by Dawid Malc
Translated by Nitsa Bar-Sela
Dawid Malc was born in Będzin and was raised in a national-religious home. His parents noble-minded people were busily occupied all year long in their business to support their children. The girls obtained high education but the boy was sent to the Cheder [Religious School]. However, he devoured innumerable amounts of books and became an autodidact. As a young man he became acquainted with pioneer youth, had dreams and visions and was active in the cooperative of Ivriah, which endeavored to glorify the Hebrew language and its literature.
He immigrated to Israel with the pioneers of the third Aliya, in the first years after World War 1. Leaving home was far from easy. It was very hard for the parents to be separated from their only child who was frail, dainty and leaving to a faraway country. They doubted if they would ever see him again, and indeed, they did not.
He settled in kibbutz Ein Harod with its first members. He worked in the fields during the day, and at night, after a long and exhausting day of work in the land of Emek Izrael, he spent time reading and writing. He wrote for the laborers papers and various journals articles, stories, essays and reviews on topics related to the world of literature and arts.
In 5705 (1945) his book Maagalot [Circles] was issued (by Am-Oved). At the time it created a constructive argument which roused the public opinion of the kibbutz and produced literary trials. His colleagues of the kibbutz movement rejected what they saw as an extreme, subjective description of life in the kibbutz and his ignoring the many positive aspects of the kibbutz. The writer had, however, supporters as well, who defended him saying that his criticism does not result from an intention to provoke but from a desire to express sincere concern for the fate of the kibbutz, its foundations, its continuation and fortification.
With deep and balanced insight the writer embroiders in his realistic, interesting story a whole tapestry of the life of the Kvutsa which encompasses all its lights and shadows, its virtues and shortcomings, without ignoring even the smallest details.
The Love motif reiterates throughout the pages of Maagalot. The writer describes the woman as an entity of passions and grace, power and weakness, without whom the life of the kibbutz would be devoid of taste and beauty. His ideal figure of a woman is his noble mother. The woman that is destined for a man brings along the power of his mother. To me a woman is a mother
When I read in this novel about its heroes Menachemke and Chanka I see in front of me the figure of the writer, the friend of my youth, exposing his soul. My heart aches for the hero who misses his mother's embrace, who had been our neighbor in our hometown, who struggles to get used to this country's hardships, his first encounter with the land, who ploughs the arid soil and roots out wild seeds in the groves, his head burning under the hot sun. I ache for Menachemke who falls ill again and again, suffering from loneliness, never satisfied and always encumbered with personal frustrations.
Still, despite his pains and suffering, he sticks to a life of farming, to which he has been devoted all his life because it is all worth it, as he claims in the end of the book, since the foundations of the kibbutz are definitely sound, and the living in a commune a noble achievement.
Będzin, my hometown, still appears in my dreams, as real and vivid as ever. The nights of your narrow lanes and your markets still haunt me. The horrors of the night, its wonders and its magic fill my heart with both the good and the evil of bygone worlds the spirit of childhood in your lanes and the terrible messages about them. Destruction did not skip you. You are empty of your Jews, they are gone, annihilated to the very last of them, executed, butchered, burnt, shot. Dad, mom, sisters where are you?
In the house of the Hassidim, in the far end of the lane, Rabbi Jehoszua Dawid would stand at the window, a tall Jew, with a long white beard in whose shadow one could hide. He was a well-known visitor of the sick. There was not a single sick Jew in the lanes whom he had not visited, lifted his spirit. Every day, when you walked out in the early morning, he would meet you on your way to the cheder and be the first to greet you: Good morning, my boy. He, the venerable tsadik [righteous person], greeted you the first. I had never managed to precede him.
During the winter, the lane was covered with deep snow. It was slippery. When mother returned from the shop at night, it was hard for her to walk down the slippery slope of the lane. She marched carefully, step by step, so as not to slide down.
And I, returning alone from the cheder in the winter eves, felt scared to walk in the lane. Near the wicket of the empty yard the big, black dog would be probably standing, the transfiguration of the soul of that godless heretic, who died in the winter. I used to wait for a long time till someone passed by and took me with him
Those days Mom would sit at the shop, her hands on a pot of burning coals and her eyes glued to the open book lying inside the open drawer, and from time to time, a deep sigh would escape from the depth of her heart. Mom, over what did you sigh so much? Mon, where are you?
In the end of the lane, in an old and pointed-roofed house, there lived a family with many boys. They always dragged behind their mother, a small woman whose face radiated with freshness and good heartedness and her eyes shone with a bluish light. Every year she gave birth to one of her boys, those who dragged behind her all the days. I don't know why, but when the terrible news about the destruction started to arrive, what came first to my mind was this tiny woman with her numerous children, and she, running, running, and in her eyes, shining with blue insanity, the dread of death.
At the entrance of the lane there stood, like a guardian angel, the house of rabbi Jankele Szapiro, an old Jew, a cantor [baal-tfilah], who would joyfully drown in tears praying the me, the person of few deeds and always keep guard as Israel's advocate in front of God until he fell ill and died. He had a very good friend, an old Jew too, who used to drag his feet heavily. But when rabbi Jankele fell ill, he came every day, went past his house, knocked on his window, stretched his body upright and clapped with his heels like a soldier calling at rabbi Jankele in his bed in Polish: Jankele jestem! That is: Here I am! This is how he came to announce that both of them were still on guard
Then came days when the lane slowly stopped being a shelter to me, and I
started choosing other ways. On the threshold of the same house stood rabbi
Jankele Szapiro's son-in-law, and whenever I passed by on my way to the lane,
he would call me and measure with his hands the extent of the shortening of my
upper body and the lengthening of my lower body, which was an evident mark of
my new stage
He would ask me if the maidens in Ivriah had
already learnt a lot of the holy language (Hebrew)
Next to him stood his
big daughter, with this strange disproportion between her delicate, white face
and her huge breasts. She would look at me with smiling eyes. Now I think with
great dread that never, I will never see that lane again, the lane of my
The brain probably cannot absorb the actual horror, our entity cannot grasp it since if it did, we would become insane. In fact, we pursue a normal life, all of us. Just look at this dining-room, filled with hungry diners. Notice these shining eyes, glittering with the lust of eating, these many hands, busy with their forks and spoons, and do not ignore the happy faces enjoying a vivid chat while eating. No, we are not able to contain the horror in its entirety. Only at night, in our dreams, does it appear in its strange concrete forms.
