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[Page 221]

Childhood and Youth in Staszów
From “Life Chapters of a Jewish Artist”

by Yechezkel Kirszenbaum

Translated by Leonard Levin

My childhood was like that of most poor children in the small towns of Poland, with only one difference – the youngest child of Reb Nossen-Neta Meir was destined for a special vocation. What was permitted to other children was not permitted to me, for it was not proper that I should take part in the play-activities of other children. I was therefore left alone and separate, and I lived within a world of my own creation, a world without children's games. Already in the dawn of my childhood many yearnings were taking shape in my soul, yearnings that were reaching for the clouds, without having any reality. The only interest that was awakened in me in my studies in heder was for the marvelous tales of the humash.[1] My heart was especially drawn to the legends in Sefer Ha-yashar [“the Book of the Upright”]. I would see everything in a pictorial image. The gemara and tosafos[2] did not interest me much, and at times even drove me to boredom, yet nevertheless I was one of the good students in the heder, sometimes the very best.

I could not claim that my childhood passed without any fun at all. In Staszów one would see quite a few pictorial images, which imbued the child-self in me with much happiness. There were the musicians who played their instruments while their brightly colored parrots hovered above. Some of the parrots even knew how to curse in Yiddish. Even today the dulcet sounds of those melodies echo in me, ancient and somber, that used to ring in our ears and resonate in our hearts. The blind violinist would come to Staszów each year right before Pesach; he was the herald of spring in Staszów. The piercing strains of his violin would express boundless sadness, and when he would accompany his playing with a song on the pogrom in Kishinev, the whole picture of the terrifying events would be visible before my eyes.

In any case, when my ears heard a melody, whether sad or joyous, my heart would melt of sweetness. But sometimes the pleasures of color, rhythm and melody would blend into a single whole. This would happen when a Tzaddik came to Staszów. Rabbi Motele, the grandson of Rabbi Mordecai of Chernobyl, made an especially great impression on me. He was a frail Jewish man, short of stature and limping on one leg. But his colored silk underwear, which served him as trousers, were clean; the cut of his robe had a distinctive pattern; and it was also made of pure colored silk. He had a small face, framed by a little white beard. On his short nose were set spectacles with thick glasses, behind which radiated two rays that resembled the sun's rays – his two eyes. People said that this was the only Tzaddik on whom one could see God's presence resting visibly. Indeed, I saw this with my own eyes. How much fear and trembling filled my heart on those Sabbath days, when they would accompany the rabbi to the Beis Midrash with singing and melodies. I still remember those melodies today, in which joy and sadness were commingled. The dancing of Rabbi Motele, he of the limping leg, on Simchas Torah, which went on continuously for twelve hours, was not simply dancing – it was dancing in which the heavenly angels were dancing through him.

Indeed, Staszów had its moments of joy – when they installed a Torah scroll in the synagogue, or when they accompanied a bride and groom to the wedding-canopy. Staszów had its own musicians. In addition to the three fiddlers, each of whom saw himself as Beethoven, there was Chetzkeleh the trumpeter from Kraków, who regarded himself in the act of playing the brass trumpet as if he were at least Wagner in all his glory. Yisroel Ber the klezmer and Chetzkeleh the trumpeter were my unforgettable virtuosos. Whatever they had of color, rhythm and melody lived and sang within me.

The most colorful element for me came from the common folk. The porters of Staszów, they of the broad shoulders, with their red vests, full of colored chords, for every patch in such a vest had its own colored musical sound. The water-carriers of Staszów, too, how distinctive their coloring was! And yet each one distinguished in making his own personal stamp. Feyvele the water-drawer would say that, if he had been lucky and knew Hebrew in his youth, he would be able to be a singer beside the cantor. Indeed, whenever they saw him, Feyvele would be singing the same melody from the Hallel songs of praise. He was happy for this portion that God had given him. Even though he suffered from diseased lungs and didn't have even a change of coat or proper shoes for the winter, he never complained against his Creator. Indeed, he had his “hot roll with butter” during his lifetime, namely, the ability to trill the melody from Hallel. He was my Bontshe.[3]

