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[Page 79]

In 1905

by Simkhe Waga

Translated by Miriam Leberstein

On a freezing winter day in 1905, I and my brother-in-law Yitshak Malekh were preparing to receive a political organizer from Warsaw (I think his name was Avreml) who was coming to Nowy Dwor to give a speech. Dressed in long warm overcoats and boots with shiny galoshes, we went to see “Lame Mendl” to have him call a meeting, because he had a relationship with the workers in Nowy Dwor.

At the time Mendl lived -- or better said, survived-- in a garret in the house of Gershon Hentshkemakher. The stairs that led to his room were falling apart and the roof had holes in it. The constantly falling snow had drifted through the holes in the roof and covered the stairs so it was impossible to keep one's footing, and we barely managed to avoid breaking our necks to reach Mendl's “palace.”

Lame Mendl was still lying on his sleeping bench on a torn, thin straw mattress, covered with old coats. It was freezing in the room; here and there you could see…

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Simkhe Wana, z”l [of blessed memory]

 

…white strands of fallen snow. Rays of sun peeked through the holes in the roof. Mendl had stuck his crippled leg out from under the covers, so that he could warm it in the sun.
Surprised by our visit, Mendl looked us up and down with his sharp gaze, looking at our boots and galoshes and perhaps also our healthy legs. We explained the purpose of our visit and asked him to arrange a meeting. And the meeting took place that very evening.

*

In this way, we began to build a workers' movement in the town. It was a turbulent time and we were full of a willingness to fight. We constantly confronted death at meetings, strikes and demonstrations, in the fields and woods, and we were full of courage. For many years we were successful, and this left its mark on us for our whole lives.

At one such meeting in the woods we were suddenly surrounded by a battalion of soldiers headed by a captain, all pointing their bayonets at us. We didn't lose our heads. I found the courage to approach the captain and engage him in negotiations. I explained that this was only a Lag B'Omer gathering, of a religious and not a political nature. This made a good impression on him. He accepted all of my claims and even apologized for the soldiers who had taken certain objects from us. He lined the soldiers up, and sternly ordered them to return the objects.

I remember friendly “get-togethers” in Warsaw's Pawiak Prison. I was there for months and communicated with my neighbors on the other side of the wall via “finger-talk.” One of my neighbors on the other side of the wall was Kampzhak, a well known revolutionary from the Polish Socialist Party, who remained cheerful even though he had been sentenced to death by hanging.

The majority of prisoners in Pawiak were political revolutionaries and the atmosphere was very homey. We were always singing revolutionary songs in various languages, and we were very friendly; everyone was ready to give his life for the other. If one of us had committed an offense and was to be punished with confinement in the dungeon, everyone declared a hunger strike. In all the cells, on all the floors, you could hear banging, shouting, wailing;

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the noise was deafening. The police and the administration vainly threatened us and tried to calm us. We quieted down only after the condemned person was returned to his cell and called out: “Comrades, I am back among you!”

We experienced many events in those years, for example, the general strike in Warsaw, in which we Nowy Dworers participated by raising funds to help the strikers. To this end, we forced the Nowy Dwor employers to donate money in quite significant amounts – ten, twenty and even a hundred rubles. We even extracted money from those rich misers who never gave a penny to charity. Those were revolutionary times and the rich were obliged, however unwillingly, to recognize the strength of the workers' movement.

We Nowy Dworers also greatly influenced the revolutionary movement among the military garrisons in the barracks in Nowy Dwor and the surrounding area, especially the fortress in Modlin. We supplied the soldiers and officers with revolutionary literature and proclamations. A servant to the captain of the military engineers became our go-between. He would come daily to buy food for his boss and we would fill his basket with revolutionary literature, prepared especially for the army. This propaganda work yielded results, and in many garrisons revolutionary cells were formed to promote the Russian revolution.

This was an era of struggle. People didn't live only for themselves. We grew up with the movement that wanted to take over the world, and it left its traces on our generation.

*

I was in the movement leadership and carried out the missions of the Central Committee. I organized evening events, meetings, gatherings of various trades –tailors, shoemakers, carpenters, locksmiths-- and women workers, mostly seamstresses. I also organized the so-called “lumpen proletariat” who had no work.

All of these would listen eagerly to my explanations of passages from the Bible, from which I would draw a political lesson. For example, the passage that states that one should never muzzle an ox I interpreted to mean that even a dumb beast has the right to eat. The passage about a servant who refuses to leave his master when his term of indentured servitude is over I interpreted to mean that when someone doesn't want to free himself from slavery, you have to drill the need to do so into his head with an awl. This was a big hit.

I would drag myself from town to town organizing meetings after hard days of work, meetings which sometimes lasted until 10 P.M. or even midnight, after which the workers would have to rush off to sew a wedding dress for some rich man's daughter. We would gather in some vacant apartment, in the besmedresh [house of study, also used for worship], or in the woods in summer. And so I went from town to town, from meeting to meeting, giving sermons on the Torah of Karl Marx.

Once, on a cold, wintry dark night in the month of Elul [month in early autumn that leads up to the High Holy Days], when I had returned from my rounds in the neighboring towns – Nashelsk, Mlove, Plonsk, Zakrotshin, et. al. -- I found Nowy Dwor in a state of war. All day long, the police, gendarmes and Cossacks on horseback rampaged through the town, whips in their hands, viciously and bloodthirstily carrying out searches and arrests in every house. Mostly they were looking for revolutionary leaders, following lists of names they had obtained from informants, those sinister people, ostensibly upstanding citizens, the prosperous folk who weren't very fond of us.

I hid in a stable belonging to a friend, where I lay in fear and heard

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the Cossacks' horses trampling the cobbled streets, heard how people were dragged from their houses. Any minute, they would close in on me. I ran from my hiding place, jumped over a fence, and ran through Ruben Likhttsier's courtyard and into our family's courtyard. My old father, Yeshaye Yermiye, was astonished to see me. He embraced me, and on his white bearded face was joy mixed with sorrow and fear. He first gave me something to eat, then began looking for a suitable place for me to hide.

