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Wonderful Superior Virtues of Zawiercie Jews

by Alter Honigman, known as Alter Meir David Lelewers

Translated by Jerrold Landau

Above, we discussed Linat Tzedek. As we now discuss the rest of the qualities of the Jews of the city, we must note that in general they were forged from fine material. In the absence of an organized community, and without a budget, individuals or groups of individuals founded various institutions with their own efforts – institutions that would have been founded by communal councils in other cities.

One of these institutions was the charitable institution for the poor.

A significant economic recession afflicted the Jews of Poland during the 1880s and the beginning of the 1890s. Jews were pushed out of the “servitute” lands. Poles began to work in wholesaling and as middlemen. Thereby many Jews were deprived of their livelihood, and “estates of the poor king”[1] were created in many districts of Poland . Furthermore, many fires broke out during the summer. The fires destroyed the wooden houses of the Jews in the towns. There were no insurance companies and even if they did exist, they would not have insured such wooden houses whose roofs could be ignited by any spark from the chimney.

These mishaps caused many Jews to migrate to the west, to centers of manufacturing and commerce. They migrated with their wives and children, in order to collect donations from their more fortunate brethren who lived in better houses and were earning livelihoods.

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As far as I remember, the Jews of Zawiercie observed the commandment of giving charity appropriately, and fulfilled the principle that “You meet a beggar – give him.”

However, as the groups of beggars grew and turned into camps, the residents began to complain that the doors never closed from morning until evening. Some of the poor people acted boldly and at times even dishonestly.

In light of this phenomenon, some individuals of the town who felt that the situation required a repair arose and founded a charitable fund in which all the residents of the city participated through monthly payments. They informed the beggars who made the rounds to the doors of the residents that they must approach the trustees of the charitable fund to receive a note. The note entitled them to receive a certain sum amount of money.

Three people stood at the head of this organization: my father Reb Meir Lelewer, Reb Shabtai Chazan, and Reb Avraham Borensztejn. My father distributed the notes. Avraham Borensztejn was the treasurer and he handed out the money.

A rule was established that a beggar can only receive support once every three months. As proof, the organization stamped the date on the passport or other document. After receiving their allotment, these beggars were forbidden from going around to the doors of the generous people.

Many beggars agreed to the rule, and left the town on the same day that they received their support and wandered to a different city. However, there were those who wanted to benefit at both ends, and remained in the town.

The second matter was hospitality and a place to sleep. Even before this time, this issue disturbed the residents of the town a in an acute manner. The issue remained a problem, since there was no hostel for poor people; they made use of the Beis Midrash as well as the women's gallery of the synagogue. The lack of cleanliness in these two places became unbearable. Therefore, they began to think about a hostel for the poor people, called “hekdesh[2] in Poland. The establishment of such an institution required large sums of money.

A Jew of Zawiercie, Reb Koppel Bogajer, intended to set an example for others by dedicating two rooms of his house as sleeping quarters for itinerants who were spending a night or two in the city. Reb Kopel thought that he was contributing to the solution of the problem in this manner. However, not only did others not follow his example, but he also liquidated his private institution after some time, since he began to loathe the immoral, half wild, unhygienic behavior of the guests.

 

Brotherhood and Solidarity among Zawiercie Jews

There is an old adage that friendship is expressed during a time of distress; but in Zawiercie, friendship was also felt during joyous occasions.

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A wedding in the city imbued joy and light upon most of the residents – starting from the Sabbath upon which the groom was called up to the Torah in the synagogue[3]. Most of the Jews of the city, along with their wives, participated in this event. During the Maftir [3], the women would toss various nuts and sweets down from the women's gallery in a display of friendship. The Kiddush for the residents of the city in the home of the parents of the groom was splendid. If a groom was getting married to a bride outside the city, he would go around from house to house on the evening before his departure to the wedding in order to receive blessings from the Jews of the city. He was accompanied by the Shamash [beadle] of the house of worship in which he worshipped. The Shamash would carry a lantern and fuel. The groom would be accompanied to the home of the bride by his friends, relatives and parents. Relatives and friends from the bride's side would wait for the entourage a short distance from their town. Then the groom would descend from the wagon in which he had been travelling to this point and ascend the wagon in which the young men who came to greet him would be sitting. When the wagon with the groom entered the bounds of the city, it would make seven circuits around the well in the marketplace, followed by the rest of the wagons.

Indeed, these were unforgettable experiences!

No less, and perhaps even greater, was the impression left upon the town by the weddings that took place therein.

On the Sabbath prior to the wedding, the bride's friends would come to bid farewell to the bride. There would be gifts, dances, and refreshment. The visits would last until the evening. The farewell touched the heart.

Many residents of the city participated in the wedding itself. They would bring gifts and shower the couple with good wishes. On the first Sabbath after the wedding, it was the custom to accompany the bride to the synagogue as she was holding a Korban Mincha Siddur in her hand, a gift from the groom. Many people participated in this ceremony. The Kiddush and refreshments lasted until late at night.

 

The Dedication of a Torah Scroll

Festive ceremonies were also held when a Torah Scroll was dedicated in the synagogue. The completion and the filling in of the missing letters[4] was conducted with great splendor in the presence of a large gathering. Many residents of Zawiercie – literally all the people of the town – stood crowded in the rooms of the ceremony, or gathered outside when the hall was too small to hold everyone, as they rejoiced with the Torah scroll.

I recall one festive event of this nature, when Reb Levi the butcher and his wife, who was the daughter of Reb Leib Zawader (Leib Kira), organized a celebration for the conclusion of the Torah scroll that they had donated.

Reb Levi specially invited a band of Jewish soldiers from Częstochowa, and the ceremony was conducted with great splendor.

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The new Torah scroll lay on a table in the center of the room in which the celebration took place. A scribe who oversaw the holy task of filling in the missing letters stood next to the table. He called up the people who had been honored by the hosts to fill in a letter. Everyone filled the letter that corresponded to the first letter of their names.

The missing letter in the Torah scroll had already been outlined with a thin line by the scribe. After the honored person filled in the letter with the special ink –– that is to say, at every “conclusion”, the band played and those assembled danced. The head of the band danced, joyous and mirthful, in the center of the circle, with a clarinet in his hand. His name was Reznik. He was a young Jew with a hot temperament. He was a Ukrainian Jew who had been drafted into the army. His brigade camped in Częstochowa. The tunes that the band played and to which the people danced, remain etched in my memory to this day.

There is no need to add that refreshments, including copious amounts of wine and liquor, were served to the participating guests.

Women were also honored in this celebration of the conclusion of a Torah Scroll. Each of the female participant was honored with sewing a few stitches in the covering [mantele] of the Torah scroll.

The celebration in the room of the host began in the afternoon and continued until late at night, at which point the Torah was brought to the synagogue under a canopy.

The procession set out from the house of the hosts, and lasted about two hours, even though it was a short distance from Poręmba Street to the synagogue. The procession was drawn out because people took step after step, and after every three or four steps, a different Jew was honored with carrying the scroll.

The procession was headed by the band, which was playing a marching tune that I still remember to this day.

The gabbaim of the synagogue waited outside the synagogue with the Torah scrolls in their arms. They went out to greet the new Torah scroll that was about to be placed into the ark [Aron Kodesh].

The dancing began anew inside the synagogue, with the Torah scrolls that had been removed from the Aron Kodesh in the hands of the dancers. The musicians continued to play and the dancers continued to dance until they placed the new Torah scroll on the Torah reading podium.

The dancing continued even as they read a Torah portion from the new Torah, as well as when they placed the new Torah scroll into the ark alongside the other Torah scrolls.

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Despite the late hour, the crowd did not hurry to leave the synagogue. They wanted to be infused with the joy– more and more. To childless couples, the “dedication” of a Torah scroll was as if they had married off a son or a daughter.

 

Entertainment and Amusement

To complete the picture, let me tell my memoirs about the way of life, the entertainment and amusement enjoyed by the circles of people that were not among the religious people and the Torah scholars.

Earlier, I described how I began studying the watchmaking craft with the sole watchmaker and goldsmith in the town, Reb Yaakov-Leizer Mitz.

