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[Page 143]

Characters

 

[Page 144]

Town Dignitaries (Characters)

Zvi Faigenbaum

Even an entire community of saints has certain prominent people whose attributes set them apart, whether they excel in Torah and lore, wealth and wisdom, heritage and virtue or leadership qualities and public work. They represent the public blessed by their presence, and the community looks up to them in times of trouble. And in times of joy and merriment, they are the great ones who represent our generation.

The community of Wierzbnik also had such great individuals of virtue, who were considered “the town's finest”. With awe and a sense of deep respect I will try and commemorate those characters who were the “finest” of the Wierzbnik community before the Holocaust storm – some, but not all, because it is impossible to name them all. Those who deserve to be numbered among them and receive no mention here also deserve our respect and have my apologies.

 

Rabbi Chanoch Biderman

A distinguished man who studied the Torah and worked day and night. Even while entertaining guests, he was never seen without a book. Rabbi Hanoch also wrote a book on kabala, which he never got in print. He was an opinionated man and stood by his convictions even when it meant going against popular opinion. He never caved before others. Two events demonstrate this quality of his, insisting that he is right:

 

Individual opinion

During the days of World War I, most of the Jews in town (at the time under the rule of the Russian Tsar) considered German victory to be a salvation for Israel. They have prayed for such victory because they thought “it would be good for the Jews”. Rabbi Chanoch was the only person to object to this reasoning, saying that the victory of the Russian Tsar would be better for the Jews than a victory for the enlightened Germans.

His opinion was considered controversial at the time, but we know now what good comes to the Jews from German victories and what aid and succor we can expect from the “forces of tomorrow” that vanquished the Tsar…

At the beginning of World War II, when all people in town except for a few youths left the place because of the bombings, Rabbi Chanoch and his wife Rivka were the only people who stayed behind. Everyone was astonished to see him intentionally put himself in the way of harm, but reality proved him right in retrospect. Nothing happened to the town, but those who followed “common sense” and escaped, like Jacob in his time, were subject to many perils and managed to return home (in part) only after many hardships…

 

A mark from King David

His livelihood came from a brewery he owned in Szydłowiec. His wife Rivkale Biderman, an intelligent woman graced with an air of nobility, assisted him. She managed the affairs of the brewery, allowing her husband to focus on matters of heaven. The two earned the respect of the entire community, including the gentiles. While they were fairly wealthy, they led a humble life, offering generous aid to the needy.

Rabbi Chanoch was also highborn. According to the tales of his ancestors, he was a direct descendant of King David. Like his father, Rabbi Moshe Biderman (of Szydłowiec), there was a kind of furrow circling his head, which legends told was formed on King David's head by the crown he wore, a mark he passed down to his descendants. Like his forefather, Rabbi Chanoch, he cherished this status and maintained its dignity.

 

Rabbi Yeshayahu Guterman

A descendant of Rabbi Yaakov Guterman, head of the Admor line of Radzyń. He was a dignified, soft-spoken man, radiating a sense of nobility that earned him the respect of all.

He was among the richest people in town even before World War I. Mrs. Zelda was known as a capable woman, who managed their wholesale tobacco shop.

In 1919-1920, during the Bolshevik army's invasion of Poland, when the Polish government announced a general draft to fend off the invaders, a Yeshiva student named Berish Blumenfeld was arrested for desertion and was to be court-martialed and possibly sentenced to death. Yoseph Tubman managed to convince (using bribe) the judge to set a high bail for his release until his trial. The plan was for him to entirely avoid the trial, which could only end in his death. Who would vouch for him? They turned to Yeshayahu Guterman, who never hesitated but went quickly to court, signing his wall house at the corner of Rinek-Iłżacka as bail for the return of the prisoner, knowing that he never intended to show up…

Yeshayahu returned to the home he just compromised, content in knowing that he risked his property to save a Hebrew soul.

His sons, Israel-Yaakov and Yoseph, were also like him. They were honest, virtuous and among the town's dignitaries.

Among his surviving descendants are: his son Berish and his wife Esther, who passed away in the United States but not before marrying their sons Yitzhak and Moshe who live today in the States.

His daughter – Chaya Gutsman, who also made a new home in this country, Libcha, his granddaughter (daughter of Yoseph) who married as well and lives in the great Jewish community in New York.

 

Rabbi Avraham Mordechai Rotbart

An intelligent scholar, who came to Wierzbnik from Wolin as a senior clerk of the Heller firm that controlled the woodcraft and lumber-mill trade in and around town. He was respected by the people, who acknowledged his understanding in matters of spirit and the needs of the public. Also served as head of the community.

He was among the founders of the Tarbut Torah and Beit Yaakov schools. This school for girls, which was appreciated by the entire population, was located in his wall house on Iłżacka Street. Lastly, he served as manager for the Kopycki bank, the Jewish cooperative, along with Mr. Simcha Mincberg. This institute was also located at his home. In 1941 he fell ill, needed special medical help that was not available, and as a result suffered from toxemia and passed away.

Among his sons-in-law we met Rabbi Welwl and Yitzhak Shlomo, whose daughter Yehudit survived the Holocaust, married in Israel and lives in Tel-Aviv.

