After nightfall, I stealthily walked out to assess the possibilities of survival and to seek out the safest spots for concealment. I crossed the bridge into the New City. I was terrified at what I found. Cans upon cans of flammable liquids were assembled and heaps of material which would, at an instant, ignite into a blazing inferno. As always, the Jewish locations, our shuls and yeshivas, had more than their share of explosives. They were given an extra portion of dynamite. I could hear quite a tumult as I approached the shul. Every able-bodied Jew in the town was there. I asked why they had assembled in this building knowing how much dynamite had been laid by the foundation. I felt that they could not possibly survive there. But they maintained that it was the safest spot and insisted the thick walls would protect them from the shooting. I was told that even cannon shells could not penetrate the walls of the shul and no harm would befall them in this safest of havens. I tried, to no avail, to explain that this would be no ordinary fire or battle, that the dynamite had been set to destroy the very foundations of the building. There was no chance of survival for the building or any people within its walls. My pleas fell on deaf ears.
It was a Thursday night. I remember that the night was extraordinarily still. In the pit of my stomach I felt the quiet before the storm. All of us knew that the Russian infantry was moving in at a steady pace. On Friday morning I went out on the street. Few military personnel were around. Yet, the torchbearers were hovering between the buildings, obviously waiting for the signal to begin their evil work. I returned home hoping to relax for a while. I knew that the next few weeks would be very trying. Just as I reached my house, I heard a series of loud explosions. A thundering sound, then another, and another. . .Over the blasts, I heard screams and saw people running through the streets in horror. The shtetl was aflame! We could not go anywhere without being engulfed in flames. On Friday morning at 10:00, Ciechanowiec was deliberately torched. From north to south, east to west, everything was set ablaze simultaneously. The exploding dynamite shook our shtetl like the greatest of earthquakes. Acrid, black smoke from the kerosene soaked cloths darkened the skies. It seemed that Heaven itself was burning along with our beloved Ciechanowiec. Every few minutes another house exploded and joined the inferno.
The following day I crawled out of the ditch where I had sought protection. I was unharmed but was anxious to find survivors and assess the damage. The New City had, amazingly, not suffered too much damage - except, of course, the Jewish Quarter. Jewish buildings suffered the greatest damage, Perhaps 50 or 60 were still in habitable condition but the rest of the shtetl was in shambles. But I had a more important place to check out - the shul. I rushed there to check for survivors. All I found was the skeleton of the once proud building. The Ark, the bima, the approximately 120 Torah scrolls, doors, windows - all gone. The scrolls and all our holy books were in ashes. Destruction had befallen our shul. The holiest shrine of Ciechanowiec was now a mere memory.
A fascinating incident is embedded in my memory. Our schochet, Shimon Schlechter, had refused to hide or try to escape. He, his wife Maite, and their daughter Faiga, entered the new Bais Midrash (study hall), where the fire had not as yet reached. As they entered, the roof went up in flames. They ran to the Holy Ark, opened it and began reciting the Vidui, the confession said by Jews prior to death. They cried out to G-d to have mercy on them and on His holy Torah scrolls - so many Torah scrolls. Suddenly, the fire reversed direction and the building remained standing. As the reader must now realize, they, too, lived to tell their story.
We children were more influenced by the atmosphere in the town than by our parents. Hence we were more traditional and believed in the world of spirits. We recited the Shema at night and the Modeh Ani prayer in the morning in fear and devotion. Once I was crossing a bridge on my way to a nearby village. A sudden squall blew a white piece of paper into the air. I knew that ghosts had the power to change form and I was convinced that a ghost was after me. I ran as fast as I could in the direction of our home, convinced that the paper was blowing after me. My G-d, my G-d!
Despite our belief in superstition, we were not poor Diaspora kids. We lived in a natural setting and nature provided us with freedom. We found pleasure in playing hide-and-seek by the well, the wood shed, and on rooftops, using barrels, wood planks, fences, and sacks as our props. We invented games with sticks and played Black Man in a small circular area. In the winter that sloping meadow became an icy slide where we would cavort in joy. Then there was the stream where we would splash and bathe and pick water lilies.
