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[Pages 494-487]

Chapter 7:

Potters Street

Adjacent to the street through which Jews from all over town streamed to the synagogue, the batei midrash, the Hassidic houses of prayer and the mikveh, and the boys to the heders, was the beginning of Potters Street. It started at Shimshon Tachna's house with the old wooden granary and continued past old wooden huts, empty fields, and the German Church of Plock Street. It was a plain, secular street with a single red-brick building that seemed to dwarf the old wooden huts besides it.

Later, during that bitter summer, Jewish blood flowed through the empty fields. Fifty men, hanging from scaffolds, jutted out into space.

When the city was still small, Potters Stream near the stream, “rzeka,” made its living from leather. The top of the street was inhabited by the Mitnagdim. Here the Mitnagdim tanners lived and worked: Shimon Tachna, Nahman Figot, Kozebrodski, and Gerstowski. The bottom of the street, next to the German Church, was strictly Hassidic. There the Hassidic tanners lived and worked: Eliyahu Shaft, Yankel Nachtstern, Yossel Citrin, and Green Mendel (Kosobudski) the Practical Joker. This was on the right side of the Mikveh. To the left, next to the stream, were the big tanneries of Haim Leizer Narzemski. All the tanners, Hassidim and Mitnagdim alike, made a living from this trade.

During the week and on Saturdays and festival days, the Hassidic tanners, dressed in caftans of satin or silk and wearing velvet hats, worshipped in their houses of prayer. The Mitnagdim tanners, some at break of day and others at the second minyan, prayed at the old or new besmedresh wearing small cloth hats and dressed in ungirdled black gabardines.

Rows of deep, wooden barrels stood in long courtyards. Before tanning, the hides were immersed for weeks in deep pits containing lime and chemicals. Acrid odors irritated the throat, piercing eyes and nose.

Thick-bearded Jews and their teenage sons, wearing dirty leather aprons, stood here every day. They stirred the hides in the barrels with long poles, removed the hair from the hides with sharp scrapers, or worked in shacks finishing the leather skins. Only seldom did one see a tanner in town. Should you chance upon one, his small, dirty apron, and his greasy, shiny face and stained, brown fingernails betrayed his trade.

In Mlawa, the tanners' trade was completely in the hands of the Jews. They were attached to this profession and it was held in respect. No other occupation was so traditionally passed on from father to son. The attitude of the townsfolk to the tanners was different than that to the other craftsmen. The tanners were regarded as equals. Marriage to a tanner was not considered in the same category as that to any other artisan. Daughters of many Hassidic families were married to the sons of tanners.

The Hassidic tanners were quiet and modest people. They were neither to be seen nor heard in town. For days on end, they immersed themselves in their hard work. In the evenings and during their free time, they occupied themselves with the Torah.

Entirely different were the tanners at the other end of the street, the Mitnagdim. They certainly did make their presence evident. They were strong and nimble with a healthy lustfulness and zest for life. Aphorisms and witticisms blended in with long hours of standing at work. Conversations and encounters with other people and the burdens of this world did not weigh them down nor cause grief and sorrow - not Nahman Figot or Kozebrodski, and certainly not Shimshon Tachna. When one closely examined Nahman Figot's face, shining from the oil of the hides, one saw not the mischievous laughter of a rebel but a jeering smile acquired through life experience and common sense.

Figot's courtyard took up half of Potters Street. It had many inhabitants. Was there anyone who didn't live there? We might mention the wagoners Zalel and Fishel Dugo, the old rag-picker Abram and his sons, daughters-in-law, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, the tanner Kozebrodski, shoemakers and tailors - an entire kingdom of craftsmen and simple Jews.