It was midnight on Saturday night, when people say the first of the slikhes prayers [prayers for forgiveness said during a period beginning a week before Rosh Hashone through Yom Kippur]. Hasidim from the Vorker sect were already hurrying to say the prayers in an empty room in our courtyard which my father had devoted to that purpose. My father, knowing full well what kind of Hasid and worshipper I was, hit on an idea:

“Simkhele,” he said, “put on your Sabbath clothing and come with me to the shtibl [one room house of prayer] and no one will suspect you. And at the same time, you can say your prayers, and in that way you will merit God's protection and nothing bad will happen to you.”
Feeling pity for my aged father, I did what he asked. I changed into Hasidic clothing, he took me by the hand, and we went outside. It was completely dark; you couldn't see a thing. My father went ahead and I followed and suddenly, as if they had risen from the earth, those devils, the gendarmes, appeared. They grabbed me by the collar and shouted, “We've caught our bird.” My father pushed between me and the gendarmes and began thrusting “papers” [i.e. money] into their hands, but it didn't help. Police soon arrived from all directions with revolvers in their hands.

They led me away in parade formation –two gendarmes in front of me, two behind, and a group of Cossack riders bringing up the rear. My guards were on the lookout, watching to see if a bomb was waiting for them. Despite my heavy guard, I still managed to get rid of my “weapons,” the leaflets and proclamations I always carried with me. The geniuses, my guards, were constantly looking off to the side and didn't notice as I discarded my “merchandise.” Behind me, the pieces of paper covered the street like snow (so I was told) and I was brought “with great honor” to the administrator's office.

The government official sat down to make a report. Cursing and berating me, he drew up an accounting of my sins and warned me that I would never again see the light of day, that I would be hanged as well. I, like a lamb surrounded by wolves, calmly replied: “Your honor, you won't have enough trees to hang us all.”

They sent me to the dark Nowy Dwor jail, where I found some of my friends, who were pressing up against the bars like shadows. I could recognize them only by their voices. I got through the night unharmed, and together we recited the slikhe prayer. Several streets away, in the shtibl with the Vorker Hasidim, my frightened father, wrapped in his prayer shawl, its silver collar on his head, wept bitterly and poured out his heart in the words of the slikhe: “Lord of the Universe, the soul is yours, the body is your creation, have compassion upon your handiwork.”


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My Father's Workshop

by Meyer Blake (Blakharek)

Translated by Miriam Leberstein

My father, Reb [respectful form of address] Leyzer, was a tailor of women's clothing, and his workshop was run on a large scale. As many as 25 apprentices (“boys” and “girls”, as they were then called), worked for him. These included people not only from Nowy Dwor, but also from surrounding towns, and even from Lite [Lithuania and other parts of Eastern Europe] and deep in Russia.

 

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Meyer Blake (Blakherek), z”l [of blessed memory]

 

In those days, at the end of the 19th century, workers hired themselves out for a “term,” either from Passover to Sukkot, or from Sukkot to Passover. They were paid by the entire term, about a half-year. The wage for the half-year ranged from 5 to 50 rubles, according to skill.

Those who came from far away hired themselves out for room and board, and received an additional allowance. Those who came from Nowy Dwor would live with their impoverished families and receive only meager pay. They weren't paid a certain amount per week. Rather, a couple of rubles were doled out to them now and then, and their accounts were settled at the end of the term.

The workweek began on Saturday night after havdole [ceremony ending the Sabbath], and ended on Friday night, before candle-lighting [beginning of Sabbath]. As for the number of hours per day, nobody counted them in those days.

As the boss, my father took care of drumming up business, buying fabric, taking measurements for clothing, and collecting debts owed him. But he would also pick up his needle and shears and pitch in with the work of sewing. Late at night, close to midnight, after supper and a short rest, my father would go to the workshop and cheerfully say, “Well, let's get to work now.”

The eyes of the pale and famished seamstresses would be closing, their strength exhausted, their needles falling from their hands, but he would still say to them, “When you get married, you'll have time to sleep.” With their last bit of strength, they continued with their work out of fear of the boss.

This doesn't mean that my father was among the worst employers. On the contrary, in the town he was considered a fine boss. He was a gabbai [administrator] for the prayer fellowship Eyn Yakov [Jacob's Well] and was active in other groups. He was not unusual in the way he treated his workers; that was just the way things were done in those times.

My father was always busy with the workshop. The boys in the family went to kheder [religious elementary school]. My mother and sisters were busy with the arduous housework in the kitchen. Every day they had to prepare meals for the apprentices who boarded with us as well as meals for the family, under very burdensome conditions, having to heat the oven with wood and coal and carry water in cans from the well.

All of our household possessions were connected with the workshop. The big room

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where the workshop was located also served as a bedroom and dining room for the seamstresses. In a second large room lived the male apprentices, who slept on straw mattresses, covered with military-style overcoats, as in a barracks. We children of the boss slept with the workers.

The long weekdays passed in the dull routine of work. Only on the Sabbath would they cover the machines, lay out the long table, and light up the room with oil lamps and candles. The only entertainment and enjoyment we had was a wedding in town, a stroll on the outskirts of town, Father's prayers and Mother's reading the Tsene-Rene [compilation of religious texts translated into Yiddish, for use by women, who were usually not literate in Hebrew]. Circumcisions and bar mitzvahs also provided an opportunity for celebration, and even funerals provide a break from the usual dull routine.

 

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A group of modern girls before the First World War
From left: Nekhe (daughter of Reb Shimshen Note Srebrenik, who died young), Manye and Esther Kisin (who left for Russia in 1914), and Andzhe Hirshbein (America)

 

New winds started to blow in Nowy Dwor in 1898, when I was almost eight years old. We heard the news about the first meeting of the Bund[1] in Vilna, about how the oppressed Jewish workers were trying to throw off the yoke of Tsarist oppression and enslavement by the bosses.

In Nowy Dwor, too, things began to move, at first in a very primitive manner. Once, on a winter night in 1900, when the “boys and girls” were sitting bent over their work in our workshop, stones began to fly through our windows, and a policeman's daughter, who just happened to be working there, was injured. The police arrested some innocent Jews. (The real Bundist, I learned only later in America, was Matye, the son of Rokhl, wife of Yoyne Gedalye, to this day a member of the Anarchist movement.)

