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[Page 47]

Images and Figures of Grayeve

(Between the First and Second World War)

Dr. G. Gorin

 

Note: This was generously donated by Nora Jean Levin, whose father Hirsch Bieler-Suwalski (1900-1985) translated part of this chapter for his children's benefit between 1979 and 1982. Mr. Bieler-Suwalski was born in Grajewo and left in 1919 for Leipzig, Germany. In 1936 Hirsch went to Palestine with his wife Anna and daughter Tania. The family ultimately came to the U.S. and settled in Philadelphia, PA after 1938.

 

Edited by Tina Lunson and Nora Jean Levin

 

1

The first departure and return

It was a sunny spring day in 1921 when I, for the first time, left my beloved native city Grayeve, a feeling of longing and loss nagged in my heart thinking of my childhood years in Grayeve, where every house, every street, every fence was connected with so many memories, and everyone was a friend or an acquaintance. It was a departure not only from Grayeve, but also from my childhood.

The two were so closely tied and knitted together. In later years I often returned to find there consolation and a retreat from the strange wild world. In Grayeve, I always felt as part of the town and not as a stranger. Yet it did not look the same, when I returned for the first time. Everything looked different. The streets looked shorter, the houses lower. For the first time in my life, I was in the position to observe everything in the town objectively.

A city is like a living creature. It has a heart that feels, and has moods of melancholy and frivolity, enthusiasm and worries. It seems there were a lot of Grayeves, and each and every one of them had a different face, depending on the different circumstances.

Grayeve on a Shabes [Sabbath] afternoon in summer when Jews finished eating the tsholent [stew warmed overnight to avoid cooking on the Sabbath] was so quiet, that you could hear the rustle of a leaf on a tree. The hamlet lay drowned in thick silence under the burning sun. All stores closed, the shutters closed and chained, and the streets were empty. It was a time of delightful tranquility when the worries of the week were put aside somewhere in a distant corner to become a worry-free, benevolent and silent Grayeve.

The silence does not last long. A door opens and closes with a bang. A boy with a brass kettle in his hand runs to River Street for tea. Slowly the whole hamlet arouses from the deep slumber. This is how it was in summertime, every Saturday afternoon, year in, year out.

In the wintery Sabbath afternoons, one takes out the brass kettle and sits around the tiled oven drinking hot tea. The silence in the street is quite different. Cheerful noises are heard from the street by ice-skating boys, which disturb a bit the afternoon nap. The thick snow is soft under the feet, but the burning frost pinches the ears and nose, when Jews go to the besmedresh [house of study] for the minkhe [afternoon prayers] services.

Grayeve looks quite different during the Days of Awe and the ten days of repentance between, Rosheshone [Rosh Hashanah] and Yonkiper [Yom Kippur]. All faces are serious and deep in thought and meditation. You can feel it in the air that something is being expected. The Day of Judgment is a serious event for everybody, young and old.

I remember how my father used to pull his talis [prayer shawl] over his head, when the cantor reached the unsaneh tokef prayer [recited during the Days of Awe which speaks of the sanctity of God's Day of Judgment], as if to protect himself from terrible atrocities. I was yet so small that I could not reach the makhzer [prayer book for the High Holidays] on the stand, and with frightened eyes, I looked up at how a grown man cried with bitter tears, “who by fire, and who by water; who by the sword and who by the pestilence; who by hunger and who by thirst?” I understood the meaning of these gruesome deaths from the stories the rabbi used to tell us in kheyder [Jewish religious school], but could not imagine that such a dreadful death would befall my own father in the Hitler gehenem [hell; place or state of torment or suffering].

As soon as the shoyfer [ram's horn blown on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur] is blown for the last time, everyone gives a sigh of relief and is resigned to accept the decree from above. The day-to-day routine returns, but not for long. Thereafter comes the Sukes [Sukkot] holidays, and everybody to his own standard enjoys the traditional festivities until Simkhes-Toyre [Simchat Torah], when the joyous festivities reach the climax.

After that comes the gray and cold days with the worries for the coming winter. The whole city gets ready. Homeowners buy loads of potatoes to be stored in cellars; the sheds replenished with firewood and peat. The hamlet braces itself for survival of the oncoming winter.

