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[Pages 286-294]

Our Childhood Years:
From the Heder to the Besmedresh
[1]

by Moshe Rotenberg, Haifa

Translated from Yiddish by Miriam Leberstein

Who among us does not remember the dardeke melamed[2], Reb Meyer Melamed[3], whose house was situated on the large field of ruins between Gurne and Dolne-Ritwiner Streets? There, on that ruined place, filled with bricks and clay remnants from past conflagrations, young children spent their early school days learning and playing “horsey” and various other games. Having rolled up the skirts of our little caftans, we would run around among the stones and clay pits, releasing our childish energy.

We didn't have any toys, but we provided our own entertainment. We kneaded the clay that we found there, to form little human figurines, birds, and whistles. A board on top of a hill of bricks served as a hushtavke [see-saw, < Polish huśtawka]. We carved swords out of wood, and pieces of string served as reins to play horsey. In short, we took care of our own entertainment, and very successfully, too.

Fortunately for us, our teacher was very understanding of our need to play and took care not to interfere with us. Reb Meyer Melamed was a good natured and warm-hearted man, and he taught his students with kindness and calm.

The bahelfer [assistant] Shmuelke Apl, would accompany the children home, carry their food, and even wipe the bottoms of the children of the rich. We used to have a lot of fun teasing the bahelfer and singing him this ditty:

Borekh hi [Heb., Blessed be he] - bahelfer, flee!

Borekh shmoy [Blessed be his name]- the bahelfer is a flea.

At Reb Meyers', we learned only the alphabet and how to read. When we left him, we went on to study with the melamdim of the more advanced subjects, where we learned Chumash [Bible] with Rashi and a bit of Gemara [Talmud]. The other melamdim were:

Chaim Melamed (situated opposite the Rozvadover shtibl [small Hasidic house of worship]; Ruvele Melamed (opposite the bathhouse); Reb Itsikl Melamed; Shmuel-Hersh Melamed; Reb Note-Meyer (Kirshenbaum) Melamed; and others.

After leaving these, we would go on to the more prominent melamdim, like Reb Shimele Melamed, Reb Zanvil Melamed, Reb Fayvl Melamed, and only after them would we go on to the besmedresh or yeshiva.

Of course, switching from one melamed to another was not a simple matter, and the pupil had no say in the matter. A boy's father, and even his grandfather, decided to which melamed the child would be sent, taking into consideration yikhes [pedigree, prestige], the economic situation, and the parents' aspirations. Once the decision was made, the pupil's fate was sealed for an entire term, for better or worse.

Woe to the child who fell into the hands of a strict teacher, like Zanvil Melamed, where the whip, slaps and pulling at peyes [sidelocks] would constitute the pedagogical methods by which one would learn Torah. But when the pupil was sent to a teacher like Ruven Melamed he “got away” with mere mockery, and moralistic encouragement to study with greater enthusiasm.

The calmest teacher of all was the phlegmatic Reb Shimele Melamed, who was, poor thing, always hungry and “frozen” [i.e.very poor]. When Shimele had to help his wife feed the geese, his pupils enjoyed complete freedom, helping in the feeding or even driving the geese into their cages.

Fayvl Melamed was a very pious and unassuming Jew, but he also was not stingy with his reprimands. Reb Fayvl would teach a bit of Gemara with Tosafos[4], a chapter of Mishna[5] and Shulchan Aruch[6]. He was very strict about various religious obligations, such as making the blessings, washing the hands upon waking and before blessing and eating, and he threatened the children with hell and with evil spirits when they didn't do what they were supposed to.

Reb Fayvl was highly respected by all the parents and by his pupils, because he devoted all of his powers to raising the children in the Jewish spirit. The parents would often send him gifts, such as a small wagonload of wood for the winter, or a couple of bottles of wine for a holiday.

Reb Fayvl didn't confine himself to teaching children only. He would also teach grownups in the shul a chapter of Mishna, a chapter of Psalms, or Shulchan Aruch. The old spectacles perched on the end of his nose lent him an air of respectability and, chanting with a slightly sad melody, he taught Torah to the common folk.

A type similar to Reb Fayvl was Reb Note Meyer Melamed (father of the future renowned painter Yeheskl Kirshenbaum).[7] Reb Note Meyer was a Torah scholar, an upright and modest man. His whole life was devoted to religious study, and not just as a source of livelihood. He taught the older children Gemara and Tusfus and was always absorbed in difficult problems and questions of interpretation of religious texts.

Of the other melamdim we should mention Reb Yehiel Melamed (Yehiel Magid [peacher]), Reb Nosn Dovid, Reb Berush, Reb Arye (who was nicknamed Ku-Ku, because he had poor vision and wore spectacles and bent his head all the way to the book he was reading.) These teacher-scholars dedicated their lives to teaching children Torah and respect, Judaism and humanity. We remember them with great respect, all of them, who despite great poverty, did not abandon their profession. Some of them even considered it a great honor -to serve to transmit the culture of Judaism, raising the younger generation.

Other memories of our heder years have stayed with us: for example, walking to heder on winter evenings, through the dark streets of town, holding lanterns. Each lantern was differently decorated, impressing the heder boys. In the late evening hours, either the rebbe [melamed] or the bahelfer would accompany the children home to protect them from drunks and from gentile boys. But, as soon as our chaperones left us, we would start throwing snowballs, or we would pull out a couple of boards from behind the skirts of our coats, and tie them to our shoes with string, and as if on skis, set out over the deep snow. Frozen and bruised, we would return home late at night.

In this way, we wallowed in snow and mud all winter, going to heder day-in, day-out, taking with us a candle or a penny to buy kerosene and wood for the rabbi's wife.

 

Mincha-Maariv on a weekday

Day in, day out, we would accompany our fathers or grandfathers to the besmedresh to say mincha and maariv [afternoon and evening prayers.] The air of the besmedresh was thick and smoky. After saying mincha, which usually went quickly, the congregation would take a shorter or longer break -sometimes there was a bal-droshe [preacher] --then say maariv. In a sad monotone, Leybush Rakhes would begin the prayer, “Vehu rachum” [God is merciful] and the congregation would quickly join in and follow along, verse by verse, until they came to Shemones Esrei [the Eighteen Benedictions], when everyone would stand and recite, with great fervor but in a subdued whisper, the way it is said of Hannah in the Bible: “Only her lips moved but her voice could not be heard.”

Late arrivals would enter in the middle of the evening prayers, to snatch the opportunity to say a prayer in honor of the Creator. Here comes the shopkeeper with his muddy boots; he dampens his hands in the hand basin, quickly dries them on a cloth, stands himself in a corner, finishes mincha in great haste and now he's already reached the oleynu [“We praise”-the final prayer], spits left and right, and is finally ready for maariv, just like everyone else. He prays quickly and silently, and because his intention was good, he has fulfilled his obligation to the Creator.

After prayers, everyone has a chat about business in the shops, about the prices of kerosene and candles, herring and salt, and about how much money they took in. Some talk about politics. Everything interests them: What's happening in Port Arthur? What's doing with the [Mendel] Beilis trial? Kaiser Wilhelm? Other important world problems? They don't' simply inquire; they resolve questions, and give advice to the leaders of the world. And it's no one's fault that the rulers don't listen to their advice and run the world as they think fit. And that's why the world's in such great shape.

In this way the days and weeks went by, the months and the years. On holidays, there was an entirely different feeling. On Chanukah they lit the candles with great solemnity and sang Maoz Tsur [“Rock of Ages”]. Even mincha and maariv had a different feeling; they prayed with more fervor, not as much by rote as during regular times. And, of course, on the nights of Chanukah, there were plenty of pranks played by the heder children and yeshiva boys, who threw snowballs at the balemer [Torah-reading platform], and the like. During the days of Chanukah we began to make dreydls, carving them out of wood or pouring lead into molds. The latter was a job requiring great care, because often we burned our hands.

