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[Pages 48-59]

My City Zloczew

By Mordechai Majerowicz

Translated by Herman Taube

With great longing for the hometown where I was born, I would like to bring forth with loving tenderness some features of what was once my unforgettable Jewish town of Zloczew.

Regretfully, I don't possess any official or non-official sources of dates when Zloczew was founded and was incorporated as a town. Nothing was left of the past period, except some obscure recollections retained in my heart, saved up in my memory.

It is now more than 36 years since I left my hometown, but my devotion, my connection with it, was never weakened. I see its image in full scope, as if I was still standing there.

Vilonska Street – from the left

 

These pages will be read by people of the old generation, those who still remember our town, the place where they lived a significant part of their lives, worked, created, dreamed and struggled to 'make a living'. Maybe the younger generation, their children and grandchildren, some of them born and raised in our town, but who were too young to remember something of their childhood, will take an interest to learn about their parents and grandparents, their way of life, traditions, their colorful existence until the calamity, their annihilation by the Nazi hangmen. Mainly, these lines are dedicated to our children and grandchildren, the young generation, born and raised here in Israel and in the Diaspora all over the world. The name Zloczew is for them an unknown notion. Often, they don't understand our past generation and don't comprehend our war experiences. Hopefully, maybe some day, they will reach a time and become curious, eager to know the history of their extraction, their descendents, and turn to inquire about the little town called Zloczew. Therefore, let us turn to the memories - when, where and how we lived in our town.

A Province in Congress Poland

Like a small hill leaning on a large mountain, like a tide flowing from a big lake, so I remember from a far away distance of many decades, my hometown Zloczew near the large, neighboring city of Lodz. A small waterfall, but a lively, brisk spring of a zestful lakeshore, how small it was, it still possessed distinct streams, left and right, extraneous and mediocrity. Still, no matter how far they were flowing one from the other, they were all united in one spring, a lake of plain people, living a unique, colorful, Jewish life.

It is not easy to turn your vision to the far away past, decades later, far from the daily lives, concepts and notions. Deep as the ocean is the pain and heartache when you think of your childhood years because not only are the flowers ragged, but the trees and plants were destroyed, ravaged to the roots. Not only the organized Jewish community, but the whole town lies devastated. Erased was the Jewish way of living that was fused, blended with the town. Even more: the whole community atmosphere that was peculiar for Zloczew disappeared. Zloczew is a symbolic example of all the destroyed Jewish towns in that part of Poland called “Congress Poland”.

This was a provincial town with all her own characteristic features and traits of the Jewish parts of Poland. You could hear there the sound of Jewish creativity in the melodies of Yiddish songs, prayers and study - the lingo of the Jewish masses, the faint of generations. You had the impression that the widespread activities were planted here since the days of creation and the strongest windstorm could not wreck or smash the strong foundation of the Jewish community. You experienced here the same destruction that took place in all the other province places in the devastated world.

Generations of Yiddish affected not only the townspeople, but also the nature; everything was breathing with Jewish air, let alone that Yiddish lived in all the streets and houses…with one word: the spirit of Jewish existence was mirrored as a 'unique atmosphere hovering over the town', encompassing their whole world. Naturally, among them were many segments, divided by their social and communal interests. But, despite their constituent divisions, which appeared in the Jewish community, the dominant characteristic feature was their common destiny and fate. Here they shared joy and misery, satisfaction mixed with sorrow. Still, Zloczew was positively different. We are inclined, after the great calamity of the Holocaust, to embrace in a common tear, the whole, colorful world that was annihilated. We speak of the extermination of East-European Jewry as a community structured from one piece. The truth of the matter is that the Jewish towns in Congress Poland possessed their own unique character, their own world outlook. These small towns, close to Lodz and Warsaw, and in their quiet provincial ranges, were infiltrated by the vehement momentum of the large cities.

A view of Shabaska Street, from the side of the old 'rink'

 

We can not say about the Jews of Zloczew the same things we said about other Jews who lived in the deeply isolated parts of Poland, that they were isolated from real life, that they experienced little of the problems Jews were facing elsewhere, that they lived in a web of illusions and passivity. The pulse of the neighboring large cities was beating in Zloczew. From here, we often traveled to Lodz and Warsaw to trade, work and visit relatives. The provincial way of life was mixed with the anxiety and active movement of the large cities. The nearby turbulent, outside centers, the smoky factory chimneys of Lodz influenced the tempo mentality and a dynamic activism of our town, opening windows to the wide world.

Yet, the contact with the outside world and her ideals did not diminish the dramatic Jewish spirituality in our town. The unbending life-realism did not stand against the great, romantic ideals of freedom that appeared to be expressed in many forms and the sober reality that grew out of the contact with the daily harsh facts did not endanger the dreams of past generations.

