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[Page 150]

Ostrowa My Hometown

By A.M. Orzycer, New York

Translated by Judie Ostroff Goldstein

A.M. Orzycer, writer, went to live in Warszawa, later in Paris, survived the Second World War in England. Worked in the Jewish press in France, England and the United States. Published two novels. Soon after the war he moved to New York.

 

A) Social and Cultural Influences

Ostrowa's homes, our parents and large numbers of loved ones were so dear to our hearts; the streets and back lanes, which lead to secret-filled forests, were also ours and dear to us.

In the 1920's when Poland was gaining strength as an independent nation, a lot of Jews in our town began to feel that they were not entirely at home here.

Those who read Hebrew leaflets and sent their children to Icek melamed were steadfast in their hope for a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Their children became pioneers and dragged young people from Hasidic or assimilated homes into the touring-club and Zionist organizations. The Balfour Declaration had lit a torch. Many from middle class homes and even poorer ones who lived in the back lanes, shoemakers, tailors, carpenters and market stall-keepers, - all of them had nourished their children with the dream of Zion. Also Hasidic families allowed their sons and modest daughters to fall in with the “free” Zionists.

The majority of the books in the Jewish library were stories about discontent in the world at large. Social theory established that one could change social classes. The Ostrowa young people did not sit idly by.

Many Ostrowa young people from poor homes and some from comfortable homes, the left and right Poalei-Zionists and General Zionists began to believe in the 1917 October Revolution in Russia, mainly because they believed that Communism would wipe out anti-Semitism.

The Left and the Bund would ridicule the Zionist workers - with Fiszel Lichtensztejn as their leader. The small number of Bundists still in town with Eli Kossower as leader helped a lot to spread culture to the bitterly poor homes in our town.

Not only would the Bundist Folks Zaitung Newspaper clearly present questions, but also human dignity for the poor as well. The Professional Union of Tailors and Seamstresses under the Bund also helped in this effort. They would bring a “fashionable” lecturer from Warszawa and prevail upon all Jewish workers in Ostrowa to reach social consciousness. During this time, the 1920's, the Communists also began having an influence on the Jewish masses.

The need for a reckoning with Pilsudski's men, Endekes and the Socialist-Fascists became more intense among the Jewish young men and women, both from working and middle-class families. The Left became stronger in Ostrowa. At the end of the 1920's they had captured the Professional Union from the Bund, and at “cultural-evenings” and lectures in the library, Judel Lewkowicz raged at the Bund lecturer. The gauge to measure things and events in the past and present, with a social-economy and political platform, were also later to cross over to literature. If Sholem Ash's well known popular piece “Motke Der Ganef” [“Motke the Thief”] was discussed at a cultural evening in the Jewish library, a leftist lecturer would scream: “why is Motke the thief not in the Party?”…

With the addition of many secret agents who came from larger towns, the Ostrowa police force became stronger and they pulled young men and women from their beds[1] in the middle of the night…not all of them were happy to leave their homes. Seeing their parents' grief, many of the young Jews were sick at heart.

During several police raids at night, heart-rending scenes were acted out. They took Aron Gąsior from his poor house. His father, a Yiddish teacher, a Strykower Hasid, would learn the news from the newspaper “Moment” and his mother heard about it at the “nothing” store (because what one came to buy, was never in stock). At the Slomka's (a poor family) one of their sons was always taken – either Jidel, Chaim or Pesach. The same at the poor families Laksz and Imbier, where Nachman was almost always in jail and the Frydman family, with the iron business, where Gerszon had became a devotee of “Nasz Przegląd” [“Our Review”]. At Icek, the Hebrew teacher's, they always took the weak son Chaim Szumowicz; the Ostrows, who helped put the cobblestones on the roads and highways in Ostrowa, and the tall young man Koza from a very poor family. (Judel Lewkowicz, the leader of the left, whose sister was a gymnasia student, had essentially clung to the Bund). Young women pulled from their beds in the middle of the night were Sara'cze Goldsztejn, Itke Szwarcbard, Tarce and the sisters Srebrnik, etc.

