Jewish families in Ostrolenka, as in other Polish towns, excelled in the traditional and special Jewish atmosphere that filled them. Modesty, piety, intimacy. In those homes, the father assumed the chief place. He determined the way of life, the milieu, the education. He was the supporter, honored and revered and, in most families, no one disobeyed him. The mother, the housewife, raised her children, toiled and labored from morning until night, attended to the welfare of her husband and her children. Some women helped their husbands in their businesses and still found a free hour to help others. There were many relatives in every family in the small city: grandfather and grandmother, uncles and aunts. The families grew and branched out, and met on holidays and family celebrations.
I will try to describe life in our home, although it is not an easy thing to erect a gravestone in writing for a father and mother who ascended to heaven in a whirlwind in the prime of their lives. I only saw them briefly in their lives and do not know how they died and where they were buried. I did not weep for them and did not eulogize them. How will I tell my sorrow before all? My parents who raised and nurtured me, taught and guided me, and gave me their blessing when I emigrated to the Holy Land, when they parted from me with a kiss and burning tears did not see the comfort toward which their hearts and souls aspired, for which they educated their sons and daughters, and toward which they dedicated the best of their days and years. Woe is me!
From my childhood memories, one evening stands out, when my father carried me in his arms to the large study hall. It may have been the celebration of the opening of the study hall or another festive event. But that act remains etched in my mind and heart as a symbol my father carrying me in his arms to the synagogue. All the days of my childhood, youth and adolescence, when I deferred to him, I see myself carried in his arms, hearing his lessons and listening to his teachings, ethics and reproofs. His words light my way even today.
My father and teacher, Reb Efraim, of blessed memory
My father, Reb Efraim, the son of Reb Mordechaj Zew, of blessed memory, was born in Ostrolenka and lived and worked there until the expulsion. He was modest, spoke little but did much. He was dynamic, an initiator, active, a Zionist in word and deed. He observed the word of God and was prudent in his ways. He helped to establish the Talmud Torah and later founded the Improved Heder, so that his sons would learn Torah willingly. He was among the founders of the Jewish bank, to help the needy with loans. He established the Mizrachi organization because he foresaw the destruction of Polish Jewry and heard the steps of the redemption coming near.
Reb Efraim Chmiel and his wife, Bejla Rywka, of blessed memory
I did not hear a great deal about his childhood and youth. Sometimes he spoke with reverence about his venerable teacher, Reb Nechemia Rozenbojm, of blessed memory, the father of the teacher Gedalja Rozenbojm, who was later my teacher and friend in education at the Yavneh School. My father studied Hebrew and its literature, and the Pentateuch with Reb Nechemia. My father subscribed to Hebrew newspapers: HaTzfira, Baderech, etc., and from my childhood I remember that he read the Mizrachi newspapers, which were published at the time. My father spoke Hebrew and many of his letters were
written in Hebrew. His correspondence with me was all about the purity of Hebrew and demonstrated his satisfaction with my progress in knowledge of the language and its literature. He did not tend to reveal his feelings, but despite this, he could not hide his joy when he saw my first published work. In our house there was a closet full of books, many of which my father acquired in his youth. Among them were Pentateuchs with commentaries, the Nevi'im u'Ketuvim [The Prophets and The Hagiography], the Mishna and the Poskim [Jewish legal decisors], Chassidic books and enlightenment books. In the closet were also manuscripts, among them a manuscript of a book by his rabbi, Reb Nechemia.
Near our old apartment in my grandfather's house, lived Reb Szlomo the Tarrer. My father's bedroom was divided from Reb Szlomo's only room by a wall made of wooden boards. Every night, Reb Szlomo rose at midnight and prayed and studied the holy books for many hours. His voice, chanting the Gemara melody, penetrated my father's room night and day, especially on Sabbaths and holidays. Reb Szlomo used to study and pray every free hour. His pious and modest figure still stands before me.
My father traded in leathers, scrap iron, wool and cotton. From all the villages and towns in the area, they brought merchandise to the storehouses in my grandfather's yard and my father would transfer it to Bialystok, Warsaw and even send railway cars of merchandise to other countries. When trade collapsed, and large investments were required, my father, of blessed memory, combined with a few partners and continued to run the business. I remember days of crisis, when prices dropped. Buyers went bankrupt and did not pay. The partners withdrew and competed. New merchants appeared. My father, of blessed memory, did not despair. He brought his competitors closer, returned those who had withdrawn and was again free to work.
A great deal of affection was shown to my father by the small merchants who came from the area and from the edges of the city. My father, of blessed memory, helped them with his money and advice. [I remember] a story of a butcher (today a wealthy man in Tel Aviv), who received money from my father to buy a calf for slaughter and could not pay the debt. Ashamed, he evaded my father. When my father realized this, he went to his house, calmed him, encouraged him and gave him an additional sum of money to buy another calf and try again and thus it was. The butcher returned to business, got out of his straits and paid his debt.
The merchants and butchers who came to our house to settle accounts spoke with satisfaction and respect, and were certain that they would get a just reckoning. I never heard anyone insult my father. On the contrary, while settling accounts, they brought up personal problems and asked for advice and guidance. My father did not take part in the disagreements and divisions prevalent in town. He did not want to be chosen for community work, except for educational matters and social assistance. Finally, he also helped the Zionist Federation at the beginning of its way, and founded Mizrachi, until others came and continued on.
When he had money in his pocket, my father did not withhold it and helped others. It once happened that my father's niece, Sara Rywka, reached marriageable age. My grandfather, Reb Mordechaj Zew, of blessed memory, went to the Rabbi of Radzymin to ask for advice. The Rabbi said to him, Do you have sons? He answered, Yes, three Jehoszua, Efraim and Icchak. He said, Tell Reb Efraim to give five thousand gold coins, and take the young man from Warsaw. My father gave the money and Sara Rywka, who had lost her mother, married Reb Awraham Rozensztejn a fine young man, a Chassid and lamdan from Warsaw. After many years, my father built his new house at 28 Kilinskiego Street, and needed five thousand gold coins.
He met a Gentile from the city and received this sum as a loan from him. After this, the Gentile disappeared and was never seen again in the city. My father tried to find him and could not. My father was sorry, but my grandfather said to him, You were a shaliach mitzvah [a messenger for a good deed], so God repaid you. Great is the credit of one who fulfills the mitzvah of helping to provide a wedding for an orphan.
My father's hand was open; he shared with others what he had received from God. He gave his money to
his family, supported my grandfather and other relatives in their old age, and acquired many friends. He did much for the public good, being on the Mizrachi committee for tax evaluation in the city. He devoted himself a great deal to educational matters. He was appointed supervisor of the Polish Jewish school on behalf of the government, and tried to help poor children in the school by the distribution of clothes, food and milk. He also evaluated the Yavneh School from time to time, and his evaluation was always a pleasant experience for the students.
We were three brothers and six sisters. The sons went to school and to yeshiva, and the girls to school and Bejt Jakow. When we grew up, we learned a trade or went to work. People would say, The daughters of Reb Efraim do not loiter in the streets, and you will not see his sons running around the market. Education at home was religious, but my father, of blessed memory, was not a Chassid, or among those who were strict or sought to impose fear. He himself was enlightened, even though he was very meticulous in his observance. He spoke Hebrew and subscribed to HaTzfira and other Hebrew newspapers that appeared in the '20s and '30s. He planted a longing for Zion in our hearts and a love of Zionism, and he motivated us to emigrate and prepare the way for the whole family.
We prayed at Chevrat HaTorah, first at the added minyan in the home of my grandfather, of blessed memory. Reb Mosze Natan Tejtelbojm, of blessed memory, would give a lesson in [the commentaries of the] Alsheich. Later, the congregation collected money and built a beautiful building of its own near the large study hall. From time to time, my father prayed at the large study hall, until Mizrachi was established and, together with the Zionists, they founded their own minyan and prayed at the home of the watchmaker, Reb Naftali Blum, of blessed memory, at the Improved Heder and at the home of Czapnikiewicz. Still later, they rented an apartment in the home of the teacher, Filar, of blessed memory, and, at the end, Mizrachi left and prayed at the Yavneh School. Praying at Chevrat HaTorah was a special experience for me.
My father had a pleasant voice. He was a Torah reader and led the prayers on Sabbaths and High Holy Days, but not for any reward. I stood at his side and helped, singing the tremolo part and whispering the melody to him. He got his style of prayers and melodies from previous prayer leaders in town. He got a great deal from Reb Jakow Byszko, who was a veteran in Chevrat HaTorah. My father's melodies and styles were willingly accepted by the congregation; many asked to hear his voice and prayers.