 

The brothers Rabbi Moshe Pinchas and Rabbi Yoseph-Reuven Lichtenstein

Both came from a house of “Torah and Greatness”. The two came from Lodz and founded a plywood factory. Each had many positive traits. Yoseph Reuven was a great religious scholar, while Moshe Pinchas was a learned man in his own right, but excelled more in the field of management and trade. He was also a gifted singer. When he prayed in public on Shabbats and holidays he brought great spiritual joy to his fellow prayers. The two took part in every charity enterprise and contributed to every need of the community. Their house was a meeting place for scholars and their conduct august. Both were martyred by the bullets of the bane, on the bitter day when they could not find the strength to go to the Rinek where the Jews of our community were gathered, some to be sent to the furnaces of Treblinka and others sent for hard labor and torture in the camps, where only a few survived.

Among their surviving descendants who live in Israel are: Rabbi Simcha Mincberg, (son-in-law to Moshe Pinchas) with his son Menachem and his daughter Rivka, both of whom raised families.

The grandchildren of Reuven-Yoseph – Chava Kilman-Singer (wife of Jerachmiel Singer), her sister Renia Frimerman (in the United States) and her brother Zeev all raised families and live with them. Zeev's son, Yoseph, died as a hero protecting the people and country during The Six Day War.

 

Rabbi Shmuel Cohen

A scion of a noble family, he came to Wierzbnik from Warsaw after World War I, marrying Yocheved, daughter of Rabbi Mordechai David Kornwaser. He was an extraordinary person, a scholar who spoke many languages and knew much of the world, and an idealist who believed in people and trusted them. Assisted by his wife, Mrs. Yocheved, and his daughters Tova and Malka, he ran a wholesale store. He was an honest man, and respected by people. He was also chosen (for a single cadence) as member of the town council. Under the Nazi occupation he was appointed a member of the community board, which mainly handled matters of welfare, providing support for Jews in need.

His home was a meeting place for public activists, especially in the ghetto. People would gather in his apartment for morning and evening prayer and to say Kaddish (prayer for the dead), as well as to seek solutions and possible means of escape from the siege. During the time of Holocaust and ruin.

He lived through the hardships of the camps. He was dragged from camp to camp, labored hard and suffered famine. His desire to survive was never realized. Two weeks before his liberation he could suffer no more and died at the Flossenbürg concentration camp in Germany, joining his martyred family members who passed away before him in different times and under different circumstances: his wife and his youngest son in Treblinka, his son-in-law Yoseph shot before our very eyes during the march from the Rinek to Strzelnica and his infant grandchild also murdered before our very eyes at the ghetto in Szydłowiec.

Survived: his daughters Tova and Malka, and his son, David Cohen. All raised great families according to the tradition of their noble family.

 

Rabbi Jechiel Pszytycki

Although he was not a rich man but rather, suffered from poverty all his life, he earned himself a place at the eastern wall. This was due to his personal qualities: he was a Hasidic scholar who observed the commandments. He too was a public activist. For years he served as head of Hevra Kaddisha, skillfully managing its affairs, preserving the honor of the dead and the wellbeing of the living. He was gifted with a pleasant voice and a gentle manner. As a cantor, he excelled at leading prayer during holidays, the High Holidays and during the three pilgrim festivals.

His daughter Hanna, her husband Moshe Najman and their children, along with Jechiel and his wife Rachel, were all led with the rest of the town's martyrs to the furnaces of Treblinka, while their son Zvi died in similar fashion among the Jews of Szydłowiec. His daughter Rivka, on the other hand, who survived the furnaces of the Nazis, was murdered by Polish villains after the war, in the town of Gdynia, along with Ms. Miriam, daughter of Avraham Zylberberg.

 

Yoseph Dreksler

Yoseph Dreksler was an outstanding public activist, who had a large family in Wierzbnik. It is said that his family was related in some way to every other family in town.

As an employee of the local treasury he was coming and going among the senior clerks of the local authorities and he would often use his connections to help townsmen who required the aid of this office.

He acquired his extensive education on his own, and knew something about everything. Every evening he was visited by friends, his house serving as a meeting place for scholars. People would gather to read the “Haynt” or to talk about politics until the late hours of the night. He himself was a man of many positive attributes, remarkably patient and collected, even when others around him were distraught.

His daughter, Mrs. Rachel Laor (Dreksler) tells about him: “I remember a time when a woman came to talk with my father about her tax troubles. Her words made me believe that her claims are not quite justified, but my father refrained from bluntly pointing out her mistakes. The woman, however, reacted differently than one might expect. Ungratefully, she started swearing at my father and chastising him. I was amazed at the calm with which my father met her rudeness. He calmed her down and even promised to help. When she left, I asked him why he behaved in such an unusual manner, and he told me: “Don't judge your fellow men until you walked a mile in their shoes, the woman is in trouble and therefore we must show her plenty of tolerance and understanding.”

Yoseph Dreksler was among the wealthy men in town, but his wealth never made him aloof, serving instead as a way of expressing his positive qualities, by offering people material aide in the form of anonymous donations, unknown to any but his close family. The virtues he was gifted with complemented each other; he was calm, reserved, and considered matters before making up his mind, but he also adhered to his own principles. Among his closest associates were Simcha Mincberg, Yoseph Unger, Moshe Birenzweig, Avraham Zylberberg and Yoseph Tenzer. They were a regular group and had much in common with each other, maintaining a years old friendship and acting in fact as the public leadership of the town Jews in the south.

When the war broke out, he left Wierzbnik with his family and traveled to Russia, where he worked in the virgin forests of the north around Arkhangelsk until his release following the agreement between Polish general Sikorski and the Russians, which affected the release of all former Polish citizens.

