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[Pages 417-422]

Viskit

(Wiskitki, Poland)

52°05' 20°24'

 

History of the Community

Translated by Miriam Leberstein

This community is quite old, dating from 1297. Interestingly, its official name is Viskitki, but the Jews called it Viskit, without the “ –ki.” Viskit was the original name, from 1297 to 1349, when it was changed to Viskitki.

Here are a series of excerpts about Viskit from the Polsky Slownik Geograficzny (The Geographic Dictionary of the Kingdom of Poland), which is also the source of the above information.

In 1873 the following “official” buildings existed in Viskit: a brick Roman Catholic church; a poorhouse, an Evangelical church, two elementary schools and a savings society. The town had a distillery, a soda drinks factory, a small dye-works, and two brick making factories. There were about 200 houses and 3449 residents. Among the permanent residents were registered 6 Eastern Orthodox (Russians), 207 Protestants (Germans), and 1602 Jews. The rest were Poles.

In 1824 Viskit had 120 houses and 955 residents, among them 32 textile workers. We can see from this that Jews held a prominent position in the town about 100 years ago. It is also interesting that in 1825, at the time Zyrardow was being established as a textile center, Viskit already had textile workers.

We learn from the same source that Viskit played a prominent role in the life of the nobility and aristocracy. Here are some dates from the history of the Polish royal family and other nobility that relate to Viskit.

 – In 1297, Boleslaw, the king of Mazovia, approved an agreement between the Nashelsker Kashtelan, Tomashov, with the proprietor of the Mislikov-Palislovn.

 – In 1349, it was in Viskit that King Boleslaw signed a document turning over the Vishegroder area to his mother Elizabet.

 – In 1365, in a document sent to King Kasimierz the Great, Viskit is mentioned as a city equal to Warsaw, Sochaczew, Novogrod and Govidvor.

 – The Act of 1399, in which King Ziemovitsh, brother in law of Jagiello, granted privileges to the villages of Shvidna and Gzshimontse, was signed “in our Viskit.”

 – In 1410 King Jagiello spent four days in Viskit with his sister Alexandra, Ziemovitsh's wife) upon his return from fighting the Teutonic Order at the Battle of Grunwald.

Viskit had the honor of hosting such exalted aristocrats, because it had a castle where the dukes of Mazovia came to hunt. These hunting expeditions were famous, because the surrounding woods, the so-called Yaktorover Pustshe, were rich in all kinds of animals.

Viskit is mentioned in countless ancient chronicles, royal genealogies, and military memoirs.

It is not surprising that Jews, as was their way, settled there quite early as tenant farmers, as arendars (lessees or stewards of estates) of the nobility, as inn-keepers, and dairymen. There was no village or estate that did not have Jewish residents. Later, these Jewish residents established the Jewish community of Viskit.

The Jewish Population in Viskit

It is interesting to note the figures showing the growth of the Jewish community in Viskit over the last 130 years or so. These are the figures cited by the Polish historian and statistician Bogdan Vashyutinski, in his book about the Jewish population in Poland in the 19th and 20th centuries, which was published in Polish, in Warsaw in 1930. This table compares the general population and the Jewish population in Viskit in the following years:

Year General
Population
No. of
Jews
% of
Jews
1808 656 88 13.4
1827 1,020 192 18.8
1857 1,652 552 33.4
1921 2,785 951 34.4

Thus, over the years, the percentage of Jews rose from about 13 to 34 per cent. The increase is even more marked when we look at the absolute numbers. From 1808 to 1921, the general population increased about fourfold, and the Jewish population grew by a multiple of twelve.

As we know from an earlier note, the total number of Jews who were permanent residents ultimately reached 1602. But some who were registered in Viskit lived elsewhere.

We also note that 1921 was a time when a number of Jews had not yet returned to their previous homes after having been banished to Warsaw by the Tsar's decree during World War I, and after the upheavals caused by the war and revolution during the period 1917-1921.

Subscribers to the Book of the Sanedrin Ktana in Viskit

As mentioned above (see also pp.41-46 of this book), the Sanedrin Ktana (rabbinical court) published a book, printed in 1903 in Pyotrikov. The costs of producing this book were paid by subscribers. The book lists the subscribers from several towns, including Viskit. The list of subscribers from Viskit includes the leaders and scholars of the town:

Reb Mikhl Ginzburg
Habokher[1] Ruvn Pintsevsk, on behalf of the bes medresh[2] of the community
Reb Moyshe-Shrage Vays
Reb Khaim Ben Harov Hakadush of Mnadizin (Nadazshin)
Reb Shloyme Ben Reb Gavril, shoykhet and boydek[3]
Reb Tsvi Leyb Haberman
Reb Mordkhe-Betsalel ben Reb Lipish HaKohen
Reb Yehude Zilberberg
Reb Yehoyshue Fridnzon
Reb Avrum Khaim Libliner
Reb Yeheskl Tsibale
Reb Yehoyshue Dalman

The memoirs that follow mention some of the descendants of these individuals. One of them, Yehoyshue Fridnzon, is discussed in the next section about his son, Reb.Eliezer Gershon Fridnzon, an activist in Aguda , who was killed by the Nazis.

Reb Eliezer-Gershon Fridnzon (May God avenge his death)[4]

A son of Yehoyshue Fridnzon, he was one of the most active participants in the religious movement in Poland centered around Aguda Israel. He was born in Viskit in 1900. His father was a rabbi, Talmudist, and a grandson of Chaim Oyerbakh, the author of Dibri Mishpet. His grandfather was Reb Shmelke, a dayan[5] in Lodz.

