Translated by Alex Weingarten
|No||Popular Name||Official Name||Name Given to Street in mid 1930's||Comments & Clarifications|
|1||The Market||Stari Rink (the Old Market)||Platz Pilsutskigo||Named after the Polish leader|
|3||Dols (Doli)||After the Polish Marshall Descent. An alley that leads down to the river and the Lava|
|4||Dols (Doli)||Shvintago Vazhnitza||P.O.W.||Polska Organizatzia Waiskovo Polish Military Organization|
|5||Dobrin Road||Piastovska||After Piast the first Polish king|
|6||The street opposite the small park||Studolana (Barn Street)||Narotovitcha||After the first Polish president, Narutovitch, who was assassinated by a Polish Nationalist|
|7||Zhava Street||Zhavia||Pirwashago Maya||May Day, for the international workers' holiday|
|8||The street near Zelma Beries||Zhelona (Green)|
|9||The street near the New Market (or: near the Vanzhnia Prison)||Pirogova||Piratzkigo||After the Polish Interior Minister, who was killed by a political opponent|
|10||The New Market||Novi Rink||Platz Shostego Shrepnia||Sixth of August Place|
|11||Boborova Road||Tchalpine||Zheromskigo||After the Polish writer Stefan Zharomski|
|12||The street near the monastery||Klashturna||Tazhchego Maya||Third of May. In honor of the Polish Constitution, which was signed on May 3, 1793|
|13||Rypin Road||Lipnovaska||The road to Lipno|
|14||Rypin Road||Ripinskaya||The road to Rypin|
|15||Vloka Road||Biazhonska||The road to Biezun|
|16||School Street||Shkolna||Shpitalna||Hospital Street, after the hospital on this street|
|18||The Jewish Street||Varshavska||Dashinskigo||After the leader of the P.P.S, Party, Dashinski|
|20||Kartofel mit Ferfel Geslach||Streets of potatoes with barley flakes|
|21||The street near the Kamnitza (the large brick building)||Gurna||An elevated street (spread out on the hill)|
|22||The street near the synagogue||A small street that led to the cemetery|
|23||The lane near the house of Dudia Tchernotchepka||A lane that led to the river and the Lava|
|24||The near Horovitz's house||A lane that led to the river and the Lava|
|Vlikes (Vloka) a (former) suburb that was incorporated into the town and had the following two streets:|
|25||Bezhiun (Bizhun) Road||Kilinskigo||After the Polish national hero in the Kosciusko uprising of 1794, Kilinskigo|
|26||Drubnin (Drubin) Road||Raimont||After the Polish author Vladislav Raimont, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature|
- The crossing over the Zhika (Sierpianitza River) between Plotzki Street and the Jewish Street. Return
- St. Vazhinietz, a Catholic saint. Return
- An underground organization formed at the end of the First World War. Return
- The day the Polish Legion, under Pilsudski's command, left Krakow for the front and the war against Russia, August 6, 1914. Return
- After the school that was on this street. Return
- Polska Partia Sotzialistichna Socialist Workers' Party. Return
- Two small streets, made up of poor people, which were called after the most popular food there. Return
- The crossing over the Sierpianitza between the Jewish Street and Plotzki Street. Return
by Y. A. Libsohn of Detroit, Michigan
Translated by Jerrold Landau
The Sierpc Jewish community was similar to all other Eastern European communities. It had various groups, organizations, groups of Hassidim, Misnagdim, non-partisan householders, and regular Jewish women. In the community, there were parties, individualists, believers, holy people, kabbalists, hidden righteous people, tzadikim, scholars, honorable simple folk, various merchants, tradesmen, small-scale manufacturers, and regular people.
The groups in Sierpc included the philanthropic organization, the clergy, school teachers, and charitable funds that were maintained with a small amount of credit from a few individuals of means. Sierpc was not a wealthy city. Among the population of 4,000-5,000 there were only about ten very wealthy people. Approximately 50-60 Jews were mid-range businessmen and employers. The rest were poor businessmen, tradesmen, and brokers. Everyone had credit with the charitable organization. Nobody was sent to prison, Heaven forbid, for failing to pay on time.
Bikur Cholim took care of the sick. One did not need a special nurse to tend to the sick. Every Jew considered it to be a great mitzvah to visit the sick and to help them, for they believed that visiting the sick removed one sixtieth of the illness.
Hachnasat Kallah ensured that there would be no poor girl who would be unable to go to the marriage canopy without an appropriate outfit and a modest dowry. The good Jewish women of Sierpc made a top secret accounting of what type of help a marriageable girl required, so as not to shame such girls. Thus did they fulfill the commandment of tending to a bride.
Poor children studied in the Talmud Torah for free, without tuition. The Chevra Kadisha performed the last rights for the deceased. At a time when a funeral took place in the city, the businesses closed in honor of the deceased. During the funeral, a charity box was shaken with calls of Charity saves from death, and charity was collected.
There was Chevra Mishanyot, in which scholarly Jews studied Mishna with simple Jews.
Religious and cultural life in the city centered around the rabbi, rabbinical judges, halachic decisors, cheders, teachers, schools, houses of worship, cantors and fine prayer leaders.
The rabbi of the city, Rabbi Yechiel Michel Goldszlag was the rabbi in Sierpc for 53 years. He was known as a great expert in Judaic wisdom. He worshipped in the Great Synagogue every Sabbath, Rosh Chodesh, and festival. On the other days, he worshipped in the old beis midrash. He would respond to queries on kashruth, conduct Torah litigation cases, deliver a sermon on the issues of the day every Sabbath and festival, and deliver moral admonition to the congregation.
After his death, his grandson Reb Hershke became the rabbi. Reb Hershke was my first rabbi in the beis midrash. I studied Torah with him.
The rabbinical teacher and judge, Reb Yehoshua Segal, later immigrated to America.
His son is currently a major lawyer in New York.
There were ten cheders in Sierpc. The Jews of Sierpc fulfilled the commandment of Thou shall teach them to your children - teaching Torah to children. Even the poorest studied in the talmud torah. The teachers were Shmuel Pefer (the Bezwiner), Wolf Chazan, Reb Michael, Reb Avraham Aharon, the Zloczewer, and others. Aside from the cheders, the city had two modern schools: Atlas' school and the Maskil school of Mr. Mordechai Hirsch Mintz
The Sierpc community had cantors and prayer leaders.
Cantor Moshe Leizer Smolinski used to lead the services in the Great Synagogue along with a choir on the festivals and Shabbat Mevorchim. He would also be asked to come to weddings to entertain the guests with his singing. He blessed the Czar and sang the Russian National Anthem very nicely at national ceremonies.
Yechezkel Czarnoczopka was among the finest prayer leaders. He had a fine, holy voice. When he would intone Hamelech on Yom Kippur in the Old Beis Midrash, it resonated in the market place. Reb Itche Yossel, the Gostyniner Shochet [ritual slaughter from Gostynin], was known for conducting services on Yom Kippur. He was assisted by his four sons with their resonant voices. People would come from everywhere specially to hear his Avoda. His Hakohahim resonated and lifted the spirits.
Reb Baruch Reszatke was a sweet prayer leader. He recited the words with such devotion that the meaning of the words would become clear to everyone, even to those weak in the Holy Tongue.
There was a constant bustle in the Old Beis Midrash. The lads, supported sons-in-law, and householders would study. Regular householders who would only come to pray would also snatch a bit of Mishna. Others would recite a chapter of Psalms or just peer into a book.
Two or three different services would take place in the beis midrash every day. In the back area near the heating oven, people discussed politics and repeated news from various newspapers to which people subscribed in partnership. The worshippers would bring that news from the primary source home from the beis midrash.
After eating breakfast, the older students of means would return to the beis midrash and learn with the younger, poorer students without payment. They studied Gemara and Tosafot. Some conducted a class for themselves. Various political discussions would take place among those studiers, especially during the time of the Russo-Japan war.
The worshippers would return for Mincha. Most of them worshipped in the congregation daily. Between Mincha and Maariv, they would again talk about the latest news. An emissary of a yeshiva, a preacher, a morality sermonizer, or a regular teller of stories or miracles would often be present in the beis midrash. Such a person would address the congregation and everyone would listen.