I first came in touch with death when I was ten years old. My brother, who was a brilliant student and had made a name as a scholar in Staszów and the surrounding area, departed this life after a protracted illness at the age of twenty. At the moment that I stood in front of my brother's open grave, a profound change occurred in me in a way I could not conceptualize. From that moment on, all my thoughts turned in a quasi-philosophical direction. It was the beginning of hard and sad times in my parents' house. Their hearts were broken, and my mother started to afflict herself and undergo fasts. She sat all day with a prayer-book or a chumash with a Yiddish translation, while her eyes streamed with tears incessantly. My father delved even more than before into his speculative preoccupations; the mystical commentary Ma'or va-Shemesh of Rabbi Yossele of Neustadt[4] never left his hand. Monday and Thursday in our house became fast-days, and nervousness and irascibility grew day by day. My 17-year-old brother would get a blow on the cheek at every opportunity, and their relations with me deteriorated as well. If, God forbid, I did not say a blessing in the manner my parents expected, I would also get a blow on the cheek. My 17-year-old brother was a well-developed young man, whom nature had endowed with all the good qualities, a handsome lad with many talents, who was skilled in drawing, painting and woodcutting. He learned languages with great facility. But unlike our late brother, he was not zealous in his religious observance, and rather than study in the Beis Midrash he would engage in secular activities. He was indeed compliant with all the required religious practices, but he had difficulty tolerating our parents' narrow-mindedness and fanaticism. Eventually he left the house, and in order to support himself he became a teacher in one of the villages. There he was forced to sleep in a barn with the animals. Because of the cold, he fell ill with a lung disease from which he never recovered. He suffered for three years before his lungs consumed him, and at the same time that I became Bar Mitzvah, he breathed his last.

I was again standing beside an open grave of my brother, who also died at the age of twenty. This event brought me to a distinctive train of thought and certain reflections concerning human existence. My parents became even more bitter, and their self-afflictions and fasts grew more extreme. Their one remaining hope, that their youngest son would bring them consolation, started also to prove illusory. Instead of sitting in the Beis Midrash and bowing over a page of gemara, they would find me lying in the meadow and looking at the heavens, day-dreaming and contemplating things that existed only in my unconscious mind.

Suddenly I had the urge to draw, and more specifically, to draw human faces – something forbidden to Jews. It was not long before my parents found sketches that I had drawn, and with them hidden books, the likes of which they would never have imagined that their son – their youngest son, no less – would have truck with. It goes without saying, that whenever something displeased my father, he would bruise my cheeks with his hefty blows.

Precisely when I turned 14, World War One broke out, and everything was totally different. First of all, the Cossacks on their little horses, with their sharp, long daggers made a romantic impression on me. There was something about them that inspired fear. The colored stripes – red, yellow, and blue – on their breeches were transposed before my eyes and turned into a kind of colored rainbow. But the romanticism gave way quickly to horrendous deeds – plunder, shooting, and simply havoc. On Yom Kippur, 1914, a fearsome pogrom took place in Staszów. Thus the war started to reveal its true face. Then the Austrians arrived, who for us Jews seemed like redeemers. But this only lasted for four weeks, after which we endured the Czarist regime for half a year. We were subject to continual fear and oppressive anxiety. In 1915 the Czarist camps retreated again from Poland in disorder – looting, killing, and sweeping away Jews with them in the process. Then another saving army came. These were the conquering armies of the king and the Kaiser, and the Jews breathed another sigh of relief. Life was a little bit easier again.

In the mean time, I was growing up and my path in life was changing. I felt a strong desire for knowledge and studies. In the manner of the maskilim,[5] I started to read the classic Yiddish writers. I was especially stimulated by the works of Yehuda Leib Peretz. His stories “At Night in the Old Market” and “Between Two Mountains” made such a powerful impression on me that to this day I feel the same shuddering of the soul as I felt when I first read them as a youth of 16 or 17. Philosophical problems also occupied me at that time. When I was 17,' I read Spinoza's critique of the Bible. Even though I hadn't the systematic education necessary for understanding such a work, it generated a revolutionary ferment in me. I think that in those days my attitude toward religion became quite different, the opposite of what it had been previously. In a word – I became a complete Apikoros.[6] Though my parents sensed the transformation that was taking place in me, they would not have entertained the idea that their son had become a genuine Apikoros. It was bad enough that their youngest son had started becoming lax in his religious observance. The house quickly turned into a hell for me. The questions (Where had I been? Where had I prayed? What had I done all day long?) were frequently accompanied with blows and beatings. The disgrace that I was causing my parents was intolerable, for the women were now whispering that they had seen me occasionally strolling by the “unclean place” with some girl. My parents could believe all kinds of things about me, but the ultimate sin – no, they could not imagine it.