He was quite young when he began his community activism. He was a member of Tseiri Aguda Israel in Poland and participated with Sarah Chenirer in founding the Beis Yakov school movement. He was brought into the Beis Yakov movement by Doctor Rabbi Emanuel Karlbakh, one of the founders of Aguda Israel, who was a chaplain for the German army during the first German occupation in World War I, and was located in Lodz, where the Fridnzon family was living at the time.

Eliezer-Gershon Fridnzon is rightly considered among the pioneering journalists in Aguda Israel. He published a series of periodicals, as well as literature for children and youth. He also organized Orthodox writers in a separate association. In 1939 he called a conference in Lodz of all Orthodox writers, which established the Orthodox literary Union, or “Alef”.[6]

In 1930 Eliezer-Gershon Fridnzon became parnes[7] of the Lodz religious community. During the Nazi regime he was in the Warsaw Ghetto, where he continued his activism.

We do not know the exact circumstances of his death. On the night of the first seder in 1943, when the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising began, he was in the bunker of a well-known Modzhitser Hasid, a wealthy man, Reb Yosef Fastog. According to one version, the Nazis supposedly discovered the bunker and killed everyone inside. Others say the bunker was covered over and everyone was smothered under the ruins. With Eliezer-Gershon Fridnzon were his wife Beyle and his second son, Shimshon Rafoyl.

From a letter written by Moyshe Fridnzon, a brother of Eliezer-Gershon Fridnzon[8] , we obtain some facts about their family that relate to Viskit and its inhabitants. The writer of the letter was also one of the Aguda journalists in Poland before World War II. He was the editorial secretary of the magazine Beis Yakov. After the war, as a survivor living in Germany, from 1946 to 1953, he worked for the survivors' press. He lives today in America where he conducts literary research. We include portions of his letter:

I am a brother of Eliezer-Gershon Fridnzon and we were both sons of Yehoyshue Fridnzon, who is listed among the subscribers to the Sanedrin Ktana. My father married the daughter of a Viskit family. His father-in-law, my grandfather, was Reb Moyshe Haberman. In those days, he was a wealthy man, and owned his own home. He worked for the nobility.

Reb Moyshe Haberman was a pious Jew, a philanthropist, and a righteous man. He would frequent several Hasidic rebbes: the Grodzisker Rebbe, Reb Elimelekh Shpira (a son of the old Mogelnitsher Rebbe); the Blendover Rebbe, Reb Yankev Shpira (a brother of the aforementioned Reb Elimelekh); and the Kazshenitser Rebbe, Reb Yerakhmiel Moyshele Hosfhtayn. When the Kazshenitser Rebbe came to Viskit, he would stay with my grandfather.

Reb Moyshe Haberman had several daughters, including our mother, as well as a son, Avrum Haberman, who had already moved to Warsaw, where he conducted substantial business with Danzig As one would expect of such a rich man, he selected very fine men to be his sons-in-law; but they didn't stay in Viskit. Thus, one son-in-law, Reb Elye Zalman Borenshtayn, lived in Zgiesh, where he led the life of a scholar, studying all day while the family business was run by my mother's sister, my aunt Hinde, a true woman of valor. Their grandson was the well-known Orthodox writer, Moyshe Prager. A second son-in-law was Reb Mendl Bukhvayts, a merchant and an Alexander Hasid, who lived in Lodz.

Reb Moyshe had a brother in Viskit, Fishl Haberman, a merchant who lived out his days in the town. Reb Moyshe had a brother-in-law, Reb Mendl Bloshtayn, who was a religious scholar, a Hasid, and a very wealthy man. They said at the time that he had close to a half million rubles.

My father, Reb Yehoyshue, was born in Kalish in 1873. His father, Reb Shmuel Fridnzon, was the son of the brilliant scholar, Reb Khaim Oyerbakh, known as the Lentisher Rabbi, author of a religious treatise on the laws concerning monetary disputes. For a time, my father lived with and was supported by his father-in-law in Viskit. When this period of support ended, my father tried to go into business in Viskit, dealing in leather. When his business wasn't successful, he moved to Lodz in 1908. I, my brother Eliezer-Gershon, and our sister, who lives in Israel today, were born in Viskit.

After moving to Lodz, my father went into business but he was also a man of letters, and thanks to him a number of books were published, including those of his grandfather, Shmelke Fridnzon, formerly moyre haroye[9] in Lodz, as well as his own new interpretations of religious law. He died in 1942, at the age of 68, from starvation and want. [End of letter.]

Yosef Fridnzon, a son of Eliezer-Gershon, is active in New York as an official in Aguda Israel.


Reb Eliyohu Ben Avrum Yuzpa, 19th century rabbi in Viskit

Shown here are two title pages for religious books written by a 19th century rabbi in Viskit. These pages provide some biographical information about the author, who wrote other books as well. They indicate where he served as a rabbi, information which supplements that from other sources.

The rabbi, as noted on the title pages, and also in the haskomes (rabbinical endorsements), served in Pulavy, Torlov, and Vonvolnits, before taking a post in Viskit, where he died in 1887. His family name was Lerman. We know that he served as rabbi in Viskit for a few years at most since he was not yet in Viskit when the first book was published in 1884, but was rabbi in Viskit when the second book was published in l885, two years before his death.

In the book Dibur Eliyohu are endorsements from the following rabbis: Reb Yisroel-Yehoyshue of Kutne, author of Yeshues Yisroel, known as Reb Shayele Kutner; Reb Itsik Elkhanon, the renowned head of the Slobodker Yeshiva; Reb Khaim Eliezer Vaks of Kalish, author of Nefesh Khaye; Reb Yosef Ber Halevi of Brisk, renowned as Reb Yoshe Ber Soloveytshek, author of Bes Halevi; Reb Borekh Mordkhe Lipshits of Shedlets, former rabbi of Volkovitsh and Novorodok, author of Bris Yakov and Bes Mordkhe; Reb Shmuel Khaim Mayzl, rabbi of Lodz; Reb Yisroel Isur Shpira, rabbi of Mezritsh.

