[Pages 253 - 269]
A child loves its mother, even if she is not a beauty. The town where I was born, actually a very small town during the years 1878 1886 it was only a small town, does not have an exceptionally attractive name. In Polish it means an illness. Nevertheless, when I hear the name, my heart flutters and fills me with love and even now guides my hand that writes about Chorostkow
The entire period of my life therein was from the day I was born , July 3, 1878, until I departed from there in the Spring of 1886 at only 8 years old. However, I took with me many unforgettable memories of the place.Nothing etches itself as deeply in one's memory as childhood impressions , regardless of the fact that that they are as delicate and aethereal as a child's soul and as distant as the life of long ago in an Eastern Galician ghetto.
Actually. Chorostkow was a small ghetto which at the time of my departure did not even have a railway station. I do not mean a ghetto as in Frankfurt am Main, encircled by a wall, but a tiny East European town whose residents were Jews only. There were many such towns in Galicia, Russian Poland and Lithuania. Who were these town folk and where did they earn a livelihood ? How did they celebrate their religious and national holidays ? These questions are answered in many scholarly and stirring books. As a child I certainly did not pose such questions. The world which I saw was box-like only the closest surroundings in my case. My grandfather's Hersh Sherlag's house.
Let me dream little pictures are forming
I was in everyone's way when I stumbled about in the house how large was it altogether ? In fact it was not very large, but for me, enough places and corners to hide in. It is winter a low stuffy house, because it is insufficiently aired out. It is dim. Only the watches my grandfather who is a ladies' tailor, is also a watchmaker enliven this room
My grandfather, with his pink cheeks and snow white beard is still sewing, seemingly without end. It appears that his long brown pipe does not appeal to him. It is lying unlit on the bench near the oven. I must not disturb him with talk or questions. I look through the open door into the kitchen There it is probably warmer. The little babby(grandmother) his second wife is kneeling on the floor. My little brother Laizer- later called Lawrence is still quite helpless and unable to speak. It is slowly darkening before our eyes. Do I fear shadows? I go closer to the cubicle where my mother is working. I open the small door, squeeze through and cuddle up to my mother. How beautiful she is and also so sad. My father is still in Vienna where he returned not long ago to study bookkeeping and accounting. How often did he talk about this? Or did I as a child understand any of this? Leibele Shuster, our neighbour with the goati would let lose:
Impossible, unheard of ! A man leaves his wife and children on his father's neck, buys a train ticket, takes with him a ransom from the business and he's off to Vienna, where our emperor lives and reigns. There, there are no yeshivot or a synagogue where Pinchas later Phillip is able to pray. He will become a goy yet, God forbid. Without a word he leaves our shtetel and wants to live and study among strangers. What can he learn there? Here he was every thing: a (mashkil?), a writer, a maker of rhymes, a chazzan,a bit of a judge,a helper, a friend, a tailor, the first who was able to repair a Singer machine. How nicely he could line the oven. Will he be able to do all this in Vienna?
To all this my grandfather said: Leave him be, He knows what he is doing, he promised to come home for Passover.
So that little boy Motle later Marek waits with a strong longing for Passover, which he loves so much more than any other holiday. And now he knows why.
Grandpa gets ready for the evening meal. The kerosene lamp is lit. Grandma brigs in soup to go with the evening slice of bread. Mother covers the small table from which all remaining bits of cloth material is removed. Grandpa washes his hands and makes a short blessing as he does so. Mother brings in baby Leizer who still needs to be fed. Motle is already like a big boy. Grandpa mumbles another blessing. He makes it very short (apparently he was not a chasid). He lights his pipe and every one relaxes. The shadows disappear along with the foolish fears of children. The old man moves his silk kipa (yarmulke) back from his foreheadso that his bald glistens. (Baldness is quite common among the men of the family.)
Grandpa winds up all the watches, the most beautiful of which is the Maria Theresa Watch which can perform various tricks. That watch is handled very carefully, like a baby and as a form of thanks produces special chimes. We children date only to touch the chain that is attached to the watch. Oh, how beautiful that time piece was.
