Rabbis of the Community
The township of Wierzbnik, renamed Starachowice near the end of its days, was a young community no more than 100 years old at the time of its tragic demise, its downfall unimaginable for those who saw it last during its days of glory, as one of the most advanced and established communities in Poland.
As a young community with no historical record, Wierzbnik kept no official record of its rabbis, enterprises and events as was customary in older Jewish communities. We are therefore called to perform the holy work of drawing the information from the recesses of memory, recalling what we learned from our ancestors in days gone by.
Following is the record of the rabbinates and rabbis who served the community of Wierzbnik, delivered in chronological order:
The first rabbi of our community was known affectionately and admiringly as The Old Rabbi. This nickname set him aside from his son David, the young rabbi, who later served as rabbi for the Lipsk community. We can imagine how loved he was by his community given that his surname, Rotfeld, was practically forgotten, and he was known in public by his nickname.
Stories told about him describe him as a devout man and a scholar, like all outstanding rabbis of his generation. In his role as a spiritual father, he helped his flock and led it justly and peacefully.
I know this due to of my family ties with him. As a little boy, I listened to conversations between my mother and her sisters, my aunts, who would gather at the home of their mother, my grandmother, the pious Rivka Zisl, to talk about their own grandmother, Grandma Libale and her brother The Old Rabbi.
He also had a big family in town: his sister, my great grandma Libale, after whom the granddaughters were named, was also the mother of Shlomo Krozman. Therefore, the Krozman family and that of my grandfather, David Yehoshua Brodbeker, who was married to my grandmother, Rivka Zisl, as well as the families of Yaakov and Rachel Birenzweig and Leibl Furman, were all descended from her. So was the great Najman family: Fishel and his brother Zvi (who passed away in Toronto), their sister Zotl, who married Chaim Mordechai, the brothers Benyamin Fishel and Isaac Najman and their offspring. All of them were members of this family.
Next in the golden chain of incumbents was Rabbi David Rotfeld, the Rabbi of Lipsk, a nickname bestowed on him due to his previous, lengthy rabbinical office.
Following the passing of The Old Rabbi, his friends and relatives insisted that his son David, who was worthy of that role, would take his father's place as community rabbi. They were opposed by the Tenenbaum family and its followers, who demanded that the position of town rabbi would be given to Menachem Mendel Tenenbaum, a learned man who was unable to present his candidacy in other, bigger towns due to natural causes. The dispute eventually reached rabbinical arbitration. A court of religious scholars was convened but the scales were eventually tipped by a third alternative, and Rabbi Morgenstern was appointed town rabbi, while Rabbi Menachem Mendel Tenenbaum was appointed judge and rabbi David moved to Lipsk, where he served as rabbi for the rest of his days.
One of Rabbi David's sons Rabbi Elimelech Rotfeld, son-in-law of the rabbi of the Radom community, Rabbi Jechiel Kestenberg, served as a rabbi of the community of Poddębice. Aside from being a scholar, he also made an excellent orator, and was well versed in both manners and public relations. He was also considered the foreign minister of Alexander's court, due to his superior personality. Father and son perished in the Holocaust along with their families and the other members of their communities.
Rabbi Yaakov Arie Morgenstern, who was called among the people of Wierzbnik Dar Wyszkower Rov (the Rabbi of Wyszków), was an impressive man, a great and wise scholar, grandson of the Rabbi of Kock, son of the Admor Rabbi Zvi of Łomży and sonin- law to the Admor Rabbi Menachem of Amshinov. The last helped him win the position of Wierzbnik's community rabbi, since our town hosted a Shtibl of the Amshinov Hasidim, whose members were among the town's wealthy elite.
Our community, which was relatively small sixty years ago, was naturally not the last stop in the rabbinical path of such a dynamic, broad-minded person. His heart was set on a larger community, where he could nurture his skills and aspirations in the fields of rabbinic practice. He was soon invited to the important community of Wyszków, where his father served as the head religious arbitrator. Furthermore, when his father the Admor passed away, he too was given the title of Admor by the Łomży Hasidim, taking his father's place. With these two titles he led his flock in Otwock, the summer resort of Warsaw, capital of Poland, until the bane came upon them. He perished among the rest of Poland's martyred Jews.
He had many sons. The eldest among them, Rabbi Israel Yitzhak, served as rabbi of the Serock community. Rabbi Jerachmiel was son-in-law to Rabbi Mordechai, who served as rabbi of the nearby Skarżysko community and was in turn son-in-law to the famous industrialist, Mendel Feldman. Rabbi Dov-Berish, son-in-law of the Admor of Volumin; Rabbi Benyamin, son-in-law of the Admor of Sokołów. Rabbi David Shlomo served as rabbi of the Wyszków community, taking the place of his father. Rabbi Moshe became son-in-law to the Admor of Grochów. Yehuda Elimelech became son-in-law to the Admor Yoseph (Yosale). This entire noble family, innocent and pure, perished in the Holocaust, leaving behind only a single daughter, Ita Tova and her husband the Admor of Amshinov, Rabbi Meir'l, both of whom managed to escape the Polish Vale of Tears, and traveling through Japan to the United States. The Admor currently tends to the need of his parish, the Amshinov Hasidim, from his home in the Bait Vagan neighborhood in Jerusalem, where he also founded the Shem Olam Yeshiva, in honor of his late father, the Admor of Amshinov-Otwock, Rabbi Shimon. This Yeshiva is headed by the Admor's son-in-law, Rabbi Chaim Vilkovski.
Rabbi Jechiel Kestenberg was son of Rabbi Mendel Skarshiver, the Dayan of the Radom community. After the departure of the rabbi of Wyszków, Rabbi Kestenberg was appointed rabbi of the community, tempering youth with talent. His tenure in office was nevertheless brief. When the rabbi of Radom moved to the city of Lodz, the position of community rabbi in Radom was taken up by Rabbi Kestenberg, who became famous there. He served the town until the Holocaust, during which he died with his martyred parish, most of them in Treblinka.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Tenenbaum served as a religious judge and arbitrator for the community. He was known as a formidable scholar even beyond our community, and many complex questions and financial disputes were sent to him from afar. He was admired by the public until he unexpectedly passed away in Iłża, a mere day before the German invasion of the town. It was there that he was also later buried, miraculously, at the last moment before the war broke out.