How does the folk proverb express it? “The jug enjoys its flight to the well, but arrives with a rude awakening.” One fine day I had a rendezvous with a female companion on some quiet street corner, when at that moment my mother should chance to come by and see with her very eyes the very thing she was worrying about. She fell upon me and boxed my cheeks in the middle of the street, which was instantly filled with Jewish women. The poor girl was accompanied with curses, and I was driven out like a criminal. It was impossible for me to go home now, for my father would surely kill me on the spot. To start a craft and be independent – one needed a little money for that. To be a peddler and make the rounds of the villages with various wares – I wasn't up to it. I never had a talent for sales.

With no alternative, I directed my steps to the big, wide world. I hadn't a penny to my name, only the clothes on my back. I remembered some relatives who lived in the town of Klimontów, and who I knew were well-off. I also knew that if I came to their house, they would take me in for a few days with open arms. I hadn't any money for the journey. I remember as if it were today, that I set out on foot from Staszów at two in the afternoon and arrived in Klimontów at nine in the evening.

“Shalom aleichem, Chatzkele,” my cousin Mordecai greeted me, “what a dear guest!” His wife Chana also rejoiced, as did the children, some of whom heard my name, while others knew me from before. They were all glad that Chatzkele had come to pay a visit. Nevertheless, when it came time for dinner, Reb Mordecai (who was a Gerer Hasid) perceived that I had not recited the blessings before and after the meal with the religious devotion that he was accustomed to, and that one might expect of the youngest son of his uncle, Reb Nosson Neta Meir.

After the meal, Reb Mordecai asked me what were the circumstances on account of which I was paying such a great honor to my relatives with this unexpected visit. I explained to them that since it was winter and wartime, and the Beis Midrash in Staszów lacked wood for burning, I had come to study for a short while in the Beis Midrash of Klimontów. But our Jews are blessed with a sense of smell and sharp eyesight. As the prophet Isaiah said, “The recognition of their face answered for them.” My earlocks were not as long as those of Reb Nosson Neta Meir's youngest son ought to be; my movements and gesticulations were different from those of a dedicated yeshiva student. Even so, when they saw that I was starving and weak, and knowing how great were the pressures in my parents' house, they suggested that I stay in their house a week or two, and I accepted their offer.

When Reb Mordecai came the next day to the Beis Midrash to probe as to the nature of my gemara studies, he didn't find Chetzkele there. In those days I was a member of “Hashomer,”[7] and I knew some fellow-members of the movement in the surrounding towns. I thus went out to find my friends, and when I found them I told them everything. I also said to them that I would not be able to remain in Reb Mordecai's house for two whole weeks. Everything that had happened to me, and the oppressive experience I had had throughout my whole childhood, filled me with fierce hatred for everything that exuded the odor of religion and piety. I was sure that the peaceful arrangement that I had established with my relatives would not last long.

We had decided to look for an appointment for me as assistant teacher in one of the villages. It wasn't long before we found what we were looking for. I remember how we traveled on a snowy, wintry day in the wagon of the village Jew, and how romantic it all looked to me. It was the first time in many months that I was able to breathe properly the free air of nature that knows no bounds. The Jew was tall and thin, a man distinguished in his simplicity. Nevertheless, his constrained movements seemed to testify to a lack of confidence, and his eyes reflected a great bitterness. I imagined that this was the nature of all the villagers, and of this Jew in particular. But when I arrived at the house of the Jew in the village and I saw the members of his household, the troubles of this sorrowful man were immediately plain to see. His wife, the witch, greeted him with a torrent of curses. A half-dozen children with running noses stood around in a house filled with filth and foul odors, their faces puffy and red from crying. The greeting she extended to me was not endearing, either – where are his peyos?[8] He doesn't even look like a Jew. Is this “Ingatz”[9] supposed to lead our children in the Creator's ways?