We especially enjoyed the night of Christmas, when we weren't allowed to study and it was a religious obligation to play dreydl or even cards. The holiday of Tu b'shvat [15th of Shevat, New Year of Trees], with its custom of eating fruits from Eretz Yisroel [the Land of Israel] brought a lot of joy to the young folk. This celebration of the New Year for the trees in the Holy Land suffused our young souls and filled our hearts with joy, pride and longing for the land of the Bible and of the Jewish people.

But the holiday of all holidays was Purim, with its merriment and freedom. We had earlier begun to save coins in order to buy the materials we needed to make disguises, to be ready to go door to door in the evening. The Purim feast [in the heder] was truly a royal repast, consisting of white bread, herring and “kratz” [scratch] borsht that the rebbe's wife made from fish roe chopped with onion. During the feast, we broke out into a cheerful song and dance, unafraid of the rabbi's whip, because “Today is Purim, tomorrow it's done…”[8]

Truth be told, it wasn't just because of Purim that the rebbe had softened toward his pupils. Mainly it was because we were approaching the end of the term, at Passover, when people began looking for new teachers. So even the rabbi's wife began to smile at each child, hoping he would stay on for an additional term.

Not until after the First World War did the town have a Talmud Torah and a reformed heder, the so-called Heder Mesukn, organized by the more progressive householders, under the aegis of the Zionists, Mizrahi, etc., which were like real schools, with a pre-determined, well-established curriculum.

We “respectable” children, who stood tied to our fathers with our prayer books in hand, envied the pranksters outside who were allowed to fool around and play freely, releasing their youthful spirits. We had to play the role of obedient children and provide our fathers with a little nakhes [gratification.] Not to mention the times when a father would bring his child to the moyre haroye [rabbi or religious authority] Reb Shalkiel Gersht, who examined the child by having him read a verse of Chumash or a bit of Gemara. Then the father had no equal in the eyes of the other respectable Jews in the besmedresh.

When we got older, we began to resist automatically following our fathers to shul, reciting the prayers we had long ago memorized. We gradually began to miss a prayer, then another, then a third, until we almost entirely stopped attending the besmedresh. The majority of the young people began to attend the newly established organizations and [political] parties, developing a lively communal life in the town.

This metamorphosis came about partly because of pressure and the infectious influence of the newly established modern heder, with its modern education methods. Gradually, there faded away the generations-old era of the absolute authority of the rebbe, wielding his whip and controlled the pupils' fate.

The old heder, where teaching took place in the crowded living quarters of the rebbe, without light and air, where the odor of onions and barley soup from the kitchen would actually make it hard for the students to breathe, had to give way to the modern heder, with its comfortable, light- and air- filled classrooms. This was so, even though the old type of heder had fulfilled an enormous historical mission in the education and survival of the Jewish people.

Thanks to the new direction in the realm of education, a new generation grew up, physically and intellectually healthier, which later produced a reservoir of fine, aware young people of the Zionist and pioneer movements, as well as the local Socialist and Communist parties.

Here, we should mention the householders of the town, like Avremele Nisnbaum, Benyomin Tochterman, Yosele Blusztayn and others, who devoted their skill and energy to create a modern school system in Staszów.

 

The Rzshike and the Razewaner Stok

The magnificent natural surroundings of the town -the fields, the quarry, the “blonyes” [grassy meadows] and the Czarna River (or, as they called it, the Rzshike)-- had an enormous influence on the young people, on their way of thinking, their imagination their romanticism. The quietly flowing river enchanted everyone. We would often sneak out of the besmedresh to go there, splashing in the water and listening to its quiet waves. The grown-ups, too, would frequent the river on hot summer days, some to swim, other simply to relax in the cool, clean air. The grassy meadows that stretched along the river, were a gathering place for the first maskilim [followers of the enlightenment] , and for the youth organizations. Zionist melodies, Hasidic nigunim [melodies], and revolutionary songs mingled in the air, creating a harmonious symphony of a hopeful youth longing for redemption. Some sought to join up with their Creator. Some dreamed of the land of their forefathers, where they would build a new life for their people, and some hoped to bring redemption for all mankind.

Many people enjoyed themselves at the beloved river. We heder boys would go down the bathhouse lane, directly to the Rzshike, to play along its banks, pulling shellfish out of the water, and the like. We felt safe there, because the area was settled by Jewish tanners, and the bathhouse lane was inhabited by the melamdim and other Jews. Water carriers came to draw water with their buckets. Women came to wash their laundry. And wagon drivers brought their horses there to drink the fresh, clean water.

When we got older, we would leave the residential area and go to the Magistrat, to the bridge, and to the Folvark [lit. “farm”; the Christian quarter of town], and there, at the Razewaner Stok [hillside], a surprise was waiting for us - a cold and tasty bit of water from a real spring. The “stok” flowed from behind the hill, where the Magistrat, with its jail cells, was located. The spring flowed into the Rzshike.

Everyone loved and felt connected to the river. It really was a Jewish river. Jewish children bathed and played in it; Jewish women immersed their utensils there to kosher them for Peysakh; they rinsed off their rolling pins there; Jews went there to perform tashlikh [ritual casting of sins into the water at Rosh Hashanah] and to welcome the new moon.

On Sabbath eve, the river flowed more peacefully and calmer than usual, more majestically. The air was suffused with holiness, with the scent of burning candles, with the sound of heartfelt prayers coming from the besmedroshim, with Jews dressed for the holiday in silk caftans, their prayer books under their arms. It seemed as if the river, with its whispering waves, was organically interwoven into the Sabbath harmony of the hardworking Jews who after laboring all week achieved spiritual rest and exaltation of the soul. The river flowed to the second heavenly corner of the town --the magnificent [town] garden, where the old gardener lovingly tended each flower and tree.

The beautiful acacia trees, the chestnut trees and the thick bushes created wonderful nature spots where children could play and grownups could stroll. The air there was revivifying. Jews simply could not tear themselves away from this beautiful garden, and it even happened that a minyan [quorum of 10] of Jews who were late for the mincha-maariv prayers would say their prayers in the shade of the branches of a tree.

The garden had one shortcoming. It was Jewish all week, and most of all on the Sabbath. But on Sunday, it was Christian. On the Sabbath, hundreds of Jews, young and old, would fill the garden. Young girls with freshly washed hair, adorned with pretty silk ribbons, and decked out in colorful dresses, and boys and young men dressed in their holiday best, walked arm in arm, talked and sang, read and discussed, in a cultured, Jewish way.

But the next day [Sunday], the garden took on a different character: gentile, noisy, drunken, dissolute. Gentile men and women walked around rowdily. Drunken soldiers actually rolled around on the ground. No Jew dared to go through the garden on a Sunday, and put his life or his honor at risk.

And so, the river and the beautiful town garden fulfilled an important function in the development of the younger generation, bringing a bit of delight into the hearts of the hard working Jews, who fought a difficult and bitter struggle for existence. In the bosom of these two lovely gifts of nature, Jews could live in a Jewish way and spin their dreams for a more beautiful and better life in the future.

 

The Three Weeks and the Nine Days [2]

In this period, the rebbes became a bit more lenient toward their pupils, both because of the days of mourning for the destruction of the Temple, and because of the delicious delicacies, of borsht and fresh potatoes that the rebbe's wife would prepare for the household. As his anger [rugze] subsided, his whip [ruzge] rested.

