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[Pages 513-504]

Chapter 4:

The Inhabitants of the Old Market

All around the market, one next to the other, were large stores and small shops. Textiles and fabrics were supplied to Mlawa and its surroundings by the large stores belonging to Avrum Yizhak Biezunski, Wolf Brachfeld, Simha Wiernik, and Alter Cohen, and by the small shops owned by the Landau sons. The large hardware stores were owned by: Haim Eliyah Perla, Pinhas Mondri, Yizhak Rosen, and Shimon Lipsker; the leather shops were owned by Yosef Filar, Butche Edelstien, and Zilberman; the haberdasheries belonged to the Eichlers, Kaufman, Berish Tzeitag, Blumendranz, and Meizlitz. Moshe Wilner, Feivush Shapira and Moshe Opatowski were the proprietors of watchmaker and goldsmith shops. The liquor and wine shops were owned by David Hirsch Makowski and Yehuda Meyer Lidzbarski, the “original liquor” concern belonged to Binem Estreicher. The large food concerns belonged to Leib Lipschitz, Frank and Konecki. Moshe Gabeh (Hirschberg) owned a small perfumery.

The stores were full of all kinds of merchandise. Business was carried on with the neighboring towns and villages. In the Old Market the profits were greater than those of the Jewish shops in other places in town. That made it possible to “squeeze in” a page of Gemara (a part of the Talmud consisting of commentaries on the Mishnah), pour over some religious book, “talk politics,” deal with party matters and public affairs, or even find time to play chess in midday. Business went on of its own accord. “Livelihood is in the Hands of Heaven,” so why make and effort? Truly enterprising merchants, wanglers and manipulators who traveled a great deal, rushed about and believed that everything depended on them alone, including one's livelihood, were quite rare in the Old Market.

Most of the merchants were in business by sheer chance; the result of a match, an inheritance. For them business was not the most important thing in the world. Whenever they had the opportunity, they turned their stores over to their wives or to their teenage sons. For where has it been said that a Jew must devote himself to selling nails and measuring yards of merchandise for a whole lifetime? When times were normal, reality justified this philosophy of life, well expressed and characterized by the adage, “Making a living is in the hands of G-d.”

Life became difficult, even very difficult, when the times turned turbulent, or worse. Even in the market place, Polish businesses began to sprout. Pickets stood in front of Jewish stores and barred the Gentiles from entering and buying. The generations-old tradition of trade was on the verge of collapse together with the Jewish means of livelihood. The Jews had always felt that they and their existence were rooted in Polish soil.

In the square known as the “Old Market,” the Jews resembled one another in dress and appearance shared a common language, made their living mainly from trade and kept the same Sabbaths and holy days. And yet they greatly differed from one another.

Reb Haim-Eliyah Perla's hardware store was right in the middle of the market, opposite the Municipality. When a Jew went there to tend to some matter, he just incidentally happened to step into the store to hear or relate something. If a Jew wandered about the market without anything particular in mind, he felt a desire to find out what was doing at Perla's. In addition, the store served as the city headquarters of the “Mizrahi” movement. Here one could always find the members of the Committee, including Reb Moshe Cukerkorn, the “Mizrahi” warden. He was a vigorous and enthusiastic person with a warm Jewish heart full of compassion and love for the Jews. It gave him tremendous pleasure to hear any good tidings from the Land of Israel. This was far more important, as far as he was concerned, than his lumber business.

With the enthusiasm of a former Gur Hassid, Moshe Cukerkorn would bitterly denounce the Hassidic Rebbehs, (Hassidic leaders), who were opposed to Palestine. According to him, it was up to each leader of a Hassidic congregation to lead his followers and emigrate to the Land of Israel. In his rage, however, the “Jewish robber,” who loves the Jews with all his soul, was quite evident. His anger, directed against the Hassidic Rabbis, did not stop him from extolling the teachings of the Rebbehs immediately after his outburst. Moshe Cukerkorn was full of charm and naiveté and endless love for the Land of Israel.