On Purim, my father read the Megillah at my grandfather's house. When I grew up, I took this role on myself. Once, I even organized an acting company and we presented the contents of the Megillah at my grandfather's house. I received a whole gold coin as a prize and the members of the company were also rewarded
My father knew many songs songs in Yiddish, Hebrew, Polish and in Polish and Russian dialects from around the area. When he came to a religious celebration or a family party, his songs were a marvelous experience for the listeners. They were an outpouring of the soul and longing and yearning, loftiness and joy all in one. He knew many folk songs. The audience's favorite songs, which he often sang were Dort in Turky, In Der Soche, Die Kontrasten, Lo Amut Ki Echyeh and other Zionist songs, folksongs and songs of camaraderie. He sang and the audience repeated the chorus or melody after him. When the song was over, he went to the center of the room and stimulated the crowd with solo dances, with all the audience clapping hands to the rhythm of the movement. My father, of blessed memory, knew how to be happy and to make others happy and he was loved in the city for this as well.
Everyone knew that World War II was coming. My father, of blessed memory, said to me during one conversation near our parting, If, God forbid, war breaks out again, who knows if I will have the strength to wander from place to place, as we did during the last war. The war came, shook and uprooted everything; nothing remained but the burning memory in our souls.
I will never forget the day of separation from my home and my father in March 1939, when I left the city on my way to Warsaw. The parting was difficult. My mother, of blessed memory, wiped a tear from her eye and whispered, In whose hands do you leave us?, and
after a moment, Go, go my son, and save your soul and survive. And my grandfather asserted, The war is approaching, we hear the shooting on the border. Anyone who can, should flee. With the blessing Be strong and of good courage, I parted from him. My father brought me to Warsaw, to the Bristol Hotel, and accompanied me to the train that took me to Konstanca. As I stood near the train, he proffered a small prayer book and said, You can't take a lot of baggage with you (I left on an illegal immigrants boat), but take this as a memento. Great prayer will stand by you at all times. And another thing I would ask I attended to your education and taught you everything I could. Continue, at least, to read a chapter of the Pentateuch every day.
I exchanged only a few letters with my father, of blessed memory, from the Polish Diaspora and the Russian Diaspora at the time of the escape, until everything sank.
My mother and teacher, Bejla Rywka, of blessed memory
My mother, Bejla Rywka, nee Zyman, of blessed memory, was a saintly woman. All her life is a story of sanctification and purification, works of charity and kindness in the name of Heaven. My father, of blessed memory, brought her to Ostrolenka from nearby Myszyniec. From her parents' house, she brought with her religious zeal and a way of strict education; but with this, also she demonstrated a great deal of gentleness, pleasantness and poetry of soul. I remember the hours she sat by the wooden cradle of my little brother and sisters, rocking it and singing. She had a pleasant voice, and it was nice to sit by her side and listen to her songs. I loved to listen to her reading from holy books, books of supplication and requests, the Tzena U'Rena and, sometimes, from other books she found suitable.
She educated her children to learn Torah and do mitzvot, and read the Shema with them morning and evening. She took care that we had the finest teachers. When my father established the Improved Heder, she reacted to it with mixed feelings. While she believed in its superiority over the other heders, it was hard for her to come to terms with the new education. She reached the height of happiness on the day I went to study at the Lomza Yeshiva. Finally, she would have a yeshiva bochur of her own. She expressed her happiness with packages of food she sent me every week, and with tears of joy that stood in her eyes when she accompanied me to the bus. She even came to visit me once at the yeshiva, with my sister, Leah. This was a great experience for my mother, when she saw me among hundreds of young men, bent over my pulpit and reading the Gemara.
Out of her love for the Torah, she always worked for the yeshiva that was founded in the city. The Bejt Josef Yeshiva, a Nowardok yeshiva, was located in the city. Townsmen and others from nearby towns and villages learned there. My mother made the rounds of the houses to get teig for the yeshiva boys. The yeshiva students also had teig at our house. Even today, I meet former yeshiva students from our city who dined at our table. I met one of them in Mexico, when I visited there in October 1957. Together with a friend among those who worked on behalf of the yeshiva, my mother also collected money for the yeshiva. At Purim plays held at the yeshiva, she sat among the important guests and, thanks to her, I also sat in one of the first rows.
She ran the household with great wisdom. We were nine children in the house, and it was orderly and clean. Once every two weeks, a big wash was done. For two days, the house was full of steam, big pots set on the stove top, and the kleine weibale (which is what we called the washerwoman) scrubbed the laundry, while Zelig the Water Carrier brought water from the spring near the electricity station. Mother soaped the laundry and helped rinse it. The washing ended by going to the River Narew, where the wash was scrubbed and rinsed in the clear water of the river. It was brought up to the attic of the house and hung on ropes there. After a few days, we all followed the kleine weibale to the mangle house, where the clothes were pressed and then returned to the closet. In the winter, the washing was done once a month. Zelig became almost a member of the family. He took care of the water. He never used yokes, like his competitors, Zyszte the Mute or Chaim Trajtel and his sons. Zelig was paid for every pair of buckets he brought. He also ate at our house whenever he came. Therefore, he was generally loyal and took care that the water barrel was full.
The Sabbath was a special experience. Even preparations for the Sabbath created a festive atmosphere in the house. Two days a week were market days in the city Tuesday and Friday. On Tuesday, mother bought the necessities for the Sabbath that were to be found in the market. On Thursday, we brought Sabbath necessities from the grocery: flour for challot [Sabbath breads], yeast, sugar, etc. On Friday morning, mother went to get fish. We brought meat on Thursday
or Friday morning. Early Friday morning, mother koshered the meat, prepared the sourdough for the challot and the vegetables for the tzimmes (compote). On Thursday, the rooms were cleaned and the floors washed. On Friday morning, the smells of the Sabbath food had already spread in and around the house. We loved the Sabbath Eve atmosphere, and the rest and serenity that prevailed in the house after all the many preparations. We went to synagogue with father and, when we returned, the big table was set for the whole family. On it was a pure white tablecloth and lit candles, in silver and copper candlesticks. We sat around the table. Father sat at its head and, opposite him, a Sabbath guest or yeshiva student, or both. Father began singing Shalom Aleichem and everyone sang along. Father said the kiddush [blessing over the wine], and those sons who were already bnei mitzvah [bar mitzvah age or over] repeated the blessing after him. At the Sabbath meal, we sang together a great deal, parents and boys and girls together. Our voices broke through the windows of the house, and often people gathered to hear Efraim's choir. From time to time, we sang one of the zmirot [Sabbath and holiday songs] to a new melody. We also glorified the rest of the Sabbath meals with zmirot. Sabbath Day was also examination day. According to the examinations, my father knew how our studies were progressing. He came to school on Sundays and made his comments.
Holidays, too, were rich with experiences. Even during hard times, we did not omit singing in our house. If we sometimes felt hard-pressed during the week, happiness prevailed on Sabbaths and holidays. We wore new clothes and tasty food was served. Guests visited and, sometimes, we visited our relatives and they served refreshments.
Drinking tea on Sabbath was a sort of special ritual in our house. Mother prepared a few kettles and a pail full of boiling water, and placed them on the stove top. Relatives, friends and neighbors came to our house before prayers and in the afternoon to drink a glass of tea.
Mother's grace pervaded the house on weekdays, Sabbaths and holidays. She ruled the house with iron discipline, and aspired to see her children walk the straight and narrow way God's way. When the Jews were expelled from Ostrolenka, she left with my father and three children for Stolin. There they tried to rebuild the family nest, but were killed by the enemy, and with them family members who were there.
As if through a fog, I remember my first days at the heder. Wrapped in my father's prayer shawl, I was brought to Reb Jakow Byszko's attic and placed near the desk. I stood on a small stool with father and mother near me. Reb Jakow opened the prayer book in front of him and told me to look in the book. I fixed my eyes on the letters and began to read after the teacher, Alef, bet A metallic clink stopped my reading. A copper coin rolled on the table.
This coin fell from Heaven for you! Study Torah and angels will protect you! I raised my eyes upward and looked among the rafters and boards for the crack through which the coin fell.
There's the crack above and while I was looking up, another clink was heard and a second coin rolled and fell on the floor.
On that day, I began to study the alphabet.
My teacher came to our house to teach the children how to read and pray. He was an old man and ate at our house. The teacher sat at the head of the table and we climbed on a chair one after another and repeated our lesson. When my turn came, I got up on the chair and read after the teacher while looking out the window at the yard.
It is said that a beautiful synagogue stood in the city before World War I. After the war, nothing remained of it but a brick foundation, walls and pillars. Grass and thorns grew on it. At night, it cast fear on little school children. Strange stories were told about ghosts and spirits of the dead who walked, prayed and went up to make a blessing on the Torah. They called to some passersby to come up and make a blessing on the Torah. This was a bad sign for the passerby God forbid, he
might not live out the year.
The synagogue foundation enclosed the south side of the courtyard. On the eastern side, a big study hall was built. A large hall for prayer was painted with oil paint; paintings of the tribes of Israel adorned its walls. The walls rose, slanting upward and ending with a painting of the army of heaven. The big hall was surrounded by the women's gallery on west, north and south. Small windows punctured the walls, and the women peeked through them into the hall. In the study hall, on the western side, was the community house (the community shtebl), a place of prayer and Torah. Minyan after minyan came and went for morning, afternoon and evening prayers. During prayer hours, the community shtebl was completely full, especially in the winter, when it was hard to heat the large hall of the study hall. People sat at the tables and studied Mishna and Chok Le Yisrael.