The beds are made. I enjoy the privilege of sleeping with grandpa. With his help I recite the Shema and since I can't fall asleep immediately, the little heart beats in anticipation of the happy stories which grandpa tells so nicely the story about the thieves Klimke and Klamke who are always caught. Then after a short silence my eyes close and I say again Good Night, loud enough so my mother in her room can hear too.
In the morning, the belfer with the blue nose comes to take me to cheder. First he says with me Modeh ani and then I drink tea. What's the rush? What awaits me that is so attractive in the cheder? Mother gives me two slices of bread spread with chicen fat. Because of the mist, I can hardly see the houses and what is there much to see anyway? To the eyes of a child, there is much to see. Our house stands on an elevation and several stairs lead down to the street. There is the leaning house of my uncle Yecheskil Sherlak, with the ever present barrel of herring in the store. A little further, several small buildigs and further still the cheder- like an abyss. A smoke filled house, and in the kitchen the rebitzin. This designation is exaggerated because her husband, the melamed is not a rabbi. But we children sigh and fear the man. Around the table which is in front of the window , sit about a dozen children, ages 4 to 9, on benches. At the head of the table, with a large volume in front of him, sits the rabbi still a rabbi! Which is not quite clear. The beard, a little reddish like Leibele, the shoemaker, is disheveled by the wind. We are terrified of his hands which reach out to deliver slaps. If he gets very angry, then the guilty child must go into a corner and stand there with a paper dunce cap as a penalty. But this happens only rarely. In the meantime we keep repeating like parrots his nigun (chant) with bitter concentrarion. One does not hear the other. Sometimes the belfer joins in. We shokel (sway back and forth) with the rhythm of the melody, getting tired in the process, even if unwillingly, because it drags on without end.
And yet, as I recall this now, it was nice. One learns the first exciting stories of the chumash, regardless of the stultification of the poor teaching methods. The ear manages to catch a picture, a word, a puzzle .
The Aleph-Beit was of itself a lively reel of pictures. Regrettably, this learning did not last too long. Perhaps I would have mastered a little more of the Hebrew language. However, at 6 years of age I had to go to the Polish public school. Polish displaced Hebrew much too early. In the evening, back at home- how good it feels to be cheerful and free. Some carried a small lantern. Often the neighbour's son sang. What was his name? God, I can't recall his name only a few names remain in my memory: Gross,Tennenbaum, Poliak, Ratman,Litvak, Harnish, Rubel, Gelman, Klar but they are all adults. Where are they now?
In order not to succumb to melancholy, I want to bring forth more pictures before my eyes: the entire rites of passage of Jewish holidays, their individuality (uniqueness), meaning and excitement. However it will take me too far afield if I tried to relive all those wonderful occasions. I have described them often in my ghetto stories. I don't want to repeat them.
One gets sentimental writing about one's memories, particularly in our present situation. What is left of our little town? No Jews or maybe the odd one. What is left of grandpa's house the cheder? Did not the Nazis burn down the synagogue which I visualize so vividly? Is the house with the shutters where my uncle lived in the market square still standing? Does one still se the small rathaus (town hall) with it's few arches? Is it not certain that the house, where on Friday the steam from the baths tempted you' is now leveled to the ground? Oh the barbarians!!! The house of (the propinacie?),the house of the wealthy Klar, the house of the old ,learned Harnish are they still there? And if yes to what stranger, to what usurper do they belong? I know practically nothing about all this. Still it was my town my Chorostkow as close to me as my arm. It is, However, like a severed arm and it will never heal. One must stifle the tears of sadness, of pain. It was a brief dream
My father took the family with him in 1886 to Wigody near Dolina, where he obtained a post as bookkeeper with a respectable firm. I traveled there without even knowing what a train looks like. I had seen nothing of the world outside of our town. Unheard and unknowingly yet softly and fondly do I pronounce the name Chorostkow because it was there where my father, mother, grandfather were, lived, worked, suffered and were happy.
