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[Pages 527-520]

Chapter 2:

Intimate Corners of Town

All the streets in town looked alike. Each had many wooden buildings and a few stone ones, narrow alleys and wide yards that served as public passages through which one could go from one street to the next. Small alleys behind the yards suggested a respectable but modest existence and made for great co-operation among the neighboring houses and yards. However, despite the similarity, each street had its strictly unique life-style, its special flavor and even its own history.

On Plock Street just across the way from the Evangelical Church stood a pump. Opposite the pump was a white stone house, the teacher Yonah Wishinski's school. In back of this white building extended the “mountains.” What were these mountains, what secrets did they hide?

It was told that many years ago there were no mountains here at all. A large church had stood there. Once, the funeral cortege of a Rabbi greatly learned in the Torah passed by and the gentiles began to make fun of the Jewish funeral. The Rabbi suddenly sat up in his funeral shroud and…the earth split open and swallowed up the church. In its stead mountains appeared that hummed and rumbled endlessly. Any heder pupil who was not afraid to listen to these sounds could cup his ear to the ground and hear the Gentile voices grumbling in their sunken house of worship. On Sundays and on their holy days, these echoes from the depths of the mountains grew stronger.

Between the wojewodztwo (District) offices and the Wymysliny (Gentile street) in the direction leading to the forest, there was an expanse of land crossed by valleys and pits, called the Rosegard. Very few Jews lived there. It was in this region that the authorities had carried out their verdicts of hanging, burning, or beheading. And all this was done in the name of the Goddess of Justice. According to the town chronicles, it was here that witches were burnt.

Close to the Rosegard, in a pale of sorrow, a few abandoned graves of victims of the Polish uprising could be seen. The Rosegard struck both Jews and Gentiles with fear and terror. It was said and believed that sinning souls flourished there in the form of demons and evil spirits. It was best to avoid going to the Rosegard even in the daytime and certainly never at night. The Jewish representation there consisted of several neglected and sorrowful graves of victims of the cholera that once raged in town.

*

If one crossed Nieborg Road and went past the fields, one could reach “Kozielsk.” But the direct route led from the Old Market through Szkolna Street (Kozia Street) and passed right alongside Leder's large mill. The Kozielsk region extended far beyond the forest. It was a small Jewish island in the midst of gentile fields. This place was designated by J.C.A. (Jewish Colonization Association) to be a Jewish agricultural colony. That was the plan. Actually, only several Jewish families lived in Kozielsk and their main source of income was not from agriculture. But the Jewish agricultural settlement, tiny as it was, served as a training farm for all those who aspired to emigrate to the Land of Israel. It provided a deep spiritual experience that provoked the imagination and stirred up dreams.

It was here in Kozielsk that the Mlawian townsfolk for the first time in their lives saw Jews with sickles reaping wheat in the fields. Only here Jews milked cows and carried manure. In this settlement the Gentiles could see stalwart Jews who didn't know the meaning of fear. With great pride the Jews told of the prowess of Haim Miedzak who felled a Gentile with one resounding smack. In later years the town halutzim (pioneers), in training for kibbutz life, worked here. Today these girls and boys, who began their pioneer work in the fields of Kozielsk near Mlawa, are to be found in Kefar Menahem, Gal-On and other kibbutzim that they founded in the Land of Israel.

The baker Zureh Prasznicki and his family, and the large Gluzman family, then also lived in Kozielsk. The old Guzmans lived out their days in Palestine and their son, Raphael-Fula of Kozielsk, today sows wheat in the fields of kibbutz Ein-Hahoresh.

*

A favorite spot in town was “behind the church.” This was the meeting place of the first swallows who began to break away and leave their patriarchal homes. In the summertime at twilight and on Saturday afternoons, young people gathered here who were imbued with the new ideas of Socialism and Hibbat-Zion (“Love of Zion” - a 19th century Zionist movement). Here they immersed themselves in dreams and debated topics of the times. Voices echoed in the air singing new songs such as “Bamahraysha” (“With a Plow”), “Makom Sham Arazim” (“There Where the Cedars Grow”), “Hashemesh Shoka'at Belehavot” (“The Sun Sets in Flame”).

Na´ve and enthusiastic youth saw the world through eyes full of love and faith. A new dawn had broken, a new day had arisen filled with sunshine and appreciation of mankind. The light of progress would open people's eyes. A new and beautiful world was in the making, so they believed. Here, “behind the church,” young boys and girls met for “love trysts". In those days, the sons of respectable Jewish families were afraid to appear in the city streets with a girl. Even going “behind the church” with a girl was considered heresy.

Behind the church was a very old garden. Here towering, ancient trees cast their shadows. Bushes and tall weeds formed secret corners. Half-shaded hiding places attracted the bashful Jewish girls and boys. This was the days of “Raizele, the Shohet's Daughter,” “The Daisies,” “Don't Look For Me Over There,” and other songs.

*

Times changed. The Poles broke up the Russian Orthodox church. That whole area became a large park full of ornamental trees and lawns. The young people abandoned “behind the church” and found themselves a new spot, “Swiss Valley.” There were no half-shaded hiding places in “Swiss Valley,” only broad expanses.

Popular “Swiss Valley” extended from the end of town, not far from the guard's hut on Szranski Road. On either side of the railway tracks fresh green fields, hills and valleys, spread out. Here was a spacious, living landscape covered with open fields. There was an abundance of wild flowers: blue cornflowers, bluebells, camomile, and yellow groundsels. Among the fields was a deep valley covered with tall weeds, “Swiss Valley.”