The average householders from the Old Beis Midrash were simple, G-d fearing Jews. They worshipped with devotion, with a melancholy tune, suffused with sadness that
expressed the weariness of a persecuted people, who suffered and hoped with full faith for the redemption - that G-d will once again perform miracles and help the People of Israel as He had done in the old, good times…
The worshippers would revel in the chapters of Psalms, in which King David had pleaded, loved G-d more than anything else, and expressed his love for the Creator and his fellow men. They would study Torah, give charity, and perform commandments and charitable deeds in order to hasten the coming of the Messiah and to get to the Garden of Eden after 120 years… In the meantime, they bore the yoke and the suffering of exile in the world.
I wish to mention here a few householders and charitable donors of the Old Beis Midrash:
Yisrael Libsohn, Michel Turkeltaub, the Gerlic brothers, Yitzchak Grobart, Wessalek, Glazer, Golibawski, Zwikelski, Goldsztejn, Glazer, Rozen, Tinske, Smolinski, Lelonik, Szweicer, Nemczupke, Karpe, Cyprys, Hartbrat, Bursztejn, Lopotke, Czarke, Krasner, Licht, Koniec, Malinowski, Lichtensztejn, Ostaszawer, Rozinek, Gongola, Baruch Beker, Rosenberg, Kadecki, Cyna, Szabicki, Grijna, Nachbyn, Galant, Zytelnia, Okart, Przygode, Czykes.
The New Beis Midrash and the Misnagdim
Jewish scholars and known Misnagdim, who did not believe in the mystical-philosophical actions of the Hassidic rebbes, worshipped in the New Beis Midrash. The leader of those Misnagdim was Rabbi Moshe Yehoshua Segal. The students Efraim Wloke, Hirsch Lolenter, Chaim Nachum Tanwel and Eliezer Wessalek understood the Bible and the Talmud in a straightforward and logical manner, with an emphasis on the straightforward meaning. They also studied the Guide for the Perplexed of Maimonides.
The new methodology of studying divided the Jewish community. The observant people called the initiators of the new methodology kolokotnikes. The young students: Ezriel Podskoc, Shimshon Bude, Avraham Wloke, Gotlibowski, Bluman, Yosef Pindek and Mordechai Hirsch Mintz were maskilim, and the future leaders of the Zionist movement. They exerted a spiritual influence on us, the younger generation.
A few of the distinguished householders of the New Beis Midrash were Lubaszke, Gorfinkel, Feivel Bude, Lehrer, Maliwanczyk, Sarne, Grude, Kaleski, Waldenberg, Bluman, Dorfman, Szlokman, and Szmige.
During my time, Hassidic shtibels of Aleksander, Otwocker, and Gerrer rebbes existed in Sierpc. The Gerrer Hassidim were the majority. From time to time, the Hassidim traveled to their rebbes in order to warm themselves with the Hassidic ambience, bring their personal problems to the rebbe, ask advice and obtain blessings. The Hassidim served G-d with joy and enthusiasm. They even performed physical matters with devotion: they would eat in order to have the energy to serve the Master of the World and worship with devotion, enthusiasm, and song. Like all G-d fearing Jews, the Jews of Sierpc believed that in a short time the great day, the eternal holiday, where the righteous would be sitting with the crowns on their head
basking in the light of the Divine Presence would come. The Hassidic melodies that resonated like heavenly symphonies were brought to Sierpc from the table celebrations of the Hassidic rebbes, and the Jewish homes were filled with enthusiasm and joy. Most of the rebbes were against Zionism, since one must wait until the Messiah and one must not force and hasten the coming of the redemption. The Hassidim and kabbalists studied little Bible. They rather studied Talmud and Zohar. The delved deeply and concentrated on the spiritual mystical belief and joyous hymns.
The well-known Hassidim from my time were:
Yisrael Najstadt, Moshe David Jeszajewicz, Note Margel and Avraham Senderowicz - who were known as pure tzadikim who studied Torah day and night, Kahana, Sznicer, Krul, Tac - who were Hassidim who were devoted to Torah, Divine service and good deeds; Grosman, Tajtelbaum, Goldman - who were among those who believed in worshipping G-d with joy. There were also modern progressive and liberal charity donors such as: Glazer, Szperling, Silberberg, Horowicz, Rozen, Libsohn, Najman, Lidzbarski, Czarnoczopka, Kaczalek, Grobart, Lent, Grynbaum, Bachrach, Lipke, Tuchendler, Lipske, Plate, Lenczner, Jeszajawicz, Licht, Reichgot, Osonte, Dobraszklanka, Grynberg, Zelinowski, Silbersztejn, V. Margel, and Itche Margel.
Sabbath in the Town
People were busy with preparations for the Sabbath throughout the entire Friday. Wives baked challas, cooked fish and meat, and took their cholent to the bakery oven. The shops finished their work in the afternoon, and the tradesmen left their work to hasten to the mikva. Close to the time of sunset, the shamash went through the streets and called out, Go to the synagogue! Those who were late ran home. Everyone dressed in their Sabbath clothes. The house was cleaned, and the table was covered with a white tablecloth. The sparkling, fine Sabbath candelabrum was placed down. The mother lit one candle for every member of the family. She covered her head with a Sabbath kerchief and recited the blessing over the candles. From all the streets, Jews in their Sabbath clothing streamed to the Jewish street, where all the synagogues, shtibels, and beis midrashes were preparing to welcome the Sabbath.
The Hassidim were wearing streimels, which looked like crowns on their heads. Thus did they go to welcome the Sabbath Queen and the extra soul that comes to every Jew on the Sabbath.
The singing of Come my beloved to greet the bride, let us greet the Sabbath, could be heard from all the houses of worship. After the services, people invited home a guest, if one was present, and then they went home to the bright Sabbath house. At home, they would sing Peace unto you, angels of Heaven, praise G-d who gave the Sabbath to the world; make kiddush, eat the Sabbath delicacies, and sing hymns between each course. After eating, they recited the Grace After Meals with devotion, thanking the Master of the World for the Sabbath and for all good things that the Sabbath brings.
The older people peered into a book until they fell asleep from weariness and the plentiful Sabbath food. Then, the Sabbath gentile came to extinguish the light, and everything was quiet in the Jewish home.
The younger people went out for a stroll or for covert meetings. The streets were dark,
for most businesses were Jewish and were closed on the Sabbath. Indeed, it was more joyous on the streets than on all other nights. The youth, bedecked in their best clothing, met with their beloved and friends on their stroll, and everything was cheerful and joyous.
The Hassidim wore their streimels for the entire Sabbath. They studied Zohar, the kabbala book that many of them did not understand. They hoped for the day that would be a complete Sabbath, uttering their own prayer, Let our lot be with them.
Everyone rested on the Sabbath. Nobody worked. The businesses and workshops were all closed. The law of the land did not promote Sabbath rest, and certainly did not prevent working on the Sabbath, but the Sabbath rest was upheld with holiness by all the Sierpc Jews.
All of the Jews in Sierpc would make the Sabbath. Guests from other cities, who had come to town for a certain purpose, such as raising money for a poor bride, or other such a holy endeavor, most of them poor, would be invited by the householders to their table on the Sabbath. Everyone was taken care of, and nobody was left behind, for Jews are merciful people, descended from merciful people.
On the Sabbath morning, everyone went to worship in the synagogue. Women were dressed in their finest clothing and were adorned with jewelry. When people returned from the synagogue, they recited kiddush over liquor. They fetched the cholent from the bakery, ate, and sang hymns. The songs were of the Sabbath, reminiscent of the additional soul, and satisfying. Then they would recite the Grace After Meals, and lie down for the Sabbath rest.
Older people would take a nap after the cholent, and would go to the Old Beis Midrash around the time of Mincha to listen to a lecture from a sermonizer, or to listen to Chaim Leib Furman, with his fine, grey beard, teach Pirke Avot [Chapters of the Fathers]. The more modern Orthodox Jews, already members of Mizrachi, gathered together with Chaim Nachum Tanwel, studied Pirke Avot and Talmudic lore, and sang Hatikva and Shoshana or other Hebrew songs. People studied Talmud and Pirke Avot in the shtibels, recited Psalms, or reviewed the weekly Torah portion. Women went to visit friends. Older women would study Tzena Urena. After eating the cholent, the younger people would go out to the gardens, the forests, the roads and to the Dolinkes. Around the year 1905, some people would go to clandestine meetings where they would sing revolutionary or Jewish nationalist songs.