 

Honorable loser

Our elders knew the heroic secret of restraint, subduing urges and subjecting them to the laws of logic and reason, and their insight was conveyed with remarkable succinctness: Who is a hero? He who conquers his passions. It would seem that Yoseph Dreksler was gifted with this virtue, a man capable of conquering his passion even under circumstances that would make others furious.

His daughter Rachel recalls a typical event, when her father ordered large quantity of flour just before the prices dropped in a way that would incur him considerable losses. Since the goods were not delivered by the supplier yet, his partners advised him to break the deal. Advised isn't the right word for it; they begged, pleaded and pressured him, but he insisted on keeping his word. “When I say something,” he told them, “I must keep my word, no matter what!” The partners refused to give up and continued pleading. At times, the discussion would heat to the point where they could hear across the line the sound of the receiver slamming down as it dropped from Yoseph Dreksler's shaking hands. He was a man of principles and hard to dissuade.

Dreksler was always a believer in the Zionist cause and did much to realize the return to Zion. Even during the harsh times he spent on the Russian taiga, faced with famine and a cold weather that dropped to -50??c, he had faith that he will reach Israel.

His dream came to pass. After his release from the camp in Siberia, he traveled with his family to Uzbekistan and from there, through Persia, to Israel.

Here he bore witness to the founding of the State of Israel. He passed away here in 1967.


[Page 149]

Pola Laks, the Noble Woman

Jerachmiel Singer

Pola Laks, of the Tenenbaum family, was born in Sandomierz and following her graduation from the Russian high school has dedicated her time to helpful public activity. Filled with a desire to help others, she worked both in the general-public field, and in a personal, direct way.

When the first refugees started pouring in from Germany during the years 1936-1937, she went to great pains to offer them the necessary help, and did even more during World War II, when the pogroms against our people were rapidly escalating.

She was a dedicated Zionist and one of the key movement activists in town, served as the head of the local WIZO organization and founded the local branch of “Young WIZO”. Her virtues earned her the affection of the public in Wierzbnik and she was awarded with positions such as membership in the organizational board of the Tarbut school and sole representative of the Jewish community on the representative committee of the national high school in Starachowice.

Pola worked hard to raise the cultural level of the Jewish population in town, while taking constant care to improve the living conditions of the town's Jews. Her husband, Yitzhak Laks, a native of Sosnowych who later settled in Wierzbnik, served as her loyal partner in public activism and was as active as she was in the local movement.

Pola died during World War II, during the eviction on October 1941, while her husband died in Auschwitz in 1944.

Her blessed work and her noble character are inscribed in the hearts of our townsmen and her memory shall live forever.


[Page 150]

Reb Shmuel Kleiner's House

M. Sali-Kerbel

Reb Shmuel Kleiner's house was known and famed in the entire city as a welcoming and friendly house that was always open to all, and every person who suffered from pain, distress and a heavy heart, who needed either moral or material assistance, found it in that patriarchal house from the dear Jew who was imbued with sympathy for others, Reb Shmuel Kleiner and his family.

An extraordinary and special grace had been poured onto this house. An atmosphere of happiness and peace filled with sympathy reigned there. The refinement and the cultural, nationalistic and traditional methods of upbringing could be felt in every step, so that many Wierbznik families wondered at and viewed such a beautiful Jewish home with envy.

 

The head of the family, Reb Shmuel Kleiner, of blessed memory, as I stated, led a patriarchal Jewish home, which was permeated with and rooted in traditional Jewish national values. He himself was tall and was always modestly and neatly dressed, with great elegance and taste. He was a great philanthropist and also actively contributed to Mizrachi in collections for the Land of Israel, especially for Keren Hayesod. In a word, this was a house of “Torah and merchandise” [this rhymes in Yiddish and means of learning and material wealth]. It was a house in which old-time specifically Jewish books were mixed with new international books and writings, and produced a new forwardmoving generation whose gaze reached far horizons[1].

 

His gracious wife Sheindele, of blessed memory, was a true, typical “Yiddishe mame“ [Jewish mother]. She managed the house with great modesty and devotion, worried about every little thing, and the house shone with light and cleanliness. She was a good-hearted woman, suffused with limitless love for Jews, and she was respected by everyone. Understandably, with such blessed parents the children received a proper upbringing, and they developed and grew and were a source of pride and pleasure for their parents. The entire house bubbled and shone with modernism, with cheerfulness, with life and a sense of accomplishment.

 

The oldest son Fishl, of blessed memory, was a young man with education gleaming from his face, a gentleman, a businessman and at the same time a great scholar, well versed in the “small print', as we say. He was known as a young man who incorporated in himself Jewish history, knowledge and current world culture, in a word “Torah and wisdom”[2].

 

The second son, Yaakov, of blessed memory[3], was a handsome young man with the face of a scholar, with an open mind and an open heart, aware and sharp, and talented in all areas, in affairs of commerce or problems of development, and in addition he was politically active in the echelons of the Zionist movement, and afterwards was one of the founders of the revisionist organization in the city.

In this way the family lived a harmonious, good life, and the house was simply an idyll, and the children had the greatest respect for their parents. With the passing of time Fishl and Yaakov successfully managed their lumber business together with their father.

Afterwards they married and each one separately began – with the help of the family – to build his own family nest. But they always had great respect for their parents, their warm home, and came to visit them frequently.

With the passing of time, the head of the family, Reb Shmuel Kleiner, passed away, and afterwards also his wife Sheindl. Then bitter fate cast its grim wrath on Fishl and his family and they all perished at the hands of the Nazi beasts. That was also the fate of the splendid young man Yaakov, in his best years. Yaakov's wife and his one and only daughter survived and now live in Israel.