Next to this kingdom was another, a totally different one: Petrikuzer's steam mill that depended on the stream. This same Petrikuzer, or, according to his Jewish name, Moshe Hirsh Greenberg, was a Lithuanian. He was a stubborn man, greatly learned in the Torah. His wisdom and noble appearance aroused respect. He lived in close proximity to his friend, Reb Hersch Tuvia, and the two scholars always wrangled with one another. They always strove to best one other in rare and specific questions pertaining to the Torah and to Judaism. The two neighbors were firm opponents in complicated matters of arbitration in the town and its surroundings. If one of the litigants appealed to Hersch Tuvia then naturally, his opponent was forced to turn to Petrikuzer. Both Jews considered themselves very wise and treated one another with respect.

This same Petrikuzer was an extreme Mitnaged. He understood matters through the sharpness of his wit. His friend, Hersch Tuvia, acted according to his feelings and his deeply engrained Hassidim that warmed the chill of a cold brain. Quite often the two neighbors sat together in Nahman Figot's yard, drank tea, smoked cigars, and delved into the secrets and purposes of life on earth, Jews, and Judaism. Petrikuzer's yard was part of Nahman Figot's yard, the spiritual part.

At the entrance and also well inside Figot's yard, there lived the rag-pickers with their wives, children, horses and carts. When the farmers' field work ended, the peddling season began. The old rag-picker Avrum Hersch, and his sons, Shmuel, Meyer Nusen, Michael and Yerahmiel, as well as his sons-in-law, Aron, Menashe and Elia, each set out on a different road with wagons laden with all sorts of goods. They carried chinaware, plates with floral designs, pots, glass beads of various colors, decorative pins made of tin resembling gold, buttons, needles, thread, safety pins, and many other items. These would cause farmers and their wives eagerly to search every nook and cranny of their homes for scraps of iron, rags, bones, copper, and brass. Trade with the village was based on barter. The rag-pickers paid with the pretty items they brought with them from town.

For many years the shacks in Nahman Figot's yard were full of old rags, iron and other metals, and bones. Women and children with red, pusy eyes, skin covered with boils and with swollen bellies, ran back and forth rummaging through these piles and sorting them out.

Figot's yard was never at rest. It was always teeming with people, horses and wagons, sacks of flour, and rags.

Nahman Figot's nearest neighbor was Shimshon Tachna, an entirely different sort of person. He was small and wiry with a gray beard and a red, sunburnt face full of force and chutzpah. He spoke with emphasis, did not always give a proper answer, and was one of the central pillars of the apikorsim in town. Shimshon Tachna, Leibl Wolarski and Simha Nitzkin kept company and discussed G-d and atheism. No one ever entertained the thought that any of the trio, G-d forbid, omitted even one Minha prayer - most definitely not. But, it was known that it was they who encouraged hereticism in town, and that was enough.

The second of this trio, Leibl Wolarski, a bitter busybody, always absorbed in his thoughts, was absent-minded, full of complaints about how the world was run, sullen and ill-tempered. His wispy, twisted beard that ran wild over his wide face reflected his inner confusion, his moodiness, his contentious way of life, far removed from harmony and peace.

One crooked shoulder higher than the other, cast a shadow over Shimshon Tachna's large head, and gave the impression that it was increasingly burdened and bent with a heavy and troublesome load. He was a short man of narrow build and facile movement.

Leible Wolarski was a broad-shouldered Jew, always ready for a fight. His way in Judaism, acquired through study and pouring over ancient tomes, was as difficult and torturous as he himself. His arguments on ways of learning, providence, decree, and choice, as well as on general matters of Judaism, were stormy and usually ended in angry words. Shouting “you have a warped mind, you have a warped mind,” at his opponent, he would thus end the debate and go off without so much as a goodbye. His hoarse voice added weight and volume to his words and showed that, as far as he was concerned, a life principle was at stake. What bothered him was that others refused to see things as he did.

The most composed of these three, the one whose mind was most at ease and apparently the cleverest, was Reb Simha Nitzkin. It was said that on Saturdays he sat with uncovered head, a cigar in his mouth and an open book of Gemara in his hands. The fact that Simha Nitzkin did not smoke at all, not even on weekdays, did not stop people from believing this nonsense.