When again spring's mild breezes begin to blow, the heart rejoices—baking, cleaning, washing the household furnishings, airing the books, and hanging the clothing and bedding in the open air. After the long winter, when windows are pasted with paper and cotton, and the doors are always closed, the fresh air is like a toxic drink. The shtetl [small town] is again good-natured. People smile again in harmony with nature, grateful not only for the fact of being freed from the bondage of Egypt, but also from the severe, long and lonely winter.

There was also a Grayeve of Friday evenings and Grayeve of Saturday evenings; and a Grayeve where, when a funeral procession passed through Shul Gas [Synagogue Street] all the stores close in sympathy and respect for the departed; Grayeve, where a band of musicians on the way to play for a wedding are followed by small boys; Grayeve on Tishebov night when laments are recited for the khurbm [destruction]; [Tishebov / Tish'a B'Av is the 9th day of the month of Ov or Av; a day of mourning in commemoration of the destruction of the 1st and 2nd Temples in Jerusalem]; Grayeve, where Jews bless the new moon in a clear sky

All of these pictures of Grayeve stand before my eyes, etched in my soul. They are unforgettable, like still impressions and happenings of the childhood years which remain a part of us for the rest of our lives.

The Jews of Grayeve in general were kind-hearted people and proud of their city. Truthfully, compared to Byalistok [Bialystok] they felt a little bit inferior, they felt a little bit ashamed of their pronunciation. In Byalistok they called the Jews of Grayeve the “Grayever plotkes” [small fry], the accent on the hard “L.” Compared to the surrounding “shtetlekh” [smaller villages] like Raigrod [Rajgród], Vonsosh [Wąsosz], and even Shtutzin [Szczuczyn], the Grayever's considered themselves big city stuff, with a railroad and a foreign border and communication with the big world.

In the evening when the train arrived from Byalistok, the station outside was packed with curious people standing on both sides of the exit, creating a narrow corridor through which passengers exited. One used to look them over from head to toe, especially strange faces visiting Grayeve for the first time, like a young man or girl who comes to visit. There were few secrets in Grayeve.

The station's building was very beautiful for such a small town. People used to walk in the evening on Ban Gas [Train Street]. In later years, they extended the avenue to the post office, with trees and benches on both sides. There the people of Grayeve enjoyed the summer evenings and discussed various topics, or just sat and gossiped about the passersby.

On Shtutzin Highway, on both sides of the road, as far to the windmills, there was another place where young people spent the evening on the grass. Romances and love affairs developed, and there the youth of the town dreamed about the big world, to which so many of them escaped to try their luck.

Boys used to play on the green hill behind the cemetery. In my eyes it was the highest mountain in the world. With beating hearts, we used to climb to the top, spreading ourselves flat on the soft, green grass. It was like a field of eternity, behind the eternal resting place of generations of the Jews of Grayeve.

 

2

The livelihood and working trades of the Jews of Grayeve

In the twenties, Grayeve was no longer prosperous as before the First World War. The reasons were varied: first, the general depression after the War, which existed in the country and all over the world; second, the town was no longer part of Russia as before 1914, so big commerce with Germany via Grayeve existed no more; third, the evil attitude of the new-born Polish government towards Jews and Jewish trade hit very hard. It went so far that the people nostalgically spoke about the times before the War.

As a result of the economic depression Jewish youth started to emigrate to America, Eretz Yisroel and France. The town had become narrower for them, and the future hopeless as ever. The older generation tried to hold on to their occupations after the war. Jewish businessmen used to travel to Byalistok, Varshe [Warsaw] and Lodzh [Łódź] for goods. Jewish artisans, who had mostly remained in the city during the time of the war, struggled to beat out a living in their workshops. A great many Jews somehow got by with the support they received from American relatives.

Trade was limited, yet some succeeded in sending carloads of lumber and other goods to Germany. They traded in train box-car loads, as they were called.

The offices which were so busy before the First World War lost a lot of their importance.

As the situation was, the Jews played the most important role in the economic life of the city. Grayeve was surrounded by many villages. Twice a week, Mondays and Fridays, were market days, and once a month there was a big fair to which Jewish merchants came from all the surrounding shtetlekh with their merchandise. In those days, the farmers used to bring their products for sale, and in return, buy in the stores, suits, coats, shoes, various products for the house, food etc.