From an introduction by the author's son, we learn that the author himself had not intended to publish the book but was persuaded to do so by his children. The son states, “May wise men rejoice to see this first work by my father, a brilliant scholar…. As all those who know him are aware, when he was still young and serving as rabbi in Pulavy and then in Vonvolnits, he would constantly write new interpretations of religious law. Later, when he became rabbi in Torlov, I entreated him to publish his interpretations and analyses in a book, so they would live on forever, and I would remind him of the aphorism, that whoever reveals new interpretations from heaven is obliged to write them down … So we, his three sons, convinced him and we prepared this first book, Shayles and Tshuves (Religious Questions and Answers), and we will also, God willing, publish others.”

This introduction is by the author's son, Avrum Yuzpe. He mentions the contribution of his brother the highly intelligent and erudite, prominent religious scholar, Khaim, who helped to prepare the book for publication while Avrum Yuzpe was occupied with his rabbinical duties. A third son, Yisroel, is also acknowledged for his help. The introduction also provides information about the author's family tree.

The author, Reb Eliyohu, was a son of Avrum Yuzpe, who was a rabbi in Konskavalye, where he died. This Avrum Yuzpe's father, a son of the rabbi and brilliant scholar, Reb Binyomen, a contemporary of the Vilne goan, was born in Lithuania, and served as rabbi in the Polish towns of Pulavy, Vladeve, Shelisht. On a trip out of the country to visit the baths, he died in Berlin and was buried there. Other branches of the family tree lead to the Lublin rabbi, Reb Yankev Itsik, and to the Shela HaKadish, Reb Yeshaye Horavitsh. (author of a work on the Kabbala, 1565-1630).

The two books shown are in the collection of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, which granted permission to copy the title pages. Reb Eliyohu also authored the following books of interpretations of religious subjects: Mishe Eliyohu, Nefesh Eliyohu, Seres Eliyohu, Mnokhes Eliyohu , Toyres Eliyohu – all of which were published after his death.

It appears that this great figure in Judaism was also well known in Hasidic circles. He and his new interpretations of the law, aphorisms, and parables are often mentioned in the Hasidic book, Siyekh Seraphey Kodesh, which contains many new interpretations of the law, and stories of the Gerer, Kotsker, Vorker, Pzshisker and other Polish Hasidic rabbis.

Various memoirs and discussions mention that there was a tomb of a holy man in the Viskit cemetery, where people would place kvitlekh, (notes or messages asking the deceased to intercede with God on behalf of the writer). This may well have been the tomb of Reb Eliyohu, known in the Hasidic world as Reb Eliyohu Viskiter, or Reb Eliyohu Pulever. His son, Reb Khaim Lerman, shared his father's inclination to author religious books. The rabbi in Skierniewice, he published seven books on religious topics.


Illustrations in order of their appearance in the text:

Page 419 Reb Eliezer-Gershon Fridnzon
Page 420 The book, Dvar Eliyohu, by the Viskit Rabbi, Eliyohu Ben Avrum-Yuzpe, published in 1884.
Page 421 The book, Ayzor Eliyohu, by the Viskit Rabbi, Eliyohu Lerman, published in 1885.


Footnotes

  1. Ha bokher – title for an unmarried man return

  2. bes medresh – house of study, distinct from a synagogue, although many shuls were used as bes medreshim, and vice-versa. return

  3. shoykhet – ritual slaughterer; boydek, inspector of slaughtered animals return

  4. Footnote in original: These biographical details were taken from the third volume of a memoir by his son Yosef Fridnzon, published in New York in 1955, which contains a more extensive treatise about him. Yosef Fridnzon is an activist in Aguda Israel in New York. return

  5. dayan – judge on rabbinical court return

  6. The initial letters of each of the Yiddish words for “Orthodox Literary Union” spell “alef”, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet return

  7. parnes –an elected leader of the religious community return

  8. Translator's note: although the text states the letter is from an uncle, the letter itself makes clear it is from a brother. return

  9. moyre haroye – a learned Jew, who adjudicates, judges and decides religious matters, usually, but not always a rabbi. return


[Page 423]

My Home Town, Viskit

by Gershon Meyer Shmetanka[1]

Translated by Miriam Leberstein

What follows are my memories of my childhood and youth. I left Viskit 58 years ago and have no doubt forgotten many details. It is also possible that after I left, there were changes in the town's appearance, and in the way people lived. All the names and specifics that I mention relate to the time encompassed by my own memory.

Before I begin to describe my home, my environment, my family and my personal experiences, I want to portray as well as I can after so many years, the appearance of the town.

The town was generally and officially called Viskitki, but we Jews had “Yiddishized” its name, dropping the “-ki” and called it Viskit. The town belonged to the Grodzisker district in Warsaw province. The train station was 6 kilometers away in Zyrardow. In those days there were about 300 Jewish families in Viskit.

The town was divided into two parts by a small river, which the Jews called the Deshike Vaser. In the part of town that you entered coming from Zyrardow lived the common people – artisans, wagon drivers, and butchers. Also located here were the butcher shops – the Jewish ones as well as the non-kosher, Christian ones. Here, too, was the shulhoyf [2], where there stood the bes medresh[3], the mikve[4] and bathhouse, and where the rabbi lived. Zyrardow Street ran through this part of town, and the street of the butcher shops ran off it. There was also a street called the Rebitsn's (rabbi's wife) Street. This had nothing to do with the wife of the current rabbi, who didn't live there. It was the Yunevster Rebitsn who lived there, but I don't know why she was called “Yunevster.”

