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Happenings Herein

Yaakov Frydman

Translated by Jerrold Landau

I was born and raised in Sochaczew. I left the city permanently when I was 26 years old.

The old Jewish community of Sochaczew is on the Warsaw-Posen (Poznan) highway, 48 verst[1] from Warsaw. The Jewish population was 1,200 families, numbering about 5,000 souls. When combined with the Christian population, which was smaller than the Jewish population, the total population was 7-8,000 souls.

Like all Jewish towns, Sochaczew had its homeowners, working people, merchants, shopkeepers, artisans, clergymen, communal activists, partisan and non-partisan youth, socialist and Zionist parties, and benefit institutions.

Sochaczew was completely destroyed during the time of the First World War. The town was situated on the front lines on the Bzura for nine months. During that time, Sochaczew was destroyed, and there were many victims.

After the war, I and some other young people no longer saw our future in Sochaczew. We came to the conclusion that the future of our people was only in the Land of Israel. We, young healthy people must part with the exile and go to build out our own fatherland. We left Sochaczew.

It was difficult for us to take leave of the town, in which every stone left behind was near to us. Even the cold graves spoke to us. The ruins of Sochaczew told stories of a previous life, of our beloved people and their lives there. We left with heavy hearts.

During the time of the Second World War, we received news from Sochaczew in the Land of Israel. Together with other cities and towns, Jewish Sochaczew, which had been rebuilt, was cruelly annihilated by the Nazis. Various images and happenings from the past swim around in my memory.




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A.

Moshe Aharon Shulklaper[2]

Yaakov Frydman

Translated by Jerrold Landau

Already before daybreak, the footsteps of Moshe Aharon Shulklaper, with his heavy boots, could be heard on the Shul Gasse (Synagogue Street). With his communally owned wooden hammer in his hand, he went around waking up the Sochaczew community to the service of the Creator.

Moshe Aharon Shulklaper gave one knock on a closed shutter. At the second and third knock, the sweet sleep departed from the eyes, and the newly dawned day began in Sochaczew.

It was a custom in the town (and I believe also in other towns) that the shulklaper gave three knocks with a wooden, communally owned, hammer on every normal day: one, two, three. If someone died during the night, Heaven forbid, and there was a “misfortune” in the town, the shulklaper would only give two knocks. The third silent knock would be left hanging with shivering and terror, and instilled a mood that, like a dark Satan, smelled of death, with the “good earth”, the tahara water, and a funeral[3] . A sigh issued forth from the lips, and tears trickled from the eyes…

The fate of each newly dawned day lay in Moshe Aharon Shulklaper's hand, with the wooden hammer. Its joy and its sorrow, the joyful arrival of a day or the cursing of one's day of birth[4]. He was the announcer of fortune and misfortune. With his third knock on the shutter with the communal hammer, all trembling departed…

Moshe Aharon Shulklaper's mission did not end with his announcing of a good or bad day. He had one more important duty – to announce the arrival of the Sabbath.

The Friday market in Sochaczew was lively and effervescent. The shopkeepers bustled about in their stores from early morning. The businessmen with the pushcarts – the pushcarts with fruit, and the cheap clothing dealers – all put out their racks with ready made clothing, overcoats, rags, and suits for the peasants of the vicinity who came with their wagons into the city. Soon, the market glistened with the various colored cloths of the peasants. Horses neighed, cows and goats bleated, hens quacked and roosters crowed. Among all the hoo-ha, Jewish men and women examined the bellies of the fowl for the Sabbath, purchased butter, cheese, eggs and other merchandise – bushels of wheat, a basket of plums, a sack of apples, pears. The rushing and tumult from the market to the stores, from the market to the pushcarts and to the taverns, and from the taverns to the market was such that one sounded blended in with the next sound. Jewish voices were intermixed with gentile voices. People paid, shook hands and said “na zgoda” – agreement…

Like a downpour in the middle of a bright day, Moshe Aharon Shulklaper suddenly intruded as the sun began to incline towards the west, and began to knock with his wooden hammer on the door of the open stores, and the marketplace began to move about. Everything went into ferment. The words and the mouths became silent. The buzzing and the voices became hushed, and business ceased. Quickly, the movement of the hands of the buyers and sellers stopped. The storekeeper saw to it that the customer should leave the store even faster; that he should pay even faster, take what he needs and go to from whence he had come. A rush began near the stalls and the pushcarts. Merchandise was torn from the peasant's hand. People took packages and carried them off. The peasants who were previously doing business remained standing dreamily. They did not understand what had suddenly happened, why their customers had suddenly been blown away – why he no longer laughed, no longer smiled, and remained ice cold in the middle of business.