After Mincha, the Hassidim would return home for the third Sabbath meal, and then return back to their shtibels and kloizes to conclude the meal, recite the Grace After Meals with a quorum, and sing hymns and Hassidic songs together. The singing continued in this manner until it got dark. They extended the Sabbath and therefore held on to the additional soul, thereby also delaying Gehinnom, for as is known, it does not burn on the Sabbath, and the wicked are not sent to Gehinnom…
They recited the Maariv service, made Havdallah [ceremony to conclude the Sabbath],and it was once again the weekday. Many of the Hassidim observed a Melave Malka meal until late Saturday night.
The Jewish Holidays
Immediately after Purim, the Jews of Sierpc began to prepare for the festival of Passover. The Purim family meal with the Purim players and the giving of gifts to friends [shalach manos] was still fresh in the memory. Everyone was concerned that they not forget to whom they sent shalach manos or a gift. Then, they were
already involved with preparations for Passover.
The fear of excision [karet], which the Torah prescribed for those who do not observe the festival of Passover, drove the people to kasher and to clean, and to make preparations for the great festival of the Exodus from Egypt. People would whitewash the house, air out the clothing and the books, wash, clean, kasher all the dishes, make new clothing for the festival, and prepare the matzos, eggs, onions, borscht, etc.
The Hassidim baked their matzos - matzo shmura - themselves. The wheat was guarded from the time of cutting to ensure that it made no contact with water so that there would be no chance of it becoming chometz. They went to the river to draw water, using a new pail and new drawing ladle. The water was filtered through a new sheet of linen. Everyone performed a mitzvah by drawing a ladle-full of water. Hallel was sung during this procedure. A special oven was kashered for the baking of the matzos, and the baking of the matzo shmura was accompanied by special devotion and reverential awe.
In the morning of the eve of Passover, the firstborn would go to worship at the beis midrash and remain for the siyum They would all gather together to complete the tractate so that they would not have to fast during the day, and they would be able to celebrate the conclusion of the tractate with cake and liquor.
Then people went home to burn the chometz that was collected the night before, and to partake of the final chometz meal. They would then go to the rabbi to sell the chometz from the businesses. The grave gentile was already present, who the rabbi paid to say Yes - i.e. that he would purchase the key…
In the meantime, it became late afternoon. People ran quickly to the mikva, and returned from the mikva dressed in new clothing. In the meantime, the shamash began to call Go to the synagogue! People went to services. The would bring home a guest for the festival from the beis midrash, and go home to conduct the seder.
Everything was ready at home. People sat around the table. The youngest child asked the questions. The father responded with the old answers -We were slaves. It was joyous and lively. The children searched for the afikoman that the father had hidden, and they would not give over the afikoman, without which they could not conclude the observance of the seder, unless the father promised to fulfill their requests. Late at night, they concluded with the recital of Song of Songs and the greeting Next year in Jerusalem.
Passover in the town was very intimate. The town was suffused with festive joy and newness. Aside from the new clothes that were worn by the young and the old, specially made for the festival, students and workers from the larger cities would come home for the festival and bring a fresh, vibrant Jewish life to Sierpc.
Shavuot was an exceptionally interesting holiday. At the celebration of the Season of the Giving of Our Torah, the Jews of Sierpc sincerely believed that their souls were together with the Jews of that time, standing beneath Mount Sinai. They taught that it was the aromatic trees that encouraged them to first say We will do and then We will listen at Mount Sinai - therefore, the bima in the synagogue in Sierpc was adorned with tree branches. The windows and the Holy Ark
were also adorned with greenery. They did the same in the beis midrashes and other houses of worship, which took on the aroma of a forest.
First and foremost, the tasty egg kichels, cheesecakes filled with raisins and nuts, and the other dairy delicacies specially prepared to celebrate the festival of Shavuot, made everyone happy. The joy of the festival of Shavuot was especially great because it fell out at the conclusion of the Sefira days, when one is not permitted to be happy. One is not allowed to celebrate weddings due to the loss of Bar Kochba and Rabbi Akiva during the time of the uprising against the Romans. Therefore, when the festival of Shavuot arrived with the recital of Akdamus, people began to feel a bit happier.
When the Jews of Sierpc sat down in the synagogues and beis midrashes in their stockings and recited the dirges - How does it sit in desolation, the city…, and thereby lamented the destruction of the Holy Temple, many Jews of Sierpc would be unable to wait until the coming of the Messiah, when Tisha BeAv would turn into a festival. They already began to joke and throw barbs, so that it would be joyous. I do not know from where they got that custom. It seems as if they had a different intention, namely to cause anguish through the barbs in order to feel the destruction of Jerusalem in a stronger manner.
The Fearsome Month of Elul
When the month of Elul arrived, the Sierpcers felt an extraordinary sense of awe. People felt a special sense of responsibility - the Day of Judgment was rapidly approaching, when one would make an accounting with G-d. Therefore, they were very serious and G-d fearing. They guarded themselves against carelessness, exaggeration, and excesses. They became more friendly one to the other, gave more charity, and the shopkeepers were extremely careful about exacting measures.
During that month, people also worshipped with greater devotion. They did not recite the prayers in haste, and added chapter of Psalms and other prayers to the daily services. They also recited Psalms publicly.
A week before Rosh Hashanah, they got up very early to recite Selichot [penitential prayers] prior to services. The Hassidim would recite the first Selichot at midnight after the Melave Malka. The Selichot of the eve of Rosh Hashanah, known as Zechor Brit, were also recited at midnight. In the half dark Jewish street, shadows appeared running to the beis midrash for Selichot. Soon, the weeping voice of the prayer leader could be heard on the silent streets, The soul is Yours and the body is Yours, have mercy on your handiwork…
Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot
On the eve of Rosh Hashanah, everyone was occupied with the special preparations for the holiday. Aside from fish and meat, people purchased honey, grapes, and pomegranates for Rosh Hashanah, as a portent for a sweet year. They would also purchase a new fruit for the Shehechayanu benediction. People also obtained new clothes.
As in all towns, people in Sierpc went to the cemeteries in order to visit the graves of friends
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Second row: Shmuel Tac, Chaim Pindek, Avraham Gerlic, Yeshayahu Frajdman
to recite the Kel Maleh Rachamim for their souls. They would also visit the graves of tzadikim who were buried in the cemetery. The women wept over the graves and begged the souls of their dead to intercede in Heaven for them and their loved ones.
later, people went to the mikva, and then came home and dressed up in their festive clothing. The sun began to set, and the shamash of the synagogue went through the Jewish streets, calling out with all his might, Go to the synagogue! The businesses closed, and the women lit the candles in the houses. The men went quickly to the synagogue… and they recited Mincha with the congregation.
The cantor began to recite the Maariv service with the special, lovely Rosh Hashanah melodies that were suffused with a mood of supplication. The entire congregation joined in. Soon, the silent Shmone Esrei was recited, which was recited silently an entire year, but recited out loud by the congregation on Rosh Hashanah night due to the special prayers such as: Remember us for life, inscribe us in the book of life, inscribe for a good life…
The cantor concluded with Kiddush and sang the section And You gave us with love this Day of Remembrance, a day of shofar sounding. They sang Anim Zmirot and Adon Olam. After the services, everyone shook hands with each other and wished one another: May you be written and sealed immediately for a good life. On the way home from the synagogue, people stopped in to visit parents and older brothers and sisters to wish them a good year.
When the man came home, he would kiss his wife and children and wish them a good year. At home, the table was already covered with a fine tablecloth, and the lovely silver candelabrum was glowing with candles. He made kiddush, and then Shehechayanu over a new fruit - grapes or pomegranates. They washed their hands and recited Hamotzie over a high challah, and then a blessing for a good and sweet year over an apple spread with honey. Then they ate the rest of the festival meal: fish, meat, and tzimmes. After the meal, the Grace After Meals would be recited, and a request for a good year would also be made during the grace.
Thus was the custom of the Sierpc Jews year in and year out.
Shacharit and Musaf on Rosh Hashanah
Still today, a religious tremble goes through my heart when I recall the Rosh Hashanah services in the Sierpc synagogue and houses of worship.
Everyone went to the synagogue early in the morning: men, women and children, for everyone had to hear the blowing of the shofar. Two prayer leaders conducted the services: one for Shacharit and the second one for Musaf.
