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[Page 79]

Culture and Philanthropy

by Jakob FERNBACH, Nahariya

Translated by Mindle Crystel Gross

Jewish cultural life in Kutno about 50 years ago stood on a very high plain. There were two active libraries: I. L Perec and Ahad Ha'am. The Perec library was founded in the very early years. The Ahad Ha'am library was founded later, through the Zionist organization.

The two libraries were very often visited by the Warsaw Jewish literary society, and they invited writers and poets to Kutno who conducted lectures on various literary topics. Large numbers of people attended the lectures. They told me about the visits of Dr. Chaim Zitlowski, Hillel Zeitlin, I.L. Peretz, Sholem Aleichem and Vladimir Medem.

I remember a visit during my time by Leon Finkelsztajn, who enjoyed great success. He lectured about philosophy.

Almost all of the Jewish writers and poets visited Kutno. In the literary society on Slobotske, there was talk about the great success the writers had in Kutno.

*

Since Sholem Asz was a member of the Central Committee of the Joint, Kutno received money to establish a Benevolent Society Bank to distribute loans without interest.

 


Sholem Aleykhem in Kutno, 1914

 

This work virtually saved people from economic downfall. The rabbi of Kutno, Rabbi [Icchak] Jehuda Trunk, of blessed memory, was also a member of the committee of this bank. The middle class strongly advocated for his continuance, especially during the times of Grocki's tax-politics. A special commission proclaimed a voluntary contribution from the Jewish population for the benefit of those who were affected. Members of the committee were the most prominent citizens. Among them was the rabbi who was very active.

There was also an active society that ensured that there was some food in the poor homes. For this purpose, the Jewish population would pay money weekly. I had an opportunity to visit these community activists who did their work quietly, without fanfare. They were called “Faithfully taking care of the needs of the public”

 


A house in the old marketplace in Kutno

 

There was a woman who specifically dedicated herself to providing for brides. This sounds strange and naive today. However, during the era we are portraying, young couples did not have the basic needs necessary for building a family.

In addition, there was also a society which ensured that the poor and sick would not be left alone and lonely. According to a list of volunteers, people visited and spent time with the sick. The sick person had help for an entire 24 hours. When the sick person was in a very serious state, the responsibility was everyone's. I remember that they used to send telegrams to the rabbi,. I know of a case when a telegram was sent to the Gerer rabbi for him to pay for the sick person. If money was needed to summon a prominent doctor, two women would quickly collect the necessary expenses.

*

My parents lived in the old marketplace (Stary Rynek). After the murder of Peracki. our street was named after him. This was a very broad square. There was a pump (well). Here, twice a week, the town market was held.

There was a very large house in the town marketplace, virtually aristocratic, which beautified the plain market. The owner of the house was a Jew, Jehoszua Rasz. When moving pictures began, a Yiddish film was shown in Rasz's house. I think it was The Sale of Joseph.

Ordinary Jews lived in the marketplace. It was a vibrant, full-blooded Jewish life. On market days, there were to be seen Jewish tailors, hat-makers, shoemakers, and small merchants. They negotiated, bargained and worked hard for the little bit of money.

During my time, there was still a town drummer who called together the populace when the government or magistrate had something to report to the citizenry.

The synagogue was not only a place in which to pray. If anything of importance occurred in Jewish life, it was played out in the synagogue.

I remember the fiery scandals of the Jewish butchers. Everybody gathered in the synagogue. There was talk that preparations were being made for an oath which the butchers would take about selling non-kosher meat. At the very last minute however, it all fell apart.

When the Jewish Artisans' Union created a new flag, this celebration also took place in the synagogue. The rabbi participated in this celebration.

The celebrations of the Polish national holidays - The Third of May and Independence Day - also took place in the synagogue. I would go to the synagogue with my father, of blessed memory, twice a year – Shabos Tchuva and Shabos Ha'gadol, where the rabbi would deliver a sermon.