It is difficult to explain why it was just this area that happened to inherit the intimacy of “behind the church.” Perhaps the drawing power was the railroad track and the trains racing back and forth. They aroused and dispelled the restlessness of yearning for far away places, “the strong desire to abandon town as soon as possible.” These and similar thoughts possessed the better sector of the Jewish youth.

Trains pulled in and dashed off somewhere far away. They aroused hopes and the faith that, at long last, the day would come when they, the youth, would leave town for the wide, wide world.

Those far off days of sunny Polish autumn when in the afternoons one wandered about the fields and feasted one's eyes on the autumn leaves, the redness of fading birch leaves, spring to life in our memories.

Not only the youth but also serious-minded Hassidim would be possessed by the same strong urge to wander miles away from town-obviously, in order to fulfill mitzvot (commandments). On Saturday evenings, after Havdalah, (close of Sabbath ritual) the Hassidim would rise and set out for Marinow, to Yossel Goldstein's “estate,” in order to “take over the house” for several hours.

Outside, the shohet (ritual slaughterer) would be slaughtering geese. Within the large corridor the Hassidim would seat themselves around wooden tubs and husk rye for a pottage of groats for the Melaveh Malkeh (the last festive meal at the close of the Sabbath). The curtains were ripped off the windows and transformed into aprons for the new masters of the house and kitchen. Hassidim would carry supplies of food from the pantry and the cellar, toiling and laboring in the kitchen, well into the night. Then they seated themselves for the Melaveh Malkeh and sang with fervor and with zeal until it was time for the morning prayers of the week's first new day.

The elite would sometimes set out and head for Ya'akov Mondrzak's estate in the forests of Wrubliwo to visit the Surgal Wiegoczyn family. In time the city forest also drew more people. Pale-faced Jews, coughing Jews, would “camp” there for a few hours during the day. The Rabbi himself, according to doctors' orders, would set out in his carriage to benefit from the fresh air in place of medicine.

*

Near town there was a lovely spot, Rodak. Nest to the Mlawa forest was a wooden water mill. The waters of the Mlawka River poured over the paddles of a huge wooden wheel and set the millstones in motion. A small, narrow wooden bridge led to Mlawka forest that extended for miles and miles and continued past the Prussian border. The dams in front of the mill halted the stream that was covered with nuphar. The white water lilies formed such a thick mat that the waterfall (known as “Niagara”) on the other side of the bridge seemed to force its way through their blossoms. The first owners of the mill were the Mlawiaks, then came the Weinbergs. The workers were, of course, Gentiles.

Between Warsaw Street and the tar pit, extending far, far away, up to the “zabrody” (a neighborhood in the outskirts) were fields and orchards that belonged to the starostwo (the district authorities). (The starostwo building belonged to the Leibels.) This was one of the most beautiful sections of the city. One could wander among tall weeds, field flowers and gardens covered with reseda, lilac, cress, asters, dahlias, roses, oleander, tabacco blossoms, sunflowers, and large, unfenced-off orchards. A noisy brook streamed nearby. This was a foreign world within Warsaw Street. Here a Jewish soul was filled with dread because of the Gentile silence and the strange and pungent fragrance. To enter the unfamiliar landscape of the Gentile neighborhood, of the starostwo, was like breaking into the priest's garden or perhaps, even into his home. For a Jew, this whole area was strange and awesome. The very presence of the starostwo house on top of the hill with its broken, thatch roof, struck fear into the hearts of the passers-by. No Jewish lad could possibly imagine that this old and picturesque building was just a granary and not a nest of witches and devils.

*

To the west, across the way from that same Gentile mystery, was the “village.” This was where the Jews had lived before they were allowed to settle in the city of Mlawa itself. In our time there remained only several folk tale about this ancient Jewish community in the village. At the site itself there was an old cemetery with sunken, caved-in graves, several tombstones dating back 200 years and…the village synagogue. This was an old wooden structure built in the tradition of wooden churches then common in Poland.

After they had abandoned the village, the Jews of Mlawa for many years believed that the old synagogue in the village would last forever. Parents told their children with pride that the Tzaddik (a Hassidic leader) Levi (Rabbi Levi Yizhak of Berdichev) himself used to pray there and that next to the mezuzah one could still see his holy fingerprints. And indeed, through his virtue, the modest wooden synagogue continued to stand there like a rock of ages, alone in the midst of the Gentile community. Many fires broke out during those years in the “zabrody,” but the synagogue was untouched. On Saturdays and on festive days, the city's Jews, headed by Wolf Brandele's (Rabbi Abrehmel Ciechanower's grandson) would set out for the old synagogue and pray there.

Only one Jew remained in the old Jewish community and continued to live there among the Gentiles. He was called “Rebbiyeh”. He was a simple, God-fearing tailor of average height and of ruddy complexion. Both summer and winter he would rush through Warsaw Street at a brisk pace on his way to the minyan (religious quorum) in town. With great certainty the boys told one another that that very tailor from the village…was none other than one of the Lamed-Vav Tzaddikim (one of the thirty-six invisible just men who justify the existence of the world).

For many years the tradition of going to pray in the old synagogue in the village was continued. And then the First World War broke out. In those turbulent days of 1914-1918, the last vestige of this Jewish community was destroyed. Suddenly the Jews of Mlawa realized that the sanctified and beloved synagogue had simply disappeared from the face of the Holy One's earth. The goyim (gentiles) there had taken the little synagogue apart and burnt it. There remained only the stories and tales about the Tzaddik Levi of the little synagogue and about “Rebbi-yeh” of celebrated mystery who lives on in the memory of the people as one of the Lamed-Vav Tzaddikim.

'Yavneh' school with principal Fisher and the teachers:
Fanya Margolis, I. Hirshhorn and L. Lubliner, 1927

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