The leader of the Shacharit services would go to the mikva early in the morning, before ascending to the prayer leader's podium dressed in a white kittel. He had a difficult task to sing the yotzros. Even though most of them were fine poems, designed as an alphabetic acrostic and ending with a rhyme, the yotzros had many words which were rarely used and were not understandable by many of the worshippers. Those non-understandable yotzros, however, fit very well to the fine tunes that the cantor sang, and everyone helped him. When the cantor began to recite the repetition of the Shmone Esrei, everyone sang along, especially the kedusha. When they came to the prayer Our Father our King, open the gates of heaven to our prayers, they became very serious, as they supplicated with their full heart.
Immediately after Shacharit, two Torah scrolls were taken out, and the important members were called up to the Torah reading: the rabbi, the cantor for Shacharit, the cantor for Musaf, and the Torah reader.
The shofar blower and the cantor for Musaf then went
to the mikva, returned all neatened up, and donned their white kittels. The Shacharit cantor and Torah reader took the Torah scrolls, and went around the podium together with the rabbi of the city and the shofar blower, all dressed in white kittels. After reciting the chapter Lamnatzeach Livnei Korach Mizmor seven times in a voice full of dread, and after reciting a silent prayer, came the shofar blasts, which the Sierpc worshippers received with a pious, holy shudder in their hearts. The congregation recited a prayer after every shofar blast, and called out to a specific angel that was appointed to each sound, asking that he bring the sounds to the Throne of Glory and beg for mercy for the people of Israel, and help drive away the Satan.
The cantor for Musaf, dressed in his kittel, standing by the podium with the choir, began to sing Yisgadal with the tune of Musaf. Everyone sang along with the fine, melancholy melody that left a special imprint upon all.
After the silent Shmone Esrei, the cantor began to sing the repetition of the Shmone Esrei with the lovely, Rosh Hashanah melodies. The Musaf cantor reached the poetry and rhymes composed in alphabetic acrostic by the liturgical poets of Spain. At Unetane Tokef Kedushat Hayom, which the cantor recited with a heartrending voice, and at Who shall live, and who shall die, who will become rich and who will become poor… most of the worshippers wept. They reminded themselves of the dead, the ill, and the poor, and they comforted themselves with Repentance, prayer, and charity remove the evil of the decree.
After the services, when the congregation finished their Rosh Hashanah prayers, everyone went home calmly. Every Sierpc Jew was certain that he had supplicated for a good year and that he would be inscribed for the good.
Throughout the entire week until Yom Kippur, the Sierpc Jews got up very early and went to the synagogue for Selichot. This period was the Ten Days of Penitence, when one could regret one's sins and could request through prayer a good inscription.
On the eve of Yom Kippur, people performed the Kapores ceremony and went to make up with people that they had disputes with, for Yom Kippur does not forgive sins between one's fellow man. In the afternoon, they went to the synagogue for Mincha service. When they arrived, the table was covered with charity plates for various Sierpc charitable institutions, and everyone put charity donations into the plates. After Mincha, they went home, partook of the final meal quickly, and returned to the synagogue for Kol Nidre. The next day they sat in the synagogue all day, wearing their socks, banging their hearts for Al Chet, and weeping during various prayers. Thus, they prayed a whole day until Neila. After Neila and Maariv, they wished each other that they might be sealed positively, and Next year in Jerusalem, and went home to eat something after the fast.
After eating, they immediately started to build the sukka, for Sukkot comes five days later, and one must already become involved with a mitzvah immediately after Yom Kippur.
The Jews of Sierpc ate in the sukka for the entire eight days. Even if it rained or was cold, no Jew skipped eating in the sukka. A Simchat Beis Shoeva was celebrated by the Hassidim on the second day of Sukkot, as in the time of the Second Temple. However, the Sierpc Jews drew wine instead of water, and rejoiced until late at night with Hassidic melodies, etc.
When Simchat Torah came, the Hassidim began to conduct the hakafot ceremony one night earlier, on the eve of Shemini Atzeret. The regular Jews would conduct hakafot only on the night and morning of Simchat Torah.
There was a custom in Sierpc that before going to hakafot, a Torah scroll would be carried in a great parade from the beis midrash to the synagogue and back. People would carry burning candles and sing along the way. As they returned to their shtibels, the Hassidim began to enjoy fresh liquor and mead. They danced on the tables and the benches until late at night.
The songs Sisu Vesimchu Besimchat Torah [Rejoice and be glad on Simchat Torah], and Agil Veesmach Besimchat Torah [I will be happy and rejoice on Simchat Torah] resonated far through the surrounding streets. Among the Hassidic songs that were sung in the shtibels, they also sang a number of Yiddish folk songs, such as Torah is the best merchandise, Thus did we study with the rabbi, and others. They also sang various prayers, such as And purify our heart, Blessed is our G-d, and others.
Thus did the Jews of Sierpc rejoice on Simchat Torah.
Jewish Weddings and Jewish Bands in Sierpc
At Jewish weddings, there was a custom that the groom would sit around the table in a special room, surrounded by unmarried boys, and all the guests would be treated to cake and liquor. The groom did not taste anything, as he would fast until after the wedding ceremony. The bride would sit in a different room with her friends, and rejoice by dancing with the accompaniment of music played by the Jewish musicians.
The Jewish musicians in Sierpc were Menashe and his sons, (Malach) Gerlic and Chaim Krupiasz (Keler). They would also play at Jewish weddings and other Jewish joyous occasions, as they would entertain the Jews of the town.
The veiling of the bride took place in the following manner: the parents of the bride and groom would enter the house where the bride was sitting, and they would veil the bride, for married women were not allowed to go around with uncovered hair. The jester recited a rhyming speech of admonition to the bride, warning her of her fate, as the women wept… After the veiling, the wedding ceremony took place.
The wedding ceremony took place in the beis midrash on the Jewish Street. First, they led in the groom, accompanied by musicians who played joyous songs. Relatives and friends accompanied them holding candles. At the wedding ceremony, the cantor welcomed the groom with Blessed is he that comes. The groom stood and waited under the wedding canopy, and then the bride was brought in. The bride may have lived in the other end of the city, and they accompanied her in with musicians. She was led with music and candles to the beis midrash, where the wedding canopy was standing. The bride was also greeted with Blessed is she that comes. At a wedding of wealthy people, the cantor and the choir would sing special pieces. The rabbi of the city conducted the wedding ceremony.
The bride and groom left the wedding ceremony together. The in-laws danced and the musicians played joyous music. At the wedding feast, the cantor sang, the musicians played, and the jester recited witty verses. The musicians broke out in a joyous medley, and everyone danced.
In my time, men and women did not dance together. Only at the mitzvah dance would men and women dance together, but not touching. The mitzvah dance was conducted in the following manner: the men would hold one end of a napkin, and the woman would hold the other end, and thus they would dance. After the mitzvah dance, the mother-in-law would cut the bride's hair so that she could put on a wig.
This is the manner in which Jewish weddings took place in Sierpc. Joy was blended with spiritual piety.
The Modern Jewish Way of Life
As in other towns, the modern Jewish way of life began with the Jewish theater.
When Chaim Leib Pukac, a former member of the cantor's choir, and Zalman Goldsztejn, returned from America in 1905, and Leib Krupasz (today Keller in America) returned from London, they organized an amateur group to perform Jewish theater.
This was the time of Goldfaden's and other operettas, such as: Shulamit, Bar Kochba, Dos Pintele Yid [The essence of the Jew], and the dramatic plays such as Yaakov Gordon's Der Vilder Mench [The Wild Person], and the very popular monologue Der Meshugener in Shpital [The Crazy Person in the Hospital]. All the theatrical pieces were novel and popular in the Jewish cities and towns in Poland. The following people performed: Chaim Leib Pukac, Leib Krupiasz, and Tzadok Lubaszka. The amateur troupe consisted only of men. Men also performed the female roles, dressed up as women. The theatrical performances took place in the firefighter's hall, near the magistrate.
Thanks to the amateur troupe, the following songs from the operettas became popular among the tradesmen, tailors and shoemakers associations: Rozhinkes Mit Mandlen [Raisins and Nuts], Men Shikt mich in Gasse Arain Epis Koipfn [I was sent out to the street to buy something], Azoi Zogt Gott Atzind [This is What G-d Says Now], and others. One could hear these songs being sung everywhere, day and night.