As was the custom in those days, the apprentice also had to perform household and family tasks in the home of the craftsman with whom he was studying.

One evening, Reb Yaakov-Leizer and his wife asked me to perform a task of this nature. They told me that there were invited to the wedding of a poor man that night. The wedding was to take place in the home of their friend Feitel Bromberg who was known in the town as Feitel the Tinsmith. They were going to lock up their shop and home. They offered me to join them at the wedding party, on the condition that I would go out once in a while to see if anyone had damaged the door of the shop and stole anything from it, as well as to enter their home to check if everything was in order in the bedroom where their children were sleeping. A kerosene lamp was lit on the table and they were concerned that a fire might break out, Heaven forbid. I accepted the invitation and joined the couple.

The wedding took place in the home of the Bromberg family. This was a spacious house, for Reb Feitel was a wealthy man. He was a contractor in a factory that employed several workers. He himself no longer worked. His livelihood was assured. When I entered the well-furnished salon, I got the impression that he had given over his home out of his good heart for the purpose of hosting a modest wedding for a poor man. However, it later became clear that this was a contrived “wedding” for entertainment and amusement at the expense of a poor, non-local Jew.

And what happened was as follows:

When I entered the dwelling, I found several dozen men imbued in a festive atmosphere. The long table was set with wine, cakes and sweets. People were crowded around the table or at some distance from it. Some people also wandered about the room. Everybody was dressed in festive clothes and enjoying the refreshments. The hosts urged the invited guests to eat and drink.

A man of about 40 years of age set at the head of the table. He was wearing a kapote and a kashket[5] in accordance with the custom of those days. His mannerisms and appearance showed that he was not among the wealthy.

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Those present were very jolly. I realized from their innuendoes and by looking at their preparations that this was a performance rather than an actual wedding.

The bride sat among the women, next to a wall of the room. She was younger than the groom, and she was wearing a wig. She was merry. She chatted a great deal with the other women. This continued until the father-in-law stood up and announced that the wedding ceremony was about to take place.

Everything was in order: The person conducting the wedding ceremony arrived. There was a legitimate wedding canopy with four poles. The ceremony was conducted in accordance with Jewish law and custom. The laughter and merriment increased from moment to moment while the groom, a poor, downtrodden man, acted indifferently to the entire wedding and those arranging it.

Then one of the participants of the ceremony announced, in accordance with custom, that the couple should enter a special room for “yichud[6], where they would partake of their first meal together.

From the behavior of the guests and the hosts, one could realize that something funny would happen if the couple enters the special room.

We did not have to wait long for the awaited joke. Suddenly, the door of the special room opened noisily. The man left the room very angry. He shouted, “What type of a crazy woman did you give me? She pushed me against the wall until I almost died.”

The false bride exited right after him. She was also shouting, as she explained that she wished to take revenge upon her husband for stepping on a wart on her foot, as he intended to fulfill the verse “and he will rule over you.”[7].

The guests almost burst out in laughter from the great amusement. They staged an attempt to make peace between the couple, but suddenly the bride disappeared. When she returned – what did I see before my eyes? The bride appeared as a clean shaven lad. The appearance of the lad increased the laughter and shouts of the crowd. The “groom” and “bride” stood in the crowd and also laughed. The difference was that there was a tinge of bitterness in the laughter of the groom.

As the noise and tumult died down, and after the crowd, including the “bride” and groom, sat down next to the table to eat and drink after the pretend ceremony, Reb Feitel the host explained why he had arranged a fake wedding and why he mocked a poor man – also a tinsmith – who had come to seek work with him.

Reb Feitel had served as an apprentice for the father of the so-called groom. The father was not a bad man at all. He taught Reb Feitel, who had lost his father, the trade as he had agreed with his mother. However, not only did the wife of the tinsmith impose various tasks upon him, but also literally starved him. He suffered the pangs of hunger with her. She first distributed the meals to the

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members of the family. When his turn came, there was not enough food left. In such cases, she promised that she would give him money to purchase some sort of food, but she did not always keep her promise.

He wanted very much to take revenge upon her, but what could a child do? Therefore he made a vow that when he would grow up and become a tradesmen, he would pay back one of her sons who would seek work with him.

Then the awaited day arrived. Many years later, the son of this woman came to Reb Feitel to seek work. After realizing who he was, he decided what he decided after he learned that the man was a widower.

Reb Feitel concluded his story and added, “It is true – I mocked this man. We had fun at his expense. However, he certainly received work. Tomorrow, he will go to work with me, in the factory. You can be certain; he will not be starving for bread.


Translator's Footnotes

  1. This term is a play on the words of the Melech Elyon liturgical hymn of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy. In that hymn, the Supreme King (Melech Elyon), who rules forever is contrasted to the earthly king (Melech Evyon – literally: destitute king) who rules temporarily and is then buried in a cleft of earth. Return
  2. A Hebrew term meaning sanctified, or set apart, referring to the fact that the provision of the needs of the poor is considered a mitzvah. Return
  3. This is referred to as the aufruf, and generally takes place on the Sabbath before the wedding. This usually takes place at the Maftir aliya (the aliya that accompanies the reading of the Haftarah – the prophetic portion read after the Torah reading.) Return
  4. Some letters would be intentionally left blank so as to honor important participants with filling them in. Return
  5. A kapote is a long frock, and a kashket is a Hassidic cap. Return
  6. A part of the Jewish wedding ceremony where the bride and groom spend some time in a secluded room. Return
  7. Genesis 3:16. Return
 

Shtibels and Admorim

Zawiercie had a colorful Jewish community. One of Zawiercie natives compared it to the mixture of verses of Atah Hareita, which are recited before the hakafot of Simchat Torah [1]. Just as there is no connection between the verses, so is the situation in this new city, whose residents gathered from different places, coincidentally. Despite this, we should applaud the harmony that existed among the Jewish residents of the town.

Let us take the Hassidim as an example. Each shtibel of a different Admor had its own customs. Nevertheless, there was unity among them, and they did a great deal to enhance the values of Orthodox Judaism. Jewish brotherhood flourished among them. They would always check to see whether there was anybody in a difficult situation within their shtibel, and they would extend generous help to those in need.

However, a dispute between the shtibels broke out when it was necessary to select a new rabbi for the city. Every Hassidic circle had its own candidate, often supported by the command of Hassidic court. It should be favorably noted that this dispute did not extend beyond the realm of propaganda. An election took place, and the state of affairs returned to what it was before.

In fact the circle of the Hasidim had a positive influence on the other organizations, those that were not among the Hasidim or the Torah scholars. The small-business merchants and tradesman organized themselves in the same way as the Hassidim and elected their own rabbi. The elected rabbi was the one to whom they would travel to consult about business matters or to ask to pray on their behalf in the event of a tribulation or an illness of a family member.

They elected Rabbi Alter, the Admor of Wolbrom, who was a scion of Rabbi Dovidl of Lelow.

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The Rebbe of Wolbrom had many followers among the Hassidic circles. His Hassidim would talk a great deal about the positive influence on the livelihood of their businesses since they began to bask in the shadow of the Admor, Rebbe Alter.

Hassidim of other Admorim would frequently make pilgrimages to the Rebbe. This journey would often be fraught with difficulties for the tradesmen. For this reason, the Rebbe would “set up a table”[2] in places where he had many Hassidim and their economic state was good. This Admor would set out on his journey whenever he had to marry off a son or a daughter, or when he had other important matters to take care of that involved large expenditures.

Częstochowa and Zawiercie were among the cities visited by the Admorim.

The Rebbe would arrive accompanied by a full entourage. His sons, who were destined to serve in the near future as Admorim in various cities of Poland, accompanied him. Of course, shamashim [assistants] would accompany the Rebbe, as was customary.

The Rebbe, Rabbi Alter, would be hosted in Zawiercie at the home of Reb Berl Poznanski, who was a wealthy man and one of the prominent Hassidim of the Admor. Reb Berl, a tailor by profession, was from nearby Pilica. With first stages of Zawiercie development, Reb Berl Poznanski settled in the town. He started off his path of life as a small-scale tailor. Later, he had a factory of reasonable size, and he employed several workers. Finally, he also had a textile shop. He imported the fabric from Łodz as well as from abroad. He had several houses in the city.