[Page 80]

1905 – and Later

by Azryel SZYMANOWICZ, Givatayim

Translated by Mindle Crystel Gross

My memories of childhood years begin with 1905 There was much talk in my home about a revolution that stormed through all of Russia and Poland, which, at that time, was a part of the Czarist Empire. The revolutionary wave even reached Kutno.

Since my older sister, Bajle, worked in a shop across the third bridge on the avenue, I decided to go to her, to be close to the sister who loved me very much. In the morning, as soon as I woke, I went to the avenue. As I was on the second bridge, I saw something strange: a long, broad column of arrestees, accompanied by many armed guards of the Russian police and gendarmes. They were taking them in the direction of the magistrate where the town jail was located. Among them, I recognized my cousin Avraham Szymanowicz, a baker.

I found the shop open, my sister not there. There was not a living soul to be seen anywhere. The store was filled with all kinds of good things. My eyes were teased by all the beautifully packaged chocolates. I quickly forgot the revolution, the arrestees and the police. Even my sister disappeared from my mind. Such a treasure-trove of sweets! I began to stuff the pockets of my pants, of the winter coat. The boxes were big and my pockets could not contain the pressure. They tore. From tiredness and certainly from the overeating of sweets, I remained standing, rooted to the spot, unable to move. Suddenly, my father appeared. Seeing me standing there, he began to laugh – while I was certain that he would be extremely angry and maybe, who knows, also hit me. But my father, with a smile, emptied my pockets. He did this quickly, but to me it felt like an eternity. He ordered me to go home, and I thought – what a good father, never even saying a bad word.

On my way home, I saw groups of people whispering and looking around carefully in all directions. I thought to myself: “…This is most certainly the revolution!

The happiness at the revolution did not last long. After 1905, the detention-houses and jails were filled. People became more cautious, more careful. My childish ears picked up such words as: reaction, stalipin, Czar, but as to their meaning, I had no idea.

 

There is Travel to Eretz Israel

On the Jewish street and other places, the Poalei Zion party reminded everyone of their program – Jewish people go to Eretz Israel, especially Jewish workers and labourers – and won over many followers.

Among the first to leave from Kutno to Eretz Israel were, as I remember, Hersz Monczik, the quilter Arbuz and the shoemaker Yosef Maslowicz (in later years, when he returned from Eretz Israel, he could be seen working at his shoemaker's bench in the cellar of Rasz's house in the marketplace) He was tall and thin and there was talk that the military conscription commission had sent him to serve in Moscow.

Arbuz and Maslowicz arrived in Eretz Israel and settled in the city of Gaza and worked at their trades. Tel Aviv did not even exist. However, in Gaza, the living conditions for two Jewish artisans from Kutno were so difficult that after a while, they returned to Poland. They spoke little about their trip, but everyone knew that they were not disappointed in the Zionist ideology…

On a summer's day in 1913, I, along with many other Jews of Kutno, accompanied the Lomski family to the train. These were industrious people, early on working the land. The town accompanied them with blessings and yearnings, as well as with envy, that they were going to Eretz Israel. They settled into a village and did their work, while at the same time, their sons worked in town. When WWI broke out, and Turkey demanded that the Eretz Israel pioneers become Turkish citizens, the Lomski family did not want to do this and returned to Kutno.

 

After WWI

In 1916, while the Germans occupied Kutno, the first signs of the many-branched and widely spread community and party life could already be felt, which took on such momentum after Poland's independence in 1918.

 


Ajzyk's land-based economy training farm

 

In Kutno, there developed the He'Halutz and other Zionist groups which both practical and realistically began to prepare the youth for aliya. Hundreds of boys and girls attended evening courses where they learned Hebrew. Older people too, artisans, who dreamed of settling in Eretz Israel, also became students of these courses, participating actively in the activities of the Zionist parties.