Most of the Jewish stores were in the market place, on Shul Street and Shtutzin Street. In the Twenties there were but a few Christian stores.

The butcher stores were on Bogushe Street. They were a world in itself, exactly like the Jewish butchers were in a class by themselves. The street always smelled of blood and meat. The butchers were a crude bunch. The Jewish women were afraid of them. They cursed and swore when a woman showed displeasure with the meat.

The fish traders used to set up every Friday in Shul Street, opposite the Hasidic shtibl [small house of prayer used by Hasidim] with barrels of fish, and Jewish women used to come to buy fish for Shabes. In Grayeve there were also several stores which sold nets and equipment and utensils for fishing.

Jewish artisans were represented in shoemaking, tailoring, cabinet making, carpentry, and other trade works where the owners worked alone or with a few helpers.

A typical livelihood was the trade in geese, which merchants bought up by the thousands and then drove into Germany. Many Jewish women sold fowl on a small scale. They cut the fowl in parts, wings, gizzards etc. and sold them to the housewives. I remember my grandmother, Hinde-Rifke, sitting till late at night in the winter evenings with a white shawl over her head plucking feathers for bedding. She also fried and sold gendzene shmalts [goose fat].

In the grain business, the Jews occupied the top positions. A few Grayeve Jews dealt in grains on a big scale, sending carloads all over the country or abroad. Milling flour was also a Jewish trade. There were several wind mills, and one ran by steam and electricity.

There were many blacksmiths in Grayeve. A horde of them dwelt on Taykh Gas (River Street). They had their own style of pronunciation that differed from other Grayevers. They swore their own curses and sometimes dealt a blow, so everybody was afraid; even the peasants trembled before them. The smiths also bought and sold horses.

On the plaza, in a separate neighborhood, lived the “drotshakes” [wirers] whose job was to wire together broken earthenware and porcelain pots. They were the poorest, living on muddy streets in low, sunken-in houses and like all the poor in Grayeve, had a lot of children running around naked and barefoot. When there were not enough broken dishes to mend, they occupied themselves with shoemaking. Of one of them was Nakhman Drotshak. They say that when the police imposed a fine for poor upkeep of his property, he gathered all the barefoot children of the neighborhood, went to the yard of the district administrator, lined them up outside the mayor's windows, and made such a heartbreaking wail that they removed the fine out of pity for the starving children.

The Tar Jews were in a class by themselves. They were immortalized in a book called The Tar Jews by our honorable landsman [someone from the same town], Ari Ibn Zahav. I will only mention them briefly. The Tar Jews you only saw in Grayeve twice a year, for peysakh [the holiday Passover] and the High Holy Days, when they came to visit their families. They spent all the year in Germany dealing in horses and related work. For the holidays some of them used to come down all dolled up in foreign clothing, strongly perfumed, smoothly shaved and with the Yekisher [German style] short haircuts, a white handkerchief in the front breast pocket, a beautiful tie with a big knot, and a mother-of-pearl tie pin and a big golden watch with a long golden chain. Those fellows had a darn good time in Germany, as you could see from their flaming faces and thick red necks. They used to speak a Germanized Yiddish, walking in the streets telling about their fabulous fortunes in Yekeland [nickname for Germany] and their own grandeur.

 

3

Interesting and tragic types in Grayeve

There were many curious and interesting characters of Grayeve. I will only tell of a few of them: Hershel bochen-bisen, so he was called. He was a son-in-law of a melamed [elementary teacher]. Hershele had a speech defect and when he prayed you could only hear him say bochen-bisen, bochen-bisen,” but he was a genius of a mathematician. I remember he could figure the most difficult mathematical problems in his head, faster than I could figure on paper. In one minute he could resolve difficult problems that took me an hour, using algebraic methods. Even old people used to test his abilities. They used to ask him “Hershel, I have yortsayt [anniversary of a death] for my grandfather who died the tenth day in the month of Shvat. Which day of the week was it thirty years ago when he died?” Hershel would pull his reddish beard, close the eyes and between a few bochen-bisen would say the exact day.