His surname was Plachta (a derogatory name of Simcha Plachta in the folktale stories)[3] ). However, Reb Berl adopted the name of Poznanski, who was one of the largest industrialists in Łodz as well as in Poland in general.

In all his conversations, Reb Berl sang the praises of the Rebbe of Wolbrom. From the time that he became one of his Hassidim, he had good fortune and succeeded in all of his business ventures. It was therefore natural that Reb Berl regularly hosted the Rebbe when he came to Zawiercie – literally in his house. It was clear that the travel and accommodation expenditures of the Rebbe and his entourage were borne by Reb Berl himself. Some people were jealous of Reb Berl – not so much for the great privilege that the Rebbe and his honorable people would live in his house for several weeks, but also for his wealth that allowed him to seek such an honor and make the necessary expenditures to host the Rebbe and his entourage.

However, as the adage says, everything comes to an end.

As it finally happened, Mrs. Eigle Poznanski got tired of hosting the Admor and his entourage. She complained that, aside from the great expenditures involved, the furniture was being ruined. The Hassidim would trample on the sofas and armchairs. Many plates and cups had been broken. During the time of having these guests, she worked beyond her limits. When the “fair” ended she had to lie down in her bed for several days. She always had to repaint the house after such a visit.

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In short: she could not continue with this. There were other wealthy Hassidim in the city, so why must she make all these efforts?

The pleading of her husband had no effect. He claimed that he could not refuse to host his Admor, for all his wealth was due to the merit of the Rebbe. However “Igele” stood her ground: If Berl has his way she would leave the town for the duration of the Rebbe's stay.

 

The End of the Story

Several weeks after the couple had the above conversation Reb Berl Poznanski received a postcard from the city of Częstochowa, written by the prime gabbai of the Admor, Reb Chaim Aharon. He wrote as follows, in his regular style.

“Reb Berl, please be advised that the Rebbe has been in Częstochowa for several weeks, and will arrive in Zawiercie next Wednesday, G-d willing. Please prepare. etc. etc.”

As soon as the message arrived, the debate in Reb Berl's house started again. Mrs. Eigele again threatened to leave the house. Having no choice, they agreed that both would travel to a nearby city, for he knew that he would not be able to perform the hosting in his wife's absence.

They closed their house. They left the large tailoring factory open. He commanded the workers that when the Rebbe arrived with his entourage, they should say that no postcard or notification regarding the arrival of the Rebbe was received. The owners of the house were not at home. They had traveled outside of the town for they did not know that the Rebbe was coming.

Alter Honegman is now telling the following story:

All this became known in the city after the following incident took place:

One summer day toward evening, I was passing by Poręba Street. A wagon laden with various packages was standing there. Along with another Jew, the owner of the wagon dragged the packages from the wagon and brought them into a specific house opposite the wagon. A large package, in the form of a large leather sack, was standing next to the wagon. Pillows and blankets were sticking out of it.

I recognized the Jew who was dragging the packages along with the wagon driver. It was Reb Chaim Aharon, the gabbai of the Rebbe of Wolbrom.

The house into which he was bringing all the baggage was the house next to that of Reb Berl.

A light rain began to fall. They hurried to bring all the baggage in lest it get wet.

I waited for a while next to the wagon to see what had happened. I asked the gabbai, and he answered me in brief: Poznanski and his wife had travelled. They had no choice at this point other than to enter into the house of another Jew.

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Out of curiosity I entered the house. There in an apartment that belonged to a Hasid from a different circle. I found Reb Alter sitting at the head of a table covered in a cloth. He was pale and upset as he held his pipe in his hand. No members of the household were in the house.

The gabbai brought in almost all the baggage and placed it on the floor of the room where the Rebbe was sitting. Reb Alter asked the gabbai to purchase candles for light, since the room was dark on that cloudy, rainy day.

Within a few minutes, the gabbai brought what was requested. He lit two candles and placed them in the candlesticks that were on the table.

Suddenly, an interior door of the apartment opened. An elderly woman appeared, confused and astounded, to ask what was going on there. Perhaps they had made a mistake by entering an unknown house without asking permission. “Do we run a hotel here?” asked the woman.

The Rebbe continued to sit and listen until she finished her harsh speech. Finally, he responded without looking toward her, “We know your husband, and your husband knows us. I am the Rebbe of Wolbrom. Do not get upset, the Blessed G-d will bless you on account of the commandment of tending to guests.”

The woman stood her ground, “We will forgo your blessing. My husband is a Hassid of the Rebbe of Amshinov [Mszczonów][4]. His blessings are sufficient for us, and we are satisfied with them. I ask you to leave the room.”

The Rebbe repeated his words and explained his situation. He found the apartment of their neighbor closed and locked. Her neighbors were not at home. He had no choice other than to enter the house of another Jew. The Rebbe concluded:

“We are among Jews. Today is a cold, rainy day.”
The woman informed the Rebbe that her husband had traveled to another city and was not at home. How could he lodge in her house?

The Rebbe responded to her that they – he, his shamash and his son – did not come here to lodge. They only want to stay in the house for a few hours until they find a suitable inn in which they could stay in the city.

The woman disappeared and closed the interior door behind her.

A few minutes later, a gentile woman, apparently the maid, entered the room. She approached the table at which the Rebbe was seated. She extinguished the lit candles with her mouth, and disappeared. The shamash approached and lit them again. A few minutes later, the woman came back and extinguished the candles once again, and left.

Standing at the side, I witnessed all the things that had taken place there. I was a lad of 15 or 16 years old. The Rebbe did not see me or did not pay attention to me. I could no longer witness the agony of the Rebbe. I braced myself, approached him, and greeted him. I told him that I had seen everything.

I told the Rebbe:

“If the Rebbe agrees, I will run to my house, where my parents will certainly clear a room for him and his luggage.”
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“Who are you, lad?” the Rebbe asked me.

“I am the son of Reb Meir Lelover,” I responded.

“If that is the case, you are one of us. Well and fine. We are also relatives. Go do as you say.”

Within a short period, the Rebbe in all his glory was sitting with us in the room that we had cleared for him and his entourage.

I left the Rebbe and my parents' house and went out to the market place, where many of his Hassidim were sitting at their stalls, filled with various types of merchandise – clothing, shoes, hats, brushes, etc. It was a market day. The Jews were busy pursuing profit.

I did not find willingness and enthusiasm to deal with Reb Alter's problem among the Hassidim of the Rebbe of Wolbrom as I had hoped when I went there to tell them about his suffering in the last several hours. These good Jews justified themselves, stating that they were busy with the market day. Even if they knew about what was going on, they would have been unable to leave their stalls to deal with the issue.

“Consider our situation,” they told me. “Soon we will be packing up our merchandise. Toward evening, we'll will end our work, and we'll come to your home to welcome the Rebbe.”
Indeed, in the evening, the Hassidim of the Rebbe of Wolbrom began to gather in our house. They prayed the Maariv service, and my parents prepared dinner for the guests. In the meantime, the Hassidim discussed amongst themselves that it would be appropriate to find for the Rebbe a more spacious place than our home. One of the Hassidim of the Rebbe – the owner of a brush factory – Meir Zajdman, as wealthy as Poznanski, volunteered to host the Rebbe.

Indeed, that night, the Rebbe moved to Zajdman's home, which was not inferior to that of Poznanski.

The Sabbath passed without incident. The Rebbe was in a good mood, and did not mention – even with a simple utterance – what had taken place.

On Sunday, Reb Berl came to my father, Reb David Meir, in a low spirit, and asked to be brought to the Rebbe. He wished to apologize for what he caused the Rebbe. At the same time, he wished to ask the Rebbe to beg for mercy for his wife who had fallen ill with a high fever. In response to the question as to what the physician had found in his examination, Reb Berl responded that the physician had told him that at the present, he was not able to identify the illness before three days had passed. My father advised Reb Berl to wait for a visit with the Rebbe. First, my father would visit the Rebbe by himself. On Monday, they would both go to the Rebbe. Reb Berl agreed to this.