– – In the wide old market, always loud with crowds of negotiating Jews, at the stands and shelves loaded with all kinds of food supplies, fruit, vegetables, toys and jewels, in the old market, with its always dazzling variety of colors a dark, grey atmosphere prevails, an atmosphere of fears and horrors. The Jews, who are overwhelmed by this black-grey burden, walk only on the pavement along the market, and on the side where my father's shop is located. It seems that a certain area was allotted to the Jews in the old market, and they are not allowed to pass from this pavement along the market to other sides, that they are stuck in some kind of non-reality, it too being black and grey. They, the distressed Jews, push at each other, offering goods which nobody buys. At the corner of the street, in the big, tall building which opens to the wide market square is the big shoe store. This store was always crowded with buyers. Now it is empty, wrapped in the same black-grey atmosphere. On the numerous shelves one can notice the edges of the many white shoeboxes standing there, but the store is empty, black and grey. Behind the counter peeps an angry face, which is not similar to the face of a German Nazi because it is dark skinned, longish and pointed. Still it is well known that this face belongs to them, and he is the source of the gloomy, heavy, black-grey atmosphere in the empty store. And along the pavement, owe-stricken, distressed Jews walk trying to sell something to each other, to no avail
Let's go back.
– – The wide and long street leads to the bridge on the river, and to the road going up beyond the river to the fields, turning white up there on the hill, disappearing beyond it into an unknown land beyond the border. The street houses here are all empty, the many shops are closed down, the windows black, blind. The space is again filled with this black that covers the whole world. Distress burdens the heart, a horror perceived only in dreams, not in reality. (Yet, where is the line between dream and reality?)
The street is completely empty. Only I walk in it. A feeling of destruction, but not a total destruction. Something is hiding in the horror, in this empty black in the street. In the end of the street, down, near the wooden bridge, a store is open, only one store. This is the store of milk and butter of the Jew who is my father's permanent competitor, because father too has a store of butter and dairy products. The owner of this store is a wide obese Jew, his face all covered by the abundance of the hair of his wide beard and thick side-locks. He had two sons. One, the elder, was a complete ignoramus. The other rude and vulgar. However, his store was always full of gentile customers, selling and buying, while father well, he had nice daughters who were praised by the teachers who frequented his store and said it was a great pleasure to speak with them and teach them Torah, and I too, his son, was a precious thing, destined to Torah and greatness, a good head father's store was always empty and the turnover was poor. Late at night father and mother would empty the meager earnings of the day from the drawer of the table into an old shabby leather wallet, and father would utter and whisper words of complaint and frustration about the low turnover and the store at the end of the street, which was crowded and busy all day long. Then mother would sigh deeply but silently, as she always did, and ask him in a whisper, Well, do you envy him? and father would not answer anything, but in his eyes twinkled a restrained smile which he directed to me at that moment.
Now, inside that store, a dark red light was seen, a light which remained inside the space of the room and did not manage to break out to the black of the street, and the store was not on the lower side of the street as it was when I was a child but on the upper side, and the store itself, was lifted a little, above the ground level of the street and three wooden stairs led up to it, unlike its position in those days of my childhood, when it was down, on the ground level. I went past it and peeped in. It seemed to be empty, all dark, but for the table, lit by that strange dark red light. And the same strange light showed the head of a man whose body was in the dark. It was the figure of the store owner, but his head was round and bald like a potato. His beard, head and side locks were all shaven up, which rendered his face the round form of a potato, from which two tiny eyes looked, two narrow slots. The very wide mouth was also like a narrow slot and it formed laughter of horror, of a monster, a laughter which is not heard but is seen in the narrow slot of the lips, which is lengthened until it is stuck in the blown jaws. He is standing and dropping potatoes, one by one, as big as his monstrous face, on the scales that are on the table, with a trembling hand like a miser weighing his bars of gold, and through the long narrow slot of his lips his horrible laughter is rolling.
I shudder with fear and cannot resist the thought: he of all people
And in the morning, after a night of tossing about, you go down the path, to the fields. The sun, which appears from behind the distant mountains, sheds its gold on the silvery leaves of the tall straight poplars at the water pool. The silver of the leaves trembles at the golden kiss of the young sun, and your heart quivers with them, with the leaves of the tall poplars. What is this quiver? This is how we tremble between horror and rescue, between grey black distress and a sun kiss. A bright day and sunshine after the rains the whole valley sings. On the hills around children are dancing in colorful clothes, living flowers, ringing with silvery laughter: red, purple, green, shining white. The Gilboa Mountain in front is all covered green and flooded with sunshine. My little daughter hops around me discovering every now and then a new wonderful flower. I spread myself on a rock warmed in the sun. My hands are under my head and my eyes drink the deep blue of the sky. I feel pleasure flowing in my veins, warm pleasure. And again my eyes roam around the hills of the green sunny Gilboa.
My ears absorb the silvery laughter of the living colorful flowers hopping
around and I know: all these hills around, this whole green fresh valley were
created for them, for the children of Israel to come and fill them with clear
laughter, a ringing birds' song. And suddenly I am hit from inside: the
children of Israel are suffocating in the death carts. My little girl who was
hopping around me, happy to discover now and then a new wonderful flower,
resembles so much my young sister whom I had left over there, in the Diaspora,
decades ago. She looks so much like her. The same round face, the same face as
my little sister's from then. On Friday afternoon she would rub my galoshes.