The happiness we found in the beauty of nature was balanced by the sadness just beyond our yard. In the back of the property stood the Sanctuary, a shelter for the aged and infirmed. We were living a luxurious life and just steps away were suffering people. Often, we would bring the old invalids clothes and food.
The First World War erupted in the summer of 1914. Ciechanowiec was full of refugees and soldiers. The front line was getting closer and closer. The roses and chrysanthemums in our garden were still beautiful and the trees were heavy with ripe fruit; the grass swayed gently in the breeze. But then the calm was broken. The town was bombarded and that morning we all sought to escape amid the explosions and wild fires.
Six years I wandered until my return to Ciechanowiec. I met my friend Ethel Beider near the devastated bridges. Nothing remained of them but the metal rails and rotting wood sticking through the water. Only one thin rail extended to the other side. We edged across one behind the other, trembling with rapidly beating hearts, until we reached the other end. There were two more ruined bridges ahead of us. I recalled how lightly my small feet had run on these very bridges when I had fled from the ghostly white flying paper. How strong those bridges seemed when that flying piece of paper chased me! We crossed the second bridge in fear but the third was the easiest. We raced down the main street of town past the Catholic Church. We found our house, that is the ruins of our house. Only the walls were still standing. The floors that were always polished and covered with fine carpets were now covered with moss and crawling bugs. The chestnut trees and lilacs were growing wildly in the yard. Their waving branches seemed to be welcoming me home. The rest of the garden was uprooted. All that remained was rotting benches. The rows of beautiful roses and mums were covered with weeds.
That afternoon we explored the forest that we remembered so fondly. We were saddened by the changes, especially in the densest part. A few small summer cottages remained standing but all else was gone. We went deeper into the woods and came upon a pond and saw the golden fields beyond. Some young people were sitting on the ground and relaxing in hammocks strung amidst the trees. We recognized some of them from times past.
We returned to town and wandered around taking everything in. Our curiosity was unbounded. We mingled with the people and felt a great nostalgia for the old town. We felt love for all the Jewish community - leftists, rightists, the enlightened, the traditionalists, young and old, simple folk and sophisticates. We absorbed the atmosphere and could not breathe enough of it.
Three pretty girls had returned from exile in Russia. They boasted that they were more advanced than the townsfolk. After all, they were versed in Russian ways and had mastered the language. Each evening they would stroll about in the latest fashions. We started calling them The Three Graces.
Ciechanowiec was put under the control of the new Polish nation. Compulsory education was in effect and Jewish kids went to Polish schools as well as Hebrew and Yiddish schools. Adolph Koshmirk, a young Jewish teacher of Polish, arrived in our community. His plan was to stay for the school year in order to save some money. His refined Polish tongue and fancy city clothes were barriers to close relationships. He was carefree and removed and acted in a supercilious manner, as he ignored most people.
A blind kid named Eli Prenski was very popular with the young people of Ciechanowiec. Each day he would join us for a walk. He was a deep, introspective thinker, and we would chat as we guided him along.
The October Revolution had a profound effect on Ciechanowiec. Workers and craftsmen enjoyed a newly recognized status. The socialists found in the new arrangements a solution for the age-old problems of the Jews. But they viewed Zionism as a retrogression, a blinding movement that was fitting only for landlords and the idle rich. After all, the craftsmen worked hard and lived difficult lives, while the children of landlords walked around with nothing to do. The Jewish economy took a downturn under the Polish government. Poles assumed the key positions in business and many Jews were left without the means for a livelihood.
But aliyah was the dream of the young. The Zionist pioneers pressed for the gates of Palestine to be opened. The British were reneging on their promise under the Mandate. That is why only a small portion of the Zionist youth was successful in making aliyah.