With great suffering and sorrow the rebbe taught us the sad song,“Eicha Yashva badad ha'ir” [“How the city sits alone”], and we listened very attentively to the legends about the destruction of the Temple, and took them to heart. Our ancestors' heroic fight for independence, and their sacrifice in defending the greatest holiness , the Temple, evoked in us children pride and respect for our ancestors and deep despair over our powerlessness in the long and dark Diaspora, from the time the Temple was destroyed until the present.

When the rebbe and his pupils were overcome by fatigue, he'd tell some of us to go down to the nearby river to fetch some cold water. You cannot imagine the joy of the little water-carriers. Outside they were able to play freely at the river, and most important, didn't have to look at the rebbe for a while.

During the three weeks, and especially during the nine days, you could see the sadness on the faces of everyone in town. There were no weddings or engagements, Jews didn't cut their hair, no music was heard. Everything was in mourning over the great national disaster of the Jewish people almost 2000 years ago. The mourning reached its climax on the eve of Tisha B'ov in shul. The 24-hour period of mourning and fasting and prayer began immediately after the pre-fast meal. People sat on turned- over benches, in the light of the large tallow candles, and recited the Eicha prayer (biblical Book of Lamentations) with great sorrow.

Tisha B'ov was evident in the town as well. Women and girls sat on wooden beams or around the rinshtok [water channel], whispering quietly. Of course, they had to cover their heads with kerchiefs, because the pranksters in town would throw pinecones at them, which would become snarled in their hair and hard to get out.

After Tisha B'ov, the days passed quickly as everyone began to prepare for the High Holy Days.

 

At the Brukshteyn [Quarry] and the “Pipale”

In those years the road to the quarry and to the pipale[9] was the main place to stroll for the young people.

The first maskilim[10] would frequently take a break from studying Gemara to walk along Dolne-Ritwiner Street in order to freely discuss some world problem. Strolling along, they came to the “brindl” [stream]. And, as they crossed over the channel where day and night the salty stream flowed, they reached the brukshteyn [quarry], a hill from which stones were cut.

This magical nature spot attracted and enchanted the young people. Here, boys and girls spun their dreams of a just world, or of a home for the tormented Jewish people in the land of their forefathers. Here, the young people would draw out of their pockets various illegal books and brochures, anthologies and novels, and would consume them with unquenchable thirst. Here, they read Ahavat Tsiyon, Ashmat Shomron, or Ha Tsfirah[11] -all of which were considered posl treyf [secular, and thus impure and forbidden] in the town.

In this spot, they formed groups which were ripe to adopt new ideas that were then dominating the Jewish world. Young people started to read about and discuss Zionism, Dr. [Theodore] Herzl, and his “Jewish State”, Max Nordau and his muscular Judaism, and the fateful question: Uganda or Eretz Yisroel [as a national home for the Jews.] All of these fascinated the young and the older generation as well.

The new ideas about national independence, about equality in the world, and about peace and understanding among nations released a wellspring of belief and strength, and the young threw themselves ardently in to the work of organizing themselves, of improving themselves, in order to be ready to realize these ideas when the right time came.

During their strolls, the young people ventured beyond the brukshteyn, toward the “pipale”, where there lived the village Jew Naftali Wolman, who cultivated his own piece of land by himself, and earned his bread by the sweat of his brow. In their imaginations, this Naftali Wolman was considered to be a chalutz [agricultural pioneer] who got his bread from Mother Earth honorably and proudly, thereby setting and example for those yearning for Zion.

The young had found meaning in their lives, and felt as if they had been reborn. Heated discussions flared up everywhere and people began to live and breathe at a different pace.

The first to signal the advent of the nationalist and socialist spring were Itshe Wolman; his brother in law, Motl Goldfarb, who was later a student in Reb Avrom Ber Birnbaum's cantorial school in Czestechowa, and afterwards a well known cantor in Toronto, Canada; R. Avrom Itsik Szerman, the great cantor and leader of the renowned cantorial school in Brooklyn; Reb Avrom Yosl Rotenberg, the teacher and later a photographer; “Blind Hershl”; Yankele Goldman, or as he was called Yankele Krupnik [barley soup]; Shmuel Zalcman, Zalmen Hitlmacher's son in law; Hershl Leyb Dajtlbaum, today Dr. Leon Tamri; Yehiel Erlich, later a teacher in Warsaw; and many more maskilim and social activists.

In those years -the beginning of the 20th century - the pipale was a favorite spot, where maskilim and young people gathered to teach, study, read and debate. In later years, the various youth organizations and cultural groups met there.

On Lag Baomer, the melamdim would take their pupils there, and religious Jews went there to stroll with their families on Sabbath afternoons.

 

The “blonyes” and the “third chains”

Who doesn't remember the “blonyes” -those expansive green meadows and pasture fields, that stretched out along the Czarna River, from quite close to town, all the way to the Korezwanke Woods?

As the river flowed all along this area, it took various forms: calm and turbulent, narrow and wide; in some places so overgrown with trees and bushes, it was a true jungle.

Manmade canals along the meadows served to channel water away from the river, in case of flooding. These were the so-called “shliuzn” [locks or sluices], constructed with oakwood walls, hung upon large iron chains. They were opened when it became necessary to divert the water. There were three such sluices and they were called “the first chains”, “the second chains” and “the third chains.”

The first chains were close to town, not far from the mill, and almost opposite the mansion of Reb Yisroel Karpen. The water in the first chains was calm and good for bathing. There you didn't need to worry about being bothered by gentiles, or Jewish street kids. The second chains were a bit further away, at the old cemetery. These presented a bit of a risk, giving rise to instances of bravado and boasting: “Oh, how I jumped from the bridge into the water and swam!” and so on.

But every young person dreamt of the third chains. Only the bold and daring would go there, people who weren't afraid of getting hit by the gentile kids or shepherds, or by just regular anti-Semites, who set their attack dogs on you. Often a boy would come home with his trousers ripped.

This all occurred in the early days of our youth, when we were heder boys. But later, this place came to serve as a spot for study, reading and discussion. Here, on the meadows, the Hashomer [Guard] (later, the Hashomer Hatsair) [Young Guard] was founded, under the leadership of Itskik Tenenbaum from Będzin, who was a temporary visitor in Staszów. Here, on the meadows, was the “headquarters” of the Bund and of the Communist Party.

 

The Golejów Woods and the Cmentarna Road

Other important nature spots were the Golejów Woods, as well as the road to the Christian cemetery. Jewish youth spun their most beautiful dreams here, by the clear waters of the lakes, or in the woods alongside, such as the Adamuwke or Postszaske, or strolling on a moonlit night along the road to the cemetery.

Of course, these young people didn't have an easy time of it. In all these beautiful places they had to put up with a lot of problems and fear of the gentile kids, who would attack them and often give them a good beating. Our Jewish appearance, our peyes [sidelocks], the little caftans we wore, drew their attention and provoked them to assault us. But we were a match for them, and fought for our Jewish honor. In general, the gentile kids got to feel our power, when we were organized into parties and organizations.

The woods, with its tall pines and oaks, bushes, plants, and lakes, served the Jewish population well. Young and old found in it a place to rest their nerves, breathe fresh air, and listen to the unceasing symphony of the forest, the rustling of the leaves, the swaying of the branches, and the singing of the birds. This was truly an ideal place for the aspiring youth to weave their dreams of a more beautiful future.

Fortunately, the woods aided some of these young people during the annihilation of the Jewish population by the murderous Nazis. These young folk evaded death by hiding in the woods, in bunkers, or amid the thick branches. The woods kept the secrets of those who hid, protecting the underground bunkers with its branches and high grass. In this way, the woods fulfilled its duties, both I times of joy and times of need and danger.