On Monday, Reb Berl stood before his Rebbe with distraught eyes but subdued. He begged the Rebbe to pray on behalf of his sick wife. Of course, Reb Berl

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placed an extraordinarily significant donation on the table, along with the customary kvittl [petitionary note].

The Rebbe said to Reb Berl, “Of course, you did something inappropriate. But you must understand that you are making a mistake if you think that I had evil intentions in my prayers. A Rebbe can only wish good in his prayers for his followers not evil. But, continued the Rebbe, most likely, my fathers and the righteous forbears did not want to allow an embarrassment to come upon me.”

That same Monday, toward evening, Reb Berl came to my father once again, perplexed and upset. He told him that his only daughter had also taken ill with a high fever. Reb Berl once again came to the Rebbe, who blessed him and said that G-d would surely send a complete recovery by the next day.

The next day, Reb Berl came to tell my father that the two sick women sweated during the night. The physician who visited them found that the illness had passed, and both of them could get up from their beds.

It is obvious that this matter cost Reb Berl Poznanski more than the damage that would have been caused had he done what was usually done with respect to the Rebbe.

Everyone can derive the lesson from this story in accordance with his spirit, understanding, and clarity of intellect…

In truth, it is worthwhile to note that the Rebbe of Wolbrom was not the only one who would visit his Hassidim in Zawiercie. Several other Admorim did so.

For example, the Admor of Stryków, Reb Wolf, would visit Zawiercie and would stay with Reb Moshe Leib Hercberg, where he would conduct his table gathering with the Stryków Hassidim of Zawiercie in great splendor in the presence of a large crowd. His brother, whom I seem to recall as being the Admor of Skwire, would also come. Reb Yaakov had a pleasant countenance. He dressed in white silk garments. He was tall, in contrast to his brother, Reb Wolf the Admor of Stryków, who was short.

After some time, Reb Moshe Leib Hercberg and the Rebbe of Stryków became in-laws. The grandson of the Rebbe, Pinchas Landau (the father of Reb Yaakov Landau, the veteran activist of Orthodox Judaism) married Malkale, the daughter of Reb Moshe Leib.

It is appropriate to allude to Reb Moshe Leib's wife. Thanks to her gentleness, her physical beauty, the beauty of her soul and the way she conducted her home. The home of Reb Moshe had the style of a Hassidic household, refined and full of content. Her door was opened wide to the poor people and to all those who needed her help. Through her influence her husband became a Hassid, both in his actions and his attire. But she couldn't soften his character. She couldn't bring him to be tolerant and patient in his relationships with other people. She urged him to give up his aggressiveness when it came to public affairs, a behavior that might have been rooted in his wealth . Because of this tendency to anger, he had many opponents in the city. Some even were so brazen as to denigrate him, but not to his face.

He was welcomed with open arms within the community, even by those who

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were not close to him. He had the fine custom of celebrating Purim with many guests from various circles in the city in the large, wonderfully bright hall in his house, with tables bedecked with all types of delicacies. On that day, he received his guests with enthusiasm and generosity. Reb Moshe Leib sat at the head of the table, wearing atlas silk[5] Hassidic outfit and a streimel on his head. His appearance was full of dignity and respect. The serious face of this Jew during all the other days of the year had disappeared. His face softened, and his eyes smiled. His wife, the noble soul, as well as their gentle daughter Malkale would greet the guests gently and in good taste. One could see adults dressed up, acting out Achashverosh and Queen Esther.

I recall that his relatives sitting at the table told Reb Moshe Leib that the actors were singing a hymn whose lyrics had the heretics poking fun at the Admorim and Hassidim. They recommended that they be thrown out. Reb Moshe Leib responded, “It is Purim today, and we should not take the songs seriously.”

The muck and mud that the actors brought in to the large, furnished, bright hall did not affect the lady of the house at all. She and her daughter Malkale, with her gentle face, served the guests all types of refreshments, in generous and gentle manner. Apart from this, Reb Moshe Leib, his wife, and daughter distributed donations and gifts in a generous fashion to the Purim actors and the poor people.

*

These memoirs of mine encompass an era in which the Jewish Zawiercie was taking shape – even before the community was organized in the fashion of all other communities of the Diaspora. Others will certainly write about a later period in Zawiercie, the period when I was away from the town.

Even though I left the city more than 60 years ago, my heart trembles from the outcry of the Holocaust in which the community of Zawiercie, with its men, women, and children, was destroyed.

My heart calls out to you; my heart, my heart is to you, oh holy community of Zawiercie.

 

Players and Jesters in the City

It is worthwhile to note here the names of the players and jesters who were invited by the in-laws a certain time before a wedding. We will note their personalities and professional abilities.

As soon as a date for a wedding was set by the in-laws on both sides, they informed their wives about it. Then a debate began in the home of the bride about the choosing of one of the musical bands and one of the jesters in the city.

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The custom at that time was that the parents of the bride were expected to hold the wedding in their house, to pay for it, and to take upon themselves all the trouble of organizing the wedding.

The bride, for example, would ask for the band with the jesters Reb Moshele Brauder and his son, or Reb Yankel Apter. They would recite before the bride and groom verses peppered with statements of the sages, and sing nice songs. Reb Yankel Apter was also known for his dances, and for his Russian, Romanian, and gypsy costumes. He knew how to dance the Kozak and Csárdás.

The in-laws and the guests, most of whom did not know about and had never seen such artistic dances, would be deeply impressed. On the other hand, the parents of the bride claimed that one could be satisfied with the Jurika band, conducted by Reb Berele, or with the Zawiercie band with two troupes, along with the jester Reb Zusha Monewicz, who was known as Zusha-Marszalik. Although he was not one of the great jesters, he was a native of the town.

In truth, the Zawiercie band was not a formal band. It was composed of various musicians who were unable to read musical notes. They earned their livelihoods all year by selling fruit and vegetables in the market. They would sit next to their stalls and dream about “getting a wedding.”

Reb Tovia the musician was the head of these musicians; he played the trumpet. His brother, Zalman the musician, also played. He played the second fiddle: I.e. he was an assistant to the first violinist. Since they did not have a “primo” of their own, they would take as first violin Leibele Shajer from the Będzin band, or Leibel Diament, who boasted that he could play from notes. Nevertheless, every song began with Reb Tovia playing his trumpet.

The band consisted of five musicians. Aside from Tovia and Zalman, there was a clarinetist. The first violin was borrowed. Reb Baruch Leib played the bass.

Reb Tovia the trumpeter was the person to whom one had to turn to discuss hiring the band for a wedding. The actual negotiations were in the hands of his wife Chana.

She set the price and gave a down payment from the in-laws for the band so that the band would come and play, and that they would not back out. She also received the payment for the musicians after the wedding – along with a portion of the gifts, which were known as “drasha geshank” in the vernacular, such was the custom. To be on the safe side she asked for a portion of the gifts beforehand.

Reb Tovia and his wife ensured that Zusha “Marszalik” would come with them at the appropriate time.

Reb Zusha the jester had other roles, despite the fact that he was not one of the well-known speakers and did not excel in his songs and rhymes. However, we must say, in his favor, that everything

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what he said in front of the guests in the wedding was completely original – authored by himself. Even though he was not one of the great scholars, he would spice his words to the guests with verses from the Midrash and Gemara. At times, the verses were lame, but the audience forgave him since they knew that he was not doing this out of disrespect, but rather because he didn't study and didn't rehearse. What he said and why he said it was not important – the main thing was that he was a Jew who needed a livelihood.

His first task was to greet, together with the band, the in-laws and the groom as they arrived at the bride's home for the wedding.

His second task was to sing and to speak in verses before the groom, who sat in a special place surrounded by the lads of the town before he was escorted to the chupa [wedding canopy].

His third task was to stimulate the bride to repentance and mercy before being escorted to the chupa.

His fourth task was to sing and to speak in front of the assembled guests during the feast following the chupa. Then he had to show all of his jesting skills in his speeches and verses.

His fifth task was to announce in verses the gifts (drasha geshank) that the couple had received from the assembled guests and relatives.

As we have seen, Reb Zusha's work was not light or easy at all. It is perhaps appropriate to describe Reb Zusha – how he looked and in what manner he sang (in Yiddish of course) the “hitorerut” [awakening][6] before the bride, before she walked to the chupa.

