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[Pages 461-456]

Chapter 12:

A Train Passes Through Town

Fifty odd years after Stephenson's invention, Mlawa finally had its own train. Once every two hours, both day and night, the train's sharp whistle pierced the stillness of the city air. The engines blew and panted. Even though the train station was several miles removed from town, the engine's warm breath extended to the city.

All sorts of trains raced through, a local (“Bumbler”), an express, and a freight train. All of a sudden the world was within reach. Before then it took half a week to get to Warsaw by wagon. Now the trip took less than four hours. But this was appreciated only much later. At first, the Jews were afraid to ride the train, even when, at first, one could travel without a ticket. But, in time, people slowly got used to the new “ukase” and traveled more often by rail. In town, any innovation was considered a decree. Formerly, the Jews declared a Fast Day (Ta'anit) when the authorities ordered that the sewers be white-washed.

In those days the train ride was a complicated affair. People literally did not understand how one rode a train. It was told that one Mlawian Jew sat for many hours at the train depot and wondered why he had not yet reached Warsaw. It's not in vain that one says: “The heavenly fools.”

The train became a turning point in the town's life. New means of livelihood sprouted up that had to do with trains. New faces appeared, merchants and clerks from foreign parts. Wiur, and Tikulsker opened hotels and restaurants for the travelers coming from so far away. The Jews of Mlawa set out much more readily for other cities. New government institutions appeared in town. Slowly the patriarchal forms of life began to disappear.

Before the advent of the train, transportation between the city and the outside world was in Jewish hands. Every Saturday evening one could see the Jewish coachman loading their merchandise on to their wagons and bringing passengers to Plock or Warsaw. At the end of the week they returned from far off places, loaded with people and various goods. Thus they conveyed both passengers and merchandise. For many years Yankel “Gloczer” (Zimmerman), Zureh the Wagoner, Feivush Domb (Black Feivush) and his sons Haim and Yizhak, spent their lives on far away roads between Mlawa, Plock and Warsaw. They used to bring a human cargo of prospective in-laws for purposes of interviews and marriages. Each driver had his own concession for driving families to weddings.

Feivush's. appearance in someone's house was ample proof that a happy occasion was in the offing. Anyone who saw him dressed in his “burka” (heavy jacket) and wearing his wide, red belt and high boots was convinced that Feivush could bring him anywhere without any mishap. He had sharp eyes and the power to see into the distance. He was not one for talking much with the passengers during the ride. If a word did escape his lips, it was a word of praise for the horses or a clownish remark referrring to his passengers.

In the forest, the horses' gait was slow and easy. Feivush did not urge them on. He took pleasure in the forests of Skwilna, Aklew and Mostow. He arranged many matches and had the couples meet in the forests. The pungent scents of the woods lulled both man and beast. When travelling via a different route he would sometimes say: “The goyim are morons. They call this place 'Cierpiena,' the Holy Virgin appeared before them here. The real truth is that one winter's night hungry wolves pursued a Jew. In order to save himself, the Jew climbed a tree. Suddenly he remembered it was Hanukah. He lit Hanukah candles on the tree. From afar the goyim saw the lights twinkling and cried out: 'The Holy Virgin has come.' Ever since, the goyim from these surroundings like to come here to 'Cierpiena.' ”

After many years goods were transported long distances by train. Before then to get to Warsaw, the merchandise had been shipped on the Wisla river through Plock, or overland via Plonsk. Passengers and goods were still delivered by wagon to the towns in the vicinity: Biezun, Plonsk, Szeps, Racionz, and even Plock, Makow, Prusznic, Pultusk and Osrolenka.

Since the train station was several miles removed from town, there was room for transportation of passengers and merchandise between the depot and the town.

Zalel Dugo, Fishel Dugo, Simha Sureh's and Berish Itcheh Mendel's (Galant) delivered the following merchandise to the trains: wheat, flour, uncured hides, scrap iron, bricks and logs. From there they took back, machinery, groceries, dry goods and liquor.

Dozens of Jewish porters found means of livelihood round the drivers. They transferred wheat from granaries to carts, loading it onto freightcars, and the reverse.

Berish, a pleasant boy from a Hassidic home, formerly would have been a melamed or else, turned to “border trade.” Thanks to the Socialist-Zionist movement in town, people had a different attitude toward physical labor, different from that during Hassidic times.

A few goyim also transported goods to the train. But this was mainly Jewish work as was inter-city transportation.

In addition, Jews made a living from “fleet” horses and small carts that delivered merchandise within the city. Everybody knew Moteleh and his nag, and Koitcheh and his nag. The owners of the small wagons were all hapless Jews with freckled, dirty faces from which descended wild red beards. Their nicknames, “Moteyeh and his horsey,” did not, God forbid, express any special affection for these creatures. Rather, it emphasized their misery and that of their hungry and emaciated horses, and their shabby carts.

Transportation to and from the train station produced a new occupation - the coachman's trade. Wearing leather caps with goyish, lacquered visors and dressed in long, blue cloth cloaks, the drivers sat on high boxes in the coaches and drove through town. The horses, decorated with pieces of metal and brass, were equipped with leather bits. Their eyes were covered with something resembling leather eyeglasses. Two lanterns blinked on either side of the carriage, there was a red number in front, another in the rear, a folding top and a warm blanket with a lining to cover the feet. That's how the carriages looked as they traveled to the military reviews in front of the Municipality. Once the review was over, the horses raced and pulled the carriages back along the city streets. It was like “Green Thursday” when the goyim got together as they came back, riding their horses, from the “border.” After the parade was over, the coachmen, as usual, returned home in their carriages to Warsaw Street.

On a regular weekday, Jewish and Gentile carriages stood in a long line in the New Market and waited for passengers to the train station. Men of substance were picked up from home by the coachmen.

