(Memories from my childhood)
by Zalman Hirschfeld
Translated by Jerrold Landau
I was born in the town of Stawiski. I was the youngest child of my parents Michael Yaakov and Sheina Sara Hirschfeld. Our family lived for many years in the Wilamowski home, in the neighborhood of the buckwheat grinder Shlomo Yechiel Mondensztejn. I remember that his son Elchanan, who studied in the Yeshiva of Volozhin, came home for the festivals with a short coat and a starched white collar. He also wore a tie, in the manner of the Maskilim. People would talk about him, and rumors spread that he had fallen into a bad crowd, G-d forbid… Nevertheless, he was not exceptional in our town, for at that time already the children of the rabbi of the city, Rabbi Dworcki, already studies in universities.
Later, we moved from the Wilamowski home to the upper floor of the home of Reb Zeinwil Blanksztejn. Blanksztejn lived in the center of town, in the marketplace, next to the road that divided the town in two. As was related to me, this road was the highway between Petersburg the capital of Czarist Russia, and Warsaw the capital of Poland.
From the time of my early childhood, I remember an unusual event that took place in those days. In 1911, an automobile race took place, and since Stawiski was located on the main road, we were able see with our own eyes the cars that sped through our town at the speed of lightning.
The entire town prepared itself in an exceptional manner for this great and important event. The marketplace was swept and the edges of the road that traversed the town were whitewashed with lime and covered with bright yellow sand. To enhance the splendor, a gate of honor was erected. It was covered with branches, and the flag of Czarist Russia fluttered on top of it. Three or four policemen stood at the edges of the road. They were “representatives” of the Czarist governor, and kept control over the residents of the town with a high hand. They stood erect and taught, and marched with a respectful and awesome gait. Their boots were polished and the buttons of their cloaks were shiny. As well, a half a dozen of the firemen of the town, wearing shiny copper helmets on their heads, added to the honor the great event. Men, women and children, both Jews and gentile, stood for long hours as they waited impatiently to see that automobiles pass through. Everyone was wearing festive clothes, for rumor had it that high-ranking captains and officials would be driving in these cars. Some people even said that the Czar himself along with his family including the young heir apparent would be among the drivers. Who knows? … Lo and behold, the automobiles appeared, and passed through the road speedily in interludes of five to fifteen minutes. They stirred up clouds of dust that covered the entire town. The high officials that sat inside did not even notice us, and did not pay attention to the splendid reception that stormy and agitated Stawiski had prepared for them. This was an unforgettable event, which passed with the blink of an eye like a fleeting dream. The festive town again sunk into the grayness of its day to day life, as if nothing ever had taken place…
Even today, the night alarms of “Fire!” resound in my ears. Speedily and with panic, moveable belongings such as pillows, blankets, and anything that might come to hand were taken outside. Crying and frightened babies were placed on the haystacks as everyone made haste to extinguish the leaping flames that enveloped the town with tongues of reddish fire. Everyone became a firefighter: some with pails and others with basins, some by shouting alarms, and others by offering advice… everyone ran together toward the fire. Even the firefighters from neighboring villages were summoned to assist in fighting against the devouring fire. The red sky, the pillars of smoke and the fierce winds instilled fear upon the entire town, lest they, Heaven forbid, be wiped off the face of the earth.
The next day, when one went out onto the street, one would see the remnants of the burnt houses, scorched walls and charred household utensils – remnants that survived the fire. Here and there, a remaining flame or spark of fire would leap up from the mud, making a last attempt to take root again, and within a moment it would suddenly die down. The families whose homes had been destroyed would wander among the destroyed houses, with their trembling hands searching through the ruble, as perhaps they might find something that survived the fire… The day after, the wounded and forlorn town set back into the grayness of daily life.