That stone – the first primitive form of rebellion – did have results. The sounds of revolutionary tunes began to be heard ever more strongly. The workers more boldly began to demand that the “term” system be abolished, and that they be paid by the week instead, and that the workday should extend only from 8 A.M. to 8 P.M. They also demanded higher wages.

At the same time, the Zionist movement began to emerge. I remember when two young men, Shimshon Note Srebrenik and Shmuel Grobman, came to sell my father a “shekel” [token given for contribution to Zionist movement]. They showed him a picture of the first Zionist Congress in Basel, bordered with the quote [from Hillel], “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me?”

My father burst out in anger: “Heretics! Don't you believe in God? You, with your shaved faces, you want Messiah to come!” My father didn't buy a shekel and the two young men barely escaped with their bones intact. Several years later, after a wave of bloody pogroms carried out

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by the Tsarist secret police, Reb Yitshak Ben Isaac Tuvim came to Nowy Dwor from Jerusalem. After hearing him speak in the besmedresh [study house, also used for worship], a lot of people, including my father, joined the religious Zionist movement Mizrachi.

My father continued to run his large workshop, which was renowned for its fine work. His clients were the wives, daughters, and daughters-in-law of wealthy, respectable homes in Nowy Dwor and the surrounding area. My father would also send apprentices and machines to fulfill orders in the clients' homes, in most cases to prepare a bride's trousseau. The apprentices loved such assignments, because they were well-fed and worked under comfortable conditions.

Polish landowners would also have their clothes made by my father. Most clients were the wives of the officers from the garrison stationed in the Modlin fortress. My father's work was renowned as fit for the “best class of people.”

When the Russian-Japanese War broke out, all of the military forces from the garrison in the Modlin fortress were sent to the battlefront, and the military wives disappeared, leaving their debts unpaid. The war put an end to work. A lot of workers were mobilized into the army, and the rest remained idle. My father also was left without an income and the only way for him to support his family was to emigrate to America.

I was the oldest son, then 12 ½ years old. I already knew tailoring, and my father calculated that he and I together could “earn a few dollars” in America. My father packed a few things for both of us, including our prayer shawls and tefillin [phylacteries]. My mother, my two sisters and my younger brother cried to see us go. And so we set off overseas, into the wide world.


We, the Embroiderers

by Esther Malke Knaster

Translated by Miriam Leberstein

 

Nowy Dworers of my age no doubt still remember my mother, Blime the Teacher, and my father, the community activist. My father, who always labored for the world to come, used to say: “This world is an anteroom, in which to spend our few years…” He spent all his time helping the poor and sick. He would give them vouchers to see a doctor or an apothecary. He provided them with bread from Leyzer Papier the baker. He would provide clothing for homeless children, and see to it that the Talmud Torah supported them at community expense.

He was also very involved with carrying out the mitzvah [religious obligation] of haskhnose kale, providing poor girls with the monetary means to get married. It was because of this that my mother's earrings would sometimes disappear.

One Saturday morning, preparing to go to synagogue, my mother wanted to put on some jewelry in honor of the Sabbath, but she couldn't find her earrings. We children even got slapped, because my mother blamed us for having thrown them out. We looked for them for several hours, but could not find them.

Then, sitting in the synagogue one Saturday, my mother spotted her earrings on the ears of Rivkele, the daughter of Hershl Hodes (Goldfenig). When my mother asked my father about this, he confessed that he had “donated” the earrings to fulfill the mitzvah of helping poor brides. The story was, that when the poor bride was already standing under the wedding canopy with her “intended” and was being led around

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the groom, as is the custom, the groom's brothers took him away from under the canopy because the bride's dowry had not been paid in full. The bride was left standing there, humiliated, and swore that she would avenge herself on the groom.

At that point, my father, very upset over the bride's pain, ran home, took my mother's earrings, pawned them with Hershel Hodes and brought the money back to the bride to make up the amount that was lacking for the dowry. The marriage was lawfully concluded. It was still necessary to conduct a rabbinical court in order to abrogate the bride's vow of revenge. What happened to the earrings had remained a secret until the Saturday morning when my mother spotted them [on the pawnbroker's daughter].

My father was also considered very knowledgeable about various illnesses. When cholera broke out in Nowy Dwor my father left his family of several small children and stayed for several months at the hospital caring for the sick despite the great danger of becoming infected.

I remember once, on a Saturday, several men came to see my father about a critically ill person who had to be given a hot bath immediately. My father went with them directly to the mikvah [ritual bath] and it was odd to see several religious Jews, dressed in their Sabbath caftans, dragging a tub of hot water to the sick man's house, and also carrying pitchers of hot water from the tavern.

My father had a good partner in carrying out his good deeds – the wife of Shimen Nisn. It was in her house that my father and his helpers gathered all the alms that they had collected for the poor.

My mother did not get involved in any of this community work. She was a teacher and worried about supporting the family. From time to time she would reproach my father for caring only about mitsvahs for other people. My father had no ready response to this. When we children got older we learned that our mother had demanded

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that Father grant her a divorce, unless he gave up his community work. But the rabbi reproached her, saying that one cannot divorce such a pious man. He did however rule that in the world to come my mother would share in the rewards my father had earned through his mitzvahs.

My mother kept a very religious home and pious women would gather there. On Tisha b'Av, they would sit on the floor, which was spread with soft cushions, and say the prayer of lamentation. We children wept along with them over the destruction of the Temple. And on the eve of Yom Kippur, before the rite of kapores [sacrifice of a chicken to which a person's sins have been transferred], they would come to us from the market with chickens in hand and ask Blimtshe [my mother] to send one of her daughters to their house to say the blessing over the ceremony.

On Rosh Hashonah our father would blow the shofar [ram's horn]at home so that we, his daughters, would not have to stand in front of the synagogue to hear it blown there. On Purim, my father would bring home the Megile [Scroll of Esther] and women would come to hear my mother read it in our house. They had a good time giving Haman his just desserts!

This was the manner in which our household was run – religiously observant and under the complete authority of our parents. When my brother turned 13, they already began to look for a wife for him. As they understood it, the bride had to be beautiful, pious, intelligent, have a good dowry and – most important – please her mother-in-law. So they started planning when he was 13, although he didn't get married until he was 19.

