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[Page 113]

Memories

 

[Page 114]

Memories

Reuven Shuali (Lis)

My home town Wierzbnik was a small town in the Kielce shire in Poland, surrounded by fields, mountains and forests.

Hardworking Jews lived there, alongside gentile workers manufacturing munitions and steel, who lived separately from the Jews. Most of the Jews were simple folk, craftsmen and traders. Wierzbnik was not filled with prominent scholars or rich folk, but it residents were a dignified people, putting their trust in themselves and in God. Generations lived and died here, generations followed them and they all followed Judaism to the letter, in prayer and daily practice, in thought and in action, by caring for the needs of the family and the individual and through their extensive activism for the public – each according to his own beliefs – until the bane killed them all.

 

The population

About 10,000 Jews lived here during my childhood. The town was surrounded by mountains, the main residence area of the Christians (several thousands) while the rest of them lived in Starachowice, by the heavy industry buildings. The town proper featured several gentile business places, along with the only Christian church visited every Sunday by hundreds of Christians with their families.

 

The peasantry

The peasants mostly labored manually in the fields, plowing and manually sowing seeds taken from a large backpack hanging from the right shoulder. Harvesting was carried out with a scythe, stacking with a rake, loading with a pitchfork and the grain was taken to the yards in large horse-driven carts. The grain was beat with sticks. The daughters of the peasants also worked in the fields, loading sheaves with pitchforks. They were fair maidens, their heads covered with colorful handkerchiefs, their braided locks poking through.

 

The market

At the center of the town was the market, located next to the plaza in which Jermiahu the scholar and Shlomo Kopf lived on opposite ends. The buildings were all made of wood and the market was surrounded by the shops of Jewish grocers: fabrics, haberdashery, hats, iron, housework, and so on. Hundreds of families made a living from those stores and it was a place of gathering for the peasants on market days, which were Thursdays. On these days, the neighboring villagers would come to town to sell their produce and buy what they needed and the town was filled with people and their produce. Rows of carts stacked with sacks of apples, pears and plums, potatoes, carrots and beets filled the market.

 

The synagogue and other places of worship

The large synagogue served as the central house of worship for the people – attended by butchers, craftsmen and carters, any Jewish person. It was the first and holiest house of worship in town. Although it served as a place of worship for the lower classes, it was also a central gathering place for the entire town. Great preachers and cantors, who expected a large audience, would come to pray there. It was also attended by the members of many Shtiblach, who would come here to listen to sermons on Shabbat afternoons, The commoners, who lived a hard life of labor, were the ones who listened most intently.

 

Talmud Torah

The Jewish children in Wierzbnik were taught by a Melamed. They studied Hebrew and the Pentateuch and Rashi with Melameds until they were thirteen and ventured into the world to make their living. Only a few, who had their hearts set on studying the Torah, migrated to Yeshivas in other cities, while others who sought higher education traveled to high schools in other towns. As time went by, the Jewish children started learning the language of the land. It was not an easy custom to introduce, because the elders objected for a long time and considered it an act of conversion… however slowly the times changed and teachers appeared, among them my father Mordechai Lis, who would take home students “for a few hours”. Several schools were founded later – the Tarbut school and the Bnot Yaakov academy for Girls – but they all followed new paths of Israeli culture, whether Zionism or Yiddishism.

The Talmud Torah has always served as the place of study for poor children and it was financed by contributions from men of means, who sent their children to private Melameds and Heders but also concerned themselves with the education of the barehanded masses.

 

Childish acts

The children of Israel had little time for merriment in Wierzbnik, because the Heder occupied most of their days and left little room for childhood, games and joy. They fought for every moment of happiness and what was not given freely they took for themselves whenever possible.

 

Jewish games

The major games played among the children of the Heder were: the nuts game on Pesach and Succoth, spinning tops on Hanukah and the “koilech”, that is, cards marked with letters of the Hebrew alphabet. On Purim they played with Haman rattlers and with wooden swords, and on the Ninth of Ab they would throw pegs and thorns at the prayers.

 

Winter pictures

The children had several joys during winter. When snow blanketed the whole town and frost glimmered on the trees, when the awnings were decorated with shimmering icicles and the windows were covered with unique flowers, the Jewish children would leave their rooms at night by the light of oiled paper lanterns, walking and singing together, squirming in the snow, throwing snowballs and skating on the ice and snow. Those who could afford it bought themselves shiny steel ice-skates, and would skate over the ice, making faces and noises, all the way to the estuary by the forest.

They would build sleighs from old crates and slide across the snow with them. They would make scarecrows out of snow, huge ones; give them eyes and moustaches of coal, glue a large nose and tails when needed, and pour water over them so they would freeze and become a solid block of lasting ice.

 

Acts of charity

The people of Wierzbnik pursued several charity enterprises:

You could find a donation box of Rabbi Meir Ba'al-Hanes hanging in every house, and on Shabbat the ladies of the house would put their donations into them, weeping and moaning, naming our holy Fathers and Mothers. Envoys would come from a distance with a higher calling, from the holy land and the Yeshivas in the Diaspora, and the wealthy would walk with them from house to house and collect donations for the important cause. While carrying out their mission they make lively conversation about current affairs and the envoy offers news and tells of salvation. Tales of Hassidim and miracles are also told, and most importantly, are passed by word of mouth, finding their way to the broad public.

One must mention the custom of the Yom Kipur Eve bowl, respectfully placed at the center of the synagogue table. Every Jew would consider it his duty to place his traditional donation into it.

There was a unique atmosphere to those sublime, awe inspiring moments, when the holy day was coming, with all the preparations and excitement, and the way to the synagogue was paved with charity for the needy according to the donor's ability.

 

The National Fund

And first among the funds is the National Fund, because its scope and popularity outweighed those of all similar enterprises. The National Fund suffused the broad public and was a kind of ritual that people believed in and dedicated time and effort to. It would start in kindergarten and continue through school, the youth movements and clubs, at public places and in private homes. Boys and girls would go from house to house to empty the boxes or collect donations into their box; they would distribute stamps and sell pictures and do other things in order to increase the donations that were meant to redeem the lands of Israel. The youths worked diligently to raise the funds and their work bore fruit.

 

Emergency funds

Finally I should mention the traditional acts of collecting donations for unique traditional “enterprises” such as Hachnasat Kala[1], or aiding a person who needed immediate help. And above all were those donations that people do not mention and which are given in secret – both on the part of the donor and on the part of the receiver. All those made for a rich mosaic of public activities with which our town was blessed through the years, until the terrible times came and no mercy was given when it was needed by all.


  1. Providing a bride with a dowry so she can be wed Return


[Page 117]

On Market Days

M. Ben-Yehuda

My beloved birthplace, Wierzbnik, had none of the particular beauty or uniqueness that marked other Jewish towns and communities in the Polish Diaspora. Nevertheless, it was loved by both residents and visitors for the forests, the rivers and the lakes that surrounded it, and the liveliness of hard work, craftsmanship, production, commerce, scholarship and learning. You were full of life and youthful vigor, Zionism and pioneering, and the yearning for Zion was felt by every Jew in town. A demotic, humble, religious Jewry that also battled for its existence and human rights. A Jewry saturated with yearnings and dreams of things to come, fundamental, healthy and protective of its spiritual assets.

There was nothing glorious about your streets and alleys and the residences exposed the financial standings of your citizens – but we loved you just the same. You were created by your residents, your builders. You symbolized their vigor and experience. Jews lived in you for generations, raising families, rearing sons and fighting for their survival no matter the circumstances.