The He'Halutz, from a small group, grew and became a large a strong realistic movement. The gathering of national funds, most especially for Bank Ha'Poalim exhibits about Eretz Israel, pictures, movies about the Eretz Israel way of life, the culture, exceptional possibility, sports and the like – attracted dozens of youth to the Zionist ideals.

The first training area was not far from Kutno. Later, we moved to a rich Jewish landowner in Konin, until the He'Halutz in Warsaw requested us to send the candidates for training and aliya to its own training farms and areas. At that time, the Jewish press in Poland wrote a lot about Kutno Jewish youth and its accomplishment for Zionism.

 

To the Memory of Friends

Many of the friends of the Zionist youth organization who, through certificates or illegal means, came to Eretz Israel, contributed to the building of the country and also knew to defend the land with ammunition in their hands. They worked, created and fought in kibbutzim, moshavim and the city.

I see before me now one of the first Halutzim and immigrants, Meszulam Landau who, after a serious illness, was taken away from us in 1961.

It is impossible to forget such dear and devoted activists as: Turbowicz, Klingbajl, Plocker, Arbuz, Pietrikowski, Chaim Singer, David Kleczewski, Ajzyk and others.

I remember the mobilization of the friends on a flower day for the Keren Kayemet, or for other Zionist funds, and how much enthusiasm and effort to surpass others in the collection was demonstrated at that time by the friends. The monetary punishment for not participating in the flower day was almost never implemented. Everybody participated.

Comrade Ajzyk, of blessed memory, as a farm economist, studied abroad in an agronomy school, and devoted much time to the Halutzim in broadening their knowledge in working the land, especially with flower-raising. Several years ago, he came to Israel – broken because of the demise of the entire family. Within a short time, he died. Honour his memory.


[Page 82]

Greetings From Shalom Asz's Town

by J. A. NAJMAN

Translated from the Yiddish by Mindle Crystel Gross

Reprinted from a photostat from the Warsaw “Haynt” [Today] newspaper, received from the YIVO in New York.

We were in town – and in Szalom Asz's town – in Kutno.

That is where the writer was born. The wooden, one-story little house stands to this day adjacent to I. L. Perec Street. The suggestion to name a street in Kutno after Szalom Asz was rejected[1] but not because of bad intentions. Kutno is actually an exceptional town. The Jewish-Polish relations were, for the most part, tolerable. The Mayor's principles do not permit the naming of a street after a living person.

But regardless whether or not there is a Szalom Asz Street in Kutno, traces of Szalom Asz are evident; while he was still alive, he became a legend there. Memories are retold. People upon whom Asz based his characters are pointed out. Many have already passed away, others – many left for Eretz Israel. Entire families, long-time residents, left our homeland and exactly as before, another family took their place.

Motke Ganav [Motke the Thief, a character from Szalom Asz novels] – they tell me with a smile – also became a victim of urbanization, or as it is said in the provinces churbanizatsie [destructive urbanization], the collapse of the home. Motke himself is in trouble.

Ah! – It is no longer the town of the past, the idyllic, the celebrated in song. It is no more than a tree whose branches cling to the stem like children. Now there are class and race battles. Storms of the times find their way in.

And visiting the town – is like visiting many other towns, like a cross-section of Jewish life. We know so little about the province, mostly from the humorous side, while life there is frighteningly serious, bound up with self-sacrifice.

*

Outwardly clean: developed, built with squares, with much greenery, but separated from the non-Jews. Even before we heard the word ghetto, years ago Poles had already built up a separate section in the prettiest and best neighbourhoods of town. On the slightly hilly side, officials, thanks to the help of state loans, built beautiful cooperative houses for themselves, airy and sunny.

And the Jewish section of town – congested, old-fashioned, ghetto-like.

However, Jews did not have the feeling, meanwhile, that they were living in an old town, with much past history. So the old town was rebuilt. They repainted what had been painted previously, and the ordinary painter discharged his duties quite well.