She grew up there. It was not she who hopped around me on a hill flooded with
sunshine and gaiety. She grew up there and went to the death carts. My God
can it be true? Suffocation emerges from inside me. Impossible.
Impossible. Fear rises within me, fear of the same sun which has just flowed
through my veins.
In the evening I saw shadows from the gas chamber in the concentration camp. Huddled together Jews are sitting, old, young and also children. They are all on the floor, their hands on their bent necks. Their faces are depressed, but there are no signs of torture on them. On their side there are two tall ones, probably of the cursed, keeping an eye on them. The Jews are sitting and waiting for death. All of them. No sign of horror, no sign of rage. How to breathe? How to live? And now I know. This is how they sat in one of those cells, my beloved ones too. What is Man? What is he capable of? And what am I, knowing all this? How do I live and breathe with this, after this evening, after a night of suffocation and nightmares, of palpitations and fear spasms, after this night?
I woke up very early to work. It was still dark and I walked down heavily to the tractor and headed for the fields. It was all like a dream, a nightmare. But reaching the field, which was still a blur grey lump in the brightening dawn in the east, I turned my head and saw behind me in the morning twilights something which shook me and poured at once a sense of happiness into my whole being, a feeling of gaiety. From the green of the field, which was still a dim grey lump, into the grey of a brightening twilight space, a single sunflower shot out erect, stretched towards the north-eastern end of the horizon, to the very spot from which the first rays of sun started to rise. And so it stood, its stem tall, straight, stretched like a string, its head up, expectant, with each of its yellow petals separate, freezing in anticipation, all like a reed arranged around the dark pupil of the big eye, which is also wide open and waiting for the rising sun. There was the sunflower, all ready like a string on a musical instrument which will soon utter its divine sound that will fill with tremor every living creature. I captured the moment and knew God. This sunflower at that moment was the quintessence of all the prayers, the yearnings, the longing for God in all the creatures during all the generations. I knew that in it, in each and every cell of it, the divine pulse was throbbing. I was filled with happiness and prayer. And as I was sitting on the tractor, hurrying back and forth along the furrows, the sun poured gold on the Gilboa in front and on the field around. And I saw all over the field many single sunflowers, the after-growth of the sunflowers which had grown there before, all burning yellow, stretched towards the rising sun, like a crowd of worshippers, standing in fervent prayer, all their faces turned in one direction, the Holy of Holies.
He was standing in a hall which was similar in its form and obscurity to the Hassidim house in which he used to spend his childhood. However, the time is now, the present, and he is preoccupied by something which is not clear to him, but it is of great importance. From the outside he hears a voice calling him and he is not certain whether it calls out his name or another call, but there is no doubt that the call is directed to him: he is the one summoned, and he answers: Right away! Right away!, but continues with his unclear and very significant matter. And while dealing with this important matter, he was holding a long loaf of bread, pinching off lumps of bread from one end with his fingers and putting crumbs into his mouth. With him there were in the hall some more people whom he does not remember.
Then, a fair-haired girl entered, approached him and asked: Are you Jakob? He answered: Yes, and she didn't say anything and turned around to leave. He went after her. Outside, again in the long court of the Hassidim house of his childhood, the fair-haired girl was no more there. He had not seen how she had disappeared from him, but she wasn't there. However, near the fence of planks another girl was standing, a dark-haired girl, in a dark dress with a black apron, wearing boots. When he went out she started to walk away from him. Please wait! Please wait! he cried and ran after her. He caught her, ran past her, stood in front and looked at her. She burst out in bitter tears and between sobs she uttered unhappy words of complaint in Yiddish You let me get lost, you let me get lost! He embraced her and cried too, and still crying he asked: Are you Dworale? Are you Dworale who who . She nodded her head and cried bitterly, and he too cried relentlessly. He held her in his arms and said, in Yiddish too, You silly baby, you silly baby. And although she was much shorter than his sister Dwora who had died there, in Auschwitz, it was she. He asked if she had already been there, inside, meaning in his house, in his room but she didn't say a word. She looked at him with a frozen but deep look, with brown greenish eyes, the eyes of destiny, he felt. She stared at him closely for as long while and he knew who she was, that she had come from there, from that past.
He woke up all shaking and trembling. He knew that she had come to
remind him, to wake him up from his sleep, from that awful negligence of those
there, who had died and were no more.
by Szlomo Cemach
Translated by Nitsa Bar-Sela
In 1904 Szlomo Cemach fled from Plonsk to Będzin, on his way to Israel. Here is an excerpt, with only slight omissions, from his book First Year (Published by Am-Oved, Tel-Aviv, 1952), in which he describes this flight.At midnight, as the train was moving from the Viennese station in Warsaw, I felt all alone, forgotten and miserable. Nobody knew how one can get to Erez-Israel. Having no other choice, I got off in Będzin, to the triple border of Russia, Germany and Austria.
I was not carrying any suitcase nor a box or a package. I had left without any
luggage because I was fleeing, branded by a sin I had committed towards my
father and mother. I had taken their money and had not received their
permission to leave home. I was sure I had caused them great pain, had broken
my old mother's sick heart and brought shame and dishonor on all their family.
My father had chased me but failed. Now that the train was moving he would
never catch me. Now, the energies that drove me to carry out this significant
act were pent up deep inside me while my belongings were hidden close to my
body: those three notes of 100 rubles each hidden in my shirt near my flesh,
rustling under my fingers whenever I touched them; that ticket of Nachum
Sokolow who had once returned my manuscript, though he still believed that I
had that sacred sparkle of writers, but I had to work and work, and that ticket
of Mosze Smilnicki, who had answered me from Rehovot, saying that first I had
to arrive and then he was sure that work would be found
I had been sleeping soundly and sweetly until daylight when I was awakened in the end of my route in the busy and crowded Będzin train station.
After I had checked the notes and papers on my chest and heard them rustle, I got off at the railway station and the same grand and extremely significant question where to which had brought me there was reduced to the helplessness of a man who knows where he wants to get to but does not know where to turn.