His offspring included a son, the Gaon Rabbi David, who served as a rabbi in the nearby town of Kunów. His personality and scholastic accomplishments made him worthy of a rabbinical position in a big city but he tragically died in his prime from typhus. Nevertheless, even while sitting on the rabbinical throne of tiny Kunów, his domain spread as far as the remarkable town of Ostrowiec, because the holy Admor and lord of the place, Rabbi Yeheskel, invited him into his home, to teach and pass judgment, a duty he persevered in until he passed away from his illness, in the prime of his life. He was buried in Wierzbnik and every resident of the community mourned him and paid him his last respects, in tears and sorrow.
His eldest daughter, Mrs. Kayla, had married in the United States to Rabbi Moshe Jechiel Halevi Epstein, the Admor of Ożarów. The Rabbi of Ożarów immigrated a few years ago to Israel and continues to lead his parish there according to the Torah and Hasidic traditions. He is a particularly prolific author, having written such books as Esh-Dat and Be'er-Moshe and so on. The rabbi also dedicates his time to public issues, in the highest sense of the term, and serves as the chairman of Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah.
His young daughter, Mrs. Mina, immigrated to Israel before World War II, as a member of a pioneer youth movement, where she married Mr. Moshe Bagno, who served in different public offices, including secretary of the National Religious Party in Bnei Brak, member of city council and later mayor. The two raised a remarkable, long lasting family.
The departure of the rabbi of Wyszków led to a dispute concerning the appointment of the next community rabbi. Two rabbis claimed precedence. Each had many supporters, since both were worthy of this important title. It is interesting to note that both their paths led them from Wąchock to Wierzbnik.
Rabbi Yoseph Eliezer Rabinowicz, who previously served as rabbi and Admor of Wąchock, came from the line of The Holy Jew from Przysucha. His father was Rabbi Pinchas of Końskie and his father-in-law was the famous Rabbi Shraga Yair from Białobrzeg. His heritage and his scholastic and righteous nature earned him many followers. His service as rabbi and Admor brought respect and glory to our entire community until the Shavuot holiday of 1915. Our town, which was surrounded by mountains, was trapped during World War I between the two fronts, the Russian and German armies. One Friday night, after three weeks of suffering, the town was infiltrated under the cover of darkness by Russian soldiers, who ordered the Jews to leave the place immediately. Eviction of the Jews from war zones was part of the Russian high command's strategy, because they were considered disloyal to the Tsar. The Jews, who had no means of transportation, were forced to leave the place within the hour. We walked away, leaving all our property behind to be plundered.
We arrived as refugees in Radom on Shabbat. We stayed in Radom until the Ninth of Ab, the day the Germans entered the city. When the Jews returned to their town, they found that half of it was consumed by fire while the other half was plundered by their gentile neighbors. Everyone had to start all over again. Given the grim situation, the rabbi's followers in Radom asked him to stay with them, offering him a spacious apartment in 23rd Lubelska Street. It was only natural for the rabbi to accept their request and settle there permanently. From his new residence he also responded to every request for advice, until the bitter end of the entire Polish Jewry, including the metropolitan community of Radom.
Rabbi Yaakov Aharon Regensberg was the son of the famous rabbi from Lithuania, Gaon Rabbi Menachem Dov, presiding judge of the Zambrów community. His son-inlaw was the wealthy and well-respected Mr. Yankalevski, a businessman from Lithuania who resided in Wąchock. His son-in-law, the son of the rabbi of Zambrów, lived and studied the Torah with him. He was respected by those familiar with his positive, scholastic nature. Once a rabbinical position opened in our neighboring community, his followers suggested him as candidate and he seemed to have the vote of majority, since the authorities have also given him their approval as rabbi of the Wierzbnik community. Nevertheless, since the opposition refused to surrender their position, the community had two rabbis for a time, each welcomed by his own followers. When the refugees returned from Radom, however, Rabbi Yaakov Aharon alone returned with them, and henceforth he remained as the sole rabbi of the community.
Eventually he was acknowledged by all, even his opposition, due to his integrity, good nature and broad education. Once accepted, he led the entire community through the turbulent days of World War I. I would like to take this opportunity to tell of an event from this period, which was etched into my memory: on the first (or second) day of Pesach, a regiment of Austrian soldiers came into town, 200 Jewish soldiers among them. These devout soldiers refused to eat leavened food and we had to make matzahs for them, despite the fact that the town residents had little enough for themselves. The rabbi, followed by the heads of the community, entered a regular flour storehouse (which was not prepared for Pesach) and on the rabbi's orders they took flour out of clean, dry bags, went to the matzah bakeries and helped bake matzahs for the visiting soldiers.
His tenure was nevertheless regrettably short. A plague of typhus broke out in Poland in those days, and it did not spare our town. Many perished, among them the beloved and admired Rabbi Yaakov Aharon Regensberg.
His widowed wife was left behind with four orphaned children, two boys and two girls. The youngest daughter married Gezl Katzenellenbogen of the Gur Hasidim, an honest, intelligent and well-respected man who came from a good family in Szydłowiec. But his son, David, who reached the United States, was the only survivor, as the rest were all led one bitter day to Treblinka and perished as martyrs.
Rabbi Shmuel Zvi Hirsch Zylberstein, the rabbi of Będżin. A fire broke out in the nearby town of Będżin near the end of World War I. The fire consumed nearly every Jewish house in town, according to custom, the Jews in nearby towns, Wierzbnik among them, held collections for their cause. This collection drive was initiated by the rabbi of the community, Rabbi Zylberstein, who visited different towns, including Wierzbnik.
Rabbi Zylberstein served his position proudly. He taught the Torah to advanced students and knew how to represent the community with dignity. One of his enterprises was the building of a new Jewish bathhouse in place of the old crumbling one, without imposing any financial burden on the community itself. Various aid organizations from the United States sent expeditions in an effort to restore some of the damages the war has caused to the East European Jewry. Their main activities were in the fields of nutrition, health and sanitation. Rabbi Zylberstein immediately found a field of action that suited his nature. His enterprise succeeded: he gathered food for the needy, made plans for a bathhouse and a Mikveh for purification and secured the funding necessary for its construction.
However our community was too small for Rabbi Zylberstein's broad horizons and after a few years he went on a visit to America. The temporary visit became a permanent stay when he became rabbi of the Toronto community in Canada and it was not long before his family joined him. He nevertheless saved our community the need to look for a new rabbi, as he left his son-in-law behind to take his place.
