his student to blaze a path on his own through the scriptures. The great scenes became etched in the soul of the child. He crossed the Red Sea, turned to dry land, with the people leaving Egypt; behold, he stood at Mount Sinai, with thunder and lightning emanating from the mountain, hearing the Almighty's words: “I am…”, and “Thou shalt have no other…”[13]. The spirit of the child pulsated at the sight of Joshua ben Nun waving his javelin over Ai; he found himself at Mount Gilboa seeing King Saul and his children fallen in battle; he was exiled along with King David as he fled from his son Absalom; and he wept bitterly over the death of the righteous King Josiah.

In the meantime, the illness of Shaya Meir worsened. The people of the city collected money for him, arranged a passport for him, and sent him to the “wellsprings of salvation” (as the writers would nickname it), to Karlsbad in the Kingdom of Kaiser Franz Josef. Shaya Meir never returned from there. He was buried in that far-off city in the Austrian Monarchy.

Uncle Shmuel, who was sated with Jewish learning and had already sniffed the aroma of the Haskalah [14], told eight-year-old Yehoshuale to learn the Book of Isaiah by heart. The child did this willingly. Yehoshuale then turned to the Gemara teacher Reb Yisraelke HaLevi Epsztejn. He studied the Bible alone. Later, when [Grandmother's] sons left the house, the Bible was the Yehoshuale's faithful companion, accompanying him during his times of loneliness. He would not only pay attention to the content of the events and the emotions therein, but also to the form of expression. At times, he was attracted by unusual words, which did not detract from the glory of the text, but rather added to it. Even in his bed at night, he would often think about the unusual forms that seemed to him as mysterious sprouts blossoming in the garden of wonders.

Unlike his predecessor, the Gemara teacher Reb Yisraelke was a man of great energy and religious zeal. He was a short, thin man, with a network of blue veins showing through his small hands. A wonderful scent, similar to the scent of an etrog, wafted from his hands. The lad did not know where this scent came from. He wore large convex glasses, as was the custom of people who have had a cataract operation. When he removed them and waved them in his hand, two small twin circles of light would be drawn on the Gemara, appealing to the heart of the child. Reb Yisraelke ushered the lad into the sanctuary of the Talmud. In truth, it should be said that the young student did not at all sense a “world of embalmed ghosts” in the Talmud, as it was mocked by the Haskalah. He also did not feel “dry didactics”, but rather the opposite: a world brimming with life and thrilling material. Yehoshuale

[Page 67]

greatly enjoyed the study of Gemara. First of all, each page is unlike the next. Each one has its own character. Some pages have a small body, and drown in the sea of Tosafot and Rashi script; others are stronger and more buoyant, and swallow up the Rashi and Tosafot. It is a battlefield. It is a world constantly in motion with the sound of combat and great tension.

 

Okowit of Count Potocki

Yehoshuale was impatient for adulthood, wanted to do something great, and to overcome his “desires”. Therefore, he fasted discretely on all the fast days, even though Grandmother forbade him from doing so. By doing this, he prolonged his prayers indoors, though his heart was pulling him outside. A difficult thing lay before him: the study of Gemara. He desired only to delve deeply into the Gemara and to understand it. He studied and studied.

Slowly, each tractate gained a unique form and image in his eyes. Some, such as Rosh Hashanah and Beitza were small and pleasant, like a simple festival such as Shavuot, for example. Others were large and well known, like fine, pleasant merchandise. His mind was heavy with them, and he knew their paths. These included the Bavas[15]. There were other difficult tractates, which contained many intertwined strands, many deep discussions that were sweet to the palate and whetted the appetite when one delved into them. They swallowed one completely… Such was the tractate of Yevamot.

However, there were several other tractates that his eye had not seen yet, and seemed very broad, such as those in the Order of Kodshim. These tractates seemed like wonderful lands full of ancient forests into which no human had set foot. There are very few commentaries on them. There, everything is hidden and concealed. Oh, when would the time come to delve into them and to understand their secrets? Only then, it seemed to him, would he know everything. According to Reb Yisraelke, all of the Seven Wisdoms are hidden in the Gemara… “We learn there -- it broke the links of the chain”. This Mishna comes from the tractate of Keilim. Yehoshuale felt a sense of awe and glory in his face. He was studying in depth.

*

The pages of the Talmud were not always so difficult. The Gemara also has some calm and transparent islands, at which the brain could rest from its toil and the heart from speaking. These include the sections of lore, which are like green islands in the mighty waters. They also include the dispute between Rabbi Eliezer ben Hurkenos and the sages: “Rabbi Eliezer says it is pure and the sages say it is impure…”

Rabbi Eliezer fights mightily for the truth. He enlists everything possible to his assistance. “The walls of the study hall shall prove! The cistern of water shall prove!” Even a Heavenly voice from on high testifies in his favor. But Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya responds like a bow of flint rock: “We do not heed a Heavenly voice, we go after the majority!” He, Yehoshuale, believes in perfect faith that all the words of the Torah are like the Holy of Holies, from Sinai -- and even so he was not able to agree with them wholeheartedly. His heart was with Rabbi Eliezer the son of Hurkenos, who fought like a lion for his truth. A single person against the majority, against everything… How great this was in the eyes of the youth.