Even from a religious family, Warszawa born Taubcze Miodoszewski, who was never happy in Ostrowa, also shared the fate of those taken off to jail by the Ostrowa police. All the others, including “sympathizers”, had their turn.

Were non-Jewish young men and women taken from their beds at night? Very few. There were one or two Polish gymnasia teachers who would meet with the Jewish youngsters and later it became known that they were stool pigeons working for the police.

The young men and women from Ostrowa who were serving time in the Łomża jail or in the jails in other large towns would meet a few non-Jews there.

Word would get back from those arrested as to who was keeping silent and who broke. There was a lot of respect for those who did not give up their secrets while they were in jail.

A part of the Left moved to Warszawa and suffered more trouble there. Some emigrated abroad, legally and illegally, where today they are among those who were saved from the Holocaust.

Scores of “pioneers” from Ostrowa were able to immigrate to Israel. Poalei-Zionists and Bundists emigrated; in the 1930's in Ostrowa one saw mainly middle-aged and old people. The young ones had left for the large cities or had gone abroad.

 

B) Hasidic and Middle-class Families

In the 1920's when the Polish government normalized life a little in Ostrowa, many Hasidic parents suddenly decided that their children were heading towards an “evil” life.

Not all the young people wanted to sit in the Gerer shtibl, and not all the Hasidic daughters in Ostrowa wanted Hasidic husbands. A portion of the Gerer Hasidim and those from other shtiblakh were secretly reading treyf and many openly took to dropping in at the well-known Jewish library that had converted them to “apikoyreses” [“heretics”]. Friday night, when religious Jews were sitting at home and tending to “being Jewish”, the library committee arranged lectures, or recitals.

 

ost152.jpg
1 April 1934 – a fund raising day – participants of the United Education Society

 

The Jewish library became a kind of open university. The secular Jews would borrow books with pride, read magazines and newspapers and the religious Jews in long Hasidic garb, would look on - some with contempt and some with envy…

There was a bitter battle being waged about Jewish clothing in many Hasidic homes. The parents thought that kapotes were the shield of Judaism. The young men felt this viewpoint was narrow and distanced themselves from it. The majority of young men from religious families did not want to be members of the young Agudas Yisroel. They related to Zionist ideas, with books from around the world, translated into Yiddish - and even with socialist ideas, which were not “kosher” according to the Polish government.

Some of the Hasidic young men later replaced the Jewish long kapote with short jackets and began to attend the “Szkola Powszechne” [public school] that was coed for half the day, and the other half day ended with gemore - a combination of orthodoxy and freedom all in one. Yet, it is still difficult to become a doctor without a Polish gymnasia or university education (later some of the Hasidic daughters, my youngest sister among them, went to the government gymnasia).

When the situation for Jewish storekeepers did not get better, many Hasidic young men became envious of the workers, who had a “trade in hand” and little by little one would see Hasidic young men as gaiter makers, or carpenters and tailors in Ostrowa.

The middle-class, both orthodox and not, still looked down at the workers in the shtetl. They would say, “Shoemakers and tailors are not people”.

As the workers and those young Hasidim who became artisans came in contact with each other, both groups grew more comfortable with each other. The workers began to dress better and cleaner; the middle-class children began to see that many of the young workers were very knowledgeable. The workers'circles and political parties had trained their members and sympathizers well and the young working-class women and men in Ostrowa became ardent supporters of the Jewish library. They arranged for party speakers to come to Ostrowa from Warszawa and give lectures about literature. During the discussions, it became apparent that the knowledge of the young working class was equal to that of the middle-class. The differences between the classes had been bridged much to everyone's betterment.

There was a desire among the Hasidim to gain a “proletariat pedigree”, to spite their family members.

The sons and daughters of the poor, living on ulica Pułtuska or ulica Brok, also took revenge on the “rich” who now had to live up to “their” proletariat ideas.

The poor homes and the town Ostrowa in general began to lose a large part of the intelligent young to Argentina, Brazil, the United States, South America, France, etc. and later they were the survivors.

