[Pages 51 - 56]
Twice a year, on Passover and Succoth, they would come home all dressed up and would be enviously admired. Not every one of us could have new clothes for the holidays. Only a few tailors like Yoresh, Yudel Moishe Mates (Kolenko) and hatmakers such as Yankel and Ephraim who employed workers and earned a good living could afford new garments. They worked from early morning to late at night and often on Thursday through the night. They started again on Saturday evening right after Havdalah (The ceremony marking the end of the Sabbath).
To learn a trade in Radzyn, one had to work as an unpaid apprentice for three years. After that one received a few Gulden a week. It was no wonder then that many preferred going to Warsaw where they earned more. Therefore the shtetl did not grow and so there were no new places of employment.
Making a living brought with it throat cutting competition. Many times the Kopchakes (a family of coachmen) fought furiously with other coachmen over passengers. Among the shopkeepers too, there were no lack of informers and denunciations to the authorities as well as other quarrels. I remember that one Leibush Boruch set fire to the grocery store near him owned by his widowed sister-in-law .Her eighteen-year-old son was burned to death. Later this same Leibush Boruch went to America (Detroit) where he tried to pass as some sort of a Rabbi. At that time there were not many Radzyners in Detroit and he would have been able get away with this deception for a long time if it had not been for Itshe-Meir from Sladowitz . He recognized this fellow and revealed everything that Leibush Boruch had done in Radzyn and so had him removed from the pulpit.
Sour pickles were a commodity in Radzyn. The vegetable growers bought up the herring barrels, soaked them and packed them with pickles which they shipped to Warsaw and other big cities in Poland. The Radzyn onions too had a good reputation. There were some that weighed half pound or more. These too were shipped all over.
The Koptshakes carried passengers as well as freight, sugar, herring kerosene, etc. for the storekeepers. But their main source of income was from the Rebbe, carrying the Chassidim to him for the holidays. This was easier work and generated more income. One day a rumor spread that the Rebbe was moving to Mezeritch. There was uproar in the shtetl and the Koptchakes screamed that blood would flow if the Rebbe left. He did not leave.
The Rebbe's Court was the source of additional income for many Radzyners. When the Chassidim came for the holidays, those that lived near the Rebbe's Court, such as Leibel Toker and others, would convert their homes into hostels. If there was a shortage of pillows they would rent some from poor people living further away paying fifteen kopecks as rental fee. This way the poor people would sleep during the holidays on a 'hard bed' but would earn some added income.
There were also fishermen such as Moishe Zelig, Chaim Shimon, and Dovidl Gradwitzer. The richer homeowners would buy pike, bream and small fish. The poorer people would have to make do with dace (a fresh water fish) threescore to the pound and so their gefilte fish had a darker color. However they still knew that they were at the Sabbath table and sang Meat and fish.
The Tsholent (Sabbath stew) was an ancient tradition. The angel would insure its success. It was placed in the baker's oven together with the Sabbath tea. The Kugel (a kind of pudding) of noodles or of rice was delightful. I remember that after the great Friday night fire of 1898,when all houses from Hershel Shachar's house up to the salty well burnt down. There was nothing left to eat after the Saturday morning prayers for those whose houses had burnt. Then someone remembered that the ovens remained unharmed. They took out the Tsholent and there was enough to eat!
After the Saturday afternoon nap we would go to the Small Bais Medresh (House of Learning) to hear Yoske Shaya Dovid and the black Rochelle's son-in-law, preach about the weekly Torah portion. Then we felt like real Jews. The more erudite met with Reb Simcha Tiles to study a page of the Gomorrah. (Part of the Talmud that comments on the Mishnah) The ordinary craftsmen met on Saturday afternoon at Yudel-Mish- Motel's and amused themselves around a barrel of beer.
At the beginning of the century, Radzyn too was affected by the appearance of the Bund (Jewish Worker's Party) and other Jewish revolutionary parties demanding an eight hour work day and other benefits. One Chaim-Simche, whose father was a carpenter in Radzyn, came from Warsaw and agitated among the workers, who were mostly boys, to call a strike to obtain better working conditions. The employers threatened to report the revolutionaries to the authorities. Youkel Schneider wanted to set fire to Chaim Simcheh's father's house so as to get rid of him. What about the family? That did not seem to bother him.
In 1905 during the Russian Revolution two Radzyner young men, Leibel Barkers' son and Moishe Matess' grandson, went to Tshmernick (Czemierniki) to arouse the local peasants against the Czar. The end was that these very same peasants murdered them on their way back to Radzyn. This event made a painful impression in the shtetl so that even religious Jews allowed their children go abroad rather then have them perish at home, God forbid.
There almost was a pogrom in Radzyn about that time which was when they were building the railroad to the town. Suddenly one Friday night, a gang of drunken Russians, who were laying the tracks, started to overturn stalls in the market as a prelude for a pogrom. Second hand clothing dealers such as the Fartigs and others went out to meet them with sharpened clothes hangers and drove them out of the town.