 

Their daughter Sarale (Sala), who married the well-know attorney Leon Wiesenfeld from Tarnobrzeg, also survived the bloody time of the Hitler regime, and now lives in Caracas.

 

Their son Yossl, who on his young shoulders bore the entire period of torture in the concentration camps, married Roszke Kerbel of Wierbznik. They also presently live in Caracas, Venezuela. They both raised beautiful families, which can serve as an example for others as to what energy, perseverance, great effort, a strong character and a firm will can achieve.

These are two homes of Jewishness, philanthropy and good deeds, with a deep traditional-nationalistic drive to bring up their children in that direction.

The young remaining twigs of the large, many branched tree of the Kleiner house, which was cut down so tragically by the murderers, became stronger and more extensive, and took upon themselves the holy duty willed to them, of transplanting their life in the spirit that they had absorbed in the home of their parents.

These roots provided the strength and the will to pass on the cultural values and the good behavior and traits, the beautiful traditional mentality of their old home, to their children.

This is the great consolation for the family. May their holy and beloved souls remain forever in our heart and be eternally inscribed in our memory.


  1. When looking at the gruesome dark days of the Nazi occupation, Reb Shmuel Kleiner was extremely distressed by the cruelty and paid for it with his life, dying suddenly in 1940. His wife Sheindl perished at the hands of the Nazi murderers. Return
  2. He perished during the German occupation together with his wife Goldele, his daughter Rivche and his son Berek Return
  3. Yaakov was murdered in a terrible way by the Germans. Only his wife and their only daughter survived and presently live in Israel. Return


[Page 152]

The Admor of Chmelóv

Sara Postawski-Steinhardt

The rabbi of Chmielów was practically a part of our town's spiritual landscape, because of the many followers he had there. His visits to Wierzbnik were always great public events.

The Admor of Chmielów was the son of the rabbi of Ożarów, the Admor Arie Leibish, who served before settling in Ożarów as a rabbi in the communities of Tarłów, Afla and Chmielnik. A renowned scholar, the rabbi was also known as a holy man of great and widespread influence.

The dynasty of the Ożarów Admors originates in Rabbi Leibish Epstein, who was one of the greatest students of the Seer of Lublin. The rabbi of Chmielów, who was the son of Rabbi Leibish, was therefore following the holy path outlined by his holy ancestors.

His radiant personality (he was a man of stature), scholarship and virtue constantly expanded the number of followers who wanted to study under him. It was only natural that he had Shtiblach (Hasidic chapters) in many communities. The capital city of Warsaw boasted a particularly sizeable community of Chmielów Hasidim.

In our town of Wierzbnik, his Hasidim were significant and outstanding, both in terms of quantity (five quorums) and in terms of individual quality. The members of this Hasidic group shared bonds of love, fraternity and dedication to each other. Their friendship was inspired by the rabbi himself, who was a peace lover in the full sense of the words, and concerned with the fate of all his fellow men.

My father, who in the past served as a kosher butcher for the Tarłów community, was appointed in 1934 to be a kosher butcher in Wierzbnik. We had no trouble acclimating into this new place and society, and required no transition period, as if we were born there. The warmth shown to us by the Chmielów Hasidim in that place contributed to that fact. My brothers, my sisters and I all found our place right away both in society and at school.

The rabbi's visits, an honor to our community, have greatly strengthened our congregation and raised moral. The rabbi was typically accompanied by elder Hasidim, especially his old manservant Meir Nisles who was in the past a son-in-law of our important townsman, Hershel Fruman, a Hasid of Chmielów himself.

The “receptions” by the railway station whenever the rabbi came to visit our town were very impressive, and those Shabbats were both beautiful and happy. His glory and grace were felt everywhere we turned.

The rabbi would regularly stay at the home of his follower Jechiel Lerman. During the week, the house was astir, bustling with people coming and going, looking for advice and blessing. And on Shabbat, Jechiel Lerman would rearrange the whole place, turning his store into a large hall that housed the many prayers and at its center, a table so long that it would reach from one end of the room to the other.

Members of every Hasidic circle would participate in the feasts (fast) on Shabbat eve and on Shabbat day, the elders sitting by the rabbi and around the table while the rest stood around in rows. Among the important people who enjoyed a prominent place at the table and who are still among us were rabbi Zvi Wajzer, who graced the event with his sweet tunes and his pleasant, strong voice, and Simcha Mincberg who was a relative of the rabbi, his cousin on his mother's side.

 

Martyrdom

My father in particular would be filled with joy during those days when the rabbi visited our community. The rabbi and my father have shared a bond of friendship since the rabbi's days in Tarłów, and maintained it even when the rabbi moved to Tarłów and my father to Wierzbnik.
Wearing a “kitel”, wrapped in a tallit and with a tefillin on his arm, the rabbi of Chmielów, the Admor Israel David Halevi, led the community of Chmielów to martyrdom in Treblinka, where they were annihilated with the multitude of Israel.


[Page 154]

Memories from my Home

Moshe Sali (Kerbel)

I am eager to write down an outline or some anecdotes that would describe my parents' house. Although the time that passed since I left home has blurred the experiences and events of my childhood and youth, and many of them were forgotten completely or faded and blurred, I have decided to try my best in collecting and gleaning from the depths of the past every last ounce of memory that may shed light on the fundamental life in my parents' house, from which I drew my yearning for our fatherland.