Near the river in this part of town stood a watermill, which belonged to a German, Karol Hebele. It was terribly dangerous for Jewish children to go past the mill. The German had a dog who liked to bite Jewish children. I myself was a victim of that dog.

The other part of town was home to the elite. It held the marketplace, and the shops. The merchants lived there, as did the leaders of the Jewish community, and other fine folk. The shtibelekh[5] of the Grodzisker, Gerer and Alexander Hasidim were also located in this section. The main street of this area was Giziver Street.

In the middle of the marketplace was a pump that provided “good” water for drinking and cooking. The marketplace was also where the wagon drivers were stationed, waiting to take passengers to the train; arriving passengers were brought here as well.

Every Tuesday was market day. Jewish merchants and artisans would drive in from nearby towns. Tailors, dealers in cheap clothing, shoemakers, harness and saddle makers and carpenters would bring their wares. Butchers would buy cattle, and Jewish horse dealers would do business, buying or trading horses. These Tuesday market days were among the most important sources of livelihood for the town. Once a month there was a fair, larger than the weekly market day.

A road led from this part of town to the two brick factories, owned by Germans. A German church stood along the way. Ravel Street ran off to the left from Giziver Street. The two parts of town were connected by a bridge, about ten meters long. Right next to the town, by the river, stood a Catholic church, which had a promenade and a garden where the young people liked to stroll in the evenings or on holidays. The Jews called the place “the Probostvo, “ after the Polish word for priest.

The Jews lived in the center of town, on both sides of the river. The Christians –Poles and some Germans – lived on the edges of town. The Jews worked in small businesses, and especially as artisans, which was their exclusive domain, except for a few trades. Jews were tailors; shoemakers (a few Christians were also in this trade); carpenters; wood turners, who made furniture legs and various decorative parts for beds and cupboards; glaziers, bakers; tinsmiths; butchers; potters; and fur workers.

Jewish women also worked as artisans. They were seamstresses, milliners, sewers of bed linens, and a wigmaker, whom they called a “coiffeuse.” There were women who sold candy, fruit and other snacks in the marketplace. Some people had several sources of income; thus, Hershel the Potter also grew fruit in orchards which he leased.

There was a Jewish hairdresser who was also the town feldsher.[6] In addition to cutting hair and giving shaves, he would also do cupping and pull teeth. Older Jews called him Reb Rafoyl; the town knew him as Rafoyl the Feldsher.

There were two categories of wagon drivers. One kind took passengers to and from the train in Zyrardow; people would also hire them to travel to nearby towns and villages. The other kind transported goods to the local merchants from Warsaw, about eight miles away. The merchants mostly traveled by train. Entrusting full confidence in the wagon drivers, they had them place orders, sending with them a list of the goods required and money to pay the wholesalers in Warsaw. The trade of wagon driving was passed down from father to son, like a concession. So “Black Leybush,” a Gradzisker Hasid, passed on his trade to his son, “Black Leybush's Asher.”

The butchers held a special place in the life of our community. Because of their occupation, they had an interest in who would be chosen as a rabbi or shoykhet (ritual slaughterer), who ruled on whether slaughtered animals were kosher. The butchers would take sides over the selection of people for these positions. When the stormy movement of the first Russian revolution in 1905 first reached the town, the butchers formed an opposition movement, as I will describe in a separate section below.

The merchants ran shops selling shoes, textiles, sewing notions, dishes, and groceries. Christians from the villages, as well as Jews, shopped there.

There was also a grain mill, driven by a horse, where various grains were processed. There were also traveling agents, who would go off for an entire week, going from village to village, buying up the products of the countryside to supply the town merchants. Glaziers would also travel from village to village, installing window panes.

Children studied in the heder, the traditional religious school. The following melameds (heder teachers) served during my time: Khaim-Dovid taught small children; his wife, Beyle, was a quiet woman who sewed bed linens. Yosef-Leyb and Shoyl Aron both taught Chumash and Rashi; Shoyl's wife was a seamstress. “Little Yosele” was a Gemara teacher.

Children studied in the melamed's home. The children enjoyed a holiday when the district tax inspector would pay a visit, and the melamed would “suspend” classes and release them. Apparently, the heder wasn't an entirely legal enterprise.

It was obligatory for the heders to provide an hour of Russian instruction each day. The entire heder would go off to the Russian teacher, who was a Jew, a bachelor who had come from somewhere out of town, no one knew where. Various stories were told about him.

The shtetl had an array of “khevuras” or societies, for example:

The members of the “khevra t'hilim,” the Psalms Society, were chiefly ordinary people –wagon drivers, butchers, buyers of agricultural goods. They would get together on shabes afternoons in the bes medresh, and one of them –according to a determined order – would go to the altar and recite the psalm line by line, and the others would repeat after him. The society was run by elected officers. They held their annual banquet on Shevoues, when the anniversary of the death of King David occurs.

The Society of Jacob's Well consisted mainly of artisans – tailors, shoemakers and also some butchers and wagon drivers. Every shabes evening a “rabbi,” chosen according to an agreed upon order, would lead them in the study of the book, Jacob's Well (a sixteenth century compilation of religious texts), either in the bes medresh or in a private home. I remember that once the “rabbi” was Osher Latutnik; his name, “latutnik,” denotes the lowest rank of tailor, limited to patching old clothing. He was well versed in the Hebrew texts. He didn't charge a fee for his teaching, but from time to time, on a holiday, people would give him an article of clothing as a gift. The officials of the society at that time were Mordkhe Olik, a butcher, and Zanvl “Kikhe” Yashnovitsh, a wagon driver. The society's banquet was held on Simkhes Torah . They would hold their own ceremony of carrying around the Torah. I remember that the “rabbi” Osher Latutnik once got so carried away dancing with the Torah that it was hard to calm him down. He was already an old man, but he danced with the ardor and enthusiasm of a young man.