It happened quite often that young peasants came into town to pick fights and beat up some Jews. They were met by the Vashners, Mendel and Pinchas, as well as some of the Koptchakes and later the Kelbas and others who saved the shtetl.
The story of the great controversy between Reb Moishe-Chaim Feigles and Gershon-Hanoch about the Tcheles (azure) Tzitzes (fringes of the prayer shawl) which the latter had introduced among his Chassidim, was often repeated in Radzyn. In the Community Bais Medrash they ripped off the Tcheles Tzitzes from the prayer shawls of anyone who dared wear them. Yoske Shyeh -Dovids a, scholarly Jew. , printed up a booklet attacking the Tcheles and proving by 'signs and wonders' that after the destruction of the Second Temple when animal sacrifice, Shmitah (fallow year) and the like were abandoned, the Tcheles too was annulled. This caused quite a clamor in the shtetl. When Reb Gershon Henach passed away his son Reb Mordecai Yosef became the Radzyner Rebbe. When the new Rabbi Reb Chaim Fine arrived, both sides made peace living together and joining forces to root out the heretics.
There were plenty of those. A 'modern' teacher called Shiyeh showed up in the shtetl. He was from Mezerich (Miedzyrzec) although his wife was from Radzyn. He taught Hebrew by the 'new method' and the boys knew Hebrew after a short time. He also taught them to sing Hebrew songs while he was out walking with them. One time, it was on Lag Ba'omer (a festival), Shiyeh went walking with his boys on the Visnicz Highway while singing Songs of Zion. The Rebbe Reb Mordecai-Yosef passed by and heard them singing Hebrew songs. He went and told the Rabbi who sent his Shamash (caretaker) to find out from which Siddur (prayer book) Shiyeh took the songs which the Rebbe had heard. Don't ask what happened when it turned out that the songs did not come from a Siddur at all but from a 'living language' book with pictures of a table and a chair etc. The Rebbe went to the parents and ordered them to immediately take their children away from Shiyeh the Teacher so as to save the town from the danger of heresy and apostasy.
The poor teacher was forced to leave the shtetl and went to Sedlitz (Siedlce)- where there were more Zionists. Five years later I met him together with another teacher from Radzyn, Henechel Areshtant's brother. They were both teaching Hebrew by the 'new methods'.
Only 'kosher' teachers such as Shloimele Mekeh, Yossel Glantz, Lozer Melamed, Itshe and Mendel Koones and others were left in Radzyn. The 'great wisdom' that they instilled in their pupils can be seen to this day.
There was however no shortage of atheists .By the river in Radzyn there lived a Jew called Yossel Midlarnik (the soap maker) who wanted to make a Mikveh (ritual bath) with real fresh water without the odors that arose from the communal Mikveh. The Rabbi did not want to certify the kashruth of this 'modern' mikveh. Midlarnick had no choice but to sell the boiler to Pesach Greenblatt from Mezeritch, and Radzyn was saved from heresy and continued on its tried and true way.
Superstition was rampant. For treating patients they went all the way to Kilembrod to the 'sorcerer'. They told a story about Mashke Zelikovs who cut of the hand of a dead child so that with the help of this 'amulet' they could rob someone without being caught. Feival Yisroel Moishe's mother, wanting to bury a stillborn child tripped over another grave, fell, and came home sick. In the second cholera (epidemic) the prescribed remedy was to set three kugel pots filled with water in the window and to write the letter 'tof' (the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet) on each one of them.
Wolf's teeth and rabbit's mouths where hung as charms around every child's neck. That this was not very sanitary can be seen from the fact that only one woman did not have a number of children buried in the cemetery. That woman was called Crazy Sarah'le. Mothers would 'sell' her everything in exchange for a remedy for their children and in addition would bring her a roll on Friday. The children were told to call Sarah'le mother to deceive the angel of death.
That the first readers of Hatzfirah (the first Hebrew newspaper published in Poland) and other such newspapers had to do so secretly. It is interesting to note that later, Reb Yoske Shiyah Dovid's himself, borrowed these abominations, read them in secret, and returned them. It was also rumored that Avraham Zalman Michel's was caught in the act.
Apparently progress was unstoppable. Shiyeh Mlamed had been forced leave Radzyn because he taught Modern Hebrew and love of Zion. Later Laizer Beinish, who was also from Mezeritch came to the shtetl and began to replant Zionism anew.
Eliyahu-Aaron came into our house every day, because my father, who was paralyzed, lay in bed all the time unable to turn over by himself. Eliyorke spent a few hours every day in our house, picking up my father, washing him, changing his clothes, making him comfortable and laying him down again, all the time reassuring him that he would recover.