Shortly before the burning of the town, all work animals were confiscated by the authorities. When the awful and bitter day of the conflagration arrived, everyone fled. But they were all on foot - women, children, the aged and the sick - all were forced to tread through those perilous roads. This occurred at the end of the month of Elul. The Russians had long practice in the scorched earth strategy, and they decided to put the torch to our town as well. I don't remember if it was an order from the authorities to leave town or their own fear which drove the Jews out. But all the preparations for destroying the bridges and for burning the buildings created panic, and suddenly crowds were running through Matz Street and Jews were fleeing the Old City. Men, women, and children marched along, mostly on foot. There were still a few wagons and some were seated on them, huddled on top of belongings that had been loaded in haste.
My father zl took a wagon from my grandfather's brewery and piled blankets and pillows atop it. My ailing grandfather, my mother's father, R' Yaacov Finkelstein was laid upon it. He had been sick for several years with a bad heart and had been bedridden for a few years. Neighbors' children were also seated on the wagon. My father pulled the wagon while some neighbors pushed from the back. Matz Street was paved with stones which allowed some movement, but when we reached the edge of town, the pavement disappeared. The wheels sunk deeply into the sand of the typical Polish road. My father and his helpers could not possibly budge that wagon. We stood helplessly, not knowing what to do. The crowds rushed by in fear. Consumed by their own anguish, no one stopped to help. After what seemed an eternity, a wagon led by two horses and carrying some Jews appeared. After some begging, the owner agreed to make room for my sick grandfather. There was no place for anyone else, so we were separated from my grandfather. The plan was to leave him in one of the Jewish homes in Grodzisk, a village southeast of Ciechanowiec. There my father hoped to get a horse to continue the journey.
After that delay, we continued along with the horde of refugees. Our feet continued to sink in the deep sand, and the trek was very slow. Some Cossacks passed by on horses going in an easterly direction. They warned us to hurry and escape the German enemy. Their urging was not necessary. Everyone was expending his last drops of energy to get as far as possible from our town - the front line. Suddenly we heard loud explosions behind us. The bridges of Ciechanowiec were being demolished. The fire and destruction had started throughout the town. Our childhood nest and the home of our people for generations were fast disappearing. Cries and wails rose up from the scared and broken refugees. By evening most of the tired crowd veered left into the forest. That would be our first stop, Kabbalat Shabbat and a night's sleep.
Suddenly, from out of nowhere, a Cossack on horseback arrived. I don't remember who among us dealt with him, but one picture is clear in my mind. The threatening Cossack rode among the Jews and with a small gesture demanded jewelry from each of them. Many women and youngsters took off whatever valuables they had and gave them to him with nary a protest. Many years later my father remembered the incident with a deep feeling of insult. How is it that one lousy Cossack robbed a whole congregation, including perhaps a hundred men, and no one protested or pushed him away? We are indeed in the galut, my father zl used to say.
After much trouble, my father zl, in partnership with another family, succeeded in purchasing a horse and wagon and we all got on our way. Near the town of Bielsk my grandfather's condition worsened. My parents, fearful of the worst, bent over and tended him. Grandfather's lips turned blue and, as my father related in later years, with his last whisper said, Everything is for the good. His soul left this earth purified, for he had justified his verdict.
One day, we were part of a three-wagon caravan of Ciechanowiec families passing through a village. With alarm, we noticed the Polish peasants of the village, men and women, huddled around a Cossack mounted on a horse. They were talking animatedly and glancing and pointing at us with hatred. We urged our horses onward, hoping to put distance between us and the village. Some two or three kilometers down the road, we heard the rapid hoof beats of an approaching horse, and as we turned, we saw that same Cossack bearing down on us. He passed the three wagons and stopped in front of the leading one, driven by my father, thus blocking our way. What followed is seared into my memory and I can see every detail as if it happened only recently. The Cossack's sword shining in the light, with its tip waving viciously in front of my father's face as he vainly tried to shield himself with his arm and palm. Suddenly my father's face is a bloody mass of flesh and the redness covers his neck and chest and his white shirt turns bright red. I hear the whistling of the sword as it cuts through the air, accompanied by the cries of my family and the others as well. I still see the Cossack's face, his red nose and watery eyes, that more than showing wickedness exhibited ignorance and stupidity. Our luck was that he was also drunk. Several times this inebriated idiot tried to put his left hand into a leather pouch hanging on his hip. At the time I was unaware of the meaning of that triangular pouch, but each time the villain tried to reach it, my mother and sisters screamed loudly and all the children and men joined in. The air was filled with heart-rending petrified shouting. The scoundrel did not succeed in pulling the gun from the holster. With every scream the horse would rear up on its hind legs, and the drunken rider was forced to use both hands on the reins to hold steady. After a few trials, as my father's life was dangling in front of him, the horse bolted and fiercely ran away in the direction of the village, taking on its back the drunken angel of death. Only the horseshoes were shining through the clouds of dust generated during this flight. The reason for the sudden salvation was unclear to me. My mother zl, when recounting this horrible incident, would say that a miracle from heaven had occurred. Merciful father, she would say, heard our cry, especially your cry, and in his mercy did not want to make you orphans, and that is why he chased away the angel of death.