Our home had a long history and a rich tradition, a typical Jewish house, filled with faith and warmth.

Father was a scholar, intelligent and clever. This is the reason that he was chosen to serve as judge and arbiter, settling disputes among partners and rivals, in matters of trade and finance. Many sought his advice and all paid him respect. His intelligence and analytic capabilities paved his way to leadership in the circles he traveled. Among the gentiles he maintained the image of a proud, tall Jew, whether dealing with matters of tax or of trade and prakmatia. He loved books and rarely set down the Bible, reading in it whenever he had the time. Torah and Hasidim were the foundations of his life. He also loved the holy tongue and tried to teach us to love it. He combined the best of culture and education, a humble and kind man. The Bible and the six books[1], the Hasidic scripts and Guide to the Perplexed, The Kuzari and the Hatzfira weekly, Haolam magazine and the age-yellowed pages of “Hashaluch”, all lived side by side on his shelf.

When depressed, he would often start singing or humming – “Take me under your wing” or “Di Blum”. It was those fountains that quenched my thirst and from which I absorbed the eternal ideals of our afflicted and persecuted people.

I remember the young torah students that came to our house on Shabbat afternoons, to tell father what they learned and earn the approval of a knowledgeable authority, a scholar familiar with the ways of the world.

The coming of the Holocaust caused him a fair share of misery, but he carried his torment with heroic, superhuman courage and was always able to adapt to the conditions and time constraints, showing remarkable vitality and accepting his fate with calmness and faith, fully aware of it and struggling inwardly but entertaining no illusions about what was soon to come, thus ending the circle of his life.

Mother was the heart and soul of the house. She bathed us in love, warmth and care. Her very being radiated great gentleness. She was always humble and chaste. Our family was her entire life. Endless dedication and honest concern for her children and home, those were her virtues. Her face reflected her heartbreak and weariness. She was the Yiddish Mother in the full sense of the words. Despite the gap between parents and their children, she understood and loved us, and we loved her.

My mother was a capable woman and always had work to do. She never rested or took a break. From dawn to midnight she labored, the ideal mother and housewife. It was not simple to raise so many children and take care of the household by herself, cleaning, washing the floors, cooking, roasting, laundering and washing, and sewing and patching clothes, darning socks and making food, and handling every detail, big or small. She never complained, even during the hardest of times, able to hide the sorrow in her heart and suffer in silence. Mother's radiant face on Shabbats, when the place was glowing, shed their own light and joy on all members of the household and served as a draught for her soul and her deep maternal emotions.

Although my parents' lives were rooted in the Diaspora, they loved “The land of Israel” of the glorious past, the holy land, land of our ancestors, the yearned land of The Cave of Machpelah, our mother Rachel's Tomb and the Western Wall, according to the stories of legend and the Bible.

Both Judaism and closeness were best expressed during the Shabbats and holidays of Israel. How pleasant were my holidays with my family. How much beauty, warmth and joy the Shabbat brought with it. It was as though the massive activity during the six days of the week was but a corridor welcoming Shabbat the Queen, and it had an aura of indescribable light and festiveness, a kind of sacred ritual. There was a sense of renewal, as the entire house was lit by every lantern and by the silver candlesticks. We went to say our Shabbat prayers at the Shtibl and came back from prayer saying “Shalom Aleichem” and “A Woman of valor, who will find” in a pleasant, flowing singsong, sanctified the wine and sat around the table laid with all the best, the special Shabbat dishes in their polished bowls, making us feel as though we were free kings.

And the next day we would conduct the three feasts, sing, read the holy scripts, and later conduct the ceremony separating holy from secular, the Melava Malka, together with the Hasidim of the rabbi of Alexander. These acts all carried with them a sense of perfection and faith in Providence and the calling of “the chosen people”.

Passover was particularly glorious. Preparations for the holiday took months; putting the house in order, whitewashing it, rinsing the dishes in scalding water to make them kosher, baking matzahs, looking for leavened food by candlelight, burning it and selling it, with the crowning event being the Seder. The unique bowl (including the Haroseth and Maror), Eliyahu's cup, telling the Haggadah together, the Four Questions asked by the youngest son, opening the door for “pour out your wrath”, the table laid with a variety of tasty delicacies, chief among them the dumplings, and tales of the Exodus which lasted until late hours.

The rest of the holidays were very much the same. On Lag Ba'Omer, a bow and arrow; on Shavuoth, papyrus bushes, vegetables and dairy products; on Simchat Torah, circling the synagogue, each child with his flag and much joy in his heart; on Hanukkah, fried pancakes, playing with a spinning top and wondrous tales about the heroics of the Hashmonaim-Maccabim; on Purim, costumes, Purim-gifts, Haman's ears, the noise of rattlers and reading the Book of Esther; on Sukkoth, the very participation in building the Sukkah, carrying the thatch and decorating the interior with ribbons and colorful lanterns, purchasing an elegant Etrog with a kosher Lulav and weaving a reed handle to hold the Arrabot and Hadasim.

The excitement and mental preparation for New Year and Yom Kippur are unimaginable. Choosing the Kaparot, a white rooster for the head of the family and chickens for the women, the shudder foretelling of the ten days of judgment and visiting the Rabbi of Alexander or the Rabbi of Ostrowiec, all offered a bit of innocence, faith and flavor to life. Thus every holiday and every Shabbat was a new, unique event that awakened us children to a unique way of life.