This I have not forgotten: My maternal grandfather's name was Gelman. He was a big, strong capable blacksmith and in his smitty I watched the shooting sparks. His son later emigrated to America, to his younger sister, whom I do not know. I am thinking now more about the few who directly or indirectly left for Israel and are living there now. Hearing from them, regrettably not too often, delights me. I had the pleasure of seeing in print my father's autobiography translated into Hebrew in the files, thanks to the efforts of Dov Sad and Levinsky.
I depicted our town Chorostkow in many chapters in my novel of 1926 The Disappearing World. Perhaps I will live long enough to yet see this book in Hebrew translation.
Family life as existed in the home in 1886 was much the same in l936, except that living conditions in more modern homes as in the childhood home of Dr. Lang, were less primitive, in spite of the fact that electricity or indoor plumbing were still non-existent.
From Grzymalow I traveled to Chorostkow = a fair size town with over 350 families. A small number of them moved during the Russian invasion. For that reason over 1000 homeless were settled here, primarily from Husiatin. At the beginning of the year the Zamski Farband helped 1506 people of whom 976 were refugees and 530 local residents. From the month of June this aid was diminished, particularly to the locals and a total 1200 were assisted (907 refugees and 293 locals. The Kiever Aid Committee granted 43,038 rubles. Last month the amount was 7000 rubles of which 8oo rubles went to the locals. Here too increased requests for the locals were repeated.
I traveled to one of the members of the committee and stayed with him along with the committee membership. We discussed the demands of those in need. The greatest need is clothing because entire families are not going outdoors for lack of warm clothing and absolutely no shoes. A tragic example: the committee received a few tens of pairs of shoes, but is not distributing them and waiting for the arrival of a larger number. Why? If they divide the 20 or 25 pairs of shoes available, those who will receive none will condemn the committee.
The town is suffering from a stomach typhus epidemic and scarlet fever and no medicines are available.
During a committee meeting, an elderly woman forced her way into the room, came over to me and without permission and in an angry voice, started to speak rapidly, like spilling peas: I am Rabbi Zusie Anipoler's grandchild and Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Berdichever's great-grandchild. On my mother's side, I am a descendant of the Baal Shem. In our family 17 good Jews are interrelated and with the famous Brodski I am (shlishi brevii??)
Having fired off her entire heritage, she stopped and looked at me sharply wanting to convince herself to what extent I was overwhelmed.
So what is it you want? And what does she want? If you are a descendant of so many Gedolim (prominent individuals), it is understandable that you have the right to special treatment. When I answered that for us there were no exceptions, she looked at me for a while surprised, shrugged her shoulders in the strongest protest and left.
That evening when we had finished our work and were enjoying a glass of tea, an elderly man came in, the former town chazzan, a tall, slim man with twinkling ,soft, young eyes. He also came asking for help. What he asked for was so little and deserving, that I promised it to him immediately. During our conversation I mentioned Chasidic stories. The chazzan became animated, excited and began telling story after story . And how he told them? - With enthusiasm, in marvelous detail, like a true poet. Every story told was a masterpiece. I was truly sorry that I could not write them down in detail. Characteristically, practically all his stories were about Moshiach. I became convinced later that thoughts about Moshiach were of great interest to the older Jews of all Galicia . I can remember only one of his stories.
While Rabbi Israel Ruzhiner was held in captivity, his Chasidim and followers used all possible means until they ransomed him. And when he was freed, their joy was great, almost indescribable. They served meals, danced and sang. Only one of his Chasidim, a certain Reb Motel, who was always devoted heart and soul to the Rabbi, did not dance or sing. He was sad and did not wish to speak to anyone. When asked: How come, such a celebration, the Rabbi is out of captivity and you are not happy? You are still sad , what does that mean? He started to cry and answered: I was 8under the impression that our Rabbi was Moshiach. When they arrested him I was I was very happy and I thought this was the beginning of the coming of Moshiach and I said to myself : 'Let the boil burst. Let it burst already!'But the boil did not burst. The Rabbi was freed and everything is as it always was. So, can I be happy then?