Reb Zusha stood on a chair in front of the bride surrounded by a crowd of women. His yarmulke was falling to the back of his head. With closed eyes, he uttered words of awakening that evoked many tears from the bride as well as from the surrounding crowd.

These are the Words in Verse in Yiddish:

Beloved bride, beloved bride, weep,
Your tears now have seven-fold grace.
You, beloved bride,
Are currently standing before the heavenly court.
Plead now, with great weeping,
That your life should not be as bitter as horseradish.
Your path shall be a path of good luck,
You should not, Heaven forbid, have to return to your parents.
Your fortune should be as fine as the brightest summer sun.
You and your husband should not know any sorrow or suffering
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With your good life, you should be an example and a marvel.
You should merit to give birth to and raise good, fine children.
From good to bad is only one step.
G-d should give you grace in the eyes of your husband.
Beloved bride, beloved bride, weep.
Your tears will now ascend to the Throne of Glory.
You will shortly go to the chupa at a propitious time.
And let us say Amen.
These verses were recited in the tune of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and accompanied by the weeping of the surrounding women. On occasion, the fasting bride[7] would faint. This indeed exemplified the greatness of Reb Zusha Marszalik.


Translator's Footnotes

  1. A selection of Biblical verses recited responsively before the Torah scrolls are removed from the ark for the hakafot processions on Simchat Torah, both during the evening service and morning service. In some rites, the recitation of Atah Hareita and the hakafot take place on the night of Shemini Atzeret as well. Return
  2. This means he would set up a subsidiary Hassidic court in which he would be resident at certain times. Return
  3. A book by Yehiel Yeshaia Trunk. See http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/judaica/ejud_0002_0020_0_20069.html Return
  4. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mszczon%C3%B3w and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amshinov_(Hasidic_dynasty) Return
  5. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atlas_silk Return
  6. Referring to arousal to repentance. Return
  7. There is a custom for the bride and groom to fast on the day of their wedding. Return
 

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From the Early Days

by Yitzchak Yaakov Erlich

Translated by Jerrold Landau

 

Aleph

Reb Itche Erlich came to Zawiercie in the year 5653 (1893) and lived there until the year 5695 (1935). Throughout this period, most of his sons and daughters made aliya to the Land of Israel. He too came to the Land in 5695 (1935). When he lived in Bnei Brak, he wrote the history of his life for his descendents. It is a long canvas, in which most of the residents of Zawiercie of all ranks are mentioned. A few sections from this history are excerpted here. Out of esteem for this author of blessed memory, who was popular in our town, we left the original words and style intact, polishing it only slightly.

 

Men of Strength

During the final years of the 19th century, I worked as a day worker in Reb Hendel Hamer's business in Zawiercie. Reb Hendel, who was a relative, owned a coffee business in the city for 20 years. He imported green coffee beans from abroad. He roasted the coffee beans in a special coffee grinder. After the roasting, he sold the roasted beans – and he lived very amply.

Of course, it did not take long before he had to face a difficult competitor in Reb Itche Kurland. Reb Itche first worked in the tobacco business. Later, however, he also brought a coffee roasting machine.

What, then, did Reb Hendel Hamer do?

He decided to challenge Reb Itche. That is to say, he too started doing business in tobacco – which aroused the ire and wrath of Reb Itche Kurland.

As it turned out, I was accepted to work for Reb Hendel.

This is what happened: My father had a large tobacco products business in Sosnowiec. Reb Hendel heard that I had returned from Warsaw to Sosnowiec, where I had spent a brief period of time after I had left Zawiercie, where I had settled a few years previously. Reb Hendel approached my father with a request that I return to Zawiercie to work in his business in that city, so that he could develop the tobacco business.

So, I acceded to his request and returned to Zawiercie, after I had been absent there for several years.

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We prepared everything that was needed to develop the tobacco business. Simultaneously, we continued with the coffee roasting business. We spent money to purchase merchandise. We bought and sold. At times, I would go to the bank in Sosnowiec, for there was no bank yet in Zawiercie at that time, as the city was still small.

Why is it that my pen blurted out the word “city”? Was Zawiercie a city at that time?

It was a village. In Russian, the area was called “Seleniye Zawiercie.” It had few people, approximately 200. The streets of the city were not paved, and were filled with filth and muck.

Two hooligans ruled Zawiercie in a strong fashion at that time. All the residents of the city were afraid and irritated by them. They imposed their fear upon the entire area.

One of them was Antek Swarowiec – a gentile[1]. The second was Szmachne, a Jew.

I remember something that happened when I came for the first time to Zawiercie from the city Huta Skempski (skepska). I was walking oblivious to any danger along the street when a gentile came toward me and slapped me on the cheek so hard that “I saw my grandmother” (as the expression goes in Yiddish). The gentile slapped my cheek once. It is strange that he did not continue to beat me. He also did not continue to stand next to me. He did not escape out of fear of my reaction. He simply left me to myself, as he continued along his route calmly, as if nothing had happened.

I will admit and not be ashamed that I was astounded. I did not understand what had just happened. I turned here and there, and then a Jew came toward me and said, “Quiet! This is Antek Swarowiec.”

People told stories about Szmachne the Jew in the same fashion as they told ones about Malarski, who was known “for his work” in the area several years before my encounter with Antek.

Malarski was known as a murderer. The entire area was afraid of him. His name was notorious. If one wanted to scare a naughty child, they would say, “Quiet, Malarski is coming.” Later they would say, “Szmachne is coming.” Or “Antek Swarowiec will catch you.” These three names were all used in the same context.

However, Antek was different from Szmachne in his manners and techniques. When Antek would meet you in the middle of the street during the height of the day, he would be able to demand some money from you without any preface. If you refused to give him the money, he would beat you with murderous blows. At times, he would take out a large knife, and nobody would tell him, “Put it back!” Why? Because at that time, there were only three policemen in Zawiercie. They carried out the will of every person, even if the person was a bandit, robber, an unstable person, or a murderer. All of this silence and covering up – was for a single ruble! I recall that after some time, I also had a machine for roasting

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coffee, and I had no permit for such. The smell of roasted coffee wafted out to the street. At that time, there were about ten policemen in Zawiercie. When a policeman would come and ask that I show him the permit, I would give him a half ruble or a quarter of a cup of coffee – and he would be quiet. Bribery existed at that time in the land of the Czar and ruled the street. It was possible to cover up every case of murder, fraud, theft, or oppression with a single ruble. Therefore, there was a place for the deeds of Antek Swarowiec.

Szmachne the Jew acted in a different manner. He did not beat you or demand money. Rather, he was a businessman. He could come to you and tell you: “Purchase a barrel of stolen herring.” Many people would jump upon the stolen merchandise for a low price. When the merchant would open the barrel, he would find a few layers of herring. Underneath these layers, he would find stones and bricks. Another example: Szmachne would tell you, “Give me change for these ten rubles” and after a minute you would realize that they were forged.

Szmachne was known throughout the region, just like Antek Swarowiec, or the name of Chaim'l Kromolow, who was also known as such a person with such traits.

 

Beit

The Epidemic in Zawiercie

It took place in the year 5654 (1895), two years after I came to Zawiercie for the first time. It was a still a small, poor place. Its few residents all knew each other and were related to each other. I had three sons at that time, Tzvi-David, Elazar, and Zeev-Nachum. It was just before my daughter Drezel was born. These were all children of my wife Rachel-Lea, the daughter of a prominent Hassid, Reb Reuven Zaramf of Będzin. At that time, a cholera epidemic broke out across Poland, may we be protected from such. This epidemic wreaked particular havoc in Będzin. Hundreds of people died daily, and there was almost nobody to bury them. Screams of people were heard in the streets and in the markets of the city. In the streets, they burned fires from forest wood, called jałowiec[2]. Mothers with children were ripped to pieces, may it not befall us. Benevolent houses and infirmaries were set up in every town, where medicine was distributed at all hours of the day and night (droplets called “inozemczawa”, produced outside the country), as well as hot drinks. Groups of people organized in every city to heal and save the sick. The illness was identified by three symptoms: first diarrhea, then vomiting, and then cramps and convulsions. The three phases took place within two or three hours. If you took your eye off the sick person – he might die. The doctors said that the primary means of avoiding the illness was maintaining cleanliness.