My heart swells when I recall you, I love and admire your Jews because of their simplicity, humility and innocence and their quiet and pure way of life, their conduct which was characterized by a wonderful harmony of nobility and endless, limitless love of Israel.

It was a hospitable town. Those refugees that came to town during the Holocaust and at other times of need, escaping the war or the hatred of the regime, were welcomed as brothers and offered protection and support, easing their sorrows and nursing their wounds. No one ever said “there is no room”.

Jews resided at the center of town, both at the central square that housed the marketplace and in the nearby streets. The majority of the Polish population resided in the distant suburbs.

The majority of villagers in the area were farmers who lived off the land, workers and laborers, and most of the shops and craftsmen in town were Jews (cattle merchants, carters, tailors, cobblers, upholsterers, hatters, smiths, carpenters and so on). The town was surrounded by several lumber-mills, mostly owned by Jews, which produced lumber and plywood. The local government factories, which produced iron, copper and munitions, hired thousands of Polish workers, the majority of them Christian.

I recall the market days in town, which were something of a holiday for the Jews because they served as a major source of income. These market days, which took place every fifth day of the week, were attended by residents of the town, its suburbs and villages, some coming on foot and some by vehicle., Whole convoys would head early in the morning towards the center square, called the Rinek. On the one side were the stalls and stands of tailors, cobblers, hatters, haberdashers and renters of orchards with their produce. Across from them were huts, carts and shelves filled with produce, vegetables, fruit, milk and dairy products. Wagons laden with chickens that could be heard from a distance and sacks full of potatoes, all spread throughout the market. The town square was full of visitors and buyers and profits abounded.

The main beneficiaries of this event were the stores and bars at the marketplace, which belonged mostly to Jews and were filled with visitors who bought plenty. At the far ends of the streets, where the smithies and craftsmen were located, profits rose and the sounds of bargaining could be heard in the distance. Everyone was buying kerosene or lumber, haberdashery or groceries, clothes or food and drink. The important thing was that this day provided the Jews with a living. Only when the evening grew later would the carts hurry back through the streets and the peasants rush back each to their home. The market square emptied of its thousands of visitors and the Jews in town thanked God for this plenty.

It is all gone now. The town square probably still exists, although changed over the years, but the sounds of Jewish commerce no longer echo there, because it was inherited by Polish murderers, mourned by the prophet who said “Have you murdered and also taken possession?” Nevertheless, one cannot uproot the memories of the youth we have spent in this town until the coming of the Holocaust that made life a hell without a savior.


[Page 119]

On Holidays We Gave Out Honey and Fish

Benyamin Weisbloom

A few memories from the town of Wierzbnik, where I spent my youth and the best years of my life.

We moved to the town of Wierzbnik from Opatów, leaving behind our social, ancestral and economical roots. At first I thought we would have a hard time settling in this new place, but I was quickly proven wrong. We found friends in Wierzbnik, amicable people who were always willing to help. My father was a retailer and dealt in gristmills all his life. After my grandfather passed away, my father (and grandmother) sold the gristmill we owned in the village of Nieksholank and with the help of his family bought a gristmill in Wierzbnik. Business was not bad. We would sell the flour to bakers in town and the nearby area. There was a small fish pond by the mill, some apiaries and some fruit trees, all of which provided us with sustenance and served as gifts for friends. My father xcelled at his hobby, beekeeping. I remember that on holidays, we would give our friends honey and fish. His mother, a descendent of the Steinhardt family, was an honest housewife and took care of our every need. At the end of every Shabbat, my father's friends would gather at our house: Borstein, Pratzovnik, Yosl Unger and others. My mother would make them food for Melava Malka and they would pass the time until midnight. My sister Rivka and her 3 years old son, Pinchas, came from Opatów to live with us after her husband, Yoseph Hochmitz, has passed away. My brother Shaul, my sister Haviva and I all managed to immigrate to Israel before the war. My sister Esther and Pinchas managed to survive the Holocaust and arrived in Israel after the war, while my two brothers, Leibish and Shlomo, my sister Rivka and my parents all died in the Holocaust.

There were many youth movements in Wierzbnik. I was part of HeHalutz Hatzair and later of “Hapoel-Hamizrachi”. Our desire to immigrate to Israel was great. Our youths spent the best years of their lives with no purpose. I started looking for ways to immigrate to Israel. Finally, my father managed by sheer luck to secure a certificate, and I immigrated. My father planned to send my brothers first and then come himself. But cruel fate put an end to all of our hopes and aspirations, tearing us away from our loved ones who were lost during the Holocaust among the innocent and the pure.


[Page 120]

A Bundle of Memories

Uri Shtramer

I first became acquainted with Wierzbnik in 1937, when I opened an office there as a novice lawyer. During my professional road and life, I had an extensive chance to learn more about its foundations, basis and socioeconomic structure.

The town of Wierzbnik was connected to Starachowice and its financial existence relied mostly on munitions manufactured at the big factory in Starachowice, the coal mines in the area and some agriculture. The Jews, however, took no part in the economic foundations of the town. They did not work at the munitions factory because the owners were anti-Semites and refused to employ Jews. Prolonged historic disownment also kept them from taking part in coal mining or agriculture, leaving trade and mediation as the only venues still open to them. The financial lives of the Jews in Wierzbnik were therefore similar to the lives of Jews in other nearby towns, consisting of retail and some craftsmanship.

The Jews in Wierzbnik distanced themselves from the public life of the town in general, secluding themselves within the confines of their own public life, their institutes and enterprises and the national issues that occupied the Jewish public. First and foremost among those was the national revivification movement. Most of the youths and middle aged citizens were members of various Zionist parties and movements while the older folk had an affinity for Agudath Israel.

The youths were filled with national awareness and worked wholeheartedly to realize the Zionist concept. Most prominent in town were the Zionist movements of “Hamizrachi”, the socialist, revisionist Zionists. When I came to Wierzbnik I joined the Herzl Association, a faction whose position closely mirrored my own views. My first steps as a novice lawyer in Wierzbnik were not easy, because the Polish society was full of anti-Semitic sentiment and any contact with the authorities met with hostility, hampering my activity. The infamous National-Democrat Party was the main political force in town and this fact was evident everywhere I turned. They conspired against a Jewish lawyer and piled obstacles and difficulties in my path. At times, they even posted “sentries” by my office, whose job was to turn away Poles who sought my services. I did my best to overcome their persecution because I wanted to settle down there, and slowly I succeeded, thanks to the loyal and dedicated assistance of our public leaders, particularly Simcha Mincberg, Shmuel Pochachevski, Yoseph Greenhaut and Yitzhak Singer, who spared neither time nor effort to stand by me and help me during my first days. The Singer and Greenhaut households practically became second homes for me, offering me any help I needed. Romek Singer and his sisters became my close friends, offering me social support.

In 1938 the governor of our county (Starosta) ordered to disperse the community board in Wierzbnik-Starachowice and put me in charge as supervisor. This administrative step was taken because the former board failed to attend the regular needs, collecting no taxes and leaving the treasury empty and us without the means of financing necessary expenses.

Advised by the heads of the Zionist movement in town and its key activists, I accepted the appointment and immediately assigned myself the following tasks:

  1. To settle the financial difficulties of the community.
  2. To restore the synagogues and renovate them.
  3. To hold an election for the community board as soon as possible

With the generous help of Simcha Mincberg, who worked with me for several months, we managed to “clear the field” and divide the financial burden fairly among the public using a just taxation system intended to fund the regular needs of the community.

There was an ancient synagogue in Wierzbnik, built in an old and ornate fashion. This ancient synagogue inspired awe and a sense of sanctity in its visitors when they came to spend time with their God.