My oldest sister was a seamstress. In those days, seamstresses worked late into the night. Between Purim and Pesach, when people needed clothes for the holidays, and there was a lot of work, the seamstresses would leave home for work on Saturday night and not return until Friday evening for the Sabbath. They sat chained to their seats the entire week, dozing off with fatigue. After Pesach, there began a new “term,” which lasted until Sukkot. They hired themselves out for the entire term, like slaves.

My mother didn't want her daughter to work all night, so she hired her out to Frimet the Klezmerke [musician's wife] (Bornshteyn} and was glad that her daughter would work only until midnight. Going home from work at midnight in the dark town, people were frightened by every shadow. They still believed that the dead left their graves at that hour, and many times people screamed in fear. Another superstition they still believed was that when a Jew who had converted died, the dead person would walk and run about, and everyone had a story about that happening. In order to overcome such fears, people used various charms or talismans, for example, carrying with them aprons or sock-laces.

Not only shadows, but soldiers, too, attacked at night. So the parents agreed that each night one of them would accompany their daughters home from work. My father did this one night a week, holding a lantern in his hand. He performed this duty until my sister stopped working for others and became a “maysterova,” a woman who was a master artisan working for herself.

My other sister, Khaye Bine, was very beautiful, intelligent, good and religious. All the women hoped to have such a gifted child. My parents prided themselves on her beauty and piety “until a devil came and led her off the righteous path,” as my mother said, weeping bitterly over this catastrophe.

The so-called “devil” was Rakhe Vielkanots, daughter of Meyer Nar [Meyer the Fool]. (Her father had been given the nickname “fool” because once, in the commotion of a fire, he left behind everything in his house to be consumed by fire and rescued only a basket of potato peelings.) Rakhe was very good and friendly to everyone. She was known in Nowy Dwor as a “tsitsialist” [comic mispronunciation of socialist) and young men and girls would gather in her house.

My sister Khaye Bine and Rakhe worked together for Khane Leye Bakman, Moyshe Shtayf's wife, doing embroidery. Khaye Bine got books from Rakhe, books that my father threw into the fire. And things got “lively” at our house. My mother's weeping and pleas that Khaye Bine not go walking with Rakhe had no effect. Nor did my father's blows. My mother sent me to follow Khaye Bine to see where she went, who she met, and whether she still read those books. I didn't want to deceive my mother, and told her everything.

At Rakhe's house I found, among others, Mendl Kules [Crutches], who had returned from the Pawiak Prison in Warsaw. He had been arrested for distributing “proclamations.” I immediately went home and told my mother that Khaye Bine was at Rakhe's with several young people, and Khaye Bine got into deep trouble. Khaye Bine repaid me by hitting me. Today I understand that I well deserved it.

When Khaye Bine told Rakhe what trouble I had caused, Rakhe approached me and asked me to come with her on a stroll. On the walk, Rakhe explained to me that I didn't have to tell my parents anything, that we had to be “conspiratorial.” From then on, I was nice to Khaye Bine and my mother no longer relied on me. She said I was even worse than Khaye Bine and was following in her footsteps. My parents then did their own spying on Khaye Bine. As soon as she left the house, someone followed her, a lantern in their hand.

Khaye Bine suffered a great deal. She wasn't allowed to read a book and couldn't leave the house freely. But she was strong enough to stick to her guns. One day she went off

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to London without telling the family. I was the only one who knew. My parents took it very badly. They blamed me for not telling them about Khaye Bine's voyage. They began to watch me more, to prevent me from following in her path, and to keep me, God forbid, from going to see Rakhe. But I could no longer submit to my parents' demands.

It was during a turbulent period, with numerous strikes in Warsaw. Nowy Dwor also woke up. Among the well known activists I will note: Mendl Kules; Avigdor the potter's son; Mendl and Khaim Kohan (Pesakh Gold's sons); Mendl Faygnboym (son of Moyshe Pukel;) Shmuel and Shloyme Motl (Borekh Shnayder's son) Himmelfarb. We got together several times week at the house of Yankl Blekher, Meyer Nar's son.

I remember the first meeting at Yankl's on a Friday night. Moyshe Kohan brought a speaker from Warsaw to that clandestine meeting. A second meeting, at the home of Brukhe Goldstein, an embroiderer, was attended by Yitshak Malekh (Brondshaft); Shimkhe Waga (Wanger) and his sister Khane; and Khave Lisphtayn (the Pishalyoves' daughter). Khave and Khane were our organizers. They agitated among the girls, gave us books to read and took us on walks to discuss with us the latest events.

It was 1904. I was working for Sime the Seamstress. Yitshak Malekh sent for me to come to Brokhe's house. There, we decided to organize the first strike of Nowy Dwor seamstresses and to demand a 12-hour workday, from 7 A.M. to 7 P.M.;work by the week and not by the “term”; and payment every two weeks. With these demands, we went out on strike. All of us were seamstresses aged 8 to 14 years old, and we went from one workshop to another to call the girls out on strike.

I'll never forget how the town received us, what scenes the market women made when we strikers passed through the market place. They chased us, throwing cans of milk, baskets of apples and cucumbers, cursing and berating us with the worst epithets. We passed through the market place to Moyshe Hersh Shoykhet's [ritual slaughterer] house, to the workshop run by his daughter, a seamstress. The several girls who worked there didn't want to join the strike, and when Khanele and I went inside, they hid under the beds and wouldn't listen to our efforts to persuade the. The shoykhet locked us in, and ran to get the police. But we had good helpers –three young apprentice locksmiths –Melekh Knaster, Hersh Khaim Fisher and Motl Himelfarb. They shook the door so hard that the whole house shook and we escaped to the curses of the shoykhet.

He was especially upset at me, when he found out whose daughter I was. He was amazed that my father could have a daughter who was a striker and he even threatened to “settle a score” with my father, because it was his fault.

But we had a chance to get revenge, not against the shoykhet Moyshe Hersh, but against another shoykhet, whose son was caught “in flagrante” with Helena at the brothel. That shoykhet, the father of the son caught sinning, wanted to keep the matter hidden from the rabbi, and he gave Moyshe Shteyf a gold watch in return for keeping quiet about what he had seen. But his efforts failed and because of this big scandal, the shoykhet and his entire family left for America.