Our arrival here had been preceded by several sleepless nights. After the Kol Nidre prayer, which was recited with broken hearts and aching souls, everyone fell exhaustedly into slumber. But not for long! A fierce cry pierced the air, and we jumped off our resting places. We shivered as we rushed to get dressed. Then our room was invaded by a frightened, seriously injured Jew. With his eyes bulging with horror, and dripping blood from his wounds, he shouted out, Gevalt, they are slaughtering us!
Hearing this, my father sprang into action. With a powerful kick he pushed open a window and guided the family through it, one by one. Then he jumped out himself. We started running with all our might, followed by other footsteps. To whom did those feet belong? Were they our pursuers or were they being pursued like us? We dared not pause to look. My father ran holding my younger brother in his arms. I, six years old, was running between my mother and sister. We climbed fences, jumped over bushes and pits, stumbled and got hurt, but picked ourselves up and continued running. Every minute my father's choked voice would call out, Sarah, Tziporah, Zvi - are you there? Our weak voices would respond, Here we are. Without aim, we ran into the dark, cloudy night. We ran from that house of death and from the pursuing enemy. Our hearts were pounding, we could not gasp enough air, and sharp pains racked our bodies. But we ran without stopping.
And then we finally reached the giant silhouettes of the trees. The forest - our refuge! We sighed with relief as we continued on, huddled close to one another. Every other minute our hair would stand on end and our hearts would cease their beating from fear. Each bush hid a potential murderer holding an axe and every rustle of leaves was like the whispered plotting of marauders. We stopped under the shelter of a large tree. Our teeth were rattling from fear. From afar, voices that sounded like cries of tortured people, mixed with the yelling of the marauders, rose up from the direction of the village. Suddenly a rustling came from the forest behind us. I did not know if the others heard it, and I wanted to alert them but fear prevented my voice to produce any sound.
My body was trembling as with malaria. By the time I summoned the strength to speak, the others were aware of the sounds. They whispered, It is the marauders. Again I wanted to run, to escape, but my legs did not obey my will. All of us were frozen as if we were statues. We hoped that if we made no movements our presence would go unnoticed. We huddled together and tried to focus on what appeared as an approaching dark wall. As my eyes got accustomed to the darkness, I noticed a light marking in the dark bulk. After another minute or so we discerned some people moving. They were four. Someone whispered, They are warning us with their hands. Another stuttered, They're running. Now they've stopped again. My lips could not tell the others that three of them wore dresses. My sister cried out in a trembling but happy voice, Here are Leah and Malka. I recognize their dresses! They, too, had fled the village - a father, mother, and two daughters. And until we recognized each other, they feared us as much as we feared them.
Following that redeeming meeting, we spent all that night lost together in the forest. In the morning we managed to find our way to a small village where a Russian garrison was stationed. We learned there from other exiles that the pogrom was not so bad. Evidently, there were no fatalities; the marauders sufficed with beatings and robbing. They took everything, and we were left with the clothes on our back.