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When the epidemic broke out in the city of Będzin, whose narrow streets were always filled with filth and rot, a group to save people was organized there. A group for saving people was also set up in Zawiercie, which was not far from Będzin. The group was headquartered in the room in front of the synagogue. Personnel on shift were always present there, ready for action. When they found out about a sick person, the person on duty ran to his house, to save him as best possible. The gentiles also did everything that they could. The Russian government authorities acted to the best of their ability. It was all in vain. The epidemic spread through the population in full force. The gentiles in every city established shifts to prevent people who fled from infected cities to enter the city. Even if a person was a resident of the city, but was coming from a different city, they would not permit him to return to his house. First, he had to wait in a small house next to the railway station. There they disinfected him and his clothing. Then, they permitted him to go home. The epidemic raged in this manner for several months. The most difficult months were Tammuz and Av of the year 5654 (1894). I was also among the shift personnel. I ran and I saved people to the best of my ability.

I recall: I was standing with my wife in the windows of our house, which was not far from the Beis Midrash. We were standing and talking. My wife, who was a righteous woman, said, “See Itche, we are going to bed in our home in peace, and the Beis Midrash is full of people – guests whose fate is to sleep on the hard, wooden benches.” She said this after a day of caring and helping them. We were still standing, talking, and looking out at Marszalkowska Street, when before our eyes, a group of gentiles were leading several Jews that they had rounded up in Zawiercie, intending to send them back to Będzin, from where they had fled from the plague. In this crowd, I saw the prominent wealthy woman Chavale (the wife of my relative, the dear, wealthy Reb Yeshaya Hendel Erlich), her six sons and daughters, and her gentile maid. My heart spurred me on, and I engaged in a conversation with the gentiles who were leading them, asking them from where this group had come. They told me that they had found them in the home of Reb Chaim Kromolowski. (Reb Chaim Kromolowski was the brother of Chavale Erlich, the wife of Reb Yeshaya-Hendel). I don't remember the manner and means through which I removed them from the gentiles, who were hauling them literally like animals. I brought the eight souls into my house, which consisted only of two rooms and a kitchen. It was at 1:00 p.m. on Sunday, 23 Av, 5654. My wife made them all lunch to restore their souls. In the afternoon, they went for a walk through the streets, for the fear of the gentiles had passed. The gentiles had sent the rest of the people that they caught back to the infected Będzin. I went to the Beis Midrash for the mincha service, and from there to the shift place. There, they distributed to the those who needed it hot drinks, medicine, and “inozemczawa” drops.

I returned home in the evening. My wife stood in the window and told me, as if in a good mood so that I would not worry, “You should know that I have a bit of diarrhea.” What could I say? The lights in my world went out!

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I immediately ran to the designated place to get help, and people came back with me within a few minutes. The symptoms of the disease were already present in full force: diarrhea, vomiting. We did all that we could. About 12 people stayed over at my house, alert to any change. These included the physician Lewi, who was an expert in the area, as well as the best medic, Reb Yaakov Hirsch Czebiner. They were awake all night and did what they could. They gave her an expensive medicine. Nothing helped. The cramps and convulsions started at approximately 3:00 a.m. Toward morning she called me over to her bed and told me, “See Itche, now I feel a bit better.” At 5:00 or 6:00, it became known in the street, including to the government police. The policeman Winik came to my house. My wife trembled, and did not say anything from that moment on. At 8:00 a.m. she returned her pure, clean soul to where it came from. Thus did my wife Rachel-Lea, dearer to me than my own body, and greatly beloved throughout Zawiercie, die. The entire city was in shock. The window of my house was open at that time. I jumped out the window, called out loudly, “I bear the wrath of G-d!” I almost went out of my mind with great grief and agony. People took me to the house of my friend and good neighbor, Reb Avraham Bornsztejn, and lay me down on the sofa in his home. I do not know what happened to me then. People watched over me to ensure that I would not jump out the window again out of great sorrow.

A few hours later, I returned to my senses. I saw that they had cleared the Beis Midrash of all books, tables and benches, and turned it into a hospital. The district minister came from Będzin and sealed up my home. They took the body of my late wife, as well as my family members and me, to the Beis Midrash. Beds had been set up there – one for me, one for my sons Hershele, Volvish,[3] and Elazar, and for my daughter Drezel (who had been born on the 15th of Sivan, and was two months old at that time). The next day, my wife's brother, the dear Reb Mordechai Noach Zaramf, called Reb Motel Zaramf, came and took two of my sons, Elazar and Zeev-Nachum Volvish to the Jandzow railway station next to the Wyskitna Forest. My first father-in-law lived there. Righteous women nursed little Drezel for a few days. Then they arranged for the wife of David Pachter (the brother of Hillel Pachter) of Zawiercie, in the village of Ogrodzieniec near Zawiercie, to nurse her. After some time they transferred little Drezel to the home of Breindel, my wife's sister (the wife of my brother-in-law Reb Shlomo Gitler), where she remained until she was three years old. I returned to Zawiercie and again I tried to build new life from the ruins in Zawiercie.

Good people interceded actively at the government offices to obtain a permit to bury my late wife in the manner that they bury people who died from other causes, not as a result of the epidemic. At 5:00 a.m., the day after her death, we brought her to burial in Kromolów next to Zawiercie, for in those days Zawiercie was still considered to be a village, and its dead were buried in the city of Kromolów.

I remained in Zawiercie for 16 days, including the days of the shiva mourning period. I sat shiva in the Beis Midrash. Good people fed me to the extent that they could. They even sent pillows and blankets

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for us, as all of our belongings were sealed up in our house by the government. After some time, they opened up my house. Government officials loaded everything that was in my house on two wagons and burnt everything. They ignited some type of fluid throughout the house. Fire came out of it as it was poured on the floor. Its odor wafted throughout all of Marszalkowska Street. The Chumash Devarim [Book of Deuteronomy] that was on the table still bears the odor to this day. Thus did they purify and clean my house. I returned to my house to live along with my oldest son Tzvi-David.

I wept over my beloved, dear wife for a long time. I often went to the cemetery to prostrate myself and weep over her grave.

This is what happened to me in Zawiercie during the time of the epidemic. Only one victim fell in Zawiercie at that time. My righteous wife had been chosen as that victim.

 

Gimel

In Poverty and Want

My tribulations during that period were not yet finished. A new hardship overtook me eight days after I returned to my home.

During that time, I had a shoe store in Zawiercie. This was the first shoe store there, for until that time, the custom had to order shoes directly from the shoemaker. I opened a store, imported merchandise from outside the city, and people purchased their shoes on the spot without waiting weeks or months until the shoemaker made them. Of course, the shoemakers persecuted me for this. Nevertheless, I earned a comfortable livelihood. My shoe store was not far from my home.

Behold, eight days after I returned empty handed to my dwelling, the son of Reb Leibish Rozenbaum knocked on my door and called out, “Reb Itche, why is your store open?” I ran directly to the store, and behold: the store had been broken into; thieves had come and emptied it. Only a few shoes were left, which were not pairs with each other. What can I do? I broke out in laughter. My friends asked me why I was laughing in such a situation – after the death of my wife and the pillaging of my store. But this was my nature: I had learned how to laugh.

I remained as a bereaved widower, penniless, as a tossing ship in the stormy sea, naked and destitute, as a pole atop a mountain. My friends came to me and advised me to leave

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Zawiercie at this time and to go to my family in Będzin. Perhaps my broken soul would find some rest, they claimed.

I left Zawiercie, the place where I had so much pain, to return three years later and rebuild my nest anew.

 

Daled

I returned to Zawiercie

It was the spring, in Adar, 5657 (1897) when I got married to my very good wife Gitele, the daughter of Reb Berl Gitler. He lived at that time in the Wyskitna Forest. Prior to that time, he had lived in Zawiercie for thirteen years. At first I would travel from my in-laws home in Wyskitna back and forth to Zawiercie. In Zawiercie, I worked at Reb Hendel Hamer's shop, roasting coffee. Eventually, I rented a dwelling in Zawiercie. When I came to celebrate Passover in my in-laws home, I brought the news to my wife that I had already rented a dwelling in Zawiercie.