A frequent guest in the hardware store was young Arieh Leib Fried, a member of the “Mizrahi” Committee. He was a pale young man with a fine ear for music who enjoyed basking in the warmth of his much older friends. His young life was cut short by the German beasts of prey. There in the middle of the market where he had spent most of his days, the Nazis hung him.

Sometimes one saw in this company, the old teacher and grammarian, Reb Shlomo Itcheh Fischer, the principal of the reformed heder. Fischer used to lend an ear, listen to what was being said and sometimes add a word or two. Then he would head for home, lost in his skeptical thoughts: why did they spend so much time talking about what should be done. His favorite saying was, “Not from deserts come mountains,” talk without action is worthless.

If one of the Jewish artisans, locksmiths, or blacksmiths chanced to enter the store, or if someone from the village came to buy a scythe, axe, or saw, the place became overcrowded and some of the people were forced to remain outside, at the entrance. The truth of the matter was that the entire enterprise was of no importance for its owners. In any case, the one who served the customers was Haim - Eilyah's son, Itcheh.

Haim Eliyah was considered a slightly haughty Jew, not very friendly at all. Actually, people greatly annoyed him. What had he to do with all those loafers, politicians, and customers when he was immersed heart and soul in a pamphlet of the utmost importance and interest. And what book was not interesting? It was far more interesting and important than everything else about him, both people and hardware. And that is the reason why people like Haim Eliyah are slandered.

Apparently, Haim Eliyah inherited his love for the printed word from his father, Reb Yeruham-Fischel, the author of “The Book of Commandments.” The thirst and yearning for knowledge filled Haim Eliyah's entire being, was his whole life. But times were different then. It was purely accidental that he wound up as a dealer in hardware and the head of a family. He was active in many organizations and had to mingle with people, while his life ambition was to seclude himself in a special room with a pile of books. When Haim Eliyah talked about books in general or about Maimonides, the Geonim (exceedingly learned Rabbis), or Spinoza, his outward composure, haughtiness, and impatience that so repelled others, melted away. What remained was a man full of love and respect for the printed word, for man's pure spirit.

A book was always his closest companion. In the store, at home and even during “reading time” at the “Mizrahi” headquarters, he would sit and pour over some pamphlet with his shortsighted, bespectacled eyes. He was always immaculately dressed. His face reflected the wisdom of a man truly learned in the Torah.

There was only one thing that could draw him away from his daily life: his great love and yearning for the Land of Israel.

Even before World War I, many Mlawian Jews were made familiar with the first taste of the Land of Israel on holiday afternoons at Reb Haim Eliyah's home. The refreshments for the guests included “Carmel” wine. It was here that the first hesitant steps were taken towards and actual and realistic comprehension of the Land of Israel, which, in those days, was more dream than reality.

Haim Eliyah was privileged to visit Palestine several times. He bought some land, left some of his children behind in Palestine and returned to Mlawa to liquidate his business. But he was not fortunate enough to return to the Land of Israel, his heart's desire. The upheaval in Poland tragically cut short the thread of his life and he died an untimely death.

Haim Eliyah's partner was his brother-in-law, Gecel Glowinski. His heart too was not in business. He was a frail Jew, a man of learning, one of the followers of the Gur Tzaddik. He was not often in the company of others. His children were brought up in the spirit of secular education. His wife was one of the few women who in those times had acquired a secular education.

Wolf Breindele's resembled something not of this world, a messenger of the Angel of Death. Breindele's was of always and old Jew. He stemmed from a good family, related to Reb Avrehmele from the old Sage of Ciechanow's court. People were afraid of him. This tall Jew with the ruddy complexion and sparse, white beard was the strict warden of the Jewish burial society (Hevreh Kadisha). He had a savage appearance like that of one of the Cohanim (Priests) who blew their horns and caused the walls of Jericho to tumble. Sometimes his face was pale and sallow, without a drop of blood in it. He then resembled a piece of yellow parchment stretched over lean bones and looked like an old man, a Samaritan Priest.