While he was sitting there and telling his stories, I suddenly became aware of a soft, tearful sound of a violin behind my back. It was an old, very sad melody. I turned around and saw at the door an hungry, ill clad and sad Jew of about 50 years of age.. He was playing on an old, decrepit violin and both were weeping. The musician's eyes were shedding copious, silent tears, while from the fiddle poured forth a soft, heartbreaking cry. And both were wordlessly pleading for help. The musician is a refugee from Podwolochisk, who lost his goods and his home and ran away to homelessness with his only comfort his violin. But even that they stole from him. Returning from (fenze??), he has nothing to do here. There are no weddings here, no simchot (celebrations). Who needs a musician here? Only he had heard that an officer of the committee had arrived, he found somewhere a rejected violin and came to welcome me. Having come, he quietly placed himself at the door, and started to relate to me in a weeping melody his dire needs, his loneliness and sadness. It was very moving to hear and see this, how the fiddle cried and the hungry man shed tears.
When I researched works dealing with folk ceativity, I concluded that it appears that folk songs and folk stories often deal with lamentation and weeping: They started to weep and lament- a lament and a wail and so forth. Also in Russian folk songs, often repeated is: flooded in tears, Awash in tears. I always assumed that this was only a poetic expression. Now in Galicia, I became convinced that it is a fact. I saw people awash in tears. It appears that such moments must occur when tears pour from the eyes subconsciously and supplant words. They pour as easily as words are spilled by the tongue. This happens when words lose their meaning completely and there is no one to talk to.
When the musician stopped playing and I invited him to sit down with us, the old chazzan remembered a legend concerning a nigun (religious melody):
A Jew came to the Ruzhiner to ask advice on a certain matter. The Rabbi sang to him Eliahu Hanavi with a non-Jewish melody and told him to memorize that melody. The Jew could not understand the meaning of this, but he obeyed the Rabbi and memorized it. Fifteen years later, The Jew was walking on a road and it happened that he had to pass through a forest where no decent characters could be found. As he was walking, he notices, near him, a small goy ( non Jew) with a tobacco pipe. He became very scared. The goy asks him where he is going and he answers: to town. So the goy says: I am also going to town. After the goy grabs him by the hand and says: Sing something for me So he became even more terrified. But he remembered Eliahu Hanavi with the non Jewish melody which the Ruzhiner taught him and started to sing. And he continued to sing until they arrived in town and here the goy vanished.
In Chorostkow I met two Jews, Rav Frankel from Husiatin and Reb Lippe Schwagger. Both of them owned a large bookstore, primarily of ancient Jewish texts, antiques an documents. This was the largest book business in old books in all Galicia. During a pogrom and fire their entire enterprise was devastated and destroyed. They succeded in saving only a small number of documents and old books. Some of them I took with me and transported them to Petrograd, to the museum, to hide them.
Reb Lippe, a close friend of the Kopychinitzer Rebbe, told me a wonderfull story that has a mystic, symbolic theme. Incidentally this story has already entered and created a cycle of Chassidic miracle legends.
Before the war began, the Kopychinitzer Rebbe was in Hamburg, where he was undergoing medical treatment. His whole family was there with him. Lippe Schwagger was there too. When the Russians began the invasion of Galicia, the Rabbi summoned Schwagger and told him in so many words:
I want you to know that in my house there are letters by the blessed Baal Shem, written in his own hand. Now, during the war they can, G-d forbid, be lost. Therefore travel to Kopychynitz without hesitation or rest and recover those letters. If it will not be possible for you to return, hide them in a secure place. Be aware that en route you may fac many dangers: you can be shot, you could be executed under false accusations, heaven preserve us, but the danger must not hinder you from carrying out this holy task to save the letters.
Schwagger immediately agreed to go and asked the Rabbi: Rabbi what is to happen with your possessions, with your gold and silver and precious objects that can be found on your estate?
On the estate can be found possessions, as they say, worth several million Kronen. All that can be lost the rabbi answered undisturbed only the Baal Shem's letter must be saved.