Photo captions p.292 Heder boys

 


Footnotes

  1. Heder: a one-room schoolhouse for primary students to learn basic Hebrew and religious texts, generally meeting in the teacher's home. Besmedresh: a unique institution common to traditional Jewish communities in Eastern Europe. It served as a library (of religious texts only), academy (for youths and adults), and communal meeting-place. It was customary for religious Jews to come to the besmedresh early or late in the day to do a little studying before or after their secular work routine. Youths who were marriageable or recently married would spend a few years studying there (much as young adults attend college) before undertaking a livelihood. (LL) Return
  2. Dardeke melamed: beginning teacher of small children, teaching them elementary Hebrew. (ML) Return
  3. “Reb Meyer Melamed”: “Reb” is the equivalent of “Mister,” a respectful form of address. “Melamed” was any teacher of children in “heder” (a one-room schoolhouse, generally in the teacher's home) prior to adolescence. The designation “Melamed” after the teacher's personal name may have been a surname or just a nickname based on his vocation. (ML, LL) Return
  4. “Gemara”-the main argument of the Talmud, composed in the fifth century. “Tosafos”-the more advanced, complex commentaries, composed in the 12th-13th centuries. Together, these were the meat-and-potatoes of Talmudic learning. (LL) Return
  5. Mishna: the oldest code of rabbinic law, written second century; the basis of the Talmud. (LL) Return
  6. Shulhan Arukh: The standard code of Jewish religious law (composed in the sixteenth century by the collaborative efforts of Rabbi Joseph Caro of Safed, Palestine and Rabbi Moshe Isserles of Kraków, Poland). It was much studied in the besmedresh (study house) of every Jewish town and accepted as authoritative by all Orthodox religious Jews. (LL) Return
  7. Yehezkl Kirszenbaum. See his memoir in the Staszow Book, http://www.jewishgen.org/Yizkor/staszow/sta221.html. Return
  8. The verse continues: “Give us a penny, and let us be gone.” (ML) Return
  9. Pipale: [derivation unknown]-local name for a field outside Staszów, adjacent to Naftali Wolman's farm. See below. Return
  10. Maskilim: Devotees of the “enlightenment” movement, to introduce the study of modern sciences, languages, literature, and philosophy into traditional Jewish communities. Return
  11. Ahavat Tsiyon [Love of Zion, 1853], and Ashmat Shomron [The Guilty of Samaria, 1865/6] were novels by the Hebrew writer and maskil Abraham Mapu [1808-1867]. Ha Tsfira [Dawn] was a Hebrew language newspaper published in Poland from 1862 to 1920. All were widely read by followers of the Haskalah [enlightenment] and Zionist movements. (ML) Return


[Pages 295-298]

Musicians, Cantors and Music Lovers

by Moshe Rotenberg, Haifa

Translated from Yiddish by Miriam Leberstein

Numerous musicians, cantors, klezmorim ,and just simple music lovers constituted an interesting sector of the cultural activity in Staszów.

Along with the desire for secular education and knowledge that the Haskala [Enlightenment] awakened in the youth of the town, came a serious drive for musical instruction. In the beginning, groups of young people, young married men continuing their religious studies, and yeshiva boys, would gather somewhere in a garret, or in the fields outside town, like the “pipale”,[1] the brukshteyn [quarry], and so forth, and sing a zemerl [traditional religious song]. At that time, they were still satisfied with singing the rich traditional pieces, such as Ke-vakoras ro'eh edro (“Like a Shepherd Counting His Flock”) Areshes Sefoseinu (“Song of our Lips”) and Avinu malkenu [“Our Father, Our King”].[2] Later, after the Jewish population was infused with nationalist thinking, they switched to sentimental Zionist songs, like “In the Place of Cedars” and “Raise up Banner and Flag to Zion,” interwoven with the Yiddish folk songs of [Avrom] Reisen, [Shimen] Frug, and others.

From then on, wherever you went, you could hear a stirring song: in the besmedresh[3] - a nice little Hasidic zemerl; in the street -young people singing; and in the fields and woods, there wasn't a single meeting that didn't begin and end with a musical program, either planned or improvised.

A number of the many amateur musicians began surreptitiously to learn to play the violin, and also went to conservatories. Others began diligently to study musical notation and went on to develop into well known cantors and even opera singers in their future lives. Among these, a young boy with a beautiful voice particularly distinguished himself: Avrom Itsik Szerman. First a choirboy for the town cantors, Reb Yosele and Reb Moyshe Leyb, Szerman later studied with Reb Avrom Ber Birnbaum, director of the well known cantorial school in Częstochowa. After that, he served for many years as cantor in Będzin. From there he went to Toronto and the United States where he is to this day director of the cantorial school in New York.

Avrom Itsik Szerman was the first to introduce into Staszów the art of reading and singing from notes - solfeggio. The second well known cantor and teacher of musical notation was Yankele Goldman. All the music lovers in town studied with Goldman, at that time the only music teacher in town, learning music theory as well as practical musical training. Goldman, with sporting a broad black beard, and dressed in traditional clothing, would go from one pupil to another, teaching the most difficult fifth interval cycle, rhythmics, etc. No one knew where this man had obtained his considerable musical knowledge. But it is a fact that the whole pleiade of musicians and cantors in town began with the activity of this simple man.

The list of those active in the field includes, as far as I can remember, Motl Goldberg, of blessed memory, who studied in the above mentioned Birnbaum school and who later emigrated to America, where he occupied an honored place in the world of cantors and composers, especially in Toronto. Itshe Wolman was a fanatical music lover. He later spent a lot of effort and money to provide a music education for his two talented daughters. The youngest, Halinke, completed the Warsaw Conservatory and became a teacher in the Białystok Music School.

Several years later a great new star appeared in Staszów's musical world -Pinchas Szerman, the younger brother of the aforementioned cantor, Avrom Itsik Szerman. At the cantorial competition held by the Tłomackie Synagogue in Warsaw, Pinchas Szerman was voted second cantor, singing with the well known cantors Gershon Sirota and Mosze Kusewicki (= Moshe Koussevitzky).

The outbreak of the First World War of course interrupted the musical activities of Staszów's young people. But as soon as it was over, they began, with redoubled energy to stream back into musical instruction. The following story illustrates how deep was their drive to music: One fine day, it was discovered that several sons of well-off families had suddenly disappeared, along with several hundred rubles, from their homes. The town was in an uproar. How could this be!? Children of good families engaging in such shenanigans! But it didn't take long for the furor to die down. Soon there arrived from Vienna letters that cleared up the riddle. It seems that this group was studying music there and, not having any other way to realize this goal, they hadn't been able to restrain themselves from taking the money. Among those who ran away were Yankev Grinbal, a student in the besmedresh, and Meyer Wagner, both sons of well-off merchants.

Several years later, the same story recurred. Once again, several sons of good families disappeared with the goal of studying music in the wide world. Among these were Yosef Nehemia Grinburg, the son of Yeheskel Yosef “Nehemia's,” and Motl Helmer, the son of Shmuel Helmer. It is important to emphasize that there were already quite a few secular people in the town who gave their children full moral and material support to enable them to realize their dream of a musical career.

Among the musicians in town a very prominent place was held by the Szwugier (= Shvoger) family, of which almost all the brothers graduated from the Warsaw Conservatory. Their first concert, with piano, violin and cello, held during the First World War, was very well received. The town was caught up in the flow and many respectable middle class families sent their children to study with the Szwugiers.

My brother, Dovid Rotenberg, was also a gifted musician. He received his music education in Warsaw. When he travelled to Berlin for work during the First World War, he continued his studies there, learning harmony and counterpoint. He was choir director in the łódź old-new shul, and in the big, so-called German Shul.

The clan of cantors wasn't limited to the two renowned Szerman brothers. Our town was distinguished by a whole array of notable cantors and baley tfiles[4] [sing., bal tfile, a cantor or leader of prayers in shul]. Among these was Reb Yerachmiel Chazn, a talented musician, who acquired his post not so much because of his voice, like all outstanding cantors, but because of his very successful compositions for holidays, among others, the original composition “Molded by Clay,” which we print here.