Any magid who happened to be in the city would preach from community shtebl pulpit, and place a candle and a bowl near the door. Everyone who went out left a donation there. Whether the magid was a famous one, or one of the emissaries and great rabbis, while he preached from the pulpit of the study hall, notables went out in pairs, and collected funds from the balabatim at their homes or businesses.
West of the study hall building was a courtyard surrounded by buildings on three sides, with a gate enclosing it from the north. At a distance of approximately twenty meters from the synagogue, the Talmud Torah, a two-story wooden building, was built. It had eight big rooms and a small one. On the lower floor, the melamdim [teachers] taught: Reb Lazer Eli the beginners' melamed; a second melamed, nicknamed Japonczyk the Pentateuch melamed; Reb Mendel Lomzer and others, whose names and nicknames I do not remember. I remember that we used to bring Reb Lazer Eli Rosh Chodesh [new month] money. At Japonczyk's, I sat with the bigger boys, and we studied prayer and Pentateuch all day. We stopped for breakfast at eleven in the morning, and for lunch at four in the afternoon. During these long breaks, we managed to fight. A lime pit remained in the yard after construction, and once a boy was pushed into it and saved only by a miracle. This picture remains before me to this day.
One Yom Kippur Eve, Mother placed a prayer book before me, opened to Bnei Adam, put a rooster in my hand and commanded me to read. I tried to read, but it was as if the words got stuck in my throat. Mother urged me to continue. I stammered and got fragmented and distorted syllables out of my throat. All my efforts to continue reading correctly were in vain. Fog covered my eyes, the letters rose and fell, tears rolled and dropped on the page. Mother railed against the heder and against the melamdim until she despaired, and then read word after word with me until the end.
Thus ended the episode of the heder.
After many years, I discovered that Father, of blessed memory, was one of the builders of the Talmud Torah. His great concern was to improve education in the community. But it did not help; the building was new, but the melamdim and the methods of instruction stayed the same. There was no chance to institute innovations and change.
That year I was six years old then a guest from Horodenko, Reb Zalman Gorzelczany, happened to come to our city and our house. He was a young man, handsome, in European dress and with a pleasant voice. He came to our city from nearby Wojciechowice, where there were army barracks and a brickworks. Gorzelczany spoke Hebrew with an Ashkenazi accent and sang new and heartwarming Hebrew songs. My father invited the man to be a Hebrew teacher for the younger generation.
After the holiday, the Improved Heder was opened.
The opening of the Improved Heder was not easy.
Its opponents fought, indifferent to general studies. This was opposition to enlightenment, innovation and Hebrew. Sometimes I heard the curse apikorsim achbarishim [heretic rats] (a hint at Hebreishim, that is, Hebrew speakers) aimed at teacher, parents and students. The first problem was the problem of the apartment. The upper floor of the Talmud Torah building stood empty. The Improved Heder board decided to break into one of the rooms facing the study hall courtyard. Most of the community elders, along with the head of the community, Chaim Pinczas
Gingold, and the Chassidim and gabbaim of the Talmud Torah were opposed. They came in droves to expel the teacher and take the room by force. My father, of blessed memory, invested many efforts then to neutralize the opposition. He was also made responsible for the budget of the Improved Heder. Finally, the Heder opened, and a few students gathered to learn there. From time to time, isolated attacks, insults and injuries took place windows were broken, the room was befouled. The teacher Gorzelczany demonstrated great patience, attending to repairs, cleaning and orderly studies.
I progressed quickly in reading, writing and studying the Holy Scriptures.
After a few years, the Improved Heder changed its name to the Yavneh School. It led to a turning point in Jewish and Hebrew education in the city's spiritual and cultural life. An expert in Hebrew education, Reb Jakow
Filar, who until then gave private Hebrew lessons to young and adult students, came to teach at the Improved Heder. An additional Heder was captured on the west side of the Talmud Torah building, where his class studied. Filar the Teacher was one of the most educated in the city. He was considered an excellent teacher, expert in Pentateuch and linguistic grammar, although strict and irritable. His students felt the strength of his arm. Gorzelczany taught reading, Pentateuch, prayer, laws, Hebrew and songs. Filar taught the olderadvanced students. At one time, he taught Hebrew literature and Jewish history, but then a beginners' class was also given to him, and he taught Torah with a heavy hand.
Soon, Hebrew song echoed through the Jewish houses and in the streets of the city. On summer days, we went to the grove near Bialy's sawmill or the grove across the river. On Lag BaOmer, we went armed with bows and pistols. On Shavuot Eve, we went to gather reeds. Despite this, we did not enjoy the usual rights of a school. Our studies continued every day during the breaks usual in a heder. There was no vacation; even in the summer, we learned without a stop. Jewish studies were dearer to our parents than anything else in the world.
Until the Improved Heder opened, and even during the first period of its existence, we had to be at the government school as well. After a short time, however, the government recognized the Improved Heder as a school with a general governmental curriculum. The first teachers who came to teach secular studies at the Improved Heder were Nadler, the principal of the Jewish government school, a short, chubby man, who won our hearts with his pleasant stories about nations and countries, Kaplan, Abramczyk, Mrs. Holcman, Lejbel Krystal and his wife from Lomza. Krystal later became the city clerk. The district government supervisor visited the school infrequently.
The Improved Heder board was active. From time to time, examinations were held, parents were invited to meetings with teachers and to parties held by the students. Sometimes, Rabbi Icchak Bursztejn, of blessed memory, stood at the head of the examiners, or one of the two morei hora'a (judges), Reb Jermiah and Reb Jakow Szlomo, of blessed memory. The school gained a good reputation as to the level of studies, achievements, discipline, cleanliness and courtesy. Quickly, we began speaking Hebrew with an Ashkenazi accent and received the first Hebrew study booklets.
Parties and celebrations, student fetes and plays were sometimes held at the school. These celebrations took place on holidays, such as Tu B'Shevat, Chanukah or the intermediary days of a holiday. I remember that on Tu B'Shevat, I was assigned to speak about the holiday. The teacher Filar prepared me for this. In one play, performed in the Jewish government school at about the time I left the school, I performed together with my sister, Rachel, and played one of the main roles. The play was prepared by Bajuk and Wajnkranc and presented successfully twice.
The Yavneh School's development was given great impetus by the opening of the Culture School, which competed with it. The Culture School attracted children of well-to-do and non-ultra-Orthodox circles. New
methods of organizing the school and in its curriculum were used. In addition, Hebrew instruction methods were improved and the students did very well. The Yavneh School also reorganized and added celebrations, plays and even short vacations, trying not to lag behind.
In a short time, it recaptured its superiority and the Culture School was forced to close.
As it grew and developed, the Yavneh School added Gemara teachers. First, the teacher Filar taught Mishna and the teacher Gorzelczany, Gemara. Then, Mr. Dawid Sarniewicz (Kaspi) began teaching Gemara. One year, we studied Gemara with Mendel Lomzer (this was in the Talmud Torah class, which was placed at the disposal of the Yavneh School). Reb Mendel Lomzer was the best Gemara melamed in the city, and the parents of children in the upper grades wanted them to have a real taste of the study of Gemara so we were given over to his hands.
Although Reb Mendel Lomzer was strict and very temperamental, the students did not balk from teasing him. I remember a prank we played one night. We poured water into the kerosene lamp and it went out in the middle of the lesson. We also played pranks like these on other teachers, especially Filar, who applied straps and sticks to the backs of his students. Thanks to one of these pranks, we were barred from our studies for an entire evening. At Reb Mendel Lomzer's, we began smoking cigarettes. He, himself, smoked many plain and cheap cigarettes of the Wanda brand; we, too, bought these cigarettes and smoked secretly.
It did not take many days and we were returned to the Yavneh School's regular framework. A teacher named Pietruszka came every afternoon to teach Gemara for two hours. With this teacher, we made great progress in Gemara studies. It was he who prepared me for the Lomza Yeshiva's entrance examination.
The Improved Heder or, as it was later called, the Yavneh School, laid an important foundation for the growth and development of the city's nationalistic Hebrew education. The school's students were among the founders of Zionist and pioneer youth movements. The school was especially influential in the development of the Mizrachi movement and its branches HeChalutz HaMizrachi, Tzerei Mizrachi and HaShomer HaDati. Thanks to the nationalistic education given to the generation that grew up in the city from 1925 and on, the Bund's influence decreased. Hebrew began to take the place of Yiddish in nationalistic youth organization nests in the city.
In 1937, approximately 150 students in eight classes studied at the Yavneh School. Those who completed their schooling received certificates of completion, recognized by the government's Ministry of Education. In 1936-7, I worked as a teacher in the school.