The Khevre Kedushe, or Burial Society, was an association of the elite. Not everyone could join. One had to be a candidate for a certain period before becoming an actual member. Their leaders were dozors – elected officials of the kehile, the organized Jewish community; I remember when the well-off dozors, Leybl and Fayvl Funtovitsh served as the society's leaders. Both men and women belonged to the Khevre Kedushe. They charged a fee for the burial plots. They were quite severe in cases where the deceased had been in life a miserly person who hadn't contributed for the community's needs. In those cases, they would ask higher fees from the family of the deceased, and fights would occur.

The cemetery was on the other side of town, beyond the Gizever road. We called it “the good place,” a common euphemism. In the cemetery was the tomb of a saintly man, where people would leave “kvitlekh,” notes requesting the deceased to intervene with God on their behalf. It was quite lively in the cemetery during the month of Elul , before the High Holy Days, when people would visit the graves of their ancestors. Many people would come from out of town to the Viskit cemetery, where their parents or other family members were buried. The heder boys had their “cemetery holiday” on Tishabov, when they would visit the cemetery holding wooden swords.[7]

In my time, the Zshikhliner rabbi served as town rabbi in Viskit. I remember once Reb Yeshayele Kutner's son came to town, I don't remember what the occasion was. When the Zshikhliner rabbi left, his place was taken by a Viskit native, a member of the well-off Blaushtayn family. The rabbi was paid a salary by the kehile, the organized Jewish community.

As I recall, there was also a dayan, or rabbinical judge, Motl Dayan. He presided over arbitrations and on the rabbinical court. He was a lazy fellow and very poor. It was his wife who was the bread-winner. She (although officially it was he) held the monopoly for yeast and for kiddush wine. He also had the job of saying the prayers before the blowing of the shofar.

In those days the town had two men serving as shamesh, or beadle, one for the rabbinical court (Moyshe Yehiel) and one for the bes medresh (Elye Shames). The bes medresh shames would summon people to shul every Friday, announcing the arrival of the beloved Sabbath. He would also wake people at dawn for the morning service. He would bang three times on the shutters of their windows or doors. If he only knocked twice, that was an indication that someone in the town had died.

Weddings were celebrated with music. We had a town band, led by Itshele Klezmer. He himself played the fiddle, and there was also a bass and a drum. They would set up the khupa (wedding canopy) in the street in front of the bes medresh. Circumcisions would also be celebrated in the bes medresh.

I remember a big celebration when a new Torah scroll was brought into the bes medresh. It was carried in under a khupe by the respectable, prosperous townsmen, with Itshele Klezmer providing musical accompaniment.

There were three shokhtim (ritual slaughterers) in the town. The oldest was Yisroel Shoykhet, who was also the cantor. When he developed a tremor in his hands, and he could no longer work as a shoykhet, the town brought in Khatskl Shoykhet, a Litvak, who also became the cantor. Khatskl had been recommended by a rabbi. But Yisroel Shoykhet's concession had been handed down to his son in law, Shloyme Shoykhet. When Khatskl Shoykhet was brought in, a fight broke out, and the town split into two factions. There was yet another shoykhet, Yosl Shoykhet.

Poultry was slaughtered in the homes of the shokhtim, where a special area was set aside for that purpose. Cattle were slaughtered in the kosher slaughterhouse, located on Orshover Road. A stream, which was a tributary of the river, ran by the slaughterhouse. On Rosh Hashonah, people would go there to perform tashlikh, symbolically casting their sins into the stream. They called the place “the ditch.”

Among the well-known buildings in Viskit was “Khrobye's Kamenitse,” which stood at the corner of the marketplace and Gizever Street. It was a large, two-storied brick building, with entrances from both the marketplace and Giziver Street. On the ground floor there were various Jewish-owned shops. The storekeepers also had living quarters in the building.

I remember some of the business owners: Yisroel Bendlmakher (family name Lifshits) had a hardware store; Sheyndl-Hindl Kaner had a grocery. There was also a tavern serving beer and other drinks, as well as food, from a piece of herring to a quarter of a goose. The tavern belonged to Dovid Zimler, but it went under the name of his wife, Miryem-Gele.

Upstairs lived the artisans, among them Menakhem Mendl, a tailor; Mekl, a glazier; Itsik, a ladies' tailor; Leybush-Itsik, a shoemaker. Shloyme Shoykhet also lived there. In those days, people weren't known by their family names but by their trade. There were also others; about ten families, all Jewish, lived there. It was the largest residential building in the shtetl.

It was called Khrobye's Kamenitse because the owner was a man named Khrobye who lived on the Guzve estate (called Gizeve by the Jews), about five kilometers from the shtetl. The house was run by an administrator, Kobelyanski, an elderly Pole who had spent 28 years in exile in Siberia for his participation in the Polish uprising against the Russian Empire.[8] When he came to collect the rent each month, he would always tell about the bravery of the uprising and his experiences in Siberia.

The shtetl drew its livelihood mostly from the Gizeve estate. Artisans worked for the estate, and dealers would buy agricultural products from the estate and sell other products to it. The estate was run by the aforementioned Khrobye, who was considered a kind and generous person. The estate had a hospital which provided free treatment for sick people from the surrounding villages, as well as from the shtetl. The Jews were upset when they had to go to the hospital, because the food wasn't kosher, but food could be brought in from town. In the 1890's, after a cholera epidemic, when there was a great famine because the crops had failed, Khrobye established two free kitchens in the shtetl –one for the Christians, and a kosher one for the Jews. The Jewish kitchen was on Butchers Street.