Except for Leibl Wolarski, they lived in another world. What they discussed, what they did, no one knew. The three were widely known as heretics and that was more than enough. If some troublemaker wanted proof, he would be flooded with stories that no one had ever bothered to check. Incidents were related that no one ever witnessed but that everyone believed. In order to convince someone who perhaps entertained some doubts, people were capable of telling a tall tale like the following, “When the tree get together on Saturdays, one of them lights a match. 'Apikores' shouts one of the others as he blows out the match.” That's what they were, apikorsim, irritating people.

In the vicinity of the back alleys lived these three Jews who were good friends and dedicated to one another. It may be that they had thoughts differing from those of the people around them. It may very well have been so, since all that went on about them aroused doubts, opposition, and despair. This was why they isolated themselves in their narrow corner and withdrew from other people. Their rebelliousness was confined to their small circle; they had no influence on the town's life.

One of them was a tanner, the second dealt in clothing, and Simha Nitzkin made soda, syrups, and mead. During the winter, he removed and preserved blocks of “Fat Baruch,” known as Baruch Wrublewer, lived for many years in the one red-bricked house on that street. He was the only Jew in Mlawa to have had participated in the second Polish revolution during the 1860's. Because he was a Jew, his sunburnt face, furrowed by wind and rain, was framed by a beard, which grew in tufts. The beard that descended from this hard, non-Jewish face suited his face like “arba kanfot” (fringed under-garment worn by religious Jews) suited a dog. During the summer, because of his religion he covered his big, hard head with a high, Jewish cap that had a large visor. The winter fur hat was more fitting for he looked like one of the villagers. His coat, not certain whether capote or goyish bekiesza (winter coat), generously covered his wide body.

Were he to have created the world, he claimed, man would live 5,000-10,000 years, each day becoming younger until finally, he dissolved into nothingness and disappeared like smoke. Since he was not the Creator and the Universe, as always, went its own way even without his permission, he, at the age of eighty-odd seemed younger than a bar-mitzvah boy. In his opinion, the younger a person, the closer he was to death.

Baruch loved living and enjoyed life as a flavorsome dish, a proper gulp of vodka, a young horse and anything else created for man's benefit.

He grew old and there remained only a few teeth in his mouth. He still liked to tell how when he was a young boy, he used to climb up to the attic in the mornings and draw close to the smoked meats and bottles of brandy, and get his full of life. In the forest, one did not eat rolls with butter or drink coffee in the morning. There were always dishes standing about, full of clobber, cream and cheese. Potatoes were aplenty. “He who wants to ride for an hour must lubricate the carriage axles for two hours.”

In his old age, his condition deteriorated. Thoughts resembling gray clouds borne by the cold winds of late autumn, popped into his head. Baruch was seized by fear. Shadows appeared over the long years of plenty that had been full of light and sun. He would have liked the good years to extend and go on forever. Baruch didn't want to know that the blessing of longevity is accompanied by the curse of loneliness even as all those to whom he was accustomed, as to a comfortable piece of clothing, disappeared from view. He was suddenly filled with awe. This was like the long-ago fear in his childhood that his mother would suddenly vanish and he would remain along in a strange house on an unfamiliar street and in an unknown town. Not only the people, also the horses of those days were no longer here. Now Baruch sat in Ya'akov Shlomo Mondrzak's office and did nothing, kept through the generosity of his former employers. The thought that with each coming day his life was shorter fell like dust onto his befuddled brain.

All of a sudden the sound of trumpets neared, a military march was being played. Baruch stirred like an old war hoarse, girded his loins, pricked up his ears, and came to life. He got up and went out to see how Poland's national holiday was being driven in carriages through the market, but not Baruch, the old revolutionary. The goyim of today had forgotten him. He stood aside and watched.