From Wolf Breindele's one could get decorated Turkish talliths, little bags of soil from the Holy Land, and shrouds: anything connected with burial. Summers he wore a tall, black hat and a long, rep capote; winters, a fur cap and a long bulky cape made of fox fur.

It was not pleasant to have to deal with Wolf Breindele's. He ruled the town with an iron fist. When a young boy or girl died, the stern warden of the burial society was not about to listen to any pleas intended to soften his heart. “You say that the burial society is demanding a great deal of money! And if the father of the deceased girl had to give her a dowry, would he spend less? It's quite obvious that the deceased was of marriageable age!” In a hoarse squeak he would finish off with these words.

On Rosh Hashanah, Wolf Breindele's used to lead a group of Jews to pray Minha (the afternoon prayers) at the “village” synagogue. Each Friday evening its floors sparkled after being scoured with yellow sand. Wolf Breindele's used to perform the “Shalom Zahar” ceremony for his neighbors: Haim Eliyah Perla, Gecel Glowinski, and their children, and offer them chickpeas and wine. He himself had no children. During “Shalem Zahar” he would show off his expertise in calculating the advent of the righteous Messiah. He did not spare the labor involved in pushing this date off from year to year. Each time he simply declared that, once again, he had been mistaken in his reckoning.

After he died, a large manuscript was found in his home full of calculations, gematria, and acronyms relating to the coming of the Messiah when, at long last, the dead would be resurrected. The manuscript was left with Reb Itchkeh.

Reb Itchkeh, the brother of the Rabbi of Biala, lived in a small wooden house in the middle of the market. He was a stout, healthy Jew with long, curly forelocks. He looked very dignified. He wore white shoes and stockings and a silk caftan. His manner was that of a Rebbeh and he presided over a table just as a Rebbeh did.

His daughter-in-law was known in town as Reb Itchkeh's Matels. A black headdress decorated with beads and feathers covered her wise head. She was quite celebrated. She spoke French, Russian, and Polish, and made fun of the Rebbehs and their courts. She freely voiced her opposition and resistance to the Hassidim's backwardness. From her Hassidic and wealthy home, she derived her pride, self-assurance, and love of freedom.

Her daughter, Hava-Yitta, the future wife of the writer Stupnicki, dared further. She, the mother of grown sons, discarded her wig, left her husband, the Hassidic loafer Yankel Sunik, and turned to new ways.

Reb Itchekeh's grandson was even more defiant. He was a young man with curly forelocks down to his shoulders, engaged in the study of the Torah. The boy had a good head. One fine day, on behalf of his fellow students in the besmedresh and himself, he turned to some of the students of the Jewish gymnasium and asked them for help in obtaining a secular education. In Reb Itchkeh's house, a circle of apikorsim (heretics), ex-Hassidic boys, got together. Their heretic ways surpassed those of their teachers.

Close by to this group of “breachers of the faith”, lived a pleasant-mannered Hassidic Jew whose heart was full of love for the Jewish people. This was Mendel Motke's (Safirstein), the brother of Yosef the Shohet. His big head, covered by a tall, Jewish cap, stood out from his short, stocky body. The cap made him appear to be slightly taller than he really was. Long, coarse, uneven hair descended from his smiling face. Each hair grew as though for its own benefit and, all together, they made up the long beard of this small person. His lithe movements afforded him the mischievous charm of a boy. In his daily life, he followed the rule that says: “Receive every person graciously, always with a smile and a pleasant word.” When he got hold of one of the boys, he would first honor him with a Hassidic pinch of the cheek and then ask what he was studying. The boy would jump with pain to his question that generally was in grammar or the Bible. Mendel Motk's and his brother Yosef Motke's, the ritual slaughterer, enjoyed boasting about their expertise in the Bible and in the rules of grammar. Both brothers greatly loved children and would test them on these subjects at every opportunity. This trait characterized Mendel his whole life long. When the children grew up and turned to different ways, Mendel even then remained their old and true friend.