Everybody in Grayeve knew Yosl bloz [nickname the “blower]. He was a blacksmith and his face was always black from blowing on the fire in the smithy….

 

[Pages 53-68]

The following section was translated by Tina Lunson

His son Yehuda was off on some dark business and became a porter. He and Zundele, two beefy youths obstructed all the traffic at the Grayeve train station and would not allow anyone else to carry a suitcase for travelers who had stayed the night at Frank's hotel. That livelihood brought them a good income; they were well-dressed, used perfume, and ate “landrinkes” [unknown translation] on the street (in Grayeve in those times that was a sign of prosperity). Later Yehuda became a barber. He went around in a clean, white smock as if to demonstrate his pleasure with his “clean” profession and as if to show how high he had risen above his father Yosl of the leaky bellows.

That Yehuda set up a primitive radio, one of the first radios in Grayeve. Yosl bloz told the [study] group Ayn Yankev [1] about the wonderful activities of his son in these words: “Do you know what a radio is? You stick a pole in Khaye Alte's chimney and a stick in Sore Leye's chimney (those were his neighbors), you fix a wire between them, you stick a piece of tinplate in the ground, you put on a pair of ear handles and you hear music from around the whole world.”

* * *

Among the tragic types in Grayeve were the “blind.” These were a few families in which most of the men became blind around the age of twenty. They suffered from a disease of the optic nerve. The disease passed mostly from fathers to sons and attacked the victims around the age of 20. The blind ones went around begging from door to door. Everyone knew Itshi Pinye, Mayer Leybl and Yosl Tuvye as they went around tapping their way with a walking stick, or a young girl would lead them about. They would go into Germany to beg for charity when the “season” was poor in Grayeve. The Jews in Prostken [Prostki] and Lik [Ełk] bribed them, and gave them a certain sum of money with the condition that they leave the town so that they, the German Jews, would not be shamed in the eyes of their neighbors by these Jewish paupers from Poland. When the blind ones returned from their tour of the German provinces they divided among themselves the small things they had gotten by begging. The distribution took place in their neighborhood and often ended with fisticuffs. When the news that the blind ones were fighting arrived in the besmedresh we boys would quickly finish up shimenesre[2] and run with bated breath to Post Office Street to see the battle. The blind ones would be cursing and screaming with wild voices. They knew instinctively where their opponents were hiding. Although they could not see, they knew where to throw an iron bar, a board or a stone.

 

4

Social and Religious Life

All the well-known institutions that Jews supported in other towns and villages of Poland existed in Grayeve. The lines hatsedek society [society to care for the indigent sick] possessed a good variety of medical instruments, which Grayeve Jews often borrowed in times of illness. The lines hatsedek also had devoted volunteer members who visited the ill and sat with them at night.

The gemiles khesed [charitable loan society] functioned in a small measure and gave small loans without interest. The Grayeve Jews also organized a Jewish cooperative bank which conducted various transactions and also gave loans. The bank was a very useful institution for Grayeve Jewish merchants and small proprietors.

Grayeve also had a committee to ensure that guests in town were hosted for the shabes and holidays, a burial society and a number of smaller institutions.

The Grayeve proprietors were organized in a professional union. The union was especially important because of the various decrees that the Polish government issued for handworkers – particularly the guilds. A young Jewish man could not learn a trade if he could not find a craftsman, a member of a guild, to teach him. Few Jewish craftsmen were taken in as members of a guild. The situation changed very much in that regard, during the years of the Second World War.

Grayeve had a good library, housed in the “house of the people.” One could find the best and most recent books in Yiddish, Hebrew and Polish for loan. The library was operated by volunteer workers; the number of books grew from year to year and Grayeve youth had the opportunity to read good literature thanks to the devotion of a small number of young people from the library management. The Bund[3] organization also had a Yiddish library, but the number of books was much smaller.

There were two types of religious education institutions in Grayeve: the old khadorim and the refashioned ones, modern religious schools.

I knew the Grayever melamed because I went to almost all of the khadorim, including the Talmud-Torah. Of course, the Grayeve melamed were not acquainted with the newest methods in pedagogy and slapping was the best way to keep discipline.