Gedaljahu Rozenbojm also worked in the school at that time. He moved to the Yavneh [School] after the Culture School was forced to close. By adding new instructional staff, the teacher Gorzelczany could devote himself more to general administration and strengthening the school's budget.
Gedaljahu Rozenbojm was one of the city notables. His noble face radiated magnetism and special charm. He knew Mishna and the [works of] Jewish law adjudicators, and had a broad general education. He did not quarrel with anyone and did not raise his voice. From the first time we met, I always found him reading and studying. He was also a writer, and guided his students-friends with love. He was a teacher gifted with unique, manifest pedagogical qualities and important humane qualities. He was honored by people and beloved by his many students and friends. He had a wonderful Hebrew writing and speaking style. He worked hard at school and at private lessons he gave until midnight in order to support his family. He lived in a small apartment with one room and a kitchen, with little furniture and a bookcase crammed with new and expensive books, which he willingly loaned. Although I studied with Rozenbojm for only a short time, this
teacher succeeded in creating a revolution in my life. I opened my eyes and saw what was happening in the world of the spirit. The Hebrew language became dear to me, and the Zionist ideal penetrated deep into my heart and soul. To this day, I have not forgotten his way of teaching. In my own instructional work, I have derived much benefit from it. He opened the gates of Hebrew language and literature to his students. His small library contained a selection of ancient and modern Hebrew literature, and it was placed at the disposal of his students. He introduced modern Hebrew poetry and living Hebrew speech at the school. In the 30s, most of the city's Hebrew speakers were his students. He was humble, modest, fled from all publicity and honor, spoke pleasantly and was a friend to anyone who turned to him. From the day I began studying with him, a real friendship sprang up between us. We went on long walks in the city and out of it, and all our conversations were conducted in Hebrew.
He told me a great deal about his father's house, about the people of that generation and about events in the world of the spirit and culture. He did not talk much about himself, but, from hints, I understood a great deal about the suffering he had seen in his life. Remnants of that suffering were engraved in the wrinkles on his face and in his prematurely whitening hair. After his son went abroad, he remained alone. His wife's illness depressed him and caused him much sorrow and spiritual suffering. But I heard nothing about this from him. I heard him moan only once, during the days of shiva [seven days of mourning] after the death of his wife. I stood in his room and looked at the pictures of his wife hanging near his picture over the beds. He came into the room and moaned. When he sensed this, he sat and after a silence of a few minutes, he said, Yes, she was handsome and sweet and full of charm Alas for that beauty that withers in the ground and said nothing more.
Usually, he beamed and smiled. He loved to talk about books he had read, about stories worth knowing and about news of the world of politics and science. He told me of language innovations, as well as jokes and riddles. We sat closed up in a room for hours, deep in a game of chess, and he would win, as he was a chess champion in our city and known as a leading player in the entire region. I admired the man and loved his conversation, his warm and fascinating words. I longed to hear what he had to say. There were those who envied me the privilege that befell me, to be close to this modest and solitary man, the pride of Jewish education in the city. There were, however, those who reproved me for my closeness to a man who was not ultra- Orthodox. Indeed, he had his own religious outlook, although we never spoke of it. He came to the Mizrachi synagogue on Sabbaths and holidays, and I always got to sit near him and enjoy his society.
He was circumspect in matters between man and God, as well as those between man and his fellow men. With love and longing, he told me about his daughter, who was in a kibbutz in Israel, and revealed his desire to emigrate to Israel in order to see her and be near her. Before I emigrated, he asked me to give his daughter his regards and tell her of his feelings and longing for her.
I heard of his bitter end from survivors. He left the city with all the exiles and escapees, taking the difficult route between Ostrolenka and Ostrowa-Mazowiecki. Airplanes circled over the escapees and fired on them. Reb Gedaljahu Rozenbojm was among the wounded, and fell dead.
Woe unto us that a righteous person has passed from this world, and woe unto me, that a comrade and teacher, a guide and a friend, has been taken from me.
May his memory be blessed. May his name endure forever among the great teachers and educators, teachers of the Hebrew language, its first disseminators and pioneers. May his name be remembered forever with the first Hebrew authors, who, with their pens, awoke hearts to Zion and paved the way to love of our people, our Torah and our culture.
Zalman Gorzelczany came to Ostrolenka from Lithuanian Poland by way of Wojciechowice to teach Torah and knowledge. He excelled in organizational and pedagogic abilities, and demonstrated energy and initiative in his actions. He opened the Improved Heder and strove for its improvement and development all his days. He knew how to sing and lead prayers in the synagogue, and was the first to teach his students to sing Hebrew songs religious and secular songs, songs of life and nature. He was vigorous and decisive in his speech and actions. While he did not back down before those who opposed him, he also knew how to make friends. He was among those who visited our home. A genuine friendship existed between him and my father,
of blessed memory, one of his first supporters, who attended to the budget of the school when it first opened. My father was close to him, despite the fact that sometimes there were differences between them.
During the early days, my father advised him about the administration of the school, and protected him from those who ridiculed and sought to hinder him. In a short time, Mr. Gorzelczany became independent, expanded the school, brought in new teachers, rented a big house with six large rooms and put in modern furniture. The Yavneh School achieved a good reputation in the whole region.
Reb Zalman Gorzelczany was among the founders of the city's Mizrachi Federation, and one of the gabbaim of the Mizrachi synagogue. He was active in all Zionist Federation enterprises, and was the first of the Zionist fund contributors and fundraisers. An excellent speaker, he appeared at various opportunities at gatherings, parties and circles. He represented Mizrachi at national conferences and was a member of the Mizrachi National Council.
There is no doubt that Reb Zalman Gorzelczany began a revolution in Jewish education in our city. Thanks to his diligence, the Yavneh School was a stronghold of Hebrew education in Ostrolenka for fifteen years, until the bitter end.
In memory of my father and mother, Jechezkel and Dina Kupferminc
Awiezer-Drori Kupferminc, Kfar Yechezkel
My father, of blessed memory, was a Gur Chassid. I can still remember when he was in the prime of his life. From time to time, he used to travel to the Rebbe in Gur and enjoyed being in his presence. Over the years, an impasse developed in him. He stopped visiting the Rebbe's court. The source of this change was a spiritual revolution taking place in him. At the time, a growing wave of Zionism flooded the street; it was a popular nationalistic movement that changed values. The situation of the Jews in Poland was very bad. Agitation rose in the Polish nation to rid itself of the yoke of the Tsarist government. This awakening encompassed all echelons and classes of the Polish people. At the time, Polish villages suffered from agricultural overpopulation. Most of the land was occupied by estate owners, and the primitively-based economy could not support a large population. The country needed agrarian reform, a change in economic patterns and development and streamlining in different spheres. Lacking land and status, the excess rural population streamed into cities, looking for places of absorption and livelihood. Some were absorbed and found work in city factories, most of which belonged to Jews. As commerce was primarily conducted by Jews, the Poles turned their powers to a cruel war against them on this front, to disinherit them from their strong positions. Estate owners, in close cooperation with the intelligentsia, proclaimed a general boycott of the Jews. They called upon the Polish people, maintaining that the Jews were to blame for the prevailing rural poverty. The Jews exploited the Polish people and were disinheriting them from their economic status. The Tsarist government warmed its hands at this bonfire and tried to add oil to the fire. The slogan Divide and conquer met with great success. The Poles forgot their main enemy and turned their rage against the Jews. They, the Poles, began to organize cooperation in all its forms in the country and the city. They spread slogans: Don't buy from Jews and Don't sell to Jews. They also acted with force and terror against Poles who, for various reasons, did not obey them. They organized surveillance by poisoned youths, who stood by venomous propaganda posters near the Jews' stores, and did not allow farmers to enter. The situation of the Jews was very bad. They felt their entire economic status being swept from under their feet.
My father, of blessed memory, was a community elder for many years. By virtue of his role as the representative of the Jewish community, he was close to
the Russian government and expressed his criticism to government representatives. But he could not find a sympathetic ear there. He was convinced that there was a united front consisting of the Russian government and the Poles. Ammon and Moab had joined forces to shorten the steps of the Jews. From where would rescue come? Who would stand in the breach and avenge the pogroms against our people? The Chassidic movement, in all its manifestations, was indifferent to what was happening in the Jewish street. Opposed to it, they did not delve deeply into what seemed beyond their understanding. More than once, the Chassidim, the assimilated and the Bundists joined in a common front to sabotage the Zionist movement's activities. In our city, as well, Zionism began to spread and put down roots. Many became convinced that there was no hope for the Jews among the wolves lying in wait for their souls. The idea was born in our family to leave Poland and emigrate to Israel. My father, of blessed memory, became a fervent Zionist. His heart's desire was emigration to Israel. The idea and the aspiration were not enough they had to be realized. After a family consultation, it was unanimously decided to make the necessary preparations for emigration to Israel. The final outcome was conceived of at the outset. We prepared a plan down to its last detail. The store had to be slowly liquidated; 10,000 rubles, to purchase land (kolonia [moshava]), had to be taken out of the business.