It should be added that Rabbi Zylberstein was also a prolific author and composed a whole series of religious books. I would like to share with you a short, relevant anecdote: after immigrating to Israel, I have visited the Meron, near the gravesite of Rabbi Shimon Bar-Yochai. While touring the synagogue there, one of the books on the bench captured my attention. Looking at the cover, all aflutter, I confirmed that it was indeed Zivchei Shmuel by Rabbi Avraham Shmuel Zvi Hirsch Zylberstein, a rabbi from Toronto who previously served as rabbi in the communities of Będżin and Wierzbnik! The commemoration inside the book was dedicated to his wife and his offspring, first among them his daughter, Mrs. Guta and her husband
Rabbi Ben-Zion Rabinowicz, the last presiding judge of the Wierzbnik community, which was his first step in the rabbinical field. Three reasons led to his election: he was the son of Rabbi Yoseph Eliezer, a former rabbi of the town; he had the support of the Końskie- Białobrzeg-Wąchock Hasidim, as a descendent of The Holy Jew; and last but most important, he was the son-in-law of Rabbi Zylberstein, who left him as a temporary substitute while visiting America. Much like that visit, his status became permanent. The elections held later formalized his position as community rabbi. He led his community, supported by the virtues of his ancestors and his wife was his right hand, offering both her experience with her father's court and her own considerable intelligence.
Rabbi Rabinowicz served as rabbi of the community until its tragic annihilation, dying in the Holocaust with his beloved community. On November 6th, 1941, that bitter, fatal day when the enemy attacked our sacred community, razed it to the ground and marched its Jews men, women and children, led by the rabbi to the gas chambers of Treblinka, where they all died as martyrs. May their blood cover the land forever.
The rabbi and his wife were fortunate that three of their daughters Ratzale, Dina and Chasha survived. Their great-grandfather, who lived in Canada, immediately arranged for the three to move to America, where they wed, built homes and continue to weave the golden thread of the house of Israel.
Rabbi Moshe Goldberg sought to serve in Wierzbnik by right of possession, as a family member of the rabbi of Lipsk called the rabbi from Warsaw, who lived in our town until the Jews were exiled by the Russian army to Radom. I cannot describe him properly, nor do I know his name; as a child I saw him as a dignified man who offered his petitioners advice and prayer. Rabbi Goldberg was very noble and kind to all. He was among those who stayed in the camps. He suffered much but lived to be among those who survived the camps. Upon his liberation he settled in France, where he served as rabbi at the Fleishman synagogue in the Plazil in Paris.
He visited Israel nearly ten years ago, staying at the Mea Shearim Hotel in Jerusalem. During his stay at the hotel, the Jordanian artillery opened fire on that neighborhood and a shell's shrapnel hit his head. He was taken to a hospital where he lay for a week before passing away. He was buried at Har Menuhot in Jerusalem.
This article was written from memory, unaided, and its purpose to make a record of the rabbis of our town, even if we could not do them and their many actions justice, for which we hope they would forgive us. May their souls rest in peace.
Historical accuracy requires that we mention first that a synagogue, in its common form, has not been built in our town yet.
It is common knowledge that old, established communities had two kinds of places to worship in: a Beit Kneset was dedicated solely for praying and studying the Torah. A Beit Midrash, on the other hand, was used for studying the Torah, praying and other activities such as overseeing public affairs and so on. As such, it contained certain things a man might require while studying the Torah such as smokes, drinks to quench his thirst and food to eat.
Wierzbnik, as a relatively young community still establishing itself, did not build a community synagogue. It is also possible that the leaders of the community, who were mostly members of the Hasidic movement and who considered a Shtibl or a Kloyz to be a social-educational ideal, did not consider the building of a synagogue their first priority. It was for these reasons that the synagogue remained nothing more than a plan, the shape of things never to come.
As a matter of fact, there was one central house of worship which was open for all, and that was the Beit Midrash.
The following memories are dedicated to this Beit Midrash, to the other places of worship in town, and to all those who came there to pray and study the Torah, in hope that my humble writings will do them justice.
The great Beit Midrash, built on the spacious public lot in Niska Street, was the second one to be built during the short history of the community. It was preceded by the old Beit Midrash which was smaller in size.
Nearly 100 years ago, when the Jewish community was starting to establish itself in this colony (the town's status during those days), the first act of the founders was to buy a lot at the center of town and build a Beit Midrash on it, to serve as a house of worship for the entire community. It was a wooden structure whose size would fit the size of the community at that time and in the foreseeable future.
As the community grew, the Beit Midrash became too small to contain the increasing numbers of worshippers, and the leaders of the community, led by the community's rabbi, decided to tear down the old Beit Midrash and build a larger stone Beit Midrash, one that stood until Yom Kippur 1939, when the Nazi enemy set fire to it.
When this temple was first built, it was the only place in town for a person to worship in or study the Torah. Even after the foundation of Hasidic houses of worship for our people, the great Beit Midrash was considered the only place of study, a custom that lasted until after World War I. Nevertheless, it was around this time that diligent Yeshiva students came to town and made their home at the Hasidic Shtibl, claiming that Humility benefits the study of Torah. So long as the Beit Midrash stood, the sounds of Torah echoed from within its walls from dawn to the late hours of the night. Yeshiva students supported by their fathers-in-law studied there, as did youths and learned men of means, and regular lessons for commoners were held there as well.
Among the scholars who offered advanced lessons to Torah seeking youths, we should mention Rabbi Yitzhak Meir Konigsberg, the kosher butcher (and my father-in-law), who had many students and passed away on the second day of the Succoth Holiday of 1930, as well as my uncle, Rabbi Yoseph Brodbeker, who was a kosher butcher for the Stopnica community until its bitter end. He was a dedicated scholar, with many positive attributes and people sought to learn Torah from him.
The aforementioned were only additions to the large public of worshipers who showed up evening, morning and noon to pray and say psalms and Maamadot with awe and reverence.
Those who came to pray were considered equal in status the rich and the poor, merchants, craftsmen and workers. All came to visit the temple in the morning, before work, and in the evening, after their Talmud studies.
The Beit Midrash was a center of community life in the full sense of the word. These innocent Jews knew the value and import of studying the Torah, and as soon as they finished praying they left, leaving the place free for the various students.