 

C) The Rise and Destruction of the Town

For over three hundred years the town grew, brick by brick, small houses, larger ones and brick homes with balconies; lanes with pointed stones, narrow and wide sidewalks. A road to Brok Forest and a road to Rożan, Komorowo and the military installations, a road out to “Przedmieszcze” – to our hometown Ostrowa!

Among Poles, White Russians, various other neutral Christians and often anti-Semites, the Jews built flour mills, saw-mills, a brewery; were in various trades with workshops in the centre of town; Jews sold wholesale and had business dealings with the surrounding villages in the district. Jews defended their meager trading position, in the old and new marketplace, with small stores and market stalls.

 

ost154.jpg
Ulica 3go Maja, previously called “Przedmieszcze”

 

In one corner of the town – a large Catholic Church with spires, and at the “promenade garden” – an old abandoned Russian Orthodox Church. The Christian civil servants, artisans and merchants – lived outside the city centre.

The old besmedresh is on Komorowo Road and the new besmedresh is across from the marketplace. Beyond, there is a small footpath and – the Jewish poor.

Men pray aloud and yell in the Gerer shtibl, where the “Agudah” also concern themselves with politics; at the Amshynowers and Aleksanders it is very calm and sedate. Meanwhile the Strykower shtibl secluded on “Przedmieszcze” (now 3go Maja) opposite Mieczkowski's brick house is where all the “frivolous” Hasidim ousted from other shtiblakh, had flown to with their “free” sons.

Conspiracy against the Piłsudski government was whispered about in the forest. Even Friday night and Shabes when Hasidim told stories and read about rabbis of great stature, there were those who lived for Zion, Moscow, or the world beyond the shtetl. Many youngsters were Zionists. Others preferred Socialism or Communism; they fill the prisons or travel to a relative's in order to avoid imprisonment and with tears in their eyes they leave their parents, sisters and brothers.

Healthy Jewish boys play soccer and even compete with Polish gymnasia teams; Jewish girls, not noticing that their fathers are worried about being able to make a living and provide a dowry, flirt in the promenade garden and at the Sadzawka.

In the Jewish library discussions are about books and a lot of Yiddish newspapers are being read. People are afraid to venture beyond the Jewish lanes…the road to the Warszawa and Brok forest is full of boycoters, hatred and violence against the Jews. The anger is the spirit of the “Narodowa Demokratka” [Endecja – National Democratic Party].

Flowers and young trees have already been planted around the large, clumsy Town Hall in the middle of the Jewish marketplace. The water pump on the marketplace at Komorowo Road is always the meeting place for old and middle-aged Jews. All the poor men and women, even those who are not poor, drag one or two pails of water. Many Jews have become old dragging those pails, which is such a hardship and so difficult. The youngsters go by without a care and keep their heads down.

Storekeepers stand at their stores and wait for a peasant wagon to pull up. Porters with white flour covered shoulders and patched pants walk with a weary, lazy pace as if their feet and shoulders want to be free to go away somewhere and have a good rest. They would like to throw off the weight of the thousands of sacks of flour, sugar, rice and hard crates full of goods that they have carried all these years from freight trains, trucks, mills, warehouses and stores.

The wagon drivers and youngsters wearing “low shoes” [not boots] are reading out loud around the droshkys; disturbing the market with their pretensions over their petty successes and failures. The wives, children and others, standing there are interested only in one thing – the horses.

Polish civil servants and military personnel glide through wearing tight britches; they walk through town on the sidewalks with their heads held high, a steady stride and healthy, confident faces. They, their wives and children have a look about them as if they come from an entirely different human race, which seems to be a cross between apathy and depression; The town Ostrowa is at work and worries about how long there will still be work.

In August 1939, I returned to Ostrowa after my wanderings to Paris and London; saw and felt the tension, fear and nervousness just days before the war broke out in Poland. I was lucky to have avoided the war, but half the people in my family and many dear comrades and friends, such as Chaim Szumowicz, Zelman Grynberg, Michal Gordon, Ezra Slucki, Nachman Imbier, etc., were not so lucky.

 

ost156.jpg
From right: A.M. Orzycer (in New York), Michal Gordon
(murdered), Chaim Szumowicz (murdered), Hirszel
Grynszpan (in Israel) and Ezra Slucki (murdered)

 

After the war I took custody of my family, that had wandered back from Russian exile to a German DP camp.