It is hard to fathom the depth of the experience that was the holidays of Israel celebrated in our home with grandeur and filled with content, joy and youthful mischief. The memories of the past, the deeds of the present and our wishes for the future mixed together in the best of our house's tradition, and had a deep, educative effect over us.

In my mind's eye I see the fabric of this life woven in my parents' house. Their essence is part of me, my heartstrings are drawn to them in times of yearning and longing, and the only thing on my mind is their precious, kind images, while the tears flow. Until the terrible storm came to devour everything, shook the family tree, wounded its trunk and uprooted it. May they rest in peace, their memory everlasting in the hearts of the people of Israel renewing its youth in its eternal homeland.

If man's advantage over oblivion is memory – let us keep their images in our memories and raise through these pages the unique tune that was so tragically and cruelly silenced, ripped from our lives by villains and predators who pretended to be members of a superior race, God damn them and their memory for ever more.


  1. Of Talmud Return

[Page 157]

Memories of our Home

Mania Rosenkrantz – Bagno (Minka)

In order to reflect the Jewish life in our shtetl in all its forms, it is necessary to describe not only the collective general community, but we must also look more deeply at the individual; we mean at the basic cell of life – the character and life style of a Wierzbnik Jewish family.

And since such a thing requires being knowledgeable about the details and the fine points of family life, we will here present the memories of our own home.

 

Reb Mendel Tennenbaum

A special page is here devoted to the eldest son of Menachem-Mendel Tennenbaum, of blessed memory, who was a great scholar and a well-known Talmudist.

For over 50 years he was a teacher in the city, i.e., until the destruction of the community at the hands of the murderous Nazis he filled his position with honor. The man was never separated from the Torah. In a page of the Talmud he found his world, there he sought and also found the consolation to forget the great misfortune he had suffered.

The teacher Reb Mendel Tennenbaum was married to Sarah, of blessed memory – the daughter of the Æmielów rabbi. Unfortunately, she died young and left behind seven children – orphans. His oldest son David, of blessed memory, was the rabbi of Kunow, a great Torah prodigy and student of the Ostrowiec rabbi. He was inundated with Torah and knowledge, and in Kunow he was considered a real tzaddik [saintly person].

Religious and honest, he tortured his body for the sake of Heaven. He was his father's greatest pride and joy. Regretfully, he didn't live very long. He died after a serious and short illness. He was mourned by hundreds of people and his death produced a general state of sadness.

The second son, Yaakov (Yankel) Tennenbaum, of blessed memory, was noted for his sharp mind as a prodigy. He studied in the Sokołow yeshiva and afterwards in the Ostrowiec yeshiva. At a very young age he received a teacher's permit from the Ostrowiec rabbi himself.

Yankel Tennenbaum, of blessed memory, was not satisfied with only the education from the yeshivas, he was also drawn to general education, general literature, mathematics, etc. He obtained the general education, without the knowledge of his ultrareligious father. He studied alone, fought against all the difficulties. He was an autodidact and a prodigy in all aspects, and filled with education and knowledge.

In public life he was well known by the youth for taking part in sharp discussions about various world problems.

The third son, Zadok, of blessed memory, died in the army in the anti-Semitic ultranationalist Poland.

Reb Mendel Tennenbaum's eldest daughter, Kayla, of blessed memory, was married to the Osów rabbi, who latter became the Chief Rabbi of New York, Rabbi Epstein. He was famous as a great Talmudist, as well as the author of many books, and also recently received the Rabbi Kook Institute in Israel award for his work on the Talmud.

The second daughter, Hanna, of blessed memory, was married to Yosef Orbach, of blessed memory, the well-known teacher of the Tarbut school in Kowal. He was distinguished in World War II for calling the Jews to resist and not to let themselves be slaughtered like sheep by the Germans. At the roll call at the time of the deportation, he was shot before the eyes of all the assembled Kowal Jews.

Of all his children, only his youngest daughter Minka survived, and she lives in Israel and is married to Moshe Bagno, a well-known activist in public affairs in this country [Israel]. For many years he had the honor of being the mayor of Bnei Brak. In recent years he has withdrawn from political and social work because of his bad state of health.

 

Reb Shmuel Tennenbaum

Shmuel Tennenbaum was very well known in the merchant circles of Wierzbnik. He ran a big business in the market from 1924. However, he was known in the city not only as a rich merchant, but also as one of the main founders of Mizrachi, and as such he was an adherent of the idea that proclaimed – “Torah and labor”, “Torah and Zionism”.

Shmuel Tennenbaum was a great public servant; he didn't just collect large sums of money for the Jewish National Fund, but he was also one of the major donors to Zionist causes. He even had a thank you letter from Menachem Ussishkin himself.

His greatest dream was to immigrate to the land of Israel. He even had certificates in 1939, but the outbreak of war interfered with the fulfillment of his deepest dreams.

Right at the beginning of the war, Shmuel was deported with blows falling on his head. The husband of his only daughter Roize fell in battle in the Polish army and left behind his pregnant wife. The business was demolished by the Nazi robbers and his wife was killed a short while later.

His daughter gave birth to the child in 1940, and afterwards she also died at the hands of the Nazis.

The little girl, his granddaughter, became an encumbrance for Shmuel Tennenbaum. The ground was burning under his feet, the times were coming when all Jewish children were sentenced to death and Shmuel Tennenbaum foresaw it with his realistic vision. At the last minute, with the help of a Polish woman he succeeded in placing the child in the forest near an orphanage run by priests.