Time has nevertheless eroded the exterior of this sacred building, and it was vital to renovate and renew it.

Simcha Mincberg, Greenhaut, Shmuel Tenenbaum and I initiated a collection that would serve as a source of funding for the renovation enterprise. Realizing the importance of the task, the Jewish public complied generously and allowed us to act for the glorification of the ancient, historical synagogue.

Regrettably, World War II broke out soon after, and the Nazi soldiers came and defiled the synagogue, burning it down.

Following the renovation of the synagogue, I approached my next task, which was holding a new election. I admit that I was hoping for the Zionist movements to gain priority over the orthodox Aguda circles or those who have assimilated into the gentiles, turning their back on their people and their religion and wholeheartedly accepting the edicts of the “Starosta”. And indeed, the national-minded public in Wierzbnik met my expectations, properly assessing the needs of the hour. Simcha Mincberg, Shmuel Tenenbaum and Yoseph Tenzer took action at my request and put much effort into guiding and convincing the public in the right direction. Our work paid off as all the Zionist factions joined together and presented a unified Zionist list for the community board elections. As a result, the first Zionist representative was chosen for as chairman of the community board – Pochachevski.

When World War II broke out, I bid goodbye to Wierzbnik, forced to flee the advance of the German soldiers, and I never returned. After the war I no longer had the courage to come back and witness with my own eyes the terrible reality, that this entire public that I loved, cared for and bonded with, was so tragically annihilated.

Thirty years have passed since I left Wierzbnik, but carved deep in my soul are the portraits of the vibrant youths of the town, the craftsmen, the intellectuals and the commoners, who prayed “may our eyes see your return to Zion” every day, who dreamed about a life in the land of their ancestors and who were regrettably denied the opportunity to live among us and build our old-turned-new homeland, the State of Israel.


[Page 122]

Fifty Years Ago

Yossef Kornwasser

It seems to me like a dream that began in 1920.

The surrounding area and the nature around the town of my birth, Wierzbnik, were very beautiful, but the earth burned beneath my feet and every day was one too many for me. I had already been walking around for a long time with the intention of going to the Land of Israel, but the thought of leaving my dearest and most beloved parents, sisters and brothers, as well as relatives and friends, prevented me from making a quick decision. Nevertheless, the day arrived when I decided to take the bold step and I traveled to Sosnowiec, which was close to the Polish-German border, because as I had been informed, there were opportunities there to cross the border illegally.

And in fact, when I reached there, I immediately approached the address of the smuggler, which I had been given while still in Wierzbnik.

After a great deal of effort and trepidation, I managed to find this smuggler and when I reached his house I was excited to encounter another three Jews from Wierzbnik there, who had come there for the same purpose. We were immediately overjoyed that a few of us 'hometown' people had encountered each other, and we even began to plan our common future. But our happiness didn't last long, because the smuggler informed us that he was regretfully unable to take us across, because a few days previously they had caught a couple of young Jews sneaking across and had arrested them. No one knew what would happen to them, but in the meantime the guarding had been greatly reinforced that week and it was extremely dangerous to risk it. Having no alternative, with deep pain and fury I returned to Wierzbnik.

Since then I could find no rest and the thought of making aliya [immigrating to Israel] constantly hammered at me, and didn't leave me alone.

Suddenly I discovered that in the capital, Warsaw, a Palestine Office had been founded, which dealt with the issues of sending pioneers to the Land of Israel. As soon as I knew about this, I didn't wait long, and immediately set out for Warsaw to try and fulfill my greatest dream. This time it seemed that the prospect for solving the problem was not bad and they required that I pay a deposit on the travel fare to the Land of Israel, and that gave me the hope that I would succeed. After a few months of very tense waiting, I finally received the permit to go to the Land of Israel legally. No one could equal my great joy and enthusiasm when I learned about it.

The day come, and the happy hour arrived when I left Wierzbnik for Warsaw and reported at the large station of the capital. There I had to wait for quite a while until I was able to leave for Austria. On the train I met other Jews, who had gathered to make the same journey as I. We got off the train in Vienna and reported at the Palestine Office. From there we were sent on to Trieste, and from there we were supposed to make our way to the Land of Israel on a ship. To our joy there was no border, but unfortunately, a disappointment awaited us there. We couldn't board the ship because news had been received that the Arabs were rioting in the Land of Israel, and we had to wait because it was very dangerous.

 

Four Friends in a Tent

However, it didn't take long, and on a beautiful bright day we boarded the freighter Campidoagla, and thirteen days later we reached the coast of our fatherland.

I encountered the realization of my dream with great emotion, and I took everything in good part. Unexpectedly, I right away encountered a friend from Wierzbnik, who had arrived before me. It was Zvi Enisman. I joined his group and immediately received a roof over my head. It was a tent, in which four of us slept. Just then there was no shortage of work, but food was very sparse. Nevertheless, our hearts were filled with joy. We had nothing and needed nothing. Everything was permeated with hope and the enjoyment of life, until the sad news reached us about the Nazi nightmare and the sad fate of our nearest and dearest, who perished together with the millions of Jews in Europe.


[Page 124]

The Blood Libel Miracle

Yaakov Korenwaser

Neta Crystal and his family, the parents of my grandmother Sarah who was the wife of Mordechai David Kornwaser, owned the Młynek farm by Brody and were known as a hospitable couple. Many received a place to stay and something to eat at their home, as well as a gift of supplies for the road.

On Passover eve, while the family and a few dozen guests were celebrating the Seder, the grandmother went to the cabinet to take out the Kitel that Hasidim and other elect people would wear during the Seder, but instead suffered a terrible shock. Inside the cabinet was the corpse of a young shegetz. A sudden activity outside the house made the people within fearful. The grandmother quickly told the grandfather, who ordered her to keep the matter secret and tell nothing to the rest of the family and their guests, to prevent a panic. Quickly and secretly, they hid the corpse elsewhere. But where and how can you hide it when the enemies of Israel might come knocking at the door at any moment?

Without delay they placed the corpse into the big pot that was used to cook pumpkin for the many guests and the grandfather and grandmother sat down again at the table. The grandfather ordered their guests not to open the door if someone knocks on it. They sanctified the wine and joyfully and loudly told of the miracle of the Exodus from Egypt.

Loud knocks came from the door while they were reading the Haggadah, but everyone continued reading and completely ignored the knocking. The knocking got louder and was followed by shouting and banging before the door was finally forced open. Policemen entered the house with their accomplices and started searching the place. They searched the entire house until they reached the cabinet where the “victim” of their libel was to be found. But the empty cabinet left them standing stunned and gaping, and so they had to leave in humiliation, their plot foiled, after apologizing for interrupting the Passover Seder.


[Page 125]

The Tributaries of the Wisla

Moshe (Michael) Samet

When I recall the shtetl of Wierzbnik, I am gripped by a deep sorrow and hatred deep in my heart, which has remained with me forever.

It is hard to understand how a person can speak as I have expressed myself about my shtetl, in which I was born and raised, where I spent my most beautiful and happy childhood years. But I believe that my acquaintances from the town who grew up with me will pardon me, because I am certain that the same feelings that I have, have remained for many years in the hearts of more than one of us.

Thirty-seven years ago, when I was a boy of twelve, a student in the fifth grade, something occurred: it was in a geography lesson, where in the seat behind me sat a Pole called Wojciechawski. It happened during the lesson of the relentlessly anti-Semitic teacher Kozbinski. Suddenly the teacher called out my name and demanded that I answer a question: what is the name of the place from which the Wisła flows?