I am told that a Keren Kayemet [Jewish National Fund] box was cemented into a wall of the synagogue. Enraged Orthodox, on a Shabbat, tore out the Keren Kayemet box, smeared tar over the words and took the money – but immediately returned it. It was an ideological attack, but now, even the Orthodox are ashamed of their bravura. Not one of them was capable of requesting a donation certificate. The community hands out subsidies for Eretz Israel purposes, and also for local cultural purposes.

Kutno was the first town in Poland to give a subsidy for the Jewish Scientific Institute [YIVO] in Vilna.M.

But yet – Szalom Asz's town – and attempts are made to improve.

Kutno is fortunate in regard to its community leaders. Work even for its own sake costs and even opponents have respect for the Zionists.

In town, one can sense how one energetic person can accomplish much, change, enliven. More than one town collapses because of the lack of committed public workers.

*

I have been told: Kutno has a gymnasium [high-school] for Jewish children, a community institution. The gymnasium is a Hebrew one, but most of the courses are taught in Polish.

There was once a discussion about a subsidy being given by the town council for this gymnasium. The Bundist council members were absolutely against this because of the Hebrew and Zionism. Straightaway, a non-Jewish woman, a leftist, allowed herself to be convinced and changed her mind in favour of a subsidy.

There was once an incident: Bundist community leaders refused to officially greet Szalom Asz on the occasion of his anniversary jubilee because he had joined the Jewish Agency, and the Kutno rabbi explained the moral of this to them. I don't know if the rabbi's reproof had any influence on the Bundists or not. The fact remains that the community did greet him and Szalom Asz was elected as an honorary member of the community – and his picture hangs in the meeting hall.

One cannot argue too long and too hard in Kutno. Even language there is gentle and delicate, and they say in a refined way: “a teaspoon, one dish”. I once met a Bundist in Kutno on shabbat eve, and we had a heated and heavy discussion about anti-religion and class battles. Suddenly, this Kutno Bundist leaves me in the middle of the discussion, saying to me: I have to run home this minute to say Kiddush [blessing said by a male over the wine and bread on the Shabbat] for my mother…

Even the Bundist there is not as stubborn. Not for nothing was the ideal written in the town [of Kutno] and from there came the understanding of the mother in Jewish literature, so that even the language is gentler.

The saying: All of Kutno under one prayer shawl belongs to folklore and came about because of a landowner who seriously needed money, and therefore instituted a heavy tax on prayer shawls. So the community's solution was to pray under one prayer shawl.

Ah!, long-ago times, long-ago tax officials! Today it is different – pray, don't pray – wonderful!…

*

The cemetery in Kutno is old, walled-in, graves of long-ago saintly men who were associated with legends. One of these graves belongs to the saintly R' Berisz and the headstone was a plain one. Forty years he slept under this hard rock until someone ordered that they make it into a headstone for him. Observant Jewish women come to this grave, leaving notes asking for help.

 

At the Ohel of R' Jehoszele Kutner

There is a treasure in the Kutno cemetery of the old Jewish art of ornamentation. The young artist, the autodidact Tiber, who had already had an exhibition in Warsaw, and upon whom is pinned great hope, accompanied us to the cemetery, pointing out the examples of old Jewish folk-art. There once was a family of headstone-carvers, the Sats family from Spain. They were religious Zohar [Radiance] Jews, and they carved their faith into the headstones and because of a desire for excellence and artistic desire, carved both sides of the headstone Lajbelech, Herszelech, letters of love. A researcher of Jewish art and Jewish style should not ignore the Kutno cemetery, a treasure of primitive beauty. It is worthwhile discovering who the creators of the work were.

 

In the Kutno community

7,000 souls, 100,000 zlotys per year municipal taxes – and we remember with pride that the Kutno community gives to Eretz Israel and cultural purposes.