But that was not the end of Elyorke's activities. He had an additional responsibility. A regiment of soldiers was stationed in Radzyn (Radzyn was the district center) among them many Jews. It was his responsibility to see to it that they got leave on the holidays and that they have what to eat on those days. He set quotas for the number soldiers each of the homeowners would take. This bothered some of the wealthy people, but they did not dare complain to Eliorke. If after all his efforts there were still some soldiers left without a place to eat, he would say: Don't worry, you can all come to my house There was always a sack of potatoes there. The soldiers ate together with Eliyorke, sang songs and even danced.
What did Elyorke live from? From that store which stood in a passageway near the bridge that looked out on the market, the courtyard, the church and Warsaw Street. Where Yudel the sexton would cry out on Friday evening in his high pitched and drawn out voice: Time to go to the synagogue. Elyorke had long ago turned the store over to his children and lived with his wife in a corner house in which the beds were arranged like the Hebrew letter Daled. It had belonged to Elyorke's family for many generations. To make a living, he went to a market or a fair, bought a calf and earned a few Gulden for the week.
Only on Simchat Torah evening before the Hakafot was this old ruin and the surrounding streets lit up by candles and torches. All the Jewish soldiers were decked out in their finest uniforms, their buttons gleaming. They dressed Elyorke in a general's uniform with a general's hat and they paraded him to the synagogue with candles and torches. The streets echoed with the soldier's chants: Long live our general Gorki Hu-rr-ah!
In the synagogue Elyorke prayed in front of the ark and led the Hakafot. It was an unforgettable sight to see the soldiers marching around the platform with Torah scrolls in their arms led by a tall, attractive, patriarchal general who sang out Thou who helpest the poor, save us, (from the Hakafot of Simchat Torah.)
Yechiel Chana's had inherited from Chana the tavern and restaurant. At that time he was middle aged, very attractive with a small blond trim beard. He was always clean and well dressed when he set the table for his landowner customers. Since he was also a good dancer, all the landowners' wives strove to dance with him. It is obvious that he was not observant, since he could not avoid an occasional squeeze and maybe even a sip of unkosher wine. It was also hard to resist tasting a non-kosher morsel from those tables loaded with delicacies On Saturday he did not go to the unheated ritual bath and did not have to worry about transgressions.
However when Yoel Yosef got stuck and could not continue sounding the Shofar, he gave the horn over to Yechiel. He wiped the horn with a clean handkerchief, brought it up to his lips and without any special effort managed to produce a hundred notes with one breath.
When they asked Yechiel How is it that by that virtuous Yoel Yosef the devil gets into the Shofar and by you, who is so light headed, the devil has no influence?. He replied: I have a agreement with the devil. All year I will obey him .In return, on Rosh Hashanah, the devil will obey me and not get into the Shofar.
A couple of times in the year a Jew from Vohin called 'Itshke the Pig' came to visit Yankel the Coppersmith. He would travel around trading in gold, jewelry, rings watches and the like. He looked like Mattiyahu the Hashmonae, tall, slender, with a grey beard and a very alert look. I remember how he used to tell, with great delight, how he had managed to get money from stingy rich families to be used for buying matzoth for the poor.
What seemed strange to me was that a person with such an unsympathetic name as 'Itshke the Pig' was always spoken of with such great respect. After some inquires, I came to the following conclusion: The whole story began in 1863,when Itshe was a young man but not called 'The Pig'. The Polish revolt to obtain independence from Russia took place at that time. In Vohin the Poles succeeded immediately because the whole Czarist 'might' consisted of one patrolman. But as is usual with the Poles, their first act was to start up with the Jews and their first planned action was to slaughter all the Jews. The only way the Jews could be saved was to get word to Radzyn where there was, in addition to police force, an army regiment. However the Poles posted guards on all the roads leading out from of the city to prevent anyone leaving.
What did Itshe do? When night fell, he wrapped himself in a pig's skin, crawled on all four, grunted like a pig until he reached the other side of the town. He entered Radzyn, and a unit of soldiers and policemen was immediately dispatched to Vohin that arrested the leaders of the progrom. From that time on The Pig was added to his name and his whole family became know as the Pig Family. Every year a special feast took place in Vohin where Itshe sat at the head of the table with his family, with the town notables around him and a special Pig's Scroll was read.
Vohin and all the surrounding shtetlach were proud of Itshke The Pig and the Pig Feast.
He was called Chaim Shimon Fisher because he was a fish merchant in the village of Zabialeh about two kilometers from Radzyn. In the warm summer evenings the non-Jewish inhabitants caught fish in the local stream. Actually, he had another occupation in addition to being a dealer in fish. During the summer he would rent, in these very same villages, one or two small orchards, and in the winter, his wife would sell the fruit to the well-to-do Radzyn householders. What was left over she would sell from her stall in the market- place. Despite these two occupations, Chaim Shimon remained impoverished. He had four grown-up daughters the oldest of whom, Tobeh, they barely managed to marry off. Right after the birth of her first child she caught cold and developed breathing problems. When she had an attack, they would bring oxygen and pump it in to her. Only then would her breathing return to normal. It is therefore no wonder that she should be the apple of her parents' eyes.