In his old age, Reb Yerachmiel made aliyah/ to Israel, where he lived out his years in Jerusalem, dying at the ripe age of 83.

A bal tfile who had great success and who was known far beyond Staszów was Yisroelkele Khazn (Wajcman). With his lush, enchanting voice, with its timbre and nuance-- a la Kwartin or Hirszman-he actually hypnotized his listeners. Even a weekday shachres [morning prayer] sung by Yisroelkele was truly delectable. Not to mention a Hallel[5] said on Rosh Kkhoydesh [the New Moon] or on major holidays. In later years, we heard less from him, because he would daven[6] [pray] on the High Holy Days at the Kuzminer Rabbi, Rebbe Leybele, in Zamosc, or in Krakow. In Hasidic circles, they whispered that the rebbe's entire court rested on Yisroelkele Khazn. On the High Holy Days he sang with a larger chorus, his “accompanists”, whom he brought with him. Others also accompanied him, among them Pintshe Garten, who also davened shachres.

Not simply a cantor with a wonderful, sweet voice, Yisroelkele was also a person with many good qualities. Not only was he well versed in the Talmud, he was a wise man, a good speaker and a fine writer. He was also very good looking, with burning, constantly moving, pitch black eyes; in short, a man of many talents and virtues. He was killed after being denounced by the Poles [may his death be avenged].

The Staszówer Shmuen Brinbal was the cantor in Ludmir (Włodzimierz) for many years. He had an elegant, lyrical tenor voice; one's spirit rejoiced to hear it. Not be dismissed was the shul cantor, Yotke Diznhaus; with his powerful voice he conducted the yearly memorial service on the anniversary of the death of Dr. [Theodore] Herzl.

Aside from a whole array of baley tfiles, there were many interesting music lovers who later held important posts outside Staszów. One of them was Yankev Cimerman, who later became very popular in Warsaw music circles. While he was still a student in the besmedresh, and then a young married man continuing his religious studies, he would drop in on a local musician in order to learn how to play Hatikva on the violin. Because of a dispute in his family, Cimerman got divorced and set out into the wide world. In Warsaw he became a well-known violin maker whose violins were very valuable. How far reaching his popularity was, is illustrated by the fact that world famous artists, like [Bronisław] Huberman, [Joseph] Szigeti, [Fritz] Kreisler and others, would consult with him and even visit him in his workshop.

Few people know that the popular folksinger Zimra Seligsfeld, the wife of [Menahem] Kipnis, the musician and composer of Yiddish folk music, came from Staszów.

But it wasn't only individuals who enjoyed music, or saw in it their highest aspirations or career. The entire youth of the town used music to fight for their ideals and dreams. The youth groups, especially, with Hashomer Hatzair [Youth Guard] in the forefront, always had splendidly trained choruses, and singing was an important part of their programs and activities. Who among the Staszówers doesn't remember, with deep longing, the holiday-like literary-musical evenings and Chanukah concerts, carried out under the direction of this author. The literary portion was conducted by Moyshe Leyb Dajtlbaum, while they presented serious musical creations, with chamber music, sometimes with string quartets, with the assistance of the town musicians.

Photo Caption: p.297 The musical composition of Yerachmiel Chazn to “Molded by Clay”, rendered by Moshe Rotenberg.

 


Footnotes

  1. Pipale [derivation unknown]-local name for a field outside Staszów, adjacent to Naftali Wolman's farm. See “Our Childhood Years,” p. 286. (LL) Return
  2. Three popular cantorial pieces from the High Holy Days' liturgy. (LL) Return
  3. Besmedresh: house of study, also place of worship and public assembly. (ML) Return
  4. Baley tfiles (singular: bal tfile): prayer-leader. “Cantor” (khazn) denotes a proficient singer and generally a regular appointed official of the community. Bal tfile is more general and includes any lay prayer-leader operating outside official capacity. (LL) Return
  5. Hallel [“Praise”]: the series of Psalms 113-118, recited or sung on New Moon, Hanukkah, and the major festivals of Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot. (LL) Return
  6. Daven [pray]: one of the untranslatable Yiddish words. Its range of meaning extends from the intimate, solitary act of reciting the daily morning prayers by oneself to leading the public prayers on weekday, Sabbath, or holidays. As private devotion, it was a daily habitual activity like getting dressed or brushing one's teeth, that one took for granted and felt its lack keenly if it was omitted. (LL) Return


[Page 299]

Sabbath in the Dusk

by Moshe Rotenberg, Haifa

Translated from Yiddish by Miriam Leberstein

It was with deep religious fervor that the Jews ushered out the holy Sabbath at dusk, when the reign of the Sabbath prince, the pride and sustenance of the Jews, neared its end. When the congregation began to read the parshe [Torah portion] for the coming week, as the shadows of dusk enveloped them with a hidden mystery; when they quietly said the Shemone Esrei [Eighteen Benedictions] prayer with fervent emotion, and, as if expressing their sorrow over the departure of the holy Sabbath, moaned as they laid their heads against the cold wall; when their special version of the Amida (“standing”-another name for Shemone Esrei] prayer, with its exotic Oriental melody, carried sweetly throughout the besmedresh [house of study] - a kind of mystical atmosphere reigned and spread over the souls longing for the exaltation of the Sabbath.

As soon as they finished mincha [the afternoon prayer], the congregation went home for the last meal of the Sabbath, then quickly returned to the besmedresh, a scrap of challah in their pockets, in order to formally end the final Sabbath meal in this holy place, communally, with the singing of Sabbath songs and saying the blessing after the meal together.

At first, the songs began with a quiet murmur, but as they continued, the singing got increasingly loud and fervent. And when they came to Benei Heikhalo[1] “Sons of the palace that yearn.”, and other traditional songs of the final Sabbath meal, with their ancient melodies, the children who had accompanied their parents, were carried away with the general air of holiness and mystical union with God.

It sometimes happened, that right in the middle of the ecstatic singing a commotion suddenly broke out and there were shouts: “Hooligans! “ “Rascals!” “Get out!” This was in winter time, when a gang of pranksters would take advantage of the darkness to throw snowballs at the congregation. In summer, they would rub their hands with special matches[2] and with their hands looking as if they were magically aflame, they would illuminate the whole besmedresh. They would be condemned on the spot: “Rascals!” “Desecrators of the Sabbath!” “Get out of here. It's still forbidden to light a fire.” But as soon as things calmed down, their congregation would continue to sing the monotonous, emotional songs.

When a there arrived in town a newly married young religious scholar, such as Melekh Shimen, or another well bred young man with a good voice, he was immediately accorded the honor of singing El Mistater [“God who hides himself”] or Yedid Nefesh [“Beloved of the soul, Merciful Father”] and everyone around would listen enthusiastically and quietly hum along, accompanying the song with deep groaning and sighing, probably simply out of reluctance to take leave of the holy Sabbath and return to the prosaic worries of the coming weekdays.

Finally, when it was already late enough, they sang the 23rd Psalm, and gave a prominent Jew, such as Reb Hershl Kirisher, the honor of making the communal blessing after the meal.

With worry, melancholy and longing, accompanied here and there by an “oy vey” they ended the blessing and had no choice but to say maariv [evening prayer], and thus begin a new, hopefully fortunate week -impatiently waiting for the next Sabbath.