The witch's looks by themselves were enough to set my head spinning. On top of this was the toxic air in the room, which was the very opposite of the wonderful air that I had been breathing a few minutes ago into my youthful lungs. But I had discharged my first obligation as a man seeking to prove to the world that he knows how to support himself without the help of others. After the evening meal, which consisted of blackened bread-crumbs with milk, which kept turning and churning around in my stomach, the camp of runny-nosed children gathered around me to say the evening Shema. Outside, the moonlight shone. It was a magnificent, cool evening. I could contemplate the nature around me as much as I desired, while meditating about my new-found happiness. The Jew was a good-hearted man, and he comforted me and promised me that he would treat me as a mentsh. But his wife the witch yelled that she had no need for a rabbi without peyos, let a demon take him! At any rate, the question came, where I should sleep. The Jew suggested that I should sleep on a bench behind the stove, while the witch screamed, is he sick? Let him sleep in the barn with the animals! In order to have respite from the witch's face and the sound of her voice, I decided to sleep in the barn. But the cold consumed me, and my limbs froze. The Jew was pained on my behalf and was worried that I would perish, God forbid, from the cold. He suggested to bring me back to Klimontów, but I had decided to stay in place, for I truly didn't know where else to turn.

I lived for four weeks in that hell-hole. The only reward for the sufferings that I endured in the vicinity of that witch was the opportunity to hike, which I did from time to time by way of the village in order to breathe into myself the air of God's world. In my imagination I was already starting to paint landscapes. After I had dwelt for a month in the village, my cousin Reb Mordecai learned of my whereabouts and came to see me. He told me that the situation in my parents' house in Staszów was grim and serious. My father and mother were ill, in danger for their lives. Weeks had passed since my disappearance before they learned that I had not committed suicide or otherwise harmed myself. My father blamed my mother for my disappearance, whereas my mother argued that all the troubles that she had caused me came about because he incited her against me. In the end, they both fell sick of grief. When I heard this, I felt remorse, and out of worry that no further misfortune should befall my parents, I decided to return to Staszów at the earliest opportunity.

Indeed, when I returned to Staszów I found that both my parents were ill. When I entered the house, they both started weeping – first, out of joy that their youngest son was still alive and well, and second, because they were finally convinced that their battle was lost.

By now I was 17 and had a certain status among the youth of Staszów. In those days there was a more democratic atmosphere than in previous years. I had a tolerant attitude toward my former friends, who continued to sit in the Beis Midrash, while I myself was a member of Hashomer Hatzair and befriended youths who worked with craftsmen and belonged to the youth organization Tsukunft.[10] My primary occupations were reading books and drawing. In the clubs of Staszów and other towns were hung my portraits, in which I took pride. The Zionist club boasted a portrait of Herzl; for the socialists – Karl Marx; for the Bundists – Vladimir Medem; whereas in the hall of the library there hung on the walls the portraits of the classical Yiddish writers – Mendele Mokher Seforim, Shalom Aleichem, and Peretz, whom I loved to draw more than anyone else. I knew how to draw their portraits from memory, even in my sleep.

The progressive youth in Staszów and in the nearby towns thought I was quite a talented guy. But I harbored the desire for something I had never yet seen or known. In my heart, I had a hidden yearning for a world of true art. In Staszów of those days there were young people who had a high-school education or the equivalent, and these left me with a heavy heart when they said, first, that a true artist must first complete the Gymnasia[11] and afterwards the University; and second, that I was now too old to begin such a course of studies. I even said to myself that to do so would be a quixotic pursuit. Where would I get the means – that is, the necessary money – to travel to a big city to study? Thus one day followed another and I was growing older. My life was filled with despair and melancholy, because I saw that most of the young men of my age were pursuing a straight path towards their objectives. One became a merchant, another a craftsman, a third had the means to study and would eventually become some sort of doctor, and the like. Even those who did not belong to the modern circles and continued their religious studies in the Beis Midrash, had a clear goal in their lives: one learned to become a ritual slaughterer[12], another prepared to receive rabbinical ordination, whereas a third knew that if he did not have the luck to go into business, at least he would be a melamed[13]. I, on the other hand, knew that I would not be the one or the other – not even a melamed. For there was not a sin that I had not committed, whether out of spite or out of my free-thinking outlook. Nevertheless, I took care not to commit any transgressions in public. My parents suffered greatly when they saw that all their hopes had gone up in smoke. Suddenly they decided to try to rescue me through a marriage arrangement. But they quickly realized that all their efforts in this direction were as useless as trying to drive a stone into a wall. Bit by bit, they became accustomed to the idea that I would choose my own life-partner myself. Their only fear was that I should not, God forbid, bring disgrace upon the family by bringing home a bride from the house of a tailor or other manual laborer. To this pressure was added hundreds of other worries for my poor soul that had been corrupted by the sinful world.