Well-to-do Jews or merchants who wanted to get to the train in the middle of the night or at dawn, had coachmen of their own to rouse them: Mordechai, Avrum Kop, Koitcheh, Leibel with the mole, Shiyeh Szkop and David Ya'aneh. Of all the trades, the nicest and most respectable was that of carriage coachman. The government saw to it that the carriages, coachmen and horses were presentable. After all, they were the first to welcome the passengers off the trains at the station.

The leather cap, the blue coat, the handsome reins, the healthy horses and the carriages with their lacquer veneer attracted mainly the young men of the Jewish, gypsy tribe. The gypsies had lived for a long time in town and were called “the music-box people” (organ-grinders).

In one of the front yards of Warsaw Street, several Jewish families lived for many years. They did not resemble the other inhabitants of the city, neither in appearance nor in means of livelihood. They were clean-shaven Jews who performed tricks, wore goyish caps with lacquered visors and tied red kerchiefs round their necks. They had tight-fitting boots with shiny pointed toes, wore tight, striped shirts and blue trousers. Their stay in town was temporary, only during certain periods of the year.

In small carts for delivering straw and in closed caravans like those of gypsies or circus companies, they traveled from town to town throughout the breadth and width of the country. Any- where there was a “calvaria” they would appear with their complete outfits. Lads and wenches seemed to be “burned alive,” magicians appeared to have knives passed through their bodies, swallowed knives and fire, lay half-naked on sharp nails and splinters, lifted heavy weights and made headstands everywhere.

Hurdy-gurdies accompanied their performances with sad melodies. They were so “solemn” that they aroused feelings of loneliness in all the streets. They weighed down the peasants' hearts, depressed them so, that tears welled up in their eyes. Fragmented and hoarse sounds like forlorn and abandoned orphans, filled the entire market. It was then that Gershon the Organ-Grinder, with a beak like that of a bird of prey and a face like that of a corpse, yelled out to the crowd to try its luck. A green parrot with a gold ring on its leg, attached to the music-box, in exchange for several pennies would pick out a fortune card tucked away in a small envelope. Sometimes, some side income came their way - picking the pockets of a stranger, “exchanging” a horse or cow. This resulted in smacks, blows, or knives - according to the season.

The journey throughout the country began at Passover and ended at the High Holy Days. Autumn and winter were not very lively seasons. It was then that they stayed in Mlawa. They made their living from playing cards and stealing whatever came within reach. Both boys and girls did this. In their huts they sang, played, danced and beat their drums. The entire street resounded with their voices. Occasionally, the street was filled with curses and shrieks as people chased and ran after a music- box man and knocked him down. The police were frequent visitors here.

Sometimes in old age, such an organ-grinder would turn into a repentant sinner (Ba'al Tshuva). He wore a Jewish hat, a long caftan, went to pray and recited Psalms. In short he re- turned to Judaism. He stayed home with his wife and no longer traveled throughout the country. Food was provided by his children. A couple who became religious looked out of place in the company of their children and grandchildren who had not the faintest resemblance to anything Jewish. Grandma Hanah, a tall Jewish woman wearing a white head scarf, looked like a witch out of Goldfadden. Her face was the color of earthen clay, her eyes stared like those of a fat, old toad.

With the advent of the train, the younger generation of organ grinders saw that it was possible to make one's living within the town itself. It was far better and more purposeful to acquire a carriage and not continue wandering.

Only one of the drivers, Elisha who stemmed from a Hassidic family, was not of the same origin as that whole band. All the others were sons, sons-in-law, and grandsons of the itinerant “music-box people.” The train had totally changed their lives.

Before dawn, when it was still dark outside, Jewish woman headed for Warsaw, the capital, loaded with slaughtered chickens, packages of butter, eggs, and oil, forced their way into the train. Jews such as Berish Ovadieh's Manhieh and Burstein the Lame, were loaded with bundles of merchandise, letters and orders for goods from Warsaw. There were others who traveled “empty- handed,” with no baggage. These were the “whips” who were partners to the Russian Czar's income from the train tickets.

To travel on a slow train to Warsaw and buy a ticket at the cashier's window was “needless waste of a Jew's money.” And that is how, with the consent of the conductors and the motormen, who were the chief partners to the “whips,” Jews without tickets rode on the trains. And if one had the misfortune to encounter an unknowing conductor who suddenly entered the coach, that indeed was a nasty business. The conductors and the “whips” ran about like poisoned rats. They “urged” our brethren, the Children of Israel, to kindly crawl and hide under the benches, or elsewhere, until the coast was clear and the strange ticket taker had left.

On regular days, when everything went smoothly, the “commissionaires” would wrap themselves in their prayer shawls and phylacteries, seat themselves as though in the besmedresh and recite the morning prayer. They had plenty of time. It took the “Bumbler” train over four hours to get to Warsaw. After prayers, they peeled hard-boiled eggs, gulped down a drop of brandy and polished it off with an egg-biscuit or a small piece of herring. They discoursed on the Torah and discussed politics until the train noisily pulled into the Warsaw station. There they scattered throughout the streets, rushing to complete their business and manage to return home that same day.

Those friendly with the manager of the train company and knowledgeable in the customs and regulations involved in shipping packages, were the Alters: David, Itzik and Shlomo. They and, to a smaller extent, Berl Fried and his son Arieh-Leib, were the main expediters of all the goods in town. Only persons familiar with several languages and knowing how to negotiate with the rail- way clerks and how to establish good public relations, could be agents for dispatching goods by rail. Alter's sons were good, intelligent, Hassidic Jews. They spent entire days at the Bolka depot. This new profession was quite difficult and a responsible one, but it paid well. The tradition of their lives, their upbringing and their large families were responsible for the success of Alter's sons.

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