The Christian woman entered the convent and stated that there was a child lying in the forest and crying. The priests took in the two-year old girl and asked her who her father was. The child had been born an orphan and actually never knew her father. She also didn't know her mother's name. She knew one thing – her name. In the register they listed the day that the child was found, the place where the child was found and her name.

Shmuel inscribed these details in blood in his memory and heart.

After this there was another disaster – the death of his son Moshe. The fact that he had given the little girl away gave him the strength to survive the most difficult times in the camps. He had to live at any cost – if not, what would be with the child, and he had to rescue her from the hands of the Catholics.

He survived the camps, and fate flung him to Rome. News reached there that the Polish anti-Semites were carrying out pogroms against the Jews and that specifically in Wierzbnik a few Jews had been murdered, who had barely come out of the hellish camps and had returned to Wierzbnik – to their former home. Disregarding this, Shmuel Tennenbaum returned to Poland to rescue the only child of his only beloved daughter. It wasn't that easy. With great effort and much money – he succeeded in getting the child out.

Today the girl has been in Israel for a long time. She married Dr. Mordechai Paz, who works in the Djeni Hospital in Jaffa – and is already herself the mother of two sweet children.

Unfortunately, Shmuel Tennenbaum did not live to enjoy this pleasure and satisfaction. He died in Rome in 1958, and left a will for his oldest son Haim, who lives in Brussels, requesting that he be brought to Israel and buried in the holy city of Jerusalem. His will was carried out.

Shmuel Tennenbaum's youngest son, Yerachmiel (Monia), lives in Rome, and manages his late father's well-known and only kosher hotel.

He follows the way of life of his late father, keeping a truly Jewish, religious home. His two sons study in yeshivas and are continuing their studies in Israel.

 

The Family of Reb Moshe Tennenbaum, of Blessed Memory

One of the oldest and most important families in Wierzbnik was the Tennenbaum family. The patriarch of the family, Reb Moshe Tennenbaum, the son of David Tennenbaum, was born in 1843. He was a great persona, well-known in the city as well as in other cities in the area – where he was called Moishel Wierzbniker [from Wierzbnik].

It is told that one time the Hassidim and scholars gathered together to travel to Wierzbnik, to the rich man, Reb Moishel, in order to receive donations for various causes – for yeshivas, for rabbis and ordinary donations for poor people. It was hard for them to pronounce the name Wierzbnik – so they began to think: why is it actually called Wierzbnik? Until they came to the conclusion that Wierzbnik is called Wierzbnik because Moishel Wierzbniker lives in Wierzbnik.

It sounds like a joke, but in fact, at that time – i.e. more than a hundred years ago, Wierzbnik was a small unknown shtetl and Jewish and Hassidic circles in Poland only knew it because Reb Moishel Tennenbaum lived there.

Now the question is, how did the man gain such popularity? It wasn't for nothing. Throughout his entire life (he lived to the age of 81 – passing away in 1924), he contributed to the public welfare. His life was never so dear for him as when it dealt with saving the life of other people.

In World War I he rescued many Jews from death – among them one of the Kornwasser family. More than that, he risked his life to go to Radom and get Jews who had been sentenced by the Russians out of prison. He ransomed them with his own money. His patriarchal appearance, with the full, long beard, invoked respect and opened the doors to all circles for him.

Reb Moishel Tannenbaum has special credit for the establishment of a Jewish community in Wierzbnik. He is the person who established the old synagogue in the city. He donated the land for the Jewish cemetery, as well as for other ritual purposes.

Reb Moishel Tannenbaum had a big business. He was the first Jew to form major business ties with the Christians.

He operated a tar works and had a large stone quarry, which took up an enormous amount of space. There he employed scores of Poles.

His hospitality at home was famous everywhere, and many rabbis lodged there. Whoever was looking for Torah, wisdom or simply a bit of warm food could receive all of them there.

When his wife Freidel, of blessed memory (born in Wierzbnik, nee Eidelman) complained that despite the servants she was always tired from entertaining so many people – Reb Moishel said: hospitality is one of the greatest mitzvahs, and such arguments were enough for her to agree with her distinguished husband.

A numerous generation developed from Moishele Tennenbaum in Wierzbnik. His seven children married people from prestigious rabbinic families or families from the distinguished aristocratic Jewish world.

Reb Moishele Tennenbaum's children married into the family of the Æmielów rabbi, twice with members of the court of the Rabbi of Kock (Mendel Tauman and Morgenstern), into the family of the rabbi of Sokołów, Morgenstern, into the family of the rabbi of Kowal, Rabbi Szapiro, into the family of the rabbi of Solec, Rabbi R. Trofa, and also into the family of the rabbi of Kielce, Rabbi Rappoport.

All the children made their homes in Wierzbnik and brought a fresh spirit into the city. While still living, Reb Moishel Tennenbaum had over one hundred grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

During the time of the Nazi catastrophe many members of this family perished, but some of them were able to save themselves from the Nazi hell. Among them were highly educated people: doctors, engineers, university professors, etc.

Many of the Wierzbnik Jews in America read in the newspapers about “a new discovery”, “a new electronic force!”, “the sensational discovery by an Israeli doctor, Yehuda Perl” – and probably didn't know that he is a great-grandchild of Moishel Tennenbaum, a grandson of Rabbi Mendel Tauman from Wierzbnik, and the son of his daughter Tova. Also, when the American Jews from Wierzbnik hear about the great Dr. Morgenstern – they don't know that he is a grandson of Reb Moishel Tennenbaum and of the Węgrów rabbi, of blessed memory.