I stood up and answered that the Wisła flowed from Babia-Góra in the Tatra Mountains.

The next question was: what tributaries do we have, that flow into the Wisła? For this I began to calculate that we had the following rivers: Biała, Skawa, Raba, Bug, etc. Suddenly my neighbor who sat behind me and whose name was Wojciechawski interrupted me, shouting out the following to me in a loud voice: Hey ¯id [Jew], what right do you have to list the rivers that belong to us Poles with the words “we have”; you should say “they have”.

I remember it as though the picture were now in front of my eyes. My blood boiled, I turned to him in a split second and punched him right in the face with all my might. When his nose began to bleed I understood that it would not end well for me. And yes, on the spot I received five lashes on my right hand from my teacher Kozbinski, and he sent me to the principal of the school, who naturally immediately sent me home with the warning that he would not let me return to the school.

I tried to convince him and wanted to tell what had happened and that I considered myself a citizen like other Polish children, but unfortunately and regretfully, I came up against the same anti-Semite, who didn't even want to listen to me.

I left his room with my book bag, which I carried in my left hand. Then I first noticed my swollen hand – red as blood, but I felt no pain. Nevertheless, I was seething and roaring inside, but deep in my heart I felt content and satisfied at having defended myself.I tried to justify myself. And thinking thus all the way, I opened the door of my house.

My mother, of blessed memory, stood frozen and white as chalk; my father, of blessed memory, opened his eyes wide in amazement at why I had suddenly come home during school hours. And looking at my worried parents, I began to regret the step that I had taken. Nevertheless I controlled myself and began to tell them the sorry truth, from the beginning to the end.

I looked, and my mother, of blessed memory, was crying silently inside and all the blood gathered in my father's face, and at that moment I thought that he would immediately attack me in all his anger, but that didn't happen. He quietly said the following words to himself: “This is the fate of our Jewish people, which is fragmented and dispersed throughout the world.” Turning to me he added: “That is how your grandfather, of blessed memory, suffered, that is how I suffered and that is how you and your future children will suffer. We can do nothing to protect ourselves against this, because we are in the Diaspora.”

At that time I thought that I understood that moment very well, although I was not yet an adult.

Later on, thanks to the fact that my father, of blessed memory, had many acquaintances in Polish circles and institutions, after great effort and running around he managed to get the school principal to allow me to attend the school.

This sad episode from my childhood engraved itself in my memory and aroused in me an enmity towards the Poles and the city of my birth, where I lived until the Nazi forces marched into the city. Shortly thereafter, having suffered the occupation of the murderous and barbarous Germans, I fled to the Soviet Union.


[Page 127]

We Baked Matzahs for Passover

Levi Brodbeker

I recall many events and important social activities when I think about specific memories of our shtetl Wierzbnik.

Because of the time that has passed, it is difficult for me to collect my thoughts and provide a survey of the history of the Jewish population, nevertheless, I consider it necessary to recall and emphasize two important good deeds from different periods that have a characteristic general significance and provide a special reflection of the expansive, blessed good-heartedness and the great sense of mutual assistance that were an integral part of many of the Jews of Wierzbnik.

 

A Permit to Bake for Passover

In 1917, during WWI, the rabbi of our community, was Rabbi Yaakov-Aharon Regensberg, of blessed memory, a son of the Dobrów rabbi, a great scholar and someone who knew how to take responsibility upon himself in certain situations, and also the proper decision.

I remember that it was the time of Passover when a train filled with Jewish soldiers from Austria suddenly arrived, and it was feared that because of the shortage of matzos the Jewish soldiers would be forced, Heaven forbid, to eat food not kosher for Passover. So he issued a permit to bake matzos during Passover. The Jewish population accepted this with great understanding and joy and set to work, so that the Jewish soldiers celebrated the holiday according to all the rules and regulations.

 

A Wagonload of Coal

In 1928 there was a very harsh winter in Poland and the cold was extreme, so that there was a threat of families freezing to death because they didn't have the means to obtain wood or coals to warm their homes. Consequently, a group of Jews from Mszczonów and others organized a campaign to bring a wagonload of coals and distribute it among the poor classes. The campaign for this charitable act was headed by Haim Broitbeker, Shlomo Broitbeker, Fishl Neiman (who was know as Fishl Manche's), my father, may he rest in peace, and others.

I have cited these two episodes to stress the fact and remind us all from where we stem and with what humanitarian values, virtues and way of life our parents raised us.

May their communal and individual acts serve us as an example and their way as a model for an honest and straightforward way of life. May it be the honorable perpetuation of their holy memory.


[Page 128]

The Hebrew Midwives

Zvi Faigenbaum

Matil Konigsberg, commonly known as “di alta shohatin”, was a rare character, not only among the town's women but also outside the community.

An intelligent, skilled and experienced woman, she showed maternal affection for all. Many of the girls in town turned to her for advice, and she never turned them away.

Matil came to Wierzbnik from Ostrowiec, marrying Mordechai after the loss of his first wife. Her virtues and her dignified appearance quickly earned her the respect of the fine girls in town. In those days there was no maternity clinic in town, the newborn baby saw his home and residence as soon as it emerged into the world and the midwife was the one who reached out to comfort it when it finally decided that it deserved more spacious quarters and greater freedom.

Our community had two Hebrew midwives, one of them being the wife of Chaim Hersh and the other was “di alta shohatin”. Both did their work dutifully, but di alta shohatin was more prominent due to her personality and her status as a kosher butcher's wife. Publicly recognized as a noble and enterprising woman, she came and went through the homes of such wealthy families as Lichtenstein, Mysliborski, Singer and so on, and the ladies of these privileged families did nothing without first consulting her when it came to matters of motherhood and raising children.

In addition to her role as midwife, Matil also provided assistance when a child broke or dislocated his limbs. Those who came to her pained and sad left feeling content and calm. She also knew how to ward off the evil eye with spells, and those who came to her upset left happy.

Even in her old age, when she was living with her son, Rabbi Yitzhak Meir, she remained a lively woman, assisting in the delivery of a triplet without the aid of a doctor at the age of 90.

Matil the midwife passed away of old age when she was 93, her reputation spotless and her town filled with the children that were delivered by her dedicated hands.

God bless her memory.


[Page 129]

The Drama Society

Moshe (Michael) Samet

The town's size and population were both too small to provide its citizens with their own theatre. This held true for the entire settlement, let alone for the Jewish community which numbered fewer than 3,000 souls. Nevertheless, the Jewish community never lacked for cultural activity and has not neglected dramaturgy either.

Fate, however, has decreed that my memories of this aforementioned activity, that is, the existence and activity of the drama society, would be tainted by a very dramatic and tragic event.

 

A brick to the head

I was drawn to the drama society since youth and started actively participating in it when I was older. The society was coached by a kind and pleasant man who put both his time and money into this public affair for no personal gain. He came early to rehearsals to prepare for the arrival of the cast, and he was the last to leave the club, noting down his impressions of the rehearsal.

One day, on his way back home from the society, while he was passing Piłsudskiego Street, he was hit in the head by a falling brick and fatally wounded. All efforts to save him have failed and the man passed away.

This despicable murder, which was maliciously plotted by anti-Semites, greatly enraged the Jewish community, while the authorities perfunctorily claimed that they cannot prosecute anyone because there was no proof that this act was a premeditated murder.

 

Wandering Stars

The clubhouse of the drama society was located in the backyard of the Unger Family (Pola Unger), where we met during the evenings, 15-20 guys and girls of various ages. We were highly enthusiastic about our work, and our efforts bore fruit. Every few months we put on a play at the firefighters' lot (next to the police building), which was always packed with people curious to see the “actors”, whom they knew in real life, as well as the play itself.