But Moyshe Hersh didn't rest until he found an opportunity to take revenge on my father. When one of our neighbors made a bris [circumcision)

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my father was invited to served as the sandek [man who holds the baby during the circumcision]. Moyseh Hersh Shoykhet, who was also a mohel [person who performs the circumcision] refused to circumcise the child if my father was the sandek. My father, abashed, had to renounce the honor and returned home dejected from the celebration, having been punished for his daughter's participation in the strike.

Our strike, however, was successful, and all of our demands were met. The male tailors immediately struck and their demands were also met. Then came strikes by the workers in the casing factory and button factory, and all the strikes had an important result – the shortening of the workday.

When the seamstresses struck the workshop of Frimet, the wife of Hillel Klezmer, Motl Himmelfarb was arrested as a result. On the street in front of the town hall, I saw two policemen leading Motl away in chains. With our heads bowed and in deep sorrow we heard the shouts of the women: “Good job –all tsitsialists should be driven out of Nowy Dwor. The girls too should be put in chains.” This they said while pointing to us. The leader of the jeering women was Khane, the wife of the feldsher [barber-surgeon]. The men, too, carried on about the strikers. In front of a group of people at the besmedresh [house of study, also used for worship] Hillel Klezmer boasted that it was he who had denounced the revolutionary Motl Himelfarb. “Let them ship him to Siberia, or else hang him.”

We discussed all this with our leader Khave and decided to help our comrades liberate Motl when they were taking him to the train to travel to the Pawiak prison in Warsaw. The only weapons we had were hairpins and sewing pins. But suddenly Motl appeared in the street, already a free man, smiling. I learned from Mendl Kulas that the night before, people went to see Hillel Klezmer and ransomed Motl Himelfarb. Hillel Klezmer went off to bribe the police and they immediately freed Motl.

All these strikes and events resulted in unity and organizing and the workers of Nowy Dwor prepared to celebrate May Day. The celebration was held in the woods, during Pesach. I snuck out of my house so my parents wouldn't see. It was the first time I had met such lovely young people in Nowy Dwor. They had all courageously decided not to work on May 1 and to come to the woods to celebrate.

I thought I could keep my participation a secret but the rabbi immediately called on my father and told him that I was with the group in the woods, and even ate bread there during Pesach. My father was very upset. They also told my father of other sins I had committed. One of the Hasids scolded him as he sat studying Torah in the synagogue: “You're sitting here reading the Gemara and your daughter, still in braids [i.e. still unmarried] held hands with a boy.” He was referring to my cousin from Warsaw, a dandy wearing a fedora [i.e. not religious garb] who was visiting us for Pesach, and to whom I was saying goodbye, clasping his hand, in front of our house.

My father could no longer tolerate all these sins of mine and in great anger he broke our stewpot and cursed me out. I felt restricted in my home and in the street, too, women would point at me: “There she goes,” and mothers would beat their children, invoking my name: “A real queen you'll grow up to be – holding hands with some boy? I'll see you buried before that happens.”

My father complained to the Radziminer [Hasidic] rebe that he had no joy from his daughter. The rebe's advice didn't help and one Saturday, after lunch,

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I left everything and everyone behind and left for London. The letters I received from my sister Miryem brought me great pleasure. Thanks to her sisters, she was already feeling more freedom at home; our parents didn't prevent her from reading books and she wasn't watched so closely if she went with a boy. My friends, too, wrote me that the fanatical parents had become afraid that their daughters would run away and they gave them more freedom to enjoy themselves.

I was glad to hear that the young had prevailed and that our names were mentioned at meetings as the first ones to break the chains of fanaticism and clear the path for a new generation to go forward into a better and more beautiful world.


Translator's Footnote

  1. “Bund” is a shortened form of Algemeyner Yidisher Arbeter Bund in Lite, Poyln un Rusland, General Jewish Labor Federation in Lithuania, Poland and Russia. It was a Socialist, anti-Zionist organization. Return


The First Jewish Socialists in Nowy Dwor

by Hershl Himelfarb

Translated by Miriam Leberstein

The Beginnings

Sixty years ago, in 1899, my eldest brother Fayvl, who worked in a tailor shop, was drawn into the illegal Socialist organization, the Bund[1], in Warsaw. He was the first Jewish Socialist in our town, Nowy Dwor. A little later several other Nowy Dwor workers became Socialists, among them Yudl Makovski (Khane Khaye's son) and Yankev Arye (Gershon Hentshkemakher's son). They worked in Warsaw and when they returned home for the Sabbath and on holidays, they made sure that no one in the town found out about their membership in the revolutionary movement. When they dealt with the workers in town, they gave no hint of their involvement in conspiratorial activity.

 

now090.jpg
Hershl Himelfarb, giving a speech

 

At the end of 1900 or the beginning of 1901, my brother was arrested. He was imprisoned for ten months and then sent back home on an eytap [group of prisoners transported, often on foot, under guard], where he was placed under police supervision. The rumors about his arrest and release upset our quiet, small town life. There began to be heard such strange words as “Socialism,” “revolution,” “Bund,” “self–governance,” “strike,” and the like. So this event indirectly became the first impulse toward the established of an organized workers' movement in Nowy Dwor.

 

The First Workers' Organization

At the beginning of this century, Nowy Dwor, like a lot of other Jewish towns in Poland, was socially backward. A small number of well–off men occupied themselves with communal affairs. Some people spent their time in prayer groups and religious associations and in the besmedresh [house of study, also used for worship], but the

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majority of the Jewish population –the artisans, shopkeepers, workers and simply poor people –was ignorant and did not demonstrate any need for spiritual or intellectual gratification. The young workers, who just wanted to enjoy life, spent their free time playing cards or tending to their appearance. Those who read Yiddish found pleasure in trashy literature. And although Warsaw was so close, they knew nothing of the vibrant social fabric of the capital city, or of all of Russia.

