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[Page 646]

Rytwiany
(Poland)

5032' 2112'

by Mordechai Sosevicz, Ramat Chen

Translated by Miriam Leberstein

The village of Rytwiany [Yiddish name Ritvin], located five kilometers from Staszów, was owned by Count Radziwiłł, of the renowned noble Polish family. The Count, with his extensive agricultural estates and industrial enterprises – such as a sugar factory, brick factory and whiskey distillery – provided a livelihood, not just for hundreds of Poles, but for even more Jews, mostly craftsmen. Among the craftsmen who derived their living form the Count's “court” first place was held by saddle–makers and carpenters, who were the official suppliers of saddles and harnesses for the nobleman's horses, and of furniture for the Count, directors, and high officials employed by the court.

My family, one of those that had been settled in Rytwiany for generations, consisted of simple, honest and pious Jews, just like others of that time. Every day, very early I the morning, that is, before dawn, they recited the designated chapter of Psalms, a bit of Shaarei Tzion,[1] finished their prayers “as the ox licks clean” – which is to say, completely, had a bite to eat and set to work.

That was how their great grandfathers had lived and conducted themselves, and their children followed in their ways from generation to generation, continuing the same traditional, deeply entrenched way of life, up until our times.

Because our family had found favor with the Count, and were in general considered honest and upstanding people, one of the family was appointed to the position of “arendar.”[2] They supported themselves by taking fodder, cheese and milk that were produced by quite primitive methods to be sold in town, in Staszów. Other family members made a living from saddle making and carpentry, as noted above. My father, in contrast, opened a grocery store.

In his entire family of simple, pious Jews, who almost every Monday and Thursday walked five kilometers to Staszów to pray with a minyan,[3] my Father – Reb Zev, or as he was called in Ritwiany, Volvelel Ritwiner – stood out as a student of Torah and a devoted Hasid. True, he was no great scholar; he was able to read some Gamara with Rashi, but for that reason his zeal was all the greater, and he never ceased reciting.

Many times he didn't even get undressed at night, but sat up studying and praying. When he got tired, he'd lay down for a nap for a few hours, his boots still on. He'd soon get up, wash his hands, splash his eyes to wake up and continued with his studies until it was broad daylight.

On holidays like Shavuot and Rosh Hashanah, my father would leave my mother surrounded by five or six small children, and the grocery store, in the hands of God, and set off to visit the Ostrovtser (Ostrowiec) rebbe for several days, often for whole week. This true believer was totally convinced that as a reward for his fulfilling the obligation to make pilgrimage to the rabbi, my mother would come to no harm, despite the fact that he had left her alone in a village full of Polish peasants. The well known Talmudic saying, that he who sets out on a mission to do a mitzvah is not harmed, was broadly interpreted by my father to apply to his entire family.

After the Russians retreated, during the First World War, Austrian soldiers were stationed in our village. Once, some Poles denounced us to the Austrian general, accusing us of overcharging for bread. Without doing any investigation – to harm Jews do you need any evidence? – this “Jew–loving” general ordered that my father be hung up by his arms, which was soon done. Only after some local Christians intervened and testified that Volvish (as he was known) was renowned as an entirely honest, upstanding man was he taken down, after several hours, in a faint.

The occupiers changed; the Austrians left and the Russians returned. But Jewish troubles always remain. The story of Jews in the diaspora changes its appearance from time to time, its outer form and circumstances change, but its essence remains the same: we are always exposed for better or for worse to the hostile surroundings.

Before the return of the Russian army, we hid all our valuables, including some undressed animal hides. Again, and as always, there appeared “good” Polish neighbors, who made the familiar accusation to the necessary parties, that the Jews got along well with the Austrians, while with the Russians, they had hidden everything. It soon became apparent that despite the hostilities between the two opposing camps, there was unity between the generals in at least one area –the realm of anti–Semitism.

The Russian general seized on this pretext and sent his soldiers to conduct a search. And, if you search, you'll find something. The general ordered my father's arrest, and gave the family twenty–four hours (this was on a Friday, at midday) to come up with a large amount of salt, which was then a rare commodity. If they didn't, he threatened, he would shoot my father.

This caused great commotion, not just in the family, but also in Staszów, where my father was well known and highly respected. The town rabbi, Yehuda Leyb Graubart, immediately called together the most respectable, prominent people in town, and told them to do everything they could. He even gave permission to break the Sabbath, to save a life, by letting the mill run to grind the salt pellets, so that the deadline could be met. On Saturday, exactly at noon, the ransom was paid, and my father was freed after twenty–four hours of nerve–wracking suspense and fear.

Another incident of that war period has stuck in my memory. This occurred with the arrival of the volunteer Polish–American army under the command of General Haller. Suddenly, on a Friday night, there was a pounding at the door. When we asked who was there, the response was, ”The Polish Army are simply robbers,” an allegation that was immediately confirmed, as they proceeded to rob, at gunpoint, everything they could, and forced us immediately to bake bread from the several sacks of flour that they had found.

That's what we endured during the First World War, subjected to all kinds of robbers, trickery and deadly danger from all the armies. Unable to continue in this manner, we left the village where we had lived for generations, and resettled in Staszów, where life in a larger Jewish community was much easier and more secure.


Footnotes

  1. Sha'arei Tsiyon: a Lurianic-kabbalistic devotional work by Rabbi Nathan Hanover (1662). “As the ox licks clean” is an allusion to Numbers 22:4. Return
  2. Arendar: In Polish law, an agent, especially, a person granted license or lease to deal with land or products belonging to another. Return
  3. Minyan: quorum of ten men required to conduct public worship. Though the morning weekday service is conducted daily, Monday and Thursday are especially significant because the Torah is read on those days, and can only be read if the quorum of ten is present. Return

 

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