I had left behind my parents, sisters with their husbands and children, and I had wanted to be able to bring them to England.

After the war, there remained only my father and two younger sisters. My mother died while the family was wandering from place to place in Russia and two sisters with their husbands and children were murdered in the Ciechanowiec district.

Uprooted, we remained in deep mourning and longing for our murdered loved ones and our annihilated hometown.


[Page157]

The Jewish Worker's Movement in Ostrowa

By Archie Rotenberg
Chairman, Ostrower
Landsmanschaft in America
Bronx, New York

Translated by Judie Ostroff Goldstein

I see you, my town, as when I was young… when I ran and played with a hoop from a barrel. A beautiful summer day and so many people are gathered in the market.

What is happening here? The First World War has broken out. Everyone is in terrible spirits. Men are called up for military service. Husbands and sons must leave their families.

The war leaves everyone with scars. In 1915, the Germans arrive. Life returned to normal. The first ray of light tore through the dark.

The first workers' institution is created and named for Bronisław Grosser. The workday is from eight in the morning until eleven, or midnight, as well as after the close of Shabes. There is no time for oneself – only Friday evening and Saturday during the day.

My first experience in the “Grosser-Club”: A gathering of about two hundred workers. Silence. Icchok Aron Sigier reads from Elgin's book: “Ven Kaytn Klingen” [“When Shackles Clank”]. What a holiday atmosphere!

The work expands. Meetings are scheduled more frequently – there are more lectures. Speakers were brought from other cities. The club members made the furniture for the club themselves – benches and tables. The young workers bring new ideas. Every Friday evening there is a social event. New workers join the club.

The young members develop by reading and learning. New institutions are being created. The first meeting of Poalei-Zion is held in the library. The organizers were Waldkowski and Tikora.

After that, unions came into being: Osiński and Wengrowicz were the founders. Communal organizations were blooming.

The Bund was the first, to plow up the old and sow new seeds - beautiful sprouts grew. The organizers of the Bund were: Icchok Aaron Sygier, Maier Jakob Sygier, Hilke Piekarz, Mordche Miller, and myself.

Subsequently, the Germans had to make a hasty departure from town. The Bund organizers were called to a meeting at Hinde Piantnica's. There was a message from the Bund Central Committee. The government is going to take up the workers' cause and the Bund must be prepared. This was a very serious meeting and ran very late. We noticed how quiet the streets had become. This is a sign of a new era: the workers' government is born, headed by Maraczewski. The 8-hour workday was introduced. Business had to close for two hours, noon until two in the afternoon, during the workday. A health insurance program was created in the larger cities, which was maintained by the government. The trade union was created – the first

 

ost158.jpg
1st row from right: Majer Jakob Sygier, Komorowski,
2nd row: Arja Salomon, Arczy Rotenberg, Arnold Grosfeld, Icchok Szulc and Bracha Pokrzywa.

 

secretary is Luria. Preparations were made for the first shoemaker's strike. When the bosses became aware of the impending strike, they prepared a lot of boots ahead of time. Stasz, their leader, contested the demands set forth by the trade union. The strike was declared and there was no money available to help the strikers. A large fair was being held in Zambrów, where the bosses sold their boots. A group of people appeared, dressed as peasants, looked the boots over and cut them up – on the pretext that the boots were made of paper. These so-called peasants returned to the trade union local in Ostrowa. The police raided the trade union and all those in the local were arrested. After a long inquiry, which lasted the entire night, they were freed. The bosses came to the trade union local in the morning and gave in to all the demands. The union had won the first strike.

Then began the hard work of organizing one trade after another. The bosses did not create any further problems for the trade union. At the same time, the Bund became involved in cultural activities. During a certain time there was a lot of unemployment. The trade union, along with the bosses, began the workers' soup kitchen at the trade union headquarters. At the first lunch, the bosses also came to eat along with the needy. Tears were seen in many eyes that day. The kitchen existed for only a short time. The bosses could no longer afford to give money. The situation had become very bleak for everyone. The workers were hungry; a tremendous tension was brewing. One Shabes, the boss's cholents were taken from the ovens, by the poor. Those starving were for a moment able to still their hunger. Nobody organized this – it was spontaneous.