All of a sudden Mendel Motke's disappeared from the market place he had frequented daily. Mendel's heart was sick, he became weak. During his illness, Mendel begged and implored to be told about the Land of Israel, about the Jewish people, and about the holy places. Hersch-Ber, Landau's son and one of the adherents of the Alexander Rebbeh, used to come to pay sick calls on his friend Mendel.

Hersch-Ber was a Hassidic Jew, a scholar. His face was pale and sallow, his small beard-black and sparse. These did not testify to a rich and happy life. He barely eked out a living. His occupation was rolling cigarettes. He was utterly exhausted from travelling to the fairs in Pomorze. These trips were not an easy way of making a living. Polish hooligans who belonged to the “Pickets,” representatives of the boycott against the Jews, from time to time would attack Jewish dealers and steal their merchandise. It was not easy for such a Jew to earn his piece of bread, not easy at all.

Hersch-Ber would visit the ailing Mendel. He didn't bring flowers or a bottle of red wine or even an orange. He sat down and said: “Mendel, I have brought you a saying from the Rebbeh,” and he took out of his pocket a pamphlet written by the old Alexander Rebbeh: “Rejoice oh Israel.” Mendel's pale lips began to move, deep lines furrowed his face and his eyes shone with happiness. It was obvious that the patient's heart was full of joy. When he touched the book, he felt as though the Rebbeh himself had come and extended his good, warm hand to him.

Zalman Lidzbarski also lived in Mendel's house. He was tall and thin, an Alexandrower Hassid. He always carried a black umbrella. He dealt in materials and textiles and, to some extent, money lending.

The front of the house was occupied by a glassware and utensils store run by “Sweet Rifka,” Mendel Laski's wife. The store was listed in her name.

Close by lived Binem the Winemaker, also known in town as Binem Shiyeh's. The Gentiles called him Binem Estreicher. He was a skinny Jew, haggard from his frequent fasting, with a thin, blond beard. His voice was like a eunuch'' and fearfully he observed the Holy One'' world through his two, red and sick eyes. His clothes seemed stuck to his body and one piece of clothing was longer than the other. As they used to say, “The Thursday is longer than the Wednesday.” From his open shirt, the collar of which was rolled up over his capote, one could see his long, thin neck and his Adam's apple bobbing up and down. Even on weekdays, he wore a velvet hat over his skullcap; Saturdays, a shtreimel (a black broad-rimmed hat trimmed with velvet or fur, worn by religious Jewish men, especially in Galicia and Poland) of moth eaten fur. This he hid under his bed during the week to keep away the moths. Binem was a shlimazal, par excellence. He was a devoted follower of the Alexander Rebbeh. Waggish Hassidim said that when his wife beat him with a broom, he would hide behind the bed and yell out in his reedy voice, “Impudent woman, don't you know that it's written, 'and he shall rule over her,'” and that during Melaveh Malkeh the floor rag was found in the pot of groats.

Disregarding all these tales, whether they be true or exaggerated, Binem looked upon his wine trade with awe and reverence. So as not to mislead the Jews into drinking “heathen wine,” he dragged himself and his wines in freight cars from far off Bessarabia. Without knowing one word of Polish or Russian, he succeeded in protecting the wine from the touch of a goy's hand even, from his glance.

There were entirely different customs and a different atmosphere in the nearby spice and condiment store owned by the wealthy partners Konecki and Fraenk. Here business was conducted in a modern way. There was an office, a telephone and account books. Old Konecki wore a short coat, a stiff hat, had short-cropped hair and spoke a Germanic Yiddish, in short, a half-assimilated Jew. His sons' education alienated them from Judaism. But, after years of reflection and doubt, they returned to the Jewish fold. Hilik recalled that his real name was Hillel. He quit the assimilationist scout movement named after “Borek Yosilewicz” and, until he left Poland, was active in “Hashomer Hatzair.” His sister Borka repented too. For many years she was a member of “Hashomer Hatzair.” Her young life came to an end in Auschwitz.