[Page 68]

That he [Rabbi Eliezer] could refuse to submit and accept upon himself the decree! Indeed, the sages placed a ban on him, and Rabbi Akiva, the greatest of his students, came to inform him: “It seems that your friends are distancing themselves from you.” He then took off his shoes… sat on the ground…[16], and his eyes filled with tears…”. The eyes of Yehoshuale also filled with copious tears, for he felt sad for the brave fighter who had been subdued and defeated -- Rabbi Eliezer ben Hurkenos.

The lad had friends among the sages -- particularly those who were weak, persecuted, or whose halachic decisions were not accepted. As has been mentioned, he loved the “excommunicated” Rabbi Eliezer ben Hurkenos. He felt affection for the poor “Acher”[17], from whose grave smoke emanated; for Reish Lakish who had been a robber, and even for the house of Shammai[18]. He loved Rashi very much, and when the Tosafot asked the winning question on the Kuntrus[19], he would strain his brain to understand. There were nights where his heart did not rest and he tossed and turned in his bed, searching for an answer. He felt sorry for Rashi when the interpretation of the Talmudic discussion contradicted his words… He did not understand how Reb Yisraelke remained at ease and slept restfully upon his bed. Yehoshuale made efforts to justify Rashi. Various answers and Talmudic discussions came to Yehoshuale's mind… and at times his argument was successful. Then he was filled with joy.

*

Reb Yisraelke did not only feed his student the wisdom of the written book: there was also the “Oral Torah”. During breaks from study, the teacher told the lad stories about sanctification of the Divine Name, of the self-sacrifice of the People of Israel for their Creator, of the martyrs of Mayence and Speyer[20], of the martyrs of Ta”ch ve Ta”t[21], of the “Cantonists”[22] -- the young children who were snatched by the gentiles and tortured, but who refused to defile their food, and sanctified the name of Heaven.

Yehoshuale lay sleepless on his bed at night after such stories. He himself desired to die in sanctification of the Divine Name, and imagined how a gentile king with a crown on his head might come to him -- as he had come to Chana and her seven sons[23] -- and command: “bow to the cross, or else you will die!” Yehoshuale would not betray -- he would rather die than worship the cross!

*

It was not only from Reb Yisraelke the Gemara teacher that the lad drew his knowledge of sublime Judaism. Almost every detail in the life of the Jewish community at that time conveyed Jewish teachings to him, including lessons of the love of G-d and the Sanctification of the Divine Name.

On the Sabbath eve, a bottle of “Okowit” (liquor) would be on the table, so that the Sabbath fish could be dipped into the strong drink. This “Okowit” was manufactured at the liquor distillery of the Polish nobleman Count Potocki, who owned lands surrounding Mezritsh. The label on the bottle bore the coat of arms of the Potocki family: A yellow cross with one leg cut. The uncles explained to the child the meaning of the damaged cross. 150 years ago, one of the main branches of this noble family was cut off, when one of its children “fell into

[Page 69]

a bad crowd”, accepted the Jewish religion and gave up his life in sanctification of the Divine Name. He was burnt at the stake in the central square of Vilna[24]. He was the righteous proselyte Avraham, the son of Avraham Potocki. Years later, when the family moved to Vilna, Yehoshuale came to learn that on the second day of Shavuot, the “El Maleh Rachamim[25] is recited in the synagogues [of Vilna] for that righteous proselyte. There is a bent tree in the shape of a man spreading out his arms over the proselyte's grave in the old cemetery. The Jews of Vilna go to visit his grave on occasion.

*

There was a poor family in the town that did not stand out for its great scholarship, but was honored by all the residents of the town because their ancestors had sanctified the Divine Name during the blood libel that had taken place in the city more than a century before.

The Yeshiva lad Lejbl Ejzen was honored in the city not due to his pedigree, but rather because of his own accomplishments. He was the child of poor people, the son of a widow who was a feather plucker; Lejbl was expert and sharp in the study of Torah. Uncle Aharon, Grandmother's son, befriended him and spent many hours with him discussing the novel Torah ideas contained in the Turei Even and the Shaagat Aryeh[26], for Torah and faith in the G-d of Israel was great in the Jewish community of Mezritsh, as it was in all Jewish cities, and devotion to its ways was within the control of each individual, independent of pedigree.

“Yediot Acharonot” – 30 October – 20 November 1959.