I arrived with my wife in Zawiercie on Lag BaOmer 5657 in order to settle there permanently.

My dwelling was not far from my workplace in Hamer's store. The generous, wealthy man, Rev Shmuel Swyka, had lived in that dwelling previously. He had many fine traits.

He was a good-hearted man. We became friends in heart and soul.

 

He

The Dispute over the Rabbinate

The first dispute over the rabbinate in Zawiercie was between those who wanted to appoint Rabbi Yisrael Leib and later his son Reb Avrahamele Gancwajch to the rabbinate of Kromolów and the district, and the supporters of the rabbinate of Rabbi Yaakov Ber, who

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served as the rabbi of Kromolów with government approbation – and therefore also had authority over Zawiercie which was under Kromolów government at that time.

Subsequently, I recall the dispute over the rabbinate between the son of Reb Avrahamele Gancwajch and Rabbi Menachem Mendel Landau.

Reb Avrahamele Gancwajch was a wise, intelligent man. He was a faithful friend of both my father-in-law and me. He knew hardship and suffering in Zawiercie.

As the population of Zawiercie increased, his father Reb Yisrael Leib wanted to set up his home in Zawiercie. In those days, a strong-minded person, charitable and very generous, lived in Zawiercie – Reb Moshe Leib Hercberg. He opposed this, and did not want Rabbi Yisrael Leib to live in Zawiercie. The final word was that Rabbi Yisrael Leib defied Reb Moshe Leib Hercberg's opinion, and he set his dwelling in Zawiercie. During that time, Rabbi Yisrael Leib passed away, and his son, Rabbi Avrahamele Gancwajch, aspired to inherit his father's position as the rabbi of Zawiercie. However, the primary rabbinical position belonged to Rabbi Yaakov Ber and not to Rabbi Yisrael Leib, for Rabbi Yaakov Ber, as had been said, was the rabbi of Kromolów with government approbation, and Zawiercie was included in Kromolów. A serious dispute had broken out even before I had arrived in Zawiercie, and I recall only the end of the dispute When Rabbi Yaakov Ber passed away, Rabbi Avrahamele Gancwajch attempted to become the rabbi of Zawiercie, and a serious dispute erupted once again. The philanthropist Reb Moshe Leib and his son Reb Elimelech Hercberg were once again the leaders of the opponents. Very many people, the largest contingent, opposed Rabbi Avrahamele. I worked a great deal in his favor, and turned many people of the city in his favor, but Reb Moshe Leib Hercberg and his son Elimelech won. They brought Rabbi Menachem Mendel Landau, the son of Rabbi Yaakovle of Nasielsk and the grandson of the great Gaon Rabbi Avraham of Ciecanow, to the city. Rabbi Menachem Mendel Landau came from Nowy Dwór and set up his home in Zawiercie despite the anger and wrath of many residents. With regard to myself – on account of this dispute, I received a slap on the cheek in front of the community. It happened like this: one evening, I convened a group of about 300 people, where we prepared a rabbinical writ to bring Rabbi Gancwajch as the rabbi of Zawiercie. There were approximately 300 signatures, including mine. The next day, my friend Reb Yisrael Meir Bornsztejn, who was the son of my friend and my father's friend Reb Lipman (the brother of my uncle, The Gaon and holy light of Biala, the grandson of the Shach), came to me in front of a crowd and slapped me on the cheek. I did not hesitate, and I returned the slap to him with interest. Instead of one, I gave him two. This was all in public, in the Beis Midrash of Zawiercie.

Indeed, the matter was very ugly, but I did not learn my lesson. I will relate further that discord returned to our city regarding the factions. Standing one against the other were the factions that supported the true Gaon, the head of the pastors, the prime student of the Admor of Sochaczew – Rabbi Tz. A. Frumer of Koziegłowy – and the Admor of Kromolów, who wanted his son Rabbi Elimelech Rabinowicz to be the rabbi. At that time as well, I stood at the head of a faction and had not learned my lesson. I was wounded,

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but I will speak more on that later. The dispute passed, and Rabbi Landau served as the rabbi for many years.

At first, I did not speak to him, but the peace was restored, and we became friends.

{Photo page 128: The Admor of Sochaczew and the Rabbi of Koziegłowy.}

The time of the First World War came, and Rabbi Mendel Landau, the rabbi of Zawiercie, became very poor. I recall that on one occasion, he wept over his poverty to me as I was sitting in his home. His wife the rebbetzin brought a tail of a salted fish, and said that they had to live from a salted fish all week! I also noticed that the rabbi's cloak was heavily ripped. Rabbi Mendel Landau and his wife were indeed very spoiled. But things had reached this point during the wartime. Having no choice, he left Zawiercie and immigrated to America. There, he preached before crowds, did very well, and became quite wealthy. However, with the passage of time, he lost his wealth there. From America, he traveled to London, England, where he became wealthy a second time. He came to Zawiercie and was the guest at the home of his friend Reb Kopel Hendler. From there, he traveled to Katowice to visit his son-in-law Reb David Erlich, who was my relative. Rabbi Meir Landau became very ill in Katowice, and traveled to Otwock. A few months after arriving in Otwock, he died there, full of suffering. He was buried in Warsaw in the canopy of his father Reb Yaakovle Nasielsker of Ciechanów. The city of Zawiercie sent a delegation to his funeral, including my relative Reb Tzvi Rappaport. The Gaon Rabbi Menachem Ziemba of Warsaw was among the eulogizers.

[Page 129]

Vav

How I Became Self Employed

After some time, I decided to take care of my family. I left Reb Hendel, and decided not to return to him again. My friends proposed various business ventures to me, but I remained with coffee.

For this, I required several hundred rubles. Who would come to my aid?

It came from my relative Reb Itche Meir Landau. He was a very good man, and never turned anyone away empty handed. He would extend a generous loan. He gave me 300 rubles, and my brother Chanoch-Hendel added also generously to this sum.

I approached foreign companies who sent me everything that I wanted, despite the fact that Reb Hendel urged them to refrain from sending me samples and merchandise, for I was not a merchant, but rather a poor man who had run only his own business.

I had coffee already, but I did not have a roasting machine. I then found out that Reb Yisaelke of Będzin had a roasting machine in Szczekociny that he wished to sell. I traveled to Szczekociny, and saw that the machine was worth the price. I paid 40 rubles for it. At 3:00 a.m. on the eve of Sukkot, I loaded the machine onto a wagon, and we set out for Zawiercie. I still remember that we tarried at an inn along the way. It was nighttime. I ate a quarter of a duck, three rolls, and a glass of liquor. I paid 16 kopecks in total for the meal.

We arrived in Zawiercie at 8:00 a.m. on the eve of Sukkot, and I immediately began to raise the ire of Reb Hendel. He even wrote to my father that I had been roasting coffee on the eve of Sukkot until the afternoon, which is a great transgression, even though he often would roast until sundown on eves of Sabbaths and festivals. He became a laughing stock before everyone.

Along with my son Elazar, I conducted my work with great energy. I succeeded in repaying the aforementioned loans at the end of the first year, and I turned a profit of 300 rubles. I did well at this hard work. Reb Hendel learned the lesson that money does not answer for everything, and that a Jewish person should not boast about his money. Diligence and the salvation of G-d are the things that honor and bless a person.

My business grew. After two years, I was already recommended to purchase houses in Zawiercie – for example, the large house on 2 Marszalkowska Street, half of which I purchased from Reb Yosef Warcman. I needed about 1,600 rubles (approximately 800 dollars) for this purchase. However, I was afraid of this as well. I obtained the money from the lending cassa (kosztelna) as well as from my own money – and I purchased half of the house.

[Page 130]

At first, I lived in a house owned by the gentile Lokata of the village of Mrzyglód next to Zawiercie. I wanted to purchase this house, for which Lokata asked 700 rubles. I already had this sum in my hands (I had borrowed it from the widow of my friend Alter Hoffman, who was nicknamed “Dvora the painter woman”, at 12% interest for a 10 year repayment period. I paid until the First World War.) As I was about to settle with Lokata, the house had been purchased by Reb Yankel Grunwald.