Shmaye the melamed, a broad Jew with a sparse white beard and a hot temperament, used to pinch cheeks and then look at his two fingers as if to see whether he had torn off a piece of flesh. His kheyder was in Mendl Borukh's house and we used to run from there out on the “biel” and hide for hours. His daughter Fradl, a pale, dried up old maid, always came to take us in and sometimes she succeeded in cooling her father's fury at his pupils.

The melamed from Raigrod was a thin, sickly Jew with a big beard, smeared with yellow stains from snuff. He drank tea all day, carved wood with a sharp little knife and made various figurines for us. He was too weak to beat the boys; he let out his anger through a Russian curse with Yiddish words mixed in. The poverty in his home was great and after his death when his children were grown, they became very active in the communist movement. One of his daughters and his son, Khaym Arye, were both put into Polish prisons for their political activity.

My melamed in the Hasidic kheyder on River Street was an angry Jew who beat and pinched his pupils. I was then nine years old and we studied the Talmud section kidushin[4] the entire year. On the hot summer afternoons, when our childish hearts were drawn outdoors by a world with green trees, soft grass and a clear blue sky, the rebi [teacher] held forth in a monotone voice on “a woman is acquired three ways.” I did not understand what was being dealt with there and was not interested in the “ways.” Only the older boys had roguish smiles on their faces and already knew, it seems, the “big secret.” Once I got so sleepy in the stuffy air of the kheyder that I sank down to a sweet nap over the Talmud. The rebi had a sharp eye, though. He threw the hard case for his eyeglasses at me and when I woke up he served up a smack.

The Talmud-Torah was maintained by community counsel money and many poor children studied there. American support also helped the institution. There were times, right after the First War, when the children in the Talmud-Torah were given one meal a day to eat. For many of them it was their only meal, because their families were very poor.

 


The Talmud-Torah building

 


A class of Jewish children in the town school.
The teachers: Kureivovski and Popovski

 

My Talmud teacher at the Talmud Torah was Yisroel Borekh. He was a tall Jew with a sparse beard, a long nose and deep blue eyes. I do not recall his ever hitting a boy. He was a Hasid and a good person. When I visited Grayeve the last time in 1937, I happened to encounter him in the street. We had a long conversation and I was inspired by his tolerance. He told me he had hoped that I would be a yeshive [a Jewish school of high Talmudic learning] student, but, he easily admitted, was happy that I studied at a university because studying in any area is good knowledge and leads to an understanding of God.

Among the “modern khadorim” there was Kharmon's kheyder and Eli-Melekh Pomerants' kheyder where much more importance was put on Tanakh [abbreviation for Torah, Neviim, Ksuvim; Law, Prophets, Writings, respectively] and Hebrew as a language of daily use and not only as a holy tongue. In both of those khadorim the children also studied general subjects.

Besides the religious schools there was also a secular school in Grayeve. There were two folks-shuln [public schools] with Polish as the language of instruction – one for the Polish children and one for the Jewish children. In the latter, mostly Jewish girls studied; the parents did not want to send the boys to a non-Jewish school.

Grayeve also had a Polish government high school where only a small number of Jewish children studied. In the first years of the high school's existence Jewish parents did not want to send their children there, because they had to write on shabes. In later years the school introduced the numerus clausus (a quota) and they only accepted a few Jewish students each year – only those who had “potential.”

Middle-class Jews mostly sent their children to the Tarbut [secular Hebrew Zionist] schools. One cannot speak of the Grayeve Tarbut schools and not mention in particular the tireless efforts of two Grayeve teachers in the area of Hebrew education. One of them was Eli-Melekh Pomerants, a veteran Zionist activist and Hebraist, who his whole life furthered activity in the area of Hebrew education and spread the use of Hebrew as an everyday language. The second was Popovski, who worked for years as a teacher in the Tarbut schools and also taught Jewish religion and Hebrew in the Polish folks-shul for Jewish children.

 


A class of the Tarbut School

 

The Tarbut School also had a number of Hebrew teachers whom the central office of the Tarbut organization in Warsaw sent to work in Grayeve. Students who graduated from the Tarbut School in Grayeve were automatically in the fourth class of the Hebrew high school in Byalistok [Białystok].