At that time, a Zionist group was established in Nowy Dwor. Just like the prayer groups, it had a larger number of prosperous, respectable men, quasi– aristocrats. They were drawn to Zionism both because of their love of Eretz Yisroel and because of their strong opposition to religious Orthodoxy, which they blamed for the backwardness and oppression of the Jewish masses.

This Zionist group, in addition to worshipping together, also occupied itself with secular matters: Zionism, Territorialism, the Jewish National Fund, promotion of modern Hebrew, etc. The more intellectual children of the middle–class, as well as workers, also belonged, not only for the sake of communal worship, but more importantly, to discuss the problems of the day. Of these, I remember Yankl Knaster; Yitshak Shtshigelski; Yankev, Yure's son,(Yankl Shperling); and Mendl Lipski. A number of these later became active in the various organizations of the workers' movement.

At the same time a number of young people, mostly children of the more enlightened, middle–class homes who had left the “righteous path” and had abandoned their religious studies in the besmedresh, began learning Russian. They began to meet in private homes to study together, hold discussions, and enjoy themselves. Such gatherings were held in the homes of Hershl Yerazalimski (whose two daughters belonged to that circle), Shimshen Note Srebrenik, et. al. From this group I remember: Simkhe Waga and his sister Khave (the children of Yeshaye Yermiye); the brothers Alter and Yitshak Malekh; Khanele Lipshits; and the sisters Brokhe and Rivke Mundlak. Most of these later became active in various organizations and some are still active today in one way or another in the workers' movement.

In the years 1901–1903, political speakers began to appear in the large and small towns of Poland, joining the magids [travelling preachers and story tellers] and yeshiva fundraisers who usually visited. One such speaker, Karotkin, visited Nowy Dwor in the winter of 1902. He spoke to a packed beshmedresh, raging against the Orthodox leaders of the Jewish community who clung to petrified customs. He was very well received and later also spoke in Aharon Rabinovitch's “salon”. There, he spoke as a Territorialist, and engaged in a discussion with Shmuel Grobman, the feldsher [barber–surgeon], a Zionist, and a young man, Shloymke Zusman, a Zionist–Territorialist, whom “Lame Mendl” had brought in from Warsaw. (This Shloyme Zusman was one of the leaders of the Zionist–Socialists. After the First World War he was a Bundist, and later was the Secretary of the Warsaw Jewish School Organization.) Zusman stayed in town for several days and there was more talk and discussion in the home of Lame Mendel somewhere near the Narew River, until they organized the first cell of a Socialist workers' movement.

At first, we all gathered in this cell, but a few months later my brother Fayvl, visiting for the Sabbath, asked me why we didn't establish a Bundist organization. When I told him that our intelligentsia was not inclined to Bundism, and that we engaged only in cultural and social activities,

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he told me: “Intellectual matters are important, but the time has now come for action.” I then assembled a group of workers; my brother spoke with them and an illegal Bundist organization was founded. It was headed by my second brother, Motl, a locksmith, and Dovidl Parizer, a tailor, who was nicknamed Dovidl the Swindler; he was later active in the ranks of the national labor federation in America.

Thus, by 1903, there already existed in Nowy Dwor two Jewish Socialist organizations – the Bund and the Zionist–Socialists, which (as will later become apparent) were ideologically in conflict but in practice worked together in many instances.

The speed with which the workers of Nowy Dwor joined the Bund showed that the soil was ripe for the founding of such an organization. In a short time, the Bund expanded to occupy a prominent position in the town. Some of the bosses (masters who employed several workers) and some of the leaders of the Jewish community demonstrated their hostility and fought the Bund, but the workers and the poor identified with the Bund, saw it as a force that would battle injustice, and rallied around it.

During Pesach, 1903, when we heard the news about the Kishinev pogroms and the first efforts at self–defense by the Jews, the pressure grew to build an organized force. Within a short time the entire working class youth of the town had joined the illegal movement.

At first the programs were mostly educational. People would gather in groups, walking along the roads on both sides of town, Warshawer [Road] and Zakratshiner [Road]; at the Polish market place; and in summer in the fields on the outskirts of town or in the fruit orchards. They would discuss and analyze the Yiddish books they had borrowed from the bookshops of Shimshen Note Srebrenik and Borekh Aynbinder.

Books and brochures about basic natural science –such as rain, thunder, and lightning–evoked the most interest. Also popular were books about social problems, which reflected the conflict between rich and poor, strong and weak. As for Yiddish literature, we began with Isaac Dineson, and went on to Mendele Moykher Sforim, I.L.Peretz, Avraham Reisin, Gomberg and Ashe. These books, along with propaganda books, magazines and brochures, were the sources from which we derived our consciousness and learned to understand our own situation and the life around us in order to fight for a better future.

That all this effort was not in vain was demonstrated on the eve of Pesach in 1904, when the first strike in Nowy Dwor occurred. Several hundred women workers struck, mostly underwear embroiderers and packers who worked for Warsaw underwear manufacturers and merchants. The strike lasted about ten days. They won their demand for a small increase in wages. Most of the strikers were young girls, 14–15 years old, and they exhibited extraordinary solidarity and great courage.

 

Growth and Prominence

In the following years, there were strikes in a series of trades and workshops, first of all in the needle trades, which employed a large number of workers. They struck for higher wages, an 8–hour work day, and humane conditions. This last demand was especially important to

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young trainees and apprentices. With the exception of a few cases in which individual bosses were stubbornly resistant and prolonged the struggle, the first strikes were successful. The workers won higher wages and a shorter work day, which enabled them to participate more in organizational activities.

In 1904, when the Russian–Japanese War ended in a disgraceful defeat for Tsarism, the Tsarist regime tried to pacify the discontent masses with the Bulygin Duma Project. The Russian people were not fooled, and did not accept the gift. The revolutionary parties conducted a large educational effort against this Tsarist swindle.

Dovidl Parizer and I carried out the educational effort in Nowy Dwor and the surrounding towns. We appeared at large gatherings in the besmedreshes. We also established Bundist groups in Zakratshin and in Plonsk. In Plonsk I met a few interesting people who later became well known, like the Plonsker Rabbi Mikhelzon, Dovid Ben Gurian (then Dovid Grin), Dovid Budke, the painter, and I. Sigal, the editor of the Forverts [Yiddish newspaper in America], actually became a Bundist at that time.