Będzin is located at the meeting point of three borders, but how could one cross at least one of them? But because the town is situated on the border, and because it is crossed by hundreds and thousands of Jews day and night, it is obvious that a Jewish boy whose eyes look bewildered should not be allowed to look bewildered too long. In no time a short Jew, whose side curls were partly joined with his scarce beard and partly stuck behind his ears, his eyes red and his walk like the sprint of a grasshopper, held my sleeve:
Is the young gentlemen looking for accommodation?And I followed him. He wondered that I had no luggage, and that I was so young and remarked that he had noticed at first sight that I was in some kind of trouble with the authorities and in a hurry to leave the country. I was lucky to have met him, Jecheskiel Vatman, who was well-experienced with the lot of me, and it was a sheer miracle that happened to me. It was the month of Marheshvan (October/November) in 1904. The defeat of Nikolai's troops in their battle against the Japanese in the deserts of Manchuria had already been widely published, and the green Russian steppe started reddening with the infection of the revolution.
Then let me be your host.
Jecheskiel's flat was poor and filthy, without any guests and no rooms either. The place that was offered to me was nothing but a table and a chair in the host's bedroom, where the beds were still not made and where a cradle was with a baby in it. The baby's face was covered with a strange rash and he had high fever. My arrival caused great havoc. The wife started preparing breakfast from an empty pantry. She had no money at all, so she took a small loan from me in order to be able to go to the store and buy some food.
Jecheskiel, her husband, pulled his side locks, once the right lock, and once the left lock, putting it behind his ear, following my steps all the time until he took courage and asked,
When do you want to cross the border?He pulled both side locks together and left. In no time he returned with two Jews dressed in short, and as he was leading them to the bedroom he said: This is the young man! and left again. The two Jews sat with me at the table:
As soon as possible.
It can be done even today.
These are the passes, or rather, the half-passes. Choose one of them, in which the details are similar to yours. You must be quite knowledgeable in this language.At that moment my heart told me that I had fallen into the hands of a gang and that I was in great danger. I examined the passes carefully and slowly, again and again, each separately, at great length. At last I selected one with the following details: 29 years old, blue-eyed, fair-haired, less than mediocre height, married, carpenter.
This one suits me most, I saidI did not argue. My heart was elsewhere. My two guides quickly started to flood me with details of the passage arrangements. I would be given the passport which I had selected in the railway station. We would be traveling by train, openly and lawfully. The control gendarmes had been bribed and there was no need to worry. One of them would be on the train in the same compartment and put beside me a box with a carpenter's tools. I would give him the money on the train, after my passport had been signed by the controller. It was evident that I was an honest man and they were not afraid that I might escape without paying them. The train was due to leave at four and I had to be at Jecheskiel's inn at three. I approved of everything and was even ready to give them 5 rubles in advance, but they refused. Through the narrow slot of the open door I saw Jecheskiel standing behind it and eavesdropping. When he heard that the deal was closed, he quickly entered with a bottle of brandy, filled a glass and said, Good luck! The guides joined in, shook my hand and left.
It will cost you twenty five rubles. There is chaos in town and the gendarmes have raised the rate.
When they had gone, I told Jecheskiel that I wanted to pay for my stay in his inn. He wondered why I was in such a hurry to pay and I read it on his face that he was afraid I was going to change my mind, but he said nothing. He stated a high price, which I paid him. I went out to the center of town.
First, I said to myself, it would be a good idea to change a little my outer appearance, and shave my beard and head so as not to be recognized. But the town was in riot and most of the shops were closed. Gendarmes on horses were everywhere in the streets with weapons and whips in their hands, their bodies stretched straight and their eyes directed only forwards. The Dąbrowa mineworkers were on strike and their friends, the railway workers, joined them in their struggle. I felt the town Będzin surround me.
Suddenly, the gold of a barber's sign glittered in front of me, with three brass plates hanging on a pole and clacking in the wind. I went in. Three mirrors in gold frames covered the wall on the left and in front of me, in the middle, a man was sitting contracted in his chair, reading a book As I entered, he jumped up, left his book open, approached me and asked me to sit in his armchair. The barber-dresser (they called him doctor) was a Jew of medium height, extremely thin, his chest sunk in, his voice broken and his cheeks funnily pink. He coughed nervously and kept blinking with his grey eyes as he spoke to me. At the tip of his chin hung a yellowish beard which covered only half of his cheeks but was very meticulously trimmed.
When I sat on the chair, he started combing my hair and using the scissors. I
waited for him to start a conversation, as barbers usually do while they are
working, but he did not do so. When gendarmes are riding in the streets with
whips in their hands, people are careful with what they say. When he went to
the other room to fetch hot water for the shaving, I peeped at his book. It was
'Altneuland' in Yiddish, translated by Sokolow. My heart started pounding
wildly. When he took the knife and started sharpening it on the razor strap
which was tied to the chair, I put my hand on his and said,
Are you a Zionist?
He fixed his feverish eyes on me, looked at me suspiciously and answered angrily
Where did you get it?
I pulled my hand out from under the white sheet which wrapped me and pointed to the open book.
I am not from Będzin.I put my hand back under the sheet and into my secret pocket and took out the two tickets and gave them to him. He could not read Hebrew, but he recognized the name Sokolow, the one who translated Herzl's book into the language he knew.
I have sensed it.
I came here to cross the border.
No, no. I don't deal with it.
But I am going to Erez Israel
And how can I be sure that you are telling me the truth, and that you are really going to Erez Israel?
I don't know the holy language, but a miller in my neighborhood does.He rushed out and returned after a short while with a Jew, about forty years old, dressed in a thick coat, stuffed with cotton. The barber took my tickets and handed them to the miller. The latter went over to the glass-door, bent his head over the tickets, raised them towards his glasses and read again and again and looked at the postmark. Then he approached me with an outstretched hand.