I was one of the first Grayeve students to travel to study in the Hebrew high school in Byalistok. In the years 1926 to 1929 there were fifteen students from Grayeve in the Byalistok Tarbut high school. Many of them later traveled abroad and studied in various universities. Grayeve then had around ten Jewish youths who studied medicine. A few of them stayed in Poland, others went out into the world because they were not allowed to practice in Poland. Grayeve young people also studied engineering, agronomy, literature and philosophy.

For the older generation, as always, an important place was occupied by the botemedroshim – the old and the new, the Oheves khesed [love of charity], the shul, the Hasidic shtibl and the various other non-Hasidic groups like Ayn Yankev and Khevre mikre [reading group].

The Grayeve shul was built at the initiative and with the help of the Vierzshbolovski family. In the 1920s the Grayeve Jews brought in an artist who decorated the ark and other parts of the shul.

We boys loved most of all to pray in the old besmedresh, especially shabes evening when it was already dark but still too early to turn on the lights, and the Jews would sit in the dark and recite psalms and sing “happy are those whose path is pure.” Then we would run around and play across the benches and under the tables and the Kuliav beadle would chase us with a book in his hand and shout, “Get out of here, you scoundrels.”

The Hasidic shtibl was the merriest place of all. There were many Hasidim in Grayeve. There were Kotsker[5] and Gerer[6] and a certain number were followers of others rabeim.

I cannot forget such beautiful and noble faces as Meyshe Mendl the sheykhet [ritual slaughterer], Alter Tsuker, Henekh Mishkovski and many others. They were pious and good-hearted Jews who brought warmth to their beliefs and happiness to their piety.

In speaking of communal institutions one must also mention the Grayeve bath-house, which was a very important factor for hygiene in the life of Grayeve Jews.

 

5

Grayeve Intellectuals and Youth

Here will be mentioned only some of the Jews who played an important role in the communal life of Grayeve and who exercised an influence on the development of the Grayeve Jewish settlement, especially those who were active in community work, institutions and organizations. Among those families I want to mention the family Kolko, a respectable family with many children who went off into the world and studied and excelled in various fields; the families Ayzenshtat, Zilbershteyn, Rekhtman, Ziberski, Rinkovski, Vaks, Dr. Viner, Dr. Velikovski, Olshvanger, Verzshbolovski, Koptshovski, Galambievski, Gershtanski, Mieshonzshnik, Barkovski, Khainovski, Bialystotski, Berman, Levit, Frieda and many others.

Dr. Eliahu Vaser, an efficient and beloved community activist, was mayor of Grayeve in the time of the German occupation (1915–1918) and later, under Polish authority, vice mayor. Through his impartiality he won the trust of all levels of the Grayeve Jewish population.

Some Grayeve Jews, who were occupied in commerce or with the state, saw that their children would not be able to settle down in Poland and they sent them to study a profession in the universities. So did Abramski, Gortshitski, Vapinski, Ayzenshtat, Kureivovski, Sarna, Rubenshteyn, Antshkovski and others.

In the summer time many young people, high school and [university] students gathered in Grayeve from various cities in Poland and various universities in other countries. In the 1930s Grayeve was full of intellectual youths, especially during the summer vacations. Despite the fact that they had seen the wonder of the big world they still longingly awaited the summer to return to their little town. This was a happy youth, but also a youth interested in social problems and cultural matters, and there was always a close collaboration between the Jewish intellectuals who lived permanently in Grayeve and the students who lived in Grayeve part-time.

One of the most interesting undertakings of the Grayeve intellectuals were the literary “trials.” People spent the whole summer preparing for such an undertaking. The theme of the trial was announced so that everyone would be able to prepare. The trial usually took place during the interim days of sukes [the festival of booths] and went on for two or three evenings. Heated discussions took place on both sides and people awaited the “sentence” in great suspense.

There was also a drama group in Grayeve and from time to time they would present a Yiddish play. That was an event for the whole night – it was usually shabes night or the end of a holiday. The event was often held in the firehouse on Bogush Street and the intermission between the acts was so long that after half the night the audience would refresh themselves with warm bagels and cakes from Branervayn's bakery. Young people from all the surrounding villages came to such cultural events, and Grayeve was very proud to play the important role of a center.