The women's gallery
It is only natural that the sermons given by rabbis on special occasions such as Shabbat Gadol and Shabbat Tshuva or on specific occasions, were given at the Beit Midrash. Wandering orators, who visited our town from time to time, also spoke within its confines. One should mention that when the listeners liked an oratory, the butcher Shmuel Rubinstein, who was a large man, took his place by the door, collecting donations for the orator. The sum would then be double and triple the usual amount, because none wanted to risk invoking uncle Shmuel's ire by giving him mere pittance.
The men took up nearly half the space in the Beit Midrash, while the other half consisted of a women's gallery, a place for the innocent, humble women. On Shabbat mornings, the women who were not saddled with young children would arrive there. On Shabbat Mevarchin, the women's gallery was nearly full. The numbers were even greater during the holidays. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the building was too small to hold the many ladies praying.
I recall that when I was 4 years old, I felt the need to go to my mother that is, to venture into the women's gallery. I barely managed to reach her, and it took a great effort for me to escape, because the place was so very crowded.
The women's gallery served an additional purpose beyond its main function as a place of worship: teachers who taught young children and who lived far from the homes of those children would bring their students there for lessons. This hall also served as an emergency shelter. Refugees, poor folk and survivors of fires, floods and any other disaster would head first to the women's gallery. The Beit Midrash was not only spacious but also served multiple purposes.
In the new age following the end of World War I, the Beit Midrash gained an additional aspect of public activity. It began hosting public gatherings, typically organized by political parties, during which people spoke before a large crowd about other public events. During these days, the Yeshiva students started joining the Hasidic Shtiblach, as described in the next article.
The Hasidic house of Amshinov was the first to be established. Several important men of wealth among the previous generation followed the Admors of Amshinov: Moshe Tenenbaum, Shlomo Krozman, Yitzhak, Yaakov and Shlomo Brodbeker, who were sons of the famous Rabbi Hirsch, Fishel Dreksler, Mordechai David Kornwaser, Simcha Buchbinder and Rabbi Yitzhak Meir, all of them were among the Amshinov Hasidim. Other members of this Hasidic group were the brothers Yaakov, Reuven and Yeheskel Herblum. The eldest brother Yaakov, who was sonless, dedicated part of his house to be a Hasidic residence, increasing the reputation of this Shtibl, which hosted the finest of the Hasidim in Wierzbnik during that era.
Those of the second generation, the sons and sons-in-law of the aforementioned, followed the teachings of the Amshinov Hasidim, which can be described as good for heaven and pleasant to people. I will like to mention the religious arbitrator Rabbi Menachem Tenenbaum, Jechiel Pszytycki and his brother-in-law Mendel Brodbeker; the brothers Noah and Neta Kornwaser; Gershon Herblum and his brother Leibish Herblum, who survived the Holocaust. Among the members of the third generation was also a group of Hasidic Yeshiva students, and prominent among them were Tanchum Lighteizen, Simcha Taiblum and Shmuel Avraham Eisenshtat, the lone survivor who moved to America.
The strategic location of the Shtibl, that is, a closed courtyard, allowed its members to continue their prayers and religious studies there until the last minute possible. Even under the Nazi occupation, during the days of the ghetto and quarantine, this place offered a place for prayer, Torah and companionship until the last, bitter and fatal day, November 9th, 1941.
The Hasidic house of Gur, which of late was considered the most important one, gained its prominence not by right of seniority. Unlike the Amshinov Hasidim, who were residents of the town since days gone by, the Gur Hasidim were newcomers. They arrived from various places; some on business, such as Rabbi Chanoch Biderman and Moshe Pinchas Lichtenstein, and some chosen as husbands for the daughters of wealthy men, such as Yeshayahu Guterman, Heinich Kojfman, Zelig Stern and Moshe David Rothschild. The Shtibl grew and expanded, until it achieved self-residence. But the main virtue of the Gur Hasidic group was its human content. Most members were religious scholars who believed in Torah and knowledge. The sons of Hasidim from other groups joined them as well, such as Chaim Herblum of the Amshinov Hasidic group.
The writer of these lines was also among those who joined the Gur Hasidim.
At the end of World War I, this group enjoyed an influx of new members. Among the merchants who joined it were Shmuel Cohen, Israel Yitzhak Spitzer, Avraham Brodbeker, Gezl Katzenellenbogen, Shimon Urbach and others. This was in addition to several locals, such as Israel Yaakov and Yoseph, the sons of Yeshayahu Guterman, and others.
The next wave, the third and last one, was also the greatest. Leading this wave was Yeshiva student Rabbi Yitzhak Goldknopf, who arrived from Warsaw to wed the daughter of Moshe David Rothschild. Rabbi Yitzhak was a scholar well versed in religious matters, a man of character, both intelligent and versed in matters of this world. He attracted many young men as his followers, teaching them Torah and etiquette. He was accompanied by other Yeshiva students such as the scholar Pinchas Vigdorovich, Teibil Lichtiger, Moshe Yitzhak Rosenbloom (son-in-law of Zvi Shtayrat), Shmuel Zoberman (son-in-law of Rabbi Yitzhak Meir), Berl Hercig and others. Three of his students who survived the Holocaust were Zissman Citrinbaum, Jechiel Brodbeker (in Israel) and Jechiel Brodbeker (abroad).
Each of the aforementioned people is worthy of our respect. The lack of space, however, forces us to settle for saying We mourn those lost and remember them.
The Hasidic group of Sokołów enjoyed seniority as well, due to the presence of two men who added their own fame to that of the community of Wierzbnik. One was the rabbi of Węgrów, Rabbi Shmuel Morgenstern, son of the Admor of Sokołów, who lived with his father-in-law, Moshe Tenenbaum. The other was Yoseph Dov Morgenstern, a descendent of the Admor of Kock, whose business brought him to reside in Wierzbnik. The two gathered learned Hasidim around them and established a Hasidic house in the Kock tradition. Regretfully, they each parted with the place under unfortunate circumstances. Yoseph Dov perished in a fire in 1905. When the Russian Tsar's authorities set the alcohol stores at the Monopol on fire, he jumped into the burning house of a relative to attempt a rescue. Caught in the inferno, he died before the very eyes of his wife Dvora and their 5 little children, still in his prime. The entire town joined his
relatives in mourning this terrible fire. The rabbi of Węgrów's wife also died in her prime, forcing him to return to his father's house and leave town.