During our visit to Plonsk, several young people from Drobnik, a small town in Plonsk province, invited us to a meeting in Drobnik. There, we were both arrested and were imprisoned for two entire months in the 'new prison” in Plonsk. Then we were sent home by eytap to Nowy Dwor, where we were placed under police supervision.

I was pleasantly surprised when I came home for New Year's and found a fully grown organization that was conducting intensive activity in various domains.

 

Multi–Faceted Activities

In the process of development and expansion of the organization we also undertook to expand our activity beyond the narrow borders of Jewish Nowy Dwor.

The town had several large industrial enterprises –– a porcelain factory, a starch factory, a military mechanical workshop for bridge components, boats and other marine items, a sawmill, a food warehouse on the Vistula, etc. With the exception of the food warehouse (Bankovy Warehouse), where about forty Jews worked as porters, all of these enterprises were manned by hundreds of Polish workers and our efforts to bring them into the movement were unsuccessful. This was a backward group, and we didn't have any Polish–speaking intellectuals. The only gymnasium [academic high school] and university students studied in Plonsk or Warsaw, and were ideologically very distant from us, concerned only with their own interests. We barely managed to assemble a group of Poles who considered themselves associated with the Polish Socialist Party. They worked together with us, but they had no influence on the masses of Polish workers.

We had more success in another area. We managed to establish contact with a group of soldiers and officers who were engaged in revolutionary work in the garrison at the Modliner (Nowa Georgiewsker) Fortress. We made contact through a Jewish student, a member of the Zionist Socialists, who, through a multi–party coalition in the Warsaw region, conducted agitation in the military. He would come to Nowy Dwor from time to time, bringing “literature”, and sometimes

[Page 94]

deliver it himself. In most cases, we were the ones who distributed it, during meetings at secret locations, or under the guise of delivering packages directly to the military posts.

Of course, this was very dangerous, but there were always people willing to take the risk who carried out the job. The work with the military was one of the spheres in which people of various political groups cooperated. Here, I want to note several people who distinguished themselves in this work: Khave Waga; Khanele Lipshits, Eliyohu (Dovid Parizer's brother), Simkhe Waga, and both Malekh brothers. The best place to meet secretly with our military contact was the Gotlib's (Dovid Malazh).

The results of our work became apparent later on, when there was an explosion in the fortress, in the home of a colonel. This event ended tragically with the arrest of several officers and soldiers from the Modlin garrison, who were sent to forced labor in Siberia.

At the end of 1904 and the beginning of 1905, our organization was at the forefront of communal life in Nowy Dwor. By that time, the former “gilded youth” who together with the snobbish middle class and the police had tried to terrorize the young movement no longer had any influence, and were satisfied to be left alone. They even turned to us for help when toughs would bother peaceful citizens, or when there was a theft or attack. It took just a hint from our organization, and the offense was settled in favor of the victim.

In all other community matters, our organization had the decisive word. Our position got even stronger after January, 1905, when as a result of the Tsarist provocation at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, a wave of revolutionary actions exploded like lava all over this enormous country.

On May 1, 1905, Nowy Dwor saw the red flag in the streets for the first time. The workers left their jobs that day, strolled about in holiday clothing, and gathered in the morning in the fields on the outskirts of town. In the afternoon, they assembled on the main street, not far from the town hall. Within a few minutes, the red flag was raised, slogans were shouted, and before the police and military realized what was happening, the crowd dispersed. Later, at night, the police searched the houses, but no one was arrested. This short lived demonstration even further enhanced the authority of the movement.

 

The Informant

In mid–summer 1905 there occurred an event that shook up the entire town. In the middle of the night, the police went door–to–door with a list of names, and arrested 13 comrades. Among them were my brother Motl; Moyshe Bakman, a tailor for the military; Yankl Alshenko; Zenek, a Polish worker; and Yisroelka, a meat worker. The police must have gotten the list from a group of bosses, butchers against whom a dogged strike had been waged.

Our opponents, the employers, must have thought that the arrests would destroy our organization, but they realized their mistake when the day after the arrests, the workers of the town gathered in front of the windows of the jail, from which the prisoners could be heard singing revolutionary songs. The police then quickly moved

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to send the arrestees to Modlin under heavy guard. From there, they were taken to the Mokatower Prison in Warsaw, where they were held for three months. They weren't released until the fall, after October 17.

Even this heavy blow could not weaken our activity. On the contrary, the struggles became more acrimonious, and we began an action to force the butchers and the community leaders to make an effort to free the arrestees. In this action we received help from comrades from Warsaw and Praga, who threatened to beat up the butcher–owners. Among their victims was Benyomin Yungrits, who was beaten on the head with sticks.

We conducted similar actions around this time against stubborn bosses in the surrounding towns, Plonsk, Nashelsk, etc. We continued such aggressive campaigns through the summer and fall of 1905.

We took advantage of the Manifesto of October 17 [issued by Tsar Nicholas II, in response to the revolution of 1905, granting some civil liberties], holding a number of gatherings in the town itself. One such gathering, at the “third viorst [about one kilometer]” on the outskirts of town, attended by 500 people, was surrounded by armed soldiers who broke up the meeting. They gave as a reason that it wasn't permissible for civilians to gather at a military location. The officers accompanied us back to town, raising our prestige even more in the eyes of the population and also of those in power.

We also conducted a campaign to collect money and food for the striking workers in Warsaw. In that effort, I worked with Simkhe Waga. We brought over 2000 rubles and two large freight trucks of food to the Warsaw workers.

The joy and victory of those October days unfortunately did not last long. The Tsarist reaction soon arose and with the help of bands of “Black Hundreds” [ultra–nationalist, pro–Tsarist groups] organized pogroms against the Jews. Pogroms were expected in over 120 large and small towns of the Russian Pale of Settlement, as well as in Warsaw and the surrounding region. We again turned to the town leaders, demanding money to organize self–defense.