My father had a friend in Warsaw Lewita, the well-known Zionist activist. His son, an agronomist, had settled in Bat-Shlomo in the Shomron. Through Lewita in Warsaw, my father contacted Lewita's son in Bat- Shlomo. We soon received full information and a detailed, arranged plan from him, as to how to organize a mixed farm in the settlement. The money required for this purpose amounted to 10,000 Israeli pounds. Father did not hesitate, and hurried to Warsaw. He contacted Jehoszua Hesczel Farbsztejn, one of the heads of the Zionist movement in Poland, and completed the purchase of the land by depositing a sum of money on account.
We were joyous when he returned home and told us the details of the purchase arrangement. Preparations began immediately. We inventoried the merchandise in the store and were convinced that we had enough capital to realize the plan. In a family consultation, it was agreed that my brother, Awigdor, of blessed memory (who was killed in the events in Israel in 1936, standing on the scaffolding of an Arab building in Jaffa), and I would emigrate as pioneers before the rest of our family, and lay the foundation for building the farm in Bat-Shlomo. For the present, the rest of the family would stay in the Diaspora. The business would continue to exist on a smaller scale, and they would also send help to us in Israel to expand the farm.
All this developed close to the outbreak of World War I. In July 1914, World War I broke out, and the entire plan we designed was turned upside down. From immigrants who would settle our land in Bat-Shlomo, we became refugees and wanderers in Russia. For four years, we lived in Russia, in the cities of Homel and Kozlow, in the Tambov region. When we left Ostrolenka before the German occupation of the city, we managed to take out a fair amount of merchandise, under a shower of bullets and shells, and move it to Russia, to the city of Homel. With the outbreak of the October Revolution, our property was taken from us. When the family returned to our city in 1921, our material status was very shaky. My father, of blessed memory, opened a small manufacturing store in the houses of Ben-Adam, which were converted from barracks to residences.
In 1922, with my wife, Chasja, I emigrated to Israel. We entered as members of the labor battalion near Ein Harod Spring. During that same year, my father, of blessed memory, passed away. Our plan was that a short time after we moved to the nearby settlement of Kfar Yechezkel, we would bring our parents to Israel. My father did not get to emigrate to Israel and fulfill his heart's desire. In 1923, we brought my mother, of blessed memory, to Israel. She was with us in Kfar Yechezkel for about twelve years, and with my sister, Chana, for five years. My mother helped us build the farm. She especially liked taking care of the chicken
coop. She spoke to the chickens in Polish, because it was not possible that chickens and other animals understood Hebrew
A businessman and commerce entrepreneur my father was not. I remember him as a public worker and community elder. For dozens of years, he served his flock faithfully and with endless devotion. Against his will, from time to time, he was elected community elder (dozor in Polish). Most of his time was devoted to arranging the community's matters and caring for its needs. All the embittered and distressed turned to him, and they never went away empty-handed. Integrity this was the major, outstanding characteristic of his personality. Everyone trusted him. When estate owners in the area, as well as affluent Jews, came to buy in his store, they asked him to sell to them on his word of honor (they said the words in Hebrew, as there was no similar Polish expression). Then they were certain that they would not be deceived. The Zionist youth organization, HaKica, held plays. It needed a license from the local government for this. Who, if not my father, attended to this, and took the required license out on his personal responsibility. How happy he was, when he was advised that the results were satisfactory, and that a nice sum was left over for HaKeren HaKayemet. When we sold shekels, we were often helped by Father. His influence helped increase their distribution in our city.
Our house was an open house for all kinds of people. HaKica meetings were also held at our house. Besides the heder we attended, Father wanted to acquire a broad education for his sons and daughters. We studied at the heder of Nechemia the Melamed. His heder was a sort of improved heder; its students were children of respected balabatim of the city, who were intelligent and inclined toward Zionism. They wanted to obtain knowledge of Hebrew and the Pentateuch for their children. Who, if not Nechemia, of blessed memory, was expert in teaching this Torah to his students? Indeed, we studied general studies with him and absorbed a love of our land from him. It must be admitted that Nechemia also instilled in us an attitude of scorn and some hatred for those who rebelled against the light. He was one of the enlightenment types remaining from the generation of Smolenskin and Lilienblum. It seems that he suffered not a little from his choice at the hands of the Chassidim and the fanatical government. The Chassidim considered him a thoroughgoing heretic, and none of them dared place the education of their sons in his hands. Besides heder studies, we studied with different teachers at home, continuing our education in Hebrew and general studies. Hirszkorn and Filar, both of them excellent teachers, will be remembered favorably. All his life, Father loved to read the most serious newspaper of the time, Der Friend. In addition to this newspaper, we subscribed to HaTzfira, HaOlam, Razviet and Niva. Every morning, our store became a reading room. Different people came and enjoyed reading newspapers. A special type of newspaper enthusiast is particularly engraved in my memory. They called him Japonczyk. Why Japonczyk? Because he supported the Japanese without limit at the time of the Russo-Japanese War. This name stuck to him to the end of his days. He was my cousin Cycowicz, a seasoned politician and expert like no other in world events and the ways of politics.
Everything that the Compassionate One does is done for the good. How great was the faith of our fathers in God and in the justice of his acts. The justice of the law and faith with the strength of these two fundamentals, the Jews overcame obstacles in the road of their lives. I remember an event that happened in our home that illustrates this. To this day, whenever I think of it, I am filled with wonder at the strength of the faith and confidence of those Jews. When I was still a youth, one of my sisters married. The wedding was to take place in Lomza. At that time, my brother, Szaul, who was 18 years old, fell ill with a fatal illness. My father traveled with him to Warsaw, where he was admitted to the hospital. From Warsaw, my father telephoned home to say that the wedding should not be postponed, that it should be held on the appointed date, because Szaul's condition had greatly improved. Father returned to Lomza and did not tell anyone of the death of his son. On the contrary, he reported that his condition was much improved and that he was recovering from his illness. Nothing could be seen on his face. He was happy and danced at the wedding, as if no tragedy had befallen us. When we returned home after the wedding, he told us the whole truth and directed us to sit shiva [mourn]. This reminds me of Bruria, the wife of Rabbi Meir, who concealed the death of their two sons from her husband, so as not to sadden him and to end his Sabbath joy So Father, of blessed memory, always knew how to sustain his faith and serve as a personal example.
My father served as a personal example in another instance. At one time, fires raged in our city, the acts of
arson of local anti-Semites. As among the firefighters there was not one Jew, they were negligent in saving the property of Jews and in extinguishing fires. About 56 years old then, my father stood up and announced publicly that he was joining the firefighters. His friend, Chanoch Flakser, joined him. This was not easy to do. The Poles would not agree to add Jews to the fire brigade, as the organization also served them as camouflage for a Polish underground. Thanks to diligent lobbying in the district city, the Poles were ordered to allow Jews to join the firefighters. My father and Chanoch Flakser were the first volunteers, the pioneers. After them, many of the city's common people and tradesmen joined the firefighters. They proved that by personal example, it was possible to excite many people and rouse them to save Jewish property and Jewish honor.
We were friends from the time that we were students at the Improved Heder of Nechemia the Melamed. Nechemia the Melamed was not just a melamed. He was an extraordinary person, an excellent teacher, and all his students loved and admired him. The Chassidim in the city boycotted him and did not send their children to him, of course. They knew that a new wind of education and progress blew in this heder. There, students studied Hebrew as it should be taught, grammar, Pentateuch and, in addition to all this, general studies. This method of study was opposed to their outlook and way of life. The students were of a special kind. All of them were children of progressive parents, who aspired to give their children an education in the spirit of the time and progress.
The Rakowski family was a respected family in our city. They came from Bialystok. The head of the family was a special, prominent figure among the city's Jews. Tall, upright, modernly dressed everything radiated dignity. He was a learned person, imbued with the spirit of the time, and educated his sons and daughters in that spirit. Because there was still no secondary school in our city, all of them studied at the secondary school in Bialystok. Because the family was extensive, they lived near the Kaczyny railway station at a distance of a few kilometers from the city, in a large, spacious house. A beautiful, well-kept garden surrounded the house, and wide fields spread behind the garden. Few Jews lived near the railway station, and their house was set apart from the rest of the houses. The head of the family had strong connections with the city. He was an agent of a crude oil company and, with the help of carters, supplied kerosene to all the city's stores. Berel, of blessed memory, studied at Nechemia's heder. Because the family lived far from town, he ate and slept at Nechemia's house, and returned to his family only on Friday afternoons. He was a gifted youth, with a quick grasp of things. His life in the bosom of nature left its mark on him; he was used to work and his muscles were developed. He demonstrated his strength at every opportunity, especially in various calisthenics with his heder friends. On every day off and on vacations, we organized trips out of the city. We were attacked by Polish youths more than once, but we never retreated, because Berel stood at the head of the battle and instilled heroism and courage in us. Although we were few against many, we returned our enemies' blows and drove them away in all directions. Yes, such was Berel, and for this quality we admired him as a hero and as our leader. He was very proud when he came out the victor, decorated with our praise and affection.