One very hot summer's day, when Chaim Shimon went to the village to buy some fish, Tobeh had an attack, and before they could get help she passed away. You can imagine what happened then around Chaim Fisher's house. He was living on Kozia St in an arcade belonging to Mordechai Shochet. (Ritual slaughterer). The street was filled with people crowding around the house from where could be heard heart-rending cries accompanied by the quiet sobbing of the crowd.
While people were standing there they suddenly saw in the distance Chaim Shimon coming with a sack of fish on his shoulder. They began to pull back not wanting to be close enough to see how such a terrible tragedy affected the father. What actually happened was quite different. When Chaim Shimon entered the house, Chana Pesseh saw him and began screaming anew in her hoarse voice: Chaim Shimon bless you. Look at our disaster! Our Tobah is gone, the light of our life has been extinguished in the middle of a bright day. Despite these heartrending cries, Chaim Shimon did not say a word. He just threw down the sack, went over to the corner where there stood a wooden pail filled with water. He took the copper measuring cup that stood there, poured some water over his hands and in a trembling voice said: God is the only true judge! God gives and God takes away. Then turning to his wife, who was still screaming he said: Moron, fool what are you screaming about? To whom are you complaining? Don't you know that there are three partners to the human being, the father, the mother and the Holy Spirit? Then pointing with his bony trembling fingers at dead body of his daughter, he said: The third partner came and took away his share. Our shares are still here
In Yudel Shamash's house there were, in addition to his wife Rishe, four grown sons and three daughters none of who ever worked or earned anything. The only breadwinner in the family was Yudel Shamash. It is therefore no wonder that scarcity and need were permanent guests in the house, especially when there were few weddings or other celebrations from which something could be earned. Occasions when there were such celebrations were a holiday in the house, Rishe would open the door and a loaf of ruddy brown rye bread would protrude from under her scarf. On one such day, Rishe quarreled with her older children who ate all the bread and left nothing for Leah'le who was the youngest daughter whom the mother loved very much. Suddenly the door opened and Yudel Shamash came in from the Bais Hamedrash and asked Rishe what all the yelling was about. Rishe replied: The young ones have swallowed all of the bread, the pigs, and what will Leah'le eat? Here the tears began to flow from her always red eyes: Hush, Hush, Yudel calmed his wife and told her good-naturedly: Rishe don't get excited, don't yell, don't curse the children, they are already grown up, thank God. You may bring out the insolence in them and they will talk against you and you might cause them to transgress the commandment Honor thy father and mother.
I do not know how the city came into being. How can one go back so far in a Shtetl hat has both an old and a new cemetery with old tombstones and two old Ohels? (Structures over the tomb of an important person). Maybe it came into being in a period when the landowner and some of the richer peasants were in need of traders, craftsmen and artisans so they invited them to come there and even set up a town for them. Where else can one see such a huge marketplace with long cast iron entrance gates on both ends and with so many shops in ornamented buildings all having one style of shingled roofs as if they had all been made by one architect? Even the synagogue, which was very old, was built in that style.
Everything is run in the old traditional manner. Every day of the week the marketplace is filled with wagons of peasants containing the produce that they sell. Later they are filled with the commodities such as kerosene, herring and clothing that they buy in the shops. However on Friday the market becomes quiet at midday. Slowly the peasants leave, the market is empty and the weekday retreats from the approaching guest, the Sabbath. The Jews dismantle their stands, the sounds of heavy bars let down over the doors of the closed shops are heard, and a heavenly silence reigns. It may be that in a side street there is a lone Jew. He is running home from the mikveh (ritual bath) so that he will not desecrate the Sabbath. In the houses however, everything is ready for the Sabbath. One can smell the fish and the candelabra are ready for lighting and blessing. When the beadle goes through the streets shouting, Jews go to the shul (synagogue) the Sabbath has settled down over the entire shtetl.
The Bais Hamedrash stood right next to the synagogue. It too was of massive size and very tall with large windows in the style of the Holy Temple. What was most beautiful was the external eastern wall that was taller than the roof, and shaped like a crown, and had two huge tablets that could be seen far away in all parts of the shtetl.
The synagogue with its temple like appearance inspired even more respect. It had a mystic holiness that made it into a place where one came only to pray. At other times one was afraid to set foot in it because of the souls of the dead who gathered within. Perhaps the little birds in the nests on the very high roof were really souls.
The Bais Hamedrash was very different. It was a community center where people came, debated, and got excited about various matters. The students stood out with their melodic high-pitched voices as they stood shaking and chanting all day over their Gomorra. They sometimes reached such high tones that it seemed as if one was trying to outdo the other. The Bais Hamedrash was like a giant music box from which the music spread over the surrounding fields through the streets and reached the market place. There were even times when it drowned out the sound of the church bells. This music comforted the Jews. They traded with it, they spoke with it, and it accompanied all of their moods. When it was sad, the melody cried and when the music was spirited it gave them cheer and courage.