My parents' disgrace was so great that my father was ashamed even to mention, on the note that he wrote to the Rabbi, those matters that pertained to me and my behavior. Suddenly young women started coming to our house. One time it was with the excuse that they needed to order an engraving on a tombstone; another time it was to draw a pattern for embroidery for a table cloth or a monogram. But to tell the truth, these were my girlfriends from Hashomer Hatzair, or girlfriends in general. Once I had turned 16, I knew how to derive inspiration and influence only from the female gender, whereas my male companions did not move my heartstrings at all. I had had a romantic disposition since childhood, and those of the female persuasion were from then and forever the potion that refreshed my soul.

People who are consumed by worry have trouble sleeping at night. My parents' worries on my account were not at all trivial. At night, when they were awake and stealing a look at my bed – oy, where is our son, the “Ingatz” [heretic]? Where and with whom is he running around there at night? With the fall of night, and especially the moonlit nights of spring, one could find me again sitting in a field outside the town with a young woman my age, dreaming about this and that, or when we had completed our fiftieth circle around the marketplace. Everyone slept at night, except for a handful of youths, young men and women, who were scattered around the dark corners of Staszów, or in the fields behind the Catholic church. Most of them were talking their kind of “business,” pertaining to conditions of engagement and marriage. Some were already engaged. I, on the other hand, never spoke “business.” How could I? I had never earned a penny. I had no craft; I was not in commerce; I was not a student. I was the poorest of the poor. And yet I was a sensitive guy, and had some imagination as well. The young female hearts were happy to be in my company for an hour and to dream my dreams with me. My female companions would also throw me a few words of consolation for my hopeless situation.

In 1918, when Poland achieved its independence and the camps of Piłsudski and Myszyniecki[14] ran rampant among the Jews, an idea flashed in my mind, that the time had come to seek a way out into the wide world. But I confronted a serious question: where would I get the means? I hadn't even the travel fare to go 10 kilometers from Staszów, so hard-pressed was I. I wouldn't get even a penny from my family, although one of my sisters was then considered among the well-to-do. But she was so pious, and had prayed a lot to the Almighty on my behalf, that he should have mercy on me and save my soul, on condition that she, too, would be assured of her place in Paradise. She once expressed the thought that it would be better that God take my life than that I go to Germany or the like, for if I were already such an apostate at home, how far would things go if I lived in a place like Germany?

And now, my time had come to stand to be drafted into the army. Piłsudski was in need of soldiers, and for this purpose, Jews were also fit. The draft board found me fit for service. What would happen now? I had turned 19, and it was not known when I would be called up. My father was sick in bed, and he believed that for the sake of his illness he would be able to free me from the army. As for me, I had no plans at the time. The times were again harder, because my parents had started to pester me and to demand that I return to the true Jewish path. My life was anarchic and disordered; I was ambivalent and indifferent as to whether I would go to war, or if I would succeed in saving myself and go out into the larger world. I was waiting for some unforeseen event to take me out of my dilemma.