There are concerns: we need to build our own building for the gymnasium, and we need to have an artisans' school for all towns. Social workers strive for productivity. We know that we cannot do what we used to do, we cannot depend on miracles or the rich. From the windows of the community hall we can see the marketplace, Jews working hard, trying to earn a living. Peasant and Jew live together peacefully – but new reports make their way in. There is talk about moving the market, and we also see that selling is not the best way to earn money. They want an artisans' school and a school for agricultural workers. As it happens, there is a possibility: a wealthy Jew, who has an estate owned by the family for many generations, received a suggestion to divide it into separate plots. If they would create a school for land development there, much could be accomplished. The world would be wide open for agricultural-workers. Money is needed, a small amount. This is, after all, the best way to achieve productivity.

On the walls of the Kutno community building hang portraits the honoured: Szalom Asz, Herzl, Bialik, Weizman and Dr. Bernard Cohen [Head, Jewish Aid Committee, Koenigsberg]. I don't know if they asked the honourable Dr. Cohen for his permission to have his portrait hang between Herzl and Bialik because Dr. Bernard Cohen certainly has feeling for distance, most especially when a portrait of a [Louis] Marshall or a [Louis David] Brandeis does not hang there. The naive Kutno Jews! They don't know that together with Paul Nathan [Jewish Aid Committee, Koenigsberg], before the war, he led the fight against instituting Hebrew in the Haifa Technion – and Eastern Jews fought hard and bitter for their little Eretz Israel and little bit of Hebrew – and they were victorious.

Much water flowed and fires broke out and once again, they burn – and Eastern Jewry continues to battle for its own unique cultural life, for the right of the Kutno Jews to produce for itself, and the world, a Szalom Asz. Dr. Bernard Cohen has much to say and has influence in these matters. And his innermost attitude changed greatly since that battle, along with Paul Nathan, in 1913 for the cultural needs of the Eastern Jews. Dr. Bernard Cohen is a very honourable, devoted and conscientious worker but hanging his portrait in a community building near Weizman and the honourable Kutner, Szalom Asz, pure Polish-Eastern Jews, immersed in spirituality and the Jewish state – naïve Kutno Jews ! He would certainly not have permitted this, and the head of the opposition was certainly correct when he remarked to me: If it will continue along these lines, there will not be enough walls for the pictures.

Careful with pictures – a picture is also earned. It has to serve for honouring a hero and accept him without question. And one must have a feeling of distance.

*

A visit by the family of Szalom Asz which was wrapped in the sorrow of the mother's death

And we hear some family chronology about Szalom Asz's lineage, about his father.

R' Jechezkel Gombiner, who was an important sheep-merchant, had many employees all over Poland. He sent many ships and trains abroad filled with sheep. The business supported generations, put them on their feet. And the mother, the recently deceased women of valour – religious in her way. Her son was the apple of her eye.

Years earlier Bismarck had issued a number of edicts, and the sheep trade, with a single stroke of a pen – vanished. Many children, the sturdy oak trees and relatives, had to wander off to America, and from there, the prototypes of Uncle Moses [a book by Szalom Asz] and other characters of the new world developed.

Shalom Asz, the strong man who embraced with his arms the old and the new worlds, writes it down, and leaves an account.

Shalom Asz lives in his town and he brought his town to life for the world.

 

Translator's footnotes

  1. There is, today, a Szalom Asz Street in Kutno. A Szalom Asz Festival is also organised every other year. Return

 


[Page 85]

Kutno Fire-Fighters

by Abraham LUSTIGMAN, Holon

Translated from the Yiddish by Mindle Crystel Gross

More than once, Kutno fire-fighters were fooled by both small and large fires. There were many wooden houses located on the side streets where the Jews lived. A small fire could wipe out an entire street, so it was important that among the fire-fighters there should be devoted Jewish members who would not be late in putting out the blaze…

Among the active firemen were to be found several Jews: Pasirsztajn – a buttonhole maker, Jechiel Szuster, Benjamin Shmate – a porter, and several others whose names I do not remember. There were also several Jews in the fire fighters' band. During a fire in the Jewish streets and lanes, they virtually risked their lives to save Jewish belongings, Even more important was the fact that among the fire-fighters there were Jews, and this had a great psychological impact on the people.