However well we portray the shtetl itself, we cannot avoid speaking about the people of Radzyn. The Radzyners not only took from the world but also contributed to it .The town was famous for its students and intellectuals. It had something else, the virtue of hospitality. It is therefore no wonder that Reb Henoch made it his place of residence. Long before him the same thing happened with Shimon Daitsch who was welcomed here as a rabbi. Escaping from persecution in Germany, he came to Poland. He was a rabbi and a great scholar; he dressed stylishly like a German in a frock coat and a top hat and was persecuted and driven from wherever he came to. So he went from town to town until he reached Radzyn and there he stayed .He was welcomed with honor as Rabbi. He so cherished the town that he blessed her that she should not have any fires for a hundred years and in the worst case at least not more than in one house. In my time a fire occurred in two houses. I wondered how that could have happened. I was told that the hundred years must have gone by. For many years the sick and crippled came from faraway towns to visit his Ohel in the cemetery to ask him for forgiveness for the evils and insults that their forefathers caused him. Woe was to him who was cursed by him and happy was he who was blessed by him.
I came into this world in a time of great events and upheavals some were good and some were bad, but they were mostly bad. There was the War with Japan, the progroms in Kishenev, Shedlitz and other places, the Revolution of 1905 and the (Mendel) Beilis Trial. All of these events caused me great fear and trembling as I took my first steps into life. Radzyn was so far from the railroad that no one could find her. Her streets were so quiet that at midday she looked deserted. When was there a noise that could be heard elsewhere? The nights were even quieter when the winds died down and the trees stood mute. The inhabitants huddled in their huts, closed the shutters and laid their tired bodies to rest, forgetting their problems of making a living and other worries. Great worldly events do have their echo. Even though Radzyn was far from the war with Japan, there was some connection.
Suddenly, like thunder from out of a clear sky, there is a decree from the Czar ordering all army and emergency service reservists to report for duty that very morning. The whole shtetl was on its feet immediately. The weeping and wailing reached seventh heaven. It also woke me up. I open my eyes and no one is at home. I am drawn to the street and run with the crowd to the market place where there is a group of people surrounded by all the townspeople. They stand there pale, as if crippled and half-dead. Many of them are older Jews with long black and gray beards, who are more suited to being grandfathers. Here they are being taken away from us to be sent off to the war. I am moved when I see their sad looks and their wretched broken wives and children. I will never forget their shrieking and wailing.
The progroms, too, reverberated in Radzyn. Fortunately we got away with only a scare. At that time I was a student of Mendel the Moreh Halacha (Religious Judge). One morning I showed up at the Cheder (Boy's Religious School.) and was informed that there is no school! There is a great commotion. The Rabbi and his wife are packing to make a quick get away. They look at me with surprise. Have you not heard that there is going to be a progrom in the town today? Without delay the Rabbi and his wife are sitting in the wagon together with other Jews. They are fleeing to Kotzk to save their lives. When they got half way all of Kotzk was there. It turned out that the rumor that there will be a progrom had reached Kotzk too and the Kotzkers were fleeing to Radzyn. One group looked at the other shamefacedly and without saying a word turned their wagons around and went back home. I did not have the pleasure of a few free days from school.
The Revolution was imported into our Shtetl. The young people brought it with them when they came home on the holidays from the big cities. There weren't any bourgeoisie and there was no proletariat here. There was a class of poor people, so they agitated among them. They threw around all sorts of slogans not knowing exactly what they meant. They called meetings in the woods because they were afraid to do so in the streets.
However, the Bais Hamedrash was a very suitable place for such gatherings. It happened that in the middle of the prayers someone would bang on the lectern and one of them would get up and make a speech. Guards who stood by the door and did not let anyone out protected the speaker. If anyone protested he would get a knife in the ribs. Actually no one understood the speakers. Words like absolutism, obscurantism, abdication and democracy did not penetrate their minds.
The youth, most of whom were poor and oppressed, were enthusiastic about the ideals of the revolution. Many of them were ready to sacrifice themselves for it. They went to agitate among the peasants despite the great danger involved. The educated and intelligent ones went to the people and some Jews and the non-Jews extended a brotherly hand. However these meetings did not always end up peacefully. Once, when our young people went to Czmierniki to agitate, the local dark hordes were incited, and they attacked the speakers with scythes and cut two of them to pieces. The victims were Leibel Moishe Mates' son and the brilliant student Mendel Finkelstein.