Moshe Aharon Shulklaper's knocking with the communal hammer receded, and people began closing the outer doors of the stores, tying the chains, locking the bolts and putting away the keys. At the stalls, hammers made shambles of what had been erected in the morning. Like magic, the market became an ex-market. As if from under the ground, the street cleaner with his large broom sprouted up, and swept the large, emptied market. The Sabbath was approaching with silent angelic steps. Moshe Aharon Shulklaper had announced its advent, just as he announced the advent of the day during the week. The market of Sochaczew took on a different appearance… Soon, the Sabbath candles would be glistening in a golden fashion from the Jewish windows in the market. The Sabbath hymns would be heard from the homes; and at 3:00 a.m., when the city was still sleeping with its restful Friday night slumber, Yakir Szuster would wake up, go through the town darkness, and call out with his high clear voice:

Listen my dear people,
What I wish to tell you
The clock has already struck three
It is already time to recite Psalms.


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B.

Reb Meir Binyamin

Yaakov Frydman

Translated by Jerrold Landau

Meir Binyamin was a known personality in Sochaczew. When Meir Binyamin strolled along the streets wearing his black kapote, with his gartel[5] wrapped around, everyone knew: there is a dead body.

In such a case, he first made a great “lechayim”[6] , so as not to be afraid of the corpse. Then he speedily went away with all of the members of the Chevra Kadisha (burial society) in order to designate the place for the grave. Meir Binyamin did not take council. He measured the wood for the coffin of the “meit mitzvah”[7] , and cut the boards. He took a walk through the main streets and stopped at certain places, took his little beard together with his chin in the right hand, took hold of his elbow with his left hand, and called out with a healthy soprano shout: “Meit mitzvah!”. With that he convinced everyone that he had already taken care of everything, that everything was ready, and now it was time to give the final honors to the deceased. At the funeral he took hold of the round metal charity box and unlocked it with a small key. It contained a note “charity saves from death”. This was one of the main sources of income of the Chevra Kadisha.

After the funeral, the chief members of the Chevra Kadisha gathered together and first made the proper lechayim toast. If Meir Binyamin lost track of the number of cups, his cheeks would become a bit red and he would begin to tell about larger funerals, and his words were: “everything was Meir Binyamin”! “If it was not for me, the funeral would still not have taken place.”, and he laughed tipsily… Therefore, he was known in town as “altz Meir Binyamin” (“Everything was Meir Binyamin”).

For us children, all of the members of the Chevra Kadisha were great heroes, for they had no fear of corpses. However, in our eyes Meir Binyamin was over everyone, for wow, “he goes alone to the cemetery at night and has no fear”.

In fact, I was once with him, and I still have today a few silver Russian 5 and 10 kopeck coins, thanks to him, Meir Binyamin, who was saved from a shrapnel injury during the First World War.

In that time, many families did not take into account the danger that threatened us due to the front that was approaching Sochaczew, and remained in the city. In the meantime, the destruction in Sochaczew increased with each passing day. Shops were locked, and nobody had seen anyone on the streets for months. Corpses lay around, for burial in the cemetery was impossible due to the trenches that were there. It was decided to bury the dead behind the synagogue and the Beis Midrash, where one had to protect oneself from the bullets. One day there were a few deaths, including two Christians. When the burial ended, a terrible volley of shooting began. We ran to hide. A piece of shrapnel went by us, ruffled the clothes of Meir Binyamin and singed him. The money in his pocket melted, but he was saved.

Indeed “altz Meir Binyamin”.


TRANSLATOR'S FOOTNOTES

  1. A verst is an old Russian unit of distance. Return
  2. A shulklaper (Synagogue knocker) is the man whose job it is to knock on the doors of the people early in the morning to awaken them to attend the synagogue. It is not a last name here, but a description of the person by his job. Return
  3. The “good earth” seemingly refers to a cemetery. A “tahara”' is the ritual purification of a corpse prior to burial. Tahara water refers to the water used during the ritual purification. Return
  4. “Cursing one's day of birth” is a reference to a sorrowful event from the book of Job (chapter 3). Return
  5. A ritual belt worn by Hassidim. Return
  6. A toast over a drink. Return
  7. Literally “the dead of the mitzvah”, or the “dead of the commandment”, referring to a dead person who either has nobody to look after his remains, or whose family is too poor to do so, and it falls upon the community as a “commandment” to look after the person's remains. Looking after the remains of a “met mitzvah” is considered so urgent so as to displace almost all other religious obligations. Return


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C.