When I carry back my thoughts to the past years, I see the strong spirit of a plain Jewish community that in their centuries of dispersion developed communities in all corners of the globe, following a thousand years path of their own traditions. I don't plan to enumerate all the large and small stations during our wanderings, where a rich, creative Jewish life blossomed. But, as it is known nowhere in our long, bygone generations in the whole world, encompassing our Jewish geography, no one possessed the powerful dramatic element that blossomed in the Central Polish provinces.

Toledo was considered a splendid garden in our poetry. Maginz was regarded as a residence of learning, Mezibosh was ebullient with a fountain of Chassidic spirit. But in these other communities was missing the significant zeal that was vital for the towns in Congress Poland. It was absent the twinkling rainbow of the many, worldly, contrasting ideals; Orthodox, free-spirited. Zionists, Bundists, Socialists, and Communists, they all were united in one colorful formation of Jewish solidarity. This characteristic attribute was possessed by our town Zloczew.

Feeling Jewish

There was no Yeshiva and no high-school in Zloczew. Their youth did not show any exceptional talents for great scholarship. Our town was not the center of Jewish knowledge and our people did not climb to the peak of reasoning and creativity. We did have opponents of Orthodoxy and Hasidim - enlightened Jews and a viable, conscious youth. But Zloczew was not a leading lightening center of Hassidic, or anti-Orthodox community.

It was a characteristic fact that we were not afraid of outside influences. Our community activities were natural and the nature itself, like the running of the lake and the sound of the forest wind… The hot breath of the Jewish community was able to inhale all the outside air and still not lose his original spirit. The youth were able to sing songs absorbed from the outside world, but still remained influenced by Jewish melodies, inspired by national ideals.

Among the books of modern literature the people borrowed from the local libraries, and the ancient holy books the people were studying at the Bet-Midrash and in the Hassidic 'shtibl' (prayer house), there was no border division, because their common destiny, their struggle for their rights of existence bonded them in one united Jewish community of Zloczew. The local Jews were an integral part of the general population of the town, but still they left an impression that in reality they were a separate unit. Often leaving the perception that the Jewish masses are not moving in the sphere of the town…they lived in their own time, their own calendar of their own Saturdays, religious and national holidays. The Jewish community presented itself as a minority, but only statistically. Spiritually and psychologically, the Jews lived in their world thinking that they were the majority…

A view of the church of the priests

 

In my childhood, my town passed from hand to hand. This was during the First World War. Regimes in power changed like an epidemic; the Russians leaving, the Germans arriving, then the Polish came. Also this expulsion did not rob the Jewish population from the feeling of belonging to the town. They were convinced that the expulsion orders were just temporary. In fact, as soon as things settled down, all returned home, rebuilt the ruins and again developed communal activities with all their attributes, standards and aspects. Despite the stormy period of events, nothing was able to remove the Jews from their place. They adjusted to their new circumstances and with renewed energy started new businesses. They remained undaunted in their faith and their souls. The dynamic of the events did not break their view and did not split their reliance on their destiny. Everything can crush in a time of cataclysms and confusion, in war and turmoil, but not the feeling of Jewish eternity that was deeply planted in the souls and hearts of the Jews of our town.

The Underlying Features

The Jewish youth in their early age were already involved in the struggle for existence; only a few left the town to study elsewhere.

At a very early age, we started to help our parents in their shops or workshops. Later we became apprentices at craftsmen shops, or we started to trade and work on our own. But the reality did not rob us of our ideals. We were pushed to become mature and sober, but did not stop to carry on the dream and believe in a better world to come for the Jews and for humanity. They stood with both feet on the ground and aspired to lift themselves to a higher sphere of reality….

In the course of the many years since I left Zloczew, I had the opportunity to attend many synagogues and services on the night of Kol Nidre. Nowhere was I so overwhelmed with a holy inspiration of great anticipation as I was in my little synagogue in Zloczew, lit by dripping candles, scenes I still remember from my youth. I can't forget the prayer-shawls yellowed from wet tears on the shoulders of the people bent in prayer…over them was hovering a mystical omen, that days will arrive soon when malice and hate will be erased from our globe and with mercy and grace all sins will be forgiven to those who never sinned and never stopped praying and hoping.

We felt the same dread of impatient expectation when singing “Hatikva”, the hymn we sung standing with national exaltation at Zionist gatherings in our town. This was not just another song, this was an expression of gathered reserves of national feeling and collected emotions. You felt the same spirit of generational tension when attending meetings of the Jewish Socialist parties in town. They also were roused by romanticism and drenched with ideals of humanity, freedom, equality and brotherhood. As much as the different parties were far away from each other, they were all the same dreamers of that great dream of a better world. This great inner harmony in the character of the people of Zloczew, despite all the deep, averse contradictions they existed with, was the underlying feature of Zloczew, a town in Congress Poland. To our great sorrow, it was destroyed in our generation.

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