On Friday morning, Jewish women would be baking challas and cakes and other baked goods in honor of the Sabbath, which meant that they had in their hands the money needed for this purpose. On an enchanted moonlit night in the month of May, at three in the morning, I was with one of my lady-friends, after I had strolled with her for many long hours, and we had dreamt our long and weighty romantic dreams together. Before we separated, we were still standing before the gate to her house, because neither of us wanted to go to sleep. Suddenly the gate of the house opened and my oldest sister, who was living in the same house, went out of the house, carrying cakes that she intended to bring to the bakery. I didn't even notice her, for there had been no contact between us for years. It seemed as though we had never been in contact, for she had sons who were older than I was. I had no feeling of family connection with this sister or her children, and I would have thought that she had no interest in me or my doings. Why am I relating all this? Here is why.

In general, and especially at that time, I was accustomed, when I came home at night to find the house in darkness. My father and mother didn't know when I would be coming home. But on that glorious night, while I was immersed in my great happiness after the stroll with my lady-friend, I noticed while approaching the house that there was light peeking out from behind the window-shutters. An unpleasant feeling took hold of me. I had just walked in, and had not managed to say a word, when my father started beating me unmercifully until I was covered with blows and bruises. My sister was standing in the room. It seemed that some expression of sweet revenge was on her face.

I don't know what happened afterwards, but I know that I barely made it out of the house alive. I arrived at the house of a friend whose parents I knew were on a journey and not at home. In the mean time, the incident became known to others of my friends in Hashomer, and I made a vow to them, that even if I had to steal, I would run away and leave Staszów, in order not to have to be forced to suffer these humiliations that had their source in blind fanaticism. Indeed, I was able with the help of Hashomer to get a loan of a few zlotys, and I decided to make my way to Kraków. For the time being, no one would see me again in the streets of Staszów.

One fine morning I traveled to Miechów, and from there I took a train to Kraków. This was the first time in my life that I saw a railroad train and rode it. This was my second adventurous flight from the oppressive rage of religious fanaticism. My experiences in Kraków were not all that glittering, except that for the first time in my life I saw electric lights. I knew hardly any Polish. The only document with me was my draft registration card. It therefore goes without saying that I had to find some Jewish lodging-house in order to rest my bones, weary from the long trip. My inn was full of Jews with beards and earlocks. Even though this world was utterly hateful to me, I had no alternative, as I hadn't enough money for a higher-class lodging.

In the middle of the night, the owner of the lodging-house woke me up and yelled at me, demanding that I get dressed and leave his place. His inn was only for Jews from Galicia, he said, not from Russian Poland, which was unclean and out-of-bounds. Two burly thugs stood by my bed and started to drag me out of it. I put my clothes on, and they threw me outside. It started raining at that moment, and as I was sitting at that late hour of the night outside one of the houses in the street, at the height of the rain, two policemen approached me and asked to see my documents. I showed them my draft card, and they treated me with the utmost courtesy, saying that it was not pleasant to have to stay outdoors on a rainy night. In the mean time, the dawn started breaking. They brought me to some Beis Midrash, and I went inside. When the rain stopped, I went back out.

I had with me the address of a Dr. Rieger, who at that time was the head of Hashomer in Kraków, and who was famous as an educator and pedagogue. In the morning hours I approached the headquarters of the Shomrim[15], intending to ask the advice of my comrade, for the Shomrim were comrades to each other. But our Dr. Rieger was the kind of student who was unacquainted with enthusiasm. This leader of comrades didn't even look at me. When I had told him that I had heard there were free courses in art, and that I was ready to do anything in order to be employed for a piece of bread in order that I could learn art, he said that it was better that I go back where I came from, with all my illusions. Well-fed Jewish students of that period didn't know about sentiment. I went out again, without any warmth. That Shomrim leader was a cold gust at the height of summer.

By chance, I recognized in the street one of the Shomrim who told me that a few days earlier there had been a split among the Shomrim of Kraków, and that he himself belonged now to the other faction, Hashomer Ha-Poel[16]. This comrade brought me to his house, got me a place to stay for a few nights, and presented me to some other Shomrim. That group of Hashomer Ha-Poel were mostly workers. They brought me to the committee of Jewish students and tried to arrange for me to stay in Kraków for at least a few weeks, so that I could find out whether it was feasible for me to study art there. Indeed the possibilities were slim. The students' quarters, rather than true lodges, were more like germ colonies. I had trouble staying with that society for three weeks. I preferred to sleep on a bench in one of the city parks and to starve, than to eat their watery soup and sleep in their germ colonies.