Among the many shows we put up I remember “The Witch of Castile”, by Shalom Ash, and particularly “Wandering Stars” by Shalom Aleichem, which was quite successful.

The club we rehearsed in also had a library and those who came early could spend time with a book or a newspaper, soaking up some culture. The outbreak of the war, which soured the atmosphere in town, has also naturally put an end to the society's activities.

Only memories remain.


[Page 130]

Kupat Cholim

V. H.

The institute that provides medical help for the needy must stem from such foreign institutes as the German KrankenKasse or the Polish Kasa Chorych, or else it would have been called “medical help society” or something of the sort.

But in terms of form, content and essence it should be noted that despite the great gap which existed between the Jewish and Christian populations, and all the ramifications and the affinity to various institutes, Kupat Cholim was among the few institutes which featured impeccable cooperation between these two communities.

In our town, Wierzbnik, this institute was even more unique because it resided in a house owned by a Jew, Pinchas Helstein, who owned a large store on the bottom floor while the top floor housed the Helstein family and the office of the Kasa Chorych.

The landlord, who currently resides with us in Israel, tells us that the Kasa Chorych was full of Jews every day of the year, although the majority of clients were Christians, workers at the weapons and munitions factories found mostly in Starachowice, the industrial part of town.

There were no Jewish doctors in the Wierzbnik Kasa Chorych, but the Polish doctors treated the Jewish population with all fairness, a fact worthy of note in light of the typical hostility of the Polish population towards the Jews of the town, a sentiment also common in other towns in the Polish kingdom.

We particularly recall a doctor named Borkovski, who can easily be numbered among the Righteous Gentiles. This doctor, a surgeon by profession, was kind, pleasant and helped people even at the risk of his social standing and more.

At the end of the war he saved a Jewish girl, the daughter of Shlomo Enisman, who was shot by Polish partisans – murderers from the A.K. gangs who pretended they were fighting the Germans but mostly murdered Jews. The girl suffered a supposedly “fatal” wound at the hands of the A.K. criminals, who left her for dead. Though she was still alive, she was mortally wounded and it was a miracle that she was saved by some villagers who found her. They brought her to doctor Borkovski, who took care of her dutifully. Although the A.K. has sent him threat letters, he ignored them until she was well once more.


[Page 131]

From Wierzbnik to Israel through the Paviak Prison

Moshe Sali (Kerbel)

The State of Israel was nothing more than a dream during those days, and the Law of Return legislated in the independent State of Israel, affording any Jew the right to immigrate to Israel and become a citizen, was something we never imagined even in our wildest dreams. Reality back then was much more “prosaic”, grey, and hard, full of difficulties and obstacles. Earning an immigration certificate and immigrating to Israel were as difficult as parting the Red Sea. I have shared these concerns from the moment I aspired to immigrate to Israel, and had to go through much hardship and trouble before I could see the gate open before me.

Following the events of 1929, the desire to immigrate intensified and the youth movements and training kibbutzim bubbled and gushed with youths eager to join the warriors and builders in Israel. The British government, however, closed the gates to the country and would only offer a small number of certificates for immigration purposes, making an immigration certificate a great and invaluable prize.

It is no wonder that as an activist in a youth movement and the first swallow of our town I was told that I may immigrate by myself (without a fictitious wife, as was customary in those days) and I was a happy man when all I had left to do had to go to the Israeli Office in Warsaw, the capital of Poland, and settle the formalities concerning my future journey.

However a rueful experience stood like a demon between me and that goal, and even recalling it today sends a shiver down my spine.

It was a typical summer's day. The city was noisy, as always, a mass of people heading about on business, the street filled with the roar of engines and the neighs of horses harnessed to carriages (Piakers). The stores were filled with goods, the shop windows glittered, and I, according to the customs of the pioneers of that time, was striding in the streets of Warsaw wearing my Rubashka embroidered in our national colors, cerulean and white, headed for the Israeli Office. And although my thoughts were centered on this turning point in my life and the issues I will be facing, my natural curiosity drove me to observe the big city surrounding me, because such a visit was a rare privilege for me. Suddenly, as if arranged for the sake of the visitors and the curious, I walked into a leftist-communist protest march, organized by a group commonly referred to at the time as The Three Ls because they identified with leaders whose names started with the letter L: Liebknecht, Luxemburg and Lenin.

As the protest approached me, I stood on the sidewalk and watched the protesters. There was plenty to hear and see… the protesters made a lot of noise, cried out revolutionary slogans, and occasionally sang songs which were interrupted by shouts and loud announcements, all the while marching down the street carrying banners and flags, while sympathizers and curious bystanders stood on both sides of the street and watched – passerby such as myself.

Suddenly, the police have arrived and fell upon the protesters, trying to scatter them. Brawls broke out and the policemen used mixed methods, alternately beating people up and arresting them. The street became a human maelstrom and we were all mixed together, the people marching on the street and those who stood on the sidewalk becoming a single solution. The policemen grabbed anyone they could get their hands on, and in the process, caught me as well.

 

Taken into custody in the Defensiva

I was led with all due respect into the motor vehicle known as “Defensiva” and along with the others who shared my fate I was transported to a renowned prison in town to be interrogated.

When we reached the prison we learned that the “crop” indiscriminately harvested by the police was rich indeed. Hundreds of people stood crowded in the yard, and it took hours of waiting before our cases were even addressed. Finally, when our patience was beginning to wear thin, they started calling us in one by one for interrogation on the third floor of the building.

I went up the stairs feeling strange, like a stranger at a party. When I entered the room I was facing a large rectangular table, behind which the sat senior police officers, while spotlights were directed into my face, blinding me to the point of breakdown. The interrogation started with a question regarding my presence at the protest site. I told them that I was an innocent passerby and that I was brought there by mistake. To support my claims, I added that I was a member of the HeHalutz movement, intent on immigrating to Israel, and that I came to arrange my immigration – “and here are the documents supporting my claims,” I said, removing the papers from my bag and placing them on the table.

Unfortunately my words fell on deaf ears. Not only did they refuse to listen to me, but the officers who stood around me with whips at the ready started whipping me, despite my protests.

They bombarded me with questions, all at once, confusing me. Each of them threatened me and demanded that I answer him, and if I answered one another took offense, giving them excuse to hit me again and again.

In the process they snatched my bag and started rummaging through my papers in excitement, occasionally making surprised but satisfied remarks such as “quite the bird we got here” or “that's a fat trout we caught ourselves”.

Flustered by their cruel attitude, I beginning to fear for my future.

 

Hanging upside down

When I saw how enthusiastic the policemen were with their false “discovery”, and having already suffered through their violent actions, I began to imagine untold horrors about to befall me. I tried to no avail to overcome this depressing sensation, and tears welled in my eyes.

When they saw me cry, the policemen changed tactics. The stick was replaced by a carrot – as if they wanted to calm me down. However as soon as I recovered some of my wits, they resumed their former course of action and demanded again that I tell the truth, threatening me with even greater abuse.

My fears came to pass. Without another word, I was pulled into another room and strung upside-down.

Apparently I have not remained in this position for long, because 10 minutes later I passed out.

Nevertheless, my suffering was far from over and although I was near death, the policemen kept beating me even while I was hanging unconscious. Perhaps they thought to revive me in this manner, but when their savagery failed to achieve the desired result, they took me down and doused me with a bucket of water. This method also failed them, because I could not lie to them when they demanded that I tell them “the truth”.