In those days, Baruch recalled, one of the revolutionaries insulted his Jewish faith. “He is to be flogged,” declared the officers of the military court. Baruch didn't agree and asked that the goy be granted amnesty. The officers didn't understand what was going on. But Baruch knew: the goy had insulted the Jewish faith, let G-d judge him and not, they.

*

The number of Jews in town who were in any way affiliated with soldiers and war could be counted on the fingers of one hand. One of those who had completed his service in the Russian army was Azriel the Blacksmith. His five years of service had taught him various “Fonia” (nickname for the Russians) ways and tricks. Others who served in the Russian army were David Kirschenbaum, Nahum the Ice-Cream Man (“Saharmoroznik”), and Avrum Hersch, the old rag-picker from Nahum Figot's yard. Avrum had an inexhaustible supply of tales from his years of “Fonia” service especially, relating to his participation in the war with Turkey. His son and his two sons-in-law, Aron and Menashe, who were conscripted during World War I, left for the front but didn't come back. From the war of 1920 between Russia and Poland, Haim Grzebieniarz, Ruven Dombkeivicz, Moshe Warszawski, and others, did not return. However, most of the Jews survived their several years of army service. They returned and became part of the town, established families and managed to make a living.

Only one of them remained a good-for-nothing, a ruin and eternal wreck who couldn't find his place in society. This was Fischel the Cantonist (a Jewish boy pressed into long years of pre-military service in Czarist Russia during the reign of Nicholas I [1825-1853]). Fischel ran errands in town and was a water-carrier. He was poor and reduced to begging from door to door. At first he did this only on Rosh Hodesh. Then, as for all the other beggars, this became a daily ritual. There was not a person in town who knew where he lived, what he did and whether he was married or not.

He was an old idler who “ate days” in certain houses. It was known that on Saturdays he ate at Yossel Perlmutter's house, on Mondays at Yonathan Segal's, and so on. If asked, he carried water; sometimes he got drunk whether the occasion called for it or not.

He used to “play a stick.” People could see an old, tall Jew with a face like a goy's, standing in the middle of a circle of children and playing with a thick stick, rounded at the top. He would blow up his cheeks and let out strange sounds from between his lips, his thick fingers sliding up and down the stick as though he were holding a trumpet in his hands. His tall legs rose and with grotesque movements twisted his body in a senseless dance.

It was always difficult to catch Fischel's eye, to penetrate his mocking eyes. When he played his stick, however, it seemed as though his eyes had poured out and there remained only two empty sockets from which sorrow, misery, and fear flowed onto his pale, twisted face.

Twenty five years of his life he had spent in Fonia's service somewhere in Siberia, robbed of childhood and youth, and far removed from Jews. How numerous were the plots and ploys he devised in order to remain a Jew. Sometimes he would be brought to church to be converted. Each time he pulled yet another trick in order to be delivered from forced baptism. On such occasions he devised new tricks to make people think he was crazy. Once when the priest and his cohorts were all prepared to receive the sinful soul of the Jewish youth, Fischel broke into a dance and began to play on a stick. Another time, he pretended to be just an ordinary lunatic. He took off his clothes and, naked as the day his mother bore him, started to play the shepherd's rod in his hand, dancing like a savage in front of the holy icons inside the church. By going crazy, Fischel used to tell, he was saved from forced conversion. Finally, Fischel, still a Jew, came back after many years of army service. Due to habit, from time to time Fischel would pretend to be mad, play his stick and gladden the hearts of the town's children.

Not many Jews remained, even on Potters Street. Perhaps, some place there, one can still find the pits of the Jewish tanners' barrels. Maybe, somewhere in some yard, there is a wooden shack still standing. On Sabbath afternoons, Jews no longer sit on the wooden steps leading to the small and modest houses, nor on the grass at the sides of the street, cracking seeds, talking and taking advantage of the Sabbath rest.

Even the virtue of Tayvel (Tuvia) Beker of Potters Street, who began to wander dressed as the “Rabbi of Mlawa,” was not rewarded. The street disappeared very rapidly and with terrible cruelty as though it had never been.

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