Rabbi Mordecai Yosef lived in Radzyn in my time. He was a handsome man with a red beard that shone like gold in the sunshine. He had a pleasant face that sparkled with kindness and amiability. Like his father Gershon Henoch, he valued learning and talent. When Israel Tikochinsky made a deck of cards by hand, the Rabbi bought it from him. When Ben Zion Greenboim, a revolutionary and atheist, accompanied by Lozer Firstenberg, went to the Rabbi to ask for a contribution to help those who had been arrested for political activities, he welcomed them politely. He had a long talk with Ben Zion about worldly philosophers and writers, and he complimented him, adding that it would not hurt if he looked into the Jewish books.
The Rabbi also knew me well and often asked me about my painting saying Paint, paint but not Christian pictures. I once said to him When the inspired artist draws doesn't he praise God in the same way as by chanting prayers? He did not reply, just shook his head in the affirmative.
Our group of talented young men all started out in a very auspicious time when the earth seemed bountiful and the atmosphere warm. We sprung up as if over-night. We could have grown and grown if not for WWI. That storm tore us up from the roots. I had just gotten a scholarship of 2000 Rubles to go to Paris to study. Some of the others, too, had similar opportunities. Just when I was about to leave the war broke out. In the end, all of us, with the exception of Nathan Shwalbe, stayed behind in the shtetl. For us, this was a step backward and an obstacle to our development. Under the threat of war and the constant fear of being taken for forced labor, there was no chance of progressing. Later when we got used to the situation and despite the fact that the Germans made life difficult for us, we managed to make the best of whatever cultural autonomy that was allowed.
For a long time Radzyn had a large Yiddish lending library, thanks to which a popular intelligentsia was created that awakened hidden talents among its members. We founded a dramatic club where we presented varied literary works and arranged for lectures. For these events we used the municipal theatre which had been closed for Jews during the Polish and Russian rule despite the fact that it had been built by Jewish money.
A large number of talented people belonged to the group; Nathan Shwalbe a well known Polish and Yiddish journalist, Ben Zion Greenbaum, Shlomo Zuker (Radzynski) a Yiddish writer, Yisroel Tikochinsky a talented painter, his brother Mordecai a humorist, Henoch Applebaum a talented actor and Yoseph Daniliak a lyric poet. Shlomo Weingarten can be added to this list. He was a quiet, many-sided talent, a mathematician, inventor, etcher but he was especially known for his phenomenal memory. Having read a book one time he could repeat every bit of it by heart on the next day. The writer of these lines was also a member of this group. Unfortunately, the Nazis annihilated most of its members. Radzyn was a good nesting place for born talents and important people. It was so in the next generation too.
After the German defeat came the Polish rule with persecution and terror against the Jews. On the first night after they took over, they killed thousands of Jews on the roads and in the villages. In the village of Brave, near Radzyn, they killed a whole family of six. This murder caused great grief to everyone. They became very depressed. On the day of the mass funeral everyone closed their businesses and old and young Jews participated. The large mourning mass gave it the appearance of a giant protest. However, the terror continued. Jews were beaten on the roads, their beards were cut off and in many cases they were thrown out of moving trains. People became discouraged and lived in constant fear of death. There was no one to complain to or where to protest. From every Jews lips there was only one expression Jews, we are lost. Run away from here
I loved my shtetl and also loved Poland. When the time came for my leaving Poland, I did not do so willingly. The situation had reached such a state of affairs that I had to pick up and leave. It was a dark night when I left my shtetl forever. Traveling on the long road to the train the sky suddenly turned red. Someplace there was a conflagration. Tongues of flames flashed across the sky gradually covering a larger area. That told me something. Maybe it was symbolic that in later years the sky would again be red day and night from the flames of the Nazi ovens where our relatives were burnt. I would prefer singing songs in praise for my shtetl and tell more romantic stories about it. However my heart is filled with grief and pain, and I would rather tear my garments, wear sackcloth and ashes and cry and mourn for everyone and everything that we have lost.
Shops selling all kinds of goods surrounded the most centrally located market place in town on three sides. The fourth side was open to the courtyard of the castle and from there a road led to the train station. From early in the morning until the evening, the peasants from the surrounding area parked their wagons and unhitched their horses there and purchased equipment and other necessities. The shops provided the peasants with everything from a needle to building materials and agricultural machinery.