The Youth-Movement rebelled against the Bund and took a radical turn. The entire Łomża District Committee of the Tzukunft organization in all the cities left the Bund. The first radical group was founded in Ostrowa.

On a beautiful spring day during Passover the first meeting was held in Brok forest. Gathered there were Abraham Perec, Szija Fryd, and a guest from Warszawa. (He arrived at the Nutkiewicz's and Lejbl Krysztal from Łomża). They would set the policy for the radical movement. We were very busy. In a short time we were able to take over the trade union entirely. After a difficult struggle, the Bund had to capitulate and give the trade union over to the radical group.

We brought a secretary into the trade union. We brought a troupe to present plays. Their presentation of Perec Hirszenbejn's “Der Nevole” [“The Infamy”] in the town theatre was a great success. Community work was growing. The young people were enthusiastic and full of new ideas. They felt that maybe this was the beginning, that the day day would come when the sun would shine fire red and the workers would all be free!

This is how we lived and hoped. It is so painful to think about what happened to our town, her beautiful forests, the lovely landscape, where our dear ones were so hideously tortured. No matter to which country or city I travel, Ostrowa, none can ever take your place.


[Page160]

My Shtetl Ostrow Maz.

By Abraham Rotenberg, NY

Translated by Judie Ostroff Goldstein

My little shtetl, how should I celebrate your existence? And how should I lament for you? How do I find the strength to bring out your beauty, your joy, your glory, your magnificence and the deep sorrow of your death?

I was young when I left you. I had lived for eighteen thriving springs. You gave us such a rich community. The softness of your earth, the dew in your fields and forests will remain eternal. This is where I lived out my childhood and youth. My shtetl, I see you as when I was a child running around your streets. My childhood came into existence at the same time as the First World War. I remember the first German military airplane flying over our shtetl. Everyone ran out of their houses in fear and raised their heads to the sky; the Germans arrived in the shtetl with their new, strict decrees. Typhus and dysentery epidemics raged. Women and children went into hiding, in order to avoid having their hair cut off. The epidemic raged and there were victims in every second house. The shtetl had an old custom that a poor bride must get married in a cemetery. A couple was found: the quiet, dejected Szepsel vaser treger, who rambled and an old maid, with a hunchback. The entire shtetl went to the wedding in the cemetery.

I see one of my many neighbours: Benjamin the contractor, in whose attic Jehudis lived. She was the oldest Hebrew teacher in the shtetl. She lived with her many grandchildren – orphans of her young daughter who had died. The oldest grandchild Perl, was also a teacher, an old maid, a tall woman with a dark, matte skin, with two burning black eyes in which her entire un-lived life, with all her suppressed hopes and longings, were reflected. She was my teacher. Later she became insane and died in the hospital in Warszawa. And next is Mosze Haim the wine-maker – a polite Jew, honest and religious, with a blond beard and gentle, good-natured eyes. His wife would often become crazy during the summer heat and run around the shtetl. He took care of her like a father would a child. On the other side, exactly opposite our window – were Jankele and his wife Zelda. Zelda was always able to hide their poverty. She was always neat, elegantly dressed and wore a wig even during the week. Their son Mosz'ke Gecel, the playboy, before whom everyone in the shtetl trembled, even the Christians, as he could hit back. And here the Jewish, half-assimilated, pharmacist Stasz and his slim, gentle wife from Warszawa. Barely had he seen a bit of smoke from our bakery chimney then he would arrive with a pail of water to put out the fire. He was always afraid of a fire and did everything possible so that there would never be one in his pharmacy. Who does not remember and who did not like Goldsztejn the photographer, who among the Ostrowers, would not find themselves in his photographs. There is so much we can write about him.