Footnotes

  1. Benei Heikhalo: “Sons of the Palace that yearn…”-a kabbalistic song, in mysterious-sounding Aramaic (a cousin-language to Hebrew), expressing the desire that the Sabbath, holiest of days, should lead to the Messianic culmination and the ultimate reunion of Israel with God. (LL) Return
  2. “Special matches”-the vocabulary (kirishe zapalkes) is obscure but the boys seem to have gotten hold of alcohol or some similar substance for simulating pyrotechnics. (LL) Return


[Pages 300-308]

Memories

by Ruven Blank, Haifa

Translated from Yiddish by Miriam Leberstein

It is clear that when historians will write the history of European Jewry, including the tragic death of six million Jews during the Second World War, among them the vast majority of Jewish population in Poland - they will naturally tend to focus exclusively on the most important Jewish population centers, which played a crucial role in the establishment and development of Jewish life. On the other hand, they will also focus on the tragic communities that were famed for their heroic resistance and their extraordinary, desperate and hopeless struggle against the bloodthirsty, “cultured” Nazi ghouls.

In contrast are the small, scattered communities, where the vast majority of the Jewish population was raised, the ordinary masses of people, who over the course of centuries, in joy and in pain, struggled bitterly to survive in a hostile environment, the unsung heroes who devoted all their physical and mental powers to the good of the community, hoping for a more beautiful, better future. This inexhaustible and enormous treasure will remain a sealed book for historians and future generations.

Thus, my intent here is to describe one of these towns -my town, Staszów-as it is inscribed in my memory; my town, which once was, but is no more, having shared the horrific fate of all the other Jewish-Polish communities.

 

1905 and Moyshe Dajtlbaum

The Russian Revolution of 1905 did not find our town unprepared. At that time, there already existed an organized force of politically conscious Jewish workers, such as bitshiske (whip) makers, tailors, shteper (“stitchers”), and cobblers,[1] carpenters and others. Under the influence of the revolution, which stirred up the entire society -- both in Tsarist Russia proper and in occupied Poland-our town broke out in a series of strikes, including the well-known strike of the bitshiske makers. The outcome was not a happy one. As everywhere else, the Tsarist police, immediately after suppressing the uprising, arrested the leaders and sent them into exile. During one of the police raids on Jewish homes, Moyshe Dajtlbaum, a well known figure in town, was also arrested and sent into exile.

Disillusioned in later years, Moysh Dajtlbaum became one of the founders of the Staszówer Scout organization [Hashomer Hatzair -Young Guard[2]], a teacher in the Jewish school of the General Zionist Organization, and a director of the town's amateur theater. The youth of Staszów owed him a large debt. He was among the first to awaken them to independence of thought and action, and to a large degree he served as an example to many.

 

Emigration

The profound spiritual depression resulting from political persecution after the suppression of the [1905] uprising; the economic difficulties and lack of prospects for the future, especially for young people; and the justifiable reluctance to serve in the Tsar's army -all of these encouraged many Stazowers to pick up their walking sticks and set out in search of freedom and livelihood overseas.

The process of emigration, aimed primarily at Canada and the United States, continued until the outbreak of World War I in 1914. After that, it was no longer possible to leave the town, with its depressing political and economic conditions, and it was also no longer possible to make contact with those who had already left. This was a heavy blow for the townspeople, now forcibly confined to a place where the air grew ever more oppressive, and the means for making a living ever more meager. The only remaining hope was that the war would not last long and the world would again be open.

 

Melamdim[3]

Reb Kopele Melamed

A skinny little man with black, laughing eyes, a widower with six daughters, almost all grown up, Kopele Melamed would be very happy when he got a new pupil. A few more dollars a term was a big help in making a living, which was more difficult than crossing the Red Sea. Kopele Melamed's heder [religious primary school] was in a cellar dwelling near Bathhouse Lane. The pupils sat around a long table, which took up almost three-fourths of the whole apartment. If there wasn't enough place to sit on the long benches, no matter; you can also study Torah on the bed.

The pupils, already “grownup” and “independent”, arrived at 8:00 in the morning, bringing food for the whole day; and went home at 8:00 at night. In the winter, many of them brought lanterns lit with tallow candles, to light the way home. When the rebbe [teacher][4], that good natured little fellow, was deeply immersed in studying with a pupil by the light of a kerosene lamp, the kids decided to pull a prank on him. The rebbe didn't feel anything when one of the children lit a match and tossed it onto his black silk caftan. A fire broke out and the pupils ran out into the street shouting, “The rebbe's burning!!!” Neighbors came running. They poured buckets of water on the rebbe, and he was saved.

A bit later, the kids carry out another prank. First of all, it is sheer pleasure just to see the rebbe in such a comic position. Second, in the meanwhile you don't have to study, and that alone is worth it. So, during one of the breaks, while the rebbe is getting something to eat, just to keep his weak body alive, the rascals turn over his chair, hammer in thin nails, so their points face up, and quick as a wink, replace the chair just as it was. The kids sit, quiet and solemn, waiting impatiently for the rebbe to return. Well satisfied with his meal, the rebbe blesses God for the good, beautiful world He has created, and returns to his seat unaware of what awaits him. Suddenly - “Help!” The cries can be heard as far as the besmedresh[5]. Young and old come running, and see what has happened. Once again, they pour buckets of cold water on the rebbe; they give him valerian drops. In short, it's very merry. Finally, Shmuel Royfer (“the healer”)[6] arrives, does what's necessary, until the rebbe feels better. Coming to himself, Kopele Melamed with bitter tears bewails his difficult fate, this hell of a life that he has to put up with from his “breadgivers.”

 

Reb Hersh Melamed

Reb Hersh Melamed was a completely different kind of teacher. A tall young man, with a small, neatly trimmed little beard, Reb Hersh evoked respect and attention from his students, who were older. Here there weren't any beginning pupils, here there wasn't any room for playthings or pranks. Here, at Reb Hersh's, they studied Gemara and Tosefos [i.e., Talmud][7], and one had to apply oneself to meet the rabbi's ever-increasing demands. The learning conditions were also much better and more comfortable. The heder was a large, airy room and wasn't as crowded as others. The young melamed, who charged a tuition fee that was two times the going rate, could afford to be more lenient, spending more time with each pupil and adapting the learning materials and curriculum to each pupil's individual abilities.

So Reb Hersh produced one good student after another and had a distinguished reputation among the householders of the town.

 

1914

When the World War broke out in 1914 and the front got closer to town, we had to deal with the problem of mobilization and all the demands it entailed. In addition, we were attacked by bands of wild Russian soldiers, who robbed and destroyed everything wherever they went. The terrorized Jewish population locked up their homes, moving with all their possessions into cellars. They took their bit of bedding and the most important utensils, to set themselves up in their new, shared “homes”. Women hid their bit of jewelry, such as gold, pearls and diamonds, in the safest possible place -their bosoms. Some cellars held 10-20 families. It's easy to imagine the living conditions in such “homes”. There was no end to the complaints and curses people bestowed on each other. To top it all off, at night they lived in total darkness, so as not to attract unwanted attention.

 

Zakladnikes” [hostages]

Meanwhile, the situation got worse from day to day. A Jew could not show his face in the street. Jewish blood was up for grabs. The shul [synagogue] and the besmedresh were shut. Drunken soldiers continued to ply their trade: robbing, destroying, looking for Jewish prey. Suddenly, there came an order from the town garrison: Jews must provide a large quantity of oats for the army. Several respectable, well off Jews were taken as “zakladnikes”' [hostages], among them the beloved rabbi, Harav Yehuda Leyb Graubart. The community leaders dashed about among the local Christians, and in the villages, gathering as quickly as possible the required amount of oats, doing everything they could to avoid the threat of slaughter that loomed over the terrified Jewish population.