During the cholera epidemic a group of men who remained healthy founded a society to tend to the sick. The town had no doctor, so they would watch over the sick in the bes medresh. When they learned that someone had fallen seriously ill, two hearty young men would be sent to rub down the sick person with spirits. Many people died in the epidemic. The parents of our well-known tailor, Little Hershel, both died on the same day. Then the community leaders decided that people should get out of town. Jews built huts in the fields, where they lived until the epidemic was over.

Although some families were very rich and others very poor, the Jewish community generally held common values and lived together in harmony. There was not a sharp division between the “elite” and the “common people.” Everyone prayed in the same shtiblekh, frequented the same rebbes, sent their children to the same heders.

Beggars who went from house to house were treated with respect. There were also people who were given aid in their own homes. During the week, well-off householders would go about the town, collecting donations, which were given to the poor in private, so as not to shame them. I remember a Yom Kipper eve, when among a number of small plates placed at the entrance to the bes medresh to receive donations for various community and charitable causes there was one labeled “for a respectable poor man.” His name was kept secret, but people knew that it was Yisroel-Yosef, a dealer who had become impoverished. In the cold winter months, heating coal was distributed to the needy. It was bought at a cheap price from Mrs. Sheyndl Oksner, who had a coal business in Zyrardow.

* * *

There were certain families and individuals who stood out for various reasons, and who warrant a fuller discussion in order to provide a complete picture of the community.

Foremost of these was the well known Blatshatyn family. They lived on the market place, opposite Krobye's Kamenitse. They had their own home – one of the most beautiful houses in town, with a spacious courtyard with storehouses and shtiblekh inside. The father and mother, Mendl and Leye Blatshtayn, had two married daughters. The oldest, Shifre, was the daughter in law of the Skiernivtser rabbi. Her husband, Khaiml, studied all day. The younger daughter, Khaye, married a merchant from out of town. Both daughters had children, and everyone lived around the same courtyard.

The old man, Mendl Blatshtayn, was a tiny man, who dressed like a Hasidic rebbe, wore a brimmed hat, and went about the house in a flowered dressing gown. He studied religious texts day and night, while his wife, considered a true woman of valor, ran the business. She was known in the town and its environs as Leye Khatskeles, after her father Khatskl. She did business with the local noblemen, buying up the products of their estates, mainly grain, which would be stored in the granaries in the family's courtyard, and from there would be delivered to various mills and grain merchants. She also lent money to the noblemen.

Mendl was rarely seen. Each morning he would go to the mikve, using various backstreets. He was an Alexander Hasid and even built a shtibl for the sect in his courtyard. In that same couryard there also lived Yrakhmiel the hunchback, who was the Gemora melamed for Mendl's older grandsons. One of these grandsons later (after my time) became a rabbi in Viskit.

Leye Blatshtayn, or Leye Khatskeles, had her own permanent wagon driver, who would drive her to the estates of the noblemen or to the villages when she needed to conduct business there. This was Nokhem-Leyzer Lifshits, a very respectable man, who was a member of the Khevre Kedusha.

The Blatshtayns had tailors and shoemakers who came to their house to take measurements and then delivered the completed garments. They never went to the artisans' workshops.

The Blatshtayns would hold lavish celebrations –engagements, weddings, circumcisions – in their family compound. Musicians would be brought in from out of town, usually from Sokhatshov, where the Rotshatyn's band was well known. In order to prevent the celebration from being disturbed by the local street children, they would bring in special “tough guys” to keep order. I remember that at the wedding of a Blatshtayn grandchild, they imported a tough guy from Amshinov, who was famous throughout the area.

* * *

As I have said, my memories are limited to the time I lived in Viskit. So I will briefly describe my own family, and through them, illuminate the life of the shtetl in those days.

My father, Avrum-Itsik Shmetanka, was a tailor. Our family was unusual in that people called us by our family name –“the Shmetankas;” it's possible they thought it was a nickname. My father and my mother, Vitl, were born in Viskit. Our family was also unusual in another way; we may have been unequaled in our poverty.

My mother brought 13 children into the world, but only five grew up; the others died very young. We lived on Zyrardower Street, in a room rented out by a Christian, Mayerski, a tavern-keeper.

Although my father was supposedly a tailor, in later years he barely worked at that trade, because his eyesight was so poor; he was really half-blind. I remember that when I was five, and Father not yet fifty, I had to thread the needle for him. It's a wonder that he could still sew, since he could barely see the fabric; he would feel his way with his fingers. Understandably, he wasn't asked to sew new clothes, just to remake old garments, and even that work was given to him out of pity.

My mother brought in a little income by running a heder for girls, where she taught them the blessings, prayers, and reading Hebrew, but not writing. In addition, during the High Holy Days, she served as a “zogerin,” a reader in the synagogue. People would come into town from the surrounding villages—mostly dairymen from the nobles' dairy farms, along with their wives, who didn't know Hebrew. So my mother would read the service aloud to them. She had a table in the women's section of the synagogue, around which the women from the villages gathered, and they would repeat after my mother as she recited the prayers. I don't remember if she got paid for her services. The women would buy her a present -- a dress, or some product of the farm.

These two sources of income –my father's tailoring and my mother's teaching –provided barely enough, as they say, to buy water to make kasha with, and so we really had nothing to eat, not to mention clothing to wear. That was why the children didn't live long, dying so young.

As soon as we children were old enough, we went out to work, in order to help support the family. My two older sisters went to work as servants for well off families in town. They ate and slept there, but would pay my mother “rent,” which was what they called their contribution to our family budget. My older brother, Mordkhe Mendl, was already a tailor. After he got married, he would help out our parents from time to time.