As aforesaid, their departure left a mark. One passed away and the other left alive, but due to his wife's passing. Both left and never came back. But their work was not in vain. The Hasidic house remained even after their departure. Among this group were Yoseph Lithuak (Brodbeker), Yoel Starachovitzer (Shenner) Yoel Kojfman, Natan Brodbeker, Avraham Moshe Weintraub, and others. Leibish Morgenstern, the son of Yoseph Dov Morgenstern, also returned from Ostrowiec to Wierzbnik. A learned man in his own right and the descendent of great men, he brought a spirit of rejuvenation into the group. His excellent sons also graced the Hasidic house of Sokołów, including the youngest brother, Zvi Morgenstern, who survived to live in the States. They gathered every Shabbat at the home of Avraham Moshe Weintraub to study the Torah and pray, until the enemy came and murdered them all.
The members of the Hasidic house of Wąchock were mostly craftsmen and workers. Their regular Minyan gathered on Shabbats and holidays at the house of the Rabbi Ben-Zion Rabinowicz, son of the Admor of Wąchock, who in lived in Wierzbnik in the past and spent his last days in the central city of Radom.
The followers of the Rabbi of Wąchock were not great scholars but were honest Jews. Mornings and evenings they came to the Beit Midrash to pray, and they worked faithfully and reaped the fruits of their labor. When faced with family issues or various other problems, they turned to the rabbi, who gave them his advice, his blessing and his guidance. Thus they live as honest folk.
Among the more prominent members of this group were:
Chaim Zajfman, a generous and hospitable man, who was also involved with public affairs in his youth. He served for a time as a faithful public servant and leader of the community. A sonless man, he raised orphaned girls and sought decent husbands for them. His wife was also kind and charitable. Together, they wrote a Torah book for the seminary. One of his sons-in-law was Moshe Shiner, who married an orphaned relative they have adopted. The brothers Avraham and Yaakov Shiner, who survived the Holocaust and live in Israel today, are considered their grandchildren.
Yoseph Avramovitz, the owner of a poultry butcher's shop, made his way every day from the end of Iłżacka Street to pray at the Beit Midrash. On Shabbats he spoke only in the holy tongue. His two sons, Yoseph Hirsch and Pinchas, immigrated before the war to Argentina, where they had families.
Avraham Rubinstein, a tailor, was also a community leader for a time. Like his predecessors he was honest, took part in all manner of charitable collections, paid respect to all and won their respect in return.
Mendel Radkowizer Kogut Sandlar, another commoner, served as leader in prayer at the Beit Midrash, reading the Torah during afternoon prayer on Shabbats and holidays.
Avraham Radkowizer Gotlib (his son-in-law) was a rustic Jew, whose solemn appearance, handsome, flowing beard and calm talk earned him respect. He was hospitable and kind to guests. These traits earned him the nickname Father Avraham. His daughter and her husband Pinchas Helstein survived and made their home in Kiryat Motzkin.
Moshe Enisman was a tailor and a leader among reciters of Psalms. He was also a member of Hevra Kaddisha and sewed shrouds, free of charge, for community members who passed away.
Eliezer Rolnicki and Matil (Mordechai) Rosenwald both came from the nearby town of Słupia. Both were providers of kosher food, one of poultry and the other of dairy products. As a young child, even before World War I, the author of these memories had to sit and wait every Shabbat night (during wintertime) for an hour and a half until the Kiddush. My father stayed at the Beit Midrash after the rest of the public left to for supper. He spent this time teaching Midrash Rabbah to two honest Jews, who spent their weekdays hard at work but did not hurry home at the end of prayer to eat a hearty Shabbat feast, but first sat and enjoyed a course of Midrash.
Once the three finished their studies for the night, each went home to wish Shabbat Shalom to his family, bid the angel who escorts a person from the synagogue home on Shabbat eve with Shalom Aleichem, to sanctify the wine and enjoy the pleasures of Shabbat with his family. These two who studied with my father, Moshe Baruch, were Eliezer Rolnicki and Matil Rosenwald. Matil's son, Mr. Gershon Rosenwald, survived the Holocaust and currently resides in Toronto in Canada, and working on publishing this Yizkor book.
Shmuel Isser, a leather trader, had a pleasant voice and was a good singer, serving as leader in prayer on Shabbats and holidays, especially at the Wąchock Shtibl located at the apartment of the Rabbi Ben-Zion Rabinowicz. They would also gather there for the third feast of the Shabbat, with the rabbi reciting from the Torah. As cantor, Shmuel Isser would sing during the three feasts. He was also a keen administrator, and knew how to organize people into a cohesive public force. This trait allowed him to win the position of community leader repeatedly, overcoming the rest of his talented rivals. This position allowed him to instate Rabbi Ben Zion Rabinowicz, grandson of the rabbi of Wąchock, Rabbi Yoseph Eliezer Rabinowicz, who was also the son-in-law of the previous rabbi, Shmuel Zvi Zylberstein (see the article about the rabbis of the community) as the new rabbi of the Wierzbnik community, and support him until the end.
The Hasidic house of Chmielów-Ożarów was open for prayer on Shabbat and holidays at the home of Jechiel Lerman. Prominent among this group were Hasidim and men of action: Gezl Neinudel, Zvi Steinhardt (butcher of the community), Yaakov Mandelzis and Zvi (Hershel) Froiman. The tale of this Hasidic house, its members and their actions, is told by Sarah Steinhardt Postawski, Zvi's daughter, who survived and lived to make a home in Bnei Brak, Israel.
In addition to the Beit Midrash and the kloyzn mentioned above, our town had other important houses of worship. Among them were the Talmud Torah School, the Bnot-Yaakov School for girls, the Hamizrachi School and the houses of worship of the General Zionists and the Revisionist Zionists. Since these organizations and their associated places of worship are mentioned elsewhere in this book, including praise for the people who led the organization and the management of the prayer houses, the reader should seek them in their proper place.