I said, if Reb Yankel purchased it, it is as if I purchased it, for he will not ask for a higher rent than I paid to the gentile. However, my righteous wife claimed that Reb Yankel raised the rent to almost double within a year. Indeed, not as I expected.

I had the idea of building my own house before I purchased half of the house from Reb Yosef Worcman. I purchased bricks and other building material from Reb Nachman Haberman, and began to build a house with two large rooms. I did not need an approval of the building plan from the government, for Zawiercie was still a village at that time.

The construction lasted for a long time. When I asked the builder when he would finish his work, he responded, “Bedze, bedze!” (It will be, it will be). My dear wife teased me with the, “Bedze, bedze.” Finally, the construction of this spacious dwelling was completed with good fortune.

I worked as one of the workers throughout the entire construction period: I carried bricks and rocks myself; I dug and did all types of hard work. I had hoped to find water in the pit that I dug in the yard of the house. I did not find water, but I did find soft, clean, fine sand.

Before moving to Worcman's house, a terrible event had happened to us. Thirteen of us were sitting together (on Sukkot, 5662 / 1903) in the Sukka of our friend Reb Binyamin Moshe Landau (on Marszalkowska, in the house that he owned jointly with his brother-in-law Reb Leibel Berger). As the custom of Hassidim and practical men, we were celebrating with wine and liquor – until midnight. The wine ran out, and the Hassidim wanted to drink more, but there was no wine. I told them, “My masters, I have a bottle of good wine in my house. I will go home and bring the bottle.”

My wife was already sleeping. She got up and saw me busy with wine, treats, and cakes. My wife said, “Itche, you have one bottle of wine and you are taking it?” I told her in a pleading voice, “Great good can come from Hassidim drinking together on a festival, at midnight. Permit me to take the bottle, and if you are missing something – I will buy a better bottle for you.”

My wife, the best of women, said to me, “Take, take the bottle, and drink for a good life and peace!”

I returned to Reb Binyamin Moshe's Sukka. We ate, drank, and blessed the blessed G-d, as is the custom.

[Page 131]

We finished, and left the Sukka. Behold, there was a mishap: fire had broken out in the city and was reaching the heavens! The fire was coming from the side of my house. I realized that the fire had broken out on the roof of my house. I shouted to my friends, “Nobody goes home. Help me, for there is fire in my house.”

Despite our efforts, we could not enter the house, for the gate of the yard was closed. We jumped over the fence and summoned the city policemen and firefighters.

In the meantime, I discovered that the fire had not actually struck my house, but rather the wooden structure in the corner of the yard. Nevertheless, we removed all our belongings, as well as the members of the household whom we awakened. We also woke up our neighbor Reb Yudel Parizer, the owner of the mikva, and Reb Alter Hoffman the painter, who were sleeping despite the smoke that filled their rooms. Related to this, we should mention the name of Reb Yeshaya Mendel Erenfried, who was at that time a Hassid of Sochaczew (a town in central Poland), who urged me to save the people in the nearby houses, lest a disaster occur.

After a long time, we were able to determine that only a small area of the front of the house had been burnt. My house, which was very close to the wooden structure, was magically spared.

After the fire was extinguished, we conducted a census of my family members, and we noticed that one person was missing. I do not recall who it was – Zeev Nachum (Volvish) or Yehuda (Leibish).

After extensive searching, we found the lad in the home of the teacher Reb Fishel Mohr. He stayed over there until the next day.

The firefighters did not permit us to return to our house, for it was damaged greatly during the extinguishing. We never returned again to the house that I built, but rather to the half of the house I had purchased from Reb Yosef Worcman.

I wanted to dwell in peace, but a new trouble overtook me. The coffee business dwindled due to competition from 25-year-old youths with physical strength: Chaim Ulmer of Władysław and Yosef David Liber, the son of the baker Hinda Lea. Both of them also had money, for they had just gotten married and the dowry was in their hands.

Chaim Ulmer, who worked at first in Hamer's business, suffered greatly there and I protected him. Hamer's wife chased him out to the yard, literally like a dog. Even when he was sick, my wife cared for him and cooked for him.

I continued roasting coffee despite the competition. I now worked myself. My son Elazar who helped me in the past had gotten married (to my daughter-in-law Esterl, the daughter of Reb Moshe Bornsztejn of Szczekociny, who was related to our relative, the elder Admore of Szczekociny). However, I was working at a smaller scale.

***

There were three rooms and two stores in the half of the house that I had purchased from Worcman. Our friend Reb Berish Zylbersztejn and the shoemaker Puszechadnik lived there. Reb Berish Zylbersztejn, who lived there with his wife, son and daughters, was a very poor and depressed man.

[Page 132]

Zayin

“The Committees”

It was the year 5674 (1914). World War broke out. The Germans, Austrians, and Hungarians came to Zawiercie, or passed through it, after they had fled the Russian army. At that time, I lived with my family in the house of the baker Reb David-Leib Tenenbaum on Siewierz Street. I looked for a source of livelihood, for my previous source of livelihood was dissolved with the liquidation of my “Praca” factory for crates and wooden boxes, and afterward I had sustained difficult blows from David Cyter on account of business. We knew that it was wartime, and business was difficult. We searched for ways of conducting business and earning money. I obtained flour from my relative Reb Tzvi Rappaport. The flour was spoiled with kerosene. My wife kneaded dough from this damaged flour – from which the strong odor of kerosene emanated, and baked bread and cakes that we would sell to soldiers passing by in large groups on Siewierz Street. We stood in the window of our house and sold our baked gods to soldiers. The soldiers purchased them and paid good money. My son Yehuda (Leibish) was now 13 years old, a man among men, filled with the grace of G-d. He was our “commercial envoy” and made contact with the soldiers who were passing by on their way to the front. That is how all of Zawiercie earned its livelihood during the first and second years of the war – years that brought great straits to the city. The hungry soldiers were satisfied that we sold them something, and they paid well.

During those times, I had the idea of storing all of the tea in the city, since we were cut off from Warsaw and its tea companies: Wissotzky and Papani. I approached my neighbor Tzvi Haberman, whom I knew had a significant sum of money in his house, proposing that we purchase all the tea in the city. That is what we did.

After some time, we sold the tea to the local population and to the soldiers. We earned a large sum of money. I then had the opportunity to purchase a barrel of kerosene – and there was no kerosene in Zawiercie. I made money from that as well. My beloved son Yehuda, may he live long, who was very young at the time, assisted me. At that time, I even forged a friendship with the priest of Zawiercie, to whom I had sold tea and several liters of kerosene that he needed.

Then, during the days of darkness, food supplies dwindled and there were days that the most essential commodities were missing in Zawiercie. Then a “committee” was founded: that is, a committee for the distribution of food to the civilian population. The pharmacist Jan Paszerbinski headed the committee. After some time, the committee broke up, and two committees were formed, one for Christians and the other for Jews. The following people headed the Jewish committee: Wycen (an honest, elderly man who had worked for about 40 years in the factory in Zawiercie and served as a city administrator the entire time), Reb Zalman Margolis, Shmuel Helberg, Eber Perces, Avraham Bornsztejn, Reb Tzvi Haberman, and Reb Meir Finkelsztejn. The bookkeeper was my close friend Reb Chanan-Henech Krohn. Reb Shimon Frajdman was in the store.

[Page 133]

After some time, they also included me in the committee work, as well as my beloved sons Yehuda (Leibish) and Pinchas (Pintche), who were liked by everyone who saw them for their faithful and diligent work. Later, my son Elazar was also included in this work. My son Yehuda, may he live, was the prime mover in all matters of the committee: food cards, bread cards, potatoes, coal, flour, and other essential items. This was the situation until the end of the war in 1918.


Translator's Footnotes

  1. Literally, “an uncircumcised person.” This expression is used in a somewhat derogatory fashion for gentiles several times in this chapter. I translated as “gentile,” but the reader should bear in mind the derogatory intent. Return
  2. The Polish word for juniper. Return
  3. Hershel is the Yiddish form of Tzvi, and Wolf (Volvish) is the Yiddish form of Zeev. Return

 

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