There are also more such important persons, such as Yitzhak, the son of Reb Moshe Bagno and Minka (the daughter of the teacher Mendel Tennenbaum, of blessed memory), etc.

Two of the late Rabbi Mendel Tauman's daughters presently live in Israel, and they are the granddaughters of Reb Moishel Tennenbaum and the rabbi of Kock.

Peretz Trofa, of Blessed Memory

Every former resident of Wierzbnik who wants to recall what the shtetl used to look like, sees not only the streets, the market, the town hall, or for example the school – where he studied, or the synagogue where he prayed in his mind, but all of them in association with the people who were connected to this.

You can't just recall the school without immediately seeing Peretz Trofa's “cigarettes and writing materials” shop, which was across from the synagogue. There was really no person or child that didn't know the shop.

Peretz Trofa first opened his shop on Wisoko St. and then for many years on Nisko St., at the corner of Kaliewo, across the street from the synagogue.

He ran his store for almost fifty years, that is from the time when he married Sarah- Beila, the daughter of Reb Moishel Tennenbaum, of blessed memory.

He was a very interesting person. He was a son of the rabbi of Solec, and spent his youth in yeshivas, excelling as a Talmudist. After his marriage, real life required that he be in the shop, while his spirit and soul demanded that he study Torah. He felt an internal struggle between the two. That is why he strove to have his wife and children run the shop. He made a “crafty merchant” out of his younger daughter Brachale at the age of 9-10.

When they were in the shop, or when there were customers in the shop, he cunningly moved himself away to the Gemara, which always lay open on his table in the room. He studied every day, except for Thursdays, because that was market day and the peasants from the neighboring villages filled the shop until late at night. The pleasure of studying Torah was quite difficult for him, because he didn't have suitable conditions for it.

“We were already living in Kielce, but I often came to visit my uncle Trofa, especially my cousin Brachale, who was not just my cousin but also my good friend. It was a cold winter day, around 6 AM. There was a frost outside, which could also be felt in the house; the windows were frozen and Brachale and I were sleeping in the kitchen, which also served as a dining room and at night as a children's room.

My uncle and aunt were sleeping in the other room. Suddenly I heard my uncle silently getting up, lighting the fire and sitting down quietly to study. But how can you study and not accompany it with a little melody? Then I again heard my aunt getting up and reproaching him: 'Why don't you let the girl sleep?' She was referring to me – the guest. 'Today is a (non-Jewish) holiday.'

I spoke up, saying that it didn't bother me, that it was a lullaby for me. However, my aunt took him into their bedroom and made him a place to study. It didn't take long, and there was a knock at the door. The owner of the house came in – a dark, wizened Gentile woman called Drozdowa. She was angry that people were 'shouting' on the day of their Lord's birth…

It appeared that my aunt's religious feelings were very hurt, and not paying any attention to the fact that the woman was standing in the room, she said to me in Yiddish:

'Nu, what do you have to say about this simpleton; she thinks that my Peretz is studying because her Lord was born today! Do you see with whom we share a wall?'

Brachale and I both hid under the comforter to hide our laughter. Mrs. Drozodowa left, my uncle changed his seat again – he was already upset – drank some hot tea and sank deep into the small print, but I am afraid that he no longer had any pleasure from the studying.”


[Page 163]

And His Time Never Came

Sarah Miriam Ribak

My dear father Moshe Rybak died in his prime, while I was still a young girl. Although it has been a long time since he left us, I always remember his admirable figure, the way he moved and the light of his eyes.

The things I write here are in part my memories of my father and in part things I was told about him by members of his generation, relatives and friends who knew and admired him.

My father was known as a brave but sensitive man, one who would not hesitate to put himself at risk for the sake of others. He defended our people many a time against members of the hostile regime, who were only too happy to throw the book at any Jew who fell into their clutches. My father succeeded many times because of his impressive appearance, his dignity, his intelligence and his eloquence in the language of the gentiles (and speaking of languages, my father spoke not only Yiddish and Polish, which were common in our house, but also Hebrew, Russian and German, having learned them all on his own).

During the day my father was a trader, traveling near and far to sell and buy, and during the nights he studied, wrote and read. He studied the Torah and the writings of wise men of the old and new world, and wrote what his penetrating eyes have seen, about rare phenomena, about the wonders of existence and the great yearning for the unknown.

At night, my father would retire to his room, to his desk, and whenever I woke up at night or during the small hours I could still see a light coming from where he sat. He wrote on pristine sheets, his handwriting round and clean, every page numbered, locking the pages in the cupboard when he was done. In time, the writings have piled up and filled the cabinet but my father continued to learn and write until his last day. I would like to bring a few of the stories told about him by my dear uncle, Yoseph Dreksler, who passed away in Israel and is still with us in memory:

“I had the privilege of reading the writings of my brother-in-law, Avraham Moshe, and I found them to be a treasure trove of genius and wisdom, radiating from his pure, innocent soul.

I also read chapters from a diary of sorts, “My town Wierzbnik”, and found descriptions, characters and anecdotes about the town that a person normally passes by without noticing. Only the eye and heart of the artist allow him to glean the interest in such things, those stirring or ridiculous aspects, and he, my brother-in-law, saw things and described them with love and compassion.

I told him – “You need to tell this to the world, let us publish your writings in a book!” But he hesitated, saying “It isn't time yet!”

And the time never came! My father was taken in his prime – and his writings? What became of them? They were no doubt lost during the long, painful journey my family has taken along with all our townsmen during the Holocaust.

 

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