My father of blessed memory was the “doctor” of the town (known as the feldsher in Yiddish  ). He was the premier “doctor” in town. His expertise and experience in the field of medicine was obtained during his six-year stint of service in the Russian army. There he took a medic's course, and served in that capacity in an army hospital. There, in the hospital, he obtained no small amount of knowledge and experience in healing the sick. The elders of the town relate that my father, Reb Michael, was a fabulous “doctor”, of pleasant disposition, who got along well with his fellowman, conducted himself modestly, was never concerned about the amount of money that the sick person brought with him in payment, and that all of his attention and focus was upon the suffering person and his ailments. It is no wonder that the women did not call him by his name Reb Michael, but rather Reb Refael  . On numerous occasions, I would hear a pain-stricken Jewish mother express her feelings of thanks to father for saving her child from the Angel of Death. She would tell him: “Reb Refael, may G-d give you the energy to continue in your good deeds. First there is G-d, and next to him is you – Reb Refael!”
On many occasions, a frantic knock would awaken our family from its sleep, and a desperate mother, without any other recourse, would cry out bitterly to my father: “Awaken Reb Refael, and hurry to save my child from the nails of death!”…
With deep concern, my father would hastily get up, take his “doctor's” bag, and hurry to one of the dark lanes where the desperate mother lived. Neither torrential rain, fierce wind nor a snowstorm would hold him back from providing healing, and at times even the saving of a Jewish life. Perhaps it was in no small part due to those harried night disturbances and alarms that his health was affected, his heart weakened, and he reached the grave at age 52.
The elders of Stawiski relate the following story: Once, an honorable man of the town became gravely ill. His family members summoned a famous doctor from Lomza, the regional capital. After Reb Michael explained to the famous doctor in great detail, both orally and by providing a written report, about the course of the illness, the care provided, and the drugs that he prescribed for him, the famous doctor said to the family: “Why did you bother me to bring me from Lomza when in your own midst there is such a wonderful experienced doctor like Hirschfeld?”
My father's friends and neighbors included: Reb Azriel the pharmacist, Reb Yehuda Hirsch Liberman and Reb Chaim Binyamin Chaver, who would come to our home in the evening hours and discuss politics, Zionism, and cultural affairs over a cup of tea. They would read the “Hatzfira” and “Hazeman” newspapers, and would discuss important matters, particular those that related to the Jewish people and the Land of Israel.
I remember that in my childhood I discovered something special about the blue and white box, the box of the Jewish National Fund, which stood in our home along with other charity boxes, such as that of Reb Meir Baal Haness, and other similar organizations. The box of the Jewish National Fund (Keren Kayemet Leyisrael) was not like the other boxes. In my eyes it was the epitome of beauty, like the beautiful embroidered parochet (ark cover) which would be placed over the Holy Ark on festivals in the Great Synagogue. One day I asked my father: “Why is this box different from other charity boxes in our house?” My father answered me: “The uniqueness and specialness of this box is that it is dedicated to redeeming land in the Land of our Fathers, and to settling Jews there in order to establish the Jewish kingdom!”. “How?”, I would ask. “is it possible to renew the Kingdom of Israel in the Land of our fathers prior to the coming of the Messiah?” “It is possible, it is possible”, answered my father, and a bright smile quivered upon his lips, “and even if the redemption does not come in our day, the hope is incalculably important for our people in the Diaspora. You should know that this box breathes hope into the heart of the nation, hope for the redemption and the reestablishment of the Kingdom of Israel, which will come some day, and even if it is delayed, it will surely come! Know my son, that this hope is no small matter! It encourages the hearts of our Jewish brethren in the Diaspora, and lightens the yoke of the bitter exile from our people. Thanks to it, the nation of Israel which is suffering from tribulation and exile will become reestablished!” Oh my dear father, who can remove the dust from your eyes, and the eyes of others like you, so that you could see that your dreams and hopes have come true. Who would have ever thought that our generation would merit the fulfillment of the hopes inherent in that box, the blue box!