 


The drama club that presented Hertsl the Aristocrat in 1923

 


The drama club that presented the Yeshive-bokher [Yeshive student] in 1924

 


The drama club presenting the melodrama Hofni and Pinkhas
to benefit the Palestine Workers' Fund in March 1924

 

The Grayeve youth, regardless of political direction or social position, were restless youth. The reasons were the dissatisfaction with their environment, a striving toward the larger world, a thirst for learning and especially the insecurity and cloudy future in the small Polish town. The First World War had interrupted the stream of emigration, but soon after the war, Jewish youth tore off to other places. Some traveled to America, South Africa, Erets Yisroel and Germany.

In the time of unrest right after the retreat of the Russian Army, when Polish authority had returned, a horrible tragedy befell Jewish Grayeve, which took the lives of sixteen youths, among them the three Segalevitsh brothers. The sixteen youths had set out on the road to Lithuania, from where they hoped to sneak out into the larger world. They were captured by Poles in Ogustove [Augustów] and were taken back to Grayeve. On the way, in the village of Belda, the Poles brutally murdered them and all sixteen lie there in a common grave.

When the situation had stabilized in the early 1920s Grayeve had an active, politically conscious youth, well organized into various groups, both Zionist and non-Zionist. These various groupings are described in other articles in this book.

 


[The banner the girls are holding: “A garland for our unforgettable friends.”
Below the banner: “Damashevski, Vertman, Surazki”]

A group of friends visit the common grave of 16 Grayeve Jewish youths
who were murdered by the Poles in 1920, in Barglove. [Bargłów]

 

6

Before the Storm

My visits to Grayeve in the 1930s were not frequent: once a year or every two years.
When the train would race past Ruda my heart began to beat in a faster tempo in anticipation of seeing my old home, my parents, sisters, brothers, friends and all the beloved streets and alleyways in which I had spent my childhood years. There were [the landmarks] the mogilkes, “close in behind the train,” the second gates, the mills, Striev's photography workshop, the first gates where I could see a flash of my parents' house in the corner between Shul Street, Shtutzin Street and Market street.

One could forget the larger world when the train puffed and whistled through the last stretch of a few hundred meters. At the station I could see familiar, friendly faces; I kissed my parents and we all went home together. The old home became more beloved with each visit. I wanted to sing and laugh and be carefree as in my childhood!

But one time in 1932 I arrived by train and the station was empty, no one was waiting for me, the streets were empty and patrolled by Polish soldiers and police. The town looked like after a pogrom – quiet, sunken in a deep gloom, shutters and windows closed.

This was the time that the hooligans Endekes [Polish Nationalist and Anti-Semitic Party] increased their incitement against the Jews. They had huge influence in Grayeve and that day they had incited the peasants in the market square to make a pogrom against the Jews. The previous Sunday the Grayeve priest had given a fiery anti-Semitic sermon in church and the murderous instincts had been aroused. Peasants came to that market day with axes and sticks to beat and kill Jews and they had not forgotten to bring huge sacks in which to pack up the merchandise from robbed Jewish businesses. But thanks to the vigilance of the Jewish community council a bloody pogrom against Jews was avoided.

Police and soldiers from the barracks kept order that day. Only a few Jews were badly beaten and many window panes were broken in Jewish houses. The town was calm in a few days, but one could recognize the shocked disquiet on the faces of the Grayeve Jews.

The situation in Grayeve changed for the worse. The Polish government applied every means to drive Jews out of commerce. It subsidized Polish merchants and helped to open businesses to compete with the Jews. The Endekes set up pickets at Jewish businesses and forced the peasants not to buy from Jews. In the mornings, Jews would find the doors of their businesses smeared with anti-Semitic slogans in red letters, calling on the Poles to boycott Jewish trade. The Polish government declared a moratorium for the debts of the peasants and overnight Jewish merchants had to lose possessions that the peasants owed them for merchandise.

A few Grayeve Jews left for Erets Yisroel and liquidated their businesses in Grayeve. But the majority of Jews were not able to move from the spot because of the foreign currency decree, which forbade taking money out of Poland and because of the impoverishment of Jewish trade through ruinous taxes.