In one of the corners of the market, near Plock Street, was Wolf Brachfeld's dry goods store. He was tall and had a yellow beard. Formally, he was an Alexandrower Hassid but actually, Wolf Brachfeld was more inclined to business than to Hassidism.

Out of Wolf Brachfeld's entire family, only one son remained alive, in the Land of Israel.

There was also a Jewish print shop in town. Jews who ran businesses needed letterheads for correspondence; others needed “wedding announcements,” “New Year's” cards, and theatre announcements. Later on there also appeared a newspaper in Yiddish, “The Mlawa Times.” All the printing for the town and its surroundings was done in Reb Leibesh Heinsdorf's print shop. He used to pray in the Hassidim's shtibbl (small Hassidic house of prayer) and was interested in German, Russian, Polish, Yiddish, and modern and ancient Hebrew literature. He was a Jew who in everyday life, in every conversation and in any company, followed the adage; “The words of the wise are uttered with dignity and calm.” He was an aristocratic Hassid who obeyed the rule, “Good manners are more important than study.” Any close contact with Reb Leibesh Heinsdorf gave one the impression that even though he seemed always calm and composed, he was a person trapped in an unfamiliar world.

Reb Leibesh Heinsdorf followed a mixed philosophy of life in which were united faith, common sense, and total resignation. His warm, shortsighted eyes, full of love, were always glued to a book or pamphlet.

He was respected by one and all and everyone was full of wonder at the marvelous nature of this man who lived in peace with the progressive Jews and with the Gur Hassidim.

During weekdays he wore a short coat; on Saturdays, a silk caftan and a small velvet hat.

Leibesh Heinsdorf was considered one of the calmest and most modest persons in town who would walk at the side of the road rather than disturb the passers-by.

In the old Market there were dozens of other “houses” with hundreds of inhabitants: Hassidim, Mitnagdim (anti-Hassidim), freethinkers and traditionalist Jews, Zionists, Bundists, Folkists, and just plain Jews, “reciters of Psalms,” who have not been mentioned here at all.

An important role in the various walks of Jewish life was fulfilled by the following families: David Pizicz, Lederberg, Lubliner, Meizlic, Shimon Lipsker, Henoch Zilberberg, Herman Kleniec, and others. It didn't matter whether they resembled or differed from one another, were secular or religious, Hassidim or Mitnagdim - a common destiny united them into one big and close family.

Yet another citizen who was far removed from business and secularity lived in the Old Market. This was the Town Rabbi, Reb Yehiel Moshe Sagalowicz of blessed memory. Like any Rabbi in a Jewish town, he had his adherents and opponents. One side claimed that the Rabbi was inclined towards Zionism. In contrast, the other said that he favored the “Aguda.” Some didn't like his interpretation of the Bible. True, the Rabbi was not a gifted lecturer. The congregation found his Lithuanian pronunciation quite strange. But in spite of all these differences, the Jews respected their Rabbi and considered him a great scholar.

The greatness of his character came to light during World War I. When the Jewish population abandoned the town that had been so severely punished by frontline fire, only few Jews, among them the Rabbi, stayed behind. “As long as there is even a single Jew in town, the Rabbi remains,” he declared. So said, so delivered. Because of this stance, the Rabbi gained much love and loyalty from the entire Jewish population. His greatness and high moral values, his devotion and love for his congregation, were revealed even further during the last war of annihilation. When the Jews were first expelled from the city, they ran to save the Rabbi's life. But the old Rabbi of Mlawa did not seek means of deliverance at a time when the life of his entire congregation was in jeopardy. Together with his people he was deported from town and his pure soul breathed its last in exile in Lublin. For forty-nine years he had served as Mlawa's Rabbi.

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