A few Hasidim who came from Hasidic lines not mentioned above also lived in our town. Some were true scholars, but there were not enough of them to form a special Minyan (of ten men). They retained their uniqueness, as loners, and they joined the existing Shtiblach for prayer and Torah studies. We commemorate Shmuel Kleiner, of the Radomsko Hasidim, Fishel Najman, Eli Wilenczyk and Yitzhak Meir Manela and also Leibish Kerbel, Michal Gotlib and Israel Szarfharc, who were Alexander Hasidim; and from among the Warka Hasidim my honored father, Moshe Baruch Fajgenbaum and Yoseph Sztarkman, who was among the ten Hasidim who accompanied the Admor Rabbi Simcha Bonim from Warka on his way to board the ship in Odessa (Russia) that took him Israel, where he lived in Tverya.
Among the Warka Hasidim was also Zvi Wajzer, who immigrated to Israel before the Holocaust scourge and settled there permanently (see more about his personality in Characters). May the deceased rest in peace. May those who perished in the Holocaust be avenged by the Lord. May those who remain live long, and the memory of those gone never fade.
Man shall not live on bread alone. The Jews who lived in the community of Wierzbnik typically enjoyed a steady livelihood, however they did not earn their living doing easy work or working part-time on market days, but rather labored every day of the week.
Bread was not the only thing to sustain them, however. Their first calling was to pass Torah and knowledge to their sons. In those days, there was no elementary Jewish education and the Heder was charged with the duty of providing elementary education for the children of Israel, an important task undertaken by educated Jews who were appointed to teach the sons of Israel the Torah, and did not always receive proper appreciation.
This profession was not enough, under the circumstances, to provide for the livelihood of its practitioners, and most of them lived in poverty. Nevertheless, they did their job dutifully, each according to his educational and pedagogic capabilities and his skill in explaining and teaching. These were the men who gave their all to nurture, grow and mold devout future generations of Jews. As teachers of Torah to the children of Israel they are worthy of commemoration by the survivors of the community and earned a separate chapter in this Yizkor book.
We will try to accomplish this mission in these lines, to the extent that memory allows, and our profuse apologies go to those we fail to mention or accord with the proper respect.
A scholarly, intelligent and clever Jew, one of the spokesmen for the Gur Hasidim and Agudath Israel. The class he taught was small, (8-12), comprised mostly of prized students whom he taught Talmud and interpretations. He came from the town of Szydłowiec, arriving in Wierzbnik as a groom for the daughter of one of the wealthy men in town, David Leib Dreksler. When he failed to prosper as a businessman, he turned to teaching because he was gifted with a pedagogic ability. All the students he taught made the Torah the center of their lives.
Elder brother-in-law of the aforementioned Zelig, Jermiahu, who came from nearby Ostrowiec to be the son-in-law of David Leib Dreksler, was a scholar among the Gur Hasidim. He has always considered teaching to be his calling, since he had little experience with the world of trade. He also took in advanced students who already reached Talmud and its supplements. His home (apparently purchased with the dowry he received) was in Rot-Hoiz, across from the magistrate, and it was there he taught his classes. The place also served partly as a bakery for light pastries made by his wife Zelda and sold to earn a better living.
Yeshayahu Milrad (Iłżaher)
Yeshayahu was a Melamed of the old generation and among the most important members of the Amshinov Hasidim. He was noble, soft-spoken, handsome and well dressed. He taught Pentateuch, Rashi and the basics of Talmud. His students respected him, impressed by the respectful relations in his family. Yeshayahu Milrad also had a pleasant voice and used to lead prayer at the Amshinov Shtibl, his recitation rich with rhythm, intonation and emotion.
Shlomo Taichman Shenner
Arrived in Wierzbnik from the town of Sienno as son-in-law to Shmeril, the owner of the gristmill in the village of Młynek, who was a devout Jew schooled in Hasidic Torah. Shlomo taught with all his heart and the Heder at his home was a large one, espousing his own methods and strict discipline. He put much thought and effort into his teaching, making sure that his students will knew the weekly portion of the Bible, the Pentateuch, Rashi and basics of Talmud and passed their tests on Shabbat.
Another resident who came from the town of Sienno. He was a member of the Sokołów Hasidim and apparently moved to Starachowice based on their advice. A learned man and a Hasid, necessity forced him, like the other Melameds, to teach in his private apartment, but he did his work dutifully, and had many students.
He passed away unexpectedly before the war. May he rest in peace.
Shlomo Zalman Wieznik (Szydłower Melamed)
A Jew of character who made teaching his trade. He arrived in Wierzbnik from the town of Szydłowiec during the 1930s, organized and taught a class of nearly 20 students at his apartment on Visoka Street at a level of Pentateuch and some Talmud. Did his work dutifully and diligently, and beget many students.
Fathers and sons
Among the teachers were some for whom teaching was a generations old family practice. Two of these families will be mentioned here: Moshe Dan Guterman (of the Amshinov Hasidim), who was part Hasid and part loafer. He taught Hebrew and some Pentateuch to children at the Heder, but also served dutifully as a court attendant, particularly after the foundation of the Talmud Torah School.
He would sometimes perform wedding ceremonies, but being a devout and abstract thinker he would occasionally confuse things: instead of announcing that The rabbi is honored to arrange this wedding he announced honored to arrange godfathering which amused the crowd, who knew it was an honest mistake.
His son, Simcha Guterman, was his opposite, a very claculated man, but also a learned member of the Amshinov Hasidim. After trying his hand at trade in vain, he returned to his father's profession and dedicated himself to teaching children.
Shmelke Grober and his son Elimelech
He was called Shmelke Melamed and he was one of the Końskie-Białobrzeg Hasidim. His Heder was at his apartment on Visoka Street, where he taught the alphabet to young children before World War I. During the years before the Holocaust, his students became important people and took up valued public positions. Most perished in the Holocaust, among them the son of Mailech Melamed, and only a handful survived. Elimelech considered himself as a natural born teacher of young children and fulfilled his task wholeheartedly. He knew how to endear himself to the children and taught them punctuation, letters and so on.
Shlomo (Szydłowiecr) Gdanski
Another man who considered teaching his calling. He was not a skilled negotiator, but could explain verses from the Pentateuch and Avoth to his young students. He taught at his Heder for a long time before World War I, until the end.
Among his students was Efraim Melamed (Rendil) who served as synagogue attendant in a special structure in the synagogue's yard. He taught young children the alphabet for years until he perished in the typhus plague during World War I (1917).