When he completed his studies at the heder, he went on to the secondary school in Bialystok. From time
to time, especially during summer vacations, we would meet, and the friendship between us did not end. Like the rest of the youth, he, too, dreamed of emigration to Israel. At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the city was destroyed by the acts of the German enemy. Many inhabitants left and spread in all directions, among them the Rakowski family, which wandered and moved to Russia. The last time I met Berel was in Homel, where our family lived then. He came to Homel suddenly, to visit me. That day is etched in my memory. How happy we were to meet. We decided to mark the day by a long trip outside the city. Homel was the capital of Byelorussia (White Russia). Many Jews lived there, and a cultural life and various political party activities had developed. The Graf Paszkiewicz Park, in the center of the city, is prominent in its beauty, and the palace in it bespeaks splendor and honor. Many artistic sculptures are in the park, as well as a water pool on which float swans as white as snow. How we loved to visit the park and feast our eyes on its beauty. The Suz River flows near the city, spectacular in its banks covered with thick trees and groves. We rented a boat and sailed on the waters of the river all day. We had a picnic on its bank, in the shade of the thick trees. We had enough to talk about, and we wove dreams. Although the war still continued and the entire world was cut off, our longing for Israel knew no bounds. In our imaginations, we saw ourselves absorbed in its land. We wove plans from other plans, in the hope that the end of the war would come and that together, we would reach the homeland, build our lives and settle there. We ended our trip by bathing in the river and swimming in its depths. After we parted, the connection between us ended. I thought about him often, and wanted to know his fate and where he was. My heart wanted to believe that one fine day he would appear here in Israel. The sorrowful news reached me that he was killed in the civil war in Russia. He was drafted into the Russian Red Army and fought in its ranks. At the time, wave of pogroms against the Jews was widespread in Russia. The Counter- Revolution revenged itself on the Jews at every opportunity and spilled their blood like water. He, Berel, in joining the Red Army, saw a means to avenge the wild pogroms' offence to our people. Berel was by nature of a passionate character, ready for self-sacrifice. How the heart aches at his tragic end.
May his memory be blessed and preserved with the memory of the heroes of our country and homeland.
Ostrolenka lies on the bank of the long, wide River Narew, an arm of the Wisla. Our city is known as an historical place in the history of Poland. In 1914, on the eve of the outbreak of World War I, the city numbered approximately 6,000 Jews. We were close to 45% of the entire population. Most of the Jews engaged in commerce, and a considerable portion of them were tradesmen and workers. The city was surrounded by villages, and the livelihood of most of the city's inhabitants depended on them.
The center of the city was a beautiful square, near pavements planted with tall, beautiful trees. The view and the surroundings drew the eye with their loveliness. A wooden bridge over the river, nearly 500 meters long, was a wonderful place for trips. We loved to stand on the bridge for hours and watch the wooden barges floating toward Germany.
Trade in wood was very common among the Jews in our city, and it was a source of livelihood for many of them. The barges that floated down the river passed under the bridge, and the oarsmen had to take care not to bump into its pillars. The sounds of the orders of the steersman came from the bridge, in a language understood only by him. The work of rowing was difficult and hard on the body. They traveled on the barge for many days until they reached their destination. On the other side of the bridge stood a large monument, as high as a tall tower. This monument was erected to commemorate the victory of the Russians over the Poles in the revolution in 1831. The two camps clashed on the bank of the river: the Russian Army, commanded by Field Marshal Dybicz and the army of the rebels, commanded by General Skarzynski. The Russian camp was vast and the Poles suffered a decisive defeat. How much we loved going to that tower during our childhood! We swung on the thick chains that surrounded the monument and, at dusk, we sat on its wide steps, deep in conversations and dreaming the first dreams of return to the Land of Our Fathers.
In the shade of the high, thick trees, surrounded by channels full of water, the forts (die farten) were located. For many, many years, Russian soldiers
guarded these places, so that no stranger could enter them. In the last years, the value of the forts as protective strongholds declined. We loved to walk there from time to time, to hide in the excavations and underground bunkers.
On the road going toward the regional city of Lomza, outside the city, was a place of honor, the famous city park. The park was wonderful, cultivated tastefully, beautiful and clean. We loved to stroll in groups among the straight, handsome avenues of trees, and to sing songs of Zion and Yiddish folksongs in chorus. Young couples met there and dreamed the dream of their love. We, the youth, always met there and discussed our current Zionist activities. We distributed shekels among strollers and sold them HaKeren HaKayemet stamps. The Tze'erei Zion Federation was in our city and we called it HaKica. We held meetings and discussions at the Zionisten Shtebl in secret, for fear of the authorities, because Zionism was then forbidden in Poland under the Russian government. We disguised our activities, as if we were praying. Each one held a prayer book on their lectern (shtender), in case of trouble. Thus we discussed matters and, under these conditions, we worked. Anszel Lew, the organizer and arouser, will be favorably remembered. For most of his life, he was a Russian language teacher. When the loan fund for tradesmen and small merchants was established, he was among the founders. For many years, until the Holocaust, he worked there as an accountant. His son, Icchak Lew, worked in that institution together with him. The institution was established with the help of the I.K.A. Company, which greatly help to ease the condition of the masses in the city. Another important credit institution established in the city then, a few years before the outbreak of World War I, was the Company for Communal Credit. This bank, which operated primarily in large commerce groups, was founded by Jechezkel Kupferminc and Henach Flakser. They were the primary driving force of the institution.
At that time, in about 1910, when we established the Tze'erei Zion organization in our city, we began to dream the dream of emigration to Israel. Our hearts' desire was agriculture. The founders of the organization were Motel Frumkin, the writer of these lines, Awigdor Kupferminc, Icchak Lew, and the brothers Jehuda and Efraim Cuker. We conducted productive activity in the city and instilled the Zionist ideal in the ranks of the youth. We collected a great deal of money for the benefit of the K.K.L. and the Odessa Committee. We were particularly successful at collecting monies at weddings, banquet evenings and celebrations in two ways. At every wedding or banquet in the city, and also in towns and villages nearby, we paired up a young couple: a young man and a young woman. In the hallway near the dance hall, we arranged a cloakroom. Everyone who came to dance gave us his garment and when we returned it, they contributed for the benefit of K.K.L. We had great success in this activity. In a hall such as this, only girls and women danced, because no one dared yet dance in mixed couples. We solicited donations from men in another way. We placed bowls on tables in the room, as was customary in those days. When the banqueters were in good spirits, donations flowed into the bowls. We were particularly successful at the weddings of tradesmen. The hearts of the masses were warm and open, their souls full of longing for our Land. On the other hand, we had a very hard war at Chassidic weddings. They opposed Zionism and hindered us wherever they could. We overcame them, too, however, and carried out our activities energetically.
I remember an illustrative incident: three community elders (dozory) were in the city then, and every three years there were new elections. My father, Jechezkel Kupferminc, of blessed memory, also wore this robe for many years, as well as Margalit (the father of Meir Margalit, the famous Ohel Theater actor). It came to pass that Mendel Nadborny, one of the elders, married off his only daughter. We waited impatiently for the wedding. It was a wedding of the wealthy, and many guests were expected to come from outside [the city]. Then we discovered that the Chassidim and, at their head, Rabbi Bursztejn, of blessed memory, had decided to come out against us in an all-out war. The rabbi of the city decided not to perform the wedding ceremony if we would be at the wedding with our cloakroom. We knew that Mendel Nadborny had sentiments for the Land of Israel. We asked him, Can it be possible, Reb Mendel, that we will not collect money for HaKeren HaKayemet at your celebration? Don't worry, was his answer, You can depend on me. Come and you will be successful! So the wedding day came. We arrived and made all the arrangements. When the time for the ceremony drew near, the rabbi did not appear. We were very sorry that we were the cause of this unpleasantness. But everything ended well. Reb Mendel asked the Town Major (Naczalnik) for a police
officer and sent him to bring the rabbi. After a few minutes, the rabbi appeared and performed the ceremony to the joy of all, and the celebration continued. From then on, after our great victory, they did not bother us again.