Shalom. I am a member of the 'Mizrahi' committee.The barber sat down on one chair and the miller on another and both listened to my story about Jecheskiel the innkeeper and the two guides, and that my heart told me that I had failed by choosing people who were not trustworthy.
Not worthy?! Thieves! Murderers! They will hand you over to the gendarmes. They work with them hand in hand. They will rob you and return you in the Etappe handcuffed, across all the villages of Poland until you get to your town Run away, young man. Leave Będzin as soon as you can. At three o'clock, when you don't show up at Jecheskiel's, they will look for you and find you.Then the miller signaled with his glasses to the barber and they went out. From the movements of their hands I understood that they were considering something very seriously. Perhaps my fate was being decided on at those moments. My whole body shook under the sheet. Will I find myself returning to Plonsk my town, my ankles ringing with chains, walking in the midst of a gang of criminals in the streets and in the market, in the Etappe, and all the shopkeepers standing at the doors of their shops seeing how they are taking me to prison ?
When they returned to the room, the Miller extended his hand again and shook mine.
Have a good trip, and God be with you. I will say the prayer of the way for you. Happy journey.He took off. The barber took his razor and started shaving me quickly and during the process he was speaking and explaining:
We are going to Wolbrom right away. I am closing the shop and going to accompany you. You will pay me for this, one ruble. I have a relative in Wolbrom and he is a head agent of people who pass the border. Don't worry. You will be in good hands. But we have to hurry. Jecheskiel and his gang won't sit idleAs soon as he finished, he rushed me out. He locked the doors and we went to the train station. Meanwhile the railway strike had broken out and what was left was only the last compartments of goods trains. Fortunately, the barber had connections among the officials and after short negotiation we were taken to a compartment loaded with coal and put aboard. The train started moving. Surely, I had escaped and was heading for Wolbrom. Thin rain started to fall and the coal was shining as if it had been covered with oil. We sat on it very close to each other because of the cold and the dampness. I told him my whole life story: my origins, my family, my destination. Eventually, he drew out a wrinkled note, handed it to me and said:
Never mind. All's well that ends well. We'll be in Wolbrom in an hour, and I was a fool to take this ruble from you
by Joel Mastbaum
Translated by Rachel Fassler
Donated by Erin Einhorn
Since we had such pleasant memories of our town and the Jews there, we approached him and asked him to write about his experiences in Będzin. He agreed, but in 1957 suddenly died. (The editors).
One day I was sitting in the Lodzer Tagblat (Lodzer daily newspaper) and the door opened and my friend Szpigelman entered, the editor of Zagłębier Zeitung (Zaglembian newspaper). He shook my hand saying hello, and I was very happy to meet him. Towards morning, I went with him into town. He refused to let me stay in a hotel and took me to his house, where I slept half the day and woke up refreshed.
After the lecture and the party I had a full day left to tour the city. Będzin was not a pretty town in terms of its view. The ground was covered by gray coal dust and had no plants. Trees here were very rare and birds even more so. The air was sour, and it smelled of salt.
But Zagłębie was a dynamic center, with a rich history of rebel activity. Here live the legends of the rebellion of 1863 that reflect the bravery of the people.
Będzin was a land rich in Jewish political parties, Jewish cultural life, and a core of solid Jewish wage earning. Będzin was full of Jews who were very troubled about their lives. It was said about them that everyone carried the weight of coal in their heads. They also used to say that the Jews of Będzin dreamed about having diamond crowns on their heads. Every second or third Jew was a coal merchant. When I arrived there I already felt the strain of the siege. Although there was still food to eat, the paralysis that the Germans brought to the coal industry was terrible. It was forbidden to transport from place to place without a license, and the industry was basically paralyzed.
Around Będzin there were sheet metal and wick industries. One of the leading
businessmen was Fürstenberg a generous Jew who supported all things
related to Jewish life. When I arrived in Będzin, his factories and machines
were in a depressed state. The Germans took the factory, and I remember how the
man sat next to me and said that the flames coming out of the German factory
will swallow us. And this was the truth. The Germans took over this factory and
used it to make wicks.
by Mosze Frenkel
Translated by Lance Ackerfeld
I have been living in Kibbutz Mishmar Hasharon for around 25 years and more than once I think about how I reached here. Hence, I will relate some of my recollections from years past and even though they are of a personal nature, they also have a general significance.
I studied in the Mizrachi primary school, where I received my first knowledge of Hebrew, apart from the cheder in which every Jewish boy studied, since there wasn't another school in Będzin at the time. Nevertheless, I was orphaned from my father at an early age and I had to take care of my family's livelihood and I was prevented from continuing my studies.
My mother had a grocery store, and I became fed up of standing at the counter and dealing with bothersome women, and waited for the right opportunity to be free of this work that I didn't enjoy. In my spare evening hours after the shop was closed, on Saturdays and Sundays, which was a general day of rest, I would sit alone and persevere with reading and studying, wishing to forget my unsatisfying, grey secular life.
I did not have friends, since I had yet to join any youth movement. One day, whilst sitting on the grass near the Gorka, the only recreational place which could let me forget the daily nuisances, to rest and enjoy the view of the landscape of wide fields and the winding river I heard the tunes of Hebrew songs and sounds of laughter. These were the members of Gordonia, who had gathered for their regular meeting two or three times a week, in which they talked about the land of Israel and their longing for it.
I was jealous of them, these youths, merry and cheerful, since they had no worries and their dreams went afar
Zvi Kutner, a wonderful lad who fell in the War of Independence defending Kibbutz Degania Bet, my former friend from school, noticed me and asked me to join up with me. I didn't dare and I was embarrassed, since I didn't feel at ease in unfamiliar company. However, with time I was influenced by them and became a close friend and part of them: I was invigorated and happy, even serious and responsibly carrying out duties, that were presented to me at a later time in local leadership, in Hechalutz, in summer camps and in other institutions.