Goldsztejn, tall, thin with light, bright eyes, always happy and a witticism at every opportunity. He was the only Jew in the shtetl who owned a piano. Thanks to his artistic talent he became the leader of the dramatic troupe, and with his brother-in-law Lejb Kohn, Mrs. Lewita and others, put on plays several times a year and donated the money to the library. Who can forget their offering of “Kasza the Orphan” and a little later Przybyszewski's “Der Shney” [“The Snow”] and Strindberg's “Der Foter” [“The Father”], under the direction of the great artist Jacques Levy, who came especially from Warszawa to direct this play. How could I forget the first time I went to the library to borrow a book. I remember the first librarian, the tall, gentle Chuma Paskiewicz. She gave me my first book. Who could believe the joy and luck of having books to read. The Ostrowa library, the pride of all the surrounding villages, became our school, our university;

 

ost161a.jpg
The Dramatic section of the “Education” Society
Sitting from right: Mrs. Lewitow, Wejlach, Chrust, Rywka Kohn and Lichtensztejn.
Standing from right: Ryba, Goldsztejn, Bluma Drozdowski, unknown, Chaj'cze Zakheim

 

ost161b.jpg
The Farewell Party with Our dear Jack Lewi
22 September 1924, Ostrów

 

generations were educated and received knowledge through that library. We devoured worldly books and absorbed the Yiddish words in an attic corner or in the woods during the summer, where our parents would not see us. We became acquainted with great thinkers and poets; we were enriched with new worlds, new thoughts, aspirations and dreams. And afterwards, the unions, political parties and youth organizations came to life. New words - new slogans. Great ideas were born. I remember my first time at Poalei Zion, where the older comrades were devoted to education. My first teachers: Ajze Gąsior, Wladkowski, Skóra, Rozenberg – all intellectuals, sons from poor homes. Their lectures for youngsters about literature and political science, etc. opened new worlds for us.

Once, it was decided to hold a demonstration on the first of May. For many months preparations were made in secret, uniting all the parties, including the Polish Socialist Party. This happened in the first year of Poland's independence and freedom. But Piłsudski, with his legionnaires, already had a network of anti-Semitism and brutality ready. The great day arrived. A holiday spirit, with joy and songs in our hearts we left our houses. Everyone went to his party headquarters with a red silk flower in his lapel. Having gone a couple of streets, I came upon the Polish military doctor, who angrily screamed at me: “ You little rat! You already know how to carry a red flower.” With a wild anger he tore off my red flower. My joy was destroyed. My pain was great. I soon arrived at party headquarters. The comrades gave me another flower. The holiday feeling was back. We all stood outside in rows, the older comrades with Gąsior in front, us youngsters – at the back. And we marched to the Promenade garden. There all the parties came together, and we continued on together. But we stopped a couple of streets after the Sadzawke. The police were waiting and our demonstration turned around. This was the only demonstration that ever took place in Ostrowa.

Who can forget the promenade streets and the forests? The narrow sidewalk from the jail to the town hall, the Promenade garden, the Sadzawka, wide Warszawa Street, along which extended fields which in summer were full of tall, golden wheat stalks, that protected couples and secret party meetings from prying eyes and from the police.

A little further, on Warszawa Road, before arriving at the large forests, one would go through a young, small forest. There among the young trees stood two small wooden houses used as summer cottages. The owner was a Christian (a coffin maker) with his pretty, young daughter “Jenta” (why a Yiddish name? Maybe because she spoke such a soft, charming Yiddish).

“Jenta” also owned a swing. On Shabes young men would go there, together with young women and for a couple of groschen would be able to use the swing for a certain amount of time. There were great experts who would soar high in the air. And from “Jenta's” little forest it is only a few steps to the large, deep forests.

Ostrowa's forests who can forget them? On the left side, Brok forest and across on the right side – the Warszawa. This is where we lived during the summer. All our young dreams and our longing for unknown worlds were woven there. There were no words to express our longing!

Yes, you were beautiful and honest my shtetl. When we went out into the world and lay in small, poor rooms full of nightmarish nights of longing, we were always with you, my shtetl, living with you, walking your streets and forests, tasting your air. You gave us courage and consoled us.

You are not forgotten – my destroyed shtetl.

 

Footnote
  1. Independent Poland banned the Communist Party – it was illegal to be involved in spreading Communism or belonging to the Party. Return

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