Shmelke Buchsbaum (Kunover)
His apartment was across from the synagogue. His Heder was remarkably tidy. He taught the Pentateuch, Rashi, Bible and Talmud using a special system. He was also, quietly and stylishly, a cantor at the synagogue.
Yosl (Lithuak) Brodbeker
One of the fathers of the large Brodbeker family. He studied at the Yeshivas of Lithuania, where he also married and started a family. Since his studies could not provide for his family he returned to the home of his ancestors as a scholar and a Hasid of Sokołów and started teaching children. The Heder was at the house he inherited, at the Rinek, where he taught advanced students until he died near the end of World War I.
The Yeshiva of Beit Yoseph
It should be noted that during the 1930s a Yeshiva opened in Wierzbnik, for two years. It was at the time that the leaders of the Beit Yoseph Novogrudok Yeshiva managed to leave Red Russia and decided to teach their lore in the State of Poland. They founded Yeshivas in several cities and towns. The people of the community supported this enterprise both with money and by hosting students, as customary in those days. However the Yeshiva did not last long because of the competition with the neighboring communities of Ostrowiec and Końskie. The Yeshivas in these towns drew more students, making it hard to meet standards and leading to the eventual dissolution of the Yeshiva despite the hospitality of the community.
Luck determines everything, even the fate of the Torah Scroll at the temple. I always believed that this saying is nothing more than an allegory, because what would luck have to do with a Torah scroll? But the events told here have convinced me that the saying is literally true.
In the late summer of 1938 I brought to Israel a Torah scroll from the town of Wierzbnik in Poland, a scroll currently housed at the great synagogue in my town while the community of Wierzbnik was razed completely and the synagogue from which I saved the Torah scroll was burned to the ground at the end of Yom Kippur 1940, along with all the books and holy writs it housed, according to Nazi custom in conquered lands.
This Torah scroll was donated to the synagogue in Wierzbnik by my parents over 40 years ago. Its trees of life are covered with silver foil etched with the names of my grandfather and grandmother. I knew nothing about it, since my parents came to Israel during the Second Aliya and passed away during the World War, when I was almost a boy. When I grew up I got back in touch with our large family in Poland, my uncles and aunts, and one of my uncles wrote to me about the Torah scroll kept at the Zionist synagogue in Wierzbnik and advised that I reclaim the book and have it sent to me. I wrote to the managers of the synagogue but to no avail. Using various excuses, they have reject my requests. I sought the support of the rabbinical office here in Israel to strengthen my claim but to no avail. Negotiations with the managers continued for three years until in the summer of 1938, while visiting our family in Poland, I naturally visited the two uncles living in Wierzbnik, one of whom was encouraging me to reclaim the Torah scroll. Both were later shot by the Nazis at the center of town when they refused to leave with the death trains.
When I came to Wierzbnik, I embraced my uncle's recommendation, and immediately opened negotiations with the head manager, Simcha. He refuted my arguments claiming they had right of possession over the Torah scroll, which was in their possession for over 30 years. But after lengthy negotiation and discussions among the managers they seemed to agree to hand me the Torah scroll. Simcha told me the news and asked me to visit him on Friday at the bank office where he worked. From there he will go with me to the synagogue to hand me the Torah scroll. I accepted the news with mixed feelings, because I was not convinced of his intentions and felt that the promise was not given wholeheartedly, leaving me skeptic.
On Friday morning I came to the bank office. When I arrived, Simcha suggested that we sit and talk. I urged him to take me to the synagogue and he told me Sit down, let us talk, but I refused. I was afraid that he was merely stalling again. What more do we have to talk about? I asked. The owner of the bank entered the room, an impressive Jew with bright eyes and a long beard. He welcomed me kindly and was glad to meet me, since he was another acquaintance of my late parents (we became fast friends). He was, naturally, aware of the dispute over the Torah scroll. I complained to him that Simcha said he would give me the Torah scroll today and now wants to start talking again. When accepting the Torah, I said, it is customary to do first and hear after. Therefore, I demand to receive the book before we talk. My demand hit the mark. The old man failed to hide his satisfaction when he heard me, because at first he thought that the youths in Israel strayed far from Torah and good manners. He immediately turned to Simcha with a commanding voice: Mr. Simcha! This Jew is right. Please, go with him to the Beit Midrash and first give him the Torah scroll as he asks.
We arrived at the synagogue. Simcha asked me to wait a while at the entrance. He was in an awkward position: on the one hand he was my relative (married into our family) and wanted to do as I ask, unable to resist the pressures put on him by the family. But on the other hand, he had to consider the elder worshipers and the managers who were not inclined at all to return the Torah scroll and claimed that it was given at the time as a gift to the synagogue. Furthermore, this Torah scroll was famously well-written and was read often, which made parting with it hard after having it for 30 years. A few moments later and Simcha came back, satisfaction written on his face, and bid me enter.
It was during late morning hours. Two or three quorums of Jews wearing their tallits sat by a long table at the east, about to finish their lesson. I immediately noticed that they were eyeing me askance, because I was there to take the scroll from them. Many of them must have known my parents and remembered them fondly, but they were now old and jealously guarding their property. This impatient, angry group made me feel sadness and pity. For some reason I saw them as a representation of Poland's Jewry, which by then faced a crisis of helplessness and hopelessness.
Finally I received the Torah scroll, wrapped in a shawl and ready to go. I was holding it in my arms, all aquiver. I wanted to lighten up the atmosphere. I said Gentlemen, I would like to tell you three things: A) It is a great deed to bring a Torah scroll from the Diaspora to the holy land, and an act of respect for the Torah; B) You knew my late father. He passed away at the end of the big war in Damascus and no one knows where he was buried. This book is meant for the synagogue in my town and will serve as a kind of headstone in his memory; C) As the Holy Ark preceded the people of Israel when they returned to Israel from Egypt, so will this Torah scroll be a holy ark for you, and may you and your sons come to Israel soon.
By the time I was finished I felt the listeners stirring. Their manner changed completely, as if a spark lit something within them. They kissed the book and many of them kissed me as well, wished me a safe journey and asked that I pray for them; some asked that I go to Jerusalem to pray for them before The Western Wall and some asked that I would pray before The Tomb of Rachel. At the time I did not know that Rachel will soon have to mourn her lost sons once more.