My first teacher was Reb Alter the teacher of blessed memory. He was a tall Jew, and a bright red beard adorned his pleasant face. I was a small child, and during the winter, when the days were biting cold and there were fierce snowstorms, Reb Alter would carry me upon his arms from his Cheder which was on the alley behind the street of the glass-blowers and bring me to the home of my parents, which was far away. I learned the Aleph Beit and the Hebrew language in a clear and pleasant fashion from Reb Alter. Many years later, when I made aliya and was accepted as an actor and narrator in the Hebrew theater, and I would be praised for my clear and sharp Hebrew diction, I would say to my friend: “I learned this from the “professor”, the teacher of children Reb Alter from the holy community of Stawiski, which is found in the north-west corner of Congress Poland”.
When I became older, I began to study secular subjects in the Russian public school. I studied Torah, Bible, and later Talmud and Jewish law from the friend of my father, the teacher Reb Chaim Binyamin Chaver of blessed memory. Reb Chaim Binyamin was not like any typical teacher from the older generation, teachers that would impart their lessons by direct translation into Yiddish “And he said – gezogt, and he spoke – geredt”. For aside from being a learned Jew, he was also familiar with secular works. When he taught Torah and prophets, he was careful to impart the principles of grammar, such as the need to seek out the root of each word, to be careful about the conjugation and the root in all it details. The scoffers of the traditionalist generation, who did not have any appreciation at all for the nuances of the Hebrew language and its grammar, would mock him and give him the nickname “Pakod Pakadeti”  .
In 1912, my father became ill with arteriosclerosis and my mother traveled with him to Koenigsberg (in East Prussia)  to visit a famous doctor. My father did not recover from his illness, and he died the same year that he was undergoing medical care in Koenigsberg. Our family, which had lost its head, left Stawiski and settled in Lodz. In Lodz, I continued my studies in the Jeruzinski Talmud Torah school, and from there I went on to the Hebrew Gymnasia of Dr. Braude, where I finished my studies and matriculated in 1922. My teachers of Jewish subjects in the gymnasia were writers and pedagogues: Dr. Simchoni, Reb Chaim Yitzchak Bunin, Dr. Yirmiyahu Frankel, the poet Yaakov Cohen, and the writer Yitzchak Berkman – all of blessed memory. On numerous occasions, during the years that I lived in Argentina (30 years), one of my friends who was a teacher would ask me: “from where is your Hebrew?”. Even here, in the Land, after I became a member of the Hebrew theater, I was asked that question by my fellow actors. I answered them all with the same answer: “I learned the Hebrew language from the mouth of Reb Chaim Binyamin the teacher, in the narrow, warm Cheder in his home located on a small lane in the small town of Stawiski.
“Do you know from where I inherited my poetry? In the home of my father there dwelt a lonely poet…” Chaim Nachman Bialik
On occasion I ask myself: I, a child of a small town, sleepy and forlorn, where in those days most of its inhabitants did not know anything about theatre, and perhaps had never even heard of its existence – how did the inclination and desire come to me for stage work? What strong power pushed me to give myself over to theater? In particular, from where did I gain the ability to act? (My readers will forgive me that I do not, in general, act strange – nor paint my eyes blue  .) Furthermore, it was not only I who was the only one in our well-known family who devoted his life to work on the stage. My eldest sister as well, Tzila may G-d avenge her blood, was an actress in the Yiddish theater in Poland. Her theatrical pseudonym was Tzasha Sarna, and she was a superb actress. She excelled particularly in the following roles: Leah in “The Dybbuk” of Aniski; Meita in “Pundak Hashomem” (“The Desolate Inn”) of Peretz Hirschbein; Natasha in “Yankel Hakfari” (“Yankel the Villager”) of L. Kobrin; and Magda in “Hamered” (“The Revolt”) of Dr. Tzipor.
The famous partisan actor Jonas Torkow, in his book “Kochavim Kvuim” (“Extinguished Stars”), volume II (162-170) wrote about the workers in the Jewish theater who perished in the holocaust, and dedicates a chapter to the life, activities, and theatrical abilities of my actress sister Tzasha Sarna, who was murdered by the Nazis in the Rzeszow ghetto of Galicia, the city where she lived during the time of the war.