The Zionist Organization, The Pogrom in Kishinev and its Effect on the Jews of Sierpc, The Influence of the Maskilim
The young misnagdim: Ezriel Podskoc, Avraham Wloke, Mordechai Hirsch Mintz, S. Tac, Yosef Pindek, and other successors of Efraim Yosel Wloke, Eliezer Wessalek, and Chaim Nachum Tanwel were the first to found a Zionist organization. The first meeting of that Zionist organization took place in Atlas' school. The Zionist organization later attracted a large following. In town, they proclaimed the Basle program of political Zionism that demanded an open, just, and secure home for all Jews in the Land of Israel.
With the founding of the Zionist organization, discussions and disputes began in town with the fanatical Hassidim, Reb Itchele Margel and others, who claimed that Zionism is contrary to Judaism, and that Jews must wait for the Messiah to come for the redemption and must not go to the Land of Israel before that. The discussions, disputes and battles were very stormy.
We must mention the following from among the active Sierpc Zionists:
Gotlibowski, Mlawe, Blum, Malinowski, Koniec, Senk, Zabietski, Lopatke, Shimshon Buda and others. Thanks to those Zionist
activisits, the Hatikva song of the Jewish national awakening and other Jewish nationalist songs were heard in town.
The terrible news of the pogrom against the Jews of Kishinev in 1903 left a frightening impression upon the Jews of Sierpc, as in all other cities. Aside from the deep sorrow for the tortured and afflicted Jews, they also were afraid for the security of their own lives. Jewish villagers were afraid to live in the villages, and started coming to the cities. The gentiles wished to repeat the events of Kishinev and said so openly - the terror in the villages was very great.
In 1904, I returned home from the Novominsk Yeshiva, where I had been studying. From the secular books, I was convinced that Jewish life must forge new, more worldly paths. I organized the beis midrash youths and gave them new books to read: Ayit Tzavua [Hypocrite Eagle] by Mapu, Chatat Neurim [Sins of Youth] by Moshe Leib Lilienblum, and the works of Shulman, Smolinskin, and others. All these books brought a new spirit to the youth.
The following people joined me: Szampan, Gerlic, Avraham Podskoc, Chaim Pindek, Glazer, S. Tac, Yeshayahu Frajdman, and others. Together we began to disseminate books to read among the yeshiva and beis midrash youths. Many of the books were uncensored, and forbidden to read. I purchased most of the books myself. My father also surprised me with secular books that he hid in the closet between the Talmud, Bible, Midrashim and other holy books. With those books, and together with the library of Mordechai Hirsch Mintz that consisted of many uncensored publications, we founded a group called Chovevei Sfat Ever [Lovers of the Hebrew Language]. The members talked Hebrew amongst themselves. We also sang Hebrew such as Yah Ha Li Li, Seu Tziona, Chushu Achim, Yona Homia, Bimkom Shem Arazim, Shechav Hardom, Shamash Aviv Nata Yama, and others. In the beis midrash, on the street , and also in the Dolinkes, one could hear Hebrew songs. The leadership in the beis midrash was transferred over from Avraham Chaim Granewicz and Sperling to Libsohn and Szampan.
In the year 1905, when a wave of terrible pogroms spread through Jewish cities and towns, and the Czarist regime helped the hooligans, the idea to create a self defense organization was hatched among the Jews of Sierpc.
Chaim Nachman Bialik, in The Destruction of Nemirov, in the City of Murder, where he prophetically and sharply expressed his anguish that Jews did not stand up against the pogrom perpetrators and let themselves be slaughtered, was frequently a factor in the creation of self defense organizations.
The Jews began to see the shame, and began to create secret, clandestine self-defense organizations.
Such a clandestine, self-defense organization was also set up in Sierpc. Its leaders, who were chosen covertly, included: Shmuel Szampan, Eliezer Szampan, Avraham Gerlic, Yeshayahu Frajdman, and the writer of these lines. Our leaders were Chaim Leib Pukac and Yaakov Sznicer. My task
was to collect weapons and lead to produce knouts [a type of whip].
The Illegal Movement of Bund and Poale Zion
In the years of the first Russian Revolution, around 1905, the Bund started to become active among the Jewish workers in Sierpc. The following people took part in organizing the Bund: Yitzchak Karpe, Yitzchak Kone, Chaim Leib Pukac, Yaakov Sznicer, Nathan Tac, and Ethel Grobard (today Dr. Fuchs, who lives in America). Yitzchak Karpe had some Jewish books and enlightenment literature. He secretly brought them to the Jewish workers to read. The intelligentsia all read Hebrew books and newspapers.
The Der Freind and Der Veg Yiddish newspapers began to be published at that time. The Jewish masses began to read. People read Mendele Mocher Seforim, Shalom Aleichem, Peretz, Asch, Reisin, Spector, and Digenson. The literary Yiddish sprang up from jargon, as the Yiddish language was once called.
The Poale Zion Jewish workers party was also founded at that time. Sharp discussions took place between the Bund and Poale Zion. David Grün (today David Ben Gurion) came to Sierpc from Plonsk and conducted a strong agitation against Bund.
Thanks to the strong discussions, many beis midrash youths and former Bundists moved over to Poale Zion. The Poale Zion committee consisted of: Kone, Karpe, Pukac, Sznicer, Lubaszke, Gorfinkel, Malowanczyk, and the youths: Czarnoczopka, Yitzchak Yaakov Buda, A. Mlawe, A. Podskoc, Ch. L. Pukac. Rich and poor, scholars and less scholarly all united to struggle for a better life for the Jewish people.
The revolutionary movement of 1905 forced the Czarist regime to grant the population certain freedoms and a parliament (Duma).
Simultaneously, a wave of anti-Jewish pogroms afflicted Russia. The Schwartzmenikes and the regime stirred up the peasants to rob and kill Jews.
The fear of pogroms also existed in Sierpc, and every market day passed in fear, for the pogrom agitators spread rumors that the farmers would attack the Jews on the market day. Fortunately, our underground self-defense organization was in place, and no pogrom took place.
The Czarist manifesto of October 17, 1905 also granted the rights to organize legal cultural organizations. In Sierpc, we utilized those rights to organize an open library. I gave over my books; Karpe brought his Yiddish books; Mordechai Hirsch Mintz brought Hebrew books; and Manya Sznicer brought her Polish books. Among those books, there were many that had previously been illegal, and there was a fear of owning them. Now, those books together with the legal ones were used to build up the first Jewish library in Sierpc.
The first committee of the Jewish library in Sierpc consisted of the following members: Karpe, Libsohn, Szampan, Goldsztejn, Chaim Pindek, Lubaszka, and Keler.
Szampan and I rented a fine hall and gave it over to the library committee.
We traveled to Yitzchak Leibush Peretz of blessed memory in Warsaw, where all young people were welcome, and asked for his advice about which books to purchase for the library. Peretz received us very nicely and invited us to the opening showing of Osip Dymow's drama Shema Yisrael that was being performed then in the Yiddish theater. In the theater, we met Dymow, the author of the play. We also met Shalom Asz, Nachum Sokolow, Avraham Reisin, Mordechai Spector, Hillel Zeitlin, Nomberg, and Dinezon. Peretz introduced us to them. I recall very clearly everything that took place.
We purchased the books that Peretz recommended to us. We also subscribed to the Yiddish and Hebrew newspapers and periodicals of that era.
Our library obtained the best news publications that were available, and it was very popular in Sierpc. All of the Jews in the city who had registered - whether wearing short jackets or long jackets, whether being Yiddish speakers or Polish speakers - all participated in the activity of the library and were its readers.
After the Czarist regime broke up the first Duma and did not prevent the arrests and pogroms against the Jews, emigration overseas increased. Many people also left Sierpc, including Ethel Grobard (today Dr. Fuchs).
Following the elections for the second Duma, the ideological differences between the parties within the Jewish communities increased, especially among the P.P.S. that had a Jewish section, the Bund and Poale Zion. In Sierpc, that struggle overtook many, even while out for a stroll. It was also expressed through various songs.
When the Bundists sang the Bundist Oath, Poale Zion responded with the Poale Zion Oath. The Bundists - When you plow and you sow… the Poale Zion - With the hook plow comes luck and blessing.