Theater plays were another source of income. We founded an amateur theater company in our city and began to prepare plays. The first play was Scattered Far and Wide, by Shalom Aleichem. We chose this play because it symbolized the abnormal social condition in the Diaspora, the multiplicity of parties and opinions in the Jewish street, and Zionism as the solution to this situation. A serious problem arose here: we must get a license from the authority, but they would certainly not give it to us, the young, because we were suspected of subversion against the Tsarist government. We were afraid to ask for the license, because we were sure we would fail. What to do? Our home was clearly a Zionist home. My father, of blessed memory, favored Zionism and aspired to emigrate to Israel. As a dozor, a community elder, he could obtain the license; on condition, of course, that he would take upon himself responsibility for the play's political legitimacy. We asked him, and he acceded to our request, even though he knew that he would thereby endanger his relationship with the Chassidim. A tumult arose between them and, on the Sabbath, many of them came to the synagogue where father prayed. They made a lot of noise and delayed the Torah reading, but they did not succeed and were expelled by force. The play was performed with great success at the municipal theater and the city was overjoyed. On that night, many young men and women, the sons and daughter of Chassidim, absorbed some sound blows because they dared to go to the theater. It should be noted that we were the first in the city to organize an amateur theater company, and paved the way for the next generation.
At the end, I wish to mention here again Reb Nechemia Rozenblum the Melamed, of blessed memory, who was mentioned in my previous article. He accomplished the impossible in the education of the students and the youth who studied under him. The children of parents who wanted, as said, to give their children a better education and have them learn Hebrew, the Pentateuch and general studies, attended Reb Nechemia the Melamed's heder. Of course, he was boycotted by the Chassidim and considered a heretic by them. Reb Nechemia was a handsome man, clean, polished and elegant in his dress. His long, white, very beautiful beard (the city's clowns said that he dyed his beard) radiated honor and dignity. We, his students, loved him very much. Those of his students who grew up, matured and married remained loyal to him. They visited his house, consulted with him and received guidance in purchasing Hebrew books from him. There was a special room in Reb Nechemia's apartment for studies. The benches and tables were modern, as in government schools. The room was full of light and clean air. Even in the winter, the teacher opened a window for ventilation. We studied Hebrew, the Pentateuch and grammar with him in a methodical way. He planted in our hearts a great love and longing for the Land of Israel with his stories about the country and what was occurring in our homeland at the time. How he aspired to emigrate to Israel himself! If we, his students, achieved this, it is thanks to the love of Zion that he planted in our hearts. May his memory be preserved in our hearts forever.
Reb Welwel was like a member of our family. From time to time, he came to Father to consult him on family and business matters. The man was very honest, very careful with the money of others and careful not to deprive the workers who worked for him, Jews as well as non-Jews, of their wages. Reb Welwel was very rich. An entire regiment of soldiers was housed in the barracks he built. Work, of course, was plentiful around these buildings. Every time an inspection had to be made, various tradesmen found their livelihood through him.
The family was extensive, because when his first wife died, he married her sister, and he had many children from both wives. He and his family lived near the barracks outside the city, in a spacious courtyard containing the farm's buildings: a stable, barn and
chicken coop and a vegetable garden near the house with all kinds of vegetables for household needs. A garden with fruit trees surrounded the house on all sides. A country atmosphere prevailed in the courtyard and hungry dogs guarded the property of their owner, which was not customary with Jews. Wide fields spread behind the residence and farm buildings. Reb Welwel worked the fields with great diligence and exceptional devotion. He loved nature and animals very much. We, the youth, respected and appreciated him for being a worker of the land, because our aspiration was to do this in Israel. We saw in him the sort of figure we longed to be, the figure of a farmer in the fields of his homeland. We were good friends with his son, Szlomo, and studied together in the heder of Reb Nechemia the Melamed. We were good friends, devoted to one another. I received my first agricultural training at Reb Welwel's farm. More than once we were absent, Szlomo and I, from the heder when we decided to go to the field to help his father with various kinds of work. One fine day, Szlomo whispered a secret to me: Awiezer, today we are baling hay in the field. Father has hired many workers. There is much work and time is short. There is a chance that it may rain. The hay must not stay spread out in the field, because if it gets wet and the rain is continuous it will rot. Even if a passing rain befalls us, the value of the hay will decrease and its quality will lessen. There was no end to my happiness and I agreed to his offer with pleasure. At home, of course, I did not tell of my intrigues. Reb Welwel did not get angry if he found out, because he understood our desires. Early in the morning, I came to Szlomo's house, and together we rode on horseback to the fields. There was no limit to my happiness. Who could compare with me?
When we got to the field, work was already in full swing, because the workers got there before me. I took my first steps in agriculture then, and did physical work with untrained hands. I tried to work with all the workers. My friend, Szlomo, worked easily and did his work like the rest of the workers. All the workers were Christians. What Jew would agree to do agricultural work, which was considered shameful? It seemed to me I was working not in a field, but in a strange land. My imagination carried me to our Land and its fields. Reb Welwel did not keep himself aloof. Mounted on a horse, he passed from worker to worker, expedited, encouraged, promised additional wages if only they would finish baling and complete the work, because he was afraid of the rain. In fact, a heavy cloud came from somewhere on the horizon, boding ill. We began to urge each other on and vigorously continued our work. When we had nearly finished, the rain came, first quietly but then stronger from minute to minute. Szlomo and I ran to our horses and rode quickly to the house, soaked from head to foot, but happy that we had completed our work. I was afraid to return to home, and waited a few hours until my clothes dried. Often in Israel, on my moshav [cooperative settlement] in the Jezreel Valley, when I am busy harvesting the hay and doing work connected to it, pleasant memories of those days, and the experience I had at Reb Welwel Ben-Adam's farm, awake in me. This Ostrolenkan family could have moved to our Land naturally, to become integrated and strike roots in the earth of the homeland without unnecessary adjustment pains. How sad it is, that not one of its members emigrated and continued the traditions of their father.
A man close to the earth, who loved the land, was Reb Welwel.
May his memory be blessed.
This Motel was related to me, my cousin. His father, of blessed memory, was an excellent lamdan and a learned person, but in reality not completely successful. He was a great beggar all his life. He took care of many children, two of them mutes. When he did not succeed in business, he turned to work. He did a few kinds of work, and his wife and the many children he had helped him. They smoked herring and made bags for food. They were proof of the saying In a multiplicity of work, there is very little blessing. They lived in a rickety building at the edge of the city, in one large room. There, they smoked fish in an oven. In the middle of the room stood a large table on which they prepared the bags. When poverty became an honored guest at their home and did not want to leave under any circumstances, my uncle sent his children to tradesmen to learn their trades. Motel was one of them. In his youth, he learned carpentry. He was a good carpenter
and knew his craft well. When he grew up, he left our city and went to Warsaw. There, he advanced in his profession and sent help to his parents when times were hard for them.
In Warsaw, he utilized his time in the evenings for general studies, and joined the Poalei Zion party. He read a great deal and was especially interested in literature about socialism and the development of the workers' movement in the world. His class consciousness developed over time, thanks to the workers' circles he frequented. His ambition was strong and sincere to emigrate to Israel and fulfill his heart's desire.
Whenever we met, a sharp disagreement would spark about activity in the Diaspora and about building the homeland in the future. Then our ways parted. He had an active class consciousness. The life of poverty in his family's home shaped his opinions, which did not take into account conditions existing then in the Jewish street and made no concessions regarding building the homeland. He was extreme in his opinions and outlook. He always maintained: This is what Karl Marx said. He did not recognize the Zionist Congress and the Shekel. Of course, the K.K.L. had no integrity in his eyes, because he did not accept the possibility of cooperating with the Jewish bourgeois in all areas of life. In his opinion, we had to move and transfer the doctrine of class struggle to our country without concessions, and build a new society according to it.
At the outbreak of World War I, our city was very near the front. A few days after the start of the war, the Russian Army invaded eastern Germany. Drunk with victory and full of patriotic enthusiasm, it sowed destruction and ruination every step of its way. The Jews were the first victims of this war. The Russian government falsely accused them of collaborating and sympathizing with the Germans. The consequences were not late in coming. There were numerous small towns along the German-Russian border. Many of the Jews who lived in them were soon expelled. In panic and bereft of everything, they fled for their lives. Many turned their faces toward the district city of Ostrolenka. I remember how much Jewish devotion and warmth we demonstrated in their reception, absorption and settlement, to ease their suffering.
The Russian Army did indeed advance into Germany and it captured Konigsberg. After a few days, however, the victors fled in panic and disgrace, in a disorganized escape. How miserable they were in their flight. They fled for their lives, half-naked, some of them wearing women's clothes or traditional Jewish garb, which they stole in towns near the border. They left their cannons, of course, at the front. The front came closer and closer to our city. Day and night we heard echoes of cannon fire. In the evenings and at night, wagons with wounded streamed in from the front. The lightly wounded came on foot.
Materially, our city was built then, thanks to the large army encamped near it. Trade flourished and the Jews got richer day by day. Deeply involved in trade and business, they did not perceive the evil drawing closer. And the terrible day came: the strength of the Russian Army was broken and the line of retreat passed through the city. Cannon fire was aimed at the city; German aircraft bombed it from time to time, injuring the population. Jews were recruited for excavation work to protect the city. The Russian Army, seeing that it could not protect the Narew Line, retreated to the other side of the river and blew up the bridge. Soldiers prowled around the city in groups, and looted everything that came to hand. With their weapons on them, who would tell them Stop!? A hail of bullets and shells chased the Jews from the city. They managed to take only a tiny part of their property with them. They scattered to nearby cities far from the front.