One other matter of coincidence and blind luck: a few years after the destruction of the Wierzbnik community and the burning of the synagogues, my family found a hidden cache and delivered to me a bundle of letters my parents sent abroad when they first moved to Israel. One of the letters, written by my mother in 1910 to her brother-in-law living abroad, included the following paragraph: If you do come (to Israel) I would ask you a great favor. At the synagogue in Wierzbnik is my Torah scroll, that is, the one that belonged to my late father, and which I would ask you to bring with you. I will arrange everything in Jaffa so you would come to no trouble. I would be grateful for this. This is the most sacred keepsake I have left of my dear father (he did not come then).
And so not only have I earned the chance to save a Torah scroll at the very last opportunity from the hands of the murderers, but also to grant my mother's request, which was made 28 years earlier without my knowledge.
According to the history of the Torah scroll and the many people mentioned in this story, it also serves as a kind of memorial candle burning always in memory of many dear souls who found rest on the wings of the Divine Presence.
It is not an easy task for a woman to remember and review the orthodox and Hasidic life and customs of our towns, because these subjects are mainly the domain of men. However when I was asked to relate in the Yizkor book of our community the nature of religious life in those days, I accepted this role with awe and reverence and I pray that I will be fit to carry out this sacred duty.
Houses of worship
I should start perhaps with the Beit Midrash, which had a pleasant exterior and a spectacular interior, a virtual glow hidden within its walls. It was a large building, which stood at the center of town, among the decidedly Jewish streets and residences. It served as a house of learning and prayer, and those who saw with their own eyes the Jews of the city rush to worship their maker in the morning, and glanced at the house of the Lord, could with great satisfaction admire the sanctity of How beautiful are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel! However it was also surrounded by the synagogues of the Hasidic courts, like pearls in the holy crown. These were the Shtiblach that could be found on almost every street and which hosted the majority of our Jewish brethren.
I distinctly recall the Minyan at the Bnot-Yaakov School on Iłżacka Street, or as it was called in Yiddish, Drildjer Gas. Not far from it was the Shtibl of the Hasidic followers of the rabbi of Amshinov, located inside the courtyard of Leibish Herblum. Across from this Shtibl was another Shtibl, that of the Gur Hasidim. This synagogue, which was among the larger ones, sent to heaven songs that made hearts tremble. It was composed of two rooms and the Hasidic followers of the rabbi of Gur, respected Jewish scholars, prayed there. They were joined by learned Yeshiva students, who further peace in the world. A few of them I can remember and mention by name: Yeshayahu Guterman, his two sons and their children; Shmuel Cohen, Shmuel Zoberman, Yitzhak Goldknopf, my brother-in-law Moshe Rosenbloom, Dov (Berl) Hercig, and many others whose faces I still remember but whose names were swallowed by time.
This subject was as many hued as a rainbow. Here we must mention the synagogue, which had a unique nature. For reasons of humility or perhaps to ward off the evil eye, it was only referred to by its acronyms.
Shtibl as well as another Shtibl, which was called Vankhotsker, were located in Kilinska Street. One of them was at the house of Avraham Moshe Weintraub and the other at the home of the rabbi of Wierzbnik. Aside from the Shtiblach I mentioned, there were also synagogues in which people prayed only on Shabbats or holidays. A few of them resided in two story buildings, which generally distinguished them from the general architecture of the town.
The Chmielówer Synagogue
A synagogue I remember in particular is that of the Chmielów Hasidim, which shared a building with the community board, its women's gallery separated by a single wall from the rooms of the board. People prayed there only on Shabbats and holidays, and during the rest of the week it served as a school, which was taught using modern approaches. This school only accepted Yeshiva graduates and its two teachers graduated from the seminary of religious teachers in Warsaw.
Among the worshippers who attended this synagogue were: Gezl Drajnudel, Hershel Fruman, Yaakov (Yankel) Mandelzis, Shmuel Tenenbaum, Jechiel Lerman, Jechiel Hering, my brother Avraham, who earned a living as a butcher in nearby villages, my honorable father Hershel, Yaakov Zukerman, Reuven Rolnicki and his sons Yehoshua and Yaakov, who are in the United States, and Yaakov Katz.
At the end of every Shabbat these people would gather at our home for a Melava Malka feast and each would contribute something to this feast one would bring a challah and another would bring ale, another would bring fruit and the fourth would bring beans and so on. They spent many long hours together, singing and reciting epigrams, legends and stories about rabbis and holy men all over the world. Among them was a youth, whose name I no longer remember, who knew how to play well using only an empty bottle, a feat none were able to copy.
This time wasn't meant for the adults alone but also for us, the children of the house, who got swept up in the excitement of the festive atmosphere. Since there was no school the following day (the schools were closed on Sundays, it being the Shabbat of Christians) I would stay up late and follow the course of the feast. I still remember the excitement of the participants, their eyes bright with joy, and how they would sometimes stare ponderously into the heavens, discussing matters that concerned the higher spheres. However more than anything I was impressed with their concentration when reciting the lore of scholars, the stories about miracles of saints, which they drank thirstily, tensions rising. And along with the Torah and the miracles came up the subject of the return to Zion and the yearning for Israel, especially after the immigration of the Citrinbaum family, followed by the Wajzer family. Many wanted to follow them but it was impossible since the gates of the country were closed.
The Torah procession
In 1935, Jechiel Lerman brought a Torah scroll to the Shtibl. During that time, my brother Avraham was enlisted in the Polish army and stationed in the city of Radom. We went to great trouble getting the chief of police to give him leave, so he could participate in the joy of the book's homecoming. Our petition was accepted, and there is no describing our joy when my brother came for leave exactly on the day meant for the Torah scroll procession. It was a wonder to astound any onlooker a soldier dancing with the Torah scroll and sharing the mounting joy of the crowd.
A feast was served later at our house, and my mother and my sister Rivka offered the guests borscht with potatoes, intestine, and stuffed spleen, a feast worthy of a butcher's family. At the head of the laid table covered with pristine tablecloths, sat the rabbi of Chmielów, joined by many other people, and the festivities lasted until first light.
Another Torah scroll was brought later to the Shtibl by Gezl and his wife Sarah Neinudel (a childless couple) and another magnificent procession was held, with the participation of the rabbi. After my father passed away, the Chmielów Shtibl was moved into our house and a regular Minyan gathered in the room where my father used to pray and study, a custom that was continued until the outbreak of the war.
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