That same year, 1906, Ben Gurion came to town once again. This time, it was to take leave before traveling to the Land of Israel. His small, young face, the long black hair and the black, French cape gave him an air of honor. His fiery arguments and discussions with the internationalist assimilationists who delighted in First help other people to obtain their freedom, and that will help our people, and his arguments against them were all very effective. At that time, about 80% of the Bundists and assimilationists transferred to Poale Zion.
Sierpc then gave an impressive farewell to Ben Gurion, and led him out on his journey to the Land of Israel with great love and honor.
It was now 1907. Chaim Czarnoczopka was arrested for issuing proclamations among soldiers. A pall fell upon the town, and every opportunity was taken to accuse someone or another of being a revolutionary. The fanatic bourgeoisie Jewish householders of Sierpc took every opportunity to take vengeance upon the youth and revolutionary elements.
Once, a Hassid overheard in the beis midrash that Libsohn, who was studying Bible with Moshe Yakir, was translating the
verse from Isaiah, If you come to see my face, who asked this from you, to trample in my courtyards in a modern fashion. The fanatical Itche Margel heard this and would not let the Sabbath services proceed on Friday night. He shouted out that Libsohn and his friends were heretics and revolutionaries. (Such a case, where the services were interrupted, had taken place once before. This was when the tall Motel demanded that they should force Yehuda Licht to be given chalitza without payment.)
The accusation of Libsohn being a revolutionary reached the gendarmes, who wanted to know whether he believed in G-d and in the Czar. Libsohn realized that it was impossible to remain in Sierpc, and he decided to travel to the Land of Israel.
The committee and the members of the library decided to make a farewell evening for Libsohn before his departure. During the evening, they gave him a bust of Herzl, which he gave back to the library.
The farewell evening was conducted by the chairman of the library, Shmuel Tac. The following members took part in the special farewell program:
Chaim Pindek recited Bialik's The Final Word. Leib Krupiasz conducted The Crazy Person in the Hospital. Pukac recited fragments of Shulamit. Goldsztejn recited sections of Bar Kochba. Gerlic, Szampan and Frajdman sang There, there are Cedars. The farewell evening was concluded with the singing of Hatikva and Techezakna.
I left on a Friday night. The following people helped me on that secret journey: Rivka Tac, Mania Sznicer, and Gorfinkel. In order to avoid any suspicion by the gendarmes, I traveled without a passport and under the bench. That is how I arrived in Odessa. In Odessa, Ussishkin created a passport for me and introduced me to the gentle Mendele Mocher Seforim, Achad Ha'am, Klausner, Bialik, and others.
After spending some time in Odessa, I traveled to the Land of Israel. Shalom Asz and Ahad Ha'am traveled on the same ship.
- Deuteronomy 6:7 Return
- From Bierzwienna. Return
- The Sabbath prior to Rosh Chodesh when a special prayer is recited to bless the upcoming month. Return
- The phrase that marks the beginning of the Shacharit service on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Return
- A portion of the Yom Kippur Musaf service that reenacts the Yom Kippur service of the Holy Temple. Hakohanim, mentioned in the next sentence, is part of the Avoda service. Return
- Sons-in-law receiving support from their fathers in law so that they could continue studying Torah. Return
- Tosafot is a Talmudic commentary. Return
- A number used to express the maximum lifespan. Return
- A reference to the World to Come. This quote is from the Grace After Meals of the Passover Seder. Return
- A reference to the World to Come. Return
- A mishnaic tractate dealing with ethical issues - commonly studied on summer Sabbath afternoons. Return
- See http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/zeenah-u-reenah Return
- There is a tradition that the wicked people are not punished in Hell (Gehinnom) on the Sabbath. Return
- See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kareth Return
- A siyum is conclusion of a tractate of Talmud. There is a custom for firstborns to fast on the eve of Passover, but they may exempt themselves from this obligation by attending a festive meal that would follow a conclusion of a tractate of Talmud. Return
- I assume that this means the gentile who worked as the gravedigger in the Jewish cemetery. Return
- A hymn recited on the first day of Shavuot prior to the reading of the Torah. Return
- Lamentations 1:1. Return
- Remember the covenant - named for one of the prayers of the Selichot of the eve of Rosh Hashanah. Return
- The Shehecheyahu benediction, thanking G-d for keeping us alive to reach this season, is recited on every festival, as well as on other special occasions. Since there is a doubt whether Shehechayanu should be recited on the second night of Rosh Hashanah as well, the custom arose to have a new fruit at the table, which would warrant a Shehechayanu in its own right, and thereby obviate the doubt. Return
- G-d full of mercy - the Jewish prayer for the dead. Return
- The poetic additions to the regular services recited on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and in some congregations on other occasions. Return
- Psalm 47. Return
- The first word of kaddish. Return
- See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unetanneh_Tokef Return
- See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kapparot Return
- See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simchat_Beit_HaShoeivah Return
- Hakafot is the ceremony of processions around the synagogue with the Torah scrolls, conducted on Simchat Torah. In synagogues that worship according to the Sephardic rite, including Hassidic synagogues, Hakafot would also be conducted on Shemini Atzeret night. Return
- See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mitzvah_tantz Return
- See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abraham_Goldfaden Return
- See http://www.yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Dymov_Osip Return
- Isaiah 1:12. Return
- A ceremony of release from Levirate marriage. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Halizah Return
- See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Menachem_Ussishkin Return
by Shmuel Yitzchak Lenter
Translated by Jerrold Landau
This took place 67 years ago, in 1888. I was then a 9 year old child, and I remember it like today. That year, there was a difficult winter with great cold and even greater snow that continued until before Passover. A few days before Passover, it suddenly became warm. The sun came out with its rays, and the snow began to melt very rapidly.
We did not go to cheder on the eve of Passover. I and a few other friends went to play in the Wlokes. I had no idea of what was coming to the city. The sun was doing its job. The snow and ice turned to water, which
increased from minute to minute. The lower places in town were flooded.
In the meantime, it was noticed that I was not at home. At that time, we lived on Szaba Street. To this day, I do not know how my parents found out that I was in the Wlokes. Suddenly, my brother came running with a warning, What are you doing here? The entire city is drowning. He grabbed me and dragged me away. We came to the bridge as it was coming apart, and we could not cross it. With difficulty, and with the protection of the mayor who was at the bridge at that time, my brother took me on his shoulder, and we crossed the bridge.
The destruction caused by the flood in Sierpc at that time was exceptionally great. I will write about one incident, to give you a bit of a concept of the destruction. At that time, there were two rows of shops on both sides of the bridge. The large stream with even larger pieces of ice, as large as houses, covered over all the shops. There was insufficient time to save the merchandise. The owners were left impoverished and destitute.
There was a wealthy Jew named Moshe Meir Aberfeld, Moshe Graniewic's brother-in-law. His house was next to the bridge and he built a hut next to the house, in which he used to sit and study. He had silver, gold and precious stones in the hut. He was an expert in those matters and used to collect them. The large stream and pieces of ice came and swept everything away, as if it never existed.
Houses, stables with cattle and horses, and pens with fowl were floating. It was impossible to save them, however, for there was no opportunity to do so. Also, there were few people who were able to take a risk to save them in the storming water.
The Jewish Street was cut off from the city, and pieces of ice were flowing along. I remember how a large piece of ice was lying by the Old Beis Midrash. One can imagine how large it was, for it remained until Shavuot.
We could not go to worship in the beis midrashes on the first days of Passover. Everything was cut off. We worshiped with Moshe Mintz, where the Talmud Torah Society was located in the house of Leib Zhelinoski. The neighbors on Plocker Street also made a minyan at the home of Yisrael Bluman. A minyan took place in the new marketplace at the home of Elkana Buket. The Torah scrolls from the Old Beis Midrash were rescued and brought to the New Beis Midrash.
I recall that Michael Bentkwoska the teacher ran to save them with his two daughters. They were carried off by the stream and floated some distance. It was only with the risk of their lives that some people managed to save them. Manisia the tailor lived with his wife in the house of the wealthy Shmuel Szampan. They were very old, and they were unable to escape. They lived on the first floor. The water
reached the window. Everything that they prepared for Passover was ruined. On the first day of the festival, they were saved with the help of a boat. The flood lasted for three days and nights, after which the water began to recede. People talked about the incident for many years.
by Meir Weisgal
Translated by Alex Weingarten
My birthplace is the village of Kikol, and not Sierpc, but Sierpc is etched in my memories of the first ten years of my life. They are as close to me as Rehovoth is to Sha'arayim. I feel that I am inseparable from the town of Sierpc, as if I was born there, and the town is very important in my family's history. Sierpc is where my family and my relatives lived. My grandfather and grandmother, my father and mother, my uncle and aunt and cousins - all lived in Sierpc. I remember those far off days, before my father immigrated to the United States, when I was ten years old.