When my mother died, our already pitiful home completely fell apart. By then, my older sisters had married and were on their own. I was twelve, and apprenticed to a tailor. My ten year old sister went to work as a servant for a family. Not yet able to perform the duties of a full fledged maid, she was sent out on errands, and was given room and board. Our father, now almost completely blind, was supported by his brother, and by the help of kind people.

At the age of fourteen, to improve my situation and to learn my trade really well, I moved from Viskit to Zyrardow, where my older sister lived. My brother in law (his name was Borekh Elkes, family name Ediger) found a place for me with a tailor, a very respectable artisan, Shayele Huk, where I worked, ate, and slept, and received a bit of spending money. After working there a short time, I switched to working for Aron Hofel, for whom I also worked in return for room and board.

Then the Russo-Japanese war broke out, and my boss, who was required to serve in the army, ran away to America, rather than risk his life for “Ivan the Thief,” the Jewish nickname for Russia . The workshop was abandoned, left without a boss. Apparently, Hofel had left owing a debt to another tailor, Gershon Miller. When Miller came to the workshop to find Hofel, he and I met. He suggested I go to work for him. I wasn't yet fully trained in the trade so I accepted.

A variety of people worked for Gershon Miller, qualified artisans as well as young apprentices. Among them was Khaim Poznanski (also known as Khaim Beyrishes.) He was one of the first workers' organizers under the sway of the Polish Socialist Party, and he drew me into the movement. He gave me Yiddish books and proclamations to read. I remember the first book he gave me, A Velt mit Veltelekh (Worlds within a World) and the second, A Life in a Drop of Water.[9]

At that time there wasn't a big workers' movement in Zyrardow. But there was a small group of Jewish journeymen who were already politically conscious and who would hold secret meetings in the woods, at which special speakers would appear. But mostly they attended the large Polish workers' meetings, which were also held illegally.

Foremost among the Zyrardower activists whom I remember were a trio that was united in life, until death. These were the aforementioned Khaim Poznanski, along with Luzer Kubitski (a bootmaker, who had a humpback) and Yankl the Redhead (brother of Elye, who was one of those shot in 1906). These three were the so-called leaders of the movement. In their circle were the young people of my age-group: Yehiel Mayer Kaufman (“Blind Yehiel Mayer,” who was badly cross-eyed); Fishl Layper (“Black Fishl,” a bootmaker); Elye Lubtshanski (the aforementioned Elye the Redhead, a tailor, whose father was a heder teacher); Monele Binyomen-Dovids (a baker, he was very strong but later he was arrested, imprisoned, and apparently badly mistreated, so that he came home sick and died); Hershl the Bialer Butcher's. There were certainly others, but I mention only those whom I remember. Perhaps others will be mentioned in the memoirs of others.

I left Zyrardow in 1905 for Skerniviets, and from Skernieviets went to Warsaw, where I worked for a while. There I saw what it meant to have a real political movement in a large city. I went to the Labor Exchange and saw there were different parties among the Jewish workers, like the Bund and the Zionist Socialist Party. But I didn't stay in Warsaw long, and returned to Viskit.

In Viskit, I used what I had learned in Zyrardow and Warsaw to begin working to enlighten the local Jewish youth, above all the journeymen. Even though I was still so young, they regarded me as all-knowing. The number of journeymen workers wasn't large. Mostly I had access only to the boys; it wasn't even possible in those days to bring girls into our circle. The well-off townsfolk, especially the parents of young people, looked askance at our efforts. They began to slander me, called me a disgrace to the Jewish race, and accused me of leading their youth on the path to conversion and to Siberia.

However, I managed to find a way to get them to leave me alone. Merchants from our town were always traveling to Warsaw to buy merchandise. One day, one of these merchants, in fact one of those who had so strongly protested against me and my organizing of the young people, was going to Warsaw. I had a relationship with the Warsaw comrades, even though I didn't officially belong to their organization. I would visit the tailors' labor exchange, and so I got to know the Bundists there. I told them that so and so was coming to town, giving them his name and the address where he was staying, and said that he needed to be taught that he should leave our organization alone. A few people from Viskit who were working in workshops in Warsaw and who were organized also pitched in to help.

They lay in wait for the merchant, and a couple of young toughs (or perhaps simply young men) approached him and showed this small town Hasid a “gun” – it might have been just a toy; what did he know about guns? – and told him that if he continued to agitate against and attack me and the organization, they would know what to do.

When this fellow returned home to the shtetl, he related the event, perhaps using his imagination to embellish it a bit. He told a horror story in which a horde of armed youths tried to kill him, but he pleaded with them and promised not to bother the “strikers' organization” any more. This really frightened the others. Not only did they stop slandering us, they began to be afraid of us.

But we confronted opposition from another source. The shopkeepers and merchants may have been terrified that people from Warsaw would take revenge on them, but there was another group that laughed at that – that is, the butchers. They had nothing to do with Warsaw and weren't afraid of Warsaw “guns.” For a number of reasons, the butchers formed an insular group that often got involved in various disputes in the shtetl, over issues in the Jewish community such as the selection of a rabbi or shoykhet, or the building of a mikve.

Our enlightenment work didn't bother them. Ideologically, they had no quarrel with us. What bothered them was that a group of young tailors, shoemakers, and bakers, had become such big shots, and tried to exert influence in the shtetl. According to them, that was their role. They pressured us and threatened us, but we never had an actual collision with them. Ultimately, they came to see that we had no desire to get involved in their issues.

Our activities consisted in gathering together, usually in a field near the church at the edge of town, where we would talk, pass along news of the revolution, and read something together. I don't remember exactly how it was done, but some comrades would bring in from Warsaw or Zyrardow illegal pamphlets and newspapers of “the movement” – that's what we actually called it, “the movement;” we didn't know about the specific political parties.