 

Yom Kippur in the Shtiblekh

The mood was oppressive. Jews hurried furtively through the streets, taking the backways, to pray in the shtiblekh[8], wherever there was a Torah scroll. They gathered together a minyan [quorum of 10 men] and started to say the Kol Nidre prayer. In one of the shtiblekh the bal tfile [prayer-leader] was Yosl the Dairyman, a man with a slew of children, mostly girls. All week Reb Yosl was occupied with the physical world, carrying heavy milk cans from the nobleman's estate to distribute among Jewish households. But as soon as the Holy Sabbath arrived, Reb Yosl became an entirely different person, unrecognizable. From his small, low clay house came the sounds of the dairyman's joyful, pleasant voice, singing the Holy Sabbath zmires [religious songs] with heart and feeling, while the women from neighboring houses -Reyzl the baker, Sore the slipper maker, and others -wiped away their tears of joy or longing with their aprons. On that sad Yom Kippur, his praying was especially sweet. In essence, he was fervently praying to the Almighty to finally end Jewish troubles, which the Jews had endured for generations, every era bringing its new, bizarre evil decrees, with no end in sight.

 

The Eleven Victims

At the time of the closing “Neila” prayer came the sad news: Eleven Jews had been brought from Sztszegum, a neighboring village, among them the bal tfile, Reb Volk Katz, a Staszówer. A village gentile had sworn that they had burnt down his hut; and, based on this “reliable” source, the military authorities brought the Jews before a field court martial, sentenced them to death, and immediately carried out the sentence. Ten Jews were shot in the middle of the market place and the eleventh, Reb Yankele Krakauer from Sztzegum, was hanged. The whole Jewish population was shocked, and began weeping, instinctively feeling themselves to be a flock of persecuted and unprotected sheep, without recourse or hope. As they wished each other that they might live another year, and that the horrific war should end as quickly as possible, the brokenhearted congregation carefully dispersed.

 

The Austrians

When the Austrians arrived, the situation changed radically. People moved more freely, life was safer easier. The soldiers, themselves hungry and exhausted from their long march, bought up everything in the stalls which the Jews had set up in the market place. Women and girls who knew how to smile and flirt did especially well. In addition, there became available a new source of livelihood for the poor: smuggling. At night, in the surrounding villages and small towns, they would smuggle out packets of food, and, if everything went well, they would make a good sum and could support their families. Jews also did business with the army, selling animal hides and other items. This business was also conducted at night, so as to avoid the “evil eye.”[9] In short, they managed somehow to live with the Austrians, more or less make a living, and most important: people were free and their life was not in danger, without fear of pogroms, etc., the way it had previously been.

 

Itsikl Shoykhet builds a railroad.

But war is war, and it always brings trouble. When the Austrian government required workers, especially in agriculture, roadwork and railroad work, and no one was willing to apply, the occupiers began to seize local men aged 13 to 65, sending them to Austro-Hungary. Once again came a time of hiding in attics and cellars. Jews hid themselves wherever they could, ran away, or created an illness for themselves. But if they did catch you, the weeping of your wife, children or parents, wouldn't help. Those who were caught were held locked away in a camp, and when the authorities had gathered a full contingent, the men were sent off on the narrow-gauge railway to the work assignments.

Among those who was caught was the butcher, Itsik Shoykhet[10], a person who had never in his life held a tool in his hand, except for the slaughtering knife. Unbelievable stories about him were told in town: how he carried heavy rail tracks, dug canals, and other countless such kinds of heavy work, as if the Habsburg monarchy could not exist without him.

 

Typhus

The difficult economic and sanitary conditions, a normal development in every war, gave rise to various infectious diseases. One of these, typhus, was very widespread in town and took many victims. Whenever a case was suspected, a military ambulance from the Red Cross quickly appeared, and several nurses, wearing white coats and ribbons, took the entire family to the military hospital.

The house of the victim was sealed, and their clothing and bedding was gathered up and burned. Typhus was very evident in the town. When you saw feathers flying [from torn bed clothing], you knew that there was a new victim. Many of the sick, exhausted by hunger and fear, could not withstand it, and breathed their last breath. Death from typhus became a daily occurrence. And if anyone was lucky enough to survive the illness, he had to return to an empty dwelling, without clothing or a piece of bread, forced to rely on soft- hearted neighbors to take pity on him and bring over something to feed their bodies , which could barely stand on weak, trembling legs.

 

Militarism

Whatever grownups do, children mimic. And when grownups are involved in a war, how can the children lag behind? So groups of kids decided to play soldier. No sooner said than done! Three “armies” were organized. One, led by Yisroelke “The Emperor”, ruled over the market place and Krakower Street. The second, under the leadership of Rafael “ruled” the lanes around the shul; and the third, headed by Aron Yehiel Shoykhet's, who took the title of “leader”, covered the neighborhood where the shokhtim [ritual slaughterers] lived.

The kids took the game very seriously. They fought with weapons, consisting of stones, old tin and pieces of iron. Once, on a Friday evening, Yisroelke Emperor and his army declared war on the shokhtim street gang. Stones, tin and iron flew all over. Window panes were smashed, children sobbed, and women tore their hair out, but nothing could help; war is war. The shoykhet streets army didn't just stand there and take it. They quickly mounted a counter offensive and the battle continued even more furiously. Not until it became fully dark did the war end.

The upshot: tens of broken window panes, two dozen children with cracked heads, just as many with injured eyes and broken arms and legs. On Sunday morning things were hopping at the house of Hershl the Glazer. People were clamoring for his services, begging him to install new window panes. He hadn't even dreamt of such unexpected luck. So many panes at one time! It really showed there is a God in Heaven, who occasionally remembers a Hershl Glazer. With his wife Yentl he calculated what he would be able to buy with his unexpected earnings: Shoes for his barefoot children; for Yentele, a new dress; and for himself a new coat, to wear only to pray in shul.

Nor did Shmuel Royfer, “the healer,” remain idle. So many little heads to bandage, and so many eyes, arms and legs to heal! All in all, a merry time -children had played soldier!

 

1918

The war ends. People dance and play with joy in the streets. Jews believe that a new life is beginning for them, too, and they are filled with traditional Jewish optimism. Borders are reopened, and contact is reestablished with the world. In short, new conditions, with new possibilities and new hope. As everywhere, the town is carried away with a general spring-like spirit, and begins to carry out modern changes, including the reorganization of Jewish schools, supported by the “Joint” [American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee] and under the sponsorship of the General Zionist Organization. The Hebrew and Bible teacher Shmuel Zalcman, a chronically ill man, and the aforementioned Moyshe Dajtlbaum, teacher of general subjects, are shunted aside, and in their place two teachers are brought in from Warsaw: Dovid Grinbeg and Sarna.

 

“Modern” Educational Methods

By nature authoritarian, not to say despotic, Dovid Grinberg introduced new methods into the school. His 'modernity” consisted of brutal punishments for every trivial offense. For example, he would order the students to stand on their toes for 5 to 10 minutes, or make them sit on the heating oven, and many such tricks. On the other hand, it must be said that Grinberg accomplished a tremendous amount for the students and for the local youth in general. He was the first to introduce sports and gymnastics as part of the curriculum, and also greatly encouraged the development of the Hashomer Hatzair scout organization. This, plus the fact that Grinberg was always clean and neatly put together, and at the same time tried to fit in with the new environment, not quarreling with anyone, earned him great respect and admiration.

The teacher Sarna was a completely different character. He was a calm, serious, dedicated, and well qualified and professional teacher. In addition to his teaching, he devoted much time and energy to the General Zionist Organization. And, on his free evenings, he held Hebrew courses for the nationalistic youth, who fervently immersed in Zionist activities.

 

Hershl “Bobe” [Grandma Hershl]

On Rytwiańska (Ritwiner) Street, where the town's artisans (such as cobblers, tailors, leather stitchers, carpenters, wagon drivers and bakers) lived, there also lived the old veteran of the Staszówer Bund[11], Hershl “Bobe” with his long beard. Known in town as a politically conscious freethinker, he nevertheless went every Saturday morning to “pray” in the artisans' shtibl, at Moyshe Leyb Shteper's, probably under pressure from his wife; what won't we do for the sake of domestic peace!