Sierpc and Kikol were part of my being; there I absorbed the Jewish way of life, traditions, and customs - everything that's called heimkeit. These two places were more than a geographic unit; they were the essence of Judaism, an inseparable part of Yiddishkeit that united and sustained our people in Poland and in the rest of the diaspora, and is the main reason for their existence as Jews.
Like other towns and villages in the diaspora, Sierpc was one of the strongholds of the enlightenment and the Zionist tradition. My childhood memories of the town of Sierpc became stronger and clearer when I visited in 1925. I was about thirty years old then, and this was my first trip to Europe since I came to America as a child. First I went to Poland and Sierpc, and then I went to the land of Israel.
I found that Sierpc had changed a lot in the twenty years since I had left. But there can be no doubt that Poland went through many transformations after the First World War; places changed, there were new people. One figure did not change - that was my grandmother. I found her exactly the same as when we left her to go to America. An elderly women, wise and sharp, but still ready to reprimand a sheigetz like me. She sat on the sidewalk with a copy of Tzeina VeReina in her hands, a pair of glasses perched on her nose, with a look of devotion and piety on her face. She was engrossed in her reading and would stop only to serve the occasional customer.
I was in Kikol and Sierpc for only three days, because I was in a rush to get back. I reviewed my childhood days hastily, and now, after thirty-five years, I see that the real culture of our times and our forefather's' times was there, both visible and hidden to the naked eye. It was rooted deep within the spiritual life of the Jews of Sierpc and Kikol.
Everything is finished and gone, blown away by the malicious waves of an indifferent history. But we, the natives of those small towns in Poland will not forget. We will remember and understand that this was the true significance of our existence as Jews; the heart of a philosophical outlook that is a vision of the true Judaism.
by Elisheva Rabinowich
Translated by Jerrold Landau
Many years ago, on the banks of the Sierpienica River, on both sides of the bridge that led from the Jewish street to the market, houses stood atop pylons. In the summer, the Jewish children would bathe behind the houses, showing off their tricks and swimming. In the winter, they would skate on the ice, and their joyous shouts and laughter would spread through the Jewish street.
In one of the houses, atop the posts in the river, lived my uncle Yaakov with his wife, Aunt Miriam. They had an only child, Michel, who was good-looking, intelligent, and a good student, but a big brat. The parents loved their only child very much, and tended to him with great care. However, it was inevitable, and protecting him did not help. Michel would often escape from cheder or run from the house to the river - to skate in the winter or to bathe in the summer.
Once, after Passover, when the parents were busy with their fashion business, the child drowned while bathing in the river. The parents no longer had a child, and their sorrow was deep and terrible. Uncle Yaakov filled his house with other children. He would learn with them, not requesting any wages. Aunt Miriam would stuff them with goodies. They loved them all, and knew each one's weaknesses and tastes. They gave them everything, and would sneak each one the snack that they preferred the most. Thus did she express her warm motherly feelings by bringing joy to the children's hearts, while her husband tended to their souls and minds by the clear and polished learning.
A poor, lonely, fisherwoman widow lived in the city. She had a six year old son Velvel. He was a fine child with black curls and moist, deep, cherry-like eyes. He would sit with Aunt Miriam for the entire day. She took him to cheder and brought him home. Very often, when his mother the fisherwoman was away in the river to catch the fish for the Sabbath, Velvel would spend the night with Aunt Miriam.
At one point, the fisherwoman became very ill. The doctor that Uncle Yaakov brought for her did not help, and the unfortunate woman died after a few days. Before her death, the child confided with Miriam. In this manner, Velvel remained with Aunt Miriam, as if he were her own child. Uncle Yaakov learned with him, and they treated him like their own child. When Velvel became older, he studied in the beis midrash, where he became acquainted with enlightened youths. He secretly acquired books, and placed them beneath the Gemara. He studied and read them, and became a completely different person. He would then often stroll behind the city. He would walk around immersed in his thoughts and sit at the table silently, without
uttering a word. He grew older and more mature, and when he was twelve, he appeared as a full-grown, serious young man.
The first to notice this was Aunt Miriam. She asked him questions, felt his head and examined his tongue. However, she found out nothing. Finally she and her husband determined Velvel's situation. He finally told the truth to my uncle: he, Velvel, sees no purpose here at this point. He wants to go to the capital city to study Torah there.
At first, my uncle did not approve; but, not wanting to hinder him, he finally said that he would send him to the capital city right after Passover. As they shook hands, Velvel agreed that he would observe all of the religious laws, and remain a serious, observant Jew.
My aunt took this like a thunderbolt. She begged Velvel not to leave. She wept bitterly for him and wracked her hands, but he only hugged her, comforted her, wiped the tears from her face, and stood his ground. He told her that he would write often, and let her know everything that was happening. Velvel left shortly after Passover.
Velvel kept his word. Letters from him arrived very often, and Aunt Miriam sent him packages with underwear and food. She packed her longing, motherly feelings in those packages. She dreamed about him day and night. She counted the days until Sukkot, eagerly awaiting the time when he would come home.
However, Velvel did not come home for Sukkot. He wrote some sort of excuse to my uncle in a letter. My aunt was not very pleased. Something was not proper. My uncle was sad, but the letter was clear and succinct, for some reason he could not come.
The holiday at my uncle's and aunt's home passed in a lonesome fashion. The cloudy, rainy days were even gloomier, as the melancholy imbued a bad feeling, and their hearts were depressed and upset. Until finally, it happened…
A neighbor from the capital city came and said, Velvel left the yeshiva long ago, and has fallen into bad paths. Uncle Yaakov traveled to the capital city that same day. My aunt did not close her eyes for the entire night. She hoped, above all, that this was not true. She even prepared a package for Velvel, as she did every week. When her husband returned from the capital city after two days, she did not ask him anything. He entered the house in silence, kissed the mezuzah, slowly removed his fur coat, washed up, and immediately, without words, put on his coat again. He went to the door and quietly told his wife, I am going to the beis midrash.
She knew him well. This had always been his manner. When he bore some resentment, he immediately went to the beis midrash.
When Yaakov returned, he said:
Miriam, to us, Velvel is dead. His name should not be mentioned in the house anymore.
She stood still in the middle of the room, without even asking the reason. In her heart, she had a harsh dilemma,
and she fell, half dead, onto the nearby bench. From that time on, Miriam, had a weak heart.
She lay down with open eyes on the harsh, dark, winter nights. In the thick darkness, she saw him, Velvel, so clearly and vividly. She had to exert effort to refrain from calling out to him. She knew that there, in the second bed, her husband was lying, awake like her, also thinking about him, about their Velvel.
Yaakov went around in darkness. The slight smile that had formerly lit up his face when he would sit and learn with Velvel, or later when he would read his very intelligent letters, had now disappeared forever. They both went around like silent shadows. They did not look directly into each other's eyes, and they seldom uttered a word.
Miriam loved Velvel very much. However, she loved her husband even more strongly and deeply and was in awe of him. The letters that continued to come from Velvel for a long time, exasperated her husband. She had to watch as he ripped them into pieces, unread. To her, this was like ripping her heart from her chest into pieces. She only thought:
Perhaps he was asking for help. Perhaps he is hungry. Perhaps he has repented. However, she could not do anything to help him. Her heart grieved even more, and her eyes shed tears during the long, dark nights.
Thus passed summers and winters. The world, which died during the winter, blossomed in the summer and again became joyous. For Uncle Yaakov, it was the same routine of life. The couple never complained. Velvel's name was never mentioned. They both became older and greyer, she in the shop and he in the beis midrash, as they forgot their discomfort.
There were better and worse times. Of course, more worse times than better. Often, things became so bad that one doubted whether there indeed ever were good times.
Then, the Polish revolt against the Russians broke out. As usual, the Jews were the first to be persecuted. The Poles imposed a large contribution upon the Jews of the city. Since the Jews could not pay such a large sum, they put three of the most important householders in jail. Uncle Yaakov was among those arrested. They were all sentenced to hanging if the Jewish community would not pay the money within three days.