In the fourth week of my stay in Kraków I met a man from Staszów, who told me that my sister had come to Kraków and was searching all over for me. This was indeed my favorite sister, who had been consumed with despair until she found me. This was the first time in weeks that I ate real food. My sister told me that my parents were consumed with bitterness, and that their only wish was that I return home – they were willing to agree that I could behave as I wished. My sister wanted to take me with her at once, but I was stubborn and said that it was incumbent on me to try some more, perhaps it would still be possible for me to stand on my own and remain in Kraków.

On the day before Tisha B'Av, I decided that the next day I would return home, because all my efforts had been in vain. On Tisha B'Av, in the evening, I arrived in Staszów wearing a non-Jewish cap with a shiny visor. The Jews whom I met on my way stared at me. They found my father at the moment when he was ready to go to the Beis Midrash. He kissed me and wept, and entreated me to go with him to the Beis Midrash. I changed my gentile cap for a Jewish hat and went with him to the Beis Midrash. From that day on, my father's relation to me underwent a complete transformation. I was allowed to do anything, to remain outside of the house all day, to read my books, to draw, to wear a short coat and to put on a cap with a shiny visor, and even to stroll all night long with the young women. My relations with my father improved in every way, and I began to admire him. From his side, he started to take pride in me. At that time I was drawing quite a lot, and I would often sketch the portrait of my father, while he was engrossed in his studies. I never saw such a magnificent profile. His nose was as marvelously sculptured as a Greek statue, his eyes were distinctive in their brilliance, and the curve of his forehead was fine and majestic. By contrast, my mother would treat me with diffidence, and more than once she would burst forth with a sigh of anguish at the sight of her son's behavior.

Autumn came. The war between Poland and Russia intensified, and every day they expected that I would be called to the barracks. The holiday of Sukkos came, and the winter shortly afterwards. Indeed, with the winter came the call to service. I had no intention of doing otherwise than joining the troops. It never entered my mind to leave Poland, as many others had done. Where would I get the money needed for that? My father was in bed the whole time, and that winter he suffered badly from rheumatism and kidney disease. I was scheduled to go to the military camp in December before Christmas, and I made all the preparations to do just that. By morning I was with my friends and acquaintances in order to say good-bye to them. At night, an hour before midnight, I arrived at home, but I didn't find anyone there. My sick father, who for the previous weeks had never gotten out of bed, was not at home, and even my mother was absent. What had happened? My packed duffel was ready, for the next day at eight in the morning all the recruits – including me – would have to stand before the town hall, ready to go out on the road. At midnight, my father and mother returned and informed me that they had obtained transit papers on my behalf, and that they had pawned everything in the house, even my mother's wedding jewels, with Pineleh the goldsmith, and had obtained several hundred zlotys for them. They even had hired a wagon that should take me to the train, and from there I should ride to the German border, to Bendin (Będzin). We had some relatives in Sosnowiec, and I would be able to turn to them, and they would take care of the smuggler who would smuggle me over the border. A flood of tears streamed suddenly from my eyes, in the presence of this superhuman effort that my father had undertaken, in order to save his son from death on the battlefield.

The next day my father got up with the dawn, while my mother was crying bitterly, emitting heart-rending sighs from her mouth. My father was confident that we would see each other again soon. That morning, the snow was falling while my sick father went out to escort me a good distance out of the city. There, at the edge of the forest, stood a wagon harnessed with a horse, and several passengers were seated on it. The wagoner stood, waiting only for my arrival. At the time of parting, my father wept, and I was also crying as he blessed me with the blessing of the traveler, “May God guard you on your journey.” It was very hard for me to part with my father's majestic image. He was sure that he would be privileged to see me again, but in my heart I did not feel this confidence. The wagon started to sway, and I saw Papa standing there, his wonderful profile standing out against the face of the deep snow, waving to me in the distance with his multi-colored handkerchief in his hand. This was my farewell to my father. I never had the privilege of seeing him again.