This source of livelihood created ghettoes within the ghetto. Tailors settled around the market place and formed a tailor's alley. From early morning to late at night the whirring of the Singer sewing machines blended with the sounds of the voices of the young apprentices singing dreamy songs. Here second hand clothing dealers prepared wholesale lots of long jackets and pants for the peasants at the fairs. The shoemakers had their ghetto on the school street. The smell of the peasants' rough leather drifted over the whole street and irritated the nostrils. Through the open windows the sound of the hammering was mixed with the sad sounds of interrupted High Holiday melodies. It was as if the stitchers wanted to sew their own troubles and sadness into these melodies. These hard working Jews were not great scholars, but they never missed a public prayer service. Quite often, between the Mincha (afternoon) and Maariv (evening) prayers, they would sit by the long tables in the Bible Readers Shtibl (hut) and eagerly swallow chapters of the Chumash (Pentateuch) with commentaries by Rashi, or from Ein Yaakov* as they were presented by the Moreh Hora'ah (religious judge) Reb Chaim Asher. He was a short, thin, refined, Jew who lived his life according to the Shulchan Oruch (The 'Set Table'- The Code of Jewish law) and who existed on 'Kav charuvim' (a 'handful of carobs') from one week to another. He was very strict in matters of the dietary laws. The housewives avoided going to him for rulings about kashrut and preferred going to the town rabbi. The latter was more practical, and maybe because the Sabbath was approaching, or for other reasons, he would be more liberal in giving kashrut approval for their chickens and pots. The Bible Readers' Shtibl was their study center and they had great respect for their teacher, Chaim Asher, and worried about guaranteeing his livelihood.
The commercial sector consisted mostly of scholars who had formerly boarded with their in-laws. They boasted about their erudition and had no contact with the everyday hard working Jews. So as not to lower their esteem in the town, they never showed themselves at the Bible Readers Hut.
* Ein Yaakov-a collection of legends from the Talmud collected and interpreted by Rabbi Yaakov Ben Shlomo 1449-1816.
They were mostly grain dealers or owners of small shops. These Jews could often be met in Batai Hamedrash (Houses of Learning) sitting in deep concentration while poring over thick Gomorra volumes, or sitting in circles listening to news from the wide world.
Even before the arrival of the railroad the town served as the center of the food trade between the Ukraine and western Poland. Whole herds of cows and oxen from the Ukrainian Steppes were driven through the town to the German border. Here in Radzyn they were handed over by their Ukrainian herders, with their white linen shirts hanging out of their pants and straw slippers, to Polish gentiles. In the big house of the Danilak family, which served as a passage way from one main street to another, there stood a giant scale on which the arriving livestock was weighed. From here they were driven directly to the German border. With the arrival of the railroad this source of livelihood disappeared from the town.
The fate of a city can be compared to the fate of a person. The caprice of the Russian engineer, who was responsible for planning the location of railroad lines, determined the fate of the town. The lord of the great fortress of Radzyn was a staunch Polish patriot. He, Shlubowski, so the story goes, refused to properly entertain the dirty Russians. Therefore the engineer had the railroad track laid about four miles from the town through the town of Bedalno so that Radzyn was completely excluded from the railroad map. To get to the city of Radzyn one had to go to the carriage drivers. These Jews had carriages with springs over the wheels and leather roofs that could be raised or lowered at the request of the passengers. Their purpose was to carry passengers back and forth to the railroad. The other wagon drivers, the so-called 'koptchakes', were backward and remained stuck in the past. They had large families and were brave, broad shouldered Jews, good fighters of whom the non- Jews were deathly afraid. There were many occasions when they split open the heads of ' Esau's children' (non-Jews) using the poles from their wagons. There were uneducated liquor swilling people who never spoke, but bellowed like animals. They cursed, but never missed putting on their phylacteries and quite often managed even to squeeze in an afternoon and an evening prayer. The Kronenbergs, with their high, straw bedded wagons covered with white linen covers on wooden poles started out on the long road to the big cities with sacks of grain and flour and came back from there with wagons stacked high with salt, sugar, kerosene and iron.
One met them walking by the side of the Polish roads with their horses and creaking wagons in rainy, stormy and snowy weather. They kept warm by beating their hairy breasts with their muscular hands. Sometime the air was rent by the sound of a whip echoing through the fields and woods as they happily make their way to a roadside inn. The horse and the whip they inherited from their fathers and they bequeathed them in turn to their own flesh and blood.
Therefore on Saturdays and holidays they felt unhappy. They would slink into the Craftsmen's Bible Reading Hut to pray. They knew that their place was by the table near the door. They looked jealousy and enviously at the Jewish craftsmen who sat up front near the fasting-thin body of the Religious Judge swallowing every word that issued forth from his mouth whether it was the interpretation of a certain passage or a tiny bit of moralizing aimed at them. These otherworldly sounds reached back to the furthest table. The dense air and the strange incomprehensible words from the mouth of this holy Jew beclouded their dull minds. Afraid of dozing off, they sneaked out one by one from the holy place. The fresh outside air sharpened their senses. The dejection and inferiority which they had experienced but did not digest, spread through their bodies like a bubbling broth. For a while they considered what they had just experienced and unable to quiet their anger, they went home quickly to their wives.
However in his hometown, such a middle class Jew would, out of embarrassment, rather put on a disguise than stretch out his hand to ask for money for his daughter's dowry. However, since the dowry and support came to considerable sums they constituted a very heavy burden for a poor family that God had blessed with daughters of a marriageable age. Fathers and mothers did not sleep nights, and turned their eyes toward heaven searching for help. How to help the needy quietly and secretly? The hard working craftsmen, those, who belonged to the Bible Readers Shtibl, were the ones that asked this question. It was they, under the direction of Rabbinical Judge Reb Chaim Asher, who formed the Hachnasath Kalah organization.