Avraham Meir Lejzers

Translated by Jerrold Landau

He was the partner of Meir Binyamin. His major source of livelihood was also … death. He was the opposite of his partner. He was silent, calm, and to his work with a slow gait. He drunk more liquor than his partner, but he retained his equilibrium, knowing what he was doing, and this was without noise.

He had a hoary head, and was of average height. He was a tailor all his life, and he mainly sewed shrouds [1].

As soon as Meir Binyamin would inform him that so and so had died, he would immediately go and take the measurements of the corpse, in order to ascertain how much white linen was needed. Nobody would see him on the street until he finished the clothes. It was late, just prior to the deceased been taken away, when he was first seen on the street. He fulfilled all of the errands of the members of the Chevra Kadisha who conducted the burial.

He drew the measurements of the casket in the anteroom of the synagogue, and waited until the members of the Chevra Kadisha arrived to cut the boards. Later, he took them to the cemetery and made sure that they fit the grave. Then he returned to town and informed everyone that the grave was ready. Following that, Meir Binyamin's job began, which was to call together the Jews to come to perform the commandment of burial.


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D.

Chaikel Baal Agala (Chaikel the Wagon Driver)

Translated by Jerrold Landau

There were many Jewish women in Sochaczew who honestly earned the title “woman of valor”. They excelled in various domains. One could find them in all strata of society. Not all of them were appreciated appropriately. That is the way it was; such should it be. First now, when I cast a glance back at that former life, I see how great was the role of the Jewish woman in upholding the existence of our people and the purity of Jewish family life.

The Sochaczewer woman of valor about whom I wish to mention here came from a family of wagon drivers. They called her “Chaikel Baal Agala” (Chaikel the Wagon Driver”. She was the daughter of Chaim Nissan the wagon driver. Chaim Nissan was a simple Jew who had his commandments (mitzvas) that he upheld with the greatest of exactitude. One of them was providing Jewish soldiers with a kosher Passover.

In the Russian times, there were two companies of soldiers stationed in Sochaczew. There were Jews from Russia among them; and Chaim Nissan's mitzvah was to ensure prior to Passover that the Jewish soldiers would be freed for the festival. He gave them a room in his small house for the entire festival, and provided them with kosher food.

His daughter Chaikel possessed elements of her father's soul. She helped her father, and they used to drive the wagon two or three times a week to bring merchandise. When his father did not feel well, she would travel herself to Warsaw. Therefore, they called her “Chaikel the Wagon Driver”. She was not embarrassed of the name. All of the wagon drivers gave her honor when she took it upon herself to heal a horse – literally like a doctor…

She got married to a man who later became a blacksmith, and she also helped him with his work. The street resounded, as she snapped the horseshoes onto the horse's feet, and the horse stood as if it had respect for her…

If someone's horse would take ill, whether owned by a Jew or a Christian, they would call Chaikel. They did not pay for her work; she did it all as a good deed (mitzvah). The same thing happened also when a horse gave birth. Chaikel was a resolute, tall woman. Her footsteps and her voice could be heard from far. It was interesting to see her going to examine or heal a horse. She rolled up her sleeve, stuck her hand into the body of the horse, took out from there what was superfluous, and administered medicine. She also made operations on horses. With her small, sharp knife, she would cut away wild flesh and pour salt upon the wound, or she would release blood. She did everything with precision, as if she was a veterinarian. The local wagon drivers extended honor to her. Her name was also known among the coachmen of Warsaw.

When the First World War broke out, the Sochaczewers fled to Warsaw. Chaikel was among them. The refugees from Sochaczew were billeted with residents of Warsaw, and Chaikel and her family were sent to the home of them Grochower [2] Rabbi. This honor had a great influence on her. She became a Hassid of Piaseczna. The wagon drivers of Warsaw gave her honor for this as well, in that she was found in such a house, as well as for her knowledge in healing horses. When a horse became ill, they would not bring it to Chaikel, but they would rather send her a horse cab with two emissaries, and bring her to the town where the horse was found. The wagon drivers looked on with great curiosity to see how that women healed a horse. When she arrived, all were prepared to help her. She never wanted to take any money for her work.

She returned to Sochaczew with her family after the war, and again began to ply her trade as before the war. Each week prior to the Sabbath, she would travel to Warsaw to visit the Grochower Rebbe and present to him all good things…


TRANSLATOR'S FOOTNOTES

  1. This refers to the burial shrouds that are used to dress up a body prior to burial. Return
  2. Grochow is the name of several towns in Poland. One of them is 4.2 kilometers from Warsaw (i.e. a suburb of Warsaw) according to JewishGen's Shtetlseeker. I expect that is what this is referring to. Return

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