It would seem that other innocent people dragged there suffered the same fate I did, and so finally, the policemen decided to transfer me. We were told to go out to the yard, where a car was already waiting for us to climb into. However merely entering the car was too easy in the eyes of the inhuman policemen, and they shoved the prisoners and whipped us left and right, banging heads and wounding other body parts until the very last moment when the car started moving.

Where? They answered: to the infamous prison, Paviak.

There was no delay this time before we were placed in a dark cell that was already full of other prisoners. The cell was typically small – 2x2 meters – and the 12 prisoners in it made it unbearably crowded. It was impossible to even lean, let alone to sit. We were forced to stand.

At the top of the wall, near the ceiling, was a small hatch that let in a bit of sunshine that made it possible to see other people. Those were the “veteran” prisoners, most of them criminals, men of the underworld whose faces and expressions attested their “social standings”.

Wearied by the events of the day I was too tired to stand and since I was unable to sit I tried to find something to lean against, but I could not reach the wall because the place was too crowded.

People suddenly started talking to me in Polish, and even in Yiddish. They asked me what brought me there, but when I told them what happened they disbelieved me. “Don't lie in here!” they thundered at me, hinting that there are rules to be honored “among thieves”. But after repeating the facts again and again, I managed to convince them and they left me alone.

During our conversation we started to get used to the situation somehow, and I asked them why they were incarcerated. I received a detailed list of common crimes such as murder, manslaughter, rape and so on, as well as the appropriate sentence – 10, 15, 20 years and so on.

 

Helped by Urke Nachalnik

They were mostly interested to know if I had any money. I told them I didn't, even though I hid some guldens in my sandals for emergencies. Knowing that I came from “outside”, they refused to leave me alone until I revealed my secret, saying that I only had enough for cigarettes. My honest plea failed to impress them. They took every coin I had and one of them beat me up on the spot. I started crying in despair and was approached by one of the Jewish prisoners, who whispered to me that I should lodge a complaint with the “cell leader”. I did as he told me and reported to a middle-aged looking prisoner who was easily distinguished from the rest, since he was the only one who had a mattress… he was also addressed by everyone with the title “doctor”. I didn't know whether this nickname was a result of vast scholarship or attendance of a university, but perhaps it had nothing to do with education in the first place. At any rate, I followed the example of others and turned to him with my story. He listened attentively without interrupting me and then called the prisoner who slapped me and judged him on the spot, carrying the sentence out himself by beating up the gentile and chastising him, saying “this is a friend of ours and may not be beat up”.

As for the money that was taken, it became public property… but since I told them that I had some guldens for cigarettes they dedicated the money to the purchase of cigarettes, distributed by the cell leader among the prisoners.

This development taught me that at the very least my life was not completely forfeit and there was someone to protect me from the cruelty of the anti-Semite prisoners. I later found out that the man was the famous Urke Nachalnik.

 

Prison routine

I started settling into the prison routine. Looking around me, I began to see the typical characteristics of a prison. I saw the degeneration and the pressure people were in, I smelled the terrible stench from the indoors toilet in the cell, heard the secret language of the prisoners who tapped it on both sides of the wall and having no choice in the matter, settled into the social circle of prison life. And quite the literal circle it was, to be sure.

“Every person has his follies and every society its habits,” as the saying goes, and that includes customs, traditions, games, and so on. The inmates in prison also have their own traditional customs and typical games. One such game that I was forced to partake in was called “the circle”. Everyone forms a circle and one by one the prisoners have to walk along it, allowing other prisoners to kick them. You can imagine the state in which a person leaves such a game, particularly a novice like myself who didn't know how to protect himself and cover his vulnerable parts, but I had no choice. If I failed to partake in this game they would have hounded me every step of the way. I later found out that this game was an initiation that every new prisoner had to go through and it was set up especially for me…

As time went by, new prisoners were put in the circle occasionally while I, already one of the “veteran” residents, took an active part in the game (and not passively as before).

 

Set free by Yitzhak Grinbaum and Anchel Reis

While I was gone from my home and town, my acquaintances were searching for me in all manner of places because they knew where I went and for what purpose. Finally, they managed to locate me. In the process, they discovered that I was not the only one to disappear, and that others were swallowed by the city during the protest, captured and locked up like myself.

Representatives of my youth movement have therefore approached the leaders of our movement – Yitzhak Grinbaum and Anchel Reis – asking them to contact the authorities and arrange our release. It seems they had significant influence, because we were released within 48 hours from the moment they took action.

A jailor came into my cell early in the morning, calling my name. When I answered, I was told to come with him. The prisoners asked “Is he coming back?” and the jailor told them I was, otherwise they would have beaten me up according to their custom. Instead, he told them I was being taken for interrogation.

I followed him through long corridors and into a locker room where the clothes of the prisoners were kept, and received my clothes back. I checked my possessions and found that some things were missing, but I thought it was pointless to argue over. We went into a large hall where Yitzhak Grinbaum and Anchel Rice waited for us, and they took us to the Israeli Office where our papers were arranged on the spot. Two days later I immigrated to Israel.


[Page 136]

A Compilation of Memories from Wierzbnik

Yoseph Citrinbaum

When I was still a little boy, my family moved from the big city of Lodz to the quiet town of Wierzbnik. At first, I was enrolled into the Heder of Moshe Dan and later I studied under Zelikel, who was known at the time for his use of modern teaching methods, such as self-instruction. He made students study together, pairing an advanced student with a weak one and giving them the freedom to study all manner of sources and interpretations – MaHaRSha, Tzlach, Maharam and so on (difficult questions and arguments). He hardly interfered with our studies, merely overseeing the students. He would go from class to class, listening and observing, and tended to rub his hands in satisfaction when he was pleased with a correct answer.

Thursdays were our judgment days, as the testers quizzed us on what we studied during the week. Among them were learned scholars such as Mordechai Rotenberg's son-in-law, Welwl (who made us all quiver), Itche Meir the kosher butcher, Jechiel Pszytycki, Yankel Mandelzis, and Zvi Wajzer.

We were overjoyed when the renowned philanthropist Heller arranged for us to have classes on weekdays. The teacher Yitzhak Meir Melman came from Apta and for the first time we studied Hebrew and Polish. This teacher was a dignified Jew with a long flowing beard, well versed in his calling. On Hanukkah he organized a public test night at the great Beit Midrash, which was filled with people. He tested us one after the other: one student asked the question and another answered. The test started off easy, with the first grade students, and concluded with our class, the most advanced. At the end of the test we received prizes from Neta Kornwaser, the head of the board and the most dynamic activist.

 

Society and establishment

The town of Wierzbnik continued to develop, growing and expanding, following the growth and flourishing of the industry in Starachowice which affected the growth of the town as a whole.

Various institutes formed; the first and only Jewish bank in town was founded, under the management of Simcha Mincberg, providing great help to the merchants in town.

New houses were built, mostly in and around Starachowicka Street. A major part of Poland's iron industry (manufacturing the great Stalownia ovens from raw materials, as well as heavy weapons and the Prochownia gunpowder), its factories employed thousands of workers who worked two continuous shifts, naturally resulting in the quick growth of the town. The population grew as well, affecting the evolution of cultural and social life. The Tarbut School was founded, its classes taught by the excellent teacher Lupta, from Vilna. The political organizations filled with lively youths. Among the organization founded were the Jewish Organization, Mizrachi Youths, HeHalutz, the Aguda, Beit-Yaakov and later P.A.I, the craftsmen organization, and sports organizations such as Maccabi and Hapoel, which were active in various sports fields and even dared to challenge Polish sports organizations.