I rebelled at home, my late mother understood me and did not prevent me from carrying out my activities, that put quite a burden on the running of our shop, being that all my desires were with Gordonia which set my heart pounding. The movement engulfed all my essence. Over the years, on many days and evenings, the elders of the center, we sat with the head of our group and organization, Mordechai Hampel, in the home of his parents, that was always open to us, or within our spacious clubhouse, that was not large enough to include the hundreds of our members, and we recited the teachings of A. D. Gordon, read together pioneering literature, the Davar and Hapoel Hatzair [newspapers] and learnt chapters of Zionism and the labor movement in the land of Israel.
The time for realization arrived. I left for the Hachshara [training camp], where conditions were not very comfortable. Tens of pioneers were cramped into a small apartment, in one of the border towns of Poland and we slept on asbestos sheets above each other, on two levels. Work was not abounding, and we were also not used it, didn't have the experience of knowledge and provisions were very limited. In spite of this, we did not regret being there and it was not unpleasant for us, since we knew, that we needed to train ourselves for life on kibbutz and Israel, which at that time, thirty years ago, wasn't the rosiest.
In the meantime, the rioting of 1929 broke out in Israel. The enthusiastic spirit was slightly stifled, and the weaker characters amongst us left. However, we that completely believed in the ideas, persevered and continued, we didn't abandon our training, on the contrary we intensified our activities and new pioneers came to fill in the ranks of those who had gone, in various ways, to live in Israel and I was amongst them.
The chapter of my settling into the kibbutz, to which I permanently tied my
life is the subject for a special article.
by Szymon Rus
Translated by Lance Ackerfeld
The late Rabbi Yoshua Rozenker, in whose cheder [religious primary school] I studied, was a wonderful Jew, his beard neat, and he was particularly clean-living. His students respected him, and he knew how to achieve their affection. Apart from learning religious matters, we also studied secular subjects arithmetic, calligraphy, geography and so on. Contrary to other chaderim, Rabbi Yoshua's cheder, was innovative, and our parents were pleased with it and saw it as a foundation for [primary] school.
In fact, when the Mizrahi school was founded, Rabbi Yoshua
transferred us to this school, in which he served for a time as a teacher,
however, he did not abandon his cheder and continued to educate the
Jewish pupils. The prime of the Zionist movement and Gordonia
members and were amongst Rabbi Yoshua's students, and he raised them as
Zionists and, today, many of them are involved in public life in Israel and
remember their glorious youth and beloved rabbi.
Even though in school the studies were carried out in Polish, a Jewish environment still pulsated within it, since our school students were active in youth organizations they brought the national atmosphere into the schoolyard.
A further innovation was practiced here: Sport, something that we hadn't been familiar with till then. Our stooped bodies slowly began to straighten up, our arms grew stronger and our feet knew how to kick straight to the goal In various sporting competitions with Polish primary schools, quite often we had the upper hand, and our pride grew through this.
Our school held outings to the forest outside of town. Today, when I remember these events, a smile comes to my face. However, in those days, some decades ago, when we were youths, we were oppressed in a foreign surroundings and were unable to give vent to our feelings and release our natural desires that palpitated inside us hence, an outing of this kind was a extremely inspiring event.
The climax of Principal Rapaport's work was the creation of the first student orchestra in the town, which was composed of Jewish children only, and was led by the well-known conductor and musician in our town, the late Simcha Lustig (He was killed with his family. Two of his sons and one daughter miraculously survived, and live in Israel and Australia). Thanks to the teacher Rapaport's persuasion, the town council supplied the orchestra with wind instruments for forty students, and I was amongst them, and was coached by the conductor Lustig and later by the late Barenblat, as well. In time the orchestra received recognition, and there wasn't a celebration in town that we didn't participate in. It gave an impetus to the musical education of the youth and developed its aesthetic and artistic awareness. We would frequently travel to nearby Katowice for advanced studies in order to hear the sophisticated philharmonic orchestra performing and learn from it.
There was also a dancing troupe established with the orchestra, and from time to time, we appeared together in shows, and the income from these was dedicated to mutual aid amongst the students.
In particular, some members of the orchestra excelled, and at the head of these was the eldest son of the conductor, Lutek Barenblat, who graduated from the Warsaw conservatorium and later appeared in the New York Philharmonic orchestra conducted by Toscanini (he died at a young age some years ago). Another member of note is Z. Wajnberg. As with the aforementioned, he excelled in his studies in the Warsaw conservatorium, he completed studied conducting and played a number of musical instruments competently. Since he did extremely well in one particular competition, he received a free trip around the world, and on returning home he became a brilliant conductor. He was murdered in the street whilst defending a Jew whom being beaten and humiliated, by a Nazi officer.
Our school served as an example to other educational institutions, and there
were another two other orchestras founded in primary school number 2 and in the
by Mordechai Hampel
Translated by Nitsa Bar-Sela
Our town, which was reputed for its culture and intellectuals, was visited by famous personages, well-known in the Jewish public in Poland and the Jewish world in general: philosophers, scientists, writers, journalists, directors and artists, politicians, communal workers, campaigners, speakers, emissaries and delegates who belonged to all the parties and streams in the diversified Jewish society.
It would be impossible to list all the visits, not even most of them. Therefore, we will elaborate on about forty of them.
There may be a few inaccuracies in some descriptions, dates or events but these are inevitable
What led me in my choice of persons was the desire to present people belonging
to all spheres of the Jewish public. This section is not edited alphabetically
and includes names of people who visited us between the years 1899 and 1939, a
few weeks before the war broke out and our community was annihilated.
Rabbi Icchak Nisenbaum
He was one of the first activists of Hamizrachi and one of its best preachers. In 1899 he visited Będzin and lectured about the Zionist concept and the Return to Zion. This annoyed the religious, anti-Zionist circles who were then the majority in our town.