The economic pressure was applied with even better technique in the later 1930s. Each time I arrived in Grayeve I found a few Jewish businesses closed and a few new Polish businesses. Poles from the area had bought Jewish houses or built new buildings.

The economic and social pressure came from all sides and as a result, Jewish poverty grew and the pressure to emigrate was stronger. Young people fled to wherever they could. Unfortunately the doors of the world gradually closed and the great Jewish masses in Grayeve could not move away and watched with horror at the black storm clouds that gathered over the skies of Hitler's Germany.

* * *

My last visit to Grayeve was in 1937, when I went to take my leave of my parents before traveling to America.

The mood in Grayeve was very heavy. All the Jews expected bad times but they did not know that they were standing over an abyss and that their days were numbered. Poles talked openly of murdering the Jews, yet Jews in Grayeve as all over Poland never anticipated and did not conceive of such a huge tragedy and such annihilation as befell them a few years later.

On that last visit I did not find many of my old friends. A few had died, others had left Grayeve. All were envious of me with my opportunity to go to America.

In that uneasy atmosphere, one summer evening came the news about Leybl Elkan's death on the battlefield in Spain. I recall how police came to Zerekh Elkan, who lived close to us, to give him the sad news. While there they insulted him and cursed him for having “a son who was a revolutionary and a Bolshevik.”

Leybl Elkan, the son of a Hasid, an idealistic youth, a Pioneer – had gone to Erets Yisroel a few years earlier. From there he went back to France, and from there he joined the international brigade and fell as a hero in the fight for freedom. Many Grayeve Jews did not understand then, the significance of Leybl Elkan's falling in battle against their own bloody enemy, Hitler.

It was a double tragedy for me to part from my parents and my birthplace. I had a premonition that this was my last visit, that I would never see my parents again and never see Grayeve. It was sad for me to look at the struggle of the Jewish community. The town and the Grayeve Jews were so near to my heart and so beloved – all the men, women and children, rich and poor, I loved them all without exception and had pity for them and worried about their future.

I will never forget the July evening when late at night I left for the train accompanied by my parents, brother and sister. Tears were choking me and I felt like a person saving himself from a danger and leaving his dearest behind alone. The Grayeve streets were dark and abandoned. It was late at night and a community of Jews slept uneasily, surrounded by a hateful wrathful world, enveloped in black shadows of reaction and enmity.

I kissed by dearest and the train quickly cut through the darkness of the night,on the way to far-off America.

*

Grayeve Pronunciation

From a treatise by M. Viner, “On Yiddish Dialects,” in Tsaytshrift [periodical] published by the Institute for White Russian Culture, Yiddish Department, Minsk, 1925.

M. Viner writes: “The notes that I provide here present the phonetic characteristic of a number of White Russian, Lithuanian and Ukrainian dialects.” The phonetic characteristics of the Grayeve pronunciation follow:

 

 

Footnotes
  1. Ayn Yankev: Ein Yaakov: book written in the 16th century about the ethical and inspirational teachings of the Talmud. Return
  2. Shimenesre: The eighteen benedictions also called “The Amidah,” [central prayer] that is said while standing facing toward Yerusholayim. Return
  3. Bund: Jewish Labor Bund was a secular socialist organization in the Russian empire active around the turn of the 20th century, who was opposed to Zionism. They focused primarily on furthering the rights and status of the Jewish proletariat Return
  4. Kidushin: Consecrate. The first part of the two-part process of Jewish marriage which creates the legal relationship. Return
  5. Kotsk: Hasidic dynasty founded by Rebbe Menachem Mendel Morgenstern (1787–1859). The Hasidim of Kotsk focused on truth seeking rather than conformity to religious traditionalism.  They were also known for their radical and controversial style of expression Return
  6. Ger (Gur): The largest Hasidic dynasty in Poland prior to the Holocaust and founded by Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Alter (1799–1866), brother-in-law of The Kotzker Rebbe. He was an insightful Torah scholar and Halakhist [halakhah: the collective basis of Jewish religious law, including Biblical, Talmudic and Rabbinic] Return

 

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