There were such organizations in many Polish towns. What was unique about the one in Radzyn was that its rules included one stating that both the collection and distribution of the monies be carried out in complete secrecy. This cardinal regulation made it possible for the organization to function normally for a long time. An elected committee of five people decided whom to help and by how much. Any member who dared to reveal this information was immediately expelled from the group. Every member was obliged, when his turn came, to get into a strange costume and go to a celebration to collect money. Since Jews were embarrassed to go collect money and circulate among women, they put strange masks on their faces and stood silently for the whole time so that they would not be recognized.
They did not come only to take money but also to compensate the guests and the bridal family. They injected a degree of solemnity into the celebration. According to an old tradition in the town, every wedding ceremony took place in the synagogue courtyard. The groom and the bride were marched there from their homes accompanied by the sound of music. It was these peculiarly dressed friends with their strange uniforms and blazing torches in their hands that led the parade. Two of these Jews walked in front and two followed behind. In the courtyard they placed themselves around the wedding canopy, and each one stood by one of the poles with a flaming torch in his hand. The crackling flames from the kerosene wicks drove away the nighttime darkness and spread light over the bride and groom.
They carried out their assignments from beginning to end perfectly without letting out a sound from their mouths and without a movement of their heads, like true artists. They valued the holy good deeds that they performed and the citizens, too, showed their appreciation by filling up their tin boxes with copper and silver coins. However the haughty students from the town's elite did not want to join this group. They considered it demeaning to consort with common craftsmen. They also did not like the non-Jewish costumes.
One time each year this group got its reward. This was on Tu Be'shvat (the fifteenth day of the Hebrew month of Shvat) the day of a big feast. The preparations began some weeks prior to this date. For three weeks the wives of the members were busy fattening the geese that they had bought. After the geese were slaughtered, these women put on thick linen aprons made from sacks and plucked the geese. They worked well into the wee hours of the night so they could share in the honor of participating in the feast.
On the Fifteenth of Shevat, after the evening prayers the audience sat around the long tables and relished the roasted geese whose smell wafted out through the doors into the street and stimulated the taste buds and appetites of the passers by. The strong 90 proof whiskey added warmth and courage. The common people ate and drank like drunkards. However, while sitting at the table they did not quarrel or fight. They concluded the meal by wiping their fat covered lips and a reciting a crackling benediction. On the way home each wished the other that God help him find a mate, and dowry so that they would not need to ask for the help from the Hachnasth Kalah organization. A resounding drawn out 'Amen' shook the air and drifted far out into the street.
In a small low room, built cellar like into the earth and covered with a dirt roof, lived a small, thin Jew with a black beard. His eyes were so friendly that they could soften the cruelest of beings.
He had no mother, no sister, and no wife. He lived alone and lonely in the forest where he was born and where he came from no one knew. This was the way he lived his life. The trees were his only real friends. He told them his most intimate secrets and feelings. When he finished his prayers to the Holy One, the forest would become silent. In the middle of his prayers the trees would slowly and quietly bend their spiked tops and whisper his secrets each other. When he finished they would bend and to ask God in Heaven to accept his prayers.
He was rarely seen in the shtetl. He came only for the holidays. He was called Moshe Smolasz* because he would draw tar from the trees and sell it. When he did come, before the holidays, the whole way that led from the shtetl to the forest was lined with groups of different people, women with small children on their hands, old blind Jews leaning on their canes with grandchildren leading them. These were poor people who waited for Moshe.
When Moshe would come to the shtetl he was accompanied by wagons filled with food for the poor. He was also called Moshe The Provider because he helped support the few poor people of the shtetl. All of the income from his hard work he would give to the poor. When winter came he would buy up boots and jackets and on Chanukah distribute them to the poor children. In this way Moshe lived alone in the forest for fifty years. When asked why he had never married he had one answer. "I don't want to defile my body'. His greatest pleasure was only the holidays.
*Smoleh = Yiddish for tar.
Suddenly difficult days came upon Moshe. The work in the forest ended and he had no way of earning a living. The little money that he had saved he continued distributing to the poor until he had none left to buy bread, and he died of hunger.
It was on one of the days of Passover Eve, during a terrible windstorm and in the midst of a driving rain that Moishe Smolarz's soul left his body, which remained lying on the dirt floor, covered with a cotton jacket.
On that same holiday eve the poor stood on the road that led from the shtetl into the forest arguing about every wagon that set out saying 'that is Moishe's wagon.' They stood there till the evening when a peasant in a strange wagon came by and announced to them that Moishe had died. A terrible cry went up among the poor and spread quickly to shtetl of Radzyn " the Lamed Vov'nik (one of the 36 hidden saints) of the Forest has passed away."
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