The majority of the firemen was middle-aged and from the working class – artisans, mostly shoemakers. At the head of the fire brigade was Chief Szymanski.

Whenever there was a Jewish festival or a galuwke[1], he went out into the street dressed in his parade uniform with the gold buttons, red epaulettes and the elegant officer's boots which reached to his knees. On his hands – snow-white gloves. He carried himself stiffly, a tall, a good-looking person. His long black beard gave him the appearance of a general, and also caused… Jewish troubles.

Chief Szymanski was not a friend of the Jews, but he did receive some blows like a Jew – because he had a “Jewish beard”.

This occurred in 1919-1920 when the anti-Semitic Halerczyks[2] were raging in Poland, beating Jews and cutting off their beards. At the Kutno train station, they encountered Chief Szymanski who happened to be dressed in civilian clothes. They attacked him and wanted to cut off his beard, but they were very disappointed when this supposed Jew put up a strong defence, fighting and protecting his beard. From the blows which Szymanski rained down upon his attackers, they realized that these were “the hands of Esau”[3].

The gathering-place of the fire-fighters was in the courtyard of the theatre. They met there every Sunday, marched, practiced. In this large courtyard, there stood a tall wooden tower with glassless window openings. They would climb on the hanging ladder all the way to the top of the tower, and lower themselves on ropes or broad linen sacks. At the same time, the band stood on the theatre balcony and played.

All the fire-fighters' equipment was to be found on the other side of the courtyard – on the Podrzeczna street or, as it was called, the Shoemakers' street. The fire brigade owned several sorts of wagons: ladder wagons, wagons with water barrels, wagons with large water hoses, long wooden poles with iron points, pitchforks, shovels. Chief Szymanski wanted everything always to be at the ready – the barrels of water, the water hoses dried and coiled, the ladder wagon in the front, so as to be the first to go. If necessary, they took horses from wherever they could find them.

This inventory was guarded by a watchman, the old, angry Pole Wiszniewski, an ugly anti-Semite, who enjoyed catching a Jewish child and beating him until blood ran. This angry Christian had the duty of sounding the first alarm when a fire occurred. He lived near where the fire-fighters' uniforms were kept. As soon as there was a fire, he ran to the big bell which hung from the wooden cross in the corner of Shoemakers' Street, and began to ring it so violently that a deaf person could have heard it. Immediately, a commotion ensued. Fire-fighters ran from every corner of town, already wearing their copper or brass helmets, dark-blue shirts with wide leather suspenders upon which hung axes and other tool kits. They quickly pushed the wagons out, harnessed horses from any wagons they encountered, but nobody protested this. Many Jewish draymen themselves ran with their horses. The first was always Tiger, called “the Polish Jew”. He would come running with his two “eagles”, snapping his whip – “hayda” – like a real Cossack. Also Moshe Jancze the Yellow was among the first to come running, riding on his “bears”, as he called his horses. Masses of adults and children came out into the street, running to the fire.

However, when a fire broke out in a neighbouring village, it was an entirely different matter. It took quite a while until our fire-fighters gathered. When they arrived in the village – it was too late. The huts with the straw roofs were burned. They found a small glowing fire around which there was ash. There were also cases in town when a fire broke out in the middle of the night, and the fire-fighters were late. In their praise, it must be said that they were devoted to their responsibility.

 

Translator's footnotes

  1. Birthday or anniversary in the Czar's family. Return
  2. Polish Legion's soldiers in WW I, under General Jozef Haler, who continued the fight in Poland against the Soviets. Return
  3. “The voice is Jacob's, but the hands are Esau's,” Isaac said. (Genesis 27:22), meaning some kind of deception had happened. Return

 

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