Once, one of the congregants noticed that Hershl was praying from an unusually thick prayer book. He was already under suspicion. So one of them, Yechiel Stolier, or as he was called, “Little Yechiel,” wasted no time, snuck up on Hershl, and caught him in red-handed. It seems that instead of a prayer book, Hershl was reading an unholy, secular book! You can imagine the commotion this created in the shtibl. Curses rang out form every side: “You gentile!” “You convert!” “Reading a non-Jewish book in a holy place!” His head bowed in shame, Hershl left the shtibl, never to return.

But he never gave up his passion for reading and for relating to the world as he understood it. Every Saturday morning you could find Hershl, not in the shtibl, but immersed in reading at the river far outside of town, where no one could disturb him.

 

The Blind Man

An interesting person, from whom the town youth and maskilim [followers of the Enlightenment] learned a lot was Blind Hershl, who had been blind from childhood. Hershl, with his spirited mind and sharp memory, knew many of the old and modern sacred books by heart. Many of those who strove to perfect their knowledge gathered at Blind Hershl's. There they studied Bible, and read Jewish and world literature, and more. Whenever there was a perplexing problem of interpretation, they would go to Hershl. Everything was easy for him. He had a clear, logical and apt answer to everything and everyone.

To this day, Staszówers all over the world remember this master of the Talmud, with his incisive mind, who was always surrounded by students, who drew freely from his wisdom and knowledge.

 

The People's University

Another place where young people often came together was the house of Hindele, Itsikl Reb Chaim Yisacher's. There, people gathered around Little Sorele, who had returned to town from Warsaw, where she had graduated from [teachers] seminary. There people felt free. They could study and discuss all kinds of questions without being disturbed. Hindele, an up to date woman, warmly received everyone. She never interfered with her children's choices in life. Each child was in a different group, and in her house, people from every [political] party in town mingled together. An open house for everyone, it served as an ideal venue for self-education, where the most varied and contrasting opinions and ways of life could be expressed, and all with mutual respect.

Not for nothing did Meyerl, the cynic, call the group a “people's university.” This title was not an exaggeration. The house actually functioned as a kind of university, where people came to widen their intellectual horizons and to discuss the new ideas of world and Jewish import, that absorbed the minds of young people at that time.

 

Trade Unions

Two factors, one political, the other economic, contributed to the establishment of a strong trade union in Staszów. The political factor was the existence of an array of socialist political parties, resulting from the well-developed socio-political consciousness of the Staszów youth, workers, and society in general. The economic factor was the existence of a defined, small industry, mostly in shoe production, which naturally awakened in the workers the impulse to organize in order to protect their interests as a trade and fight for better social conditions.

The best-organized part of the Staszów working class was the stitchers' section of the leather union, which served as a model for the surrounding towns, where workers had begun to organize. The trade union consisted of three groups. One -the majority-was from the Bund, under the leadership of Meyer Cimerman, the union secretary. The second was the Communists, with Israel Szniper at its head. The third was from the Left Poalei Zion, headed by Yankeve Yosef Bloch (today in Israel). There was actually a fourth group, from Hashomer Hatzair, headed by Chaim Berush Roznmutter, but it didn't represent any independent political position and in most questions acted in solidarity with Poalei Zion, as if they constituted a single group.

In this regard, we should note a curious fact: The town had a kind of ethnic division in the shoemaking craft. Although almost all the Jewish youth worked as “stitchers” (making the upper parts of the shoes), the “cobblers'” trade (making the soles) was for the most part in Christian hands.

 

Meyer Cimerman

Notwithstanding the violent political struggle that went on among the various ideological groups, and just as forcefully within the Socialist groups that participated in the trade union, everyone respected Meyer Cimerman, the union secretary, even though he was the leader of the local Bund.

Orphaned as a young child, Meyer Cimerman was a devoted socialist activist. In later years, he crossed the Russian border with the intent to remain there, in the land of his dreams. But he was captured and imprisoned by the Polish authorities and after some time, sick and broken, he was sent back to Staszów.

Upon his return he worked as an apprentice stitcher at Shmuel Rotenberg's in the Folvark district. Despite special treatment, he never recovered. The bacilli of tuberculosis, the so-called proletarian disease, had already eaten deeply into his body, and he died a short time later.

The Staszów working class, regardless of party of political inclination, arranged a magnificent funeral, at which various representatives of the Polish Socialist Party appeared. The eulogies, held at the open grave, expressed pain and sorrow over the loss of this worker activist who died so young. At the same time, blame was placed on the capitalist order which was the chief, if not the only cause-of such a sad social manifestation.

Photo captions: p.305 : A group of female students with the Hebrew teacher Sarna; Seated from right to life: Libe Gerszt, Rivka Bloch, Teacher Sarna, Shprintse Rozensztok. Standing: Leah Roszer, Dvore Rosenthal; Leah Bulwa

Photo captions: p.307 The founders of the People's University


Footnotes

  1. Shteper and cobblers: Shoe production was divided into two separate crafts. Shteper [stitchers ; also known as kamashen makers] sewed the leather uppers of shoes. Shuster [cobblers] attached the uppers to the soles, completing the shoe. As noted on p.308, in Staszów, most of the shteper were Jewish, while most of the cobblers were gentile. See article on Page 74, “The Shoe Industry.” (ML) Return
  2. Hashomer Hatzair: the leading Zionist youth organization. See articles pp. 153-159, 185-195. (LL) Return
  3. Melamdim (singular: melamed, teacher): A “melamed” was any teacher of children in “heder” prior to adolescence. (ML/LL) Return
  4. Rebbe [teacher]. The primary meaning of “Rov,” “rabbi,” “rebbe” is teacher, whether on the highest level (the chief teacher of the entire community) or on a lower level (the teacher of small children, teaching them the alphabet and simple texts). (LL) Return
  5. Besmedresh: house of study; also used for worship. (ML) Return
  6. Royfer: Medical practitioner, unofficial doctor. (< Hebrew rofei) This is an example of a person's name (or nickname) based on profession. “Kopele Melamed is another example. There are many others later in this article. (LL) Return
  7. Gemara and Tosefos [i.e.,Talmud]: Gemara comprises the main argument of the primary text, in the center of the page, composed 5th century. Tosefos are the principal advanced commentaries, on the margins of the page, composed 12th-14th centuries. Together, they were the bread-and-butter of the advanced religious Jewish education, both in advanced heder and in the besmedresh. (LL) Return
  8. Shtiblech. Singular, shtibl: a small synagogue, often but not necessarily Hasidic. Staszów was typical of east-European Jewish communities in fostering many shtiblech (see Hershl Pomerancblum's article, p. 245, for more detailed description). The permissibility of any group of Jews to form their own prayer-fellowship, meeting in store-fronts or people's homes, was a significant indicator of the democratic character of east-European Jewish life. (LL) Return
  9. “Evil eye”: A local expression meaning “so that no one would notice them and do them harm.” (footnote in original) More broadly, “evil eye” has two aspects in Jewish sources: (1) bad luck due to demonic intervention, and (2) jealousy and retaliation from flesh-and-blood human beings. (LL) Return
  10. Shoykhet: ritual slaughterer. No Jewish community could have kosher meat without this important functionary. (LL) Return
  11. The Bund: abbreviation in Yiddish for the “Algemeyner Yidisher Arbeter Bund in Lite, Poyln un Rusland,” [The General Workers' Union in Lithuania, Poland and Russia]. This was the Jewish Socialist Party, which rejected Zionism. (ML) Return

 

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