The Zionist Organization organized questions and answers nights, initiated by chairman Moshe Birenzweig, during which the members of various political associations – Zionist Youth, Bund, radical left – engaged in ideological and literate debates, while conducting themselves in a civil manner.

Wierzbnik was represented by all manner of Hasidic Shtiblach. The Jews also took part in the management of town affairs. They were members not only of the town council but also the town administration. Yoseph Dreksler and Simcha Mincberg were practically its permanent representatives, representing the Jews of Wierzbnik in a dignified and proud manner and protecting their special interests.

 

Dark days

However our town was not spared times of woe.

The event in question took place on Succoth eve. We were shocked to learn of the arrest of dignified activists of the merchants' organization: Neta Kornwaser, elderly Chaim Zajfman, Yaakov Kornwaser, Shmuel Isser and the community secretary Mordechai Lis. Despite our pleas to the town's authorities, they were marched through the streets to the train station in chains on the first day of Succoth and sent to the prison in Radom. This event turned out to be the result of a provocation by a county bureau clerk who framed them.

It took the town a long while to recover from this harsh blow.

 

Zionism and immigration

And thus the town grew and developed and so did its youths, who thirsted for knowledge. Some left for the big cities, to study in high schools or Yeshivas as well as to “train” for immigration to Israel. The youths, who saw no future for themselves in the Diaspora, waited many years for the chance to immigrate. Sadly, many of them never fulfilled their lives' dream. Some accepted the situation – perhaps temporarily – and settled for the time being in Wierzbnik, waiting for a chance to immigrate as well.

I would like to mention here one of the great fellows who lived in Wierzbnik, our good friend Yoel Kumetz. He joined our group along with my friends Fishel Hirschhorn and Hershel Herblum, nicknamed the eternal purple.

Yoel was a scholar, a genius quick of wit but also as humble as they come. Despite his youth, he was a man of Torah. His thirst for knowledge led him to spend days and nights reading, and he was lively, keen and energetic. His eyes burned with wisdom and a will to live. He mastered Hebrew and Polish quickly and had a rich vocabulary, drawing of course from the Bible and Talmud.

The letters he wrote to me while I was in the Polish army (some of which I still have) are a small remnant of his great spiritual wealth, which was yet to be fully developed and revealed. But he fell as quickly as he rose. He trained for potential immigration at the Sobaków kibbutz, but was killed in his prime and never lived to fulfill his heart's desire. It was at that time, during the early 1930s, that a few of the town's residents, among them my dear parents, rose, as if out of an inner urge, and fulfilled their dream of immigrating to Israel. They closed their businesses and immigrated, along with their families. Many were jealous of them for having the courage to make this bold move, but many misunderstood them and expressed their dismay.

 

Anti-Semitism and pogroms

The situation in Poland during those years was harsh in terms of both financial and personal security. A wave of rampant anti-Semite pogroms was raging around Poland at the time, led by the infamous lady doctor Pristor. The atmosphere turned ugly and pogroms took place in Przytyk, Przysucha and elsewhere, but the residents of Wierzbnik felt that “nothing could happen here”. After all, our town was filled with modern workers. Unfortunately, the horrors of the Holocaust applied to Wierzbnik just the same and the community and its Jews were swallowed by oblivion. Wierzbnik, formerly a magnet for Jews in the area, near and far, was left empty of Jews. This town, which was saturated with a lush and fundamental Judaism, fell silent and vanished. Hardly any survived; a few members of each family.

I am reminded of a few righteous and honest people who walked among us: Chanoch Biderman, a wonderful Hasid who studied the Torah day and night, a humble and noble man; Yeshayahu Guterman, Moshe Tenenbaum, and the great scholar Rabbi Mendel Tenenbaum; Moshe Pinchas Lichtenstein, a generous and noble man who was among the town's dignitaries – all of them scholars, merchants, distinguished men of means.

The central town square (Rinek) was a vibrant commercial center, surrounded by Jewish stores and business places. And who can forget the great courtyard of Mysliborski, which was home to such town dignitaries as Itche Singer, Shmuel Kleiner and the Kornwaser, Dreksler, Brodbeker, Drajnudel, Rubinstein, Lis, Zukerman and Frimerman families, all of them among the pillars of our community.

I would also like to mention the Rabinowicz family, whose young son was the first victim shot in his store by an anti-Semite rioter.

Dear Jews of Wierzbnik, may the dirt be swept from your eyes. You, who were silenced without cause. May God avenge you. Your memories shall live on in our hearts.


[Page 139]

The Carousel

Yitzhak Kerbel

The arrival of the carousel, built in the courtyard by the old school, in front of the home of the Bernek family of tinsmiths, was a great event, practically a holiday for the entire town.

The carousel became the center of life and interest for children, youths and even adults. It was not one of the elaborate, electricity-powered carousels we have today, and required people to climb up a ladder and push it around and around. Ten children were required to move it, and for every five turns of the carousel they received a reward – a ride of their own on the carousel.

There was no shortage of candidates among the children and the only problem was escaping the Heder to do this “holy work”. And here is our tale: A bunch of us were pupils of Shlomo Shenner, and we agreed one day to escape during recess, go push the carousel and then receive our free ride.

Unfortunately for us, our plot was discovered and our angry Melamed and his special cane paid a visit to the carousel.

As soon as we sat down, some on horse and some in cart, and the carousel started to move, our Melamed popped out of nowhere and whack! Raised his cane and smacked each kid passing him by on the carousel. And I dare you to try and jump off the carousel while it picks up speed with every turn.

 

Pork

This incident happened to me during my days in elementary school. During recess, I was approached by the shegetz Yozef Sobicinski, son of a butcher and pork seller, who stuffed a piece of pork into my mouth. As a Jewish boy from an orthodox household, it was only natural that I felt shame and humiliation, and in front of dozens of Jewish and Polish kids no less. I was not a very strong boy but I was driven by fury, and to this day I wonder where I got the strength to knock down such an ox of a shegetz and beat him bloody.

This event naturally came to the attention of our principal Toznik, who was a notorious anti-Semite, and often made disparaging remarks about the Jews.

We were called into his office to clear things up, but instead he directed a venomous question at me: “Are Jews beating up the Poles in Poland now?”

That was the extent of the discussion, and nothing I said helped. I was sentenced to a flogging, which I still felt for many days.

Nevertheless, in the aftermath of this event no shegetz dared raise his hand on a Jew at school, and clearly I became a hero to the Jewish students.


[Page 140]

Memories of my Home

Moshe Sali – Kerbel

The distance of time and the weight of the long years since I left my home have blurred and dimmed not a few of the experiences and events of my childhood and youthful years. Many of them have actually been forgotten. Nevertheless, I have firmly decided to do everything I can to gather together and exhaust every kernel of my past memories that can shed light on life in the home of my parents, from which I drew my desires and longing for the land of our fathers.

It was a home with deep roots and a rich tradition, a thoroughly Jewish home with an abundance of light, faith and warmth.

My father – was a scholarly and learned Jew, with a sharp mind, a refined pen and a well of knowledge. He was, in fact, an adjudicator and arbitrator, a “smoother out” of disputes between partners and competitors in matters of trade and commerce. Many people used to come to him for advice, begging for counsel. He was very popular and respected by everyone. His quick-wittedness and analytical ability paved his way to being at the head of the circles with which he came into contact. His appearance among Gentiles was that of a proud Jew with a straight back, whether it was on matters of taxes or business. He was an outspoken man of letters and the Book of Books never left his hand. He used to look into it at every opportunity. He especially loved “the holy language” and he made an effort to ensure that we would also be infected with this love for it. He was inundated with the best cultural and educational values, modest in day-today life, with admirable behavior and ways. The Bible and the Talmud, books by Hassidim and Maimonedes' Guide for the Perplexed, the Kuzari and the Hebrew newspaper Hatzfira and the monthly journal Haolam and the yellowed with age pages of Hashiloah – all found their place under one roof, and lay next to each other.