After a journey of several weeks in wagons and by train, we arrived at the city of Kharkov in the Ukraine. A public committee for care of war refugees then sent us to Bogodukhov, maybe 40 miles northwest of Kharkov. More refugees from Ciechanowiec arrived in the area. I remember seeing Hinde Tikotsky and her son Abraham and daughter Bilha. My Uncle Shlomo Finkelstein was there with his wife Hinde Gorvitz who was the sister of Baruch Lewin's wife, the dentist of Ciechanowiec. I also saw Yitzhak Shapiro, the manager of the Ciechanowiec bank, and his family. We learned that more of our landsmen from Ciechanowiec had found refuge in Poltava and environs, a little south from us. Among them was the teacher Loss who was subsequently murdered in a Ukrainian pogrom. He was not alone in losing his life. Many of the refugees who had escaped the front lines in Ciechanowiec died when the German army conquered the Ukraine and warfare engulfed us once more.
We lived in the Ukraine for seven years. During that time major events were reshaping the world and Russia in particular. The World War was over, The Russian Revolution had succeeded in overthrowing the Tsar, and there were horrible consequences for Jews - pogroms by hordes of drunken soldiers, Rangel, the Petlyura gangs, and others.
It was only in 1921-1922, after the agreement between the Bolsheviks and the newly independent Polish government, that the refugees from Poland and Lithuania were permitted to return to their homes. We then returned to Ciechanowiec, now ruled by the new nation of Poland.
In 1920 war broke out between Russia and Poland and for some time Ciechanowiec was under the domination of the Bolsheviks. The communists in our town came to life and took control of the municipal government. There were few enlightened people in those days and anyone who could hold a pen was employed as a clerk with the government. Among these enlightened ones were the three London brothers, who became overseers of the repair of the bridges, and Moshe Abba Wolf, who was employed in the postal service.
Then the Soviet rule started falling apart under the pressure of the advancing Polish army. The Poles sought out the Jews as they suspected them of communist activity. Jews were physically assaulted, and many were killed. Among the victims were the brothers Beinush, Hlavne, and Mordecai London and Moshe Abba Wolf. Before murdering them, the Polish heroes poked out the eyes of the London brothers, continued their torture by cutting their tongues and pulling out their teeth, and finally cut their hearts with their bayonets. The Jews of the town appealed to their delegate Farbstein to do something to stop the pogrom. Farbstein asked for outside help, and finally an investigation committee was sent to Ciechanowiec. But the Jews were mistaken if they believed that the Polish authorities would seek justice. Instead of punishing the villains, they jailed the grieving father and tried to force him to sign a paper saying that the Bolsheviks had killed his sons. The poor father answered heroically that even if he had to give up his life, he would not swear to a lie. At the end of the affair, the committee finally decided that the Poles had killed the sons, and the father did sign a document attesting to that.
But that did not stop the atrocities. On Simchat Torah in 1929, Polish police beat David Epstein and his wife to death. The frightened Jews hid in their basements. Then the rabbi of the New City went to Czyzewo to catch a train to Warsaw. Once aboard, he was taunted and his beard was pulled. Then he was severely beaten. Upon reaching the Wolomin station, the rabbi and his daughter were thrown out of their compartment and robbed of their belongings. Another incident occurred when some Ciechanowiec Jews were returning home from Warsaw. Upon their arrival at the Czyzewo station, they were beaten and robbed. Another time, Michel Rosenbloom's daughter was thrown out of a speeding train. She was found later with both legs broken.
The Catholic clergy of Ciechanowiec were party to these bigoted acts. Knowing that Jews were leaving Poland because of the violence inflicted upon them, priests announced in church that no Pole should buy a Jewish home. The government did not look with favor upon such sudden emigration since it would blacken Poland's reputation for civilized behavior towards its Jewish citizens. In any event, the priest would emphasize, the Jews will run away without selling and we shall have their homes as spoil.
Polish anti-Semitism prevented Jews from buying necessary supplies from farmers. Only remnants that were left after the Poles had made their purchases were available to Jews. Young Jews were kidnapped and forced into servitude; men to labor in the forests and women to clean the homes of Polish police. Public schools were closed to Jewish children, and sick Jews could not be treated at the Polish hospital.