I return to my question: from where and from whom did I inherit the inclination and ability for the stage? The answer is: from my mother of blessed memory. How? For our mother, like all the Jewish women, was an ordinary housewife and a mother dedicated to her children and husband. She certainly was not an actress.
Nevertheless, when I look back upon the days of my youth from the far recesses of my memory, when I see before my eyes our mother, her ways, her manner of speaking, her popular sense of humor, and the superb way in which she told us children stories, whether true or pretend; when I recall in my memory the atmosphere of the Sabbath, the twilight hours at the departure of the Sabbath, the dreary darkness which enveloped the house at the time that the extra soul disappears like a passing shadow  , and the six workdays are at the threshold, our mother would sing to us in a sweet and glorious voice, with great enthusiasm, the songs and lyrics of Avraham Goldfaden, the father of the Jewish theater, “Rozhenkes mit Mandlen” (“Raisins and Almonds), or “Fariomert, Farklogt” (“In agony and sighing”), or the songs of Zion of Elyakim Tzunzer, the national poet; or she would entertain us with the funny stories of “Sana Habadchan” (“Sana the Joker”) of her hometown of Bialystok. She would describe to us in an animated fashion his tricks and entertainment that he performed at weddings. She would tell us about her grandfathers and grandmothers and about men and women who are no longer with us, about their ways, their words, their lives and deeds. Each of her stories was peppered with humor, jokes, sweet popular sayings, and funny incidents – such that all of these people stood before us as if they were alive. As I think about all this now, with the perspective of more than fifty years, I come to the conclusion that that wise and intelligent woman was blessed with a superb acting ability, and that my older sister, and I, the young one, inherited our natural acting ability from her. Later on, when both of us, impelled by a force that was within our natures, became involved with the theater despite the objections of our dear mother – the prime force was the legacy that we received from her.
However it was not only the home and the direct influence of my mother which was the source of this inclination. The strong tendency toward theater was instilled within me from my childhood also from other places, in particular from the atmosphere of my town where the most important and honorable places were undoubtedly the synagogue and Beis Midrash. I remember on several occasions, as I returned home from the synagogue, I would cover myself in my mother's cloak or kerchief, in place of a tallis, and I would imitate the Baal Koreh Reb Nachman the tall, as he grunted the “pazer” or “shalshelet” during his reading  ; or the hoarse prayer leader as he coughed; or the cantor who would wink his eyes as he chanted his melodies; or any other of the congregants, each in accordance with his movements and idiosyncrasies – and the members of my family would enjoy themselves and laugh as if they were watching the performance of a veritable comedian.
Various preachers and lecturers would often come to the Chevra Kass  . I, a young child, would listen with short breath and an open mouth to their lectures, which were woven with legends and stories that would take me in my imagination to the world of visions dreams, to Gehinnom  , to the seven dwellings of G-d, to the Sambation River which would rest only on the Sabbath, to the Garden of Eden where the righteous bask in the Divine glory, to the days of the Messiah when the Holy One Blessed Be He in His glory will prepare a meal for the righteous from the flesh of the wild ox and Leviathan. I would return home emotional and stormy after these lectures, and when my spirit settled down, I would cover myself again in a kerchief, climb up on the table, and repeat the lecture of the preacher, almost word for word with his own unique style. My family members would surround me, as well as neighbors who would come to enjoy the “spirited pleasure”. My audience would listen to me attentively, and would wink their eyes at me with expressions of love and thanks. I (the young artiste) would bask in my success. At the end of my “performance” there would not be applause and calls for encore, for in my town of Stawiski, they still did not know about applause. The main thing, even without applause, was that myself, young as I was, saw myself as a professional actor in the theater, performing before an appreciative audience, even though for me, theater and acting were still unknown words. Now, with the perspective of over fifty years, I know that these were my first performances as an actor.