More than once, when he felt bad, expressions of his feelings would come tumbling out of his mouth, either poetry or humming Hebrew songs to himself. I drank from these springs like a thirsty man and absorbed the eternal values of the oppressed and beleaguered Jewish people.

I remember how on Sabbath afternoons students from the schools used to come to our house to let my father hear what they knew in the Bible or the Talmud, in order to receive a sign of approval from an expert and authority, from a literate and scholarly man, who was also knowledgeable in the ways of the world.

He suffered greatly when the dreadful period of destruction arrived, but he bore the torment with superhuman courage, and he always knew how to adapt himself to the conditions and limitations of the time. He aroused admiration with his animation and he struggled with his bitter fate. He bore his fate with stoic tranquility and with faith and complete awareness, with no illusions about what was decreed and what awaited him.

My Mother – She was the soul of the house and its heart. She was the epitome of warmth, feeling, love and modesty. An abundance of softness and gentleness shone from her entire being. She was humble and modest in all her ways. The family framework filled her entire life. Limitless devotion, an extraordinary love for her children, her house – those were her attributes. All heartaches, all sicknesses were reflected in her face. She was a real “Jewish mother”, in the loftiest meaning of the word. Despite the distance between parents and children, she understood us and loved us dearly – and we, the children, paid her back in the same coin – with limitless love.

She was “a woman of valor”, i.e. a capable woman, and her hands were always busy with work. She didn't know what it meant to rest, to be unoccupied or to take a break from work. From dawn until late at night she washed and cleaned, cooked, sewed and kept busy – she was an utterly dear mother and a wonderful housewife. It wasn't all that simple to raise children and to run a home expansively – and she did everything herself, worry about everything and everyone, big, and small. However, she never complained, even at the hardest times she knew how to hide her sorrow deep in her heart and suffer silently. The beautiful face of our dear and beloved mother, on Sabbaths and holidays, when everything shone from cleanliness and beauty, and everyone's heart was filled with joy – was like restoration for her deep motherly feelings and for her soul.

Although the roots of my parents' life were in the Diaspora, they loved the Land of Israel of the wonderful past, the Holy Land, the land of our fathers and mothers, the land of longing, of the Maarot Hamachpela[1], Rachel's Tomb and the Western Wall – just like it was told in the stories of the Bible.

The life of the Jews and of the family found their fullest expression on the Sabbath and on the Jewish holidays. How pleasant and uplifting these holidays in the bosom of the family were. How much beauty, warmth and joy the Sabbath brought every week. All the preparations and all the weekdays were like a corridor, to receive the Sabbath Queen. And the Sabbath was bathed in a halo of light and heavenly festivity that cannot be described in words – a sort of cult of holiness. There was a feeling of renewal, all the lamps were lit and the candles in the silver candlestick spread a streaming light throughout the whole house. Going to prayers and saying “Shalom Aleichem” and “Woman of Valor”[2] with a sweetly pleasant melody, and then the Kiddush and sitting around the beautifully set table, with the special Sabbath foods and the beautiful dishes made of real porcelain. We all felt like “royalty”, like free men – free of all worries. And on the Sabbath morning – the celebration of the “shalosh seudot“ [three meals – which it was obligatory to eat on the Sabbath], and the Sabbath songs and reading the holy books – and then came the Havdala ceremony [to separate the Sabbath from the rest of the week], which separated the sacred from the profane, and the “Melaveh Malka“ meal [the last meal on the Sabbath, to accompany the Sabbath queen] together with the Hassidim of the Aleksandria rabbi. All this contained such a wonderful completeness and faith in Divine Providence, and in the mission of the Chosen People.

The Passover holiday was distinguished by extraordinary beauty. The preparations for this holiday went on for weeks, the house was truly turned inside out; the dishes were made kosher with boiling water, matzos were baked, and then the “search for leavened food” with the light of a candle [on the day before Passover], cleaning it up and selling it, and then came the main event: the Seder evening. The plate with haroses [mixture of fruit, nuts and wine, symbolically eaten at Passover] and bitter herbs and the bone, Elijah's cup, together reading the Haggada with the special melody, the Four Questions, asked by the youngest son, opening the door to let out the Lord's wrath, and the table that was prepared according to custom and was filled with delicious Passover dishes, with kneidlech [matzo balls] – and the wonderful story of the Exodus from Egypt was recited until late at night.

And the same was true for the other holidays – Lag Baomer – bows and arrows, Shavuot and dairy foods, Simchat Torah and dancing with the Torah scroll, every child with a flag and with great joy in their hearts, and stories about the heroism of the Maccabees; at Hanukah – latkes, games with the dreidl [top], Purim – wonderful masks, “mishloach manot“ [exchanging goodies with the neighbors], Hamantaschen [triangular filled cookies], the noise of the rattles whenever Haman's name was mentioned, and the reading of the Book of Esther. At Succoth – engaging in the construction of the sukkah, dragging branches and decorations, ribbons and brightly-colored lanterns, purchasing a beautiful etrog [citron] and a kosher lulav [ceremonial frond composed of palm leaves, willow and myrtle]. The deep emotion and sacred preparations for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur [the Day of Judgment] are indescribable – selecting the “kapparot[3] – a white rooster for the head of the family and white hens for the women. The trembling during the “ten days of repentance” [between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur] and traveling to the rabbi in Aleksandria or to the Ostrowec rabbi – all with deep, earnest faith, with great joy of life. Every holiday and Sabbath were like a new occasion in themselves, which created extraordinary stimulation and excitement in us children.

Who can relate and describe the richness of the unforgettable experiences on the Jewish Sabbaths and holidays – the way they were celebrated with such glory and brilliance, with such deep content, with so much joy and youthful enthusiasm. The memories of the past, the acts of the present and the hopes of the future in the tradition of my home – filled our souls, and had an extraordinary, deep educational influence on us.

In my memory, and my sacred feelings I carry the memory of that life in my parents' house. Their ways are also instilled in me. At times of longing and yearning, the threads of my soul draw me to them, and with all my thoughts and feelings I become united with these dear beings, shedding a tear… Until that dreadful storm arrived, which ensured the annihilation of everything and shook up that magnificent tree, encountered its trunk and tore it up by the roots.

May their souls be inscribed in the Book of Life – may their memory forever shine in the Jewish people, which is renewing its life in its own eternal homeland.

If the priority of mankind against death is remembrance – then let us gather their images and let us bring them out in these memorial pages, let us give form to and perpetuate their special sound, which was silenced in such a tragic and cruel way from our symphony of life, through human beasts that boasted of being “people of a higher race”, may their names be wiped out forever.


  1. The cave in Hebron where Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca and Jacob and Leah are buried. Return
  2. A Woman of Valor, called Eshet Chayil in Hebrew, is a hymn which is customarily recited on Friday evenings, after returning from synagogue and singing “Shalom Aleichem” and before sitting down to the Shabbat evening meal. It is from the book of Proverbs (31). Return
  3. In expiation of their sins, the sins were transferred to the chicken, which was then slaughtered. This is a survival of the scapegoat ceremony in the Temple in Jerusalem. Return

 

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