The situation of the Jews continued to deteriorate. Fortunately, a Ciechanowiec Relief Committee had been established in the United States and they provided funds for a Jewish school and communal organizations. Though this assistance did not satisfy the lion it did alleviate some of the suffering.
Translated to English by Zvika Zmora The summer of 1914 World War I broke out. The retreating soldiers of Nikolai II set fire to towns and villages before their withdrawal. Thus, they set all the houses of Ciechanowiec on fire.
I was three years old when we hastily fled from the burning shtetl. This picture is still vivid in my mind today: the whole shtetl aflame, children, women and men frantically fleeing by foot, and the luckier ones by carriages. Most of the fleeing people did not manage to get far, and were caught by the German army of Kaiser Wilhelm, who saved them from the hardships of the flight and enabled them to return to the ruined town. Some of the people managed to escape to the vast regions of Russia. Among them was my family, the family of Naftaly Yabkowski, who arrived in Minsk, after many hardships together with thousands of empty-handed refugees.
In the summer of 1917 we came back to Ciechanowiec. A German soldier. wearing a helmet, was guarding the temporary bridge which was built over the Nurzec, and he checked the people who were coming in or going out. The town was partly reconstructed. Wooden and brick houses had been built by that time, but there were still many ruins that were not yet replaced by new houses.
The German front began collapsing. Polish guerillas, equipped with old rifles, captured the retreating German soldiers. The security situation worsened. Anti-Semitism arose. My uncle, Yakov Zabiela, was thrown into the river and miraculously survived drowning.
A war broke again between the Poles, who renewed their independent state, and Bolshevik Russia. The Poles withdrew. The battle over Ciechanowiec lasted three days and three nights. The Poles entrenched themselves in the surroundings of Warsaw. A Bolshevik regime was established in our town. Some of our people became commissars, headed by Leibl der Shriber as the chairman of the Revolutionary Committee. People began getting used to the new regime, but the Bolshevik rule in Ciechanowiec lasted only six weeks.
The Poles recaptured the town and established a stable administration in it. Life resumed its normal course. The Jewish institutions were restored, including the Hebrew Elementary School, one of the first of its kind in Poland. The old teacher Moshe-David Heller brought a zealous Hebrew atmosphere into the school. He instilled the love for the Bible, for Hebrew and Hebrew history in the heart of his students, and enticed them to leave the Diaspora and go back to Eretz Israel.
After only a few years, Hebrew became a spoken language among the youth in Ciechanowiec. Many went on to study in Hebrew high schools and teacher seminaries in Vilna, Grodno and Bialystok. The graduates of these schools constituted a superior corps of teachers and educators, who disseminated Judaic studies in the towns of Poland, and continue doing so in Israel to this day.
The Ciechanowiec youth loved nature. The forest and the Nurzec attracted them. When the river froze, we would slide on the ice, using ice-skates that we prepared ourselves from wood with an iron wire threaded at the bottom. In the spring, before Passover, the sun melted the ice and the snow; the river overflowed and the water flooded fields and meadows. The river was raging, ice blocks thundered and stormed till they flew into the river Bug, about six kilometers west of the town. Later on it resumed its normal course and faithfully served the townspeople all summer long in their recreational activities of bathing, boat-rowing and fishing. The Nurzec abounded in various kinds of fish hake, perch, carp, etc.
The youngsters used to roam the forest on their vacations and on other occasions. They would pick mushrooms, blueberries, fragrant and juicy raspberries, and currants. The hikes in the forest alongside brooks and rich flora lasted many hours. We also learned the names of the different plants and their habitats.
In the 1930s anti-Semitism began spreading all over Poland, which was followed by the economic slump in the Jewish community. Many of our townspeople left Ciechanowiec and went overseas. Many immigrated to Eretz Israel by all possible ways. This process continued until the Holocaust, which put an end to the lively and versatile existence of the Jewish congregation of Ciechanowiec.
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