Most important was the singing. We had some exceptional singers. I don't know how to explain it, but to this day, people from Viskit are very good at singing. We sang the songs of Edelshtat, of Boshever. I still remember the fervor with which we sang the songs of work and struggle popular in those days: “We are driven and despised,” “O, Muse, do not call me,” “Brother we carry a three-fold chain,” “Dark Clouds Pursue Us.” Even now, when I want to make myself feel younger, I hum their melodies, although I can't remember the words.

Of the pamphlets we studied I remember a small book by Shmuel Dikshtayn, “What We Live On.” Everyone of us knew it by heart, although not everyone had fully digested the difficult language of “exploitation,” “surplus value,” “profits,” and so on. Every now and then, someone would pay us a visit from out of town. One of these was a certain “Manet”, a member of the Polish Socialist Party, who was very active among the sock makers in Grodzisk.

Along with talk about revolution, we also began to hear talk about pogroms. Obviously, the Jews understood that the Tsar was inciting pogroms because the “strikers” wanted to depose him. But they also knew that the strikers were the kind of young people who wouldn't allow themselves to engage in pogroms.

We in the movement thought up a sort of demonstration to teach the Tsar a lesson. On a certain shabes, the shtetl would say a prayer asking God to protect the Tsar and the whole of Christendom. So we went to the bes medresh and demanded that they not say the prayer. The leaders found themselves in a difficult position. They said they would do as we asked, but if word got out to the governmental authorities, the whole shtetl would be put in chains. We didn't back off, but we offered a compromise. On every other shabes they could do as they wished, but on this particular shabes, they wouldn't say the prayer. And if someone should squeal to the authorities, he should know that he would have to answer to us, to the movement. It worked in our favor, that the butchers remained “neutral” on the matter. When the leaders saw that the butchers were with the “strikers,” they gave in. The town lived in fear for several weeks, awaiting the consequences, perhaps a police investigation. But nothing happened. We had won.

It should also be said that we also achieved certain gains for the young workers. People worked shorter days, although no one even imagined an eight- hour work day. Salaries improved. And the bosses began to speak politely and decently to the journeymen.

From the end of 1905 to the beginning of 1907, the revolutionary movement went into decline. I left again for Zyrardow. Many of my comrades were no longer there. Some had gone to other cities, others had emigrated overseas. The idea of emigration had spread like an epidemic; people were caught up in a veritable frenzy to go abroad. At that time, I was working for a tailor, Leybush Vargatsh. In 1908 I married a girl from Viskit, the blacksmith's daughter, and she moved to Zyrardow. My wife had a brother in Argentina, and we decided to emigrate.

For the 50 years that we have lived in Argentina, we've maintained ties with our hometown. What happened there after we left will be told by others who stayed there longer. I know only that until Hitler destroyed Polish Jewry, the town of Viskit could hold its own among the shtetls of Poland. I heard about Viskit, that the people there were not very wealthy but that there were many Jewish organizations, groups and associations, and that Viskit remained connected to its centuries-long history.

Then came the bitter ending. Neither the town nor its Jews existed any longer. So I want my words, an echo of a half century ago, to serve as an addition to this memorial, that those who miraculously survived have erected for the home they had to bloodily surrender.


Footnotes

  1. Footnote in original. Gershon Meyer Shmetanka was the honorary chairman of the landslayt association of Zyrardow, Amshinov and Viskit in Buenos Aires. Unfortunately, he did not live to see his work published in the memorial book. He died on April 17, 1960. return

  2. shulhoyf –courtyard or square around which were situated the town's religious institutions return

  3. bes medresh – house of study, distinct from a synagogue, althought many shuls were used as bes medreshim, and vice-versa. return

  4. mikve- ritual bath return

  5. shtibelekh – plural of shtibl, a small, informal room used for prayer by the Hasidim. return

  6. feldsher – a medical provider, not certified as a doctor, analogous to a para-professional return

  7. Translator's note: The author may have confused Tishabov with Lag B'Omer, a holiday in early spring, when it was traditional for children to play with swords or bows and arrows, presumably in commemoration of the victory of Bar Kochba over the Romans. return

  8. Translator's note. The uprising referred to is probably the “January” uprising, which began in January of 1863, and lasted until 1865. return

  9. Footnote in original. These publications were the first to be published by the Jewish socialist circles that formed the well known “Yiddish Committees” in order to propagate knowledge among Jewish workers and youth. It should be noted that A.Litvak, one of the pioneers of the Jewish Socialist movement, the Bund, wrote about one of the books mentioned in an article, “The Yiddish Committees” in the first volume of the anthology Red Chronicles as follows: “Before Peysakh 1895, Arye Krayer, a teacher in the Vilna Talmed Torah published a book of about 4 or 5 printed pages entitled A Velt Mit Veltelekh. This was a semi-fictional popularization of basic concepts in astronomy and mathematical geography, based upon a Russian book but adapted to a Jewish audience, using examples from Jewish life. The book was very successful, going into 5 or 6 printings and earned Arye Krayer great repute. Thus, the bookseller and publisher M. Katsenelboygn, 6 months later commissioned a second book, to be called, A Mentsh Mit Mentshelekh. 'Write what you want, he said to the author, just as long as the title attracts people. The title is the most important thing. Why do you think your first book did so well? A Jew sees a title like, A Velt Mit Veltelekh in a shop window, it appeals to him, and he must go in and buy it'.” Translator's note: The title, A Velt mit Veltelekh, translatable as Small Worlds Within a World, is also a familiar Yiddish idiom meaning “It's a small world,” which might have accounted for its appeal. The suggested title for a second book, A Mentsh Mit Mentshelekh (Small People Within a Person) doesn't have a special idiomatic meaning, but might have similar homey connotations for a Yiddish reader. return

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