Some of the town leaders opposed our requests, arguing that we were close to the Modlin Fortress and that if we were in danger the local garrison would protect us. Self–defense, they held, would only evoke anger form the military and would be harmful. The Nowy Dwor Rabbi, Reb Ruven Yehuda Neufeld, came to our defense. I remember a small meeting in the rabbi's room, with Benyomen Yungvits, Yankl Faynshtayn, Itshe Meyer Mundlak, et. al. The rabbi explained that we could not expect any help from the fortress. At the most, one or another prominent person who had contact with officers might obtain help and protection, but only for himself. Thus, they should be grateful to the young people, who were ready to sacrifice their lives to protect the community.

The courageous rabbi went even further when he delivered a sermon in the besmedresh on the parsha [Torah portion] “Vayishlekh” [Jacob sent for…] , equating our situation with that of our Father Jacob, who prepared himself with gifts, pleas, and arms for his meeting with his brother Esau. The rabbi concluded with fervor that we had already given enough gifts, and pleaded enough with the enemy, and that now we must bless the hands of those who bear arms. We then collected several hundred rubles and bought arms in Plotsh. With the help of smugglers, we transported the arms down;

[Page 96]

the Vistula, to the shores of the town. But right at the shore, the entire transport was seized by the gendarmes and secret police. We never found out if this happened because someone informed on us or because of the bungling of the smugglers.

 

After the Disappointments

The heavy blows that the revolution had suffered after the declaration of a state of war, after the court martials and punitive expeditions, continued to be felt in the movement. Some people switched to legal activities in the trade unions or in cultural work. But the greater Russian masses were tired and disappointed. The boycott of the First Duma turned out to be a big mistake and alienated the masses from the revolutionary leadership.

The retrenchment in our town was expressed in the form of emigration. Whoever had the means left immediately for Western Europe or America. Those who didn't have the means moved to Warsaw or other big cities.

Among those who went abroad in 1906, most were from the leadership of the Bund and the Zionist Socialists: the Wagas, the Inrats, the Malekh brothers, Lipshits, Shtshigelski and Yankl Etrosmakher's daughters. They joined others who had left before them: Yoself Kirshteyn, Avigdor Teper, Yankev Arye, et. al. By summer 1906, half of Nowy Dwor youth was already abroad and the other half was thinking about it.

But the work still continued. There were still meetings and gatherings and we still maintained contacts, even though we were continually persecuted by the police and had to hide in the neighboring towns and in Warsaw. Even under these conditions, we didn't give up.

We would still see off our comrades who were leaving with speeches and Bundist songs and from time to time still conduct a strike. Meanwhile, a new group of children was growing up for whom the movement still exerted an attraction. And so it went until the fall of 1906.

In the fall of 1906, Dovidl Parizer founded a new organization in town, under the banner of the assimilationist and Bolshevik SDKPL – Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania. They immediately began with an act of terrorism. With the help of an unknowing Polish worker, they tried to carry out an “expropriation” of the rich butcher Yisroel Levekh (Yisroel Gare's, who was the initiator of the arrests of the 13 [Bundists in 1905]). This ended badly. Dovidl Parizer escaped, but the Polish worker was badly beaten by the butchers and was arrested.

Even though the butchers didn't blame me for this, they denounced me to the police, because of my role in the movement. By chance, I hadn't slept at home that night, but they found me anyway. I was arrested at 2 o'clock in the morning by police and soldiers. This was at the end of October 1906. I was imprisoned in Modlin, then in the Perisilner Prison in Warsaw, in the citadel, in Pawiak Prison, over five months. The butcher–bosses then acted honorably and withdrew their accusations and I was freed in March, 1907.

When I returned, I found the town almost emptied out. I found a few younger comrades: Leon Rozenshtayn, a student; Yosel Leyb Perlmuter; Avremek Godlberg (Sime Ita's son), et.al.

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I tried to establish an organization from scratch. But I didn't succeed, simply because even those who remained were halfway on their way abroad. My two older brothers, Fayvl and Motl, had been called up for military service, and when they went off to the military, I was almost entirely alone. I then heeded the entreaties of my parents, my three sisters and brother Shloyme in England, and in May, 1907, I left for London. There were very few people to see me off, but those who did were loyal and devoted to the ideas that had so inspired and exalted us all.

*

I lived abroad more than 11 years, in England, Russia, and other countries. I returned to Poland in 1918, near the end of the World War. I found in Nowy Dwor a lovely library with many books, a large cultural institution, the Educational Association, and an active, newly grown–up generation of young people. What had occurred between 1907 and 1918 must be related by those more competent to do so. I will end my memoirs with these words:

The years about which I have written were important and decisive in the lives of the working and intellectual youth in our town. We yearned and hoped, worked and struggled and with all the fervor of pure young souls we longed to create something great and exalted. In the years between the two world wars, 1919–1939, I was proud that our youthful efforts were not wasted, that after us came others who continued and furthered our work. Now everything has been destroyed, without a trace.

 

now097.jpg
A letter from Hershl Himelfarb to the Nowy Dworers in Israel

 


Translator's Footnote

  1. The Bund is a shortened form for the Algemeyner Yidisher Arbeter Bund in Lite, Poylin un Rusland [Central Labor Federation in Lithuania, Poland, and Russia]. Return


[Page 98]

The Tailors Are Singing

by Etke Finker–Szimonowicz

Translated by Miriam Leberstein

The Beginnings

[Note: Like most of the poems that appear in yizkor books, this one is of pretty poor literary quality. I usually just give a literal translation, not trying to replicate the poetic form. But since the author here relied more on rhyme than on meaning, I made an extra effort to reproduce some kind of rhyme or near–rhyme. To that end, I'm transcribing Narew as Narev, to keep the “v” sound at the end, since English readers may not know that the “w” in Polish words is pronounced “v”, and may read Narew as Naroo]

There isn't always pain and sorrow,
Summer comes, lovely and aglow Couples stroll, aimlessly amble
at dusk, in Keller's meadow.

Quietly, the moon goes with them
to the banks of the silver–blue Narev
which murmurs the evening prayers
amid soft grasses, as stars shine above.

In the workshops, tailors are singing
The song of the tailor, whose banner is red
A song about the Tsarist prisons,
And about freedom, which lies just ahead

The sweet spring will come, the town will be flooded
The Narev will surge from its banks
The waves, loudly rushing, will cover the roads
And reach to where the market stands.

 

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