People ran to the city commandant, begging him and weeping; but nothing helped. People fasted, prayed to G-d, and cast desperate glances at the hanging event which was taking place in the middle of the market. Dark shadows fluttered around at the hanging, and everyone was overtaken by a death pall. However, the Jews did not lose their hope. People knew that the Russians were not far from the city and, sooner or later, the Poles would have to leave the city. In the meantime, they bought off the guards, reached the captives, hid them in safe places, and waited for G-d's help.
The Poles flooded the Jewish street. They entered all the houses, searching for the escapees, and stealing Jewish property in the process. They found some Jew who looked similar to Uncle Yaakov, and sentenced him to hanging without any trial. Fortunately, the rumor that the Russians were close spread further, and the Poles left the city hastily. The Russian military indeed arrived on the second day. The hidden Jews still had fear about being seen openly. Above all, they were afraid of the return of the Polish revolutionaries.
On a wintery Sabbath afternoon, Miriam had already recited Grace After Meals after their lonely and melancholy midday meal, and she was sitting by the window. On account of the Sabbath, she wanted to forget her pain and discomfort. She chased away her sad thoughts and stared at the street. The lane was covered with white and silver snow. The faded, old houses of the Jewish street with their arched roofs were covered with a white, fluffy covering and appeared magical and dreamlike. In the winter windows that had been placed in the walls, white pieces of cotton were placed, decorated with colored thread and smartly cut pieces of paper. People were seldom seen on the street. Sometimes a man with a thick fur coat or a woman with a thick kerchief slinked along with silent steps. A group of children with fur or cotton coats and hats covering the ears came out from a nearby house. They came out to the street, looked at the frozen streams, and thought about skating. Today is the Sabbath, and one is not allowed to skate. However, they could run, throw snow, laugh loudly and shout. Miriam looked at them. The laughter of the children penetrated through the double windows. She recalled how, once, she would watch Velvel play through the same window. Her husband would often call the six-year-old child into the house and lecture him:
It is not appropriate for a child of your age to throw snow.
So clearly, so plainly could she see the child near to her with his red cheeks and bright eyes, that she barely noticed that a sleigh had quietly stopped beside her door. Suddenly, she heard a knock on her door, and she jumped up in a fright. A man with an expensive fur coat then entered the house after a knock. Under the fur, several gold medals sparkled on the lapel of a red uniform. The man remained at the door for a moment and looked at her with happy, moist eyes, which seemed to her like a blend of Velvel's red cheeks and his sparkling, velvet-black eyes. She collapsed on her armchair and stared carefully at the guest. He then ran to her and bent down at her knee. Mother, mother, he shouted, placing his face against her chest, do you not recognize me? Mother. Your Velvel?
She took his face between her hands, looked sharply at his face, and then pushed him away from her.
Yes, I recognize you, she
whispered with pale, trembling lips, Yes, I recognize you.
Then, a gentle joy overtook her. She forgot who he was today. She forgot that he is no longer someone's lovely child, her Velvel. Today, he arrived on a sleigh in the middle of the holy Sabbath and showed up at her door. As in a sweet dream, she caressed his face, placed his head at her chest, and whispered with a sweet ecstasy:
My Velvel, my sweet, beautiful child, my little son…
She woke her up from her dream.
Where is Father? he asked her.
She closed her eyes as if a terror fell upon her. She sat down drained of energy and put down her hands like two dead wings. Velvel noticed this and nestled her closer. He smothered her old, wrinkled hands with hot kisses. She felt his tears between her fingers. He began to tell his life story:
He pursued knowledge, studied and explored, and stirred up the world with his knowledge and wisdom. He suffered greatly until he entered university, studied medicine, and became a well-known physician. He had become the physician and darling of the archduke, the Czar's uncle. He remained in town for a total of two or three hours. His only dream had always been - to see them both, to see Mother and Father, to see them and beg their forgiveness. He always thought about them. He had to hide his Jewishness. He did so, but he was not able to remove his longing for his parents from his heart, and he always sent his regards to them, if he could at least have a glance at them. Now, the opportunity came. He is here. He had inquired about them and knew everything. He had already sent for Father, who would soon be here. He, Velvel, would now look after them and do everything so that their old age would be fortunate and peaceful.
He rose up, stood at his full height, and with a happy, radiant face began to pace through the room. He opened the doors, looked into the kitchen, the den in which his bed used to be. He caressed the furniture with his finger, and it moved slightly. He looked at the furniture, looking for the chair where he used to sit by the table. He stopped at the place where his father used to sit, and caressed the chair gently.
Everything is as it was. Everything as it was in my yearning and in my dreams. Only you are older, he said to Miriam, who was still sitting, overcome by her dreams, staring with her eyes at all his movements.
There is a deep discomfort in your eyes. I know, Mother, that I am responsible for this, he said with a sigh.
Suddenly, Uncle Yaakov appeared at the open door. He saw the stranger in the house, and looked at him acutely.
Father, Velvel uttered to the old man.
Yaakov extended his right hand, and the guest, as if through a secret force, stiffened himself
and remained standing in his place. Both men silently stared at each other, Velvel with fear and longing in his eyes; Yaakov with stern, cold glances from beneath his gloomy, grey eyebrows. Velvel was the first to shift his glance to the ground. Yaakov turned to Miriam and calmly said:
Miriam, I am going to the beis midrash.
The door was already long closed behind the old man, and Miriam was still sitting tight in her chair. Now, she was looking at her guest with fear. He was standing in the middle of the room, with his strong, bright, open eyes turned toward the door.
The Sabbath twilight had already long ago turned to darkness when the guest left Yaakov's house. He went to the sleigh with a bowed head. The children who had surrounded the sleigh made way for him. He waved toward the window where Miriam's pale face could be seen through the frozen windowpanes. The sleigh started to move away with haste and disappeared as if a dream.
Miriam looked outside through the window for a long time. She forgot Nachalat Tzvi. She did not recite G-d of Abraham and when the maid entered the house frozen from the street, she saw Miriam standing by the window, alone, in the darkness.
Years again passed by. Every year, the winter spread its cold upon the earth and covered it with white snow. After the winter, spring again came. The earth was kissed with dainty rays of sun, spreading over the snow-white dead covering and reawakening the earth to life with their warmth. The earth woke up again, filled with fresh, youthful sap. Flowers and plants of various colors sprouted up, as if for a joyous festival.
A person, however, becomes a year older with the passing of each summer and winter, and no spring can return him to his youth and freshness as before. Yaakov and Miriam grew older and weaker. They no longer awaited and dreamed of a joyous spring. Miriam grew smaller and thinner. Yaakov's face became paler, and deep wrinkles covered his high, white brow. Only Yaakov's eyes remained eternally young. There was some sort of undiminished luster in them. It was an eternal flame, a holy fire that the years, suffering and worries could not extinguish.
The times took a turn for the worse. The businesses became difficult. Uncle Yaakov even had to pawn his seat in the synagogue. He would have to spend his senior years without a roof over his head.
It was close to Passover. They needed money, and there was nobody from whom to obtain it. The old man sat on a cold evening near the oven, in which Miriam had lit a few twigs to warm up their old bones. It was quiet in the house. Only the wood in the oven was crackling, and Yaakov was staring at the fire. He stroked his grey beard and swayed gently. A long, dark shadow swayed on the walls, and the clock, with its brass weights and long chains, stroked rhythmically.
Miriam sat by the table, with heavy, brass glasses on her eyes. She darned a sock by the glow of the small lamp, glancing from time to time at the old man, as heavy sighs emanated from her old, collapsed chest. She finished her work and got up from her chair. She walked slowly to the clock, took out a paper from behind it, and approached the old man.
Yaakov, she said with a request in her voice, see, Yaakov, he left me this and said that any time that we need something, we should put this letter in the mail and he would quickly help us. We can ask him for thousands of rubles. Everything that we need he will do for us. He will give us good fortune. So, take it, take it, Yaakov.
The old man took the letter. He slowly folded it up in his palm, and without even looking at it, tossed it into the fire.
Miriam uttered a quiet groan and looked at her husband with fear. She instinctively stuck her hand in the fire where the letter was rolling around, half burnt. Yaakov took her by the hand, moved it away from the fire, stood firmly on the ground, calmed her, and quickly said:
Miriam, give me my fur coat, I am going to the beis midrash.
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