Schwagger left, arrived in Kopychinitz several hours before the Russians entered the town. Understandably, to return could not be contemplated. But he did have the time to save the letters and hide them. He placed them in a tin box and buried it two meters deep in the wall of the cellar of the of the Rabbi's house. In that same cellar, he also, buried part o the Rabbi's gold and silver. After that he did not have the opportunity for 3 or 4 months to return to the cellar. During that time, he found himself several times a hair's breadth from death. They arrested him and accused him of espionage. Finally when he had the opportunity to return to the cellar, he found nothing of the precious possessions which he had buried. Everything was dug up and looted. The wall where the tin box with the letters was hidden, was also torn up and the box disappeared.
You can imagine the kind of impression this made on Schwagger. He nearly died of remorse. But in a few days, when he began digging further into the wall and searching. He found the box, undamaged and undisturbed. However, when he opened it, he discovered to his great chagrin, that the letter that was written in it's entirety by Baal Shem's hand, (the second letter was also from him, but only signed by him), all the script disappeared and all that was left was a blank piece of paper.
To tell the truth, I did not believe the story. I figured it was one of those normal legends that are easily created in times of such turmoil. I therefore asked Schwagger to show mw this letter. The letters were in Kopychinitz, hidden in a secluded room in the synagogue and Schwagger did not want to show them. When a few weeks later I met him in Kopychinitz and insisted, he, very reluctantly, agreed. He brought the letter to the synagogue, wrapped in several sheets of paper. Schwagger, with a great flourish , not touching the letters with his hand, unwrapped them. I noticed two very old, folded sheets of paper. One was covered on both sides with thickly crowded writing, in Reb Gershon's handwriting, according according to Schwagger's statement. (The letter was printed). On its second side, at the very bottom edge, there was, hardly visible, the signature in long, distinct individual letters Israel Baal Shem. The second letter, half disintegrated (both having been written in 1753 [tov, kov, yud, gimmel), with weak stains cause by wetness, or tears, there was a trace of letters visible. Schwagger was looking at these letters with a far away, mystic look and quietly said:
They say that the letters disappeared because of wetness, but that they can be restored by chemical means . Only we chassidim , we think differently completely differently
While the Russians ruled Chorostkow, we children did not know what school meant. We studied a little in the cheder of Benyamin , the melamed (teacher) and later with Abraham Glazner - but not too many hours a day. We had lots of free time which we spent at the creek on the other side of the slaughter house street, where there was always plenty of water and a bunch of youngsters played there.
The Russian army remained in Chorostkow until 1917, when on a certain Thursday, they decided to leave. Every day thr market place was overflowing with Cossaks and their horses. The Jewish community lived in deathly fear, specially when the Cossacs began robbing and beating. Friday morning when they started evacuating Chorostkow, I recall how our entire family, along with several other Jews, gathered in Chuli Katz's house and awaited the arrival of the Austrian army. Suddenly, several Cossaks appeared in town, ordered every one to take out their wallets with money and took them away. Thus ended the Russian occupation of Chorostkow.
When the new government settled in, discussions began about a school so that the children would not wander about without anything to keep them occupied. Thanks to the initiative of Menachem Felner and helped by the students, Moshe Pasternak, Israel Gross, Meyer Gross, Kalman Mesita, a school was organized in the home of Asher Baruch Klar, where Jewish children eagerly studied. How long that school existed, I cannot remember.
Those same students also founded the Hashomer organization, which was totally apolitical. It was a scout organization. Their members wore uniforms and carried long sticks. For my brother Bernard and Shlomo Rotenberg their mothers made the their uniforms. The scouts made trips almost daily to the fields on the way Soroke and we, the bunch of little kids, would run after them and be underfoot. When the scouts were older they formed Hatchiah, which did have political affiliations. Soon a library was formed which organized literary evenings and the youth was given the opportunity to spend their time in different ways. The books for the library were collected by the residents of the town.
When the Poles returned to Chorostkow in 1920, we took the books out of thei hiding place and brought the to Shlomo Rotenberg's house, because we had no other location. His parents agreed to keep the library in their possession. Many of the books were damaged or torn, so we obtained a knife to cut paper and devoted ourselves to repair the books. We did everything by ourselves.