Weddings in our town were mass gatherings. Most of the residents of the town participated, and they took place outside. The groom, bride and their entourage – the parents, in-laws and the crowd of guests invited from both sides – were led by everyone to the chupa (marriage canopy) which was set up in the yard of the synagogue. The members of the local “band” played violins, drums, trumpets and flutes. Their melodies and popular tunes accompanied the festive procession, and the entire town was lit up from the hundreds of candles that spread light to the surroundings. The mischievous pranksters would sneak about and push their way through the large crowd in order to spray the bride and groom with various oils. The crowd would throw confetti (small pieces of multicolored paper) upon them. The jester would tell jokes in rhyme, to the best of his ability, to the bride, groom and in-laws. The joy and mirth were great, and the entire city was celebrating. As I recall these weddings in my memory, I ask myself: would any modern theater, even the best, be able to perform such a massive and glorious presentation, as my own forlorn town Stawiski was able to perform when there was a local wedding on a regular weekday?…
The hakafot (processions) on Simchat Torah  in the synagogue – what can be compared to them? In the eyes of my spirit, I see dozens of Jews passing by in procession, surrounding the bimah (synagogue podium) with their arms hugging Torah scrolls decorated with crowns and bells. All the children of the town had flags flying from their hands. Some of the flags were decorated with pictures of Moses and Aaron, others with the two tablets of the covenant, and still others with splendid priestly vestments. On top of the flags were soft red apples and burning candles. These children would accompany the people in the procession. All of them were singing and dancing with enthusiasm. The women and girls would look on, kiss the Torah scrolls as they passed by, and issue greetings of “congratulations!”, “next year again!”. The men and boys would answer back: “to you too!”..
And Hoshanah Rabba  ! Hundreds of bearded Jews, as well as young people and children were standing in the synagogue, beating their Hoshanah bundles and calling out in a festive voice “Kol Mevaser Mevaser Veomer”. The crowd of Jews, with their etrog in one hand and their lulav in their other hand would walk around the bimah seven times as their voices utter the eternal plea “Hoshanah”! As I returned from the synagogue I would gather my friends together. Each one would bring a stick and a potato. I, the “great ringleader” would conduct the rejoicing crowd.
Even though all of the festivals were joyous, Purim  was the most joyous of them all. For on Purim, it is permissible to let loose, and the community of Israel is full of joy and mirth. The graggers make a tumult of noise when the Megilla reader mentions the name of the evil Haman and his ten sons, from Parshandata to Vayzata. Every year, the oppressed Jews forget about the tribulations of the exile and the difficulties in earning a livelihood, and they celebrate without bounds. It is required to become drunk “until one does not know the difference between cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordechai”. The boys and girls make haste around the town from home to home, delivering Mishloach Manot on plates covered with cloths, that hide from the evil eye delicacies, treats, pastry, hamantashen, raisins and almonds. In the center of the plate was the king of fruits – a sole orange surrounded by its family members. The Purim players would dress up as the figures of the Megilla – Achashverus the silly king, Vashti the queen with a horn growing from her forehead, the wicked Haman, and, to differentiate one thousand fold, Esther the queen and Mordechai the Jew. All of them went out in haste as the satraps of Media and Persia from house to house and from Purim meal to Purim meal. Their mouths were filled with laughter and their tongues with joy and mirth. All of them, the players and the householders, would sing together “Shoshanat Yaakov Tzahala Vesamecha” (“The Jews of Shushan were happy and joyous”) or the popular Purim songs “Today is Purim and tomorrow is not, so give me a coin and get rid of me cheaply!”, or “The wicked Haman licks dust, and Mordechai the Jew rides on a splendid and majestic horse!”, or other such songs that were composed in honor of Purim. The tumult and uproar was great for that day was Purim.
When I remember all of these
events, whether on festivals or on weekdays, during my childhood in the
small town of Stawiski – I know that even though later I merited to hobnob
with the performers of the large Yiddish theaters, and I was able to learn
from them, my first school in acting was my own town of Stawiski, in the
grayness of it mundane times and it splendid festivals.
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