When he came to Będzin, R. Berisz Prager, who hosted him in his house, was
waiting for him. The guest was surprised that only one person came to welcome
him. He was used to warm crowded receptions. Hours passed and none of the
members of the Zionist Society committee which had invited him appeared. The
Rabbi could not help asking, With all due respect, R. Berisz, are you the
only Zionist in this town
? R. Berisz answered, I have not
informed any of the committee members of your arrival, because they all are
Ashkenazi and I did not want to give the Hassidim in this town, who are against
Zionism, an excuse to claim that a rabbi in Israel, a Zionist, affiliates with
free people (chofshiyim)
Rabbi Nisenbaum mentions this visit in his memoirs, About My Youth (Warsaw, 5689 ). He writes:
At the end of the winter I was invited by the Zionist Society in Będzin to visit them. At the railway station I was welcomed by a Jew, about 40 years old, wearing a long coat, well-brushed boots and a Jewish cap on his head. He introduced himself as Berisz Prager. After a very short conversation, I realized that he was a Torah scholar. He told me that he was a Gur Hassid and prayed in a shtibel. But when he became a Zionist and his Hassidic friends started to insult and attack him with their acid tongues, he left them. As for the Rabbi he still continued to visit him. He took me to Rabbi Berisz Graubard to receive a permit for my sermon. He was a covert Zionist and willingly gave me the necessary permit.
I held my sermon on Saturday afternoon. After the Havdalah a few Jews from Sosnowiec came to take me to their town. I was pleasantly surprised to see among them my good friend, the poet H. N. Bialik, who was staying in Sosnowiec at the time and teaching our language. After the lecture I went to his house. He lived in a small wooden house. We talked about many different things and then I turned in. Bialik stayed awake at the window, looking out at the darkness of the night. The next morning I found the song Secrets of Night on his desk In the evening, after I had lectured in Dąbrowa as well, we returned to Będzin. We spent a pleasant evening in the house of a Zionist, and as was the custom of the time, we sang Zionist songs. In this tour throughout the Zaglembian towns I realized that Zionism indeed had an effect on Hassidism and Hassidism in turn affected Zionism and imbued it with its excitement and enthusiasm.
These lines were copied in a condensed version from About My Youth, according to the page in which the writer dedicated with love and his signature to Bialik.
Rabbi Nisenbaum, the gifted preacher, visited Będzin several times at the beginning of this century [20th], to the great pleasure of his listeners.
He died in the Holocaust in 1943.
Ruwen Brajnyn Writer
He visited in our town in the first years of the century (in 1907 I believe) as a delegate of the Zionist movement and Hebrew literature. He was a writer and a critic who fought for the new movement, the European one, in our literature.
On his visit to Będzin, as in any other place, he managed to gain supporters and admirers but also opponents. His lecture was a kind of complex philosophical research which preached for a change of values in our life.
My friend Mr. Juda Prager, who is with us in Israel, heard Brajnyn's lecture
and his words were imprinted in his memory very clearly to this very day.
He is a poet, a narrator, and one of the founders of the new Yiddish literature.
He visited our town in 1910, when the society of Hazamir held a cultural event devoted to his work. After the lecture about his activity in the field of literature, Rajzyn read from his stories and songs, many of which are sung by the people.
After his successful reading the choir sang a few of his songs: To the Meadow, What does it Mean and A tune of the Gemara.
In addition, the drama and music group of Hazamir (The Nightingale) performed in his honor the play Mit dem Strom (With the Stream) by Shalom Ash with the amateur contemporary actors and actresses: the Fersztenfeld sisters, Herszl Sztatler, Herman Sztrochlic, Lejbl Goldsztajn, Dawid Pinkus, Majer Cymberknopf and others. By the way, this troupe of actors, who demonstrated a great expertise in presenting famous plays, existed until the foundation of the Muse group, which dealt mainly with plays while Hazamir continued to cultivate the assets of music, playing instruments and culture.
After the performance that evening Rajzyn did not leave Będzin but stayed
for a while because he wanted to reach America. The Hazamir members
managed to acquire certificates for him and a visa for the United States.
Icchok Lejb Perez
It is well known that Perez used to travel and visit towns and villages in order to study the way of life of the Jews there, and his impressions are described in his works.
On his journeys Perez reached Będzin, in the winter of 1913, at the invitation of Hazamir, the only non-partial association in our town those days, whose only goal was to spread culture and science, music and poetry. Our town was mainly religious, but there were also enlightened circles who were attracted to the ideas of national revival. Perez came especially for the opening of the Sholem Aleichem Library, (the name was given after the death of the writer), which existed in Będzin until the Holocaust and was considered one of the most important institutions in the town.
He was received with great honor by all the cultural circles in town, as befitted a prominent writer. Hundreds of people came to listen to him in the Illusion theater hall (its name was later changed into Nowości) in the Winer house. He lectured and read excerpts of his stories Three Gifts, Shtreimel, Bansze Shvayg and Gilgulo shel Nigun (The adventures of a melody). The audience was deeply impressed by this evening of readings.
After the performance the members of the Hazamir committee and
other invitees gathered for a celebration in the Philharmonic hall
(on Słowiańska Street, lately named Małachowskiego). Here Perez
read his poem Monish which was warmly applauded. Those of the
audience who still live with us remember this exciting evening to this very day.
He wrote in Yiddish and his themes are taken from the lives of the Jews in Poland and in Eretz Israel.
Joel used to come to our town to give lectures quite often because people liked to read his writings and listen to him. He had many friends in Będzin, who hosted him in their houses and as a rule organized parties for him.
An interesting event occurred when he was invited to an inn with his followers, and one of them who spoke in his favor said that he had never expected the guest, who was a painter by profession, to also be able to write so well. Mastbaum was embarrassed by this compliment, but one of the women who was present at this party, managed to cleverly erase the incident by saying that the painter was his brother and not he
He visited Będzin for the first time in 1917. He wrote his impressions in
his memoirs which were first published in Di Letzte Nayes [The
Latest News] under the title Oyf'm Leiter. Later they were
translated into Hebrew in his book On the Ladder.