After managing to save some of the textiles in our store, our family also left the city and moved to Bialystok, with the intention of getting to Homel in White Russia. Why specifically to Homel? Because it was far from the front and famous for its great commerce, and because most of its inhabitants were Jews. Suddenly we were refugees and homeless,
wandering and seeking shelter. We placed everything we saved in a railway car. We put a few belongings, necessary for day-to-day life, in suitcases and left by train.
On Sabbath Eve, when it was almost dark, we reached the railway station in Homel, and traveled to the city by carriage to look for a hotel. The entire city had the look of Sabbath Eve. All the stores were closed and the Jews were rushing to the synagogue. Mother, of blessed memory, burst into tears when she saw that the Sabbath had begun and that we were still knocking on the doors of hotels. No one would agree to let us in, using the same pretext no room. Immediately, however, we discovered the secret. They were afraid to rent rooms to refugees, Biezencom, in their words. When we got a negative answer at the last hotel, too, Father, of blessed memory, ordered our belongings off the cart and let the carter go, because he was Jewish and wanted to get home and to the synagogue. When the hotel owner continued to refuse, my father took out a wallet full of 500 ruble bills and gave him one bill (in those days this was a respectable sum) as a deposit and security. The hotel owner's mouth dropped open when he saw the wallet stuffed with bills. He apologized with exaggerated courtesy and immediately offered us two rooms and the best service After a short time, we found a good and very comfortable apartment near the hotel. The owner of the house was a wonderful Jew. He was a tailor and a learned man, and kindhearted without limit. He is etched in our memory for the goodness of his heart and his gentle nature. For several years, we lived a life of friendship and amity in his house.
One day, Motel Cycowicz appeared in Homel. Everyone in his family stayed in Occupied Poland. He settled in immediately as a carpenter and worked in a military carpentry factory. This work entitled him to be released from army service. The Germans slowly began to advance eastward toward Homel. The city was besieged and a state of emergency was declared. Everyone to the front!
In February 1917, the first Revolution broke out. The Tsarist regime was destroyed. Freedom and liberty in the land. General happiness enveloped all Russia's populations, including the Jews among them. Freedom and liberty and public expression of opinions and thoughts. No fear! All the workers' parties came out of the Underground. The Jewish street felt the excitement and an awareness of everything that was occurring and being rekindled in Russia. In all things, the Jews were equal to all other citizens, and they stood erect. Zionists of all types organized their ranks and carried on extensive activity in all areas of life. Motel appeared in Homel at the head of Poalei Zion and was their official spokesman. At all gatherings and meetings, he spoke and argued passionately. The workers followed and loved him.
At the front, the situation was bad. The German Army would not agree to make peace. It exaggerated its demands, rebuffed the offer of peace of the Russian proletariat, advanced toward Homel and captured it. The civil war in Russia intensified. The Germans deepened their penetration into the expanses of Russia and captured Kiev. As time passed, the Bolsheviks succeeded in sowing weakness and sympathy for the Revolution's ideals in the ranks of the German Army. The German Army was bitten by the bug of the Revolution and beat a disorderly retreat to Germany through Poland. The Poles exploited the chaos and established Free Poland. The Poalei Zion party recognized the October Revolution and offered active help to the Bolsheviks in their war against all enemies who rose against them. The Soviet government declared them a legal party and a sister [organization], with common interests. In their great happiness, they forgot their mission and were swept away in the waves of the Revolution, in which they saw the solution to the Jewish problem.
Meanwhile, with the help of equipment from France and England, the Polish Army fought bravely against the large Russian Army, which had no weapons and was surrounded by enemies. The Poles approached about fifteen kilometers from Homel. The police were drafted to the front. Fearing pogroms and riots, the Soviet government took measures and recruited the city's workers for self-protection. In workplaces, every workers committee was required to send people for protection. I was also drafted then. Suddenly, a change for the good began. The strength of the Polish Army was broken and it retreated westward in panic, with the Russian Army chasing after it.
On the part of the Poalei Zion party, Motel enlisted in the Red Army, fought in its ranks and advanced with it toward Poland, to Warsaw. When the Red Army entered our city, Motel was appointed by the new authority to head the Workers' and Farmers' Council, and the entire government passed into his hands. The day after the occupation, he called all the townspeople to a big meeting. Before all those who attended, he
wrathfully took down the Polish eagle. He made a revolutionary and enthusiastic speech in favor of the liberating Red Army and promised the glory of a bright era in Poland for all the Jews who lived in it. To the wealthy of the city, Jews and Poles, he said: From now on, all the property you stole will be taken from you. It will be given to the workers and the poor. What you have amassed from the work and exploitation of others will be returned to the people.
But the glory days of the Red Army government in Poland did not last long. The Red Army was defeated near Warsaw and retreated eastward. Motel felt the earth shifting under his feet, and knew that the days of his government were numbered. He feared greatly lest the Polish authority, returning to the city, would avenge itself on his family. He decided to move them to the regional city of Lomza. He confiscated a wagon, gathered all their personal belongings from the house, loaded it all on the wagon and seated his family on top of everything. Lest any harm befall them, Motel escorted them personally, armed with a rifle, bullets and two hand grenades in his belt. After bringing them to Lomza, he parted from them and joined the retreating Red Army again.
At this time, I still lived in Homel and worked there as an accountant in one of the government institutions. Quite late one winter night, I heard a quiet, hesitant knock on the door. A knock like this did not raise any suspicion in me, even though at that time knocks at the door late at night boded unpleasant things I got up from bed, went to the door and cautiously asked, Who is that knocking? Open, Awiezer, it's me Motel. When I recovered, I asked him, Is it really you, Motel, at this hour? And from whence do you come? Don't ask. I'm frozen with cold and dying from hunger. I opened the door and lit the lamp and, in its light, I saw him. Motel himself stood before me. He looked terrible. He had grown a beard, he was dirty and shook with cold. After he ate and drank, I prepared warm water for him. He washed and shaved and, without any discussion, I showed him a place to sleep. The next day he told me all his encounters from the time he left Homel and joined the Red Army. He had endured hard spiritual shocks. All his faith in the new regime was shaken. He returned to work as a carpenter for the government, and from time to time worked in the homes of the commissars and chief workers who had a party card. He told me what he had seen while he worked. In the city, there was hunger. Bread was distributed in small portions but in the homes of the commissars, he saw excess and gluttony. They fried meat and fish and swilled wine in large glasses. Is this the Revolution, he asked, that we hoped and waited for, and for which we fought? And where is social equality? The Tsarist regime fell, the strength of capitalism was destroyed and in its place has risen a third, over-privileged class, which exploits the power of its government and enjoys everything and the people once again, suffering, hunger, groaning and asking: 'Who will save us? And we, the Jews, what do we have to do with all this?' During stormy battles throughout Russia in those days, especially in the Ukraine, the Counter-Revolution conducted pogroms against the Jews. Entire communities were erased from the face of the earth. The Russo-Soviet government took no heed of the Jewish community's appeals to allow them a self-defense organization to stand up against the White rioters. Join the ranks of the Red Army, and thus protect yourselves. The fate of the Jews in Russia at that time was bad and bitter. They were between a rock and a hard place. Motel did not return to the Poalei Zion party. Despair beset him. He could not find a solution for the Jewish Question in their program. Its way and direction were not in accord with his viewpoint and bitter experience. No, he asserted, we will not be grease for the wheels of the Russian Revolution. In the Jewish street, the Section for Jewish Affairs took control, with the help of the authority. It became an official part of an omnipotent government. The Poalei Zion party was brought down from its greatness, declared illegal and its existence ended. Only the I.K.P. [Jewish Communist Party] communist faction of Poalei Zion was permitted a miserable and limited existence.
Motel saw that everything was over and that he sat on the ruins of all that was dear to him. He was despondent and silent. One evening, he came to visit me at my house and sat opposite me, enfeebled and sunken into himself. I felt that he held something inside him. With much exertion, I succeeded in drawing him out. Before me sat a despairing and bitter-souled man, from whom everything had been stolen. His world was completely destroyed. At the end of the conversation, he turned to me and said, Awiezer, accept me into the ranks of HeChalutz. I am yours! Send me wherever you command. I am behind you and at your disposal. Only in our land will we find refuge and a solution for all our longings!
JewishGen, Inc. makes no representations regarding the accuracy of
the translation. The reader may wish to refer to the original material
JewishGen is not responsible for inaccuracies or omissions in the original work and cannot rewrite or edit the text to correct inaccuracies and/or omissions.
Our mission is to produce a translation of the original work and we cannot verify the accuracy of statements or alter facts cited.
Ostrołęka, Poland Yizkor Book Project JewishGen Home Page
Copyright © 1999-2017 by JewishGen, Inc.
Updated 1 Oct 2011 by LA