I must return to 1918 when the Jewish Drama Circle was formed. Those who created Hitchiah and Hashomer began to busy themselves with thatre. Not everyone was accepted by the Circle. Presented were the most popular plays of days of old which played in the largest most popular playhouses, like: Mirele Efros (with Alte Halperin Freedman in the leading role); Chasie di Yesoime (Orphan), (Brontie Tennenbaum); Der Dorf Yung(The Village Rascal) (Moshe Pasternak); Schver Zu Zein A Yid (Difficult to be Jewish); Dos Groise Gevinst (The Big Winning), Chaim Yisroel Weisbrod) and other plays. The Circle also conducted various literary evenings with interesting programs.Thanks to these shows the library became enriched with Jewish, Polish, Hebrew and even German books. But most readers used the Yiddish and Polish books.
These shows were firs produced in the large empty hall of the Sokol, the Polish Sport and Gymnastic Society. Later, the priest forbade the renting of the hall for Jewish purposes. His reason was the walls of the Sokol were not allowed to hear Yiddish, so the plays were presented in the Ukrainians Peoples House (Narodni Dom) or in Chuli Katz's house. Jewish theatre groups, who traveled through the province, also put on their plays there or in our house. Only after the priest's death, did the plays return to the Sokol, because this was the only large hall in town.
Later we had the familiar Jewish Beit HaAm, but it was not suitable for a large attendance. The Jewish Literary Circle existed until the outbreak of the Second World War. In 1939 when the Soviets entered the town, they removed the Circle's library and labeled them inappropriate books.
Subsequently, the General Zionist group Hatikvah was formed with its youth groups Ahavah and Hanoar Hatzioni. Hashomer Hatzair also had its adherents in town. In 1931-32 the Revisionists formed Hatzaar and Betar, All of them conducted very lively activities. Each had a Zionist fund and there was competition among them as to which raised more money for building up the land.
There was a general sports club which was involved primarily with football (soccer), competed with teams from other towns and carried out various projects in order to support themselves.
Thus lived our town Thus lived our youth until the German hordes and their helpers destroyed it all.
Kol Hakavod to the memory of our martyrs.
Yet, even today I can feel the scent of these fragrant saplings with their white branches. I can visualize the beautiful countryside surrounding our shtetl. When Shabbat day arrived, after a dull and gray week of chasing after a living, groups of Jews and youngsters gathered in the market square to discuss problems in general Zionism, Eretz Israel, town and family matters. My father, of blessed memory, actively participated in political discussions. This was in fact the Oneg Shabbat of the galut. Understandably, no one imagined what later years would bring.
Two days after Shabbat on Mondays the town transformed itself almost not to be recognized because of the weekly Yarid (Market Day) practically the only opportunity to earn a living in the entire week by the Jews of Chorostkow and its suburbs. Our Jewish brethren had to possess a thousand eyes in order to watch over and guard the displayed merchandise, because there were such customers to whom stealing was also known as purchasing. After such a hard days work in the market, one was exhausted and beat, but glad at heart as long as the effort and earnings were good. Early evening, drunken peasants sang, shoved one another and carried on, while their horses reminded them with their neighing that it was time to go home. The whole town boiled like a cauldron.
The town consisted of two sections: the Torowice the large area where livestock was traded and the stores where Jews sold herring, sugar, kerosene, salt and candy. Articles for sale were not always compatible with each other but what does not one do in order to make a living.
Today I recall with a smile the pleasure of taking a drive through town in a fiacre (A horse drawn carriage) all the way to the train station. The road led through fields and everything was bright and green in the early morning light. The bells around the horse's neck chimed happily and gladdened the heart.
Every Saturday afternoon , the young people of the town gathered in the fragrant fields not far from town. The tall evergreens and the flowing stream had a soothing effecton the heated discussions on Zionism, the Jewish homeland, socialism and all kinds of topics which were always of interest to our young people in pre war Poland.
May these few words serve as a memorial to all those who did not survive to fulfill their goals.
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