Translator's Footnotes

  1. The first words of the Mourner's Kaddish. return
  2. The prohibition against graven images is interpreted to refer to a full human image. One can avoid the formal prohibition by altering a part of the human form – in this case, by removing the nose. return
  3. The foliage covering of a sukkah that is required on the Festival of Sukkot. return
  4. Shema Malkeinu Atireinu Uvarech Nachalat Papirna”. The first letters of the first five words are Shin, Mem, Ayin, Vav, Nun -- forming the name Shimon, the name of the author's great-grandfather. return
  5. Mikraot Gedolot - An edition of the Chumash [Torah] with numerous commentaries on each page. return
  6. Talmud and Arba Turim - The Talmud is a code of Oral Law edited by Rabbi Judah HaNasi about 200 CE (the Mishnah) and rabbinical commentaries and analysis of the Mishnah, known as the Gemara. Together, the Mishnah and Gemara comprise the Talmud.
    Arba Turim - A halachic code composed by Yaakov ben Asher, dating from about 1300. The title means “four rows”, an allusion to the jewels on the High Priest's breastplate. The Arba Turim was later incorporated into the Shulchan Aruch (see below). return
  7. Shulchan Aruch - Code of Jewish Law, written in the 1600's by Rabbi Joseph Karo. return
  8. Levush – Also known as Levush Malkhut, a ten-volume codification of Jewish law that stressed the customs of Eastern European Jews. It was compiled by Mordechai ben Avraham Joffe in the 16th century. return
  9. Zohar - The foundational work of Jewish mystical thought known as Kabbalah. The Zohar first appeared in Spain in the 13th century. It was published by Moses de Leon, who ascribed the work to Shimon bar Yochai, a rabbi of the 2nd century C.E. return
  10. Pnei Yehoshua – Three different works of Rabbinic literature from the 1700's; Tzla”ch – (Tzion LeNefesh Chaya) – Commentary to the Gemara from the 1700's; Shita Mekubetzet - A compilation of opinions from the 1500's; Moreh Nevuchim - Guide for the Perplexed by Maimonides (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, “the Rambam”, 12th century. return
  11. – Incunabula – Books or pamphlets that were printed, not handwritten, before 1501 in Europe. return
  12. Bechukotai and Ki Tavo are the two sections of curses or reproof in the Torah. return
  13. These are the first words of the First and Second Commandments. return
  14. Haskalah – The “Jewish Enlightenment” movement among European Jews of the 18th-19th centuries that advocated the adoption of enlightenment values, pressed for better integration into secular society and advocated increased education in secular studies. return
  15. There are three Talmudic tractates known collectively as the Bavas. They are Bava Kama, Bava Metzia, and Bava Batra -- considered among the most difficult tractates of the Talmud, and together forming the compendium of Jewish civil law. return
  16. Signs of acceptance of a ban or excommunication. return
  17. Acher” means “other”. It was the nickname given to the Talmudic sage Rabbi Elisha, the son of Abuya, after he was excommunicated. return
  18. The vast majority of the Talmudic disputes between Hillel and Shammai were decided in favor of Hillel. return
  19. Tosafot - A collection of Talmudic commentators, including several of Rashi's grandsons. Kuntrus is the term used in the Tosafot for the commentary of Rashi. return
  20. The martyrs of Mayence and Speyer - Refers to the Jews killed by Crusaders in 1096. return
  21. The martyrs of Ta”ch ve Tat - Refers to the Jewish victims of the Chmielnitzki uprising (an army of Cossacks and peasants whose aim was to overthrow the Polish nobility) in the mid-1600's. return
  22. Cantonists - Jewish youths drafted into military service at age 12. Their service started with a six-year education at special military “canton” school, after which they were forced to serve in the military 25 years. return
  23. This refers to the story of Chana, a mother of 7 sons, all of whom were tortured and killed by Antiochus because they refused to abandon the ways of Torah as he demanded. For further detail on this story, please see: http://www.chabad.org/holidays/chanukah/article_cdo/aid/429014/jewish/Chanah-and-Her-Seven-Sons.htm return
  24. Vilna refers to Vilnius, Lithuania, 54°41'/25°19' return
  25. El Maleh Rachamim - A traditional memorial prayer recited at funerals. return
  26. Turei Even and Shaagat Aryeh - Two books written by Rabbi Aryeh Lejb ben Asher Gunzberg in the mid-1700's. The author was one of the most eminent Talmudists of his age. return

« Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page »


This material is made available by JewishGen, Inc. and the Yizkor Book Project for the purpose of
fulfilling our mission of disseminating information about the Holocaust and destroyed Jewish communities.
This material may not be copied, sold or bartered without JewishGen, Inc.'s permission. Rights may be reserved by the copyright holder.


JewishGen, Inc. makes no representations regarding the accuracy of the translation. The reader may wish to refer to the original material for verification.
JewishGen is not responsible for inaccuracies or omissions in the original work and cannot rewrite or edit the text to correct inaccuracies and/or omissions.
Our mission is to produce a translation of the original work and we cannot verify the accuracy of statements or alter facts cited.

  Miedzyrzec Podlaski, Poland     Yizkor Book Project     JewishGen Home Page


Yizkor Book Project Manager, Lance Ackerfeld
This web page created by Max Heffler

Copyright ©1999-2014 by JewishGen, Inc.
Updated 31 Jul 2013 by JH