Thus I went out into the wide world. At a late hour at night I arrived at Będzin. When they asked me for my railway ticket, it became clear to me that the ticket had disappeared. In the mean time, the police came and asked me for my documents, but the forged transit papers were also gone. Someone on the train had seen my document and stolen it from me. I was taken in custody and brought to the police station. By good fortune I had still kept my draft card, and I was able to show it to the police. I was asked why I had traveled to Będzin, inasmuch as my draft card was from Radom, but I did not know what to answer. In short, after several hours they assigned me to a division of recruits that was going to set out the next day at eight in the morning towards Radom. At eight o'clock in the morning the recruits stood in line, and I stood with them. My place was in the last group, which was guarded by armed soldiers with bayoneted rifles. On the way to the railway station we had to pass in front of one of the houses, and over a sign, which was hung before a storage-house of charcoal. I saw on the sign the name Tannenbaum. It was a family that came from Staszów, some of whose members were my friends. Even though it had not occurred to me to leave the formation and desert, the name Tannenbaum called to me as if like a voice from heaven, that I should slip into their house. Despite the close guard, I was able to slip away from the formation and jump in the twinkling of an eye through the gate of the house. Indeed, on the second story I found their apartment, and breathing heavily, I pressed the doorbell. The members of the household were overjoyed to see me, and greeted me: “Here is Chetzkele Kirszenbaum, the master artist, from Staszów!”


  1. Heder: Jewish religious primary school, in which students learned Hebrew, prayers, and Bible. Humash: The Five Books of the Torah (Genesis through Deuteronomy), a staple of studies in Heder. return
  2. Gemara: the principal part of the Talmud. Tosafos: the second major commentary on the Talmud (the first being Rashi's), compiled by Franco-German Jewish scholars of the thirteenth century and considered good training for the mind because of the intricate problems they raised. return
  3. Allusion to Y. L. Peretz's story, “Bontshe the Silent,” about a poor Jew who never complained during his lifetime, and when he got to heaven, all he could dream of asking for was a hot roll with butter. return
  4. Editor's comment: Not correct. The author of this book was Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Halevi Epstein, the father of Rabbi Yossele. return
  5. Maskilim: Proponents of the Jewish Enlightenment (Haskalah), who advocated secular education in sciences, philosophy and modern languages and literature. return
  6. Apikoros (from “Epicurean”): a specifically Jewish kind of heretic – still identifiably Jewish, but skeptical of traditional Jewish religion. return
  7. Hashomer: a radical Zionist youth organization (see chapter: “Hashomer Hatzair”). return
  8. Peyos: Earlocks, part of the distinctive grooming of ultra-Orthodox Jewish men and boys. return
  9. Ingatz: Obviously a derogatory term, probably a corruption of Ignacy, a Polish variant of Ignatius (compare Saint Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order), hence, a goy, a Christian priest. return
  10. Tzukunft: “Future” – a common name for socialist organizations. return
  11. Gymnasia: A private academic high school in the German system, which served as the model in Eastern Europe. return
  12. Ritual slaughterer (Shochet). This was an office that required knowledge of the religious laws of slaughtering and kosher meat preparation, as well as the physical skill to do the butchering of animals and cutting of meat. See the earlier chapter, “The Ritual Slaughterers in Staszów.” return
  13. Melamed: teacher in Heder (religious elementary school). This position had a paradoxical combination of low social status (because the men who went into this line did so presumably because they were unqualified for any other livelihood) but high dignity (because religious learning was revered in the culture). return
  14. Josef Piłsudski, hero of twentieth-century Polish independence, was head of the Polish state from 1918 to 1922 and from 1926 to 1935. He was greatly admired by Polish Jews especially during his second tenure, when they looked to him to restrain anti-Semitic movements in Poland. The initial period of Polish independence was one of great unrest, in which anti-Jewish pogroms were perpetrated especially in the Ukraine (Ukrainian leader Symon Petliura was assassinated in Paris in 1926 by Sholom Schwartzbard as an act of revenge for these pogroms). I can find no information regarding Myszyniecki, but presumably he was either a Polish or a Ukrainian military leader of this period. return
  15. Shomrim – “the Guards” – a Zionist youth group in Poland. return
  16. Hashomer Ha-Poel – “the Labor Guards” – a socialist faction of the Zionist youth. return


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