In 1914 Shalom Aleichem started his journey across the towns of Poland. The writer Icchak Dow Berkowicz, his son- in-law, reports in his memoirs: A shower of warm admiration and honor was shed on Shalom Aleichem in the small towns of the countryside, in which they held splendid literary evenings and hearty receptions for him. Groups of Jewish fans waited for him at railway stops to welcome him with cries of joy. No Jewish writer enjoyed such love and devotion.
He received a similar reception in Będzin, in the summer of 1914, a month before the First World War broke out. A delegation of Hazamir [The Nightingale], who had invited him to give a lecture, waited for the writer and his wife at the train station. They were students of Wroncberg's school, a delegation of Zionists, fans and admirers of the writer. (I was informed about this by Shloymele Grosman from Ramat-Gan, one of the few students of that school who survived.)
The theater hall of Corso was crowded. Shalom Aleichem read very artistically chapters from his works, monologues from Tuvia the Milkman, parts from The Tales of Motl, Son of Peysi the Cantor, Stempeniu, Menachem Mendl and more. Thunders of laughter accompanied his reading. He concluded his reading with the story Fire in Cathrilivke, about the fire brigade in a small Jewish town that can not extinguish the fire because of the limping, stumbling horse which very slowly conveys a perforated barrel of water.
The following day the committee members of Hazamir and the great writer had their picture taken. In the photographer's studio they waited for Elimelech Rotner, a committee member who had just returned from his tour in Eretz Yisrael [the Land of Israel]. Shalom Aleichem who did not know the reason for the delay asked: Who are we waiting for? Abram Liwer answered him, We are waiting for a Jew from Eretz Yisrael. What? asked Shalom Aleichem, a Jew from Eretz Yisrael? Where is he? To this Liwer answered in the typical Będzin Yiddish: Er komt fon Eretz Yisrael ober eizen is er a Bendiner
Shalom Aleichem who heard 'eizen is er' said, Well, this is typical
Yiddish, and very special too. It deserves to be immortalized. He took
out his small notebook and wrote in it the words which he liked so much.
The actress Ester Rachel Kaminska
Who of Poland's Jews hasn't heard this charming name, which is carved in the loving hearts of all the admirers of Jewish theater? And though decades have passed since the visit of this great actress, mother of the Jewish theater, in Będzin, the inspiring evenings of her exciting performance in the theater hall have not been forgotten. I was a youth when I saw Mirele Efrat, Chashe the Orphan and even to this very day the impression has not faded. The excited audience was moved to tears
The day of her appearance was an event, a festive day. Everybody got ready for the great happening. Laborers cut their day of work short, and shopkeepers locked their shops so as to arrive early at the theater.
In 1921 she visited in our town with her troupe which included Zygmunt Torkow (in Israel) and Ida Kaminska (the director of the state Jewish theater in Poland) who performed The Dybbuk. Ester Rachel played Frajda, the grandmother, and Ida was Lea, the main character.
A few young actors, who belonged to the Mooza [muse] group, were invited to play small episodic parts. They were very nervous and Ester Rachel, who had noticed their embarrassment, encouraged them and indeed, they did well.
The play was a success and that evening two performances were staged, both of
which enjoyed a full house of an applauding audience. After the plays, a party
was thrown in honor of the guest. She, in turn, gave her autograph to the
members of Mooza, and in Hana Shantal-Raviv's album of memoirs she
wrote a dedication: I wish your dreams of becoming a successful actress
on the Jewish stage would come true.
Zalman Rubashov (Shazar)
He visited in Będzin in 1922 in connection to the elections of the first Polish Sejm. At that time, the national minorities appeared in Poland as a single united party, and the Jews gained several tens of delegates to the two legislative bodies the Sejm and the Senate.
He ran a successful campaign in our town and in his appearances he appealed to the Jewish population, on all its classes and [social] positions, to vote for the The National Minorities Block listing.
His emotional and inspiring lectures are still remembered. The crowds listened
to him attentively and the Jewish Będzin gave its votes to the The
Block listing. Thanks to this a delegate was voted for the Sejm, who was
the representative of the Zagłębie district, a citizen of
Będzin, Dr. Szlomo Wajnziher.
The Admor Rabbi Abram Mordechai Alter of Gur, of blessed memory
He visited our town several times. On every visit he was enthusiastically welcomed by the crowds of the Jews who would unleash the horses of his carriage and leash themselves instead and carry him so great was their admiration for him. Thousands of Hassidim worshipped him, including leaders of Agudat Israel, and Heads of the Council of the Torah Greats. He visited Israel many times.
We particularly recall his visit to Będzin, in Elul 5683 August/September 1923. The whole town poured out to welcome him like a king. At that time the Będzin rabbi, R. Cwi Chanoch Lewin, the brother-in-law of the Rabbi of Gur, married his only daughter, Jochewed, with his grandson, Reb Naftali.
The wedding was planned for Friday and the chuppa [wedding ceremony] took place in the cheder (classroom) of Yesodei Torah [Foundations of Torah]. An individual who came to the wedding especially to perform the prayers was Reb Josele Chanciner (Jędrzejówer) the famous cantor who stood at the reader's desk in the Bet Midrash [house of learning] of the Rabbi of Gur. Many rabbis and admorim from all over Poland and thousands of Hassidim attended this wedding. The streets were flooded by flocks of rejoicing followers.
The groom was hosted by the son of the Rabbi of Będzin, Reb Eli Lewin in the Solomon Gutman's house. He was led to the chuppa in a joyful parade to the sounds of an orchestra.
This time the Rabbi of Gur was hosted by the late Reb Lipa Kaminer (Miriam
Liwer-Kaminer's father). Hundreds of people surrounded the house. They pulled
out doors and windows in order to see the rabbi and shake his hand as a
blessing of 'shalom aleichem'. The owner of the house, Jechezkel Winer was not
annoyed at the damages. On the contrary, he hoped that the Admor's presence in
his house would endow him with eternal inspiration.
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